Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

36

‘Such is Life!’

Candleford was a pleasant and peaceful place, but it was no second Garden of Eden. Every now and again, often after months of placidity, something would occur to disturb the even current of village life.

Sometimes these events were sad ones: a man was gored by a bull, or broke his neck by falling from a loaded wagon in the harvest field, or a mother died, leaving a brood of young children, or a little boy, playing by the river, fell in and was drowned. Such tragedies brought out all that was best in village life. Neighbours would flock to comfort the mourners, to take the motherless children into their own care until permanent homes could be found for them, or to offer to lend or give anything they possessed which they thought might be of use to the afflicted.

But there were other happenings, less tragic, but even more disturbing. A hitherto quiet and inoffensive man got drunk and staggered across the green shouting obscenities, an affiliation case brought unsavoury details to light, a sweetheart of ten years’ standing was deserted for a younger and fresher girl, a child or an animal was ill-treated, or the usually mild and comparatively harmless village gossip suddenly became venomous. Such things made the young and inexperienced feel that life was not as it had appeared; that there were hitherto unsuspected dark depths beneath the sunny surface.

Older and more experienced people saw things more in proportion, for they had lived long enough to learn that human nature is a curious mixture of good and evil — the good, fortunately, predominating. ‘Such is life!’ Miss Lane would sigh when something of the kind came to her ears, and once she continued in the same breath, but more briskly, ‘Have another jam tart, Laura?’

Laura was shocked, for she then thought tart and tears should be separated by at least a decent interval. She had yet to learn that though sorrow and loss and the pain of disillusionment must come to all, if not at one time then at another, and those around the sufferer will share his or her sorrow to some extent, life must still go on in the ordinary way for those not directly implicated.

At Candleford Green there was no serious crime. Murder and incest and robbery with violence were to its inhabitants just things read about in the Sunday newspapers — things to horrify and to be discussed and to form theories on, but far removed from reality. The few local court cases were calculated rather to cause a little welcome excitement than to shock or grieve.

Two men were charged with poaching, and as this had taken place on Sir Timothy’s estate he retired from the Bench while the case was tried. But not, it was said, before he had asked his fellow magistrates to deal lightly with the offenders. ‘For,’ he was supposed to have added, ‘who’s going to stump up to keep their families while they are in gaol if I don’t.’ Sentence was passed with due regard to Sir Timothy’s pocket. That case caused but a mild interest and no dissension. A poacher, it was agreed, knew the risks he was running, and if he thought the game was worth the candle, well, let him take the consequences.

Then there was the case of the man who had systematically stolen pigwash from a neighbour. The neighbour, who kept several pigs on an allotment some distance from his dwelling, had bought and collected the pigwash from an institution in Candleford town. The thief had risen early and fed his own pig from his neighbour’s pig-tubs every morning for weeks before the leakage was discovered, a watch set, and he was caught, dipper in hand. ‘A dirty, mean trick!’ the villagers said. A fortnight in gaol was too short a sentence.

But over the case of Sam and Susan, neighbours quarrelled and friends were divided. They were a young married couple with three small children and had, as far as was known, always lived peaceably together until one evening when a dispute arose between them, in the course of which Sammy, who was a great, strapping fellow, fell upon his frail-looking little wife and gave her a bad beating. When this was known, as it was almost immediately, for such bruises and such a black eye as Susan’s cannot long be hidden, there was a general outcry. Not that a wife’s black eye was an entirely unknown spectacle in the village, though it was a rare one, most of the village couples being able to settle their disputes, if any, in private, but on account of the relative sizes of the couple. Sammy was so very big and tall and strong and Susie so slight and childish-looking, that every one who heard of or saw the black eye called out at once, ‘The great big bully, him!’ So far opinion was unanimous.

But Susie did not take her whacking in the ordinary way. Other wives who had in the past appeared with an eye blackened had always accounted for it by saying that they had been chopping firewood and a stick had flown up and hit them. It was a formula, as well understood and recognized as their more worldly sisters’ ‘Not at home’, and good manners demanded that it should be accepted at its face value. But Susan gave no explanation at all of her state. She went in and out of her cottage in her usual brisk and determined way about her daily affairs and asked neither sympathy nor advice of her neighbours. Indeed, several days had passed before it became known that, with her black eye and her bruises still fresh, she had gone to the Police Station at Candleford town and had taken out a summons for Sammy.

