Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

23

Sink or Swim

That journey to Candleford marked the end of Laura’s childhood. Soon afterwards her schooldays began and she passed in one day from a protected home life to one where those who could had to fight for a place and maintain it by fighting.

The National School for the parish had been built in the mother village, a mile and a half from the hamlet. Only about a dozen children lived there and more than three times that number lived at Lark Rise; but, as the Church was there and the Rectory and the Manor House, it far outweighed the hamlet in importance. Up and down the long, straight road between the two places, the hamlet children travelled in bands. No straggling was allowed. An inclination to walk alone, or in twos or threes, was looked upon as an unpleasant eccentricity.

Most of the children were clean and at least moderately tidy when they left home, although garments might be too large or too small or much patched. ‘Patch upon patch is better’n holes’ was one of the hamlet mothers’ maxims. The girls wore large white or coloured print pinafores over their ankle-length frocks, and their hair was worn scraped back from the brow and tied on the crown or plaited into a tight pigtail. Laura appeared on the first morning with her hair pushed back with an Alice in Wonderland comb under a porkpie hat which had belonged to one of her cousins, but this style of headgear caused so much mirth that she begged that evening to be allowed to wear ‘a real hat’ and to have her hair plaited.

Her companions were strong, well-grown children between the ages of four and eleven. They ran and shouted and wrestled the whole way, or pushed each other over stoneheaps or into ditches, or stopped to climb into the hedges, or to make sorties into fields for turnips or blackberries, or to chase the sheep, if the shepherd was not handy.

Every one of the stoneheaps which dotted the grass margins at intervals for road-mending was somebody’s castle. ‘I’m the king of the castle. Get down, you dirty rascal!’ was the cry of the first to reach and mount it, and he, or she, would hold it against all comers with kicks and blows. Loud cries of ‘You’re a liar!’ ‘You’re another!’ ‘You daren’t!’ ‘Yes, I dare, then!’ ‘Let’s see you do it!’ punctuated even their most peaceful games. There was no ‘Sez you’, or ‘O.K., Chief’, for the ‘pictures’ had not been invented, and the more civilizing wireless, with its Children’s Hour, was still farther in the future. Even compulsory education was comparatively new. They were an undiluted native product.

There were times when they walked quietly, the elder ones talking like little old men and women, while the younger ones enlarged their knowledge of life by listening. Perhaps they would discuss the story of the snake, as thick as a man’s thigh and yards long, which the shepherd had seen crossing that same road a few feet in front of him as he came home in the early morning from his lambing fold. Rather a puzzle to older people, that snake, for snakes are not usually abroad at lambing time, so it could not have been an English grass snake, magnified. Yet David was a sober, middle-aged man, unlikely to have invented the story. He must have seen something. Or perhaps the children would discuss their own and each other’s chances of passing the next school examination. The shadow of a coming exam might account for their sedate behaviour. Or some one would relate how such-and-such a man had treated the foreman when he had ‘tried to come it over him’; or the news would go round that So-and-So’s mother was ‘like to have another’, much to the embarrassment of poor So-and-So. They talked about procreation and birth as soberly as little judges. ‘What’s the good of having a lot of brats you can’t afford to feed,’ one would say. ‘When I’m married I shall only have one, or maybe two, in case one of ’em dies.’

The morning after a death in the hamlet would see them with serious faces discussing the signs which were supposed to have foretold it: the ticking of a deathwatch spider, the unexplained stopping of a clock, the falling of a picture from the wall, or the beating of a bird’s wings against the window. The formalities of the death chamber fascinated them. They knew why and in what manner the chin was tied up, of the plate of salt placed on the breast of a corpse, and the new pennies used to weight down the eyelids. This led naturally to ghost stories, and the smaller children on the edge of the group would cease whispering among themselves and press tightly in to the main throng for protection.

They did not mean to be cruel; but they were strong, hardy children, without much imagination, and overflowing with energy and high spirits which had to find an outlet. There was some bullying and a great deal of boisterous teasing.

