Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
By Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865)
From ‘Cranford’

ONE morning, as Miss Matty and I sat at our work—it was before twelve o’clock, and Miss Matty had not changed the cap with yellow ribbons that had been Miss Jenkyns’s best, and which Miss Matty was now wearing out in private, putting on the one made in imitation of Mrs. Jamieson’s at all times when she expected to be seen—Martha came up, and asked if Miss Betty Barker might speak to her mistress. Miss Matty assented, and quickly disappeared to change the yellow ribbons while Miss Barker came up-stairs; but as she had forgotten her spectacles, and was rather flurried by the unusual time of the visit, I was not surprised to see her return with one cap on the top of the other. She was quite unconscious of it herself, and looked at us with bland satisfaction. Nor do I think Miss Barker perceived it; for putting aside the little circumstance that she was not so young as she had been, she was very much absorbed in her errand, which she delivered herself of with an oppressive modesty that found vent in endless apologies.  1
  Miss Betty Barker was the daughter of the old clerk at Cranford who had officiated in Mr. Jenkyns’s time. She and her sister had had pretty good situations as ladies’-maids, and had saved money enough to set up a milliner’s shop, which had been patronized by the ladies in the neighborhood. Lady Arley, for instance, would occasionally give Miss Barkers the pattern of an old cap of hers, which they immediately copied and circulated among the élite of Cranford. I say the élite, for Miss Barkers had caught the trick of the place, and piqued themselves upon their “aristocratic connection.” They would not sell their caps and ribbons to any one without a pedigree. Many a farmer’s wife or daughter turned away huffed from Miss Barkers’ select millinery, and went rather to the universal shop, where the profits of brown soap and moist sugar enabled the proprietor to go straight to (Paris, he said, until he found his customers too patriotic and John-Bullish to wear what the Mounseers wore) London, where, as he often told his customers, Queen Adelaide had appeared only the very week before in a cap exactly like the one he showed them, trimmed with yellow and blue ribbons, and had been complimented by King William on the becoming nature of her head-dress.  2
  Miss Barkers, who confined themselves to truth and did not approve of miscellaneous customers, throve notwithstanding. They were self-denying, good people. Many a time have I seen the eldest of them (she that had been maid to Mrs. Jamieson) carrying out some delicate mess to a poor person. They only aped their betters in having “nothing to do” with the class immediately below theirs. And when Miss Barker died, their profits and income were found to be such that Miss Betty was justified in shutting up shop and retiring from business. She also (as I think I have before said) set up her cow,—a mark of respectability in Cranford almost as decided as setting up a gig is among some people. She dressed finer than any lady in Cranford, and we did not wonder at it; for it was understood that she was wearing out all the bonnets and caps and outrageous ribbons which had once formed her stock in trade. It was five or six years since she had given up shop, so in any other place than Cranford her dress might have been considered passé.  3
  And now Miss Betty Barker had called to invite Miss Matty to tea at her house on the following Tuesday. She gave me also an impromptu invitation, as I happened to be a visitor—though I could see she had a little fear lest, since my father had gone to live in Drumble, he might have engaged in that “horrid cotton trade,” and so dragged his family down out of “aristocratic society.” She prefaced this invitation with so many apologies that she quite excited my curiosity. “Her presumption” was to be excused. What had she been doing? She seemed so overpowered by it, I could only think that she had been writing to Queen Adelaide to ask for a receipt for washing lace; but the act which she so characterized was only an invitation she had carried to her sister’s former mistress, Mrs. Jamieson. “Her former occupation considered, could Miss Matty excuse the liberty?” Ah! thought I, she has found out that double cap, and is going to rectify Miss Matty’s head-dress. No; it was simply to extend her invitation to Miss Matty and to me. Miss Matty bowed acceptance; and I wondered that in the graceful action she did not feel the unusual weight and extraordinary height of her head-dress. But I do not think she did, for she recovered her balance, and went on talking to Miss Betty in a kind, condescending manner, very different from the fidgety way she would have had if she had suspected how singular her appearance was.  4
  “Mrs. Jamieson is coming, I think you said?” asked Miss Matty.  5
  “Yes. Mrs. Jamieson most kindly and condescendingly said she would be happy to come. One little stipulation she made, that she should bring Carlo. I told her that if I had a weakness, it was for dogs.”  6
  “And Miss Pole?” questioned Miss Matty, who was thinking of her pool at Preference, in which Carlo would not be available as a partner.  7
  “I am going to ask Miss Pole. Of course, I could not think of asking her until I had asked you, madam—the rector’s daughter, madam. Believe me, I do not forget the situation my father held under yours.”  8
