After a decent interval, during which everybody tried to talk as though nothing had happened, the two children with their mother set out to follow their father to Aunt Ann’s, Laura dragging behind a little, for the sun was hot and she was tired and not sure that she liked Candleford.
She soon cheered up; there was so much to see. Houses, houses all the way, not rows of houses, all alike, like peas in a pod, but big and little, tall and low, with old grey walls between with broken bottle-glass on the coping and fruit trees waving in gardens behind, and queer door-knockers and little shed-like porches, and people walking in their thin best shoes on the cobblestones with bunches of flowers, or prayerbooks, or beer jugs in their hands.
Once, at a turning, they caught a glimpse of a narrow lane of poor houses with ragged washing slung on lines between windows and children sitting on doorsteps. ‘Is that a slum, Mother?’ asked Laura, for she recognized some of the features described in the Sunday-school stories.
‘Of course not,’ said her mother crossly; then, after they had passed the turning: ‘Don’t speak so loud. Somebody might hear you and not like it. Folks who live in slums don’t call them that. They’re used to it and it seems all right to them. And why should you worry about things like that. You’d do better to mind your own business.’
Her own business! Wasn’t it her business to be sorry for people who lived in slums and had no food or bed and a drunken father, or a landlord ready to turn them out in the snow. Hadn’t her mother herself nearly cried when she read Froggy’s Little Brother aloud to them? Laura could have cried then, in the middle of Candleford, at the thought of the time when Froggy took home the bloater as a treat and his poor little brother was too ill to eat any.
But they had come to a place where they could see green fields and a winding river with willows beside it. Facing them with its back to the fields was a row of shops, the last in the town on that side, and in the window of the shop they were approaching was nothing but one lady’s top boot, beautifully polished and standing on an amber velvet cushion with an amber velvet curtain behind it. Above the window was a notice, unreadable to Laura then, but read by her many times afterwards, which said: ‘Ladies’ boots and shoes made to order. Best Materials. Perfect Workmanship. Fit Guaranteed. Ladies’ Hunting Boots a Speciality.’
Their Uncle Tom had what was at that time called ‘a snug little business’. It was a common thing then for people of all classes, excepting the very poorest, to have their footwear made to measure. In a large workshop across the yard at the back of the house and shop, workmen and apprentices scraped and hammered and sewed all day, making and mending. Uncle Tom’s own workshop was a back room of the house, with a door opening out on to the yard, across which he came and went dozens of times a day to and from the main workshop. He made the hunting boots there and sewed the uppers of the more delicate makes, and there he fitted the customers, excepting the hunting ladies, who tried their boots on in the best parlour, Uncle Tom kneeling on the carpet before them like a courtier before a queen.
But all this Laura found out afterwards. On that first visit the front door flew open before they had reached it and they were surrounded by cousins and kissed and hugged and led to where Aunt Ann stood in the doorway.
Laura had never known any one like her Aunt Ann. The neighbours at home were kind in their rough way, but they were so bent on doing their best for themselves and those belonging to them that, excepting in times of illness or trouble, they had little feeling to spare for others. Her mother was kind and sensible and loved her children dearly, but she did not believe in showing too much tenderness towards them or in ‘giving herself away’ to the world at large. Aunt Ann gave herself away with every breath she drew. No one who heard her gentle voice or looked into her fine dark eyes could doubt her loving nature. Her husband laughed at what he called her ‘softness’ and said that customers calling in a great rage to complain that their shoes had not been delivered to time had stayed to tell the full story of their lives. For her own children she had sweet, pet names, and Edmund was soon her ‘little lover’ and Laura her ‘Pussikins’. Except for her eyes and the dark, satiny hair which rippled in waves flat to her head, she was a plain-looking woman, pale and thin of face and of figure so flat that, with her hair parted in the middle and in the long, straight frocks she wore, she reminded Laura of Mrs. Noah in the toy ark she had given Edmund at Christmas. That impression, a bony embrace, and a soft, warm kiss were all Laura had time for before she was borne on a stream of cousins straight through the house to an arbour in the garden where her father and uncle sat with a jug and glasses on a table between them and their pipes in their mouths. They were talking amiably together, although, only that morning, her father had spoken of her uncle as ‘a snob’ and her mother had protested, ‘But he’s not a common cobbler, Bob. He’s a master man, and he makes more than he mends.’
