Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

35

At the Post Office

Sometimes Sir Timothy would come in, breathing heavily and mopping his brow if the weather were warm. ‘Ha! ha!’ he would say. ‘Here is our future Postmistress–General. What is the charge for a telegram of thirty-three words to Timbuctu? Ah! I thought so. You don’t know without looking it up in a book, so I’ll send it to Oxford instead and hope you’ll be better informed next time I ask you. There! Can you read my handwriting? I’m dashed if I can always read it myself. Well, well. Your eyes are young. Let’s hope they’ll never be dimmed with crying, eh, Miss Lane? And I see you are looking as young and handsome as ever yourself. Do you remember that afternoon I caught you picking cowslips in Godstone Spinney? Trespassing, you were, trespassing; and I very properly fined you on the spot, although not as yet a J.P. — not by many a year. I let you off lightly that time, though you made such a fuss about a mere ——’

‘Oh, Sir Timothy, how you do rake up things! And I wasn’t trespassing, as you very well knew; it was a footpath your father ought never to have closed.’

‘But the game birds, woman, the game birds ——’ And, if no one else happened to come in, they would talk on of their youth.

For Lady Adelaide, Sir Timothy’s wife, the footman usually did business while she sat in her carriage outside, but occasionally she herself would come rustling in, bringing with her a whiff of perfume, and sink languidly down in the chair provided for customers on their side of the counter. She was a graceful woman, and it was a delight to watch her movements. Laura, who sat behind her in church, admired the way she knelt for the prayers, not plumping down squarely with one boot-sole on each side of a substantial posterior, as most other women of her age did, but slanting gracefully forward with the sole of one dainty shoe in advance of the other. She was tall and thin and, Laura thought, aristocratic-looking.

For some time she took no more notice of Laura than one would now of an automatic stamp-delivering machine. Then, one day, she did her the honour of personally inviting her to join the Primrose League, of which she was a Dame and the chief local patroness. A huge fête, in which branches from the surrounding villages joined, was held in Sir Timothy’s park every midsummer, and there were day excursions and winter-evening entertainments for the benefit of Primrose League members. It was no wonder the pretty little enamelled primrose badge, worn as a brooch or lapel ornament, was so much in evidence at church on Sundays.

But Laura hesitated and grew red as a peony. In view of her Ladyship’s graciousness, it seemed churlish to refuse to join; but what would her father, a declared Liberal in politics and an opponent of all that the Primrose League stood for, say if she went over to the enemy?

And she herself did not really wish to become a member; she never did wish to do what everybody else was doing, which showed she had a contrary nature, she had often been told, but it was really because her thoughts and tastes ran upon different lines than those of the majority.

The lady looked her in the face, her expression showing more interest than formerly. Perhaps she noticed her embarrassment, and Laura, who admired her sincerely and wanted to be liked by her, was about to cave in when ‘Dare to be a Daniel!’ said an inward voice. It was a catchword of the moment derived from the Salvation Army hymn, ‘Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone’, and was more often used as a laughing excuse for refusing a glass of beer in company or adopting a new style of hairdressing than seriously as a support to conscience; but it served.

‘But we are Liberals at home,’ said Laura apologetically, and, at that, the lady smiled and said kindly: ‘Well, in that case, you had better ask your parents’ permission before joining,’ and that was the end of the matter as far as she was concerned. But it was a landmark in Laura’s mental development. Afterwards she laughed at herself for daring to be a Daniel on so small a matter. The mighty Primrose League, with its overwhelming membership, was certainly not in need of another small member. Her Ladyship, she realized, had asked her to join out of kindness, in order that she might qualify for a ticket for the approaching celebrations, and had probably already forgotten the episode. It was better to say clearly and simply just what one meant, whoever one was talking to, and always to remember that what one said was probably of no importance whatever to one’s listener.

That was the only decided stand Laura ever took in party politics. For the rest of her life she was too ready to admire the good and to detest what she thought the bad points in all parties to be able to adhere to any. She loved the Liberals, and afterwards the Socialists, for their efforts to improve the lot of the poor. Stories and poems of hers appeared before the 1914 War in the Daily Citizen, and, after the war, her poems were among the earliest to appear in the Daily Herald under Mr. Gerald Gould’s literary editorship; but, as we know on good authority, ‘every boy and every girl that’s born into this world alive, Is either a little Liberal, Or else a little Conservative’, and, in spite of her early training, the inborn cast of her mind, with its love of the past and of the English countryside, often drew her in the opposite direction.