  “And Mrs. Forrester, of course?”  9
  “And Mrs. Forrester. I thought, in fact, of going to her before I went to Miss Pole. Although her circumstances are changed, madam, she was born a Tyrrell, and we can never forget her alliance to the Bigges of Bigelow Hall.”  10
  Miss Matty cared much more for the little circumstance of her being a very good card-player. Miss Barker looked at me with sidelong dignity, as much as to say, although a retired milliner, she was no democrat, and understood the difference of ranks.  11
  “May I beg you to come as near half-past six to my little dwelling as possible, Miss Matilda? Mrs. Jamieson dines at five, but has kindly promised not to delay her visit beyond that time—half-past six.” And with a swimming curtsy Miss Betty Barker took her leave….  12
  The spring evenings were getting bright and long, when three or four ladies in calashes met at Miss Barker’s door. Do you know what a calash is? It is a covering worn over caps, not unlike the heads fastened on old-fashioned gigs; but sometimes it is not quite so large. This kind of head-gear always made an awful impression on the children in Cranford; and now two or three left off their play in the quiet sunny little street, and gathered in wondering silence round Miss Pole, Miss Matty, and myself. We were silent too, so that we could hear loud suppressed whispers inside Miss Barker’s house: “Wait, Peggy! wait till I’ve run up-stairs and washed my hands. When I cough, open the door; I’ll not be a minute.”  13
  And true enough, it was not a minute before we heard a noise, between a sneeze and a crow; on which the door flew open. Behind it stood a round-eyed maiden, all aghast at the honorable company of calashes, who marched in without a word. She recovered presence of mind enough to usher us into a small room, which had been a shop, but was now converted into a temporary dressing-room. There we unpinned and shook ourselves, and arranged our features before the glass into a sweet and gracious company face; and then, bowing backwards with “After you, ma’am,” we allowed Mrs. Forrester to take precedence up the narrow staircase that led to Miss Barker’s drawing-room. There she sat, as stately and composed as though we had never heard that odd-sounding cough, from which her throat must have been even then sore and rough. Kind, gentle, shabbily dressed Mrs. Forrester was immediately conducted to the second place of honor—a seat arranged something like Prince Albert’s near the Queen’s—good, but not so good. The place of pre-eminence was of course reserved for the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson, who presently came panting up the stairs—Carlo rushing round her on her progress, as if he meant to trip her up.  14
  And now Miss Betty Barker was a proud and happy woman! She stirred the fire, and shut the door, and sat as near to it as she could, quite on the edge of her chair. When Peggy came in, tottering under the weight of the tea-tray, I noticed that Miss Barker was sadly afraid lest Peggy should not keep her distance sufficiently. She and her mistress were on very familiar terms in their every-day intercourse, and Peggy wanted now to make several little confidences to her, which Miss Barker was on thorns to hear, but which she thought it her duty as a lady to repress. So she turned away from all Peggy’s asides and signs; but she made one or two very malapropos answers to what was said; and at last, seized with a bright idea, she exclaimed, “Poor sweet Carlo! I’m forgetting him. Come down-stairs with me, poor little doggie, and it shall have its tea, it shall!”  15
  In a few minutes she returned, bland and benignant as before; but I thought she had forgotten to give the “poor little doggie” anything to eat, judging by the avidity with which he swallowed down chance pieces of cake. The tea tray was abundantly laden—I was pleased to see it, I was so hungry; but I was afraid the ladies present might think it vulgarly heaped up. I know they would have done at their own houses; but somehow the heaps disappeared here. I saw Mrs. Jamieson eating seed-cake slowly and considerately, as she did everything; and I was rather surprised, for I knew she had told us on the occasion of her last party that she never had it in her house, it reminded her so much of scented soap. She always gave us Savoy biscuits. However, Mrs. Jamieson, kindly indulgent to Miss Barker’s want of knowledge of the customs of high life, and to spare her feelings, ate three large pieces of seed-cake, with a placid, ruminating expression of countenance, not unlike a cow’s.  16
  After tea there was some little demur and difficulty. We were six in number; four could play at Preference, and for the other two there was Cribbage. But all except myself (I was rather afraid of the Cranford ladies at cards, for it was the most earnest and serious business they ever engaged in) were anxious to be of the “pool.” Even Miss Barker, while declaring she did not know Spadille from Manille, was evidently hankering to take a hand. The dilemma was soon put an end to by a singular kind of noise. If a baron’s daughter-in-law could ever be supposed to snore, I should have said Mrs. Jamieson did so then; for overcome by the heat of the room, and inclined to doze by nature, the temptation of that very comfortable arm-chair had been too much for her, and Mrs. Jamieson was nodding. Once or twice she opened her eyes with an effort, and calmly but unconsciously smiled upon us; but by-and-by even her benevolence was not equal to this exertion, and she was sound asleep.  17
