Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

26

Uncle Tom’s Queer Fish

The readings were continued the next summer, when Laura again spent her summer holidays with her cousins, and afterwards, when Candleford became for several years her second home. Every afternoon when her cousins could be persuaded to go out or do what they wanted to do without her, she would tap at the door of her uncle’s workshop and hear the familiar challenge, ‘Who goes there?’ and reply, ‘Bookworms, Limited,’ and, receiving the password, go in and sit by the open window looking out on the garden and river and read while her uncle worked.

Their reading was often interrupted, for customers came and went, or sat down to chat in a special chair with a cushion, ‘the customer’s chair’. Many sat in that chair who were not there on business, for her uncle had many friends who liked to look in when passing, especially on days when there was something of special interest in the newspaper. ‘Just wanted to know what you thought of it,’ they would say, and Laura noticed that whatever opinion he had given them was adopted so thoroughly that it was often advanced as their own before they left.

In the evening his workshop became a kind of a club for the young working-men of the neighbourhood, who would sit around on upturned boxes, smoking and talking or playing draughts or dominoes. Uncle Tom said he liked to see their young faces round him, and it kept them out of the ‘pub’. Their arrival was the signal for Laura to take up her book and depart; but, when a day caller arrived, she would sit still in her corner, reading, or trying to solve that maddening puzzle of the day, ‘Getting the teeth in the nigger’s mouth’. The mouth belonged to a face enclosed in a circular glass case and the teeth were small metal balls which were easier to scatter than to get into place: One, two, or three, might with infinite patience be coaxed to rest between the thick lips, but the next gentle jerk, intended to place a fourth, would send them all rolling around beneath the glass again. Laura never got more than three in. But perhaps she did not persevere sufficiently; it was much more interesting to listen.

Uncle Tom had many friends. Some of these, as might have been expected, were fellow tradesmen of the town who looked in upon him to pass the time of day, as they said, or to discuss the news or some business complication. Others were poor people who came to ask his advice on some point, or to ask him to sign a paper, or to bring him something out of their gardens, or merely to rest and talk a few minutes. Few of these ever spoke to Laura, beyond a casual greeting, but she came to know them and could remember their faces and voices when those of others who had been more to her had become dim. But it was those Nellie described as ‘Dad’s queer fish’ that she liked best of all. There was Miss Connie, who wore a thick tweed golf cape and spiked boots, even in August. ‘Let Laura take your cape and sit down and cool off a bit,’ Uncle Tom would say to her when the sun was raging and there was scarcely a breath of air in the shop, even with both windows wide open. ‘No. No, thanks, Tom. Don’t touch it, please, Laura. I wear it to keep the heat from the spine. The spine should always be protected.’

Miss Constance kept nineteen cats in the big house where she lived alone, for she could not trust servants; she thought they would always be spying upon her. Sometimes a kitten would thrust its head between the edges of her cape as she talked. ‘Now, don’t you worry, Miss Constance,’ Uncle Tom would be saying. ‘You’ll get your money all right come quarter day. Some lawyers are rogues, we know, but not Mr. Steerforth. And nobody can harm you for keeping your cats, for your house is your own. And don’t take any notice of what you heard Mrs. Harmer say; though, if you’ll excuse me for saying it, Miss Constance, I do think you’ve got quite enough of them. I wouldn’t save any more kittens, if I were you; and, if you can’t bear a maid about the place, why not get some decent, respectable woman to come in once or twice a week and clean up a bit? Somebody who likes cats. No. She wouldn’t poison them, nor steal your things. Bless you, there are very few thieves about compared to the number of honest people in the world. And don’t you worry, Miss Constance, or you’ll lose all your pussies. Worry killed the cat, you know,’ and at that often-repeated joke Miss Constance would smile and the smile would transform the poor, half-mad recluse she was fast becoming to something resembling the bright, happy girl who had danced all night and ridden to hounds in the days when Uncle Tom had first fitted her for her country shoes.

But even Miss Constance was not quite so strange as the big fat man who wore the dark inverness cloak and soft black felt hat. He was a poet, Laura was told, and that was why he dressed like that and wore his hair so long. He came every market day, having walked from a village called Isledon, six or seven miles away, and, after puffing and blowing and mopping his brow, he would draw out a paper from his breast pocket and say, ‘I must read you this, Tom,’ and Uncle Tom would say, ‘So you’ve been at it again. Oh, you poets!’ To her great disappointment, although she listened intently, Laura could never grasp exactly what his poems were about. There were eagles in most of them, but not the kind of eagles she had read of, which circled over mountains and carried off lambs and babies; these eagles of his were eagles one moment and Pride or Hate the next; and if there were flowers in his poems he had always chosen the ugliest, such as nightshade or rue. But it all sounded very learned and grand, read in his rich, sonorous voice, and she had the comfort of knowing that, if she could not make much sense of it, her uncle could not either, for she heard him say many times: ‘You know I’m no judge of poetry. If it were prose now. . . . But it’s certainly got a fine roll and swell to it. That I do know.’

