Laura arrived on this scene on a cold December morning when snow lay in deep drifts over the fields and blocked the roads. There were no fireplaces in cottage bedrooms such as her mother’s was, and the relays of hot bricks, baked in the oven and swathed in flannel, lost their warmth coming upstairs. ‘Oh, we were so cold, so cold,’ her mother would say when telling the story, and Laura liked that ‘we’. It showed that even a tiny baby who had never been outside the room in which she was born was already a person.
Her parents’ life was not quite so hard as that of most of their neighbours, for her father was a stonemason and earned more money than the farm-workers, although in the eighteen-eighties a skilled craftsman, such as he was, received little more in wages than today’s unemployment pay.
He was not a native of those parts, but had been brought there a few years earlier by a firm of builders engaged in the restoration of some of the churches of the countryside. He was an expert workman and loved his craft. It was said that he would copy some crumbling detail of carving and fit it in in such a way that the original carver could not have detected the substitution. He did carving at home, too, in the little workshop he had built at the side of their cottage. A few of his attempts stood about as ornaments in the house, a lion, lilies of the valley growing at the base of a tree trunk, and a baby’s head, perhaps Edmund’s or Laura’s. Whether these were well done or not Laura never knew, for before she was old enough to discriminate they had become grimy and been swept off to the rubbish heap; but it pleased her to know that he had at least the impulse to create and the skill to execute, however imperfectly.
By the time the restoration work was finished he had married and had two children and, though he never cared for the hamlet or became one with the little community there, as his wife and children did, he stayed behind when his workmates left and settled down to work as an ordinary stonemason.
There was still a good deal of building in stone going on in that part of the country. One country house had been burnt down and had to be rebuilt; another had a new wing added, and, afterwards, he would make a tombstone, build a cottage or wall, set a grate, or lay a few bricks as required. Workmen were expected to turn their hands to anything within the limits of their trade, and he who could do most was considered the better workman. The day of the specialist was in the future. Each workman must keep to his trade, however. Laura remembered that once, when frost prevented him from working, he happened to say to her mother that the carpenters had plenty to do, and when her mother, knowing that he had been through all the shops, as was the custom with builders’ sons at that time, asked why he could not ask to be allowed to do some carpentering, he laughed and said: ‘The carpenters would have something to say about that! They would say I was poaching, and tell me to keep to my own trade.’
For thirty-five years he was employed by a firm of builders in the market town, walking the three miles, night and morning, at first; cycling later. His hours were from six in the morning to five in the afternoon, and to reach his work in time he had for the greater part of the year to leave home before daylight.
As Laura first remembered him he was a slim, upright young man in the late twenties, with dark, fiery eyes and raven-black hair, but fair, fresh-coloured complexion. On account of the dusty-white nature of his work, he usually wore clothes of some strong light-grey worsted material. Years after he had died, an old and embittered man, she could see him, a white apron rolled up around his middle, a basket of tools slung over his shoulder and a black billycock hat set at an angle on his head, swinging along on the crown of the road on his way home from work, looking, as the hamlet people said, ‘as if he had bought all the land on one side of the road and was thinking of buying that on the other side’.
Even in darkness his step could be distinguished, for it was lighter and sharper than that of the other men. His mind moved more quickly, too, and his tongue was readier, for he belonged to another breed and had been brought up in another environment.
Some of the neighbours thought him proud and ‘set up with himself’, but he was tolerated for his wife’s sake and his relations with the neighbours were at least outwardly friendly — especially at Election time, when he mounted a plank supported by two beer-barrels and expounded the Gladstonian programme, while Laura, her eyes on a level with his best buttoned boots, quaked inwardly lest he should be laughed at.
His audience of twenty or so laughed quite a lot, but with him, not at him, for he was an amusing speaker. None of them knew and probably he himself had not begun to suspect that they were listening to a lost and thwarted man, one who had strayed into a life to which he did not belong and one whose own weakness would keep him there for the rest of his days.
Already he was beginning to keep irregular hours. Their mother, telling them a bedtime story, would glance up at the clock and say: ‘Wherever has Daddy got to?’ or, later in the evening, more severely, ‘Your father’s staying late again’, and when he came in his face would be flushed and he would be more than usually talkative. But that was only the beginning of his downfall. Things went well, or fairly well, for several years after that.