A frequent caller at the Post Office was an old Army pensioner named Benjamin Trollope, commonly called ‘Old Ben’. He was a tall, upright old fellow, very neat and well-brushed in appearance, with a brown wrinkled face and the clear, straight gaze often seen in exService men. He kept house with an old companion-inarms in a small thatched cottage outside the village, and their bachelor establishment might have served as a model of order and cleanliness. In their garden the very flowers looked well-drilled, geraniums and fuchsias stood in single file from the gate to the doorway, every plant staked and in exact alinement.

Ben’s friend and stable-companion, Tom Ashley, was of a more retiring disposition than Ben. He was one of those old men who seem to have shrunken in stature and, by the time Laura knew them, he had become little and bent and wizened. He stayed mostly indoors and made their beds and curry and cobbled their garments, only coming once a quarter to the Post Office for his Army pension, when, no matter what time of year or what kind of weather, he complained of feeling cold. Ben did the gardening, shopping, and other outdoor jobs, being, as it were, the man of the house while Tom acted as housewife.

Ben told Laura that they had decided to rent that particular cottage because it had jessamine over the porch. The scent of it reminded them of India. India! That name was the key to Ben’s heart. He had seen long service there and the glamour of the East had taken hold of his imagination. He talked well, and his talk gave Laura a vivid impression of hot, dry plains, steaming jungles, heathen temples, and city bazaars crowded with the colourful life of the land he had loved and could never forget. But there was something more which he felt, but could not express, sights and scents and sounds of which he could only say: ‘It seems to get hold of you like, somehow.’

Once, when he was telling her of a journey he had once made to the hills with a surveying party in some humble capacity, he said: ‘I wish you could have seen the flowers. Never saw anything like it, never in my life! Great sheets of scarlet as close-packed as they grasses on the green, and primulas and lilies and things such as you only see here in a hothouse, and, rising right out of ’em, great mountains all covered with snow. Ah! ’twas a sight — a sight! My mate says to me this mornin’ when we found it was rainin’ and his ague shakin’ him again, “Oh Ben,” he says, “I do wish we were back in India with a bit of hot sun”; and I said to him, “‘Tain’t no good wishin’, Tom. We’ve had our day and that day’s over. We shan’t see India no more.”’

It was strange, thought Laura, that other pensioners she knew who had served in India had left that land with no regrets and very few memories. If asked about their adventures, they would say: ‘The places have got funny names and it’s very hot out there. In the Bay of Biscay on the way out every man jack of us was seasick.’ Most of them were short-service men, and they had returned cheerfully to the plough-tail. They appeared to be happier than Ben, but Laura liked him best.

One day a man known as ‘Long Bob’, a lock-keeper on the canal, came in with a small package which he wished to send by registered post. It was roughly done up in soiled brown paper, and the string, although much knotted, was minus the wax seals required by the regulations. When Laura offered him the loan of the office sealing-wax, he asked her to seal and make tidy the package for him, saying that his fingers were all thumbs and he hadn’t got no ‘ooman now to do such fiddling little jobs for him. ‘But maybe,’ he added, ‘before you start on it, you’d like to have a look at that within.’

He then opened the package and brought forth and shook out a panel of coloured embroidery. It was a needlework picture of Adam and Eve, standing one on each side of the Tree of Knowledge with a grove of flowering and fruiting trees behind them and a lamb, a rabbit, and other small creatures in the foreground. It was exquisitely executed and the colours, though faded in places, were beautifully blended. The hair of Adam and Eve was embroidered with real human hair and the fur of the furry animals of some woolly substance. That it was very old even the inexperienced Laura could sense at the first glance, more by something strange and antique-looking about the nude human figures and the shape of the trees than by any visible sign of wear or decay in the fabric. ‘It’s very old, isn’t it?’ she asked, expecting Long Bob to say it had belonged to his grandmother.

