“ AND what do you study in your school ? ” I asked the blue-eyed little stranger whom I had lifted into my lap as a defence against woman’s claim to my seat in a street car.
“ Jography, ’rithmitic, readin’, and spellin’.”
She could spell “ rhinoceros,” but not “hippopotamus,” and could multiply twelve by three, but not by one with success. In “jography” my examination was more thorough. It commenced as we were crossing the Back Bay, in full view of the Mill-Dam, the Dome of the State-House, and Bunker Hill Monument.
“ Can you tell me where East Cambridge is ? ”
“ We don’t learn such things at our school.”
“ How is Boston bounded ? ”
“ We don’t study that kind,” half contemptuously.
“ Where is the Atlantic Ocean ? ”
“ East of Asia ; no, — it’s wrest of Africa.”
The little scholar had not been taught home geography, but she knew where the Red Sea was, knew there was no Blue Sea anywhere, and could tell more than it is worth while to know about the Cape of Good HopeI expressed my surprise that a body only nine years old should be so wise, adding that I should like to go to her school.
“ Why don’t you, then ? ”
“ Could I go into your class ? ”
“No, you would have to go into the infant class.”
I was saved from further mortification by our arrival at the end of the route. As I made my bow to my learned friend, I fell to wondering how many children of a larger growth know where Spinsterland is, and how many of the travellers who pass through Maydenvalley in the course of the summer acquaint themselves with its name, its residents, or its magical properties.
Yet Spinsterland comprises 62,116 square miles, and has a population of over three millions, of whom considerably less than half are males. It is bounded to the west by a river and lake ; to the north and northeast by a forest still traversed by moose, Indians, trout-brooks, and lumbermen ; and to the east and south by the ocean. Its principal products are rocks, ice, machinery, and the fabrics of machinery. The farmer can rarely extort a reward for his industry from an unwilling soil; but he raises all the vegetables and coarser cereals required for home consumption. Along the coast reside a hardy race, who furnish America with its Friday dinner and Spinsterland with its Sunday breakfast also. In ancient times, a considerable foreign commerce was carried on ; but a city, once the centre of the India trade, now imports little but peanuts ; another, which used to have direct steam communication with Europe, has lived to see its harbor filling up, and those of its wharves, which are not frequented by coasting-vessels, grassgrown. The mariners of a third, who during the Golden Age of Spinsterland supplied a large part of the world with oil, still bring from distant seas the flexible bones within which many of the inhabitants pass their days.
The government of Spinsterland is in pretension and form republican, but in fact aristocratic, the majority of the adults being denied the right ofsuffrage. Members of the disfranchised class usually, however, spend at their pleasure the earnings of the minority, and often teach voters their duties. They might have the ballot, as many believe, if they should insist upon having it, but they seem to prefer the pleasure of power to its burdens and responsibilities. They may be distinguished from their self-styled lords and masters by superior tact, a more flowing costume, and a singular fashion of wearing other people’s hair superimposed upon their own.
Notwithstanding the marked disproportion between the sexes, polygamy is frowned upon by the laws and by public opinion. Years ago the ruler of one province proposed to export several thousand women to the distant land of Celibaton ; but the suggestion was coolly received, and has not been acted upon, although all the world knows that the voyage would surely end in the harbor of Matrimony. It must not be inferred, however, that the people of Spinsterland are averse to marriage. Every proper inducement, on the contrary, is held out to young men ; and woe be to him who, having plighted his troth, withdraws it! He is mulcted in heavy damages by an indignant jury, and would be stripped of his property if tried by twelve women.
In the cities of Spinsterland, a sort of Vanity Fair is held on several evenings of each week during the winter, at which unmarried persons are exposed to public competition ; the mother usually defraying the expenses of the day on which her daughter “comes out,” as it is technically termed. Dancing, dress, music, flowers, champagne, splendor for the eyes, soft words for the ears, delight in the display of one’s taste or in the exercise of one’s faculty of pleasing, unite with love of excitement to attract young people to the gaybooths of pleasure. But while some go to the Rialto, that they may see the prett things exposed to view, or may chat with their friends, most mount the steps in order to cross the Grand Canal.
