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Cranford

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CHAPTER XI: SAMUEL BROWN

The next morning I met Lady Glenmire and Miss Pole setting out on a long walk to find some old woman who was famous in the neighbourhood for her skill in knitting woollen stockings.  Miss Pole said to me, with a smile half-kindly and half-contemptuous upon her countenance, “I have been just telling Lady Glenmire of our poor friend Mrs Forrester, and her terror of ghosts.  It comes from living so much alone, and listening to the bug-a-boo stories of that Jenny of hers.”  She was so calm and so much above superstitious fears herself that I was almost ashamed to say how glad I had been of her Headingley Causeway proposition the night before, and turned off the conversation to something else.

In the afternoon Miss Pole called on Miss Matty to tell her of the adventure—the real adventure they had met with on their morning’s walk.  They had been perplexed about the exact path which they were to take across the fields in order to find the knitting old woman, and had stopped to inquire at a little wayside public-house, standing on the high road to London, about three miles from Cranford.  The good woman had asked them to sit down and rest themselves while she fetched her husband, who could direct them better than she could; and, while they were sitting in the sanded parlour, a little girl came in.  They thought that she belonged to the landlady, and began some trifling conversation with her; but, on Mrs Roberts’s return, she told them that the little thing was the only child of a couple who were staying in the house.  And then she began a long story, out of which Lady Glenmire and Miss Pole could only gather one or two decided facts, which were that, about six weeks ago, a light spring-cart had broken down just before their door, in which there were two men, one woman, and this child.  One of the men was seriously hurt—no bones broken, only “shaken,” the landlady called it; but he had probably sustained some severe internal injury, for he had languished in their house ever since, attended by his wife, the mother of this little girl.  Miss Pole had asked what he was, what he looked like.  And Mrs Roberts had made answer that he was not like a gentleman, nor yet like a common person; if it had not been that he and his wife were such decent, quiet people, she could almost have thought he was a mountebank, or something of that kind, for they had a great box in the cart, full of she did not know what.  She had helped to unpack it, and take out their linen and clothes, when the other man—his twin-brother, she believed he was—had gone off with the horse and cart.

Miss Pole had begun to have her suspicions at this point, and expressed her idea that it was rather strange that the box and cart and horse and all should have disappeared; but good Mrs Roberts seemed to have become quite indignant at Miss Pole’s implied suggestion; in fact, Miss Pole said she was as angry as if Miss Pole had told her that she herself was a swindler.  As the best way of convincing the ladies, she bethought her of begging them to see the wife; and, as Miss Pole said, there was no doubting the honest, worn, bronzed face of the woman, who at the first tender word from Lady Glenmire, burst into tears, which she was too weak to check until some word from the landlady made her swallow down her sobs, in order that she might testify to the Christian kindness shown by Mr and Mrs Roberts.  Miss Pole came round with a swing to as vehement a belief in the sorrowful tale as she had been sceptical before; and, as a proof of this, her energy in the poor sufferer’s behalf was nothing daunted when she found out that he, and no other, was our Signor Brunoni, to whom all Cranford had been attributing all manner of evil this six weeks past!  Yes! his wife said his proper name was Samuel Brown—“Sam,” she called him—but to the last we preferred calling him “the Signor”; it sounded so much better.

The end of their conversation with the Signora Brunoni was that it was agreed that he should be placed under medical advice, and for any expense incurred in procuring this Lady Glenmire promised to hold herself responsible, and had accordingly gone to Mr Hoggins to beg him to ride over to the “Rising Sun” that very afternoon, and examine into the signor’s real state; and, as Miss Pole said, if it was desirable to remove him to Cranford to be more immediately under Mr Hoggins’s eye, she would undertake to see for lodgings and arrange about the rent.  Mrs Roberts had been as kind as could be all throughout, but it was evident that their long residence there had been a slight inconvenience.

Before Miss Pole left us, Miss Matty and I were as full of the morning’s adventure as she was.  We talked about it all the evening, turning it in every possible light, and we went to bed anxious for the morning, when we should surely hear from someone what Mr Hoggins thought and recommended; for, as Miss Matty observed, though Mr Hoggins did say “Jack’s up,” “a fig for his heels,” and called Preference “Pref.” she believed he was a very worthy man and a very clever surgeon.  Indeed, we were rather proud of our doctor at Cranford, as a doctor.  We often wished, when we heard of Queen Adelaide or the Duke of Wellington being ill, that they would send for Mr Hoggins; but, on consideration, we were rather glad they did not, for, if we were ailing, what should we do if Mr Hoggins had been appointed physician-in-ordinary to the Royal Family?  As a surgeon we were proud of him; but as a man—or rather, I should say, as a gentleman—we could only shake our heads over his name and himself, and wished that he had read Lord Chesterfield’s Letters in the days when his manners were susceptible of improvement.  Nevertheless, we all regarded his dictum in the signor’s case as infallible, and when he said that with care and attention he might rally, we had no more fear for him.

But, although we had no more fear, everybody did as much as if there was great cause for anxiety—as indeed there was until Mr Hoggins took charge of him.  Miss Pole looked out clean and comfortable, if homely, lodgings; Miss Matty sent the sedan-chair for him, and Martha and I aired it well before it left Cranford by holding a warming-pan full of red-hot coals in it, and then shutting it up close, smoke and all, until the time when he should get into it at the “Rising Sun.”  Lady Glenmire undertook the medical department under Mr Hoggins’s directions, and rummaged up all Mrs Jamieson’s medicine glasses, and spoons, and bed-tables, in a free-and-easy way, that made Miss Matty feel a little anxious as to what that lady and Mr Mulliner might say, if they knew.  Mrs Forrester made some of the bread-jelly, for which she was so famous, to have ready as a refreshment in the lodgings when he should arrive.  A present of this bread-jelly was the highest mark of favour dear Mrs Forrester could confer.  Miss Pole had once asked her for the receipt, but she had met with a very decided rebuff; that lady told her that she could not part with it to any one during her life, and that after her death it was bequeathed, as her executors would find, to Miss Matty.  What Miss Matty, or, as Mrs Forrester called her (remembering the clause in her will and the dignity of the occasion), Miss Matilda Jenkyns—might choose to do with the receipt when it came into her possession—whether to make it public, or to hand it down as an heirloom—she did not know, nor would she dictate.  And a mould of this admirable, digestible, unique bread-jelly was sent by Mrs Forrester to our poor sick conjuror.  Who says that the aristocracy are proud?  Here was a lady by birth a Tyrrell, and descended from the great Sir Walter that shot King Rufus, and in whose veins ran the blood of him who murdered the little princes in the Tower, going every day to see what dainty dishes she could prepare for Samuel Brown, a mountebank!  But, indeed, it was wonderful to see what kind feelings were called out by this poor man’s coming amongst us.  And also wonderful to see how the great Cranford panic, which had been occasioned by his first coming in his Turkish dress, melted away into thin air on his second coming—pale and feeble, and with his heavy, filmy eyes, that only brightened a very little when they fell upon the countenance of his faithful wife, or their pale and sorrowful little girl.

Somehow we all forgot to be afraid.  I daresay it was that finding out that he, who had first excited our love of the marvellous by his unprecedented arts, had not sufficient every-day gifts to manage a shying horse, made us feel as if we were ourselves again.  Miss Pole came with her little basket at all hours of the evening, as if her lonely house and the unfrequented road to it had never been infested by that “murderous gang”; Mrs Forrester said she thought that neither Jenny nor she need mind the headless lady who wept and wailed in Darkness Lane, for surely the power was never given to such beings to harm those who went about to try to do what little good was in their power, to which Jenny tremblingly assented; but the mistress’s theory had little effect on the maid’s practice until she had sewn two pieces of red flannel in the shape of a cross on her inner garment.

I found Miss Matty covering her penny ball—the ball that she used to roll under her bed—with gay-coloured worsted in rainbow stripes.

“My dear,” said she, “my heart is sad for that little careworn child.  Although her father is a conjuror, she looks as if she had never had a good game of play in her life.  I used to make very pretty balls in this way when I was a girl, and I thought I would try if I could not make this one smart and take it to Phoebe this afternoon.  I think ‘the gang’ must have left the neighbourhood, for one does not hear any more of their violence and robbery now.”

We were all of us far too full of the signor’s precarious state to talk either about robbers or ghosts.  Indeed, Lady Glenmire said she never had heard of any actual robberies, except that two little boys had stolen some apples from Farmer Benson’s orchard, and that some eggs had been missed on a market-day off Widow Hayward’s stall.  But that was expecting too much of us; we could not acknowledge that we had only had this small foundation for all our panic.  Miss Pole drew herself up at this remark of Lady Glenmire’s, and said “that she wished she could agree with her as to the very small reason we had had for alarm, but with the recollection of a man disguised as a woman who had endeavoured to force himself into her house while his confederates waited outside; with the knowledge gained from Lady Glenmire herself, of the footprints seen on Mrs Jamieson’s flower borders; with the fact before her of the audacious robbery committed on Mr Hoggins at his own door”—But here Lady Glenmire broke in with a very strong expression of doubt as to whether this last story was not an entire fabrication founded upon the theft of a cat; she grew so red while she was saying all this that I was not surprised at Miss Pole’s manner of bridling up, and I am certain, if Lady Glenmire had not been “her ladyship,” we should have had a more emphatic contradiction than the “Well, to be sure!” and similar fragmentary ejaculations, which were all that she ventured upon in my lady’s presence.  But when she was gone Miss Pole began a long congratulation to Miss Matty that so far they had escaped marriage, which she noticed always made people credulous to the last degree; indeed, she thought it argued great natural credulity in a woman if she could not keep herself from being married; and in what Lady Glenmire had said about Mr Hoggins’s robbery we had a specimen of what people came to if they gave way to such a weakness; evidently Lady Glenmire would swallow anything if she could believe the poor vamped-up story about a neck of mutton and a pussy with which he had tried to impose on Miss Pole, only she had always been on her guard against believing too much of what men said.

We were thankful, as Miss Pole desired us to be, that we had never been married; but I think, of the two, we were even more thankful that the robbers had left Cranford; at least I judge so from a speech of Miss Matty’s that evening, as we sat over the fire, in which she evidently looked upon a husband as a great protector against thieves, burglars, and ghosts; and said that she did not think that she should dare to be always warning young people against matrimony, as Miss Pole did continually; to be sure, marriage was a risk, as she saw, now she had had some experience; but she remembered the time when she had looked forward to being married as much as any one.

“Not to any particular person, my dear,” said she, hastily checking herself up, as if she were afraid of having admitted too much; “only the old story, you know, of ladies always saying, ‘When I marry,’ and gentlemen, ‘If I marry.’”  It was a joke spoken in rather a sad tone, and I doubt if either of us smiled; but I could not see Miss Matty’s face by the flickering fire-light.  In a little while she continued—

“But, after all, I have not told you the truth.  It is so long ago, and no one ever knew how much I thought of it at the time, unless, indeed, my dear mother guessed; but I may say that there was a time when I did not think I should have been only Miss Matty Jenkyns all my life; for even if I did meet with any one who wished to marry me now (and, as Miss Pole says, one is never too safe), I could not take him—I hope he would not take it too much to heart, but I could not take him—or any one but the person I once thought I should be married to; and he is dead and gone, and he never knew how it all came about that I said ‘No,’ when I had thought many and many a time—Well, it’s no matter what I thought.  God ordains it all, and I am very happy, my dear.  No one has such kind friends as I,” continued she, taking my hand and holding it in hers.

If I had never known of Mr Holbrook, I could have said something in this pause, but as I had, I could not think of anything that would come in naturally, and so we both kept silence for a little time.

“My father once made us,” she began, “keep a diary, in two columns; on one side we were to put down in the morning what we thought would be the course and events of the coming day, and at night we were to put down on the other side what really had happened.  It would be to some people rather a sad way of telling their lives,” (a tear dropped upon my hand at these words)—“I don’t mean that mine has been sad, only so very different to what I expected.  I remember, one winter’s evening, sitting over our bedroom fire with Deborah—I remember it as if it were yesterday—and we were planning our future lives, both of us were planning, though only she talked about it.  She said she should like to marry an archdeacon, and write his charges; and you know, my dear, she never was married, and, for aught I know, she never spoke to an unmarried archdeacon in her life.  I never was ambitious, nor could I have written charges, but I thought I could manage a house (my mother used to call me her right hand), and I was always so fond of little children—the shyest babies would stretch out their little arms to come to me; when I was a girl, I was half my leisure time nursing in the neighbouring cottages; but I don’t know how it was, when I grew sad and grave—which I did a year or two after this time—the little things drew back from me, and I am afraid I lost the knack, though I am just as fond of children as ever, and have a strange yearning at my heart whenever I see a mother with her baby in her arms.  Nay, my dear” (and by a sudden blaze which sprang up from a fall of the unstirred coals, I saw that her eyes were full of tears—gazing intently on some vision of what might have been), “do you know I dream sometimes that I have a little child—always the same—a little girl of about two years old; she never grows older, though I have dreamt about her for many years.  I don’t think I ever dream of any words or sound she makes; she is very noiseless and still, but she comes to me when she is very sorry or very glad, and I have wakened with the clasp of her dear little arms round my neck.  Only last night—perhaps because I had gone to sleep thinking of this ball for Phoebe—my little darling came in my dream, and put up her mouth to be kissed, just as I have seen real babies do to real mothers before going to bed.  But all this is nonsense, dear! only don’t be frightened by Miss Pole from being married.  I can fancy it may be a very happy state, and a little credulity helps one on through life very smoothly—better than always doubting and doubting and seeing difficulties and disagreeables in everything.”

If I had been inclined to be daunted from matrimony, it would not have been Miss Pole to do it; it would have been the lot of poor Signor Brunoni and his wife.  And yet again, it was an encouragement to see how, through all their cares and sorrows, they thought of each other and not of themselves; and how keen were their joys, if they only passed through each other, or through the little Phoebe.

The signora told me, one day, a good deal about their lives up to this period.  It began by my asking her whether Miss Pole’s story of the twin-brothers were true; it sounded so wonderful a likeness, that I should have had my doubts, if Miss Pole had not been unmarried.  But the signora, or (as we found out she preferred to be called) Mrs Brown, said it was quite true; that her brother-in-law was by many taken for her husband, which was of great assistance to them in their profession; “though,” she continued, “how people can mistake Thomas for the real Signor Brunoni, I can’t conceive; but he says they do; so I suppose I must believe him.  Not but what he is a very good man; I am sure I don’t know how we should have paid our bill at the ‘Rising Sun’ but for the money he sends; but people must know very little about art if they can take him for my husband.  Why, Miss, in the ball trick, where my husband spreads his fingers wide, and throws out his little finger with quite an air and a grace, Thomas just clumps up his hand like a fist, and might have ever so many balls hidden in it.  Besides, he has never been in India, and knows nothing of the proper sit of a turban.”

