Laura sat up beside her father on the high front seat of the spring-cart and waved to the neighbours. ‘Goodbye, Laura! Good-bye!’ they called. ‘Mind you be a good gal, now!’ and Laura, as she turned to smile and wave back to them, tried not to look too conscious of her new frock and hat and the brand-new trunk (with her initials) roped on to the back seat.
As the cart moved on, more women came to their doors to see what the sound of wheels meant at that time in the morning. It was not the coalman’s or the fish-hawker’s day, the baker was not due for hours, and the appearance of any other wheeled vehicle than theirs always caused a mild sensation in that secluded hamlet. When they saw Laura and her new trunk, the women remained on their doorsteps to wave their farewells, then, before the cart had turned into the road from the rutted lane, little groups began forming.
Her going seemed to be causing quite a stir in the hamlet. Not because the sight of a young girl going out in the world to earn her own living was an uncommon one there — all the hamlet girls left home for that purpose, some of them at a much earlier age than Laura — but they usually went on foot, carrying bundles, or their fathers pushed their boxes on wheelbarrows to the railway station in the nearest town the night before, while, for Laura’s departure, the innkeeper’s pony and cart had been hired.
That, of course, was because Candleford Green, although only eight miles distant, was on another line of railway than that which ran through the market town, and to have gone there by train would have meant two changes and a long wait at the Junction; but the spring-cart brought a spice of novelty into her departure which made ‘something to talk about’, as the saying went there. At the beginning of the eighteen-nineties any new subject for conversation was precious in such places.
Laura was fourteen and a half, and the thick pigtail of hair which had so far hung down her back had that morning been looped up once and tied with a big black ribbon bow on her neck. When they had first known that she was to go to work in the Post Office at Candleford Green her mother had wondered if she ought not to wear her hair done up with hairpins, grown-up fashion, but when she saw a girl behind the Post Office counter at Sherston wearing hers in a loop with a bow she had felt sure that that was the proper way for Laura to do hers. So the ribbon was bought — black, of course, for her mother said the bright-coloured ribbons most country girls wore made them look like horses, all plaited and beribboned for a fair. ‘And mind you sponge and press it often,’ she had said, ‘for it cost good money. And when you come to buy your own clothes, always buy the best you can afford. It pays in the end.’ But Laura could not bear to think of her mother just then; the parting was too recent.
So she thought of her new trunk. This contained — as well as her everyday clothes and her personal treasures, including her collection of pressed flowers, a lock of her baby brother’s fair hair, and a penny exercise book, presented by her brother Edmund and inscribed by him Laura’s Journal, in which she had promised to write every night — what her mother had spoken of as ‘three of everything’, all made of stout white calico and trimmed with crochet edging.
‘No child of mine,’ her mother had often declared, ‘shall go out in the world without a good outfit. I’d rather starve!’ and when the time had come to get Laura ready for Candleford Green the calico, bought secretly from time to time in lengths, had been brought out from its hiding-place to be made up and trimmed with the edging she had been making for months. ‘I told you it would come in handy for something at some time,’ she had said, but Laura knew by her arch little smile she had meant it for her all along.
Her father had made and polished the trunk and studded it with her initials in bright, brass-headed nails, and, deep down in one corner of it, wrapped in tissue paper, was the new half-crown he had given her.
The contents of the trunk, the clothes she was wearing, youth and health, and a meagre education, plus a curious assortment of scraps of knowledge she had picked up in the course of her reading, were her only assets. In fitting her out, her parents had done all they could for her. They had four younger children now to be provided for. Her future must depend upon herself and what opportunities might offer. But she had no idea of the slenderness of her equipment for life and no fears for the distant future which stretched before her, years and years in which anything might happen. She could not imagine herself married, or old, and it did not seem possible that she would ever die.
Any qualms she felt were for the immediate future, when she, who had so far only known her cottage home and the homes of a few relatives, would be living in some one else’s house, where she would work and be paid for her work and where the work she was to do had still to be learnt. She was much afraid she would not know what she ought to do, or where to find things, or would make mistakes and be thought stupid.
