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Our Society at Cranford

by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 4 (1851)

Pages 265-274

NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.

Introductory Note: One of Elizabeth Gaskell’s better-known works, Cranford, was published in eight parts in Charles Dickens' journal, Household Words. It was published in book form in 1853. Cranford has been adapted for television three times: 1951, 1972 and 2007.

Unlike a serialized novel, Cranford is a collection of self-contained sketches featuring the same characters in the same setting. Gaskell depicts a small English village comprised of mostly women. She portrays the mundane aspects of country life and how these woman deal with the changing modern world. This first installment, “Our Society at Cranford” was published in 1851.

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there? The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon. For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture into the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everybody’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever any are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. “A man,” as one of them observed to me once, “is so in the way in the house!” Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other’s proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other’s opinions. Indeed, as each has her own individuality,not to say eccentricity, pretty strongly developed, nothing is so easy as verbal retaliation; but somehow good-will reigns among them to a considerable degree.

The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirited out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat. Their dress is very independent of fashion; as they observe, “What does it signify how we dress here at Cranford, where everybody knows us?” and if they go from home, their reason is equally cogent: “What does it signify how we dress here, where nobody knows us?” The materials of their clothes are, in general, good and plain, and most of them are nearly as scrupulous as Miss Tyler, of cleanly memory; but I will answer for it, the last gigot, the last tight and scanty petticoat in wear in England, was seen in Cranford--and seen without a smile.1Gigot: a leg of mutton or lamb.

I can testify to a magnificent family red silk umbrella, under which a gentle little spinster, left alone of many brothers and sisters, used to patter to church on rainy days. Have you any red silk umbrellas in London? We had a tradition of the first that had ever been seen in Cranford; and the little boys mobbed it, and called it “a stick in petticoats.” It might have been the very red silk one I have described, held by a strong father over a troop of little ones; the poor little lady--the survivor of all-could scarcely carry it.

Then there were rules  and regulations for visiting and calls; and they were announced to any young people, who might be staying in the town, with all the solemnity with which the old Manx laws were read once a year on the Tyne-weld.

“Our friends have sent to inquire how you are after your journey tonight, my dear,” (fifteen miles, in a gentleman’s carriage): “they will give you some rest to-morrow, but the next day, I have no doubt, they will call: so be at liberty after twelve:--from twelve to three are our calling-hours.”

Then, after they had called,

“It is the third day; I dare say your Mamma has told you, my dear, never to let more than three days elapse between receiving a call and returning it; and also, that you are never to stay longer than a quarter of an hour.”

“But am I to look at my watch! How am I to find out when a quarter of an hour has passed!”

“You must keep thinking about the time, my dear, and not allow yourself to forget it in conversation.”

As everybody had this rule in their minds, whether they received or paid a call, of course no absorbing subject was ever spoken about. We kept ourselves to short sentences of small talk, and were punctual to our time.

I imagine that a few of the gentlefolks of Cranford were poor, and had some difficulty in making both ends meet; but they were like the Spartans, and concealed their smart under a smiling face. We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic. The Cranfordians had that kindly espirit de corps which made them overlook all deficiencies in success when some among them tried to conceal their poverty.2Espirit de corps is French for a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group. When Mrs. Forrester gave a party in her baby-house of a dwelling, and the little maiden disturbed the ladies on the sofa by a request that she might get the tea-tray out from underneath, every one took this novel proceeding as the most natural thing in the world; and talked on about household forms and ceremonies, as if we all believed that our hostess had a regular servants’ hall, second table, with housekeeper and steward; instead of the one little charity-school maiden, whose short ruddy arms could never have been strong enough to carry the tray up-stairs, if she had not been assisted in private by her mistress, who now sate in state, pretending not to know what cakes were sent up: though she knew, and we knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew, she had been busy all the morning making tea-bread and sponge-cakes.

There were one or two consequences arising from this general but unacknowledged poverty, and this very much acknowledged gentility, which were not amiss, and which might be introduced into many circles of society to their great improvement. For instance, the inhabitants of Cranford kept early hours, and clattered home in their pattens, under the guidance of a lantern-bearer, about nine o’clock at night; and the whole town was abed and asleep by half-past ten. Moreover, it was considered “vulgar” (a tremendous word in Cranford) to give anything expensive, in the way of eatable or drinkable, at the evening entertainments. Wafer bread-and-butter and sponge-biscuits were all that the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson gave; and she was sister-in-law to the the late Earl of Cranford, although she did practise such “elegant economy.”

