Penelope's Progress/Chapter 4
Life at Mrs. M'Collop's apartments in 22, Breadalbane Terrace is about as simple, comfortable, dignified, and delightful as it well can be.
Mrs. M'Collop herself is neat, thrifty, precise, tolerably genial, and "verra releegious."
Her partner, who is also the cook, is a person introduced to us as Miss Diggity. We afterwards learned that this is spelled Dalgety, but it is not considered good form, in Scotland, to pronounce the names of persons and places as they are written. When, therefore, I allude to the cook, which will be as seldom as possible, I shall speak of her as Miss Diggity-Dalgety, so that I shall be presenting her correctly both to the eye and to the ear, and giving her at the same time a hyphenated name, a thing which is a secret object of aspiration in Great Britain.
In selecting our own letters and parcels from the common stock on the hall table, I perceive that most of our fellow lodgers are hyphenated ladies, whose visiting-cards diffuse the intelligence that in their single persons two ancient families and fortunes are united. On the ground floor are the Misses Hepburn-Sciennes ( pronounced Hebburn-Sheens); on the floor above us are Miss Colquhoun (Cohoon) and her cousin Miss Cockburn-Sinclair (Coburn-Sinkler). As soon as the Hepburn-Sciennes depart, Mrs. M'Collop expects Mrs. Menzies of Kilconquhar, of whom we shall speak as Mrs. Mingess of Kinyukkar. There is not a man in the house; even the Boots is a girl, so that 22, Breadalbane Terrace is as truly a castra puellarum as was ever the Castle of Edinburgh with its maiden princesses in the olden time.
We talked with Miss Diggity-Dalgety on the evening of our first day at Mrs. M'Collop's, when she came up to know our commands. As Francesca and Salemina were both in the room, I determined to be as Scotch as possible, for it is Salemina's proud boast that she is taken for a native of every country she visits.
"We shall not be entertaining at present, Miss Diggity," I said, "so you can give us just the ordinary dishes,—no doubt you are accustomed to them: scones, baps or bannocks with marmalade, finnan-haddie or kippered herrings for breakfast; tea,—of course we never touch coffee in the morning" (here Francesca started with surprise); "porridge, and we like them well boiled, please" (I hope she noted the plural pronoun; Salemina did, and blanched with envy); "minced collops for luncheon, or a nice little black-faced chop; Scotch broth, peas brose or cockyleekie soup, at dinner, and haggis now and then, with a cold shape for dessert. That is about the sort of thing we are accustomed to,—just plain Scotch living."
I was impressing Miss Diggity-Dalgety,—I could see that clearly; but Francesca spoiled the effect by inquiring, maliciously, if we could sometimes have a howtowdy wi' drappit eggs, or her favorite dish, wee grumphie wi' neeps.
Here Salemina was obliged to poke the fire in order to conceal her smiles, and the cook probably suspected that Francesca found howtowdy in the Scotch glossary; but we amused each other vastly, and that is our principal object in life.
Miss Diggity-Dalgety's forbears must have been exposed to foreign influences, for she interlards her culinary conversation with French terms, and we have discovered that this is quite common. A "jigget" of mutton is of course a gigot, and we have identified an "ashet" as an assiette. The "petticoat tails" she requested me to buy at the confectioner's were somewhat more puzzling, but when they were finally purchased by Susanna Crum they appeared to be ordinary little cakes; perhaps, therefore, petits gastels, since gastel is an old form of gâteau, as was bel for beau. Susanna, on her part, speaks of the wardrobe in my bedroom as an "awmry." It certainly contains no weapons, so cannot be an armory, and we conjecture that her word must be a corruption of armoire.
"That was a remarkable touch about the black-faced chop," laughed Salemina, when Miss Diggity-Dalgety had retired; "not that I believe they ever say it."
"I am sure they must," I asserted stoutly, "for I passed a flesher's on my way home, and saw a sign with 'Prime Black-faced Mutton' printed on it. I also saw 'Fed Veal,' but I forgot to ask the cook for it."
"We ought really to have kept house in Edinburgh," observed Francesca, looking up from "The Scotsman." "One can get a 'self-contained residential flat' for twenty pounds a month. We are such an enthusiastic trio that a self-contained flat would be everything to us; and if it were not fully furnished, here is a firm that wishes to sell a 'composite bed' for six pounds, and a 'gent's stuffed easy' for five. Added to these inducements there is somebody who advertises that parties who intend 'displenishing' at the Whit Term would do well to consult him, as he makes a specialty of second-handed furniture and 'cyclealities.' What are 'cyclealities,' Susanna?" (She had just come in with coals.)
