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Wilson's Border Tales
Leaves from the Diary of an Aged Spinster


The poet of THE ELEGY par excellence, hath written two lines which runs thus—

"Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air."

Now, I never can think of these lines but they remind me of the tender, delicate, living, breathing, and neglected flowers that bud, blossom, shed their leaves, and die, in cold, unsunned obscurity—flowers that were formed to shed their fragrance around a man’s heart, and to charm his eye—but which, though wandering melancholy and alone in the wilderness where they grow, he passeth by with neglect, making a companion of his loneliness. But, to drop all metaphor—where will you find a flower more interesting than a spinster of threescore and ten, of sixty, of fifty, or of forty? They have, indeed, "wasted their sweetness on the air." Some call them "old maids;" but it is a malicious appellation, unless it can be proved that they have refused to be wives. I would always take the part of a spinster: they are a peculiar people, far more "sinned against than sinning." Every blockhead thinks himself at liberty to crack a joke upon them; and when he says something that he conceives to be wondrous smart about Miss Such-an-one and her cat and poodle dog, he conceives himself a marvellous fellow; yea, even those of her own sex who are below what is called a "certain age," (what that age is, I cannot tell) think themselves privileged to gigle at the expense of their elder sister. Now, though there may be a degree of peevishness (and it is not to be woundered at) amongst the sisterhood, yet with them you will find the most sensitive tenderness of heart, a delicacy that quivers the aspen leaf at a breadth, and a kindliness of soul that a mother might envy—or rather, for envy, shall I not write imitate? But, ah! if their history were told, what a chronicle would it exhibit of blighted affections, withered hearts, secret tears, and midnight sighs.

The first spinster of whom I have a particular remembrance, as belonging to her castle, was Diana Darling. It is now six and twenty years since Diana paid the debt of nature, up to which period, and for a few years before, she rented a room in Chirnside. It was only a year or two before her death that I became acquainted with her; and I was then very young. But I never shall forget her kindness towards me. She treated me as though I had been her own child, or rather her grandchild, for she was then very little under seventy years of age. She had always an air of gentility about her; people called her "a betterish sort o’ body." And, although Miss and Mistress are becoming general appellations now, twenty or thirty years ago, upon the Borders, those titles were only applied to particular persons, or on particular occasions; and whether their more frequent use now is to be attributed to the schoolmaster abroad or the dancing-master being abroad, I cannot tell, but Diana Darling, although acknowledged to be a "betterish sort o’ body," never was spoken of by any other term but "auld Diana," or "auld Die." Well do I remember her flowing chintz gown, with short sleeves, her snow-white apron, her whiter cap, and old kid gloves reaching to her elbows; and as well do I remember how she took one of the common blue cakes which washerwomen use, and tying it up in a piece of woollen cloth, dipped it in water, and daubed it round and round the walls of her room, to give them the appearance of being papered. I have often heard of and seen stenciling since; but, rude as the attempt was, I am almost persuaded that Diana was the first who put it in practice. To keep up gentility putteth people to strange shifts, and often to ridiculous ones—and to both of these extremites she was driven. But I have hinted that she was a kind-hearted creature; and above all, do I remember her for the fine old ballads which she sang to me. But there was one that was an especial favourite with her, and a verse of which, if I remember correctly, ran thus—

"Fie, Lizzy Lindsay!
Sae lang in the morning ye lie
Mair fit ye was helping yer minny
To milk a’ the ewes and the kye."

Diana, however, was a woman of some education; and to a relative she left a sort of history of her life, from which the following is an extract:—

"My faither died before I was eighteen (so began Diana’s narrative), and he left five of us—that is my mother, two sisters, a brother, and myself—five hundred pounds a-piece. My sisters were both younger than me; but, within six years after our faithers death, they both got married; and my brother, who was only a year older than myself, left the house also, and took a wife, so that there was nobody but me and my mother left. Everybody thought there was something very singular in this: for it was not natural that the youngest should be taken and the auldest left; and, besides, it was acknowledged that I was the best faured and the best-tempered in the family; and there could be no dispute but that my siller was as good as theirs.

