Very early one Sunday morning, while the rest of the hamlet was still asleep and the sky was still pink and the garden flowers and currant bushes were still greyish-rough with dew, they heard the sound of wheels drawing up at their gate and knew that the innkeeper’s old pony had come with the spring cart to take them.
Father and Mother rode on the front seat, Father in his best black coat and grey-striped trousers and Mother resplendent in her pale grey wedding gown with rows and rows of narrow blue velvet ribbon edging its many flounces. The wedding bonnet had long been cast aside, for, as she often said, ‘headgear does date so’, and on this occasion she wore a tiny blue velvet bonnet, like a little flat mat on her hair, with wide velvet strings tied in a bow under her chin — a new bonnet, the procuring of which had helped to delay the expedition. Upon her lap she nursed a basket containing the presents; a bottle of her elderberry wine, a fowl she had specially fattened, and a length of pillow-lace, made to order by a neighbour, which she thought would make nice neckfrills for the cousins’ best frocks. Their father, not to be outdone in generosity, at the last moment filled the back of the cart, where Edmund and Laura were to sit, with a selection of his choicest vegetables, so that, throughout the drive, Laura’s legs rested higher than her seat on a sack of spring cabbage, the first of the season.
At last the children were strapped into the high, narrow seat with their backs to those of their parents and off they went, their father coaxing the old grey mare past her stable door, which she made determined efforts to enter, with: ‘Come on’, Polly, old girl. Not tired already. Why, we haven’t started yet.’ Later on, he lost patience and called her ‘a measley old screw’, and once, when she stopped dead in the middle of the road, he said, ‘Damn the mare!’ and their mother looked back over the shoulder as though she feared the animal’s owner might hear. Between the stops, she trotted in little bursts, and the children bumped up and down in their seat like rubber balls bouncing. All of which was as exciting to them as a flight in an aeroplane would be to a modern child.
From their high seat they could see over hedges into buttercup meadows where cows lay munching the wet grass and big cropping cart-horses loomed up out of the morning mist. In one place the first wild roses were out in the hedge and their father lassoed a spray with his whip and passed it over his shoulder to Laura. The delicate pale pink cups had dew in them. Farther on, he stopped Polly, handed the reins to their mother and leapt down. ‘Ah! I thought so!’ he said as he plunged his arm into the hedge at a spot from which he had seen a bird flutter out, and he came back with two bright blue eggs in his palm and let them all feel and stroke them before putting them back in the nest. They were warm and as soft as satin.
‘Pat, pat, pat’, went Polly’s hooves in the dust, ‘creak, creak, creak’, went the harness, and ‘rattle, rattle, rattle’, went the iron-tyred wheels over the stony places. The road might have been made entirely for their convenience. There was no other vehicle upon it. The farm carts and bakers’ vans which passed that way on weekdays were standing in yards with their shafts pointing skyward; the gentry’s carriages reposed in lofty, stone-paved coach-houses, and coachmen and carters and drivers were all still in bed, for it was Sunday.
The blinds of roadside cottages were drawn and their gardens were deserted of all but a prowling cat or a thrush cracking a snail on a stone, and the children bumped and jolted on through this early morning world with their hearts full of blissful expectation.
They were going over to Candleford. It was always called ‘going over’, for the country people never spoke of just plain going anywhere; it had to be going up or down or round or over to a place, and there were so many ups and downs, so many small streams to cross and so many gates across roads to open between their home and Candleford that ‘going over’ seemed best to describe the journey.
Towards midday they passed through a village where the people, in their Sunday best, were streaming towards the lych-gate of the church. The squire and the farmers wore top hats, and the squire’s head gardener and the schoolmaster and the village carpenter. The farm labourers wore bowlers, or, the older men, soft, round black felts. With the top-hatted men were women in rich, dark, heavy dresses who clung to their husband’s arms while their children walked meekly in front or, not so meekly, behind them. Other villagers in workday clothes, with very clean shirts and their boots unlaced for greater Sunday ease, carried their dinners to the baker’s, or stood in a group at the bakehouse door; while slowly up and down the road in front of them paced a handsome pair of greys with a carriage behind them and a coachman and a footman on the box with cockades in their glossy hats. Shepherded by their teachers, the school-children marched two and two to church from the Sunday School.
