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Penelope's Irish Experiences
Kate Wiggin

Penelope's Irish Experiences
Kate Wiggin

Kate Douglas Wiggin

Penelope's Irish Experiences

Part First—Leinster

Chapter I. We emulate the Rollo books

‘Sure a terrible time I was out o’ the way,
Over the sea, over the sea,
Till I come to Ireland one sunny day,—
Betther for me, betther for me:
The first time me fut got the feel o’ the ground
I was strollin’ along in an Irish city
That hasn’t its aquil the world around
For the air that is sweet an’ the girls that are pretty.’

    —Moira O’Neill.

    Dublin, O’Carolan’s Private Hotel.

It is the most absurd thing in the world that Salemina, Francesca, and I should be in Ireland together.

That any three spinsters should be fellow-travellers is not in itself extraordinary, and so our former journeyings in England and Scotland could hardly be described as eccentric in any way; but now that I am a matron and Francesca is shortly to be married, it is odd, to say the least, to see us cosily ensconced in a private sitting-room of a Dublin hotel, the table laid for three, and not a vestige of a man anywhere to be seen. Where, one might ask, if he knew the antecedent circumstances, are Miss Hamilton’s American spouse and Miss Monroe’s Scottish lover?

Francesca had passed most of the winter in Scotland. Her indulgent parent had given his consent to her marriage with a Scotsman, but insisted that she take a year to make up her mind as to which particular one. Memories of her past flirtations, divagations, plans for a life of single blessedness, all conspired to make him incredulous, and the loyal Salemina, feeling some responsibility in the matter, had elected to remain by Francesca’s side during the time when her affections were supposed to be crystallising into some permanent form.

It was natural enough that my husband and I should spend the first summer of our married life abroad, for we had been accustomed to do this before we met, a period that we always allude to as the Dark Ages; but no sooner had we arrived in Edinburgh, and no sooner had my husband persuaded our two friends to join us in a long, delicious Irish holiday, than he was compelled to return to America for a month or so.

I think you must number among your acquaintances such a man as Mr. William Beresford, whose wife I have the honour to be. Physically the type is vigorous, or has the appearance and gives the impression of being vigorous, because it has never the time to be otherwise, since it is always engaged in nursing its ailing or decrepit relatives. Intellectually it is full of vitality; any mind grows when it is exercised, and the brain that has to settle all its own affairs and all the affairs of its friends and acquaintances could never lack energy. Spiritually it is almost too good for earth, and any woman who lives in the house with it has moments of despondency and self-chastisement, in which she fears that heaven may prove all too small to contain the perfect being and its unregenerate family as well.

Financially it has at least a moderate bank account; that is, it is never penniless, indeed it can never afford to be, because it is peremptory that it should possess funds in order to disburse them to needier brothers. There is never an hour when Mr. William Beresford is not signing notes and bonds and drafts for less fortunate men; giving small loans just to ‘help a fellow over a hard place’; educating friends’ children, starting them in business, or securing appointments for them. The widow and the fatherless have worn such an obvious path to his office and residence that no bereaved person could possibly lose his way, and as a matter of fact no one of them ever does. This special journey of his to America has been made necessary because, first, his cousin’s widow has been defrauded of a large sum by her man of business; and second, his college chum and dearest friend has just died in Chicago after appointing him executor of his estate and guardian of his only child. The wording of the will is, ‘as a sacred charge and with full power.’ Incidentally, as it were, one of his junior partners has been ordered a long sea voyage, and another has to go somewhere for mud baths. The junior partners were my idea, and were suggested solely that their senior might be left more or less free from business care, but it was impossible that Willie should have selected sound, robust partners—his tastes do not incline him in the direction of selfish ease; accordingly he chose two delightful, estimable, frail gentlemen who needed comfortable incomes in conjunction with light duties.

I am railing at my husband for all this, but I love him for it just the same, and it shows why the table is laid for three.

