Sometimes, instead of saying, ‘Here there’s nothing,’ her father would say, ‘Here there’s nobody,’ meaning nobody he thought worth considering. But Laura never tired of considering the hamlet neighbours, and, as she grew older, would listen to, and piece together, the things they said until she had learned quite a lot from them. She liked the older women best, such as Old Queenie, Old Sally, and Old Mrs. Prout, old countrywomen who still wore sun-bonnets and stayed in their own homes and gardens and cared not at all about what was in fashion and very little for gossip. They said they did not hold with gadding about from house to house. Queenie had her lacemaking and her beehives to watch; Old Sally her brewing and her bacon to cure; if anybody wanted to see them, they knew where to find them. ‘Crusty old dames’, some of the younger women called them, especially when one of them had refused to lend them something. To Laura they seemed like rocks, keeping firm in their places, while those about them drifted around, always on the look-out for some new sensation. But only a few were left who kept to the old country ways, and the other women were interesting, too. Although they wore much the same kind of clothes and lived in similar houses, no two of them were really alike.
In theory all the hamlet women were on friendly terms with each other, at least as far as ‘passing the time of day’ when they met, for they had an almost morbid dread of giving offence and would go out of their way to be pleasant to other women they would rather not have seen. As Laura’s mother said: ‘You can’t afford to be on bad terms with anybody in a small place like this.’ But in that, as in more sophisticated societies, there was a tendency to form sets. The members of the slightly more prosperous of these, consisting mostly of the newly married and those of the older women whose children were grown up and off their hands, would change into a clean apron in the afternoon and stay quietly at home, sewing or ironing, or put on their hats and go out to call upon their friends, carefully knocking at the door before they lifted the latch. The commoner kind burst hatless into their neighbour’s houses to borrow something or to relate some breathless item of news, or they would spend the afternoon shouting it across gardens or from doorsteps, or hold long, bantering conversations with the baker, or the oilman, or any one else who happened to call and found themselves unable to get away without downright rudeness.
Laura’s mother belonged to the first category and those who came to her house were mostly her own special friends. They had a few other callers, however, and those Laura thought far more interesting than young Mrs. Massey, who was always making baby’s clothes, although at that time she had no baby (Laura thought afterwards, when a baby arrived for her, it was a lucky coincidence), or Mrs. Hadley, who was always talking about her daughter in service, or Mrs. Finch, who was ‘not too strong’ and had to be given the best seat, nearest the fire. The only interesting thing about her was the little blue bottle of smelling-salts she carried, and that ceased to interest after she had handed it to Laura, telling her to give a good sniff, then laughed when the tears ran down her cheeks. Not at all Laura’s idea of a joke!
She liked Rachel much better. Although never invited, she would drift in sometimes, ‘just to have a tell’, as she expressed it. Her ‘tells’ were worth hearing, for she knew everything that happened, ‘and a good lot more, too’, her enemies said. ‘Ask Rachel,’ some one would say with a shrug if the whole of the facts of a happening were not known, and Rachel, when appealed to, if she, too, were not quite sure, would say in her loud, hearty voice, ‘Well to tell the truth, I haven’t ever quite got to the bottom of that business. But I ‘ull know, that I ‘ull, for I’ll go to th’ fountain-head and ax.’ And off she would march with all the good-natured effrontery imaginable to ask Mrs. Beaby if it was ‘a fac” that her young Em was leaving her place before her year was up, or Charley’s mother if it was true that he and Nell had quarrelled coming home from church last Sunday, and had they made it up, or were they still ‘off at hooks’, as they called an estrangement.
When Rachel dropped in for a tell, others were sure to follow. Laura, lying on her stomach on the hearthrug with a picture book propped up before her, or cutting out patterns from paper in a corner, would hear their voices rising and falling or dropping to a whisper when some item they were discussing was not considered suitable for children’s ears. She would sometimes long to ask questions, but dare not, for it was a strict rule there that children should be seen, but not heard. It was better not even to laugh when something funny was said, for that might call attention to oneself and some one might say: ‘That child’s gettin’ too knowin’. I hope she ain’t goin’ to turn out one of them forrard sort, for I can’t abide ’em.’ At that her mother would bridle and say that, far from being forward, she was rather young for her age, and as to being knowing, she didn’t suppose she had heard what was said, but had laughed because they were laughing. At the same time, she took care to send Laura upstairs, or out into the garden for something, when she thought the conversation was taking an unsuitable turn.