This village was so populous and looked so fine, with its pretty cottages standing back on each side of an avenue of young chestnut trees, that Laura thought at first it was Candleford. But, no, she was told; it was Lord So-and-So’s place. No doubt the carriage and greys belonged to him. It was what was called a model village, with three bedrooms to every house and a pump to supply water to each group of cottages.
Only good people were allowed to live there, her father said. That was why so many were going to church. He seemed to speak seriously, but her mother clicked her tongue, and, to placate her, he said that he thought the bakehouse was a good idea. ‘How would you like to send your Sunday joint out to be baked and find it just done to a turn when you came out of church?’ he asked their mother. But that did not seem to please her either; she said more went to the cooking of a good dinner than just baking the meat, and, besides, how could you be sure of getting all your dripping? It was a funny thing bakers so often had dripping to sell. They said they bought it from the cooks at big houses. But did they?
Soon after the model village was left behind Polly got tired and stood stockstill in the road, and their mother suggested a rest and a nosebag for her and some food for them. So they all got out and sat on a stone-heap like gipsies and ate little cakes and drank milk out of a bottle while they listened to the skylarks overhead and smelt the wild thyme at their feet. They were in a new country by then, a country of large grass fields dotted with trees where herds of bullocks grazed, or peered at them through the iron railings by the roadside. Their father pointed out some earthworks, which he said were thrown up by the Romans and described those old warriors in their brass helmets so well that the children seemed to see them; but neither he, nor they, dreamed that another field within sight would one day be surrounded by buildings called ‘hangars’, or that one day, within their own lifetimes, other warriors would soar from it into the sky, armed with more deadly weapons than the Romans ever knew. No, that field lay dreaming in the sunshine, flat and green, waiting for a future of which they knew nothing.
Soon after that Candleford came out to meet them. First, wayside cottages embowered in flower gardens, then cottages in pairs with iron railings enclosing neat little front plots and tiled paths leading up to the doors. Then the gasometer (for they actually had gas at Candleford!) and the railway station, which made the town accessible to all but such cross-country districts as theirs. Then came pavements and lamp-posts and people, more people than they had ever seen together in their lives before. But, while they were still on the outskirts, they felt their mother nudge their father’s arm and heard her ejaculate: ‘There’s pomp for you! Feathers, if you please!’ Then, throwing her voice ahead: ‘Why, it’s Ethel and Alma, coming to meet us. Here are your cousins. Turn round and wave to them, dears!’ Still held by the strap, Laura wriggled round and saw, coming towards them, two tall girls in white.
The feathers that had shocked her mother, partly, perhaps, because of the contrast between their richness and Laura’s plain little hat of white chip with its pink ribbon tied round in a bow to match her pink frock, were long white ostrich plumes wreathed round floppy leghorn hats. The hats were exactly alike and the feathers of the same fullness down to the last strand. The white embroidered muslin dresses they wore were also replicas of each other, for it was the fashion then to dress sisters alike, regardless of type. But the girls had seen them and came running towards the spring cart with a twinkle of long, black-stockinged legs and shiny patent-leather best shoes. After the health of themselves, their parents, and the rest of the family had been inquired into, they came round to the back of the cart.
‘So this is Laura? And this is dear little Edmund? How do you do? How do you do, dear?’ Alma was twelve and Ethel thirteen, but their cool, grown-up manner might have belonged to twenty-five and thirty. Laura began to wish herself back at home as, one blush of embarrassment all over, she answered for herself and Edmund. She could scarcely believe that these two tall, well-dressed, nearly grown-up girls were her cousins. She had expected something quite different.
