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Cranford

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CHAPTER VI: POOR PETER

Poor Peter’s career lay before him rather pleasantly mapped out by kind friends, but Bonus Bernardus non videt omnia, in this map too.  He was to win honours at the Shrewsbury School, and carry them thick to Cambridge, and after that, a living awaited him, the gift of his godfather, Sir Peter Arley.  Poor Peter! his lot in life was very different to what his friends had hoped and planned.  Miss Matty told me all about it, and I think it was a relief when she had done so.

He was the darling of his mother, who seemed to dote on all her children, though she was, perhaps, a little afraid of Deborah’s superior acquirements.  Deborah was the favourite of her father, and when Peter disappointed him, she became his pride.  The sole honour Peter brought away from Shrewsbury was the reputation of being the best good fellow that ever was, and of being the captain of the school in the art of practical joking.  His father was disappointed, but set about remedying the matter in a manly way.  He could not afford to send Peter to read with any tutor, but he could read with him himself; and Miss Matty told me much of the awful preparations in the way of dictionaries and lexicons that were made in her father’s study the morning Peter began.

“My poor mother!” said she.  “I remember how she used to stand in the hall, just near enough the study-door, to catch the tone of my father’s voice.  I could tell in a moment if all was going right, by her face.  And it did go right for a long time.”

“What went wrong at last?” said I.  “That tiresome Latin, I dare say.”

“No! it was not the Latin.  Peter was in high favour with my father, for he worked up well for him.  But he seemed to think that the Cranford people might be joked about, and made fun of, and they did not like it; nobody does.  He was always hoaxing them; ‘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 that I was not choice in my language, after living with such a woman as Deborah.  And be sure you never use it yourself.  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.  But he was a very gentlemanly boy in many things.  He was like dear Captain Brown in always being ready to help any old person or a child.  Still, he did like joking and making fun; and he seemed to think the old ladies in Cranford would believe anything.  There were many old ladies living here then; we are principally ladies now, I know, but we are not so old as the ladies used to be when I was a girl.  I could laugh to think of some of Peter’s jokes.  No, my dear, I won’t tell you of them, because they might not shock you as they ought to do, and they were very shocking.  He even took in my father once, by dressing himself up as a lady that was passing through the town and wished to see the Rector of Cranford, ‘who had published that admirable Assize Sermon.’  Peter said he was awfully frightened himself when he saw how my father took it all in, and even offered to copy out all his Napoleon Buonaparte sermons for her—him, I mean—no, her, for Peter was a lady then.  He told me he was more terrified than he ever was before, all the time my father was speaking.  He did not think my father would have believed him; and yet if he had not, it would have been a sad thing for Peter.  As it was, he was none so glad of it, for my father kept him hard at work copying out all those twelve Buonaparte sermons for the lady—that was for Peter himself, you know.  He was the lady.  And once when he wanted to go fishing, Peter said, ‘Confound the woman!’—very bad language, my dear, but Peter was not always so guarded as he should have been; my father was so angry with him, it nearly frightened me out of my wits: and yet I could hardly keep from laughing at the little curtseys Peter kept making, quite slyly, whenever my father spoke of the lady’s excellent taste and sound discrimination.”

“Did Miss Jenkyns know of these tricks?” said I.

“Oh, no!  Deborah would have been too much shocked.  No, no one knew but me.  I wish I had always known of Peter’s plans; but sometimes he did not tell me.  He used to say the old ladies in the town wanted something to talk about; but I don’t think they did.  They had the St James’s Chronicle three times a week, just as we have now, and we have plenty to say; and I remember the clacking noise there always was when some of the ladies got together.  But, probably, schoolboys talk more than ladies.  At last there was a terrible, sad thing happened.”  Miss Matty got up, went to the door, and opened it; no one was there.  She rang the bell for Martha, and when Martha came, her mistress told her to go for eggs to a farm at the other end of the town.

“I will lock the door after you, Martha.  You are not afraid to go, are you?”

“No, ma’am, not at all; Jem Hearn will be only too proud to go with me.”

Miss Matty drew herself up, and as soon as we were alone, she wished that Martha had more maidenly reserve.

“We’ll put out the candle, my dear.  We can talk just as well by firelight, you know.  There!  Well, you see, Deborah had gone from home for a fortnight or so; it was a very still, quiet day, I remember, overhead; and the lilacs were all in flower, so I suppose it was spring.  My father had gone out to see some sick people in the parish; I recollect seeing him leave the house with his wig and shovel-hat and cane.  What possessed our poor Peter I don’t know; he had the sweetest temper, and yet he always seemed to like to plague Deborah.  She never laughed at his jokes, and thought him ungenteel, and not careful enough about improving his mind; and that vexed him.

“Well! he went to her room, it seems, and dressed himself in her old gown, and shawl, and bonnet; just the things she used to wear in Cranford, and was known by everywhere; and he made the pillow into a little—you are sure you locked the door, my dear, for I should not like anyone to hear—into—into a little baby, with white long clothes.  It was only, as he told me afterwards, to make something to talk about in the town; he never thought of it as affecting Deborah.  And he went and walked up and down in the Filbert walk—just half-hidden by the rails, and half-seen; and he cuddled his 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 what should he see but a little black crowd of people—I daresay as many as twenty—all peeping through his garden rails.  So he thought, at first, they were only looking at a new rhododendron that was in full bloom, and that he was very proud of; and he walked slower, that they might have more time to admire.  And he wondered if he could make out a sermon from the occasion, and thought, perhaps, there was some relation between the rhododendrons and the lilies of the field.  My poor father!  When he came nearer, he began to wonder that they did not see him; but their heads were all so close together, peeping and peeping!  My father was amongst them, meaning, he said, to ask them to walk into the garden with him, and admire the beautiful vegetable production, when—oh, my dear, I tremble to think of it—he looked through the rails himself, and saw—I don’t know what he thought he saw, but old Clare told me his face went quite grey-white with anger, and his eyes blazed out under his frowning black brows; and he spoke out—oh, so terribly!—and bade them all stop where they were—not one of them to go, not one of them to stir a step; and, swift as light, he was in at the garden door, and down the Filbert walk, and seized hold of poor Peter, and tore his clothes off his back—bonnet, shawl, gown, and all—and threw the pillow among the people over the railings: and then he was very, very angry indeed, and before all the people he lifted up his cane and flogged Peter!

“My dear, that boy’s trick, on that sunny day, when all seemed going straight and well, broke my mother’s heart, and changed my father for life.  It did, indeed.  Old Clare said, Peter looked as white as my father; and stood as still as a statue to be flogged; and my father struck hard!  When my father stopped to take breath, Peter said, ‘Have you done enough, sir?’ quite hoarsely, and still standing quite quiet.  I don’t know what my father said—or if he said anything.  But old Clare said, Peter turned to where the people outside the railing were, and made them a low bow, as grand and as grave as any gentleman; and then walked slowly into the house.  I was in the store-room helping my mother to make cowslip wine.  I cannot abide the wine now, nor the scent of the flowers; they turn me sick and faint, as they did that day, when Peter came in, looking as haughty as any man—indeed, looking like a man, not like a boy.  ‘Mother!’ he said, ‘I am come to say, God bless you for ever.’  I saw his lips quiver as he spoke; and I think he durst not say anything more loving, for the purpose that was in his heart.  She looked at him rather frightened, and wondering, and asked him what was to do.  He did not smile or speak, but put his arms round her and kissed her as if he did not know how to leave off; and before she could speak again, he was gone.  We talked it over, and could not understand it, and she bade me go and seek my father, and ask what it was all about.  I found him walking up and down, looking very highly displeased.

“‘Tell your mother I have flogged Peter, and that he richly deserved it.’

“I durst not ask any more questions.  When I told my mother, she sat down, quite faint, for a minute.  I remember, a few days after, I saw the poor, withered cowslip flowers thrown out to the leaf heap, to decay and die there.  There was no making of cowslip wine that year at the rectory—nor, indeed, ever after.

“Presently my mother went to my father.  I know I thought of Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus; for my mother was very pretty and delicate-looking, and my father looked as terrible as King Ahasuerus.  Some time after they came out together; and then my mother told me what had happened, and that she was going up to Peter’s room at my father’s desire—though she was not to tell Peter this—to talk the matter over with him.  But no Peter was there.  We looked over the house; no Peter was there!  Even my father, who had not liked to join in the search at first, helped us before long.  The rectory was a very old house—steps up into a room, steps down into a room, all through.  At first, my mother went calling low and soft, as if to reassure the poor boy, ‘Peter!  Peter, dear! it’s only me;’ but, by-and-by, as the servants came back from the errands my father had sent them, in different directions, to find where Peter was—as we found he was not in the garden, nor the hayloft, nor anywhere about—my mother’s cry grew louder and wilder, ‘Peter!  Peter, my darling! where are you?’ for then she felt and understood that that long kiss meant some sad kind of ‘good-bye.’  The afternoon went on—my mother never resting, but seeking again and again in every possible place that had been looked into twenty times before, nay, that she had looked into over and over again herself.  My father sat with his head in his hands, not speaking except when his messengers came in, bringing no tidings; then he lifted up his face, so strong and sad, and told them to go again in some new direction.  My mother kept passing from room to room, in and out of the house, moving noiselessly, but never ceasing.  Neither she nor my father durst leave the house, which was the meeting-place for all the messengers.  At last (and it was nearly dark), my father rose up.  He took hold of my mother’s arm as she came with wild, sad pace through one door, and quickly towards another.  She started at the touch of his hand, for she had forgotten all in the world but Peter.

“‘Molly!’ said he, ‘I did not think all this would happen.’  He looked into her face for comfort—her poor face all wild and white; for neither she nor my father had dared to acknowledge—much less act upon—the terror that was in their hearts, lest Peter should have made away with himself.  My father saw no conscious look in his wife’s hot, dreary eyes, and he missed the sympathy that she had always been ready to give him—strong man as he was, and at the dumb despair in her face his tears began to flow.  But when she saw this, a gentle sorrow came over her countenance, and she said, ‘Dearest John! don’t cry; come with me, and we’ll find him,’ almost as cheerfully as if she knew where he was.  And she took my father’s great hand in her little soft one, and led him along, the tears dropping as he walked on that same unceasing, weary walk, from room to room, through house and garden.

“Oh, how I wished for Deborah!  I had no time for crying, for now all seemed to depend on me.  I wrote for Deborah to come home.  I sent a message privately to that same Mr Holbrook’s house—poor Mr Holbrook;—you know who I mean.  I don’t mean I sent a message to him, but I sent one that I could trust to know if Peter was at his house.  For at one time Mr Holbrook was an occasional visitor at the rectory—you know he was Miss Pole’s cousin—and he had been very kind to Peter, and taught him how to fish—he was very kind to everybody, and I thought Peter might have gone off there.  But Mr Holbrook was from home, and Peter had never been seen.  It was night now; but the doors were all wide open, and my father and mother walked on and on; it was more than an hour since he had joined her, and I don’t believe they had ever spoken all that time.  I was getting the parlour fire lighted, and one of the servants was preparing tea, for I wanted them to have something to eat and drink and warm them, when old Clare asked to speak to me.

“‘I have borrowed the nets from the weir, Miss Matty.  Shall we drag the ponds to-night, or wait for the morning?’

“I remember staring in his face to gather his meaning; and when I did, I laughed out loud.  The horror of that new thought—our bright, darling Peter, cold, and stark, and dead!  I remember the ring of my own laugh now.

“The next day Deborah was at home before I was myself again.  She would not have been so weak as to give way as I had done; but my screams (my horrible laughter had ended in crying) had roused my sweet dear mother, whose poor wandering wits were called back and collected as soon as a child needed her care.  She and Deborah sat by my bedside; I knew by the looks of each that there had been no news of Peter—no awful, ghastly news, which was what I most had dreaded in my dull state between sleeping and waking.

“The same result of all the searching had brought something of the same relief to my mother, to whom, I am sure, the thought that Peter might even then be hanging dead in some of the familiar home places had caused that never-ending walk of yesterday.  Her soft eyes never were the same again after that; they had always a restless, craving look, as if seeking for what they could not find.  Oh! it was an awful time; coming down like a thunder-bolt on the still sunny day when the lilacs were all in bloom.”

“Where was Mr Peter?” said I.

“He had made his way to Liverpool; and there was war then; and some of the king’s ships lay off the mouth of the Mersey; and they were only too glad to have a fine likely boy such as him (five foot nine he was), come to offer himself.  The captain wrote to my father, and Peter wrote to my mother.  Stay! those letters will be somewhere here.”