“Salemina,” I said, extending my slipper toe to the glowing peat, which by extraordinary effort had been brought up from the hotel kitchen, as a bit of local colour, “it is ridiculous that we three women should be in Ireland together; it’s the sort of thing that happens in a book, and of which we say that it could never occur in real life. Three persons do not spend successive seasons in England, Scotland and Ireland unless they are writing an Itinerary of the British Isles. The situation is possible, certainly, but it isn’t simple, or natural, or probable. We are behaving precisely like characters in fiction, who, having been popular in the first volume, are exploited again and again until their popularity wanes. We are like the Trotty books or the Elsie Dinmore series. England was our first volume, Scotland our second, and here we are, if you please, about to live a third volume in Ireland. We fall in love, we marry and are given in marriage, we promote and take part in international alliances, but when the curtain goes up again, our accumulations, acquisitions—whatever you choose to call them—have disappeared. We are not to the superficial eye the spinster-philanthropist, the bride to be, the wife of a year; we are the same old Salemina, Francesca and Penelope. It is so dramatic that my husband should be called to America; as a woman I miss him and need him; as a character I am much better single. I don’t suppose publishers like married heroines any more than managers like married leading ladies. Then how entirely proper it is that Ronald Macdonald cannot leave his new parish in the Highlands. The one, my husband, belongs to the first volume; Francesca’s lover to the second; and good gracious, Salemina, don’t you see the inference?”

“I may be dull,” she replied, “but I confess I do not.”

“We are three?”

“Who is three?”

“That is not good English, but I repeat with different emphasis WE are three. I fell in love in England, Francesca fell in love in Scotland-” And here I paused, watching the blush mount rosily to Salemina’s grey hair; pink is very becoming to grey, and that, we always say, accounts more satisfactorily for Salemina’s frequent blushes than her modesty, which is about of the usual sort.

“Your argument is interesting, and even ingenious,” she replied, “but I fail to see my responsibility. If you persist in thinking of me as a character in fiction, I shall rebel. I am not the stuff of which heroines are made; besides, I would never appear in anything so cheap and obvious as a series, and the three-volume novel is as much out of fashion as the Rollo books.”

“But we are unconscious heroines, you understand,” I explained. “While we were experiencing our experiences we did not notice them, but they have attained by degrees a sufficient bulk so that they are visible to the naked eye. We can look back now and perceive the path we have travelled.”

“It isn’t retrospect I object to, but anticipation,” she retorted; “not history, but prophecy. It is one thing to gaze sentimentally at the road you have travelled, quite another to conjure up impossible pictures of the future.”

Salemina calls herself a trifle over forty, but I am not certain of her age, and think perhaps that she is uncertain herself. She has good reason to forget it, and so have we. Of course she could consult the Bible family record daily, but if she consulted her looking-glass afterward the one impression would always nullify the other. Her hair is silvered, it is true, but that is so clearly a trick of Nature that it makes her look younger rather than older.

Francesca came into the room just here. I said a moment ago that she was the same old Francesca, but I was wrong; she is softening, sweetening, expanding; in a word, blooming. Not only this, but Ronald Macdonald’s likeness has been stamped upon her in some magical way, so that, although she has not lost her own personality, she seems to have added a reflection of his. In the glimpses of herself, her views, feelings, opinions, convictions, which she gives us in a kind of solution, as it were, there are always traces of Ronald Macdonald; or, to be more poetical, he seems to have bent over the crystal pool, and his image is reflected there.

You remember in New England they allude to a bride as ‘she that was’ a so-and-so. In my private interviews with Salemina I now habitually allude to Francesca as ‘she that was a Monroe’; it is so significant of her present state of absorption. Several times this week I have been obliged to inquire, “Was I, by any chance, as absent-minded and dull in Pettybaw as Francesca is under the same circumstances in Dublin?”


“Duller if anything.”

These candid replies being uttered in cheerful unison I change the subject, but cannot resist telling them both casually that the building of the Royal Dublin Society is in Kildare Street, just three minutes’ from O’Carolan’s, and that I have noticed it is for the promotion of Husbandry and other useful arts and sciences.

Chapter II. Irish itineraries

‘And I will make my journey, if life and health but stand,
Unto that pleasant country, that fresh and fragrant strand,
And leave your boasted braveries, your wealth and high command,
For the fair hills of holy Ireland.’

    —Sir Samuel Ferguson.