However, things were easier when their equipage moved on, with Ethel and Alma holding on, one on each side of the tail board, and smiling a little as they answered their uncle’s shouted questions. ‘Yes, Uncle’, Alma was still at the Candleford school; but Ethel was at Miss Bussell’s, a weekly boarder; she came home on Friday night and went back on Monday morning. She was going to stay there until she was old enough to go to the Training College for Schoolteachers. ‘That’s right!’ called Laura’s father. ‘Stuff your own brains now and you’ll be able to stuff other people’s hereafter. And Alma, is she going to be a teacher, too?’ Oh, no, when she left school she was going to be apprenticed to a Court dressmaker in Oxford. ‘That’s first-rate,’ said their uncle. ‘Then when Laura is presented at Court she’ll be able to make her dress for her.’ The girls laughed uncertainly, as if they were not sure if that was meant for a joke or not, and his wife told him not to be ‘a great donkey’, but Laura felt uncomfortable. The only Court she had heard of was the County Court, to which a neighbour had recently been summoned, and the idea of being presented there was far from pleasant.
It had been arranged that the Lark Rise family should have dinner at Ethel and Alma’s home, not because her parents happened to be the most prosperous of their Candleford kin, but because their house came first as they entered the town. Afterwards they were to go on to see another family of cousins. Laura thought her mother would have preferred to go there at once, for, when their arrangements had been discussed at home, she had said something about hating a lot of fuss and show-off, and that money wasn’t everything, though some folks who had plenty might think so. ‘But,’ she had concluded, ‘they are your relations, not mine, and I expect you understand them better than I do. But, for goodness’ sake, don’t get on to politics with James, like you did at our wedding. If you two talked till you were black in the face you’d never agree, so what’s the good of arguing’; and her husband had promised, quite meekly for him, that he would not be the first to bring up the subject.
Candleford seemed a very large and grand place to Laura, with its several streets meeting in a square where there were many large shop windows, with the blinds drawn because it was Sunday, and a doctor’s house with a red lamp over the gate, and a church with a tall spire, and women and girls in light summer frocks and men in smart suits and white straw, boater-shaped hats.
But they were pulling-up at a tall white house set back on a little green with a chestnut tree supporting scaffold poles and ladders and a sign which informed the public that James Dowland, Builder and Contractor, was ready and competent to undertake ‘Constructions, Renovations, and Sanitary Work. Estimates Free’.
Readers have no doubt noticed how seldom builders live in houses of their own construction. You will find a town or village expanding in all directions with their masterpieces of modernity in the way of houses and bungalows; but the builder himself you will usually find living nearer the heart of things, snugly and comfortably housed in some more substantial, if less convenient, building of less recent date. Uncle James Dowland’s house was probably Georgian. The eight windows with their clinging wreaths of wistaria were beautifully spaced and the flight of steps which led up to the hooded front door was guarded by the low white posts and chains which enclosed the little green. But, before Laura could get more than a general impression and think ‘what a nice house’, she was in the comfortable arms of her Aunt Edith, who was sure they were all tired out after that long drive in the hot sun and would be glad to rest, and Uncle would be here soon. He was a Churchwarden now and had to attend the morning service; and if Robert would take the horse and cart round to the yard gate —‘You haven’t forgotten the way, Robert?’— Alma would call the boy to see to the pony. ‘He comes in for an hour or two on Sunday mornings to clean the boots and the knives, you know, Emmie, and I’ve kept him on today on purpose. Now, you come upstairs with me and I’ll find some lotion for Laura’s freckles; then you must all have a glass of wine to refresh you. It’s all of my own making, so you need not be afraid of it for the children. James would never allow intoxicating liquor in this house.’
The inside of the house seemed like a palace to Laura, after their own homely cottage. There were two parlours, one on each side of the front door, and in one of them a table was spread with decanters and wineglasses and dishes of cakes and fruit and biscuits. ‘What a lovely dinner,’ Laura whispered to her mother when they happened to be alone in the room for a moment.
‘That’s not dinner. It’s refreshments,’ she whispered back, and Laura thought ‘refreshments’ meant an extra nice dinner provided on such occasions. Then her father and Edmund came back from their hand-washing, Edmund bubbling over with some tale of a chain you could pull which brought water pouring down, ‘More water than there is in the brook at home,’ and their mother said, ‘S-s-hush!’ and added that she would explain later. Laura had not seen this marvel. She and her mother had taken off their hats and washed their hands in the best bedroom, a magnificent room with a four-poster bed with green curtains and a double washstand with a jug and basin each for them. ‘You’ll find the commode in that corner,’ her auntie had said, and the commode turned out to be a kind of throne with carpeted steps and a lid which opened. But Laura was older than Edmund and knew it was rude to mention such things.