The postmistress of Candleford Green, it was true, was no stranger, but an old girlhood’s friend of her mother. Laura had been to her house several times and had liked her, and she thought Miss Lane had liked her. But that only seemed to make the new relationship more difficult. Should she treat Miss Lane as an old friend of the family, or strictly as a new employer? Her mother, when appealed to, had laughed and said: ‘God bless the child! always looking for trouble! What is there to worry about? Just be your own natural self and Dorcas I’m sure’ll be hers. Though, when it comes to that, perhaps you’d better not go on Cousin Dorcasing her. That was all right when you were a visitor, but now it’d better be “Miss Lane”.
As they lurched out of the rutted road which led round the hamlet, her father urged on the pony. He was not a patient man and there had been too many farewells to suit his taste. ‘What a lot!’ he muttered. ‘You can’t so much as hire a horse and cart for a day without creating a nine days’ wonder in this place!’ But Laura thought it was kind of the neighbours to wish her well. ‘Go and get rich and fat,’ kind old Mrs. Braby had advised; ‘and whatever y’do, don’t ‘ee forget them at home.’ Rich she could never be, her starting salary of half a crown a week would leave no margin for saving, and getting fat seemed more improbable still to tall, lanky fourteen —‘like a molern, all legs and wings’, as the neighbours had often called her — but she would never forget those at home: that she could promise.
She turned and looked back over green cornfields at the huddle of grey cottages, one of which was her home, and pictured her mother ironing and her little sisters playing round the doorway, and wondered if her favourite brother would miss her when he came home from school and if he would remember to water her garden and give her white rabbit, Florizel, plenty of green leaves, and if he would care to read her new journal when she sent it to him, or would think it silly, as he sometimes did her writing.
But it was May and the warm wind dried her eyes and soothed her sore eyelids, and the roadside banks were covered with the tiny spring flowers she loved, stitchwort and celandine and whole sheets of speedwell, which Laura knew as angel’s eyes, and somewhere in the budding green hedgerow a blackbird was singing. Who could be sad on such a day! At one place she saw cowslips in a meadow and asked her father to wait while she gathered a bunch to take as an offering to Miss Lane. Back in her seat, she buried her face in the big fragrant bunch and, ever after, the scent of cowslips reminded her of that morning in May.
When, about midday, they passed through a village, she held the reins while her father went into the inn for a pint of ale for himself and brought out for her a tall tumbler of sweet, fizzing orangeade. She sat in state on her high seat and sipped it gently in the grown-up way she had seen farmers’ wives in gigs sipping their drinks before the inn at home, and it pleased her to imagine that the elderly clergyman who glanced her way in passing was wondering who that interesting-looking girl in the spring-cart could be, although she knew very well in sober fact he was more probably thinking about his next Sunday’s sermon, or trying to decide whether or not he owed a parochial call at the next house he had to pass. At fourteen it is intolerable to resign every claim to distinction. Her hair was soft and thick and brown and she had rather nice brown eyes and the fresh complexion of country youth, but those were her only assets in the way of good looks. ‘You’ll never be annoyed by people turning round in the street to have another look at you,’ her mother had often told her, and sometimes, if Laura looked dashed, she would add: ‘But that cuts both ways: if you’re no beauty, be thankful you’re not a freak.’ So she had nothing to pride herself upon in that respect, and, being country born and with little education, she knew herself to be ignorant, and as to goodness, well, no one but herself knew how far she fell short of that, so, rather than sink into nothingness in her own estimation, she chose to imagine herself interesting-looking.
Candleford Green was taking its afternoon nap when they arrived. The large irregular square of turf which gave the village its name was deserted but for one grazing donkey and a flock of geese which came cackling with outstretched necks towards the spring-cart to investigate. The children who at other times played there were in school and their fathers were at work in the fields, or in workshops, or at their different jobs in Candleford town. The doors of the row of shops which ran along one side of the green were open. A man in a white grocer’s apron stood yawning and stretching his arms in one doorway, an old grey sheepdog slept in the exact middle of the road, the church clock chimed, then struck three, but those were the only signs of life, for it was Monday and the women of the place were too busy with their washing to promenade with their perambulators in front of the shops as on other afternoons.
