Penelope's Progress/Chapter 22
"'O has he chosen a bonny bride,
An' has he clean forgotten me?'
An' sighing said that gay ladye,
'I would I were in my ain countrie!'"
It rained in torrents; Salemina was darning stockings in the inglenook at Bide-a-Wee Cottage, and I was reading her a Scotch letter which Francesca and I had concocted the evening before. I proposed sending the document to certain chosen spirits in our own country, who were pleased to be facetious concerning our devotion to Scotland. It contained, in sooth, little that was new, and still less that was true, for we were confined to a very small vocabulary which we were obliged to supplement now and then by a dip into Burns and Allan Ramsay.
Here is the letter:—
|East Neuk o' Fife.|
To my trusty Fieres,—Mony's the time I hae ettled to send ye a screed, but there was aye something that cam' i' the gait. It wisna that I couldna be fashed, for aften hae I thocht o' ye and my hairt has been wi' ye mony's the day. There's no muckle fowk frae Ameriky hereawa; they're a' jist Fife bodies, and a lass canna get her tongue roun' their thrapple-taxin' words ava, so it's like I may een drap a' the sweetness o' my good mither-tongue.
'Tis a dulefu' nicht, and an awful blash is ragin' wi'oot. Fanny's awa' at the gowff rinnin' aboot wi' a bag o' sticks after a wee bit ba', and Sally and I are hame by oor lane. Laith will the lassie be to weet her bonny shoon, but lang ere the play'll be o'er, she'll wat her hat aboon. A gust o' win' is skirlin' the noo, and as we luik ower the faem, the haar is risin', weetin' the green swaird wi' misty shoo'rs.
Yestreen was a calm simmer gloamin', sae sweet an' bonnie that while the sun was sinkin' doon ower Pettybaw Sands, we daundered ower the muir. As we cam' through the scented birks, we saw a trottin' burnie wimplin' 'neath the white-blossomed slaes and hirplin' doon the hillside; an' while a herd-laddie lilted ower the fernie brae, a cushat crooed leesomely doon i' the dale. We pit aff oor shoon, sae blithe were we, kilted oor coats a little aboon the knee and paidilt i' the burn, gettin' gey an' weet the while. Then Sally pu'd the gowans wat wi' dew an' twined her bree wi' tasseled broom, while I had a wee crackle wi' Tibby Buchan, the flesher's dochter frae Auld Reekie. Tibby's nae giglet gawky like the lave, ye ken,—she 's a sonsie lass, as sweet as ony hinny pear, wi' her twa pawky een an' her cockernony snooded up fu' sleek.
We were unco gleg to win hame when a' this was dune, an' after steekin' the door, to sit an' taist oor taes at the bit blaze. Mickle thocht we o' the gentles ayont the sea an' sair grat we for a' frien's we knew lang syne in oor ain countree.
Late at nicht, Fanny, the couthy lass, cam' ben the hoose an' tirled at the pin of oor bigly bower door, speirin' for baps and bannocks.
"Hoots, chiel!" cried oot Sally, "th' auld carline i' the kitchen is i' her box-bed an' weel aneuch ye ken is lang syne cuddled doon."
"Oo, ay!" said Fanny, straikin' her curly pow, "then fetch me parritch an' dinna be lang wi' 'em, for I've lickit a Pettybaw lass at the gowff, an' I could eat twa guid jints o' beef gin I had 'em!"
"Losh, girl," said I, "gie ower makin' sic a mickle din. Ye ken verra weel ye'll get nae parritch the nicht. I'll rin an' fetch ye a 'piece' to stap awee the soun'."
"Blathers an' havers!" cried Fanny, but she blinkit bonnily the while, an' when the tea was weel maskit, she smoored her wrath an' stappit her mooth wi' a bit o' oaten cake. We aye keep that i' the hoose, for th' auld servant-body is gey an' bad at the cookin' an' she's sae dour an' dowie that to speak but till her we daur hardly mint.
In sic divairsions pass the lang simmer days in braid Scotland, but I canna write mair the nicht, for 't is the wee sma' hoors ayont the twal'.
Like th' auld wife's parrot, "we dinna speak muckle, but we're deevils to think," an' we're aye thinkin' aboot ye. An' noo I maun leave ye to mak' what ye can oot o' this, for I jalouse it'll pass ye to untaukle the whole hypothec.
Fair fa' ye a'! Lang may yer lum reek, an' may prosperity attend oor clan!
Aye your gude frien',
"It may be very fine," remarked Salemina judicially, "though I cannot understand more than half of it."
"That would also be true of Browning," I replied. "Don't you love to see great ideas loom through a mist of words?"
"The words are misty enough in this case," she said, "and I do wish you would not tell the world that I paddle in the burn, or 'twine my bree wi' tasseled broom.' I'm too' old to be made ridiculous."
"Nobody will believe it," said Francesca appearing in the doorway. "They will know it is only Penelope's havering," and with this undeserved scoff, she took her mashie and went golfing; not on the links, on this occasion, but in our microscopic sitting-room. It is twelve feet square, and holds a tiny piano, desk, centre-table, sofa, and chairs, but the spot between the fireplace and the table is Francesca's favorite "putting green." She wishes to become more deadly in the matter of approaches, and thinks her tee shots weak; so these two deficiencies she is trying to make good by home practice in inclement weather. She turns a tumbler on its side on the floor, and "puts" the ball into it, or at it, as the case may be, from the opposite side of the room. It is excellent discipline, and as the tumblers are inexpensive the breakage really does not matter. Whenever Miss Grieve hears the shivering of glass, she murmurs, not without reason, "It is not for the knowing what they will be doing next."
