Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XV. Penelope weaves a web.
'Why the shovel and tongs To each other belongs, And the kettle sings songs Full of family glee, While alone with your cup, Like a hermit you sup, Och hone, Widow Machree.' Samuel Lover.
Francesca and I were gloomy enough, as we drove along facing each other in Ballyfuchsia's one 'inside-car'--a strange and fearsome vehicle, partaking of the nature of a broken-down omnibus, a hearse, and an overgrown black beetle. It holds four, or at a squeeze six, the seats being placed from stem to stern lengthwise, and the balance being so delicate that the passengers, when going uphill, are shaken into a heap at the door, which is represented by a ragged leather flap. I have often seen it strew the hard highroad with passengers, as it jolts up the steep incline that leads to Ardnagreena, and the 'fares' who succeed in staying in always sit in one another's laps a good part of the way--a method pleasing only to relatives or intimate friends. Francesca and I agreed to tell the real reason of Salemina's absence. "It is Ireland's fault, and I will not have America blamed for it," she insisted; "but it is so embarrassing to be going to the dinner ourselves, and leaving behind the most important personage. Think of Dr. La Touche's disappointment, think of Salemina's; and they'll never understand why she couldn't have come in a dressing jacket. I shall advise her to discharge Benella after this episode, for no one can tell the effect it may have upon all our future lives, even those of the doctor's two poor motherless children."
It is a four-mile drive to Balkilly Castle, and when we arrived there we were so shaken that we had to retire to a dressing-room for repairs. Then came the dreaded moment when we entered the great hall and advanced to meet Lady Killbally, who looked over our heads to greet the missing Salemina. Francesca's beauty, my supposed genius, both fell flat; it was Salemina whose presence was especially desired. The company was assembled, save for one guest still more tardy than ourselves, and we had a moment or two to tell our story as sympathetically as possible. It had an uncommonly good reception, and, coupled with the Irish letter I read at dessert, carried the dinner along on a basis of such laughter and good- fellowship that finally there was no place for regret save in the hearts of those who knew and loved Salemina--poor Salemina, spending her dull, lonely evening in our rooms, and later on in her own uneventful bed, if indeed she had been lucky enough to gain access to that bed. I had hoped Lady Killbally would put one of us beside Dr. La Touche, so that we might at least keep Salemina's memory green by tactful conversation; but it was too large a company to rearrange, and he had to sit by an empty chair, which perhaps was just as salutary, after all. The dinner was very smart, and the company interesting and clever, but my thoughts were elsewhere. As there were fewer squires than dames at the feast, Lady Killbally kindly took me on her left, with a view to better acquaintance, and I was heartily glad of a possible chance to hear something of Dr. La Touche's earlier life. In our previous interviews, Salemina's presence had always precluded the possibility of leading the conversation in the wished-for direction.
When I first saw Gerald La Touche I felt that he required explanation. Usually speaking, a human being ought to be able, in an evening's conversation, to explain himself, without any adventitious aid. If he is a man, alive, vigorous, well poised, conscious of his own individuality, he shows you, without any effort, as much of his past as you need to form your impression, and as much of his future as you have intuition to read. As opposed to the vigorous personality, there is the colourless, flavourless, insubstantial sort, forgotten as soon as learned, and for ever confused with that of the previous or the next comer. When I was a beginner in portrait-painting, I remember that, after I had succeeded in making my background stay back where it belonged, my figure sometimes had a way of clinging to it in a kind of smudgy weakness, as if it were afraid to come out like a man and stand the inspection of my eye. How often have I squandered paint upon the ungrateful object without adding a cubit to its stature! It refused to look like flesh and blood, but resembled rather some half-made creature flung on the passive canvas in a liquid state, with its edges running over into the background. There are a good many of these people in literature, too,--heroes who, like home-made paper dolls, do not stand up well; or if they manage to perform that feat, one unexpectedly discovers, when they are placed in a strong light, that they have no vital organs whatever, and can be seen through without the slightest difficulty. Dr. La Touche does not belong to either of these two classes: he is not warm, magnetic, powerful, impressive: neither is he by any means destitute of vital organs; but his personality is blurred in some way. He seems a bit remote, absentminded, and a trifle, just a trifle, over-resigned. Privately, I think a man can afford to be resigned only to one thing, and that is the will of God; against all other odds I prefer to see him fight till the last armed foe expires. Dr. La Touche is devotedly attached to his children, but quite helpless in their hands; so that he never looks at them with pleasure or comfort or pride, but always with an anxiety as to what they may do next. I understand him better now that I know the circumstances of which he has been the product. (Of course one is always a product of circumstances, unless one can manage to be superior to them.) His wife, the daughter of an American consul in Ireland, was a charming but somewhat feather-brained person, rather given to whims and caprices; very pretty, very young, very much spoiled, very attractive, very undisciplined. All went well enough with them until her father was recalled to America, because of some change in political administration. The young Mrs. La Touche seemed to have no resources apart from her family, and even her baby 'Jackeen' failed to absorb her as might have been expected.
