Penelope's Progress/Chapter 21
"With mimic din of stroke and ward
The broadsword upon target jarr'd."
The Lady of the Lake.
Robin Anstruther was telling stories at the tea-table.
"I got acquainted with an American girl in rather a queer sort of way," he said, between cups. "It was in London, on the Duke of York's wedding-day. I'm rather a tall chap, you see, and in the crowd somebody touched me on the shoulder and a plaintive voice behind me said, 'You're such a big man, and I am so little, will you please help me to save my life? My mother was separated from me in the crowd somewhere as we were trying to reach the Berkeley, and I don't know what to do.' I was a trifle nonplused, but I did the best I could. She was a tiny thing, in a marvelous frock and a flowery hat and a silver girdle and chatelaine. In another minute she spied a second man, an officer, a full head taller than I am, broad shoulders, splendidly put up altogether. Bless me! if she didn't turn to him and say, 'Oh, you're so nice and big, you're even bigger than this other gentleman, and I need you both in this dreadful crush. If you'll be good enough to stand on either side of me, I shall be awfully obliged.' We exchanged amused glances of embarrassment over her blonde head, but there was no resisting the irresistible. She was a small person, but she had the soul of a general, and we obeyed orders. We stood guard over her little ladyship for nearly an hour, and I must say she entertained us thoroughly, for she was as clever as she was pretty. Then I got her a seat in one of the windows of my club, while the other man, armed with a full description, went out to hunt up the mother; and by Jove! he found her, too. She would have her mother, and her mother she had. They were awfully jolly people; they came to luncheon in my chambers at the Albany afterwards, and we grew to be great friends."
"I dare say she was an English girl masquerading," I remarked facetiously. "What made you think her an American?"
"Oh, her general appearance and accent, I suppose."
"Probably she didn't say Barkley," observed Francesca cuttingly; "she would have been sure to commit that sort of solecism."
"Why, don't you say Barkley in the States?"
"Certainly not; we never call them the States, and with us c-l-e-r-k spells clerk, and B-e-r-k Berk."
"How very odd!" remarked Mr. Anstruther.
"No odder than your saying Bark, and not half as odd as your calling it Ǎlbany," I interpolated, to help Francesca.
"Quite so," said Mr. Anstruther; "but how do you say Ǎlbany in America?"
"Penelope and I allways call it Allbany," responded Francesca nonsensically, "but Salemina, who has been much in England, ălways calls it Ǎlbany."
This anecdote was the signal for Miss Ardmore to remark (apropos of her own discrimination and the American accent) that hearing a lady ask for a certain med'cine in a chemist's shop, she noted the intonation, and inquired of the chemist, when the fair stranger had retired, if she were not an American. "And she was!" exclaimed the Honorable Elizabeth triumphantly. "And what makes it the more curious, she had been over here twenty years, and of course spoke English quite properly."
In avenging fancied insults, it is certainly more just to heap punishment on the head of the real offender than upon his neighbor, and it is a trifle difficult to decide why Francesca should chastise Mr. Macdonald for the good-humored sins of Mr. Anstruther and Miss Ardmore; yet she does so, nevertheless.
The history of these chastisements she recounts in the nightly half-hour which she spends with me when I am endeavoring to compose myself for sleep. Francesca is fluent at all times, but once seated on the foot of my bed she becomes eloquent!
"It all began with his saying"—
This is her perennial introduction, and I respond as invariably, "What began?"
"Oh, to-day's argument with Mr. Macdonald. It was a literary quarrel this afternoon."
"'Fools rush in'"—I quoted.
"There is a good deal of nonsense in that old saw," she interrupted; "at all events, the most foolish fools I have ever known stayed still and didn't do anything. Rushing shows a certain movement of the mind, even if it is in the wrong direction. However, Mr. Macdonald is both opinionated and dogmatic, but his worst enemy could never call him a fool."
"I didn't allude to Mr. Macdonald."
"Don't you suppose I know to whom you alluded, dear? Is not your style so simple, frank, and direct that a wayfaring girl can read it and not err therein? No, I am not sitting on your feet, and it is not time to go to sleep; I wonder you do not tire of making these futile protests. As a matter of fact, we began this literary discussion yesterday morning, but were interrupted; and knowing that it was sure to come up again, I prepared for it with Salemina. She furnished the ammunition, so to speak, and I fired the guns."
"You always make so much noise with blank cartridges I wonder you ever bother about real shot," I remarked.
"Penelope, how can you abuse me when I am in trouble? Well, Mr. Macdonald was prating, as usual, about the antiquity of Scotland and its æons of stirring history. I am so weary of the venerableness of this country. How old will it have to be, I wonder, before it gets used to it? If it's the province of art to conceal art, it ought to be the province of age to conceal age, and it generally is. 'Everything doesn't improve with years,' I observed sententiously.
"'For instance?' he inquired.
