Penelope's Progress/Chapter 19
"To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays,
The lowly train in life's sequester'd scene;
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways."
The Cotter's Saturday Night.
We have lived in Pettybaw a very short time, but I see that we have already made an impression upon all grades of society. This was not our intention. We gave Edinburgh as our last place of residence, with the view of concealing our nationality, until such time as we should choose to declare it; that is, when public excitement with regard to our rental of the house in the loaning should have lapsed into a state of indifference. And yet, modest, economical, and commonplace as has been the administration of our affairs, our method of life has evidently been thought unusual, and our conduct not precisely the conduct of other summer visitors. Even our daily purchases, in manner, in number, and in character, seem to be looked upon as eccentric, for whenever we leave a shop, the relatives of the greengrocer, flesher, draper, whoever it may be, bound downstairs, surround him in an eager circle, and inquire the latest news.
In an unwise moment we begged the draper's wife to honor us with a visit and explain the obliquities of the kitchen range and the tortuosities of the sink-spout to Miss Grieve. While our landlady was on the premises, I took occasion to invite her up to my own room, with a view of seeing whether my mattress of pebbles and iron-filings could be supplemented by another of shavings or straw, or some material less provocative of bodily injuries. She was most sympathetic, persuasive, logical, and after the manner of her kind proved to me conclusively that the trouble lay with the too-saft occupant of the bed, not with the bed itself, and gave me statistics with regard to the latter which established its reputation and at the same moment destroyed my own.
She looked in at the various doors casually as she passed up and down the stairs,—all save that of the dining-room, which Francesca had prudently locked to conceal the fact that we had covered the family portraits,—and I noticed at the time that her face wore an expression of mingled grief and astonishment. It seemed to us afterward that there was a good deal more passing up and down the loaning than when we first arrived. At dusk especially, small processions of children and young people walked by our cottage and gave shy glances at the windows.
Finding Miss Grieve in an unusually amiable mood, I inquired the probable cause of this phenomenon. She would not go so far as to give any judicial opinion, but offered a few conjectures.
It might be the tirling-pin; it might be the white satin ribbons on the curtains; it might be the guitars and banjos; it might be the bicycle crate; it might be the profusion of plants; it might be the continual feasting and revelry; it might be the blazing fires in a Pettybaw summer. She thought a much more likely reason, however, was because it had become known in the village that we had moved every stick of furniture in the house out of its accustomed place and taken the dressing-tables away from the windows,—"thae windys," she called them.
I discussed this matter fully with Mr. Anstruther later on. He laughed heartily, but confessed, with an amused relish of his national conservatism, that to his mind there certainly was something radical, advanced, and courageous in taking a dressing-table away from its place, back to the window, and putting it anywhere else in a room. He would be frank, he said, and acknowledge that it suggested an undisciplined and lawless habit of thought, a disregard for authority, a lack of reverence for tradition, and a riotous and unbridled imagination.
This view of the matter gave us exquisite enjoyment. "But why?" I asked laughingly. "The dressing-table is not a sacred object, even to a woman. Why treat it with such veneration? Where there is but one good light, and that immediately in front of the window, there is every excuse for the British custom, but when the light is well diffused, why not place the table wherever it looks well?"
"Ah, but it doesn't look well anywhere but back to the window," said Mr. Anstruther artlessly. "It belongs there, you see; it has probably been there since the time of Malcolm Canmore, unless Margaret was too pious to look in a mirror. With your national love of change, you cannot conceive how soothing it is to know that whenever you enter your gate and glance upward, you will always see the curtains parted, and between them, like an idol in a shrine, the ugly wooden back of a little oval or oblong looking-glass. It gives one a sense of permanence in a world where all is fleeting."
The public interest in our doings seems to be entirely of a friendly nature, and if our neighbors find a hundredth part of the charm and novelty in us that we find in them, they are fortunate indeed, and we cheerfully sacrifice our privacy on the altar of the public good.
A village in Scotland is the only place I can fancy where housekeeping becomes an enthralling occupation. All drudgery disappears in a rosy glow of unexpected, unique, and stimulating conditions. I would rather superintend Miss Grieve and cause the light of amazement to gleam ten times daily in her humid eye, than lead a cotillion with Willie Beresford. I would rather do the marketing for our humble breakfasts and teas, or talk over the day's luncheons and dinners with Mistress Brodie of the Pettybaw Inn and Posting Establishment, than go to the opera.
