Oxford was only nineteen miles distant. The children at the end house knew that, for, while they were small, they were often taken by their mother for a walk along the turnpike and would never pass the milestone until the inscription had been read to them: OXFORD XIX MILES.
They often wondered what Oxford was like and asked questions about it. One answer was that it was ‘a gert big town’ where a man might earn as much as five and twenty shillings a week; but as he would have to pay ‘pretty near’ half of it in house rent and have nowhere to keep a pig or to grow many vegetables, he’d be a fool to go there.
One girl who had actually been there on a visit said you could buy a long stick of pink-and-white rock for a penny and that one of her aunt’s young gentlemen lodgers had given her a whole shilling for cleaning his shoes. Their mother said it was called a city because a bishop lived there, and that a big fair was held there once a year, and that was all she seemed to know about it. They did not ask their father, although he had lived there as a child, when his parents had kept an hotel in the city (his relations spoke of it as an hotel, but his wife once called it a pot-house, so probably it was an ordinary public-house). They already had to be careful not to ask their father too many questions, and when their mother said, ‘Your father’s cross again,’ they found it was better not to talk at all.
So, for some time, Oxford remained to them a dim blur of bishops (they had seen a picture of one with big white sleeves, sitting in a high-backed chair) and swings and shows and coconut shies (for they knew what a fair was like) and little girls sucking pink-and-white rock and polishing shoes. To imagine a place without pigsties and vegetable gardens was more difficult. With no bacon or cabbage, what could people have to eat?
But the Oxford road with the milestone they had known as long as they could remember. Round the Rise and up the narrow hamlet road they would go until they came to the turning, their mother pushing the baby carriage (‘pram’ was a word of the future) with Edmund strapped in the high, slippery seat or, later, little May, who was born when Edmund was five, and Laura holding on at the side or darting hither and thither to pick flowers.
The baby carriage was made of black wickerwork, something like an old-fashioned bath-chair in shape, running on three wheels and pushed from behind. It wobbled and creaked and rattled over the stones, for rubber tyres were not yet invented and its springs, if springs it had, were of the most primitive kind. Yet it was one of the most cherished of the family possessions, for there was only one other baby carriage in the hamlet, the up-to-date new bassinet which the young wife at the inn had recently purchased. The other mothers carried their babies on one arm, tightly rolled in shawls, with only the face showing.
As soon as the turning was passed, the flat, brown fields were left behind and they were in a different world with a different atmosphere and even different flowers. Up and down went the white main road between wide grass margins, thick, berried hedgerows and overhanging trees. After the dark mire of the hamlet ways, even the milky-white road surface pleased them, and they would splash up the thin, pale mud, like uncooked batter, or drag their feet through the smooth white dust until their mother got cross and slapped them.
Although it was a main road, there was scarcely any traffic, for the market town lay in the opposite direction along it, the next village was five miles on, and with Oxford there was no road communication from that distant point in those days of horse-drawn vehicles. To-day, past that same spot, a first-class, tar-sprayed road, thronged with motor traffic, runs between low, closely trimmed hedges. Last year a girl of eighteen was knocked down and killed by a passing car at that very turning: At that time it was deserted for hours together. Three miles away trains roared over a viaduct, carrying those who would, had they lived a few years before or later, have used the turnpike. People were saying that far too much money was being spent on keeping such roads in repair, for their day was over; they were only needed now for people going from village to village. Sometimes the children and their mother would meet a tradesman’s van, delivering goods from the market town at some country mansion, or the doctor’s tall gig, or the smart turn-out of a brewer’s traveller; but often they walked their mile along the turnpike and back without seeing anything on wheels.
The white tails of rabbits bobbed in and out of the hedgerows; stoats crossed the road in front of the children’s feet — swift, silent, stealthy creatures which made them shudder; there were squirrels in the oak-trees, and once they even saw a fox curled up asleep in the ditch beneath thick overhanging ivy. Bands of little blue butterflies flitted here and there or poised themselves with quivering wings on the long grass bents; bees hummed in the white clover blooms, and over all a deep silence brooded. It seemed as though the road had been made ages before, then forgotten.
