Penelope's Progress/Chapter 18
"There were three ladies in a hall—
With a heigh-ho! and a lily gay,
There came a lord among them all—
As the primrose spreads so sweetly."
The Cruel Brother.
Willie Beresford has come to Pettybaw, and that Arcadian village has received the last touch that makes it Paradise.
We are exploring the neighborhood together, and whichever path we take we think it lovelier than the one before. This morning we drove to Pettybaw Sands, Francesca and Salemina following by the footpath and meeting us on the shore. It is all so enchantingly fresh and green on one of these rare bright days: the trig lass bleaching her "claes" on the grass by the burn near the little stone bridge; the wild partridges whirring about in pairs; the farm-boy seated on the clean straw in the bottom of his cart, and cracking his whip in mere wanton joy at the sunshine; the pretty cottages, and the gardens with rows of currant and gooseberry bushes hanging thick with fruit that suggests jam and tart in every delicious globule. It is a love-colored landscape, we know it full well; and nothing in the fair world about us is half as beautiful as what we see in each other's eyes. Ah, the memories of these first golden mornings together after our long separation. I shall sprinkle them with lavender and lay them away in that dim chamber of the heart where we keep precious things. We all know the chamber. It is fragrant with other hidden treasures, for all of them are sweet, though some are sad. This is the reason why we put a finger on the lip and say "Hush," if we open the door and allow any one to peep in.
We tied the pony by the wayside and alighted: Willie to gather some sprays of the pink veronica and blue speedwell, I to sit on an old bench and watch him in happy idleness. The "white-blossomed slaes" sweetened the air, and the distant hills were gay with golden whin and broom, or flushed with the purply-red of the bell heather.
We heard the note of the cushats from a neighboring bush. They used to build their nests on the ground, so the story goes, but the cows trampled them. Now they are wiser and build higher, and their cry is supposed to be a derisive one, directed to their ancient enemies, "Come noo, Coo, Coo! Come noo!"
A hedgehog crept stealthily along the ground, and at a sudden sound curled himself up like a wee brown bear. There were women working in the fields near by,—a strange sight to our eyes at first, but nothing unusual here, where many of them are employed on the farms all the year round, sowing, weeding, planting, even ploughing in the spring, and in winter working at threshing or in the granary.
An old man, leaning on his staff, came tottering feebly along, and sank down on the bench beside me. He was dirty, ragged, unkempt, and feeble, but quite sober, and pathetically anxious for human sympathy.
"I'm achty-sax year auld," he maundered, apropos of nothing, "achty-sax year auld. I've seen five lairds o' Pettybaw, sax placed meenisters, an' seeven doctors. I was a mason an' a stoot mon i' them days, but it's a meeserable life now. Wife deid, bairns deid! I sit by my lane, an' smoke my pipe, wi' naebody to gi'e me a sup o' water. Achty-sax is ower auld for a mon,—ower auld."
These are the sharp contrasts of life one cannot bear to face when one is young and happy. Willie gave him a half-crown and some tobacco for his pipe, and when the pony trotted off briskly, and we left the shrunken figure alone on his bench as he was lonely in his life, we kissed each other and pledged ourselves to look after him as long as we remain in Pettybaw; for what is love worth if it does not kindle the flames of spirit, open the gates of feeling, and widen the heart to shelter all the little loves and great loves that crave admittance?
As we neared the tiny fishing-village on the sands we met a fishwife brave in her short skirt and eight petticoats, the basket with its two hundred pound weight on her head, and the auld wife herself knitting placidly as she walked along. They look superbly strong, these women; but, to be sure, the "weak anes dee," as one of them told me.
There was an air of bustle about the little quay,—
"That joyfu' din when the boats come in,
When the boats come in sae early;
When the lift is blue an' the herring-nets fu',
And the sun glints in a' things rarely."
The silvery shoals of fish no longer come so near the shore as they used in the olden time, for then the kirk bell of St. Monan's had its tongue tied when the "draive" was off the coast, lest its knell should frighten away the shining myriads of the deep.
