Well, I'm getting a great deal of mileage out of Episode 3 of the BBC's Cranford. By the time I finish we should know everyone's perspective on the Tomkinson sisters' Christmas Eve party, and that includes the furniture's.

The BBC's script was adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, and Mr. Harrison's Confessions. I have no connection to either Mrs. Gaskell or the BBC; I am just appropriating the basic plot, setting, characters, and use of "The Parting Glass" (Lyrics in the public domain). Everything else is invention and/or elaboration, most particularly Jack Marshland's story. He serves a distinct role in Mr. Harrison's Confessions and even in the BBC's Cranford, and I've taken the latter characterization and let my imagination run wild.

The title is, of course, shamelessly borrowed from the song by Gaelic Storm, and the idea for the conversation card question came from a phrase in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

She Was the Prize

The month of December! Had Jack been in Manchester so long that it was nearly Christmas, and the year almost out? Indeed he had, and though there had been much to concern himself with at the infirmary, he'd not seen much of his friends, or made many new acquaintances. Indeed the members of his circle of brother physicians from his days at Guy's Hospital had long since dispersed - one to Liverpool, another to Edinburgh, yet another to a little town in Cheshire, and so forth - and they'd had to make do with rare correspondence and even rarer reunions.

Still, for all that he wasn't surrounded by his family, or even a few friends, his spirits had been high as winter came on.

And then he'd had a letter just two days before Christmas.

My dear son,

May this find you well and as lively and cheerful about your work as may be.

Of course Christmas is near once more, and as the girls and I make our preparations for the day, we think each day of you and your brother, gone from our midst, but, we pray, well and happy, each in his own city far away.

Indeed in the last week I have had word from Henry, and though surely a letter from him will have made its way from New York Harbor to your doorstep in Manchester by now, I will still tell you the news he gave to me: Annie was safely delivered of a son. It is very near two months ago now, I think, and Henry writes that they have named the child after your father, and that both Annie and the baby are flourishing. God bless them all.

The girls are all well, though don't they miss their brothers now, and think often what you and Henry must be doing at such and such a time of day. Jennie reads every page of your letters with the fondest interest and speaks often of going to see Manchester for herself. Look what you've done, Jack, trying to steal another of my babies clean away from me! She's too young, I tell her, and I confide to you I would wish for her to marry a man from our own town when she is of age, not one of your smart young English physicians. But I must count myself lucky she says nothing of going to New York. That I should not be able to bear.

Of course Nora does not speak of leaving home, which is just as well, as her sisters and I rely upon her so. I do not think, Jack, that she will ever marry, but I confess it comforts me to know she is content with her lot and will remain here with her sisters, whose spirits of course are less submissive than hers.

As for Delia, she gives voice to all manner of thoughts and opinions. In recent days she spoke again of her horror of your getting the fever or the pox, and you among those with every manner of disease! I do not know the source of such an imagination. But truth to tell, she is not alone in her worries; my mind can never rest while any one of my children is parted from me.

Jack, it tears at my own heart to think that now we shall never be all together at Christmas, nor at any other season. I'll not see Henry again, or ever hold his little son on my knee. But you and I shall meet again, God willing, and I'll see you married too, and surrounded by your own children. With you so clever and handsome, and the very image of your father, some young lady must lose her heart to you. But mind you choose a nice, steady sort of girl, one who will make a fine wife to a physician.

Your sisters all send you their dearest love, and hope you spare a thought for us amid the merry whirl of parties in Manchester. At least that is what Jennie and Delia say one must expect at Christmas in England, and for all I know they are right.

We hope to have a reply to this letter soon, that you might assure Delia you are in good health, and tell us all your news.

God bless and keep you, my dear Jack.

Your loving mother

It wasn't reason, Jack told himself, to think dark thoughts in this season. His mother was surrounded by her girls, and they'd have a merry time of it at Christmas. And of course someday soon he would find his way back to them, and they'd all sit together of an evening, laughing over his stories of life in London and Manchester, and his mother, and even Delia, would know that all was well.

If only he knew when that would be.

But there was no sense in remaining in Manchester at Christmas, and him feeling sorry for himself. Frank Harrison had made his practice in a town just twelve miles off, and Jack would ride over there, see it for himself, perhaps stir Frank up a bit, and they could talk about old times. It would be good to be out of the city, to learn for himself what it was Frank saw in that dear little village of his - it was a queer place, from what he'd been telling Jack - and perhaps share a laugh or two.

By the time he'd ridden from Manchester to Frank's door, Jack's spirits had more than recovered. He was going to enjoy this. Perhaps he'd even try to charm that prim little Mrs. Rose - poor woman, playing hostess to two such lads at Christmas, and she a widow of less than a year and probably not much inclined to observe the season, at that.