Yet a growing disinclination to marriage has, of late, manifested itself among the young men of Spinsterland, which has never been satisfactorily explained, and which has thus far, except in isolated instances, resisted efforts to overcome it. Under these adverse circumstances, sensible women are abandoning an unequal contest with the decrees of fate and the whims of mankind, and are asking themselves whether a solitary life need be miserable. They recall Queen Elizabeth, Rosa Bonheur, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Frederika Bremer. They bethink them of nuns, vowed to the service of the Virgin Mary ; of Sisters of Charity, going about to do good ; of nurses in whom sick and wounded soldiers have found tender reminiscences of home ; of teachers, who break the bread of a higher life ; of the Cousin Grace of the family circle in which their childhood was passed ; of the irreparably single-women, known to them in after life, — the good souls who visit the poor and the sorrowing, into whose patient ear the lover whispers his story or the maiden her hopes, the favorite aunt, the skilful housekeeper, the sure to be present when wanted, and the sure to be absent when not wanted. cultivated, but not learned; quiet, yet not unapt at conversation; and with a smile that transfigures features upon which Time has set his mark. They bethink them, too, of marriage as it is depicted by keen observers like Thackeray or Balzac, of the grief of dispelled illusions, of the misery of being obliged to live with a stranger, of the base deceptions necessary to keep up appearances, of shattered health and ruined fortune, of all the chances that a number in the great lottery will not draw a prize. The sight of a pretty child may, sometimes, cause a woman’s longing; but they will close their hearts with the thought that the bliss of maternity is not always unalloyed. Aching for love as they may, they dread its counterfeits, and prefer the clear, steady light of friendship to the flicker of passion or the will-o’-the-wisp of a fancy. They will marry, if the true lover comes : but they will await his coming in the seclusion of maidenly reserve; not spending their clays in looking even privily from the window for him, but seeking in single life such opportunities for happiness and for usefulness as a cheerful and active nature can find there.
In the winter such women go into society perhaps, and dance and talk, and use their weapons of defence and offence; but they rarely find a man worthy of their steel, and they welcome the summer as a release from the fret and burden of fashionable life. In June they prepare for a long estivation, and on the first warm day take the wings of a railroad, and fly to the sea or the mountains. The traveller in July will find bevies of them in the most lovely spots he visits. He will see them coming into the morning out of farm-houses or rural hotels, with roses in their cheeks and smiles interpreting their words. He will meet them in the afternoon, two by two, in country wagons, or by twenties loading down a vehicle drawn by four horses. Should he climb up to Princeville, he may trace upon the village green below the meeting-house the lines of ten or twelve games of croquet, in which every player is a spinster save one, whose black coat spots the picture, as a bare twig juts from a cloud of apple-blossoms. And if a happy chance leads him within the gates of Maydenvalley, and gives him the eyes to see what is there, he will enjoy a spectacle such as can be found nowhere outside of Spinsterland.
“ I have been to all the places most praised by travellers,” said one whose manners at thirty-three — shall I guess ? — proved more in favor of single-blessedness than St. Paul’s logic ; “but I find only two whose charms can never fly, as George Herbert has it,— Rome and Maydenvalley. At Rome I had to drink of the fountain of Trevi to insure my return; but one full draught of the air of this valley is an amulet against the temptation to spend my summers elsewhere.” The visitor in Maydenvalley may complain of his small chamber, of sour bread, stringy meat, inefficient service, a thousand and one discomforts known to boarders with people who live, like the mosquitoes of their groves, upon visitors ; but these petty annoyances are forgotten as he watches the shadows chasing each other over Beam Mountain, the rosy cloud that lingers upon Mount Ironington, the curves of the river Proway, or the elms grouped in the intervale through which it flows. He will never tire of wandering in that intervale; for every moment will show him a new picture, and every cloud will change the aspect of familiar objects, — a little earth and water are susceptible of so many combinations. Rising, for the first time in his life, perhaps, with the sun, he will catch Nature coming from the embrace of Night more fresh and rosy than ever; or, rambling in the pine woods, five hours later, he may surprise her asleep under a tree, and dreaming that the sun has pushed aside the branches to get near her. Days of soft rain will hide the mountains, but their drop-curtain has a peculiar beauty, and its folds are caught, as it gradually lifts, upon crag and peak, until, at length, the tops of Beam and Ironington show him clear sunshine above the fog clinging to their sides. Then will come days during which his petty I goes from him " like an ache,” and he becomes a part of the mountain wind in his hair; and other days, when the eastern breeze is as salt as if the sea had come sixty miles to look upon a lovelier valley than northern tides can enter.
