Source: Demorest’s Monthly, February 1897
It seems strange that so dreary a month as February should ever have been graced with the charming myths which have gathered about St. Valentine’s Day, and made its observance one of the relics of the fairy-land of love and dreams, which passed away when the shriek of the steam-whistle, and the click of the telegraph announced that only tangible realities were to be considered respectable, and that all stock in the realm of romance and superstition had fallen below par. Charles Lamb in his inimitable essay says that in his time already the pretty customs of Valentine’s Day were passing out of aristocratic society, and falling to the share of the footman and the housemaid; but we rather think that there were ladies and gentlemen of “high degree” who envied the footmen and housemaids the liberty exercised under the good saint, and would fain have had a share in the fun.
The pretty fable of the birds choosing their mates upon this day, and receiving the episcopal blessing, has been immortalized by Chaucer, and has given it the charm of freshness and poetic fancy; and in spite of the efforts which have been made to discredit it by coarse caricature and associations, February, with its weeping clouds and disconsolate skies, is welcomed chiefly by the young folk, because of its genial holiday. The shops are gay with every variety of fanciful conceit that can be pressed into the service. Hearts are at a discount, but darts above par. Cupids are lively, and to look in at the shop windows takes one back to the days of chivalry when men were thrilled with chains of roses, instead of links of gold. But no degree of prosaic commonplace, no commercial estimate of values, can alter human nature; no Midas’s touch can change the roses into gold pieces, or shut out the winged-boy who owns allegiance to St. Valentine, the only saint in the calendar he is inclined to favor.
Love vibrates in the wind-harp’s tune,
With fays and fairies lingers he,
Gleams in the ring of the watery moon,
Or treads the pebbles of the sea,
And everywhere he welcome finds;
To cottage door or palace porch
Love enters free as spicy winds
With purple wings and lighted torch,
With tripling feet and silvery tongue,
And bows and darts behind him slung!
Upon Valentine’s days the well pleased postman carries about the fluttering captive at the risk of crushing his rosy wings, and the yet more imminent risk of a sly dart; but whether hidden in elegant rose scented paper, or folded ruthlessly up in some staring horror, decked with green and blue, he always comes out “good as new,” and plays precisely the same tricks upon the boy that reads the “horror” in some safe corner of the stable, as upon the courtly dame who unfolds the gilded missive, and is quite content in both cases if he adds another bleeding heart to his trophies.
It was certainly in less rigorous climes than ours that the birds chose February for their troth plighting and that it was asserted by Chaucer of the good saint that
“All the air is his diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are his parishioners.”
Indeed, England seems to have nourished all the fanciful superstitions and coquettish customs of this festival with great care, and at one time it was observed with infinite zest by “grave and reverend seigniors.” The custom of giving presents as a return for being chosen as a valentine was universal, and is noticed many times by old English authors.
Mr. Pepys in his celebrated diary makes this entry on Valentine’s Day, 1667: “This morning came up to my wife’s bedside (I being up dressing myself) little Will Mercer to be her valentine, and brought her name written upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself very pretty, and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s valentine, and it will cost me five pounds.”
But the true, proper ceremony of St. Valentine’s Day was a drawing of a kind of lottery, followed by ceremonies not much unlike what is generally called the game of forfeits. Mission, a learned traveler of the early part of the last century, gives apparently a correct account of the principal ceremonial Valentine’s Day, he says, the young folks of England and Scotland by a very ancient custom celebrate a little festival. The girls, and young men assemble together and write a name upon slips of paper, the girls writing the name of a gentleman, the young men that of a lady. These are mixed up in separate receptacles, and drawn from by the persons present, who in this way get each a “Valentine,” who, though only compulsory for a year, was not unfrequently chosen for life. This custom is made the basis of a story by “Hope Ledyard” in the present number, and has been the basis of song and story. It is even modernized as a drawing-room game, in which the parties are not, however, chosen for a year, but only for the evening, and though it sometimes degenerates into which is called the “Wristlet” game, yet even this owes its origin to the same idea.