Uncle James Dowland now came in. He was a big man and an important-looking one, and seemed to fill even that large, well-proportioned room with his presence. At his approach Aunt Edith’s stream of good-natured chatter ran dry, and Alma, who had been tiptoeing round the table, helping herself to a little from most of the dishes, sank down on the couch and pulled her short skirt over her knees. After she had been greeted by a heavy pat on the head, Laura shrank back behind her mother. Uncle James was so tall and stout and dark, with eyebrows so bushy and so thick a moustache, with so glossy a Sunday suit and so heavy a gold watchchain that, before him, the others present seemed to fade into the background. Except Laura’s father, who nearly as tall as he was, though slighter, stood with him on the hearthrug, talking about their trade. It turned out afterwards to be the only safe subject.
Uncle James Dowland was one of those leading spirits found at that time in every country town or large village. In addition to attending to his own not inconsiderable business of building new houses, renovating old ones, and keeping everybody’s roofs and drains in order, he was People’s Churchwarden, choirman, and occasional organist, a member of every committee, and auditor of all charity accounts. But his chief interest was in the temperance movement, at that time a regular feature of parochial life. His hatred of intoxicating drink amounted to a phobia, and he used to say that if he saw a workman of his entering a public-house, he would not be his workman much longer. But he was not content with ruling his own home and business in this respect; the whole town was his mission field, and if he could coax or bribe some unhappy workman into signing away his nightly half-pint he became as exhilarated as if his tender for building a mansion had been accepted.
To him the smallest child was worth winning as a temperance convert. He would guide their tiny hands as they signed the temperance pledge, and to keep them in the fold he had established a Band of Hope which met once a week to eat buns and drink lemonade at his expense and to sing to his accompaniment on the school harmonium such rousing ditties as ‘Pray sell no more drink to my father’ or:
Father, dear Father, come home with me now,
The clock in the steeple strikes one.
You promised, dear Father, that you would come home
As soon as your day’s work was done
while, all the time, their own excellent fathers, after a modest half-pint at their favourite inn, were already at home and the singers themselves were likely to get into trouble for being out late.
Edmund and Laura, that first Sunday, wrote their names on a handsome blue-and-gold illuminated pledge card, thereby promising they would henceforth touch no intoxicating liquor, ‘so help me God’. They were not quite sure what intoxicating liquor was, but they liked the cards and were pleased when their uncle offered to have them framed to hang over their beds at home.
Their Aunt Edith was more attractive to children. She was pink and plump and had wavy grey hair and kind grey eyes. She was dressed in grey silk and when she stirred there was a faint scent of lavender. She looked kind and was kind; but, that discovered and acknowledged, there was little more to be said about her. Away from her husband and daughters she was talkative, running on from subject to subject, like a brook babbling. She greatly admired her husband, and every moment when alone with Laura’s mother was devoted to his praise. It was James says this, and James did that, and stories to show how important and respected he was. In his presence she seemed a little afraid of him and she was certainly afraid of her daughters. It was ‘What do you think, dear?’ or ‘What would you do if you were me?’ to the girls before she would express an opinion or make an arrangement. Then, to her sister-in-law, ‘Of course, you see, Emmie, they’ve got different ideas to us, with all this education and getting to know people.’ She had already informed her that they sometimes played tennis at the Rectory.
Laura thought the girls were conceited, and, although she could not have put it into words, felt they patronized her mother and her as poor relations; but perhaps she was wrong. It may only have been that they were so far removed in circumstances and interests that they had nothing in common. That was the only time Laura was to meet them upon anything like equal terms. They were away from home at the time of her next visit and grown-up before she saw them again. She was only just in time to catch the last flick of their skirts as they began to climb the social ladder which would take them right out of her own life.
The dinner which speedily followed the refreshments was superlative. At one end of the table was a leg of lamb, roasted before an open fire to conserve the juices; at the other a couple of boiled fowls garnished with slices of ham. There were jellies and cheese-cakes, and gooseberry tart with cream.
