Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XVIII. Limavady love-letters.
'As beautiful Kitty one morning was tripping With a pitcher of milk from the fair of Coleraine, When she saw me she stumbled, the pitcher it tumbled, And all the sweet buttermilk watered the plain.' Anonymous.
We wanted to cross to Rathlin Island, which is 'like an Irish stockinge, the toe of which pointeth to the main lande.' That would bring Francesca six miles nearer to Scotland and her Scottish lover; and we wished to see the castle of Robert the Bruce, where, according to the legend, he learned his lesson from the 'six times baffled spider.' We delayed too long, however, and the Sea of Moyle looked as bleak and stormy as it did to the children of Lir. We had no mind to be swallowed up in Brecain's Caldron, where the grandson of Niall and the Nine Hostages sank with his fifty curraghs, so we took a day of golf at the Ballycastle links. Salemina, who is a neophyte, found a forlorn lady driving and putting about by herself, and they made a match just to increase the interest of the game. There was but one boy in evidence, and the versatile Benella offered to caddie for them, leaving the more experienced gossoon to Francesca and me. The Irish caddie does not, on the whole, perhaps manifest so keen an interest in the fine points of the game as his Scottish brother. He is somewhat languid in his search for a ball, and will occasionally, when serving amiable ladies, sit under a tree in the sun and speculate as to its whereabouts. As for staying by you while you 'hole out' on your last green, he has no possible interest in that proceeding, and is off and away, giving his perfunctory and half-hearted polish to your clubs while you are passing through this thrilling crisis. Salemina, wishing to know what was considered a good score by local players on these links, asked our young friend 'what they got round in, here,' and was answered, 'They tries to go round in as few as possible, ma'am, but they mostly takes more!' We all came together again at luncheon, and Salemina returned flushed with victory. She had made the nine hole course in one hundred and sixty, and had beaten her adversary five up and four to play.
The next morning, bright and early, we left for Coleraine, a great Presbyterian stronghold in what is called by the Roman Catholics the 'black north.' If we liked it, and saw anything of Kitty's descendants, or any nice pitchers to break, or any reason for breaking them, we intended to stop; if not, then to push on to the walled town of Derry,-
'Where Foyle his swelling waters Rolls northward to the main.'
We thought it Francesca's duty, as she was to be the wife of a Scottish minister of the Established Church, to look up Presbyterianism in Ireland whenever and wherever possible, with a view to discoursing learnedly about it in her letters,--though, as she confesses ingenuously, Ronald, in his, never so much as mentions Presbyterianism. As for ourselves, we determined to observe all theological differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics, but leave Presbyterianism to gang its ain gait. We had devoted hours-- yes, days--in Edinburgh to the understanding of the subtle and technical barriers which separated the Free Kirkers and the United Presbyterians; and the first thing they did, after we had completely mastered the subject, was to unite. It is all very well for Salemina, who condenses her information and stows it away neatly; but we who have small storage room and inferior methods of packing must be as economical as possible in amassing facts.
If we had been touring properly, of course we should have been going to the Giant's Causeway and the swinging Bridge at Carrick-a-rede; but propriety is the last thing we aim at in our itineraries. We were within worshipping distance of two rather important shrines in our literary pilgrimage; for we had met a very knowledgeable traveller at the Sorley Boy, and after a little chat with him had planned a day of surprises for the academic Miss Peabody. We proposed to halt at Port Stewart, lunch at Coleraine, sleep at Limavady; and meantime Salemina was to read all the books at her command, and guess, we hoped vainly, the why and wherefore of these stops.
On the appointed day, the lady in question drove in state on a car with Benella, but Francesca and I hired a couple of very wheezy bicycles for the journey. We had a thrilling start; for it chanced to be a fair day in Ballycastle, and we wheeled through a sea of squealing, bolting pigs, stupid sheep, and unruly cows, all pursued on every side by their drivers. To alight from a bicycle in such a whirl of beasts always seems certain death; to remain seated diminishes, I believe, the number of one's days of life to an appreciable extent. Francesca chose the first course, and, standing still in the middle of the street, called upon everybody within hearing to save her, and that right speedily. A crowd of 'jibbing' heifers encircled her on all sides, while a fat porker, 'who (his driver said) might be a prize pig by his impidence,' and a donkey that was feelin' blue-mouldy for want of a batin', tried to poke their noses into the group. Salemina's only weapon was her scarlet parasol, and, standing on the step of her side-car, she brandished this with such terrible effect that the only bull in the cavalcade put up his head and roared. "Have conduct, woman dear!" cried his owner to Salemina. "Sure if you kape on moidherin' him wid that ombrelly, you'll have him ugly on me immajently, and the divil a bit o' me can stop him." "Don't be cryin' that way, asthore," he went on, going to Francesca's side, and piloting her tenderly to the hedge. "Sure I'll nourish him wid the whip whin I get him to a more remoted place."
