After that first visit to Candleford, it became the custom for Laura’s parents to hire the innkeeper’s horse and cart and drive there one Sunday in every summer; and, every summer, on the Sunday of the village feast, their Candleford aunt and uncle and cousins drove over to Lark Rise.
Then, one day when Laura was eleven and Edmund nine years old, their mother astonished them by asking if they thought they could walk over, just the two of them, by themselves. They had often walked to the market town and back, she reminded them. That was six miles and Candleford only eight. But did they think they could be trusted not to stray from the road (‘No going into fields to pick flowers, Laura!’) and would they be sure not to get into conversation with any strangers they might meet on the road, or be persuaded to follow them anywhere? It was their summer holiday from school and their Aunt Ann had written to ask them to spend a week or two with her and their cousins.
Could they manage the walk? What a question! Of course they could, and Edmund began to draw a map of the road to convince her. When could they go? Not before Saturday? What a long time to wait. But she said she must write to their aunt to tell her they were coming, then, perhaps, some of their cousins would walk out to meet them.
Saturday came at last and their mother waved to them from the gate and called out a last injunction not to forget the turnings, and, above all, not have anything to do with strange men. She was evidently thinking of a recent kidnapping case which had been front-page news in the Sunday newspaper; but she need not have been afraid, no criminal was likely to be prowling about those unfrequented byways, and, had there been, the appearance of the two children did not suggest worthwhile victims.
‘For comfort,’ as their mother had said, they both wore soft, old cotton clothes: Laura a green smock which had seen better days but did not look too bad, well washed and ironed, and Edmund an exSunday white sailor suit, disqualified for better wear because the sleeves of the blouse and the legs of the knickers had been let down and the join showed. Both wore what were then known as Zulu hats, plaited of rushes and very wide brimmed, beneath which they must have looked like a couple of walking mushrooms. Most of the things necessary for their stay had been sent on by parcel post, but they still bulged with food packets, presents for the cousins, and coats for themselves in case of rain. Laura had narrowly escaped carrying an umbrella, for, as her mother persuasively said, if there was no rain she could use it as a sunshade; but, at the last minute, she had managed to put this down in a corner and ‘forget’ it.
They left home at seven o’clock on a lovely August morning. The mounting sun drew moisture in a mist from the stooks of corn in the partly stripped harvest fields. By the roadside all the coarse yellow flowers of later summer were out: goat’s beard and lady’s finger, tall thickets of ragwort and all the different hawkbits; the sun shone softly through mist; altogether, it was a golden morning.
A new field had been thrown open for gleaning and, for the first mile, they walked with some of their schoolfellows and their mothers, all very jolly because word had gone round that young Bob Trevor had been on the horse-rake when the field was cleared and had taken good care to leave plenty of good ears behind for the gleaners. ‘If the foreman should come nosing round, he’s going to tell him that the ra-ake’s got a bit out of order and won’t clear the stubble proper. But that corner under the two hedges is for his mother. Nobody else is to leaze there.’ One woman after another came up to Laura and asked in a whisper how her mother was keeping and if she found the hot weather trying. Laura had answered a good many such inquiries lately.
But the gleaners soon trooped through a gate and dispersed over the stubble, hurrying to stake out their claims. Then Edmund and Laura passed the school and entered on less familiar ground. They were out on their first independent adventure and their hearts thrilled to the new sense of freedom. Candleford waited so many miles ahead of them and it was nice to know that supper and a bed were assured to them there; but the pleasure they felt in the prospect of their holiday visit was nothing compared to the joy of the journey. On the whole, they would rather not have known where they were bound for. They would have liked to be genuine explorers, like Livingstone in Africa; but, as their destination had been decided for them, their exploring had to be confined to wayside wonders.