Once, on their way home from school, they overtook an old man. So old that, as he dragged slowly along, his head was bent to the level of the top of the stick which supported his footsteps. He was a stranger, or the children would never have dared to mock, mob, and insult him as they did. They knew that their parents and the schoolmistress were unlikely to hear of it.

They did not actually strike him, but they hustled and pushed him from behind, shouting: ‘Old Benbow! Old Benbow!’ Why ‘Benbow’, nobody knew, unless it was because his back was so bent. At first he pretended to laugh at their attentions as a joke; but, soon, growing tired of the pace they were forcing on him, he stood still with them all about him, looked upward, shook his stick at them and muttered a curse. At that they fell off, laughing, and ran.

It was a grey winter afternoon and, to Laura’s eyes, the ancient, solitary figure of the old man stood for a type of extreme desolation. He had been young once, she thought, and strong; they would not have dared to molest him then. Indeed, they were afraid of able-bodied tramps and would run and hide from them. Now he was old and poor and weak, and homeless, perhaps. Nobody cared for him any more. What was the use of living at all if it was to end like this, thought little eight-year-old, and spent the rest of the time going home in making up a story in which he figured as a rich, handsome young man, until ruined by a bank failure (bank failures were frequent in juvenile fiction just then) and his lovely young wife died of smallpox and his only son was drowned at sea.

During her first year or two at school Laura came in for a good deal of teasing which she shared with two or three others whose looks, voices, parents or clothes did not please the majority. Not that there was anything objectionable about them, according to outside standards; it was only that they were a little different in some way from the accepted school pattern.

For instance, long frocks down to the ankles were still the hamlet wear for girls of all ages, while, in the outer world, the fashion had changed and little girls’ frocks were worn extremely short. As Laura was fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to have the reversion of her cousins’ wardrobes, she was put into short frocks prematurely. She was a little pleased and proud when she started off for school one morning in a cream cotton frock patterned with red dots that just touched her knees, especially as her mother, at the last moment, had found and ironed out a red hair-ribbon to go with it. But her pride had a fall when she was greeted with laughter and cries of ‘Hamfrill!’ and ‘Longshanks!’ and was told seriously by a girl who was usually friendly that she wondered that a nice woman like Laura’s mother could allow her to go out like that.

She arrived home that evening a deplorable sight, for she had been tripped up and rolled in the dust and had cried so much that her face was streaked, and her mother — sympathetic for once, although she did not fail to remind her that ‘sticks and stones break your bones, but calling names hurts nobody’— set to work upon the short frock and lengthened it sufficiently to reach to the calves of her legs. After which, if she stooped a little when any one looked directly at her, it passed muster.

There was one girl named Ethel Parker who at this time made Laura’s life a misery to her. She professed friendship and would call for her every morning. ‘So nice of Ethel,’ Laura’s mother said. Then, as soon as they were out of sight of the windows, she would either betray her to the gang — once by telling them Laura was wearing a red flannel petticoat — or force her to follow her through thorn hedges and over ploughed fields for some supposed short cut, or pull her hair, or wrench her arms, ‘to try her strength’, as she told her.

At the age of ten she was as tall and much stronger than most girls of fourteen. ‘Our young Et’s as strong as a young bullifant,’ her father would say proudly. She was a fair-haired girl with a round, plump face and greenish eyes, the shape and almost the colour of a gooseberry. She had for cold weather a scarlet cloak, a survival of a fashion of some years before, and in this she must have looked a magnificent specimen of country childhood.

One of her pleasures was to make Laura gaze steadily at her. ‘Now, see if you can stare me out,’ she would say, and Laura would gaze slavishly into those hard, green eyes until her own fell before them. The penalty for flinching was a pinch.

