The Cage at Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (First published in 1863, in All the Year Round.)
“The Cage at Cranford”
Have I told you anything about my friends at Cranford since the year 1856? I think not.
You remember the Gordons, don’t you? She that was Jessie Brown, who married her old love, Major Gordon: and from being poor became quite a rich lady: but for all that never forgot any of her old friends in Cranford.
Well! the Gordons were travelling abroad, for they were very fond of travelling; people who have had to spend part of their lives in a regiment always are, I think. They were now in Paris, in May, i856, and were going to stop there, and in the neighbourhood all summer, but Mr Ludovic was coming to England soon; so Mrs Gordon wrote me word. I was glad she told me, for just then I was waiting to make a little present to Miss Pole, with whom I was staying, so I wrote to Mrs Gordon, and asked her to choose me out something pretty and new and fashionable, that would be acceptable to Miss Pole. Miss Pole had just been talking a great deal about Mrs Fitz-Adam’s caps being so unfashionable, which I suppose made me put in that word fashionable; but afterwards I wished I had sent to say my present was not to be too fashionable; for there is such a thing, I can assure you! The price of my present was not to be more than twenty shillings, but that is a very handsome sum if you put it in that way, though it may not sound so much if you only call it a sovereign.
Mrs Gordon wrote back to me, pleased, as she always was, with doing anything for her old friends. She told me she had been out for a day’s shopping before going into the country, and had got a cage for herself of the newest and most elegant description, and had thought that she could not do better than get another like it as my present for Miss Pole, as cages were so much better made in Paris than anywhere else. I was rather dismayed when I read this letter, for, however pretty a cage might be, it was something for Miss Pole’s own self, and not for her parrot, that I had intended to get. Here had I been finding ever so many reasons against her buying a new cap at Johnsons’ fashion-show, because I thought that the present which Mrs Gordon was to choose for me in Paris might turn out to be an elegant and fashionable head-dress; a kind of cross between a turban and a cap, as I see those from Paris mostly are; and now I had to veer round, and advise her to go as fast as she could, and secure Mr Johnson’s cap before any other purchaser matched it up. But Miss Pole was too sharp for me.
‘Why, Mary,’ said she, ‘it was only yesterday you were running down that cap like anything. You said, you know, that lilac was too old a colour for me; and green too young; and that the mixture was very unbecoming.’
‘Yes, I know,’ said I; ‘but I have thought better of it. I thought about it a great deal last night, and I think — I thought — they would neutralise each other; and the shadows of any colour are, you know — something I know — complementary colours.’ I was not sure of my own meaning, but I had an idea in my head, though I could not express it. She took me up shortly.
‘Child, you don’t know what you are saying. And besides, I don’t want compliments at my time of life. I lay awake, too, thinking of the cap. I only buy one ready-made once a year, and of course it’s a matter for consideration; and I came to the conclusion that you were quite right.’
‘Oh! dear Miss Pole! I was quite wrong; if you only knew — I did think it a very pretty cap — only —’
‘Well! do just finish what you’ve got to say. You’re almost as bad as Miss Matty in your way of talking, without being half as good as she is in other ways; though I’m very fond of you, Mary, I don’t mean I am not; but you must see you’re very off and on, and very muddle-headed. It’s the truth, so you will not mind my saying so.’
It was just because it did seem like the truth at that time that I did mind her saying so; and, in despair, I thought I would tell her all.
‘I did not mean what I said; I don’t think lilac too old or green too young; and I think the mixture very becoming to you; and I think you will never get such a pretty cap again, at least in Cranford.’ it was fully out, so far, at least.
‘Then, Mary Smith, will you tell me what you did mean, by speaking as you did, and convincing me against my will, and giving me a bad night?’
‘I meant — oh, Miss Pole, I meant to surprise you with a present from Paris; and I thought it would be a cap. Mrs Gordon was to choose it, and Mr Ludovic to bring it. I dare say it is in England now; only it’s not a cap, And I did not want you to buy Johnson’s cap, when I thought I was getting another for you.’
