‘Come the summer, we’ll borrow old Polly and the spring cart from the “Wagon and Horses” and all go over to Candleford’, their father said, for the ten-millionth time, thought Laura. Although he had said it so often they had never been. They had not been anywhere farther than the market town for the Saturday shopping.
Once, when some one asked them how long they had lived in their cottage, Laura had replied, ‘Oh, for years and years,’ and Edmund had said ‘Always’; but his always was only five years and her years and years were barely seven. That was why, when their mother told them that the greatest mistake in life is to be born poor, they did not realize that they themselves had made that initial blunder. They were too young and had no means of comparison.
Their home was one of a group of small cottages surrounded by fields, three miles from the nearest small town and fifty from a city. All around was rich, flat farming country, which, at the end of a lifetime, remained obstinately in the memory as stretch after stretch of brown-ribbed ploughland patterned with quickset hedges and hedgerow elms. That picture was permanent; others could be called up at will, of acres of young green wheat swept by chasing cloud-shadows; of the gold of harvest fields, or the billowing whiteness of snow upon which the spoor of hares and foxes could be traced from hedgerow to hedgerow.
On a slight rise in the midst of this brown or green or whiteness stood the hamlet, a huddle of grey stone walls and pale slated roofs with only the bushiness of a fruit-tree or the dark line of a yew hedge to relieve its colourlessness. To a passer-by on the main road a mile away it must often have appeared a lone and desolate place; but it had a warmth of its own, and a closer observer would have found it as seething with interest and activity as a molehill.
All the cottages in the group were occupied by poor families. Some, through old age, or the possession of a larger family than ordinary, had a little less, and two or three in more favourable circumstances had a little more comfort than their neighbours, but in every house money was scarce.
If any one wanted to borrow, they knew better than to ask for more than sixpence, and if the expression with which their request was received was discouraging they would add hurriedly: ‘If you can’t manage it, I think tuppence’d see me through.’ The children were given halfpennies or even farthings to spend on sweets when the travelling grocer’s van called. For even the smaller sum they got enough hardbake or peppermint rock to distend their cheeks for hours. It took the parents months to save up to buy a young pig for the sty or a few score of faggots for the winter. Apart from the prudent, who had these small hoards, people were penniless for days towards the end of the week.
But, as they were fond of saying, money isn’t everything. Poor as they were, every one of the small cottages, so much alike when seen from the outside, had for its inmates the unique distinction of being ‘our place’ or ‘ho-um’. After working in the pure cold air of the fields all day, the men found it comforting to be met by, and wrapped round in, an atmosphere of chimney-smoke and bacon and cabbage-cooking; to sink into ‘feyther’s chair’ by the hearth, draw off heavy, mud-caked boots, take the latest baby on their knee and sip strong, sweet tea while ‘our Mum’ dished up the tea-supper.
The elder children were either at school all day or lived out of doors in fine weather; but, as their mothers said, they knew which house to go to when they felt hungry, and towards dusk they made for their supper and bed like homing pigeons, or rabbits scurrying to their burrow.
To the women, home was home in a special sense, for nine-tenths of their lives were spent indoors. There they washed and cooked and cleaned and mended for their teeming families; there they enjoyed their precious half-hour’s peace with a cup of tea before the fire in the afternoon, and there they bore their troubles as best they could and cherished their few joys. At times when things did not press too heavily upon them they found pleasure in rearranging their few poor articles of furniture, in repapering the walls and making quilts and cushions of scraps of old cloth to adorn their dwelling and add to its comfort, and few were so poor that they had not some treasure to exhibit, some article that had been in the family since ‘I dunno when’, or had been bought at a sale of furniture at such-and-such a great house, or had been given them when in service.
Such treasures in time gained a reputation of fabulous value. Bill’s grandfather had refused an offer of twenty pounds for that corner cupboard, or grandfather’s clock, said one; another that a mysterious gentleman had once told her that the immense rubies and emeralds which studded a shabby old metal photograph frame were real stones. She was always saying that she would take it to a jeweller at Sherton and get it valued, ‘come Fair time’, but she never did. Like the rest of us, she knew better than to put her favourite illusion to the test.
