Penelope's Experiences in Scotland by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part Second--In the Country.
Chapter XX. A Fifeshire tea-party.
`The knights they harpit in their bow'r, The ladyes sew'd and sang; The mirth that was in that chamber Through all the place it rang.'
Rose the Red and White Lily.
Tea at Rowardennan Castle is an impressive and a delightful function. It is served by a ministerial-looking butler and a just- ready-to-be-ordained footman. They both look as if they had been nourished on the Thirty-Nine Articles, but they know their business as well as if they had been trained in heathen lands,--which is saying a good deal, for everybody knows that heathen servants wait upon one with idolatrous solicitude. However, from the quality of the cheering beverage itself down to the thickness of the cream, the thinness of the china, the crispness of the toast, and the plummyness of the cake, tea at Rowardennan Castle is perfect in every detail.
The scones are of unusual lightness, also. I should think they would scarcely weigh more than four, perhaps even five, to a pound; but I am aware that the casual traveller, who eats only at hotels, and never has the privilege of entering feudal castles, will be slow to believe this estimate, particularly just after breakfast.
Salemina always describes a Scotch scone as an aspiring but unsuccessful soda-biscuit of the New England sort. Stevenson, in writing of that dense black substance, inimical to life, called Scotch bun, says that the patriotism that leads a Scotsman to eat it will hardly desert him in any emergency. Salemina thinks that the scone should be bracketed with the bun (in description, of course, never in the human stomach), and says that, as a matter of fact, `th' unconquer'd Scot' of old was not only clad in a shirt of mail, but well fortified within when he went forth to warfare after a meal of oatmeal and scones. She insists that the spear which would pierce the shirt of mail would be turned aside and blunted by the ordinary scone of commerce; but what signifies the opinion of a woman who eats sugar on her porridge?
Considering the air of liberal hospitality that hangs about the castle tea-table, I wonder that our friends do not oftener avail themselves of its privileges and allow us to do so; but on all dark, foggy, or inclement days, or whenever they tire of the sands, everybody persists in taking tea at Bide-a-Wee Cottage.
We buy our tea of the Pettybaw grocer, some of our cups are cracked, the teapot is of earthenware, Miss Grieve disapproves of all social tea-fuddles, and shows it plainly when she brings in the tray, and the room is so small that some of us overflow into the hall or the garden; it matters not; there is some fatal charm in our humble hospitality. At four o'clock one of us is obliged to be, like Sister Anne, on the housetop; and if company approaches, she must descend and speed to the plumber's for six pennyworth extra of cream. In most well-ordered British households Miss Grieve would be requested to do this speeding, but both her mind and her body move too slowly for such domestic crises; and then, too, her temper has to be kept as unruffled as possible, so that she will cut the bread and butter thin. This she generally does if she has not been `fair doun-hadden wi' wark'; but the washing of her own spinster cup and plate, together with the incident sighs and groans, occupies her till so late an hour that she is not always dressed for callers.
Willie and I were reading The Lady of the Lake the other day, in the back garden, surrounded by the verdant leafage of our own kale-yard. It is a pretty spot when the sun shines, a trifle domestic in its air, perhaps, but restful: Miss Grieve's dish-towels and aprons drying on the currant bushes, the cat playing with a mutton-bone or a fish-tail on the grass, and the little birds perching on the rims of our wash-boiler and water-buckets. It can be reached only by way of the kitchen, which somewhat lessens its value as a pleasure- ground or a rustic retreat, but Willie and I retire there now and then for a quiet chat.
On this particular occasion Willie was declaiming the exciting verses where Fitz-James and Murdoch are crossing the stream
`That joins Loch Katrine to Achray,'
where the crazed Blanche of Devan first appears:-
`All in the Trosachs' glen was still, Noontide was sleeping on the hill: Sudden his guide whoop'd loud and high-- "Murdoch! was that a signal cry?"'