Their cottage belonged to a Mrs. Herring. She and her husband had lived there for some time before Laura’s parents had rented it, but, as he was an exstud groom with a pension and she prided herself on her superiority, they had never been happy or popular there. Her superiority might have been borne, or even played up to, for ‘you’ve got to hold a candle to the fire’, as some of the neighbours said, but it was accompanied by the to them intolerable vice of meanness. Not only had she kept herself to herself, as she boasted, but she had also kept her belongings to herself, down to the last shred of ‘scratchings’ when she boiled down her lard and the last cabbage-stalk from her garden. ‘She wer’ that near she ‘udn’t give away enough to make a pair of leggings for a skylark’ was the reputation she left behind her.
She, on her side, had complained that the hamlet people were a rough, unmannerly lot. There was nobody fit to ask in for a game of cards and she did so like a bit of society, and she had long wanted to go to live nearer her married daughter, when, one Saturday afternoon, the children’s father came, looking for a cottage not too far from his work. She made a great favour of getting out quickly, but her new tenants were not impressed, for she was asking a high rent, half a crown a week, more than anyone else in the hamlet paid. The neighbours had thought she would never let her house, for who could afford to pay that sum?
Laura’s parents, with more knowledge of town prices, thought the house was well worth the rent, for it was two small thatched cottages made into one, with two bedrooms and a good garden. Of course, as they said, it had not the conveniences of a town house. Until they themselves had bought an oven grate and put it in the second cottage downstairs room, known as ‘the wash-house’, there was nowhere to bake the Sunday joint, and it was tiresome to have to draw water up from a well and irritating in wet weather to have to walk under an umbrella half way down the garden to the earth closet. But the cottage living-room was a pleasant place, with its well-polished furniture, shelves of bright crockery, and red-and-black rugs laid down to ‘take the tread’ on the raddled tile floor.
In summer the window stood permanently open and hollyhocks and other tall flowers would push their way in and mingle with the geraniums and fuchsias on the window-sill.
This room was the children’s nursery. Their mother called it that sometimes when they had been cutting out pictures and left scraps of paper on the floor. ‘This room’s nothing but a nursery,’ she would say, forgetting for the moment that the nurseries she had presided over in her premarriage days were usually held up by her as patterns of neatness.
The room had one advantage over most nurseries. The door opened straight out on to the garden path and in fine weather the children were allowed to run in and out as they would. Even when it rained and a board was slipped, country fashion, into grooves in the doorposts to keep them in, they could still lean out over it and feel the rain splash on their hands and see the birds flicking their wings in the puddles and smell the flowers and wet earth while they sang: ‘Rain, rain, go away, Come again another day.’
They had more garden than they needed at that time and one corner was given up to a tangle of currant and gooseberry bushes and raspberry canes surrounding an old apple tree. This jungle, as their father called it, was only a few feet square, but a child of five or seven could hide there and pretend it was lost, or hollow out a cave in the greenery and call it its house. Their father kept saying that he must get busy and lop the old unproductive apple tree and cut down the bushes to let in the light and air, but he was so seldom at home in daylight that for a long time nothing was done about it and they still had their hidy-houses and could still swing themselves up and ride astride on the low-hanging limb of the apple tree.
From there they could see the house and their mother going in and out, banging mats and rattling pails and whitening the flagstones around the doorway. Sometimes, when she went to the well, they would run after her and she would hold them tight and let them look down to where, framed in the green-slimy stones, the water reflected their faces, very small and far down.
‘You must never come here alone,’ she would say. ‘I once knew a little boy who was drowned in a well like this.’ Then, of course, they wanted to know where and when and why he was drowned, although they had heard the story as long as they could remember. ‘Where was his mother?’ ‘Why was the well lid left open?’ ‘How did they get him out?’ and ‘Was he quite, quite dead? As dead as the mole we saw under the hedge one day?’
Beyond their garden in summer were fields of wheat and barley and oats which sighed and rustled and filled the air with sleepy pollen and earth scents. These fields were large and flat and stretched away to a distant line of trees set in the hedgerows. To the children at that time these trees marked the boundary of their world. Tall trees and smaller trees and one big bushy squat tree like a crouching animal — they knew the outline of each one by heart and looked upon them as children in more hilly districts look upon the peaks of distant, unvisited, but familiar mountains.
