The following was inspired by the BBC's Cranford, which was adapted from Cranford, Mr. Harrison's Confessions, and My Lady Ludlow, all by Elizabeth Gaskell. I have no connection to either the BBC or Mrs. Gaskell, and of course take liberties galore with the canon. I've also made use of a snippet of Heidi Thomas's actual Cranford script. See if you can find it.
Miss Tomkinson appears in Mr. Harrison's Confessions, and the characterization below was inspired not only by that but by actress Deborah Findlay's portrayal in the 2007 Cranford miniseries.
No Good Deed
Envy was a sin. This Augusta had been taught from childhood. Wasn't it there in the commandments? Thou shalt not covet.
But a closer examination of her conscience revealed it could not possibly be covetousness as such that was plaguing her just now. Indeed she desired neither money nor other material goods, and was content enough in her little cottage, which she need no longer share, not since Caroline's marriage, and where she lived as comfortably as might any woman of her station. Her parents, of course, had provided so well for them that neither she nor her sister had ever really lacked for anything.
Of course it was also true that at times Augusta had practiced certain economies for Caroline's benefit, especially during the anxious months following Dr. Harrison's arrival in town. There had been the matter of the preparations for Lady Ludlow's garden party, for instance, and Augusta's decision to forgo a new gown for herself, that Caroline might have a glorious new dress with an impressive number of flounces. Truth to tell, though, Augusta had brought all that gleaming red fabric home as much to gladden Carry's heart as to allow her to appear to advantage at the fete.
And what did it matter if the latter had proven a fool's errand, as the attentions of Dr. Harrison had almost from the first been drawn to Miss Hutton, and not to Caroline at all? All had at resolved itself, and very well.
To be sure, there had been a great deal of confusion, and not a little heartache, for many months thereafter, when Carry might in the course of a single day prove querulous, simpering, and giddy by turns, depending upon how her fortunes rose or fell. Such care she had taken with her toilette, and such a watchful eye she had kept whenever they went out, even if only to walk to church or to Johnson's Universal Stores! The merest glimpse of Dr. Harrison must on those occasions prove ample reward, and the disappointment great if he did not appear.
Still, what did any of that matter now? Everything had resolved itself satisfactorily, first with one wedding and then another. Moreover it had in the end been a few kind words, and not yards of silk, that had won Caroline a husband.
Augusta could even now not quite believe it. Caroline wed to plump, pleasant Mr. Goddard, who kept a butcher's shop! Surely no one, not even Caroline herself, might have foreseen this turn of events. Truly the Lord worked in mysterious ways, if indeed the Lord was responsible for this particular match.
But whether Caroline's good fortune was owing to divine providence or no, her sister could not say she envied her.
Yet even so there was an emptiness that plagued Augusta these days. She could not account for it.
Nothing in the village had truly changed -- well, not wholly. There was the matter of the railway, of course, and Augusta remained unconvinced as to its value, whatever Captain Brown might say. But it was not the prospect of the railway rushing towards them -- like an angry bull, as Miss Pole said -- that had unsettled her.
Perhaps her nerves had never truly recovered since the arrival of Dr. Harrison. Such a fuss they had made then, as though they'd never seen a physician before! They had all been used to good Dr. Morgan, to his unfailing kindness and discretion, his implicit understanding of decorum. Young Dr. Harrison had learnt his profession in London and therefore brought with him some very odd notions and customs, and caused a great deal of trouble, whether he meant to or not.
But Augusta also had to admit the young physician possessed a degree of knowledge and even of courage that had served the village very well. Dr. Morgan should never have had the audacity to insist Jem Hearne could be made well and whole again after he'd broken his arm -- right on Augusta's own property; she could not forget that -- he'd have performed an amputation at once, however much the poor fellow had begged him not to. Any experienced physician would have done as much, and so Dr. Morgan told them. It was the accepted practice.
Dr. Harrison, though, had insisted he might save the arm. He had seen such an operation attempted, and he had seen it succeed.
And succeed he did, in that long night when the ladies had gathered up what candles they could spare, that he might have sufficient light for his task, and they all waited as he worked, with Miss Smith serving as assistant and Miss Deborah Jenkyns silently praying for the life of Jem Hearne.