“Elegant economy!” How naturally one falls back into the phraseology of Cranford! There, economy was always “elegant,” and money-spending always “vulgar and ostentatious;” a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied. I never shall forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about this being poor. Not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed; but, in the public street! in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house. The ladies of Cranford were already rather moaning over the invasion of their territories by a man and a gentleman. He was a half-pay Captain, and had obtained some situation on a neighbouring railroad, which had been vehemently petitioned against by the little town; and if, in addition to his masculine gender, and his connection with the obnoxious railroad, he was so brazen as to talk of being poor--why then, indeed, he must be sent to Coventry. Death was as true and as common as poverty; yet people never spoke about that, loud out in the streets. It was a word not to be mentioned to ears polite. We had tacitly agreed to ignore that any with whom we associated on terms of visiting equality could ever be prevent by poverty from doing anything that they wished. If we walked home to or from a party, it was because the night was so fine, or the air so refreshing; not because sedan-chairs were expensive. If we wore prints, instead of summer silks, it was because we preferred a washing material; and so on, till we blinded ourselves to the vulgar fact, that we were, all of us, people of very moderate means. Of course, then, we did not know what to make of a man who could not speak of poverty as if it was not a disgrace. Yet, somehow Captain Brown made himself respected in Cranford, and was called upon, in spite of all resolutions to the contrary. I was surprised to hear his opinions quoted as authority, at a visit which I paid to Cranford, about a year after he had settled in the town. My own friends had been among the bitterest opponents of any proposal to visit Captain Brown and his daughters, only twelve months before; and now he was even admitted in the tabooed hours before twelve. True, it was to discover the cause of a smoking chimney, before the fire was lighted; but still Captain Brown walked up-stairs, nothing daunted, spoke in a voice too large for the room, and joked quite in the way of a tame man, about the house. He had been blind to all the small slights and omissions of trivial ceremonies with which he had been received. He had been friendly, though the Cranford ladies had been cool: he had answered small sarcastic compliments in good faith; and, with his manly frankness had overpowered all the shrinking which met him as a man who was not ashamed to be poor. And, at last, his excellent masculine common sense and his facility in devising expedients to overcome domestic dilemmas, had gained him an extra-ordinary place as authority among the Cranford ladies. He, himself, went on in his course, as unaware of his popularity, as he had been of the reverse; and I am sure he was startled one day, when he found his advice so highly esteemed, as to make some counsel which he had given in jest, be taken in sober, serious earnest.

It was on this subject;-an old lady had an Alderney cow, which she look upon as a daughter.3Alderney cow: a breed of dairy cattle originating from the British Channel Island of Alderne.y You could not pay the sort quarter-of-an-hour call, 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; therefore great was the sympathy and regret when, in an unguarded moment, the poor cow tumbled into a lime-pit. She moaned so loudly that she was soon heard, and rescued; but meanwhile the poor beast had lost most of her hair, and came out looking naked, cold, and miserable, in a bare skin. Everybody pitied the animal, though a few could not restrain their smiles at her droll appearance. Miss Betsy Barker absolutely cried with sorrow and dismay; and it was said she thought of trying a bath of oil. This remedy, perhaps, was recommended by some one of the number whose advice she asked; but the proposal, if ever it was made, was knocked on the head by Captain Brown’s decided, “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 thanked the Captain heartily; she set to work, and by-and-bye all the town turned out to see the Alderney meekly going to her pasture, clad in dark grey flannel. I have watched her myself many a time. Do you ever see cows dressed in grey flannel in London?

Captain Brown had taken a small house on the outskirts of the town, where he lived with his two daughters. He must have been upwards of sixty at the time of the first visit I paid to Cranford, after I had left it as a residence. But he had a wiry, well-trained, elastic figure; a stiff military throw-back of his head, and a springing step, which made him appear much younger than he was. His eldest daughter looked almost as old as himself, and betrayed the fact that his real, was more than his apparent, age. Miss Brown must have been forty; she had a sickly, pained, careworn expression on her face, and looked as if the gaiety of youth had long faded out of sight. Even when young she must have been plain and hard-featured. Miss Jessie Brown was ten years younger than her sister, and twenty shades prettier. Her face was round and dimpled. Miss Jenkyns once said, in a passion against Captain Brown (the cause of which I will tell you presently), “that she thought it was time for Miss Jessie to leave off her dimples, and not always be trying to look like a child.” It was true there was something child-like in her face; and there will be, I think, till she dies, though she should live to a hundred. Her eyes were large blue wandering eyes, looking straight at you; her nose was unformed and snub, and her lips were red and dewy; she wore her hair, too, in little rows of curls, which heightened this appearance. I do not know if she was pretty or not; but I liked her face, and so did everybody, and I do not think she could help her dimples. She had something of her father’s jauntiness of gait and manner; and any female observer might detect a slight difference in the attire of the two sisters--that of Miss Jessie being about two pounds per annum more expensive than Miss Brown’s. Two pounds was a large sum in Captain Brown’s annual disbursements.

Such was the impression made upon me by the Brown family, when I first saw them altogether in Cranford church. The Captain I had met before--on the occasion of the smoky chimney, which he had cured by some simple alteration in the flue. In church, he held his double eye-glass to his eyes during the Morning Hymn, and then lifted up his head erect, and sang out loud and joyfully. He made the responses louder than the clerk--an old man with a piping feeble voice, who, I think, felt aggrieved at the Captain’s sonorous bass, and quavered higher and higher in consequence.

On coming out of church, the brisk Captain paid the most gallant attention to his two daughters. He nodded and smiled to his acquaintances; but he shook hands with none until he had helped Miss Brown to unfurl her umbrella, had relieved her of her prayer-book, and had waited patiently till she, with trembling nervous hands, had taken up her gown to walk through the wet roads.