We lighted the candle, and found the captain’s letter and Peter’s too.  And we also found a little simple begging letter from Mrs Jenkyns to Peter, addressed to him at the house of an old schoolfellow whither she fancied he might have gone.  They had returned it unopened; and unopened it had remained ever since, having been inadvertently put by among the other letters of that time.  This is it:—

My dearest Peter,—You did not think we should be so sorry as we are, I know, or you would never have gone away.  You are too good.  Your father sits and sighs till my heart aches to hear him.  He cannot hold up his head for grief; and yet he only did what he thought was right.  Perhaps he has been too severe, and perhaps I have not been kind enough; but God knows how we love you, my dear only boy.  Don looks so sorry you are gone.  Come back, and make us happy, who love you so much.  I know you will come back.”

But Peter did not come back.  That spring day was the last time he ever saw his mother’s face.  The writer of the letter—the last—the only person who had ever seen what was written in it, was dead long ago; and I, a stranger, not born at the time when this occurrence took place, was the one to open it.

The captain’s letter summoned the father and mother to Liverpool instantly, if they wished to see their boy; and, by some of the wild chances of life, the captain’s letter had been detained somewhere, somehow.

Miss Matty went on, “And it was racetime, and all the post-horses at Cranford were gone to the races; but my father and mother set off in our own gig—and oh! my dear, they were too late—the ship was gone!  And now read Peter’s letter to my mother!”

It was full of love, and sorrow, and pride in his new profession, and a sore sense of his disgrace in the eyes of the people at Cranford; but ending with a passionate entreaty that she would come and see him before he left the Mersey: “Mother; we may go into battle.  I hope we shall, and lick those French: but I must see you again before that time.”

“And she was too late,” said Miss Matty; “too late!”

We sat in silence, pondering on the full meaning of those sad, sad words.  At length I asked Miss Matty to tell me how her mother bore it.

“Oh!” she said, “she was patience itself.  She had never been strong, and this weakened her terribly.  My father used to sit looking at her: far more sad than she was.  He seemed as if he could look at nothing else when she was by; and he was so humble—so very gentle now.  He would, perhaps, speak in his old way—laying down the law, as it were—and then, in a minute or two, he would come round and put his hand on our shoulders, and ask us in a low voice, if he had said anything to hurt us.  I did not wonder at his speaking so to Deborah, for she was so clever; but I could not bear to hear him talking so to me.

“But, you see, he saw what we did not—that it was killing my mother.  Yes! killing her (put out the candle, my dear; I can talk better in the dark), for she was but a frail woman, and ill-fitted to stand the fright and shock she had gone through; and she would smile at him and comfort him, not in words, but in her looks and tones, which were always cheerful when he was there.  And she would speak of how she thought Peter stood a good chance of being admiral very soon—he was so brave and clever; and how she thought of seeing him in his navy uniform, and what sort of hats admirals wore; and how much more fit he was to be a sailor than a clergyman; and all in that way, just to make my father think she was quite glad of what came of that unlucky morning’s work, and the flogging which was always in his mind, as we all knew.  But oh, my dear! the bitter, bitter crying she had when she was alone; and at last, as she grew weaker, she could not keep her tears in when Deborah or me was by, and would give us message after message for Peter (his ship had gone to the Mediterranean, or somewhere down there, and then he was ordered off to India, and there was no overland route then); but she still said that no one knew where their death lay in wait, and that we were not to think hers was near.  We did not think it, but we knew it, as we saw her fading away.

“Well, my dear, it’s very foolish of me, I know, when in all likelihood I am so near seeing her again.

“And only think, love! the very day after her death—for she did not live quite a twelvemonth after Peter went away—the very day after—came a parcel for her from India—from her poor boy.  It was a large, soft, white Indian shawl, with just a little narrow border all round; just what my mother would have liked.

“We thought it might rouse my father, for he had sat with her hand in his all night long; so Deborah took it in to him, and Peter’s letter to her, and all.  At first, he took no notice; and we tried to make a kind of light careless talk about the shawl, opening it out and admiring 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.’

“Well, perhaps it was not reasonable, but what could we do or say?  One gives people in grief their own way.  He took it up and felt it: ‘It is just such a shawl as she wished for when she was married, and her mother did not give it her.  I did not know of it till after, or she should have had it—she should; but she shall have it now.’

“My mother looked so lovely in her death!  She was always pretty, and now she looked fair, and waxen, and young—younger than Deborah, as she stood trembling and shivering by her.  We decked her in the long soft folds; she lay smiling, as if pleased; and people came—all Cranford came—to beg to see her, for they had loved her dearly, as well they might; and the countrywomen brought posies; old Clare’s wife brought some white violets and begged they might lie on her breast.

“Deborah said to me, the day of my mother’s funeral, that if she had a hundred offers she never would marry and leave my father.  It was not very likely she would have so many—I don’t know that she had one; but it was not less to her credit to say so.  She was such a daughter to my father as I think there never was before or since.  His eyes failed him, and she read book after book, and wrote, and copied, and was always at his service in any parish business.  She could do many more things than my poor mother could; she even once wrote a letter to the bishop for my father.  But he missed my mother sorely; the whole parish noticed it.  Not that he was less active; I think he was more so, and more patient in helping every one.  I did all I could to set Deborah at liberty to be with him; for I knew I was good for little, and that my best work in the world was to do odd jobs quietly, and set others at liberty.  But my father was a changed man.”

“Did Mr Peter ever come home?”

“Yes, once.  He came home a lieutenant; he did not get to be admiral.  And he and my father were such friends!  My father took him into every house in the parish, he was so proud of him.  He never walked out without Peter’s arm to lean upon.  Deborah used to smile (I don’t think we ever laughed again after my mother’s death), and say she was quite put in a corner.  Not but what my father always wanted her when there was letter-writing or reading to be done, or anything to be settled.”

“And then?” said I, after a pause.

“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, of course, our circumstances were changed; and, instead of living at the rectory, and keeping three maids and a man, we had to come to this small house, and be content 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?” asked I.

“Oh, there was some great war in India—I forget what they call it—and we have never heard of Peter since then.  I believe he is dead myself; and it sometimes fidgets me that we have never put on mourning for him.  And then again, when I sit by myself, and all the house is still, I think I hear his step coming up the street, and my heart begins to flutter and beat; but the sound always goes past—and Peter never comes.

“That’s Martha back?  No!  I’ll go, my dear; I can always find my way in the dark, you know.  And a blow of fresh air at the door will do my head good, and it’s rather got a trick of aching.”

So she pattered off.  I had lighted the candle, to give the room a cheerful appearance against her return.

“Was it Martha?” asked I.

“Yes.  And I am rather uncomfortable, for I heard such a strange noise, just as I was opening the door.”

“Where?” I asked, for her eyes were round with affright.

“In the street—just outside—it sounded like”—

“Talking?” I put in, as she hesitated a little.

“No! kissing”—

 

CHAPTER VII: VISITING

One morning, as Miss Matty and I sat at our work—it was before twelve o’clock, and Miss Matty had not changed the cap with yellow ribbons that had been Miss Jenkyns’s best, and which Miss Matty was now wearing out in private, putting on the one made in imitation of Mrs Jamieson’s at all times when she expected to be seen—Martha came up, and asked if Miss Betty Barker might speak to her mistress.  Miss Matty assented, and quickly disappeared to change the yellow ribbons, while Miss Barker came upstairs; but, as she had forgotten her spectacles, and was rather flurried by the unusual time of the visit, I was not surprised to see her return with one cap on the top of the other.  She was quite unconscious of it herself, and looked at us, with bland satisfaction.  Nor do I think Miss Barker perceived it; for, putting aside the little circumstance that she was not so young as she had been, she was very much absorbed in her errand, which she delivered herself of with an oppressive modesty that found vent in endless apologies.

Miss Betty Barker was the daughter of the old clerk at Cranford who had officiated in Mr Jenkyns’s time.  She and her sister had had pretty good situations as ladies’ maids, and had saved money enough to set up a milliner’s shop, which had been patronised by the ladies in the neighbourhood.  Lady Arley, for instance, would occasionally give Miss Barkers the pattern of an old cap of hers, which they immediately copied and circulated among the élite of Cranford.  I say the élite, for Miss Barkers had caught the trick of the place, and piqued themselves upon their “aristocratic connection.”  They would not sell their caps and ribbons to anyone without a pedigree.  Many a farmer’s wife or daughter turned away huffed from Miss Barkers’ select millinery, and went rather to the universal shop, where the profits of brown soap and moist sugar enabled the proprietor to go straight to (Paris, he said, until he found his customers too patriotic and John Bullish to wear what the Mounseers wore) London, where, as he often told his customers, Queen Adelaide had appeared, only the very week before, in a cap exactly like the one he showed them, trimmed with yellow and blue ribbons, and had been complimented by King William on the becoming nature of her head-dress.

Miss Barkers, who confined themselves to truth, and did not approve of miscellaneous customers, throve notwithstanding.  They were self-denying, good people.  Many a time have I seen the eldest of them (she that had been maid to Mrs Jamieson) carrying out some delicate mess to a poor person.  They only aped their betters in having “nothing to do” with the class immediately below theirs.  And when Miss Barker died, their profits and income were found to be such that Miss Betty was justified in shutting up shop and retiring from business.  She also (as I think I have before said) set up her cow; a mark of respectability in Cranford almost as decided as setting up a gig is among some people.  She dressed finer than any lady in Cranford; and we did not wonder at it; for it was understood that she was wearing out all the bonnets and caps and outrageous ribbons which had once formed her stock-in-trade.  It was five or six years since she had given up shop, so in any other place than Cranford her dress might have been considered passée.

And now Miss Betty Barker had called to invite Miss Matty to tea at her house on the following Tuesday.  She gave me also an impromptu invitation, as I happened to be a visitor—though I could see she had a little fear lest, since my father had gone to live in Drumble, he might have engaged in that “horrid cotton trade,” and so dragged his family down out of “aristocratic society.”  She prefaced this invitation with so many apologies that she quite excited my curiosity.  “Her presumption” was to be excused.  What had she been doing?  She seemed so overpowered by it I could only think that she had been writing to Queen Adelaide to ask for a receipt for washing lace; but the act which she so characterised was only an invitation she had carried to her sister’s former mistress, Mrs Jamieson.  “Her former occupation considered, could Miss Matty excuse the liberty?”  Ah! thought I, she has found out that double cap, and is going to rectify Miss Matty’s head-dress.  No! it was simply to extend her invitation to Miss Matty and to me.  Miss Matty bowed acceptance; and I wondered that, in the graceful action, she did not feel the unusual weight and extraordinary height of her head-dress.  But I do not think she did, for she recovered her balance, and went on talking to Miss Betty in a kind, condescending manner, very different from the fidgety way she would have had if she had suspected how singular her appearance was.  “Mrs Jamieson is coming, I think you said?” asked Miss Matty.

“Yes.  Mrs Jamieson most kindly and condescendingly said she would be happy to come.  One little stipulation she made, that she should bring Carlo.  I told her that if I had a weakness, it was for dogs.”

“And Miss Pole?” questioned Miss Matty, who was thinking of her pool at Preference, in which Carlo would not be available as a partner.

“I am going to ask Miss Pole.  Of course, I could not think of asking her until I had asked you, madam—the rector’s daughter, madam.  Believe me, I do not forget the situation my father held under yours.”

“And Mrs Forrester, of course?”

“And Mrs Forrester.  I thought, in fact, of going to her before I went to Miss Pole.  Although her circumstances are changed, madam, she was born at Tyrrell, and we can never forget her alliance to the Bigges, of Bigelow Hall.”

Miss Matty cared much more for the little circumstance of her being a very good card-player.

“Mrs Fitz-Adam—I suppose”—

“No, madam.  I must draw a line somewhere.  Mrs Jamieson would not, I think, like to meet Mrs Fitz-Adam.  I have the greatest respect for Mrs Fitz-Adam—but I cannot think her fit society for such ladies as Mrs Jamieson and Miss Matilda Jenkyns.”

Miss Betty Barker bowed low to Miss Matty, and pursed up her mouth.  She looked at me with sidelong dignity, as much as to say, although a retired milliner, she was no democrat, and understood the difference of ranks.

“May I beg you to come as near half-past six to my little dwelling, as possible, Miss Matilda?  Mrs Jamieson dines at five, but has kindly promised not to delay her visit beyond that time—half-past six.”  And with a swimming curtsey Miss Betty Barker took her leave.

My prophetic soul foretold a visit that afternoon from Miss Pole, who usually came to call on Miss Matilda after any event—or indeed in sight of any event—to talk it over with her.

“Miss Betty told me it was to be a choice and select few,” said Miss Pole, as she and Miss Matty compared notes.

“Yes, so she said.  Not even Mrs Fitz-Adam.”

Now Mrs Fitz-Adam was the widowed sister of the Cranford surgeon, whom I have named before.  Their parents were respectable farmers, content with their station.  The name of these good people was Hoggins.  Mr Hoggins was the Cranford doctor now; we disliked the name and considered it coarse; but, as Miss Jenkyns said, if he changed it to Piggins it would not be much better.  We had hoped to discover a relationship between him and that Marchioness of Exeter whose name was Molly Hoggins; but the man, careless of his own interests, utterly ignored and denied any such relationship, although, as dear Miss Jenkyns had said, he had a sister called Mary, and the same Christian names were very apt to run in families.

