Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part Fifth--Royal Meath.
Chapter XXVII. The three chatelaines of Devorgilla.
'Have you been at Devorgilla, Have you seen, at Devorgilla, Beauty's train trip o'er the plain,- The lovely maids of Devorgilla?' Adapted from Edward Lysaght.
The next morning the Old Hall dropped like a ripe rowan berry into our very laps. The landlord of the Shamrock Inn directed us thither, and within the hour it belonged to us for the rest of the summer. Miss Peabody, inclined to be severe with me for my desertion, took up her residence at once. It had never been rented before; but Miss Llewellyn-Joyce, the owner, had suddenly determined to visit her sister in London, and was glad to find appreciative and careful tenants. She was taking her own maid with her, and thus only one servant remained, to be rented with the premises, as is frequently the Irish fashion. The Old Hall has not always been managed thus economically, it is easy to see, and Miss Llewellyn- Joyce speaks with the utmost candour of her poverty, as indeed the ruined Irish gentry always do. I well remember taking tea with a family in West Clare where in default of a spoon the old squire stirred his cup with the poker, a proceeding apparently so usual that he never thought of apologising for it as an oddity.
The Hall has a lodge, which is a sort of miniature Round Tower, at the entrance gate, and we see nothing for it but to import a brass- buttoned boy from the nearest metropolis, where we must also send for a second maid.
"That'll do when you get him," objected Benella, "though boys need a lot of overseeing; but as nobody can get in or come out o' that gate without help, I shall have to go to the lodge every day now, and set down there with my sewin' from four to six in the afternoon, or whenever the callin' hours is. When I engaged with you, it wasn't for any particular kind of work; it was to make myself useful. I've been errand-boy and courier, golf-caddie and footman, beau, cook, land agent, and mother to you all, and I guess I can be a lodge- keeper as well as not."
Francesca had her choice of residing either with Salemina or with me, during our week of separation, and drove in my company to Rosaleen Cottage, to make up her mind. While she was standing at my gate, engaged in reflection, she espied a small cabin not far away, and walked toward it on a tour of investigation. It proved to have three tiny rooms--a bedroom, sitting-room, and kitchen. The rent was only two pounds a month, it is true, but it was in all respects the most unattractive, poverty-stricken, undesirable dwelling I ever saw. It was the small stove in the kitchen that kindled Francesca's imagination, and she made up her mind instantly to become a householder on her own account. I tried to dissuade her; but she is as firm as the Rock of Cashel when once she has set her heart upon anything.
"I shall be almost your next-door neighbour, Penelope," she coaxed, "and of course you will give me Benella. She will sleep in the sitting-room, and I will do the cooking. The landlady says there is no trouble about food. 'What to ate?' she inquired, leaning out sociably over the half-door. 'Sure it'll drive up to your very doore just.' And here is the 'wee grass,' as she calls it, where 'yous can take your tay' under the Japanese umbrella left by the last tenant. Think how unusual it will be for us to live in three different houses for a week; and 'there's luck in odd numbers, says Rory O'More.' We shall have the advantages of good society, too, when we are living apart, for I foresee entertainment after entertainment. We will give breakfasts, luncheons, teas, and dinners to one another; and meanwhile I shall have learned all the housewifely arts. Think, too, how much better you can paint with me out of your way!"
"Does no thought of your eccentricity blight your young spirit, dear?"
"Why should it when I have simply shaped my course by yours?"
"But I am married, my child."
"And I'm 'going to be married, aha, Mamma!' as the song says; and what about Salemina, you haven't scolded her?"
"She is living her very last days of single blessedness," I rejoined; "she does not know it, but she is; and I want to give her all the freedom possible. Very well, dear innocent, live in your wee hut, then, if you can persuade Benella to stay with you; but I think there would best be no public visiting between you and those who live in Rosaleen Cottage and the Old Hall, as it might ruin their social position."
Benella confessed that she had not the heart to refuse Francesca anything. "She's too handsome," she said, "and too winnin'. I s'pose she'll cook up some dreadful messes, but I'm willin' to eat 'em, to oblige her, and perhaps it'll save her husband a few spells of dyspepsy at the start; though, as far as my experience goes, ministers'll always eat anything that's set before 'em, and look over their shoulders for more."