Miss Pole found this speech ‘muddle-headed,’ I have no doubt, though she did not say so, only making an odd noise of perplexity. I went on: ‘I wrote to Mrs Gordon, and asked her to get you a present — something new and pretty. I meant it to be a dress, but I suppose I did not say so; I thought it would be a cap, for Paris is so famous for caps, and it is —’
‘You’re a good girl, Mary’ (I was past thirty, but did not object to being called a girl; and, indeed, I generally felt like a girl at Cranford, where everybody was so much older than I was), ‘but when you want a thing, say what you want; it is the best way in general. And now I suppose Mrs Gordon has bought something quite different? — a pair of shoes, I dare say, for people talk a deal of Paris shoes. Anyhow, I’m just as much obliged to you, Mary, my dear. Only you should not go and spend your money on me.’
‘It was not much money; and it was not a pair of shoes. You’ll let me go and get the cap, won’t you? It was so pretty — somebody will be sure to snatch it up.’
‘I don’t like getting a cap that’s sure to be unbecoming.’ ‘But it is not; it was not. I never saw you look so well in anything,’ said I.
‘Mary, Mary, remember who is the father of lies!’
‘But he’s not my father,’ exclaimed I, in a hurry, for I saw Mrs Fitz-Adam go down the street in the direction of Johnson’s shop. ‘I’ll eat my words; they were all false: only just let me run down and buy you that cap — that pretty cap.’
‘Well! run off, child. I liked it myself till you put me out of taste with it.’
I brought it back in triumph from under Mrs Fitz-Adam’s very nose, as she was hanging in meditation over it; and the more we saw if it, the more we felt pleased with our purchase. We turned it on this side, and we turned it on that; and though we hurried it away into Miss Pole’s bedroom at the sound of a double knock at the door, when we found it was only Miss Matty and Mr Peter, Miss Pole could not resist the opportunity of displaying it, and said in a solemn way to Miss Matty:
‘Can I speak to you for a few minutes in private?’ And I knew feminine delicacy too well to explain what this grave prelude was to lead to; aware how immediately Miss Matty’s anxious tremor would he allayed by the sight of the cap. I had to go on talking to Mr Peter, however, when I would far rather have been in the bedroom, and heard the observations and comments.
We talked of the new cap all day; what gowns it would suit; whether a certain bow was not rather too coquettish for a woman of Miss Pole’s age. ‘No longer young,’ as she called herself, after a little struggle with the words; though at sixty-five she need not have blushed as if she were telling a falsehood. But at last the cap was put away, and with a wrench we turned our thoughts from the subject. We had been silent for a little while, each at our work with a candle between us, when Miss Pole began:
‘It was very kind of you, Mary, to think of giving me a present from Paris.’
‘Oh, I was only too glad to be able to get you something! I hope you will like it, though it is not what I expected.’
‘I am sure I shall like it. And a surprise is always so pleasant.’
‘Yes; but I think Mrs Gordon has made a very odd choice.’
‘I wonder what it is. I don’t like to ask, but there’s a great deal in anticipation; I remember hearing dear Miss Jenkyns say that “anticipation was the soul of enjoyment,” or something like that. Now there is no anticipation in a surprise; that’s the worst of it.’
‘Shall I tell you what it is?’
‘Just as you like, my dear. If it is any pleasure to you, I am quite willing to hear.’
‘Perhaps I had better not. It is something quite different to what I expected, and meant to have got; and I’m not sure if I like it as well.’
‘Relieve your mind, if you like, Mary. In all disappointments sympathy is a great balm.’
‘Well, then, it’s something not for you; it’s for Polly. It’s a cage. Mrs Gordon says they make such pretty ones in Paris.’
I could see that Miss Pole’s first emotion was disappointment. But she was very fond of her cockatoo, and the thought of his smartness in his new habitation made her be reconciled in a moment; besides that she was really grateful to me for having planned a present for her.
‘Polly! Well, yes; his old cage is very shabby; he is so continually pecking at it with his sharp bill. I dare say Mrs Gordon noticed it when she called here last October. I shall always think of you, Mary, when I see him in it. Now we can have him in the drawing-room, for I dare say a French cage will be quite an ornament to the room.’
And so she talked on, till we worked ourselves up into high delight at the idea of Polly in his new abode, presentable in it even to the Honourable Mrs Jamieson. The next morning Miss Pole said she had been dreaming of Folly with her new cap on his head, while she herself sat on a perch in the new cage and admired him. Then, as if ashamed of having revealed the fact of imagining ‘such arrant nonsense’ in her sleep, she passed on rapidly to the philosophy of dreams, quoting some book she had lately been reading, which was either too deep in itself, or too confused in her repetition for me to understand it. After breakfast, we had the cap out again; and that in its different aspects occupied us for an hour or so; and then, as it was a fine day, we turned into the garden, where Polly was hung on a nail outside the kitchen window. He clamoured and screamed at the sight of his mistress, who went to look for an almond for him. I examined his cage meanwhile, old discoloured wicker-work, clumsily made by a Cranford basket-maker. I took out Mrs Gordon’s letter; it was dated the fifteenth, and this was the twentieth, for I had kept it secret for two days in my pocket. Mr Ludovic was on the point of setting out for England when she wrote.