On that night the young joiner had been saved from a wretched fate, and they had all learnt to hope.
That was it -- hope. That was the forbidden fruit that had put an end to their Eden. Dr. Morgan -- kind, steady Dr. Morgan, whom she'd known since she was barely more than a girl herself -- would have seen Jem Hearne in the workhouse. Instead Dr. Harrison had boldly attempted more, and Jem not only survived but prospered in every fashion.
Dr. Harrison himself in those first months seemed to prosper quite as much, indeed more. Every door stood open to him; every tongue gave report of his abilities, to say nothing of his pleasing manners and person. He had from the beginning been a particular favorite of Caroline, who had all at once declared herself in delicate health, and in need only of the physic he provided -- no, willingly provided -- and she was thinking, Augusta suspected, neither of tonics nor of purges.
So Dr. Harrison had been held in high esteem among them that first month or two, until the day Lady Ludlow held her garden party, and events took such a turn as to leave them all reeling. First came the news of this most unsettling plan for a railway, which Sir Charles Maulver and even Captain Brown had kept from them.
They'd had but a few hours to recover from that blow when it was reported that Miss Jenkyns -- whose place in the community could never be filled, not even by her sister, dear though she was -- had died most unexpectedly.
But most tragic of all, on that very same night the rector had suffered the loss of his only son, despite the ministrations of Dr. Harrison. Though the Huttons held him quite blameless, or said they did, the townsfolk would whisper of the matter, and the reports no doubt reached Dr. Harrison's ears. For months thereafter Augusta was certain she saw a haunted look in the young physician's eyes.
But then she knew herself how cruel gossip might prove.
"Both of them now -- both of them. Poor Augusta!"
"I should rather have said 'poor Caroline.' The child has never known a mother's love, and now has lost her father as well."
"She will have her sister's care, though, and want for nothing."
"That is true enough, and Augusta is uncommonly prudent."
"And I dare say she will rear the girl tolerably well, and perhaps see to it that little Carry makes a good match."
"Do you think so?"
"Of course, though we should not expect the same for Augusta. There are few enough opportunities for her as it is, and those will surely be driven away by the presence of the child."
"It is just as well. I do not think Augusta feels any longing for matrimony; indeed men are wholly mysterious creatures to her. But I dare say she was formed to be an old maid. See how even now she has that pinched look about her mouth!"
"Do not be so unkind. She is no beauty, that is true, but her complexion is very fine, and her manner of dress beyond reproach. Moreover she is an excellent housekeeper. I do not know how her mother should have kept the accounts without her."
"Well, yes, she is shrewd, even rather clever. But tell the truth now: Can you imagine a gentleman paying his attentions to her?"
"I confess I cannot."
"Nor can I."
Summer had turned to autumn, and autumn to winter, and Dr. Harrison went about his rounds, and the rector stood before them on Sundays as he always had, and yet on occasion one might observe Miss Hutton and her sisters going to the churchyard to visit a little grave, sometimes bringing an offering of flowers. But it was for their own grief they did so, Augusta knew; their brother should never have cared for such things, and their papa looked to heaven, not this good earth, to find comfort.
And so the time passed, and their spirits seemed much subdued as the Yuletide approached. But if they were melancholy, at least they were calm -- calm, that is, until that dreadful business outside Johnson's, and the robbery of Dr. Harrison's own house! Then were their nerves in a fine state indeed, and it should have proven a trying winter altogether had they not made some effort to rally.
Augusta thought a Christmas Eve party should soothe and divert them nicely, and had not the least trouble convincing Caroline to accept the plan. Neither sister spoke of it, but such a gathering should of course afford them the opportunity of an evening spent in young Dr. Harrison's company, and acquaint him with their hospitality as well. Indeed Carry was fairly giddy at the prospect.
She was very nearly alone in her enthusiasm, though perhaps no one ought to have been astonished at that. There had been such trouble that year, first with the sad loss of Miss Brown, an invalid who had never stirred out of doors, and then of Miss Jenkyns and young Walter Hutton, both of whom belonged to the very lifeblood of the village.
It saddened them all to think of how the rector and his daughters should bear the season without the little lad's company, and of how Miss Matty should fare without her sister. And it was only with great effort that Mrs. Forrester and Miss Smith persuaded their grieving friend to regard a Christmas Eve party as a fitting tribute to Miss Jenkyns's memory, rather than the reverse.
