Occasionally, during school hours, something exciting would happen. Once a year the German band came and the children were marched out into the playground to listen. The bandsmen gave of their best at the school, for the mistress not only put a whole shilling in the collecting cap, but gave it with smiles and thanks and told the children to clap, and they clapped heartily, as they would have clapped anything which brought them out into the sunshine for a few minutes. When their shilling programme was finished, before playing ‘God Save the Queen,’ the leader asked in his broken English if there was anything special ‘the gracious lady’ would like them to play. ‘Home, Sweet Home’ was the usual choice, but, one year, the mistress asked for ‘When the Dewy Light was Fading’, a Sankey and Moody hymn which had just then taken the neighbourhood by storm. When the musician shook his head and said, ‘Sorry, not know,’ his reputation went down considerably.
Once a grand funeral procession passed and the mistress told the children they might go out and watch it. It might be their last opportunity of seeing such a procession, she said, for times were changing and such deep, very deep mourning was becoming out of date.
It was the time of year when the buttercups were out on the road-margins and the hedges were white with may, and between them, at a snail’s pace, came swaying a huge black hearse, draped with black velvet and surmounted at the four corners with bunches of black ostrich plumes. It was drawn by four coal-black horses with long, flowing tails, and driven and attended by undertaker’s men with melancholy faces and with long black crape streamers floating from their top hats. Behind it came carriage after carriage of mourners, spaced out to make the procession as long as possible, and every carriage was drawn by its own black horse.
It passed slowly between the rows of open-mouthed, wondering children. There was plenty of time to look at it; but to Laura it did not seem real. Against the earth’s spring loveliness the heavy black procession looked dream-like, like a great black shadow, Laura thought. And, in spite of the lavish display of mourning, it did not touch her as the country funerals did with their farm-wagon hearse and few poor, walking mourners crying into their handkerchiefs.
But she was so much impressed that she unintentionally started a rumour by saying that she thought such a grand funeral must be that of an earl. There was an aged nobleman living in the neighbourhood whose time must soon come in the course of Nature, and her ‘an earl’ became ‘the earl’ before it had been many times repeated. Fortunately for Laura, the schoolmistress heard this and corrected it by telling the children that it was the funeral of a farmer whose family had formerly lived in the parish and had a family burying place in the churchyard. Such a man would now be carried to his last resting-place in one of his own farm wagons and be followed by his near relatives in a couple of cars.
Then there was the day of the General Election, when little school work was done because the children could hear bands of voters passing beneath the school windows and shouts of ‘Maclean! Maclean for Freedom! Maclean! Maclean! He be the boy for the farm labourer!’ and they wished their schoolroom had been chosen for the polling station instead of the schoolroom in the next village. There was an uneasy feeling, too, because they knew their fathers were voting Liberal, and the mistress was wearing a bright blue rosette, the Conservative colour, which proclaimed her one with the Rectory and the Manor House, and against the villagers. The children were forbidden to wear the deep crimson which stood for the Liberal cause, but most of them carried a scrap of red in their pockets to wear going home and two or three of the more daring girls sported a red hair ribbon. The mistress was at liberty, too, to look out of the window, which they were not, and she made the most of this advantage, tiptoeing to open or shut it or arrange the blind whenever voices were heard. On one of these occasions she looked round at her scholars and said: ‘Here, now, are two respectable men going quietly to vote; and as you may guess they are voting for law and order. It’s a pity more in this parish are not like Mr. Price and Mr. Hickman’ (the parson’s factotum and the squire’s gardener). At that, faces flared up and mouths grew sulky-looking, for the more intelligent took it as a reflection on their own fathers; but all such resentment was wiped out when she said at three o’clock: ‘I think we had better dismiss now. You had better get home early, as it is Election Day.’ Although it was a pity she added ‘there may be drunken men about’.
But the most memorable day for Laura was that on which the Bishop came to consecrate an extension of the churchyard and walked round it in his big lawn sleeves, with a cross carried before him and a book in his hands, and the clergy of the district following. The schoolchildren, wearing their best clothes, were drawn up to watch. ‘It makes a nice change from school,’ somebody said, but to Laura the ceremony was but a prelude.
For some reason she had lingered after the other children had gone home, and the schoolmistress, who, after all, had not been invited to the Rectory to tea as she had hoped, took her round the church and told her all she knew of its history and architecture, then took her home to tea.
A small, two-roomed cottage adjoining the school was provided for the schoolmistress, and this the school managers had furnished in the manner, they thought suitable for one of her degree. ‘Very comfortable,’ they had stated in their advertisement; but to a new tenant it must have looked bare. The downstairs room had a deal table for meals, four cane-bottomed chairs of the type until recently seen in bedrooms, a white marble-topped sideboard stood for luxury and a wicker armchair by the hearth for comfort. The tiled floor was partly covered with brown matting.
