This may not be amiss to run between the other more prosaic notes, especially at this time of the year, when all is so young and fair, like the subject of my theme. Then, to begin as the showman said, an old cottager, once upon a time, was addressed by the constant friend of her favourite son. Says he (who was in the know), “What, your so and so has begun courting, has he not?” “Well,” the old lady answered, “I cannot exactly say. I don’t want him to do so; he is too young, has not the means, and a fond mother does not like to think that her darling boy should have to want, or the poor dear girl he has lovingly selected, by being too previous, or in too great a hurry.” But, musing further, she says, “I really don’t know, for the other day, on looking into his private drawer, I found two aprons marked with the names of their respective owners. This puzzled me, for all the girls were good; my son a Sunday school teacher, and connected with the best families in the town. One of the girls came to our chapel, as fair a lass as ever was seen, and her mother, a widow, a hard-working woman, had taught her (after she came back from the old dame school, where she had learnt to sample and to knit, to wash, to clean, to mend and make most of her clothes, to bake bread, and brew good home-spun beer, besides earn her living at the loom.” This consideration weighed with the old lady. Another mark in her favour was that she went to the same chapel as the dear old mother, who had no objection, only for them to wait until both had saved money to buy furniture; for in those days there was no supplying on the hire system. What they were short of money to buy they had to do without. But what was to be done with the other? Was this spoilt son a trifler with girls’ affections, a sort of gay Lothario among the lassies? No, his mother would not have that; his morals were of the best. Maybe in explanation she said that one is the constant friend of the maid already described, and the other (a friend of the first) is so beautiful; fresh as the rose, auburn hair as bright as the sun, and eyes to warm an iceberg, with a complexion as clear as the mountain stream in which she washed herself each early morn at her Hill Top cottage before going to work in the valley below, say at five o’clock in the morning, to be at the factory at six a.m.
The question of this girl’s apron was rather a poser, for the owner was good and beautiful enough for a prince. But did anyone find a dear old mother fast for an excuse for a loving son? No; and in this case, being sure of no evil, she said perhaps he was smitten by the beauty of the one and the goodness of the other, and said, like Captain Macheath, “how happy could he be with either, were t’other dear charmer away” — but all in youthful playfulness characteristic of life’s young happy dreams. The mother added, “There will be no harm; to the fair one, but the girl from our chapel for me” — who proved one of the best of her kind.
The above has been given purely in imagination, to illustrate the conditions of life, the peculiarities, and the varied steps taken on the road to youthful friendship and marriage, then as sacred as now, if not more so, and where the course of true love ran smooth, or companionships were more full, affording almost greater happiness in the cottage than in the hall. The latter (as perhaps more or less now) had no dealings with the former; a great gulf lay between them; but I have seen in my time when a combination would have been much better. Take two instances. A very rich man has a charming daughter, loved, we will say, by a joiner. The love was warmly returned by the girl. Had they gone together two lives would have been made happy; but pride and purse stepped in, and her parents married her for money, to live, I am sorry to say, a miserable life ever afterwards. Take the other. A wealthy girl, under similar conditions, loved the handsome miller’s son, who had not the courage to propose. He missed the prize, which went to self-seeking wealth, and which was afterwards all lost, and with it happiness destroyed, love broken, and ultimate ruin in place of that joy and bliss which follow, as they say, marriages made in heaven. Then why not let true love run smooth then and to-day and for evermore? Let us sing with Robert Burns:—
“If heaven a draught of heavenly pleasure spare.
One cordial in this melancholy vale—
‘Tis when a youthful, loving, modest pair
In other’s arms breathe out the tender tale.
Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the evening: gale.”
Or, again, as Milton wrote:—
And, again, how beautiful Waugh’s rough lines:—
All these, true at all times and all ages; and when followed on the crystal channel, how sweet is the journey of life to the great unknown!
To-day they are engaged, after spending many happy days with one another, and this is announced publicly to their friends, who will please take notice to get ready wedding presents — sufficient nowadays in good families to set up a mansion, and with the cottager to fill a house with good furniture. How easy the present compared with the past! But this is my question: Can any of you modern girls equal the fair Imogen first mentioned in qualities of worth such as make home a palace? Even if poor, and should fortune come her way, how the virtues will be worth more than gold! No; I must not say there are not as good young people as there ever were in my youth; only the old lingers with me longest, while the new to the young may be just as bright and lasting, but to me is only fleeting, and hath no abiding place to fill my heart like the past, with its glorious and fond recollections.
Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) by John Sugden