“Have you been in India?” said I, rather astonished.

“Oh, yes! many a year, ma’am.  Sam was a sergeant in the 31st; and when the regiment was ordered to India, I drew a lot to go, and I was more thankful than I can tell; for it seemed as if it would only be a slow death to me to part from my husband.  But, indeed, ma’am, if I had known all, I don’t know whether I would not rather have died there and then than gone through what I have done since.  To be sure, I’ve been able to comfort Sam, and to be with him; but, ma’am, I’ve lost six children,” said she, looking up at me with those strange eyes that I’ve never noticed but in mothers of dead children—with a kind of wild look in them, as if seeking for what they never more might find.  “Yes!  Six children died off, like little buds nipped untimely, in that cruel India.  I thought, as each died, I never could—I never would—love a child again; and when the next came, it had not only its own love, but the deeper love that came from the thoughts of its little dead brothers and sisters.  And when Phoebe was coming, I said to my husband, ‘Sam, when the child is born, and I am strong, I shall leave you; it will cut my heart cruel; but if this baby dies too, I shall go mad; the madness is in me now; but if you let me go down to Calcutta, carrying my baby step by step, it will, maybe, work itself off; and I will save, and I will hoard, and I will beg—and I will die, to get a passage home to England, where our baby may live?’  God bless him! he said I might go; and he saved up his pay, and I saved every pice I could get for washing or any way; and when Phoebe came, and I grew strong again, I set off.  It was very lonely; through the thick forests, dark again with their heavy trees—along by the river’s side (but I had been brought up near the Avon in Warwickshire, so that flowing noise sounded like home)—from station to station, from Indian village to village, I went along, carrying my child.  I had seen one of the officer’s ladies with a little picture, ma’am—done by a Catholic foreigner, ma’am—of the Virgin and the little Saviour, ma’am.  She had him on her arm, and her form was softly curled round him, and their cheeks touched.  Well, when I went to bid good-bye to this lady, for whom I had washed, she cried sadly; for she, too, had lost her children, but she had not another to save, like me; and I was bold enough to ask her would she give me that print.  And she cried the more, and said her children were with that little blessed Jesus; and gave it me, and told me that she had heard it had been painted on the bottom of a cask, which made it have that round shape.  And when my body was very weary, and my heart was sick (for there were times when I misdoubted if I could ever reach my home, and there were times when I thought of my husband, and one time when I thought my baby was dying), I took out that picture and looked at it, till I could have thought the mother spoke to me, and comforted me.  And the natives were very kind.  We could not understand one another; but they saw my baby on my breast, and they came out to me, and brought me rice and milk, and sometimes flowers—I have got some of the flowers dried.  Then, the next morning, I was so tired; and they wanted me to stay with them—I could tell that—and tried to frighten me from going into the deep woods, which, indeed, looked very strange and dark; but it seemed to me as if Death was following me to take my baby away from me; and as if I must go on, and on—and I thought how God had cared for mothers ever since the world was made, and would care for me; so I bade them good-bye, and set off afresh.  And once when my baby was ill, and both she and I needed rest, He led me to a place where I found a kind Englishman lived, right in the midst of the natives.”

“And you reached Calcutta safely at last?”

“Yes, safely!  Oh! when I knew I had only two days’ journey more before me, I could not help it, ma’am—it might be idolatry, I cannot tell—but I was near one of the native temples, and I went into it with my baby to thank God for His great mercy; for it seemed to me that where others had prayed before to their God, in their joy or in their agony, was of itself a sacred place.  And I got as servant to an invalid lady, who grew quite fond of my baby aboard-ship; and, in two years’ time, Sam earned his discharge, and came home to me, and to our child.  Then he had to fix on a trade; but he knew of none; and once, once upon a time, he had learnt some tricks from an Indian juggler; so he set up conjuring, and it answered so well that he took Thomas to help him—as his man, you know, not as another conjuror, though Thomas has set it up now on his own hook.  But it has been a great help to us that likeness between the twins, and made a good many tricks go off well that they made up together.  And Thomas is a good brother, only he has not the fine carriage of my husband, so that I can’t think how he can be taken for Signor Brunoni himself, as he says he is.”

“Poor little Phoebe!” said I, my thoughts going back to the baby she carried all those hundred miles.

“Ah! you may say so!  I never thought I should have reared her, though, when she fell ill at Chunderabaddad; but that good, kind Aga Jenkyns took us in, which I believe was the very saving of her.”

“Jenkyns!” said I.

“Yes, Jenkyns.  I shall think all people of that name are kind; for here is that nice old lady who comes every day to take Phoebe a walk!”

But an idea had flashed through my head; could the Aga Jenkyns be the lost Peter?  True he was reported by many to be dead.  But, equally true, some had said that he had arrived at the dignity of Great Lama of Thibet.  Miss Matty thought he was alive.  I would make further inquiry.

 

CHAPTER XII: ENGAGED TO BE MARRIED

Was the “poor Peter” of Cranford the Aga Jenkyns of Chunderabaddad, or was he not?  As somebody says, that was the question.

In my own home, whenever people had nothing else to do, they blamed me for want of discretion.  Indiscretion was my bug-bear fault.  Everybody has a bug-bear fault, a sort of standing characteristic—a pièce de résistance for their friends to cut at; and in general they cut and come again.  I was tired of being called indiscreet and incautious; and I determined for once to prove myself a model of prudence and wisdom.  I would not even hint my suspicions respecting the Aga.  I would collect evidence and carry it home to lay before my father, as the family friend of the two Miss Jenkynses.

In my search after facts, I was often reminded of a description my father had once given of a ladies’ committee that he had had to preside over.  He said he could not help thinking of a passage in Dickens, which spoke of a chorus in which every man took the tune he knew best, and sang it to his own satisfaction.  So, at this charitable committee, every lady took the subject uppermost in her mind, and talked about it to her own great contentment, but not much to the advancement of the subject they had met to discuss.  But even that committee could have been nothing to the Cranford ladies when I attempted to gain some clear and definite information as to poor Peter’s height, appearance, and when and where he was seen and heard of last.  For instance, I remember asking Miss Pole (and I thought the question was very opportune, for I put it when I met her at a call at Mrs Forrester’s, and both the ladies had known Peter, and I imagined that they might refresh each other’s memories)—I asked Miss Pole what was the very last thing they had ever heard about him; and then she named the absurd report to which I have alluded, about his having been elected Great Lama of Thibet; and this was a signal for each lady to go off on her separate idea.  Mrs Forrester’s start was made on the veiled prophet in Lalla Rookh—whether I thought he was meant for the Great Lama, though Peter was not so ugly, indeed rather handsome, if he had not been freckled.  I was thankful to see her double upon Peter; but, in a moment, the delusive lady was off upon Rowland’s Kalydor, and the merits of cosmetics and hair oils in general, and holding forth so fluently that I turned to listen to Miss Pole, who (through the llamas, the beasts of burden) had got to Peruvian bonds, and the share market, and her poor opinion of joint-stock banks in general, and of that one in particular in which Miss Matty’s money was invested.  In vain I put in “When was it—in what year was it that you heard that Mr Peter was the Great Lama?”  They only joined issue to dispute whether llamas were carnivorous animals or not; in which dispute they were not quite on fair grounds, as Mrs Forrester (after they had grown warm and cool again) acknowledged that she always confused carnivorous and graminivorous together, just as she did horizontal and perpendicular; but then she apologised for it very prettily, by saying that in her day the only use people made of four-syllabled words was to teach how they should be spelt.

The only fact I gained from this conversation was that certainly Peter had last been heard of in India, “or that neighbourhood”; and that this scanty intelligence of his whereabouts had reached Cranford in the year when Miss Pole had brought her Indian muslin gown, long since worn out (we washed it and mended it, and traced its decline and fall into a window-blind before we could go on); and in a year when Wombwell came to Cranford, because Miss Matty had wanted to see an elephant in order that she might the better imagine Peter riding on one; and had seen a boa-constrictor too, which was more than she wished to imagine in her fancy-pictures of Peter’s locality; and in a year when Miss Jenkyns had learnt some piece of poetry off by heart, and used to say, at all the Cranford parties, how Peter was “surveying mankind from China to Peru,” which everybody had thought very grand, and rather appropriate, because India was between China and Peru, if you took care to turn the globe to the left instead of the right.

I suppose all these inquiries of mine, and the consequent curiosity excited in the minds of my friends, made us blind and deaf to what was going on around us.  It seemed to me as if the sun rose and shone, and as if the rain rained on Cranford, just as usual, and I did not notice any sign of the times that could be considered as a prognostic of any uncommon event; and, to the best of my belief, not only Miss Matty and Mrs Forrester, but even Miss Pole herself, whom we looked upon as a kind of prophetess, from the knack she had of foreseeing things before they came to pass—although she did not like to disturb her friends by telling them her foreknowledge—even Miss Pole herself was breathless with astonishment when she came to tell us of the astounding piece of news.  But I must recover myself; the contemplation of it, even at this distance of time, has taken away my breath and my grammar, and unless I subdue my emotion, my spelling will go too.

We were sitting—Miss Matty and I—much as usual, she in the blue chintz easy-chair, with her back to the light, and her knitting in her hand, I reading aloud the St James’s Chronicle.  A few minutes more, and we should have gone to make the little alterations in dress usual before calling-time (twelve o’clock) in Cranford.  I remember the scene and the date well.  We had been talking of the signor’s rapid recovery since the warmer weather had set in, and praising Mr Hoggins’s skill, and lamenting his want of refinement and manner (it seems a curious coincidence that this should have been our subject, but so it was), when a knock was heard—a caller’s knock—three distinct taps—and we were flying (that is to say, Miss Matty could not walk very fast, having had a touch of rheumatism) to our rooms, to change cap and collars, when Miss Pole arrested us by calling out, as she came up the stairs, “Don’t go—I can’t wait—it is not twelve, I know—but never mind your dress—I must speak to you.”  We did our best to look as if it was not we who had made the hurried movement, the sound of which she had heard; for, of course, we did not like to have it supposed that we had any old clothes that it was convenient to wear out in the “sanctuary of home,” as Miss Jenkyns once prettily called the back parlour, where she was tying up preserves.  So we threw our gentility with double force into our manners, and very genteel we were for two minutes while Miss Pole recovered breath, and excited our curiosity strongly by lifting up her hands in amazement, and bringing them down in silence, as if what she had to say was too big for words, and could only be expressed by pantomime.

“What do you think, Miss Matty?  What do you think?  Lady Glenmire is to marry—is to be married, I mean—Lady Glenmire—Mr Hoggins—Mr Hoggins is going to marry Lady Glenmire!”

“Marry!” said we.  “Marry!  Madness!”

“Marry!” said Miss Pole, with the decision that belonged to her character.  “I said marry! as you do; and I also said, ‘What a fool my lady is going to make of herself!’  I could have said ‘Madness!’ but I controlled myself, for it was in a public shop that I heard of it.  Where feminine delicacy is gone to, I don’t know!  You and I, Miss Matty, would have been ashamed to have known that our marriage was spoken of in a grocer’s shop, in the hearing of shopmen!”

“But,” said Miss Matty, sighing as one recovering from a blow, “perhaps it is not true.  Perhaps we are doing her injustice.”

“No,” said Miss Pole.  “I have taken care to ascertain that.  I went straight to Mrs Fitz-Adam, to borrow a cookery-book which I knew she had; and I introduced my congratulations à propos of the difficulty gentlemen must have in house-keeping; and Mrs Fitz-Adam bridled up, and said that she believed it was true, though how and where I could have heard it she did not know.  She said her brother and Lady Glenmire had come to an understanding at last.  ‘Understanding!’ such a coarse word!  But my lady will have to come down to many a want of refinement.  I have reason to believe Mr Hoggins sups on bread-and-cheese and beer every night.

“Marry!” said Miss Matty once again.  “Well!  I never thought of it.  Two people that we know going to be married.  It’s coming very near!”

“So near that my heart stopped beating when I heard of it, while you might have counted twelve,” said Miss Pole.

“One does not know whose turn may come next.  Here, in Cranford, poor Lady Glenmire might have thought herself safe,” said Miss Matty, with a gentle pity in her tones.

“Bah!” said Miss Pole, with a toss of her head.  “Don’t you remember poor dear Captain Brown’s song ‘Tibbie Fowler,’ and the line—

‘Set her on the Tintock tap,
The wind will blaw a man till her.’”

“That was because ‘Tibbie Fowler’ was rich, I think.”

“Well! there was a kind of attraction about Lady Glenmire that I, for one, should be ashamed to have.”

I put in my wonder.  “But how can she have fancied Mr Hoggins?  I am not surprised that Mr Hoggins has liked her.”

“Oh!  I don’t know.  Mr Hoggins is rich, and very pleasant-looking,” said Miss Matty, “and very good-tempered and kind-hearted.”

“She has married for an establishment, that’s it.  I suppose she takes the surgery with it,” said Miss Pole, with a little dry laugh at her own joke.  But, like many people who think they have made a severe and sarcastic speech, which yet is clever of its kind, she began to relax in her grimness from the moment when she made this allusion to the surgery; and we turned to speculate on the way in which Mrs Jamieson would receive the news.  The person whom she had left in charge of her house to keep off followers from her maids to set up a follower of her own!  And that follower a man whom Mrs Jamieson had tabooed as vulgar, and inadmissible to Cranford society, not merely on account of his name, but because of his voice, his complexion, his boots, smelling of the stable, and himself, smelling of drugs.  Had he ever been to see Lady Glenmire at Mrs Jamieson’s?  Chloride of lime would not purify the house in its owner’s estimation if he had.  Or had their interviews been confined to the occasional meetings in the chamber of the poor sick conjuror, to whom, with all our sense of the mésalliance, we could not help allowing that they had both been exceedingly kind?  And now it turned out that a servant of Mrs Jamieson’s had been ill, and Mr Hoggins had been attending her for some weeks.  So the wolf had got into the fold, and now he was carrying off the shepherdess.  What would Mrs Jamieson say?  We looked into the darkness of futurity as a child gazes after a rocket up in the cloudy sky, full of wondering expectation of the rattle, the discharge, and the brilliant shower of sparks and light.  Then we brought ourselves down to earth and the present time by questioning each other (being all equally ignorant, and all equally without the slightest data to build any conclusions upon) as to when IT would take place?  Where?  How much a year Mr Hoggins had?  Whether she would drop her title?  And how Martha and the other correct servants in Cranford would ever be brought to announce a married couple as Lady Glenmire and Mr Hoggins?  But would they be visited?  Would Mrs Jamieson let us?  Or must we choose between the Honourable Mrs Jamieson and the degraded Lady Glenmire?  We all liked Lady Glenmire the best.  She was bright, and kind, and sociable, and agreeable; and Mrs Jamieson was dull, and inert, and pompous, and tiresome.  But we had acknowledged the sway of the latter so long, that it seemed like a kind of disloyalty now even to meditate disobedience to the prohibition we anticipated.