We had no more adventures, but Francesca was so unhinged by her unfortunate exit from Ballycastle that, after a few miles, she announced her intention of putting her machine and herself on the car; whereupon Benella proclaimed herself a competent cyclist, and climbed down blithely to mount the discarded wheel. Her ideas of propriety were by this time so developed that she rode ten or twelve feet behind me, where she looked quaint enough, in her black dress and little black bonnet with its white lawn strings.
"Sure it's a quare footman ye have, me lady," said a genial and friendly person who was sitting by the roadside smoking his old dudeen. An Irishman, somehow, is always going to his work 'jist,' or coming from it, or thinking how it shall presently be done, or meditating on the next step in the process, or resting a bit before taking it up again, or reflecting whether the weather is on the whole favourable to its proper performance; but however poor and needy he may be, it is somewhat difficult to catch him at the precise working moment. Mr. Alfred Austin says of the Irish peasants that idleness and poverty seem natural to them. "Life to the Scotsman or Englishman is a business to conduct, to extend, to render profitable. To the Irishman it is a dream, a little bit of passing consciousness on a rather hard pillow; the hard part of it being the occasional necessity for work, which spoils the tenderness and continuity of the dream."
Presently we passed the Castle, rode along a neat quay with a row of houses advertising lodgings to let; and here is Lever Cottage, where Harry Lorrequer was written; for Lever was dispensary doctor in Port Stewart when his first book was appearing in the Dublin University Magazine.
We did not fancy Coleraine; it looked like anything but Cuil- rathain, a ferny corner. Kitty's sweet buttermilk may have watered, but it had not fertilised the plain, though the town itself seemed painfully prosperous. Neither the Clothworkers' Inn nor the Corporation Arms looked a pleasant stopping-place, and the humble inn we finally selected for a brief rest proved to be about as gay as a family vault, with a landlady who had all the characteristics of a poker except its occasional warmth, as the Liberator said of another stiff and formal person. Whether she was Scot or Saxon I know not; she was certainly not Celt, and certainly no Barney McCrea of her day would have kissed her if she had spilled ever so many pitchers of sweet buttermilk over the plain; so we took the railway, and departed with delight for Limavady, where Thackeray, fresh from his visit to Charles Lever, laid his poetical tribute at the stockingless feet of Miss Margaret of that town.
O'Cahan, whose chief seat was at Limavady, was the principal urraght of O'Neill, and when one of the great clan was 'proclaimed' at Tullaghogue it was the magnificent privilege of the O'Cahan to toss a shoe over his head. We slept at O'Cahan's Hotel, and--well, one must sleep; and wherever we attend to that necessary function without due preparation, we generally make a mistake in the selection of the particular spot. Protestantism does not necessarily mean cleanliness, although it may have natural tendencies in that direction; and we find, to our surprise ( a surprise rooted, probably, in bigotry), that Catholicism can be as clean as a penny whistle, now and again. There were no special privileges at O'Cahan's for maids, and Benella, therefore, had a delightful evening in the coffee-room with a storm-bound commercial traveller. As for Francesca and me, there was plenty to occupy us in our regular letters to Ronald and Himself; and Salemina wrote several sheets of thin paper to somebody,--no one in America, either, for we saw her put on a penny stamp.
Our pleasant duties over, we looked into the cheerful glow of the turf sods while I read aloud Thackeray's Peg of Limavady. He spells the town with two d's, by the way, to insure its being rhymed properly with Paddy and daddy.
'Riding from Coleraine (Famed for lovely Kitty), Came a Cockney bound Unto Derry city; Weary was his soul, Shivering and sad he Bumped along the road Leads to Limavaddy. . . . . Limavaddy inn's But a humble baithouse, Where you may procure Whisky and potatoes; Landlord at the door Gives a smiling welcome To the shivering wights Who to his hotel come. Landlady within Sits and knits a stocking, With a wary foot Baby's cradle rocking. . . . . Presently a maid Enters with the liquor (Half a pint of ale Frothing in a beaker). Gads! I didn't know What my beating heart meant: Hebe's self I thought Entered the apartment. As she came she smiled, And the smile bewitching, On my word and honour, Lighted all the kitchen! . . . . This I do declare, Happy is the laddy Who the heart can share Of Peg of Limavaddy. Married if she were, Blest would be the daddy Of the children fair Of Peg of Limavaddy. Beauty is not rare In the land of Paddy, Fair beyond compare Is Peg of Limavaddy.'