Salemina and Francesca do not enjoy it all quite as intensely as I, so they considerately give me the lion's share. Every morning, after an exhilarating interview with the Niobe of our kitchen (who thinks me irresponsible and prays Heaven in her heart I be no worse), I put on my galoshes, take my umbrella, and trudge up and down the little streets and lanes on real, and if need be, imaginary errands. The Duke of Wellington said, "When fair in Scotland, always carry an umbrella; when it rains, please yourself," and I sometimes agree with Stevenson's shivering statement, "Life does not seem to me to be an amusement adapted to this climate." I quoted this to the doctor yesterday, but he remarked with some surprise that he had not missed a day's golfing for weeks. The chemist observed as he handed me a cake of soap, "Won'erful blest in weather, we are, mam," simply because, the rain being unaccompanied with high wind, one was enabled to hold up an umbrella without having it turned inside out. When it ceased dripping for an hour at noon, the greengrocer said cheerily, "Another grand day, mam!" I assented, though I could not for the life of me remember when the last one occurred. However, dreary as the weather may be, one cannot be dull when doing one's morning round of shopping in Pettybaw or Strathdee. I have only to give you thumb-nail sketches of our favorite tradespeople to convince you of that fact.
We bought our first groceries of Mrs. Robert Phin, of Strathdee, simply because she is an inimitable conversationalist. She is expansive, too, about family matters, and tells us certain of her "mon's" faults which it would be more seemly to keep in the safe shelter of her own bosom.
Rab takes a wee drappie too much, it appears, and takes it so often that he has little time to earn an honest penny for his family. This is bad enough; but the fact that Mrs. Phin has been twice wed before, and that in each case she innocently chose a ne'er-do-weel for a mate, makes her a trifle cynical. She told me that she had laid twa husbands in the kirkyard near which her little shop stands, and added cheerfully, as I made some sympathetic response, "An' I hope it'll no be lang afore I box Rab!"
Salemina objects to the shop because it is so disorderly. Soap and sugar, tea and bloaters, starch and gingham, lead pencils and sausages, lie side by side cosily. Boxes of pins are kept on top of kegs of herrings. Tins of coffee are distributed impartially anywhere and everywhere, and the bacon sometimes reposes in a glass case with small wares and findings, out of the reach of Alexander's dogs.
Alexander is one of a brood, or perhaps I should say three broods, of children which wander among the barrels and boxes and hams and winseys seeking what they may devour,—a handful of sugar, a prune, or a sweetie.
We often see the bairns at their luncheon or dinner in a little room just off the shop, Alexander the Small always sitting or kneeling on a "creepie," holding his plate down firmly with the left hand and eating with the right, whether the food be fish, porridge, or broth. In the Phin family the person who does not hold his plate down runs the risk of losing it to one of the other children or to the dogs, who, with eager eye and reminding paw, gather round the hospitable board, licking their chops hopefully.
I enjoy these scenes very much, but alas, I can no longer witness them as often as formerly.
This morning Mrs. Phin greeted me with some embarrassment.
"Maybe ye'll no ken me," she said, her usually clear speech a little blurred. "It's the teeth. I've mislaid 'em somewhere. I paid far too much siller for 'em to wear 'em ilka day. Sometimes I rest 'em in the tea-box to keep 'em awa' frae the bairns, but I canna find 'em theer. I'm thinkin' maybe they'll be in the rice, but I've been ower thrang to luik!"
This anecdote was too rich to keep to myself, but its unconscious humor made no impression upon Salemina, who insisted upon the withdrawal of our patronage. I have tried to persuade her that, whatever may be said of tea and rice, we run no risk in buying eggs; but she is relentless.
The kirkyard where Rab's two predecessors have been laid, and where Rab will lie when Mrs. Phin has "boxed" him, is a sleepy little place set on a gentle slope of ground, softly shaded by willow and yew trees. It is inclosed by a stone wall, into which an occasional ancient tombstone is built, its name and date almost obliterated by stress of time and weather.
We often walk through its quiet, myrtle-bordered paths on our way to the other end of the village, where Mrs. Bruce, the flesher, keeps an unrivaled assortment of beef and mutton. The headstones, many of them laid flat upon the graves, are interesting to us because of their quaint inscriptions, in which the occupation of the deceased is often stated with modest pride and candor. One expects to see the achievements of the soldier, the sailor, or the statesman carved in the stone that marks his resting-place, but to our eyes it is strange enough to read that the subject of eulogy was a plumber, tobacconist, maker of golf-balls, or a golf champion; in which latter case there is a spirited etching or bas-relief of the dead hero, with knickerbockers, cap, and clubs complete.
There, too, lies Thomas Longhead, Hairdresser, a profession far too little celebrated in song and story. His stone is a simple one and bears merely the touching tribute:—
He was lovely and pleasant in his life,
the inference being to one who knows a line of Scripture, that in his death he was not divided.