Then, indeed, the village had something to talk about, and talk it did. Some people professed to be horrified that a great, strapping young fellow like Sam should have been such a brute as to lay hands on his nice little wife, good mother and model housewife as she was, and far and away too good for him. They thought she did quite right to go to the police. It showed her spirit, that it did! Others said Susan was a shrew, as all those thin, fair-haired, vinegarish little women were bound to be, and nobody knew what that poor fellow, her husband, may have had to put up with. It was nag, nag, nag, they’d be bound, every moment he was at home, and the house kept that beastly clean he had to take off his coal-heaving clothes in the shed and wash himself before he was allowed to sit down to his supper. Two parties sprang quickly into being. To one Sam was a brute and Susan a heroine, and if the other did not actually hold up Sam as a hero, they maintained that he was an ill-used young man and that Susan was a hussy. It was a case of one quarrel breeding many.

But Susan had another surprise in store for them. In due course, Sam came up before the Court and was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for wife-beating. Susan came home from the Court and, still without saying a word as to her intention to any one, packed her three small children into the perambulator, locked up the house, and marched off to Candleford Workhouse, as it appeared she had then the right to do, having no official means of support while her husband was in prison. She could quite well have stayed at home, for the tradesmen would have given her credit and the neighbours would have helped, or she could have gone to her parents’ home in a neighbouring village, but she chose her own course. The step lost her many of her warmest supporters, who had been looking forward to standing by her with sympathy and material aid, and caused the opposition to condemn her more fiercely. She said afterwards she did it to shame Sam, and in this no doubt she succeeded, for it must have added to his humiliation to know that his wife and children were chargeable to the parish. But the period spent in the poorhouse must have been punishment to herself as well. It was common knowledge that life in such establishments was not a bed of roses for a respectable young woman.

However, it all ended happily. A sight Laura could never forget was that of the reunited family returning to their home after Sam’s sentence had expired. They passed the Post Office, talking amiably together, Sam pushing the perambulator and Susan carrying a string bag containing the few little luxuries they had purchased on their way for their second house-warming. Each of the three children clutched a toy, that of the little toddling boy being a tin trumpet which he tootled to let people know they were coming. Afterwards Sammy became a model husband, almost excessively gentle and considerate, and Susan, while still keeping the reins in her own hands, took care not to pull too hard on them for Sammy’s comfort.

A family dispute about some land at one time caused great excitement. An old man of the village had many years before inherited from his parents a cottage and a couple of small fields which he had so far enjoyed without question. Then a niece of his, the daughter of a younger brother long dead, put in a claim for part of the land, which, she said, ought rightfully to have gone to her father. It was an unsound claim, for the house and land had been left by will to the eldest son, who had always lived at home and assisted his parents in working their small holding. Eliza’s father had been left a small sum of money and some furniture. Apparently she had the notion that while money and furniture could be left by will according to the testator’s fancy, land had always to be divided between the sons of a family. Even had it been a just claim, it should, after that lapse of time, have been settled in Court, but Eliza, who was a positive, domineering kind of person, decided to take possession by force.

She was living in another village at the time, and the first intimation her uncle had of her intention was when one morning a party of workmen arrived and proceeded to break down the hedge of one of the fields. They had orders, they said, to prepare the site for a new cottage which Mrs. Kibble, the owner of the land, was about to have built. Old James Ashley was a peace-loving man, a staunch Methodist, and much respected in the village, but at such an affront, understandably, his anger flared up and the workmen were quickly sent about their more lawful business. But that was only the beginning of a quarrel which lasted two years and provided much entertainment for those not affected.

About once a week the niece appeared, a tall, rather handsome woman, who wore long, dangling gold earrings and often a red shawl. She always refused to step indoors and talk it over reasonably, as her uncle suggested, but planted herself on the plot she called hers and shouted. She might well have relied on her own voice and human curiosity for an audience, but to make sure of one she had provided herself with an old-fashioned dinner-bell which served both to announce her arrival and to drown any rejoinders made by her opponent. He, poor old man, stood no chance at all in the contest. It was contrary both to his own nature and his religious beliefs to take part in a brawl. He would often go in and shut the door and draw down the blind, hoping, no doubt, that his niece would soon tire of shouting abuse if he appeared to take no notice. If something she said was more than he could bear in silence, he would open the door, poke out his head, and, keeping a firm hold on his temper, make some protestation, but, as whatever he said at such times was drowned by a clanging of the bell, it had little effect on village opinion, and certainly none on his niece’s behaviour.

His title to his modest estate was so clear that it was surprising how many of the villagers sided with Eliza. They said it was a shame that before his father’s body was cold, old Jim should have seized all the land, when it stood to reason it ought to have been divided. These admired Eliza for her spirit and hoped she would insist upon getting her rights, perhaps also hoping subconsciously that she would continue to provide them with entertainment. More thoughtful and better-informed people maintained that the right was on old Jim’s side. ‘Right’s right, and wrong’s no man’s right,’ they quoted sententiously. In the meantime wrong, plus a dinner-bell, appeared to have the best of it.