The children were allowed to run freely on the grass verges, as wide as a small meadow in places. ‘Keep to the grinsard,’ their mother would call. ‘Don’t go on the road. Keep to the grinsard!’ and it was many years before Laura realized that that name for the grass verges, in general use there, was a worn survival of the old English ‘greensward’.
It was no hardship to her to be obliged to keep to the greensward, for flowers strange to the hamlet soil flourished there, eyebright and harebell, sunset-coloured patches of lady’s-glove, and succory with vivid blue flowers and stems like black wire.
In one little roadside dell mushrooms might sometimes be found, small button mushrooms with beaded moisture on their cold milk-white skins. The dell was the farthest point of their walk; after searching the long grass for mushrooms, in season and out of season — for they would not give up hope — they turned back and never reached the second milestone.
Once or twice when they reached the dell they got a greater thrill than even the discovery of a mushroom could give; for the gipsies were there, their painted caravan drawn up, their poor old skeleton horse turned loose to graze, and their fire with a cooking pot over it, as though the whole road belonged to them. With men making pegs, women combing their hair or making cabbage nets, and boys and girls and dogs sprawling around, the dell was full of dark, wild life, foreign to the hamlet children and fascinating, yet terrifying.
When they saw the gipsies they drew back behind their mother and the baby carriage, for there was a tradition that once, years before, a child from a neighbouring village had been stolen by them. Even the cold ashes where a gipsy’s fire had been sent little squiggles of fear down Laura’s spine, for how could she know that they were not still lurking near with designs upon her own person? Her mother laughed at her fears and said, ‘Surely to goodness they’ve got children enough of their own,’ but Laura would not be reassured. She never really enjoyed the game the hamlet children played going home from school, when one of them went on before to hide and the others followed slowly, hand in hand, singing:
‘I hope we shan’t meet any gipsies to-night!
I hope we shan’t meet any gipsies to-night!’
And when the hiding-place was reached and the supposed gipsy sprung out and grabbed the nearest, she always shrieked, although she knew it was only a game.
But in those early days of the walks fear only gave spice to excitement, for Mother was there, Mother in her pretty maize-coloured gown with the rows and rows of narrow brown velvet sewn round the long skirt, which stuck out like a bell, and her second-best hat with the honeysuckle. She was still in her twenties and still very pretty, with her neat little figure, rose-leaf complexion and hair which was brown in some lights and golden in others. When her family grew larger and troubles crowded upon her and the rose-leaf complexion had faded and the last of the premarriage wardrobe had worn out, the walks were given up; but by that time Edmund and Laura were old enough to go where they liked, and, though they usually preferred to go farther afield on Saturdays and other school holidays, they would sometimes go to the turnpike to jump over and over the milestone and scramble about in the hedges for blackberries and crab-apples.
It was while they were still small they were walking there one day with a visiting aunt; Edmund and Laura, both in clean, white, starched clothes, holding on to a hand on either side. The children were a little shy, for they did not remember seeing this aunt before. She was married to a master builder in Yorkshire and only visited her brother and his family at long intervals. But they liked her, although Laura had already sensed that their mother did not. Jane was too dressy and ‘set up’ for her taste, she said. That morning, her luggage being still at the railway station, she was wearing the clothes she had travelled in, a long, pleated dove-coloured gown with an apron arrangement drawn round and up and puffed over a bustle at the back, and, on her head, a tiny toque made entirely of purple velvet pansies.
Swish, swish, swish, went her long skirt over the grass verges; but every time they crossed the road she would relinquish Laura’s hand to gather it up from the dust, thus revealing to the child’s delighted gaze a frilly purple petticoat. When she was grown up she would have a frock and petticoat just like those, she decided.
But Edmund was not interested in clothes. Being a polite little boy, he was trying to make conversation. He had already shown his aunt the spot where they had found the dead hedgehog and the bush where the thrush had built last spring and told her the distant rumble they heard was a train going over the viaduct, when they came to the milestone.
‘Aunt Jenny,’ he said, ‘what’s Oxford like?’
