by Mrs. Gaskell
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Mrs. Gaskell, originally Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, known as 'Mrs. Gaskell' after her marriage to a Manchester Unitarian minister, was born in London on Sept. 29, 1810. She spent many of her earlier years at Knutsford in Cheshire, which may be the model for the 'Cranford' stories, first published in 1851 as a serial in Charles Dickens' magazine 'Household Words'.
For more works by Mrs. Gaskell, see The Index
I. - Our Society
On the first visit I paid to Cranford, after I had left it as a residence, I was astonished to find a man had settled there - a Captain Brown. In my time Cranford was in possession of the Amazons. If a married couple came to settle there, somehow the man always disappeared. Either he was fairly frightened to death by being the only man at the evening parties, or he was accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely connected in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on the railroad.
I was naturally interested to learn what opinions Captain Brown had managed to win for himself in Cranford. So, with all the delicacy which the subject demanded, I made inquiries of my hostess, Miss Jenkyns. I was surprised to learn that Captain Brown not only was respected, but had even gained an extraordinary place of authority among the Cranford ladies. Of course, he had been forced to overcome great difficulties.
In the first place, the ladies of Cranford had moaned over the invasion of their territories by a man and a gentleman. Then Captain Brown had started badly, very badly, by openly referring to his poverty. If he had whispered it to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, his vulgarity - a tremendous word in Cranford - might have been forgiven. But he had published his poverty in the public street, in a loud military voice, alleging it as a reason for not taking a particular house.
In Cranford, too, where it was tacitly agreed to ignore that anyone with whom we associated on terms of equality could ever be prevented by poverty from doing anything they wished. Where, if we walked to and from a party, it was because the night was so fine or the air so refreshing, not because sedan-chairs were so expensive.
So the poor captain had been sent to Coventry. The ladies of Cranford had frozen him out, until the day when the cow, an Alderney cow, had broken the ice.
It happened like this. Miss Betsy Barker had an Alderney cow, which she looked upon as a daughter. You could not pay the regulation short quarter of an hour's call - to stay longer was a breach of manners - without being told of the wonderful milk or wonderful intelligence of this animal. The whole town knew and kindly regarded Miss Betsy Barker's Alderney.
One day the cow fell into a lime-pit, and Cranford grieved over the spectacle of the poor beast being drawn out, having lost most of her hair, and looking naked, cold and miserable, in a bare skin. Miss Betsy Barker absolutely cried with sorrow and dismay, and was about to prepare a bath of oil for the sufferer, when Captain Brown called out: "Get her a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers, ma'am, if you wish to keep her alive. But my advice is, 'kill the poor creature at once.'" Miss Betsy Barker dried her eyes, and in a few hours the whole town turned out to see the Alderney meekly going to her pasture, clad in dark-gray flannel. Do you ever see cows dressed in gray flannel in London?
On that day was born the respect of the Cranford ladies for Captain Brown.
Soon after my arrival in Cranford, Miss Jenkyns gave a party in my honour, and recalling the old days when we had almost persuaded ourselves that to be a man was to be "vulgar," I was curious to see what the ladies would do with Captain Brown.
The preparations were much as usual. Card-tables, with green baize tops, were set out by daylight, and towards four, when the evening closed in, we all stood dressed in our best, each with a candle-lighter in our hand, ready to dart at the candles as soon as the first knock came. The china was delicate egg-shell; the old-fashioned silver glittered with polishing; but the eatables were of the slightest description. While the trays were yet on the table, Captain Brown arrived with his two daughters, Miss Brown and Miss Jessie, the former with a sickly, pained, and careworn expression; the latter with a pretty, round, dimpled face, and the look of a child which will remain with her should she live to be a hundred.
I could see that the captain was a favourite with all the ladies present. Ruffled brows were smoothed and sharp voices hushed at his approach. He immediately and quietly assumed the man's place in the room; attended to everyone's wants, lessened the pretty maidservant's labour by waiting on empty cups and bread-and-butterless ladies; and yet did it all in so easy and dignified a manner, and so much as if it were a matter of course for the strong to attend to the weak, that he was a true man throughout.
The party passed off very well in spite of one or two little hitches. One was Miss Jessie Brown's unguarded admission - à propos of Shetland wool - that she had an uncle, her mother's brother, who was a shopkeeper in Edinburgh. Miss Jenkyns tried to drown this confession by a terrible cough, for the honourable Mrs. Jamieson was sitting at the card-table nearest Miss Jessie, and what would she say or think if she found out she was in the same room with a shopkeeper's niece!