But old Jim, though an unworldly man, had no intention of parting with any of his property. When he found that lawyer’s letters had no effect upon niece Eliza, he did at last take the case to Court, where it was quickly settled in his favour, and Eliza of the bobbing ear-rings disappeared from the Candleford Green scene. After that, for a time, life in the village seemed strangely silent.

But such disturbances of the peace were well spaced out and few — too few for the taste of some people. The one constable stationed at Candleford Green had plenty of leisure in which to keep his garden up to the standard which ensured him his customary double-first at the annual Flower Show for the best all-round collection of vegetables and the best-kept cottage garden. After the bicycle came into general use, he occasionally hauled up before the Bench some unfortunate who had exceeded the speed limit, or had been found riding lampless after lighting-up time; but, still, for three hundred days of the year his official duties consisted of walking stiffly in uniform round the green at certain hours by day and taking gentle walks by night to meet his colleague on point duty.

Though not without a sense of the dignity due to his official position, he was a kindly and good-tempered man; yet nobody seemed to like him, and he and his wife led a somewhat isolated life, in the village but not entirely of the village. Law-abiding as most country people were in those days, and few as were those who had any personal reason for fearing the police, the village constable was still regarded by many as a potential enemy, set to spy upon them by the authorities. In Laura’s childhood, she knew a woman who declared that she ‘went all fainty, like’ at the sight of a policeman’s uniform, just as some other sensitive people are supposed to do when they smell a rose, or if a cat enters the room. And small boys had a catch which at that time they shouted from behind hedges at a respectful distance after a policeman had passed them:

There goes the bobby with his black shiny hat

And his belly full of fat

And a pancake tied to his nose,

a relic, it is to be supposed, from the days before policemen wore helmets.

Of those other offences which do not come within the scope of the law and yet may destroy the peace of a village, Candleford Green had its share. In those days, when countrywomen read little and the cinema had yet to be invented, the thrills which human nature appears to demand had to be extracted from real life. This demand was abundantly met by the gossips. Candleford Green had several of these talented women who could take some trifling event and so expand, distort, and embroider it that by the time a story had made the round of the village, gathering a little in the way of circumstantial detail here and there, and came at last to the ears of the persons concerned, it would bear so little resemblance to the facts of the case that it was indignantly repudiated.

And, indeed, it was annoying to a proud housewife to be told that people were saying that on a certain day last month she had been compelled to raise money by selling her one easy chair, or that a hire-purchase firm had taken it away in default, when what had really happened was that the easy chair had been carried away to be reupholstered, and, far from being penniless, its possessor had the money saved up and actually in her pocket at that moment to pay for the renovation. And it was still more annoying for a young man to have his sweetheart’s recent coldness accounted for by the story going the rounds that he had been seen going into the house of a fascinating young widow. Which he had, not as a victim to her fascination, but to investigate the cause of a smoking chimney which his employer, who was also her landlord, had asked him to see to.

Such stories did no great harm. Those concerned who happened to possess a sense of humour would laugh at them as a pack of lies invented by a few gossiping old women who would have been better employed mending the holes in their stockings. Others would go from house to house trying to track down the originator of the gossip. They never succeeded, though most of those they interviewed were in some measure guilty; but the pursuit served to take off the edge of their indignation.

But every few years at Candleford Green, and no doubt in other such villages, stories no more true to fact were circulated which did definite harm. One such was that a young girl, at home for a time from her place in service, was pregnant. There was no truth whatever in the story. She was anaemic and run down and her kindly employers had sent her home for a few weeks’ rest and country air, but soon, not only her supposed condition, but also the name of her seducer, was common talk. She was a modest, sensitive girl and in her then weak condition suffered greatly.

Another outlet for the few who had venomous minds was the sending of so-called comic valentines addressed in disguised handwriting. The custom of sending daintily printed and lace-bedecked valentines by friends and lovers had by that time died out. Laura was born too late ever to receive a genuine valentine. But what were known as comic valentines were still popular in country districts. These were crude coloured prints on flimsy paper representing hideous forms and faces intended to be more or less applicable to the recipient. A valentine could be obtained suitable to be sent to one of any trade, calling, or tendency, with words, always insulting and often obscene, calculated to wound, and these, usually unstamped, passed through the village post offices in surprising numbers every St. Valentine’s Eve.

