27 FEBRUARY 1904, Page 10


IF the authority for the legend which connects the names of St. Patrick and St. Bridget with the special privileges attached to the twenty-ninth of February is not exactly Thucydidean in its accuracy, that is also true of the authority for many traditions which have taken deep root in the lives of many peoples. The legend—or one of the legends—goes that St. Bridget asked St. Patrick for a year in which maids might woo. He conceded her one year in seven. She, no doubt confident of the compelling charm of Irishwomen, but anxious that other maidens less blessed should he granted an extended privilege, succeeded in persuading the Saint to reduce the number seven to four,—and on gaining the concession imme- diately offered marriage to St. Patrick himself. The offer placed him, of course, in a difficult position ; but he is credibly related to have extricated himself by means of a kiss and the gift of a silk gown. There are, it is believed, no available statistics to show the exact number of Irish and English maidens who have taken advantage of the privileges secured for them by the modest St. Bridget. Probably the number is much larger than it is generally supposed to be ; and though it is painful to dwell on the thought that among the number of modern St. Bridgets who have wooed their St. Patricks, some must have been reluctantly or firmly refused, it is a consoling notion that refusal must invariably have been accompanied by an addition to the wooer's ward- robe,—for the rejected suitor has traditionally always been able to claim a silk gown. The reflection arises that if a modern maiden were as unattractive as Mr. Gilbert's Katisha, she might in the course of a single twenty-ninth of February reduce her dressmaker's bill practically to nothing.

Is the tradition something merely to be laughed at? "Yes," would probably be the answer of ninety men and women out of a hundred, married or unmarried. But are the remaining ten per cent. who would say " No " for that reason not worth taking into account ? At least it may be granted that their cases are interesting to the student of human nature, easy though it may be to the average man to give the ordinary counsel, and difficult though it may be to the average woman to understand why there should arise even the necessity for such counsel to be given. The Daily Mail has recently been collecting a number of letters from correspondents under the somewhat startling heading, "How Should a Girl Propose?" —a heading which certainly, like the imaginary lady herself, seems to beg the main question. Most of the letters look as if they were quite genuine expressions of feeling, and some of them have been amusing ; nearly all appear to have taken the question discussed with extreme seriousness. Some of the correspondents have written to the effect that a girl who should propose marriage would ipso facto write her- self down an unmaidenish hoyden; some have pathetically asked for personal advice in their individual cases ; some, apparently, while hinting that their courage in business, and, indeed, on the battlefield, is not to be denied, have decided that the best way in which they can succeed in putting other and more fearful matters to the touch is by writing a letter to the newspaper; others, again, definitely urge that it is ridiculous to refuse to woman the privilege which is commonly supposed to belong to man,—namely, that of pursuing, and if possible, capturing, the object of affection. "Why should a woman be obliged to love in secret, when, in a few words, she might obtain her heart's desire ? " one of the correspondents

writes with considerable fervour. Another :—" It seems to me intolerable that a woman should even contemplate proposing.

If the man she loves is too great a fool to ask her, surely he is too great a fool for her to marry. If he does not want hers why not leave him alone ? The woman who is accepted should

have waited to be asked, and the woman who is refused has branded herself with the mark of boldness,—if not worse." Another, again, though apparently disapproving of rash and open pursuit, puts forward counsel which in its subtlety is quite Odyssean. The thing to do is to lead the pursued to "think you are not what you are," as Viola put it to Olivia. "There is no reason why she" (her name, strangely enough, is Constance) "should not use one of the weapons of her sex. Why not put her lover to the test by telling him that she proposes to propose to some one else ? If he really cares for her, he will not lose her then for the want of the spoken word." All of which is very interesting, for after all, some- how or other it does happen, year after year, that a very large number of simple young people have no difficulty in finding an answer to a simple question. But, perhaps, is the number of persons whom these subversive questions trouble larger than we commonly suppose,—or ought the sane average man or woman merely to laugh good-naturedly at the story of St. Patrick and St. Bridget, and to believe that the position of those who are perplexed by these queer ques- tions is one which need not form a subject of serious thought or discussion P