Sometimes one of them would let fall a remark about the vague far-distant days before the children were born. ‘My ole gran-fer used to say that all the land between here and the church wer’ left by will to th’ poor o’ th’ parish in the old times; all common land of turf and fuzz ’twas then; but ‘twer’ all stole away an’ cut up into fields,’ and another would agree, ‘Yes, so I’ve allus heard.’
Sometimes one of them would bring out some surprising saying, as Patty Wardup did when the rest of the company were discussing Mrs. Eames’s fur cape: she couldn’t have bought it and it certainly did not grow upon her back, yet she had appeared in it last Sunday at church, and not so much as a word to anybody as to how she had got it. True, as Mrs. Baker suggested, it did look something like a coachman’s shoulder tippet — dark, thick fur, bearskin, they called it — and she had once said she had a brother who was a coachman somewhere up country. Then Patty, who had been pensively twisting her doorkey between her fingers and taking no part in the conversation, said quietly: ‘The golden ball rolls to everybody’s feet once in a lifetime. That’s what my Uncle Jarvis used to say and I’ve seen it myself, over and over.’
What golden ball? And who was her Uncle Jarvis? And what had a golden ball to do with Mrs. Eames’s fur tippet? No wonder they all laughed and said, ‘She’s dreaming as usual!’
Patty was not a native of those parts, but had come there only a few years before as housekeeper to an elderly man whose wife had died. As was the custom when no relative was available, he had applied to the Board of Guardians for a housekeeper and Patty had been selected as the most suitable inmate of the workhouse at the time. She was a plump little woman with pale brown, satin-sleek hair and mild blue eyes, well set off on her arrival by the bunch of forget-me-nots in her bonnet. How she had come to be in the workhouse was a mystery, for she was still in the forties, able-bodied, and evidently belonging to a slightly higher stratum of society than her new employer. She told her story to no one and no one asked her for it. ‘Ax no questions and you’ll be told no lies, although you may hear a few without axing’ was the hamlet motto. But she was generally acknowledged to be ‘superior’, for did she not plait her hair in fives every day, instead of in threes all the week and in fives on Sunday, and exchange her white apron after dinner for a small black satin one with beaded trimming? She was a good cook, too. Amos was lucky. On the very first Sunday after she arrived she made a meat pudding with a crust so light a puff of wind would have blown it away and with thick, rich gravy that gushed out in a stream when the knife was stuck into it. Old Amos said the very smell made his mouth water and began inquiring how soon after his wife’s death it would be decent to put up the banns. It was tacitly understood that such engagements would lead to marriage.
But she did not marry Old Amos. He had a son — Old Amos and Young Amos to the hamlet — and Young Amos got in his proposal first and was accepted. The hamlet women did not hold, as they said, with the wife being older than the husband and Patty was a good ten years older than her intended; but they thought Young Amos had done well for himself, especially when, immediately before the wedding, a cartload of furniture arrived, together with a trunk of clothes which Patty had somehow managed to save from the wreck of her fortunes and hide up somewhere.
They had already thought Patty was superior and they were sure of it when it became known that the furniture included a feather-bed, a leather-covered couch with chairs to match and a stuffed owl in a glass case. Somehow they learned, or perhaps Young Amos told them, for he was inclined to be boastful, that Patty had been married before — to a publican, if you please! And then to come down to the workhouse, poor thing! But what a mercy she’d had the wit to hide up her good things. If she hadn’t, the Guardians would have had them.
Patty and Amos were a model couple when they went to the market town to shop on a Saturday night, Patty in her black silk with flounces, her good Paisley shawl and her ivory-handled umbrella, rolled up in its shiny black macintosh case to preserve the silk cover. But, gradually, another side of the picture emerged. Patty was fond of her glass of stout. Nobody blamed her for that, for it was well known she could afford it and she must have been used to it in her public-house days. Presently it was noticed that on their marketing nights Amos and Patty came later and later from town, and then, one sad night, somebody passed them on the road and reported that Patty had had so many glasses of stout, or of something stronger, that it was as much as Amos could do to coax her along. Some said he was carrying her. That accounted for the workhouse, they said, and they waited for Amos to begin beating her. But he never did, nor did he ever mention her weakness or complain about her to anybody.
Her lapses occurred only at week-ends and she was not noisy or quarrelsome, only helpless. The hamlet would be in darkness and most of the people in bed when they stole home silently and Amos carried Patty upstairs. He may even have thought that none of the neighbours knew of his wife’s failing. If so, it was a vain hope. It sometimes seemed as if the very hedges had eyes and the roadway ears, for, next morning, the whisper ran round as to which public-house Patty had favoured, the nature and number of her drinks, and how far she had got on her homeward way before her potations overcame her. But if Amos did not mind, why should other folks? ’Twas not as if she’d made a beast of herself in public. So Patty and Amos, with that one reservation, were still looked upon as a model couple.