But it turned out that Frank was quite as in need of cheering up as was Mrs. Rose - or, for that matter, Jack - for he'd come to Cranford and lost his heart.

There was a rector there in town, it seemed, with a house full of pretty daughters, and Frank had taken a shine to one in particular, the eldest, Miss Sophy Hutton.

Now Frank had hoped to be the guest of the good rector - and of Miss Hutton, mistress of the house since the death of her dear Mama some years earlier - on Christmas Eve, or perhaps even Christmas Day itself, but not an invitation had arrived. And so he must console himself with Jack's company, and Mrs. Rose's.

It almost made Jack laugh, seeing Frank so desperate for a girl, for hadn't he so often seen the young women - and some not so young! - turn round to look at Dr. Harrison when they were in the streets of London. Surely there'd not been a maid or a matron that Frank hadn't been able to charm with his earnest manner, to say nothing of his pair of blue eyes. And now him in a little village, and parted from the girl he couldn't put out of his thoughts! It was a great joke on Frank, and not before time, either.

Still, Frank remembered where he was, and what he must do. He'd an older cousin, a Dr. Morgan, a well-meaning fellow with an old-fashioned wig and abundant old-fashioned advice about how to please the ladies of the town - for there were a great many there - and what Frank must do to make his reputation.

And that would include, of course, accepting the one invitation that had been proffered to young Dr. Harrison, to a Christmas Eve party at the home of two maiden ladies, a Miss Augusta Tomkinson and her younger sister, Caroline.

And of course Jack must accompany him.

An evening spent among Cranford's single ladies? Frank need say no more.

But someone had surely thought to play a trick on Jack, too, given the prospect he faced on Christmas Eve when he and Frank, dressed all in their best, appeared at the Tomkinson sisters' cozy house. Sure, a flock of ladies was there to greet them, but they were mostly of an age with Jack's mother, or perhaps a bit beyond it, truth to tell.

And that Miss Tomkinson - a handsome woman of five and fifty, though didn't she have lips drawn up like a miser's purse strings! - she needn't say a word; Jack could divine her thoughts just by the expression on her face when she saw him: I hadn't thought to play hostess to an Irishman.

Her sister, Miss Caroline, a giddy, talkative lady the other side of 30, was pleasant enough. When she smiled, though, her teeth seemed to be everywhere in the room, and she smiled a great deal, especially at Frank.

Poor Frank! It was like watching hungry cats surround a helpless wee bird. After all, there were but three men at the party – Captain Brown, that great dark fellow with the Roman nose; Frank; and himself - and Frank might as well have been the one holding a placard with the word bachelor on it.

Then again, Frank wasn't so helpless. He knew well enough how to curry their favor, and Jack suspected he knew the figure he cut.

And the ladies were, for the most part, a kindly lot. That Mrs. Forrester was friendly enough, and merry. She'd a bit of fire to her, Jack thought, and he could always tell. Oh, she'd had a roving eye, had Mrs. Forrester, back when she was a girl. She turned her admiring gaze on Frank, sure enough, but also on Jack and the captain. The captain had best beware if he wanted to remain a single man.

Then there was a Miss Matty Jenkyns, who spoke in a soft, husky voice and had the saddest blue eyes Jack had ever seen. It couldn't do to be so melancholy of a Christmas Eve, he thought, though he certainly understood enough of that himself. Still, it was better she was here with her lady friends than sitting alone in a chimney corner somewhere.

And that funny little Miss Pole – there was something in her face that reminded Jack very much of his mother and the other women back at home. She'd darting, relentlessly inquisitive eyes and an even readier tongue, neither of which ever seemed to be at rest.

Miss Jessie, a sweet dark-haired girl about his age and Frank's, was the captain's daughter. Now there was another one with sad, sad eyes! She was so like a little doe; Jack thought that if someone had startled her, she'd have fled clean away. She chose to spend much of the evening at the pianoforte, playing this or that tune for the company, and saying very little.

But if Jack didn't have much opportunity to engage Miss Jessie in conversation, he had greater success with a second young lady, Miss Mary Smith, who, it turned out, was actually from Manchester. Imagine riding all this way to sit next to a girl from Manchester!

Still, he must make polite conversation. "You must miss your home, Miss Smith, especially at Christmas."

She smiled at him, and yet he noticed the slight furrowing of her brow, the flicker in her eyes. "Oh, Dr. Marshland, I have been in Cranford so many months that I feel quite at home." There was the slightest of pauses, and then she said, with a softer smile, "Besides, I am but a short distance from my father's house, while you have come across the sea."