These kirkyard personalities almost lead one to believe in the authenticity of the British tradesman's epitaph, wherein his practical-minded relict stated that the "bereaved widow would continue to carry on the tripe and trotter business at the old stand."
One day when we were walking through the little village of Strathdee we turned the corner of a quiet side street and came suddenly upon something altogether strange and unexpected.
A stone cottage of the every-day sort stood a little back from the road and bore over its front door a sign announcing that Mrs. Bruce, Flesher, carried on her business within; and indeed one could look through the windows and see ruddy joints hanging from beams, and piles of pink and white steaks and chops lying neatly on the counter, crying, "Come, eat me!" Nevertheless, one's first glance would be arrested neither by Mrs. Bruce's black-and-gold sign, nor by the enticements of her stock in trade, because one's attention is knocked squarely between the eyes by an astonishing shape that arises from the patch of lawn in front of the cottage, and completely dominates the scene. Imagine yourself face to face with the last thing you would expect to see in a modest front dooryard,—the figurehead of a ship, heroic in size, gorgeous in color, majestic in pose! A female personage it appears to be from the drapery, which is the only key the artist furnishes as to sex, and a queenly female withal, for she wears a crown at least a foot high, and brandishes a forbidding sceptre. All this is seen from the front, but the rear view discloses the fact that the lady terminates in the tail of a fish which wriggles artistically in mid-air and is of a brittle sort, as it has evidently been thrice broken and glued together.
Mrs. Bruce did not leave us long in suspense, but obligingly came out, partly to comment on the low price of mutton and partly to tell the tale of the mammoth mermaid. By rights, of course, Mrs. Bruce's husband should have been the gallant captain of a bark which foundered at sea and sent every man to his grave on the ocean bed. The ship's figurehead should have been discovered by some miracle, brought to the sorrowing widow, and set up in the garden in eternal remembrance of the dear departed. This was the story in my mind, but as a matter of fact the rude effigy was wrought by Mrs. Bruce's father for a ship to be called the Sea Queen, but by some mischance, ship and figurehead never came together, and the old wood-carver left it to his daughter, in lieu of other property. It has not been wholly unproductive, Mrs. Bruce fancies, for the casual passers-by, like those who came to scoff and remained to pray, go into the shop to ask questions about the Sea Queen and buy chops out of courtesy and gratitude.
On our way to the bakery, which is a daily walk with us, we always glance at a little cot in a grassy lane just off the fore street. In one half of this humble dwelling Mrs. Davidson keeps a slender stock of shop-worn articles,—pins, needles, threads, sealing-wax, pencils, and sweeties for the children, all disposed attractively upon a single shelf behind the window.
Across the passage, close to the other window, sits day after day an old woman of eighty-six summers who has lost her kinship with the present and gone back to dwell forever in the past. A small table stands in front of her rush-bottomed chair, the old family Bible rests on it, and in front of the Bible are always four tiny dolls, with which the trembling old fingers play from morning till night. They are cheap, common little puppets, but she robes and disrobes them with tenderest care. They are put to bed upon the Bible, take their walks along its time-worn pages, are married on it, buried on it, and the direst punishment they ever receive is to be removed from its sacred covers and temporarily hidden beneath the dear old soul's black alpaca apron. She is quite happy with her treasures on week days; but on Sundays—alas and alas! the poor old dame sits in her lonely chair with the furtive tears dropping on her wrinkled cheeks, for it is a God-fearing household, and it is neither lawful nor seemly to play with dolls on the Sawbath!
Mrs. Nicolson is the presiding genius of the bakery; she is more—she is the bakery itself. A Mr. Nicolson there is, and he is known to be the baker, but he dwells in the regions below the shop and only issues at rare intervals, beneath the friendly shelter of a huge tin tray filled with scones and baps.
If you saw Mrs. Nicolson's kitchen with the firelight gleaming on its bright copper, its polished candlesticks, and its snowy floor, you would think her an admirable housewife, but you would get no clue to those shrewd and masterful traits of character which reveal themselves chiefly behind the counter.
Miss Grieve had purchased of Mrs. Nicolson a quarter section of very appetizing ginger cake to eat with our afternoon tea, and I stopped in to buy more. She showed me a large, round loaf for two shillings.
"No," I objected, "I cannot use a whole loaf, thank you. We eat very little at a time and like it perfectly fresh. I wish a small piece such as my maid bought the other day."