After the reading, they would settle down to talk about flowers and birds and what was going on in the fields, for the poet loved all these, although he did not write about them. Or sometimes he would talk of his home and children and praise his wife for allowing him to come away into the country alone for a whole summer to write. ‘Shows she believes in you as a poet,’ Uncle Tom said once, and the poet drew himself up from his chair and said, ‘She does and she’ll be justified, though perhaps not in my lifetime. Posterity will judge.’

‘Fine words! Fine words!’ said Uncle Tom after he had gone. ‘But I doubt it. I doubt.’

Less odd, and therefore less interesting to Laura, though dearer to her Uncle Tom’s heart, was the young doctor with the keen, eager face and grey eyes set deep under heavy dark brows. From what she heard then, she thought, looking back in after years, that he was trying to work up a practice and finding it heavy going. He certainly had a good deal of spare time.

‘It’s a rotten shame,’ he would begin, as he burst into the workshop and turned up the tails of his frock coat to keep them from contact with the customers’ chair. ‘It’s a rotten shame’ was the beginning of most of his conversations. It was a rotten shame that cottage roofs should leak, that children living on farms should not know the taste of fresh milk, that wells should be in use of which the water was contaminated, or that families should have to sleep eight in a room.

Uncle Tom was just as sorry about it all as he was; but he was not so angry; though Laura did once hear him say that something they were talking about was damnable. ‘You take things too hard,’ Laura once heard him say. ‘You fret, and it’s no good fretting. You can only do what you can, and God knows you’re doing your full share. Things’ll be better in time. You mark my words, they will. They’re better already: you should have seen Spittals’ Alley when I was a boy!’ And when the young man had taken down his top hat from the shelf which was kept covered with clean paper for its reception, and jammed it down on his head and gone out, still declaring that it was a rotten shame, her uncle said, perhaps to her, perhaps to himself: ‘That young fellow-me-lad’s going to make a big stir in the world, or else he’s going to build up a fat practice, marry and settle down, and I don’t know which to wish for him.’

It was the young doctor who named Laura ‘the mouse’. ‘Hullo, Mouse!’ he would say if he happened to notice her. That seldom happened, for he had no eye for plain little girls with books on their knees, unless they were ill or hungry. When one of her pretty cousins burst in at the door, her healthy high spirits stirring the air like a breeze, his face lit up, for she was the type of what he believed all children would be, if they could be properly fed and cared for.

Excepting the doctor, none of those known as Uncle Tom’s ‘queer fish’ seemed to have any work to do or business to attend to, and, excepting Miss Connie, none of them were Candleford people. Some were regular visitors to farmhouses where boarders were taken; others were staying for the fishing at village inns, or had their own homes in one of the surrounding villages. Uncle Tom’s chief friend among them, a Mr. Mostyn, took a furnished cottage outside the town every summer. How they had first become acquainted, Laura never heard, but by the time of her regular visits to Candleford he was a frequent visitor.

Even in his holiday attire of shabby Norfolk suit and sandals, no one could have mistaken Mr. Mostyn for anything but what was then spoken of openly and unashamedly as ‘a gentleman’. Uncle Tom was a country shoemaker. He had black thumbs, worked in an apron, and carried the odours of leather and wax about with him; but he was the least class-conscious man on earth, and Mr. Mostyn appeared equally so, though breeding may have had something to do with that on his side. While Uncle Tom sewed, they would talk by the hour; about books, about historical characters, new discoveries in science or exploration, with many a tit-bit of local gossip thrown in and many a laugh, especially when Tom told some story in dialect. Or they would sit silent if that suited either of them better than talking. Mr. Mostyn would take a book out of his pocket and read; or, in the midst of a conversation, Tom would say, ‘Not another word, now, till I’ve got this seam joined up. I’ve cut the toecap a bit short, I find.’ In fact, they were friends.

But one year, when Laura arrived, she found things had changed between them. Mr. Mostyn still called at the workshop once or twice a week and they still talked — talked more than ever before, indeed — but upon a new subject. Mr. Mostyn was thinking of changing his creed, ‘going over to Rome’, Uncle Tom called it, and, surprisingly, for a man who believed in perfect freedom of thought, he did not approve of this step.

It was strange to see how earnest he was about it; for, although he went to church every Sunday, he had never appeared to take any special interest in religion. Mr. Mostyn, probably, had hitherto taken less. Laura had often heard him say that he preferred a good long tramp on a Sunday to church-going. Now, something had stirred him; he had been reading Catholic doctrine for months and was on the brink of being received into the Catholic Church.

Uncle Tom must have read, too, at some time, for he appeared to know the authors his friend quoted. ‘That’s Newman;’ he said once. ‘Methinks his lordship doth protest too much’; and, at another time, ‘He can write like an angel, I grant you, but it’s all spellbinding.’

Mr. Mostyn gritted his teeth. ‘Tom, Tom,’ he said, ‘your other name is Didymus!’