"Penelope, has it ever occurred to you that Elizabeth Ardmore is seriously interested in Mr. Macdonald?"
Salemina propounded this question to me with the same innocence that a babe would display in placing a match beside a dynamite bomb.
Francesca naturally heard the remark,—although it was addressed to me,—pricked up her ears, and missed the tumbler by several feet.
It was a simple inquiry, but as I look back upon it from the safe ground of subsequent knowledge I perceive that it had a certain amount of influence upon Francesca's history. The suggestion would have carried no weight with me for two reasons. In the first place, Salemina is far-sighted. If objects are located at some distance from her, she sees them clearly; but if they are under her very nose she overlooks them altogether, unless they are sufficiently fragrant or audible to address other senses. This physical peculiarity she carries over into her mental processes. Her impression of the Disruption movement, for example, would be lively and distinct, but her perception of a contemporary lovers' quarrel (particularly if it were fought at her own apron-strings) would be singularly vague. If she suggested, therefore, that Elizabeth Ardmore was interested in Mr. Beresford, who is the rightful captive of my bow and spear, I should be perfectly calm.
My second reason for comfortable indifference is that, frequently in novels, and always in plays, the heroine is instigated to violent jealousy by insinuations of this sort, usually conveyed by the villain of the piece, male or female. I have seen this happen so often in the modern drama that it has long since ceased to be convincing; but though Francesca has witnessed scores of plays and read hundreds of novels, it did not apparently strike her as a theatrical or literary suggestion that Lady Ardmore's daughter should be in love with Mr. Macdonald. The effect of the new point of view was most salutary, on the whole. She had come to think herself the only prominent figure in the Reverend Ronald's landscape, and anything more impertinent than her tone with him (unless it is his with her) I certainly never heard. This criticism, however, relates only to their public performances, and I have long suspected that their private conversations are of a kindlier character. When it occurred to her that he might simply be sharpening his mental sword on her steel, but that his heart had at last wandered into a more genial climate than she had ever provided for it, she softened unconsciously; the Scotsman and the American receded into a truer perspective, and the man and the woman approached each other with dangerous nearness.
"What shall we do if Francesca and Mr. Macdonald really fall in love with each other?" asked Salemina, when Francesca had gone into the hall to try long drives. (There is a good deal of excitement in this, as Miss Grieve has to cross the passage on her way from the kitchen to the china-closet, and thus often serves as a reluctant "hazard" or "bunker.")
"Do you mean what should we have done?" I queried.
"Nonsense, don't be captious! It can't be too late yet. They have known each other only a little over two months; when would you have had me interfere, pray?"
"It depends upon what you expect to accomplish. If you wish to stop the marriage, interfere in a fortnight or so; if you wish to prevent an engagement, speak—well, say to-morrow; if, however, you didn't wish them to fall in love with each other, you should have kept one of them away from Lady Baird's dinner."
"I could have waited a trifle longer than that," argued Salemina, "for you remember how badly they got on at first."
"I remember you thought so," I responded dryly; "but I believe Mr. Macdonald has been interested in Francesca from the outset, partly because her beauty and vivacity attracted him, partly because he could keep her in order only by putting his whole mind upon her. On his side, he has succeeded in piquing her into thinking of him continually, though solely, as she fancies, for the purpose of crossing swords with him. If they ever drop their weapons for an instant, and allow the din of warfare to subside so that they can listen to their own heart-beats, they will discover that they love each other to distraction."
"Ye ken mair than's in the catecheesm," remarked Salemina, yawning a little as she put away her darning-ball. ’It is pathetic to see you waste your time painting mediocre pictures, when as a lecturer upon love you could instruct your thousands."
"The thousands would never satisfy me," I retorted, "so long as you remained uninstructed, for in your single person you would so swell the sum of human ignorance on that subject that my teaching would be forever vain."
"Very clever indeed! Well, what will Mr. Monroe say to me when I land in New York without his daughter, or with his son-in-law?"
"He has never denied Francesca anything in her life; why should he draw the line at a Scotsman? I am much more concerned about Mr. Macdonald's congregation."
"I am not anxious about that," said Salemina loyally. "Francesca would be the life of an Inchcaldy parish."
"I dare say," I observed, "but she might be the death of the pastor."
"I am ashamed of you, Penelope; or I should be if you meant what you say. She can make the people love her if she tries; when did she ever fail at that? But with Mr. Macdonald's talent, to say nothing of his family connections, he is sure to get a church in Edinburgh in a few years, if he wishes. Undoubtedly, it would not be a great match in a money sense. I suppose he has a manse and three or four hundred pounds a year."
"That sum would do nicely for cabs."
"Penelope, you are flippant!"
"I don't mean it, dear; it's only for fun; and it would be so absurd if we should leave Francesca over here as the presiding genius of an Inchcaldy parsonage,—I mean a manse!"
"It isn't as if she were penniless," continued Salemina; "she has fortune enough to assure her own independence, and not enough to threaten his,—the ideal amount. I hardly think the good Lord's first intention was to make her a minister's wife, but he knows very well that Love is a master architect. Francesca is full of beautiful possibilities if Mr. Macdonald is the man to bring them out, and I am inclined to think he is."
"He has brought out impishness so far," I objected.
"The impishness is transitory," she returned, "and I am speaking of permanent qualities. His is the stronger and more serious nature, Francesca's the sweeter and more flexible. He will be the oak-tree, and she will be the sunshine playing in the branches."
"Salemina, dear," I said penitently, kissing her gray hair, "I apologize: you are not absolutely ignorant about Love, after all, when you call him the master architect; and that is very lovely and very true about the oak-tree and the sunshine."