Clover Honey

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Father first noticed it: “Upon my Sam,
This soil breeds spinsters! Five miles round, I swear,
Live twenty old maids—not that I give a damn,
But Mary and Susan here might have a care.

“Daughters are perishable goods at best;
At worst—Yes, dear, I do know when to stop—
But twenty at church today! Who would have guessed
So rich a shire could raise that blighted crop?”

Susan just giggled; I totted up Father’s count:
“Nineteen is what I make it, not twenty, Dad!”
“You’ve missed our gruesome help here, Sarah Blount,
“Haven’t you, girl? Admit it!”—and so I had.

“By God!”—he flourished his carvers in the air—
“She makes my flesh creep. No one asks my advice
Of course; but how your mother puts up with her
Passes my—yes, dear! yes, another slice?”

Susan and I discussed it later in bed.
“Father was horrid to laugh; he doesn’t know!
If I don’t marry,” said Sue, “I’d rather be dead.”
I laughed too: “Well, we’ve both some years to go.”

But for all that, I brooded on their lives;
Imagined them as young girls like me or Sue;
Tried to imagine them happy mothers and wives
And wondered what went wrong—though mostly I knew.

Rumour, in country places, rarely leaves
Misfortune a shift or nakedness a clout.
At Tea-cup Time, when Gossip brings home her sheaves,
The skeletons rattle in closets for miles about.

Miss Tabitha and Miss Mildy at the Grange
Had been too high and mighty, people said;
Miss Prue had beauty, but no one thought it strange:
Papa had lost his money. The suitors fled.

Miss Martha had offers too. They had to wait—
A bed-ridden mother—and, as is often the case,
When free to marry, she found it was too late;
Miss Claire’s club-foot cancelled that angel face.

Poor, gay Miss Belle never got her man to church;
There was Miss Madeleine, too—but never mind,
Too simple, too yielding: he left her in the lurch.
It’s an old story, and people are so unkind.

Miss Sophie was unattractive from the start;
Miss Tetty, of course, had always been a shrew;
But why Miss Constance with her loving heart
Had never married, not even our gossips knew.

Eighteen is an uncompromising age.
Old maids, fag-ends of living, cat-fanciers,
I thought of them with mounting pity and rage
And blamed the order of the universe.

My father’s friend—he lived near us in Kent—
A Mr Darwin, used to visit our house,
And when I raged at him in protest, sent
A twinkle at me from his beetle brows:

“Yes, yes, poor things!” he said, “You have a heart
That does you credit, my dear. But let me say
That the great chain of being has found a part
In Nature’s scheme even for them to play.

“You mentioned cats, I think. Each keeps a cat?”
“Good God!”, I said, “they have them by the score!”
“Indeed? Of course, I’m not surprised at that;
But cats catch mice—Well, it’s what cats are for.

“Their mistresses at night will put them out
To hunt for field-mice—You begin to see
My drift, perhaps, since as you know, no doubt,
The field-mouse preys upon the bumble-bee.

“These hirsute bees, and they alone, contrive
To fertilize the dark red-clover blooms;
Although it is their smaller cousins who hive
The clover-honey that loads our Kentish combs.

“So when we find—what does the Bible say?—
A land flowing with milk and honey, we do
Not doubt, we naturalists, that there we may
Expect to find old maids a-plenty too.

“The state of single blessedness, you see,
Is not without its talent; indeed, you might
Call spinsters partners of the honey bee
Bringer of life’s best gifts, sweetness and light.”

Times change; old maids now in these parts are rare.
That would have made Mr Darwin smile, because
I hear old farmers here in Kent declare
The honey-flow is nothing like it was.

I did not marry, myself. As I recall
I have never had reason to complain of that.
Susan was wed, poor Sue, three times in all;
But now we live together. We keep a cat.

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