I wondered what the Cranford ladies did with Captain Brown at their parties. We had congratulated ourselves upon the snugness of the evenings; and, in our love for gentility and distaste of mankind, we had almost persuaded ourselves that to be a man was to be “vulgar;” so that when I found my friend and hostess, Miss Jenkyns, was going to have a party in my honour, and that Captain and the Miss Browns were invited, I wondered much what would be the course fo the evening. Card-tables, with green baize tops, were set out by day-light, just as usual; it was the third week in November, so the evenings closed in about four. Candles, and clean packs of cards, were arranged on each table. The fire was made up, the neat maid-servant had received her last directions; and there we stood dressed in our best, each with a candle-lighter in our hands, ready to dart at the candles as soon as the first knock came. Parties in Cranford were solemn festivities, making the ladies feel gravely elated, as they sat together in their best dresses. As soon as three had arrived, we sad down to “preference,” I being the unlucky fourth. The next four comers were put down immediately to another table; and, presently, the tea-trays, which I had seen set out in the store-room as I passed in the morning, were placed each on the middle of a card-table. 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 tables, Captain and the Miss Browns came in; and I could see, that somehow or other, the Captain was a favourite with all the ladies present. Ruffled brows were smoothed, sharp voices lowered at his approach. Miss Brown looked ill, and depressed almost to gloom. Miss Jessie smiled as usual, and seemed nearly as popular as her father. He immediately and quietly assumed the man’s place in the room; attended to every one’s wants, lessened the pretty maid-servant’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. He played for three-penny points with as grave an interest as if they had been pounds; and yet, in all his attention to strangers, he had an eye on his suffering daughter; for suffering I was sure she was, though to many eyes she might only appear to be irritable. Miss Jessie could not play cards; but she talked to the sitters-out, who, before her coming, had been rather inclined to be cross. She sang, too, to an old cracked piano, which I think had been a spinet in its youth. Miss Jessie sang “Jock of Hazeldean” a little out of tune, but we were none of us musical, though Miss Jenkyns beat time, out of time, by way of appearing to be so.

It was very good of Miss Jenkyns to do this; for I had seen that, a little while before, she had been a good deal annoyed by miss Jessie Brown’s unguarded admission (a`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? But Miss Jessie Brown (who had no tact, as we all agreed, the next morning) would repeat the information, and assure Miss Pole she could easily get her the identical Shetland wool required, “through my uncle, who has the best assortment of Shetland goods of any one in Edinbro’.” It was to take the taste of this out of our mouths, and the sound of htis out of our ears, that Miss Jenkyns proposed music; so I say again, it was very good of her to beat time to the song.

When the trays re-appeared with biscuits and wine, punctually at a quarter to nine, there was conversation; comparing of cards, and talking over tricks; but, by-and-bye, Captain Brown sported a bit of literature.

“Have you seen any numbers of ‘Hood’s Own?’” said he. (It was then publishing in parts.) “Capital thing!”

Now, miss Jenkyns was daughter of a deceased rector of Cranford; and, on the strength of a number of manuscript sermons, and a pretty good library of divinity, considered herself literary, and looked upon any conversation about books as a challenge to her. So she answered and said, “Yes, she had seen it; indeed, she might say she had read it.”

“And what do you think of it!” exclaimed Captain Brown. “Isn’t it famously good!”

So urged, Miss Jenkyns could not but speak.

“I must say I don’t think it is by any means equal to Dr. Johnson. Still, perhaps, the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.” This was evidently too much for Captain Brown to take placidly; and I saw the words on the tip of his tongue before Miss Jenkyns had finished her sentence.

“It is quite a different sort of thing, my dear madam,” he began.

“I am quite aware of that,” returned she.

“And I make allowances, Captain Brown.”

“Just allow me to read you a scene out of this month’s number,” pleaded he. “I had it only this morning, and I don’t think the company can have read it yet.”

“As you please,” said she, settling herself with an air of resignation. He read the account of the gentleman who was terrified out of his wits by political events, who “could no more collect himself than the Irish tithes.” Some of us laughed heartily. I did not dare, because I was staying in the house. Miss Jenkyns sat in patient gravity. When it was ended, she turned to me, and said with mild dignity,

“Fetch me ‘Rasselas,’ my dear, out of the book-room.”

When I brought it to her, she turned to Captain Brown:

“Now allow me to read you a scene, and then the present company can judge between your favourite, Mr. Hood, or Dr. Johnson.”

She read one of the conversations between Rasselas and Imlac, in a high-pitched majestic voice; and when she had ended, she said, “I imagine I am now justified in my preference of Dr. Johnson, as a writer of fiction.” The Captain screwed his lips up, and drummed on the table, but he did not speak. She thought she would give a finishing blow or two.

“I consider it vulgar, and below the dignity of literature, to publish in numbers.”

“How was the ‘Rambler’ published, Ma’am?” asked Captain Brown, in a low voice; which I think Miss Jenkyns could not have heard.

“Dr. Johnson’s style is a model for young beginners. My father recommended it to me when I began to write letters.--I have formed my own style upon it; I recommend it to your favourite.”

I should be very sorry for him to exchange his style for any such pompous writing,” said Captain Brown.

Miss Jenkyns felt this as a personal affront, in a way of which the Captain had not dreamed. Epistolary writing, she and her friends considered her forte. Many a copy of many a letter have I seen written and corrected on the slate, before she “seized the half-hour just previous to post-time to assure” her friends of this or of that; and Dr. Johnson was, as she said, her model in these compositions. She drew herself up with dignity, and only replied to Captain Brown’s last remark by saying, with marked emphasis on every syllable, “I prefer Dr. Johnson to Mr. Hood.”