‘Poor Polly!’ said I, as Miss Pole, returning, fed him with the almond.
‘Ah! Polly does not know what a pretty cage he is going to have,’ said she, talking to him as she would have done to a child; and then turning to me, she asked when I thought it would come? We reckoned up dates, and made out that it might arrive that very day. So she called to her little stupid servant-maiden Fanny, and bade her go out and buy a great brass-headed nail, very strong, strong enough to bear Polly and the new cage, and we all three weighed the cage in our hands, and on her return she was to come up into the drawing-room with the nail and a hammer.
Fanny was a long time, as she always was, over her errands; but as soon as she came back, we knocked the nail, with solemn earnestness, into the house-wall, just outside the drawing-room window; for, as Miss Pole observed, when I was not there she had no one to talk to, and as in summer-time she generally sat with the window open, she could combine two purposes, the giving air and sun to Polly-Cockatoo, and the having his agreeable companionship in her solitary hours.
‘When it rains, my dear, or even in a very hot sun, I shall take the cage in. I would not have your pretty present spoilt for the world. It was very kind of you to think of it; I am quite come round to liking it better than any present of mere dress; and dear Mrs Gordon has shown all her usual pretty observation in remembering my Polly-Cockatoo.’
‘Polly-Cockatoo’ was his grand name; I had only once or twice heard him spoken of by Miss Pole in this formal manner, except when she was speaking to the servants; then she always gave him his full designation, just as most people call their daughters Miss, in speaking of them to strangers or servants. But since Polly was to have a new cage, and all the way from Paris too, Miss Pole evidently thought it necessary to treat him with unusual respect.
We were obliged to go out to pay some calls; but we left strict orders with Fanny what to do if the cage arrived in our absence, as (we had calculated) it might. Miss Pole stood ready bonneted and shawled at the kitchen door, I behind her, and cook behind Fanny, each of us listening to the conversation of the other two.
‘And Fanny, mind if it comes you coax Polly-Cockatoo nicely into it. He is very particular, and may be attached to his old cage, though it is so shabby. Remember, birds have their feelings as much as we have! Don’t hurry him in making up his mind.’
‘Please, ma’am, I think an almond would help him to get over his feelings,’ said Fanny, dropping a curtsey at every speech, as she had been taught to do at her charity school.
‘A very good idea, very. If I have my keys in my pocket I will give you an almond for him. I think he is sure to like the view up the street from the window; he likes seeing people, I think.’
‘It’s but a dull look-out into the garden; nowt but dumb flowers,’ said cook, touched by this allusion to the cheerfulness of the street, as contrasted with the view from her own kitchen window.
‘It’s a very good look-out for busy people,’ said Miss Pole, severely. And then, feeling she was likely to get the worst of it in an encounter with her old servant, she withdrew with meek dignity, being deaf to some sharp reply; and of course I, being bound to keep order, was deaf too. If the truth must be told, we rather hastened our steps, until we had banged the street-door behind us.
We called on Miss Matty, of course: and then on Mrs Hoggins. It seemed as if ill-luck would have it that we went to the only two households of Cranford where there was the encumbrance of a man, and in both places the man was where he ought not to have been — namely, in his own house, and in the way. Miss Pole — out of civility to me, and because she really was full of the new cage for Polly, and because we all in Cranford relied on the sympathy of our neighbours in the veriest trifle that interested us — told Miss Matty, and Mr Peter, and Mr and Mrs Hoggins; he was standing in the drawing-room, booted and spurred, and eating his hunk of bread-and-cheese in the very presence of his aristocratic wife, my lady that was. As Miss Pole said afterwards, if refinement was not to be found in Cranford, blessed as it was with so many scions of county families, she did not know where to meet with it. Bread-and-cheese in a drawing-room! Onions next.
But for all Mr Hoggins’s vulgarity, Miss Pole told him of the present she was about to receive.
