Penelope's Experiences in Scotland by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part First--In Town.
Chapter III. A vision in Princes Street.
When we awoke next morning the sun had forgotten itself and was shining in at Mrs. M'Collop's back windows.
We should have arisen at once to burn sacrifices and offer oblations, but we had seen the sun frequently in America, and had no idea (poor fools!) that it was anything to be grateful for, so we accepted it, almost without comment, as one of the perennial providences of life.
When I speak of Edinburgh sunshine I do not mean, of course, any such burning, whole-souled, ardent warmth of beam as one finds in countries where they make a specialty of climate. It is, generally speaking, a half-hearted, uncertain ray, as pale and transitory as a martyr's smile; but its faintest gleam, or its most puerile attempt to gleam, is admired and recorded by its well-disciplined constituency. Not only that, but at the first timid blink of the sun the true Scotsman remarks smilingly, `I think now we shall be having settled weather!' It is a pathetic optimism, beautiful but quite groundless, and leads one to believe in the story that when Father Noah refused to take Sandy into the ark, he sat down philosophically outside, saying, with a glance at the clouds, `Aweel! the day's just aboot the ord'nar', an' I wouldna won'er if we saw the sun afore nicht!'
But what loyal son of Edina cares for these transatlantic gibes, and where is the dweller within her royal gates who fails to succumb to the sombre beauty of that old grey town of the North? `Grey! why, it is grey or grey and gold, or grey and gold and blue, or grey and gold and blue and green, or grey and gold and blue and green and purple, according as the heaven pleases and you choose your ground! But take it when it is most sombrely grey, where is another such grey city?'
So says one of her lovers, and so the great army of lovers would say, had they the same gift of language; for
`Even thus, methinks, a city reared should be, . . . Yea, an imperial city that might hold Five time a hundred noble towns in fee. . . . Thus should her towers be raised; with vicinage Of clear bold hills, that curve her very streets, As if to indicate, `mid choicest seats Of Art, abiding Nature's majesty.'
We ate a hasty breakfast that first morning, and prepared to go out for a walk into the great unknown, perhaps the most pleasurable sensation in the world. Francesca was ready first, and, having mentioned the fact several times ostentatiously, she went into the drawing-room to wait and read the Scotsman. When we went thither a few minutes later we found that she had disappeared.
"She is below, of course," said Salemina. "She fancies that we shall feel more ashamed at our tardiness if we find her sitting on the hall bench in silent martyrdom."
There was no one in the hall, however, save Susanna, who inquired if we would see the cook before going out.
"We have no time now, Susanna," I remarked. "We are anxious to have a walk before the weather changes, if possible, but we shall be out for luncheon and in for dinner, and Mrs. M'Collop may give us anything she pleases. Do you know where Miss Francesca is?"
"I cudna s---"
"Certainly, of course you couldn't; but I wonder if Mrs. M'Collop saw her?"
Mrs. M'Collop appeared from the basement, and vouchsafed the information that she had seen `the young leddy rinnin' after the regiment.'
"Running after the regiment!" repeated Salemina automatically. "What a reversal of the laws of nature? Why, in Berlin, it was always the regiment that used to run after her!"
We learned in what direction the soldiers had gone, and pursuing the same path found the young lady on the corner of a street near by. She was quite unabashed. "You don't know what you have missed!" she said excitedly. "Let us get into this tram, and possibly we can head them off somewhere. They may be going into battle, and if so, my heart's blood is at their service. It is one of those experiences that come only once in a lifetime. There were pipes and there were kilts! (I didn't suppose they ever really wore them outside of the theatre!) When you have seen the kilts swinging, Salemina, you will never be the same woman afterwards! You never expected to see the Olympian gods walking, did you? Perhaps you thought they always sat on practicable rocks and made stiff gestures, from the elbow, as they do in the Wagner operas? Well, these gods walked, if you can call the inspired gait a walk! If there is a single spinster left in Scotland, it is because none of these ever asked her to marry him. Ah, how grateful I ought to be that I am free to say `yes', if a kilt ever asks me to be his! Poor Penelope, yoked to your commonplace trousered Beresford! (I wish the tram would go faster!) You must capture one of them, by fair means or foul, Penelope, and Salemina and I will hold him down while you paint him,--there they are, they are there somewhere, don't you hear them?"
