If one of the women was accused of hoarding her best clothes instead of wearing them, she would laugh and say: ‘Ah! I be savin’ they for high days an’ holidays an’ bonfire nights.’ If she had, they would have lasted a long time, for there were very few holidays and scarcely any which called for a special toilet.
Christmas Day passed very quietly. The men had a holiday from work and the children from school and the churchgoers attended special Christmas services. Mothers who had young children would buy them an orange each and a handful of nuts; but, except at the end house and the inn, there was no hanging up of stockings, and those who had no kind elder sister or aunt in service to send them parcels got no Christmas presents.
Still, they did manage to make a little festival of it. Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner-table together with plum pudding — not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens (it was not a holly country) were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of home-made wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday. There was little visiting of neighbours and there were no family reunions, for the girls in service could not be spared at that season, and the few boys who had gone out in the world were mostly serving abroad in the Army.
There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol-singing about the country-side; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire than usual, made up their Christmas cheer.
The Sunday of the Feast was more exciting. Then strangers, as well as friends, came from far and near to throng the houses and inn and to promenade on the stretch of road which ran through the hamlet. On that day the big ovens were heated and nearly every family managed to have a joint of beef and a Yorkshire pudding for dinner. The men wore their best suits, complete with collar and tie, and the women brought out their treasured finery and wore it, for, even if no relatives from a distance were expected, some one might be ‘popping in’, if not to dinner, to tea or supper. Half a crown, at least, had been saved from the harvest money for spending at the inn, and the jugs and beer-cans went merrily round the Rise. ‘Arter all, ’tis the Feast,’ they said; ‘an’t only comes once a year,’ and they enjoyed the extra food and drink and the excitement of seeing so many people about, never dreaming that they were celebrating the dedication five hundred years before of the little old church in the mother village which so few of them attended.
Those of the Fordlow people who liked to see life had on that day to go to Lark Rise, for, beyond the extra food, there was no celebration in the mother village. Some time early in that century the scene of the Feast had shifted from the site of the church to that of the only inn in the parish.
At least a hundred people, friends and strangers, came from the market town and surrounding villages; not that there was anything to do at Lark Rise, or much to see; but because it was Fordlow Feast and a pleasant walk with a drink at the end was a good way of spending a fine September Sunday evening.
The Monday of the Feast — for it lasted two days — was kept by women and children only, the men being at work. It was a great day for tea parties; mothers and sisters and aunts and cousins coming in droves from about the neighbourhood. The chief delicacy at these teas was ‘baker’s cake’, a rich, fruity, spicy dough cake, obtained in the following manner. The housewife provided all the ingredients excepting the dough, putting raisins and currants, lard, sugar, and spice in a basin which she gave to the baker, who added the dough, made and baked the cake, and returned it, beautifully browned in his big oven. The charge was the same as that for a loaf of bread the same size, and the result was delicious. ‘There’s only one fault wi’ these ’ere baker’s cakes,’ the women used to say; ‘they won’t keep!’ And they would not; they were too good and there were too many children about.
The women made their houses very clean and neat for Feast Monday, and, with hollyhocks nodding in at the open windows and a sight of the clean, yellow stubble of the cleared fields beyond, and the hum of friendly talk and laughter within, the tea parties were very pleasant.
At the beginning of the ‘eighties the outside world remembered Fordlow Feast to the extent of sending one old woman with a gingerbread stall. On it were gingerbread babies with currants for eyes, brown-and-white striped peppermint humbugs, sticks of pink-and-white rock, and a few boxes and bottles of other sweets. Even there, on that little old stall with its canvas awning, the first sign of changing taste might have been seen, for, one year, side by side with the gingerbread babies, stood a box filled with thin, dark brown slabs packed in pink paper. ‘What is that brown sweet?’ asked Laura, spelling out the word ‘Chocolate’. A visiting cousin, being fairly well educated and a great reader, already knew it by name. ‘Oh, that’s chocolate,’ he said off-handedly. ‘But don’t buy any; it’s for drinking. They have it for breakfast in France.’ A year or two later, chocolate was a favourite sweet even in a place as remote as the hamlet; but it could no longer be bought from the gingerbread stall, for the old woman no longer brought it to the Feast. Perhaps she had died. Except for the tea-drinkings, Feast Monday had died, too, as a holiday.
