Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter VIII. Romance and reality.
'But he lay like a warrior taking his rest, With his martial cloak around him.' Charles Wolfe.
At midnight I heard a faint tap at my door, and Francesca walked in, her eyes wide and bright, her cheeks flushed, her long, dark braid of hair hanging over her black travelling cloak. I laughed as I saw her, she looked so like Sir Patrick Spens in the ballad play at Pettybaw,--a memorable occasion when Ronald Macdonald caught her acting that tragic role in his ministerial gown, the very day that Himself came from Paris to marry me in Pettybaw, dear little Pettybaw!
"I came in to find out if your bed is as bad as mine, but I see you have not slept in it," she whispered.
"I was just coming in to see if yours could be any worse," I replied. "Do you mean to say that you have tried it, courageous girl? I blew out my candle, and then, after an interval in which to forget, sat down on the outside as a preliminary; but the moon rose just then, and I could get no further."
I had not unpacked my bag. I had simply slipped on my macintosh, selected a wooden chair, and, putting a Cromwellian towel over it, seated myself shudderingly on it and put my feet on the rounds, quoting Moore meantime-
'And the best of all ways To lengthen our days Is to steal a few hours from the night, my dear!"
Francesca followed my example, and we passed the night in reading Celtic romances to each other. We could see the faint outline of sweet Slievenamann from our windows--the mountain of the fair women of Feimheann, celebrated as the hunting-ground of the Finnian Chiefs.
'One day Finn and Oscar Followed the chase in Sliabh-na-mban-Feimheann, With three thousand Finnian chiefs Ere the sun looked out from his circle.'
In the Finnian legend, the great Finn McCool, when much puzzled in the choice of a wife, seated himself on its summit. At last he decided to make himself a prize in a competition of all the fair women in Ireland. They should start at the foot of the mountain, and the one who first reached the summit should be the great Finn's bride. It was Grainne Oge, the Gallic Helen, and daughter of Cormac, the king of Ireland, who won the chieftain, 'being fleetest of foot and longest of wind.'
We almost forgot our discomforts in this enthralling story, and slept on each other's nice clean shoulders a little, just before the dawn. And such a dawn! Such infinite softness of air, such dew- drenched verdure! It is a backward spring, they say, but to me the woods are even lovelier than in their summer wealth of foliage, when one can hardly distinguish the beauty of the single tree from that of its neighbours, since the colours are blended in one universal green. Now we see the feathery tassels of the beech bursting out of their brown husks, the russet hues of the young oak leaves, and the countless emerald gleams that 'break from the ruby-budded lime.' The greenest trees are the larch, the horse-chestnut, and the sycamore, three naturalised citizens who apparently still keep to their native fashions, and put out their foliage as they used to do in their own homes. The young alders and the hawthorn hedges are greening, but it will be a fortnight before we can realise the beauty of that snow-white bloom, with its bitter-sweet fragrance. The cuckoo-flower came this year before instead of after the bird, they tell us, showing that even Nature, in these days of anarchy and misrule, is capable of taking liberties with her own laws. There is a fragrance of freshly turned earth in the air, and the rooks are streaming out from the elms by the little church, and resting for a bit in a group of plume-like yews. The last few days of warmth and sunshine have inspired the birds, and as Francesca and I sit at our windows breathing in the sweetness and freshness of the morning, there is a concert of thrushes and blackbirds in the shrubberies. The little birds furnish the chorus or the undertone of song, the hedge-sparrows, redbreasts, and chaffinches, but the meistersingers 'call the tune,' and lead the feathered orchestra with clear and certain notes. It is a golden time for the minstrels, for nest- building is finished, and the feeding of the younglings a good time yet in the future. We can see one little brown lady hovering warm eggs under her breast, her bright eyes peeping through a screen of leaves as she glances up at her singing lord, pouring out his thanks for the morning sun. There is only a hint of breeze, it might almost be the whisper of uncurling fern fronds, but soft as it is, it stirs the branches here and there, and I know that it is rocking hundreds of tiny cradles in the forest.
When I was always painting in those other days before I met Himself, one might think my eyes would have been even keener to see beauty than now, when my brushes are more seldom used; but it is not so. There is something, deep hidden in my consciousness, that makes all loveliness lovelier, that helps me to interpret it in a different and in a larger sense. I have a feeling that I have been lifted out of the individual and given my true place in the general scheme of the universe, and, in some subtle way that I can hardly explain, I am more nearly related to all things good, beautiful, and true than I was when I was wholly an artist, and therefore less a woman. The bursting of the leaf-buds brings me a tender thought of the one dear heart that gives me all its spring; and whenever I see the smile of a child, a generous look, the flash of sympathy in an eye, it makes me warm with swift remembrance of the one I love the best of all, just 'as a lamplight will set a linnet singing for the sun.'
Love is doing the same thing for Francesca; for the smaller feelings merge themselves in the larger ones, as little streams lose themselves in oceans. Whenever we talk quietly together of that strange, new, difficult life that she is going so bravely and so joyously to meet, I know by her expression that Ronald's noble face, a little shy, a little proud, but altogether adoring, serves her for courage and for inspiration, and she feels that his hand is holding hers across the distance, in a clasp that promises strength.