It is said--I won’t vouch for the fact--that Captain Brown was heard to say, sotto voce, “D--a Dr. Johnson!”4Sotto voce: in a quiet voice, as if not to be overheard. If he did, he was penitent afterwards, as he showed by going to stand near Miss Jenkyns’s armchair, and endeavouring to beguile her into conversation on some more pleasing subject. But she was inexorable. The next day, she made the remark I have mentioned, about Miss Jessie’s dimples.

It was impossible to live a month at Carford, and not know the daily habits of each resident; and long before my visit was ended, I knew much concerning the whole Brown trio. There was nothing new to be discovered respecting their poverty; for they had spoken simply and openly about that from the very first. They made no mystery of the necessity for their being for their being economical. All that remained to be discovered was the Captain’s infinite kindness of heart, and the various modes in which, unconsciously to himself, he manifested it. Some little anecdotes were talked about for some time after they occurred. As we did not read much, and as all the ladies were pretty well suited with servants, there was a dearth of subjects for conversation. We, therefore, discussed the circumstance of the Captain taking a poor old woman’s dinner out of her hands, one very slippery Sunday. He had met her returning from the bakehouse as he came from church, and noticed her precarious footing; and, with the grave dignity with which he did everything, he relieved her of her burden, and steered along the street by her side, carrying her baked mutton and potatoes safely home. This was thought very eccentric; and it was rather expected that he would pay a round of calls, on the monday morning, to explain and apologise to the Cranford sense of propriety; but he did no such thing; and then it was decided that he was ashamed, and was keeping out of sight. In a kindly pity for him, we began to say--”After all, the sunday morning’s occurrence showed great goodness of heart;” and it was resolved that he should be comforted on his next appearance amongst us; but lo! He came down upon us, untouched by any sense of shame, speaking loud and bass as ever, his head thrown back, his wig as jaunty and well-curled as usual, and we were obliged to conclude he had forgotten all about Sunday.

Miss Pole and Miss Jessie Brown had set up a kind of intimacy, on the strength of the Shetland wool and the new knitting stitches; so it happened that when I went to visit Miss Pole, I saw more of the Browns than I had done while staying with Miss Jenkyns; who had never got over what she called Captain Brown’s disparaging remarks upon Dr. Johnson, as a writer of light and agreeable fiction. I found that Miss Brown was seriously ill of some lingering, incurable complaint, the pain occasioned by which gave the uneasy expression to her face that I had taken for unmitigated crossness. Cross, too, she was at times, when the nervous irritability occasioned by her disease became past endurance. Miss Jessie bore with her at those times even more patiently than she did with the bitter self-upbraidings by which they were invariably succeeded. Miss Brown used to accuse herself, not merely of haughty and irritable temper; but also of being the cause why her father and sister were obliged to pinch, in order to allow her the small luxuries which were necessaries in her condition. She would so fain have made sacrifices for them and have lightened their cares, that the original generosity of her disposition added acerbity to her temper. All this was borne by Miss Jessie and her father with more than placidly--with absolute tenderness. I forgave Miss Jessie her singing out of time, and her juvenility of dress, when I saw her at home. I came to perceive that Captain Brown’s dark Brutus wig and padded coat (alas! Too often threadbare) were remnants of the military smartness of his youth, which he now wore unconsciously. He was a man of infinite resources, gained in his barrack experience. As he confessed, no one could black his boots to please him, except himself; but, indeed, he was not above saving the little maid-servant’s labours in every way, feeling, probably, that his daughter’s illness made the place a hard one.

He endeavoured to make peace with Miss Jenkyns soon after the memorable dispute I have named, but a present 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 thank him formally. When he was gone, she bade me put it away in the lumber-room; feeling, probably, that no present from a man who preferred Mr. Hood to Dr. Johnson could be less jarring than an iron fire-shovel.

Such was the state of things when I left Cranford and went to Drumble. I had, however, several correspondents who kept me au fait  to the proceedings of the dear little town.5Au fait: French for "in fact," here meaning having a good or detailed knowledge of something. There was Miss Pole, who was becoming so much absorbed in crochet as she had been once in knitting; and the burden of whose letter was something like, “But don’t you forget the white worsted at Flint’s” of the old song; for, at the end of every sentence of news, came a fresh direction as to some crochet commission which I was to execute for her. Miss Matilda Jenkyns (who did not mind being called Miss Matey, when Miss Jenkyns was not by); wrote nice, kind rambling letters; now and then venturing into an opinion of her own; but suddenly pulling herself up, and either begging me not to name what she had said, as Deborah thought differently, and she knew; or else, putting in a postscript to the effect that, since writing the above, she had been talking over the subject with Deborah, and was quite  convinced that etc;--(here, probably, followed a recantation of every opinion she had given in the letter.” Then came miss Jenkyns--Deborah, as she liked Miss Matey to call her; her father having once said that the Hebrew name ought to be so pronounced. I secretly think she took the Hebrew prophetess for a model in character; and indeed, she was not unlike the stern prophetess in some ways; making allowance, of course, for modern customs and difference in dress. Miss Jenkyns wore a cravat, and a little bonnet like a jocky-cap, and altogether had the appearance of a strong-minded woman; therefore she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior. --But to return to her letters. Everything in them was stately and grand, like herself. I have been looking them over (dear Miss Jenkyns, how I loved her!) and I will give an extract, more especially because it relates to our friend Captain Brown:--