The younger hamlet people still went occasionally to feasts and club walkings in other villages. In larger places these were like small fairs, with roundabouts, swings, and coconut shies. At the club walkings there were brass bands and processions of the club members, all wearing their club colours in the shape of rosettes and wide sashes worn across the breast. There was dancing on the green to the strains of the band, and country people came from miles around to the village where the feast or club walking was being held.
Palm Sunday, known locally as Fig Sunday, was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins, called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and be worn as buttonholes for church-going. The children at the end house loved fetching in the palm and putting it in pots and vases and hanging it over the picture frames. Better still, they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. The week before, the innkeeper’s wife would get in a stock to be sold in pennyworths in her small grocery store. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner and the children bought pennyworths and ate them out of screws of blue sugar paper on their way to Sunday school.
The gathering of the palm branches must have been a survival from old Catholic days, when, in many English churches, the willow served for palm to be blessed on Palm Sunday. The original significance of eating figs on that day had long been forgotten; but it was regarded as an important duty, and children ordinarily selfish would give one of their figs, or at least a bite out of one, to the few unfortunates who had been given no penny.
No such mystery surrounded the making of a bonfire on November 5th. Parents would tell inquiring children all about the Gunpowder Plot and ‘that unked ole Guy Fawkes in his black mask’, as though it had all happened recently; and, the night before, the boys and youths of the hamlet would go round knocking at all but the poorest doors and chanting:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
A stick or a stake, for King James’s sake
Will you please to give us a faggot?
If you won’t give us one, we’ll take two!
The better for us and the worse for you.
The few housewives who possessed faggot stacks (cut from the undergrowth of woods in the autumn and sold at one and sixpence a score) would give them a bundle or two; others would give them hedge-trimmings, or a piece of old line-post, or anything else that was handy, and, altogether, they managed to collect enough wood to make a modest bonfire which they lit on one of the open spaces and capered and shouted around and roasted potatoes and chestnuts in the ashes, after the manner of boys everywhere.
Harvest time was a natural holiday. ‘A hemmed hard-worked ’un,’ the men would have said; but they all enjoyed the stir and excitement of getting in the crops and their own importance as skilled and trusted workers, with extra beer at the farmer’s expense and extra harvest money to follow.
The ‘eighties brought a succession of hot summers and, day after day, as harvest time approached, the children at the end house would wake to the dewy, pearly pink of a fine summer dawn and the swizzh, swizzh of the early morning breeze rustling through the ripe corn beyond their doorstep.
Then, very early one morning, the men would come out of their houses, pulling on coats and lighting pipes as they hurried and calling to each other with skyward glances: ‘Think weather’s a-gooin’ to hold?’ For three weeks or more during harvest the hamlet was astir before dawn and the homely odours of bacon frying, wood fires and tobacco smoke overpowered the pure, damp, earthy scent of the fields. It would be school holidays then and the children at the end house always wanted to get up hours before their time. There were mushrooms in the meadows around Fordlow and they were sometimes allowed to go picking them to fry for their breakfast. More often they were not; for the dew-soaked grass was bad for their boots. ‘Six shillingsworth of good shoe-leather gone for sixpen’orth of mushrooms!’ their mother would cry despairingly. But some years old boots had been kept for the purpose and they would dress and creep silently downstairs, not to disturb the younger children, and with hunks of bread and butter in their hands steal out into the dewy, morning world.
Against the billowing gold of the fields the hedges stood dark, solid and dew-sleeked; dewdrops beaded the gossamer webs, and the children’s feet left long, dark trails on the dewy turf. There were night scents of wheat-straw and flowers and moist earth on the air and the sky was fleeced with pink clouds.