They found plenty of these, for it did not take much to delight them. A streak of clear water spouting from a pipe high up in the hedgerow bank was to them what a cataract might have been to more seasoned travellers; and the wagons they met, with names of strange farmers and farms painted across the front, were as exciting as hearing a strange language. A band of long-tailed tits, flitting from bush to bush, a cow or two looking at them over a wall, and the swallows strung out, twittering, along the telegraph wire, made cheerful and satisfying company. But, apart from these, it was not a lonely road, for men were working in the harvest fields on either side and they passed on the road wagons piled high with sheaves and saw other wagons go clattering, empty, back for other loads. Sometimes one of the wagoners would speak to them and Edmund would answer their ‘An’ where do ‘ee s’pose you be off to, young shaver?’ with ‘We are going over to Candleford’; and they would both smile, as expected, when they were told, ‘Keep puttin’ one foot in front o’ t’other an’ you’ll be there before dark.’
One exciting moment was when they passed through a village with a shop and went in boldly and bought a bottle of gingerade to wash down their sandwiches. It cost twopence and when they were told they must pay a halfpenny on the bottle they hesitated. But, remembering in time that they each had a whole shilling to spend, more than they had ever had at one time in their lives before, they paid up, like millionaires, and also invested in a stick of pink and white rock each, and, with one end wrapped in paper to keep it from sticking to their fingers, went off down the road sucking.
But eight miles is a long walk for little feet in hot August weather, and the sun scorched their backs and the dust made their eyes smart and their feet ached and their tempers became uncertain. The tension between them reached breaking point when they met a herd of milking cows, ambling peacefully, but filling the narrow road, and Laura ran back and climbed over a gate, leaving Edmund to face them alone. Afterwards, he called her a coward, and she thought she would not speak to him for a long time. But, like most of her attempted sulks, it did not last, for she could not bear to be on bad terms with any one. Not from generosity of heart, for she often did not really forgive a real or imagined injury, but because she so much wanted to be liked that she would sometimes apologize when she knew the fault had not been hers.
Edmund was of a quite different nature. What he said he held to, like a rock. But then he did not say hasty, thoughtless things: what he said he meant and if any one was hurt by it, well, they were hurt. That did not change the truth, as he saw it. When he told Laura she was a coward he had not meant it unkindly; he was simply stating a fact and there was more of sorrow than of anger in his tone. And Laura only minded what he said so much because she was afraid it was true. If he had said she was stupid or greedy, she would only have laughed, because she knew she was neither.
Fortunately, soon after this, they saw what must have looked like a girls’ school out for a walk advancing between the hedgerows to meet them. It was a relief party, consisting of the cousins and as many of their school friends as they could muster, with a large tin can of lemonade and some cakes in a basket. They all flopped down beside a little brook which crossed the road at that point and the girls fanned themselves with bunches of willowherb and took off their shoes to search for stones, then dipped their toes in the water, and, before long, the whole party was paddling and splashing, which astonished Laura, who had always been told it would ‘give anybody their death’ to put the feet in cold water.
After that, it did not seem long before Candleford was reached and the travellers were being welcomed and made much of. ‘They’ve walked! They’ve walked the whole way!’ called their aunt to a friend who happened to be passing her door, and the friend turned and said, ‘Regular young travellers, aren’t they?’ which made them again feel like the explorers they admired.
Then there was tea and a bath and bed, though not to sleep for a long time, for Laura had a bed in her two middle cousins’ room and they talked a great deal. Talking in bed was a novelty to her, for it would not have been permitted at home. In her cousins’ home there was more liberty. That night, once or twice one of their parents called upstairs telling them to be quiet and let poor little Laura get to sleep; but the talking went on, a little more quietly, until long after they heard the front door bolt shot and the window sashes in the lower rooms pushed up. What do little girls talk about when they are alone together? If we could remember that, we should understand the younger generation better than we do. All Laura could remember was that that particular conversation began with a cousin saying, ‘Now, Laura, we want to know all about you,’ and that in the course of it one of them asked her: ‘Do you like boys?’
When she said, ‘I like Edmund,’ they laughed and she was told: ‘I mean boys, not brothers.’
