No one who saw Laura’s mother at that time would have wondered at the hasty, youthful marriage which turned her husband’s contemplated sojourn of a few months into a permanent abode. She was a slight, graceful girl with a wild-rose complexion and hair the colour of a new penny which she parted in the middle and drew down to a knot at the back of her head because a gentleman of the family, where she had been nurse to the children before her marriage, had told her she ought always to do it like that.
‘A pocket Venus,’ she said he had called her. ‘But quite nicely,’ she hastened to assure her listener, ‘for he was a married gentleman with no nonsense about him.’ Another thing she told her children about her nursing days was that when visitors were staying in the house it was the custom for some member of the family to bring them up to the nursery after dinner to listen to the bedtime stories she was telling the children. ‘A regular amusement,’ she said it was with them, and her own children did not think that at all strange, for the bedtime stories were now being told to them and they knew how exciting they were.
Some of them were short stories, begun and finished in an evening, fairy stories and animal stories and stories of good and bad children, the good ones rewarded and the bad ones punished, according to the convention of that day. A few of these were part of the stock-intrade of all tellers of stories to children, but far more of them were of her own invention, for she said it was easier to make up a tale than to try to remember one. The children liked her own stories best. ‘Something out of your own head, Mother,’ they would beg, and she would wrinkle up her brow and pretend to think hard, then begin: ‘Once upon a time.’
One story remained with Laura long after hundreds of others had become a blur of pleasurable memory. Not because it was one of her mother’s best, for it was not, but because it had a colour scheme which appealed to a childish taste. It was about a little girl who crept under a bush on a heath, ‘just like Hardwick Heath, where we went blackberrying, you know’, and found a concealed opening which led to an underground palace in which all the furniture and hangings were pale blue and silver. ‘Silver tables and silver chairs and silver plates to eat off and all the cushions and curtains made of pale blue satin.’ The heroine had marvellous adventures, but they left no impression on Laura’s mind, while the blue and silver, deep down under the earth, shone with a kind of moonlight radiance in her imagination. But when her mother, at her urgent request, tried to tell the story again the magic was gone, although she introduced silver floors and silver ceilings, hoping to please her. Perhaps she overdid it.
Then there were serial stories which went on in nightly instalments for weeks, or perhaps months, for nobody wanted them to end and the teller’s invention never flagged. There was one, however, which came to a sudden and tragic conclusion. One night when it was bedtime, or past bedtime, and the children had begged for more and been given it and were still begging for more, their mother lost patience and startled them both by saying, ‘and then he came to the sea and fell in and was eaten by a shark, and that was the end of poor Jimmy’, and the end of their story, too, for what further developments were possible?
Then there were the family stories, each one of which they knew by heart and could just as well have told to each other. Their favourite was the one they called ‘Granny’s Golden Footstool’. It was short and simple enough. Their father’s parents had at one time kept a public-house and livery stables in Oxford and the story ran that, either going to, or coming from, the ‘Horse and Rider’, their grandfather had handed their grandmother into the carriage and placed a box containing a thousand pounds in gold at her feet, saying: ‘It’s not every lady who can ride in her own carriage with a golden footstool.’
They must have been on their way there with the purchase money, for they can have brought no golden footstool away with them. Before that adventure, made possible by a legacy left to the grandmother by one of her relatives, the grandfather had been a builder in a small way, and, after it, he went back to building again, in a still smaller way, presumably, for by the time Laura was born the family business had disappeared and her father was working for wages.
The thousand pounds had vanished as completely as Jimmy after the shark had eaten him, and all they could do about it was to try to imagine what so much gold together must have looked like and to plan what they would do with such a sum if they had it now. Even their mother liked talking about it, although, as she said, she had no patience with wasteful, extravagant ways, such as some people she knew had got, and them proud and set up when they ought to be ashamed of themselves for coming down in the world.
