Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

20

Mrs. Herring

When Laura said she had seen a ghost coming out of the clothes closet in the bedroom she had not meant to tell a lie. She really believed she had seen one. One evening, before it was quite dark and yet the corners of the room were shadowy her mother had sent her upstairs to fetch something out of the chest, and, as she leant over it, with one eye turned apprehensively towards the clothes closet corner, she thought she saw something move. At the time she felt sure she saw something move, though she had no clear idea of what it was that was moving. It may have been a lock of her own hair, or the end of a window-curtain stirring, or merely a shadow seen sideways; but, whatever it was, it was sufficient to send her screaming and stumbling downstairs.

At first, her mother was sorry for her, for she thought she had fallen down a step or two and hurt herself; but when Laura said that she had seen a ghost she put her off her lap and began to ask questions.

At that point the fibbing began. When asked what the ghost was like, she first said it was dark and shaggy, like a bear; then that it was tall and white, adding as an after-thought that it had eyes like lanterns and she thought it was carrying one, but was not sure. ‘I don’t suppose you are sure,’ said her mother dryly. ‘If you ask me, it’s all a parcel of fibs, and if you don’t look out you’ll be struck dead, like Ananias and Sapphira in the Bible,’ and she proceeded to tell their story as a warning.

After that, Laura never spoke of the closet to any one else but Edmund; but she was still desperately afraid of it, as she had been as long as she could remember. There was something terrifying about a door which was never unlocked, and a door in such a dark corner. Even her mother had never seen inside it, for the contents belonged to their landlady, Mrs. Herring, who when she moved out of the house had left some of her belongings there, saying she would fetch them as soon as possible. ‘What was inside it?’ the children used to ask each other. Edmund thought there was a skeleton, for he had heard his mother say, ‘There’s a skeleton in every cupboard,’ but Laura felt it was nothing as harmless.

After they were in bed and their mother had gone downstairs at night, she would turn her back on the door, but, if she peeped round, as she often did — for how otherwise could she be sure that it was not slowly opening? — all the darkness in the room seemed to be piled up in that corner. There was the window, a grey square, with sometimes a star or two showing, and there were the faint outlines of the chair and the chest, but where the closet door should have been was only darkness.

‘Afraid of a locked door!’ her mother exclaimed one night when she found her sitting up in bed and shivering. ‘What’s inside it? Only a lot of old lumber, you may be sure. If there was anything much good, she’d have fetched it before now. Lie down and go to sleep, do, and don’t be silly!’ Lumber! Lumber! What a queer word, especially when said over and over beneath the bedclothes. It meant odds and ends of old rubbish, her mother had explained, but, to her, it sounded more like black shadows come alive and ready to bear down on one.

Her parents disliked the closet, too. They paid the rent of the house and did not see why even a small part of it should be reserved for the landlady’s use; and, until the closet was cleared, they could not carry out their plan of removing the front, throwing the extra space into the room, and then running up a wooden partition to make a small separate bedroom for Edmund. So her father wrote to Mrs. Herring, and one day she arrived and turned out to be a little, lean old lady with a dark brown mole on one leathery cheek and wearing a black bonnet decorated with jet dangles, like tiny fishing rods. The children’s mother had asked her when she arrived if she would not like to take off her bonnet, but she had said she could not, for she had not brought her cap; and, to make it look less formal for indoor wear, she had untied the ribbon bow beneath her chin and flung a bonnet string over each shoulder. Thus unmoored, the bonnet had grown more and more askew, which went oddly with her genteel manner.

Edmund and Laura sat on the bed and watched her shake out old garments and examine them for moth holes and blow the dust off crockery with her bellows which she had borrowed, until the air of the clean, bright room was as thick with dust as that of a lime kiln. ‘Plenty of dust!’ their mother said, wrinkling her pretty nose distastefully. But Mrs. Herring did nothing to abate it. Why should she? She was in her own house; her tenants were privileged to be allowed to live there. At least that was what Laura read in the upward movement of her little pointed nose.

Now that the closet door was thrown back it revealed a deep, whitewashed den going back to the eaves of the cottage. It was crammed with the hoarding of years, with old clothes and shoes, legless chairs, empty picture frames, handleless cups and spoutless teapots. The best things had gone downstairs already; the lace-pillow on a stand, the huge green gig umbrella with whale-bone ribs, and the nest of copper preserving pans that Laura’s mother said afterwards were worth a mint of money. From the window, Mr. Herring could be seen arranging them in the spring cart, his thin legs straddling in drab gaiters. There would not be room in the cart for everything, and the hire of it for the day was too costly to make another journey possible. The time had come for Mrs. Herring to decide what was best worth taking.