I must confess, however, that, when I was but a lassie o’ sixteen, I had drawn up wi’ one James Laidlaw—but I should score out the word one, and just say that I had drawn up wi’ James Laidlaw. He was a year, or maybe three, aulder than me, and I kenned him when he was just a laddie at Mr. Wh—’s school in Dunse; but I took no notice o’ him then in particular, and, indeed, I never did, until one day that I was an errand down by Kimmerghame, and I met James just coming out frae the gardens. It was the summer season, and he had a posie in his hand, and a very bonny posie it was. ‘Here’s a fine day, Diana,’ says he. ‘Yes it is,’ says I.

So we said nae Mair for some time; but he keepit walking by my side, and at last he said—‘What do ye think o’ this posie?’ ‘It is very bonny, James,’ said I. ‘I think sae,’ quoth he; ‘and if ye will accept it, there should naebody be mair welcome to it.’ ‘Ou, I thank ye,’ said I, and I blushed in a way—‘why should ye gie me it?’ ‘Never mind,’ says he, ‘tak it for old aquaintance sake—we were at the school together.’

So I took the flowers, and James keepit by my side, and cracked to me a’ the way to my mother’s door, and I cracked to him—and I really wondered that the road between Kimmerghame and Dunse had turned sae short. It wasna half the length that it used to be, or what I thought it ought to be.

But I often saw James Laidlaw after this; and somehow or other I aye met him just as I was coming out o’ the kirk, and weel do I recollect that, one Sabbath in particular, he said to me—‘Diana, will ye no come out and tak a walk after ye get your dinner?’ ‘I dinna ken, James,’ says I; ‘I doubt I daurna, for our folk are very particular, and baith my faither and my mother are terribly against onything like gaun about stravaigin on the Sundays.’ ‘Oh, they need never ken where ye’re gaun,’ says he. ‘Weel, I’ll try,’ says I, for by this time I had a sort o’ liking for James. ‘Then,’ said he, "I’ll be at the Penny Stane at four o’ clock.’ ‘Very weel,’ quoth I.

And, although baith my faither and mother said to me, as I was gaun out—‘Where are ye gaun, lassie?’—‘Oh, no very far,’ said I; and, at four o’clock, I met James at the Penny Stane. I shall never forget the grip that he gied my hand when he took it in his, and said— ‘Ye hae been as good as your word, Diana.’

We wandered awa doun by Wedderburn dyke, till we came to the Blackadder, and then we sauntered down by the river side, till we were opposite Kelloe—and, oh, it was a pleasant afternoon. Everything round about us, aboon us, and among our feet, seemed to ken it was Sunday—everything but James and me. ‘The laverock was singing in the blue lift—the blackbirds were whistling in the hedges—the mavis chaunted its loud sang frae the bushes on the braes—the lennerts were singing and chirming among the whins—and the shelfa absolutely seemed to follow ye wi’ its three notes over again, in order that ye might learn them.

It was the happiest afternoon I ever spent. James grat, and I grat. I got a scolding frae my faither and my mother when I gaed hame, and they demanded to ken where I had been; but the words that James had spoken to me bore me up against their reproaches.

Weel, it was very shortly (I daresay not six months after my faither’s death), that James called at my mother’s, and as he said, to bid us fareweel! He took my mother’s hand— I mind I saw him raise it to his lips, while the tears were on his cheeks; and he was also greatly put about to part wi’ my sisters; but to me he said—

"Ye’ll set me down a bit, Diana.’

He was to take the coach for Liverpool—or, at least, a coach to take him on the road to that town, the next day; and from there he was to proceed to the West Indies, to meet an uncle who was to make him his heir.