"And across land as well, Miss Smith, for I was in London, at Guy's, when Frank was. "

"Then you have come far, and seen much, and no doubt have made many friends in your travels."

"I have, though they've the habit of scattering to the four winds, with only Frank near enough to catch," he said, smiling. "So, for his sins, he's got me for company this Christmas Eve."

She giggled at that, most pleasingly, and replied, "I am certain Dr. Harrison's sins are such that a visit from a friend is precisely the penance he deserves. Besides," she added, more seriously, glancing across the room to where Miss Matty was sitting, "what better way is there to observe the season than to spend it in the company of friends?"

And she looked back at him with such tender, wistful smile that Jack hadn't the heart to contradict her, or to ask what had happened to leave Miss Matty so sad on a Christmas Eve.

Frank was prowling about the room like a cat, turning up in one place or the other, being most attentive to the ladies.

Jack, on the other hand, had no wish to be roused from the comfortable seat he'd found beside Miss Smith, and there he remained, even when Miss Caroline sorely tried his patience by making them all play a rather silly game of conversation cards. Such an exercise was altogether too prim, too coy for Jack - he'd have preferred Yes and No, or some other amusement that allowed for strategy or at least rational thought - but Miss Smith, seemingly without effort, kept her good humor through it all, and turned a deaf ear to the impertinent comment or two he made under his breath as the cards went round.

When her turn came, she looked down at the card she'd drawn and, after a pause, read, "'Where matters of the heart are concerned, do you think it best to see with the eyes or with the mind?'"

Her voice was firm, without any trace of affectation, as though she were reading aloud from the household accounts, and yet her eyes were merry.

Jack, with reluctance, read aloud what was printed on his card. "'Pray do not ask me to solve a conundrum that has vexed greater minds than my own.'" He could have sworn in that instant Miss Smith rolled her eyes, though afterwards he could not be sure. But they exchanged a smile as the cards were passed to the next pair of victims.

It was refreshing to be in the company of a young woman who'd no time for simpering or dithering, and when it was time to set up the tables for whist, Jack again sought a seat by Miss Smith, and succeeded in drawing a laugh from her and the rest of the company - yes, even Miss Jessie, even Miss Matty - with a few tales of Frank's misadventures in London. It all left Frank red-faced and no doubt contemplating a suitable revenge, but it was worth it to see everyone so lively, if only for a moment.

And Miss Smith was proving very good company indeed. Perhaps there was something to what she had said about the best way to observe the season.

But sitting next to her at the card table gave him ample opportunity to observe her as well, good physician that he was, and he saw at once something was amiss.

"Are you unwell, Miss Smith?" he asked discreetly, as she squinted and frowned at the hand of cards she'd just been dealt.

"By no means, Dr. Marshland," said Miss Smith. "It is nothing."

No, Miss Smith, it is not nothing, he wanted to say. It's your eyes. But even he wasn't forward enough to insist she tell him the truth.

Still, she'd a perfectly lovely pair of eyes, and he'd like very much to examine them more carefully, even without a single thought to his professional duties.

At length they'd all had enough of cards and other games, and the party took refreshments and sat quietly as Miss Jessie played a few sentimental tunes at the pianoforte.

That evidently gave Miss Caroline yet another inspiration, and she turned to Frank once more.

"Would consent to give us a song, Dr. Harrison?" she said sweetly, again displaying a mouthful of teeth.

"Alas, I've always lacked any gift for music, Miss Caroline," said Frank with a smile – a modest smile, of course. "And surely there are people in our midst who actually possess that talent. Pray excuse me."

Yes, please excuse dear Frank, thought Jack. He'll not make a coxcomb of himself.

"Captain Brown, surely you would oblige us," said Augusta Tomkinson hopefully.

"Oh, good heavens, no, Miss Tomkinson," said the captain good-humoredly. "Jessie could tell you I can't manage anything beyond the hymnal, and besides, tonight you must have merrier songs."

Miss Caroline turned to Jack. "Dr. Marshland, do you sing?" It sounded more like a polite inquiry than an invitation, but he wasn't going to let her extract herself easily even if it was.

Jack smiled. "I like nothing better." Now that was a harmless exaggeration; there were a great many things Jack liked better. But they'd always sung together at home, and hadn't his mother always said he had such a fine tenor voice?

"Oh, then you must give us a song," said Mrs. Forrester, who had been watching with interest.

"Yes, please, Dr. Marshland," said Miss Caroline, as her sister blanched.

