Penelope's Progress/Chapter 6
It was the Princess Dashkoff who said, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, that of all the societies of men of talent she had met with in her travels, Edinburgh's was the first in point of abilities.
One might make the same remark to-day, perhaps, and not depart widely from the truth. One does not find, however, as many noted names as are associated with the annals of the Cape and Poker Clubs or the Crochallan Fencibles, those famous groups of famous men who met for relaxation (and intoxication, I should think) at the old Isle of Man Arms or in Dawney's Tavern in the Anchor Close. These groups included such shining lights as Robert Fergusson the poet, and Adam Ferguson the historian and philosopher, Gavin Wilson, Sir Henry Raeburn, David Hume, Erskine, Lords Newton, Gillies, Monboddo, Hailes, Kames, Henry Mackenzie, and the Ploughman Poet himself, who has kept alive the memory of the Crochallans in many a jovial verse like that in which he describes Smellie, the eccentric philosopher and printer:—
"Shrewd Willie Smellie to Crochallan came,
The old cocked hat, the grey surtout the same.
His bristling beard just rising in its might;
'T was four long nights and days to shaving night;"
or in the characteristic picture of William Dunbar, a wit of the lime, and the merriest of the Fencibles:—
"As I cam by Crochallan
I cannily keekit ben;
Rattlin', roarin' Willie
Was sitting at yon boord en';
Sitting at yon boord en',
And amang guid companie!
Rattlin', roarin' Willie,
Ye're welcome hame to me!"
or in the verses on Creech, Burns's publisher, who left Edinburgh for a time in 1789. The "Willies," by the way, seem to be especially inspiring to the Scottish balladists.
"Oh, Willie was a witty wight,
And had o' things an unco slight!
Auld Reekie aye he keepit tight
And trig and braw;
But now they'll busk her like a fright—
I think perhaps the gatherings of the present time are neither quite as gay nor quite as brilliant as those of Burns's day, when
"Willie brewed a peck o' maut,
An' Rob an' Allan cam to pree;"
but the ideal standard of those meetings seems to be voiced in the lines:—
"Wha last beside his chair shall fa',
He is the king amang us three!"
As they sit in their chairs nowadays to the very end of the feast, there is doubtless joined with modern sobriety a soupçon of modern dullness and discretion.
To an American the great charm of Edinburgh is its leisurely atmosphere: "not the leisure of a village arising from the deficiency of ideas and motives, but the leisure of a city reposing grandly on tradition and history; which has done its work, and does not require to weave its own clothing, to dig its own coals, or smelt its own iron."
We were reminded of this more than once, and it never failed to depress us properly. If one had ever lived in Pittsburg, Fall River, or Kansas City, I should think it would be almost impossible to maintain self-respect in a place like Edinburgh, where the citizens "are released from the vulgarizing dominion of the hour." Whenever one of Auld Reekie's great men took this tone with me, I always felt as though I were the germ in a half-hatched egg, and he were an aged and lordly cock gazing at me pityingly through my shell. He, lucky creature, had lived through all the struggles which I was to undergo; he, indeed, was released from "the vulgarizing dominion of the hour;" but I, poor thing, must grow and grow, and keep pecking at my shell, in order to achieve existence.
Sydney Smith says in one of his letters, "Never shall I forget the happy days passed there [in Edinburgh], amidst odious smells, barbarous sounds, bad suppers, excellent hearts, and the most enlightened and cultivated understandings." His only criticism of the conversation of that day (1797-1802) concerned itself with the prevalence of that form of Scotch humor which was called wut, and with the disputations and dialectics. We were more fortunate than Sydney Smith, because Edinburgh has outgrown its odious smells, barbarous sounds, and bad suppers, and, wonderful to relate, has kept its excellent hearts and its enlightened and cultivated understandings. As for mingled wut and dialectics, where can one find a better foundation for dinner-table conversation?
The hospitable board itself presents no striking differences from our own, save the customs of serving sweets in soup-plates with dessert-spoons, of a smaller number of forks on parade, of the invariable fish-knife at each plate, of the prevalent "savory" and "cold shape," and the unusual grace and skill with which the hostess carves. Even at very large dinners one occasionally sees a lady of high degree severing the joints of chickens and birds most daintily, while her lord looks on in happy idleness, thinking, perhaps, how greatly times have changed for the better since the ages of strife and bloodshed, when Scottish nobles
"Carved at the meal with gloves of steel,
And drank their wine through helmets barred."