"Of course you know how that question affected me! How I do dislike an appetite for specific details! It is simply paralyzing to a good conversation. Do you remember that silly game in which some one points a stick at you and says, 'Beast, bird, or fish,—beast!' and you have to name one while he counts ten? If a beast has been requested, you can think of one fish and two birds, but no beasts. If he says 'Fish,' all the beasts in the universe stalk through your memory, but not one finny, scaly, swimming thing! Well, that is the effect of 'For instance?' on my faculties. So I stumbled a bit, and succeeded in recalling, as objects which do not improve with age, mushrooms, women, and chickens, and he was obliged to agree with me, which nearly killed him. Then I said that although America is so fresh and blooming that people persist in calling it young, it is much older than it appears to the superficial eye. There is no real propriety in dating us as a nation from the Declaration of Independence in 1776, I said, nor even from the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620; nor, for that matter, from Columbus's discovery in 1492. It's my opinion, I asserted, that some of us had been there thousands of years before, but nobody had had the sense to discover us. We couldn't discover ourselves,—though if we could have foreseen how the sere and yellow nations of the earth would taunt us with youth and inexperience, we should have had to do something desperate!"
"That theory must have been very convincing to the philosophic Scots mind," I interjected.
"It was; even Mr. Macdonald thought it ingenious. 'And so,' I went on, 'we were alive and awake and beginning to make history when you Scots were only barelegged savages roaming over the hills and stealing cattle. It was a very bad habit of yours, that cattle-stealing, and one which you kept up too long.'
"'No worse a sin than your stealing land from the Indians,' he said.
"'Oh yes,' I answered, 'because it was a smaller one! Yours was a vice, and ours a sin; or I mean it would have been a sin had we done it; but in reality we didn't steal land; we just took it, reserving plenty for the Indians to play about on; and for every hunting-ground we took away we gave them in exchange a serviceable plough, or a school, or a nice Indian agent, or something. That was land-grabbing, if you like, but it is a habit you Britishers have still, while we gave it up when we reached years of discretion.'"
"This is very illuminating," I interrupted, now thoroughly wide awake, "but it isn't my idea of a literary discussion."
"I am coming to that," she responded. "It was just at this point that, goaded into secret fury by my innocent speech about cattle-stealing, he began to belittle American literature, the poetry especially. Of course he waxed eloquent about the royal line of poet-kings that had made his country famous, and said the people who could claim Shakespeare had reason to be the proudest nation on earth. 'Doubtless,' I said. 'But do you mean to say that Scotland has any nearer claim upon Shakespeare than we have? I do not now allude to the fact that in the large sense he is the common property of the English-speaking world' (Salemina told me to say that), 'but Shakespeare died in 1616, and the union of Scotland with England didn't come about till 1707, nearly a century afterwards. You really haven't anything to do with him! But as for us, we didn't leave England until 1620, when Shakespeare had been perfectly dead four years. We took very good care not to come away too soon. Chaucer and Spenser were dead, too, and we had nothing to stay for!'"
I was obliged to relax here and give vent to a burst of merriment at Francesca's absurdities.
"I could see that he had never regarded the matter in that light before," she went on gayly, encouraged by my laughter, "but he braced himself for the conflict, and said, 'I wonder that you didn't stay a little longer while you were about it. Milton and Ben Jonson were still alive; Bacon's Novum Organum was just coming out; and in thirty or forty years you could have had L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Paradise Lost; Newton's Principia, too, in 1687. Perhaps these were all too serious and heavy for your national taste; still, one sometimes likes to claim things one cannot fully appreciate. And then, too, if you had once begun to stay, waiting for the great things to happen and the great books to be written, you would never have gone, for there would still have been Browning, Tennyson, and Swinburne to delay you.'
"'If we couldn't stay to see out your great bards, we certainly couldn't afford to remain and welcome your minor ones,' I answered frigidly; 'but we wanted to be well out of the way before England united with Scotland, knowing that if we were uncomfortable as things were, it would be a good deal worse after the Union; and we had to come home, anyway, and start our own poets. Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell had to be born.'
"'I suppose they had to be if you had set your mind on it,' he said, 'though personally I could have spared one or two on that roll of honor.'
"'Very probably,' I remarked, as thoroughly angry now as he intended I should be. 'We cannot expect you to appreciate all the American poets; indeed, you cannot appreciate all of your own, for the same nation doesn't always furnish the writers and the readers. Take your precious Browning, for example! There are hundreds of Browning Clubs in America, and I never heard of a single one in Scotland.'
"'No,' he retorted, 'I dare say; but there is a good deal in belonging to a people who can understand him without clubs!'"
"Oh, Francesca!" I exclaimed, sitting bolt upright among my pillows. "How could you give him that chance! How could you! What did you say?"
"I said nothing," she replied mysteriously. "I did something much more to the point,—I cried!"
"Yes, cried; not rivers and freshets of woe, but small brooks and streamlets of helpless mortification."
"What did he do then?"
"Why do you say 'do'?"
"Oh, I mean 'say,' of course. Don't trifle; go on. What did he say then?"
"There are some things too dreadful to describe," she answered, and wrapping her Italian blanket majestically about her she retired to her own apartment, shooting one enigmatical glance at me as she closed the door.
That glance puzzled me for some time after she left the room. It was as expressive and interesting a beam as ever darted from a woman's eye. The combination of elements involved in it, if an abstract thing may be conceived as existing in component parts, was something like this:—
One half, mystery.
One eighth, triumph.
One eighth, amusement.
One sixteenth, pride.
One sixteenth, shame.
One sixteenth, desire to confess.
One sixteenth, determination to conceal.
And all these delicate, complex emotions played together in a circle of arching eyebrow, curving lip, and tremulous chin,—played together, mingling and melting into one another like fire and snow; bewildering, mystifying, enchanting the beholder!
If Ronald Macdonald did— I am a woman, but, for one, I can hardly blame him!