But Miss Shepherd was ‘artistic’ and by the time Laura saw the room a transformation had taken place. A green art serge cloth with bobble fringe hid the nakedness of the deal centre table; the backs of the cane chairs were draped with white crocheted lace, tied with blue bows, and the wicker chair was cushioned and antimacassared. The walls were so crowded with pictures, photographs, Japanese fans, wool-work letter-racks, hanging pincushions, and other trophies of the present tenant’s skill that, as the children used to say: ‘You couldn’t so much as stick a pin in.’
‘Don’t you think I’ve made it nice and cosy, dear?’ said Miss Shepherd, after Laura had been shown and duly admired each specimen of her handiwork, and Laura agreed heartily, for it seemed to her the very height of elegance.
It was her first invitation to grown-up tea, with biscuits and jam — not spread on her bread for her, as at home, but spooned on to her plate by herself and spread exactly as she had seen her father spread his. After tea, Miss Shepherd played the harmonium and showed Laura her photographs and books, finally presenting her with one called Ministering Children and walking part of the way home with her. How thrilled Laura was when, at their parting, she said: ‘Well, I think we have had quite a nice little time, after all, Laura.’
But, at the time of that tea-drinking, Laura must have been eleven or twelve, one of Miss Shepherd’s ‘big girls’ and no longer an object of persecution. By that time the play was becoming less rough and bullying rarer, for the older children of her early schooldays had left school and none who came after were quite so belligerent. Civilization was beginning to tame them.
But, even in her earlier days, her life was easier after Edmund began school, for he was better-liked than she was; moreover, he could fight, and, unlike most of the other boys, he was not ashamed to be seen with his sister.
Often, on their way to school, Laura and he would take a field path which led part of the way by a brook backed by a pinewood where wood-pigeons cooed. By leaping the little stream, they could visit ‘the graves’. These were two, side by side, in the deepest shade of the pines, and the headstones said: ‘In Memory of Rufus’ and ‘In Memory of Bess’. They both knew very well that Rufus and Bess had been favourite hunters of a former owner of the estate; but they preferred to think of them as human beings — lovers, perhaps, who in life had been used to meet in that deep, mysterious gloom.
On other days they would scramble down the bank of the brook to pick watercress or forget-me-nots, or to build a dam, or to fish for minnows with their fingers. But, very often, they would pass along the bank without seeing anything, they would be so busy discussing some book they had read. They were voracious readers, although their books were few and not selected, but came to them by chance. There were the books from the school library, which, though better than nothing to read, made little impression upon them, for they were all of the goody-goody, Sunday-school prize type. But their father had a few books and others were lent to them, and amongst these were a few of the Waverley Novels. The Bride of Lammermoor was one of the first books Laura read with absorbed interest. She adored the Master of Ravenswood, his dark, haughty beauty, his flowing cloak and his sword, his ruined castle, set high on its crag by the sea, and his faithful servant Caleb and the amusing shifts he made to conceal his master’s poverty. She read and reread The Bride and dipped into it betweenwhiles, until the heathery hills and moors of Scotland became as real to her as her fiat native fields, and the lords and ladies and soldiers and witches and old retainers as familiar as the sober labouring people who were her actual neighbours.
At seven years old The Bride made such an impression upon her that she communicated her excitement to Edmund, himself as yet unable to read, and one night in their mother’s bedroom they enacted the scene in the bridal chamber; Edmund insisting that he should be Lucy and Laura the bridegroom, although she had told him that a bridegroom was usually one of his own sex.
‘Take up your bonny bridegroom!’ he cried, so realistically that their mother came running upstairs thinking he was in pain. She found Laura. crouching on the floor in her nightdress while Edmund stood over her with a dagger which looked very much like his father’s two-foot rule. No wonder she said, ‘Whatever will you two be up to next!’ and took The Bride of Lammermoor away and hid it.
Then a neighbour who had bought a bundle of old books for a few pence at a sale lent them Old Saint Paul’s, and the outhouse door was soon chalked with a cross and the wheelbarrow trundled round the garden to the cry of ‘Bring out your dead!’
Between the ages of seven and ten, Laura became such a confirmed reader that, when other books failed, she would read her father’s dictionary, until this disappeared because her mother thought the small print was bad for her eyes. There was still the Bible, which could not be forbidden, and she spent many an hour over that, delighting in the Old Testament stories of the Pillar of Fire, and of Ruth and Esther and Samuel and David, and of Jonah and the whale, or learning by heart the parables in the New Testament to repeat at Sunday School. At one time she had a passion for the Psalms, not so much from religious fervour as from sheer delight in the language. She felt these ought to be read aloud, and, as she dare not read them aloud herself, lest she should be overheard, she would persuade Edmund or some other child to read them with her, verse and verse about.