Soon after Miss Mary Hoggins married Mr Fitz-Adam, she disappeared from the neighbourhood for many years.  She did not move in a sphere in Cranford society sufficiently high to make any of us care to know what Mr Fitz-Adam was.  He died and was gathered to his fathers without our ever having thought about him at all.  And then Mrs Fitz-Adam reappeared in Cranford (“as bold as a lion,” Miss Pole said), a well-to-do widow, dressed in rustling black silk, so soon after her husband’s death that poor Miss Jenkyns was justified in the remark she made, that “bombazine would have shown a deeper sense of her loss.”

I remember the convocation of ladies who assembled to decide whether or not Mrs Fitz-Adam should be called upon by the old blue-blooded inhabitants of Cranford.  She had taken a large rambling house, which had been usually considered to confer a patent of gentility upon its tenant, because, once upon a time, seventy or eighty years before, the spinster daughter of an earl had resided in it.  I am not sure if the inhabiting this house was not also believed to convey some unusual power of intellect; for the earl’s daughter, Lady Jane, had a sister, Lady Anne, who had married a general officer in the time of the American war, and this general officer had written one or two comedies, which were still acted on the London boards, and which, when we saw them advertised, made us all draw up, and feel that Drury Lane was paying a very pretty compliment to Cranford.  Still, it was not at all a settled thing that Mrs Fitz-Adam was to be visited, when dear Miss Jenkyns died; and, with her, something of the clear knowledge of the strict code of gentility went out too.  As Miss Pole observed, “As most of the ladies of good family in Cranford were elderly spinsters, or widows without children, if we did not relax a little, and become less exclusive, by-and-by we should have no society at all.”

Mrs Forrester continued on the same side.

“She had always understood that Fitz meant something aristocratic; there was Fitz-Roy—she thought that some of the King’s children had been called Fitz-Roy; and there was Fitz-Clarence, now—they were the children of dear good King William the Fourth.  Fitz-Adam!—it was a pretty name, and she thought it very probably meant ‘Child of Adam.’  No one, who had not some good blood in their veins, would dare to be called Fitz; there was a deal in a name—she had had a cousin who spelt his name with two little ffs—ffoulkes—and he always looked down upon capital letters and said they belonged to lately-invented families.  She had been afraid he would die a bachelor, he was so very choice.  When he met with a Mrs ffarringdon, at a watering-place, he took to her immediately; and a very pretty genteel woman she was—a widow, with a very good fortune; and ‘my cousin,’ Mr ffoulkes, married her; and it was all owing to her two little ffs.”

Mrs Fitz-Adam did not stand a chance of meeting with a Mr Fitz-anything in Cranford, so that could not have been her motive for settling there.  Miss Matty thought it might have been the hope of being admitted into the society of the place, which would certainly be a very agreeable rise for ci-devant Miss Hoggins; and if this had been her hope it would be cruel to disappoint her.

So everybody called upon Mrs Fitz-Adam—everybody but Mrs Jamieson, who used to show how honourable she was by never seeing Mrs Fitz-Adam when they met at the Cranford parties.  There would be only eight or ten ladies in the room, and Mrs Fitz-Adam was the largest of all, and she invariably used to stand up when Mrs Jamieson came in, and curtsey very low to her whenever she turned in her direction—so low, in fact, that I think Mrs Jamieson must have looked at the wall above her, for she never moved a muscle of her face, no more than if she had not seen her.  Still Mrs Fitz-Adam persevered.

The spring evenings were getting bright and long when three or four ladies in calashes met at Miss Barker’s door.  Do you know what a calash is?  It is a covering worn over caps, not unlike the heads fastened on old-fashioned gigs; but sometimes it is not quite so large.  This kind of head-gear always made an awful impression on the children in Cranford; and now two or three left off their play in the quiet sunny little street, and gathered in wondering silence round Miss Pole, Miss Matty, and myself.  We were silent too, so that we could hear loud, suppressed whispers inside Miss Barker’s house: “Wait, Peggy! wait till I’ve run upstairs and washed my hands.  When I cough, open the door; I’ll not be a minute.”

And, true enough it was not a minute before we heard a noise, between a sneeze and a crow; on which the door flew open.  Behind it stood a round-eyed maiden, all aghast at the honourable company of calashes, who marched in without a word.  She recovered presence of mind enough to usher us into a small room, which had been the shop, but was now converted into a temporary dressing-room.  There we unpinned and shook ourselves, and arranged our features before the glass into a sweet and gracious company-face; and then, bowing backwards with “After you, ma’am,” we allowed Mrs Forrester to take precedence up the narrow staircase that led to Miss Barker’s drawing-room.  There she sat, as stately and composed as though we had never heard that odd-sounding cough, from which her throat must have been even then sore and rough.  Kind, gentle, shabbily-dressed Mrs Forrester was immediately conducted to the second place of honour—a seat arranged something like Prince Albert’s near the Queen’s—good, but not so good.  The place of pre-eminence was, of course, reserved for the Honourable Mrs Jamieson, who presently came panting up the stairs—Carlo rushing round her on her progress, as if he meant to trip her up.

And now Miss Betty Barker was a proud and happy woman!  She stirred the fire, and shut the door, and sat as near to it as she could, quite on the edge of her chair.  When Peggy came in, tottering under the weight of the tea-tray, I noticed that Miss Barker was sadly afraid lest Peggy should not keep her distance sufficiently.  She and her mistress were on very familiar terms in their every-day intercourse, and Peggy wanted now to make several little confidences to her, which Miss Barker was on thorns to hear, but which she thought it her duty, as a lady, to repress.  So she turned away from all Peggy’s asides and signs; but she made one or two very malapropos answers to what was said; and at last, seized with a bright idea, she exclaimed, “Poor, sweet Carlo!  I’m forgetting him.  Come downstairs with me, poor ittie doggie, and it shall have its tea, it shall!”

In a few minutes she returned, bland and benignant as before; but I thought she had forgotten to give the “poor ittie doggie” anything to eat, judging by the avidity with which he swallowed down chance pieces of cake.  The tea-tray was abundantly loaded—I was pleased to see it, I was so hungry; but I was afraid the ladies present might think it vulgarly heaped up.  I know they would have done at their own houses; but somehow the heaps disappeared here.  I saw Mrs Jamieson eating seed-cake, slowly and considerately, as she did everything; and I was rather surprised, for I knew she had told us, on the occasion of her last party, that she never had it in her house, it reminded her so much of scented soap.  She always gave us Savoy biscuits.  However, Mrs Jamieson was kindly indulgent to Miss Barker’s want of knowledge of the customs of high life; and, to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow’s.

After tea there was some little demur and difficulty.  We were six in number; four could play at Preference, and for the other two there was Cribbage.  But all, except myself (I was rather afraid of the Cranford ladies at cards, for it was the most earnest and serious business they ever engaged in), were anxious to be of the “pool.”  Even Miss Barker, while declaring she did not know Spadille from Manille, was evidently hankering to take a hand.  The dilemma was soon put an end to by a singular kind of noise.  If a baron’s daughter-in-law could ever be supposed to snore, I should have said Mrs Jamieson did so then; for, overcome by the heat of the room, and inclined to doze by nature, the temptation of that very comfortable arm-chair had been too much for her, and Mrs Jamieson was nodding.  Once or twice she opened her eyes with an effort, and calmly but unconsciously smiled upon us; but by-and-by, even her benevolence was not equal to this exertion, and she was sound asleep.

“It is very gratifying to me,” whispered Miss Barker at the card-table to her three opponents, whom, notwithstanding her ignorance of the game, she was “basting” most unmercifully—“very gratifying indeed, to see how completely Mrs Jamieson feels at home in my poor little dwelling; she could not have paid me a greater compliment.”

Miss Barker provided me with some literature in the shape of three or four handsomely-bound fashion-books ten or twelve years old, observing, as she put a little table and a candle for my especial benefit, that she knew young people liked to look at pictures.  Carlo lay and snorted, and started at his mistress’s feet.  He, too, was quite at home.

The card-table was an animated scene to watch; four ladies’ heads, with niddle-noddling caps, all nearly meeting over the middle of the table in their eagerness to whisper quick enough and loud enough: and every now and then came Miss Barker’s “Hush, ladies! if you please, hush!  Mrs Jamieson is asleep.”

It was very difficult to steer clear between Mrs Forrester’s deafness and Mrs Jamieson’s sleepiness.  But Miss Barker managed her arduous task well.  She repeated the whisper to Mrs Forrester, distorting her face considerably, in order to show, by the motions of her lips, what was said; and then she smiled kindly all round at us, and murmured to herself, “Very gratifying, indeed; I wish my poor sister had been alive to see this day.”

Presently the door was thrown wide open; Carlo started to his feet, with a loud snapping bark, and Mrs Jamieson awoke: or, perhaps, she had not been asleep—as she said almost directly, the room had been so light she had been glad to keep her eyes shut, but had been listening with great interest to all our amusing and agreeable conversation.  Peggy came in once more, red with importance.  Another tray!  “Oh, gentility!” thought I, “can you endure this last shock?”  For Miss Barker had ordered (nay, I doubt not, prepared, although she did say, “Why, Peggy, what have you brought us?” and looked pleasantly surprised at the unexpected pleasure) all sorts of good things for supper—scalloped oysters, potted lobsters, jelly, a dish called “little Cupids” (which was in great favour with the Cranford ladies, although too expensive to be given, except on solemn and state occasions—macaroons sopped in brandy, I should have called it, if I had not known its more refined and classical name).  In short, we were evidently to be feasted with all that was sweetest and best; and we thought it better to submit graciously, even at the cost of our gentility—which never ate suppers in general, but which, like most non-supper-eaters, was particularly hungry on all special occasions.

Miss Barker, in her former sphere, had, I daresay, been made acquainted with the beverage they call cherry-brandy.  We none of us had ever seen such a thing, and rather shrank back when she proffered it us—“just a little, leetle glass, ladies; after the oysters and lobsters, you know.  Shell-fish are sometimes thought not very wholesome.”  We all shook our heads like female mandarins; but, at last, Mrs Jamieson suffered herself to be persuaded, and we followed her lead.  It was not exactly unpalatable, though so hot and so strong that we thought ourselves bound to give evidence that we were not accustomed to such things by coughing terribly—almost as strangely as Miss Barker had done, before we were admitted by Peggy.

“It’s very strong,” said Miss Pole, as she put down her empty glass; “I do believe there’s spirit in it.”

“Only a little drop—just necessary to make it keep,” said Miss Barker.  “You know we put brandy-pepper over our preserves to make them keep.  I often feel tipsy myself from eating damson tart.”

I question whether damson tart would have opened Mrs Jamieson’s heart as the cherry-brandy did; but she told us of a coming event, respecting which she had been quite silent till that moment.

“My sister-in-law, Lady Glenmire, is coming to stay with me.”

There was a chorus of “Indeed!” and then a pause.  Each one rapidly reviewed her wardrobe, as to its fitness to appear in the presence of a baron’s widow; for, of course, a series of small festivals were always held in Cranford on the arrival of a visitor at any of our friends’ houses.  We felt very pleasantly excited on the present occasion.

Not long after this the maids and the lanterns were announced.  Mrs Jamieson had the sedan-chair, which had squeezed itself into Miss Barker’s narrow lobby with some difficulty, and most literally “stopped the way.”  It required some skilful manoeuvring on the part of the old chairmen (shoemakers by day, but when summoned to carry the sedan dressed up in a strange old livery—long great-coats, with small capes, coeval with the sedan, and similar to the dress of the class in Hogarth’s pictures) to edge, and back, and try at it again, and finally to succeed in carrying their burden out of Miss Barker’s front door.  Then we heard their quick pit-a-pat along the quiet little street as we put on our calashes and pinned up our gowns; Miss Barker hovering about us with offers of help, which, if she had not remembered her former occupation, and wished us to forget it, would have been much more pressing.

 

CHAPTER VIII: “YOUR LADYSHIP”

Early the next morning—directly after twelve—Miss Pole made her appearance at Miss Matty’s.  Some very trifling piece of business was alleged as a reason for the call; but there was evidently something behind.  At last out it came.

“By the way, you’ll think I’m strangely ignorant; but, do you really know, I am puzzled how we ought to address Lady Glenmire.  Do you say, ‘Your Ladyship,’ where you would say ‘you’ to a common person?  I have been puzzling all morning; and are we to say ‘My Lady,’ instead of ‘Ma’am?’  Now you knew Lady Arley—will you kindly tell me the most correct way of speaking to the peerage?”