I went out wi’ him, and we wandered away down by our auld walks; but, oh, he said little, and he sighed often, and his heart was sad. But mine was as sad as his, and I could say as little as him. I winna, I canna write a’ the words and the vows that passed. He took the chain frae his watch, and it was o’ the best gold, and he also took a pair o’ Bibles frae his pocket, and he put the watch chain and the Bibles into my hand, and—‘Diana,’ said he, ‘take these, dear—keep them for the sake o’ your poor James, and, as often as ye see them, think on him.’ I took them, and wi’ the tears running down my cheeks—‘O James,’ cried I, ‘this is hard!—hard!’

Twice, ay thrice, we bade each other ‘fareweel,’ and thrice, after he had parted frae me, he cam running back again, and, throwing his arms around my neck, cried—

‘Diana! I canna leave ye!—promise me that ye will never marry onybody else!’

And thrice I promised him that I wouldna.

But he gaed awa, and my only consolation was looking at the Bibles, on one o’ the white leaves o’ the first volume o’ which I found written, by his own hand, ‘James Laidlaw and Diana Darling vowed that, if they were spared, they would become man and wife; and that neither time, distance, nor circumstances, should absolve their plighted troth. Dated, May 25th, 17—.

These were cheering words to me; and I lived on them for years, even after my younger sisters were married, and I had ceased to hear from him. And, during that time, for his sake, I had declined offers which my friends said I was waur than foolish to reject. At least half a dozen good matches I let slip through my hands, and a’ for the love o’ James Laidlaw, who was far awa, and the vows he had plighted to me by the side o’ the Blackaddrr. And, although he hadna written to me for some years, I couldna think that ony man could be so wicked as to write words o’ falsehood and bind them up in the volume o’ everlasting truth.

But, about ten years after he had gane awa, James Laidlaw came back to our neighbourhood; but he wasna the same lad he left—for he was now a dark-complexioned man, and he had wi’ him a mulatto woman and three bairns that called him faither! He was no longer my James!

My mother was by this time dead, and I expected naething but that the knowledge o’ his faithfulness would kill me too—for I had clung to hope till the last straw was broken. I met him once during his stay in the country, and, strange to tell, it was within a hundred yards o’ the very spot where I first foregathered wi’ him, when he offered me the posie.

‘Ha! Die!’ said he, ‘my old girl are you still alive? I’m glad to see you. Is the old woman, your mother, living yet?’ I was ready to faint, my heart throbbed as though it would have burst. A’ the trials I had ever had were naething to this; and he continued—‘Why, if I remember right, there was once something like an old flame between you and me.’ ‘O James! James!’ said I, ‘do ye remember the words ye wrote in the Bible, and the vows that ye made me by the side of the Blackadder?’ ‘Ha! ha!’ said he, and he laughed, ‘you are there, are you? I do mind something of it. But, Die, I did not think that a girl like you would have been such a fool as to remember what a boy said to her.’

I would have spoken to him again; but I remembered he was the husband of another woman—though she was a mulatto—an’ I hurried away as fast as my fainting heart would permit. I had but one consolation, and that was, that, though he had married another, naebody could compare her face wi’ mine.

But it was lang before I got the better o’ this sair slight—ay, I may say it was ten years and mair; and I had to try to pingle and find a living upon the interest o’ my five hundred pounds, wi’ ony other thing that I could turn my hand to in a genteel sort o’ way.

I was now getting on the wrang side o’ eight and thirty; and that is an age when it isna prudent in a spinster to be throwing the pouty side o’ her lip to any decent lad that hauds out his hand, and says—‘Jenny, will ye tak me? Often and often, baith by day and by night, did I think o’ the good bargains I had lost, for the sake o’ my fause James Laidlaw; and often when I saw some o’ them that had come praying to me, pass me on a Sunday, wi’ their wives wi’ their hands half round their waist on the horse behint them—‘O James! fause James! I have said, ‘but for trusting to you, and it would hae been me that would this day been riding behint Mr.—