Laura once took one out of the posting-box addressed to herself, with the picture of a hideous female handing out penny stamps and some printed doggerel which began:

You think yourself so lad-di-da

And get yourself up so grand

and went on to advise her always to wear a thick veil when she went out, or her face would frighten the cows. Underneath the verse was scrawled in pencil: ‘Wat you reely wants is a mask.’ She thrust it into the fire and told nobody, but for some time all pleasure in her own appearance was spoiled and the knowledge that she had an enemy rankled.

But scandalous gossip and the sending of anonymous valentines was but the work of a few of the evil-minded people such as may always be found in any place. The majority of Candleford Green dwellers were kindly, as majorities always are. Education had already done something for village life. The old dark superstitions had gone. Poor, ugly, old lone-living women were no longer suspected of witchcraft, although there was one man still living in the village who firmly believed that he had known a witch in his childhood and that she had caused by her magic all manner of misfortunes. Under the influence of her evil eye children had pined and died, horses had gone lame, cows had slipped their calves, and fires had broken out in rickyards.

A disease known locally as the ‘scab’ had at that time ravaged the sheepfolds and ruined farmers, and, as old Nanny had been known to collect the scraps of wool torn from the sheeps’ backs by the bushes, probably to warm her poor old body in some way, the villagers had held her responsible. They said she burned the wool by night, they had smelt it sizzling when passing her cottage; and, as the wool shrivelled, the sheep upon whose backs it had grown developed the scab. Women who offended old Nanny speedily lost their looks, and sometimes their husbands’ affections, or their crockery fell from the shelves and got broken. In fact, as one of his hearers once said, old Nanny seemed to have played the very devil with the place. But that was all long before Laura’s time, before her father or mother were born. In the eighteen-nineties in that part of the country ordinary people either disbelieved altogether in witchcraft, or thought it one of the old unhappy things of the past, like the gibbet and transportation.

A few innocent charms and superstitious practices were all that remained of magic. Warts were still charmed away by binding a large black slug upon the wart for a night and a day. Then the sufferer would go by night to the nearest crossroads and, by flinging the slug over the left shoulder, hope to get rid of the wart. Fried mice were still given to children as a specific for bed-wetting. The children were told the mouse was meat and ate it without protest, but with what result is unknown. No one would at table spoon salt on to another person’s plate, for ‘Help you to salt, help you to sorrow’. After Michaelmas blackberries were unfit for food because on Michaelmas Day the devil dragged his tail over them. If a girl began to whistle a tune, those near her would clap their hands over her mouth, for ‘A whistling maid and a crowing hen is no good either to gods nor men’. On the other hand, as far as Laura ever heard, one might walk under a ladder with impunity, for the absence of which inhibition she had cause to be thankful in after years, when the risk of a spattering of paint on one’s clothing was a trifle compared to that of stepping off the curb and being run over by the traffic.

The funerals of the country poor were at that time a deeply moving sight. At Laura’s home the farmer lent one of his farm wagons, freshly painted in bright reds and blues and yellows, or newly scrubbed, to carry the coffin. Clean straw was spread on the bed of the wagon to prevent jolting, and the tired labourer rode to his last rest as he had during his lifetime so many times ridden home from the harvest field. At Candleford Green the coffin was carried on a wheeled hand-bier propelled by friends. Both were what was called ‘walking funerals’, the mourners following the coffin on foot. Sometimes there would be but three or four mourners, perhaps a widow supported by her half-grown children. In other instances the procession was quite a long one, especially if the dead had been aged, when sons and daughters and grandchildren, down to the youngest who could toddle, would follow the coffin, the women in decent if shabby and unfashionable mourning, often borrowed in parts from neighbours, and the men with black crape bands round their hats and sleeves. The village carpenter, who had made the coffin, acted as undertaker, and the cost of the funeral, but £3 or £4, was covered by life insurance. Flowers were often placed inside the coffin, but there were seldom wreaths; the fashion for those came later.

The extravagant expenditure on funerals by those who could least afford it was never a feature of country life. A meal to follow the funeral was certainly provided, and the food then consumed was the best the bereaved could obtain. Those funeral meals of the poor have been much misunderstood and misrepresented. By the country poor and probably by the majority of the poor in towns they were not provided in any spirit of ostentation, but because it was an urgent necessity that a meal should be partaken of by the mourners as soon as possible after a funeral. Very little food would be eaten in a tiny cottage while the dead remained there; evidences of human mortality would be too near and too pervasive. Married children and other relatives coming from a distance might have eaten nothing since breakfast. So a ham, or part of a ham, was provided, not in order to be able to boast, ‘We buried ’im with ‘am’, but because it was a ready-prepared dish which was both easily obtained and appetizing.