Mrs Forrester surprised us in our darned caps and patched collars; and we forgot all about them in our eagerness to see how she would bear the information, which we honourably left to Miss Pole, to impart, although, if we had been inclined to take unfair advantage, we might have rushed in ourselves, for she had a most out-of-place fit of coughing for five minutes after Mrs Forrester entered the room.  I shall never forget the imploring expression of her eyes, as she looked at us over her pocket-handkerchief.  They said, as plain as words could speak, “Don’t let Nature deprive me of the treasure which is mine, although for a time I can make no use of it.”  And we did not.

Mrs Forrester’s surprise was equal to ours; and her sense of injury rather greater, because she had to feel for her Order, and saw more fully than we could do how such conduct brought stains on the aristocracy.

When she and Miss Pole left us we endeavoured to subside into calmness; but Miss Matty was really upset by the intelligence she had heard.  She reckoned it up, and it was more than fifteen years since she had heard of any of her acquaintance going to be married, with the one exception of Miss Jessie Brown; and, as she said, it gave her quite a shock, and made her feel as if she could not think what would happen next.

I don’t know whether it is a fancy of mine, or a real fact, but I have noticed that, just after the announcement of an engagement in any set, the unmarried ladies in that set flutter out in an unusual gaiety and newness of dress, as much as to say, in a tacit and unconscious manner, “We also are spinsters.”  Miss Matty and Miss Pole talked and thought more about bonnets, gowns, caps, and shawls, during the fortnight that succeeded this call, than I had known them do for years before.  But it might be the spring weather, for it was a warm and pleasant March; and merinoes and beavers, and woollen materials of all sorts were but ungracious receptacles of the bright sun’s glancing rays.  It had not been Lady Glenmire’s dress that had won Mr Hoggins’s heart, for she went about on her errands of kindness more shabby than ever.  Although in the hurried glimpses I caught of her at church or elsewhere she appeared rather to shun meeting any of her friends, her face seemed to have almost something of the flush of youth in it; her lips looked redder and more trembling full than in their old compressed state, and her eyes dwelt on all things with a lingering light, as if she was learning to love Cranford and its belongings.  Mr Hoggins looked broad and radiant, and creaked up the middle aisle at church in a brand-new pair of top-boots—an audible, as well as visible, sign of his purposed change of state; for the tradition went, that the boots he had worn till now were the identical pair in which he first set out on his rounds in Cranford twenty-five years ago; only they had been new-pieced, high and low, top and bottom, heel and sole, black leather and brown leather, more times than any one could tell.

None of the ladies in Cranford chose to sanction the marriage by congratulating either of the parties.  We wished to ignore the whole affair until our liege lady, Mrs Jamieson, returned.  Till she came back to give us our cue, we felt that it would be better to consider the engagement in the same light as the Queen of Spain’s legs—facts which certainly existed, but the less said about the better.  This restraint upon our tongues—for you see if we did not speak about it to any of the parties concerned, how could we get answers to the questions that we longed to ask?—was beginning to be irksome, and our idea of the dignity of silence was paling before our curiosity, when another direction was given to our thoughts, by an announcement on the part of the principal shopkeeper of Cranford, who ranged the trades from grocer and cheesemonger to man-milliner, as occasion required, that the spring fashions were arrived, and would be exhibited on the following Tuesday at his rooms in High Street.  Now Miss Matty had been only waiting for this before buying herself a new silk gown.  I had offered, it is true, to send to Drumble for patterns, but she had rejected my proposal, gently implying that she had not forgotten her disappointment about the sea-green turban.  I was thankful that I was on the spot now, to counteract the dazzling fascination of any yellow or scarlet silk.

I must say a word or two here about myself.  I have spoken of my father’s old friendship for the Jenkyns family; indeed, I am not sure if there was not some distant relationship.  He had willingly allowed me to remain all the winter at Cranford, in consideration of a letter which Miss Matty had written to him about the time of the panic, in which I suspect she had exaggerated my powers and my bravery as a defender of the house.  But now that the days were longer and more cheerful, he was beginning to urge the necessity of my return; and I only delayed in a sort of odd forlorn hope that if I could obtain any clear information, I might make the account given by the signora of the Aga Jenkyns tally with that of “poor Peter,” his appearance and disappearance, which I had winnowed out of the conversation of Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester.



CHAPTER XIII: STOPPED PAYMENT

The very Tuesday morning on which Mr Johnson was going to show the fashions, the post-woman brought two letters to the house.  I say the post-woman, but I should say the postman’s wife.  He was a lame shoemaker, a very clean, honest man, much respected in the town; but he never brought the letters round except on unusual occasions, such as Christmas Day or Good Friday; and on those days the letters, which should have been delivered at eight in the morning, did not make their appearance until two or three in the afternoon, for every one liked poor Thomas, and gave him a welcome on these festive occasions.  He used to say, “He was welly stawed wi’ eating, for there were three or four houses where nowt would serve ’em but he must share in their breakfast;” and by the time he had done his last breakfast, he came to some other friend who was beginning dinner; but come what might in the way of temptation, Tom was always sober, civil, and smiling; and, as Miss Jenkyns used to say, it was a lesson in patience, that she doubted not would call out that precious quality in some minds, where, but for Thomas, it might have lain dormant and undiscovered.  Patience was certainly very dormant in Miss Jenkyns’s mind.  She was always expecting letters, and always drumming on the table till the post-woman had called or gone past.  On Christmas Day and Good Friday she drummed from breakfast till church, from church-time till two o’clock—unless when the fire wanted stirring, when she invariably knocked down the fire-irons, and scolded Miss Matty for it.  But equally certain was the hearty welcome and the good dinner for Thomas; Miss Jenkyns standing over him like a bold dragoon, questioning him as to his children—what they were doing—what school they went to; upbraiding him if another was likely to make its appearance, but sending even the little babies the shilling and the mince-pie which was her gift to all the children, with half-a-crown in addition for both father and mother.  The post was not half of so much consequence to dear Miss Matty; but not for the world would she have diminished Thomas’s welcome and his dole, though I could see that she felt rather shy over the ceremony, which had been regarded by Miss Jenkyns as a glorious opportunity for giving advice and benefiting her fellow-creatures.  Miss Matty would steal the money all in a lump into his hand, as if she were ashamed of herself.  Miss Jenkyns gave him each individual coin separate, with a “There! that’s for yourself; that’s for Jenny,” etc.  Miss Matty would even beckon Martha out of the kitchen while he ate his food: and once, to my knowledge, winked at its rapid disappearance into a blue cotton pocket-handkerchief.  Miss Jenkyns almost scolded him if he did not leave a clean plate, however heaped it might have been, and gave an injunction with every mouthful.

I have wandered a long way from the two letters that awaited us on the breakfast-table that Tuesday morning.  Mine was from my father.  Miss Matty’s was printed.  My father’s was just a man’s letter; I mean it was very dull, and gave no information beyond that he was well, that they had had a good deal of rain, that trade was very stagnant, and there were many disagreeable rumours afloat.  He then asked me if I knew whether Miss Matty still retained her shares in the Town and County Bank, as there were very unpleasant reports about it; though nothing more than he had always foreseen, and had prophesied to Miss Jenkyns years ago, when she would invest their little property in it—the only unwise step that clever woman had ever taken, to his knowledge (the only time she ever acted against his advice, I knew).  However, if anything had gone wrong, of course I was not to think of leaving Miss Matty while I could be of any use, etc.

“Who is your letter from, my dear?  Mine is a very civil invitation, signed ‘Edwin Wilson,’ asking me to attend an important meeting of the shareholders of the Town and County Bank, to be held in Drumble, on Thursday the twenty-first.  I am sure, it is very attentive of them to remember me.”

I did not like to hear of this “important meeting,” for, though I did not know much about business, I feared it confirmed what my father said: however, I thought, ill news always came fast enough, so I resolved to say nothing about my alarm, and merely told her that my father was well, and sent his kind regards to her.  She kept turning over and admiring her letter.  At last she spoke—

“I remember their sending one to Deborah just like this; but that I did not wonder at, for everybody knew she was so clear-headed.  I am afraid I could not help them much; indeed, if they came to accounts, I should be quite in the way, for I never could do sums in my head.  Deborah, I know, rather wished to go, and went so far as to order a new bonnet for the occasion: but when the time came she had a bad cold; so they sent her a very polite account of what they had done.  Chosen a director, I think it was.  Do you think they want me to help them to choose a director?  I am sure I should choose your father at once!”

“My father has no shares in the bank,” said I.

“Oh, no!  I remember.  He objected very much to Deborah’s buying any, I believe.  But she was quite the woman of business, and always judged for herself; and here, you see, they have paid eight per cent. all these years.”

It was a very uncomfortable subject to me, with my half-knowledge; so I thought I would change the conversation, and I asked at what time she thought we had better go and see the fashions.  “Well, my dear,” she said, “the thing is this: it is not etiquette to go till after twelve; but then, you see, all Cranford will be there, and one does not like to be too curious about dress and trimmings and caps with all the world looking on.  It is never genteel to be over-curious on these occasions.  Deborah had the knack of always looking as if the latest fashion was nothing new to her; a manner she had caught from Lady Arley, who did see all the new modes in London, you know.  So I thought we would just slip down—for I do want this morning, soon after breakfast half-a-pound of tea—and then we could go up and examine the things at our leisure, and see exactly how my new silk gown must be made; and then, after twelve, we could go with our minds disengaged, and free from thoughts of dress.”

We began to talk of Miss Matty’s new silk gown.  I discovered that it would be really the first time in her life that she had had to choose anything of consequence for herself: for Miss Jenkyns had always been the more decided character, whatever her taste might have been; and it is astonishing how such people carry the world before them by the mere force of will.  Miss Matty anticipated the sight of the glossy folds with as much delight as if the five sovereigns, set apart for the purchase, could buy all the silks in the shop; and (remembering my own loss of two hours in a toyshop before I could tell on what wonder to spend a silver threepence) I was very glad that we were going early, that dear Miss Matty might have leisure for the delights of perplexity.

If a happy sea-green could be met with, the gown was to be sea-green: if not, she inclined to maize, and I to silver gray; and we discussed the requisite number of breadths until we arrived at the shop-door.  We were to buy the tea, select the silk, and then clamber up the iron corkscrew stairs that led into what was once a loft, though now a fashion show-room.

The young men at Mr Johnson’s had on their best looks; and their best cravats, and pivoted themselves over the counter with surprising activity.  They wanted to show us upstairs at once; but on the principle of business first and pleasure afterwards, we stayed to purchase the tea.  Here Miss Matty’s absence of mind betrayed itself.  If she was made aware that she had been drinking green tea at any time, she always thought it her duty to lie awake half through the night afterward (I have known her take it in ignorance many a time without such effects), and consequently green tea was prohibited the house; yet to-day she herself asked for the obnoxious article, under the impression that she was talking about the silk.  However, the mistake was soon rectified; and then the silks were unrolled in good truth.  By this time the shop was pretty well filled, for it was Cranford market-day, and many of the farmers and country people from the neighbourhood round came in, sleeking down their hair, and glancing shyly about, from under their eyelids, as anxious to take back some notion of the unusual gaiety to the mistress or the lasses at home, and yet feeling that they were out of place among the smart shopmen and gay shawls and summer prints.  One honest-looking man, however, made his way up to the counter at which we stood, and boldly asked to look at a shawl or two.  The other country folk confined themselves to the grocery side; but our neighbour was evidently too full of some kind intention towards mistress, wife or daughter, to be shy; and it soon became a question with me, whether he or Miss Matty would keep their shopmen the longest time.  He thought each shawl more beautiful than the last; and, as for Miss Matty, she smiled and sighed over each fresh bale that was brought out; one colour set off another, and the heap together would, as she said, make even the rainbow look poor.

“I am afraid,” said she, hesitating, “Whichever I choose I shall wish I had taken another.  Look at this lovely crimson! it would be so warm in winter.  But spring is coming on, you know.  I wish I could have a gown for every season,” said she, dropping her voice—as we all did in Cranford whenever we talked of anything we wished for but could not afford.  “However,” she continued in a louder and more cheerful tone, “it would give me a great deal of trouble to take care of them if I had them; so, I think, I’ll only take one.  But which must it be, my dear?”

And now she hovered over a lilac with yellow spots, while I pulled out a quiet sage-green that had faded into insignificance under the more brilliant colours, but which was nevertheless a good silk in its humble way.  Our attention was called off to our neighbour.  He had chosen a shawl of about thirty shillings’ value; and his face looked broadly happy, under the anticipation, no doubt, of the pleasant surprise he would give to some Molly or Jenny at home; he had tugged a leathern purse out of his breeches-pocket, and had offered a five-pound note in payment for the shawl, and for some parcels which had been brought round to him from the grocery counter; and it was just at this point that he attracted our notice.  The shopman was examining the note with a puzzled, doubtful air.

“Town and County Bank!  I am not sure, sir, but I believe we have received a warning against notes issued by this bank only this morning.  I will just step and ask Mr Johnson, sir; but I’m afraid I must trouble you for payment in cash, or in a note of a different bank.”

I never saw a man’s countenance fall so suddenly into dismay and bewilderment.  It was almost piteous to see the rapid change.

“Dang it!” said he, striking his fist down on the table, as if to try which was the harder, “the chap talks as if notes and gold were to be had for the picking up.”

Miss Matty had forgotten her silk gown in her interest for the man.  I don’t think she had caught the name of the bank, and in my nervous cowardice I was anxious that she should not; and so I began admiring the yellow-spotted lilac gown that I had been utterly condemning only a minute before.  But it was of no use.

“What bank was it?  I mean, what bank did your note belong to?”

“Town and County Bank.”

“Let me see it,” said she quietly to the shopman, gently taking it out of his hand, as he brought it back to return it to the farmer.

Mr Johnson was very sorry, but, from information he had received, the notes issued by that bank were little better than waste paper.

“I don’t understand it,” said Miss Matty to me in a low voice.  “That is our bank, is it not?—the Town and County Bank?”

“Yes,” said I.  “This lilac silk will just match the ribbons in your new cap, I believe,” I continued, holding up the folds so as to catch the light, and wishing that the man would make haste and be gone, and yet having a new wonder, that had only just sprung up, how far it was wise or right in me to allow Miss Matty to make this expensive purchase, if the affairs of the bank were really so bad as the refusal of the note implied.

