Penelope's Progress/Chapter 16
"Gae farer up the burn to Habbie's Howe,
Where a' the sweets o' spring an' simmer grow:
Between twa birks, out o'er a little lin,
The water fa's an' mak's a singan din;
A pool breast-deep, beneath as clear as glass,
Kisses, wi' easy whirls, the bord'ring grass."
The Gentle Shepherd.
That is what Peggy says to Jenny in Allan Ramsay's poem, and if you substitute "Crummylowe" for "Habbie's Howe" in the first line, you will have a lovely picture of the Farm-Steadin'.
You come to it by turning the corner from the inn, first passing the cottage where the lady wishes to rent two rooms for fifteen shillings a week, but will not give much attendance, as she is slightly asthmatic, and the house is always as clean as it is this minute, and the view from the window looking out on Pettybaw Bay canna be surpassed at ony money. Then comes the little house where Will'am Beattie's sister Mary died in May, and there wasna a bonnier woman in Fife. Next is the cottage with the pansy garden, where the lady in the widow's cap takes five o'clock tea in the bay window, and a snug little supper at eight. She has for the first scones and marmalade, and her tea is in a small black teapot under a red cozy with a white muslin cover drawn over it. At eight she has more tea, and generally a kippered herring, or a bit of cold mutton left from the noon dinner. We note the changes in her bill of fare as we pass hastily by and feel admitted quite into the family secrets. Beyond this bay window, which is so redolent of simple peace and comfort that we long to go in and sit down, is the cottage with the double white tulips, the cottage with the collie on the front steps, the doctor's house with the yellow laburnum tree, and then the house where the Disagreeable Woman lives. She has a lovely baby, which, to begin with, is somewhat remarkable, as disagreeable women rarely have babies; or else, having had them, rapidly lose their disagreeableness,—so rapidly that one has not time to notice it. The Disagreeable Woman's house is at the end of the row, and across the road is a wicket gate leading— Where did it lead?—that was the very point. Along the left, as you lean wistfully over the gate, there runs a stone wall topped by a green hedge; and on the right, first furrows of pale fawn, then below, furrows of deeper brown, and mulberry, and red ploughed earth stretching down to waving fields of green, and thence to the sea, gray, misty, opalescent, melting into the pearly white clouds, so that one cannot tell where sea ends and sky begins.
There is a path between the green hedge and the ploughed field, and it leads seductively to the farm-steadin'; or we felt that it might thus lead, if we dared unlatch the wicket gate. Seeing no sign "Private Way," "Trespassers Not Allowed," or other printed defiance to the stranger, we were considering the opening of the gate, when we observed two female figures coming toward us along the path, and paused until they should come through. It was the Disagreeable Woman (though we knew it not) and an elderly friend. We accosted the friend, feeling instinctively that she was framed of softer stuff, and asked her if the path were a private one. It was a question that had never met her ear before, and she was too dull or too discreet to deal with it on the instant. To our amazement, she did not even manage to falter, "I couldna say."
"Is the path private?" I repeated.
"It is certainly the idea to keep it a little private," said the Disagreeable Woman, coming into the conversation without being addressed. "Where do you wish to go?"
"Nowhere in particular. The walk looks so inviting we should like to see the end."
"It goes only to the Farm, and you can reach that by the highroad; it is only a half-mile farther. Do you wish to call at the Farm?"
"No, oh no; the path is so very pretty that"—
"Yes, I see; well, I should call it rather private." And with this she departed; leaving us to stand on the outskirts of paradise, while she went into her house and stared at us from the window as she played with the lovely undeserved baby. But that was not the end of the matter.
We found ourselves there next day, Francesca and I,—Salemina was too proud,—drawn by an insatiable longing to view the beloved and forbidden scene. We did not dare to glance at the Disagreeable Woman's windows, lest our courage should ooze away, so we opened the gate and stole through into the rather private path.
It was a most lovely path; even if it had not been in a sense prohibited, it would still have been lovely, simply on its own merits. There were little gaps in the hedge and the wall, through which we peered into a daisy-starred pasture, where a white bossy and a herd of flaxen-haired cows fed on the sweet green grass. The mellow ploughed earth on the right hand stretched down to the shore-line, and a plough-boy walked up and down the long, straight furrows whistling "My Nannie's awa'." Pettybaw is so far removed from the music-halls that their cheap songs and strident echoes never reach its sylvan shades, and the herd-laddies and plough-boys still sweeten their labors with the old classic melodies.
We walked on and on, determined to come every day and we settled that if we were accosted by any one, or if our innocent business were demanded, Francesca should ask, "Does Mrs. Macstronachlacher live here, and has she any new-laid eggs?"
Soon the gates of the Farm appeared in sight. There was a cluster of buildings, with doves huddling and cooing on the red-tiled roofs,—dairy-houses, workmen's cottages, comely rows of haystacks (towering yellow things with peaked tops); a little pond with ducks and geese chattering together as they paddled about, and for additional music the trickling of two tiny burns making "a singan din" as they wimpled through the bushes. A speckle-breasted thrush perched on a corner of the gray wall and poured his heart out. Overhead there was a chorus of rooks in the tall trees, but there was no sound of human voice save that of the plough-laddie whistling "My Nannie's awa'."
We turned our backs on this darling solitude, and retraced our steps lingeringly. As we neared the wicket gate again we stood upon a bit of jutting rock and peered over the wall, sniffing the hawthorn buds with ecstasy. The white bossy drew closer, treading softly on its daisy carpet; the wondering cows looked up at us as they peacefully chewed their cuds; a man in corduroy breeches came from a corner of the pasture, and with a sharp, narrow hoe rooted out a thistle or two that had found their way into this sweet feeding-ground. Suddenly we heard the swish of a dress behind us, and turned, conscience-stricken, though we had in nothing sinned.
"Does Mrs. Macstronachlacher live here?" stammered Francesca like a parrot.
It was an idiotic time and place for the question. We had certainly arranged that she should ask it, but something must be left to the judgment in such cases. Francesca was hanging over a stone wall regarding a herd of cows in a pasture, and there was no possible shelter for a Mrs. Macstronachlacher within a quarter of a mile. What made the remark more unfortunate was the fact that, though she had on a different dress and bonnet, the person interrogated was the Disagreeable Woman; but Francesca is particularly slow in discerning resemblances. She would have gone on mechanically asking for new-laid eggs, had I not caught her eye and held it sternly. The foe looked at us suspiciously for a moment (Francesca's hats are not easily forgotten), and then vanished up the path, to tell the people at Crummylowe, I suppose, that their grounds were infested by marauding strangers whose curiosity was manifestly the outgrowth of a republican government.
As she disappeared in one direction, we walked slowly in the other; and just as we reached the corner of the pasture where two stone walls meet, and where a group of oaks gives grateful shade, we heard children's voices.
"No, no!" cried somebody: "it must be still higher at this end, for the tower,—this is where the king will sit. Help me with this heavy one, Rafe. Dandie, mind your foot. Why don't you be making the flag for the ship?—and do keep the Wrig away from us till we finish building!"