“The Honourable Mrs. Jamieson has only just quitted me; and , in the course of conversation, she communicated to me the intelligence, that she had yesterday received a call from her revered husband’s quondam friend, Lord Mauleverer. You will not easily conjecture what brought his lordship within the precincts of our little town. It was to see Captain Brown, with whom, it appears, his lordship was acquainted in the ‘plumed wars,’ and who had the privilege of averting destruction from his lordship's head, when some great peril was impending over it, off the misnomered Cape of Good Hope. You know our friend the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson’s deficiency in the spirit of innocent curiosity; and you will, therefore, not be so much surprised when I tell you she was quite unable to disclose to me the exact nature of the peril in question. I was anxious, I confess, to ascertain in what manner Captain Brown, with his limited establishment, could receive so distinguished a guest; and I discovered that his lordship retired to rest; and let us hope, to refreshing slumbers, at the Angel Hotel; but shared the Brunonian meals during the two days that he honoured Cranford with his august presence. Mrs. Johnson, ur civil butcher’s wife, informs me that Miss Jessie purchased a leg of lamb; but, besides this, I can hear of no preparation whatever to give a suitable reception to so distinguished a visitor. Perhaps they entertained him with ‘the feast of reason and the flow of soul;’ and to us, who are acquainted with Captain Brown’s sad want of relish for ‘the pure wells of English undefiled,” it may be matter for congratulation, that he has had the opportunity of improving his taste by holding converse with an elegant and refined member of the British aristocracy. But from some mundane feelings who is free!”

Miss Pole and Miss Matey wrote to me by the same post. Such a piece of news as Lord Mauleverer’s visit was not to be lost on the Cranford letter-writers; they made the most of it. Miss Matey humbly apologized for writing at the same time as her sister, who was so much more capable than she to describe the honour done to Cranford; but, in spite of a little bad spelling, Miss Matey’s sonnetxxx gave me the best idea of  the commotion occasioned by his lordship’s visit, after it had occurred; for, except the people at the Angel, the Browns, Mrs. Jamieson, and a little lad his lordship had sworn at for driving a dirty hoop against the aristocratic legs, I could not hear of any one with whom his lordship had held conversation.

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 nearly the same well-preserved, old-fashioned clothes. The greatest event was, that Miss Jenkyns had purchased a new carpet for the drawing-room. O, the busy work Miss Matey and I had in chasing the sunbeams, as they fell in an afternoon right down on this carpet through the blindless window! We spread newspapers over 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 on the fresh spot; and down again we went on our knees to alter the position of the newspapers. We were very busy, too, one whole morning before Miss Jenkyns gave her party, in following her directions, and in cutting out and stitching together pieces of newspaper, so as to form little paths to every chair, set for the expected visitors, lest their shoes might dirty or defile the purity of the carpet. Do you make paper paths for every guest to walk upon in London?

Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns were not very cordial to each other. The literary dispute, of which I had seen the beginning, was a “raw,” the slightest touch on which made them wince. It was the only difference of opinion they had ever had; but that difference was enough. Miss Jenkyns could not refrain from talking at Captain Brown; and though he did not reply, he drummed with his fingers; which action she felt and resented as very disparaging to Dr. Johnson. He was rather ostentatious in his preference of the writings of Mr. Hood; would walk through the street so absorbed in them, that he all but ran against Miss jenkyns; and though his apologies were earnest and sincere, and though he did not, in fact, do more than startle her and himself,

she owned to me she had rather he had knocked her down, if he had only been reading a higher style of literature.  The poor, brave Captain! 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.

“She suffers a great deal, and she must suffer more; we do what we can to alleviate her pain—God’s will be done!”  He took off his hat at these last words.  I found, from Miss Pole, that everything had been done, in fact.  A medical man, of high repute in that country neighbourhood, had been sent for, and every injunction he had given was attended to, regardless of expense.  Miss Pole was sure they denied themselves many things in order to make the invalid comfortable; but they never spoke about it; and as for Miss Jessie!—“I really think she’s an angel,” said poor Miss Pole, quite overcome.  “To see her way of bearing with Miss Brown’s crossness, and the bright face she puts on after she’s been sitting up a whole night and scolded above half of it, is quite beautiful.  Yet she looks as neat and as ready to welcome the Captain at breakfast-time as if she had been asleep in the Queen’s bed all night.  My dear! you could never laugh at her prim little curls or her pink bows again, if you saw her as I have done.”  I could only feel very penitent, and greet Miss Jessie with double respect when I met her next.  She looked faded and pinched; and her lips began to quiver, as if she was very weak, when she spoke of her sister.  But she brightened, and sent back the tears that were glittering in her pretty eyes, as she said:—

“But, to be sure, what a town Cranford is for kindness!  I don’t suppose any one has a better dinner than usual cooked, but the best part of all comes in a little covered basin for my sister.  The poor people will leave their earliest vegetables at our door for her.  They speak short and gruff, as if they were ashamed of it; but I am sure it often goes to my heart to see their thoughtfulness.”  The tears now came back and overflowed; but after a minute or two, she began to scold herself, and ended by going away, the same cheerful Miss Jessie as ever.