"It'll be a pleasure." He turned to Miss Jessie. "Do you know 'The Parting Glass'?"

Jessie smiled shyly. "I fear I do not, Dr. Marshland. I have not purchased any new music for some time, and would not know what one sings and plays in Manchester or London."

"Oh, this is a very old tune, nothing fashionable," said Jack with a smile. "You and the other ladies have likely not heard it before, though my mother and sisters certainly have, back at home. So you shall have a rest from playing, Miss Jessie, and my voice must do." He turned to face the company.

"Of all the money that e'er I had,

I spent it in good company.

And all the harm I've ever done,

Alas, it was to none but me.

And all I've done for want of wit

To memory now I can't recall.

So fill for me the parting glass.

Good night, and joy be with you all.

"Of all the comrades that e'er I had,

They're sorry for my going away.

And all the sweethearts that e'er I had,

They'd wish me one more day to stay.

But since it fell into my lot

That I should rise and you should not,

I'll gently rise and softly call

Good night, and joy be with you all."

Later on Jack had to smile at the memory of the way they all sat or stood there with their chins tilted up, their eyes on him, as though he were the rector giving a sermon of a Sunday. Still, there was something beautiful, tender, perhaps even holy in all those faces lit by candlelight, by firelight, and in the hush that fell over the room while he was singing.

He turned his head once during the song and caught Miss Smith's eye. She smiled, and lowered her gaze for just a moment before raising her eyes to him again - such a demure, graceful movement, observable for but a few seconds, and so beguiling. Her face had at once serenity, softness, gravity and mirth. All girls should look like that, thought Jack, and then chuckled to himself at the notion: Wouldn't it be a dull world if there were but one sort of girl! And yet he had to admit how much it pleased him to look at her. He'd had a friend back in London, a painter, who always joked about flattering his clients whenever he did a portrait. Well, he'd never say such a thing if Miss Mary Smith ever sat for him, and besides, he'd be a fool to try to capture her expressive, intelligent eyes, and those lips - such a lovely deep color they were, for all that she was fair - curved in a smile as though she knew a secret the rest of them couldn't possibly discover.

But why think of paintings? She was flesh and blood, not some picture on a wall, and he didn't only want to stand there gazing at her. He wanted to go up to her and engage her in conversation and make her laugh again.

And make her laugh he did, and she him, after they'd said their goodbyes to the Tomkinson sisters and joined the informal procession through the streets of the village. He and Frank and the captain were enlisted as protectors to escort the ladies, each to her own doorstep, with Miss Matty and Miss Smith the last, the last before Jessie and her father crossed the street to their little house.

"Thank you for your kind attention, Captain Brown, and you as well, Dr. Harrison and Dr. Marshland," said Miss Matty to the gentlemen as they all stood before her door.

"It is nothing, Miss Matty, and allow me to wish you and Miss Smith a happy Christmas," said Frank warmly.

"Thank you, Doctor, and I return the wish most sincerely. We were very glad of your company this evening," said Miss Matty.

"Oh, the pleasure was ours, Miss Matty," said Jack, more formally than he was wont to do. He turned to Miss Smith, who offered her hand to him. He clasped it and she curtsied, giving him her smile once again, that smile that bespoke secrets he longed to discover for himself.

When he and Frank walked in the door, they found Mrs. Rose still awake and waiting for them. It tore at Jack's heart to see her sitting alone by the light of a single candle, especially on a Christmas Eve.

But she'd set out beef and wine, and insisted that they take some refreshment before retiring. She'd no appetite herself but did consent to sit up with them for a time, making conversation and even taking a little wine. Jack rather suspected she was a bit fond of Frank, but also determined to rise to the occasion as hostess.

"Do you miss your home, Dr. Marshland?" she said in her soft accent, as she was sitting across the table from Jack.

"Ah, Mrs. Rose, Manchester is my home now," he said evenly. "But yes, I do miss Ireland."

"You looked a little melancholy just then, Dr. Marshland," she said, smiling a little sadly herself. "Perhaps you've left a sweetheart behind."

"Oh, no. It's my mother and three dear little sisters who remain in Ireland."

"Jack has no sweetheart, Mrs. Rose, and that's just as he wishes it, or so he would have you believe," said Frank. "Any woman who tried to snap him up would have the labors of Hercules before her, I assure you."

Mrs. Rose laughed, though surely more out of shock than mirth. "Oh, surely that can't be so, Dr. Harrison." Turning to Jack, she said earnestly, "Your manners are too pleasing and your face too kind for you to remain a bachelor forever, Dr. Marshland. If you have no sweetheart back at home, surely you'll find one in England."