Laura thought at first they meant sweethearts and grew very hot and shy; but, no, she soon found they just simply meant boys to play with. She found afterwards that the boys they knew talked to them freely and let them join in their games, which surprised her, for the boys at home despised girls and were ashamed to be seen talking to one. The hamlet mothers encouraged this feeling. They taught their boys to look down upon girls as inferior beings; while a girl who showed any disposition to make friends of, or play games with, the boys was ‘a tomboy’ at best, or at worst ‘a fast, forward young hussy’. Now she had come to a world where boys and girls mixed freely. Their mothers even gave parties to which both were invited; and the boys were told to give up things to the girls, not the girls to the boys —‘Ladies first, Willie!’ How queer it sounded!
Candleford was but a small town and their cousins’ home was on the outskirts. To children from a city theirs would have been a country holiday. to Laura it was both town and country and in that lay part of its charm. It was thrilling, after being used to walking miles to buy a reel of cotton or a packet of tea, to be able to dash out without a hat to fetch something from a shop for her aunt, and still more thrilling to spend whole sunny mornings gazing into shop windows with her cousins. There were marvellous things in the Candleford shops, such as the wax lady dressed in the height of fashion, with one of the new bustles, at the leading drapers; and the jeweller’s window, sparkling with gold and silver and gems, and the toy shops and the sweet shops and, above all, the fishmonger’s where a whole salmon reposed on a bed of green reeds with ice sprinkled over (ice in August! They would never believe it at home), and an aquarium with live goldfish swimming round and round stood near the desk where they took your money.
But it was just as pleasant to take out their tea in the fields (Laura’s first experience of picnics), or to explore the thickets on the river banks, or to sit quietly in the boat and read when all the others were busy. Several times their uncle took them out for a row, right up the stream where it grew narrower and narrower and the banks lower and lower until they seemed to be floating on green fields. In one place they had to pass under a bridge so low that the children had to lie down in the boat and their uncle had to bow down his head between his knees until it almost touched the bottom. Laura did not like that bridge, she was always afraid that the boat would stick half way through and they would never get out again. How lovely it was to glide through the farther arch and see the silvery leaves of the willows against the blue sky and the meadowsweet and willowherb and forget-me-nots!
Her uncle exchanged ‘Good mornings’ and words about the weather with the men working in the fields on the banks, but he did not often address them by name, for they were not close neighbours as the field workers were at home; and the farmers themselves, in this strange place, were not reigning kings, as they were at home, but mere men who lived by farming, for the farms around Candleford were much smaller.
On one of the first days of their holiday they went harvesting in the field of one of their uncle’s customers, their share of the work, after they had dragged a few sheaves to the wagon, being to lie in the shade of the hedge and take care of the beer-cans and dinner baskets of the men, with occasional spells of hide-and-seek round the stocks, or rides for the lucky ones on the top of a piled-up wagon.
They had taken their own lunch, which they ate in the field, but at teatime they were called in by the farmer’s wife to such a tea as Laura had never dreamed of. There were fried ham and eggs, cakes and scones and stewed plums and cream, jam and jelly and junket, and the table spread in a room as large as their whole house at home, with three windows with window seats in a row, and a cool, stone-flagged floor and a chimney corner as large as Laura’s bedroom. No wonder Mr. Partington liked that kitchen so much that his wife, as she told them, could never get him to set foot in the parlour. After he had gone back to the field, Mrs. Partington showed them that room with its green carpet patterned with pink roses, its piano and easy chairs, and let them feel the plush of the upholstery to see how soft and deep it was, and admire the picture of the faithful dog keeping watch on its master’s grave, and the big photograph album which played a little tune when you pressed it.
Then Nellie had to play something on the piano, for no friendly call was then considered complete without some music. People said Nellie played well, but of this Laura was no judge, although she much admired the nimble way in which her hands darted over the keyboard.