Poor Miss Matty! she took off her spectacles and she put them on again—but how Lady Arley was addressed, she could not remember.

“It is so long ago,” she said.  “Dear! dear! how stupid I am!  I don’t think I ever saw her more than twice.  I know we used to call Sir Peter, ‘Sir Peter’—but he came much oftener to see us than Lady Arley did.  Deborah would have known in a minute.  ‘My lady’—‘your ladyship.’  It sounds very strange, and as if it was not natural.  I never thought of it before; but, now you have named it, I am all in a puzzle.”

It was very certain Miss Pole would obtain no wise decision from Miss Matty, who got more bewildered every moment, and more perplexed as to etiquettes of address.

“Well, I really think,” said Miss Pole, “I had better just go and tell Mrs Forrester about our little difficulty.  One sometimes grows nervous; and yet one would not have Lady Glenmire think we were quite ignorant of the etiquettes of high life in Cranford.”

“And will you just step in here, dear Miss Pole, as you come back, please, and tell me what you decide upon?  Whatever you and Mrs Forrester fix upon, will be quite right, I’m sure.  ‘Lady Arley,’ ‘Sir Peter,’” said Miss Matty to herself, trying to recall the old forms of words.

“Who is Lady Glenmire?” asked I.

“Oh, she’s the widow of Mr Jamieson—that’s Mrs Jamieson’s late husband, you know—widow of his eldest brother.  Mrs Jamieson was a Miss Walker, daughter of Governor Walker.  ‘Your ladyship.’  My dear, if they fix on that way of speaking, you must just let me practice a little on you first, for I shall feel so foolish and hot saying it the first time to Lady Glenmire.”

It was really a relief to Miss Matty when Mrs Jamieson came on a very unpolite errand.  I notice that apathetic people have more quiet impertinence than others; and Mrs Jamieson came now to insinuate pretty plainly that she did not particularly wish that the Cranford ladies should call upon her sister-in-law.  I can hardly say how she made this clear; for I grew very indignant and warm, while with slow deliberation she was explaining her wishes to Miss Matty, who, a true lady herself, could hardly understand the feeling which made Mrs Jamieson wish to appear to her noble sister-in-law as if she only visited “county” families.  Miss Matty remained puzzled and perplexed long after I had found out the object of Mrs Jamieson’s visit.

When she did understand the drift of the honourable lady’s call, it was pretty to see with what quiet dignity she received the intimation thus uncourteously given.  She was not in the least hurt—she was of too gentle a spirit for that; nor was she exactly conscious of disapproving of Mrs Jamieson’s conduct; but there was something of this feeling in her mind, I am sure, which made her pass from the subject to others in a less flurried and more composed manner than usual.  Mrs Jamieson was, indeed, the more flurried of the two, and I could see she was glad to take her leave.

A little while afterwards Miss Pole returned, red and indignant.  “Well! to be sure!  You’ve had Mrs Jamieson here, I find from Martha; and we are not to call on Lady Glenmire.  Yes!  I met Mrs Jamieson, half-way between here and Mrs Forrester’s, and she told me; she took me so by surprise, I had nothing to say.  I wish I had thought of something very sharp and sarcastic; I dare say I shall to-night.  And Lady Glenmire is but the widow of a Scotch baron after all!  I went on to look at Mrs Forrester’s Peerage, to see who this lady was, that is to be kept under a glass case: widow of a Scotch peer—never sat in the House of Lords—and as poor as Job, I dare say; and she—fifth daughter of some Mr Campbell or other.  You are the daughter of a rector, at any rate, and related to the Arleys; and Sir Peter might have been Viscount Arley, every one says.”

Miss Matty tried to soothe Miss Pole, but in vain.  That lady, usually so kind and good-humoured, was now in a full flow of anger.

“And I went and ordered a cap this morning, to be quite ready,” said she at last, letting out the secret which gave sting to Mrs Jamieson’s intimation.  “Mrs Jamieson shall see if it is so easy to get me to make fourth at a pool when she has none of her fine Scotch relations with her!”

In coming out of church, the first Sunday on which Lady Glenmire appeared in Cranford, we sedulously talked together, and turned our backs on Mrs Jamieson and her guest.  If we might not call on her, we would not even look at her, though we were dying with curiosity to know what she was like.  We had the comfort of questioning Martha in the afternoon.  Martha did not belong to a sphere of society whose observation could be an implied compliment to Lady Glenmire, and Martha had made good use of her eyes.

“Well, ma’am! is it the little lady with Mrs Jamieson, you mean?  I thought you would like more to know how young Mrs Smith was dressed; her being a bride.”  (Mrs Smith was the butcher’s wife).

Miss Pole said, “Good gracious me! as if we cared about a Mrs Smith;” but was silent as Martha resumed her speech.

“The little lady in Mrs Jamieson’s pew had on, ma’am, rather an old black silk, and a shepherd’s plaid cloak, ma’am, and very bright black eyes she had, ma’am, and a pleasant, sharp face; not over young, ma’am, but yet, I should guess, younger than Mrs Jamieson herself.  She looked up and down the church, like a bird, and nipped up her petticoats, when she came out, as quick and sharp as ever I see.  I’ll tell you what, ma’am, she’s more like Mrs Deacon, at the ‘Coach and Horses,’ nor any one.”

“Hush, Martha!” said Miss Matty, “that’s not respectful.”

“Isn’t it, ma’am?  I beg pardon, I’m sure; but Jem Hearn said so as well.  He said, she was just such a sharp, stirring sort of a body”—

“Lady,” said Miss Pole.

“Lady—as Mrs Deacon.”

Another Sunday passed away, and we still averted our eyes from Mrs Jamieson and her guest, and made remarks to ourselves that we thought were very severe—almost too much so.  Miss Matty was evidently uneasy at our sarcastic manner of speaking.

Perhaps by this time Lady Glenmire had found out that Mrs Jamieson’s was not the gayest, liveliest house in the world; perhaps Mrs Jamieson had found out that most of the county families were in London, and that those who remained in the country were not so alive as they might have been to the circumstance of Lady Glenmire being in their neighbourhood.  Great events spring out of small causes; so I will not pretend to say what induced Mrs Jamieson to alter her determination of excluding the Cranford ladies, and send notes of invitation all round for a small party on the following Tuesday.  Mr Mulliner himself brought them round.  He would always ignore the fact of there being a back door to any house, and gave a louder rat-tat than his mistress, Mrs Jamieson.  He had three little notes, which he carried in a large basket, in order to impress his mistress with an idea of their great weight, though they might easily have gone into his waistcoat pocket.

Miss Matty and I quietly decided that we would have a previous engagement at home: it was the evening on which Miss Matty usually made candle-lighters of all the notes and letters of the week; for on Mondays her accounts were always made straight—not a penny owing from the week before; so, by a natural arrangement, making candle-lighters fell upon a Tuesday evening, and gave us a legitimate excuse for declining Mrs Jamieson’s invitation.  But before our answer was written, in came Miss Pole, with an open note in her hand.

“So!” she said.  “Ah!  I see you have got your note, too.  Better late than never.  I could have told my Lady Glenmire she would be glad enough of our society before a fortnight was over.”

“Yes,” said Miss Matty, “we’re asked for Tuesday evening.  And perhaps you would just kindly bring your work across and drink tea with us that night.  It is my usual regular time for looking over the last week’s bills, and notes, and letters, and making candle-lighters of them; but that does not seem quite reason enough for saying I have a previous engagement at home, though I meant to make it do.  Now, if you would come, my conscience would be quite at ease, and luckily the note is not written yet.”

I saw Miss Pole’s countenance change while Miss Matty was speaking.

“Don’t you mean to go then?” asked she.

“Oh, no!” said, Miss Matty quietly.  “You don’t either, I suppose?”

“I don’t know,” replied Miss Pole.  “Yes, I think I do,” said she, rather briskly; and on seeing Miss Matty look surprised, she added, “You see, one would not like Mrs Jamieson to think that anything she could do, or say, was of consequence enough to give offence; it would be a kind of letting down of ourselves, that I, for one, should not like.  It would be too flattering to Mrs Jamieson if we allowed her to suppose that what she had said affected us a week, nay ten days afterwards.”

“Well!  I suppose it is wrong to be hurt and annoyed so long about anything; and, perhaps, after all, she did not mean to vex us.  But I must say, I could not have brought myself to say the things Mrs Jamieson did about our not calling.  I really don’t think I shall go.”

“Oh, come!  Miss Matty, you must go; you know our friend Mrs Jamieson is much more phlegmatic than most people, and does not enter into the little delicacies of feeling which you possess in so remarkable a degree.”

“I thought you possessed them, too, that day Mrs Jamieson called to tell us not to go,” said Miss Matty innocently.

But Miss Pole, in addition to her delicacies of feeling, possessed a very smart cap, which she was anxious to show to an admiring world; and so she seemed to forget all her angry words uttered not a fortnight before, and to be ready to act on what she called the great Christian principle of “Forgive and forget”; and she lectured dear Miss Matty so long on this head that she absolutely ended by assuring her it was her duty, as a deceased rector’s daughter, to buy a new cap and go to the party at Mrs Jamieson’s.  So “we were most happy to accept,” instead of “regretting that we were obliged to decline.”

The expenditure on dress in Cranford was principally in that one article referred to.  If the heads were buried in smart new caps, the ladies were like ostriches, and cared not what became of their bodies.  Old gowns, white and venerable collars, any number of brooches, up and down and everywhere (some with dogs’ eyes painted in them; some that were like small picture-frames with mausoleums and weeping-willows neatly executed in hair inside; some, again, with miniatures of ladies and gentlemen sweetly smiling out of a nest of stiff muslin), old brooches for a permanent ornament, and new caps to suit the fashion of the day—the ladies of Cranford always dressed with chaste elegance and propriety, as Miss Barker once prettily expressed it.

And with three new caps, and a greater array of brooches than had ever been seen together at one time since Cranford was a town, did Mrs Forrester, and Miss Matty, and Miss Pole appear on that memorable Tuesday evening.  I counted seven brooches myself on Miss Pole’s dress.  Two were fixed negligently in her cap (one was a butterfly made of Scotch pebbles, which a vivid imagination might believe to be the real insect); one fastened her net neckerchief; one her collar; one ornamented the front of her gown, midway between her throat and waist; and another adorned the point of her stomacher.  Where the seventh was I have forgotten, but it was somewhere about her, I am sure.

But I am getting on too fast, in describing the dresses of the company.  I should first relate the gathering on the way to Mrs Jamieson’s.  That lady lived in a large house just outside the town.  A road which had known what it was to be a street ran right before the house, which opened out upon it without any intervening garden or court.  Whatever the sun was about, he never shone on the front of that house.  To be sure, the living-rooms were at the back, looking on to a pleasant garden; the front windows only belonged to kitchens and housekeepers’ rooms, and pantries, and in one of them Mr Mulliner was reported to sit.  Indeed, looking askance, we often saw the back of a head covered with hair powder, which also extended itself over his coat-collar down to his very waist; and this imposing back was always engaged in reading the St James’s Chronicle, opened wide, which, in some degree, accounted for the length of time the said newspaper was in reaching us—equal subscribers with Mrs Jamieson, though, in right of her honourableness, she always had the reading of it first.  This very Tuesday, the delay in forwarding the last number had been particularly aggravating; just when both Miss Pole and Miss Matty, the former more especially, had been wanting to see it, in order to coach up the Court news ready for the evening’s interview with aristocracy.  Miss Pole told us she had absolutely taken time by the forelock, and been dressed by five o’clock, in order to be ready if the St James’s Chronicle should come in at the last moment—the very St James’s Chronicle which the powdered head was tranquilly and composedly reading as we passed the accustomed window this evening.

“The impudence of the man!” said Miss Pole, in a low indignant whisper.  “I should like to ask him whether his mistress pays her quarter-share for his exclusive use.”

We looked at her in admiration of the courage of her thought; for Mr Mulliner was an object of great awe to all of us.  He seemed never to have forgotten his condescension in coming to live at Cranford.  Miss Jenkyns, at times, had stood forth as the undaunted champion of her sex, and spoken to him on terms of equality; but even Miss Jenkyns could get no higher.  In his pleasantest and most gracious moods he looked like a sulky cockatoo.  He did not speak except in gruff monosyllables.  He would wait in the hall when we begged him not to wait, and then look deeply offended because we had kept him there, while, with trembling, hasty hands we prepared ourselves for appearing in company.

Miss Pole ventured on a small joke as we went upstairs, intended, though addressed to us, to afford Mr Mulliner some slight amusement.  We all smiled, in order to seem as if we felt at our ease, and timidly looked for Mr Mulliner’s sympathy.  Not a muscle of that wooden face had relaxed; and we were grave in an instant.