Then there was a slight breeze between Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown over the relative merits of Dr. Johnson and the author of "Pickwick Papers" - then being published in parts - as writers of light and agreeable fiction. Captain Brown read an account of the "Swarry" which Sam Weller gave at Bath. Some of us laughed very heartily. I did not dare, because I was staying in the house. At the conclusion Miss Jenkyns said to me, with mild dignity, "Fetch me 'Rasselas,' my dear, out of the book-room."
After delivering one of the conversations between Rasselas and Imlac in a majestic, high-pitched voice, Miss Jenkyns said, "I imagine I am now justified in my preference for Dr. Johnson over your Mr. Boz as a writer of fiction."
The captain said nothing, merely screwed his lips up and drummed on the table; but when Miss Jenkyns returned later to the charge and recommended the doctor's style to Captain Brown's favourite, the captain replied, "I should be very sorry for him to exchange his style for any such pompous writing."
Miss Jenkyns felt this as a personal affront in a way of which the captain had not dreamed. How could he know that she and her friends looked upon epistolary writing as their forte, and that when in a letter they "seized the half-hour just previous to post-time to assure" their friends of this and that, they were using the doctor as a model?
As it was Miss Jenkyns refused to be mollified by Captain Brown's efforts later to beguile her into conversation on some more pleasing subject. She was inexorable.
Captain Brown endeavoured to make peace after this memorable dispute by a present to Miss Jenkyns of a wooden fire-shovel (his own making), having heard her say how much the grating of an iron one annoyed her. She received the present with cool gratitude and thanked him formally. When he was gone she bade me put it in the lumber-room, feeling probably that no present from a man who preferred Mr. Boz to Dr. Johnson could be less jarring than an iron fire-shovel.
Such was the state of affairs at the time when I left Cranford and went to Drumble. I had, however, several correspondents who kept me au fait as to the proceedings of the inhabitants of the dear little town.
II. - The Captain
My next visit to Cranford was in the summer. There had been neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last. Everybody lived in the same house, and wore pretty near the same well-preserved, old-fashioned clothes. The greatest event was that the Misses Jenkyns had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room. Oh, the busy work Miss Matty and I had in chasing the sunbeams as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless windows! We spread our newspapers over the places and sat down to our book or our work; and, lo! in a quarter of an hour the sun had moved and was blazing away in a fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. One whole morning, too, we spent in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspapers so as to form little paths to every chair, lest the shoes of visitors should defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?
The literary dispute between Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns continued. She had formed a habit of talking at him. And he retaliated by drumming his fingers, which action Miss Jenkyns felt and resented as disparaging to Dr. Johnson.
The poor captain! I noticed on this visit that he looked older and more worn, and his clothes were very threadbare. But he seemed as bright and cheerful as ever, unless he was asked about his daughter's health.
One afternoon we perceived little groups in the street, all listening with faces aghast to some tale or other. It was some time before Miss Jenkyns took the undignified step of sending Jenny out to inquire.
Jenny came back with a white face of terror.
"Oh, ma'am! Oh, Miss Jenkyns, ma'am! Captain Brown is killed by them nasty cruel railroads." And she burst into tears.
"How, where - where? Good God! Jenny, don't waste time in crying, but tell us something."
Miss Matty rushed out into the street, and presently an affrighted carter appeared in the drawing-room and told the story.
"'Tis true, mum, I seed it myself. The captain was a-readin' some book, waitin' for the down train, when a lass as gave its sister the slip came toddling across the line. He looked up sudden, see'd the child, darted on the line, cotched it up, and his foot slipped and the train came over him in no time. The child's safe. Poor captain would be glad of that, mum, wouldn't he? God bless him!"
The great rough carter turned away to hide his tears. I turned to Miss Jenkyns. She looked very ill, as though she were going to faint, and signed to me to open a window.
"Matilda, bring me my bonnet. I must go to those girls. God pardon me if ever I have spoken contemptuously to the captain."
Miss Brown did not long survive her father. Her last words were a prayer for forgiveness for her selfishness in allowing her sister Jessie to sacrifice herself for her all her life.
But Miss Jessie was not long left alone. Miss Jenkyns insisted she should come and stay with her, and would not hear of her going out into the world to earn her living as a saleswoman. "Some people have no idea of their rank as a captain's daughter," she related indignantly, and stumped out of the room. Presently she came back with a strange look on her face.
"I have been much startled - no, I've not been startled - don't mind me, my dear Miss Jessie, only surprised - in fact, I've had a caller whom you once knew, my dear Miss Jessie."
Miss Jessie went very white, then flushed scarlet.
"Is it? - it is not - - " stammered out Miss Jessie, and got no farther.
"This is his card," said Miss Jenkyns, and went through a series of winks and odd faces at me, and formed a long sentence with her lips, of which I could not understand a word.
Major Gordon was shown upstairs.