None of the listeners cast doubt upon the value of such treasures. It would not have been ‘manners’, and, besides, nearly everybody had got some article with a similar legend. At home, the children’s father laughed and said that as none of the Braby family had ever had more than twenty shillings at one time in their lives an offer of twenty pounds would soon have been snapped at; and as to Mrs. Gaskin’s rubies and emeralds, anybody with half an eye could see that they came from the same mine as the stuff used to make penny tumblers.
‘What’s the odds, if thinking so makes them happy?’ asked his wife.
They were a hardworking, self-reliant, passably honest people. ‘Providence helps them as has got the sense to look out for theirselves’ was a motto often quoted. They had not much original wit, but had inherited a stock of cheerful sayings which passed as such. A neighbour called in to help move a heavy piece of furniture would arrive spitting on his palms and saying, ‘Here I be, ready an’ willin’ to do as much for half a crown as I ‘ud for a shillin’.’ Which mild joke, besides the jumbled arithmetic, had the added point of the fantastic sum suggested as a reward. A glass of beer, or the price of one, was the current payment for that and some more considerable services.
One who had helped a neighbour to solve some knotty problem would quote the old proverb: ‘Two heads be better n’r one,’ and the other would retort, ‘That’s why fools get married,’ or, if materially minded, ‘Aye, specially if ‘um be sheep’s heads.’ A proverb always had to be capped. No one could say, ‘There’s more ways of killing a dog than hanging it’ without being reminded, ‘nor of choking it with a pound of fresh butter’, and any reference to money as the root of all evil would be followed by, ‘Same time, I ‘udn’t say no to anybody as offered me a slip off that root.’
The discussion of their own and their neighbours’ affairs took the place occupied by books and films in the modern outlook. Nothing of outside importance ever happened there and their lives were as unlike as possible the modern conception of country life, for Lark Rise was neither a little hotbed of vice nor a garden of all the Arcadian virtues. But the lives of all human beings, however narrow, have room for complications for themselves and entertainment for the onlooker, and many a satisfying little drama was played out on that ten-foot stage.
In their daily life they had none of the conveniences now looked upon as necessities: no water nearer than the communal well, no sanitation beyond the garden closet, and no light but candles and paraffin lamps. It was a hard life, but the hamlet folks did not pity themselves. They kept their pity for those they thought really poor.
The children brought home from the Sunday School Lending Library books about the London slums which their mothers also read. This was then a favourite subject with writers of that class of fiction; their object apparently being not so much to arouse indignation at the terrible conditions as to provide a striking background for some ministering lady or child. Many tears were shed in the hamlet over Christie’s Old Organ and Froggy’s Little Brother, and everybody wished they could have brought those poor neglected slum children there and shared with them the best they had of everything. ‘Poor little mite. If we could have got him here, he could have slept with our young Sammy and this air’d have set him up in no time,’ one woman said of Froggy’s poor dying little brother, forgetting that he was, as she would have said at another time, ‘just somebody in a book’.
But, saddening as it was to read about the poor things, it was also enjoyable, for it gave one a cheering sense of superiority. Thank God, the reader had a whole house to herself with an upstairs and downstairs and did not have to ‘pig it’ in one room; and real beds, and clean ones, not bundles of rags in corners, to sleep on.
To them, as to the two children learning to live among them, the hamlet life was the normal life. On one side of that norm were the real poor, living in slums, and, on the other, ‘the gentry’. They recognized no other division of classes; although, of course, they knew there were a few ‘bettermost people’ between. The visiting clergyman and that kind friend of them all, the doctor in the market town, had more money and better houses than theirs, and though they were both ‘gentlemen born’ they did not belong to the aristocracy inhabiting the great country houses or visiting the hunting boxes around. But these were, indulgently, ‘th’ ole parson’, and, affectionately, ‘our doctor’; they were not thought of as belonging to any particular class of society.