Our mutual relations have changed little, notwithstanding that betrothals and marriages have intervened, and in spite of the fact that Salemina has grown a year younger; a mysterious feat that she has accomplished on each anniversary of her birth since the forming of our alliance.

It is many months since we travelled together in Scotland, but on entering this very room in Dublin, the other day, we proceeded to show our several individualities as usual: I going to the window to see the view, Francesca consulting the placard on the door for hours of table d’hote, and Salemina walking to the grate and lifting the ugly little paper screen to say, “There is a fire laid; how nice!” As the matron I have been promoted to a nominal charge of the travelling arrangements. Therefore, while the others drive or sail, read or write, I am buried in Murray’s Handbook, or immersed in maps. When I sleep, my dreams are spotted, starred, notched, and lined with hieroglyphics, circles, horizontal dashes, long lines, and black dots, signifying hotels, coach and rail routes, and tramways.

All this would have been done by Himself with the greatest ease in the world. In the humbler walks of Irish life the head of the house, if he is of the proper sort, is called Himself, and it is in the shadow of this stately title that my Ulysses will appear in this chronicle.

I am quite sure I do not believe in the inferiority of woman, but I have a feeling that a man is a trifle superior in practical affairs. If I am in doubt, and there is no husband, brother, or cousin near, from whom to seek advice, I instinctively ask the butler or the coachman rather than a female friend; also, when a female friend has consulted the Bradshaw in my behalf, I slip out and seek confirmation from the butcher’s boy or the milkman. Himself would have laid out all our journeyings for us, and we should have gone placidly along in well-ordered paths. As it is, we are already pledged to do the most absurd and unusual things, and Ireland bids fair to be seen in the most topsy-turvy, helter-skelter fashion imaginable.

Francesca’s propositions are especially nonsensical, being provocative of fruitless discussion, and adding absolutely nothing to the sum of human intelligence.

“Why not start without any special route in view, and visit the towns with which we already have familiar associations?” she asked. “We should have all sorts of experiences by the way, and be free from the blighting influences of a definite purpose. Who that has ever travelled fails to call to mind certain images when the names of cities come up in general conversation? If Bologna, Brussels, or Lima is mentioned, I think at once of sausages, sprouts, and beans, and it gives me a feeling of friendly intimacy. I remember Neufchatel and Cheddar by their cheeses, Dorking and Cochin China by their hens, Whitby by its jet, or York by its hams, so that I am never wholly ignorant of places and their subtle associations.”

“That method appeals strongly to the fancy,” said Salemina drily. “What subtle associations have you already established in Ireland?”

“Let me see,” she responded thoughtfully; “the list is not a long one. Limerick and Carrickmacross for lace, Shandon for the bells, Blarney and Donnybrook for the stone and the fair, Kilkenny for the cats, and Balbriggan for the stockings.”

“You are sordid this morning,” reproved Salemina; “it would be better if you remembered Limerick by the famous siege, and Balbriggan as the place where King William encamped with his army after the battle of the Boyne.”

“I’ve studied the song-writers more than the histories and geographies,” I said, “so I should like to go to Bray and look up the Vicar, then to Coleraine to see where Kitty broke the famous pitcher; or to Tara, where the harp that once, or to Athlone, where dwelt Widow Malone, ochone, and so on; just start with an armful of Tom Moore’s poems and Lover’s and Ferguson’s, and, yes,” I added generously, “some of the nice moderns, and visit the scenes they’ve written about.”

“And be disappointed,” quoth Francesca cynically. “Poets see everything by the light that never was on sea or land; still I won’t deny that they help the blind, and I should rather like to know if there are still any Nora Creinas and Sweet Peggies and Pretty Girls Milking their Cows.”

“I am very anxious to visit as many of the Round Towers as possible,” said Salemina. “When I was a girl of seventeen I had a very dear friend, a young Irishman, who has since become a well-known antiquary and archaeologist. He was a student, and afterwards, I think, a professor here in Trinity College, but I have not heard from him for many years.”

“Don’t look him up, darling,” pleaded Francesca. “You are so much our superior now that we positively must protect you from all elevating influences.”
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