For a few days or a week or a fortnight, the fields stood ‘ripe unto harvest’. It was the one perfect period in the hamlet year. The human eye loves to rest upon wide expanses of pure colour: the moors in the purple heyday of the heather, miles of green downland, and the sea when it lies calm and blue and boundless, all delight it; but to some none of these, lovely though they all are, can give the same satisfaction of spirit as acres upon acres of golden corn. There is both beauty and bread and the seeds of bread for future generations.
Awed, yet uplifted by the silence and clean-washed loveliness of the dawn, the children would pass along the narrow field paths with rustling wheat on each side. Or Laura would make little dashes into the corn for poppies, or pull trails of the lesser bindweed with its pink-striped trumpets, like clean cotton frocks, to trim her hat and girdle her waist, while Edmund would stump on, red-faced with indignation at her carelessness in making trails in the standing corn.
In the fields where the harvest had begun all was bustle and activity. At that time the mechanical reaper with long, red, revolving arms like windmill sails had already appeared in the locality; but it was looked upon by the men as an auxiliary, a farmers’ toy; the scythe still did most of the work and they did not dream it would ever be superseded. So while the red sails revolved in one field and the youth on the driver’s seat of the machine called cheerily to his horses and women followed behind to bind the corn into sheaves, in the next field a band of men would be whetting their scythes and mowing by hand as their fathers had done before them.
With no idea that they were at the end of a long tradition, they still kept up the old country custom of choosing as their leader the tallest and most highly skilled man amongst them, who was then called ‘King of the Mowers’. For several harvests in the ‘eighties they were led by the man known as Boamer. He had served in the Army and was still a fine, well-set-up young fellow with flashing white teeth and a skin darkened by fiercer than English suns.
With a wreath of poppies and green bindweed trails around his wide, rush-plaited hat, he led the band down the swathes as they mowed and decreed when and for how long they should halt for ‘a breather’ and what drinks should be had from the yellow stone jar they kept under the hedge in a shady corner of the field. They did not rest often or long; for every morning they set themselves to accomplish an amount of work in the day that they knew would tax all their powers till long after sunset. ‘Set yourself more than you can do and you’ll do it’ was one of their maxims, and some of their feats in the harvest field astonished themselves as well as the onlooker.
Old Monday, the bailiff, went riding from field to field on his long-tailed, grey pony. Not at that season to criticize, but rather to encourage, and to carry strung to his saddle the hooped and handled miniature barrel of beer provided by the farmer.
One of the smaller fields was always reserved for any of the women who cared to go reaping. Formerly all the able-bodied women not otherwise occupied had gone as a matter of course; but, by the ‘eighties, there were only three or four, beside the regular field women, who could handle the sickle. Often the Irish harvesters had to be called in to finish the field.
Patrick, Dominick, James (never called Jim), Big Mike and Little Mike, and Mr. O’Hara seemed to the children as much a part of the harvest scene as the corn itself. They came over from Ireland every year to help with the harvest and slept in the farmer’s barn, doing their own cooking and washing at a little fire in the open. They were a wild-looking lot, dressed in odd clothes and speaking a brogue so thick that the natives could only catch a word here and there. When not at work, they went about in a band, talking loudly and usually all together, with the purchases they had made at the inn bundled in blue-and-white check handkerchiefs which they carried over their shoulders at the end of a stick. ‘Here comes they jabberin’ old Irish,’ the country people would say, and some of the women pretended to be afraid of them. They could not have been serious, for the Irishmen showed no disposition to harm any one. All they desired was to earn as much money as possible to send home to their wives, to have enough left for themselves to get drunk on a Saturday night, and to be in time for Mass on a Sunday morning. All these aims were fulfilled; for, as the other men confessed, they were ‘gluttons for work’ and more work meant more money at that season; there was an excellent inn handy, and a Catholic church within three miles.