If Laura’s Uncle Tom was a snob by trade, there was nothing else snobbish about him, for he was one of the most liberal-minded men she was ever to know and one of the wisest. He was a Liberal in politics, too, and no doubt that accounted for her father’s air of friendliness and ease. They were settling the Irish question, for the old familiar catchwords caught her ear, and it was rather an absent-minded uncle who stroked her hair and told the girls to take her to play in the orchard, but not to let the little boy go tumbling in the river, or their mother would have all those cakes she had been making left on her hands.
The orchard consisted of about a score of old apple and plum trees on a square of rough grass at the bottom of the garden, beyond which ran the small, sluggish stream, half choked with rushes and bordered with willows. Laura, who had felt so tired before, suddenly felt tired no more, but ran and shouted and played ‘tig’ with the others around the tree trunks. The apple blossom was nearly over and the petals were falling and they all tried to catch a petal or two because one of the cousins said that for every petal they caught they would have a happy month. Then there were small green gooseberries to crunch and forget-me-nots to pick. Laura filled her hands with these and carried them about until they drooped and had to be thrown into the river.
Gradually, she became able to distinguish between the new faces and to discover the name for each. There was Molly, the eldest, a motherly little person with a plump, soft figure, red-gold hair, and freckles on the bridge of her nose. Annie had reddish hair, too, but was smaller than Molly and had no freckles. Nelly was dark, quick in her movements, and said things that made people laugh. ‘Sharp as a needle,’ said Laura’s father afterwards. Amy, the youngest girl, was Laura’s own age. She had a red bow on her dark curls, but Laura did not need to look at the bow, except to admire it, because Amy was smaller than the others.
Johnny was the youngest of all, but by far the most important, for he was a boy, and a boy who came at the end of a long string of girls. Johnny must have anything he wanted, no matter to whom it belonged. If Johnny fell down, he must be picked up and comforted, and around Johnny, when he approached the river, red heads and dark heads drew to form a bodyguard. Rather a baby, thought Laura, although the same age as Edmund, who needed no attention at all, but went and stood on the bank and threw down twigs to float and called them ships; then ran, throwing up his heels like a young colt and lay on his back in the grass with his legs sticking up.
A shabby old flat-bottomed boat was moored beneath the bank, and when they were tired of their play, some one suggested that they should go and sit in it. ‘But may we?’ asked Laura, rather nervously, for it was the first boat she had seen outside a picture-book, and the water looked deep and wide to her, after the brook at home. But Edmund was more enterprising; he slid down the bank into the boat at once, crying: ‘Come on! Hurry up! Our ship’s just starting to Australia!’ So, with the little boys holding an oar each and pretending to row, and the girls packed into the stern, well out of the way of chance knocks with the oars, and the willow leaves silvery against the blue sky, and the air flavoured with mint and the raw dankness of water weeds, they set out on their imaginary voyage. And, all the time, there was that stout, strong rope holding the boat safely to shore. All the joys of adventure without its perils.
When discussing the family afterwards, Laura’s mother said Molly was a little woman, ‘a regular second mother to the younger ones’, and her own mother must have trusted her, for the children were left to themselves the whole of that afternoon. Or it may have been that the father and uncle had so much to settle about Ireland and the mother and aunt were so busy indoors inspecting wardrobes and discussing family affairs.
The children, too, had plenty to discuss. ‘Can you read?’ ‘When are you going to school?’ ‘What’s Lark Rise like?’ ‘Only a few houses — all fields?’ ‘Where do you buy things if there are no shops?’ ‘Do you like Molly’s hair? Most people hate red and they call her “ginger” at school; but Mr. Collier, that’s our Vicar, says it’s lovely, and a customer told Mother that if she liked to have it cut off she could sell it for pounds and pounds. Some ladies would pay anything to have it to put on their own heads. Yes, didn’t you know that some people wear false hair? Aunt Edith has a switch? I’ve seen it, hanging on her dressing table in the morning; that’s what makes her hair bunch out so at the back.’ ‘And your hair’s nice, too, Laura,’ said Molly generously, picking out Laura’s best feature. ‘I like the way it runs like water all down your back.’