But Miss Matty put on the soft dignified manner, peculiar to her, rarely used, and yet which became her so well, and laying her hand gently on mine, she said—

“Never mind the silks for a few minutes, dear.  I don’t understand you, sir,” turning now to the shopman, who had been attending to the farmer.  “Is this a forged note?”

“Oh, no, ma’am.  It is a true note of its kind; but you see, ma’am, it is a joint-stock bank, and there are reports out that it is likely to break.  Mr Johnson is only doing his duty, ma’am, as I am sure Mr Dobson knows.”

But Mr Dobson could not respond to the appealing bow by any answering smile.  He was turning the note absently over in his fingers, looking gloomily enough at the parcel containing the lately-chosen shawl.

“It’s hard upon a poor man,” said he, “as earns every farthing with the sweat of his brow.  However, there’s no help for it.  You must take back your shawl, my man; Lizzle must go on with her cloak for a while.  And yon figs for the little ones—I promised them to ’em—I’ll take them; but the ’bacco, and the other things”—

“I will give you five sovereigns for your note, my good man,” said Miss Matty.  “I think there is some great mistake about it, for I am one of the shareholders, and I’m sure they would have told me if things had not been going on right.”

The shopman whispered a word or two across the table to Miss Matty.  She looked at him with a dubious air.

“Perhaps so,” said she.  “But I don’t pretend to understand business; I only know that if it is going to fail, and if honest people are to lose their money because they have taken our notes—I can’t explain myself,” said she, suddenly becoming aware that she had got into a long sentence with four people for audience; “only I would rather exchange my gold for the note, if you please,” turning to the farmer, “and then you can take your wife the shawl.  It is only going without my gown a few days longer,” she continued, speaking to me.  “Then, I have no doubt, everything will be cleared up.”

“But if it is cleared up the wrong way?” said I.

“Why, then it will only have been common honesty in me, as a shareholder, to have given this good man the money.  I am quite clear about it in my own mind; but, you know, I can never speak quite as comprehensibly as others can, only you must give me your note, Mr Dobson, if you please, and go on with your purchases with these sovereigns.”

The man looked at her with silent gratitude—too awkward to put his thanks into words; but he hung back for a minute or two, fumbling with his note.

“I’m loth to make another one lose instead of me, if it is a loss; but, you see, five pounds is a deal of money to a man with a family; and, as you say, ten to one in a day or two the note will be as good as gold again.”

“No hope of that, my friend,” said the shopman.

“The more reason why I should take it,” said Miss Matty quietly.  She pushed her sovereigns towards the man, who slowly laid his note down in exchange.  “Thank you.  I will wait a day or two before I purchase any of these silks; perhaps you will then have a greater choice.  My dear, will you come upstairs?”

We inspected the fashions with as minute and curious an interest as if the gown to be made after them had been bought.  I could not see that the little event in the shop below had in the least damped Miss Matty’s curiosity as to the make of sleeves or the sit of skirts.  She once or twice exchanged congratulations with me on our private and leisurely view of the bonnets and shawls; but I was, all the time, not so sure that our examination was so utterly private, for I caught glimpses of a figure dodging behind the cloaks and mantles; and, by a dexterous move, I came face to face with Miss Pole, also in morning costume (the principal feature of which was her being without teeth, and wearing a veil to conceal the deficiency), come on the same errand as ourselves.  But she quickly took her departure, because, as she said, she had a bad headache, and did not feel herself up to conversation.

As we came down through the shop, the civil Mr Johnson was awaiting us; he had been informed of the exchange of the note for gold, and with much good feeling and real kindness, but with a little want of tact, he wished to condole with Miss Matty, and impress upon her the true state of the case.  I could only hope that he had heard an exaggerated rumour for he said that her shares were worse than nothing, and that the bank could not pay a shilling in the pound.  I was glad that Miss Matty seemed still a little incredulous; but I could not tell how much of this was real or assumed, with that self-control which seemed habitual to ladies of Miss Matty’s standing in Cranford, who would have thought their dignity compromised by the slightest expression of surprise, dismay, or any similar feeling to an inferior in station, or in a public shop.  However, we walked home very silently.  I am ashamed to say, I believe I was rather vexed and annoyed at Miss Matty’s conduct in taking the note to herself so decidedly.  I had so set my heart upon her having a new silk gown, which she wanted sadly; in general she was so undecided anybody might turn her round; in this case I had felt that it was no use attempting it, but I was not the less put out at the result.

Somehow, after twelve o’clock, we both acknowledged to a sated curiosity about the fashions, and to a certain fatigue of body (which was, in fact, depression of mind) that indisposed us to go out again.  But still we never spoke of the note; till, all at once, something possessed me to ask Miss Matty if she would think it her duty to offer sovereigns for all the notes of the Town and County Bank she met with?  I could have bitten my tongue out the minute I had said it.  She looked up rather sadly, and as if I had thrown a new perplexity into her already distressed mind; and for a minute or two she did not speak.  Then she said—my own dear Miss Matty—without a shade of reproach in her voice—

“My dear, I never feel as if my mind was what people call very strong; and it’s often hard enough work for me to settle what I ought to do with the case right before me.  I was very thankful to—I was very thankful, that I saw my duty this morning, with the poor man standing by me; but its rather a strain upon me to keep thinking and thinking what I should do if such and such a thing happened; and, I believe, I had rather wait and see what really does come; and I don’t doubt I shall be helped then if I don’t fidget myself, and get too anxious beforehand.  You know, love, I’m not like Deborah.  If Deborah had lived, I’ve no doubt she would have seen after them, before they had got themselves into this state.”

We had neither of us much appetite for dinner, though we tried to talk cheerfully about indifferent things.  When we returned into the drawing-room, Miss Matty unlocked her desk and began to look over her account-books.  I was so penitent for what I had said in the morning, that I did not choose to take upon myself the presumption to suppose that I could assist her; I rather left her alone, as, with puzzled brow, her eye followed her pen up and down the ruled page.  By-and-by she shut the book, locked the desk, and came and drew a chair to mine, where I sat in moody sorrow over the fire.  I stole my hand into hers; she clasped it, but did not speak a word.  At last she said, with forced composure in her voice, “If that bank goes wrong, I shall lose one hundred and forty-nine pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence a year; I shall only have thirteen pounds a year left.”  I squeezed her hand hard and tight.  I did not know what to say.  Presently (it was too dark to see her face) I felt her fingers work convulsively in my grasp; and I knew she was going to speak again.  I heard the sobs in her voice as she said, “I hope it’s not wrong—not wicked—but, oh!  I am so glad poor Deborah is spared this.  She could not have borne to come down in the world—she had such a noble, lofty spirit.”

This was all she said about the sister who had insisted upon investing their little property in that unlucky bank.  We were later in lighting the candle than usual that night, and until that light shamed us into speaking, we sat together very silently and sadly.

However, we took to our work after tea with a kind of forced cheerfulness (which soon became real as far as it went), talking of that never-ending wonder, Lady Glenmire’s engagement.  Miss Matty was almost coming round to think it a good thing.

“I don’t mean to deny that men are troublesome in a house.  I don’t judge from my own experience, for my father was neatness itself, and wiped his shoes on coming in as carefully as any woman; but still a man has a sort of knowledge of what should be done in difficulties, that it is very pleasant to have one at hand ready to lean upon.  Now, Lady Glenmire, instead of being tossed about, and wondering where she is to settle, will be certain of a home among pleasant and kind people, such as our good Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester.  And Mr Hoggins is really a very personable man; and as for his manners, why, if they are not very polished, I have known people with very good hearts and very clever minds too, who were not what some people reckoned refined, but who were both true and tender.”

She fell off into a soft reverie about Mr Holbrook, and I did not interrupt her, I was so busy maturing a plan I had had in my mind for some days, but which this threatened failure of the bank had brought to a crisis.  That night, after Miss Matty went to bed, I treacherously lighted the candle again, and sat down in the drawing-room to compose a letter to the Aga Jenkyns, a letter which should affect him if he were Peter, and yet seem a mere statement of dry facts if he were a stranger.  The church clock pealed out two before I had done.

The next morning news came, both official and otherwise, that the Town and County Bank had stopped payment.  Miss Matty was ruined.

She tried to speak quietly to me; but when she came to the actual fact that she would have but about five shillings a week to live upon, she could not restrain a few tears.

“I am not crying for myself, dear,” said she, wiping them away; “I believe I am crying for the very silly thought of how my mother would grieve if she could know; she always cared for us so much more than for herself.  But many a poor person has less, and I am not very extravagant, and, thank God, when the neck of mutton, and Martha’s wages, and the rent are paid, I have not a farthing owing.  Poor Martha!  I think she’ll be sorry to leave me.”

Miss Matty smiled at me through her tears, and she would fain have had me see only the smile, not the tears.

 

CHAPTER XIV: FRIENDS IN NEED

It was an example to me, and I fancy it might be to many others, to see how immediately Miss Matty set about the retrenchment which she knew to be right under her altered circumstances.  While she went down to speak to Martha, and break the intelligence to her, I stole out with my letter to the Aga Jenkyns, and went to the signor’s lodgings to obtain the exact address.  I bound the signora to secrecy; and indeed her military manners had a degree of shortness and reserve in them which made her always say as little as possible, except when under the pressure of strong excitement.  Moreover (which made my secret doubly sure), the signor was now so far recovered as to be looking forward to travelling and conjuring again in the space of a few days, when he, his wife, and little Phoebe would leave Cranford.  Indeed, I found him looking over a great black and red placard, in which the Signor Brunoni’s accomplishments were set forth, and to which only the name of the town where he would next display them was wanting.  He and his wife were so much absorbed in deciding where the red letters would come in with most effect (it might have been the Rubric for that matter), that it was some time before I could get my question asked privately, and not before I had given several decisions, the which I questioned afterwards with equal wisdom of sincerity as soon as the signor threw in his doubts and reasons on the important subject.  At last I got the address, spelt by sound, and very queer it looked.  I dropped it in the post on my way home, and then for a minute I stood looking at the wooden pane with a gaping slit which divided me from the letter but a moment ago in my hand.  It was gone from me like life, never to be recalled.  It would get tossed about on the sea, and stained with sea-waves perhaps, and be carried among palm-trees, and scented with all tropical fragrance; the little piece of paper, but an hour ago so familiar and commonplace, had set out on its race to the strange wild countries beyond the Ganges!  But I could not afford to lose much time on this speculation.  I hastened home, that Miss Matty might not miss me.  Martha opened the door to me, her face swollen with crying.  As soon as she saw me she burst out afresh, and taking hold of my arm she pulled me in, and banged the door to, in order to ask me if indeed it was all true that Miss Matty had been saying.

“I’ll never leave her!  No; I won’t.  I telled her so, and said I could not think how she could find in her heart to give me warning.  I could not have had the face to do it, if I’d been her.  I might ha’ been just as good for nothing as Mrs Fitz-Adam’s Rosy, who struck for wages after living seven years and a half in one place.  I said I was not one to go and serve Mammon at that rate; that I knew when I’d got a good missus, if she didn’t know when she’d got a good servant”—

“But, Martha,” said I, cutting in while she wiped her eyes.

“Don’t, ‘but Martha’ me,” she replied to my deprecatory tone.

“Listen to reason”—

“I’ll not listen to reason,” she said, now in full possession of her voice, which had been rather choked with sobbing.  “Reason always means what someone else has got to say.  Now I think what I’ve got to say is good enough reason; but reason or not, I’ll say it, and I’ll stick to it.  I’ve money in the Savings Bank, and I’ve a good stock of clothes, and I’m not going to leave Miss Matty.  No, not if she gives me warning every hour in the day!”

She put her arms akimbo, as much as to say she defied me; and, indeed, I could hardly tell how to begin to remonstrate with her, so much did I feel that Miss Matty, in her increasing infirmity, needed the attendance of this kind and faithful woman.

“Well”—said I at last.

“I’m thankful you begin with ‘well!’  If you’d have begun with ‘but,’ as you did afore, I’d not ha’ listened to you.  Now you may go on.”

“I know you would be a great loss to Miss Matty, Martha”—

“I telled her so.  A loss she’d never cease to be sorry for,” broke in Martha triumphantly.

“Still, she will have so little—so very little—to live upon, that I don’t see just now how she could find you food—she will even be pressed for her own.  I tell you this, Martha, because I feel you are like a friend to dear Miss Matty, but you know she might not like to have it spoken about.”

Apparently this was even a blacker view of the subject than Miss Matty had presented to her, for Martha just sat down on the first chair that came to hand, and cried out loud (we had been standing in the kitchen).

At last she put her apron down, and looking me earnestly in the face, asked, “Was that the reason Miss Matty wouldn’t order a pudding to-day?  She said she had no great fancy for sweet things, and you and she would just have a mutton chop.  But I’ll be up to her.  Never you tell, but I’ll make her a pudding, and a pudding she’ll like, too, and I’ll pay for it myself; so mind you see she eats it.  Many a one has been comforted in their sorrow by seeing a good dish come upon the table.”

I was rather glad that Martha’s energy had taken the immediate and practical direction of pudding-making, for it staved off the quarrelsome discussion as to whether she should or should not leave Miss Matty’s service.  She began to tie on a clean apron, and otherwise prepare herself for going to the shop for the butter, eggs, and what else she might require.  She would not use a scrap of the articles already in the house for her cookery, but went to an old tea-pot in which her private store of money was deposited, and took out what she wanted.

I found Miss Matty very quiet, and not a little sad; but by-and-by she tried to smile for my sake.  It was settled that I was to write to my father, and ask him to come over and hold a consultation, and as soon as this letter was despatched we began to talk over future plans.  Miss Matty’s idea was to take a single room, and retain as much of her furniture as would be necessary to fit up this, and sell the rest, and there to quietly exist upon what would remain after paying the rent.  For my part, I was more ambitious and less contented.  I thought of all the things by which a woman, past middle age, and with the education common to ladies fifty years ago, could earn or add to a living without materially losing caste; but at length I put even this last clause on one side, and wondered what in the world Miss Matty could do.

Teaching was, of course, the first thing that suggested itself.  If Miss Matty could teach children anything, it would throw her among the little elves in whom her soul delighted.  I ran over her accomplishments.  Once upon a time I had heard her say she could play “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman?” on the piano, but that was long, long ago; that faint shadow of musical acquirement had died out years before.  She had also once been able to trace out patterns very nicely for muslin embroidery, by dint of placing a piece of silver paper over the design to be copied, and holding both against the window-pane while she marked the scollop and eyelet-holes.  But that was her nearest approach to the accomplishment of drawing, and I did not think it would go very far.  Then again, as to the branches of a solid English education—fancy work and the use of the globes—such as the mistress of the Ladies’ Seminary, to which all the tradespeople in Cranford sent their daughters, professed to teach.  Miss Matty’s eyes were failing her, and I doubted if she could discover the number of threads in a worsted-work pattern, or rightly appreciate the different shades required for Queen Adelaide’s face in the loyal wool-work now fashionable in Cranford.  As for the use of the globes, I had never been able to find it out myself, so perhaps I was not a good judge of Miss Matty’s capability of instructing in this branch of education; but it struck me that equators and tropics, and such mystical circles, were very imaginary lines indeed to her, and that she looked upon the signs of the Zodiac as so many remnants of the Black Art.