Maydenvalley is walled from the world by mountains rising from one to six thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is some six miles long, and at no point more than three miles in width. The northern half alone is inhabited, the southern half being covered with forests, except in the riverbottoms, where a few farmers live in neat white houses that look down on broad acres of grass and corn. These are all situated upon the western side of the Proway, and have little communication with the eastern side, — there being no bridge across the river. About three miles from the northern extremity of the valley stands the first and one of the pleasantest of the spinster homes, where the wit and beauty of Maydenvalley once focalized. For here lived the most brilliant woman whom young Spinsterland remembers, — she whose sayings are still repeated, though her voice has for years been silent; who was called heartless, because her quick wit flashed from among the flowers of her speech, pinning butterflies, piercing conventionalities, and warding off questions that might have gone too deep ; who recalled Undine, sometimes as she was before she had found her soul, and sometimes as she was afterwards. We think of her as of a longing, lonely soul, who might have loved,—-how intensely ! — but who never did love ; who might have sacrificed herself to an idol, had she had one, but who caused the sacrifice of others ; to whom everybody told her story, and who confided to more than one all she could put into words — but not the inner truth — about herself; a less learned, less thoughtful, less sentimental, but more brilliant and far more beautiful Margaret Fuller, exercising, like her, a fascination upon both men and women, and keeping the best part of her womanhood out of sight almost always, but out of reach never. With her dwelt in the same little house several radiant beings, who still visit the haunts where they learned to love her, and still account Maydenvalley the most delightful place in the world. Fairy feet follow the path traced by her, along the bank that crumbles fifty feet down to the intervale, to the rustic seat from which the eye takes in at a glance the ranges of mountains from Shockarua to Shearkarge, the sweep of the meadows wearing June green in August, the drooping elms, the flashing river, and the pines darkening the ledges above it.
Following the road to the north, you are hardly out of sight of this house before the sharp peak of Shockarua disappears behind Beam Mountain. Soon the village of North Proway begins, and thenceforward every rod of the route blossoms with memories. Here is O’Miller’s House, with its broad veranda, and its beautifully shaded croquet-ground ; here Sunset Hill, with the tree under which Shampreigh made his latest sketches, as the droppings from his easel testify, with the rock at the summit, every lichen in whose crevices has witnessed a flirtation ; here the road is crossed by Artists’ Brook, up which memory runs to the wild ravine, enlivened by cascades, and softened by the moss on its rocks or hanging from the trees over it; here are the circulating library, the photograph saloon, the country stores, the cross-road leading to the shop of the mender of umbrellas and of watches, and to the bridle-path up Shearkarge, the frequent Spinster cottages from the Elms to the North Proway House, from bluff John Whitaker’s cottage, — known for its kind host, its clean linen, its comely little waiter, and the store opposite, where women in impossible bonnets come in wagons of the last century to buy their groceries, and whence, in the absence of customers, the nasal sound of psalm-singing emerges,—-to Parquetteman’s Hotel at the upper extremity of the valley.