After the mowing and reaping and binding came the carrying, the busiest time of all. Every man and boy put his best foot forward then, for, when the corn was cut and dried it was imperative to get it stacked and thatched before the weather broke. All day and far into the twilight the yellow-and-blue painted farm wagons passed and repassed along the roads between the field and the stack-yard. Big cart-horses returning with an empty wagon were made to gallop like two-year-olds. Straws hung on the roadside hedges and many a gatepost was knocked down through hasty driving. In the fields men pitchforked the sheaves to the one who was building the load on the wagon, and the air resounded with Hold tights and Wert ups and Who-o-oas. The Hold tight! was no empty cry; sometimes, in the past, the man on top of the load had not held tight or not tight enough. There were tales of fathers and grandfathers whose necks or backs had been broken by a fall from a load, and of other fatal accidents afield, bad cuts from scythes, pitchforks passing through feet, to be followed by lockjaw, and of sunstroke; but, happily, nothing of this kind happened on that particular farm in the ‘eighties.
At last, in the cool dusk of an August evening, the last load was brought in, with a nest of merry boys’ faces among the sheaves on the top, and the men walking alongside with pitchforks on shoulders. As they passed along the roads they shouted:
Harvest home! Harvest home!
Merry, merry, merry harvest home!
and women came to their cottage gates and waved, and the few passers-by looked up and smiled their congratulations. The joy and pleasure of the labourers in their task well done was pathetic, considering their very small share in the gain. But it was genuine enough; for they still loved the soil and rejoiced in their own work and skill in bringing forth the fruits of the soil, and harvest home put the crown on their year’s work.
As they approached the farm-house their song changed to:
Harvest home! Harvest home!
Merry, merry, merry harvest home!
Our bottles are empty, our barrels won’t run,
And we think it’s a very dry harvest home.
and the farmer came out, followed by his daughters and maids with jugs and bottles and mugs, and drinks were handed round amidst general congratulations. Then the farmer invited the men to his harvest home dinner, to be held in a few days’ time, and the adult workers dispersed to add up their harvest money and to rest their weary bones. The boys and youths, who could never have too much of a good thing, spent the rest of the evening circling the hamlet and shouting ‘Merry, merry, merry harvest home!’ until the stars came out and at last silence fell upon the fat rickyard and the stripped fields.
On the morning of the harvest home dinner everybody prepared themselves for a tremendous feast, some to the extent of going without breakfast, that the appetite might not be impaired. And what a feast it was! Such a bustling in the farm-house kitchen for days beforehand; such boiling of hams and roasting of sirloins; such a stacking of plum puddings, made by the Christmas recipe; such a tapping of eighteen-gallon casks and baking of plum loaves would astonish those accustomed to the appetites of today. By noon the whole parish had assembled, the workers and their wives and children to feast and the sprinkling of the better-to-do to help with the serving. The only ones absent were the aged bedridden and their attendants, and to them, the next day, portions, carefully graded in daintiness according to their social standing, were carried by the children from the remnants of the feast. A plum pudding was considered a delicate compliment to an equal of the farmer; slices of beef or ham went to the ‘better-most poor’; and a ham-bone with plenty of meat left upon it or part of a pudding or a can of soup to the commonalty.
Long tables were laid out of doors in the shade of a barn, and soon after twelve o’clock the cottagers sat down to the good cheer, with the farmer carving at the principal table, his wife with her tea urn at another, the daughters of the house and their friends circling the tables with vegetable dishes and beer jugs, and the grandchildren, in their stiff, white, embroidered frocks, dashing hither and thither to see that everybody had what they required. As a background there was the rickyard with its new yellow stacks and, over all, the mellow sunshine of late summer.
Passers-by on the road stopped their gigs and high dog-carts to wave greetings and shout congratulations on the weather. If a tramp looked wistfully in, he was beckoned to a seat on the straw beneath a rick and a full plate was placed on his knees. It was a picture of plenty and goodwill.
It did not do to look beneath the surface. Laura’s father, who did not come into the picture, being a ‘tradesman’ and so not invited, used to say that the farmer paid his men starvation wages all the year and thought he made it up to them by giving that one good meal. The farmer did not think so, because he did not think at all, and the men did not think either on that day; they were too busy enjoying the food and the fun.