Those funeral meals have appeared to some more pathetic than amusing. The return of the mourners after the final parting and their immediate outbursts of pent-up grief. Then, as they grew calmer, the gentle persuasion of those less afflicted that the widow or widower or the bereaved parents, for the sake of the living still left to them, should take some nourishment. Then their gradual revival as they ate and drank. Tears would still be wiped away furtively, but a few sad smiles would break through, until, at the table, a sober cheerfulness would prevail. They had, as they told themselves and others told them, to go on living, and what greater restoratives have we poor mortals than a good meal taken in the company of loving friends? It is possible that the sherry and biscuits provided in more prosperous households after the funerals of that day were sometimes partaken of by sincere and simple-minded people as a much-needed restorative, and not always in order to provide an opportunity for some Victorian father to utter pompous platitudes while he warmed his hinderparts before the fire.

Ghost stories and stories of haunted houses were still repeated. A few of the more simple people may have believed they were literally true. Others enjoyed them for the sake of the thrill, as we now enjoy reading mystery stories. The more educated scoffed at them as old women’s tales. It was an age of materialism, and those in any measure in touch with current ideas believed in nothing they could not feel, or see, or smell.

Laura’s mother was the only person she knew at that time who had an open mind on the subject of the supernatural, and she leaned rather to the side of unbelief. She told her children that she had in her time been told many ghost stories, some of which had almost convinced her that there was something outside the range of ordinary earthly life, but, she would say, there was always some little loophole for doubt. Still, nobody on earth knew everything; ghosts might have appeared and might appear again, though, she thought, it was doubtful if any happy spirit would wish to leave the glories of Heaven to wander on the earth on dark, cold, winter nights, and as to those who had gone to the bad place, they would not be given the opportunity.

She was never convinced, one way or the other. Yet she was the one person Laura ever came into close touch with and for whose absolute integrity she could vouch who had had an experience which could only be explained by taking into consideration the possibility of the supernatural. It concerned not the dead, but the dying. Laura had a family of cousins on her mother’s side, one of whom had married and lived at that time in a neighbouring village, near her old home. Another sister, also married, lived in yet another village, the two, with Laura’s home hamlet, arranged like the three points of a triangle.

One of the sisters, Lily, was at the time very ill, and, for a week or more, the other sister, Patience, had been going daily by a direct route which did not pass Laura’s home to help with the nursing, returning at night to her own home duties. But on the morning in question, when about to set out, she had the sudden idea of passing by Laura’s home in order to collect the rent of a cottage they owned in the hamlet. The tenant was a reliable one, and it had been decided the night before that the rent-collection could wait. But money is always needed at such times and she probably wished to take some little extra luxury or comfort to her sister. No one knew that she was thus going out of her way and she met no one on the quiet country road between the two places.

She collected the rent, then, having to pass her aunt’s cottage, looked in at the door upon her. She found her busy with her weekly ironing and alone in the house except for the small baby in the cradle, her husband being at work and her elder children at school for the day. In reply to her aunt’s anxious inquiry, Patience said sadly: ‘Very, very, ill. It is only a matter of days now, I’m afraid. She may even go today.’

‘Then,’ said her aunt, ‘I’ll come with you,’ and, after she had bundled away her ironing and put her infant in the perambulator, they hurried off together without seeing or speaking to anybody. Their way lay for the greater part through fields and across a wild heath, and they still saw no one who knew them or could possibly guess their errand.

In the meantime, as they journeyed, in the village of their destination the nurse was washing and making comfortable the invalid. They were alone in the house, together in the one room. Poor Lily was a little peevish, for she was in a weak state — as it proved, actually dying — and objected to being disturbed by the nurse’s ministrations.

‘Come, come! You must let me make you look nice. Your sister will be here directly,’ said the nurse cheerfully.

‘I know,’ said Lily. ‘I can see her. Aunt Emma is with her. They’re just coming over Hardwick Heath and they’re picking some blackberries.’

‘Oh, no, my dear,’ said the nurse. ‘You mustn’t expect your aunt so early in the day as this. She doesn’t even know you’re so ill and she’s got her young baby to see to. And they wouldn’t be picking blackberries. They’d be hurrying on to see you.’

Shortly afterwards they arrived. And blackberries had been picked, for the aunt, not having had time to take flowers from her own garden, had gathered a little bouquet of harebells and other heath flowers, which she had backed with early-turned yellow and crimson bramble leaves and a few sprays loaded with fruit.

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