The Scotch butler is not in the least like an English one. No man could be as respectable as he looks, not even an elder of the kirk, whom he resembles closely. He hands your plate as if it were a contribution-box, and in his moments of ease, when he stands behind the "maister," I am always expecting him to pronounce a benediction. The English butler, when he wishes to avoid the appearance of listening to the conversation, gazes with level eye into vacancy; the Scotch butler looks distinctly heavenward, as if he were brooding on the principle of coördinate jurisdiction with mutual subordination. It would be impossible for me to deny the key of the wine-cellar to a being so steeped in sanctity, but it has been done, I am told, in certain rare and isolated cases.
As for toilets, the men dress like all other men (alas, and alas, that we should say it, for we were continually hoping for a kilt!), though there seems to be no survival of the finical Lord Napier's spirit. Perhaps you remember that Lord and Lady Napier arrived at Castlemilk in Lanarkshire with the intention of staying a week, but announced next morning that a circumstance had occurred which rendered it indispensable to return without delay to their seat in Selkirkshire. This was the only explanation given, but it was afterwards discovered that Lord Napier's valet had committed the grievous mistake of packing up a set of neck-cloths which did not correspond in point of date with the shirts they accompanied!
The ladies of the "smart set" in Edinburgh wear French fripperies and chiffons, as do their sisters everywhere, but the other women of society dress a trifle more staidly than their cousins in London, Paris, or New York. The sobriety of taste and severity of style that characterize Scotswomen may be due, like Susanna Crum's dubieties, to the haar, to the shorter catechism, or perhaps in some degree to the presence of three branches of the Presbyterian church among them; the society that bears in its bosom three separate and antagonistic kinds of Presbyterianism at the same time must have its chilly moments.
In Lord Cockburn's time the "dames of high and aristocratic breed" must have been sufficiently awake to feminine frivolities to be both gorgeously and extravagantly arrayed. I do not know in all literature a more delicious and lifelike word-portrait than Lord Cockburn gives of Mrs. Rochead, the Lady of Inverleith, in the Memorials. It is quite worthy to hang beside a Raeburn canvas; one can scarce say more.
"Except Mrs. Siddons in some of her displays of magnificent royalty, nobody could sit down like the Lady of Inverleith. She would sail like a ship from Tarshish, gorgeous in velvet or rustling silk, done up in all the accompaniments of fans, ear-rings and finger-rings, falling sleeves, scent-bottle, embroidered bag, hoop, and train; managing all this seemingly heavy rigging with as much ease as a full-blown swan does its plumage. She would take possession of the centre of a large sofa, and at the same moment, without the slightest visible exertion, cover the whole of it with her bravery, the graceful folds seeming to lay themselves over it, like summer waves. The descent from her carriage, too, where she sat like a nautilus in its shell, was a display which no one in these days could accomplish or even fancy. The mulberry-colored coach, apparently not too large for what it contained, though she alone was in it; the handsome, jolly coachman and his splendid hammer-cloth loaded with lace; the two respectful liveried footmen, one on each side of the richly carpeted step,—these were lost sight of amidst the slow majesty with which the Lady of Inverleith came down and touched the earth."
My right-hand neighbor at Lady Baird's dinner was surprised at my quoting Lord Cockburn. One's attendant squires here always seem surprised when one knows anything; but they are always delighted, too, so that the amazement is less trying. True, I had read the Memorials only the week before, and had never heard of them previous to that time; but that detail, according to my theories, makes no real difference. The woman who knows how and when to "read up," who reads because she wants to be in sympathy with a new environment; the woman who has wit and perspective enough to be stimulated by novel conditions and kindled by fresh influences, who is susceptible to the vibrations of other people's history, is safe to be fairly intelligent and extremely agreeable, if only she is sufficiently modest. I think my neighbor found me thoroughly delightful after he discovered my point of view. He was an earl; and it always takes an earl a certain length of time to understand me. I scarcely know why, for I certainly should not think it courteous to interpose any real barriers between the nobility and that portion of the "masses" represented in my humble person.
