An observer of how old age is neglected in America said to me the other day, “It seems an impertinence to be alive after sixty on this side of the globe”; and I have often thought how much we lose by not cultivating fine old-fashioned ladies and gentlemen. Our aged relatives and friends seem to be tucked away, nowadays, into neglected corners, as though it were the correct thing to give them a long preparation for still narrower quarters. For my own part, comely and debonair old age is most attractive; and when I see the “thick silver-white hair lying on a serious and weather-worn face, like moonlight on a stout old tower,” I have a strong tendency to lift my hat, whether I know the person or not.
“No spring nor summer
beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in an autumnal face.”
It was a fortunate hour for me when kind-hearted John Kenyon said, as I was leaving his hospitable door in London one summer midnight in 1847, “You must know my friend, Miss Mitford. She lives directly on the line of your route to Oxford, and you must call with my card and make her acquaintance.” I had lately been talking with Wordsworth and Christopher North and old Samuel Rogers, but my hunger at that time to stand face to face with the distinguished persons in English literature was not satisfied. So it was during my first “tourification” in England that I came to know Miss Mitford. The day selected for my call at her cottage door happened to be a perfect one on which to begin an acquaintance with the lady of “Our Village.” She was then living at Three-Mile Cross, having removed there from Bertram House in 1820. The cottage where I found her was situated on the high road between Basingstoke and Reading; and the village street on which she was then living contained the public-house and several small shops near by. There was also close at hand the village pond full of ducks and geese, and I noticed several young rogues on their way to school were occupied in worrying their feathered friends. The windows of the cottage were filled with flowers, and cowslips and violets were plentifully scattered about the little garden. Miss Mitford liked to have one dog, at least, at her heels, and this day her pet seemed to be constantly under foot. I remember the room into which I was shown was sanded, and a quaint old clock behind the door was marking off the hour in small but very loud pieces. The cheerful old lady called to me from the head of the stairs to come up into her sitting-room. I sat down by the open window to converse with her, and it was pleasant to see how the village children, as they went by, stopped to bow and curtsey. One curly-headed urchin made bold to take off his well-worn cap, and wait to be recognized as “little Johnny”. “No great scholar,” said the kind-hearted old lady to me, “but a sad rogue among our flock of geese. Only yesterday the young marauder was detected by my maid with a plump gosling stuffed half-way into his pocket!” While she was thus discoursing of Johnny’s peccadilloes, the little fellow looked up with a knowing expression, and very soon caught in his cap a gingerbread dog, which the old lady threw to him from the window. “I wish he loved his book as well as he relishes sweetcake,” sighed she, as the boy kicked up his heels and disappeared down the lane.