Beyond their world, enclosed by the trees, there was, they were told, a wider world, with other hamlets and villages and towns and the sea, and, beyond that, other countries where the people spoke languages different from their own. Their father had told them so. But, until they learned to read, they had no mental picture of these, they were but ideas, unrealized; whereas, in their own little world within the tree boundary, everything appeared to them more than life-size and more richly coloured.
They knew every slight rise in the fields and the moist lower places where the young wheat grew taller and greener, and the bank where the white violets grew, and the speciality of every hedgerow — honeysuckle, crab apples, misty purple sloes, or long trails of white bryony berries through which the sun shone crimson as it did through the window at church: ‘But you must not even touch one or your hand will poison your food.’
And they knew the sounds of the different seasons, the skylarks singing high up out of sight over the green corn; the loud, metallic chirring of the mechanical reaper, the cheerful ‘Who-o-as’ and ‘Werts up’ of the ploughmen to their teams, and the rush of wings as the starlings wheeled in flocks over the stripped stubble.
There were other shadows than those of chasing clouds and wheeling bird flocks over those fields. Ghost stories and stories of witchcraft lingered and were half believed. No one cared to go after dark to the cross roads where Dickie Bracknell, the suicide, was buried with a stake through his entrails, or to approach the barn out in the fields where he had hung himself some time at the beginning of the century. Bobbing lights were said to have been seen and gurgling sounds heard there.
Far out in the fields by the side of a wood was a pool which was said to be bottomless and haunted by a monster. No one could say exactly what the monster was like, for no one living had seen it, but the general idea was that it resembled a large newt, perhaps as big as a bullock. Among the children this pool was known as ‘the beast’s pond’ and none of them ever went near it. Few people went that way, for the pond was cut off from the fields by a piece of uncultivated waste, and there was no path anywhere near it. Some fathers and mothers did not believe there was a pond there. It was just a silly old tale, they said, that folks used at one time to frighten themselves with. But there was a pond, for, towards the end of their schooldays, Edmund and Laura plodded over several ploughed fields and scrambled through as many hedges and pushed their way through a waste of dried thistles and ragwort and stood at last by a dark, still, tree-shadowed pool. No monster was there, only dark water, dark trees and a darkening sky and a silence so deep they could hear their own hearts pounding.
Nearer home, beside the brook, was an old elder tree which was said to bleed human blood when cut, and that was because it was no ordinary tree, but a witch. Men and boys of a former generation had caught her listening outside the window of a neighbour’s cottage and chased her with pitchforks until she reached the brook. Then, being a witch, she could not cross running water, so had turned herself into an elder tree on the bank.
She must have turned herself back again, for, the next morning, she was seen fetching water from the well as usual, a poor, ugly, disagreeable old woman who denied having been outside her own door the night before. But the tree, which hitherto no one had noticed, still stood beside the brook and was still standing there fifty years later. Edmund and Laura once took a table knife, intending to cut it, but their courage failed them. ‘What if it should really bleed? And what if the witch came out of it and ran after us?’
‘Mother,’ asked Laura one day, ‘are there any witches now?’ and her mother answered seriously, ‘No. They seem to have all died out. There haven’t been any in my time; but when I was your age there were plenty of old people alive who had known or even been ill-wished by one. And, of course,’ she added as an afterthought, ‘we know there were witches. We read about them in the Bible.’ That settled it. Anything the Bible said must be true.
Edmund was at that time a quiet, thoughtful little boy, apt to ask questions which it puzzled his mother to answer. The neighbours said he thought too much and ought to be made to play more; but they liked him because of his good looks and quaint, old-fashioned good manners. Except when he fired questions at them.
‘I shan’t tell you,’ some one would say when cornered by him. ‘If I told you that you’d know as much as I do myself. Besides, what do it matter to you what makes the thunder and lightning. You sees it and hears it and are lucky if you’re not struck dead by it, and that ought to be enough for you.’ Others, more kindly disposed, or more talkative, would tell him that the thunder was the voice of God. Somebody had been wicked, perhaps Edmund himself, and God was angry; or that thunder was caused by the clouds knocking together; or warn him to keep away from trees during a thunderstorm because they had known a man who was struck dead while sheltering and the watch in his pocket had melted and run like quicksilver down his legs. Others would quote:
Under oak there comes a stroke,
Under elm there comes a calm,
And under ash there comes a crash,
and Edmund would retire into himself to sort out this information.