‘The girl’ brought in and cleared away the dishes. The maid in a tradesman’s family was then always known as ‘the girl’, irrespective of age. In this case she was a girl of about fifty, who had been with Aunt Edith from the day she was married and was to remain with her as long as she lived. According to Laura’s mother, she was overworked, but, if so, it appeared to agree with her, for she was rosy and round as a tub, and the only complaint she was ever known to make was that ‘the Missis’ would always make the pastry herself, although she knew that she (Bertha) had a lighter hand with a rolling-pin. She kept the whole of the fair-sized house cleaned and polished and whitestoned, helped the washer-woman on Mondays, cooked the meals, and mended the stockings, and all for twelve pounds a year. She was kind, too. Seeing on that first visit Laura had no appetite for dinner after the refreshments, she whisked her scarcely touched plate away while the others were talking.
It was all very rich and fine, but frightfully dull to a child who had come with such high expectations. They were back in the first parlour. The refreshments had disappeared and there was a green plush cloth on the table. Ethel and Alma had gone to Sunday School, where both took classes, and Laura had been given a book with views of Ramsgate to look at. The window blinds were drawn, for the sun was hot on the panes, and the room smelt of best clothes, furniture polish, and potpourri. Edmund was already asleep on his mother’s knee and Laura was getting drowsy when the soft buzz of grown-up conversation which had been going on over her head was broken by sharp cries of ‘Ireland’, ‘Home Rule’, ‘Gladstone says . . .’ ‘Lord Hartington says . . .’ ‘Joey Chamberlain says . . .’ The two men had got on to the subject which her mother had dreaded.
‘They’re subjects of Queen Victoria, ain’t they, same as we are,’ her uncle insisted. ‘Well, then, let ’em behave as such and be thankful to have a decent Government over ’em. Nice thing they’d make of governing themselves, and they no better than a lot of drunken savages.’
‘How’d you like it if a foreign country invaded, England . . .’ her father began.
‘I’d like to see ’em try it,’ interposed her uncle.
‘ . . . invaded England and shed blood like water and burnt down your house and workshops and interfered with your religion. You’d want to get rid of ’em, I’ll bet, and get back your independence.’
‘Well, we did conquer ’em, didn’t we? So let ’em learn who’s their masters, I say, and if they won’t toe the line, let our soldiers go over and make them.’
‘How many Irishmen have you ever known personally?’
‘If I’d only known one it’d be one too many; but, as a matter of fact, I’ve had several working for me at different times. Then there was Colonel Dimmock at Bradley, went bankrupt and let me in for more money than you’re ever likely to earn.’
‘Now, Bob!’ pleaded Laura’s mother.
‘Now, James!’ urged her aunt. ‘You’re not at a meeting now, but at home, and it’s Sunday. What’s Ireland to either of you. You’ve never been there and are never likely to, so have done with your arguing.’
Both men laughed a little and seemed ashamed of their vehemence, but her uncle could not forbear a parting shot. ‘Tell you what,’ he said, probably meaning it for a joke. ‘In my opinion, the best way to settle the question would be to send over a shipload of whisky one day and a shipload of guns the next and they’d all get raving drunk and kill one another and save us the trouble.’
Robert stood up and his face was white with anger, but he only said a cold ‘Good day’ as he made for the door. His wife and sister ran to him and seized an arm each and his brother-in-law told him not to be a fool. ‘It’s only politics,’ he said. ‘You take things too seriously. Come, sit down, and Edith’ll tell the girl to bring in a cup of tea before you go on to Ann’s.’ But Robert walked out of the house and away down the street after saying over his shoulder to his wife, ‘See you later.’
He had no sense of humour. None of them had at that moment. Laura’s mother was all apologies. Her uncle, still angry, but a little ashamed, said he was sorry for her. Her aunt wiped her eyes on a pretty lace-edged handkerchief and Laura’s needed wiping, for was not their long-looked-for day ruined if their lovely drive behind Polly had only led to this.
It was her mother, who did not pretend to be well-bred, yet always managed to do or say the right thing, who eased the situation by saying: ‘Well, he’ll have to come back presently to harness the horse and he’ll be sorry enough by that time, I dare say, and I think I will have that cup of tea, if Bertha’s got the kettle boiling. Just a cup to drink. Nothing more to eat, really. Then we must be getting on.’
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 20:33