What she piqued herself upon, as arts in which she excelled, was making candle-lighters, or “spills” (as she preferred calling them), of coloured paper, cut so as to resemble feathers, and knitting garters in a variety of dainty stitches.  I had once said, on receiving a present of an elaborate pair, that I should feel quite tempted to drop one of them in the street, in order to have it admired; but I found this little joke (and it was a very little one) was such a distress to her sense of propriety, and was taken with such anxious, earnest alarm, lest the temptation might some day prove too strong for me, that I quite regretted having ventured upon it.  A present of these delicately-wrought garters, a bunch of gay “spills,” or a set of cards on which sewing-silk was wound in a mystical manner, were the well-known tokens of Miss Matty’s favour.  But would any one pay to have their children taught these arts? or, indeed, would Miss Matty sell, for filthy lucre, the knack and the skill with which she made trifles of value to those who loved her?

I had to come down to reading, writing, and arithmetic; and, in reading the chapter every morning, she always coughed before coming to long words.  I doubted her power of getting through a genealogical chapter, with any number of coughs.  Writing she did well and delicately—but spelling!  She seemed to think that the more out-of-the-way this was, and the more trouble it cost her, the greater the compliment she paid to her correspondent; and words that she would spell quite correctly in her letters to me became perfect enigmas when she wrote to my father.

No! there was nothing she could teach to the rising generation of Cranford, unless they had been quick learners and ready imitators of her patience, her humility, her sweetness, her quiet contentment with all that she could not do.  I pondered and pondered until dinner was announced by Martha, with a face all blubbered and swollen with crying.

Miss Matty had a few little peculiarities which Martha was apt to regard as whims below her attention, and appeared to consider as childish fancies of which an old lady of fifty-eight should try and cure herself.  But to-day everything was attended to with the most careful regard.  The bread was cut to the imaginary pattern of excellence that existed in Miss Matty’s mind, as being the way which her mother had preferred, the curtain was drawn so as to exclude the dead brick wall of a neighbour’s stable, and yet left so as to show every tender leaf of the poplar which was bursting into spring beauty.  Martha’s tone to Miss Matty was just such as that good, rough-spoken servant usually kept sacred for little children, and which I had never heard her use to any grown-up person.

I had forgotten to tell Miss Matty about the pudding, and I was afraid she might not do justice to it, for she had evidently very little appetite this day; so I seized the opportunity of letting her into the secret while Martha took away the meat.  Miss Matty’s eyes filled with tears, and she could not speak, either to express surprise or delight, when Martha returned bearing it aloft, made in the most wonderful representation of a lion couchant that ever was moulded.  Martha’s face gleamed with triumph as she set it down before Miss Matty with an exultant “There!”  Miss Matty wanted to speak her thanks, but could not; so she took Martha’s hand and shook it warmly, which set Martha off crying, and I myself could hardly keep up the necessary composure.  Martha burst out of the room, and Miss Matty had to clear her voice once or twice before she could speak.  At last she said, “I should like to keep this pudding under a glass shade, my dear!” and the notion of the lion couchant, with his currant eyes, being hoisted up to the place of honour on a mantelpiece, tickled my hysterical fancy, and I began to laugh, which rather surprised Miss Matty.

“I am sure, dear, I have seen uglier things under a glass shade before now,” said she.

So had I, many a time and oft, and I accordingly composed my countenance (and now I could hardly keep from crying), and we both fell to upon the pudding, which was indeed excellent—only every morsel seemed to choke us, our hearts were so full.

We had too much to think about to talk much that afternoon.  It passed over very tranquilly.  But when the tea-urn was brought in a new thought came into my head.  Why should not Miss Matty sell tea—be an agent to the East India Tea Company which then existed?  I could see no objections to this plan, while the advantages were many—always supposing that Miss Matty could get over the degradation of condescending to anything like trade.  Tea was neither greasy nor sticky—grease and stickiness being two of the qualities which Miss Matty could not endure.  No shop-window would be required.  A small, genteel notification of her being licensed to sell tea would, it is true, be necessary, but I hoped that it could be placed where no one would see it.  Neither was tea a heavy article, so as to tax Miss Matty’s fragile strength.  The only thing against my plan was the buying and selling involved.

While I was giving but absent answers to the questions Miss Matty was putting—almost as absently—we heard a clumping sound on the stairs, and a whispering outside the door, which indeed once opened and shut as if by some invisible agency.  After a little while Martha came in, dragging after her a great tall young man, all crimson with shyness, and finding his only relief in perpetually sleeking down his hair.

“Please, ma’am, he’s only Jem Hearn,” said Martha, by way of an introduction; and so out of breath was she that I imagine she had had some bodily struggle before she could overcome his reluctance to be presented on the courtly scene of Miss Matilda Jenkyns’s drawing-room.

“And please, ma’am, he wants to marry me off-hand.  And please, ma’am, we want to take a lodger—just one quiet lodger, to make our two ends meet; and we’d take any house conformable; and, oh dear Miss Matty, if I may be so bold, would you have any objections to lodging with us?  Jem wants it as much as I do.”  [To Jem ]—“You great oaf! why can’t you back me!—But he does want it all the same, very bad—don’t you, Jem?—only, you see, he’s dazed at being called on to speak before quality.”

“It’s not that,” broke in Jem.  “It’s that you’ve taken me all on a sudden, and I didn’t think for to get married so soon—and such quick words does flabbergast a man.  It’s not that I’m against it, ma’am” (addressing Miss Matty), “only Martha has such quick ways with her when once she takes a thing into her head; and marriage, ma’am—marriage nails a man, as one may say.  I dare say I shan’t mind it after it’s once over.”

“Please, ma’am,” said Martha—who had plucked at his sleeve, and nudged him with her elbow, and otherwise tried to interrupt him all the time he had been speaking—“don’t mind him, he’ll come to; ’twas only last night he was an-axing me, and an-axing me, and all the more because I said I could not think of it for years to come, and now he’s only taken aback with the suddenness of the joy; but you know, Jem, you are just as full as me about wanting a lodger.”  (Another great nudge.)

“Ay! if Miss Matty would lodge with us—otherwise I’ve no mind to be cumbered with strange folk in the house,” said Jem, with a want of tact which I could see enraged Martha, who was trying to represent a lodger as the great object they wished to obtain, and that, in fact, Miss Matty would be smoothing their path and conferring a favour, if she would only come and live with them.

Miss Matty herself was bewildered by the pair; their, or rather Martha’s sudden resolution in favour of matrimony staggered her, and stood between her and the contemplation of the plan which Martha had at heart.  Miss Matty began—

“Marriage is a very solemn thing, Martha.”

“It is indeed, ma’am,” quoth Jem.  “Not that I’ve no objections to Martha.”

“You’ve never let me a-be for asking me for to fix when I would be married,” said Martha—her face all a-fire, and ready to cry with vexation—“and now you’re shaming me before my missus and all.”

“Nay, now!  Martha don’t ee! don’t ee! only a man likes to have breathing-time,” said Jem, trying to possess himself of her hand, but in vain.  Then seeing that she was more seriously hurt than he had imagined, he seemed to try to rally his scattered faculties, and with more straightforward dignity than, ten minutes before, I should have thought it possible for him to assume, he turned to Miss Matty, and said, “I hope, ma’am, you know that I am bound to respect every one who has been kind to Martha.  I always looked on her as to be my wife—some time; and she has often and often spoken of you as the kindest lady that ever was; and though the plain truth is, I would not like to be troubled with lodgers of the common run, yet if, ma’am, you’d honour us by living with us, I’m sure Martha would do her best to make you comfortable; and I’d keep out of your way as much as I could, which I reckon would be the best kindness such an awkward chap as me could do.”

Miss Matty had been very busy with taking off her spectacles, wiping them, and replacing them; but all she could say was, “Don’t let any thought of me hurry you into marriage: pray don’t.  Marriage is such a very solemn thing!”

“But Miss Matilda will think of your plan, Martha,” said I, struck with the advantages that it offered, and unwilling to lose the opportunity of considering about it.  “And I’m sure neither she nor I can ever forget your kindness; nor yours either, Jem.”

“Why, yes, ma’am!  I’m sure I mean kindly, though I’m a bit fluttered by being pushed straight ahead into matrimony, as it were, and mayn’t express myself conformable.  But I’m sure I’m willing enough, and give me time to get accustomed; so, Martha, wench, what’s the use of crying so, and slapping me if I come near?”

This last was sotto voce, and had the effect of making Martha bounce out of the room, to be followed and soothed by her lover.  Whereupon Miss Matty sat down and cried very heartily, and accounted for it by saying that the thought of Martha being married so soon gave her quite a shock, and that she should never forgive herself if she thought she was hurrying the poor creature.  I think my pity was more for Jem, of the two; but both Miss Matty and I appreciated to the full the kindness of the honest couple, although we said little about this, and a good deal about the chances and dangers of matrimony.

The next morning, very early, I received a note from Miss Pole, so mysteriously wrapped up, and with so many seals on it to secure secrecy, that I had to tear the paper before I could unfold it.  And when I came to the writing I could hardly understand the meaning, it was so involved and oracular.  I made out, however, that I was to go to Miss Pole’s at eleven o’clock; the number eleven being written in full length as well as in numerals, and A.M. twice dashed under, as if I were very likely to come at eleven at night, when all Cranford was usually abed and asleep by ten.  There was no signature except Miss Pole’s initials reversed, P.E.; but as Martha had given me the note, “with Miss Pole’s kind regards,” it needed no wizard to find out who sent it; and if the writer’s name was to be kept secret, it was very well that I was alone when Martha delivered it.

I went as requested to Miss Pole’s.  The door was opened to me by her little maid Lizzy in Sunday trim, as if some grand event was impending over this work-day.  And the drawing-room upstairs was arranged in accordance with this idea.  The table was set out with the best green card-cloth, and writing materials upon it.  On the little chiffonier was a tray with a newly-decanted bottle of cowslip wine, and some ladies’-finger biscuits.  Miss Pole herself was in solemn array, as if to receive visitors, although it was only eleven o’clock.  Mrs Forrester was there, crying quietly and sadly, and my arrival seemed only to call forth fresh tears.  Before we had finished our greetings, performed with lugubrious mystery of demeanour, there was another rat-tat-tat, and Mrs Fitz-Adam appeared, crimson with walking and excitement.  It seemed as if this was all the company expected; for now Miss Pole made several demonstrations of being about to open the business of the meeting, by stirring the fire, opening and shutting the door, and coughing and blowing her nose.  Then she arranged us all round the table, taking care to place me opposite to her; and last of all, she inquired of me if the sad report was true, as she feared it was, that Miss Matty had lost all her fortune?

Of course, I had but one answer to make; and I never saw more unaffected sorrow depicted on any countenances than I did there on the three before me.

“I wish Mrs Jamieson was here!” said Mrs Forrester at last; but to judge from Mrs Fitz-Adam’s face, she could not second the wish.

“But without Mrs Jamieson,” said Miss Pole, with just a sound of offended merit in her voice, “we, the ladies of Cranford, in my drawing-room assembled, can resolve upon something.  I imagine we are none of us what may be called rich, though we all possess a genteel competency, sufficient for tastes that are elegant and refined, and would not, if they could, be vulgarly ostentatious.”  (Here I observed Miss Pole refer to a small card concealed in her hand, on which I imagine she had put down a few notes.)

“Miss Smith,” she continued, addressing me (familiarly known as “Mary” to all the company assembled, but this was a state occasion), “I have conversed in private—I made it my business to do so yesterday afternoon—with these ladies on the misfortune which has happened to our friend, and one and all of us have agreed that while we have a superfluity, it is not only a duty, but a pleasure—a true pleasure, Mary!”—her voice was rather choked just here, and she had to wipe her spectacles before she could go on—“to give what we can to assist her—Miss Matilda Jenkyns.  Only in consideration of the feelings of delicate independence existing in the mind of every refined female”—I was sure she had got back to the card now—“we wish to contribute our mites in a secret and concealed manner, so as not to hurt the feelings I have referred to.  And our object in requesting you to meet us this morning is that, believing you are the daughter—that your father is, in fact, her confidential adviser, in all pecuniary matters, we imagined that, by consulting with him, you might devise some mode in which our contribution could be made to appear the legal due which Miss Matilda Jenkyns ought to receive from—  Probably your father, knowing her investments, can fill up the blank.”

Miss Pole concluded her address, and looked round for approval and agreement.

“I have expressed your meaning, ladies, have I not?  And while Miss Smith considers what reply to make, allow me to offer you some little refreshment.”

I had no great reply to make: I had more thankfulness at my heart for their kind thoughts than I cared to put into words; and so I only mumbled out something to the effect “that I would name what Miss Pole had said to my father, and that if anything could be arranged for dear Miss Matty,”—and here I broke down utterly, and had to be refreshed with a glass of cowslip wine before I could check the crying which had been repressed for the last two or three days.  The worst was, all the ladies cried in concert.  Even Miss Pole cried, who had said a hundred times that to betray emotion before any one was a sign of weakness and want of self-control.  She recovered herself into a slight degree of impatient anger, directed against me, as having set them all off; and, moreover, I think she was vexed that I could not make a speech back in return for hers; and if I had known beforehand what was to be said, and had a card on which to express the probable feelings that would rise in my heart, I would have tried to gratify her.  As it was, Mrs Forrester was the person to speak when we had recovered our composure.

“I don’t mind, among friends, stating that I—no!  I’m not poor exactly, but I don’t think I’m what you may call rich; I wish I were, for dear Miss Matty’s sake—but, if you please, I’ll write down in a sealed paper what I can give.  I only wish it was more; my dear Mary, I do indeed.”

Now I saw why paper, pens, and ink were provided.  Every lady wrote down the sum she could give annually, signed the paper, and sealed it mysteriously.  If their proposal was acceded to, my father was to be allowed to open the papers, under pledge of secrecy.  If not, they were to be returned to their writers.

