Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter X. The belles of Shandon.
'The spreading Lee that, like an Island fayre, Encloseth Corke with his divided floode.' Edmund Spenser.
We had seen all that Youghal could offer to the tourist; we were yearning for Salemina; we wanted to hear Benella talk about 'the science'; we were eager to inspect the archaeologist, to see if he 'would do' for Salemina instead of the canon, or even the minor canon, of the English Church, for whom we had always privately destined her. Accordingly we decided to go by an earlier train, and give our family a pleasant surprise. It was five o'clock in the afternoon when our car trundled across St. Patrick's Bridge, past Father Mathew's statue, and within view of the church and bells of Shandon, that sound so grand on the pleasant waters of the river Lee. Away to the west is the two-armed river. Along its banks rise hills, green and well wooded, with beautiful gardens and verdant pastures reaching to the very brink of the shining stream.
It was Saturday afternoon, and I never drove through a livelier, quainter, more easy-going town. The streets were full of people selling various things and plying various trades, and among them we saw many a girl pretty enough to recall Thackeray's admiration of the Corkagian beauties of his day. There was one in particular, driving a donkey in a straw-coloured governess cart, to whose graceful charm we succumbed on the instant. There was an exquisite deluderin' wildness about her, a vivacity, a length of eyelash with a gleam of Irish grey eye, 'the greyest of all things blue, the bluest of all things grey,' that might well have inspired the English poet to write of her as he did of his own Irish wife; for Spenser, when he was not writing the Faerie Queene, or smoking Raleigh's fragrant weed, wooed and wedded a fair colleen of County Cork.
'Tell me, ye merchant daughters, did ye see So fayre a creature in your town before? Her goodlie eyes, like sapphyres shining bright; Her forehead, ivory white; Her lips like cherries, charming men to byte.'
Now we turned into the old Mardyke Walk, a rus in urbe, an avenue a mile long lined with noble elm-trees; forsaken now as a fashionable promenade for the Marina, but still beautiful and still beloved, though frequented chiefly by nurse-maids and children. Such babies and such children, of all classes and conditions--so jolly, smiling, dimpled, curly-headed; such joyous disregard of rags and dirt; such kindness one to the other in the little groups, where a child of ten would be giving an anxious eye to four or five brothers and sisters, and mothering a contented baby in arms as well.
Our driver, though very loquacious, was not quite intelligible. He pronounced the simple phrase 'St. Patrick's Street' in a way to astonish the traveller; it would seem impossible to crowd as many h's into three words, and to wrap each in flannel, as he succeeded in doing. He seemed pleased with our admiration of the babies, and said that Irish children did be very fat and strong and hearty; that they were the very best soldiers the Queen had, God kape her! They could stand anny hardship and anny climate, for they were not brought up soft, like the English. He also said that, fine as all Irish children undoubtedly were, Cork produced the flower of them all, and the finest women and the finest men; backing his opinion with an Homeric vaunt which Francesca took down on the spot:-
'I'd back one man from Corkshire To bate ten more from Yorkshire: Kerrymen Agin Derrymen, And Munster agin creation, Wirrasthrue! 'tis a pity we aren't a nation!'
Here he slackened his pace as we passed a small bosthoon driving a donkey, to call out facetiously, "Be good to your little brother, achree!"
"We must be very near Coolkilla House by this time," said Francesca. "That isn't Salemina sitting on the bench under the trees, is it? There is a gentleman with her, and she never wears a wide hat, but it looks like her red umbrella. No, of course it isn't, for whoever it is belongs to that maid with the two children. Penelope, it is borne in upon me that we shouldn't have come here unannounced, three hours ahead of the time arranged. Perhaps, whenever we had chosen to come, it would have been too soon. Wouldn't it be exciting to have to keep out of Salemina's way, as she has always done for us? I couldn't endure it; it would make me homesick for Ronald. Go slowly, driver, please."
Nevertheless, as we drew nearer we saw that it was Salemina; or at least it was seven-eighths of her, and one-eighth of a new person with whom we were not acquainted. She rose to meet us with an exclamation of astonishment, and after a hasty and affectionate greeting, presented Dr. La Touche. He said a few courteous words, and to our relief made no allusions to round towers, duns, raths, or other antiquities, and bade us adieu, saying that he should have the honour of waiting upon us that evening with our permission.
A person in a neat black dress and little black bonnet with white lawn strings now brought up the two children to say good-bye to Salemina. It was the Derelict, Benella Dusenberry, clothed in maid's apparel, and looking, notwithstanding that disguise, like a New England schoolma'am. She was delighted to see us, scanned every detail of Francesca's travelling costume with the frankest admiration, and would have allowed us to carry our wraps and umbrellas upstairs if she had not been reminded by Salemina. We had a cosy cup of tea together, and told our various adventures, but Salemina was not especially communicative about hers. Oddly enough, she had met the La Touche children at the hotel in Mallow. They were travelling with a very raw Irish nurse, who had no control of them whatever. They shrieked and kicked when taken to their rooms at night, until Salemina was obliged to speak to them, in order that Benella's rest should not be disturbed.