Mrs Jamieson’s drawing-room was cheerful; the evening sun came streaming into it, and the large square window was clustered round with flowers.  The furniture was white and gold; not the later style, Louis Quatorze, I think they call it, all shells and twirls; no, Mrs Jamieson’s chairs and tables had not a curve or bend about them.  The chair and table legs diminished as they neared the ground, and were straight and square in all their corners.  The chairs were all a-row against the walls, with the exception of four or five which stood in a circle round the fire.  They were railed with white bars across the back and knobbed with gold; neither the railings nor the knobs invited to ease.  There was a japanned table devoted to literature, on which lay a Bible, a Peerage, and a Prayer-Book.  There was another square Pembroke table dedicated to the Fine Arts, on which were a kaleidoscope, conversation-cards, puzzle-cards (tied together to an interminable length with faded pink satin ribbon), and a box painted in fond imitation of the drawings which decorate tea-chests.  Carlo lay on the worsted-worked rug, and ungraciously barked at us as we entered.  Mrs Jamieson stood up, giving us each a torpid smile of welcome, and looking helplessly beyond us at Mr Mulliner, as if she hoped he would place us in chairs, for, if he did not, she never could.  I suppose he thought we could find our way to the circle round the fire, which reminded me of Stonehenge, I don’t know why.  Lady Glenmire came to the rescue of our hostess, and, somehow or other, we found ourselves for the first time placed agreeably, and not formally, in Mrs Jamieson’s house.  Lady Glenmire, now we had time to look at her, proved to be a bright little woman of middle age, who had been very pretty in the days of her youth, and who was even yet very pleasant-looking.  I saw Miss Pole appraising her dress in the first five minutes, and I take her word when she said the next day—

“My dear! ten pounds would have purchased every stitch she had on—lace and all.”

It was pleasant to suspect that a peeress could be poor, and partly reconciled us to the fact that her husband had never sat in the House of Lords; which, when we first heard of it, seemed a kind of swindling us out of our prospects on false pretences; a sort of “A Lord and No Lord” business.

We were all very silent at first.  We were thinking what we could talk about, that should be high enough to interest My Lady.  There had been a rise in the price of sugar, which, as preserving-time was near, was a piece of intelligence to all our house-keeping hearts, and would have been the natural topic if Lady Glenmire had not been by.  But we were not sure if the peerage ate preserves—much less knew how they were made.  At last, Miss Pole, who had always a great deal of courage and savoir faire, spoke to Lady Glenmire, who on her part had seemed just as much puzzled to know how to break the silence as we were.

“Has your ladyship been to Court lately?” asked she; and then gave a little glance round at us, half timid and half triumphant, as much as to say, “See how judiciously I have chosen a subject befitting the rank of the stranger.”

“I never was there in my life,” said Lady Glenmire, with a broad Scotch accent, but in a very sweet voice.  And then, as if she had been too abrupt, she added: “We very seldom went to London—only twice, in fact, during all my married life; and before I was married my father had far too large a family” (fifth daughter of Mr Campbell was in all our minds, I am sure) “to take us often from our home, even to Edinburgh.  Ye’ll have been in Edinburgh, maybe?” said she, suddenly brightening up with the hope of a common interest.  We had none of us been there; but Miss Pole had an uncle who once had passed a night there, which was very pleasant.

Mrs Jamieson, meanwhile, was absorbed in wonder why Mr Mulliner did not bring the tea; and at length the wonder oozed out of her mouth.

“I had better ring the bell, my dear, had not I?” said Lady Glenmire briskly.

“No—I think not—Mulliner does not like to be hurried.”

We should have liked our tea, for we dined at an earlier hour than Mrs Jamieson.  I suspect Mr Mulliner had to finish the St James’s Chronicle before he chose to trouble himself about tea.  His mistress fidgeted and fidgeted, and kept saying, “I can’t think why Mulliner does not bring tea.  I can’t think what he can be about.”  And Lady Glenmire at last grew quite impatient, but it was a pretty kind of impatience after all; and she rang the bell rather sharply, on receiving a half-permission from her sister-in-law to do so.  Mr Mulliner appeared in dignified surprise.  “Oh!” said Mrs Jamieson, “Lady Glenmire rang the bell; I believe it was for tea.”

In a few minutes tea was brought.  Very delicate was the china, very old the plate, very thin the bread and butter, and very small the lumps of sugar.  Sugar was evidently Mrs Jamieson’s favourite economy.  I question if the little filigree sugar-tongs, made something like scissors, could have opened themselves wide enough to take up an honest, vulgar good-sized piece; and when I tried to seize two little minnikin pieces at once, so as not to be detected in too many returns to the sugar-basin, they absolutely dropped one, with a little sharp clatter, quite in a malicious and unnatural manner.  But before this happened we had had a slight disappointment.  In the little silver jug was cream, in the larger one was milk.  As soon as Mr Mulliner came in, Carlo began to beg, which was a thing our manners forbade us to do, though I am sure we were just as hungry; and Mrs Jamieson said she was certain we would excuse her if she gave her poor dumb Carlo his tea first.  She accordingly mixed a saucerful for him, and put it down for him to lap; and then she told us how intelligent and sensible the dear little fellow was; he knew cream quite well, and constantly refused tea with only milk in it: so the milk was left for us; but we silently thought we were quite as intelligent and sensible as Carlo, and felt as if insult were added to injury when we were called upon to admire the gratitude evinced by his wagging his tail for the cream which should have been ours.

After tea we thawed down into common-life subjects.  We were thankful to Lady Glenmire for having proposed some more bread and butter, and this mutual want made us better acquainted with her than we should ever have been with talking about the Court, though Miss Pole did say she had hoped to know how the dear Queen was from some one who had seen her.

The friendship begun over bread and butter extended on to cards.  Lady Glenmire played Preference to admiration, and was a complete authority as to Ombre and Quadrille.  Even Miss Pole quite forgot to say “my lady,” and “your ladyship,” and said “Basto! ma’am”; “you have Spadille, I believe,” just as quietly as if we had never held the great Cranford Parliament on the subject of the proper mode of addressing a peeress.

As a proof of how thoroughly we had forgotten that we were in the presence of one who might have sat down to tea with a coronet, instead of a cap, on her head, Mrs Forrester related a curious little fact to Lady Glenmire—an anecdote known to the circle of her intimate friends, but of which even Mrs Jamieson was not aware.  It related to some fine old lace, the sole relic of better days, which Lady Glenmire was admiring on Mrs Forrester’s collar.

“Yes,” said that lady, “such lace cannot be got now for either love or money; made by the nuns abroad, they tell me.  They say that they can’t make it now even there.  But perhaps they can, now they’ve passed the Catholic Emancipation Bill.  I should not wonder.  But, in the meantime, I treasure up my lace very much.  I daren’t even trust the washing of it to my maid” (the little charity school-girl I have named before, but who sounded well as “my maid”).  “I always wash it myself.  And once it had a narrow escape.  Of course, your ladyship knows that such lace must never be starched or ironed.  Some people wash it in sugar and water, and some in coffee, to make it the right yellow colour; but I myself have a very good receipt for washing it in milk, which stiffens it enough, and gives it a very good creamy colour.  Well, ma’am, I had tacked it together (and the beauty of this fine lace is that, when it is wet, it goes into a very little space), and put it to soak in milk, when, unfortunately, I left the room; on my return, I found pussy on the table, looking very like a thief, but gulping very uncomfortably, as if she was half-chocked with something she wanted to swallow and could not.  And, would you believe it?  At first I pitied her, and said ‘Poor pussy! poor pussy!’ till, all at once, I looked and saw the cup of milk empty—cleaned out!  ‘You naughty cat!’ said I, and I believe I was provoked enough to give her a slap, which did no good, but only helped the lace down—just as one slaps a choking child on the back.  I could have cried, I was so vexed; but I determined I would not give the lace up without a struggle for it.  I hoped the lace might disagree with her, at any rate; but it would have been too much for Job, if he had seen, as I did, that cat come in, quite placid and purring, not a quarter of an hour after, and almost expecting to be stroked.  ‘No, pussy!’ said I, ‘if you have any conscience you ought not to expect that!’  And then a thought struck me; and I rang the bell for my maid, and sent her to Mr Hoggins, with my compliments, and would he be kind enough to lend me one of his top-boots for an hour?  I did not think there was anything odd in the message; but Jenny said the young men in the surgery laughed as if they would be ill at my wanting a top-boot.  When it came, Jenny and I put pussy in, with her forefeet straight down, so that they were fastened, and could not scratch, and we gave her a teaspoonful of current-jelly in which (your ladyship must excuse me) I had mixed some tartar emetic.  I shall never forget how anxious I was for the next half-hour.  I took pussy to my own room, and spread a clean towel on the floor.  I could have kissed her when she returned the lace to sight, very much as it had gone down.  Jenny had boiling water ready, and we soaked it and soaked it, and spread it on a lavender-bush in the sun before I could touch it again, even to put it in milk.  But now your ladyship would never guess that it had been in pussy’s inside.”

We found out, in the course of the evening, that Lady Glenmire was going to pay Mrs Jamieson a long visit, as she had given up her apartments in Edinburgh, and had no ties to take her back there in a hurry.  On the whole, we were rather glad to hear this, for she had made a pleasant impression upon us; and it was also very comfortable to find, from things which dropped out in the course of conversation, that, in addition to many other genteel qualities, she was far removed from the “vulgarity of wealth.”

“Don’t you find it very unpleasant walking?” asked Mrs Jamieson, as our respective servants were announced.  It was a pretty regular question from Mrs Jamieson, who had her own carriage in the coach-house, and always went out in a sedan-chair to the very shortest distances.  The answers were nearly as much a matter of course.

“Oh dear, no! it is so pleasant and still at night!”  “Such a refreshment after the excitement of a party!”  “The stars are so beautiful!”  This last was from Miss Matty.

“Are you fond of astronomy?” Lady Glenmire asked.

“Not very,” replied Miss Matty, rather confused at the moment to remember which was astronomy and which was astrology—but the answer was true under either circumstance, for she read, and was slightly alarmed at Francis Moore’s astrological predictions; and, as to astronomy, in a private and confidential conversation, she had told me she never could believe that the earth was moving constantly, and that she would not believe it if she could, it made her feel so tired and dizzy whenever she thought about it.

In our pattens we picked our way home with extra care that night, so refined and delicate were our perceptions after drinking tea with “my lady.”

 

CHAPTER IX: SIGNOR BRUNONI

Soon after the events of which I gave an account in my last paper, I was summoned home by my father’s illness; and for a time I forgot, in anxiety about him, to wonder how my dear friends at Cranford were getting on, or how Lady Glenmire could reconcile herself to the dulness of the long visit which she was still paying to her sister-in-law, Mrs Jamieson.  When my father grew a little stronger I accompanied him to the seaside, so that altogether I seemed banished from Cranford, and was deprived of the opportunity of hearing any chance intelligence of the dear little town for the greater part of that year.

Late in November—when we had returned home again, and my father was once more in good health—I received a letter from Miss Matty; and a very mysterious letter it was.  She began many sentences without ending them, running them one into another, in much the same confused sort of way in which written words run together on blotting-paper.  All I could make out was that, if my father was better (which she hoped he was), and would take warning and wear a great-coat from Michaelmas to Lady-day, if turbans were in fashion, could I tell her?  Such a piece of gaiety was going to happen as had not been seen or known of since Wombwell’s lions came, when one of them ate a little child’s arm; and she was, perhaps, too old to care about dress, but a new cap she must have; and, having heard that turbans were worn, and some of the county families likely to come, she would like to look tidy, if I would bring her a cap from the milliner I employed; and oh, dear! how careless of her to forget that she wrote to beg I would come and pay her a visit next Tuesday; when she hoped to have something to offer me in the way of amusement, which she would not now more particularly describe, only sea-green was her favourite colour.  So she ended her letter; but in a P.S. she added, she thought she might as well tell me what was the peculiar attraction to Cranford just now; Signor Brunoni was going to exhibit his wonderful magic in the Cranford Assembly Rooms on Wednesday and Friday evening in the following week.

I was very glad to accept the invitation from my dear Miss Matty, independently of the conjuror, and most particularly anxious to prevent her from disfiguring her small, gentle, mousey face with a great Saracen’s head turban; and accordingly, I bought her a pretty, neat, middle-aged cap, which, however, was rather a disappointment to her when, on my arrival, she followed me into my bedroom, ostensibly to poke the fire, but in reality, I do believe, to see if the sea-green turban was not inside the cap-box with which I had travelled.  It was in vain that I twirled the cap round on my hand to exhibit back and side fronts: her heart had been set upon a turban, and all she could do was to say, with resignation in her look and voice—

“I am sure you did your best, my dear.  It is just like the caps all the ladies in Cranford are wearing, and they have had theirs for a year, I dare say.  I should have liked something newer, I confess—something more like the turbans Miss Betty Barker tells me Queen Adelaide wears; but it is very pretty, my dear.  And I dare say lavender will wear better than sea-green.  Well, after all, what is dress, that we should care anything about it?  You’ll tell me if you want anything, my dear.  Here is the bell.  I suppose turbans have not got down to Drumble yet?”