‘Well, it’s all old buildings, churches and colleges where rich people’s sons go to school when they’re grown up.’
‘What do they learn there?’ demanded Laura.
‘Oh, Latin and Greek and suchlike, I suppose.’
‘Do they all go there?’ asked Edmund seriously.
‘Well, no. Some go to Cambridge; there are colleges there as well. Some go to one and some to the other,’ said the aunt with a smile that meant ‘Whatever will these children want to know next?’
Four-year-old Edmund pondered a few moments, then said, ‘Which college shall I go to when I am grown up, Oxford or Cambridge?’ and his expression of innocent good faith checked his aunt’s inclination to laugh.
‘There won’t be any college for you, my poor little man,’ she explained. ‘You’ll have to go to work as soon as you leave school; but if I could have my way, you should go to the very best college in Oxford,’ and, for the rest of the walk she entertained them with stories of her mother’s family, the Wallingtons.
She said one of her uncles had written a book and she thought Edmund might turn out to be clever, like him. But when they told their mother what she had said she tossed her head and said she had never heard about any book, and what if he had, wasting his time. It was not as if he was like Shakespeare or Miss Braddon or anybody like that. And she hoped Edmund would not turn out to be clever. Brains were no good to a working man; they only made him discontented and saucy and lose his jobs. She’d seen it happen again and again.
Yet she had brains of her own and her education had been above the average in her station in life. She had been born and brought up in a cottage standing in the churchyard of a neighbouring village, ‘just like the little girl in We are Seven’, she used to tell her own children. At the time when she was a small girl in the churchyard cottage the incumbent of the parish had been an old man and with him had lived his still more aged sister. This lady, whose name was Miss Lowe, had become very fond of the pretty, fair-haired little girl at the churchyard cottage and had had her at the Rectory every day out of school hours. Little Emma had a sweet voice and she was supposed to go there for singing lessons; but she had learned other things, too, including old-world manners and to write a beautiful antique hand with delicate, open-looped pointed letters and long ‘s’s’, such as her instructress and other young ladies had been taught in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
Miss Lowe was then nearly eighty, and had long been dead when Laura, at two and a half years old, had been taken by her mother to see the by then very aged Rector. The visit was one of her earliest memories, which survived as an indistinct impression of twilight in a room with dark green walls and the branch of a tree against the outside of the window; and, more distinctly, a pair of trembling, veiny hands putting something smooth and cold and round into her own. The smooth cold roundness was accounted for afterwards. The old gentleman, it appeared, had given her a china mug which had been his sister’s in her nursery days. It had stood on the mantelpiece at the end house for years, a beautiful old piece with a design of heavy green foliage on a ground of translucent whiteness. Afterwards it got broken, which was strange in that careful home; but Laura carried the design in her mind’s eye for the rest of her life and would sometimes wonder if it accounted for her lifelong love of green and white in conjunction.
Their mother would often tell the children about the Rectory and her own home in the churchyard, and how the choir, in which her father played the violin, would bring their instruments and practise there in the evening. But she liked better to tell of that other rectory where she had been nurse to the children. The living was small and the Rector was poor, but three maids had been possible in those days, a cook-general, a young housemaid, and Nurse Emma. They must have been needed in that large, rambling old house, in which lived the Rector and his wife, their nine children, three maids, and often three or four young men pupils. They had all had such jolly, happy times she said; all of them, family and maids and pupils, singing glees and part songs in the drawing-room in the evening. But what thrilled Laura most was that she herself had had a narrow escape from never having been born at all. Some relatives of the family who had settled in New South Wales had come to England on a visit and nearly persuaded Nurse Emma to go back with them. Indeed, it was all settled when, one night, they began talking about snakes, which, according to their account, infested their Australian bungalow and garden. ‘Then,’ said Emma, ‘I shan’t go, for I can’t abear the horrid creatures,’ and she did not go, but got married instead and became the mother of Edmund and Laura. But it seems that the call was genuine, that Australia had something for, or required something of, her descendants; for of the next generation her own second son became a fruit-farmer in Queensland, and of the next a son of Laura’s is now an engineer in Brisbane.