"I couldna say, mam."
"Thank you; no, you need not ask Mrs, M'Collop; it is of no consequence."
Susanna Crum is a most estimable young woman, clean, respectful, willing, capable, and methodical, but as a Bureau of Information she is painfully inadequate. Barring this single limitation she seems to be a treasure-house of all good practical qualities; and being thus clad and panoplied in virtue, why should she be so timid and self-distrustful?
She wears an expression which can mean only one of two things: either she has heard of the national tomahawk and is afraid of violence on our part, or else her mother was frightened before she was born. This applies in general to her walk and voice and manner, but is it fear that prompts her eternal "I couldna say," or is it perchance Scotch caution and prudence? Is she afraid of projecting her personality too indecently far? Is it the influence of the "catecheesm" on her early youth? Is it the indirect effect of heresy trials on her imagination? Does she remember the thumb-screw of former generations? At all events, she will neither affirm nor deny, and I am putting her to all sorts of tests, hoping to discover finally whether she is an accident, an exaggeration, or a type.
Salemina thinks that our American accent may confuse her. Of course she means Francesca's and mine, for she has none; although we have tempered ours so much for the sake of the natives, that we can scarcely understand each other any more. As for Susanna's own accent, she comes from the heart of Aberdeenshire, and her intonation is beyond my power to reproduce.
We naturally wish to identify all the national dishes; so, "Is this cockle soup, Susanna?" I ask her, as she passes me the plate at dinner.
"I couldna say."
"This vegetable is new to me, Susanna; is it perhaps sea-kail?"
"I canna say, mam."
Then finally, in despair, as she handed me a boiled potato one day, I fixed my searching Yankee brown eyes on her blue-Presbyterian, non-committal ones and asked, "What is this vegetable, Susanna?"
In an instant she withdrew herself, her soul, her ego, so utterly that I felt myself gazing at an inscrutable stone image, as she replied, "I couldna say, mam."
This was too much! Her mother may have been frightened, very badly frightened, but this was more than I could endure without protest. The plain boiled potato is practically universal. It is not only common to all temperate climates, but it has permeated all classes of society. I am confident that the plain boiled potato has been one of the chief constituents in the building up of that frame in which Susanna Crum conceals her opinions and emotions. I remarked, therefore, as an apparent afterthought, "Why, it is a potato, is it not, Susanna?"
What do you think she replied, when thus hunted into a corner, pushed against a wall, driven to the very confines of her personal and national liberty? She subjected the potato to a second careful scrutiny, and answered, "I wouldna say it's no!"
Now there is no inherited physical terror in this. It is the concentrated essence of intelligent reserve, caution, and obstinacy; it is a conscious intellectual hedging; it is a dogged and determined attempt to build up barriers of defense between the questioner and the questionee: it must be, therefore, the offspring of the catechism and the heresy trial.
Once again, after establishing an equally obvious fact, I succeeded in wringing from her the reluctant admission, "It depends," but she was so shattered by the bulk and force of this outgo, so fearful that in some way she had imperiled her life or reputation, so anxious concerning the effect that her unwilling testimony might have upon unborn generations, that she was of no real service the rest of the day.
I wish that the Lord Advocate, or some modern counterpart of Braxfield, the hanging judge, would summon Susanna Crum as a witness in an important case. He would need his longest plummet to sound the depths of her consciousness.
I have had no legal experience, but I can imagine the scene.
"Is the prisoner your father, Susanna Crum?"
"I couldna say, my lord."
"You have not understood the question, Susanna. Is the prisoner your father?"
"I couldna say, my lord."
"Come, come, my girl! you must answer the questions put you by the court. You have been an inmate of the prisoner's household since your earliest consciousness. He provided you with food, lodging, and clothing during your infancy and early youth. You have seen him on annual visits to your home, and watched him as he performed the usual parental functions for your younger brothers and sisters. I therefore repeat, is the prisoner your father, Susanna Crum?"
"I wouldna say he's no, my lord."
"This is really beyond credence! What do you conceive to be the idea involved in the word 'father,' Susanna Crum?"
"It depends, my lord."
And this, a few hundred years earlier, would have been the natural and effective moment for the thumb-screws.
I do not wish to be understood as defending these uncomfortable appliances. They would never have been needed to elicit information from me, for I should have spent my nights inventing matter to confess in the daytime. I feel sure that I should have poured out such floods of confessions and retractations that if all Scotland had been one listening ear it could not have heard my tale. I am only wondering if, in the extracting of testimony from the common mind, the thumb-screw might not have been more necessary with some nations than with others.