At five o'clock we longed to ring for hot water, but did not dare. Even at six there was no sound of life in the cosy inn which we have named The Cromwell Arms ('Mrs. Duddy, Manageress; Comfort, Cleanliness, Courtesy; Night Porter; Cycling Shed'). From seven to half-past we read pages and pages of delicious history and legend, and decided to go from Cappoquin to Youghal by steamer, if we could possibly reach the place of departure in time. At half-past seven we pulled the bell energetically. Nothing happened, and we pulled again and again, discovering at last that the connection between the bell-rope and the bell-wire had long since disappeared, though it had been more than once established with bits of twine, fishing- line, and shoe laces. Francesca then went across the hall to examine her methods of communication, and presently I heard a welcome tinkle, and another, and another, followed in due season by a cheerful voice, saying, "Don't desthroy it intirely, ma'am; I'll be coming direckly." We ordered jugs of hot water, and were told that it would be some time before it could be had, as ladies were not in the habit of calling for it before nine in the morning, and as the damper of the kitchen-range was out of order. Did we wish it in a little canteen with whisky and a bit of lemon-peel, or were we afther wantin' it in a jug? We replied promptly that it was not the hour for toddy, but the hour for baths, with us, and the decrepit and very sleepy night porter departed to wake the cook and build the fire; advising me first, in a friendly way, to take the hearth brush that was 'kapin' the windy up, and rap on the wall if I needed annything more.' At eight o'clock we heard the porter's shuffling step in the hall, followed by a howl and a polite objurgation. A strange dog had passed the night under Francesca's bed, and the porter was giving him what he called 'a good hand and fut downstairs.' He had put down the hot water for this operation, and on taking up the burden again we heard him exclaim: "Arrah! look at that now! May the divil fly away with the excommunicated ould jug!" It was past saving, the jug, and leaked so freely that one had to be exceedingly nimble to put to use any of the smoky water in it. "Thim fools o' turf do nothing but smoke on me," apologised the venerable servitor, who then asked, "would we be pleased to order breakquist." We were wise in our generation, and asked for nothing but bacon, eggs, and tea; and after a smoky bath and a change of raiment we seated at our repast in the coffee-room, feeling wonderfully fresh and cheerful. By looking directly at each other most of the time, and making experimental journeys from plate to mouth, thus barring out any intimate knowledge of the tablecloth and the waiter's linen, we managed to make a breakfast. Francesca is enough to give any one a good appetite. Ronald Macdonald will be a lucky fellow, I think, to begin his day by sitting opposite her, for her eyes shine like those of a child, and one's gaze lingers fondly on the cool freshness of her cheek. Breakfast over and the bill settled, we speedily shook off as much of the dust of Mrs. Duddy's hotel as could be shaken off, and departed on the most decrepit sidecar that ever rolled on two wheels, being wished a safe journey by a slatternly maid who stood in the doorway, by the wide Mrs. Duddy herself, who realised in her capacious person the picturesque Irish phrase, 'the full-of-the-door of a woman,' and by our friend the head waiter, who leaned against Mrs. Duddy's ancestral pillars in such a way that the morning sun shone full upon his costume and revealed its weaknesses to our reluctant gaze.
The driver said it was eleven miles to Cappoquin, the guide-book fourteen, but this difference of opinion, we find, is only the difference between Irish and English miles, for which our driver had an unspeakable contempt, as of a vastly inferior quality. He had, on the other hand, a great respect for Mrs. Duddy and her comfortable, cleanly, and courteous establishment (as per advertisement), and the warmest admiration for the village in which she had appropriately located herself, a village which he alluded to as 'wan of the natest towns in the ring of Ireland, for if ye made a slip in the street of it, be the help of God ye were always sure to fall into a public-house!'
"We had better not tell the full particulars of this journey to Salemina," said Francesca prudently, as we rumbled along; "though, oddly enough, if you remember, whenever any one speaks disparagingly of Ireland, she always takes up cudgels in its behalf."
"Francesca, now that you are within three or four months of being married, can you manage to keep a secret?"
"Yes," she whispered eagerly, squeezing my hand and inclining her shoulder cosily to mine. "Yes, oh yes, and how it would raise my spirits after a sleepless night!"
"When Salemina was eighteen she had a romance, and the hero of it was the son of an Irish gentleman, an M.P., who was travelling in America, or living there for a few years,--I can't remember which. He was nothing more than a lad, less than twenty-one years old, but he was very much in love with Salemina. How far her feelings were involved I never knew, but she felt that she could not promise to marry him. Her mother was an invalid, and her father a delightful, scholarly, autocratic, selfish old gentleman, who ruled his household with a rod of iron. Salemina coddled and nursed them both during all her young life; indeed, little as she realised it, she never had any separate existence or individuality until they both died, when she was thirty-one or two years old."
"And what became of the young Irishman? Was he faithful to his first love, or did he marry?"
"He married, many years afterward, and that was the time I first heard the story. His marriage took place in Dublin, on the very day, I believe, that Salemina's father was buried; for Fate has the most relentless way of arranging these coincidences. I don't remember his name, and I don't know where he lives or what has become of him. I imagine the romance has been dead and buried in rose-leaves for years; Salemina never has spoken of it to me, but it would account for her sentimental championship of Ireland."