Once, when Edmund was upstairs in bed with measles and her mother was out, she and another girl were having a fine time imitating the parson and clerk reading the Psalms in church, when Edmund, who could hear all that was going on downstairs, called out to ask whose Bible Alice was using. She was using his and when Edmund had his suspicions confirmed he was so enraged that he dashed downstairs in his nightshirt and chased Alice all down the garden to the gate. If his mother could have seen him out of doors with his spots, in his nightshirt, brandishing his Bible and threatening the retreating Alice, she would have been horrified, for measles patients were then told that they must not put so much as a hand out of bed or the spots would ‘go inward’ and the simple measles would turn to black measles, when they would probably die. But no one saw him and he returned to his bed, apparently not a ha’penny the worse for his airing.
A little later, Scott’s poems came into their lives and Edmund would swing along the field path to school reciting ‘The way was long, the night was cold’, or stop to strike an attitude and declaim,
Come one, come all! this rock shall fly
From its stern base as soon as I,
or wave Laura on with ‘Charge, Chester, charge! On, Stanley, on!’ At that time their conversation when alone together was tinged with the language of their favourite romances. Sometimes Edmund would amuse his sister and himself by translating, when a battered old zinc bucket became ‘ye antique pail’, or a tree slightly damaged by the wind ‘yon lightning-blasted pine’, while some good neighbour of theirs whom they could see working in the fields would have given Edmund what he would have called ‘a darned good bommicking’ if he had heard himself referred to as ‘yon caitiff hind’.
Sometimes they tried their hand at writing a little verse themselves. Laura was guilty of a terrible moral story in rhyme about a good child who gave his birthday sixpence to a beggar, and Edmund wrote a poem about sliding on the ice with the refrain ‘Slide, glide, glide, slide, over the slippery pond’. Laura liked that one and used to sing it. She also sang one of her own, beginning, ‘The snowdrop comes in winter cold’, which ran, with a stanza for every flower, through the seasons, and to which she added yet another stanza every time she saw or remembered a flower hitherto neglected. One day her mother asked her what that ‘unked thing’ she was trying to sing was about, and, in an unguarded moment, she brought out the scraps of paper on which it was written. She did not scold or even laugh at her folly; but Laura could feel that she was not pleased, and, later that evening, she lectured her soundly on her needlework. ‘You can’t afford to waste your time,’ she said. ‘Here you are, eleven years old, and just look at this seam!’
Laura looked; then turned away her face to hide her confusion. She did try to sew well; but, however hard she tried, her cotton would knot and her material pucker. She was supposed to be making stays for herself from narrow strips of calico left over from cutting out larger things, which, when finished with buttons and shoulder straps would make a lasting and comfortable garment. Laura always wore such stays; but not of her own making. If she had ever finished those she was working on, they would, by that time, have been too small to go round her. She saw them thirty years later in an old trunk of oddments with the strips puckered and the needle rusted into the material half way up a seam, and remembered then the happy evening when her mother told her to put it aside and get on with her knitting.
By the eighteen-eighties the fine sewing of the beginning of the century was a lost art. Little children of six were no longer kept indoors to work samplers, whip cambric frills or stitch seams with stitches so tiny that a microscope was needed to examine them. Better uses had been found for young eyesight. But plain sewing was still looked upon as an important part of a girl’s education, both at school and at home, for it was expected that for the rest of her life any ordinary girl would have at least to make her own underclothes. Ready-made clothes were beginning to appear in the shops, but those such as working people were able to buy were coarse, ugly, and of inferior quality. Calico stiffened with dressing which would all come out in the wash and leave the material like butter muslin, edging which looked like notched tape, and all put together with the proverbial hot needle and burning thread, tempted few people with self-respect to give up making their own underclothes.
If those who gave up outdoor pleasure and worked so busily in order that they might, as they said, know that all was good ‘right to the skin’ could have seen in a vision the lovely garments made of rayon and other materials of today, sold at less than their lengths of material cost, and all ready to step into, they would have thought the millennium was approaching.
But perhaps not. They might have thought the material too insubstantial to ‘stand the wash’ and so filmy it might show the figure through. Their taste ran to plenty of trimming; lace and insertion and feather-stitching on under-garments, flounces on frocks and an erection of ribbon and artificial flowers on hats. Laura’s mother showed an almost revolutionary taste when she said: ‘I don’t care so much for an important-looking hat. I like something small and natty. But,’ she would add apologetically to her listener, ‘that may be because my face is small. I couldn’t carry anything off like you can.’
The masterpiece of fashion during Laura’s schooldays was what was known as the kilted frock. The skirt of this, over a pleated bottom part, had a kind of apron of the same material drawn up in folds round the hips and bunched out behind. It was a long time before any one in the hamlet possessed a kilted frock, but they were seen in church, and the girls in service came home for their holidays in them; then, as the fashion waned in the outer world, they began to arrive, either as gifts, or as copies of gifts made by some village dressmaker. And, with them, came the story that some great Parisian dress designer had invented the style after seeing a fisherwoman on the beach with her frock drawn up over her kilted petticoat, just in that manner. ‘It’s a corker to me how the de’il these ‘oomen get to know such things,’ said the men.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00