Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XXIII. Beams and motes.
'Mud cabins swarm in This place so charming, With sailor garments Hung out to dry; And each abode is Snug and commodious, With pigs melodious In their straw-built sty.' Father Prout.
'"Did the Irish elves ever explain themselves to you, Red Rose?"
'"I can't say that they did," said the English Elf. "You can't call it an explanation to say that a thing has always been that way, just: or that a thing would be a heap more bother any other way."'
The west of Ireland is depressing, but it is very beautiful; at least if your taste includes an appreciation of what is wild, magnificent, and sombre. Oppressed you must be, even if you are an artist, by its bleakness and its dreariness, its lonely lakes reflecting a dull, grey sky, its desolate boglands, its solitary chapels, its wretched cabins perched on hillsides that are very wildernesses of rocks. But for cloud effects, for wonderful shadows, for fantastic and unbelievable sunsets, when the mountains are violet, the lakes silver with red flashes, the islets gold and crimson and purple, and the whole cloudy west in a flame, it is unsurpassed; only your standard of beauty must not be a velvet lawn studded with copper beeches, or a primary-hued landscape bathed in American sunshine. Connemara is austere and gloomy under a dull sky, but it has the poetic charm that belongs to all mystery, and its bare cliffs and ridges are delicately pencilled on a violet background, in a way peculiar to itself and enchantingly lovely.
The waste of all God's gifts; the incredible poverty; the miserable huts, often without window or chimney; the sad-eyed women, sometimes nothing but 'skins, bones, and grief'; the wild, beautiful children, springing up like startled deer from behind piles of rocks or growths of underbrush; the stony little bits of earth which the peasants cling to with such passion, while good grasslands lie unused, yet seem for ever out of reach,--all this makes one dream, and wonder, and speculate, and hope against hope that the worst is over and a better day dawning. We passed within sight of a hill village without a single road to connect it with the outer world. The only supply of turf was on the mountain-top, and from thence it had to be brought, basket by basket, even in the snow. The only manure for such land is seaweed, and that must be carried from the shore to the tiny plats of sterile earth on the hillside. I remember it all, for I refused to buy a pair of stockings of a woman along the road. We had taken so many that my courage failed; but I saw her climbing the slopes patiently, wearily, a shawl over her white hair,--knitting, knitting, knitting, as she walked in the rain to her cabin somewhere behind the high hills. We never give to beggars in any case, but we buy whatever we can as we are able; and why did I draw the line at that particular pair of stockings, only to be haunted by that pathetic figure for the rest of my life? Beggars there are by the score, chiefly in the tourist districts; but it is only fair to add that there are hundreds of huts where it would be a dire insult to offer a penny for a glass of water, a sup of milk, or the shelter of a turf fire.
As we drive along the road, we see, if the umbrellas can be closed for a half-hour, flocks of sheep grazing on the tops of the hills, where it is sunnier, where food is better and flies less numerous. Crystal streams and waterfalls are pouring down the hillsides to lose themselves in one of Connemara's many bays, and we have a glimpse of osmunda fern, golden green and beautiful. It was under a branch of this Osmunda regalis that the Irish princess lay hidden, they say, till she had evaded her pursuers. The blue turf smoke rises here and there,--now from a cabin with house-leek growing on the crumbling thatch, now from one whose roof is held on by ropes and stones,--and there is always a turf bog, stacks and stacks of the cut blocks, a woman in a gown of dark-red flannel resting for a moment, with the empty creel beside her, and a man cutting in the distance. After climbing the long hill beyond the 'station' we are rewarded by a glimpse of more fertile fields; the clumps of ragwort and purple loosestrife are reinforced with kingcups and lilies growing near the wayside, and the rare sight, first of a pot of geraniums in the window, and then of a garden all aglow with red fuchsias, torch plants, and huge dahlias, so cheers Veritas that he takes heart again. "This is something like home!" he exclaims breezily; whereupon Mr. Shamrock murmurs that if people find nothing to admire in a foreign country save what resembles their own, he wonders that they take the trouble to be travelling.
"It is a darlin' year for the pitaties," the drivers says; and there are plenty of them planted hereabouts, even in stony spots not worth a keenogue for anything else, for "pitaties doesn't require anny inthricket farmin', you see, ma'am."
The clergyman remarks that only three things are required to make Ireland the most attractive country in the world: "Protestantism, cleanliness, and gardens"; and Mr. Shamrock, who is of course a Roman Catholic, answers this tactful speech in a way that surprises the speaker and keeps him silent for hours.
The Birmingham cutler, who has a copy of Ismay's Children in his pocket, triumphantly reads aloud, at this moment, a remark put into the mouth of an Irish character: "The low Irish are quite destitute of all notion of beauty,--have not the remotest particle of artistic sentiment or taste; their cabins are exactly as they were six hundred years ago, for they never want to improve themselves."