‘I wonder what I’d better do,’ she kept saying to the children’s mother, but she got no helpful suggestions from one who detested what she called ‘a lot of old clutter laid up in dark corners’.

‘She’s an old hoarder: A regular old hoarder!’ she whispered to Laura when Mrs. Herring had gone downstairs to consult her husband. ‘And don’t let me see you mess with that old rubbish she’s given you. Put it down, and when she’s gone it can be cleaned or burnt.’ They put down their presents reluctantly. Edmund had been pleased with his broken corkscrew and coil of short lengths of string, and Laura had admired her flannel-leaved needlebook with ‘Be Diligent’ worked in cross-stitch on its canvas cover. The needles inside were all rusty, but that did not matter; it was as a work of art she valued it. But before they had time to protest, Mrs. Herring’s head appeared round the banisters, her bonnet more than ever askew by that time and her face smutted by cobwebs. ‘Would these be any good to you, my dear?’ she asked, handing down a coil of light steel hoops from a nail in the wall of the closet.

‘It’s very kind of you, I’m sure,’ was the guarded response; ‘but, somehow, I don’t see myself wearing a crinoline again.’

‘No. Right out of fashion,’ Mrs. Herring admitted. ‘Pity, too, for it was a handy fashion for young married women. I’ve known some, wearing a good-sized crinoline, go right up to the day of their confinement without so much as their next-door neighbour suspecting. Now look at the brazen trollops! And here’s a lovely picture of the Prince Consort, and that’s somebody you’ve never heard of, I’ll lay,’ turning to the children.

Oh, yes, they had. Their mother had told them that when the Prince Consort died every lady in the land had gone into mourning, and, no matter how often they were told this, they always asked, ‘And did you go into mourning, too, Mother?’ and were told that she had been only a girl at the time, but she had had a black sash and ribbons. And they knew he had been the Queen’s husband, though, oddly enough, not the King, and that he had been so good that nobody had liked him in his lifetime, excepting the Queen, who ‘fairly doted’. They had heard all this by degrees because a neighbour called ‘Old Queenie’ had portraits of him and the Queen on the lid of her snuffbox.

But Mrs. Herring was back in the closet and, since she could not take all her things away with her, was determined to be generous. ‘Now, here’s a nice little beaded footstool. Come out of Tusmore House that time the fire was, so you may be sure it’s good. You have it, my dear. I’d like you to have it.’ Their mother eyed the little round stool with the claw legs and beaded cover. She would really have liked that, but had made up her mind to accept nothing. Perhaps she reflected, too, that it would be hers in any case, as what Mrs. Herring could not take she would have to leave, for she said again: ‘It’s very kind of you, I’m sure, but I don’t know that I’ve any use for it.’

‘Use! Use!’ echoed Mrs. Herring. ‘Keep a thing seven years and you’ll always find a use for it! Besides,’ she added, rather sharply, ‘it’s just the thing to have under your feet when you’re suckling, and you can’t pretend you’ll not be doing that again, and a good many times, too, at your age.’

Fortunately, at that moment, Mr. Herring was heard calling upstairs that the cart was so chock-a-block that he couldn’t get so much as another needle in edgeways, and, with a deep sigh his wife said she supposed she’d have to leave the rest. ‘Perhaps you could sell some of the best things and send the money on with the rent,’ she suggested hopefully, but the children’s mother thought a bonfire in the garden would be the best way of disposing of them. However, after she had gone, a number of things were picked out and cleaned and kept, including the beaded footstool, a brass ladle, and a little travelling clock, which, when repaired, delighted the children by playing a little tune after striking the hours. ‘Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, tink, tink, tink’ it went, night and day, for another forty years! then, its works worn out at last, retired to a shelf in Laura’s attic.

Downstairs, the table was laid with a ‘visitor’s tea’. There were the best tea things with a fat pink rose on the side of each cup; hearts of lettuce, thin bread and butter, and the crisp little cakes that had been baked in readiness that morning. Edmund and Laura sat very upright on their hard windsor chairs. Bread and butter first. Always bread and butter first: they had been told that so many times that it had the finality of a text of Scripture. But Mr. Herring, who was the eldest present and ought to have set a good example, began with the little cakes, picking up and examining each one closely before disposing of it in two bites. However, while there were still a few left, Mrs. Herring placed bread and butter on his plate and handed him the lettuce meaningly; and when he twisted the tender young hearts of lettuce into tight rolls and dipped them into the salt-cellar she took the spoon and put salt on the side of his plate.