It was one of the children’s treats to be invited into her house to see her stuffed owl and other treasures, which included some pressed flowers from the Holy Land in a frame made of olive wood from the Mount of Olives. Another treasure was a fan made of long white ostrich feathers which she would take out of its case and show them, then fan herself gently as she reclined on her couch with her feet up. ‘I’ve seen better times,’ she would say in her more talkative moods. ‘Yes, I’ve seen better times, but I’ve never seen a better husband than Amos, and I like this little house where I can shut the door and do as I like. After all, a public’s never your own. Anybody who’s got two pennies to rub together can come in and out as they like, without so much as a knock at the door or a “by your leave”, and what’s grand furniture as isn’t your own, for you can’t call it that when other people have the use of it.’ And she would curl up on her couch and shut her eyes, for, although she was never known to get tipsy at home, her breath sometimes had a queer, sweetish smell which an older person might have recognized as that of gin. ‘Now, run along,’ she would say, opening one eye; ‘and lock the door behind you and put the key on the window-sill. I don’t want any more visitors and I’m not going out. This isn’t one of my visiting days.’
Then there was a young married woman named Gertie who passed as a beauty, entirely on the strength of a tiny waist and a simpering smile. She was a great reader of novelettes and had romantic ideas. Before her marriage she had been a housemaid at one of the country mansions where men-servants were kept, and their company and compliments had spoiled her for her kind, honest great cart-horse of a husband. She loved to talk about her conquests, telling of the time Mr. Pratt, the butler, had danced with her four times at the servants’ ball, and how jealous her John had been. He had been invited for her sake, but could not dance, and had sat there all the evening, like a great gowk, in his light-grey Sunday suit, with his great red hands hanging down between his knees, and a chrysanthemum in his buttonhole as big as a pancake.
She had worn her white silk, the one she was afterwards married in, and her hair had been curled by a real hairdresser — the maids had dubbed together to pay for his attendance, and he had afterwards stayed for the dancing and paid special attention to Gertrude. ‘And you should’ve seen our John, his eyes simply rolling with jealousy . . . .’ But, if she managed to get so far, she was then interrupted. No one wanted to hear about her conquests, but they were willing to hear about the dresses. What did the cook wear? Black lace over a red silk underslip. That sounded handsome. And the head housemaid and the stillroom maid, and so on, down to the tweeny, who, it had to be confessed, could afford nothing more exciting than her best frock of grey cloth.
Gertie was the only one of them all who discussed her relations with her husband. ‘I don’t think our Johnny loves me any more,’ she would sigh, ‘He went off to work this morning without kissing me.’ Or, ‘Our John’s getting a regular chawbacon. He went to sleep and snored in his chair after tea last night. I felt that lonely I could have cried me eyes out.’ And the more robust characters would laugh and ask her what more she expected of a man who had been at work in the fields all day, or say, ‘Times is changed, my gal. You ain’t courtin’ no longer.’
Gertie was a fool and the hamlet laughing-stock for a year or so; then young John arrived and the white silk was cut up to make him a christening robe and Gertie forgot her past triumphs in the more recent one of producing such a paragon. ‘Isn’t he lovely?’ she would say, exhibiting her red, shapeless lump of a son, and those who had been most unsympathetic with her former outpourings would be the first to declare him a marvellous boy. ‘He’s the very spit of his dad; but he’s got your eyes, Gertie. My word! He’s going to break some hearts when the time comes, you’ll see.’ As time went on, Gertie grew red and lumpy herself. Gone were the wasp waist and the waxen pallor she had thought so genteel. But she still managed to keep her romantic ideas, and the last time Laura saw her, by that time a middle-aged woman, she assured her that her daughter’s recent marriage to a stable-boy was ‘a regular romance in real life’, although, as far as her listener could gather, it was what the hamlet people of the preceding generation would have called ‘a pushed on, hugger-mugger sort of affair’.
Laura did not like Gertie’s face. Her features were not bad, but she had protruding pale blue eyes of which the whites were always faintly bloodshot, and her complexion was of a sickly yellowish shade. Even her small mouth, so much admired by some of the hamlet judges of beauty, was repulsive to a child. It was drawn up so close that the lips made tiny wrinkles, like stitches round a buttonhole. ‘A mouth like a hen’s backside’, one rude man said of it.