Then Mr. Shamrock asserts that any show of prosperity on a tenant's part would only mean an advance of rent on the landlord's; and Mr. Rose retorts that while that might have been true in former times, it is utterly false to-day.
Mrs. Shamrock, who is a natural apologist, pleads that the Irish gentry have the most beautiful gardens in the world and the greatest natural taste in gardening, and there must be some reason why the lower classes are so different in this respect. May it not be due partly to lack of ground, lack of money to spend on seeds and fertilisers, lack of all refining, civilising and educating influences? Mr. Shamrock adds that the dwellers in cabins cannot successfully train creepers against the walls or flowers in the dooryard, because of the goat, pig, donkey, ducks, hens, and chickens; and Veritas asks triumphantly, "Why don't you keep the pig in a sty, then?"
The man with the evergreen heart (who has already been told this morning that I am happily married, Francesca engaged, Salemina a determined celibate, but Benella quite at liberty) peeps under Salemina's umbrella at this juncture, and says tenderly, "And what do you think about these vexed questions, dear madam?" Which gives her a chance to reply with some distinctness, "I shall not know what I think for several months to come; and at any rate there are various things more needed on this coach than opinions."
At this the Frenchman murmurs, "Ah, she has right!" and the Birmingham cutler says, "'Ear! 'ear!"
On another day the parson began to tell the man with the evergreen heart some interesting things about America. He had never been there himself, but he had a cousin who had travelled extensively in that country, and had brought back much unusual information. "The Americans are an extraordinary people on the practical side," he remarked; "but having said that, you have said all, for they are sordid, and absolutely devoid of ideality. Take an American at his roller-top desk, a telephone at one side and a typewriter at the other, talk to him of pork and dollars, and you have him at his very best. He always keeps on his Panama hat at business, and sits in a rocking-chair smoking a long cigar. The American woman wears a blue dress with a red lining, or a black dress with orange trimmings, showing a survival of African taste; while another exhibits the American-Indian type,--sallow, with high cheekbones. The manners of the servant classes are extraordinary. I believe they are called 'the help,' and they commonly sit in the drawing-room after the work is finished."
"You surprise me!" said Mrs. Shamrock.
"It is indeed amazing," he continued; "and there are other extraordinary customs, among them the habit of mixing ices with all beverages. They plunge ices into mugs of ale, beer, porter, lemonade, or Apollinaris, and sip the mixture with a long ladle at the chemist's counter, where it is usually served."
"You surprise me!" exclaimed the cutler.
"You surprise me too!" I echoed in my inmost heart. Francesca would not have confined herself to that blameless mode of expression, you may be sure, and I was glad that she was on the back seat of the car. I did not know it at the time, but Veritas, who is a man of intelligence, had identified her as an American, and wishing to inform himself on all possible points, had asked her frankly why it was that the people of her nation gave him the impression of never being restful or quiet, but always so excessively and abnormally quick in motion and speech and thought.
"Casual impressions are not worth anything," she replied nonchalantly. "As a nation, you might sometimes give us the impression of being phlegmatic and slow-witted. Both ideas may have some basis of fact, yet not be absolutely true. We are not all abnormally quick in America. Look at our messenger boys, for example."
"We! Phlegmatic and slow-witted!" exclaimed Veritas. "You surprise me! And why do you not reward these government messengers for speed, and stimulate them in that way?"
"We do," Francesca answered; "that is the only way in which we ever get them to arrive anywhere--by rewarding and stimulating them at both ends of the journey, and sometimes, in extreme cases, at a halfway station."
"This is most interesting," said Veritas, as he took out his damp notebook; "and perhaps you can tell me why your newspapers are so poorly edited, so cheap, so sensational?"
"I confess I can't explain it," she sighed, as if sorely puzzled. "Can it be that we have expended our strength on magazines, where you are so lamentably weak?"
At this moment the rain began as if there had been a long drought and the sky had just determined to make up the deficiency. It fell in sheets, and the wind blew I know not how many Irish miles an hour. The Frenchman put on a silk macintosh with a cape, and was berated by everybody in the same seat because he stood up a moment and let the water in under the lap covers. His umbrella was a dainty en-tout-cas with a mother-of-pearl handle, that had answered well enough in heavy mist or soft drizzle. His hat of fine straw was tied with a neat cord to his buttonhole; but although that precaution insured its ultimate safety, it did not prevent its soaring from his head and descending on Mrs. Shamrock's bonnet. He conscientiously tried holding it on with one hand, but was then reproved by both neighbours because his macintosh dripped over them.
"How are your spirits, Frenchy?" asked the cutler jocosely.