When the ceremony had been gone through, I rose to depart; but each lady seemed to wish to have a private conference with me.  Miss Pole kept me in the drawing-room to explain why, in Mrs Jamieson’s absence, she had taken the lead in this “movement,” as she was pleased to call it, and also to inform me that she had heard from good sources that Mrs Jamieson was coming home directly in a state of high displeasure against her sister-in-law, who was forthwith to leave her house, and was, she believed, to return to Edinburgh that very afternoon.  Of course this piece of intelligence could not be communicated before Mrs Fitz-Adam, more especially as Miss Pole was inclined to think that Lady Glenmire’s engagement to Mr Hoggins could not possibly hold against the blaze of Mrs Jamieson’s displeasure.  A few hearty inquiries after Miss Matty’s health concluded my interview with Miss Pole.

On coming downstairs I found Mrs Forrester waiting for me at the entrance to the dining-parlour; she drew me in, and when the door was shut, she tried two or three times to begin on some subject, which was so unapproachable apparently, that I began to despair of our ever getting to a clear understanding.  At last out it came; the poor old lady trembling all the time as if it were a great crime which she was exposing to daylight, in telling me how very, very little she had to live upon; a confession which she was brought to make from a dread lest we should think that the small contribution named in her paper bore any proportion to her love and regard for Miss Matty.  And yet that sum which she so eagerly relinquished was, in truth, more than a twentieth part of what she had to live upon, and keep house, and a little serving-maid, all as became one born a Tyrrell.  And when the whole income does not nearly amount to a hundred pounds, to give up a twentieth of it will necessitate many careful economies, and many pieces of self-denial, small and insignificant in the world’s account, but bearing a different value in another account-book that I have heard of.  She did so wish she was rich, she said, and this wish she kept repeating, with no thought of herself in it, only with a longing, yearning desire to be able to heap up Miss Matty’s measure of comforts.

It was some time before I could console her enough to leave her; and then, on quitting the house, I was waylaid by Mrs Fitz-Adam, who had also her confidence to make of pretty nearly the opposite description.  She had not liked to put down all that she could afford and was ready to give.  She told me she thought she never could look Miss Matty in the face again if she presumed to be giving her so much as she should like to do.  “Miss Matty!” continued she, “that I thought was such a fine young lady when I was nothing but a country girl, coming to market with eggs and butter and such like things.  For my father, though well-to-do, would always make me go on as my mother had done before me, and I had to come into Cranford every Saturday, and see after sales, and prices, and what not.  And one day, I remember, I met Miss Matty in the lane that leads to Combehurst; she was walking on the footpath, which, you know, is raised a good way above the road, and a gentleman rode beside her, and was talking to her, and she was looking down at some primroses she had gathered, and pulling them all to pieces, and I do believe she was crying.  But after she had passed, she turned round and ran after me to ask—oh, so kindly—about my poor mother, who lay on her death-bed; and when I cried she took hold of my hand to comfort me—and the gentleman waiting for her all the time—and her poor heart very full of something, I am sure; and I thought it such an honour to be spoken to in that pretty way by the rector’s daughter, who visited at Arley Hall.  I have loved her ever since, though perhaps I’d no right to do it; but if you can think of any way in which I might be allowed to give a little more without any one knowing it, I should be so much obliged to you, my dear.  And my brother would be delighted to doctor her for nothing—medicines, leeches, and all.  I know that he and her ladyship (my dear, I little thought in the days I was telling you of that I should ever come to be sister-in-law to a ladyship!) would do anything for her.  We all would.”

I told her I was quite sure of it, and promised all sorts of things in my anxiety to get home to Miss Matty, who might well be wondering what had become of me—absent from her two hours without being able to account for it.  She had taken very little note of time, however, as she had been occupied in numberless little arrangements preparatory to the great step of giving up her house.  It was evidently a relief to her to be doing something in the way of retrenchment, for, as she said, whenever she paused to think, the recollection of the poor fellow with his bad five-pound note came over her, and she felt quite dishonest; only if it made her so uncomfortable, what must it not be doing to the directors of the bank, who must know so much more of the misery consequent upon this failure?  She almost made me angry by dividing her sympathy between these directors (whom she imagined overwhelmed by self-reproach for the mismanagement of other people’s affairs) and those who were suffering like her.  Indeed, of the two, she seemed to think poverty a lighter burden than self-reproach; but I privately doubted if the directors would agree with her.

Old hoards were taken out and examined as to their money value which luckily was small, or else I don’t know how Miss Matty would have prevailed upon herself to part with such things as her mother’s wedding-ring, the strange, uncouth brooch with which her father had disfigured his shirt-frill, &c.  However, we arranged things a little in order as to their pecuniary estimation, and were all ready for my father when he came the next morning.

I am not going to weary you with the details of all the business we went through; and one reason for not telling about them is, that I did not understand what we were doing at the time, and cannot recollect it now.  Miss Matty and I sat assenting to accounts, and schemes, and reports, and documents, of which I do not believe we either of us understood a word; for my father was clear-headed and decisive, and a capital man of business, and if we made the slightest inquiry, or expressed the slightest want of comprehension, he had a sharp way of saying, “Eh? eh? it’s as clear as daylight.  What’s your objection?”  And as we had not comprehended anything of what he had proposed, we found it rather difficult to shape our objections; in fact, we never were sure if we had any.  So presently Miss Matty got into a nervously acquiescent state, and said “Yes,” and “Certainly,” at every pause, whether required or not; but when I once joined in as chorus to a “Decidedly,” pronounced by Miss Matty in a tremblingly dubious tone, my father fired round at me and asked me “What there was to decide?”  And I am sure to this day I have never known.  But, in justice to him, I must say he had come over from Drumble to help Miss Matty when he could ill spare the time, and when his own affairs were in a very anxious state.

While Miss Matty was out of the room giving orders for luncheon—and sadly perplexed between her desire of honouring my father by a delicate, dainty meal, and her conviction that she had no right, now that all her money was gone, to indulge this desire—I told him of the meeting of the Cranford ladies at Miss Pole’s the day before.  He kept brushing his hand before his eyes as I spoke—and when I went back to Martha’s offer the evening before, of receiving Miss Matty as a lodger, he fairly walked away from me to the window, and began drumming with his fingers upon it.  Then he turned abruptly round, and said, “See, Mary, how a good, innocent life makes friends all around.  Confound it!  I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a parson; but, as it is, I can’t get a tail to my sentences—only I’m sure you feel what I want to say.  You and I will have a walk after lunch and talk a bit more about these plans.”

The lunch—a hot savoury mutton-chop, and a little of the cold loin sliced and fried—was now brought in.  Every morsel of this last dish was finished, to Martha’s great gratification.  Then my father bluntly told Miss Matty he wanted to talk to me alone, and that he would stroll out and see some of the old places, and then I could tell her what plan we thought desirable.  Just before we went out, she called me back and said, “Remember, dear, I’m the only one left—I mean, there’s no one to be hurt by what I do.  I’m willing to do anything that’s right and honest; and I don’t think, if Deborah knows where she is, she’ll care so very much if I’m not genteel; because, you see, she’ll know all, dear.  Only let me see what I can do, and pay the poor people as far as I’m able.”

I gave her a hearty kiss, and ran after my father.  The result of our conversation was this.  If all parties were agreeable, Martha and Jem were to be married with as little delay as possible, and they were to live on in Miss Matty’s present abode; the sum which the Cranford ladies had agreed to contribute annually being sufficient to meet the greater part of the rent, and leaving Martha free to appropriate what Miss Matty should pay for her lodgings to any little extra comforts required.  About the sale, my father was dubious at first.  He said the old rectory furniture, however carefully used and reverently treated, would fetch very little; and that little would be but as a drop in the sea of the debts of the Town and County Bank.  But when I represented how Miss Matty’s tender conscience would be soothed by feeling that she had done what she could, he gave way; especially after I had told him the five-pound note adventure, and he had scolded me well for allowing it.  I then alluded to my idea that she might add to her small income by selling tea; and, to my surprise (for I had nearly given up the plan), my father grasped at it with all the energy of a tradesman.  I think he reckoned his chickens before they were hatched, for he immediately ran up the profits of the sales that she could effect in Cranford to more than twenty pounds a year.  The small dining-parlour was to be converted into a shop, without any of its degrading characteristics; a table was to be the counter; one window was to be retained unaltered, and the other changed into a glass door.  I evidently rose in his estimation for having made this bright suggestion.  I only hoped we should not both fall in Miss Matty’s.

But she was patient and content with all our arrangements.  She knew, she said, that we should do the best we could for her; and she only hoped, only stipulated, that she should pay every farthing that she could be said to owe, for her father’s sake, who had been so respected in Cranford.  My father and I had agreed to say as little as possible about the bank, indeed never to mention it again, if it could be helped.  Some of the plans were evidently a little perplexing to her; but she had seen me sufficiently snubbed in the morning for want of comprehension to venture on too many inquiries now; and all passed over well with a hope on her part that no one would be hurried into marriage on her account.  When we came to the proposal that she should sell tea, I could see it was rather a shock to her; not on account of any personal loss of gentility involved, but only because she distrusted her own powers of action in a new line of life, and would timidly have preferred a little more privation to any exertion for which she feared she was unfitted.  However, when she saw my father was bent upon it, she sighed, and said she would try; and if she did not do well, of course she might give it up.  One good thing about it was, she did not think men ever bought tea; and it was of men particularly she was afraid.  They had such sharp loud ways with them; and did up accounts, and counted their change so quickly!  Now, if she might only sell comfits to children, she was sure she could please them!

 

CHAPTER XV: A HAPPY RETURN

Before I left Miss Matty at Cranford everything had been comfortably arranged for her.  Even Mrs Jamieson’s approval of her selling tea had been gained.  That oracle had taken a few days to consider whether by so doing Miss Matty would forfeit her right to the privileges of society in Cranford.  I think she had some little idea of mortifying Lady Glenmire by the decision she gave at last; which was to this effect: that whereas a married woman takes her husband’s rank by the strict laws of precedence, an unmarried woman retains the station her father occupied.  So Cranford was allowed to visit Miss Matty; and, whether allowed or not, it intended to visit Lady Glenmire.

But what was our surprise—our dismay—when we learnt that Mr and Mrs Hoggins were returning on the following Tuesday!  Mrs Hoggins!  Had she absolutely dropped her title, and so, in a spirit of bravado, cut the aristocracy to become a Hoggins!  She, who might have been called Lady Glenmire to her dying day!  Mrs Jamieson was pleased.  She said it only convinced her of what she had known from the first, that the creature had a low taste.  But “the creature” looked very happy on Sunday at church; nor did we see it necessary to keep our veils down on that side of our bonnets on which Mr and Mrs Hoggins sat, as Mrs Jamieson did; thereby missing all the smiling glory of his face, and all the becoming blushes of hers.  I am not sure if Martha and Jem looked more radiant in the afternoon, when they, too, made their first appearance.  Mrs Jamieson soothed the turbulence of her soul by having the blinds of her windows drawn down, as if for a funeral, on the day when Mr and Mrs Hoggins received callers; and it was with some difficulty that she was prevailed upon to continue the St James’s Chronicle, so indignant was she with its having inserted the announcement of the marriage.

Miss Matty’s sale went off famously.  She retained the furniture of her sitting-room and bedroom; the former of which she was to occupy till Martha could meet with a lodger who might wish to take it; and into this sitting-room and bedroom she had to cram all sorts of things, which were (the auctioneer assured her) bought in for her at the sale by an unknown friend.  I always suspected Mrs Fitz-Adam of this; but she must have had an accessory, who knew what articles were particularly regarded by Miss Matty on account of their associations with her early days.  The rest of the house looked rather bare, to be sure; all except one tiny bedroom, of which my father allowed me to purchase the furniture for my occasional use in case of Miss Matty’s illness.

I had expended my own small store in buying all manner of comfits and lozenges, in order to tempt the little people whom Miss Matty loved so much to come about her.  Tea in bright green canisters, and comfits in tumblers—Miss Matty and I felt quite proud as we looked round us on the evening before the shop was to be opened.  Martha had scoured the boarded floor to a white cleanness, and it was adorned with a brilliant piece of oil-cloth, on which customers were to stand before the table-counter.  The wholesome smell of plaster and whitewash pervaded the apartment.  A very small “Matilda Jenkyns, licensed to sell tea,” was hidden under the lintel of the new door, and two boxes of tea, with cabalistic inscriptions all over them, stood ready to disgorge their contents into the canisters.

Miss Matty, as I ought to have mentioned before, had had some scruples of conscience at selling tea when there was already Mr Johnson in the town, who included it among his numerous commodities; and, before she could quite reconcile herself to the adoption of her new business, she had trotted down to his shop, unknown to me, to tell him of the project that was entertained, and to inquire if it was likely to injure his business.  My father called this idea of hers “great nonsense,” and “wondered how tradespeople were to get on if there was to be a continual consulting of each other’s interests, which would put a stop to all competition directly.”  And, perhaps, it would not have done in Drumble, but in Cranford it answered very well; for not only did Mr Johnson kindly put at rest all Miss Matty’s scruples and fear of injuring his business, but I have reason to know he repeatedly sent customers to her, saying that the teas he kept were of a common kind, but that Miss Jenkyns had all the choice sorts.  And expensive tea is a very favourite luxury with well-to-do tradespeople and rich farmers’ wives, who turn up their noses at the Congou and Souchong prevalent at many tables of gentility, and will have nothing else than Gunpowder and Pekoe for themselves.

But to return to Miss Matty.  It was really very pleasant to see how her unselfishness and simple sense of justice called out the same good qualities in others.  She never seemed to think any one would impose upon her, because she should be so grieved to do it to them.  I have heard her put a stop to the asseverations of the man who brought her coals by quietly saying, “I am sure you would be sorry to bring me wrong weight;” and if the coals were short measure that time, I don’t believe they ever were again.  People would have felt as much ashamed of presuming on her good faith as they would have done on that of a child.  But my father says “such simplicity might be very well in Cranford, but would never do in the world.”  And I fancy the world must be very bad, for with all my father’s suspicion of every one with whom he has dealings, and in spite of all his many precautions, he lost upwards of a thousand pounds by roguery only last year.

I just stayed long enough to establish Miss Matty in her new mode of life, and to pack up the library, which the rector had purchased.  He had written a very kind letter to Miss Matty, saying “how glad he should be to take a library, so well selected as he knew that the late Mr Jenkyns’s must have been, at any valuation put upon them.”  And when she agreed to this, with a touch of sorrowful gladness that they would go back to the rectory and be arranged on the accustomed walls once more, he sent word that he feared that he had not room for them all, and perhaps Miss Matty would kindly allow him to leave some volumes on her shelves.  But Miss Matty said that she had her Bible and “Johnson’s Dictionary,” and should not have much time for reading, she was afraid; still, I retained a few books out of consideration for the rector’s kindness.