Afterwards they straggled home through the dusk with a corncrake whirring and cockchafers and moths hitting their faces, and saw the lights of the town coming out, one by one, like golden flowers, as they entered. There was no scolding for being late. There was stewed fruit on the kitchen table and a rice pudding in the oven, of which those who felt hungry partook, and glasses of milk all round. And, even then, they did not have to go to bed, but went out to help water the garden, and their uncle told them to take off their shoes and stockings, then turned the hose upon them. Wet frocks and petticoats and knicker legs resulted; but their aunt only told them to bundle them all up and put them into the cupboard under the attic stairs. Mrs. Lovegrove was coming to fetch the washing on Monday. It was a surprising household.
Every few days, when they were out in the town, they would call at Aunt Edith’s, at their Aunt Ann’s request, ‘in case she should be hurt, if neglected’. Uncle James would be about his business; the girls were away on a visit, and even Aunt Edith herself would often be out shopping, or at a sewing party, or gone to the dressmaker’s. Then Bertha would take them straight through to her kitchen and give them cups of milk in order to detain them, for although so silent as to be thought simple in the presence of the elders, with the children alone she became talkative. What did Molly, or Nellie, think of so-and-so, which had happened in the town? What was Mr. Snellgrave up to when he fell down those stone steps? ‘Was he a bit tight, think you?’ She had heard, though it wouldn’t do for Master to know, that he called at the ‘Crown’ for his glass every night, and him a sidesman and all. Still, it might, as Molly suggested, have been that the steps were slippery after the shower. But you couldn’t help thinking! And had they heard that her Ladyship up at Bartons was getting up one of these new fancy bazaars? It was to be held in the picture gallery and anybody could go in who cared to pay sixpence; but she expected they’d have to buy something — crocheted shawls and hand-painted plates and pincushions and hair-tidies — all given by the gentry to sell for the heathens. ‘No, not the Candleford heathens. Don’t be cheeky, young Nell. The heathen blacks, who all run naked in foreign parts, like they have the collection for in church on missionary Sundays. I expect the Mis’is will go and your mother and some of you. They say there’s tea going to be sold at sixpence a cup. Robbery, I call it! but there’s them as’d pay as much as a pound only to get their noses inside Bartons, let alone sitting down and drinking tea with the nobs.’
Bertha was not above school gossip, either. She took great interest in children’s squabbles, children’s tea parties and children’s holidays. ‘There, did you ever! — I wonder, now, at that!’ she would ejaculate on hearing the most commonplace tittle-tattle and remember it and comment on it long after the squabble had been made up and the party forgotten by all but her.
In spite of her spreading figure and greying hair, there was something childlike about Bertha. She was excessively submissive before her employers, but, alone with the children, with whom she apparently felt on a level footing, she was boisterous and slangy. Then she was so pleased with little things and so easily persuaded, that she actually seemed unable to make up her mind on any subject until given a lead. She had an impulsive way, too, of telling something, then begging that it might never be repeated. ‘I’ve been and gone and let that blasted old cat out of the bag again,’ she would say, ‘but I know I can trust you. You won’t tell nobody.’
She let a very big cat out of the bag to Laura a year or two later. Laura had gone to the house alone, found her Aunt Edith out, and was sipping the usual cup of milk in the kitchen and paying for it with small talk, when a very pretty young girl came to the back door with a parcel from Aunt Edith’s dressmaker and was introduced to her as ‘our young Elsie’. Elsie could not stay to sit down, but she kissed Bertha affectionately and Bertha waved to her from the doorway as she crossed the yard.
‘What a pretty girl!’ exclaimed Laura. ‘She looks like a robin with those rosy cheeks and all that soft brown hair.’
Bertha looked pleased. ‘Do you see any likeness?’ she asked, drawing up her figure and brushing her hair from her forehead.
Laura could not; but, as it seemed to be expected, she ventured: ‘Well, perhaps the colour of her cheeks . . .’
‘What relation would you take her for?’
‘Niece?’ suggested Laura.
‘Nearer than that. You’ll never guess. But I’ll tell you if you’ll swear finger’s wet, finger dry, never to tell a soul.’