Mrs. Herring ate very genteelly, crumbling her cake on her plate and picking out and putting aside the currants, because, she explained, they did not agree with her. She crooked the little finger of the hand which held her teacup and sipped its contents like a bird, with her eyes turned up to the ceiling.

While they sat there, the door wide open, with the scent of flowers and the humming of bees and the waving of fruit-tree tops, seeming to the children to say that the stiff, formal tea-drinking would soon be over and that they were all waiting for them in the garden, a woman paused at the gate, looked the spring cart well over, set down her water-buckets and opened the gate. ‘Why, it’s Rachel. Whatever can she want?’ said the children’s mother, rather vexed at the intrusion. What Rachel wanted was to know who the visitors were and why they had come.

‘Why, if it ain’t Mrs. Herring — and Mr. Herring, too!’ she cried in a tone of joyful recognition as she reached the door. ‘An’ you’ve come to clear out that old closet of yours, I’ll be bound. I thought to meself when I saw the spring cart at th’ gate, “That’s Mrs. Herring come to fetch away her old lumber at last.” But I weren’t quite sure, because you’ve got that waterproof cover over it all. How be ye both, and how do ye like it up yonder?’

During this speech Mrs. Herring had frozen visibly. ‘We are well, thank you,’ she said, ‘and we like our present residence very much, though what business it is of yours to inquire, I don’t know.’

‘Oh, no offence intended, no offence,’ said Rachel, somewhat abashed. ‘I only come to inquire, just friendly like,’ and off she stumped down the path, throwing another inquisitive glance at the cart as she passed it.

‘There! Did you ever!’ Mrs. Herring exclaimed. ‘I never saw such a lot of heathen Turks in my life! A woman I took good care barely to pass the time of day with when I lived here to come hail-fellow-well-metting me like that!’

‘She didn’t mean any harm,’ apologized Laura’s mother. ‘There’s so little going on here that when anybody does come the folks take more interest than they would in a town.’

‘I’d interest her! I’d hail-fellow-well-met her!’ exclaimed Mr. Herring, who had so far sat mute. ‘I’d teach her how to behave to her betters, if I had my way.’

‘God knows I did my best to put them in their places when we were living here,’ sighed Mrs. Herring, her anger subsiding, ‘but ’twas no good. Why we ever thought to live in such a place I couldn’t tell you if you asked me, unless it was that the house was going cheap at the time Mr. Herring retired and a nice bit of ground went with it. It’s very different at Candleford. Of course, there are poor people there, but we don’t have to associate with them; they keep to their part of the town and we keep to ours. You should see our house: nice iron railings in front and an entry where the stairs go up, not like this, with the door opening straight out on the path and anybody right on top of you before you know where you are. Not but what this is a nice little house,’ she added hastily, remembering that she owned it, ‘but you know what I mean. Candleford’s different. Civilized, that’s what my son-in-law calls it, and he works at the biggest grocer’s in the town, so he ought to know. It’s civilized, he says, and he’s right. You can’t call a place like this civilized, now can you?’

Laura thought it must be a fine thing to be civilized until, later, she asked her mother what the word meant and her mother replied: ‘A civilized place is where the people wear clothes and don’t run naked like savages.’ So it meant nothing, for everybody in this country wore clothes. One old Lark Rise woman wore three flannel petticoats in winter. She thought that if all the Candleford people were like Mr. and Mrs. Herring she would not like them much. How rude they had been to poor Rachel!

But they were funny. When her father came home from work that night her mother told him about the visit, imitating first Mrs. Herring’s voice, then that of Mr. Herring, and making the one even more carefully genteel than it had been and the other more sudden and squeaky.

They all laughed a good deal, then her father said: ‘I forgot to tell you I saw Harris last night and he says we can have the pony and cart any Sunday we like now.’

The children were so pleased they made a little song about it:

We’re going over to Candleford,

To Candleford, to Candleford,

We’re going over to Candleford

To see our relations,

and they sang it about the house so often that their mother said it just about drove her melancholy mad. The loan of the pony and cart was not everything, it appeared; the half-year’s rent had to be got together and taken because, big as Candleford was, the Herrings would know they had been. They knew everything, nosy parkers as they were, and if the rent, then about due, was not taken, they would think their tenants had not the money. That would never do. ‘Don’t be poor and look poor, too,’ was a family maxim. Then the Sunday outfits had to be overhauled and a few small presents purchased to take with them. Planning a summer Sunday outing in those days meant more than turning over the leaves of a bus time-table.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 20:33