"And perhaps right here in Cranford, Mrs. Rose," said Jack, warming to the subject and giving her his most charming smile. "I've heard the women of this town praised to the skies," he added, ignoring the glare that Frank was directing his way.

Mrs. Rose laughed, again more out of embarrassment than amusement. "Oh, that may be altogether too kind.

"Well, I'd best retire now," she added briskly. "Good night, Dr. Marshland. Good night, Dr. Harrison."

Of course he and Frank were nowhere near ready to retire, not when they'd seen so little of each other, not when there was wine to be drunk and beef to be eaten.

And not when the two of them, like the good men of science they were, needed to conduct a most pressing analysis of recent events and objects of study.

It hadn't been difficult to get Frank talking of Miss Hutton. In fact, once he'd begun, Jack had a job getting him to stop. It was hard to tell whether anyone could live up to the description Frank provided, but it was clear he'd at least chosen a kind-hearted girl, not some jade who would play him for a fool. Jack wished Frank success, if only to keep him from moaning and moping about for the rest of his time in Cranford.

But Jack also had self-interest enough to guide the conversation back to more enticing topics, namely the acquaintance he'd made that evening at the Tomkinsons' party. After some banter about Miss Caroline, her sister, and the other guests, Jack began to address the subject that truly engaged him.

"Well, Frank, you promised me an evening in the company of Cranford's single ladies, and you did not tell a lie. I must confess to you, though, that I shall not be making Miss Caroline an offer."

"Jack, stop!" said Frank, chuckling and pouring himself some more wine, and doing the same for his friend when he held out his glass.

"That Miss Jessie is quite a sweet little thing, though."

"Yes, she is, though I own I do not know her very well. Hers is a sad story, Jack. Her elder sister, whom she nursed for many years, died not long after the family arrived in town."

"God rest her soul. No wonder Miss Jessie was so quiet this evening, and her poor father so melancholy."

"Yes, they have had much to bear."

"They're fortunate in their neighbors, though - Miss Jenkyns and Miss Smith."

"Oh, I have had the greatest esteem for Miss Matty Jenkyns and Miss Mary Smith since my first days in Cranford. Yes, truly, Jack; I do not exaggerate. You will be astonished when I tell you what happened then.

"I'd not been in town long when they brought to me a poor fellow, a young joiner, who had been about some sort of work for the Tomkinson sisters when he fell from a tree and broke his arm - his right arm, Jack, if you please - and it was a very bad case, a compound fracture, and horrified the community, the men as well as the women.

"But the townspeople were magnificent, Jack, even the women, perhaps especially the women. When I insisted I could save the arm - over my cousin's objections, mind you; he was all for amputating the limb straightaway - and meant to set to work that very night, once I'd obtained the right needles for the task, I found there were no candles to be had at the store, and of course I couldn't work without light. That was all Miss Matty needed to know, for at once she gathered up what candles she could spare and offered them to me, and several other ladies did the same, that I might perform my task at once."

"And what of that Miss Smith?"

Frank smiled. "Jack, I could not operate without an assistant, and Miss Smith offered herself. Oh, it was extraordinary. She knew nothing of me or even of the work, and yet I've seldom seen anyone as steady, as sensible as she - the equal of a man, I would say, though Miss Deborah Jenkyns objected to my use of that expression."

"Miss Deborah Jenkyns?"

"Miss Matty's elder sister, Jack, and a formidable lady, I assure you. Miss Smith is of course the companion of the Jenkyns sisters - or rather of Miss Matty, for the elder Miss Jenkyns died this last August." And Frank's smile vanished and he looked at once strangely haggard for a man of his years.

"Well, then God rest her soul, and all her objections. Mind you, she was probably right."

"Right? Are you saying Miss Smith is not every bit the equal of a man?"

Jack laughed. "Now why would you be saying that, Frank, when so many men are such dull fellows, and not half so clever as Miss Smith?"

Frank smiled. "That was very nearly the opinion of the late Miss Jenkyns, who held that woman is in every case man's superior."

"Oh, I'd have not kept silent at that, Frank, not when there are so many silly women about as well."

"Yes. Well, one didn't like to contradict Miss Jenkyns." And Frank smiled again, this time to himself.

"No, I see that. And she was right about Miss Smith, at least."

"Perhaps, and I can think of another lady who is more than deserving of the compliment."

A touch of melancholy had again stolen into Frank's expression, so Jack picked up his wine cup and raised it in a toast. "To superior women."

Frank lifted his glass. "To superior women," he said, with a meaningful look. "May we come to deserve them."

"And win them."

Frank smiled again. "And win them as well."

And with that they both drained their glasses.

The End.