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Our spoilers required ua in bondage to sing,
And sneering they gave the command;
Sing!—No—ne'er shall the ear Of the Edomite hear
Judea, my country! more loved than the tide
Which flows through this worn frame of mine, O, if thee I forget, may this right hand of pride Fall shrunk by my side all supine!
And my tongue, be thou dumb,
And all lifeless become
If there's aught in this land
Can unloosen the band
The shrine where my God was adored,
Yes I it was but the gleam Of a terrific dream,
When Babylon's king cried in scorn,
And look on thy glories effaced,
I Love an old maid;—I do not speak of an individual, but of the species,—I use the singular number, as speaking of a singularity in humanity. An old maid is not merely an antiquarian, she is an antiquity; not merely a record of the past, but the very past itself, she has escaped a great change, and sympathizes not in the ordinary mutations of mortality. She inhabits a little eternity of her own. She is Miss from the beginning of the chapter to the end. I do not like to hear her called Mistress, as is sometimes the practice, for that looks and sounds like the resignation of despair, a voluntary extinction of hope. I do not know whether marriages are made in Heaven, some people say that they are, but I am almost sure that old maids are. There is a something about them which is not of the earth earthy. They are Spectators of the world, not Adventurers nor Ramblers: perhaps Guardians; we say nothing of Tatlers. They are evidently predestinated to be what they are. They owe not the singularity of their condition to any lack of beauty, wisdom, wit, or good temper; there is no accounting for it but on the principle of fatality. I have known many old maids, and of them all not one that has not possessed as many good and amiable qualities as ninety and nine out of a hundred of my married acquaintance. Why then are they single ?—It is their fate!
On the left hand of the road between London and Liverpool, there is a village, which, for particular reasons, I shall call Littleton: and I will not so far gratify the curiosity of idle inquirers as to say whether it is nearer to London or to Liverpool; but it is a very pretty village, and let the reader keep a sharp look out for it next time he travels that road. It is situated in a valley, through which runs a tiny rivulet as bright as silver, but hardly wide enough for a trout to turn round in. Over the little stream there is a bridge, which seems to have been built merely out of compliment to the liquid thread, to save it the mortification of being hopped over by every urchin and clodpole in the parish. The church is covered with ivy, even half way up the steeple, but the sexton has removed the green intrusion from the face of the clock, which, with its white surface and black figures, looks at a little distance like an owl in an ivy bush. A little to the left of the church is the parsonage house, almost smothered with honeysuckles: in front of the house is a grass plot,
* From 'The Englishman's Magazine.' This piece is also given in 'Friendship's Offering for 1833.
and up to the door there is what is called a carriage drive; but I never saw a carriage drive up there, for it is so steep that it would require six horses to pull the carriage up, and there is not room enough for more than one. Somewhat farther up the hill which bounds the little valley where the village stands, there is a cottage; the inhabitants of Littleton call it the white cottage. It is merely a small whitewashed house, but as it is occupied by genteelish sort of people, who cannot afford a large house, it is generally called a cottage. All these beautiful and picturesque objects, and a great many more which I have not described, have lost with me their interest. It would make me melancholy to go into that church. The interest which I had in the parsonage house was transferred to the white cottage, and the interest which I had in the white cottage is now removed to the churchyard, and that interest is in four graves that lie parallel to each other, with head-stones of nearly one date. In these four graves lie the remains of four old maids. Poor things! Their remains! Alack, alack, there was not much that remained of them. There was but little left of them to bury. The bearers had but light work. I wondered why they should have four separate graves, and four distinct tombstones. The sexton told me that it was their particular desire, in order to make the churchyard look respectable; and they left behind them just sufficient money to pay the undertaker's bills and to erect four grave-stones. I saw these ladies twice, and that at an interval of thirty years. I made one more attempt to see them, and I was more grieved than I could have anticipated, when the neighbours showed me their newly closed graves. But no one long pities the dead, and I was, after a while, glad that they had not been long separated. I saw these ladies twice;—and the first time that I saw them, the only doubt was, which of the four would be first married. I should have fallen in love with one of them myself, I do not know which, but I understood that they were all four more or less engaged. They were all pretty, they were all sensible, they were all good-humoured, and they knew the world, for they had all read Rollin's "Ancient History." They not only had admirers, but two of them even then had serious suitors. The whole village of Littleton, and many other villages in the neighbourhood rang with the praisesof theaccomplishedandagreeable daughters of the rector; nor were the young ladies dependent for their hopes of husbands merely on their good qualities; they had the reputation of wealth, which reputation I am constrained to say was rather a bubble. The rectory of Littleton was said to be worth a thousand a year—but it never produced more than six hundred. And the worthy rector was said to be worth ten or twelve thousand pounds. Bless him! he might be worth that and a great deal more, iv. 2 a
but he never possessed so much; the utmost of his private fortune was fifteen hundred pounds in the three per cents.