After the dinner there were sports and games, then dancing in the home paddock until twilight, and when, at the end of the day, the farmer, carving indoors for the family supper, paused with knife poised to listen to the last distant ‘Hooray!’ and exclaimed, ‘A lot of good chaps! A lot of good chaps, God bless ’em!’ both he and the cheering men were sincere, however mistaken.
But these modest festivals which had figured every year in everybody’s life for generations were eclipsed in 1887 by Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
Up to the middle of the ‘eighties the hamlet had taken little interest in the Royal House. The Queen and the Prince and Princess of Wales were sometimes mentioned, but with little respect and no affection. ‘The old Queen’, as she was called, was supposed to have shut herself up in Balmoral Castle with a favourite servant named John Brown and to have refused to open Parliament when Mr. Gladstone begged her to. The Prince was said to be leading a gay life, and the dear, beautiful Princess, afterwards Queen Alexandra, was celebrated only for her supposed make-up.
By the middle of the decade a new spirit was abroad and had percolated to the hamlet. The Queen, it appeared, had reigned fifty years. She had been a good queen, a wonderful queen, she was soon to celebrate her jubilee, and, still more exciting, they were going to celebrate it, too, for there was going to be a big ‘do’ in which three villages would join for tea and sports and dancing and fireworks in the park of a local magnate. Nothing like it had ever been known before.
As the time drew nearer, the Queen and her jubilee became the chief topic of conversation. The tradesmen gave lovely coloured portraits of her in her crown and garter ribbon on their almanacks, most of which were framed at home and hung up in the cottages. Jam could be bought in glass jugs adorned with her profile in hobnails and inscribed ‘1837 to 1887. Victoria the Good’, and, underneath, the national catchword of the moment: ‘Peace and Plenty.’ The newspapers were full of the great achievements of her reign: railway travel, the telegraph, Free Trade, exports, progress, prosperity, Peace: all these blessings, it appeared, were due to her inspiration.
Of most of these advantages the hamlet enjoyed but Esau’s share; but, as no one reflected upon this, it did not damp the general enthusiasm. ‘Fancy her reigning fifty years, the old dear, her!’ they said, and bought paper banners inscribed ‘Fifty Years, Mother, Wife, and Queen’ to put inside their window panes. ‘God Bless Her. Victoria the Good. The Mother of Her People.’
Laura was lucky enough to be given a bound volume of Good Words— or was it Home Words? — in which the Queen’s own journal, Leaves From Her Majesty’s Life in the Highlands, ran as a serial. She galloped through all the instalments immediately to pick out the places mentioned by her dear Sir Walter Scott. Afterwards the journal was reread many times, as everything was reread in that home of few books. Laura liked the journal, for although the Queen kept to the level of meals and drives and seasickness and the ‘civility’ of her hosts and hostesses, and only mentioned the scenery (Scott’s scenery!) to repeat what ‘Albert said’ about it — and he always compared it to some foreign scene — there was a forthright sincerity about the writing which revealed a human being behind all the glitter and fuss.
By the end of May everybody was talking about the weather. Would it be fine for the great drive through London; and, still more important, would it be fine for the doings in Skeldon Park? Of course it would be fine, said the more optimistic. Providence knew what He was about. It was going to be a glorious June. Queen’s weather, they called it. Hadn’t the listener heard that the sun always shone when the Queen drove out?
Then there were rumours of a subscription fund. The women of England were going to give the Queen a jubilee present, and, wonder of wonders, the amount given was not to exceed one penny. ‘Of course we shall give,’ they said proudly. ‘It’ll be our duty an’ our pleasure.’ And when the time came for the collection to be made they had all of them their pennies ready. Bright new ones in most cases, for, although they knew the coins were to be converted into a piece of plate before reaching Her Majesty, they felt that only new money was worthy of the occasion.
The ever-faithful, ever-useful clergyman’s daughter collected the pence. Thinking, perhaps, that the day after pay-day would be most convenient, she visited Lark Rise on a Saturday, and Laura, at home from school, was clipping the garden hedge when she heard one neighbour say to another: ‘I want a bucket of water, but I can’t run round to the well till Miss Ellison’s been for the penny.’