‘Very old and ancient indeed,’ he replied, ‘and I’m told there’s some clever men in London who’ll like to see that pictur’. All done by hand, they say, oh, long agone, before old Queen Bess’s day.’ Then, seeing Laura all eyes and ears, he told her how it had come into his possession.

About a year before, it appeared, he had found the panel on the towing-path of the canal, carelessly screwed up in a sheet of newspaper. Inspired rather by strict principles of honesty than by any idea that the panel was valuable, he had taken it to the Police Station at Candleford, where the sergeant in charge had asked him to leave it while inquiries were made. It had then, apparently, been examined by experts, for the next thing Long Bob heard from the police was that the panel was old and valuable and that inquiries as to its ownership were in progress. It was thought that it must have been part of the proceeds of some burglary. But there had been no burglary in that part of the county for several years, and the police could get no information of any more distant one where such an article was missing. The owner was never found, and, at the end of the time appointed by law, the panel was handed back to the finder, together with the address of a London sale-room to which he was advised to send it. A few weeks later he received the, to him, large sum of five pounds which its sale had realized.

That was the recent history of the needlework panel. What of its past? How had it come to lie, wrapped in a fairly recent newspaper, on the canal tow-path that foggy November morning?

Nobody ever knew. Miss Lane and Laura thought that by some means it had come into the possession of a cottage family, which, though ignorant of its value, had treasured it as a curiosity. Then, perhaps, it may have been sent by a child as a present to some relative, or as part of an inheritance from some old grandmother who had recently died. The loss by a child of ‘that old sampler of Granny’s’ would be but a matter for cuffing and scolding; poor people would not dream of making what they called a ‘hue and cry’ about such a loss, or of going to the police. But this was mere supposition; the ownership of the panel and how it came to be found in such an unlikely place remained a mystery.

The office was closed to the public at eight, but, every year, for several Saturday evenings in later summer, Laura was in attendance until 9.30. Then, as she sat behind closed doors reading or knitting, she would hear a scuffle of feet outside and open the door to one, two, or more wild-looking men with touzled hair and beards, sun-scorched faces, and queerly cut clothes with coloured shirts which always seemed to be sticking out of their trousers somewhere. These were the Irish farm workers who came over to England to help with the harvest. They were keen workers, employed on piecework, who could not afford to lose one of the daylight hours. By the time they had finished work all the post offices were closed, postal orders could not be procured on Sunday, and they had to send part of their wages to their wives and families in Ireland, so, to help them solve their difficulty, Miss Lane had for some years sold them postal orders, secretly, after official hours. Now she authorized Laura to sell them.

Laura had been used to seeing the Irish harvesters from a child. Then some of the neighbours at home had tried to frighten her when naughty by saying, ‘I’ll give you to them old Irishers; see if I don’t, then!’ and although not alarmed at the threat beyond infancy — for who could be afraid of men who did no one any harm, beyond irritating them by talking too much and working harder and by so doing earning more money than they did? — they had remained to her strangers and foreigners who came to her neighbourhood for a season, as the swallows came, then disappeared across the sea to a country called ‘Ireland’ where people wanted Home Rule and said ‘Begorra’ and made things called ‘bulls’ and lived exclusively upon potatoes.

Now she knew the Irish harvesters by name — Mr. McCarthy, Tim Doolan, Big James and Little James and Kevin and Patrick, and all the other harvesters working in the district. More and more came from farther afield as the knowledge spread that at Candleford Green there lived a sympathetic postmistress who would let a man have his postal order for home after his week’s work was done. By the time Laura left the village, the favour had had to be extended to Sunday morning, and Miss Lane was trying to harden her heart and invent some reason for withdrawing the privilege which had become a serious addition to her work.

At the time now recorded there were perhaps a dozen of these Saturday-evening clients. None of the older men among them could write, and when Laura first knew them these would bring their letters to their wives in Ireland already written by one of their younger workmates. But soon she had these illiterates coming stealthily alone. ‘Would ye be an angel, Missie darlint, an’ write just a few little words for me on this sheet of paper I’ve brought?’ they would whisper, and Laura would write to their dictation such letters as the following:

‘MY DEAR WIFE— Thanks be to God, our Blessed Lady and the saints, this leaves me in the best of health, with work in plenty and money coming in to give us all a better winter than last year, please God.’