Then ensued a discourse which I cannot render in the vernacular, more's the pity, though I understood it all too well for my comfort. The substance of it was this: that she couldna and wouldna tak' it in hand to give me a quarter section of cake when the other three quarters might gae dry in the bakery; that the reason she sold the small piece on the former occasion was that her daughter, her son-in-law, and their three children came from Ballahoolish to visit her, and she gave them a high tea with no expense spared; that at this function they devoured three fourths of a ginger cake, and just as she was mournfully regarding the remainder my servant came in and took it off her hands; that she had kept a bakery for thirty years and her mother before her, and never had a two-shilling ginger cake been sold in pieces before, nor was it likely ever to occur again; that if I, under Providence so to speak, had been the fortunate gainer by the transaction, why not eat my six-pennyworth in solemn gratitude once for all, and not expect a like miracle to happen the next week? And finally, that two-shilling ginger cakes were, in the very nature of things, designed for large families; and it was the part of wisdom for small families to fix their affections on something else, for she couldna and wouldna tak' it in hand to cut a rare and expensive article for a small customer.
The torrent of logic was over, and I said humbly that I would take the whole loaf.
"Verra weel, mam," she responded more affably, "thank you kindly; no, I couldna tak' it in hand to sell six pennyworth of that ginger cake and let one and sixpence worth gae dry in the bakery— A beautiful day, mam! Won'erful blest in weather ye are! Let me open your umbrella for you, mam!"
David Robb is the weaver of Pettybaw. All day long he sits at his old-fashioned hand-loom, which, like the fruit of his toil and the dear old graybeard himself, belongs to a day that is past and gone.
He might have work enough to keep an apprentice busy, but where would he find a lad sufficiently behind the times to learn a humble trade now banished to the limbo of superseded, almost forgotten things?
His home is but a poor place, but the rough room in which he works is big enough to hold a deal of sweet content. It is cheery enough, too, to attract the Pettybaw weans, who steal in on wet days and sit on the floor playing with the thrums, or with bits of colored ravelings. Sometimes when they have proved themselves wise and prudent little virgins, they are even allowed to touch the hanks of pink and yellow and blue yarn that lie in rainbow-hued confusion on the long deal table.
All this time the "heddles" go up and down, up and down, with their ceaseless clatter, and David throws the shuttle back and forth as he weaves his old-fashioned winseys.
We have grown to be good friends, David and I, and I have been permitted the signal honor of painting him at his work.
The loom stands by an eastern window, and the rare Pettybaw sunshine filters through the branches of a tree, shines upon the dusty windowpanes, and throws a halo round David's head that he well deserves and little suspects. In my foreground sit Meg and Jean and Elspeth playing with thrums and wearing the fruit of David's loom in their gingham frocks. David himself sits on his wooden bench behind the maze of cords that form the "loom harness."
The snows of seventy winters powder his hair and beard. His spectacles are often pushed back on his kindly brow, but no glass could wholly obscure the clear integrity and steadfast purity of his eyes; and as for his smile I have not the art to paint that! It holds in solution so many sweet though humble virtues of patience, temperance, self-denial, honest endeavor, that my brush falters in the attempt to fix the radiant whole upon the canvas. Fashions come and go, modern improvements transform the arts and trades, manual skill gives way to the cunning of the machine, but old David Robb, after more than fifty years of toil, still sits at his handloom and weaves his winseys for the Pettybaw bairnies.
David has small book-learning, so he tells me; and indeed he had need to tell me, for I should never have discovered it myself,—one misses it so little when the larger things are all present!
A certain summer visitor in Pettybaw (a compatriot of ours, by the way) bought a quantity of David's orange-colored winsey, and finding that it wore like iron, wished to order more. She used the word "reproduce" in her telegram, as there was one pattern and one color she specially liked. Perhaps the context was not illuminating, but at any rate the word "reproduce" was not in David's vocabulary, and putting back his spectacles he told me his difficulty in deciphering the exact meaning of his fine-lady patron. He called at the Free kirk manse,—the meenister was no at hame; then to the library,—it was closed; then to the Established manse,—the meenister was awa'. At last he obtained a glance at the schoolmaster's dictionary, and turning to "reproduce" found that it meant "naught but mak' ower again;"—and with an amused smile at the bedevilments of language he turned once more to his loom and I to my canvas.
Notwithstanding his unfamiliarity with lang-nebbit words, David has absorbed a deal of wisdom in his quiet life; though so far as I can see, his only books have been the green tree outside his window, a glimpse of the distant ocean, and the toil of his hands.
But I sometimes question if as many scholars are not made as marred in this wise, for,—to the seeing eye,—the waving leaf and the far sea, the daily task, one's own heart-beats, and one's neighbor's,—these teach us in good time to interpret Nature's secrets, and man's, and God's as well.