Of Bird and the bees – Part 1

The boundary between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is the Missiquash River, although it was briefly called the Marguerite, and how the name was changed is a “love against family wishes” story.  Not far from the river lived, in 1676, the French nobleman Michel Le Neuf, overseeing his feudal possessions in the New World. His beautiful daughter graced the new settlement with her courtly manners and charm.  Her father showed his great appreciation of his genteel daughter by naming the river after her.  He had chosen a young titled man in France for her to wed, but the beautiful young lady was more than genteel.

Marguerite very much loved the broad marshes in that part of the world and was often out alone, riding her horse over its vast domain.  She could not resist the endless wind-swept fields, and the joy she had in riding over them was her way of escaping the physical and social stuffiness of her father’s house.  And so it happened that one day Marguerite did not return home.  In time, her father received word that she had eloped and had been married properly by a priest to “a widower from a tiny settlement up the ridge, a man who already had six children and no more than a rude log cabin for a home.”  The disappointed, if not enraged, father promptly renamed the river the Missiquash, which was probably its original Native designation.

My wife and I just celebrated our 31st anniversary and this is the year that both our children are getting married, so a focus on love and marriage seems appropriate.  The story about Marguerite appears in one of the many books written by Will R. Bird, who was a celebrated Canadian author, though not so well known anymore.  In 1949 he received a Doctorate in Literature from Mount Alison University, and that seems to be about the year that he first traveled through Nova Scotia, collecting local tales from all the people in the little villages and towns along the way.  A number of these colorful accounts tell of the fun and foibles of love in the province’s early days of settlement.  I will share one of my favorites, and add a couple more next week.

A young man from Yorkshire in England left his girl behind in the old country, promising to send for her if Nova Scotia turned out as hopeful as was being said. Later, having scouted the rich marshland near Amherst, he wrote his girl the promised letter, not realizing that the mail would be even slower than usual unless an extra amount was paid above the usual rate.  After the letter had been posted, he spent many an hour in day or evening regaling the settlers with descriptions of the extraordinary beauty of his beloved Mary, the girl with sumptuous long tresses.

As Will Bird tells it, “The winter passed, spring came and went, so did the summer and fall, and no Mary arrived … for the very good reason that the letter was lying in Halifax for many months before someone troubled to hand it to a sea captain proceeding to Liverpool.  At Liverpool the letter rested again until the second year, when it was sent on its way.”  In the summer of the second year, a friend hammered on the young farmer’s door at midnight, shouting that Mary had just arrived on a schooner.  This should have been happy tidings but “lack of news from Mary had discouraged him so that he had let things take care of themselves until his house was like a pig sty and he looked little better than a tramp.”  His friend worried that Mary would not wait but would find someone to take her to the unruly farm, so he suggested a plan. “Why not get married to the girl before she sees your house?”

People say that all is fair in love and war, and though that is dangerous advice in both cases, it did not stop our young farmer from agreeing to his friend’s idea.  He dressed and groomed as well as he could in a hurry, and went out to rouse from bed a very reluctant parson.  After he offered the man a gold coin, the poor-as-a-church-mouse parson agreed to go with him.  But Mary appeared anxious when she was met with the suggestion of an immediate wedding.  She tried to talk but the young groom, equally anxious, kept interrupting, saying, “After we’re wed, lass, we have all our lives to talk things over.”

And so, says Will Bird, after all protest from Mary had been smothered, the midnight wedding took place with the friend as witness.  “Now,” bragged the new husband to him, “I have the handsomest wife in the country.  Show him thy hair, lass.”  Mary, sobbing, tugged off her bonnet.  She was bald, scarlet fever having made her so, and it was this tragedy that she was trying to break gently to the groom before the knot was tied.

More of Will Bird and love next Thursday

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