The money which he had paid, and that produced by the sale, was partly expended in the stock of tea, and part of it was invested against a rainy day—i.e. old age or illness.  It was but a small sum, it is true; and it occasioned a few evasions of truth and white lies (all of which I think very wrong indeed—in theory—and would rather not put them in practice), for we knew Miss Matty would be perplexed as to her duty if she were aware of any little reserve-fund being made for her while the debts of the bank remained unpaid.  Moreover, she had never been told of the way in which her friends were contributing to pay the rent.  I should have liked to tell her this, but the mystery of the affair gave a piquancy to their deed of kindness which the ladies were unwilling to give up; and at first Martha had to shirk many a perplexed question as to her ways and means of living in such a house, but by-and-by Miss Matty’s prudent uneasiness sank down into acquiescence with the existing arrangement.

I left Miss Matty with a good heart.  Her sales of tea during the first two days had surpassed my most sanguine expectations.  The whole country round seemed to be all out of tea at once.  The only alteration I could have desired in Miss Matty’s way of doing business was, that she should not have so plaintively entreated some of her customers not to buy green tea—running it down as a slow poison, sure to destroy the nerves, and produce all manner of evil.  Their pertinacity in taking it, in spite of all her warnings, distressed her so much that I really thought she would relinquish the sale of it, and so lose half her custom; and I was driven to my wits’ end for instances of longevity entirely attributable to a persevering use of green tea.  But the final argument, which settled the question, was a happy reference of mine to the train-oil and tallow candles which the Esquimaux not only enjoy but digest.  After that she acknowledged that “one man’s meat might be another man’s poison,” and contented herself thence-forward with an occasional remonstrance when she thought the purchaser was too young and innocent to be acquainted with the evil effects green tea produced on some constitutions, and an habitual sigh when people old enough to choose more wisely would prefer it.

I went over from Drumble once a quarter at least to settle the accounts, and see after the necessary business letters.  And, speaking of letters, I began to be very much ashamed of remembering my letter to the Aga Jenkyns, and very glad I had never named my writing to any one.  I only hoped the letter was lost.  No answer came.  No sign was made.

About a year after Miss Matty set up shop, I received one of Martha’s hieroglyphics, begging me to come to Cranford very soon.  I was afraid that Miss Matty was ill, and went off that very afternoon, and took Martha by surprise when she saw me on opening the door.  We went into the kitchen as usual, to have our confidential conference, and then Martha told me she was expecting her confinement very soon—in a week or two; and she did not think Miss Matty was aware of it, and she wanted me to break the news to her, “for indeed, miss,” continued Martha, crying hysterically, “I’m afraid she won’t approve of it, and I’m sure I don’t know who is to take care of her as she should be taken care of when I am laid up.”

I comforted Martha by telling her I would remain till she was about again, and only wished she had told me her reason for this sudden summons, as then I would have brought the requisite stock of clothes.  But Martha was so tearful and tender-spirited, and unlike her usual self, that I said as little as possible about myself, and endeavoured rather to comfort Martha under all the probable and possible misfortunes which came crowding upon her imagination.

I then stole out of the house-door, and made my appearance as if I were a customer in the shop, just to take Miss Matty by surprise, and gain an idea of how she looked in her new situation.  It was warm May weather, so only the little half-door was closed; and Miss Matty sat behind the counter, knitting an elaborate pair of garters; elaborate they seemed to me, but the difficult stitch was no weight upon her mind, for she was singing in a low voice to herself as her needles went rapidly in and out.  I call it singing, but I dare say a musician would not use that word to the tuneless yet sweet humming of the low worn voice.  I found out from the words, far more than from the attempt at the tune, that it was the Old Hundredth she was crooning to herself; but the quiet continuous sound told of content, and gave me a pleasant feeling, as I stood in the street just outside the door, quite in harmony with that soft May morning.  I went in.  At first she did not catch who it was, and stood up as if to serve me; but in another minute watchful pussy had clutched her knitting, which was dropped in eager joy at seeing me.  I found, after we had had a little conversation, that it was as Martha said, and that Miss Matty had no idea of the approaching household event.  So I thought I would let things take their course, secure that when I went to her with the baby in my arms, I should obtain that forgiveness for Martha which she was needlessly frightening herself into believing that Miss Matty would withhold, under some notion that the new claimant would require attentions from its mother that it would be faithless treason to Miss Matty to render.

But I was right.  I think that must be an hereditary quality, for my father says he is scarcely ever wrong.  One morning, within a week after I arrived, I went to call Miss Matty, with a little bundle of flannel in my arms.  She was very much awestruck when I showed her what it was, and asked for her spectacles off the dressing-table, and looked at it curiously, with a sort of tender wonder at its small perfection of parts.  She could not banish the thought of the surprise all day, but went about on tiptoe, and was very silent.  But she stole up to see Martha and they both cried with joy, and she got into a complimentary speech to Jem, and did not know how to get out of it again, and was only extricated from her dilemma by the sound of the shop-bell, which was an equal relief to the shy, proud, honest Jem, who shook my hand so vigorously when I congratulated him, that I think I feel the pain of it yet.

I had a busy life while Martha was laid up.  I attended on Miss Matty, and prepared her meals; I cast up her accounts, and examined into the state of her canisters and tumblers.  I helped her, too, occasionally, in the shop; and it gave me no small amusement, and sometimes a little uneasiness, to watch her ways there.  If a little child came in to ask for an ounce of almond-comfits (and four of the large kind which Miss Matty sold weighed that much), she always added one more by “way of make-weight,” as she called it, although the scale was handsomely turned before; and when I remonstrated against this, her reply was, “The little things like it so much!”  There was no use in telling her that the fifth comfit weighed a quarter of an ounce, and made every sale into a loss to her pocket.  So I remembered the green tea, and winged my shaft with a feather out of her own plumage.  I told her how unwholesome almond-comfits were, and how ill excess in them might make the little children.  This argument produced some effect; for, henceforward, instead of the fifth comfit, she always told them to hold out their tiny palms, into which she shook either peppermint or ginger lozenges, as a preventive to the dangers that might arise from the previous sale.  Altogether the lozenge trade, conducted on these principles, did not promise to be remunerative; but I was happy to find she had made more than twenty pounds during the last year by her sales of tea; and, moreover, that now she was accustomed to it, she did not dislike the employment, which brought her into kindly intercourse with many of the people round about.  If she gave them good weight, they, in their turn, brought many a little country present to the “old rector’s daughter”; a cream cheese, a few new-laid eggs, a little fresh ripe fruit, a bunch of flowers.  The counter was quite loaded with these offerings sometimes, as she told me.

As for Cranford in general, it was going on much as usual.  The Jamieson and Hoggins feud still raged, if a feud it could be called, when only one side cared much about it.  Mr and Mrs Hoggins were very happy together, and, like most very happy people, quite ready to be friendly; indeed, Mrs Hoggins was really desirous to be restored to Mrs Jamieson’s good graces, because of the former intimacy.  But Mrs Jamieson considered their very happiness an insult to the Glenmire family, to which she had still the honour to belong, and she doggedly refused and rejected every advance.  Mr Mulliner, like a faithful clansman, espoused his mistress’ side with ardour.  If he saw either Mr or Mrs Hoggins, he would cross the street, and appear absorbed in the contemplation of life in general, and his own path in particular, until he had passed them by.  Miss Pole used to amuse herself with wondering what in the world Mrs Jamieson would do, if either she, or Mr Mulliner, or any other member of her household was taken ill; she could hardly have the face to call in Mr Hoggins after the way she had behaved to them.  Miss Pole grew quite impatient for some indisposition or accident to befall Mrs Jamieson or her dependents, in order that Cranford might see how she would act under the perplexing circumstances.

Martha was beginning to go about again, and I had already fixed a limit, not very far distant, to my visit, when one afternoon, as I was sitting in the shop-parlour with Miss Matty—I remember the weather was colder now than it had been in May, three weeks before, and we had a fire and kept the door fully closed—we saw a gentleman go slowly past the window, and then stand opposite to the door, as if looking out for the name which we had so carefully hidden.  He took out a double eyeglass and peered about for some time before he could discover it.  Then he came in.  And, all on a sudden, it flashed across me that it was the Aga himself!  For his clothes had an out-of-the-way foreign cut about them, and his face was deep brown, as if tanned and re-tanned by the sun.  His complexion contrasted oddly with his plentiful snow-white hair, his eyes were dark and piercing, and he had an odd way of contracting them and puckering up his cheeks into innumerable wrinkles when he looked earnestly at objects.  He did so to Miss Matty when he first came in.  His glance had first caught and lingered a little upon me, but then turned, with the peculiar searching look I have described, to Miss Matty.  She was a little fluttered and nervous, but no more so than she always was when any man came into her shop.  She thought that he would probably have a note, or a sovereign at least, for which she would have to give change, which was an operation she very much disliked to perform.  But the present customer stood opposite to her, without asking for anything, only looking fixedly at her as he drummed upon the table with his fingers, just for all the world as Miss Jenkyns used to do.  Miss Matty was on the point of asking him what he wanted (as she told me afterwards), when he turned sharp to me: “Is your name Mary Smith?”

“Yes!” said I.

All my doubts as to his identity were set at rest, and I only wondered what he would say or do next, and how Miss Matty would stand the joyful shock of what he had to reveal.  Apparently he was at a loss how to announce himself, for he looked round at last in search of something to buy, so as to gain time, and, as it happened, his eye caught on the almond-comfits, and he boldly asked for a pound of “those things.”  I doubt if Miss Matty had a whole pound in the shop, and, besides the unusual magnitude of the order, she was distressed with the idea of the indigestion they would produce, taken in such unlimited quantities.  She looked up to remonstrate.  Something of tender relaxation in his face struck home to her heart.  She said, “It is—oh, sir! can you be Peter?” and trembled from head to foot.  In a moment he was round the table and had her in his arms, sobbing the tearless cries of old age.  I brought her a glass of wine, for indeed her colour had changed so as to alarm me and Mr Peter too.  He kept saying, “I have been too sudden for you, Matty—I have, my little girl.”

I proposed that she should go at once up into the drawing-room and lie down on the sofa there.  She looked wistfully at her brother, whose hand she had held tight, even when nearly fainting; but on his assuring her that he would not leave her, she allowed him to carry her upstairs.

I thought that the best I could do was to run and put the kettle on the fire for early tea, and then to attend to the shop, leaving the brother and sister to exchange some of the many thousand things they must have to say.  I had also to break the news to Martha, who received it with a burst of tears which nearly infected me.  She kept recovering herself to ask if I was sure it was indeed Miss Matty’s brother, for I had mentioned that he had grey hair, and she had always heard that he was a very handsome young man.  Something of the same kind perplexed Miss Matty at tea-time, when she was installed in the great easy-chair opposite to Mr Jenkyns in order to gaze her fill.  She could hardly drink for looking at him, and as for eating, that was out of the question.

“I suppose hot climates age people very quickly,” said she, almost to herself.  “When you left Cranford you had not a grey hair in your head.”

“But how many years ago is that?” said Mr Peter, smiling.

“Ah, true! yes, I suppose you and I are getting old.  But still I did not think we were so very old!  But white hair is very becoming to you, Peter,” she continued—a little afraid lest she had hurt him by revealing how his appearance had impressed her.

“I suppose I forgot dates too, Matty, for what do you think I have brought for you from India?  I have an Indian muslin gown and a pearl necklace for you somewhere in my chest at Portsmouth.”  He smiled as if amused at the idea of the incongruity of his presents with the appearance of his sister; but this did not strike her all at once, while the elegance of the articles did.  I could see that for a moment her imagination dwelt complacently on the idea of herself thus attired; and instinctively she put her hand up to her throat—that little delicate throat which (as Miss Pole had told me) had been one of her youthful charms; but the hand met the touch of folds of soft muslin in which she was always swathed up to her chin, and the sensation recalled a sense of the unsuitableness of a pearl necklace to her age.  She said, “I’m afraid I’m too old; but it was very kind of you to think of it.  They are just what I should have liked years ago—when I was young.”

“So I thought, my little Matty.  I remembered your tastes; they were so like my dear mother’s.”  At the mention of that name the brother and sister clasped each other’s hands yet more fondly, and, although they were perfectly silent, I fancied they might have something to say if they were unchecked by my presence, and I got up to arrange my room for Mr Peter’s occupation that night, intending myself to share Miss Matty’s bed.  But at my movement, he started up.  “I must go and settle about a room at the ‘George.’  My carpet-bag is there too.”

“No!” said Miss Matty, in great distress—“you must not go; please, dear Peter—pray, Mary—oh! you must not go!”

She was so much agitated that we both promised everything she wished.  Peter sat down again and gave her his hand, which for better security she held in both of hers, and I left the room to accomplish my arrangements.

Long, long into the night, far, far into the morning, did Miss Matty and I talk.  She had much to tell me of her brother’s life and adventures, which he had communicated to her as they had sat alone.  She said all was thoroughly clear to her; but I never quite understood the whole story; and when in after days I lost my awe of Mr Peter enough to question him myself, he laughed at my curiosity, and told me stories that sounded so very much like Baron Munchausen’s, that I was sure he was making fun of me.  What I heard from Miss Matty was that he had been a volunteer at the siege of Rangoon; had been taken prisoner by the Burmese; and somehow obtained favour and eventual freedom from knowing how to bleed the chief of the small tribe in some case of dangerous illness; that on his release from years of captivity he had had his letters returned from England with the ominous word “Dead” marked upon them; and, believing himself to be the last of his race, he had settled down as an indigo planter, and had proposed to spend the remainder of his life in the country to whose inhabitants and modes of life he had become habituated, when my letter had reached him; and, with the odd vehemence which characterised him in age as it had done in youth, he had sold his land and all his possessions to the first purchaser, and come home to the poor old sister, who was more glad and rich than any princess when she looked at him.  She talked me to sleep at last, and then I was awakened by a slight sound at the door, for which she begged my pardon as she crept penitently into bed; but it seems that when I could no longer confirm her belief that the long-lost was really here—under the same roof—she had begun to fear lest it was only a waking dream of hers; that there never had been a Peter sitting by her all that blessed evening—but that the real Peter lay dead far away beneath some wild sea-wave, or under some strange eastern tree.  And so strong had this nervous feeling of hers become, that she was fain to get up and go and convince herself that he was really there by listening through the door to his even, regular breathing—I don’t like to call it snoring, but I heard it myself through two closed doors—and by-and-by it soothed Miss Matty to sleep.