‘Lordy, dear!’ ejaculated the other. ‘Why, she’s been an’ gone this quarter of an hour. She’s a-been to my place. Didn’t she come to yourn?’
The first speaker flushed to the roots of her hair. She was a woman whose husband had recently had an accident afield and was still in hospital. There were no Insurance benefits then, and it was known she was having a hard struggle to keep her home going; but she had her penny ready and was hurt, terribly hurt, by the suspicion that she had been purposely passed over.
‘I s’pose, because I be down on me luck, she thinks I ain’t worth a penny,’ she cried, and went in and banged the door.
‘There’s temper for you!’ the other woman exclaimed to the world at large and went about her own business. But Laura was distressed. She had seen Mrs. Parker’s expression and could imagine how her pride was hurt. She, herself, hated to be pitied. But what could she do about it?
She went to the gate. Miss Ellison had finished collecting and was crossing the allotments on her way home. Laura would just have time to run the other way round and meet her at the stile. After a struggle with her own inward shrinking which lasted about two minutes, but was ridiculously intense, she ran off on her long, thin legs, and popped up, like a little jack-inthe-box, on the other side of the stile which the lady was gathering up her long frilly skirts to mount.
‘Oh, please, Miss Ellison, you haven’t been to Mrs. Parker’s, and she’s got her penny all ready and she wants the Queen to have it so much.’
‘But, Laura,’ said the lady loftily, surprised at such interference, ‘I did not intend to call upon Mrs. Parker today. With her husband in hospital, I know she has no penny to spare, poor soul.’
But, although somewhat quelled, Laura persisted: ‘But she’s got it all polished up and wrapped in tissue paper, Miss Ellison, and ’twill hurt her feelings most awful if you don’t go for it, Miss Ellison.’
At that, Miss Ellison grasped the situation and retraced her steps, keeping Laura by her side and talking to her as to another grown-up person.
‘Our dear Queen,’ she was saying as they passed Twister’s turnip patch, ‘our dear, good Queen, Laura, is noted for her perfect tact. Once, and I have this on good authority, some church workers were invited to visit her at Osborne. Tea was served in a magnificent drawing-room, the Queen actually partaking of a cup with them, and this, I am told, is very unusual — a great honour, in fact; but no doubt she did it to put them at their ease. But in her confusion, one poor lady, unaccustomed to taking tea with royalty, had the misfortune to drop her slice of cake on the floor. Imagine that, Laura, a slice of cake on the Queen’s beautiful carpet; you can understand how the poor lady must have felt, can’t you dear? One of the ladies-inwaiting smiled at her discomfiture, which made her still more nervous and trembling; but our dear Queen — she has sharp eyes, God bless her! — saw at once how matters stood. She asked for a slice of cake, then purposely dropped it, and commanded the lady who had smiled to pick up both pieces at once. Which she did quickly, you may be sure, Laura, and there were no more smiles. What a lesson! What a lesson, Laura!’
Cynical little Laura wondered for whom the lesson was intended; but she only said meekly: ‘Yes, indeed, Miss Ellison,’ and this brought them to Mrs. Parker’s door, where she had the satisfaction of hearing Miss Ellison say: ‘Oh, dear, Mrs. Parker, I nearly overlooked your house. I have come for your contribution to the Queen’s jubilee present.’
The great day dawned at last and most of the hamlet people were up in time to see the sun burst in dazzling splendour from the pearly pink east and mount into a sky unflecked by the smallest cloud. Queen’s weather, indeed! Arid as the day began it continued. It was very hot; but nobody minded that, for the best hats could be worn without fear of showers, and those who had sunshades put by for just such an occasion could bring them forth in all their glory of deep lace or long, knotted, silk fringe.