The gentry flitted across the scene like kingfishers crossing a flock of hedgerow sparrows. They saw them sweeping through the hamlet in their carriages, the ladies billowing in silks and satins, with tiny chenille-fringed parasols held at an angle to protect their complexions. Or riding to hounds in winter, the men in immaculate pink, the women sitting their side-saddles with hour-glass figures encased in skin-tight black habits. ‘Looks for all the world as if she’d been melted and poured into it, now don’t she?’ On raw, misty mornings they would trot their horses through on their way to the Meet, calling to each other in high-pitched voices it was fun to imitate.
Later in the day they would often be seen galloping full-stretch over the fields and then the men at work there would drop their tools and climb on the five-barred gates for a better view, or stop their teams and straighten their backs at the plough-tail to cup their hands to their mouths and shout: ‘Tally-ho: A-gallop, a-gallop, a-lye, a-lye, Tally-ho.’
When the carriages passed through, many of the women would set down the buckets they were carrying and curtsy, and the boys would pull their forelocks and the girls bob their knees, as they had been taught to do at school. This was an awkward moment for Laura, because her father had said, while he had no objection to Edmund saluting any lady — though he hoped, for heaven’s sake, he would not do it by pulling his own hair, like pulling a bell-rope — he was determined that no daughter of his should bow the knee, excepting at ‘The Name’ in church or to Queen Victoria, if ever she happened to pass that way. Their mother laughed. ‘When at Rome do as the Romans do,’ she said.
‘This is not Rome,’ their father retorted. ‘It’s Lark Rise — the spot God made with the left-overs when He’d finished creating the rest of the earth.’
At that their mother tossed her head and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She had, as she said, no patience with some of his ideas.
Apart from the occasional carriages and the carrier’s cart twice a week, there was little traffic on that road beyond the baker’s van and the farm carts and wagons. Sometimes a woman from a neighbouring village or hamlet would pass through on foot, shopping basket on arm, on her way to the market town. It was thought nothing of then to walk six or seven miles to purchase a reel of cotton or a packet of tea, or sixpen’orth of pieces from the butcher to make a meat pudding for Sunday. Excepting the carrier’s cart, which only came on certain days, there was no other way of travelling. It was thought quite dashing to ride with Old Jimmy, but frightfully extravagant, for the fare was sixpence. Most people preferred to go on foot and keep the sixpence to spend when they got there.
But, although it was not yet realized, the revolution in transport had begun. The first high ‘penny-farthing’ bicycles were already on the roads, darting and swerving like swallows heralding the summer of the buses and cars and motor cycles which were soon to transform country life. But how fast those new bicycles travelled and how dangerous they looked! Pedestrians backed almost into the hedges when they met one of them, for was there not almost every week in the Sunday newspaper the story of some one being knocked down and killed by a bicycle, and letters from readers saying cyclists ought not to be allowed to use the roads, which, as everybody knew, were provided for people to walk on or to drive on behind horses. ‘Bicyclists ought to have roads to themselves, like railway trains’ was the general opinion.
Yet it was thrilling to see a man hurtling through space on one high wheel, with another tiny wheel wobbling helplessly behind. You wondered how they managed to keep their balance. No wonder they wore an anxious air. ‘Bicyclist’s face’, the expression was called, and the newspapers foretold a hunchbacked and tortured-faced future generation as a result of the pastime.
Cycling was looked upon as a passing craze and the cyclists in their tight navy knickerbocker suits and pillbox caps with the badge of their club in front were regarded as figures of fun. None of those in the hamlet who rushed out to their gates to see one pass, half hoping for and half fearing a spill, would have believed, if they had been told, that in a few years there would be at least one bicycle in every one of their houses, that the men would ride to work on them and the younger women, when their housework was done, would lightly mount ‘the old bike’ and pedal away to the market town to see the shops. They would have been still more incredulous had they been told that many of them would live to see every child of school age in the hamlet provided by a kind County Council with a bicycle on which they would ride to school, ‘all free, gratis, and for nothing’, as they would have said.