It might not be amiss for some of our beaux and belles to revive this interesting game, and cheer the waning days of winter with its gayety. It would be well to make the present offered always flowers; since the simplest nosegay is always elegant, and the most lavish cost is always possible, this would suit the means and the taste of every class, and take away the taint of vulgarity always attached to a compliment which may possibly be interested.
By Edyth Kirkwood, as published in Peterson’s Magazine, February 1884
Victorian Valentine Postcard
“Ah! there you are at last, Cora. I was just going to send your breakfast up to you. Did you have a pleasant time, at the party, last night?”
Cora drew up her chair, stirred her coffee sleepily, repressed a yawn, and replied, slowly:
“It was a perfect crush. I got myself ensconced, and enjoyed myself in a corner: I had no mind to spoil my dress by trying to dance in such a crowd.”
Mrs. Blondin-for Cora’s sister was married-stared. Cora was usually willing to dance, if she could get standing-room and no more.
“You must have had a most agreeable companion,” she observed, sagely. “Who was it?”
“I was talking most of the evening to a friend of Mr. Melton’s,” she replied, the color growing deeper in her cheeks. “He is visiting here.”
“Oh! I wonder if it wasn’t Val-” began Mrs. Blondin. “But here is Kitty with the letters,” she said, stopping short in her sentence.
“No, ma’am,” answered the maid; “the postman hasn’t come round yet. It’s only a note from Mrs. Melton, which the messenger said I wuz to be very particular to give into your own hands; and he’s waiting for an answer.”
While Cora finished her coffee, Mrs. Blondin broke the envelope, read the note, and then, with an evident effort to repress a smile, put it in her pocket, and going to a table near by, dashed off a few lines, and gave it to the maid.
Cora’s eyes followed every movement curiously. “My dear sister,” she purred, coaxingly, “what is it all about? And why this mystery? Let me see it, too;” and she held out her hand.
“It’s only a note from Mrs. Melton, saying she will call this evening with her husband, and asking permission to bring their friend-Mr. Hartwell,” replied Mrs. Blondin.
“Oh! is that all?” pouted Cora, in a tone of pretended disappointment.
“What did you suppose it was?” asked her sister, teasingly. “Not a valentine, eh? Although this is the great day.”
Cora made a little face, and ran out of the room; and then her sister laughed heartily, as she drew the note out of her pocket, and read it again. It ran thus:
“Dear Nellie: When we were school-girls together, you were always begging me not to scheme and plot; but ’tis my nature to,’ and you know I never use my gifts maliciously. I have composed a little snare for your sister, whose interest in our friend Mr. Hartwell only equals to his in her. You remember Valentine, don’t you? You know he is everything that is good and manly; so you need have no scruples in aiding me. All I want of you is silence concerning Mr. Hartwell’s first name. Don’t breathe it; and leave the rest to me. Shall you be at home this evening? If so, Mr. Melton and I will call, about eight; and I suppose I have your permission to bring our friend.”
“Ever yours, Agusta Melton.”
The day wore on. Kitty, the maid, got a lace-paper missive, with two clasped hands, a cupid, a church-door, a ring, and a rhyme, which made her heart light for the rest of the day: for who but the milk-man sent it?
As for Cora, the valentines she received were almost legion. No one was so popular. And now to-night she sat at a little round table in the drawing-room, with her pile of valentines before her. Never had she looked prettier. She wore a simple black-silk dress, which brought out in exquisite relief her fair rose-bloom complexion. Her golden hair, bound by a narrow fillet of black velvet ribbon across her head, fell in masses down her back. Her blue eyes looked up with a soft far-away expression. Her rich red half-pouting lips were as tempting as ripe pomegranates.
Her sister was standing by her, taking up one valentine after another, and commenting on them, wondering from whom each came. “I should have thought your new acquaintance of last night would have sent one,” she said. “I wonder if this, after all, is not from him,” she added, as she held up an unusually elegant one.
At this instance the door opened, and the maid announced “Mr. Hartwell,” before the speaker could put down the valentine.