By noon all the hamlet children had been scrubbed with soap and water and arrayed in their best clothes. ‘Every bit clean, right through to the skin,’ as their mothers proudly declared. Then, after a snack, calculated to sustain the family during the walk to the park, but not to spoil the appetite for tea, the mothers went upstairs to take out their own curl papers and don their best clothes. A strong scent of camphor and lavender and closely shut boxes pervaded the atmosphere around them for the rest of the day. The colours and styles did not harmonize too well with the midsummer country scene, and many might have preferred to see them in print frocks and sunbonnets; but they dressed to please themselves, not to please the artistic taste of others, and they were all the happier for it.
Before they started there was much running from house to house and asking: ‘Now, should you put on another bow just here!’ or ‘Do you think that ostrich tip our young Em sent me’d improve my hat, or do you think the red roses and black lace is enough?’ or ‘Now, tell me true, do you like my hair done this way?’
The men and boys with shining faces and in Sunday suits had gone on before to have dinner at the farm before meeting their families at the cross-roads. They would be having cuts off great sirloins and Christmas pudding washed down with beer, just as they did at the harvest home dinner.
The little party from the end house walked alone in the straggling procession; the mother, still rather pale from her recent confinement, pushing the baby carriage with little May and baby Elizabeth; Laura and Edmund, on tiptoe with excitement, helping to shove the carriage over the rough turf of the park. Their father had not come. He did not care for ‘do’s’, and had gone to work at his bench at the shop alone while his workmates held high holiday. There were as yet no trade union laws to forbid such singularity.
There were more people in the park than the children had ever seen together, and the roundabouts, swings, and coconut shies were doing a roaring trade. Tea was partaken of in a huge marquee in relays, one parish at a time, and the sound of the brass band, roundabout hurdy-gurdy, coconut thwacks, and showmen’s shouting surged round the frail, canvas walls like a roaring sea.
Within, the mingled scents of hot tea, dough cake, tobacco smoke, and trampled grass lent a holiday savour to a simple menu. But if the provisions were simple in quality, the quantity was prodigious. Clothes baskets of bread and butter and jam cut in thick slices and watering cans of tea, already milked and sugared, were handed round and disappeared in a twinkling. ‘God bless my soul,’ one old clergyman exclaimed. ‘Where on earth do they put it all!’ They put three-fourths of it in the same handy receptacle he himself used for his four-course dinners; but the fourth part went into their pockets. That was their little weakness — not to be satisfied with a bellyful, but to manage somehow to secure a portion to take home for next day.
After tea there were sports, with races, high jumps, dipping heads into tubs of water to retrieve sixpences with the teeth, grinning through horse-collars, the prize going to the one making the most gtotesque face, and, to crown all, climbing the greased pole for the prize leg of mutton. This was a tough job, as the pole was as tall and slender as a telephone post and extremely slippery. Prudent wives would not allow their husbands to attempt it on account of spoiling their clothes, so the competition was left to the ragamuffins and a few experts who had had the foresight to bring with them a pair of old trousers. This competition must have run concurrently with the other events, for all the afternoon there was a crowd around it, and first one, then another, would ‘have a go’. It was painful to watch the climbers, shinning up a few inches, then slipping back again, and, as one retired, another taking his place, until, late in the afternoon, the champion arrived, climbed slowly but steadily to the top and threw down the joint, which, by the way, must have been already roasted after four or five hours in the burning sun. It was whispered around that he had carried a bag of ashes and sprinkled them on the greasy surface as he ascended.
The local gentlepeople promenaded the ground in parties: stout, red-faced squires, raising their straw hats to mop their foreheads; hunting ladies, incongruously garbed in silks and ostrich-feather boas; young girls in embroidered white muslin and boys in Eton suits. They had kind words for everybody, especially for the poor and lonely, and, from time to time, they would pause before some sight and try to enter into the spirit of the other beholders; but everywhere their arrival hushed the mirth, and there was a sigh of relief when they moved on. After dancing the first dance they disappeared, and ‘now we can have some fun’, the people said.
All this time Edmund and Laura, with about two hundred other children, had been let loose in the crowd to spend their pennies and watch the fun. They rode on the wooden horses, swung in the swing-boats, pried around coconut shies and shooting booths munching coconut or rock or long strips of black liquorice, until their hands were sticky and their faces grimed.