I don’t believe Mr Peter came home from India as rich as a nabob; he even considered himself poor, but neither he nor Miss Matty cared much about that.  At any rate, he had enough to live upon “very genteelly” at Cranford; he and Miss Matty together.  And a day or two after his arrival, the shop was closed, while troops of little urchins gleefully awaited the shower of comfits and lozenges that came from time to time down upon their faces as they stood up-gazing at Miss Matty’s drawing-room windows.  Occasionally Miss Matty would say to them (half-hidden behind the curtains), “My dear children, don’t make yourselves ill;” but a strong arm pulled her back, and a more rattling shower than ever succeeded.  A part of the tea was sent in presents to the Cranford ladies; and some of it was distributed among the old people who remembered Mr Peter in the days of his frolicsome youth.  The Indian muslin gown was reserved for darling Flora Gordon (Miss Jessie Brown’s daughter).  The Gordons had been on the Continent for the last few years, but were now expected to return very soon; and Miss Matty, in her sisterly pride, anticipated great delight in the joy of showing them Mr Peter.  The pearl necklace disappeared; and about that time many handsome and useful presents made their appearance in the households of Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester; and some rare and delicate Indian ornaments graced the drawing-rooms of Mrs Jamieson and Mrs Fitz-Adam.  I myself was not forgotten.  Among other things, I had the handsomest-bound and best edition of Dr Johnson’s works that could be procured; and dear Miss Matty, with tears in her eyes, begged me to consider it as a present from her sister as well as herself.  In short, no one was forgotten; and, what was more, every one, however insignificant, who had shown kindness to Miss Matty at any time, was sure of Mr Peter’s cordial regard.

 

CHAPTER XVI: PEACE TO CRANFORD

It was not surprising that Mr Peter became such a favourite at Cranford.  The ladies vied with each other who should admire him most; and no wonder, for their quiet lives were astonishingly stirred up by the arrival from India—especially as the person arrived told more wonderful stories than Sindbad the Sailor; and, as Miss Pole said, was quite as good as an Arabian Night any evening.  For my own part, I had vibrated all my life between Drumble and Cranford, and I thought it was quite possible that all Mr Peter’s stories might be true, although wonderful; but when I found that, if we swallowed an anecdote of tolerable magnitude one week, we had the dose considerably increased the next, I began to have my doubts; especially as I noticed that when his sister was present the accounts of Indian life were comparatively tame; not that she knew more than we did, perhaps less.  I noticed also that when the rector came to call, Mr Peter talked in a different way about the countries he had been in.  But I don’t think the ladies in Cranford would have considered him such a wonderful traveller if they had only heard him talk in the quiet way he did to him.  They liked him the better, indeed, for being what they called “so very Oriental.”

One day, at a select party in his honour, which Miss Pole gave, and from which, as Mrs Jamieson honoured it with her presence, and had even offered to send Mr Mulliner to wait, Mr and Mrs Hoggins and Mrs Fitz-Adam were necessarily excluded—one day at Miss Pole’s, Mr Peter said he was tired of sitting upright against the hard-backed uneasy chairs, and asked if he might not indulge himself in sitting cross-legged.  Miss Pole’s consent was eagerly given, and down he went with the utmost gravity.  But when Miss Pole asked me, in an audible whisper, “if he did not remind me of the Father of the Faithful?” I could not help thinking of poor Simon Jones, the lame tailor, and while Mrs Jamieson slowly commented on the elegance and convenience of the attitude, I remembered how we had all followed that lady’s lead in condemning Mr Hoggins for vulgarity because he simply crossed his legs as he sat still on his chair.  Many of Mr Peter’s ways of eating were a little strange amongst such ladies as Miss Pole, and Miss Matty, and Mrs Jamieson, especially when I recollected the untasted green peas and two-pronged forks at poor Mr Holbrook’s dinner.

The mention of that gentleman’s name recalls to my mind a conversation between Mr Peter and Miss Matty one evening in the summer after he returned to Cranford.  The day had been very hot, and Miss Matty had been much oppressed by the weather, in the heat of which her brother revelled.  I remember that she had been unable to nurse Martha’s baby, which had become her favourite employment of late, and which was as much at home in her arms as in its mother’s, as long as it remained a light-weight, portable by one so fragile as Miss Matty.  This day to which I refer, Miss Matty had seemed more than usually feeble and languid, and only revived when the sun went down, and her sofa was wheeled to the open window, through which, although it looked into the principal street of Cranford, the fragrant smell of the neighbouring hayfields came in every now and then, borne by the soft breezes that stirred the dull air of the summer twilight, and then died away.  The silence of the sultry atmosphere was lost in the murmuring noises which came in from many an open window and door; even the children were abroad in the street, late as it was (between ten and eleven), enjoying the game of play for which they had not had spirits during the heat of the day.  It was a source of satisfaction to Miss Matty to see how few candles were lighted, even in the apartments of those houses from which issued the greatest signs of life.  Mr Peter, Miss Matty, and I had all been quiet, each with a separate reverie, for some little time, when Mr Peter broke in—

“Do you know, little Matty, I could have sworn you were on the high road to matrimony when I left England that last time!  If anybody had told me you would have lived and died an old maid then, I should have laughed in their faces.”

Miss Matty made no reply, and I tried in vain to think of some subject which should effectually turn the conversation; but I was very stupid; and before I spoke he went on—

“It was Holbrook, that fine manly fellow who lived at Woodley, that I used to think would carry off my little Matty.  You would not think it now, I dare say, Mary; but this sister of mine was once a very pretty girl—at least, I thought so, and so I’ve a notion did poor Holbrook.  What business had he to die before I came home to thank him for all his kindness to a good-for-nothing cub as I was?  It was that that made me first think he cared for you; for in all our fishing expeditions it was Matty, Matty, we talked about.  Poor Deborah!  What a lecture she read me on having asked him home to lunch one day, when she had seen the Arley carriage in the town, and thought that my lady might call.  Well, that’s long years ago; more than half a life-time, and yet it seems like yesterday!  I don’t know a fellow I should have liked better as a brother-in-law.  You must have played your cards badly, my little Matty, somehow or another—wanted your brother to be a good go-between, eh, little one?” said he, putting out his hand to take hold of hers as she lay on the sofa.  “Why, what’s this? you’re shivering and shaking, Matty, with that confounded open window.  Shut it, Mary, this minute!”

I did so, and then stooped down to kiss Miss Matty, and see if she really were chilled.  She caught at my hand, and gave it a hard squeeze—but unconsciously, I think—for in a minute or two she spoke to us quite in her usual voice, and smiled our uneasiness away, although she patiently submitted to the prescriptions we enforced of a warm bed and a glass of weak negus.  I was to leave Cranford the next day, and before I went I saw that all the effects of the open window had quite vanished.  I had superintended most of the alterations necessary in the house and household during the latter weeks of my stay.  The shop was once more a parlour: the empty resounding rooms again furnished up to the very garrets.

There had been some talk of establishing Martha and Jem in another house, but Miss Matty would not hear of this.  Indeed, I never saw her so much roused as when Miss Pole had assumed it to be the most desirable arrangement.  As long as Martha would remain with Miss Matty, Miss Matty was only too thankful to have her about her; yes, and Jem too, who was a very pleasant man to have in the house, for she never saw him from week’s end to week’s end.  And as for the probable children, if they would all turn out such little darlings as her god-daughter, Matilda, she should not mind the number, if Martha didn’t.  Besides, the next was to be called Deborah—a point which Miss Matty had reluctantly yielded to Martha’s stubborn determination that her first-born was to be Matilda.  So Miss Pole had to lower her colours, and even her voice, as she said to me that, as Mr and Mrs Hearn were still to go on living in the same house with Miss Matty, we had certainly done a wise thing in hiring Martha’s niece as an auxiliary.

I left Miss Matty and Mr Peter most comfortable and contented; the only subject for regret to the tender heart of the one, and the social friendly nature of the other, being the unfortunate quarrel between Mrs Jamieson and the plebeian Hogginses and their following.  In joke, I prophesied one day that this would only last until Mrs Jamieson or Mr Mulliner were ill, in which case they would only be too glad to be friends with Mr Hoggins; but Miss Matty did not like my looking forward to anything like illness in so light a manner, and before the year was out all had come round in a far more satisfactory way.

I received two Cranford letters on one auspicious October morning.  Both Miss Pole and Miss Matty wrote to ask me to come over and meet the Gordons, who had returned to England alive and well with their two children, now almost grown up.  Dear Jessie Brown had kept her old kind nature, although she had changed her name and station; and she wrote to say that she and Major Gordon expected to be in Cranford on the fourteenth, and she hoped and begged to be remembered to Mrs Jamieson (named first, as became her honourable station), Miss Pole and Miss Matty—could she ever forget their kindness to her poor father and sister?—Mrs Forrester, Mr Hoggins (and here again came in an allusion to kindness shown to the dead long ago), his new wife, who as such must allow Mrs Gordon to desire to make her acquaintance, and who was, moreover, an old Scotch friend of her husband’s.  In short, every one was named, from the rector—who had been appointed to Cranford in the interim between Captain Brown’s death and Miss Jessie’s marriage, and was now associated with the latter event—down to Miss Betty Barker.  All were asked to the luncheon; all except Mrs Fitz-Adam, who had come to live in Cranford since Miss Jessie Brown’s days, and whom I found rather moping on account of the omission.  People wondered at Miss Betty Barker’s being included in the honourable list; but, then, as Miss Pole said, we must remember the disregard of the genteel proprieties of life in which the poor captain had educated his girls, and for his sake we swallowed our pride.  Indeed, Mrs Jamieson rather took it as a compliment, as putting Miss Betty (formerly her maid) on a level with “those Hogginses.”

But when I arrived in Cranford, nothing was as yet ascertained of Mrs Jamieson’s own intentions; would the honourable lady go, or would she not?  Mr Peter declared that she should and she would; Miss Pole shook her head and desponded.  But Mr Peter was a man of resources.  In the first place, he persuaded Miss Matty to write to Mrs Gordon, and to tell her of Mrs Fitz-Adam’s existence, and to beg that one so kind, and cordial, and generous, might be included in the pleasant invitation.  An answer came back by return of post, with a pretty little note for Mrs Fitz-Adam, and a request that Miss Matty would deliver it herself and explain the previous omission.  Mrs Fitz-Adam was as pleased as could be, and thanked Miss Matty over and over again.  Mr Peter had said, “Leave Mrs Jamieson to me;” so we did; especially as we knew nothing that we could do to alter her determination if once formed.

I did not know, nor did Miss Matty, how things were going on, until Miss Pole asked me, just the day before Mrs Gordon came, if I thought there was anything between Mr Peter and Mrs Jamieson in the matrimonial line, for that Mrs Jamieson was really going to the lunch at the “George.”  She had sent Mr Mulliner down to desire that there might be a footstool put to the warmest seat in the room, as she meant to come, and knew that their chairs were very high.  Miss Pole had picked this piece of news up, and from it she conjectured all sorts of things, and bemoaned yet more.  “If Peter should marry, what would become of poor dear Miss Matty?  And Mrs Jamieson, of all people!”  Miss Pole seemed to think there were other ladies in Cranford who would have done more credit to his choice, and I think she must have had someone who was unmarried in her head, for she kept saying, “It was so wanting in delicacy in a widow to think of such a thing.”

When I got back to Miss Matty’s I really did begin to think that Mr Peter might be thinking of Mrs Jamieson for a wife, and I was as unhappy as Miss Pole about it.  He had the proof sheet of a great placard in his hand.  “Signor Brunoni, Magician to the King of Delhi, the Rajah of Oude, and the great Lama of Thibet,” &c. &c., was going to “perform in Cranford for one night only,” the very next night; and Miss Matty, exultant, showed me a letter from the Gordons, promising to remain over this gaiety, which Miss Matty said was entirely Peter’s doing.  He had written to ask the signor to come, and was to be at all the expenses of the affair.  Tickets were to be sent gratis to as many as the room would hold.  In short, Miss Matty was charmed with the plan, and said that to-morrow Cranford would remind her of the Preston Guild, to which she had been in her youth—a luncheon at the “George,” with the dear Gordons, and the signor in the Assembly Room in the evening.  But I—I looked only at the fatal words:—

“Under the Patronage of the Honourable Mrs Jamieson.”

She, then, was chosen to preside over this entertainment of Mr Peter’s; she was perhaps going to displace my dear Miss Matty in his heart, and make her life lonely once more!  I could not look forward to the morrow with any pleasure; and every innocent anticipation of Miss Matty’s only served to add to my annoyance.

So, angry and irritated, and exaggerating every little incident which could add to my irritation, I went on till we were all assembled in the great parlour at the “George.”  Major and Mrs Gordon and pretty Flora and Mr Ludovic were all as bright and handsome and friendly as could be; but I could hardly attend to them for watching Mr Peter, and I saw that Miss Pole was equally busy.  I had never seen Mrs Jamieson so roused and animated before; her face looked full of interest in what Mr Peter was saying.  I drew near to listen.  My relief was great when I caught that his words were not words of love, but that, for all his grave face, he was at his old tricks.  He was telling her of his travels in India, and describing the wonderful height of the Himalaya mountains: one touch after another added to their size, and each exceeded the former in absurdity; but Mrs Jamieson really enjoyed all in perfect good faith.  I suppose she required strong stimulants to excite her to come out of her apathy.  Mr Peter wound up his account by saying that, of course, at that altitude there were none of the animals to be found that existed in the lower regions; the game,—everything was different.  Firing one day at some flying creature, he was very much dismayed when it fell, to find that he had shot a cherubim!  Mr Peter caught my eye at this moment, and gave me such a funny twinkle, that I felt sure he had no thoughts of Mrs Jamieson as a wife from that time.  She looked uncomfortably amazed—

“But, Mr Peter, shooting a cherubim—don’t you think—I am afraid that was sacrilege!”

Mr Peter composed his countenance in a moment, and appeared shocked at the idea, which, as he said truly enough, was now presented to him for the first time; but then Mrs Jamieson must remember that he had been living for a long time among savages—all of whom were heathens—some of them, he was afraid, were downright Dissenters.  Then, seeing Miss Matty draw near, he hastily changed the conversation, and after a little while, turning to me, he said, “Don’t be shocked, prim little Mary, at all my wonderful stories.  I consider Mrs Jamieson fair game, and besides I am bent on propitiating her, and the first step towards it is keeping her well awake.  I bribed her here by asking her to let me have her name as patroness for my poor conjuror this evening; and I don’t want to give her time enough to get up her rancour against the Hogginses, who are just coming in.  I want everybody to be friends, for it harasses Matty so much to hear of these quarrels.  I shall go at it again by-and-by, so you need not look shocked.  I intend to enter the Assembly Room to-night with Mrs Jamieson on one side, and my lady, Mrs Hoggins, on the other.  You see if I don’t.”

Somehow or another he did; and fairly got them into conversation together.  Major and Mrs Gordon helped at the good work with their perfect ignorance of any existing coolness between any of the inhabitants of Cranford.

Ever since that day there has been the old friendly sociability in Cranford society; which I am thankful for, because of my dear Miss Matty’s love of peace and kindliness.  We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.

 END