Penelope's English Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part First--In Town.
Chapter VII. A ducal tea-party.
Among all my English experiences, none occupies so important a place as my forced meeting with the Duke of Cimicifugas. (There can be no harm in my telling the incident, so long as I do not give the right names, which are very well known to fame.) The Duchess of Cimicifugas, who is charming, unaffected, and lovable, so report says, has among her chosen friends an untitled woman whom we will call Mrs. Apis Mellifica. I met her only daughter, Hilda, in America, and we became quite intimate. It seems that Mrs. Apis Mellifica, who has an income of 20,000 pounds a year, often exchanges presents with the duchess, and at this time she had brought with her from the Continent some rare old tapestries with which to adorn a new morning-room at Cimicifugas House. These tapestries were to be hung during the absence of the duchess in Homburg, and were to greet her as a birthday surprise on her return. Hilda Mellifica, who is one of the most talented amateur artists in London, and who has exquisite taste in all matters of decoration, was to go down to the ducal residence to inspect the work, and she obtained permission from Lady Veratrum (the confidential companion of the duchess) to bring me with her. I started on this journey to the country with all possible delight, little surmising the agonies that lay in store for me in the mercifully hidden future.
The tapestries were perfect, and Lady Veratrum was most amiable and affable, though the blue blood of the Belladonnas courses in her veins, and her great-grandfather was the celebrated Earl of Rhus Tox, who rendered such notable service to his sovereign. We roamed through the splendid apartments, inspected the superb picture- gallery, where scores of dead-and-gone Cimicifugases (most of them very plain) were glorified by the art of Van Dyck, Sir Joshua, or Gainsborough, and admired the priceless collections of marbles and cameos and bronzes. It was about four o'clock when we were conducted to a magnificent apartment for a brief rest, as we were to return to London at half-past six. As Lady Veratrum left us, she remarked casually, 'His Grace will join us at tea.'
The door closed, and at the same moment I fell upon the brocaded satin state bed and tore off my hat and gloves like one distraught.
"Hilda," I gasped, "you brought me here, and you must rescue me, for I absolutely decline to drink tea with a duke."
"Nonsense, Penelope, don't be absurd," she replied. "I have never happened to see him myself, and I am a trifle nervous, but it cannot be very terrible, I should think."
"Not to you, perhaps, but to me impossible," I said. "I thought he was in Homburg, or I would never have entered this place. It is not that I fear nobility. I could meet Her Majesty the Queen at the Court of St. James without the slightest flutter of embarrassment, because I know I could trust her not to presume on my defencelessness to enter into conversation with me. But this duke, whose dukedom very likely dates back to the hour of the Norman Conquest, is a very different person, and is to be met under very different circumstances. He may ask me my politics. Of course I can tell him that I am a Mugwump, but what if he asks me why I am a Mugwump?"
"He will not," Hilda answered. "Englishmen are not wholly devoid of feeling!"
"And how shall I address him?" I went on. "Does one call him 'your Grace,' or 'your Royal Highness'? Oh for a thousandth-part of the unblushing impertinence of that countrywoman of mine who called your future king 'Tummy'! but she was a beauty, and I am not pretty enough to be anything but discreetly well-mannered. Shall you sit in his presence, or stand and grovel alternately? Does one have to curtsy? Very well, then, make any excuses you like for me, Hilda: say I'm eccentric, say I'm deranged, say I'm a Nihilist. I will hide under the scullery table, fling myself in the moat, lock myself in the keep, let the portcullis fall on me, die any appropriate early English death,--anything rather than curtsy in a tailor-made gown; I can kneel beautifully, Hilda, if that will do: you remember my ancestors were brought up on kneeling, and yours on curtsying, and it makes a great difference in the muscles."
Hilda smiled benignantly as she wound the coil of russet hair round her shapely head. "He will think whatever you do charming, and whatever you say brilliant," she said; "that is the advantage in being an American woman."
Just at this moment Lady Veratrum sent a haughty maid to ask us if we would meet her under the trees in the park which surrounds the house. I hailed this as a welcome reprieve to the dreaded function of tea with the duke, and made up my mind, while descending the marble staircase, that I would slip away and lose myself accidentally in the grounds, appearing only in time for the London train. This happy mode of issue from my difficulties lent a springiness to my step, as we followed a waxwork footman over the velvet sward to a nook under a group of copper beeches. But there, to my dismay, stood a charmingly appointed tea-table glittering with silver and Royal Worcester, with several liveried servants bringing cakes and muffins and berries to Lady Veratrum, who sat behind the steaming urn. I started to retreat, when there appeared, walking towards us, a simple man, with nothing in the least extraordinary about him.
"That cannot be the Duke of Cimicifugas," thought I, "a man in a corduroy jacket, without a sign of a suite; probably it is a Banished Duke come from the Forest of Arden for a buttered muffin."
But it was the Duke of Cimicifugas, and no other. Hilda was presented first, while I tried to fire my courage by thinking of the Puritan Fathers, and Plymouth Rock, and the Boston Tea-Party, and the battle of Bunker Hill. Then my turn came. I murmured some words which might have been anything, and curtsied in a stiff-necked self-respecting sort of way. Then we talked,--at least the duke and Lady Veratrum talked. Hilda said a few blameless words, such as befitted an untitled English virgin in the presence of the nobility; while I maintained the probationary silence required by Pythagoras of his first year's pupils. My idea was to observe this first duke without uttering a word, to talk with the second (if I should ever meet a second), to chat with the third, and to secure the fourth for Francesca to take home to America with her.
Of course I know that dukes are very dear, but she could afford any reasonable sum, if she found one whom she fancied; the principal obstacle in the path is that tiresome American lawyer with whom she considers herself in love. I have never gone beyond that first experience, however, for dukes in England are as rare as snakes in Ireland. I can't think why they allow them to die out so,--the dukes, not the snakes. If a country is to have an aristocracy, let there be enough of it, say I, and make it imposing at the top, where it shows most, especially since, as I understand it, all that Victoria has to do is to say, 'Let there be dukes,' and there are dukes.