‘Only think I a new cage for Polly — Polly — Polly-Cockatoo, you know, Mr Hoggins. You remember him, and the bite he gave me once because he wanted to be put back in his cage, pretty bird?’
‘I only hope the new cage will be strong as well as pre”, for I must say a —’ He caught a look from his wife, I think, for he stopped short. ‘Well, we’re old friends, Polly and I, and he put some practice in my way once. I shall be up the street this afternoon, and perhaps I shall step in and see this smart Parisian cage.’
‘Do!’ said Miss Pole, eagerly. ‘Or, if you are in a hurry, look up at my drawing-room window; if the cage is come, it will be hanging out there, and Polly in it.’
We had passed the omnibus that met the train from London some time ago, so we were not surprised as we returned home to see Fanny half out of the window, and cook evidently either helping or hindering her. Then they both took their heads in; but there was no cage hanging up. We hastened up the steps.
Both Fanny and the cook met us in the passage.
‘Please, ma’am,’ said Fanny, ‘there’s no bottom to the cage, and Polly would fly away.’
‘And there’s no top,’ exclaimed cook. ‘He might get out at the top quite easy.’
‘Let me see,’ said Miss Pole, brushing past, thinking no doubt that her superior intelligence was all that was needed to set things to rights. On the ground lay a bundle, or a circle of hoops, neatly covered over with calico, no more like a cage for Folly-Cockatoo than I am like a cage. Cook took something up between her finger and thumb, and lifted the unsightly present from Paris. How I wish it had stayed there! — but foolish ambition has brought people to ruin before now; and my twenty shillings are gone, sure enough, and there must he some use or some ornament intended by the maker of the thing before us.
‘Don’t you think it’s a mousetrap, ma’am?’ asked Fanny, dropping her little curtsey.
For reply, the cook lifted up the machine, and showed how easily mice might run out; and Fanny shrank back abashed. Cook was evidently set against the new Invention, and muttered about its being all of a piece with French things French cooks, French plums (nasty dried-up things), French rolls (as had no substance in ’em).
Miss Pole’s good manners, and desire of making the best of things in my presence, induced her to try and drown cook’s mutterings.
‘Indeed, I think it will make a v@ nice cage for Polly-Cockatoo. How pleased he will be to go from one hoop to another, just like a ladder, and with a board or two at the bottom, and nicely tied up at the top —’
Fanny was struck with a new idea.
‘Please, ma’am, my sister-in-law has got an aunt as lives lady’s — maid with Sir john’s daughter — Miss Arley. And they did say as she wore iron petticoats all made of hoops —’
‘Nonsense, Fanny!‘we all cried; for such a thing had not been heard of in all Drumble, let alone Cranford, and I was rather looked upon in the light of a fast young woman by all the laundresses of Cranford, because I had two corded petticoats.
‘Go mind thy business, wench,’ said cook, with the utmost contempt. ‘I’ll warrant we’ll manage th’ cage without thy help.’
‘It is near dinner-time, Fanny, and the cloth not laid,’ said Miss Pole, hoping the remark might cut two ways; but cook had no notion of going. She stood on the bottom step of the stairs, holding the Paris perplexity aloft in the air.
‘It might do for a meat-safe,’ said she. ‘Cover it o’er wi’ canvas, to keep th’ files out. It is a good framework, I reckon, anyhow!’ She held her head on one side, like a connoisseur in meat-safes, as she was.
Miss Pole said, ‘Are you sure Mrs Gordon called it a cage, Mary? Because she is a woman of her word, and would not have called it so if it was not.’
‘Look here; I have the letter in my pocket.’
‘“I have wondered how I could best fulfil your commission for me to purchase something to the value of” — um, um, never mind — “fashionable and pretty for dear Miss Pole, and at length I have decided upon one of the new kind of ‘cages’” (look here, Miss Pole; here is the word, C.A.G.E.), “which are made so much lighter and more elegant in Paris than in England. Indeed, I am not sure if they have ever reached you, for it is not a month since I saw the first of the kind in Paris.”’
‘Does she say anything about Polly-Cockatoo?’ asked Miss Pole. ‘That would settle the matter at once, as showing that she had him in her mind.’
‘No — nothing.’
Just then Fanny came along the passage with the tray full of dinner-things in her hands. When she had put them down, she stood at the door of the dining-room taking a distant view of the article. ‘Please, ma’am, it looks like a petticoat without any stuff in it; indeed it does, if I’m to he whipped for saying it.’