While downstairs Miss Jenkyns told me what the major had told her. How he had served in the same regiment as Captain Brown and had fallen in love with Miss Jessie, then a sweet-looking, blooming girl of eighteen; how she had refused him, though obviously not indifferent to him; how he had discovered the obstacle to be the fell disease which had stricken her sister, whom there was no one to nurse and comfort but herself; how he had believed her cold and had left in anger; and finally how he had read of the death of Captain Brown in a foreign newspaper.
Just then Miss Matty burst into the room.
"Oh, Deborah," she said, "there's a gentleman sitting in the drawingroom with his arm round Miss Jessie's waist!"
"The most proper place for his arm to be in. Go, Matilda, and mind your own business."
Poor Miss Matty! This was a shock, coming from her decorous sister.
Thus happiness, and with it some of her early bloom, returned to Miss Jessie, and as Mrs. Gordon her dimples were not out of place.
III. - Poor Peter
My visits to Cranford continued for many years, and did not cease even after the death of Miss Jenkyns.
Miss Matty became my new hostess. At first I rather dreaded the changed aspect of things. Miss Matty, too, began to cry as soon as she saw me. She was evidently nervous from having anticipated my visit. I comforted her as well as I could, and I found the best consolation I could give was the honest praise that came from my heart as I spoke of the deceased.
Miss Matty made me her confidante in many matters, and one evening she sent Martha to go for eggs at a farm at the other end of the town and told me the story of her brother.
"Poor Peter! The sole honour he brought from Shrewsbury was the reputation of being captain of the school in the art of practical joking. He even thought that the people of Cranford might be hoaxed. 'Hoaxing' is not a pretty word, my dear, and I hope you won't tell your father I used it, for I should not like him to think I was not choice in my language, after living with such a woman as Deborah. I don't know how it slipped out of my mouth, except it was that I was thinking of poor Peter, and it was always his expression.
"One day my father had gone to see some sick people in the village. Deborah, too, was away from home for a fortnight or so. I don't know what possessed poor Peter, but he went to her room and dressed himself in her old gown and shawl and bonnet. And he made the pillow into a little - you are sure you locked the door, my dear? - into - into a little baby with white long clothes. And he went and walked up and down in the Filbert Walk - just half hidden by the rails and half seen; and he cuddled the pillow just like a baby and talked to it all the nonsense people do. Oh, dear, and my father came stepping stately up the street, as he always did, and pushing past the crowd saw - I don't know what he saw - but old Clare said his face went grey-white with anger. He seized hold of poor Peter, tore the clothes off his back - bonnet, shawl, gown, and all - threw them among the crowd, and before all the people lifted up his cane and flogged Peter.
"My dear, that boy's trick on that sunny day, when all promised so well, broke my mother's heart and changed my father for life. Old Clare said Peter looked as white as my father and stood still as a statue to be flogged.
"'Have you done enough, sir?' he asked hoarsely, when my father stopped. Then Peter bowed grandly to the people outside the railing and walked slowly home. He went straight to his mother, looking as haughty as any man, and not like a boy.
"'Mother,' he said, 'I am come to say "God bless you for ever."'
"He would say no more, and by the time my mother had found out what had happened from my father, and had gone to her boy's room to comfort him, he had gone, and did not come back. That spring day was the last time he ever saw his mother's face. He wrote a passionate entreaty to her to come and see him before his ship left the Mersey for the war, but the letter was delayed, and when she arrived it was too late. It killed my mother. And think, my dear, the day after her death - for she did not live a twelve-month after Peter left - came a parcel from India from her poor boy. It was a large, soft white India shawl. Just what my mother would have liked.
"We took it to my father in the hopes it would rouse him, for he had sat with her hand in his all night long. At first he took no notice of it. Then suddenly he got up and spoke. 'She shall be buried in it,' he said. 'Peter shall have that comfort; and she would have liked it.'"
"Did Mr. Peter ever come home?"
"Yes, once. He came home a lieutenant. And he and my father were such friends. My father was so proud to show him to all the neighbours. He never walked out without Peter's arm to lean on. And then Peter went to sea again, and by-and-by my father died, blessing us both and thanking Deborah for all she had been to him. And our circumstances were changed, and from a big rectory with three servants we had come down to a small house with a servant-of-all-work. But, as Deborah used to say, we have always lived genteelly, even if circumstances have compelled us to simplicity. Poor Deborah!"
"And Mr. Peter?" I asked.
"Oh, there was some great war in India, and we have never heard of Peter since then. I believe he is dead myself. Sometimes when I sit by myself and the house is quiet, I think I hear his step coming up the street, and my heart begins to flutter and beat; but the sound goes, and Peter never comes back."