  “It is very gratifying to me,” whispered Miss Barker at the card table to her three opponents, whom notwithstanding her ignorance of the game she was “basting” most unmercifully—“very gratifying indeed, to see how completely Mrs. Jamieson feels at home in my poor little dwelling; she could not have paid me a greater compliment.”  18
  Miss Barker provided me with some literature, in the shape of three or four handsomely bound fashion-books ten or twelve years old; observing, as she put a little table and a candle for my special benefit, that she knew young people liked to look at pictures. Carlo lay and snorted and started at his mistress’s feet. He too was quite at home.  19
  The card table was an animated scene to watch: four ladies’ heads, with niddle-noddling caps, all nearly meeting over the middle of the table in their eagerness to whisper quick enough and loud enough; and every now and then came Miss Barker’s “Hush, ladies! if you please, hush! Mrs. Jamieson is asleep.”  20
  It was very difficult to steer clear between Mrs. Forrester’s deafness and Mrs. Jamieson’s sleepiness. But Miss Barker managed her arduous task well. She repeated the whisper to Mrs. Forrester, distorting her face considerably in order to show by the motions of her lips what was said; and then she smiled kindly all round at us, and murmured to herself, “Very gratifying indeed; I wish my poor sister had been alive to see this day.”  21
  Presently the door was thrown wide open; Carlo started to his feet with a loud snapping bark, and Mrs. Jamieson awoke; or perhaps she had not been asleep—as she said almost directly, the room had been so light she had been glad to keep her eyes shut, but had been listening with great interest to all our amusing and agreeable conversation. Peggy came in once more, red with importance. Another tray! “O gentility!” thought I, “can you endure this last shock?” For Miss Barker had ordered (nay, I doubt not prepared, although she did say, “Why! Peggy, what have you brought us?” and looked pleasantly surprised at the unexpected pleasure) all sorts of good things for supper—scalloped oysters, potted lobsters, jelly, a dish called “little Cupids” (which was in great favor with the Cranford ladies, although too expensive to be given except on solemn and state occasions—macaroons sopped in brandy, I should have called it, if I had not known its more refined and classical name). In short, we were evidently to be feasted with all that was sweetest and best; and we thought it better to submit graciously, even at the cost of our gentility—which never ate suppers in general, but which, like most non-supper-eaters, was particularly hungry on all special occasions.  22
  Miss Barker in her former sphere had, I daresay, been made acquainted with the beverage they call cherry brandy. We none of us had ever seen such a thing, and rather shrank back when she proffered it us—“just a little, leetle glass, ladies; after the oysters and lobsters, you know. Shell-fish are sometimes thought not very wholesome.” We all shook our heads like female mandarins; but at last Mrs. Jamieson suffered herself to be persuaded, and we followed her lead. It was not exactly unpalatable, though so hot and so strong that we thought ourselves bound to give evidence that we were not accustomed to such things by coughing terribly—almost as strangely as Miss Barker had done, before we were admitted by Peggy.  23
  “It’s very strong,” said Miss Pole, as she put down her empty glass; “I do believe there’s spirit in it.”  24
  “Only a little drop—just necessary to make it keep,” said Miss Barker. “You know we put brandy paper over preserves to make them keep. I often feel tipsy myself from eating damson tart.”  25
  I question whether damson tart would have opened Mrs. Jamieson’s heart as the cherry brandy did; but she told us of a coming event, respecting which she had been quite silent till that moment.  26
  “My sister-in-law, Lady Glenmire, is coming to stay with me.” There was a chorus of “Indeed!” and then a pause. Each one rapidly reviewed her wardrobe, as to its fitness to appear in the presence of a baron’s widow; for of course a series of small festivals were always held in Cranford on the arrival of a visitor at any of our friends’ houses. We felt very pleasantly excited on the present occasion.  27
  Not long after this, the maids and the lanterns were announced. Mrs. Jamieson had the sedan-chair, which squeezed itself into Miss Barker’s narrow lobby with some difficulty, and most literally “stopped the way.” It required some skillful manœuvring on the part of the old chairmen (shoemakers by day, but when summoned to carry the sedan, dressed up in a strange old livery—long greatcoats with small capes, coeval with the sedan and similar to the dress of the class in Hogarth’s pictures) to edge, and back, and try at it again, and finally to succeed in carrying their burden out of Miss Barker’s front door. Then we heard their pit-a-pat along the quiet little street, as we put on our calashes and pinned up our gowns; Miss Barker hovering about us with offers of help, which if she had not remembered her former occupation, and wished us to forget it, would have been much more pressing.  28

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