He was a tall, slender child with blue eyes and regular features. When she had dressed him for their afternoon walk, his mother would kiss him and exclaim: ‘I do declare he might be anybody’s child. I can’t see any difference between him and a young lord, and as for intelligence, he’s too intelligent!’
Setting out on these walks, Laura must have looked a prim, old-fashioned little thing in her stiffly starched frock, with a white silk scarf tied in a bow under her chin and a couple of inches of knicker frill showing. ‘Odd’, the neighbours called her when discussing her in her presence, for she had dark eyes and pale yellow hair, and they did not approve of the mixture. ‘Pity she ain’t got your eyes,’ they would say to her mother whose own eyes were blue; ‘or even if she had dark hair like her father, ‘twouldn’t be so bad, but, as ’tis, she ain’t neither one thing nor t’other. Cross-grained, they say them folks is whose eyes and hair don’t match. But’— turning to Laura —‘never you mind, my poppet. Good looks ain’t everything, and you can’t help it if you did happen to be behind the door when they were being given out. And, after all’— comfortingly to her mother —‘she don’t hurt, really. She’s got a nice bit of colour in her cheeks.’
‘You’re all right. Always keep yourself clean and neat and try to have a pleasant, good-tempered expression, and you’ll pass in a crowd,’ her mother told her.
But that did not satisfy Laura. She was bent on improvement. She could not alter her eyes, but she tried to darken her hair with ink, put on in streaks with her father’s new toothbrush. That only resulted in a sore bottom and lying in bed by daylight with her newly washed hair in tiny tight plaits which hurt her head. However, to her great joy, her hair soon began to darken naturally, and, after many false alarms, one of which was the fear it was turning red, it became a respectable brown, quite unnoticeable.
Other memories of those early years remained with her as little pictures, without background, and unrelated to anything which went before or came after. One was of walking over frosty fields with her father, her small knitted-gloved hand reaching up to his big knitted-gloved hand and the stubble beneath their feet clinking with little icicles until they came to a pinewood and crept under a rail and walked on deep, soft earth beneath tall, dark trees.
The wood was so dark and silent at first that it was almost frightening; but, soon, they heard the sounds of axes and saws at work and came out into a clearing where men were felling trees. They had built themselves a little house of pine branches and before it a fire was burning. The air was full of the sharp, piny scent of the smoke which drifted across the clearing in blue whorls and lay in sheets about the boughs of the unfelled trees beyond. Laura and her father sat on a tree-trunk before the fire and drank hot tea, which was poured for them from a tin can. Then her father filled the sack he had brought with logs and Laura’s little basket was piled with shiny brown pine-cones and they went home. They must have gone home, although no trace of memory remained of the backward journey: only the joy of drinking hot tea so far from a house and the loveliness of shooting flames and blue smoke against blue-green pine boughs survived.
Another memory was of a big girl, with red hair, in a bright blue frock billowing over a green field, looking for mushrooms, and a man at the gate taking his clay pipe from his mouth to whisper behind his hand to a companion: ‘That gal’ll tumble to bits before they get her to church if they don’t look sharp.’
‘Patty tumble to bits? Tumble to bits? How could she?’ Laura’s mother looked rather taken aback when asked, and told her little daughter she must never, never listen to men talking. It was naughty to do that. Then she explained, rather lamely for her, that Patty must have done something wrong. Perhaps she’d told a lie, and Mr. Arliss was afraid she might be struck dead, like the man and woman in the Bible. ‘You remember them? I told you about them when you said you saw a ghost coming out of the clothes closet upstairs.’
That reference to her own misdeed sent Laura out to creep under the gooseberry bushes in the garden, where she thought it would puzzle even God to find her; but she was not satisfied. Why should Mr. Arliss mind if Patty had told a lie? Plenty of people told them and no one, so far, had been struck dead at Lark Rise.