But she only drew down upon herself a fresh objurgation from the cook; and sorry and annoyed, I seized the opportunity of taking the thing out of cook’s hand, and carrying it upstairs, for it was full time to get ready for dinner. But we had very little appetite for our meal, and kept constantly making suggestions, one to the other, as to the nature and purpose of this Paris ‘cage,’ but as constantly snubbing poor little Fanny’s reiteration of ‘Please, ma’am, I do believe it’s a kind of petticoat — indeed I do.’ At length Miss Pole turned upon her with almost as much vehemence as cook had done, only in choicer language.
‘Don’t be so silly, Fanny. Do you think ladies are like children, and must he put in go-carts; or need wire guards like fires to surround them; or can get warmth out of bits of whalebone and steel; a likely thing indeed I Don’t keep talking about what you don’t understand.’
So our maiden was mute for the rest of the meal. After dinner we had Polly brought upstairs in her old cage, and I held out the new one, and we turned it about in every way. At length Miss Pole said .
‘Put Polly-Cockatoo back, and shut him up in his cage. You hold this French thing up’ (alas I that my present should be called a ‘thing’), ‘and I’ll sew a bottom on to it. I’ll lay a good deal, they’ve forgotten to sew in the bottom before sending it off.’ So I held and she sewed; and then she held and I sewed, till it was all done. Just as we had put Polly-Cockatoo in, and were closing up the top with a pretty piece of old yellow ribbon — and, indeed, it was not a bad-looking cage after all our trouble — Mr Hoggins came up-stairs, having been seen by Fanny before he had time to knock at the door.
‘Hallo!’ said he, almost tumbling over us, as we were sitting on the floor at our work. ‘What’s this?’
‘It’s this pretty present for Polly-Cockatoo,’ said Miss Pole, raising herself up with as much dignity as she could, ‘that Mary has had sent from Paris for me.’ Miss Pole was in great spirits now we had got Polly in; I can’t say that I was.
Mr Hoggins began to laugh in his boisterous vulgar way.
‘For Polly — ha! ha! It’s meant for you, Miss Pole — ha! ha! It’s a new invention to hold your gowns out — ha! ha!’
‘Mr Hoggins! you may be a surgeon, and a very clever one, but nothing — not even your profession — gives you a right to he indecent.’
Miss Pole was thoroughly roused, and I trembled in my shoes. But Mr Hoggins only laughed the more. Polly screamed in concert, but Miss Pole stood in stiff rigid propriety, very red in the face.
‘I beg your pardon, Miss Pole, I am sure. But I am pretty certain I am right. It’s no indecency that I can see; my wife and Mrs Fitz-Adam take in a Paris fashion-book between ’em, and I can’t help seeing the plates of fashions sometimes — ha! ha! ha! Look, Polly has got out of his queer prison — ha I ha! ha!’
Just then Mr Peter came in; Miss Matty was so curious to know if the expected present had arrived. Mr Hoggins took them by the arm, and pointed to the poor thing lying on the ground, but could not explain for laughing. Miss Pole said:
‘Although I am not accustomed to give an explanation of my conduct to gentlemen, yet, being insulted in my own house by — by Mr Hoggins, I must appeal to the brother of my old friend — my very oldest friend. Is this article a lady’s petticoat, or a bird’s cage?’
She held it up as she made this solemn inquiry. Mr Hoggins seized the moment to leave the room, in shame, as I supposed, but, in reality, to fetch his wife’s fashion-book; and, before I had completed the narration of the story of my unlucky commission, he returned, and, holding the fashion-plate open by the side of the extended article, demonstrated the identity of the two.
But Mr Peter had always a smooth way of turning of[ anger, by either his fun or a compliment. ‘It is a cage,’ said he, bowing to Miss Pole; ‘but it is a cage for an angel, instead of a bird I Come along, Hoggins, I want to speak to you!’
And, with an apology, he took the of[ending and victorious surgeon out of Miss Pole’s presence. For a good while we said nothing; and we were now rather shy of little Fanny’s superior wisdom when she brought up tea, But towards night our spirits revived, and we were quite ourselves again, when Miss Pole proposed that we should cut up the pieces of steel or whalebone — which, to do them justice, were very elastic — and make ourselves two very comfortable English calashes out of them with the aid of a piece of dyed silk which Miss Pole had by her.