And dear Captain Brown, for all that he accepted the Tomkinson sisters' invitation with warmth and proper gratitude, could not conceal his own subdued spirits. Poor man! At Christmastide he must feel the loss of his elder daughter most keenly.
As for Miss Jessie, she, like her father, had accepted graciously, and been pleasant to all the company, and even consented to play for them that evening. Yet Augusta saw very well that the melancholy expression never entirely left her eyes. But then that was always so, however much she smiled, whenever they met her in the street or outside church.
It was to be many months before anyone realized it had not been for her poor sister alone that Miss Jessie's heart ached.
A woman's heart. Such secrets it held! Such trials it endured, such unanticipated assaults!
The proof of that came in the months following the Christmas party, and in a good deal of mischief.
It was of course that Irishman who had been the author of it all. Caroline herself must have provided the inspiration for the plan the very day they'd met him and his friend Dr. Harrison outside Johnson's. She'd spoken of valentines and then asked Dr. Harrison whether he affixed any meaning to such gallantries -- innocently coquettish words that drew a polite response from one physician and wicked devices from the other!
Not many days after Caroline had been thrilled by the arrival of a frilled valentine -- anonymous, of course, as all such tokens must be.
My heart aches;
I can no longer tarry.
You must give me physic,
And agree to marry.
Augusta had found the verse and especially the hand wanting, but Carry had been delighted, and satisfied herself that she had divined not only the identity of the sender but the sincerity of his wishes. To that Augusta could only observe that she should miss Caroline very much when she was married.
Of course by May Day would the truth be revealed: Dr. Harrison's affections were engaged by Miss Hutton. Indeed he had already made his intentions plain to the rector himself.
Thereafter it was left to Miss Smith to discover that it had been Dr. Marshland, and not his friend, who had sent the valentine.
Augusta had already seen her Carry endure public humiliation such as she might never have imagined, but the revelation from Miss Smith was altogether too much. There was no doubt as to the proper course of action, and Augusta put pen to paper well before her anger had cooled. Yet she flattered herself that even in the midst of her ire she rose to a sort of eloquence.
How could you have sent those valentines to Reverend Hutton's daughters, and to my poor sister? I dare say, Dr. Marshland, that you have no sisters of your own; else you could not have subjected a woman's tenderest hopes to such cruel disappointment, and indeed made sport of them.
I confess I never regarded the deliberate humiliation of a friend or neighbor as a proper amusement for young gentlemen, nor for anyone else. No doubt you think otherwise, and would perhaps school us all in the ways of the masculine sex. We do not thank you for the lesson, sir, and would remind you that though you regard a valentine as a mere plaything, to a lady it is something else entirely. This you have not learnt and perchance will never learn...
Augusta had thought it quite correct when Dr. Marshland had, in response, sent a letter of abject apology to Carry, and one to herself. His penitence seemed genuine enough, as did his explanations: He'd sent the valentines to the little Hutton girls to amuse them, and the one to her sister was not intended as any manner of insult but only as a continuation of his merry war with his erstwhile comrade from Guy's Hospital. Dr. Harrison had been so cossetted among the ladies in Cranford, and could bear a little teasing.
But he had not thought to wound Miss Caroline, truly he had not. As for having no sister of his own, why, he'd three, and they were fully as dear to him as anyone on earth, and any man who so much as caused them to shed a tear must answer to him!
He humbly begged pardon for all the trouble he'd caused, and hoped they'd think to forgive him, someday.
After such a letter Augusta could not find it in her heart to bear a grudge. Dr. Marshland had taken her rebuke in the proper spirit and was now a reformed young man, and there should be no more of his boyish pranks. Indeed they might receive him as before, especially since he and Dr. Harrison remained fast friends, and Miss Matty herself counted it no shame to receive the Irishman in her own home.
But then there was reason for that. It was evident he was paying his attentions to Miss Smith, and Augusta suspected that he would make her an offer before a twelvemonth was out.
