Penelope's Progress/Chapter 7
Francesca's experiences were not so fortunate; indeed, I have never seen her more out of sorts than she was during our long chat over the fire, after our return to Breadalbane Terrace.
"How did you get on with your delightful minister?" inquired Salemina of the young lady, as she flung her unoffending wrap over the back of a chair. "He was quite the handsomest man in the room; who is he?"
"He is the Reverend Ronald Macdonald, and the most disagreeable, condescending, ill-tempered prig I ever met!"
"Why, Francesca!" I exclaimed. "Lady Baird speaks of him as her favorite nephew, and says he is full of charm."
"He is just as full of charm as he was when I met him," returned the girl nonchalantly; "that is, he parted with none of it this evening. He was incorrigibly stiff and rude, and oh! so Scotch! I believe if one punctured him with a hat-pin, oatmeal would fly into the air!"
"Doubtless you acquainted him, early in the evening, with the immeasurable advantages of our sleeping-car system, the superiority of our fast-running elevators, and the height of our buildings?" observed Salemina.
"I mentioned them," Francesca answered evasively.
"You naturally inveighed against the Scotch climate?"
"Oh, I alluded to it; but only when he said that our hot summers must be insufferable."
"I suppose you repeated the remark you made at luncheon, that the ladies you had seen in Princes Street were excessively plain?"
"Yes, I did!" she replied hotly; "but that was because he said that American girls generally looked bloodless and frail. He asked if it were really true that they ate chalk and slate pencils. Wasn't that unendurable? I answered that those were the chief solid articles of food, but that after their complexions were established, so to speak, their parents often allowed them pickles and native claret to vary the diet."
"What did he say to that?" I asked.
"Oh, he said, 'Quite so, quite so;' that was his invariable response to all my witticisms. Then when I told him casually that the shops looked very small and dark and stuffy here, and that there were not as many tartans and plaids in the windows as we had expected, he remarked that as to the latter point, the American season had not opened yet! Presently he asserted that no royal city in Europe could boast ten centuries of such glorious and stirring history as Edinburgh. I said it did not appear to be stirring much at present, and that everything in Scotland seemed a little slow to an American; that he could have no idea of push or enterprise until he visited a city like Chicago. He retorted that, happily, Edinburgh was peculiarly free from the taint of the ledger and the counting-house; that it was Weimar without a Goethe, Boston without its twang!"
"Incredible!" cried Salemina, deeply wounded in her local pride. "He never could have said 'twang' unless you had tried him beyond measure!"
"I dare say I did; he is easily tried," returned Francesca. "I asked him, sarcastically, if he had ever been in Boston. 'No,' he said, 'it is not necessary to go there! And while we are discussing these matters,' he went on, 'how is your American dyspepsia these days,—have you decided what is the cause of it?'
"'Yes, we have,' said I, as quick as a flash; 'we have always taken in more foreigners than we could assimilate!' I wanted to tell him that one Scotsman of his type would upset the national digestion anywhere, but I restrained myself."
"I am glad you did restrain yourself—once," exclaimed Salemina. "What a tactful person the Reverend Ronald must be, if you have reported him faithfully! Why didn't you give him up, and turn to your other neighbor?"
"I did, as soon as I could with courtesy; but the man on my left was the type that always haunts me at dinners; if the hostess hasn't one on her visiting-list, she imports one for the occasion. He asked me at once of what material the Brooklyn Bridge is made. I told him I really didn't know. Why should I? I seldom go over it. Then he asked me whether it was a suspension bridge or a cantilever. Of course I didn't know; I am not an engineer."
"You are so tactlessly, needlessly candid," I expostulated. "Why didn't you say boldly that the Brooklyn Bridge is a wooden cantilever, with gutta-percha braces? He didn't know, or he wouldn't have asked you. He couldn't find out until he reached home, and you would never have seen him again; and if you had, and he had taunted you, you could have laughed vivaciously and said you were chaffing. That is my method, and it is the only way to preserve life in a foreign country. Even my earl, who did not thirst for information (fortunately), asked me the population of the Yellowstone Park, and I simply told him three hundred thousand, at a venture."
"That would never have satisfied my neighbor," said Francesca. "Finding me in such a lamentable state of ignorance, he explained the principle of his own stupid Forth Bridge to me. When I said I understood perfectly, just to get into shallower water, where we wouldn't need any bridge, the Reverend Ronald joined in the conversation, and asked me to repeat the explanation to him. Naturally I couldn't, and he knew that I couldn't when he asked me, so the bridge man (I don't know his name, and don't care to know it) drew a diagram of the national idol on his dinner-card and gave a dull and elaborate lecture upon it. Here is the card, and now that three hours have intervened I cannot tell which way to turn the drawing so as to make the bridge right side up; if there is anything puzzling in the world, it is these architectural plans and diagrams. I am going to pin it to the wall and ask the Reverend Ronald which way it goes."
"Do you mean that he will call upon us?" we cried in concert.
"He asked if he might come and continue our 'stimulating' conversation, and as Lady Baird was standing by I could hardly say no. I am sure of one thing: that before I finish with him I will widen his horizon so that he will be able to see something beside Scotland and his little insignificant Fifeshire parish! I told him our country parishes in America were ten times as large as his. He said he had heard that they covered a good deal of territory, and that the ministers' salaries were sometimes paid in pork and potatoes. That shows you the style of his retorts!"