There they were indeed, filing down the grassy slopes of the Gardens, swinging across one of the stone bridges, and winding up the Castlehill to the Esplanade like a long glittering snake; the streamers of their Highland bonnets waving, their arms glistening in the sun, and the bagpipes playing `The March of the Cameron Men.' The pipers themselves were mercifully hidden from us on that first occasion, and it was well, for we could never have borne another feather's weight of ecstasy.
It was in Princes Street that we had alighted,--named thus for the prince who afterwards became George IV.--and I hope he was, and is, properly grateful. It ought never to be called a street, this most magnificent of terraces, and the world has cause to bless that interdict of the Court of Session in 1774 which prevented the Gradgrinds of the day from erecting buildings along its south side,- -a sordid scheme that would have been the very superfluity of naughtiness.
It was an envious Glasgow body who said grudgingly, as he came out of Waverley Station, and gazed along its splendid length for the first time, "Weel, wi' a' their haverin', it's but half a street onyway!"--which always reminded me of the Western farmer who came from his native plains to the beautiful Berkshire hills. "I've always heard o' this scenery," he said. "Blamed if I can find any scenery; but if there was, nobody could see it, there's so much high ground in the way!"
To think that not so much more than a hundred years ago Princes Street was nought but a straight country road, the `Lang Dykes' and the `Lang Gait,' as it was called.
We looked down over the grassy chasm that separates the New from the Old Town; looked our first on Arthur's Seat, that crouching lion of a mountain; saw the Corstorphine Hill, and Calton heights, and Salisbury Crags, and finally that stupendous bluff of rock that culminates so majestically in Edinburgh Castle. There is something else which, like Susanna Crum's name, is absolutely and ideally right! Stevenson calls it one of the most satisfactory crags in nature--a Bass rock upon dry land, rooted in a garden, shaken by passing trains, carrying a crown of battlements and turrets, and describing its warlike shadow over the liveliest and brightest thoroughfare of the new town. It dominates the whole countryside from water and land. The men who would have the courage to build such a castle in such a spot are all dead; all dead, and the world is infinitely more comfortable without them. They are all gone, and no more like unto them will ever be born, and we can most of us count upon dying safely in our beds, of diseases bred of modern civilisation. But I am glad that those old barbarians, those rudimentary creatures working their way up into the divine likeness, when they were not hanging, drawing, quartering, torturing, and chopping their neighbours, and using their heads in conventional patterns on the tops of gate-posts, did devote their leisure intervals to rearing fortresses like this. Edinburgh Castle could not be conceived, much less built, nowadays, when all our energy is consumed in bettering the condition of the `submerged tenth'! What did they care about the `masses,' that `regal race that is now no more,' when they were hewing those blocks of rugged rock and piling them against the sky-line on the top of that great stone mountain! It amuses me to think how much more picturesque they left the world, and how much better we shall leave it; though if an artist were requested to distribute individual awards to different generations, you could never persuade him to give first prizes to the centuries that produced steam laundries, trolleys, X rays, and sanitary plumbing.
What did they reck of Peace Congresses and bloodless arbitrations when they lighted the beacon-fires, flaming out to the gudeman and his sons ploughing or sowing in the Lang Dykes the news that their `ancient enemies of England had crossed the Tweed'!
I am the most peaceful person in the world, but the Castle was too much for my imagination. I was mounted and off and away from the first moment I gazed upon its embattled towers, heard the pipers in the distance, and saw the Black Watch swinging up the green steps where the huge fortress `holds its state.' The modern world had vanished, and my steed was galloping, galloping, galloping back into the place-of-the-things-that-are-past, traversing centuries at every leap.
`To arms! Let every banner in Scotland float defiance to the breeze!' (So I heard my new-born imaginary spirit say to my real one.) `Yes, and let the Deacon Convener unfurl the sacred Blue Blanket, under which every liege burgher of the kingdom is bound to answer summons! The bale-fires are gleaming, giving alarm to Hume, Haddington, Dunbar, Dalkeith, and Eggerhope. Rise, Stirling, Fife, and the North! All Scotland will be under arms in two hours. One bale-fire: the English are in motion! Two: they are advancing! Four in a row: they are of great strength! All men in arms west of Edinburgh muster there! All eastward, at Haddington! And every Englishman caught in Scotland is lawfully the prisoner of whoever takes him!' (What am I saying? I love Englishmen, but the spell is upon me!) `Come on, Macduff!' (The only suitable and familiar challenge my warlike tenant can summon at the moment.) `I am the son of a Gael! My dagger is in my belt, and with the guid broadsword at my side I can with one blow cut a man in twain! My bow is cut from the wood of the yews of Glenure; the shaft is from the wood of Lochetive, the feathers from the great golden eagles of Locktreigside! My arrowhead was made by the smiths of the race of Macphedran! Come on, Macduff!'