The little Johnstones were always held up as an example to the end house children. They were always kind to each other and obedient to their elders, never grubby or rowdy or inconsiderate. Perhaps they deteriorated after Nurse Emma left, for Laura remembered being taken to see them before they left the neighbourhood for good, when one of the big boys pulled her hair and made faces at her and buried her doll beneath a tree in the orchard, with one of the cook’s aprons tied round his neck by way of a surplice.
The eldest girl, Miss Lily, then about nineteen, walked miles of the way back home with them and returned alone in the twilight (so Victorian young ladies were not always as carefully guarded as they are now supposed to have been!). Laura remembered the low murmur of conversation behind her as she rode for a lift on the front of the baby carriage with her heels dangling over the front wheel. Both a Sir George and a Mr. Looker, it appeared, were paying Miss Lily ‘particular attention’ at the time, and their rival advantages were under discussion. Every now and then Miss Lily would protest, ‘But, Emma, Sir George paid me particular attention. Many remarked upon it to Mamma,’ and Emma would say, ‘But, Miss Lily, my dear, do you think he is serious?’ Perhaps he was, for Miss Lily was a lovely girl; but it was as Mrs. Looker she became a kind of fairy godmother to the end house family. A Christmas parcel of books and toys came from her regularly, and although she never saw her old nurse again, they were still writing to each other in the nineteen-twenties.
Around the hamlet cottages played many little children, too young to go to school. Every morning they were bundled into a piece of old shawl crossed on the chest and tied in a hard knot at the back, a slice of food was thrust into their hands and they were told to ‘go play’ while their mothers got on with the housework. In winter, their little limbs purple-mottled with cold, they would stamp around playing horses or engines. In summer they would make mud pies in the dust, moistening them from their own most intimate water supply. If they fell down or hurt themselves in any other way, they did not run indoors for comfort, for they knew that all they would get would be ‘Sarves ye right. You should’ve looked where you wer’ a-goin’!’
They were like little foals turned out to grass, and received about as much attention. They might, and often did, have running noses and chilblains on hands, feet and ear-tips; but they hardly ever were ill enough to have to stay indoors, and grew sturdy and strong, so the system must have suited them. ‘Makes ’em hardy,’ their mothers said, and hardy, indeed, they became, just as the men and women and older boys and girls of the hamlet were hardy, in body and spirit.
Sometimes Laura and Edmund would go out to play with the other children. Their father did not like this; he said they were little savages already. But their mother maintained that, as they would have to go to school soon, it was better for them to fall in at once with the hamlet ways. ‘Besides,’ she would say, ‘why shouldn’t they? There’s nothing the matter with Lark Rise folks but poverty, and that’s no crime. If it was, we should likely be hung ourselves.’
So the children went out to play and often had happy times, outlining houses with scraps of broken crockery and furnishing them with moss and stones; or lying on their stomachs in the dust to peer down into the deep cracks dry weather always produced in that stiff, clayey soil; or making snow men or sliding on puddles in winter.
Other times were not so pleasant, for a quarrel would arise and kicks and blows would fly freely, and how hard those little two-year-old fists could hit out! To say that a child was as broad as it was long was considered a compliment by the hamlet mothers, and some of those toddlers in their knotted woollen wrappings were as near square as anything human can be. One little girl named Rosie Phillips fascinated Laura. She was plump and hard and as rosy-cheeked as an apple, with the deepest of dimples and hair like bronze wire. No matter how hard the other children bumped into her in the games, she stood four-square, as firm as a little rock. She was a very hard hitter and had little, pointed, white teeth that bit. The two tamer children always came out worst in these conflicts. Then they would make a dash on their long stalky legs for their own garden gate, followed by stones and cries of ‘Long-shanks! Cowardy, cowardy custards!’