"I am not too greatly sad," said the poor gentleman, "but I will be glad it should be finished; far more joyfully would I be at Manchester, triste as it may be."
Just then a gust of wind blew his cape over his head and snapped his parasol.
"It is evidently it has been made in Ireland," he sighed, with a desperate attempt at gaiety. "It should have had a grosser stem, and helas! it must not be easy to have it mended in these barbarous veelages."
We stopped at four o'clock at a wayside hostelry, and I had quietly made up my mind to descend from the car, and take rooms for the night, whatever the place might be. Unfortunately, the same idea occurred to three or four of the soaked travellers; and as men could leap down, while ladies must wait for the steps, the chivalrous sex, their manners obscured by the circular tour system, secured the rooms, and I was obliged to ascend again, wetter than ever, to my perch beside the driver.
"Can I get the box seat, do you think, if I pay extra for it?" I had asked one of the stablemen before breakfast.
"You don't need to be payin', miss! Just confront the driver, and you'll get it aisy!" If, by the way, I had confronted him at the end instead of at the beginning of the journey, my charms certainly would not have been all-powerful, for my coat had been leaked upon by red and green umbrellas, my hat was a shapeless jelly, and my face imprinted with the spots from a drenched blue veil.
After two hours more of this we reached the Shan Van Vocht Hotel, where we had engaged apartments; but we found to our consternation that it was full, and that we had been put in lodgings a half-mile away.
Salemina, whose patience was quite exhausted by the discomforts of the day, groaned aloud when we were deposited at the door of a village shop, and ushered upstairs to our tiny quarters; but she ceased abruptly when she really took note of our surroundings. Everything was humble, but clean and shining--glass, crockery, bedding, floor, on the which we were dripping pools of water, while our landlady's daughter tried to make us more comfortable.
"It's a soft night we're havin'," she said, in a dove's voice, "but we'll do right enough if the win' doesn't rise up on us."
Left to ourselves, we walked about the wee rooms on ever new and more joyful voyages of discovery. The curtains rolled up and down easily; the windows were propped upon nice clean sticks instead of tennis rackets and hearth brushes; there was a well-washed stone to keep the curtain down on the sill; and just outside were tiny window gardens, in each of which grew three marigolds and three asters, in a box fenced about with little green pickets. There were well- dusted books on the tables, and Francesca wanted to sit down immediately to The Charming Cora, reprinted from The Girl's Own Paper. Salemina meantime had tempted fate by looking under the bed, where she found the floor so exquisitely neat that she patted it affectionately with her hand.
We had scarcely donned our dry clothing when the hotel proprietor sent a jaunting-car for our drive to the seven-o'clock table d'hote dinner. We carefully avoided our travelling companions that night, but learned the next morning that the Frenchman had slept on four chairs, and rejected the hotel coffee with the remark that it was not 'veritable'--a criticism in which he was quite justified. Our comparative Englishman had occupied a cot in a room where the tin bathtubs were kept. He was writing to The Times at the moment of telling me his woes, and, without seeing the letter, I could divine his impassioned advice never to travel in the west of Ireland in rainy weather. He remarked (as if quoting from his own communication) that the scenery was magnificent, but that there was an entirely insufficient supply of hot water; that the waiters had the appearance of being low comedians, and their service was of the character one might expect from that description; that he had been talking before breakfast with a German gentleman, who had sat on a wall opposite the village of Dugort, in the island of Achill, from six o'clock in the morning until nine, and in that time he had seen coming out of an Irish hut three geese, eight goslings, six hens, fifteen chickens, two pigs, two cows, two barefooted girls, the master of the house leading a horse, three small children carrying cloth bags filled with school-books, and finally a strapping mother leading a donkey loaded with peat-baskets; that all this poverty and ignorance and indolence and filth was spoiling his holiday; and finally, that if he should be as greatly disappointed in the fishing as he had been in the hotel accommodations--here we almost fainted from suspense--he should be obliged to go home! And not only that, but he should feel it his duty to warn others of what they might expect.
"Perhaps you are justified," said Francesca sympathetically. "People who are used to the dry, sunny climate and the clear atmosphere of London ought not to expose themselves to Irish rain without due consideration."
He agreed with her, glancing over his spectacles to see if she by any possibility could be amusing herself at his expense--good, old, fussy, fault-finding Veritas; but indeed Francesca's eyes were so soft and lovely and honest that the more he looked at her, the less he could do her the injustice of suspecting her sincerity.
But mind you, although I would never confess it to Veritas, because he sees nothing but flaws on every side, the Irish pig is, to my taste, a trifle too much in the foreground. He pays the rent, no doubt; but this magnificent achievement could be managed from a sty in the rear, ungrateful as it might seem to immure so useful a personage behind a door or conceal his virtues from the public at large.