“But why does not this Lord Mauleverer do something for the man who saved his life?” said I.

“Why, you see, unless Captain Brown has some reason for it, he never speaks about being poor; and he walked along by his lordship looking as happy and cheerful as a prince; and as they never called attention to their dinner by apologies, and as Miss Brown was better that day, and all seemed bright, I daresay his lordship never knew how much care there was in the background.  He did send game in the winter pretty often, but now he is gone abroad.”

I had often occasion to notice the use that was made of fragments and small opportunities in Cranford; the rose-leaves that were gathered ere they fell, to make into a potpourri for someone who had no garden; the little bundles of lavender flowers sent to strew the drawers of some town-dweller, or to burn in the chamber of some invalid.  Things that many would despise, and actions which it seemed scarcely worth while to perform, were all attended to in Cranford.  Miss Jenkyns stuck an apple full of cloves, to be heated and smell pleasantly in Miss Brown’s room; and as she put in each clove, she uttered a Johnsonian sentence.  Indeed, she never could think of the Browns without talking Johnson; and, as they were seldom absent from her thoughts just then, I heard many a rolling, three-piled sentence.

Captain Brown called one day to thank Miss Jenkyns for many little kindnesses, which I did not know until then that she had rendered.  He had suddenly become like an old man; his deep bass voice had a quavering in it; his eyes looked dim, and the lines on his face were deep.  He did not—could not—speak cheerfully of his daughter’s state, but he talked with manly pious resignation, and not much.  Twice over he said, “What Jessie has been to us, God only knows!” and after the second time, he got up hastily, shook hands all round without speaking, and left the room.

That afternoon we perceived little groups in the street, all listening with faces aghast to some tale or other.  Miss Jenkyns wondered what could be the matter, for some time before she 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.  She, along with many others, had experienced the poor Captain’s kindness.

“How?—where—where?  Good God!  Jenny, don’t waste time in crying, but tell us something.”  Miss Matty rushed out into the street at once, and collared the man who was telling the tale.

“Come in—come to my sister at once--Miss Jenkyns, the rector’s daughter.  Oh, man, man! say it is not true,”--she cried, as she brought the affrighted carter, sleeking down his hair, into the drawing-room, where he stood with his wet boots on the new carpet, and no one regarded it.

“Please, mum, it is true.  I seed it myself,” and he shuddered at the recollection.  “The Captain was a-reading some new book as he was deep in, a-waiting for the down train; and there was a little lass as wanted to come to its mammy, and gave its sister the slip, and came toddling across the line.  And he looked up sudden, at the sound of the train coming, and seed the child, and he darted on the line and cotched it up, and his foot slipped, and the train came over him in no time.  O Lord, Lord!  Mum, it’s quite true--and they’ve come over to tell his daughters.  The child’s safe, though, with only a bang on its shoulder as he threw it to its mammy.  Poor Captain would be glad of that, mum, wouldn’t he,  God bless him!”  The great rough carter puckered up his manly face, and turned away to hide his tears.  I turned to Miss Jenkyns.  She looked very ill, as if she were going to faint, and signed to me to open the 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 Jenkyns arrayed herself to go out, telling Miss Matilda to give the man a glass of wine.  While she was away, Miss Matty and I huddled over the fire, talking in a low and awe-struck voice.  I know we cried quietly all the time.

Miss Jenkyns came home in a silent mood, and we durst not ask her many questions.  She told us that Miss Jessie had fainted, and that she and Miss Pole had had some difficulty in bringing her round; but that, as soon as she recovered, she begged one of them to go and sit with her sister.

“Dr. Colburn says she cannot live many days, and she shall be spared this shock,” said Miss Jessie, shivering with feelings to which she dared not give way.

“But how can you manage, my dear!” asked Miss Jenkyns; “you cannot bear up--she must see your tears.”

“God will help me—I will not give way—she was asleep when the news came; she may be asleep yet.  She would be so utterly miserable, not merely at my father’s death, but to think of what would become of me; she is so good to me.”  She looked up earnestly in their faces with her soft true eyes, and Miss Pole told Miss Jenkyns afterwards she could hardly bear it, knowing, as she did, how Miss Brown treated her sister.

However, it was settled according to Miss Jessie’s wish.  Miss Brown was to be told her father had been summoned to take a short journey on railway business.  They had managed it in some way—Miss Jenkyns could not exactly say how.  Miss Pole was to stop with Miss Jessie.  Mrs Jamieson had sent to inquire.  And this was all we heard that night; and a sorrowful night it was.  The next day a full account of the fatal accident was in the county paper, which Miss Jenkyns took in.  Her eyes were very weak, she said, and she asked me to read it.  When I came to the “gallant gentleman was deeply engaged in the perusal of Hood’s Poems, which he had just received,” Miss Jenkyns shook her head long and solemnly, and then sighed out, “Poor, dear, infatuated man!”

The corpse was to be taken from the station to the parish church, there to be interred.  Miss Jessie had set her heart on following it to the grave; and no dissuasives could alter her resolve.  Her restraint upon herself made her almost obstinate; she resisted all Miss Pole’s entreaties, and Miss Jenkyns’s advice.  At last Miss Jenkyns gave up the point; and after a silence, which I feared portended some deep displeasure against Miss Jessie, Miss Jenkyns said she should accompany the latter to the funeral.

