Inspired by the 2007 BBC series Cranford, which was adapted from the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell.
Where Are You Going, Jessie Brown?
In years of moving from town to town, she'd invariably catch herself looking for a glimpse of familiar faces, as though she were likely to discover in city crowds or among village folk all the friends and acquaintances of her past life. It was a bad habit, she decided, very like digging up seeds or bulbs to see if anything had sprouted. And yet when next she went out, she'd find her eyes searching again as she walked through a market square.
Occasionally, though, her efforts were rewarded.
She had reached the High Street by the time she saw him, and felt that nameless emotion stirring within her – warmth, pleasure, and fear in one – and could see that he saw her too, that he recognized her, that he was coming towards her.
"Major Gordon." She dropped a curtsy.
"Miss Jessie." He had the softest of smiles. "Where are you going this fine day?" He blushed, then laughed at himself. "If I were to speak truth, I'd say it's a grey, miserable day, not a fine one at all, though it's better for seeing you." She blushed in her turn. "But to ask my question again, where are you going, Jessie Brown?"
She really had no answer for that, at least none that she could provide him. Mary was safe enough on her own today, if a bit more querulous than usual, and so Jessie had been eager to gain a moment's peace for herself. That was the first answer, which she could never reveal to the major, and the second was that she had sensed if she went out today, she might well meet him as she passed through town. And so she had achieved both her wishes – peace, and the desired meeting – and yet could say nothing of either.
"I thought, Major, that I might walk through town, then perhaps up the hillside to the churchyard."
His eyes misted over with understanding. "Might I walk with you, Miss Jessie?" And he offered her his arm.
"Yes, of course, Major." They walked forward without discussing which route they'd take, or what errand the major might have been on when first he spied Jessie Brown. They walked through the marketplace, and all at once he slipped free of her and hurried up to the flower seller.
He returned with a small posy, white roses, and realized his mistake at once. He ought to have chosen something brightly colored, something that would look wonderful in Jessie's hand, and soften the austerity of her gown. But she took the flowers with an expression that made his heart soar. What he wouldn't give to know what she was thinking!
They walked on, away from the marketplace and towards the church. She had not taken his arm again since he had given her the nosegay, and he cast a sidelong glance to see which hand she was using to hold the flowers and smiled to see that her free hand was closest to him.
She felt his hand clasp hers but said nothing, half doubting and half expectant, and waited.
She did not have long to wait. "Jessie, there is something I have not told you yet today."
She stopped in the midst of the lane. "And what is that, Major?" She had turned to face him, and he still held her hand.
"The truth is that I was on my way to see you when we met."
"Then it is fortunate we did not pass each other unawares and not meet at all –"
"Jessie, it's more than that. I would have come back again if I'd not seen you. I would have come back again until you said you'd come away with me."
She withdrew her hand from his.
"Oh, Jessie, I didn't say that as I wanted to. I want you to be my wife, Jessie Brown. I want you to let me love and protect you all my days. Please say you will. Please say you'll let me."
She had doubted they would ever stand thus, and yet within her she had kept the hope that he would indeed speak before they were parted again. She had hoped for this and yet…
Delicately he lifted her chin with his hand, tracing the line of her lower lip with his thumb. "Jessie, will you?"
She felt almost light-headed. She felt as though she were in a dream. She'd taken an hour away from nursing Mary, and here she was standing in a lane outside town, standing with her lover, perhaps husband soon -
"I – I must speak to Father. You must speak to Father."
Major Gordon smiled. "Your father will understand, Jessie. He knows you must go to a home of your own someday –"
"Always a temporary home, though."
"Ah, Jessie." He looked wounded. "I didn't think you'd hold my profession against me, not when you're your father's daughter."
"No, truly I do not. I am sorry, Major." Her lips trembled. "But I know what it means when you ask me to go with you."
The major smiled, a bit sadly. "And your mother did, Jessie, and surely she'd understand better than anyone what you choose to do now."
Her mother. Yes, her mother had borne with moving house, with fear and with loneliness. But finally she had been taken where she did not wish to go, and she had fought it, fought for each breath until even that was denied her. Mary had wept, and so had Jessie, while their father had offered what kindness he could manage and uttered nothing of his own pain. Oh, there was every manner of sorrow and tenderness in his face – it broke Jessie's heart even to look across the room at him – but while he had given himself over to comforting his daughters and seeing to the arrangements for their mother, there had been no moment when he allowed himself to be comforted in his turn.
He couldn't know what Jessie had seen one night, one night when she'd crept on tiptoe to the sitting room to collect a book she had left behind. There was a fire still burning in the grate, and she could see her father in his accustomed chair. But now he was bent over, holding his head in his hands, his massive body at last shuddering with emotion. Jessie froze, then backed noiselessly out of the room before he could notice her presence, and made her way upstairs.
Mary had long since retired and did not stir when her sister came up, and yet Jessie was careful to make no sound as she wept again into the bedclothes, wept for her mother, wept for Mary, wept for herself, and wept for the man sitting alone in the darkness.
She dared not tell her father, of course, nor even Mary. And now, with the major standing before her, the question still in his eyes, she could say nothing of the matter to him.
"Yes. Yes, you are right, Major. She would understand what I now choose."
It was an overcast day. O God, this city was colorless – grey stones, brown mud, black ironwork. Was there nothing, no one to cheer a soul here? Nothing. No one. Not even a shy girl in a black dress standing before him, smiling up at him, taking his arm as they walked through the marketplace, clasping his hand as they made their way towards the hillside, letting him caress her soft skin as they stood together…
Oh, Jessie. Please, Jessie.
She picked her way up the stone steps. It was a curious little church, rather grim-looking, and she had very nearly shuddered at the sight of it the first time they had all walked together there of a Sunday. But there was no one to take her arm this time, no one else wrapped up against the wind, no voices calling back to her.
She reached the churchyard and tried to remember her steps from the last visit. She'd no sense of direction, none at all, and yet without much searching she found the stone, incongruously pristine amid all its weathered brethren.
She knelt and placed the white roses tenderly on the damp ground.
She closed her eyes tightly as the tears began, as the sobs shook her body. It was true; she was her father's daughter, weeping in secret. And when she rose to leave the churchyard, she did not notice the tall man in military dress watching her from the road below.