‘My mother can sit on her hair when it’s down,’ boasted Laura, and the cousins were impressed, for a great deal was thought of quantity in those days, of hair as of other things.
All the girls were going to school in the town as yet, but soon Molly and Nellie were to go to Miss Bussell’s for a year each to be ‘finished’. When, later, Laura asked her father if Johnny would go to Miss Bussell’s, too, he laughed and said, ‘Of course not. It’s a girls’ school. For the daughters of gentlemen, says the brass plate on the door, and that means for the daughters of a chimney sweep, if he can afford to pay.’
‘Then where will Johnny go?’ she persisted, and her father said, ‘Eton, I s’pose,’ which rather alarmed Laura because she thought he had said ‘eaten’. She was relieved when he added, ‘But I doubt if that’ll be good enough. They’ll have to build a special school on purpose for Johnny.’
What surprised Laura most as she listened to her cousins that afternoon was that they spoke of school as if they liked it. The hamlet children hated school. It was prison to them, and from the very beginning they counted the years until they would be able to leave. But Molly and Nellie and Amy said school was great fun. Annie did not like it so much.
‘A-h-h! Who’s bottom of her class!’ laughed Nell. But Molly said, ‘Never mind her, Annie. She may be good at lessons, but she can’t sew for nuts, and you’re going to get the needlework prize with that baby’s frock you’re making. Ask her what Miss Pridham said when she examined her herring-boning.’
Then a voice from the upper garden called them in to tea. Just the kind of tea Laura liked, bread and butter and jam and a cake and some little cakes, a little more of everything than they had at home, but not the rich, bewildering abundance of the ‘refreshments’.
She liked her cousins’ house, too. It was old, with little flights of steps going up or down in unexpected places. Aunt Ann’s parlour had a piano across one corner and a soft green carpet the colour of faded moss. The windows were wide open and there was a delicious scent of wallflowers and tea and cake and cobbler’s wax. They had tea out of the silver teapot at the large round table in the parlour that day. Afterwards, they always had tea in the kitchen, much the nicest room in the house, with its two windows with window seats and brass warming pans and candlesticks and strips of red-and-blue striped matting on the stone floor.
That day, because they were having tea in the parlour, there was not room at the table for all, and Edmund and Johnny were seated at a side table with their backs to the wall, so that their respective mothers could keep an eye on them. But there was still so much talking going on among the elders that the little boys were forgotten until Johnny asked for more cake. When his mother handed him a slice he said it was too large, and, when halved, too small, and, finally, left the portion he had accepted in crumbs upon his plate, which shocked Edmund and Laura, who, at home, had to eat whatever was put upon their plates, and ‘no leavings allowed’.
‘Spoilt to death, regularly spoilt’ was their mother’s verdict when Johnny was spoken of afterwards, and perhaps at that time he was spoilt. He could scarcely escape spoiling, being the only and long-desired boy, coming after so many girls and then turning out to be the only delicate one of the family. He was young for his age and slow in developing; but there was fine stuff in Johnny. As a young man he was deeply religious, a non-smoker, a non-drinker and a non-cardplayer, and served the altar set up on many a battlefield during the 1914–18 War, and all this needed character in the atmosphere of Army life.
That Sunday afternoon Laura saw only a little boy with a pale, freckled face and thin fair hair. A spoilt child, of whom even his parents looked a little ashamed. But, in after years, she also saw Johnny as a sick soldier shut up in Kut, emaciated by illness and hunger and tormented by heat and flies; and that same soldier, once the adored little boy with his bodyguard of sisters, thrown out bodily after an exchange of sick prisoners with a last kick from his native jailor and a ‘You can have this one for a makeweight. He’s no good’. Or the same Johnny, lying for a whole summer on a long chair in the orchard, fed, every few minutes, as it seemed, with broth, or eggs beaten up in milk, out of teacups, until home and rest and his mother’s nursing had strengthened him sufficiently to pass his Board and be sent to the trenches in France. For, as we grow older, we see in memory not only our friends as they appeared to us as children, but also as they were to become in later years. The first sharp impression remains with us as a picture. Subsequent ones as a chain of episodes in a story, less positive, but more enlightening.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00