“It is not fit for you to go alone.  It would be against both propriety and humanity were I to allow it.”

Miss Jessie seemed as if she did not half like this arrangement; but her obstinacy, if she had any, had been exhausted in her determination to go to the interment.  She longed, poor thing! I have no doubt, to cry alone over the grave of the dear father to whom she had been all in all, and to give way, for one little half-hour, uninterrupted by sympathy, and unobserved by friendship.  But it was not to be.  That afternoon Miss Jenkyns sent out for a yard of black crape, and employed herself busily in trimming the little black silk bonnet, I have spoken about.  When it was finished she put it on, and looked at us for approbation—admiration she despised.  I was full of sorrow, but, by one of those whimsical thoughts which come unbidden into our heads, in times of deepest grief, I no sooner saw the bonnet than I was reminded of a helmet; and in that hybrid bonnet, half helmet, half jockey-cap, did Miss Jenkyns attend Captain Brown’s funeral, and, I believe supported Miss Jessie with a tender indulgent firmness which was invaluable, allowing her to weep her passionate fill before they left.

Miss Pole, Miss Matey, and I, meanwhile, attended to Miss Brown: and hard work we found it to relieve her querulous and never-ending complaints.  But if we were so weary and dispirited, what must Miss Jessie have been!  Yet she came back almost calm, as if she had gained a new strength.  She put off her mourning dress, and came in, looking pale and gentle; thanking us each with a soft long pressure of the hand.  She could even smile—a faint, sweet, wintry smile—as if to reassure us of her power to endure; but her look made our eyes fill suddenly with tears, more than if she had cried outright.

It was settled that Miss Pole was to remain with her all the watching livelong night; and that Miss Matey and I were to return in the morning to relieve them, and give Miss Jessie the opportunity for a few hours of sleep.  But when the morning came, Miss Jenkyns appeared at the breakfast-table, equipped in her helmet-bonnet, and ordered Miss Matey to stay at home, as she meant to go and help to nurse.  She was evidently in a state of great friendly excitement, which she showed by eating her breakfast standing, and scolding the household all round.

No nursing—no energetic strong-minded woman could help Miss Brown now.  There was that in the room as we entered, which was stronger than us all, and made us shrink into solemn awestruck helplessness.  Miss Brown was dying.  We hardly knew her voice, it was so devoid of the complaining tone we had always associated with it.  Miss Jessie told me afterwards that it, and her face too, were just what they had been formerly, when her mother’s death left her the young anxious head of the family, of whom only Miss Jessie survived.

She was conscious of her sister’s presence, though not, I think, of ours.  We stood a little behind the curtain; Miss Jessie knelt with her face near her sister’s, in order to catch the last soft awful whispers.

“Oh, Jessie!  Jessie!  How selfish I have been!  God forgive me for letting you sacrifice yourself for me as you did.  I have so loved you—and yet I have thought only of myself.  God forgive me!”

“Hush, love! hush!” said Miss Jessie, sobbing.

“And my father, my dear, dear father!  I will not complain now, if God will give me strength to be patient.  But, oh, Jessie! tell my father how I longed and yearned to see him at last, and to ask his forgiveness.  He can never know now how I loved him—oh! if I might but tell him, before I die, what a life of sorrow his has been, and I have done so little to cheer him!”

A light came into Miss Jessie’s face.  “Would it comfort you, dearest, to think that he does know—would it comfort you, love, to know that his cares, his sorrows--”Her voice quivered, but she steadied it into calmness,—“Mary! he has gone before you to the place where the weary are at rest.  He knows now how you loved him.”

A strange look, which was not distress, came over Miss Brown’s face.  She did not speak for some time, but then we saw her lips form the words, rather than heard the sound—“Father, mother, Harry, Archy!”—then, as if it were a new idea throwing a filmy shadow over her darkened mind—“But you will be alone--Jessie!”

Miss Jessie had been feeling this all during the silence, I think; for the tears rolled down her cheeks like rain, at these words, and she could not answer at first.  Then she put her hands together tight, and lifted them up, and said—but not to us—

“Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”

In a few moments more, Miss Brown lay calm and still; never to sorrow or murmur more.

After this second funeral, Miss Jenkyns insisted that Miss Jessie should come to stay with her rather than go back to the desolate house; which, in fact, we learned from Miss Jessie, must now be given up, as she had not wherewithal to maintain it.  She had something above twenty pounds a year, besides the interest of the money for which the furniture would sell; but she could not live upon that; and so we talked over her qualifications for earning money.

“I can sew neatly,” said she, “and I like nursing.  I think, too, I could manage a house, if any one would try me as housekeeper; or I would go into a shop as saleswoman, if they would have patience with me at first.”