As they grew older she used less physical violence, though she would still handle Laura pretty roughly under the pretence of play. She was what they called there ‘an early-ripe’ and, as she grew up, Laura’s mother did not like her so much and told Laura to have as little to do with her as possible, adding, ‘But don’t offend her, mind. You can’t afford to offend anybody in a place like this.’ Then Ethel went away to a place in service and, a year or two later, Laura also left home and did not expect to see Ethel again.

But, fifteen years after, when living in Bournemouth, Laura, walking on the West Cliff one afternoon, a little out of her usual beat on some errand or other, saw coming towards her a large, fair young woman in a smartly-tailored suit with a toy dog under one arm and a pack of tradesmen’s books in her hand. It was Ethel, by that time a cook-housekeeper, and out paying the household accounts and giving the family dog an airing.

She was delighted to see Laura, ‘such an old friend and playmate’. What splendid times they had had and what scrapes they had got into together! Ah! There were no days like childhood’s days and no friends like the old friends. Didn’t Laura think so?

She was so enthusiastic and had so obviously forgotten everything unpleasant in their former association that Laura was almost persuaded that they really had been happy together, and was just going to ask Ethel to come to tea with her when the little dog under her arm began to fidget and she gave him a nip in the neck which quieted him. Laura knew that nip which made his eyes bulge, for she herself had felt it many times, and she knew that, beneath the smart clothes and improved manners, there was still the old Ethel. That was the last Laura ever saw of her; but she heard afterwards that she had married an exbutler and opened a boarding-house. It is to be hoped that her guests were all people of strong character, for it is easy to imagine weaker ones quailing before those gooseberry eyes if they dared to make a request.

But the girls were not all like Ethel. Except when in contact with her and others of her kind, many were friendly, and Laura soon found out that her special mission in life was to listen to confidences. ‘You are such a quiet little thing,’ they would say, ‘I know you won’t tell anybody’; and, afterwards: ‘We’ve had such a nice talk,’ although they had done every bit of the talking themselves, Laura’s part in the conversation being limited to ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and other sympathetic monosyllables.

Those girls who had sweethearts would talk about them by the hour. Did Laura not think Alfie good-looking? And he was strong, so strong that his father said he could carry a sack of potatoes that he himself could scarce lift, and his mother said he ate twice as much as his brothers; and, although you might not think it, he could be very agreeable when he chose. Only ‘Saturday was a week’ he had allowed the speaker to pick up and hold his catapult while he climbed down from a tree; ‘that one in the corner of the meadow where the blacksmith’s shop is, you know, Laura; there’s nobody else in the school could climb it. That’ll show you!’ The remarkable thing about these love affairs was that the boys involved were usually unaware of them. A girl picked out a boy to be her sweetheart and sang his praises (to Laura, at least) and dreamed about him at night (or so she said) and treasured some worthless article which had belonged to him, and the utmost the boy did in return was to say ‘Hullo!’ when they met.

Sometimes it was difficult to decide upon a sweetheart. Then an ash leaf with nine leaflets had to be searched for, and, when found, placed in the seeker’s bosom with the incantation:

Here’s an ash leaf with nine leaves on.

Take it and press it to your heart

And the first chap you meet’ll be your sweetheart.

If he’s married let him pass by.

If he’s single, let him draw nigh,

and that usually did the trick, as there was but one side to that bargain.

Confidences about quarrels with other girls were even more frequent. What ‘she said’ and what ‘I said’, and how long it was since they had spoken to each other. But nearly every one had something to tell, if only what they had had for dinner on Sunday, or about the new frock they hoped to wear to church on Easter Day. This usually began as a red or blue velvet and ended by being ‘that one of our young Nell’s, turned and made shorter’. Laura would try to get in a word edgeways here, for she was fond of planning clothes. Her ideal frock at that time was a pale blue silk trimmed with white lace, and she always imagined herself riding in the station fly in it, as one of her aunts had ridden from the station when she came to them on a visit.