As the girl spoke, a tall handsome gentleman entered. He bowed to Mrs. Blondin, and said, holding out a letter:
“Mrs. Melton was so earnest in her entreaties that I should bring you this note, that I hurried off before her, at her own desire; and she begged me to ask you to open and read it at once.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Blondin, “it is for my sister,” glancing at the envelope.
“Mrs. Melton is abounding in mysteries to-day, laughed Cora, as she rose, and, courtesying to the new-comer, took the letter. “She sent a fleet messenger early this morning with some secret communication for my sister. I wonder what is in it. But pray sit down.”
He complied. She sank again into her chair, and read the note. But having done so, she looked perplexed. She turned the papers over, shook them, peeped into the envelope, saying:
“Why, how strange! Is this all, Mr. Hartwell? Didn’t she give you another letter for me?”
“That was all, Miss Cora; and although she did not acquaint me with the contents, she seemed to attach great importance to my personally giving it to you.”
“Well, I don’t suppose there is any reason why you shouldn’t know the contents. Mrs. Melton only says she sends me a valentine, which she hopes I will accept,” said Cora.
Mr. Hartwell uttered an inarticulate exclamation: started for the door; came back; and, muttering a vague apology, stood gazing at the fair speaker. “Has he lost his senses?” thought Mrs. Blondin. As for Cora, she looked at him in undisguised wonder.
“I believe in my heart you have lost it, Mr. Hartwell,” she said at last, with a gay laugh. “You have lost my valentine, and you are afraid to confess. Isn’t it so? Really, you act like one with something on his conscience. Well, I’m sorry to lose it; but never mind.”
“One moment, I beg!” he cried. “Let me explain; for Mrs. Melton will tell you if I do not. My Christian name is Valentine, and she-you know she is full of fun-she must have meant that when she sent the note by me. She sent you a Valentine.”
“Oh!” said Cora, stiffly; “was that it? Yes, she certainly is full of fun; but I must say I think her joke has been carried a little too far this time.” Her voice was quite indignant.
“Miss Grayson, I beg you to believe me. I did not know any more about it than you. I am truly distressed,” said the visitor.
“Pray don’t apologize. I believe you. Let us drop it.” Softening a little in her tone.
But Mr. Hartwell did not wish to drop it.
“Miss Cora, there is something else, Mrs. Melton send you a valentine which she hoped you would accept. We have met but twice, it is true; and I should never have presumed, on my own part, to offer myself on such a short acquaintance. But is has been done fore me; and-pardon me-I do not regret it. there is such a thing as love at first sight; and I love you devotedly.”
He tried to take her hand, forgetful of her sister’s presence-who, however, had retired discreetly into the background. But Cora drew back shyly. Neither of them heard the door-bell ring, nor saw a laughing group gathered at the door of the room. Both stared violently when Mrs. Melton’s merry voice rang out:
“Upon my word, things seem to be progressing nicely. The good fates always preside over my little plots. So my Valentine pleases you?”
As she spoke, she came in effusively, and patted the young girl’s flushed cheek.
“Not at all!” began Cora, indignantly. Then she stammered: “At least-I mean-” and suddenly stopped.
“It was really very amusing of you, Mrs. Melton,” said Mr. Hartwell, lightly, coming to the rescue. “Not at all a bad joke.”
“Then she accepted you, Valentine?” queried the saucy little lady.
“She did not refuse me flatly,” he replied. “As to accepting, in time I hope she may.”
And in time she did. Yes! she married her VALENTINE.
I have seen the infant sinking down, like a stricken flower, to the grave—the strong man fiercely breathing out his soul upon the field of battle—the miserable convict standing upon the scaffold, with a deep curse quivering on his lips—I have viewed death in all his forms of darkness and vengeance with a tearless eye,—but I never could look on woman, young and lovely woman, fading away from the earth in beautiful and uncomplaining melancholy, without feeling the very fountains of life turned to tears and dust. Death is always terrible—but, when a form of angel beauty is passing off to the silent land of the sleepers, the heart feels that something lovely in the universe is ceasing from existence, and broods, with a sense of utter desolation, over the lonely thoughts, that come up like specters from the grave to haunt our midnight musings.
