The following is based on the 2007 BBC series Cranford, adapted from Cranford, Mr. Harrison's Confessions, and My Lady Ludlow, all by Elizabeth Gaskell. Specifically, the story concerns episode three, and I have made use of several lines from Heidi Thomas's wonderful script.
And as "The Sussex Mummers' Carol" is always sung at the conclusion of Christmas Revels, I had to find a place for it somewhere in this story!
Chapter 5: Where E'er His Body Rides or Walks
God bless the master of this house
With happiness beside;
Where e'er his body rides or walks,
His God must be his guide.
- "The Sussex Mummers' Carol"
Christmas Eve. It was not as cold as it might have been, yet no man in his right mind would want to be abroad on such a night.
Certainly Sir Charles Maulver had no desire to be, and indeed why should he? This was an evening to take one's ease, to offer one's neighbors the compliments of the season, in good will and in fellowship. It was hardly a time to be peremptorily summoned out into the cold, and to the jail, no less, even if it was Lady Ludlow's particular wish.
In a black mood Sir Charles had ordered his horse saddled, in preparation to set off into the dusk, and forgo the comforts of his fireside, and mutter a curse or two under his breath - a forgivable offense, surely, under the circumstances.
What in God's name was her ladyship playing at? There was no issue at hand save this business with the mayor and the vagabond Job Gregson - a matter that should be quickly dispatched, likely before the new year. Gregson would be found guilty, and there would be an end of things.
That squatter and poacher was, of course, of no concern to her ladyship, unless her devotion to charity had of late taken a most peculiar turn - which, Sir Charles had to admit, was improbable but not impossible. He had the highest esteem for his neighbor but suspected very much that years spent in the empty parlors and endless hallways of that damnably large house could indeed plant the seeds of eccentricity, particularly in a widow of advanced years. Why, he himself might well run mad if made to live alone at Hanbury Court, especially throughout the long winter evenings.
The season and the hour dictated that his business was best accomplished swiftly, and it was at a gallop that Sir Charles passed through the streets of the village, deserted now, on Christmas Eve, though light spilling from many a window gave indication of homely comforts within.
There were no such signs of comfort and cheer in the marketplace, where the jail held its lone prisoner, and where her ladyship's carriage stood, well attended by a pair of luckless servants, and by a tall fellow in a greatcoat, and by the constable, summoned from his own fireside to discharge his official duties.
"What the devil's going on, Graves?" said Sir Charles, dismounting.
"Her ladyship awaits you in her carriage, sir."
"A fine Christmas Eve this is!"
The second man spoke up. "Sir Charles."
So Lady Ludlow's steward had been brought into this matter, as well. Perhaps that was only right; she had no son to accompany her, let alone manage her affairs, and it was not as though Carter had wife or child of his own to think of on such a night.
The lamplight did not fully illuminate the interior of the carriage, so that it was almost that he must sense her ladyship's presence, rather than see it for himself. But her voice, if soft, was steady and firm, and betrayed no deference for his office.
He was not her equal; that was true. But she was a woman, and ought not to have concerned herself with such a fellow as Gregson. Hadn't she tenants enough to think of, and that charitable school?
But he invoked neither Hanbury nor those wretched girls as he set forth his case in the plainest terms, and in his clearest, strongest voice. Gregson should be tried, and found guilty, of the most serious of charges.
Her ladyship remained vexingly calm, her own voice never rising much above a murmur as she answered his objections. Gregson was guilty of poaching, nothing more - and nothing less, thought Sir Charles darkly - and she should pay his fine, to spare his children the loss of their father. In stark daylight, perhaps, such arguments might not stand up to scrutiny, but on Christmas Eve Sir Charles would not thwart her in an act of Christian charity.
Of course he'd also no wish to see a miscreant treated so mildly; it was unlikely that Gregson should prove suitably grateful, and the mayor should object to the plan as a gross miscarriage of justice, though he would not dare say as much to her ladyship. In fact, natural deference, combined with ambition, might very well deny Johnson the pleasure of complaining of his hard fate.
Sir Charles smiled to himself at the prospect. Perhaps it would be a merry Christmas after all.
Harry had been holding his breath since the magistrate arrived, but even so he could hear nothing of what was being said inside Lady Ludlow's carriage. Mr. Carter could hear it all, of course, but Harry could not ask him. He'd never be able to ask him anything -
Just then the door of the carriage swung open, and Harry saw Sir Charles Maulver getting out again, and heard Lady Ludlow's voice, for the first time since she'd come to see them at home.
"Mr. Carter, take the constable's key."