Laura, who hated crowds and noise, was soon tired of it and looked longingly at the shady trees and woods and spinneys around the big open space where the fair was held. But before she escaped a new and wonderful experience awaited her. Before one of the booths a man was beating a drum and before him two girls were posturing and pirouetting. ‘Walk up! Walk up!’ he was shouting. ‘Walk up and see the tightrope dancing! Only one penny admission. Walk up! Walk up!’ Laura paid her penny and walked up, as did about a dozen others, the man and girls came inside, the flap of the tent was drawn, and the show began.
Laura had never heard of tightrope dancing before and she was not sure she was not dreaming it then. The outer tumult beat against the frail walls of the tent, but within was a magic circle of quiet. As she crossed to take her place with the other spectators, her feet sank deep into sawdust; and, in the subdued light which filtered through the canvas, the broad, white, pock-marked face of the man in his faded red satin and the tinsel crowns and tights of the girls seemed as unreal as a dream.
The girl who did the tightrope dancing was a fair, delicate-looking child with grey eyes and fat, pale-brown ringlets, a great contrast to her dark, bouncing gipsy-looking sister, and when she mounted to the rope stretched between two poles and did a few dance steps as she swayed gracefully along it, Laura gazed and gazed, speechless with admiration. To the simple country-bred child the performance was marvellous. It came to an end all too soon for her; for not much could be done to entertain a house which only brought a shilling or so to the box office; but the impression remained with her as a glimpse into a new and fascinating world. There were few five-barred gates in the vicinity of Laura’s home on which she did not attempt a little pirouetting along the top bar during the next year or two.
The tightrope dancing was her outstanding memory of the great Queen’s Jubilee; but the merrymaking went on for hours after that. All the way home in the twilight, the end house party could hear the popping of fireworks behind them and, turning, see rockets and showers of golden rain above the dark tree-tops. At last, standing at their own garden gate, they heard the roaring of cheers from hundreds of throats and the band playing ‘God save the Queen’.
They were first home and the hamlet was in darkness, but the twilight was luminous over the fields and the sky right round to the north was still faintly pink. A cat rubbed itself against their legs and mewed; the pig in the sty woke and grunted a protest against the long day’s neglect. A light breeze rustled through the green corn and shivered the garden bushes, releasing the scent of stocks and roses and sunbaked grass and the grosser smells of cabbage beds and pigsties. It had been a great day — the greatest day they were ever likely to see, however long they lived, they were told; but it was over and they were home and home was best.
After the jubilee nothing ever seemed quite the same. The old Rector died and the farmer, who had seemed immovable excepting by death, had to retire to make way for the heir of the landowning nobleman who intended to farm the family estates himself. He brought with him the new self-binding reaping machine and women were no longer required in the harvest field. At the hamlet several new brides took possession of houses previously occupied by elderly people and brought new ideas into the place. The last of the bustles disappeared and leg-o’-mutton sleeves were ‘all the go’. The new Rector’s wife took her Mothers’ Meeting women for a trip to London. Babies were christened new names; Wanda was one, Gwendolin another. The innkeeper’s wife got in cases of tinned salmon and Australian rabbit. The Sanitary Inspector appeared for the first time at the hamlet and shook his head over the pigsties and privies. Wages rose, prices soared, and new needs multiplied. People began to speak of ‘before the jubilee’ much as we in the nineteen-twenties spoke of ‘before the war’, either as a golden time or as one of exploded ideas, according to the age of the speaker.
And all the time boys were being born or growing up in the parish, expecting to follow the plough all their lives, or, at most, to do a little mild soldiering or go to work in a town. Gallipoli? Kut? Vimy Ridge? Ypres? What did they know of such places? But they were to know them, and when the time came they did not flinch. Eleven out of that tiny community never came back again. A brass plate on the wall of the church immediately over the old end house seat is engraved with their names. A double column, five names long, then, last and alone, the name of Edmund.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00