Two years ago, I took up my residence for a few weeks in a country village in the eastern part of New England. Soon after my arrival I became acquainted with a lovely girl, apparently about seventeen years of age. She had lost the idol of her pure heart’s purest love, and the shadows of deep and holy memories were resting like the wing of death upon her brow. I first met her in the presence of the mirthful. She was indeed a creature to be worshiped—her brow was garlanded with the young year’s sweetest flowers—her yellow locks were hanging beautifully and low upon her bosom—and she moved through the crowd with such a floating and unearthly grace, that the bewildered gazer almost looked to see her fade into the air, like the creation of some pleasant dream. She seemed cheerful and even gay; yet I saw that her gaiety was but the mockery of her feelings. She smiled, but there was something in her smile which told that its mournful beauty was but the bright reflection of a tear—and her eye-lids, at times, closed heavily down, as if struggling to repress the tide of agony that was bursting up from her heart’s secret urn. She looked as if she could have left the scene of festivity, and gone out beneath the quiet stars, and laid her forehead down upon the fresh, green earth, and poured out her stricken soul, gush after gush, till it mingled with the eternal fountain of life and purity.
Days and weeks passed on, and that sweet girl gave me her confidence, and I became to her as a brother. She was wasting away by disease. The smile upon her lip was fainter, the purple veins upon her cheek grew visible, and the cadences of her voice became daily more week and tremulous. On a quiet evening in the depth of June, I wandered out with her a little distance in the open air. It was then that she first told me the tale of her passion, and of the blight that had come down like mildew upon her life. Love had been a portion of her existence. Its tendrils had been twined around her heart in its earliest years; and, when they were rent away, they left a wound which flowed till all the springs of her soul were blood. “I am passing away,” said she, “and it should be so. The winds have gone over my life, and the bright buds of hope and the sweet blossoms of passion are scattered down and lie withering in the dust, or rotting away upon the chill waters of memory. And yet I cannot go down among the tombs without a tear. It is hard to bid farewell to these dear scenes, with which I have held communion from childhood, and which, from day to day, have caught the colour of my life and sympathised with its joys and sorrows. That little grove where I have so often strayed with my burried Love, and where, at times, even now, the sweet tones of his voice seem to come stealing around me till the whole air becomes one intense and mournful melody—that pensive star, which we used to watch in its early rising, and on which my fancy can still picture his form looking down upon me, and beckoning me to his own bright home: every flower and tree, and rivulet, on which the memory of our early love has set its undying seal, have become dear to me, and I cannot, without a sigh, close my eyes upon them for ever.”
I have lately heard, that the beautiful girl, of whom I have spoken, is dead. The close of her life was calm as the falling of a quiet stream—gentle as the sinking of the breeze, that lingers, for a time, around a bed of withered roses, and then dies “as ‘twere from very sweetness.”
It cannot be said that earth is man’s only abiding place. It cannot be, that our life is a bubble cast up by the Ocean of Eternity, to float a moment upon its waves and sink into darkness and nothingness. Else why is it, that the high and glorious aspirations, which leap like angels from the temple of our hearts, are for ever wandering abroad unsatisfied? Why is it, that the stars, which “hold their festivals around the midnight throne,” are set above the grasp of our unlimited faculties—for ever mocking us with their unapproachable glory? And finally, why is it, that bright forms of human beauty are presented to our view and then taken from us—leaving the thousand streams of our affections to flow back in an Alpine torrent upon our hearts? We are born for a higher destiny than that of earth. There is a realm, where the rainbow never fades, where the stars will be spread out before us like the islands that slumber on the ocean, and where the beautiful beings, which here pass before us like visions, will stay in our presence for ever. Bright creature of my dreams—in that realm I shall see thee again. Even now thy lost image is sometimes with me. In the mysterious silence of midnight, when the streams are glowing in the light of the many stars, that image comes floating upon the beam that lingers around my pillow, and stands before me in its pale, dim loveliness, till its own quiet spirit sinks like a spell from heaven upon my thoughts, and the grief of years is turned to dreams of blessedness and peace.
Story from The Lady’s Album, early 19th century.
Image: Rose Coghlan, Actress (1851-1932) photograph by Sarony, NY