It seemed to me at first that the earl did not apply himself to the study of my national peculiarities with much assiduity, but wasted considerable time in gazing at Francesca, who was opposite. She is certainly very handsome, and I never saw her lovelier than at that dinner; her eyes were like stars, and her cheeks and lips a splendid crimson, for she was quarreling with her attendant cavalier about the relative merits of Scotland and America, and they apparently ceased to speak to each other after the salad.
When the earl had sufficiently piqued me by his devotion to his dinner and his glances at Francesca, I began a systematic attempt to achieve his (transient) subjugation. Of course I am ardently attached to Willie Beresford and prefer him to any earl in Britain, but one's self-respect demands something in the way of food. I could see Salemina at the far end of the table radiant with success, the W. S. at her side bending ever and anon to catch the (artificial) pearls of thought that dropped from her lips. "Miss Hamilton appears simple" (I thought I heard her say); "but in reality she is as deep as the Currie Brig!" Now where did she get that allusion? And again, when the W. S. asked her whither she was going when she left Edinburgh, "I hardly know," she replied pensively. "I am waiting for the shade of Montrose to direct me, as the Viscount Dundee said to your Duke of Gordon." The entranced Scotsman little knew that she had perfected this style of conversation by long experience with the Q. C.'s of England. Talk about my being as deep as the Currie Brig (whatever it may be); Salemina is deeper than the Atlantic Ocean! I shall take pains to inform her Writer to the Signet, after dinner, that she eats sugar on her porridge every morning; that will show him her nationality conclusively.
The earl took the greatest interest in my new ancestors, and approved thoroughly of my choice. He thinks I must have been named for Lady Penelope Belhaven, who lived in Leven Lodge, one of the country villas of the Earls of Leven, from whom he himself is descended. "Does that make us relatives?" I asked. "Relatives, most assuredly," he replied, "but not too near to destroy the charm of friendship."
He thought it a great deal nicer to select one's own forbears than to allow them all the responsibility, and said it would save a world of trouble if the method could be universally adopted. He added that he should be glad to part with a good many of his, but doubted whether I would accept them, as they were "rather a scratch lot." (I use his own language, which I thought delightfully easy for a belted earl.) He was charmed with the story of Francesca and the lamiter, and offered to drive me to Kildonan House, Helmsdale, on the first fine day. I told him he was quite safe in making the proposition, for we had already had the fine day, and we understood that the climate had exhausted itself and retired for the season.
The gentleman on my right, a distinguished Dean of the Thistle, gave me a few moments' discomfort by telling me that the old custom of "rounds" of toasts still prevailed at Lady Baird's on formal occasions, and that before the ladies retired every one would be called upon for appropriate "sentiments."
"What sort of sentiments?" I inquired, quite overcome with terror.
"Oh, epigrammatic sentences expressive of moral feelings or virtues," replied my neighbor easily. "They are not quite as formal and hackneyed now as they were in the olden time, when some of the favorite toasts were 'May the pleasure of the evening bear the reflections of the morning!' 'May the friends of our youth be the companions of our old age!' 'May the honest heart never feel distress!' 'May the hand of charity wipe the eye of sorrow!'"
"I can never do it in the world!" I ejaculated. "Oh, one ought never, never to leave one's own country! A light-minded and cynical English gentleman told me that I should frequently be called upon to read hymns and recite verses of Scripture at family dinners in Edinburgh and I hope I am always prepared to do that; but nobody warned me that I should have to evolve epigrammatic sentiments on the spur of the moment."
My confusion was so evident that the good dean relented and confessed that he was imposing upon my ignorance. He made me laugh heartily at the story of a poor dominie at Arndilly. He was called upon in his turn, at a large party, and having nothing to aid him in an exercise to which he was new save the example of his predecessors, lifted his glass after much writhing and groaning and gave, "The reflection of the moon in the cawm bosom of the lake!"
At this moment Lady Baird glanced at me, and we all rose to go into the drawing-room; but on the way from my chair to the door, whither the earl escorted me, he said gallantly, "I suppose the men in your country do not take champagne at dinner? I cannot fancy their craving it when dining beside an American woman!"
That was charming, though he did pay my country a compliment at my expense. One likes, of course, to have the type recognized as fine; at the same time his remark would have been more flattering if it had been less sweeping.
When I remember that he offered me his ancestors, asked me to drive two hundred and eighty miles, and likened me to champagne, I feel that, with my heart already occupied and my hand promised, I could hardly have accomplished more in the course of a single dinner-hour.