Then, after inquiries about the health of ‘herself’ and the children, the old father and mother, Uncle Doolan, Cousin Bridget, and each neighbour by name, the real reason for getting the letter written surreptitiously would emerge. The wife would be told to ‘pay off at the shop’, or to ask such and such a price for something they had to sell, or not to forget to ‘lay by a bit in the stocking’; but she was not to deny herself anything she fancied; she should live like a queen if the sender of the letter had his way, and he remained her loving husband.

Laura noticed that when these letters were dictated there were none of the long pauses usual when she was writing a letter for one of her own old countrymen, as she sometimes did. Words came freely to the Irishman, and there were rich, warm phrases in his letters that sounded like poetry. What Englishman of his class would think of wishing his wife could live like a queen? ‘Take care of yourself’ would be the fondest expression she would find in his letters. The Irishman, too, had better manners than the Englishman. He took off his hat when he came in at the door, said ‘please’, or, rather, ‘plaze’, more frequently, and was almost effusive in his thanks for some small service. The younger men were inclined to pay compliments, but they did so in such charming words that no one could have felt offended.

Many gipsies frequented the neighbourhood, where there were certain roadside dells which they used as camping-grounds. These, for weeks together, would be silent and deserted, with only circles of black ash to show where fires had been and scraps of coloured rag fluttering from bushes. Then one day, towards evening, tents would be raised and fires lighted, horses would be hobbled and turned out to graze, and men with lurchers at their heels would explore the field hedgerows (not after rabbits. Oh, no! Only to cut a nice ash stick with which to make their old pony go), while the women and children around the cooking pots in the dell shouted and squabbled and called out to the men in a different language from that they used for business purposes at cottage doors.

‘There’s them ole gipos back again,’ the villagers would say when they saw blue smoke drifting over the treetops. ‘Time they was routed out o’ them places, the ole stinkin’ lot of ’em. If a poor man so much as looks at a rabbit he soon finds hisself in quod, but their pot’s never empty. Says they eat hedgehogs! Hedgehogs! He! He! Hedgehogs wi’ soft prickles!’

Laura liked the gipsies, though she did sometimes wish they would not push with their baskets into the office, three or four at a time. If a village woman happened to be there before them she would sidle out of the door holding her nose, and their atmosphere was, indeed, overpowering, though charged as much with the odours of wood-smoke and wet earth as with that of actual uncleanliness.

There was no delivery of letters at their tents or caravans. For those they had to call at the Post Office. ‘Any letters for Maria Lee?’ or for Mrs. Eli Stanley, or for Christina Boswell, they would say, and, if there were none, and there very often were not, they would say: ‘Are you quite sure now, dearie? Do just look again. I’ve left my youngest in Oxford Infirmary,’ or ‘My daughter’s expecting an increase,’ or ‘My boy’s walking up from Winchester to join us, and he ought to be here by now.’

All this seemed surprisingly human to Laura, who had hitherto looked upon gipsies as outcasts, robbers of henroosts, stealers of children, and wheedlers of pennies from pockets even poorer than their own. Now she met them on a business footing, and they never begged from her and very seldom tried to sell her a comb or a length of lace from their baskets, but one day an old woman for whom she had written a letter offered to tell her fortune. She was perhaps the most striking-looking person Laura ever saw in her life: tall for a gipsy, with flashing black eyes and black hair without a fleck of grey in it, although her cheeks were deeply wrinkled and leathery. Some one had given her a man’s brightly-coloured paisley-patterned dressing-gown, which she wore as an outdoor garment with a soft billy-cock hat. Her name was Cinderella Doe and her letters came so addressed, without a prefix.

The fortune was pleasing. Whoever heard of one that was not? There was no fair man or dark man or enemy to beware of in it, and though she promised Laura love, it was not love of the usual kind. ‘You’re going to be loved,’ she said; ‘loved by people you’ve never seen and never will see.’ A graceful way of thanking one for writing a letter.

