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A love-affair of long ago
After Miss Jenkyns’s death, I did not expect to go to Cranford again. It was pleasant, therefore, to receive a letter from Miss Pole, inviting me to stay, and then a few days later a letter from Miss Matty, also inviting me. I promised to go to Miss Matty as soon as I had ended my visit to Miss Pole; and I went to see her the day after my arrival in Cranford. Miss Matty began to cry as soon as she saw me.
I took her hand, feeling very sorry for her, all alone in the world without her sister. ‘Dear Miss Matty!’ said I.
‘My dear. I’d rather you didn’t call me Matty. She didn’t like it. Please, my love, will you call me Matilda?’
I promised - and I did try. We all tried, but with so little success that in the end we called her ‘Miss Matty’ again.
My visit to Miss Pole was very quiet. The Honourable Mrs Jamieson was too fat and lazy to give many parties and, without Miss Jenkyns to lead them, the other ladies did not quite know what to do. So I sewed my father’s shirts, while Miss Pole did her knitting and told me stories about Cranford. One of her stories was about a love-affair she had suspected many years before.
After a week, I moved to Miss Matilda’s house. How anxious she was about everything!
‘Is your room all right dear?’ she said worriedly as I unpacked. ‘The fire’s not very bright. My sister used to arrange things to well. She could train a servant in a week, but Fanny’s been with me for four months…’
Maid-servants were always a problem to the ladies of Cranford, and specially to poor Miss Matilda. There were not many gentlemen in the town, as I have said, but the number of handsome young working men was alarming. Sometimes they had to call at the house. What would happen if the maid fell in love with one of them? Pretty Fanny was not allowed to have any ‘followers’, but her mistress suspected that she had very many - and I myself once saw something strangely like a young man hiding behind the kitchen clock.
However, during my visit Fanny had to leave: and I agreed to stay and help Miss Matilda with the new maid. Martha was a rough, honest-looking girl from a farm. I liked her, and I promised to teach her the rules of the house. These rules were, of course, Miss Jenkyns’s rules. Miss Matilda had whispered against many of them during her sister’s life, but now they must stay. About that, she was certain. About everything else, she was anxious and undecided.
And now I come to the love-affair. It seems that Miss Pole had a cousin who, long ago, had asked Miss Matilda to marry him. His name was Thomas Holbrook and he lived a few miles from Cranford on his own estate, called Woodley. He was a real country-man, very open and sincere, Miss Pole told me. ‘He reads aloud,’ she added, ‘more beautifully than anyone I have ever heard, except Mr Jenkyns, the late rector.’
‘Why didn’t Miss Matilda marry him?’ I asked.
‘Perhaps the rector and Miss Jenkyns didn’t think cousin Thomas was enough of a gentleman for her. You know the Jenkynses are related in some way to Sir Peter Arley. Miss Jenkyns was very proud of that.’
‘Poor Miss Matty! Has she ever seen Mr Holbrook since?’
‘I don’t think she has. He stopped coming into Cranford after she refused him.’
‘And how old is he now?’
‘About seventy, my dear,’ said Miss Pole.
Soon after this, strangely enough, I saw Mr Holbrook. Miss Matilda and I were looking at some coloured silks that had arrived at Mr Johnson’s shop in High Street, when a tall, thin old man in country clothes hurried in. He waited impatiently, then told the shop-boy what he wanted. Miss Matilda heard his voice, and suddenly sat down. At once, I guessed who it was.
‘Miss Jenkyns wants the black silk,’ another shop-boy called across the shop.
Mr Holbrook heard the name. ‘Matty - Miss Matilda! I didn’t recognize you! How are you?’ He shook her hand warmly. ‘I didn’t recognize you!’ he repeated.
We left the shop without buying anything and Mr Holbrook walked home with us. He was clearly delighted to meet his old love again. He even spoke of Miss Jenkyns as ‘Your poor sister! Well, well! We all have our faults.’ And he said as he left us that he hoped to see Miss Matty again soon.
She went straight to her room. When she came down at tea-time, I saw that she had been crying.
A few days later, a note came from Mr Holbrook. It was now June. ‘Would Miss Matty and I like to come out to Woodley for a day?’ he asked. He had also invited his cousin Miss Pole, so the three of us could ride in the same carriage.
At first, Miss Matty refused to accept. Then, when we finally persuaded her, she went back to the shop and chose a new bonnet for the visit.
It was clear that she had never been to Woodley before. She trembled as we drove there, and I could see that she was thinking about the past. Towards the end of the journey, she sat very straight and looked sadly out of the carriage windows.
The house itself stood among fields, and there was an old garden full of roses and little fruit-trees. ‘It’s very pretty.’ whispered Miss Matty as Mr Holbrook appeared at the door, smiling warmly.