Miss Jenkyns declared, in an angry voice, that she should do no such thing; and talked to herself about “some people having no idea of their rank as a captain’s daughter,” nearly an hour afterwards, when she brought Miss Jessie up a basin of delicately-made arrowroot, and stood over her like a dragoon until the last spoonful was finished: then she disappeared.  Miss Jessie began to tell me some more of the plans which had suggested themselves to her, and insensibly fell into talking of the days that were past and gone, and interested me so much, I neither knew nor heeded how time passed.  We were both startled when Miss Jenkyns reappeared, and caught us crying.  I was afraid lest she would be displeased, as she often said that crying hindered digestion, and I knew she wanted Miss Jessie to get strong; but, instead, she looked queer and excited, and fidgeted round us without saying anything.  At last she spoke. “I have been so much startled—no, I’ve not been at all startled—don’t mind me, my dear Miss Jessie—I’ve been very much surprised—in fact, I’ve had a caller, whom you knew once, my dear Miss Jessie—”

Miss Jessie went very white, then flushed scarlet, and looked eagerly at Miss Jenkyns--

“A gentleman, my dear, who wants to know if you would see him.”

“Is it!—it is not--”stammered out Miss Jessie—and got no farther.

“This is his card,” said Miss Jenkyns, giving it to Miss Jessie; and while her head was bent over it, Miss Jenkyns went through a series of winks and odd faces to me, and formed her lips into a long sentence, of which, of course, I could not understand a word.

“May he come up!” asked Miss Jenkyns at last.

“Oh, yes! certainly!” said Miss Jessie, as much as to say, this is your house, you may show any visitor where you like.  She took up some knitting of Miss Matey’s and began to be very busy, though I could see how she trembled all over.

Miss Jenkyns rang the bell, and told the servant who answered it to show Major Gordon upstairs; and, presently, in walked a tall, fine, frank-looking man of forty or upwards.  He shook hands with Miss Jessie; but he could not see her eyes, she kept them so fixed on the ground.  Miss Jenkyns asked me if I would come and help her to tie up the preserves in the store-room; and though Miss Jessie plucked at my gown, and even looked up at me with begging eye, I durst not refuse to go where Miss Jenkyns asked.  Instead of tying up preserves in the store-room, however, we went to talk in the dining-room; and there Miss Jenkyns told me what Major Gordon had told her; --how he had served in the same regiment with Captain Brown, and had become acquainted with Miss Jessie, then a sweet-looking, blooming girl of eighteen; how the acquaintance had grown into love, on his part, though it had been some years before he had spoken; how, on becoming possessed, through the will of an uncle, of a good estate in Scotland, he had offered and been refused, though with so much agitation, and evident distress, that he was sure she was not indifferent to him; and how he had discovered that the obstacle was the fell disease which was, even then, too surely threatening her sister.  She had mentioned that the surgeons foretold intense suffering; and there was no one but herself to nurse her poor Mary, or cheer and comfort her father during the time of illness.  They had had long discussions; and, on her refusal to pledge herself to him as his wife, when all should be over, he had grown angry, and broken off entirely, and gone abroad, believing that she was a cold-hearted person whom he would do well to forget.  He had been travelling in the East, and was on his return home when, at Rome, he saw the account of Captain Brown’s death in “Galignani.”

Just then Miss Matey, who had been out all the morning, and had only lately returned to the house, burst in with a face of dismay and outraged propriety:--

“Oh, goodness me!” she said.  “Caroline, there’s a gentleman sitting in the drawing-room with his arm round Miss Jessie’s waist!”  Miss Matey’s eyes looked large with terror.

Miss Jenkyns snubbed her down in an instant:--

“The most proper place in the world for his arm to be in.  Go away, Matilda, and mind your own business.”  This from her sister, who had hitherto been a model of feminine decorum, was a blow for poor Miss Matey, and with a double shock she left the room.

The last time I ever saw poor Miss Jenkyns was many years after this.  Mrs. Campbell had kept up a warm and affectionate intercourse with all at Cranford.  Miss Jenkyns, Miss Matey, and Miss Pole had all been to visit her, and returned with wonderful accounts of her house, her husband, her dress, and her looks.  For, with happiness, something of her early bloom returned; she had been a year or two younger than we had taken her for.  Her eyes were always lovely, and, as Mrs Campbell, her dimples were not out of place.  At the time to which I have referred, when I last saw Miss Jenkyns, that lady was old and feeble, and had lost something of her strong mind.  Little Flora Gordon was staying with the Misses Jenkyns, and when I came in she was reading aloud to Miss Jenkyns, who lay feeble and changed on the sofa.  Flora put down the Rambler when I came in.

“Ah!” said Miss Jenkyns, “you find me changed, my dear.  I can’t see as I used to do.  If Flora were not here to read to me, I hardly know how I should get through the day.  Did you ever read the Rambler!  It’s a wonderful book—wonderful! and the most improving reading for Flora” --(which I daresay it would have been if she could have read half the words without spelling, and could have understood the meaning of a third)--“better than that strange old book, with the queer name, poor Captain Brown was killed for reading—that book by Mr Hood, you know—Hood--Admiral Hood; when I was a girl; but that’s a long time ago,--I wore a cloak with a red Hood”--she babbled on long enough for Flora to get a good long spell at “Miss Kilmansegg and her Golden Leg” which Miss Matey had left on the table.

Poor, dear Miss Jenkyns! Cranford is Man-less now.

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Laurie Denning

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29 January 2020

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30 January 2020

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Gigot: a leg of mutton or lamb.
2. Espirit de corps is French for a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group.
3. Alderney cow: a breed of dairy cattle originating from the British Channel Island of Alderne.y
4. Sotto voce: in a quiet voice, as if not to be overheard.
5. Au fait: French for "in fact," here meaning having a good or detailed knowledge of something.