Friends and acquaintances who came to the Post Office used often to say to Laura: ‘How dull it must be for you here.’ But although she sometimes agreed mildly for the sake of not appearing peculiar, Laura did not find life at the Post Office at all dull. She was so young and new to life that small things which older people might not have noticed surprised and pleased her. All day interesting people were coming in-interesting to her, at least — and if there were intervals between these callers, there was always something waiting to be done. Sometimes, in a few spare moments, Miss Lane would come in and find her reading a book from the parlour or the Mechanics’ Institute. Although she had not actually forbidden reading for pleasure on duty, she did not altogether approve of it, for she thought it looked unbusinesslike. So she would say, rather acidly: ‘Are you sure you can learn nothing more from the Rule Book?’ and Laura would once more take down from its shelf the large, cream, cardboard-bound tome she had already studied until she knew many of the rules word for word. From even that dry-as-dust reading she extracted some pleasure. On one page, for instance, set in a paragraph composed of stiff, official phrases, was the word ‘mignonette’. It referred only to the colour of a form, or something of that kind, but to Laura it seemed like a pressed flower, still faintly scented.

And, although such callers as the gipsies and the Irish harvesters appealed to her imagination because they were out of the ordinary, she was even more interested in the ordinary country people, because she knew them better and knew more of their stories. She knew the girl in love with her sister’s husband, whose hands trembled while she tore open her letters from him; and the old mother who had not heard for three years from her son in Australia, but still came every day to the Post Office, hoping; and the rough working man who, when told for the first time, ten years after marriage, that his wife had an illegitimate daughter of sixteen and that that daughter was stricken with tuberculosis, said: ‘You go and fetch her home at once and look after her. Your child’s my child and your home’s her home’; and she knew families which put more money in the Savings Bank every week than they received in wages, and other families which were being dunned for the payment of bills, and what shop in London supplied Mrs. Fashionable with clothes, and who posted the box containing a dead mouse to Mrs. Meddlesome. But those were stories she would never be at liberty to tell in full, because of the Declaration she had signed before Sir Timothy.

And she had her own personal experiences: her moments of ecstasy in the contemplation of beauty; her periods of religious doubt and hours of religious faith; her bitter disillusionments on finding some people were not what she had thought them, and her stings of conscience over her own shortcomings. She grieved often for the sorrows of others and sometimes for her own. A sudden chance glimpse of animal corruption caused her to dwell for weeks on the fate of the human body. She fell into hero-worship of an elderly nobleman and thought it was love. If he noticed her at all, he must have thought her most attentive and obliging over his post-office business. She never saw him outside the office. She learned to ride a bicycle, took an interest in dress, formed her own taste in reading, and wrote a good deal of bad verse which she called ‘poetry’.

But the reactions to life of a sensitive, imaginative adolescent have been so many times described in print that it is not proposed to give yet one more description in this book. Laura’s mental and spiritual development can only be interesting in that it shows that those of a similar type develop in much the same way, however different the environment.

A number of customers rode up to the Post Office door on horseback. A mounting-block by the doorstep, with an iron hook in the wall above to secure the reins, had been provided for these. But the hook was seldom used out of school hours, for, if boys were playing on the green, half a dozen of them would rush forward, calling: ‘Hold your ‘oss, sir?’ ‘Let me, sir.’ ‘Let me!’ and, unless the horse was of the temper called ‘froxy’, one of the tallest and stoutest of the boys would be chosen and afterwards rewarded with a penny for his pains. This arrangement entailed frequent dashes to the door by the customer to see what ‘that young devil’ was ‘up to’, and a worrying haste with the business within, but no horseman thought of refusing the job to a boy who asked for it, because it was the custom. The boys claimed the job and the reward of one penny as their right.

The gentlemen farmers to whom most of the horses belonged, had fresh, ruddy faces and breezy manners and wore smartly cut riding breeches and coats. Some of them were hunting men with lady wives, and children away at boarding schools. Their farmhouses were comfortably furnished and their tables well covered with the best of food and drink, for everybody seemed in those days to do well on the land, except the farm labourer. Occasionally the rider would be a stud groom from one of the hunting stables. Then, after doing what little business he had, he would ask for Miss Lane, pass through to the kitchen, from which the chinking sound of glasses would soon proceed. Bottles of brandy and whisky were kept for these in a cupboard called ‘the stud-grooms’ cupboard’. No one in the house ever touched these drinks, but they had to be provided in the way of business. It was the custom.