On the farther, less-populated side of the green a white horse stood under a tree outside. the smithy waiting its turn to be shod and, from within, as the spring-cart drew up, the ring of the anvil and the roar of the bellows could be heard.
Attached to the smithy was a long, low white house which might have been taken for an ordinary cottage of the more substantial kind but for a scarlet-painted letter-box let into the wall beneath a window at one end. Over the window was a painted board which informed the public that the building was CANDLEFORD GREEN POST AND TELEGRAPH OFFICE. At the other end of the building, above the door of the smithy, was another board which read: DORCAS LANE, SHOEING AND GENERAL SMITH.
Except for the sounds of the forge and the white horse dozing beneath the oak tree, that side of the green appeared even more somnolent than the shopping side. Their arrival had not been unobserved, however, for, as the cart drew up, a young smith darted from the forge and, seizing Laura’s trunk, bore it away on his shoulder as if it weighed no more than a feather. ‘Ma’am! The new miss has come,’ they heard him call as he reached the back door of the house, and, a moment later, the Post Office door-bell went ping-ping and Miss Lane herself stepped out to welcome her new assistant.
Miss Lane was not a tall woman and was slightly built, but an erect carriage, a commanding air, and the rustle as she walked of the rich silks she favoured gave her what was then known as a ‘presence’. Bright, dark, almost black eyes were the only noticeable feature in her sallow but not otherwise unpleasing countenance. Ordinarily quietly observant, those eyes could disconcert with a flash of recognition of motives, sparkle with malice, or, more rarely, soften with sympathy. That afternoon, over a deep prune-coloured gown, she wore a small black satin apron embroidered almost to stiffness with jet beads, and, in accordance with fashion, her still luxurious black hair was plaited into a coronet above a curled fringe.
Not quite the Dorcas Lane, Shoeing and General Smith, that might have been expected after reading her signboard. Had she lived a century earlier or half a century later, she would probably have been found at the forge with a sledge-hammer in her hand for she had indomitable energy and a passion for doing and making things. But hers was an age when any work outside the four walls of a home was taboo for any woman who had any pretensions to refinement, and she had to content herself with keeping the books and attending to the correspondence of the old family business she had inherited. She had found one other outlet for her energy in her post office work, which also provided her with entertainment in the supervision of her neighbours’ affairs and the study and analysis of their motives.
This may sound terrifying as now related, but there was nothing terrifying about Miss Lane. She kept the secrets with which she was entrusted in the course of her official duties most honourably, and if she laughed at some of her customers’ foibles she laughed secretly. ‘Clever’ was the general village description of her. ‘She’s a clever one, that Miss Lane, as sharp as vinegar, but not bad in her way,’ people would afterwards say to Laura. Only her two or three enemies said that if she had lived at one time she’d have been burned as a witch.
That afternoon she was in her most gracious mood. ‘You’ve come just at the right time,’ she said, kissing Laura. ‘I’ve had a most terrible rush, half a dozen in at once for postal orders and what not, and the telegraph bell ringing like mad all the while. But it’s over now, I think, for the time being, and the afternoon mail is not due for an hour, so come inside, do, both of you, and we’ll have a nice cup of tea before the evening’s work begins.’
Laura experienced a slight shock when she heard of this recent pressure of business. How, she thought, would she ever be able to cope with such rushes. But she need not have feared: the rushes at Candleford Green Post Office existed chiefly in the imagination of the postmistress, who loved to make her office appear more busy and important than it was in reality.
Her father could not stay to tea, as he had his Candleford relations to visit, and Laura watched him drive away with the sinking feeling of one whose last link with a known world is vanishing. But, before the day was out, her childhood’s life seemed long ago and far away to her, there was so much to see and hear and try to grasp in the new one.