During those early years at the end house plans were always being made and discussed. Edmund must be apprenticed to a good trade — a carpenter’s, perhaps — for if a man had a good trade in his hands he was always sure of a living. Laura might become a school-teacher, or, if that proved impossible, a children’s nurse in a good family. But, first and foremost, the family must move from Lark Rise to a house in the market town. It had always been the parents’ intention to leave. When he met and married his wife the father was a stranger in the neighbourhood, working for a few months on the restoration of the church in a neighbouring parish and the end house had been taken as a temporary home. Then the children had come and other things had happened to delay the removal. They could not give notice until Michaelmas Day, or another baby was coming, or they must wait until the pig was killed or the allotment crops were brought in; there was always some obstacle, and at the end of seven years they were still at the end house and still talking almost daily about leaving it. Fifty years later the father had died there and the mother was living there alone.
When Laura approached school-going age the discussions became more urgent. Her father did not want the children to go to school with the hamlet children and for once her mother agreed with him. Not because, as he said, they ought to have a better education than they could get at Lark Rise; but because she feared they would tear their clothes and catch cold and get dirty heads going the mile and a half to and from the school in the mother village. So vacant cottages in the market town were inspected and often it seemed that the next week or the next month they would be leaving Lark Rise for ever; but, again, each time something would happen to prevent the removal, and, gradually, a new idea arose. To gain time, their father would teach the two eldest children to read and write, so that, if approached by the School Attendance Office, their mother could say they were leaving the hamlet shortly and, in the meantime, were being taught at home.
So their father brought home two copies of Mavor’s First Reader and taught them the alphabet; but just as Laura was beginning on words of one syllable, he was sent away to work on a distant job, only coming home at week-ends. Laura, left at the ‘C-a-t s-i-t-s on the m-a-t’ stage, had then to carry her book round after her mother as she went about her housework, asking: ‘Please, Mother, what does h-o-u-s-e spell?’ or ‘W-a-l-k, Mother, what is that?’ Often when her mother was too busy or too irritated to attend to her, she would sit and gaze on a page that might as well have been printed in Hebrew for all she could make of it, frowning and poring over the print as though she would wring out the meaning by force of concentration.
After weeks of this, there came a day when, quite suddenly, as it seemed to her, the printed characters took on a meaning. There were still many words, even in the first pages of that simple primer, she could not decipher; but she could skip those and yet make sense of the whole. ‘I’m reading! I’m reading!’ she cried aloud. ‘Oh, Mother! Oh, Edmund! I’m reading!’
There were not many books in the house, although in this respect the family was better off than its neighbours; for, in addition to ‘Father’s books’, mostly unreadable as yet, and Mother’s Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, there were a few children’s books which the Johnstones had turned out from their nursery when they left the neighbourhood. So, in time, she was able to read Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, The Daisy Chain, and Mrs. Molesworth’s Cuckoo Clock and Carrots.
As she was seldom seen without an open book in her hand, it was not long before the neighbours knew she could read. They did not approve of this at all. None of their children had learned to read before they went to school, and then only under compulsion, and they thought that Laura, by doing so, had stolen a march on them. So they attacked her mother about it, her father conveniently being away. ‘He’d no business to teach the child himself,’ they said. ‘Schools be the places for teaching, and you’ll likely get wrong for him doing it when governess finds out.’ Others, more kindly disposed, said Laura was trying her eyes and begged her mother to put an end to her studies; but, as fast as one book was hidden away from her, she found another, for anything in print drew her eyes as a magnet draws steel.
Edmund did not learn to read quite so early; but when he did, he learned more thoroughly. No skipping unknown words for him and guessing what they meant by the context; he mastered every page before he turned over, and his mother was more patient with his inquiries, for Edmund was her darling.
If the two children could have gone on as they were doing, and have had access to suitable books as they advanced, they would probably have learnt more than they did during their brief schooldays. But that happy time of discovery did not last. A woman, the frequent absences from school of whose child had brought the dreaded Attendance Officer to her door, informed him of the end house scandal, and he went there and threatened Laura’s mother with all manner of penalties if Laura was not in school at nine o’clock the next Monday morning.
So there was to be no Oxford or Cambridge for Edmund. No school other than the National School for either. They would have to pick up what learning they could like chickens pecking for grain — a little at school, more from books, and some by dipping into the store of others.