"I really cannot decide which of you was the more disagreeable," said Salemina; "if he calls, I shall not remain in the room."
"I wouldn't gratify him by staying out," retorted Francesca. "He is extremely good for the circulation; I think I was never so warm in my life as when I talked with him; as physical exercise he is equal to bicycling. The bridge man is coming to call, too. I gave him a diagram of Breadalbane Terrace, and a plan of the hall and staircase, on my dinner-card. He was distinctly ungrateful; in fact, he remarked that he had been born in this very house, but would not trust himself to find his way upstairs with my plan as a guide. He also said the American vocabulary was vastly amusing, so picturesque, unstudied, and fresh."
"That was nice, surely," I interpolated.
"You know perfectly well that it was an insult."
"Francesca is very like the young man," laughed Salemina, "who, whenever he engaged in controversy, seemed to take off his flesh and sit in his nerves."
"I'm not supersensitive," replied Francesca, "but when one's vocabulary is called picturesque by a Britisher, one always knows he is thinking of cowboys and broncos. However, I shifted the weight into the other scale by answering, 'Thank you. And your phraseology is just as unusual to us.' 'Indeed?' he said with some surprise. 'I supposed our method of expression very sedate and uneventful' 'Not at all,' I returned, 'when you say, as you did a moment ago, that you never eat potato to your fish.' 'But I do not,' he urged obtusely. 'Very likely,' I argued, 'but the fact is not of so much importance as the preposition. Now I eat potato with my fish.' 'You make a mistake,' he said, and we both laughed in spite of ourselves, while he murmured, 'eating potato with fish,—how extraordinary.' Well, the bridge man may not add perceptibly to the gayety of the nations, but he is better than the Reverend Ronald. I forgot to say that when I chanced to be speaking of doughnuts, that 'unconquer'd Scot' asked me if a doughnut resembled a peanut! Can you conceive such ignorance?"
"I think you were not only aggressively American, but painfully provincial," said Salemina, with some warmth. "Why in the world should you drag doughnuts into a dinner-table conversation in Edinburgh? Why not select topics of universal interest?"
"Like the Currie Brig or the shade of Montrose," I murmured slyly.
"To one who has ever eaten a doughnut, the subject is of transcendent interest; and as for one who has not—well, he should be made to feel his limitations," replied Francesca, with a yawn. "Come, let us forget our troubles in sleep; it is after midnight."
About half an hour later she came to my bedside, her dark hair hanging over her white gown, her eyes still bright.
"Penelope," she said softly, "I did not dare tell Salemina, and I should not confess it to you save that I am afraid Lady Baird will complain of me; but I was dreadfully rude to the Reverend Ronald! I couldn't help it; he roused my worst passions. It all began with his saying he thought international marriages presented even more difficulties to the imagination than the other kind. I hadn't said anything about marriages nor thought anything about marriages of any sort, but I told him instantly I considered that every international marriage involved two national suicides. He said that he shouldn't have put it quite so forcibly, but that he hadn't given much thought to the subject. I said that I had, and I thought we had gone on long enough filling the coffers of the British nobility with American gold."
"Frances!" I interrupted. "Don't tell me that you made that vulgar, cheap newspaper assertion!"
"I did," she replied stoutly, "and at the moment I only wished I could make it stronger. If there had been anything cheaper or more vulgar, I should have said it, but of course there isn't. Then he remarked that the British nobility merited and needed all the support it could get in these hard times, and asked if we had not cherished some intention in the States, lately, of bestowing it in greenbacks instead of gold! I threw all manners to the winds after that and told him that there were no husbands in the world like American men, and that foreigners never seemed to have any proper consideration for women. Now, were my remarks any worse than his, after all, and what shall I do about it, anyway?"
"You should go to bed first," I murmured sleepily; "and if you ever have an opportunity to make amends, which I doubt, you should devote yourself to showing the Reverend Ronald the breadth of your own horizon instead of trying so hard to broaden his. As you are extremely pretty, you may possibly succeed; man is human, and I dare say in a month you will be advising him to love somebody more worthy than yourself. (He could easily do it!) Now don't kiss me again, for I am displeased with you; I hate international bickering!"
"So do I," agreed Francesca virtuously, as she plaited her hair, "and there is no spectacle so abhorrent to every sense as a narrow-minded man who cannot see anything outside of his own country. But he is awfully good-looking,—I will say that for him; and if you don't explain me to Lady Baird, I will write to Mr. Beresford about the earl. There was no bickering there; it was looking at you two that made us think of international marriages."
"It must have suggested to you that speech about filling the coffers of the British nobility," I replied sarcastically, "inasmuch as the earl has twenty thousand pounds a year, probably, and I could barely buy two gold hairpins to pin on the coronet. There, do go away and leave me in peace!"
"Good-night again, then," she said, as she rose reluctantly from the foot of the bed. "I doubt if I can sleep for thinking what a pity it is that such an egotistic, bumptious, pugnacious, prejudiced, insular, bigoted person should be so handsome! And who wants to marry him, anyway, that he should be so distressed about international alliances? One would think that all female America was sighing to lead him to the altar!"