Not particularly interested as yet, but to please her, Laura wetted her finger, dried it on her handkerchief, drew her hand across her throat and swore the required oath; but Bertha, her cheeks redder than ever, only sighed and looked foolish. ‘I’m making a fool of myself again, I know,’ she said at last, ‘but I said I’d tell you, and, now you have sworn, I must. Our young Elsie’s my own child. I gave birth to her myself. I’m her mother, only she never calls me that. She calls our Mum at home Mother and me Bertha, as if I was her sister. Nobody here knows, only the Mis’is, and I expect the Master and your Aunt Ann, though they’ve never either of them mentioned it, even with their eyes, and I know I oughtn’t to be telling you at your age, but you are such a quiet little thing, and you saying she was pretty and all, I felt I must claim her.’
Then she told the whole story, how she had, as she said, made a fool of herself with a soldier when she was thirty and ought to have known better at that age, and how Elsie had been born in the Workhouse and how Aunt Edith, then about to be married, had helped her to send the baby home to her mother and advanced money from her future wages to get herself clothes, and taken her into her new home as a maid.
Laura felt honoured, but also burdened, by such a confidence; until one day, when they were speaking of Bertha, Molly said, ‘Has she told you about Elsie?’ Laura must have looked confused, for her cousin smiled and went on, ‘I see she has. She’s told me and Nellie, too, at different times. Poor old Bertha, she’s so proud of “our young Elsie” she must tell somebody or burst.’
Except for these calls and a formal tea-drinking at Aunt Edith’s once or twice in every holiday, the children spent their time at Aunt Ann’s.
The class to which she and her husband belonged is now extinct. Had Uncle Tom lived in these days, he would probably have been manager of a branch of one of the chain stores, handling machine-made footwear he had not seen until it came from the factory. Earning a good salary, perhaps, but subject to several intermediary ‘superiors’ between himself and the head of the firm and without personal responsibility for, or pride in, the goods he handled: a craftsman turned into a salesman. But his day was still that of the small business man who might work by his own methods at his own rate for his own hours and, afterwards, enjoy the fruits of his labour and skill, both in the way of satisfaction in having turned out good things, and in that of such comforts for himself and his family as his profits could afford. What these profits should be, his customers decided; if he could please them they came again and again and sent others and that meant success. Except his own conscience as a craftsman, he had nothing but his customers to consider. Twice a year he went to Northampton to buy leather, choosing his own and knowing what he chose was good because, owing no merchant a long bill, he was not tied to any and could choose where he would. It was a simple life and one which many might well envy in these days of competition and carking care.
His was a half-way house between the gorgeous establishment of their other uncle and their own humble home. There was nothing pretentious. Far from it, for pretentiousness was the one unpardonable sin in such homes. But there was solid comfort and not too close a scrutiny of every shilling spent. When Aunt Ann wrote out her grocery list, she did not have to cut out and cut out items, as their mother had to do, and they never once heard from her the familiar ‘No, no. It can’t be done’ they were so used to hearing at home.
There were other advantages. Water had not to be drawn up from a well, but came from a bright brass tap over the kitchen sink, and the sink was another novelty; at home the slops were put in a pail which, when full, had to be carried out of doors and emptied on the garden. And the w.c. — a real w.c. — although not actually indoors, was quite near, in a corner of the yard, and reached by a covered pathway. Then there was no big washing-day to fill the house with the steam of suds and leave behind a mass of wet clothes to be dried indoors in bad weather, for a woman came every Monday morning and carried the week’s washing away, and when she brought it back clean at the end of the week she stayed to scrub out the stone-floored kitchen and passage, sluice down the courtyard and clean the windows.
The water was pumped up to a cistern in the roof every morning by the boy who swept out the shop and carried the customers’ parcels and, in between, was supposed to be learning the trade, although, as Uncle Tom told him, he would never make a good snob, his backside was too round — meaning that he would never sit still long enough. Benny was a merry, good-natured lad who performed all kinds of antics and made ridiculous jokes, which the children relished greatly. Sometimes, as a great favour, he would let them take a turn with the pump-handle. But he soon seized it again, for he could not stand still a moment. He would jump on the pump-handle and ride it; or stand on his head, or turn somersaults, or swarm up a water-pipe to an outhouse roof and sit, grimacing like a monkey, on the ridge tiles. He never walked, but progressed by hopping and skipping or galloping like a horse, and all this out of sheer light-heartedness.