These confidences were all very well, if sometimes boring; but there were others which filled Laura’s thoughts and weighed heavily upon her. Only one girl in the hamlet had a stepmother, and she was a model stepmother, according to hamlet standards, for she had no children of her own, and did not beat or starve her stepchildren. One of Laura’s earliest memories was of the day on which Polly’s own mother died. Polly, although a little older than Laura, could not remember so far back, and Laura must have been a very small child at the time. She was standing on the doorstep of her home on a misty morning when she heard a cock crow, very loudly and shrilly, and her mother, standing close behind her, said: ‘At the house where that cock is crowing a little girl’s mammy has died this morning.’

At the time of the school confidences, Polly was an unattractive-looking little girl, fat and pale, with scanty mouse-coloured hair, and heavy and clumsy in her movements. She breathed very heavily and had a way of getting very close to the person to whom she was talking. Laura almost hated herself for not liking her more; but she was really sorry for her. The stepmother, so fair-spoken to outsiders, was a tyrant indoors, and the stepchildren’s lives were made miserable by her nagging. Every day — or every day when Polly could buttonhole Laura — there was some fresh story of persecution to be told and listened to. ‘I know. I know,’ Laura would say sympathetically, meaning that she understood, and Polly would retort, ‘No, you don’t know. Nobody could but them as has to put up with her,’ and Laura would feel that her heart must break with the hopeless misery of it all. Her mother found her crying one day after one of Polly’s confidences and demanded to be told the reason. ‘Polly’s not happy,’ was all Laura could say, for she had sworn never to repeat what Polly had told her.

‘Polly not happy? I dare say not,’ said her mother dryly. ‘None of us can be happy all the time; but your being unhappy as well doesn’t seem to me to improve matters. It’s no good, my girl, you’ve got to learn you can’t take other people’s troubles’ upon you. Do anything you can to help them, by all means, but their troubles are their own and they’ve got to bear them. You’ll have troubles of your own before you have done, and perhaps by that time Polly’ll be at the top of the tree of happiness. We all have our turn, and it only weakens us when our turn comes to have always been grieving about things we couldn’t help. So, now, dry your eyes and come in and lay the table for tea and don’t let me catch you crying again.’ But Laura only thought her mother heartless and continued to grieve, until one day it suddenly struck her that it was only when she was alone with herself that Polly was miserable. When in company with the other girls she forgot her troubles and was as cheerful as her nature permitted, and, from that time, she took care to be less often alone with Polly.

No country child could be unhappy for long together. There were happy hours spent blackberrying, or picking bluebells or cowslips with a friend, or sitting in the long meadow grass making daisy or buttercup chains to be worn on the hair as a crown or as necklaces or girdles. When Laura was too old (according to others) to wear these herself, they could still be made for one of the younger children, who would stand, like a little statue, to be hung from head to foot with flowers, including anklets and earrings.

Sliding on the ice in winter was another joy. Not on the big slide, which was as smooth as glass and reached the whole length of the pond. That was for the strong, fighting spirits who could keep up the pace, and when tripped up themselves would be up in a moment and tripping up the tripper. Edmund was soon one of the leaders there, but Laura preferred some small private slide made by herself and a few friends and as near the bank as possible. How the cheeks glowed and the whole body tingled with warmth and excitement in the frosty air! And what fun it was to pretend that the arms stretched out for balance were wings and that the slider was a swallow!

Not such fun for Laura was the time when the ice gave way under her, and she found herself suddenly plunged into icy water. This was not the big pond, but a small, deep pool to which she and two other small girls had gone without asking permission at home. When they saw Laura drowning, as they thought, her companions ran off screaming for help, and Laura, left alone, was in danger of being sucked down under the ice; but she was near the bank and managed to grasp the branch of a bush and pull herself out before she realized her danger.

As she walked home across the fields her wet clothes froze upon her, and when she arrived dripping on the doorstep her mother was so cross that smacks, as well as hot bricks in bed, were administered to warm her. The wetting did her no harm. She did not even have a cold afterwards, although her mother had prophesied pneumonia. Another instance, she was told, of the wicked flourishing like a green bay-tree.

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