"We thought her a most trying woman at this time," said Lady Killbally. "She seemed to have no thought of her husband's interests, and none of the responsibilities that she had assumed in marrying him; her only idea of life appeared to be amusement and variety and gaiety. Gerald was a student, and always very grave and serious; the kind of man who invariably marries a butterfly, if he can find one to make him miserable. He was exceedingly patient; but after the birth of little Broona, Adeline became so homesick and depressed and discontented that, although the journey was almost an impossibility at the time, Gerald took her back to her people, and left her with them, while he returned to his duties at Trinity College. Their life, I suppose, had been very unhappy for a year or two before this, and when he came home to Dublin without his children, he looked a sad and broken man. He was absolutely faithful to his ideals, I am glad to say, and never wavered in his allegiance to his wife, however disappointed he may have been in her; going over regularly to spend his long vacations in America, although she never seemed to wish to see him. At last she fell into a state of hopeless melancholia; and it was rather a relief to us all to feel that we had judged her too severely, and that her unreasonableness and her extraordinary caprices had been born of mental disorder more than of moral obliquity. Gerald gave up everything to nurse her and rouse her from her apathy; but she faded away without ever once coming back to a more normal self, and that was the end of it all. Gerald's father had died meanwhile, and he had fallen heir to the property and the estates. They were very much encumbered, but he is gradually getting affairs into a less chaotic state; and while his fortune would seem a small one to you extravagant Americans, he is what we Irish paupers would call well to do."
Lady Killbally was suspiciously willing to give me all this information,--so much so that I ventured to ask about the children.
"They are captivating, neglected little things," she said. "Madame La Touche, an aged aunt, has the ostensible charge of them, and she is a most easy-going person. The servants are of the 'old family' sort, the reckless, improvident, untidy, devoted, quarrelsome creatures that always stand by the ruined Irish gentry in all their misfortunes, and generally make their life a burden to them at the same time. Gerald is a saint, and therefore never complains."
"It never seems to me that saints are altogether adapted to positions like these," I sighed; "sinners would do ever so much better. I should like to see Dr. La Touche take off his halo, lay it carefully on the bureau, and wield a battle-axe. The world will never acknowledge his merit; it will even forget him presently, and his life will have been given up to the evolution of the passive virtues. Do you suppose he will recognise the tender passion if it ever does bud in his breast, or will he think it a weed, instead of a flower, and let it wither for want of attention?"
"I think his friends will have to enhance his self-respect, or he will for ever be too modest to declare himself," said Lady Killbally. "Perhaps you can help us: he is probably going to America this winter to lecture at some of your universities, and he may stay there for a year or two, so he says. At any rate, if the right woman ever appears on the scene, I hope she will have the instinct to admire and love and reverence him as we do," and here she smiled directly into my eyes, and slipping her pretty hand under the tablecloth squeezed mine in a manner that spoke volumes.
It is not easy to explain one's desire to marry off all the unmarried persons in one's vicinity. When I look steadfastly at any group of people, large or small, they usually segregate themselves into twos under my prophetic eye. It they are nice and attractive, I am pleased to see them mated; if they are horrid and disagreeable, I like to think of them as improving under the discipline of matrimony. It is joy to see beauty meet a kindling eye, but I am more delighted still to watch a man fall under the glamour of a plain, dull girl, and it is ecstasy for me to see a perfectly unattractive, stupid woman snapped up at last, when I have given up hopes of settling her in life. Sometimes there are men so uninspiring that I cannot converse with them a single moment without yawning; but though failures in all other relations, one can conceive of their being tolerably useful as husbands and fathers; not for one's self, you understand, but for one's neighbours.
Dr. La Touche's life now, to any understanding eye, is as incomplete as the unfinished window in Aladdin's tower. He is too wrinkled, too studious, too quiet, too patient for his years. His children need a mother, his old family servants need discipline, his baronial halls need sweeping and cleaning (I haven't seen them, but I know they do!), and his aged aunt needs advice and guidance. On the other hand, there are those (I speak guardedly) who have walked in shady, sequestered paths all their lives, looking at hundreds of happy lovers on the sunny highroad, but never joining them; those who adore erudition, who love children, who have a genius for unselfish devotion, who are sweet and refined and clever, and who look perfectly lovely when they put on grey satin and leave off eyeglasses. They say they are over forty, and although this probably is exaggeration, they may be thirty-nine and three- quarters; and if so, the time is limited in which to find for them a worthy mate, since half of the masculine population is looking for itself, and always in the wrong quarter, needing no assistance to discover rose-cheeked idiots of nineteen, whose obvious charms draw thousands to a dull and uneventful fate.
These thoughts were running idly through my mind while the Honourable Michael McGillicuddy was discoursing to me of Mr. Gladstone's misunderstanding of Irish questions,--a misunderstanding, he said, so colossal, so temperamental, and so all-embracing, that it amounted to genius. I was so anxious to return to Salemina that I wished I had ordered the car at ten thirty instead of eleven; but I made up my mind, as we ladies went to the drawing-room for coffee, that I would seize the first favourable opportunity to explore the secret chambers of Dr. La Touche's being. I love to rummage in out-of-the-way corners of people's brains and hearts if they will let me. I like to follow a courteous host through the public corridors of his house and come upon a little chamber closed to the casual visitor. If I have known him long enough I put my hand on the latch and smile inquiringly. He looks confused and conscious, but unlocks the door. Then I peep in, and often I see something that pleases and charms and touches me so much that it shows in my eyes when I lift them to his to say "Thank you." Sometimes, after that, my host gives me the key and says gravely "Pray come in whenever you like."
When Dr. La Touche offers me this hospitality I shall find out whether he knows anything of that lavender-scented guest-room in Salemina's heart. First, has he ever seen it? Second, has he ever stopped in it for any length of time? Third, was he sufficiently enamoured of it to occupy it on a long lease?