If any man were to come to this latter conclusion, there is this to be said, that there are whole chapters and poems of some of the greatest of English writers that could be arrayed against him. The motif embodied in the two words "Woman proposes," more than merely attracting, has always fascinated poets and novelists. If you are to choose the greatest of the loci classici, it would be, perhaps, that marvellously delicate scene in Twelfth Night between Olivia and the supposed Cesario. "I am not what I am," Viola pleads. "I would you were as I would have you be ! " she is answered; and, after a

moment, Olivia breaks her reticence with a "cry of the heart" which, though it fascinates the audience who are in Viola's secret chiefly by the lightness and delicacy of its irony, has yet exactly that depth of emotion which the audience feels is only possible to a lover :— " A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon Than love that would seem hid : love's night is noon.

Cesario, by the roses of the spring, By maidhood, honour, truth and every thing, I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride, Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

Do not extort thy reasons from this clause, For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause; But rather reason thus with reason fetter, Love sought is good, but given unsought is better."

Perhaps twenty years later than Twelfth Night, Beaumont and Fletcher published Philaster. In Philaster the conditions

under which "love lies a-bleeding " are a little different. Arethusa, unwilling to accept Pharamond, determines to reveal her affection to Philaster. She sends for him, and he goes to meet her, unafraid that there may be laid "some foul train to catch his life." But he does not suspect what Arethusa means to say to him. When she has come near to revealing her secret she begs him to turn away his face. He refuses at first, thinking that she is only about to express her desire for "both the kingdoms" of which she has been speak-

ing. At last he "a little unbends his looks" :— "Then know, I must have them, and thee." "And me P" he asks.

"Thy love; without which, all the land Discover'd yet, will serve me for no use, But to be buried in . . .

With it, it were too little to bestow On thee. Now, though thy breath do strike me dead (Which, know, it may) I have unript my breast."

A more modern poet has developed the same theme, though working a different plot to a rather different conclusion. In Mrs. Browning's "Lady Geraldine's Courtship—a Romance of the Age," a poet "writes to his friend" describing his rejection by "a lady—an earl's daughter." He finishes the letter in the deepest misery of mind, and "Having ended, he leans backward in his chair, with lips that quiver Suddenly there is the "vision of a lady." She approaches him "With her two white hands extended, as if praying one offended."

He implores her not to wake him, and she answers: "Bertram, if I say I love thee . . . 'Us the vision only speaks." There, of course, you have the theme idealised, taken out of the plain prose of life. But it has been a theme for others besides poets. Perhaps the strongest chapter in "John Halifax" is that in which Ursula March decides to tell John herself what he has chosen he will not tell her. "Is it in- evitable," she asks, "that you must go abroad P "— " Hush,' John answered, wildly. 'Don't reason with me—you cannot judge—you do not know. It is enough that I must go.

If I stay I shall become unworthy of myself Because— because—' and his voice shook—broke down utterly. 'God love thee and take care of thee, wherever I may go '—'John, stay!' It was but a low, faint cry, like that of a little bird. But he heard it—felt it."

Perhaps Ursula March's words are less a proposal than an acceptance. But her proposal was made when she wrote asking if she might come to see the man who was supposed to be dying. It was in a merrier mood that Lorna Doone—Lady Lorna—told "girt Jan Ridd " that he might go further than he meant, when she stood for a moment "like a maiden, with skill and sense checking violent impulse." "The hand she offered me I took, and raised it to my lips with fear, as a. thing too good for me. 'Is that all ? ' she whispered."

The queer reflection is this, that though the instinct of most men and women is to laugh at twenty-ninth-of-February notions, whenever the greater poets and prose-writers have written on the theme "Woman proposes" 'they have pro, duced some of their best work. What is the conclusion P Most of us laugh, because we are commonplace people ; the commonplace people who do not laugh cannot put what they feel into language to which others will listen with patience. It needs the poet or the novelist of real insight to illumine facts which may not be common, but are facts nevertheless.