So saying, the dear old lady gently bemoaned herself out of the room, leaving me to dress for the evening, when, as she informed me, she expected Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester, and she hoped I should not feel myself too much tired to join the party.  Of course I should not; and I made some haste to unpack and arrange my dress; but, with all my speed, I heard the arrivals and the buzz of conversation in the next room before I was ready.  Just as I opened the door, I caught the words, “I was foolish to expect anything very genteel out of the Drumble shops; poor girl! she did her best, I’ve no doubt.”  But, for all that, I had rather that she blamed Drumble and me than disfigured herself with a turban.

Miss Pole was always the person, in the trio of Cranford ladies now assembled, to have had adventures.  She was in the habit of spending the morning in rambling from shop to shop, not to purchase anything (except an occasional reel of cotton or a piece of tape), but to see the new articles and report upon them, and to collect all the stray pieces of intelligence in the town.  She had a way, too, of demurely popping hither and thither into all sorts of places to gratify her curiosity on any point—a way which, if she had not looked so very genteel and prim, might have been considered impertinent.  And now, by the expressive way in which she cleared her throat, and waited for all minor subjects (such as caps and turbans) to be cleared off the course, we knew she had something very particular to relate, when the due pause came—and I defy any people possessed of common modesty to keep up a conversation long, where one among them sits up aloft in silence, looking down upon all the things they chance to say as trivial and contemptible compared to what they could disclose, if properly entreated.  Miss Pole began—

“As I was stepping out of Gordon’s shop to-day, I chanced to go into the ‘George’ (my Betty has a second-cousin who is chambermaid there, and I thought Betty would like to hear how she was), and, not seeing anyone about, I strolled up the staircase, and found myself in the passage leading to the Assembly Room (you and I remember the Assembly Room, I am sure, Miss Matty! and the minuets de la cour!); so I went on, not thinking of what I was about, when, all at once, I perceived that I was in the middle of the preparations for to-morrow night—the room being divided with great clothes-maids, over which Crosby’s men were tacking red flannel; very dark and odd it seemed; it quite bewildered me, and I was going on behind the screens, in my absence of mind, when a gentleman (quite the gentleman, I can assure you) stepped forwards and asked if I had any business he could arrange for me.  He spoke such pretty broken English, I could not help thinking of Thaddeus of Warsaw, and the Hungarian Brothers, and Santo Sebastiani; and while I was busy picturing his past life to myself, he had bowed me out of the room.  But wait a minute!  You have not heard half my story yet!  I was going downstairs, when who should I meet but Betty’s second-cousin.  So, of course, I stopped to speak to her for Betty’s sake; and she told me that I had really seen the conjuror—the gentleman who spoke broken English was Signor Brunoni himself.  Just at this moment he passed us on the stairs, making such a graceful bow! in reply to which I dropped a curtsey—all foreigners have such polite manners, one catches something of it.  But when he had gone downstairs, I bethought me that I had dropped my glove in the Assembly Room (it was safe in my muff all the time, but I never found it till afterwards); so I went back, and, just as I was creeping up the passage left on one side of the great screen that goes nearly across the room, who should I see but the very same gentleman that had met me before, and passed me on the stairs, coming now forwards from the inner part of the room, to which there is no entrance—you remember, Miss Matty—and just repeating, in his pretty broken English, the inquiry if I had any business there—I don’t mean that he put it quite so bluntly, but he seemed very determined that I should not pass the screen—so, of course, I explained about my glove, which, curiously enough, I found at that very moment.”

Miss Pole, then, had seen the conjuror—the real, live conjuror! and numerous were the questions we all asked her.  “Had he a beard?”  “Was he young, or old?”  “Fair, or dark?”  “Did he look”—(unable to shape my question prudently, I put it in another form)—“How did he look?”  In short, Miss Pole was the heroine of the evening, owing to her morning’s encounter.  If she was not the rose (that is to say the conjuror) she had been near it.

Conjuration, sleight of hand, magic, witchcraft, were the subjects of the evening.  Miss Pole was slightly sceptical, and inclined to think there might be a scientific solution found for even the proceedings of the Witch of Endor.  Mrs Forrester believed everything, from ghosts to death-watches.  Miss Matty ranged between the two—always convinced by the last speaker.  I think she was naturally more inclined to Mrs Forrester’s side, but a desire of proving herself a worthy sister to Miss Jenkyns kept her equally balanced—Miss Jenkyns, who would never allow a servant to call the little rolls of tallow that formed themselves round candles “winding-sheets,” but insisted on their being spoken of as “roley-poleys!”  A sister of hers to be superstitious!  It would never do.

After tea, I was despatched downstairs into the dining-parlour for that volume of the old Encyclopædia which contained the nouns beginning with C, in order that Miss Pole might prime herself with scientific explanations for the tricks of the following evening.  It spoilt the pool at Preference which Miss Matty and Mrs Forrester had been looking forward to, for Miss Pole became so much absorbed in her subject, and the plates by which it was illustrated, that we felt it would be cruel to disturb her otherwise than by one or two well-timed yawns, which I threw in now and then, for I was really touched by the meek way in which the two ladies were bearing their disappointment.  But Miss Pole only read the more zealously, imparting to us no more information than this—

“Ah! I see; I comprehend perfectly.  A represents the ball.  Put A between B and D—no! between C and F, and turn the second joint of the third finger of your left hand over the wrist of your right H.  Very clear indeed!  My dear Mrs Forrester, conjuring and witchcraft is a mere affair of the alphabet.  Do let me read you this one passage?”

Mrs Forrester implored Miss Pole to spare her, saying, from a child upwards, she never could understand being read aloud to; and I dropped the pack of cards, which I had been shuffling very audibly, and by this discreet movement I obliged Miss Pole to perceive that Preference was to have been the order of the evening, and to propose, rather unwillingly, that the pool should commence.  The pleasant brightness that stole over the other two ladies’ faces on this!  Miss Matty had one or two twinges of self-reproach for having interrupted Miss Pole in her studies: and did not remember her cards well, or give her full attention to the game, until she had soothed her conscience by offering to lend the volume of the Encyclopædia to Miss Pole, who accepted it thankfully, and said Betty should take it home when she came with the lantern.

The next evening we were all in a little gentle flutter at the idea of the gaiety before us.  Miss Matty went up to dress betimes, and hurried me until I was ready, when we found we had an hour-and-a-half to wait before the “doors opened at seven precisely.”  And we had only twenty yards to go!  However, as Miss Matty said, it would not do to get too much absorbed in anything, and forget the time; so she thought we had better sit quietly, without lighting the candles, till five minutes to seven.  So Miss Matty dozed, and I knitted.

At length we set off; and at the door under the carriage-way at the “George,” we met Mrs Forrester and Miss Pole: the latter was discussing the subject of the evening with more vehemence than ever, and throwing X’s and B’s at our heads like hailstones.  She had even copied one or two of the “receipts”—as she called them—for the different tricks, on backs of letters, ready to explain and to detect Signor Brunoni’s arts.

We went into the cloak-room adjoining the Assembly Room; Miss Matty gave a sigh or two to her departed youth, and the remembrance of the last time she had been there, as she adjusted her pretty new cap before the strange, quaint old mirror in the cloak-room.  The Assembly Room had been added to the inn, about a hundred years before, by the different county families, who met together there once a month during the winter to dance and play at cards.  Many a county beauty had first swung through the minuet that she afterwards danced before Queen Charlotte in this very room.  It was said that one of the Gunnings had graced the apartment with her beauty; it was certain that a rich and beautiful widow, Lady Williams, had here been smitten with the noble figure of a young artist, who was staying with some family in the neighbourhood for professional purposes, and accompanied his patrons to the Cranford Assembly.  And a pretty bargain poor Lady Williams had of her handsome husband, if all tales were true.  Now, no beauty blushed and dimpled along the sides of the Cranford Assembly Room; no handsome artist won hearts by his bow, chapeau bras in hand; the old room was dingy; the salmon-coloured paint had faded into a drab; great pieces of plaster had chipped off from the fine wreaths and festoons on its walls; but still a mouldy odour of aristocracy lingered about the place, and a dusty recollection of the days that were gone made Miss Matty and Mrs Forrester bridle up as they entered, and walk mincingly up the room, as if there were a number of genteel observers, instead of two little boys with a stick of toffee between them with which to beguile the time.

We stopped short at the second front row; I could hardly understand why, until I heard Miss Pole ask a stray waiter if any of the county families were expected; and when he shook his head, and believed not, Mrs Forrester and Miss Matty moved forwards, and our party represented a conversational square.  The front row was soon augmented and enriched by Lady Glenmire and Mrs Jamieson.  We six occupied the two front rows, and our aristocratic seclusion was respected by the groups of shopkeepers who strayed in from time to time and huddled together on the back benches.  At least I conjectured so, from the noise they made, and the sonorous bumps they gave in sitting down; but when, in weariness of the obstinate green curtain that would not draw up, but would stare at me with two odd eyes, seen through holes, as in the old tapestry story, I would fain have looked round at the merry chattering people behind me, Miss Pole clutched my arm, and begged me not to turn, for “it was not the thing.”  What “the thing” was, I never could find out, but it must have been something eminently dull and tiresome.  However, we all sat eyes right, square front, gazing at the tantalising curtain, and hardly speaking intelligibly, we were so afraid of being caught in the vulgarity of making any noise in a place of public amusement.  Mrs Jamieson was the most fortunate, for she fell asleep.

At length the eyes disappeared—the curtain quivered—one side went up before the other, which stuck fast; it was dropped again, and, with a fresh effort, and a vigorous pull from some unseen hand, it flew up, revealing to our sight a magnificent gentleman in the Turkish costume, seated before a little table, gazing at us (I should have said with the same eyes that I had last seen through the hole in the curtain) with calm and condescending dignity, “like a being of another sphere,” as I heard a sentimental voice ejaculate behind me.

“That’s not Signor Brunoni!” said Miss Pole decidedly; and so audibly that I am sure he heard, for he glanced down over his flowing beard at our party with an air of mute reproach.  “Signor Brunoni had no beard—but perhaps he’ll come soon.”  So she lulled herself into patience.  Meanwhile, Miss Matty had reconnoitred through her eye-glass, wiped it, and looked again.  Then she turned round, and said to me, in a kind, mild, sorrowful tone—

“You see, my dear, turbans are worn.”

But we had no time for more conversation.  The Grand Turk, as Miss Pole chose to call him, arose and announced himself as Signor Brunoni.

“I don’t believe him!” exclaimed Miss Pole, in a defiant manner.  He looked at her again, with the same dignified upbraiding in his countenance.  “I don’t!” she repeated more positively than ever.  “Signor Brunoni had not got that muffy sort of thing about his chin, but looked like a close-shaved Christian gentleman.”

Miss Pole’s energetic speeches had the good effect of wakening up Mrs Jamieson, who opened her eyes wide, in sign of the deepest attention—a proceeding which silenced Miss Pole and encouraged the Grand Turk to proceed, which he did in very broken English—so broken that there was no cohesion between the parts of his sentences; a fact which he himself perceived at last, and so left off speaking and proceeded to action.

Now we were astonished.  How he did his tricks I could not imagine; no, not even when Miss Pole pulled out her pieces of paper and began reading aloud—or at least in a very audible whisper—the separate “receipts” for the most common of his tricks.  If ever I saw a man frown and look enraged, I saw the Grand Turk frown at Miss Pole; but, as she said, what could be expected but unchristian looks from a Mussulman?  If Miss Pole were sceptical, and more engrossed with her receipts and diagrams than with his tricks, Miss Matty and Mrs Forrester were mystified and perplexed to the highest degree.  Mrs Jamieson kept taking her spectacles off and wiping them, as if she thought it was something defective in them which made the legerdemain; and Lady Glenmire, who had seen many curious sights in Edinburgh, was very much struck with the tricks, and would not at all agree with Miss Pole, who declared that anybody could do them with a little practice, and that she would, herself, undertake to do all he did, with two hours given to study the Encyclopædia and make her third finger flexible.

At last Miss Matty and Mrs Forrester became perfectly awestricken.  They whispered together.  I sat just behind them, so I could not help hearing what they were saying.  Miss Matty asked Mrs Forrester “if she thought it was quite right to have come to see such things?  She could not help fearing they were lending encouragement to something that was not quite”—  A little shake of the head filled up the blank.  Mrs Forrester replied, that the same thought had crossed her mind; she too was feeling very uncomfortable, it was so very strange.  She was quite certain that it was her pocket-handkerchief which was in that loaf just now; and it had been in her own hand not five minutes before.  She wondered who had furnished the bread?  She was sure it could not be Dakin, because he was the churchwarden.  Suddenly Miss Matty half-turned towards me—

“Will you look, my dear—you are a stranger in the town, and it won’t give rise to unpleasant reports—will you just look round and see if the rector is here?  If he is, I think we may conclude that this wonderful man is sanctioned by the Church, and that will be a great relief to my mind.”