Last summer, when a spirit in my feet led me — who knows how? — to Maydenvalley, it contained, in addition to the five or six hundred permanent residents, who supplied the rest of the population with food and shelter, not less than a thousand spinsters, and perhaps a hundred and fifty other persons. In some houses the proportion of women to men was as sixty to one ; to others only “old maids” — as the brides of quietness are irreverently called — were admitted ; and in none did the men form a respectable minority. Not only the towns of Spinsterland, but the banks of the Hudson, the Schuylkill, the Ohio, and the Mississippi contributed their contingents to the Amazonian army of occupation, which foraged for health and pleasure to the remotest points. There were few walkers, but not one denied herself the afternoon drive ; few readers, but many who carried a volume of poetry into the grove, for “ I must have something in my hands.” Almost all were fond of music, and some sang or played well, — and of conversation, and some knew the last word of coquetry; but every one found, in nature, books, music, or society exactly fitting her mood. Every one was strengthened, refined, elevated, in some way rendered better or happier, by the influences of Maydenvalley. Not a spinster but found, next winter, the flowers from the Proway meadows the sweetest that were pressed between the leaves of her memory. These happy souls were of every age and temperament, from tranquil Charity, whose hair in some lights showed lines of gray, and for whom the angels long since rolled away the stone from the door of the sepulchre where her sorrows were buried, to Eugenia, whose history is yet to be composed.
Born to wealth and position, Eugenia makes no display. Educated at the best schools in Spinsterland, —and women find better teachers nowhere, — she thinks herself ignorant. Looking at life through a clear atmosphere, she laments her occasional inability to agree with received opinions. The favorite poets of her ycung-lady friends do not attract her; but she finds something to like in the Brownings, in Keats, and in Emerson. She understands the thought of the best music, and possesses the rare accomplishment of not playing upon the piano. She is so well governed by a conscience that the ruler’s presence is never perceived. Delicate as a harebell, her nature, like that flower, is rooted in eternal rock, and can resist all winds. Her eye has caught the harebell’s hue, and is as pellucid as the water of Diana’s Baths, near which we dismounted.
Diana’s Baths — Dinah’s Baths the country people call them — belong to a slender stream that descends from Beam Mountain to the Proway, —jumping from rock to rock or slipping down gently; stopping under the shadow of every tree ; lifting a shining face, before taking another leap, toward Shearkarge and the first Adder Mountain; and hollowing the rock into deep baths in which the clear water is never quiet. What a place to rest in after a gallop ! The smooth granite for a seat, the moss for a carpet, the brook for society that does not intrude !
“ How beautiful! ” exclaimed Eugenia, as the evening sun emerged from a cloud, and threw the long shadow of an elm upon the emerald intervale, hundreds of feet below us.
“ Beautiful indeed ! ” I answered, glancing at the tremulous eyelids of my companion, and at the faint flush called into her cheek by her sensibility to natural beauty.
It is not easy to talk sentiment on horseback, for the intelligent quadrupeds overhear what is said, and one catches only the spoken portions of the conversation, -—usually the least significant portions. Besides, Eugenia would gallop, merrily laughing at every hint that she should slacken her pace, and defying me to keep up with her. So we galloped by the home of the teacher of the village school, and through the wood of little pines, hardly noticing the yellow carpet made by their needles, which we had admired on our way to the Baths. Eugenia did not draw rein till we had reached the steep bank at the ford of the Proway.
“ Will you cross the Rubicon with me ? ” I asked.
“This is the Proway. We are not in Italy, and you are not Cæsar. You may follow me.” And she rode into the water.
“We have had a pleasant ride,” said she, as I assisted her to dismount.
“We” inspired hope. How little inspires hope when the heart is made up !
Eugenia was away when I called next day, — a piece of formal politeness I performed, though the etiquette of Maydenvalley dispenses with it. I did not see her again until we met at a picnic on Horn Mountain.