‘Now, look here,’ said Tom. ‘We’ve got to get to grips with this. If you want everything thought out for you and to be told what to think and do, give your conscience to some priest to keep; go over to Rome. You couldn’t do better. It’ll be a rest for you, I don’t deny, for you’ve had your problems, as many and hard as most men; but if, as a reasoning being, you prefer to accept full responsibility for your own soul, you are going the wrong road — you are, indeed!’ Then Mr. Mostyn said something about peace, and Tom retorted, ‘Peace in exchange for liberty!’ and Laura heard, or understood, no more.

‘Another good man gone over to the old enchantress,’ he said, as the door closed behind his friend; and Laura, who was by that time nearly fourteen, asked, ‘Do you think it wrong to be a Catholic, Uncle?’

It was some time before he answered. She thought he had forgotten her presence and had been talking to himself. But, after he had polished his spectacles and taken up his work, he answered, ‘Wrong? No, not for those born to it or suited to it. I’ve known some good Catholics in my time; some the religion suited like the glove the hand. It was a good thing for them, but it won’t be for him. He’s been over a year thinking it out and studying books about it, and if you have to spend a year worrying and arguing yourself into a thing, that thing’s against your nature. If he’d been cut out for a Catholic, he’d have just sunk down into it months ago, as easy as falling into a feather bed, and not had to lash and worry himself and read his eyes out. But, for all that, I’ve been a fool to try to influence him, trying to influence him against being influenced. Never try to influence anybody, Laura. It’s a mistake. Other people’s lives are their own and they’ve got to live them, and often when we think they are doing wrong they are doing right — right for them, although it might not be right for us. Come, get that book and see how Lucy Snowe’s getting on with her Frenchman, and I’ll stick to my last, as every good shoemaker should do, and not go airing my opinions again — until the next time.’

Once a commercial traveller called at the workshop to have a stitch or two put in the shoes he was wearing. He was a stranger to Laura; but not to her uncle, for one of the first questions he asked was, ‘How is your wife?’

‘Lazier and more contrary than ever,’ was the unconventional reply.

Uncle Tom looked grave, but he said nothing. The visitor needed no encouragement, however; he was soon launched on a long story of how he had that very morning taken up his wife’s breakfast to her in bed — so many rashers, so many eggs, and toast and marmalade. Breakfast in bed for any one who was not ill was a novel idea to Laura; but her Uncle Tom seemed to look upon it as a slight attention any good husband might pay his wife, for he only said, ‘That was very kind of you.’

‘And what did I get for my kindness?’ almost shouted the husband. ‘No thanks, you’ll bet! but only black looks and an order to be home on time to-night for once in my life. Home on time! Me, who, as she ought to know by this time, might be held up for hours on end by a customer. Of all the spiteful, contrary cats . . . .’

Uncle Tom looked distressed. ‘Hush! Hush! my lad,’ he interposed. ‘Don’t say things you’ll be sorry for after. How long have you been married? Two years, and no child yet? Well, you wait till you’ve been married ten before You begin talking like that, and by that time, if vou do as you should yourself, it’s ten to one you’ll not need to. Some women simply can’t understand what business is unless they see for themselves. Why not take her out on the round a time or two in that smart little outfit of yours with the high-stepper. The firm’s done you well this time, I see, in that respect. A nice bit of horseflesh, if I’m any judge! If you do that, she’ll see for herself, and the outing will do her good. It’s dull for a young woman, shut up by herself in the house all day, and when, towards night, her man’s supper’s drying up in the oven through waiting, it gets on her nerves and maybe her welcome’s not all a husband might wish, after a trying day and not too many orders in his notebook. And when you get a bit nettled yourself, bite on it, bite on it, my boy; don’t go opening your mouth to fill other folks’s. They won’t think any better of you if you do. Truth of the matter is, most married folks have their little upsets, especially for the first year or two; but they manage to pretend that all is well and that everything in the garden of matrimony looks lovely, and, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, before they know where they are, all is well, or as well as can be expected in this imperfect world.’

During this long speech the young man had broken in several times with such ejaculations as ‘That’s all very well’ or ‘Not half’, but he was spared the necessity for any formal comment upon what was almost a lecture by a sound of scuffling and ‘Whoa-a-s!’ and ‘Come up nows!’ in the street, which caused him to cram on the shoe which Tom had been attending to and run. But, a few minutes later, very flushed and hot-looking, he came to the open window and said: ‘That mare of mine’s got the spirit of a racehorse. A moment more and she’d been off! Got an idea I’ll bring my wife next week; she could hold the reins and read her book while I was inside anywhere, and the outing might do her good. So long, Mr. Whitbread. I must go or she’ll kick the cart to bits.’

Laura never knew if the mare kicked the cart to bits; or if the young couple’s own little applecart of happiness was overturned or steadied; but she can still see the young husband’s face, flushed and distorted with indignation beneath the white straw ‘boater’, moored so modishly to his button-hole by a black cord, and her Uncle Tom’s pale and grizzled and serious, looking up at him through his spectacles as he said: ‘Bite on it, my boy. Bite on it.’

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