But I had still five hundred pounds, and sic fend as I could make, to help what they brought to me. And, about this time, there was one that had the character of being a very respectable sort o’ lad, one Walter Sanderson; he was a farmer, very near about my own age, and altogether a most prepossessing and intelligent young man. I first met wi’ him at my youngest sister’s goodman’s kirn, and I must say, a better or a more gracefu’ dancer I never saw upon a floor. He had neither the jumping o’ a mountebank, nor the sliding o’ a play-actor, but there was an ease in his carriage which I never saw equalled. I was particularly struck wi’ him, and especially his dancing; and it so happened that he was no less struck wi’ me. I thought he looked even better than James Laidlaw used to do--but at times I had doubts about it. However he had stopped all the night at my brother-in-law’s as weel as mysel’; and when I got up to gang hame the next day, he said he would bear me company. I thanked him, said I was obliged to him, never thinking that he would attempt such a thing. But, just as the powny was brought for me to ride on (and the callant was to come up to Dunse for it at night), Mr. Walter Sanderson mounted his horse, and says he—

‘Now, wi’ your permission, Miss Darling, I will see you hame.’

It would hae been very rude o’ me to hae said—‘No, I thank you, sir,’ and especially at my time o’ life, wi’ twa younger sisters married that had families; so I blushed as it were, and giein my powny a twitch, he sprang on to his saddle, and came trotting on by my side. He was very agreeable company; and when he said ‘I shall be most happy to pay you a visit, Miss Darling,’ I didna think o’ what I had said, until after that I had answered him, ‘I shall be very happy to see you, sir.’ And when I thought o’ it, my very cheek bones burned wi’ shame.’

But, howsoever, Mr. Sanderson was not long in calling again—and often he did call, and my sisters and their guid men began to jeer me about him. Weel, he called and called, for I daresay as good as three quarters of a year; and he was sae backward and modest a’ the time that I thought him a very remarkable man; indeed, I began to think him every way superior to James Laidlaw.

But at last he made proposals—I consented—the wedding-day was set, and we had been cried in the kirk. It was the fair day, just two days before we were to be married, and he came into the house, and, after he had been seated a while, and cracked in his usual kind way—

‘Oh,’ says he, ‘what a bargain I hae missed the day! There are four lots a’ cattle in the market, and I might hae cleared four hundred pounds cent, per cent., by them.’

‘Losh me! Walter, then,’ says I, ‘why didna ye do it? How did ye let sic a bargain slip through your fingers?’

‘Woman,’ said he, ‘I dinna ken; but a man that is to be married within eight and forty hours is excusable. I came to the Fair without any thought o’ either buying or selling—but just to see you, Diana—and I kenned there wasna meikle siller necessary for that.’

‘Losh, Walter, man,’ said I, ‘but that is a pity—and ye say ye could mak cent. per cent. by the beasts?’

‘‘Deed could I,’ quoth he—‘I am sure o’ that.’

‘Then, Walter,’ says I, ‘what is mine the day is to be yours the morn, I may say; and it would be a pity to lose sic a bargain.’

Therefore I put into his hands an order on a branch bank that had been established in Dunse, for every farthing that I was worth in the world, and Walter kissed me, and went out to get the money frae the Bank, and buy the cattle.

But he hadna been out an hour, when one o’ my brothers-in-law called, and I thought he looked unco dowie. So I began to tell him about the excellent bargain that Walter had made, and what I had done. But the man started frae his seat as if he were crazed, and without asking me any questions, he only cried—‘Gracious! Diana! hae ye been sic an idiot?’ and, rushing out o’ the house, ran to the bank.

He left me in a state that I canna describe: I neither kenned what to do nor what to think. But within half an hour he returned, and he cried out as he entered—‘Diana, ye are ruined! He has taken in you and everybody else. The villain broke yesterday. He is off! Ye may bid fareweel to your siller.’ ‘Wha is off?’ cried I, and I was in sic a state I was hardly able to speak. ‘Walter Sanderson!’ answered my brother-in-law.