Nine ladies and one gentleman beside myself formed the party, which filled a stout mountain wagon, with as little spring to it as a Spinsterland year. Up and up we rode, with an occasional sharp descent,—by farmhouses with the front door and blinds closed, after the fashion of Spinsterland, but with the back doorway framing a sharp-faced woman, with red arms akimbo; by barns, which opened a broad side upon the road; by fields of wheat, not inferior to that harvested in our Western Egypt; through fragrant pine forests; between rows of raspberry-bushes untouched by men or bears. Here and there a wild rose retained the summer; here and there, as we ascended, a blazing branch announced the autumn. Distant brooks murmured and distant sheep-bells tinkled. A colt escorted us to the limits of his pasture, and bade us farewell with both hind heels. Half a dozen cows in another enclosure regarded us demurely, and in a moment resumed their milk-making. At every turn, a glance backwards gave a new view of Maydenvalley, or a glance forwards, a new aspect to the mountain we were approaching. Out of the high-road at last, and through the fields to a tenantless house and a hospitable barn, where the road ended. Out of the wagon and among the sugar-maples, the inanimate portion of the picnic carried upon the back of the animate portion ; up a narrow path, half a mile up to the summit, — to a prospect twenty-five miles in radius, to air that fed the blood with fire, to eager appetites.
There we served to one another the lightest of light conversation, and floated puns with laughter. Our granite dinner-table was screened from the sun, and in the shadiest corner Eugenia sat. Her thoughts were not with the company, for her eyes had the expression which made our visit to Diana’s Baths memorable for me. Clear and pure as ever, they were unfathomable as the sky above us ; and it seemed no less impossible to find a thought of me in them than in that sky. I could only venture to offer her, as we came down the mountain, a few wild-flowers and the brightest branch from the brightest maple, and to draw dreams from her gentle good-night.
There was little satisfaction in visiting Eugenia at her boarding-house. In Maydenvalley private parlors are unknown, and though tête-à-têtes may not be equally unknown, I was rarely able to secure one with Eugenia, partly because of the abiding generosity of her nature, — “I like Eugenia,” remarked Maria ; “ she isn’t stingy with her young men,” — and partly because she was under the charge of an unmarried aunt, who never found a pretext for going out of the room. I ought not to harbor ill-will against the good old lady, for she was a friend of my father, and it was through her that I made the acquaintance of Eugenia ; but my gratitude to a bridge that takes me over a river is never excessive, particularly when it is so ungainly a structure as was Aunt Susan. Sometimes, however, when her gold eye-glasses and her ear-trumpet were not upon duty, she was an aid to conversation,—the click of her knitting-needles forming an accompaniment to what was said. I should thank her, too, for the glimpses she enabled me to get of the true heart which beat under the girlishness of Eugenia. Nothing could surpass her devotion to this aged relative, who seemed to live upon the sunshine of her presence. She followed her counsels, yielded to her whims, gave up darling plans for her sake, answered her sudden words gently, read to her by the hour in a voice necessarily pitched so high as to mar its sweetness, and smoothed her white hair with a daughter’s hand. If she took any reward, it was in teasing Aunt Susan about the old days when she too was a girl.
“ Every woman,” I happened to observe, not thinking of Aunt Susan at all, “ has, at least, one opportunity to marry, they say.”
“ I never had any,” broke in the old lady, straightening herself up.
“ Why, aunt! ” exclaimed Eugenia, with a twinkle in her eye.
“ No, Jenny, I never did.”
“ But, aunt, father has told me over and over again, how pretty you were when —
“ Tut, tut, child ! don’t be silly. Besides, it is n’t the prettiest that get the most offers. Perhaps I was n’t enough of a fool to please the men.”
“ But father says,” went on Eugenia, leaving the high-road of argument for the short cut of statement direct, — “ father says that you used to have lots of attention.”
“ Nonsense, girl; but no man of them all ever said, ‘ Marry me ’; though — Do you really care to go on that wildgoose chase up Beam Mountain to-morrow ? ”
“ Ever and ever so much, dear aunt They say the view is the finest in North Proway ; and there ’ll be five gentlemen to take care of three ladies, and Mrs. Osbaldistone will matronize us, and I’ll wear my thickest shoes and that mountain dress you think so unbecoming.”
“Why, Eugenia, how you talk!” cried Aunt Susan. “ It’s the only sensible costume in Proway.”
But, Eugenia remembered, with a blush which did not escape me, that it was not her aunt who had pretended to criticise her convenient dress.