Or perhaps sooner. Indeed, consider what had happened with Caroline. Augusta had never discerned the least hint of attraction between her sister and Mr. Goddard until the day they'd spoken to him about poor Miss Matty's reduced circumstances, and Caroline had risen to the occasion with particular kindness. The good man was clearly charmed, and her sister evidently no less pleased, and in a trice had shed the Tomkinson name, and this after all the tears shed over Dr. Harrison. Augusta could not but pronounce herself astonished.
And she was equally baffled by Miss Smith, who had until then shown abundant good sense as well as remarkable resolve. After the nonsense with Dr. Marshland's valentines, she had sent him her own letter of rebuke, and expressed the strongest doubt that he should ever regain her good opinion. Yet now, from what Augusta could observe, and all Miss Pole might report, it seemed entirely possible that Miss Smith would entrust her very life and happiness to the young Irishman. Truly the human heart was a perverse thing.
Perhaps Dr. Morgan was right. A heart awakened to love, and thereafter disappointed, should prove remarkably resilient, and respond to the curative powers of the affection of family and friends.
Dr. Morgan was kind, and certainly understood women a good deal better than did Dr. Marshland or, for that matter, Dr. Harrison. Still, Augusta should have thought that a wounded heart would not heal so swiftly. She only had her own heart as a measure, of course -- but no, surely that was not so, for there were among them other broken hearts.
Of that Augusta was certain.
It was a wonderfully mild day in spring, and she and Caroline were returning from Johnson's when they met with Mrs. Forrester.
"Miss Pole and Miss Matty are just gone off with the fly, to be taken to Woodley," said that good lady, her voice trembling with emotion.
"To Woodley?" said Caroline. "Whatever for?"
"It is bad news, I fear. Miss Pole's cousin, Thomas Holbrook, has just returned from Paris, and is ill, most gravely ill."
"Poor man!" said Augusta.
"Oh, whatever could he have wanted, gadding about such a wicked place?" said Mrs. Forrester in a burst of indignation and grief. "Just see what has come of it!"
"But you said that they have taken Miss Matty to Woodley," said Caroline. "Is she also some relation to poor Mr. Holbrook?"
"No, my dear," said Mrs. Forrester quietly. "Indeed she is not."
"Then why --"
Augusta laid a hand on Caroline's arm before she could complete her question. "Do go on, Mrs. Forrester," she said gently.
Mrs. Forrester looked very nearly fearful at the prospect of saying more, yet the secret she held was clearly weighing upon her as well. "There was at one time," she began, pausing as emotion overwhelmed her once more. "There was at one time a -- a friendship between Miss Matty and Mr. Holbrook."
"A friendship?" breathed Caroline. "Oh, indeed."
"One never speaks of it, of course. Not now."
"No, of course not," murmured Augusta as Mrs. Forrester struggled against tears.
"And barely a soul alive knows she was obliged to refuse him --"
"Refuse him?" said Caroline, her face pale with shock. "You mean that Miss Matty --"
Mrs. Forrester nodded helplessly, finally giving way to her weeping. Caroline turned to Augusta, both of them perplexed as to what to say.
But Mrs. Forrester, for all her tears, was the next to speak.
"She's gone to him now. She's gone to him at last."
Later Augusta saw Jem Hearne, suitably attired in coat and hat, set forth in the direction of Woodley with his cart, and the coffin upon it.
His destination could not and did not remain a secret, of course, and for some days thereafter Miss Pole received condolences from all of her friends, though there was no similar ritual they might observe for Miss Matty.
Augusta and Caroline never again spoke of poor Mr. Holbrook, yet for some evenings afterwards Caroline was pensive, and abandoned her beloved novels in favor of verse -- nonsense about gathering rosebuds and suchlike -- which she insisted upon reading aloud to her sister.
And she spoke often of time, and fretted that she should be past thirty, and have as yet no husband.
As for Augusta, she did her best to soothe Caroline, and promise there should be an opportunity for her soon, and she should know her answer, when the time came.
Augusta had hardly believed her own words, and yet all had come to pass almost exactly as she had said, though of course not quite in the manner they had expected.
But she did miss her sister, very much, now that she was married.
To be sure, there were compensations. It was pleasant to visit Caroline in her own home, and of course Mr. Goddard was kindness itself, and paid proper deference to his sister-in-law. He'd see to it, too, that Augusta never lacked for beef or mutton!