Forty years after, her mother laughed when reminded of this. ‘Poor old Pat!’ she said. ‘She was a regular harum-scarum and no mistake. But they did just manage to get her to church, although it was said at the time they had to give her a sup of brandy in the porch. Howsoever, she recovered enough to dance at the wedding, I heard, and a fine sight she must have looked in a white frock with blue bows all down the front. I think that was the last time I ever heard of taking round the hat to collect for the cradle at a wedding. It used to be quite the usual thing with that class of people at one time.’
Then there was the picture of a man lying on straw at the bottom of a farm cart with a white cloth over his face. The cart had halted outside one of the houses and apparently the news of its arrival had not got round, for, at first, only Laura was standing by. The tailboard of the cart had been removed and she could see the man plainly, lying so still, so terribly still, that she thought he was dead. It seemed a long time to her before his wife rushed out, climbed into the cart, and calling, ‘My dear one! My poor old man!’ took the cloth from his face, revealing a face almost as white, excepting for one long dark gash from lips to one ear. Then he groaned and Laura’s heart began beating again.
The neighbours gathered round and the story spread. He was a stockman and had been feeding his fattening beasts when one of them had accidentally caught a horn in his mouth and torn his cheek open. He was taken at once to the Cottage Hospital in the market town and his wound soon healed.
An especially vivid memory was of an April evening when Laura was about three. Her mother had told her that the next day was May Day and that Alice Shaw was going to be May Queen and wear a daisy crown. ‘I should like to be May Queen and wear a daisy crown. Can’t I have one, too, Mother?’ asked Laura.
‘So you shall,’ her mother replied. ‘You run down to the play place and pick some daisies and I’ll make you a crown. You shall be our May Queen.’
Off she ran with her little basket, but by the time she reached the plot of rough grass where the hamlet children played their country games it was too late; the sun had set, and the daisies were all asleep. There were thousands and thousands of them, but all screwed up, like tightly shut eyes. Laura was so disappointed that she sat down in the midst of them and cried. Only a few tears and very soon dried, then she began to look about her. The long grass in which she sat was a little wet, perhaps with dew, or perhaps from an April shower, and the pink-tipped daisy buds were a little wet, too, like eyes that had gone to sleep crying. The sky, where the sun had set, was all pink and purple and primrose. There was no one in sight and no sound but the birds singing and, suddenly, Laura realized that it was nice to be there, out of doors by herself, deep in the long grass, with the birds and the sleeping daisies.
A little later in her life came the evening after a pig-killing when she stood alone in the pantry where the dead animal hung suspended from a hook in the ceiling. Her mother was only a few feet away. She could hear her talking cheerfully to Mary Ann, the girl who fetched their milk from the farm and took the children for walks when their mother was busy. Through the thin wooden partition she could hear her distinctive giggle as she poured water from a jug into the long, slippery lengths of chitterlings her mother was manipulating. Out there in the wash-house they were busy and cheerful, but in the pantry where Laura stood was a dead, cold silence.
She had known that pig all its life. Her father had often held her over the door of its sty to scratch its back and she had pushed lettuce and cabbage stalks through the bars for it to enjoy. Only that morning it had routed and grunted and squealed because it had had no breakfast. Her mother had said its noise got on her nerves and her father had looked uncomfortable, although he had passed it off by saying: ‘No. No breakfast today, piggy. You’re going to have a big operation by and by and there’s no breakfast before operations.’
Now it had had its operation and there it hung, cold and stiff and so very, very dead. Not funny at all any more, but in some queer way dignified. The butcher had draped a long, lacy piece of fat from its own interior over one of its forelegs, in the manner in which ladies of that day sometimes carried a white lacy shawl, and that last touch seemed to Laura utterly heartless. She stayed there a long time, patting its hard, cold side and wondering that a thing so recently full of life and noise could be so still. Then, hearing her mother call her, she ran out of the door farthest from where she was working lest she should be scolded for crying over a dead pig.
There was fried liver and fat for supper and when Laura said, ‘No, thank you,’ her mother looked at her rather suspiciously, then said: ‘Well, perhaps better not, just going to bed and all; but here’s a nice bit of sweetbread. I was saving it for Daddy, but you have it. You’ll like that.’ And Laura ate the sweetbread and dipped her bread in the thick, rich gravy and refused to think about the poor pig in the pantry, for, although only five years old, she was learning to live in this world of compromises.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00