I looked, and I saw the tall, thin, dry, dusty rector, sitting surrounded by National School boys, guarded by troops of his own sex from any approach of the many Cranford spinsters.  His kind face was all agape with broad smiles, and the boys around him were in chinks of laughing.  I told Miss Matty that the Church was smiling approval, which set her mind at ease.

I have never named Mr Hayter, the rector, because I, as a well-to-do and happy young woman, never came in contact with him.  He was an old bachelor, but as afraid of matrimonial reports getting abroad about him as any girl of eighteen: and he would rush into a shop or dive down an entry, sooner than encounter any of the Cranford ladies in the street; and, as for the Preference parties, I did not wonder at his not accepting invitations to them.  To tell the truth, I always suspected Miss Pole of having given very vigorous chase to Mr Hayter when he first came to Cranford; and not the less, because now she appeared to share so vividly in his dread lest her name should ever be coupled with his.  He found all his interests among the poor and helpless; he had treated the National School boys this very night to the performance; and virtue was for once its own reward, for they guarded him right and left, and clung round him as if he had been the queen-bee and they the swarm.  He felt so safe in their environment that he could even afford to give our party a bow as we filed out.  Miss Pole ignored his presence, and pretended to be absorbed in convincing us that we had been cheated, and had not seen Signor Brunoni after all.

 

CHAPTER X: THE PANIC

I think a series of circumstances dated from Signor Brunoni’s visit to Cranford, which seemed at the time connected in our minds with him, though I don’t know that he had anything really to do with them.  All at once all sorts of uncomfortable rumours got afloat in the town.  There were one or two robberies—real bonâ fide robberies; men had up before the magistrates and committed for trial—and that seemed to make us all afraid of being robbed; and for a long time, at Miss Matty’s, I know, we used to make a regular expedition all round the kitchens and cellars every night, Miss Matty leading the way, armed with the poker, I following with the hearth-brush, and Martha carrying the shovel and fire-irons with which to sound the alarm; and by the accidental hitting together of them she often frightened us so much that we bolted ourselves up, all three together, in the back-kitchen, or store-room, or wherever we happened to be, till, when our affright was over, we recollected ourselves and set out afresh with double valiance.  By day we heard strange stories from the shopkeepers and cottagers, of carts that went about in the dead of night, drawn by horses shod with felt, and guarded by men in dark clothes, going round the town, no doubt in search of some unwatched house or some unfastened door.

Miss Pole, who affected great bravery herself, was the principal person to collect and arrange these reports so as to make them assume their most fearful aspect.  But we discovered that she had begged one of Mr Hoggins’s worn-out hats to hang up in her lobby, and we (at least I) had doubts as to whether she really would enjoy the little adventure of having her house broken into, as she protested she should.  Miss Matty made no secret of being an arrant coward, but she went regularly through her housekeeper’s duty of inspection—only the hour for this became earlier and earlier, till at last we went the rounds at half-past six, and Miss Matty adjourned to bed soon after seven, “in order to get the night over the sooner.”

Cranford had so long piqued itself on being an honest and moral town that it had grown to fancy itself too genteel and well-bred to be otherwise, and felt the stain upon its character at this time doubly.  But we comforted ourselves with the assurance which we gave to each other that the robberies could never have been committed by any Cranford person; it must have been a stranger or strangers who brought this disgrace upon the town, and occasioned as many precautions as if we were living among the Red Indians or the French.

This last comparison of our nightly state of defence and fortification was made by Mrs Forrester, whose father had served under General Burgoyne in the American war, and whose husband had fought the French in Spain.  She indeed inclined to the idea that, in some way, the French were connected with the small thefts, which were ascertained facts, and the burglaries and highway robberies, which were rumours.  She had been deeply impressed with the idea of French spies at some time in her life; and the notion could never be fairly eradicated, but sprang up again from time to time.  And now her theory was this:—The Cranford people respected themselves too much, and were too grateful to the aristocracy who were so kind as to live near the town, ever to disgrace their bringing up by being dishonest or immoral; therefore, we must believe that the robbers were strangers—if strangers, why not foreigners?—if foreigners, who so likely as the French?  Signor Brunoni spoke broken English like a Frenchman; and, though he wore a turban like a Turk, Mrs Forrester had seen a print of Madame de Staël with a turban on, and another of Mr Denon in just such a dress as that in which the conjuror had made his appearance, showing clearly that the French, as well as the Turks, wore turbans.  There could be no doubt Signor Brunoni was a Frenchman—a French spy come to discover the weak and undefended places of England, and doubtless he had his accomplices.  For her part, she, Mrs Forrester, had always had her own opinion of Miss Pole’s adventure at the “George Inn”—seeing two men where only one was believed to be.  French people had ways and means which, she was thankful to say, the English knew nothing about; and she had never felt quite easy in her mind about going to see that conjuror—it was rather too much like a forbidden thing, though the rector was there.  In short, Mrs Forrester grew more excited than we had ever known her before, and, being an officer’s daughter and widow, we looked up to her opinion, of course.

Really I do not know how much was true or false in the reports which flew about like wildfire just at this time; but it seemed to me then that there was every reason to believe that at Mardon (a small town about eight miles from Cranford) houses and shops were entered by holes made in the walls, the bricks being silently carried away in the dead of the night, and all done so quietly that no sound was heard either in or out of the house.  Miss Matty gave it up in despair when she heard of this.  “What was the use,” said she, “of locks and bolts, and bells to the windows, and going round the house every night?  That last trick was fit for a conjuror.  Now she did believe that Signor Brunoni was at the bottom of it.”

One afternoon, about five o’clock, we were startled by a hasty knock at the door.  Miss Matty bade me run and tell Martha on no account to open the door till she (Miss Matty) had reconnoitred through the window; and she armed herself with a footstool to drop down on the head of the visitor, in case he should show a face covered with black crape, as he looked up in answer to her inquiry of who was there.  But it was nobody but Miss Pole and Betty.  The former came upstairs, carrying a little hand-basket, and she was evidently in a state of great agitation.

“Take care of that!” said she to me, as I offered to relieve her of her basket.  “It’s my plate.  I am sure there is a plan to rob my house to-night.  I am come to throw myself on your hospitality, Miss Matty.  Betty is going to sleep with her cousin at the ‘George.’  I can sit up here all night if you will allow me; but my house is so far from any neighbours, and I don’t believe we could be heard if we screamed ever so!”

“But,” said Miss Matty, “what has alarmed you so much?  Have you seen any men lurking about the house?”

“Oh, yes!” answered Miss Pole.  “Two very bad-looking men have gone three times past the house, very slowly; and an Irish beggar-woman came not half-an-hour ago, and all but forced herself in past Betty, saying her children were starving, and she must speak to the mistress.  You see, she said ‘mistress,’ though there was a hat hanging up in the hall, and it would have been more natural to have said ‘master.’  But Betty shut the door in her face, and came up to me, and we got the spoons together, and sat in the parlour-window watching till we saw Thomas Jones going from his work, when we called to him and asked him to take care of us into the town.”

We might have triumphed over Miss Pole, who had professed such bravery until she was frightened; but we were too glad to perceive that she shared in the weaknesses of humanity to exult over her; and I gave up my room to her very willingly, and shared Miss Matty’s bed for the night.  But before we retired, the two ladies rummaged up, out of the recesses of their memory, such horrid stories of robbery and murder that I quite quaked in my shoes.  Miss Pole was evidently anxious to prove that such terrible events had occurred within her experience that she was justified in her sudden panic; and Miss Matty did not like to be outdone, and capped every story with one yet more horrible, till it reminded me oddly enough, of an old story I had read somewhere, of a nightingale and a musician, who strove one against the other which could produce the most admirable music, till poor Philomel dropped down dead.

One of the stories that haunted me for a long time afterwards was of a girl who was left in charge of a great house in Cumberland on some particular fair-day, when the other servants all went off to the gaieties.  The family were away in London, and a pedlar came by, and asked to leave his large and heavy pack in the kitchen, saying he would call for it again at night; and the girl (a gamekeeper’s daughter), roaming about in search of amusement, chanced to hit upon a gun hanging up in the hall, and took it down to look at the chasing; and it went off through the open kitchen door, hit the pack, and a slow dark thread of blood came oozing out. (How Miss Pole enjoyed this part of the story, dwelling on each word as if she loved it!)  She rather hurried over the further account of the girl’s bravery, and I have but a confused idea that, somehow, she baffled the robbers with Italian irons, heated red-hot, and then restored to blackness by being dipped in grease.

We parted for the night with an awe-stricken wonder as to what we should hear of in the morning—and, on my part, with a vehement desire for the night to be over and gone: I was so afraid lest the robbers should have seen, from some dark lurking-place, that Miss Pole had carried off her plate, and thus have a double motive for attacking our house.

But until Lady Glenmire came to call next day we heard of nothing unusual.  The kitchen fire-irons were in exactly the same position against the back door as when Martha and I had skilfully piled them up, like spillikins, ready to fall with an awful clatter if only a cat had touched the outside panels.  I had wondered what we should all do if thus awakened and alarmed, and had proposed to Miss Matty that we should cover up our faces under the bed-clothes so that there should be no danger of the robbers thinking that we could identify them; but Miss Matty, who was trembling very much, scouted this idea, and said we owed it to society to apprehend them, and that she should certainly do her best to lay hold of them and lock them up in the garret till morning.

When Lady Glenmire came, we almost felt jealous of her.  Mrs Jamieson’s house had really been attacked; at least there were men’s footsteps to be seen on the flower borders, underneath the kitchen windows, “where nae men should be;” and Carlo had barked all through the night as if strangers were abroad.  Mrs Jamieson had been awakened by Lady Glenmire, and they had rung the bell which communicated with Mr Mulliner’s room in the third storey, and when his night-capped head had appeared over the bannisters, in answer to the summons, they had told him of their alarm, and the reasons for it; whereupon he retreated into his bedroom, and locked the door (for fear of draughts, as he informed them in the morning), and opened the window, and called out valiantly to say, if the supposed robbers would come to him he would fight them; but, as Lady Glenmire observed, that was but poor comfort, since they would have to pass by Mrs Jamieson’s room and her own before they could reach him, and must be of a very pugnacious disposition indeed if they neglected the opportunities of robbery presented by the unguarded lower storeys, to go up to a garret, and there force a door in order to get at the champion of the house.  Lady Glenmire, after waiting and listening for some time in the drawing-room, had proposed to Mrs Jamieson that they should go to bed; but that lady said she should not feel comfortable unless she sat up and watched; and, accordingly, she packed herself warmly up on the sofa, where she was found by the housemaid, when she came into the room at six o’clock, fast asleep; but Lady Glenmire went to bed, and kept awake all night.

When Miss Pole heard of this, she nodded her head in great satisfaction.  She had been sure we should hear of something happening in Cranford that night; and we had heard.  It was clear enough they had first proposed to attack her house; but when they saw that she and Betty were on their guard, and had carried off the plate, they had changed their tactics and gone to Mrs Jamieson’s, and no one knew what might have happened if Carlo had not barked, like a good dog as he was!

Poor Carlo! his barking days were nearly over.  Whether the gang who infested the neighbourhood were afraid of him, or whether they were revengeful enough, for the way in which he had baffled them on the night in question, to poison him; or whether, as some among the more uneducated people thought, he died of apoplexy, brought on by too much feeding and too little exercise; at any rate, it is certain that, two days after this eventful night, Carlo was found dead, with his poor legs stretched out stiff in the attitude of running, as if by such unusual exertion he could escape the sure pursuer, Death.

We were all sorry for Carlo, the old familiar friend who had snapped at us for so many years; and the mysterious mode of his death made us very uncomfortable.  Could Signor Brunoni be at the bottom of this?  He had apparently killed a canary with only a word of command; his will seemed of deadly force; who knew but what he might yet be lingering in the neighbourhood willing all sorts of awful things!

We whispered these fancies among ourselves in the evenings; but in the mornings our courage came back with the daylight, and in a week’s time we had got over the shock of Carlo’s death; all but Mrs Jamieson.  She, poor thing, felt it as she had felt no event since her husband’s death; indeed, Miss Pole said, that as the Honourable Mr Jamieson drank a good deal, and occasioned her much uneasiness, it was possible that Carlo’s death might be the greater affliction.  But there was always a tinge of cynicism in Miss Pole’s remarks.  However, one thing was clear and certain—it was necessary for Mrs Jamieson to have some change of scene; and Mr Mulliner was very impressive on this point, shaking his head whenever we inquired after his mistress, and speaking of her loss of appetite and bad nights very ominously; and with justice too, for if she had two characteristics in her natural state of health they were a facility of eating and sleeping.  If she could neither eat nor sleep, she must be indeed out of spirits and out of health.