As she followed her new employer through the little office and out to the big front living kitchen, the hands of the grandfather’s clock pointed to a quarter to four. It was really only a quarter past three and the Post Office clock gave that time exactly, but the house clocks were purposely kept half an hour fast and meals and other domestic matters were timed by them. To keep thus ahead of time was an old custom in many country families which was probably instituted to ensure the early rising of man and maid in the days when five or even four o’clock was not thought an unreasonably early hour at which to begin the day’s work. The smiths still began work at six and Zillah, the maid, was downstairs before seven, by which time Miss Lane and, later, Laura, was also up and sorting the morning mail.
The kitchen was a large room with a flagstone floor and two windows, beneath which stood a long, solid-looking table large enough to accommodate the whole household at mealtimes. The foreman and three young unmarried smiths lived in the house, and each of these had his own place at table. Miss Lane, in a higher chair than the others, known as a carving-chair, sat enthroned at the head of the table, then, on the side facing the windows, came Laura and Matthew, the foreman, with a long space of tablecloth between them, supposed to be reserved for visitors. Laura’s seeming place of honour had, no doubt, been allotted to her for handiness in passing cups and plates. The young smiths sat three abreast at the bottom end of the table and Zillah, the maid, had a small side-table of her own. All meals excepting tea were taken in this order.
Cooking and washing-up were done in the back kitchen; the front kitchen was the family living — and dining-room. In the fireplace a small sitting-room grate with hobs had replaced the fire on the hearth of a few years before; but the open chimney and chimney-corners had been left, and from one of these a long, high-backed settle ran out into the room. In the space thus enclosed a red-and-black carpet had been laid to accommodate Miss Lane’s chair at the head of the table and a few fireside chairs. This little room within a room was known as the hearthplace. Beyond it the stone floor was bare but for a few mats.
Brass candlesticks and a brass pestle and mortar ornamented the high mantelshelf, and there were brass warming-pans on the walls, together with a few coloured prints; one of the first man in this country to carry an umbrella — rain was coming down in sheets and he was followed by a jeering but highly ornamental crowd. A blue-and-white dish of oranges stuck with cloves stood upon the dresser. They were dry and withered at that time of the year, but still contributed their quota to the distinctive flavour of the air.
Everything there was just as Miss Lane had inherited it. Except for a couple of easy chairs by the hearth, she had added nothing. ‘What was good enough for my parents and grandparents is good enough for me,’ she would say when some of her more fashionable friends tried to persuade her to bring her house up to date. But family loyalty was rather an excuse than a reason for her preference; she kept the old things she had inherited because she enjoyed seeing and owning them.
That afternoon, when Laura arrived, a little round table in the hearthplace had already been laid for tea. And what a meal! There were boiled new-laid eggs and scones and honey and home-made jam and, to crown all, a dish of fresh Banbury cakes. The carrier had a standing order to bring her a dozen of those cakes every market day.
It seemed a pity to Laura that the first time she had been offered two eggs at one meal she could barely eat one and that the Banbury cake, hitherto to her a delicious rarity only seen in her home when purchased by visiting aunts, should flake and crumble almost untasted upon her plate because she felt too excited and anxious to eat. But Miss Lane ate enough for the two of them. Food was her one weakness. She loaded her scone, already spread with fresh farm butter, with black currant jam and topped it with cream while she inquired about the health of Laura’s mother and told Laura what her new duties would be. Once or twice during tea the Post Office door-bell tinkled and she wiped her mouth and sailed majestically off to sell stamps, but the hour of her early tea was the quietest hour of the day; after that what she called her ‘rush hour’ began, and for that Laura was allowed to accompany her.
With what expert speed Miss Lane stamped letters and made up the mail, and with what ceremonious courtesy she answered questions which sounded like conundrums to Laura, was a wonder to hear and see.
The door-bell tinkled all the time as people came in to collect their afternoon mail. There was a delivery of letters in the morning, and the poorer inhabitants of the place only called in the afternoon when they were expecting a letter. ‘I s’pose there isn’t nothing for me, Miss Lane?’ they would say almost apologetically, and would look pleased or disappointed according to her reply. Those of more assured position called regularly and these often would not speak at all, but put their heads inside the door and raise their eyebrows inquiringly. None of them gave their names or addresses, because Miss Lane knew everybody on and around the green and she seldom had to look in the pigeonholes labelled ‘A’ to ‘Z’, because she had sorted the letters and could answer from memory. She often knew from whom the letter was expected and what its contents were likely to be and would console the disappointed callers with: ‘Better luck in the morning. There’s barely time for an answer as yet.’
