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Sketch Book of the North
Tennis in the North


A pretty sight they are, these two, this fair summer morning, among the dewy branches of the rose-garden, all unconscious that anyone is looking at them. Minna, the daughter of the house, her white hands wet with flowers, is cutting fresh blossoms for the breakfast-table, and that tall fellow, the Professor, who at home used to get up only when the college bell was ringing, has actually risen half an hour earlier than he need have done in order to hold the basket for her. He is not looking at the costly little circlet of diamonds sparkling upon her finger, but at the bright dark eyes swimming under the edge of that delightful straw hat, where, doubtless, he is getting some fresh light upon the Greek particles. For they are engaged, Minna and he, and he is coming back in the autumn to carry her off and transplant her, like some bright-petalled flower, in his dim old college city.

But there is the voice of our host greeting them from the porch below, and the Professor comes forward eagerly to shake hands with him. Young Rossdhu has driven down to say that some friends arrived at their house last night, and his mother will be glad if we can go up to tennis and luncheon there this morning. No other engagement will be broken by this, and a day on that velvet-lawn among the pine-woods will be delightful; so the carriage has been ordered for eleven o’clock. The day promises to be very warm here by the sea, but more air will perhaps be moving up among the hills, and there will always be the shadow of the old beeches to rest under. When breakfast is over, then, it will just be time to get ready, though it is tempting to linger in the quiet cool little room, at the white-spread table with its freshness of flowers—the full-blowing Maréchal Niel and the languorous yellow tea-roses set there by dainty fingers.

Outside, the sunshine is very hot already, and the last dewdrop has long ago dried from the scarlet petals of the geraniums in the urns. The ponies at the door, too, are impatiently whisking their tails and twitching their ears to keep off the flies.

There could be no more enjoyable drive than that along this road of the far north, running a mile or two first within sight of the blue glistening sea, and then turning inland. The road itself, of that dazzling sandy whiteness peculiar to the district, is perfectly dry and smooth; and while from the deep grasses of the bank on each side and from the warren beyond come the hot passion-breath of the golden-flowered whin and the soft amorous sigh of the milky-clouded thorn there is ever in sight the broad country, rich in old forests, showing here and there the grey tower of some ancient castle, and stretching away to the mountains purple beyond under the speckless sky. Then it turns off suddenly into the pine woods of Rossdhu, and the wheels roll noiseless upon the soft bed of fir needles.

Twenty years ago, when old Rossdhu found that, owing to the repeal of the corn laws, it would no longer be profitable to grow wheat, like many another proprietor in the north he planted his lands with trees. And so while the country buys its bread with the riches of ore and fossil stored up aeons ago in Nature’s, grim treasure-caverns underground, the soil, at rest from plough and harrow, is growing young again amid the forests, under the brown depth of mouldering leaf and cone.

Deep quiet reigns among these warm pine-woods, a sort of enchanted stillness amid the yellow sunshine. In the bosky hollow where the brown butterfly is hovering, old Pan might be asleep among the fern. The feathery grasses everywhere are in flower, as high as a man’s shoulder; above them shimmers the great green dragon-fly, two inches long, with his gossamer wings; and from among their clouds at places little ladybird beetles, like pin-heads, spotted scarlet and black, fall into the carriage in their flight. The wild strawberry with its tiny white blossom is growing on the sunny banks of the road, and wild rasps spread their tangle in the undergrowth beyond.

In the narrow meadow amidst the woods a lonely mower is at work, and the air is sweet with the scent of new-mown hay. He lifts his cap respectfully as the carriage passes, for the manners of the district have not been corrupted yet by contact with rude railway navvies, nor by the shortcomings of Board schools; and the peasant still exchanges a recognition with his superior. Much more real kindliness might exist between the social classes if in our schools there were a Government grant to be earned by politeness. All store nowadays is set upon the three "Rs"— reading, writing, and arithmetic—as if the whole sum of human felicity lay in a knowledge of the "black art" of books. The mower was singing to himself, as we came up, a soft Gaelic song that kept time to the sweep of his scythe, and Minna blushes a little as she promises to translate it in the evening, for it is a song of confessed love. The man is happy, surely, singing as he sees the glistening swathes fall by his side to ripen in the sun: and well he may be, for has he not, like the happy birds, a nest, too, somewhere in these woods, and a blue-eyed brood that will greet his home-coming at nightfall?

But the manor-house stands close by now, and there on the smooth green lawn among the trees the tennis-nets are spread and the courts marked with lines on the grass. A beautiful old place it is, its grey stone walls hot with the sunshine, and, among the thick-climbing jessamine and fuchsia, the open windows revealing tempting depths of shadow within. The sound of the wheels on the gravel brings out old Rossdhu himself, the soul of hospitality, with half a dozen of his dogs barking a welcome after their fashion and wagging their tails. Shaggy-bearded as some of his own peasants, the old gentleman is the pink of Highland courtesy, and he assists "Miss Minna" to alight as if she were a Princess. "Alec," that is his son, he explains, "is busy inside," and the frequent popping of corks heard there intimates his occupation.

The dark cool drawing-room is bright with the light dresses of young girls, and musical with the murmur of happy laughter, while the air that just stirs the creamy gossamer of the curtains brings in with it the fragrance of the dark velvety wallflower still flowering outside in the sunshine before the window. The lady of the house is an invalid, and Rossdhu begs that Minna will give her just one song before everybody goes out to the game. So Minna draws off her gloves, and the piano is opened. And it is very pleasant to sit in the deep shadow by the open casement, looking out upon the sunny lawn and woods, and listening to the melody of that sweet young voice. It is a Jacobite song she sings, "The Auld Hoose," some other such place as this, with low-roofed rooms, dark-panelled and oaken-raftered, where the hopes of gentle hearts blossomed and withered long ago with the fortunes of their fair, ill-fated Prince. The plaintive words linger with their air in the memory, how "the auld ladye"—

Here sheltered Scotland’s heir,
And clipped a lock wi’ her ain hand
Frae his lang yellow hair.

Then, afterwards, when everybody has had enough of the ices and the claret cup, there is the tennis; and though it is somewhat warm work for those actually playing, there are seats under the leafy beeches and chestnut-trees, where a quiet tête-â-tête can be enjoyed, and a lazy glance east at the lithe, light-clad figures of the players out in the sunshine, and the white balls that fly to and fro across the nets.


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