This particular story has been in development for a very long time indeed and, as with all my Cranfic, was inspired by the 2007 series Cranford and its wonderful screenplay (courtesy of Heidi Thomas, who drew upon multiple works by Elizabeth Gaskell).
Commentary and constructive criticism are always welcome, for this or any chapter or story, even one that has been up a while, and I always respond to signed reviews.
I Think the World of You
I was close enough to the door when I heard the knock, and it was with a quick step I went to answer it, but before I did, I stopped to look in glass once more. It wouldn't do to go out with a smudge on my nose, or some such thing, and give folk reason to gossip, and Jem one more thing to tease me about. Not that I mind it when he teases me - I'd be disappointed if he didn't, truth to tell, and any road, I tease him often enough myself - but a girl wants to make herself fine whenever a fellow takes her out walking.
Especially when they only have one afternoon a week.
It had been such a lot of trouble to get the one, too.
I hadn't been allowed followers, at least not while Miss Jenkyns was alive, though any other mistress in the village might've been just the same, since folk looked to her to know what was proper. She was strict, Miss Jenkyns, and clever too, though I reckon Jem and I had proved cleverer still, because we carried on for months without her suspecting a thing.
In the end it was Miss Matty who found us out, and she might never have known if it hadn't been for the valentine.
I'd set it where I could see it as I went about my work: on the kitchen windowsill, right against the pot of crocuses. Of course Jem had brought me the crocuses too, while Miss Matty was away at the Tomkinsons' Christmas Eve, though she'd never guessed.
But she knew well enough that I'd broken my word, soon as she spied the valentine. I hadn't felt at all wicked till then, when I saw Miss Matty looking so disappointed. I'd not have grieved her for all the world, truly not, and so when Jem came round again, I sent him packing.
He did not like that, but I reckon he couldn't have disliked it more than I, or cried about it as I did - almost as much as I'd wept the summer before, when Jem broke his arm falling out of Miss Tomkinson's tree, and I heard Miss Caroline telling the other ladies he was already dead.
But Miss Matty came round, though I never learnt why. One afternoon just before Easter she sent for me, and when I came into the sitting room, wondering what I had done wrong, she only said she'd never meant to grieve the young folk, and that from then on I'd have leave to see Jem once a week, as long as I didn't make a secret of it anymore, and she found him respectable.
She'd kept her word, too, and so had Jem, for there he was at the door again, regular as clockwork, with his hat in his hand and a smile on his face, and that look in his eyes I like to see.
It was a fine day, as fine as any this spring, and we walked out together the way we always did, only further afield this time, all the way to the edge of the woods. The bluebells were out, Jem said, and we were sure to have them to ourselves.
He was right about the one but not the other, for we'd hardly sat down upon the ground when I heard someone calling out, and the leaves rustling and the twigs snapping underfoot. Jem peered through the bushes to see who was about, and when he turned round his face was dark as a thundercloud, and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
One afternoon a week, just one, for Jem to plan for, but he'd not thought that the rector's daughters and Dr. Frank Harrison would come tramping about the same spot he'd chosen. We both of us kept quiet as mice while the little girls shouted and ran about, and Miss Hutton and Dr. Harrison looked for a place where they might sit down, side by side.
Mind you, they'd taken their ease for only a moment when Miss Hutton's sisters were teasing her to join them, and Dr. Harrison had no choice but to follow after.
In a trice all four of them had passed by without ever seeing us, and I was as glad of it as Jem was. It's not that I dislike Dr. Harrison - I'm grateful he saved Jem's arm, and always shall be - but it wouldn't have done for him and Miss Hutton to see us together. Not that we were doing anything wicked, mind, or that I was ashamed of Jem, but folk have no business goggling a courting couple, even if they don't wag their tongues about it afterward.
Besides, I'd wager Dr. Harrison should be happy enough to leave us be, and think instead of the places where he and Miss Hutton might have a bit of peace, just far enough from her sisters, and her father the rector.
When they'd gone on their way, Jem marked how quiet it was. I knew well enough what he meant but still made a show of looking round myself, just to tease him a bit.