And to her utter astonishment, the little twins, Carry's stepson and stepdaughter, had quite taken to their "Aunty Gusta" and her wonderful parlor full of good hiding places. She found that she looked forward to their visits, and if she was always tired after they were gone, it was a contented sort of exhaustion. She had always been fond of children, indeed had performed nearly every duty of a mother, though no one should ever call her "Mamma," as the twins now did to Caroline.
She ought to have felt a deep contentment, yet instead her inner agitation persisted, and she could not account for it.
She felt, rather than saw, that she was older. Indeed when she looked in the glass she saw the same face still, with bright eyes and an amusing little dimple in the chin, and the fair, smooth complexion in which she had always taken a secret pride.
And she remained the same girl within she had always been, whatever her age might be now. One grew older, and altered in subtle fashion, yet kept the same secrets within one's heart. Why did no one talk of such things?
Her heart grew so restless that she could not but call upon Dr. Morgan and seek his advice. She was not ill, she assured him, only eager to preserve the abundant good health she had always enjoyed, and never become a burden to anyone.
Dr. Morgan, bless him, was delicacy itself, and inquired discreetly after her habits, and urged her to take special care with her diet and rest. He might prescribe a tonic, of course, if she wished, but in his experience, nothing caused a lady to thrive so well as the adoption of healthful practices in her daily life, such as a gentle walk to church, or the selection of only the most edifying of books, and the avoidance of all distressing or distasteful subjects. Above all else, he said, she must seek the society of her family and friends.
Neither he nor Augusta spoke of it, but both knew that with time and ill luck she should be consigned to a room in Carry's home, to be kept quiet and perhaps brought out for matins and whist. Privately Augusta dreaded such a prospect, and could not help but think it better to depart this earth as Miss Deborah Jenkyns had, at the height of her powers, with strength of mind and purpose, and indeed the unquestioned regard of the village. In an instant she reproached herself for such a thought, but it would persist, almost against her will.
She said none of this to Dr. Morgan, however, but only thanked him for his kind consideration and bade him farewell.
"I saw her with the twins the other day."
"Yes, how well they look together! One should never know they were not her own."
"Oh, indeed; she is tenderness itself with them, and seems vastly contented."
"And well she should be. After her disappointment with that young doctor, I had thought she would end like her sister."
"Oh, surely not. Miss Caroline has always possessed a softer, more sentimental spirit -- more pleasing, if you will, and certainly more receptive to masculine attentions."
"Upon my word, that sister of hers does have a rather stern and forbidding countenance!"
"Indeed she does. It is well she never had any children of her own."
"My dear Miss Tomkinson," said Reverend Hutton, with a little smile playing on his lips. "It would be very wrong of me to ask you to recite the catechism here and now."
"Rector, I am in earnest," said Augusta in a soft, uncharacteristically tremulous voice.
"So am I."
"I dare say you think it strange that a lady of my years should come to you and pose such a question," she continued, lowering her eyes. "And yet even so in recent days I cannot help but ponder the purpose for which I was formed." There was an unmistakable note of anguish within the last phrase; she could not avoid it.
"Miss Tomkinson," said Reverend Hutton in reply, most gently, "I did not refer to the catechism heedlessly, for surely it is there that you find your answer. For brevity's sake, I will not speak all the words at present -- indeed I need not, for surely you know them as well as do I -- but only say that you were made to love and serve God, and to love your neighbor as yourself."
"It is a curious thing, Rector," said Augusta. "I feel somehow that I have failed in that regard, for all that I cannot put a name to a sin."
"Indeed I do not think most of us could put names to our sins," said Reverend Hutton, sighing. "And I should think, then," he continued, "that you can think of no fashion in which you have neglected your duty to God and your neighbor?"
His voice was very low, but it was enough to bring forth the tears Augusta had long fought against.
"My dear Miss Tomkinson," he said again.
"Forgive me, Rector." Augusta struggled to produce her handkerchief, and was most disconcerted when the good man seemed about to offer her his own. For a moment she composed herself, dabbing at her eyes, while the rector kept a discreet silence.
"Pray do not misunderstand my tears," she continued, when she was able to speak. "For there is no wickedness I wish to confess. Perhaps that is wicked in itself, but I truly cannot think of anything."
The rector evidently could not but help smile a little at that.