In the outer world men were running up tall factory chimneys and covering the green fields for miles with rows of mean little houses to house the workers. Towns which were already towns were throwing out roads and roads of suburban villas. New churches and chapels and railway stations and schools and public houses were being built to meet the needs of a fast-growing population. But the hamlet people saw none of these changes. They were far from the industrial districts and their surroundings remained as they had been from the time of their birth. No cottage had been added to the little group in the fields for many years, and, as it turned out, none were to be added for at least a half century; perhaps never, for the hamlet stands today unchanged in its outward appearance.
Queen Victoria was on the throne. She had been well established there before either of Laura’s parents were born, and it seemed to her and her brother that she had always been Queen and always would be. But plenty of elderly people could remember her Coronation and could tell them what church bells had pealed all day in the different villages and what oxen had been roasted whole and what bonfires had been lighted at night.
‘Our little English rose’, the Rector said had then been her subjects’ name for her, and Laura often thought of that when she studied the portrait which hung, framed and glazed, in the place of honour in many of the cottages. It was that of a stout, middle-aged, rather cross-looking lady with a bright blue Garter ribbon across her breast and a crown on her head so tiny that it made her face look large.
‘How does she keep it on?’ asked Laura, for it looked as if the slightest movement would send it toppling.
‘Don’t you worry about that,’ said her mother comfortably, ‘she’ll manage to keep that on for a good many more years, you’ll see’; and she did, for another twenty.
To the country at large, the Queen was no longer ‘Our little English rose’. She had become ‘The Queen–Empress’ or ‘Victoria the Good, the mother of her people’. To the hamlet she was ‘th’ old Queen’, or, sometimes ‘th’ poor old Queen’, for was she not a widow? And it was said she was having none too easy a time with that son of hers, either. But they all agreed she was a good Queen, and when asked why, would reply, ‘Because she’s brought the price of the quartern loaf down’ or ‘Well, we have got peace under her, haven’t we?’
Peace? Of course there was peace. War was something you read about in books, something rather exciting, if only the poor soldiers had not had to be killed, but all long ago and far away, something that could not possibly happen in our time.
But there had been a war not so very long ago, their father told them. He himself had been born on the day of the Battle of Alma. We had been fighting the Russians then, a hard and cruel lot who had thought might was right, but had found themselves mistaken. They couldn’t make slaves of a free people.
Then there was the old man who came round every few months playing a penny whistle and begging. He was known as ‘One-eyed Peg-leg’ because he had lost an eye and part of a leg fighting before Sevastopol. His trouser leg was cut short at the knee, which was supported by what was then called a ‘wooden leg’, although it did not resemble a human leg very closely, being but a plain wooden stump, tapering slightly at the bottom, where it was finished off by a ferrule. ‘Dot and carry one’, they called the sound he made when walking.
Laura once heard old Peg-leg telling a neighbour about the loss of his living member. After a hit with a cannon-ball he had lain for twenty-four hours unattended on the battlefield. Then a surgeon had come and, without more ado, had sawn off the shattered portion. ‘And didn’t I just holler,’ he said; ”specially when he dipped the stump into a bucket of boiling tar. That was afore th’ nusses come.’
Before the nurses came. Laura knew what that meant, for there was a picture of Florence Nightingale in a book she had and her mother had read to her about ‘the Lady with the Lamp’, whose shadow was kissed by the wounded.
But these rumours of the war in the Crimea did not seem to the children to bring it any nearer to their own lifetime, and when, later, they read in their old-fashioned story books of families of good children helping their mothers to knit and roll bandages for the soldiers in Russia, it still seemed as unreal as any fairy tale.
The soldiers who had their homes in the hamlet were not looked upon as fighting men, but as young adventurers who had enlisted as the only way of seeing the world before they settled down to marriage and the plough-tail. Judging from their letters, often read aloud to groups at cottage doors, the only enemies they had to face were sand-storms, mosquitoes, heat stroke, or ague.