And, just as they prided themselves on the golden footstool and the accompanying tradition that their grandmother was ‘a lady by birth’ who had made a runaway marriage with their grandfather, almost every family in the hamlet prided itself upon some family tradition which, in its own estimation, at least, raised it above the common mass of the wholly uninteresting. An uncle or a great-uncle had owned a cottage which, in the course of time, had been magnified into a whole row of houses; or some one in the family had once kept a shop or a public-house, or farmed his own land. Or they boasted of good blood, even if it came illegitimately. One man claimed to be the great-grandson of an earl, ‘on the wrong side of the blanket, of course,’ he admitted; but he liked to talk about it, and his listener, noticing, perhaps for the first time, his fine figure and big, hooked nose, and considering the reputation of a certain wild young nobleman of a former generation, would feel inclined to believe there was some foundation for his story.
Another of Edmund and Laura’s family stories, more fantastic, though not so well substantiated as that of the golden footstool, was that one of their mother’s uncles, when a very young man, shut his father in a box and himself ran away to the Australian goldfields. In answer to their questions as to why he had shut his father up in a box, how he had got him into it, and how the father had got out again, their mother could only say that she did not know. It had all happened before her own father was born. It was a large family and he was the youngest. But she had seen the box: it was a long oak coffer that could well have held a man, and that was the story she had been told as long as she could remember.
That must have been eighty years before, and the uncle was never heard of again, but they never tired of talking about him and wondering if he found any gold. Perhaps he had made a fortune at the diggings and died without children and without making a will. Then the money would be theirs, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it was even now in Chancery, waiting for them to claim it. Several families in the hamlet had money in Chancery. They knew it was there because one of the Sunday newspapers printed each week a list of names of people who had fortunes waiting, and their names had been there, in print, ‘as large as life and twice as natural’. True, as the children’s father said, most of their names were common ones, but if this was pointed out to them they were quite offended and hinted that when they could raise a few pounds to ‘hire a lawyer chap’ to set about claiming it, no disbeliever would participate.
The children had not seen their names in print, but they enjoyed planning what they would do with their Chancery money. Edmund said he would buy a ship and visit every country in the world. Laura thought she would like a house full of books in the middle of a wood, and their mother declared she would be quite satisfied if she had an income of thirty shillings a week, ‘paid regular and to be depended upon’.
Their Chancery money was a chimera, and none of them throughout their lives had more than a few pounds at a time, but their wishes were more or less granted. Edmund crossed the sea many times and saw four out of the five continents; Laura had her house full of books, if not actually in a wood, with a wood somewhere handy; and their poor mother, towards the end of her life, got her modest thirty shillings a week, for that was the exact sum to which the Canadian Government made up her small income when granting her her Mother’s Pension. The memory of that wish gave an added bitterness to the tears she shed for the first few years when the monthly cheque arrived.
But all that was far in the future on those winter evenings when they sat in the firelight, the two children on little stools at their mother’s feet, while she knitted their socks and told them stories or sang. They had had their evening meal and their father’s plate stood over a saucepan of water on the hob, keeping warm. Laura loved to watch the warm light flickering on the walls, lighting up one thing after another and casting dark shadows, including their own, more than life-size and excitingly grotesque.
Edmund joined in the chorus of such things as ‘There is a Tavern’ and ‘Little Brown Jug’ but Laura refrained, by special request, for she had no ear for music and they said her singing put them out of tune. But she loved to watch the firelight shadows and to hear her mother’s voice singing to sweet melancholy airs of a pale host of fair maidens who pined and faded for love. There was ‘Lily Lyle, Sweet Lily Lyle’, which began:
’Twas a still, calm night and the moon’s pale light
Shone over hill and dale
When friends mute with grief stood around the deathbed
Of their loved, lost Lily Lyle.
Heart as pure as forest lily,
Never knowing guile,
Had its home within the bosom
Of sweet Lily Lyle.
Several other dying maidens were celebrated in similar words to similar airs. Then there was ‘The Old Armchair’ and ‘The Gipsy’s Warning’ and a group of cottage songs apparently dating from the beginning of the century, such as:
’Twas a fine clear night and the moon shone bright When the village clock struck eight And Mary hastened with delight Unto the garden gate.
But what was there that made her sad? The gate was there, but not the lad, Which caused poor Mary to sigh and say, ‘He never shall make a goose of me.’
She traced the garden here and there and the village clock struck nine, Which caused poor Wary to sigh and say ‘He never shall be mine.’