"I felt so sorry for them," she said--"the dear little girl put to bed with tangled hair and unwashed face, the boy in a rumpled, untidy nightgown, the bedclothes in confusion. I didn't know who they were nor where they came from, but while the nurse was getting her supper I made them comfortable, and Broona went to sleep with my strange hand in hers. Perhaps it was only the warm Irish heart, the easy friendliness of the Irish temperament, but I felt as if the poor little things must be neglected indeed, or they would not have clung to a woman whom they had never seen before." (This is a mistake; anybody who has the opportunity always clings to Salemina.) "The next morning they were up at daylight, romping in the hall, stamping, thumping, clattering, with a tin cart on wheels rattling behind them. I know it was not my affair, and I was guilty of unpardonable rudeness, but I called the nurse into my room and spoke to her severely. No, you needn't smile; I was severe. 'Will you kindly do your duty, and keep the children quiet as they pass through the halls?' I said. 'It is never too soon to teach them to obey the rules of a public place, and to be considerate of older people.' She seemed awestruck. But when she found her tongue she stammered, 'Sure, ma'am, I've tould thim three times this day already that when their father comes he'll bate thim with a blackthorn stick!'
"Naturally I was horrified. This, I thought, would explain everything: no mother, and an irritable, cruel father.
"'Will he really do such a thing?' I asked, feeling as if I must know the truth.
"'Sure he will not, ma'am!' she answered cheerfully. 'He wouldn't lift a feather to thim, not if they murdthered the whole counthryside, ma'am.'
"Well, they travelled third class to Cork, and we came first, so we did not meet, and I did not ask their surnames; but it seems that they were being brought to their father, whom I met many years ago in America."
As she did not volunteer any further information, we did not like to ask her where, how many years ago, or under what circumstances. 'Teasing' of this sort does not appeal to the sophisticated at any time, but it seems unspeakably vulgar to touch on matters of sentiment with a woman of middle age. If she has memories, they are sure to be sad and sacred ones; if she has not, that perhaps is still sadder. We agreed, however, when the evening was over, that Dr. La Touche was probably the love of her youth--unless, indeed, he was simply an old friend, and the degree of Salemina's attachment had been exaggerated; something that is very likely to happen in the gossip of a New England town, where they always incline to underestimate the feeling of the man, and overrate that of the woman, in any love affair. 'I guess she'd take him if she could get him' is the spoken or unspoken attitude of the public in rural or provincial New England.
The professor is grave, but very genial when he fully recalls the fact that he is in company, and has not, like the Trappist monks, taken vows of silence. Francesca behaved beautifully, on the whole, and made no embarrassing speeches, although she was in her gayest humour. Salemina blushed a little when the young sinner dragged into the conversation the remark that, undoubtedly, from the beginning of the sixth century to the end of the eighth, Ireland was the University of Europe, just as Greece was in the late days of the Roman Republic, and asked our guest when Ireland ceased to be known as 'Insula sanctorum et doctorum,' the island of saints and scholars.
We had seen her go into Salemina's bedroom, and knew perfectly well that she had consulted the Peabody notebook, lying open on the desk; but the professor looked as surprised as if he had heard a pretty paroquet quote Gibbon. I don't like to see grave and reverend scholars stare at pretty paroquets, but I won't belittle Salemina's exquisite and peculiar charm by worrying over the matter.
'Wirra, wirra! Ologone! Can't ye lave a lad alone, Till he's proved there's no tradition left of any other girl-- Not even Trojan Helen, In beauty all excellin'-- Who's been up to half the divilment of Fan Fitzgerl?'
Of course Francesca's heart is fixed upon Ronald Macdonald, but that fact has not altered the glance of her eyes. They no longer say, 'Wouldn't you like to fall in love with me, if you dared?' but they still have a gleam that means, 'Don't fall in love with me; it is no use!' And of the two, one is about as dangerous as the other, and each has something of 'Fan Fitzgerl's divilment.
'Wid her brows of silky black Arched above for the attack, Her eyes they dart such azure death on poor admiring man; Masther Cupid, point your arrows, From this out, agin the sparrows, For you're bested at Love's archery by young Miss Fan.'
Of course Himself never fell a prey to Francesca's fascinations, but then he is not susceptible; you could send him off for a ten-mile drive in the moonlight with Venus herself, and not be in the least anxious.
Dr. La Touche is grey for his years, tall and spare in frame, and there are many lines of anxiety or thought in his forehead; but a wonderful smile occasionally smooths them all out, and gives his face a rare though transient radiance. He looks to me as if he had loved too many books and too few people; as if he had tried vainly to fill his heart and life with antiquities, which of all things, perhaps, are the most bloodless, the least warming and nourishing when taken in excess or as a steady diet. Himself (God bless him!) shall never have that patient look, if I can help it; but how it will appeal to Salemina! There are women who are born to be petted and served, and there are those who seem born to serve others. Salemina's first idea is always to make tangled things smooth (like little Broona's curly hair); to bring sweet and discreet order out of chaos; to prune and graft and water and weed and tend things, until they blossom for very shame under her healing touch. Her mind is catholic, well ordered, and broad,--for ever full of other people's interests, never of her own: and her heart always seems to me like some dim, sweet-scented guest-chamber in an old New England mansion, cool and clean and quiet, and fragrant of lavender. It has been a lovely, generous life, lived for the most part in the shadow of other people's wishes and plans and desires. I am an impatient person, I confess, and heaven seems so far away when certain things are in question: the righting of a child's wrong, or the demolition of a barrier between two hearts; above all, for certain surgical operations, more or less spiritual, such as removing scales from eyes that refuse to see, and stops from ears too dull to hear. Nobody shall have our Salemina unless he is worthy, but how I should like to see her life enriched and crowned! How I should enjoy having her dear little overworn second fiddle taken from her by main force, and a beautiful first violin, or even the baton for leading an orchestra, put into her unselfish hands!
And so good-bye and 'good luck to ye, Cork, and your pepper-box steeple,' for we leave you to-morrow!