Liberty. Mr. Carter had taught him the word, taught him to write it, had even shown Harry a place in the Bible where it was used.
...proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound...
It had sounded very fine when Mr. Carter had read it aloud, and now Harry was glad he had learnt the verse by heart. Proclaim liberty to the captives. He wanted to say it to Mr. Carter when he unlocked the door and let Dada come out, but he thought Mr. Carter might still be cross about the poaching. Any road, Lady Ludlow had wanted to speak to Dada first, and when that was done it was time to go home.
"Come on, lad," said Dada softly, putting a hand on Harry's shoulder. As they turned to leave, Harry heard a voice behind them.
"Mind you get safely home."
He turned round and looked up at Mr. Carter.
"Thank you, sir."
Mr. Carter didn't smile at that, but he didn't seem cross anymore either. For a moment he stood looking at the cold, hard ground. Then he looked up again and said, "It's Christmas Eve. You'd best be on your way."
"Yes, sir. Good night, sir."
And as Harry turned to go, he was sure he saw Mr. Carter smile. He was sure of it.
They said little to each other on the way back to Hanbury Court, but such silence was fitting upon this night, and this occasion. Mr. Carter had heard each word she had uttered to Sir Charles, and there was no call to say anything more, either in praise or in censure.
It was only when they had arrived at the house and she had been handed out of the carriage that Mr. Carter dared address the business that had taken them abroad on Christmas Eve.
"My lady," he said, "I am grateful, most truly grateful."
She knew it had cost him an effort both to utter the words and to remain silent during their journey to and from Cranford, yet still she replied, "On such a night, Mr. Carter, let us not speak of gratitude, except to the One to whom it is properly due, as the Author of all life."
"Yes, my lady."
"I think, however," she said, smiling slightly, "that we may take some contentment in knowing we have this night sought to perform His will." At that Mr. Carter's expression altered slightly, the line almost disappearing from between his brows, the pale eyes gleaming like winter ice, or the jewels she now kept hidden away. For an instant her stern estate manager seemed to vanish, and he was but her confederate, her confidant, and her fellow-traveler to the grave.
Then, just as quickly, their former relationship was restored, and they took their leave in the accustomed manner. Yet she smiled at him as he departed, and afterwards thought, however impassive her steward's countenance, however brusque his words, she might read his heart as easily as her own prayer-book.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
It was a cold night - not so cold as it might have been, of course, but fully bitter enough, especially on such a Christmas Eve as this, when her very heart seemed numb with fear and dread as much as cold. Tonight sleep would come only with the greatest difficulty, and that long after the little ones were abed. There was much to think upon. There should always be too much to think upon.
It did not help matters that Harry had not yet returned from the village, but she must not allow herself to think what might have become of him. She would not; it should be too much to bear -
Just then there came the sound of twigs snapping underfoot, of leaves rustling. Someone was coming through the woods, and whistling a carol. It was a merry tune, one she'd learnt when she was but a girl.
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the woods
The holly bears the crown.
Outside a cry went up from Malachi and the little girls, but she dared not hope until she saw the both of them, Job and Harry, striding towards the house. And she did not truly believe it until her husband came to her, bending down for a kiss, his beard tickling her cheek and chin, and causing her to laugh and cry in the same instant.
Constable Graves stretched his legs out towards the hearth. A man should think he was in heaven at a moment like this, with the littler ones already abed and the elder gathered at the fireside. A good, strong fire it was too, one that ought to last the evening and keep the chill from his bones.
His missus was settled in her accustomed chair and had her sewing out, but she seemed to pay it little mind this evening, preferring instead to stare into the fire as one of the girls told a Christmas story.
He ought to have paid some mind to the tale himself, but in truth he was nearly dozing already, from warmth and contentment. There was nothing to worry about this evening, nothing at all.
Yet as he nodded before the fire, he had to wonder again at all he'd seen tonight. Graves wouldn't have believed her ladyship had such a soft heart, or that Sir Charles would allow himself to be swayed by a woman, or that Gregson's luck would take such a turn, if he'd not seen it all with his own eyes, heard report of it with his own ears. Truly a remarkable Christmas Eve, and the ladies should want to talk of nothing else for weeks on end.
But then they must amuse themselves in some manner; there was little else to do in such a quiet place. Indeed he wagered he'd not have any manner of trouble to think of in these last days of the year. Cranford should be peaceful enough, likely till Twelfth Night. Yes, probably as long as that, he thought to himself. Probably as long as that.
A/N: Matthew 5:7-8: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Isaiah 61:1: "...proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound..."