We climbed the shoulder of a great green cliff until we could sit on the rugged rocks at the top and overlook the sea. The bluff is well named Nirly Scaur, and a wild, desolate spot it is, with gray lichen-clad boulders and stunted heather on its summit. In a storm here, the wind buffets and slashes and scourges one like invisible whips, and below, the sea churns itself into foaming waves, driving its "infinite squadrons of wild white horses" eternally toward the shore. It was calm and blue to-day, and no sound disturbed the quiet save the incessant shriek and scream of the rock birds, the kittiwakes, black-headed gulls, and guillemots that live on the sides of these high, sheer craigs. Here the mother guillemot lays her single egg, and here, on these narrow shelves of precipitous rock, she holds it in place with her foot until the warmth of her leg and overhanging body hatches it into life, when she takes it on her back and flies down to the sea. Motherhood under difficulties, it would seem, and the education of the baby guillemot is carried forward on Spartan principles; for the moment he is out of the shell he is swept downward hundreds of feet and plunged into a cold ocean, where he can sink or swim as instinct serves him. In a life so fraught with anxieties, exposures, and dangers, it is not strange that the guillemots keep up a ceaseless clang of excited conversation, a very riot and wrangle of altercation and argument which the circumstances seem to warrant. The prospective father is obliged to take turns with the prospective mother and hold the one precious egg on the rock while she goes for a fly, a swim, a bite, and a sup. As there are five hundred other parents on the same rock, and the eggs look to be only a couple of inches apart, the scene must be distracting, and I have no doubt we should find, if statistics were gathered, that thousands of guillemots die of nervous prostration.
Willie and I interpreted the clamor somewhat as follows:—
[Between parent birds.]
"I am going to take my foot off. Are you ready to put yours on? Don't be clumsy! Wait a minute, I'm not ready. I'm not ready, I tell you! NOW!!"
[Between rival mothers.]
"Your egg is so close to mine that I can't breathe"—
"Move your egg, then, I can't move mine!"
"You're sitting so close, I can't stretch my wings."
"Neither can I. You've got as much room as I have."
"I shall tumble if you crowd me."
"Go ahead and tumble, then! There is plenty of room in the sea."
[From one father to another, ceremoniously.]
"Pardon me, but I am afraid I shoved your wife off the rock last night."
"Don't mention it. I remember I shoved off your wife's mother last year."
We walked among the tiny whitewashed low-roofed cots, each with its silver-skinned fishes tacked invitingly against the door-frame to dry, until we came to my favorite, the corner cottage in the row. It has beautiful narrow garden strips in front,—solid patches of color in sweet gilly-flower bushes, from which the kindly housewife plucked a nosegay for us. Her white columbines she calls "granny's mutches;" and indeed they are not unlike those fresh white caps. Dear Robbie Burns, ten inches high in plaster, stands in the sunny window in a tiny box of blossoming plants surrounded by a miniature green picket fence. Outside, looming white among the gilly-flowers, is Sir Walter, and near him is still another and a larger bust on a cracked pedestal a foot high, perhaps. We did not recognize the head at once, and asked the little woman who it was.
"Homer, the graund Greek poet," she answered cheerily; "an' I'm to have anither o' Burns, as tall as Homer, when my daughter comes hame frae E'nbro'."
If the shade of Homer keeps account of his earthly triumphs, I think he is proud of his place in that humble Scotchwoman's gillyflower garden, with his head under the drooping petals of granny's white mutches.
What do you think her "mon" is called in the village? John o' Mary! But he is not alone in his meekness, for there are Jock o' Meg, Willie o' Janet, Jem o' Tibby, and a dozen others. These primitive fishing-villages are the places where all the advanced women ought to congregate, for the wife is head of the house: the accountant, the treasurer, the auditor, the chancellor of the exchequer; and though her husband does catch the fish for her to sell, that is accounted apparently as a detail too trivial for notice.
When we passed Mary's cottage, on our way to the sands next day, Burns's head had been accidentally broken off by the children, and we felt as though we had lost a friend; but Scotch thrift, and loyalty to the dear Ploughman Poet, came to the rescue, and when we returned, Robbie's plaster head had been glued to his body. He smiled at us again from between the two scarlet geraniums, and a tendril of ivy had been gently curled about his neck to hide the cruel wound.
After such long, lovely mornings as this, there is a late luncheon under the shadow of a rock with Salemina and Francesca, an idle chat, or the chapter of a book, and presently Lady Ardmore and her daughter Elizabeth drive down to the sands. They are followed by Robin Anstruther, Jamie, and Ralph on bicycles, and before long the stalwart figure of Ronald Macdonald appears in the distance, just in time for a cup of tea, which we brew in Lady Ardmore's bath-house on the beach.