The children’s Uncle Edmund’s trials were of a different nature, because he was in Nova Scotia, where noses got frozen. But he, of course, was in the Royal Engineers, as all the soldiers on their father’s side of the family were, for had they not got a trade in their hands? The family was a bit snobbish about this. In those simple days a man whose parents had apprenticed him to a trade was looked upon as established for life. ‘Put a trade in his hands and he’ll always be sure of a good living,’ people would say of a promising boy. They had yet to learn the full meaning of such words as ‘depression’ and ‘unemployment’. So it was always the Royal Engineers, even with the mother at the end house. Her own family favoured the Field Artillery, which, to be sure, was Royal, too, although this was not insisted upon.
Both Engineers and Artillery looked down a little on the county regiment, and that, in its turn, looked down on the Militia. No doubt the Militiamen had their standards, too; probably they looked down upon the unenterprising youths left at home, ‘chaps as hadn’t the sprawl to go a-soldiering’. Those who timidly ventured to join the Militia seldom remained in it long. Almost always, before their first season’s training was over, they wrote to their parents to say that they found soldiering such a fine life they had decided to transfer to ‘the Regulars’. Then they came home on furlough in their scarlet tunics and pill-box caps and strolled around the hamlet twirling their canes and caressing their new moustaches before disappearing overseas to India or Egypt. For those left at home there was little excitement. Christmas, the Harvest Home and the Village Feast were the only holidays. No cinemas, no wireless, no excursions or motor coaches or dances in village halls in those days! A few of the youths and younger men played cricket in the summer. One young man was considered a good bowler locally and he would sometimes get up a team to play one of the neighbouring villages. This once led to a curious little conversation on his doorstep. A lady had alighted from her carriage to ask or, rather, command him to get up a team to play ‘the young gentlemen’, meaning her sons, on holidays from school, and a few of their friends. Naturally, Frank wanted to know the strength of the team he was to be up against. ‘You’d want me to bring a good team, I suppose, ma’am?’ he asked respectfully.
‘Well, yes,’ said the lady. ‘The young gentlemen would enjoy a good game. But don’t bring too good a team. They wouldn’t want to be beaten.’
‘That’s what she calls cricket,’ said Frank, grinning broadly at her retreating figure.
This country scene is only a little over fifty years distant from us in time; but in manners, customs and conditions of life, it is centuries away. Except that slates were superseding thatch for roofing and the old open hearth was giving place to the built-in grate, the cottages were as the dwellings of the poor had been for generations. The people still ate the old country fare, preferring it, so far, to such of the new factory-made products as had come their way. The smock frock was still worn by the older men, who declared that one well-made smock would outlast twenty of the new machine-made suits the younger men were buying. The smock, with its elaborately stitched yoke and snow-white home laundering, was certainly more artistic than the coarse, badly-fitting ‘reach-me-downs’, as they were sometimes called.
The women were more fashion-minded than the men, but their efforts to keep up-to-date were confined to the ‘Sunday best’ which they seldom took from their boxes upstairs. For everyday wear, they contented themselves with a large, well-ironed white apron to cover their patches and darns. To go to the well, or from house to house in the hamlet, they threw a plaid woollen shawl over their shoulders, or, in bad weather, drew it up to cover their heads. Then, with a strong pair of pattens under their feet, they were ready for anything.
They were still much as their forefathers had been; but change was creeping in, if slowly. A weekly newspaper came into every house, either by purchase or borrowing, and although these were still written by educated men for the educated, and our hamlet intellects had sometimes to reach up a little for their ideas, ideas were slowly percolating.
Having to reach up for ideas came naturally to a generation brought up on the Bible. Their fathers had looked upon ‘the Word’ as their one unfailing guide in life’s difficulties. It was their story book, their treasury of words and sayings, and, for those who could appreciate it, their one book of poetry. Many of the older people still believed every word in the Bible to be literally true. Others were not so sure; that tale of Jonah and the whale, for instance, took a good deal of swallowing. But the newspaper everybody believed in. ‘I seed it in the paper, so it must be true’ was a saying calculated to clinch any argument.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00