Sometimes, later, when they read about children whose lives were very different from their own, children who had nurseries with rocking-horses and went to parties and for sea-side holidays and were encouraged to do and praised for doing just those things they themselves were thought odd for, they wondered why they had alighted at birth upon such an unpromising spot as Lark Rise.
That was indoors. Outside there was plenty to see and hear and learn, for the hamlet people were interesting, and almost every one of them interesting in some different way to the others, and to Laura the old people were the most interesting of all, for they told her about the old times and could sing old songs and remember old customs, although they could never remember enough to satisfy her. She sometimes wished she could make the earth and stones speak and tell her about all the dead people who had trodden upon them. She was fond of collecting stones of all shapes and colours, and for years played with the idea that, one day, she would touch a secret spring and a stone would fly open and reveal a parchment which would tell her exactly what the world was like when it was written and placed there.
There were no bought pleasures, and, if there had been, there was no money to pay for them; but there were the sights, sounds and scents of the different seasons: spring with its fields of young wheat-blades bending in the wind as the cloud-shadows swept over them; summer with its ripening grain and its flowers and fruit and its thunderstorms, and how the thunder growled and rattled over that flat land and what boiling, sizzling downpours it brought! With August came the harvest and the fields settled down to the long winter rest, when the snow was often piled high and frozen, so that the buried hedges could be walked over, and strange birds came for crumbs to the cottage doors and hares in search of food left their spoor round the pigsties.
The children at the end house had their own private amusements, such as guarding the clump of white violets they found blooming in a cleft of the brook bank and called their ‘holy secret’, or pretending the scabious, which bloomed in abundance there, had fallen in a shower from the mid-summer sky, which was exactly the same dim, dreamy blue. Another favourite game was to creep silently up behind birds which had perched on a rail or twig and try to touch their tails. Laura once succeeded in this, but she was alone at the time and nobody believed she had done it.
A little later, remembering man’s earthy origin, ‘dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return’, they liked to fancy themselves bubbles of earth. When alone in the fields, with no one to see them, they would hop, skip and jump, touching the ground as lightly as possible and crying ‘We are bubbles of earth! Bubbles of earth! Bubbles of earth!’
But although they had these private fancies, unknown to their elders, they did not grow into the ultra-sensitive, misunderstood, and thwarted adolescents who, according to present-day writers, were a feature of that era. Perhaps, being of mixed birth with a large proportion of peasant blood in them, they were tougher in fibre than some. When their bottoms were soundly smacked, as they often were, their reaction was to make a mental note not to repeat the offence which had caused the smacking, rather than to lay up for themselves complexes to spoil their later lives; and when Laura, at about twelve years old, stumbled into a rickyard where a bull was in the act of justifying its existence, the sight did not warp her nature. She neither peeped from behind a rick, nor fled, horrified, across country; but merely thought in her old-fashioned way, ‘Dear me! I had better slip quietly away before the men see me.’ The bull to her was but a bull performing a necessary function if there was to be butter on the bread and bread and milk for breakfast, and she thought it quite natural that the men in attendance at such functions should prefer not to have women or little girls as spectators. They would have felt, as they would have said, ‘a bit okkard’. So she just withdrew and went another way round without so much as a kink in her subconscious.
From the time the two children began school they were merged in the hamlet life, sharing the work and play and mischief of their younger companions and taking harsh or kind words from their elders according to circumstances. Yet, although they shared in the pleasures, limitations, and hardships of the hamlet, some peculiarity of mental outlook prevented them from accepting everything that existed or happened there as a matter of course, as the other children did. Small things which passed unnoticed by others interested, delighted, or saddened them. Nothing that took place around them went unnoted; words spoken and forgotten the next moment by the speaker were recorded in their memories, and the actions and reactions of others were impressed on their minds, until a clear, indelible impression of their little world remained with them for life.
Their own lives were to carry them far from the hamlet. Edmund’s to South Africa, India, Canada, and, lastly, to his soldier’s grave in Belgium. Their credentials presented, they will only appear in this book as observers of and commentators upon the country scene of their birth and early years.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00