I believe I went into hysterics; for the first thing I mind o’ after his saying so, was a dozen people standing round about me—some slapping at the palms o’ my hands, and others laying water on my breast and temples until they had me as wet as if they had douked me in Pollock’s Well.

I canna tell how I stood up against this clap o’ misery. It was near getting the better o’ me. For a time I really hated the very name and the sight o’ man, and I said, as the song says, that

"Men are a’ deceivers."

But this was not the worst o’ it—I had lost my all, and I was now forced into the acquaintanceship of poverty and dependence. I first went to live under the roof o’ my youngest sister, who had always been my favourite; but, before six months went around, I found that she began to treat me just as though I had been a servant, ordering me to do this and do the other; and sometimes my dinner was sent ben to me into the kitchen; and the servant lassies, seeing how their mistress treated me, considered that they should be justified in doing the same—and they did the same. Many a weary time have I lain upon my bed, and wished never to rise again, for my spirit was weary o’ this world. But I put up wi’ insult after insult, until flesh and blood could endure it no longer. Then did I go to my other sister, and she hardly opened her mouth to me as I entered her house. I saw that I might gang where I liked—I wasna welcome there. Before I had been a week under her roof, I found that the herd’s dog led a lady’s life to mine. I was forced to leave her too.

And, as a sort o’ last alternative, just to keep me in existence, I began a bit shop in a neighbouring town, and took in sewing and washing; and after I had tried them awhile, and found that they would hardly do, I commenced a bit school, at the advice of the minister’s wife, and learned bairns their letters and the catechism, and knitting and sewing. I also taught them (for they were a’ girls) how to work their samplers, and to write, and to cast accounts. But what vexed and humbled me more than all I had suffered, was, that one night, just after I had let my scholars away, an auld hedger and ditcher body, almost sixty years o’ age, came into the house, and ‘How’s a’ wi’ ye the nicht?’ says he, though I had never spoken to the man before. But he took off his bonnet, and, pulling in a chair, drew a seat to the fire. I was thunderstruck! But I was yet mair astonished and ashamed, when the auld body, sleeking down his hair and his chin, had the assurance to make love to me!

"There is the door, sir!" cried I. And when he didna seem willing to understand me, I gripped him by the shouthers, and shewed him what I meant.

Yet quite composedly he turned round to me and said, ‘I dinna see what is the use o‘ the like o’ this—it is true I am aulder than you, but you are at a time o’ life now that ye canna expect ony young man to look at ye. Therefore, ye had better think twice before ye turn me to the door. Ye will find it just as easy a life being the wife o’ a hedger as keeping a school—rather mair sae I apprehend, and mair profitable too.’ I had nae patience wi’ the man. I thought my sisters had insulted me; but this offer o’ the hedger’s wounded me mair than a’ that they had done.

‘O James Laidlaw!’ cried I, when I was left to mysel’, ‘what hae ye brought me to!’ My sisters dinna look after me. My parting wi’ them has gien them an excuse to forget that I exist. My brother is far frae me, and he is ruled by a wife; and I hae been robbed by another o’ the little that I had. I am like a withered tree in a wilderness, standing by its lane—I will fa’ and naebody will miss me. I am sick, and there are none to haud my head. My throat is parched, and my lips dry, and there are none to bring me a cup o’ water. There is nae living thing that I can ca’ mine. And some day I shall be found a stiffened corpse in my bed, with no one near me to close my eyes in death, or perform the last office of humanity! For I am alone—I am by myself—I am forgotten in the world; and my latter years, if I have a long life, will be a burden to strangers.’"

But Diana Darling did not so die. Her gentleness, her kindness, caused her to be beloved by many who knew not her history; and, when the last stern messenger came to call her hence, many watched with tears around her bed of death, and many more in sorrow followed her to the grave. So ran the few leaves in the diary of a spinster—and the reader will forgive our interpolations.


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