"It was indeed," said Francesca, appearing suddenly at an upper window overhanging the garden. "Pardon this intrusion, but the Castle people are here," she continued in what is known as a stage whisper,--that is, one that can be easily heard by a thousand persons,--"the Castle people and the ladies from Pettybaw House; and Mr. Macdonald is coming down the loaning; but Calamity Jane is making her toilet in the kitchen, and you cannot take Mr. Beresford through into the sitting-room at present. She says this hoose has so few conveniences that it's `fair sickenin'.'"
"How long will she be?" queried Mr. Beresford anxiously, putting The Lady of the Lake in his pocket, and pacing up and down between the rows of cabbages.
"She has just begun. Whatever you do, don't unsettle her temper, for she will have to prepare for eight to-day. I will send Mr. Macdonald and Miss Macrae to the bakery for gingerbread, to gain time, and possibly I can think of a way to rescue you. If I can't, are you tolerably comfortable? Perhaps Miss Grieve won't mind Penelope, and she can come through the kitchen any time and join us; but naturally you don't want to be separated, that's the worst of being engaged. Of course I can lower your tea in a tin bucket, and if it should rain I can throw out umbrellas. Would you like your golf-caps, Pen? `Won'erful blest in weather ye are, mam!' The situation is not so bad as it might be," she added consolingly, "because in case Miss Grieve's toilet should last longer than usual, your wedding need not be indefinitely postponed, for Mr. Macdonald can marry you from this window."
Here she disappeared, and we had scarcely time to take in the full humour of the affair before Robin Anstruther's laughing eyes appeared over the top of the high brick wall that protects our garden on three sides.
"Do not shoot," said he. "I am not come to steal the fruit, but to succour humanity in distress. Miss Monroe insisted that I should borrow the inn ladder. She thought a rescue would be much more romantic than waiting for Miss Grieve. Everybody is coming out to witness it, at least all your guests,--there are no strangers present,--and Miss Monroe is already collecting sixpence a head for the entertainment, to be given, she says, for your dear Friar's sustenation fund."
He was now astride of the wall, and speedily lifted the ladder to our side, where it leaned comfortably against the stout branches of the draper's peach vine. Willie ran nimbly up the ladder and bestrode the wall. I followed, first standing, and then decorously sitting down on the top of it. Mr. Anstruther pulled up the ladder, and replaced it on the side of liberty; then he descended, then Willie, and I last of all, amidst the acclamations of the onlookers, a select company of six or eight persons.
When Miss Grieve formally entered the sitting-room bearing the tea- tray, she was buskit braw in black stuff gown, clean apron, and fresh cap trimmed with purple ribbons, under which her white locks were neatly dressed.
She deplored the coolness of the tea, but accounted for it to me in an aside by the sickening quality of Mrs. Sinkler's coals and Mr. Macbrose's kindling-wood, to say nothing of the insulting draft in the draper's range. When she left the room, I suppose she was unable to explain the peals of laughter that rang through our circumscribed halls.
Lady Ardmore insists that the rescue was the most unique episode she ever witnessed, and says that she never understood America until she made our acquaintance. I persuaded her that this was fallacious reasoning; that while she might understand us by knowing America, she could not possibly reverse this mental operation and be sure of the result. The ladies of Pettybaw House said that the occurrence was as Fifish as anything that ever happened in Fife. The kingdom of Fife is noted, it seems, for its `doocots [dovecots] and its daft lairds,' and to be eccentric and Fifish are one and the same thing. Thereupon Francesca told Mr. Macdonald a story she heard in Edinburgh, to the effect that when a certain committee or council was quarrelling as to which of certain Fifeshire towns should be the seat of a projected lunatic asylum, a new resident arose and suggested that the building of a wall round the kingdom of Fife would solve the difficulty, settle all disputes, and give sufficient room for the lunatics to exercise properly.
This is the sort of tale that a native can tell with a genial chuckle, but it comes with poor grace from an American lady sojourning in Fife. Francesca does not mind this, however, as she is at present avenging fresh insults to her own beloved country.