Poor Benny! he was then fourteen and had all the play of a lifetime to crowd into a very few years. He was an orphan who had been brought up in the Workhouse, where, as he told the children, ’em ‘udn’t let you speak or laugh or move hardly,’ and the recent release of his high spirits seemed to have intoxicated him.
He did not live in the house, but had been put out to board with an elderly couple, and Aunt Ann was so afraid that they would forget he was a growing boy that she seldom saw him without giving him food. A cup of milk and a doorstep of bread and jam rewarded him for the pumping every morning and he never returned from an errand for her but she put an apple or a bun or a slice of something into his hand. No baking was complete without a turnover of the oddments being made for Benny.
All, excepting the poorest, kept house extravagantly in those days of low prices. Food had to be of the best quality and not only sufficient, but ‘a-plenty’, as they expressed their abundance. ‘Do try to eat this last little morsel. You can surely find room for that and it’s a pity to waste it,’ they would say to each other at table and some one or other would make room for the superfluous plateful; or, if no human accommodation could be found, there were the dogs and cats or a poorer neighbour at hand.
Many of the great eaters grew very stout in later life; but this caused them no uneasiness; they regarded their expanding girth as proper to middle age. Thin people were not admired. However cheerful and energetic they might appear, they were suspected of ‘fretting away their fat’ and warned that they were fast becoming ‘walking miseries’.
Although Laura’s Aunt Ann happened to be exceptionally thin and her uncle was no more than comfortable of figure, the usual abundance existed in their home. There were large, local-grown joints of beef or lamb, roasted in front of the fire to preserve the juices; an abundance of milk and butter and eggs, and cakes and pies made at a huge baking once or twice a week. People used to say then, ‘I’d think no more of doing it than of cracking an egg,’ little dreaming, dear innocents, that eggs one day would be sixpence each. A penny each for eggs round about Christmas was then thought an exorbitant price. For her big sponge cake, a speciality of hers, Aunt Ann would crack half a dozen. The mixture had to be beaten for half an hour and the children were allowed to take turns at her new patent egg-beater with its handle and revolving wheels. Another wonder of her kitchen was the long fish kettle which stood under the dresser. That explained what was meant by ‘a pretty kettle of fish’. Laura had always imagined live fish swimming round and round in a tea kettle.
Before they had been at Candleford a week a letter came from their father to say they had a new little sister, and Laura felt so relieved at this news that she wanted to stand on her head, like Benny. Although no hint had been dropped by her elders, she had known what was about to happen. Edmund had known, too, for several times when they had been alone together he had said anxiously, ‘I hope our mother’s all right.’ Now she was all right and they could fully enjoy their holiday.
Ordinary mothers of that day would put themselves to any inconvenience and employ any subterfuge to prevent their children suspecting the advent of a new arrival. The hint of a stork’s probable visit or the addition of a clause to a child’s prayers asking God to send them a new little brother or sister were devices of a few advanced young parents in more educated circles; but even the most daring of these never thought of telling a child straightforwardly what to expect. Even girls of fifteen were supposed to be deaf and blind at such times and if they accidentally let drop a remark which showed they were aware of the situation they were thought disagreeably ‘knowing’. Laura’s schoolmistress during Bible reading one day became embarrassed over the Annunciation. She had mentioned the period of nine months; then, with blushing cheeks and downcast eyes, said hastily: ‘I think nine months is the time a mother has to pray to God to give her a baby before her prayer is answered.’ Nobody smiled or spoke, but hard, cold eyes looked at her from the front row where her elder pupils sat, eyes which said as plainly as words, ‘You must think we’re a lot of softies.’