But there was one visiting neighbour Laura loved to look at, for her face reminded her of that on the cameo brooch her mother used to pin her lace collar on Sundays, and her black hair rippled down from its centre parting as though that also was carved. Her fine head had a slight droop that showed up the line of her neck and shoulders and, although her clothes were no better than those of other people, they looked better on her. She was always in black, for no sooner was the year and a half mourning up for one great-uncle or first or second cousin than another died. Or, failing an actual death, she decided it would not be worth while to ‘bring out her colours’ with some distant relative over eighty or ‘just at the last’. If she knew that black suited her, she was too wise to mention that fact. People would have thought her vain, or peculiar, to wear black for choice, whereas mourning there was no gainsaying.
‘Mother,’ said Laura one day after this neighbour had gone, ‘doesn’t Mrs. Merton look lovely?’
Her mother laughed. ‘Lovely? No. Though some might think her good-looking. She’s too pale and melancholy for my taste and her nose is too long.’
Mrs. Merton, as Laura remembered her in after years, might have sat for a picture as the Tragic Muse. She was of a melancholy nature. ‘I’ve supped sorrow with a spoon,’ she was never tired of saying. ‘I’ve supped sorrow with a spoon and sorrow will always be my lot.’ Yet, as the children’s mother reminded her, she had little to complain of. She had a good husband and not too large a family. As well as the distant relations, some of whom she had never seen, she had lost one child in infancy and her father had recently died of old age, and the loss of her pig from swine fever two years before was admittedly a serious affliction; but these were losses such as any one might experience. Many had, and yet managed to get over them without talking about supping sorrow.
Does melancholy attract misfortune? Or is it true that past, present and future are one, only divided by our time sense? Mrs. Merton was fated to become in her old age the tragic figure she had looked when young. Her husband was already dead when her only son and two grandsons were killed in the 1914–18 War and she was left practically alone in the world.
By that time she had gone to live in another village, and Laura’s mother, herself bereaved by the War, walked over to see her and sympathize. She found her a sad but resigned old woman. There was no longer any talk about supping sorrow, no mourning her own woes, but a quiet acceptance of the world as it then was and a resolute attempt at cheerfulness.
It was spring and her room had flowers in pots and vases. The air was rather faint with the scent of them, her visitor noticed; then, looking more closely, she found they were not garden flowers. Every pot and jug and vase was filled with hawthorn blossom.
She was rather shocked at this, for, although less superstitious than many countrywomen, she herself would not have brought may blossom indoors. It might be unlucky, or it might not, but there was no sense in running unnecessary risks.
‘Aren’t you afraid all this may’ll bring you bad luck?’ she asked Mrs. Merton as they sipped their tea.
Mrs. Merton smiled, and a smile from her was almost as unusual as to see may indoors. ‘How can it?’ she said. ‘I’ve got nobody else to lose. I’ve always been fond of those flowers. So I thought I’d bring some of them in and enjoy them. My thread’s spun as far as luck’s concerned.’
Politics were seldom mentioned by the women. If they did come up it was usually by way of comment on some husband’s excessive zeal. ‘Why can’t he leave such things alone? ’Tis no business of his’n,’ some wife would say. ‘What does it matter to him who governs? Whoever ’tis they won’t give us nothing, and they can’t take nothing away from us, for you can’t get blood from a stone.’
Some would discriminate and say it was a pity the men had taken up with these Liberal notions. ‘If they’ve got to vote, why not vote Tory and keep in with the gentry? You never hear of Liberals giving the poor a bit of coal or a blanket at Christmas.’ As, indeed, you did not, for there was no Liberal in the parish but bought his own coals by the hundredweight and might think himself lucky if his wife had a blanket for each bed.
A few of the older men were equally poor-spirited. One election day the children, coming home from school, met an old, semi-bedridden neighbour, riding, propped up with cushions, in a luxurious carriage to the polling station. A few days afterwards, when Laura had taken him some small delicacy from her mother, he whispered to her at parting: ‘Tell y’re dad I voted Liberal. He! He! They took th’ poor old hoss to th’ water, but he didn’t drink out o’ their trough. Not he!’
When Laura gave her father the message he did not seem as pleased as their neighbour had expected. He said he thought it was ‘a bit low down to roll up in anybody’s carriage to vote against them’; but her mother laughed and said: ‘Serves ’em right for dragging the poor old hunks out of bed in that weather.’
Apart from politics, the hamlet people’s attitude towards those they called ‘the gentry’ was peculiar. They took a pride in their rich and powerful country-house neighbours, especially when titled. The old Earl in the next parish was spoken of as ‘our Earl’ and when the flag, flown from the tower of his mansion to show he was in residence, could be seen floating above tree-tops they would say: ‘I see our family’s at home again.’