We had a heavenly week of silliness, and by dint of concealing our real relations from the general public, I fancy we escaped harsh criticism. There is a very large percentage of lunacy anyway in Ireland, as well as great leniency of public opinion, and I fancy there is scarcely a country on the map in which one could be more foolish without being found out. Visit each other we did constantly, and candour obliges me to state that, though each of us secretly prided herself on the perfection of her cuisine, Miss Monroe gave the most successful afternoon tea of all, on the 'wee grass,' under the Japanese umbrella. How unexpectedly good were her scones, her tea-cakes, and her cress sandwiches, and how pretty and graceful and womanly she was, all flushed with pride at our envy and approbation! I did a water-colour sketch of her and sent it to Ronald, receiving in return a letter bubbling over with fond admiration and gratitude. She seems always in tone with the season and the landscape, does Francesca, and she arrives at it unconsciously, too. She glances out of her window at the yellow laburnum-tree when she is putting on her white frock, and it suggests to her all her amber trinkets and her drooping hat with the wreath of buttercups. When she came to my hawthorn luncheon at Rosaleen Cottage she did not make the mistake of heaping pink on pink, but wore a cotton gown of palest green, with a bunch of rosy blossoms at her belt. I painted her just as she stood under the hawthorn, with its fluttering petals and singing birds, calling the picture Grainne Mael*: A Vision of Erinn, writing under it the verse:-
'The thrushes seen in bushes green are singing loud- Bid sadness go and gladness glow,--give welcome proud! The Rover comes, the Lover, whom you long bewail, O'er sunny seas, with honey breeze, to Grainne Mael.'
* Pronounced Graunia Wael, the M being modified. It is one of the endearing names given to Ireland in the Penal Times.
Benella, I fancy, never had so varied a week in her life, and she was in her element. We were obliged to hire a side-car by the day, as two of our residences were over a mile apart; and the driver of that vehicle was the only person, I think, who had any suspicion of our sanity. In the intervals of teaching Francesca cooking, and eating the results while the cook herself prudently lunched or dined with her friends, Benella 'spring-cleaned' the lodge at the Old Hall, scrubbed the gateposts, mended stone walls, weeded garden beds, made bags for the brooms and dusters and mattresses, burned coffee and camphor and other ill-smelling things in all the rooms, and devoted considerable time to superintending my little maid, that I might not feel neglected. We were naturally obliged, meanwhile, to wait upon ourselves and keep our frocks in order; but as long as the Derelict was so busy and happy, and so devoted to the universal good, it would have been churlish and ungrateful to complain.
On leaving the Wee Hut, as Francesca had, with ostentatious modesty, named her residence, she paid her landlady two pounds, and was discomfited when the exuberant and impetuous woman embraced her in a paroxysm of weeping gratitude.
"I cannot understand, Penelope, why she was so disproportionately grateful, for I only gave her five shillings over the two pounds rent."
"Yes, dear," I responded drily; "but you remember that the rent was for the month, and you paid her two pounds five shillings for the week."
All the rest of that day Francesca was angelic. She brought footstools for Salemina, wound wool for her, insisted upon washing my paint brushes, read aloud to us while we were working, and offered to be the one to discharge Benella if the awful moment for that surgical operation should ever come. Finally, just as we were about to separate for the night, she said, with insinuating sweetness, "You won't tell Ronald about my mistake with the rent- money, will you, dearest and darlingest girls?"
We are now quite ready to join in all the gaieties that may ensue when Rosnaree welcomes its master and his guests. Our page in buttons at the lodge gives Benella full scope for her administrative ability, which seems to have sprung into being since she entered our service; at least, if I except that evidence of it which she displayed in managing us when first we met. She calls our page 'the Button Boy,' and makes his life a burden to him by taking him away from his easy duties at the gate, covering his livery with baggy overalls, and setting him to weed the garden. It can never, in the nature of things, be made free from weeds during our brief term of tenancy, but Benella cleverly keeps her slave at work on the beds and the walks that are the most conspicuous to visitors. The Old Hall used simply to be called 'Aunt David's house' by the Welsh Joyces, and it was Aunt David herself who made the garden; she who traced the lines of the flower-beds with the ivory tip of her parasol; she who planned the quaint stone gateways and arbours and hedge seats; she who devised the interminable stretches of paths, the labyrinthine walks, the mazes, and the hidden flower-plots. You walk on and on between high hedges, until, if you have not missed your way, you presently find a little pansy or rose or lily garden. It is quite the most unexpected and piquant method of laying out a place I have ever seen; and the only difficulty about it is that any gardener, unless he were possessed of unusual sense of direction, would be continually astray in it. The Button Boy, obeying the laws of human nature, is lost in two minutes, but requires two hours in which to find himself. Benella suspects that he prefers this wandering to and fro to the more monotonous task of weeding, and it is no uncommon thing for her to pursue the recalcitrant page through the mazes and labyrinths for an hour at a time, and perhaps lose herself in the end. Salemina and I were sitting this morning in the Peacock Walk, where two trees clipped into the shape of long-tailed birds mount guard over the box hedge, and put their beaks together to form an arch. In the dim distance we could see Benella 'bagging' the Button Boy, and, after putting the trowel and rake in his reluctant hands, tying the free end of a ball of string to his leg, and sending him to find and weed the pansy garden. We laughed until the echoes rang, to see him depart, dragging his lengthening chain, or his Ariadne thread, behind him, while Benella grimly held the ball, determined that no excuses or apologies should interfere with his work on this occasion.