And now a shopkeeper has filled his window with royal Stuart tartans, and I am instantly a Jacobite.
`The Highland clans wi' sword in hand, Frae John o' Groat's to Airly, Hae to a man declar'd to stand Or fa' wi' Royal Charlie. `Come through the heather, around him gather, Come Ronald, come Donald, come a'thegither, And crown your rightfu' lawfu' king, For wha'll be king but Charlie?'
It is the eve of the battle of Prestonpans. Is it not under the Rock of Dunsappie on yonder Arthur's Seat that our Highland army will encamp to-night? At dusk the prince will hold a council of his chiefs and nobles (I am a chief and a noble), and at daybreak we shall march through the old hedgerows and woods of Duddingston, pipes playing and colours flying, bonnie Charlie at the head, his claymore drawn and the scabbard flung away! (I mean awa'!)--
`Then here's a health to Charlie's cause, And be't complete an' early; His very name my heart's blood warms To arms for Royal Charlie! `Come through the heather, around him gather, Come Ronald, come Donald, come a'thegither, And crown your rightfu', lawfu' king, For wha'll be king but Charlie?'
I hope that those in authority will never attempt to convene a Peace Congress in Edinburgh, lest the influence of the Castle be too strong for the delegates. They could not resist it nor turn their backs upon it, since, unlike other ancient fortresses, it is but a stone's-throw from the front windows of all the hotels. They might mean never so well, but they would end by buying dirk hat-pins and claymore brooches for their wives, their daughters would all run after the kilted regiment and marry as many of the pipers as asked them, and before night they would all be shouting with the noble FitzEustace--
`Where's the coward who would not dare To fight for such a land?'
While I was rhapsodising, Salemina and Francesca were shopping in the Arcade, buying some of the cairngorms, and Tam O'Shanter purses, and models of Burns's cottage, and copies of Marmion in plaided covers, and thistle belt-buckles, and bluebell penwipers, with which we afterwards inundated our native land. When my warlike mood had passed, I sat down upon the steps of the Scott monument and watched the passers-by in a sort of waking dream. I suppose they were the usual professors and doctors and ministers who are wont to walk up and down the Edinburgh streets, with a sprinkling of lairds and leddies of high degree and a few Americans looking at the shop windows to choose their clan tartans; but for me they did not exist. In their places stalked the ghosts of kings and queens and knights and nobles; Columba, Abbot of Iona; Queen Margaret and Malcolm--she the sweetest saint in all the throng; King David riding towards Drumsheugh forest on Holy Rood day, with his horns and hounds and huntsmen following close behind; Anne of Denmark and Jingling Geordie; Mary Stuart in all her girlish beauty, with the four Maries in her train; and lurking behind, Bothwell, `that ower sune stepfaither,' and the murdered Rizzio and Darnley; John Knox, in his black Geneva cloak; Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald; lovely Annabella Drummond; Robert the Bruce; George Heriot with a banner bearing on it the words `I distribute chearfully'; James I. carrying The King's Quair; Oliver Cromwell; and a long line of heroes, martyrs, humble saints, and princely knaves.
Behind them, regardless of precedence, came the Ploughman Poet and the Ettrick Shepherd, Boswell and Dr.Johnson, Dr.John Brown and Thomas Carlyle, Lady Nairne and Drummond of Hawthornden, Allan Ramsay and Sir Walter; and is it not a proof of the Wizard's magic art, that side by side with the wraiths of these real people walked, or seemed to walk, the Fair Maid of Perth, Jeanie Deans, Meg Merrilies, Guy Mannering, Ellen, Marmion, and a host of others so sweetly familiar and so humanly dear that the very street-laddies could have named and greeted them as they passed by?