IV. - Friends in Need
The years rolled on. I spent my time between Drumble and Cranford. I was thankful that I happened to be staying with Miss Matty when the Town and County Bank failed, which had such a disastrous effect on her little fortune.
It was an example to me, and I fancy it might be to many others, to see how immediately Miss Matty set about the retrenchment she knew to be right under her altered circumstances. I did the little I could. Some months back a conjuror had given a performance in the Cranford Assembly Rooms. By a strange set of circumstances the identity of Signor Brunoni was revealed. He was plain Samuel Brown, who had fallen out of his cart and had to be attended by our doctor. I went to visit the patient and his wife, and learned that she had been India. She told me a long story about being befriended, after a perilous journey, by a kind Englishman who lived right in the midst of the natives. It was his name which astonished me. Agra Jenkyns.
Could Agra Jenkyns be the long lost Peter? I resolved to say nothing to Miss Matty, but got the address from the signor (as we still called him from habit), spelt by sound, and very queer it looked, and posted a letter to him.
All sorts of plans were discussed for Miss Matty's future. I thought of all the things by which a woman, past middle age, and with the education common to ladies fifty years ago, could earn or add to a living without materially losing caste; but at length I put even this last clause on one side, and wondered what in the world Miss Matty could do. Even teaching was out of the question, for, reckoning over her accomplishments, I had to come down to reading, writing, and arithmetic - and in reading the chapter every morning she always coughed before coming to long words.
I was still in a quandary the next morning, when I received a letter from Miss Pole, so mysteriously wrapped up and with so many seals on it to secure secrecy that I had to tear the paper before I could unfold it.
It summoned me to go to Miss Pole at 11 a.m., the a.m. twice dashed under as if I were likely to come at eleven at night, when all Cranford was usually abed and asleep by ten. I went and found Miss Pole dressed in solemn array, though there were only Mrs. Forrester, crying quietly and sadly, and Mrs. FitzAdam present. Miss Pole was armed with a card, on which I imagine she had written some notes.
"Miss Smith," she began, when I entered (I was familiarly known to all Cranford as Mary, but this was a state occasion), "I have conversed in private with these ladies on the misfortune which has happened to our friend, and one and all have agreed that while we have a superfluity, it is not only a duty but a pleasure - a true pleasure, Mary!" - her voice was rather choked just here, and she had to wipe her spectacles before she could go on - "to give what we can to assist her - Miss Matilda Jenkyns. Only in consideration of the feelings of delicate independence existing in the mind of every refined female" - I was sure she had got back to the card - "we wish to contribute our mites in a secret and concealed manner, so as not to hurt the feelings I have referred to."
Well, the upshot of this solemn meeting was that each of those dear old ladies wrote down the sum she could afford annually, signed the paper and sealed it mysteriously, and I was commissioned to get my father to administer the fund in such a manner that Miss Jenkyns should imagine the money came from her own improved investments.
As I was going, Mrs. Forrester took me aside, and in the manner of one confessing a great crime the poor old lady told me how very, very little she had to live on - a confession she was brought to make from a dread lest we should think that the small contribution named in her paper bore any proportion to her love and regard for Miss Mary. And yet that sum which she so eagerly relinquished was, in truth, more than a twentieth part of what she had to live on. And when the whole income does not nearly amount to a hundred pounds, to give up a twentieth of it will necessitate many careful economies and many pieces of self-denial - small and insignificant in the world's account, but bearing a different value in another account book that I have heard of.
The upshot of it all was that dear Miss Matty was comfortably installed in her own house, and added to her slender income by selling tea! This last was my idea, and it was a proud moment for me when it realized. The small dining-room was converted into a shop, without any of its degrading characteristics, a table formed the counter, one window was retained unaltered and the other changed into a glass door, and there she was. Tea was certainly a happy commodity, as it was neither greasy nor sticky, grease and stickiness being two of the qualities which Miss Matty could not endure. Moreover, as Miss Matty said, one good thing about it was that men did not buy it, and it was of men particularly she was afraid. They had such sharp, loud ways with them, and did up accounts and counted their change so quickly.
Very little remains to be told. The approval of the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson set the seal upon the successful career of Miss Matty as a purveyor of tea. Thus did she escape even the shadow of "vulgarity."
One afternoon I was sitting in the shop parlour with Miss Matty, when we saw a gentleman go slowly past the window and then stand opposite to the door, as if looking out for the name which we had so carefully hidden. His clothes had an out-of-the-way foreign cut, and it flashed across me it was the Agra himself! He entered.
Miss Matty looked at him, and something of tender relaxation in his face struck home to her heart. She said: "It is - oh, sir, can you be Peter?" and trembled from head to foot. In a moment he had her in his arms, sobbing the tearless cries of old age.
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