The sound of a bicycle being propped against the wall outside was less frequent than that of a horse’s hoofs; but there were already a few cyclists, and the number of these increased rapidly when the new low safety bicycle superseded the old penny-farthing type. Then, sometimes, on a Saturday afternoon, the call of a bugle would be heard, followed by the scuffling of dismounting feet, and a stream of laughing, jostling young men would press into the tiny office to send facetious telegrams. These members of the earliest cycling clubs had a great sense of their own importance, and dressed up to their part in a uniform composed of a tight navy knickerbocker suit with red or yellow braided coat and a small navy pill-box cap embroidered with their club badge. The leader carried a bugle suspended on a coloured cord from his shoulder. Cycling was considered such a dangerous pastime that they telegraphed home news of their safe arrival at the farthest point in their journey. Or perhaps they sent the telegrams to prove how far they really had travelled, for a cyclist’s word as to his day’s mileage then ranked with an angler’s account of his catch.

‘Did run in two hours, forty and a half minutes. Only ran down two fowls, a pig, and a carter’, is a fair sample of their communications. The bag was mere brag; the senders had probably hurt no living creature; some of them may even have dismounted by the roadside to allow a horsed carriage to pass, but every one of them liked to pose as ‘a regular devil of a fellow’.

They were townsmen out for a lark, and, after partaking of refreshment at the hotel, they would play leap-frog or kick an old tin about the green. They had a lingo of their own. Quite common things, according to them, were ‘scrumptious’, or ‘awfully good’, or ‘awfully rotten’, or just ‘bally awful’. Cigarettes they called ‘fags’; their bicycles their ‘mounts’, or ‘my machine’ or ‘my trusty steed’; the Candleford Green people they alluded to as ‘the natives’. Laura was addressed by them as ‘fair damsel’, and their favourite ejaculation was ‘What ho!’ or ‘What ho, she bumps!’

But they were not to retain their position as bold pioneer adventurers long. Soon, every man, youth and boy whose families were above the poverty line was riding a bicycle. For some obscure reason, the male sex tried hard to keep the privilege of bicycle riding to themselves. If a man saw or heard of a woman riding he was horrified. ‘Unwomanly. Most unwomanly! God knows what the world’s coming to,’ he would say; but, excepting the fat and elderly and the sour and envious, the women suspended judgement. They saw possibilities which they were soon to seize. The wife of a doctor in Candleford town was the first woman cyclist in that district. ‘I should like to tear her off that thing and smack her pretty little backside,’ said one old man, grinding his teeth with fury. One of more gentle character sighed and said: ”T’ood break my heart if I saw my wife on one of they’, which those acquainted with the figure of his middle-aged wife thought reasonable.

Their protestations were unavailing; one woman after another appeared riding a glittering new bicycle. In long skirts, it is true, but with most of their petticoats left in the bedroom behind them. Even those women who as yet did not cycle gained something in freedom of movement, for the two or three bulky petticoats formerly worn were replaced by neat serge knickers — heavy and cumbersome knickers, compared with those of today, with many buttons and stiff buttonholes and cambric linings to be sewn in on Saturday nights, but a great improvement on the petticoats.

And oh! the joy of the new means of progression. To cleave the air as though on wings, defying time and space by putting what had been a day’s journey on foot behind one in a couple of hours! Of passing garrulous acquaintances who had formerly held one in one-sided conversation by the roadside for an hour, with a light ting, ting of the bell and a casual wave of recognition.

At first only comparatively well-to-do women rode bicycles; but soon almost every one under forty was awheel, for those who could not afford to buy a bicycle could hire one for sixpence an hour. The men’s shocked criticism petered out before the fait accompli, and they contented themselves with such mild thrusts as:

Mother’s out upon her bike, enjoying of the fun,

Sister and her beau have gone to take a little run.

The housemaid and the cook are both a-riding on their wheels;

And Daddy’s in the kitchen a-cooking of the meals.

And very good for Daddy it was. He had had all the fun hitherto; now it was his wife’s and daughter’s turn. The knell of the selfish, much-waited-upon, old-fashioned father of the family was sounded by the bicycle bell.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thompson/flora/lark-rise-to-candleford/chapter35.html

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