The day passed very happily. We sat and talked in a nice, untidy room filled with books. I asked to look at the garden, and this pleased the old gentleman. His housekeeper gave us dinner in a kind of kitchen, and later I walked with him across his fields. Then, when we came back to the house, he offered to read us some new poems by Mr Tennyson.
‘Yes, please do, cousin Thomas!’ said Miss Pole.
I thought this was because she wanted me to hear his beautiful reading. Afterwards, though, she said it was because she had wanted to go on with her knitting.
Whatever Mr Holbrook did was agreeable to Miss Matty. She fell asleep soon after he began a long poem called Locksley Hall, but she woke up when his voice stopped. ‘How pretty!’ she said quickly.
‘Pretty, madam? It’s beautiful!’
The poem was about lost love, but Miss Matty had not heard it. ‘Oh, yes, I meant beautiful!’ she apologized. ‘It’s so like that beautiful poem by Dr Johnson that my sister used to read. I forget the name of it.’
‘Which poem do you mean, madam? What was it about?’
‘I don’t remember what it was about. But it was by Dr Johnson and it was very beautiful…’
As we got into the carriage to return to Cranford, Mr Holbrook promised to call on us soon. This seemed to please Miss Matty, although as soon as we had left Woodley, she began to worry about Martha. Had the girl had a ‘follower’ while we were absent?
However, there was no sign of a ‘follower’ as Martha came to help us out of the carriage. She always took good care of Miss Matty, and tonight she said:
‘Eh! Dear madam, you shouldn’t go out in the evening in such a thin shawl! You’ll catch cold, and at your age. madam, you should be careful.’
‘My age!’ said Miss Matty, speaking almost crossly. ‘My age! Why, Martha, how old do you think I am?’
‘Well, madam. I’d say you were getting close to sixty - but I didn’t mean any harm.’
‘Martha. I’m not yet fifty-two!’ said Miss Matty. Today’s visit had reminded her of the past, and I think she did not want to remember how long ago it was.
Miss Matty said nothing to me, then or ever, about Mr Holbrook but, by careful watching, I saw that she still loved him. She now wore her best cap every day, and sat near the window to see down into the street.
He came. He asked politely about our journey home from Woodley, then suddenly he got up. ‘Well, madam,’ he said to Miss Matilda, ‘can I bring you anything from Paris? I’m going there in a week or two.’
‘Yes. I’ve always wished to see it… Oh dear, I almost forgot! Here are the poems you liked at my house.’ He pulled a small packet from his coat-pocket and gave it to her. ‘Goodbye, Matty.’ he said. ‘Take care of yourself.’
He had gone. But he had given her a book and he had called her Matty, just as he used to thirty years ago.
Soon after this I left Cranford, ordering Martha to take good care of her mistress and to write to me if anything was wrong.
In November, she sent me a note to say that Miss Matilda was ‘very low and not eating her food’, so I went back. Miss Matty certainly looked white and miserable. I called on Miss Pole next morning and learnt that Thomas Holbrook was seriously ill. The journey to Paris had been too much for him. Ah! So that was why Miss Matty was miserable.
‘I must come back with you, my dear,’ said Miss Pole, ‘because I promised to give Miss Matty the latest report on cousin Thomas. I’m sorry to say his housekeeper has informed me that he’ll not live much longer.’
I took Miss Pole into Miss Matty’s little drawing-room and left the two ladies alone.
Miss Matty did not come down to dinner, but that evening she talked to me about her girlhood. Clearly, she had been thinking about her sister, who had not wanted her to marry Thomas Holbrook. Perhaps they had not been kind thoughts, and now Miss Matty felt sorry, because she wanted to tell me how good and how clever Deborah had been. She and her mother had taught cooking and sewing to poor girls, and she had once danced with a lord, and she used to go to Arley Hall where they kept thirty servants… Deborah had also nursed her through a long illness. That illness, I decided, had followed Miss Matty’s refusal of Mr Holbrook.
The next day. Miss Pole came to say that Mr Holbrook was dead. Miss Matty trembled and could not speak. She remained silent all that evening. Then she called the maid.
’ Martha.’ she said at last, ‘you are young…’
Martha curtsied. ‘Yes, madam. Twenty-two.’
‘I did say that you must not have any followers. But perhaps, Martha, you will one day meet a young man whom you like and who likes you. If you do, and if I decide that he is respectable, he may come to see you once a week.’ Miss Matty was surprised, very surprised, by Martha’s ready answer. ‘Please, madam, there’s Jem Hearn, madam. He earns three-and-sixpence a day, and he’s six feet tall, and he’ll be glad to come tomorrow night!’
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