This cheered us a bit; but the wind sighed in the trees, the rain dripped on the window panes, and we felt for the first time a consciousness of home-longing. Francesca sat on a low stool, looking into the fire, Ronald's last letter in her lap, and it was easy indeed to see that her heart was in the Highlands. She has been giving us a few extracts from the communication, an unusual proceeding, as Ronald, in his ordinary correspondence, is evidently not a quotable person. We smiled over his account of a visit to his old parish of Inchcaldy in Fifeshire. There is a certain large orphanage in the vicinity, in which we had all taken an interest, chiefly because our friends the Macraes of Pettybaw House were among its guardians.
It seems that Lady Rowardennan of the Castle had promised the orphans, en bloc, that those who passed through an entire year without once falling into falsehood should have a treat or festival of their own choosing. On the eventful day of decision, those orphans, male and female, who had not for a twelve-month deviated from the truth by a hair's-breadth, raised their little white hands (emblematic of their pure hearts and lips), and were solemnly counted. Then came the unhappy moment when a scattering of small grimy paws was timidly put up, and their falsifying owners confessed that they had fibbed more than once during the year. These tearful fibbers were also counted, and sent from the room, while the non- fibbers chose their reward, which was to sail around the Bass Rock and the Isle of May in a steam tug.
On the festival day, the matron of the orphanage chanced on the happy thought that it might have a moral effect on the said fibbers to see the non-fibbers depart in a blaze of glory; so they were taken to the beach to watch the tug start on its voyage. The confessed criminals looked wretched enough, Ronald wrote, when forsaken by their virtuous playmates, who stepped jauntily on board, holding their sailor hats on their heads and carrying nice little luncheon baskets; so miserably unhappy, indeed, did they seem that certain sympathetic and ill-balanced persons sprang to their relief, providing them with sandwiches, sweeties, and pennies. It was a lovely day, and when the fibbers' tears were dried they played merrily on the sand, their games directed and shared by the aforesaid misguided persons.
Meantime a high wind had sprung up at sea, and the tug was tossed to and fro upon the foamy deep. So many and so varied were the ills of the righteous orphans that the matron could not attend to all of them properly, and they were laid on benches or on the deck, where they languidly declined luncheon, and wept for a sight of the land. At five the tug steamed up to the home landing. A few of the voyagers were able to walk ashore, some were assisted, others were carried; and as the pale, haggard, truthful company gathered on the beach, they were met by a boisterous, happy crowd of Ananiases and Sapphiras, sunburned, warm, full of tea and cakes and high spirits, and with the moral law already so uncertain in their minds that at the sight of the suffering non-liars it tottered to its fall.
Ronald hopes that Lady Rowardennan and the matron may perhaps have gained some useful experience by the incident, though the orphans, truthful and untruthful, are hopelessly mixed in their views of right-doing.
He is staying now at the great house of the neighbourhood, while his new manse is being put in order. Roderick, the piper, he says, has a grand collection of pipe tunes given him by an officer of the Black Watch. Francesca, when she and Ronald visit the Castle on their wedding journey, is to have 'Johnnie Cope' to wake her in the morning, 'Brose and Butter' just before dinner is served, a reel, a strathspey, and a march while the meal is going on, and, last of all, the 'Highland Wedding.' Ronald does not know whether there are any Lowland Scots or English words to this pipe tune, but it is always played in the Highlands after the actual marriage, and the words in Gaelic are, 'Alas for me if the wife I have married is not a good one, for she will eat the food and not do the work!'
"You don't think Ronald meant anything personal in quoting that?" I asked Francesca teasingly; but she shot me such a reproachful look that I hadn't the heart to persist, her face was so full of self- distrust and love and longing.
What creatures of sense we are, after all; and in certain moods, of what avail is it if the beloved object is alive, safe, loyal, so long as he is absent? He may write letters like Horace Walpole or Chesterfield--better still, like Alfred de Musset, or George Sand, or the Brownings; but one clasp of the hand that moved the pen is worth an ocean of words! You believe only in the etherealised, the spiritualised passion of love; you know that it can exist through years of separation, can live and grow where a coarser feeling would die for lack of nourishment; still though your spirit should be strong enough to meet its spirit mate somewhere in the realms of imagination, and the bodily presence ought not really to be necessary, your stubborn heart of flesh craves sight and sound and touch. That is the only pitiless part of death, it seems to me. We have had the friendship, the love, the sympathy, and these are things that can never die; they have made us what we are, and they are by their very nature immortal; yet we would come near to bartering all these spiritual possessions for the 'touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still.'
How could I ever think life easy enough to be ventured on alone! It is so beautiful to feel oneself of infinite value to one other human creature; to hear beside one's own step the tread of a chosen companion on the same road. And if the way be dusty or the hills difficult to climb, each can say to the other, 'I love you, dear; lean on me and walk in confidence. I can always be counted on, whatever happens.'