They sometimes saw him pass through the hamlet in his carriage, an old, old man, sunk deep in cushions and half-buried in rugs, often too comatose to be aware of, or acknowledge, their curtsies. He had never spoken to them or given them anything, for they did not live in his cottages, and in the way of Christmas coals and blankets he had his own parish to attend to; but the men worked on his land, though not directly employed by him, and by some inherited instinct they felt he belonged to them.
For wealth without rank or birth they had small respect. When a rich retired hatter bought a neighbouring estate and set up as a country gentleman, the hamlet was scandalized. ‘Whoo’s he?’ they said. ‘Only a shopkeeper pretending to be gentry. I ‘udn’t work for him, no, not if he paid me in gold!’ One man who had been sent to clean out a well in his stable-yard and had seen him, said: ‘I’d a good mind to ask him to sell me a hat’; and that was repeated for weeks as a great joke. Laura was told in after years that their better-educated neighbours were almost as prejudiced; they did not call on the newly rich family. That was before the days when a golden key could open any door.
Landowners of established rank and stern or kindly J.P.s and their ladies were respected. Some of the sons or grandsons of local families were said to be ‘wild young devils’ and were looked upon with a kind of horrified admiration. The traditions of the Hell–Fire Club had not entirely faded, and one young nobleman was reputed to have ‘gambled away’ one of his family estates at one sitting. There were hints of more lurid orgies in which a bunch of good-looking country girls were supposed to figure, and a saintly curate, an old white-haired man, went to admonish the young spark, at that time living alone in a wing of the otherwise deserted family mansion. There was no record of the conversation, but the result was known. The older man was pushed or kicked down the front door flight of steps and the door was banged and bolted against him. Then, the story went, he raised himself to his knees and prayed aloud for ‘the poor sinful child’ within. The gardener, greatly daring, supported him to his cottage and made him rest before attempting to walk home.
But the great majority of the country gentlepeople lived decent, if, according to hamlet standards, not particularly useful lives. In summer the carriage was at the door at three o’clock in the afternoon to take the lady of the house and her grown-up daughters, if any, to pay calls. If they found no one in, they left cards, turned down at the corner, or not turned down, according to etiquette. Or they stayed at home to receive their own callers and played croquet and drank tea under spreading cedars on exquisitely kept lawns. In winter they hunted with the local pack; and, summer and winter, they never failed to attend Sunday morning service at their parish church. They had always a smile and a nod for their poorer neighbours who saluted them, with more substantial favours for those who lived in the cottages on their estates. As to their inner lives, the commonalty knew no more than the Britons knew of the Romans who inhabited the villas dotted about the countryside; and it is doubtful if the county families knew more of their poorer neighbours than the Romans did of theirs, in spite of speaking the same language.
Here and there the barrier of caste was overstepped. Perhaps by some young man or girl who, in advance of their time, realized that the population beyond their park gates were less ‘the poor’ in a lump than individual men and women who happened to have been born to poverty. Of such it was sometimes said: ‘He’s different, Master Raymond is; you can say anything to him, he’s more like one of ourselves than one of the gentry. Makes you split your sides, he does, with some of his tales, and he’s got a feeling heart, too, and don’t button his pockets too tight. Good thing if there were more like him.’ Or: ‘Miss Dorothy, now, she’s different. No asking questions and questions when she comes to see anybody; but she sets her down and if you’ve a mind to tell her anything, you can and know it won’t go no further. I udn’t mind seeing her come in when I was in the godspeed of washday, and that’s saying something.’
On the other hand, there were old nurses and trusted maids who had come to be regarded as individuals and loved as true friends, irrespective of class, by those they served. And the name of ‘friend’, when applied to them in words, gave them a deeper satisfaction than any material benefit. A retired lady’s maid, whom Laura knew later, spoke to her many times with much feeling of what she evidently regarded as the crown of her experiences. She had been for many years maid to a titled lady moving in high society, had dressed her for royal courts, undressed and put her to bed in illness, travelled with her, indulged her innocent vanities, and knew, for she could not help knowing, being so near her person, her most intimate griefs. At last ‘Her Ladyship’, grown old, lay upon her deathbed and her maid, who was helping to nurse her, happened to be alone in the room with her, her relatives, none of whom were very near ones, being downstairs at dinner. ‘“Raise me up,” she said, and I raised her up, and when she put her arms round my neck to help lift her, she kissed me and said, “My friend,”’ and Miss Wilson, twenty years after, considered that kiss and those two words a more ample reward for her years of devotion than the nice cottage and annuity she received under the will of the poor lady.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00