Out in the kitchen Zillah and the workmen were at tea. The rattle of their teacups and the subdued hum of their conversation could be heard in the office. This was the only meal of the day at which Miss Lane herself did not preside. Zillah poured out, but she did not occupy her mistress’s seat at the head of the table — that was sacred; between each pouring out she retired to her own seat on the settle with her own little table before her. At the other, more formal, meals, the conversation was carried on by Miss Lane and her foreman, with an occasional reference to Zillah when any item of local interest was under discussion, while the young smiths at the foot of the table munched in silence. At tea, with the mistress engaged elsewhere, there was more freedom, and sometimes Zillah’s shrill laughter would break through a chorus of guffaws from the younger workmen. In moderation this was tolerated, but one day, when some one rapped loudly upon the table with a teacup and said (Miss Lane said ‘shouted’), ‘Another pint, please, landlady!’ the office door opened and a voice as severe as that of a schoolmistress admonishing her class called for ‘Less noise there, please!’ None of them resented being spoken to like children, nor did the young journeymen resent being placed below the salt, nor Zillah at her separate table. To them these things were all part of an established order. To that unawakened generation freedom was of less account than good food, and of that in that household there was an abundance.
Tea was not considered a substantial meal. It was for the workmen, as Miss Lane counted time, an innovation. She could remember when bread and cheese and beer were at that hour taken to the forge for the men to consume standing. ‘Afternoon bavour’, they had called it. Now a well-covered table awaited them indoors. Each man’s plate was stacked with slices of bread and butter, and what was called ‘a relish’ was provided. ‘What can we give the men for a relish at tea-time?’ was an almost daily question in that household. Sometimes a blue-and-white basin of boiled new-laid eggs would be placed on the table. Three eggs per man was the standard allowance, but two or three extra were usually cooked ‘in case’, and at the end of the meal the basin was always empty. On other afternoons there would be brawn, known locally as ‘collared head’, or soused herrings, or a pork pie, or cold sausages.
As the clock struck five the scraping of iron-tipped boots would be heard and the men, with leather aprons wound up around their waists, and their faces, still moist from their visit to the pump in the yard, looking preternaturally clean against their work-soiled clothes, would troop into the kitchen. While they ate they would talk of the horses they had been shoeing. ‘That new grey o’ Squire’s wer’ as near as dammit to nippin’ my ear. A groom ought’r stand by and hold th’ young devil’, or ‘Poor old Whitefoot! About time he wer’ pensioned off. Went to sleep an’ nearly fell down top of me today, he did. Let’s see, how old is he now, do you reckon?’ ‘Twenty, if he’s a day. Mus’ Elliott’s father used to ride him to hounds and he’s bin dead this ten ‘ears. But you leave old Whitefoot alone. He’ll drag that station cart for another five ‘ears. What’s he got to cart? Only young Jim, and he’s a seven-stunner, if that, and maybe a bit of fish and a parcel or two. No, you take my word for’t, old Whitefoot ain’t going to die while he can see anybody else alive.’ Or they would talk about the weather or the crops or some new arrival in the place, extracting the last grain of interest from every trifling event, while, separated from them by only a closed door, the new activities of a more sophisticated day were beginning.
On her first day in the office, Laura stood awkwardly by Miss Lane, longing to show her willingness to help, but not knowing how to begin. Once, when there was a brisk demand for penny stamps and the telegraph bell was ringing, she tried timidly to sell one, but she was pushed gently aside, and afterwards it was explained to her that she must not so much as handle a letter or sell a stamp until she had been through some mysterious initiation ceremony which Miss Lane called being ‘sworn in’. This had to take place before a justice of the Peace, and it had been arranged that she should go the next morning to one of the great houses in the locality for that purpose. And she would have to go alone, for until she herself had qualified, Miss Lane could not leave home during office hours, and she feared she would not know which doorbell to ring or what to say when she came into the great man’s presence. Oh dear! this new life seemed very complicated.