She traced the garden here and there and the village clock struck ten, Young William caught her in his arms, Never to part again.
Now he’d been to buy the ring that day and he had been such a long, long way,
So how could Mary so cruel prove
As to banish the lad whom she dearly loved?
So down in a cot by the riverside William and Mary now reside. And she’s blessed the hour that she did wait For her absent lover at the garden gate.
Sometimes the children would talk about what they would do when they were grown up. Their future had already been mapped out for them. Edmund was to be apprenticed to a trade — a carpenter’s, their mother thought; it was cleaner work than that of a mason and carpenters did not drink in public-houses as masons did, and people respected them more.
Laura was to go as nursemaid under one of her mother’s old nurse friends with whom she had kept up a correspondence. Then, in time, she would be head nurse herself in what was then known as ‘a good family’; where, if she did not marry, she would be sure of a home for life, for the imaginary good family her mother had in mind was of the kind where loved old nurses dressed in black silk and had a room of their own in which to receive confidences. But these ideas did not interest the children so much as that of having houses of their own in which they could do as they liked. ‘And you’ll come to stay with me and I shall spring-clean the house and bake some pies the day before,’ promised Laura, who knew from her mother’s example what was due to an honoured guest. Edmund’s idea was that he would have treacle mixed with milk for dinner without any bread at all, but then he was much younger than she was.
Neither story-telling, singing, nor talking could go on for ever. The time always came, and always came too soon for them, when their mother would whisk them off to bed, ‘For your father cannot be much longer now,’ and stay to hear them say their prayers, ‘Our Father’ and ‘Gentle Jesus’, then ‘Gawbless dear Mammy an’ Daddy an’ dear little brother [or sister] an’ all kind friends an’ alations . . . .’
Laura was not sure who the friends were, but she knew that the relations included the Candleford aunts, her father’s sisters, who sent them nice parcels at Christmas, and the cousins whose wardrobes she inherited. The aunts were kind — she knew that, for when she opened the parcels her mother would say, ‘It’s very kind of Edith, I’m sure,’ or, more warmly, although the parcel might not be as exciting, ‘If ever there was a good kind soul in this world, it’s your Aunt Ann.’
Candleford was a wonderful place. Her mother said there were rows of shops there, simply stuffed with toys and sweets and furs and muffs and watches and chains and other delightful things. ‘You should see them at Christmas,’ she said, ‘all lit up like a fair. All you want then is a purseful of money!’ The Candleford people had pursefuls of money, for wages were higher there, and they had gas to light them to bed and drew their water out of taps, instead of up from a well. She had heard her parents say so. ‘What he wants is a job at some place such as Candleford,’ her father would say of some promising boy. ‘He’d do himself some good there. Here, there’s nothing.’ This surprised Laura, for she had thought there were many exciting things about the hamlet. ‘Is there a brook there?’ she asked, rather hoping there was not, and she was told there was a river, which was wider than any brook and had a stone bridge, instead of a rickety old plank to cross by. A magnificent place, indeed, and she hoped soon to see it. ‘Come the summer’ her father had said, but the summer had come and gone again and nothing more had been said about borrowing Polly and the spring cart. Then, always, something or other happened to push the idea of Candleford to the back of her mind. One dreary November the pigs were ill. They refused to eat and became so weak they had to lean against the rails of their sties for support. Some of them died and were buried in quicklime, which was said to burn up their bodies in no time. Horrible thought to be dead and buried in quicklime and soon nothing left of what had been so much alive! Her mother said it was a far worse thought that the poor people had lost their pigs, after paying for their food all those months, too, and when their own pigs were killed — both had escaped — she was more than usually generous with the plates of liver and fat and other oddments always sent to neighbours as a compliment. Many of the people who had lost their pigs still owed for the food. They had depended upon being able to pay for that in kind when the animal was fattened. One man took to poaching and was caught and sent to prison, then every one had to take half loaves and small screws of tea and sugar to help his wife to keep the home going, until the whisper went round that she had three different lots of butter in the house, given by different people to whom she had pleaded poverty, and that the J.P. himself had sent a sovereign. People looked sourly upon her after that was known, and said, ‘Crime seems to pay nowadays.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00