Augusta continued. "And yet when I contemplate my life, I think it a very poor one indeed." And at that her tears began afresh.
"But surely, Miss Tomkinson," said Reverend Hutton softly, "it is a life rich in good works."
At that Augusta recovered a bit, even managed to smile through her tears. "Oh, that cannot be said."
"Can it not? And yet, given your history, and your sister's, I am obliged to believe that there is one commandment you have always faithfully kept."
"And what is that, Rector?"
"'Honor thy father and thy mother.'"
To her immense astonishment, Reverend Hutton's words of counsel -- and perhaps her own tears -- had given some comfort to Augusta's heart, and indeed the sense that her soul had undergone some cleansing.
Curiously, though, on departing from the rectory, her first impulse was not to repair to her cottage and attend to her prayers, but to indulge a whim to walk through the village. It was on this day unseasonably mild, and she thought it might prove diverting to visit the shops. Indeed it was near to St. Valentine's Day once more, and there ought to be an abundance of posies to admire.
And truly she needed to go see Miss Galindo. With Caroline's marriage and all the expense for her trousseau, it had been some time since Augusta had purchased any article for herself. A new bonnet should refresh her entirely, and dear Miss Galindo would be glad of the custom.
The only question was whether she ought to apply to Carry for her opinion, as she was ever wont to do. In a trice Augusta decided that should not be necessary; for once she might go to see the milliner on her own. Miss Galindo had of course the most exquisite taste, and could be trusted implicitly.
The lady also possessed no appetite whatsoever for gossip -- a most admirable trait, Augusta thought, and a refreshing one. Indeed she liked the milliner the better for her gentleness and tolerance, her evident lack of envy and spite.
Well, then. She would call at Miss Galindo's shop on her way and between them they ought to settle on a design for a new bonnet, or at least a date for an appointment.
And then she should see to the flowers.
Augusta's spirits remained serene throughout the following days. She paid calls to Mrs. Forrester, Miss Pole, and of course dear Miss Matty, and spent a good deal of time amusing her young nephew and niece, and providing company to her sister.
And she made good on her resolution to apply to Miss Galindo for assistance. As it happened, the milliner did indeed have some charming ideas for new bonnets and caps, and approached Augusta's every request most adroitly, providing news of the fashions favored by ladies in other parts of England, and on the continent as well. Augusta had no need to impress her neighbors, but she also had no wish to be backward, and so listened to Miss Galindo with interest.
She was returning home from an appointment with Miss Galindo when she saw the rector's trap rolling through the street. At once she felt a strange shyness, as though he had discovered her in some mischief. Still, she resolutely continued forward until she was beside the vehicle and it drew to a stop.
"Good day to you, Reverend Hutton. Miss Lizzie. Helen."
"Good day to you, Miss Tomkinson."
How sad the rector's smile was! Why had she not seen that before?
"Hello, Miss Tomkinson."
"Hello, Miss Tomkinson."
The girls were dutifully polite but clearly eager to reach their destination -- one of the shops, no doubt -- and she should not keep them. Still, she felt she must acknowledge the service their father had provided, and smiled gently at him as they all exchanged pleasantries, and the girls spoke of some excursion or other, and all the while the rector seemed distracted.
After they had gone on their way, Augusta realized she had not been able to stop herself from unconsciously counting the children riding in the trap -- two. There were but two left now, Lizzie and Helen.
Sophy, the eldest, had of course gone to her own home, and all was well with her. Indeed she might visit the rectory as often as she liked, and gladden her father's heart.
But Walter should not return.
Augusta realized she had not thought of the little fellow at once, and yet the very sight of the rector with his daughters had left her unsettled. There ought to have been one other person in that trap -- no, there ought to have been two, not counting dear Sophy, of course, for then there ought to have been three.
And in time Helen and Lizzie too would go their way, as Sophy had done, and then should the rector be wholly alone. The prospect chilled her to the very heart. Poor Reverend Hutton! What should he do then?
At least he should see his girls after they were all married. And yet for him, there should always be a child missing -- always, always. There was nothing for it.
Augusta's child had gone too, she remembered. And yet her child lived. Her child lived and prospered.
With that she smiled, a little sadly, and continued on her way towards home.
"No good deed goes unpunished." Clare Booth Luce