It is enough to designate the ladies by their christian names. Their good father used to boast that his daughters had really christian names. The eldest was Mary, the second Martha, the third Anna, and the youngest Elizabeth. The eldest was, when I first knew them, actually engaged to a young gentleman who had just taken a wrangler's degree at Cambridge, and had gained a prize for a Greek epigram. Such an effort of genius seemed next to miraculous at Littleion, for the people of that village never gain prizes for Greek epigrams. The farmers, who had heard of his success, used to stare at him for a prodigy and almost wondered that he should walk on two legs, and eat mutton, and say "Howdoyoudo?" like the rest of the world. And every body said he was such a nice man. He never skipped irreverently over the river, as some young men of his age would do, but always went over the bridge. It was edifying to see how gracefully he handed the young ladies over the said bridge, Mary always the last, though she was the eldest. The young squire of the parish was generally considered as the suitor of the second. The third had many admirers; she was what is called a showy young woman, having a little of the theatrical in her style. She was eloquent, lively, and attitudinizing. She had a most beautiful voice, and her good papa used to say, "My dear Anna, the sound of your voice is very delightful, and it does me good to hear you sing to your own harpsichord, but I wish I could hear you sing at church."— Poor man! he did not consider that there was no possibility of hearing any other voice while that of the parish-clerk was dinging in his ears. Elizabeth, the youngest, was decidedly the prettiest of the four; sentimentality was her forte, or more properly speaking, her foible. She sighed much herself, and was the cause of sighing to others. I little thought when I first saw them that I beheld a nest of predestinated old maids; but it was so, and the next time that I saw them they were all living together, spinsters. How I was occupied the next thirty years would be tedious to relate, therefore I pass over that period and come again to Littleton.
Time is like a mischievous urchin that plays sad tricks in our absence, and so disarranges things and persons too, that when we come back again we hardly know where to find them. When I made my second visit to Littleton, the good old rector had been several years in his grave; and when I asked after his daughters, I was told that they were living, and were together, and that they occupied the white cottage, I was rather pleased to hear that they were single, though I was surprised at the information. I knew that I should be well received, that I should not find all theirold affections alienated by new ties. I knew that I should not have to encounter the haughty and and interrogatory eyes of husbands, that I should not be under the necessity of accommodating myself to new manners. I had indeed some difficulty in making myself known, and still more difficulty in distinguishing the ladies, the one from the other, and connecting their present with their past appearance; for Anna's attitudinizing days were over, and Elizabeth had ceased to sigh. But when the recognition had taken place, we were all exceedingly glad to see each other, and we all talked together about every body and everything at once.
My call at the white cottage was at the latter end of August. The weather was fine, but there had recently been much rain, and there were some few heavy clouds, and some little growling of the wind, like the aspect and tone of an angry schoolmaster who had just given a boy a sound thrashing, and looks as if he were half inclined to give him some more. The cottage was very small, very neat, very light. There was but one parlour, and that was a very pretty one. A small carpet covered the middle of the room; a worked fire-screen stood in one corner: a piece of needle-work, representing Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac, hung opposite to the door; shells, sea-weed, and old china stood on the mantlepiece; an old harpsichord, in a black mahogany case, stretched its leviathan length along one side of the room; six exceedingly heavy and clumsily carved mahogany chairs, with high backs, short legs, and broad square flat seats, any one of which might have accommodated all the four sisters at once, according to their mode of sitting, stood around the room; these chairs, I recollected, had been in the dining-room at the rectory, but then there was a great lubberly cub of a footman to lug them about. The fire-place was particularly neat. It had an old brass fender, polished up to the semblance of gold, delineating in its pattern divers birds and beasts, the like of which never entered Noah's ark, butthey had a right to go in by sevens, for they were as clean as a penny. The poker looked like a tooth-pick, the shovel like an old-fashioned saltspoon, and the tongs like a pair of tweezers. The little black stove shone with an icy coldness, as if the maid had been scrubbing it all morning to keep herself warm; and cut paper was arranged over the vacant bars with a cruel exactitude that gave no hopes of fire. The ladies themselves looked as cold as the fire-place; and I could hardly help thinking that a stove without a fire, at the cold end of August, looked something like an old maid. The ladies, however, were very chatty; they all spoke together—or nearly so, for when one began the others went on, one after another, in the way and after the manner of a catch, or more accurately speaking, perhaps somewhat in the similitude of a fugue. They talked very loud, and sat very upright, which last circumstance I should have thought