"All right, only look sharp. I've got Miss Matty's tea to get."
So pretty a springtime day, and not a living soul about as we lay there together upon the ground. I could smell the grass, and even the woodland flowers, and feel Jem's heart beating - so steady, so strong. My own heart began to thump quicker as Jem pressed against me, till I did not know which was the faster, his or mine, or whether we had but the one heart between the two of us.
Afterwards I was smoothing my dress and fixing my cap when I saw Jem watching me, smiling but not saying a word, and I asked him if I looked all right.
"Oh, aye. Never prettier."
"You're just saying that because you want another kiss."
A smile stole across his face, slowly, and set my heart pounding again - though I wanted to laugh as well, at the same time.
"Well," said Jem, "it's not as though I'll have another chance, once I take you back to Princess Street."
That did make me laugh. He was right, he mightn't, not with Miss Pole's sharp eyes! So I let him have his kiss, and a second one too. We couldn't do as we pleased where folk might look on, and to tell truth, we couldn't do as we pleased for another seven days.
It's a long time, a week.
I reckon Jem would just as soon as stopped there a bit longer and I'd not have minded that myself, but there was a good deal of work left to be done, and at last I set my dress and cap right once more, and then Jem got to his feet and helped me to mine.
He was quiet as we walked back into the village, and his step was not as smart and brisk as it had been when we'd walked out earlier.
He kept hold of my hand too, for as long as we were alone. His own hands are so fine and strong, if a bit rough from working. But he's clever with them, and gentle too, when he has a mind to be.
As soon as Jem had brought me to the door of the house on Princess Street and we'd taken our leave of each other - without so much as a handclasp, but that couldn't be helped - I slipped inside and went straight about my work, just as if Miss Matty had never given me leave to go at all.
After I'd seen to the kitchen and made a start on the tea, I stepped into the sitting room to tidy up. Lying there on the settee was that book Miss Matty's grown so fond of, and as I picked it up something tumbled out from inside - a yellow primrose, it must have been once, though it had gone dry. I couldn't tell the place it had marked, but still I laid it carefully between the leaves, lest Miss Matty see it had gone missing -
"There you are, Martha dear. I thought I heard you come in."
I fairly jumped, and almost dropped the book of verse, but when I straightened up there stood Miss Matty, smiling in that way she has, though I could see her eyes were red.
I knew she wouldn't want me to take any notice of that, or the way she was trying to put away her pocket handkerchief before I could see it, but I did, and it almost broke my heart. A kinder soul never lived in this village, and many another village besides, I'd wager. I don't know why the good Lord gives some folk such trouble, and others a life of ease. I reckon that Mrs. Jamieson never wept as Miss Matty does, even if she is a widow lady.
It had been worse in the autumn, of course, so soon after Miss Jenkyns had died, but since Easter I'd again caught Miss Matty crying more than once, usually when she was sitting on her own with that book of poems on her knee.
"Such a fine day for a walk in the bluebell woods," she was saying to me. "Did you have a pleasant time?"
It ought to have been a simple thing to say, Yes, madam, just as Miss Jenkyns taught me to do, but all at once I forgot the book and Miss Matty's handkerchief and the tea, and couldn't speak a single word. I was thinking only of Jem and how he'd told me that afternoon he wanted us to be wed. I knew then he loved me, and was set on doing things proper, and yet still I didn't want Miss Matty finding out what we were about. She'd never have understood what it's like when a fellow looks on you with a smile and a thought as plain as the nose on his face.
I was standing there tongue-tied, cheeks burning, and would be there still if Miss Smith hadn't walked into the room, her hands full of spring flowers, and thank the Lord, there was no more talk of fine days and walks and bluebell woods.
It would be another week before Jem and I would see each other again. The memory of that afternoon would have to do me, and I own I thought on it very often when I was about my work, or when I'd lie abed, waiting for sleep to come.
Most of all when I lay abed.
But it was never long before my eyes grew heavy, and I fell asleep, and then it was morning, and I'd wake and find I'd forgotten all my dreams, and whether they'd been of Jem and me lying where the bluebells were once again in bloom.