Lady Glenmire (who had evidently taken very kindly to Cranford) did not like the idea of Mrs Jamieson’s going to Cheltenham, and more than once insinuated pretty plainly that it was Mr Mulliner’s doing, who had been much alarmed on the occasion of the house being attacked, and since had said, more than once, that he felt it a very responsible charge to have to defend so many women.  Be that as it might, Mrs Jamieson went to Cheltenham, escorted by Mr Mulliner; and Lady Glenmire remained in possession of the house, her ostensible office being to take care that the maid-servants did not pick up followers.  She made a very pleasant-looking dragon; and, as soon as it was arranged for her stay in Cranford, she found out that Mrs Jamieson’s visit to Cheltenham was just the best thing in the world.  She had let her house in Edinburgh, and was for the time house-less, so the charge of her sister-in-law’s comfortable abode was very convenient and acceptable.

Miss Pole was very much inclined to instal herself as a heroine, because of the decided steps she had taken in flying from the two men and one woman, whom she entitled “that murderous gang.”  She described their appearance in glowing colours, and I noticed that every time she went over the story some fresh trait of villainy was added to their appearance.  One was tall—he grew to be gigantic in height before we had done with him; he of course had black hair—and by-and-by it hung in elf-locks over his forehead and down his back.  The other was short and broad—and a hump sprouted out on his shoulder before we heard the last of him; he had red hair—which deepened into carroty; and she was almost sure he had a cast in the eye—a decided squint.  As for the woman, her eyes glared, and she was masculine-looking—a perfect virago; most probably a man dressed in woman’s clothes; afterwards, we heard of a beard on her chin, and a manly voice and a stride.

If Miss Pole was delighted to recount the events of that afternoon to all inquirers, others were not so proud of their adventures in the robbery line.  Mr Hoggins, the surgeon, had been attacked at his own door by two ruffians, who were concealed in the shadow of the porch, and so effectually silenced him that he was robbed in the interval between ringing his bell and the servant’s answering it.  Miss Pole was sure it would turn out that this robbery had been committed by “her men,” and went the very day she heard the report to have her teeth examined, and to question Mr Hoggins.  She came to us afterwards; so we heard what she had heard, straight and direct from the source, while we were yet in the excitement and flutter of the agitation caused by the first intelligence; for the event had only occurred the night before.

“Well!” said Miss Pole, sitting down with the decision of a person who has made up her mind as to the nature of life and the world (and such people never tread lightly, or seat themselves without a bump), “well, Miss Matty! men will be men.  Every mother’s son of them wishes to be considered Samson and Solomon rolled into one—too strong ever to be beaten or discomfited—too wise ever to be outwitted.  If you will notice, they have always foreseen events, though they never tell one for one’s warning before the events happen.  My father was a man, and I know the sex pretty well.”

She had talked herself out of breath, and we should have been very glad to fill up the necessary pause as chorus, but we did not exactly know what to say, or which man had suggested this diatribe against the sex; so we only joined in generally, with a grave shake of the head, and a soft murmur of “They are very incomprehensible, certainly!”

“Now, only think,” said she.  “There, I have undergone the risk of having one of my remaining teeth drawn (for one is terribly at the mercy of any surgeon-dentist; and I, for one, always speak them fair till I have got my mouth out of their clutches), and, after all, Mr Hoggins is too much of a man to own that he was robbed last night.”

“Not robbed!” exclaimed the chorus.

“Don’t tell me!” Miss Pole exclaimed, angry that we could be for a moment imposed upon.  “I believe he was robbed, just as Betty told me, and he is ashamed to own it; and, to be sure, it was very silly of him to be robbed just at his own door; I daresay he feels that such a thing won’t raise him in the eyes of Cranford society, and is anxious to conceal it—but he need not have tried to impose upon me, by saying I must have heard an exaggerated account of some petty theft of a neck of mutton, which, it seems, was stolen out of the safe in his yard last week; he had the impertinence to add, he believed that that was taken by the cat.  I have no doubt, if I could get at the bottom of it, it was that Irishman dressed up in woman’s clothes, who came spying about my house, with the story about the starving children.”

After we had duly condemned the want of candour which Mr Hoggins had evinced, and abused men in general, taking him for the representative and type, we got round to the subject about which we had been talking when Miss Pole came in; namely, how far, in the present disturbed state of the country, we could venture to accept an invitation which Miss Matty had just received from Mrs Forrester, to come as usual and keep the anniversary of her wedding-day by drinking tea with her at five o’clock, and playing a quiet pool afterwards.  Mrs Forrester had said that she asked us with some diffidence, because the roads were, she feared, very unsafe.  But she suggested that perhaps one of us would not object to take the sedan, and that the others, by walking briskly, might keep up with the long trot of the chairmen, and so we might all arrive safely at Over Place, a suburb of the town.  (No; that is too large an expression: a small cluster of houses separated from Cranford by about two hundred yards of a dark and lonely lane.)  There was no doubt but that a similar note was awaiting Miss Pole at home; so her call was a very fortunate affair, as it enabled us to consult together.  We would all much rather have declined this invitation; but we felt that it would not be quite kind to Mrs Forrester, who would otherwise be left to a solitary retrospect of her not very happy or fortunate life.  Miss Matty and Miss Pole had been visitors on this occasion for many years, and now they gallantly determined to nail their colours to the mast, and to go through Darkness Lane rather than fail in loyalty to their friend.

But when the evening came, Miss Matty (for it was she who was voted into the chair, as she had a cold), before being shut down in the sedan, like jack-in-a-box, implored the chairmen, whatever might befall, not to run away and leave her fastened up there, to be murdered; and even after they had promised, I saw her tighten her features into the stern determination of a martyr, and she gave me a melancholy and ominous shake of the head through the glass.  However, we got there safely, only rather out of breath, for it was who could trot hardest through Darkness Lane, and I am afraid poor Miss Matty was sadly jolted.

Mrs Forrester had made extra preparations, in acknowledgment of our exertion in coming to see her through such dangers.  The usual forms of genteel ignorance as to what her servants might send up were all gone through; and harmony and Preference seemed likely to be the order of the evening, but for an interesting conversation that began I don’t know how, but which had relation, of course, to the robbers who infested the neighbourhood of Cranford.

Having braved the dangers of Darkness Lane, and thus having a little stock of reputation for courage to fall back upon; and also, I daresay, desirous of proving ourselves superior to men (videlicet Mr Hoggins) in the article of candour, we began to relate our individual fears, and the private precautions we each of us took.  I owned that my pet apprehension was eyes—eyes looking at me, and watching me, glittering out from some dull, flat, wooden surface; and that if I dared to go up to my looking-glass when I was panic-stricken, I should certainly turn it round, with its back towards me, for fear of seeing eyes behind me looking out of the darkness.  I saw Miss Matty nerving herself up for a confession; and at last out it came.  She owned that, ever since she had been a girl, she had dreaded being caught by her last leg, just as she was getting into bed, by some one concealed under it.  She said, when she was younger and more active, she used to take a flying leap from a distance, and so bring both her legs up safely into bed at once; but that this had always annoyed Deborah, who piqued herself upon getting into bed gracefully, and she had given it up in consequence.  But now the old terror would often come over her, especially since Miss Pole’s house had been attacked (we had got quite to believe in the fact of the attack having taken place), and yet it was very unpleasant to think of looking under a bed, and seeing a man concealed, with a great, fierce face staring out at you; so she had bethought herself of something—perhaps I had noticed that she had told Martha to buy her a penny ball, such as children play with—and now she rolled this ball under the bed every night: if it came out on the other side, well and good; if not she always took care to have her hand on the bell-rope, and meant to call out John and Harry, just as if she expected men-servants to answer her ring.

We all applauded this ingenious contrivance, and Miss Matty sank back into satisfied silence, with a look at Mrs Forrester as if to ask for her private weakness.

Mrs Forrester looked askance at Miss Pole, and tried to change the subject a little by telling us that she had borrowed a boy from one of the neighbouring cottages and promised his parents a hundredweight of coals at Christmas, and his supper every evening, for the loan of him at nights.  She had instructed him in his possible duties when he first came; and, finding him sensible, she had given him the Major’s sword (the Major was her late husband), and desired him to put it very carefully behind his pillow at night, turning the edge towards the head of the pillow.  He was a sharp lad, she was sure; for, spying out the Major’s cocked hat, he had said, if he might have that to wear, he was sure he could frighten two Englishmen, or four Frenchmen any day.  But she had impressed upon him anew that he was to lose no time in putting on hats or anything else; but, if he heard any noise, he was to run at it with his drawn sword.  On my suggesting that some accident might occur from such slaughterous and indiscriminate directions, and that he might rush on Jenny getting up to wash, and have spitted her before he had discovered that she was not a Frenchman, Mrs Forrester said she did not think that that was likely, for he was a very sound sleeper, and generally had to be well shaken or cold-pigged in a morning before they could rouse him.  She sometimes thought such dead sleep must be owing to the hearty suppers the poor lad ate, for he was half-starved at home, and she told Jenny to see that he got a good meal at night.

Still this was no confession of Mrs Forrester’s peculiar timidity, and we urged her to tell us what she thought would frighten her more than anything.  She paused, and stirred the fire, and snuffed the candles, and then she said, in a sounding whisper—

“Ghosts!”

She looked at Miss Pole, as much as to say, she had declared it, and would stand by it.  Such a look was a challenge in itself.  Miss Pole came down upon her with indigestion, spectral illusions, optical delusions, and a great deal out of Dr Ferrier and Dr Hibbert besides.  Miss Matty had rather a leaning to ghosts, as I have mentioned before, and what little she did say was all on Mrs Forrester’s side, who, emboldened by sympathy, protested that ghosts were a part of her religion; that surely she, the widow of a major in the army, knew what to be frightened at, and what not; in short, I never saw Mrs Forrester so warm either before or since, for she was a gentle, meek, enduring old lady in most things.  Not all the elder-wine that ever was mulled could this night wash out the remembrance of this difference between Miss Pole and her hostess.  Indeed, when the elder-wine was brought in, it gave rise to a new burst of discussion; for Jenny, the little maiden who staggered under the tray, had to give evidence of having seen a ghost with her own eyes, not so many nights ago, in Darkness Lane, the very lane we were to go through on our way home.

In spite of the uncomfortable feeling which this last consideration gave me, I could not help being amused at Jenny’s position, which was exceedingly like that of a witness being examined and cross-examined by two counsel who are not at all scrupulous about asking leading questions.  The conclusion I arrived at was, that Jenny had certainly seen something beyond what a fit of indigestion would have caused.  A lady all in white, and without her head, was what she deposed and adhered to, supported by a consciousness of the secret sympathy of her mistress under the withering scorn with which Miss Pole regarded her.  And not only she, but many others, had seen this headless lady, who sat by the roadside wringing her hands as in deep grief.  Mrs Forrester looked at us from time to time with an air of conscious triumph; but then she had not to pass through Darkness Lane before she could bury herself beneath her own familiar bed-clothes.

We preserved a discreet silence as to the headless lady while we were putting on our things to go home, for there was no knowing how near the ghostly head and ears might be, or what spiritual connection they might be keeping up with the unhappy body in Darkness Lane; and, therefore, even Miss Pole felt that it was as well not to speak lightly on such subjects, for fear of vexing or insulting that woebegone trunk.  At least, so I conjecture; for, instead of the busy clatter usual in the operation, we tied on our cloaks as sadly as mutes at a funeral.  Miss Matty drew the curtains round the windows of the chair to shut out disagreeable sights, and the men (either because they were in spirits that their labours were so nearly ended, or because they were going down hill), set off at such a round and merry pace, that it was all Miss Pole and I could do to keep up with them.  She had breath for nothing beyond an imploring “Don’t leave me!” uttered as she clutched my arm so tightly that I could not have quitted her, ghost or no ghost.  What a relief it was when the men, weary of their burden and their quick trot, stopped just where Headingley Causeway branches off from Darkness Lane!  Miss Pole unloosed me and caught at one of the men—

“Could not you—could not you take Miss Matty round by Headingley Causeway?—the pavement in Darkness Lane jolts so, and she is not very strong.”

A smothered voice was heard from the inside of the chair—

“Oh! pray go on!  What is the matter?  What is the matter?  I will give you sixpence more to go on very fast; pray don’t stop here.”

“And I’ll give you a shilling,” said Miss Pole, with tremulous dignity, “if you’ll go by Headingley Causeway.”

The two men grunted acquiescence and took up the chair, and went along the causeway, which certainly answered Miss Pole’s kind purpose of saving Miss Matty’s bones; for it was covered with soft, thick mud, and even a fall there would have been easy till the getting-up came, when there might have been some difficulty in extrication.