The dread of this interview haunted her until, at Miss Lane’s suggestion, she went out for a turn in the garden, where, she was told, she might always go for a breath of fresh air between busy times in the office. She had been in that garden before, but never in May, with the apple-blossom out and the wallflowers filling the air with their fragrance.
Narrow paths between high, built-up banks supporting flower borders, crowded with jonquils, auriculas, forget-me-nots and other spring flowers, led from one part of the garden to another. One winding path led to the earth closet in its bower of nut-trees halfway down the garden, another to the vegetable garden and on to the rough grass plot before the beehives. Between each section were thick groves of bushes with ferns and capers and Solomon’s seal, so closed in that the long, rough grass there was always damp. Wasted ground, a good gardener might have said, but delightful in its cool, green shadiness.
Nearer the house was a portion given up entirely to flowers, not growing in beds or borders, but crammed together in an irregular square, where they bloomed in half-wild profusion. There were rose bushes there and lavender and rosemary and a bush apple-tree which bore little red and yellow-streaked apples in later summer, and Michaelmas daisies and red-hot pokers and old-fashioned pompom dahlias in autumn and peonies and pinks already budding.
An old man in the village came one day a week to till the vegetable garden, but the flower garden was no one’s especial business. Miss Lane herself would occasionally pull on a pair of wash-leather gloves and transplant a few seedlings: Matthew would pull up a weed or stake a plant as he passed, and the smiths, once a year, turned out of the shop to dig between the roots and cut down dead canes. Betweenwhiles the flowers grew just as they would in crowded masses, perfect in their imperfection.
Laura, who came from a district often short of water, was amazed to find no less than three wells in the garden. There was the well beneath the pump near the back door which supplied the house with water; a middle well outside the inner smithy door used only for trade purposes, and what was called the ‘bottom well’ near the beehives. The bottom well was kept padlocked. Moss grew on its lid and nettles around it. At one time it had supplied the house with drinking water, but that was a long time ago.
Every one in any way connected with the place knew the story of the wells. No one had suspected the existence of the one near the house until, one day, while Miss Lane was still a small child, a visitor who had come to tea was on her way to what was still known as ‘the little house’ half way down the garden. When she had gone a few yards from the back door a flagstone on the path gave way beneath her feet and she found herself slipping into a chasm. Fortunately, she was a substantially built woman and, by flinging out her arms, she was able to support her upper part above ground while her legs dangled in space. Her screams soon brought assistance and she was hauled to safety, and, the modern treatment of bed and hot-water bottles for shock being as yet undiscovered, Miss Lane’s mother did what she could by well lacing the patient’s tea with rum, which remedy acted so well that, when passing her cup a third time, she actually giggled and said: ‘This tastes a lot better than that old well water’d have done!’
When or why the well had been abandoned and not properly filled in no one ever knew. Miss Lane’s grandparents had had no knowledge of it, and they had come to live there early in the century and both they and her parents and herself as a child had walked gaily over it thousands of times, little suspecting the danger that lurked below. However, all ended well. After the well had been thoroughly cleansed and the water tested, it provided an excellent supply close at hand for the house.
When Laura went to bed that night in her new little bedroom with its pink-washed walls, faded chintz curtains, and chest of drawers all for her own use, she was too tired to write more in her new journal than: ‘Came to live at Candleford Green today, Monday.’ After she was in bed she heard Zillah call the cat, then plod, flat-footed, upstairs. Then the men came up, pad-padding in their stockinged feet, and, last of all, Miss Lane, tap-tapping on her high heels.
Laura sat up in bed and drew aside the window curtain. Not a light to be seen, only darkness, thick and moist and charged with the scent of damp grass and cottage garden flowers. All was silent except for the sharp, sudden swish of a breeze in the smithy tree. And so it would be all night unless the hoof-sounds of a galloping horse rang out, followed by the pealing of the doctor’s bell. There was no ordinary night traffic on country roads in those days.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 20:33