After the baby’s arrival, if the younger children of the family asked where it had come from, they were told from under a gooseberry bush, or that the midwife had brought it in her basket, or the doctor in his black bag. Laura’s mother was more sensible than most parents. When asked the question by her children when very small she replied: ‘Wait until you get older. You’re too young to understand, and I’m sure I’m not clever enough to tell you.’ Which perhaps was better than confusing their young minds with textbook talk about pollen and hazel catkins and bird’s eggs, and certainly better than a conversation between a mother and child on the subject which figured in a recent novel. It ran something like this:
‘Mother, where did Auntie Ruth get her baby?’
‘Uncle Ralph and she made it.’
‘Will they make some more?’
‘I don’t think so. Not for some time at any rate. You see, it is a very messy business and frightfully expensive.’
That would not have passed with a generation which knew its Catechism and could repeat firmly: ‘God made me and all the world.’
What impressed Laura most about Candleford, on that first holiday there, was that, every day, there was something new to see or do or find out and new people to see and talk to and new places to visit, and this gave a colour and richness to life to which she was unaccustomed. At home, things went on day after day much in the same manner; the same people, all of whom she knew, did the same things at the same time from weekend to week-end. There you knew that, while you were having your breakfast, you would hear Mrs. Massey clattering by on her pattens to the well, and that Mrs. Watts would have her washing out first on the line and Mrs. Broadway second every Monday morning, and that the fish-hawker would come on Monday and the coalman on Friday and the baker three times a week, and that no one else was likely to come nearer than the turning into the main road.
Of course, there were the changes of the seasons. It was delightful on some sunny morning in February, one of those days which older people called ‘weather-breeders’, to see the hazel catkins plumping out against the blue sky and to smell the first breath of spring in the air. Delightful, too, when spring was nearer, to search the hedgerows for violets, and to see the cowslips and bluebells again and the may, and the fields turning green, then golden. But all these delights you expected; they could not fail, for had not God Himself said that seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, should endure as long as the world lasted? That was His promise when He painted the first rainbow and set it in the sky as a sign.
But at Candleford these things did not seem so important to Laura as they did at home. You had to be alone to enjoy them properly; while games and fun and pretty clothes and delicious food demanded company. For about a week of her visit Laura wished she had been born at Candleford; that she was Aunt Ann’s child and had lots of nice things and was never scolded. Then, as the week or two for which they had been invited drew out to nearly a month, she began to long for her home; to wonder how her garden was looking and what the new baby was like and if her mother had missed her.
The last day of their holiday was wet and one of the cousins suggested they should go and play in the attic, so they went up the bare, steep stairs, Laura and Ann and Amy and the two little boys, while the two elder girls were having a lesson in pastry-making. The attic, Laura found, was a storehouse of old, discarded things, much like the collection Mrs. Herring had stored in the clothes closet at home. But these things did not belong to a landlady; they were family possessions with which the children might do as they liked. They spent the morning dressing up for charades, an amusement Laura had not heard of before, but now found entrancing. Dressed in apron and shawl, the point of the latter trailing on the ground behind her, she gave her best imitation of Queenie, an old neighbour at home who began most of her speeches with ‘Lawks-a-mussy!’ Then, draped in an old lace curtain for veil, with a feather duster for bouquet, she became a bride. Less realistically, no doubt, for she had never seen a bride in conventional attire — the girls at home wore their new Sunday frock to be married — but her cousins said she did it well and she became very pleased with herself and full of ideas for illustrating words which she kept to herself for future use at home, for she felt too much of a novice to venture suggestions.
All the morning, first one cousin then another had been running down to the kitchen to ask for suggestions for the charades. They always came back munching, or wiping crumbs from their mouths, and once or twice they brought tit-bits for the whole party. At last they all disappeared, Edmund included, and Laura was left alone in her bridal finery, which she took the opportunity of examining in a tall, cracked mirror which leaned against one wall. But her own reflection did not hold her more than a moment, for she saw in the glass a recess she had not noticed before packed with books. Books on shelves, books in piles on the floor, and still other books in heaps, higgledy-piggledy, as though they had been turned out of sacks. Which they had, no doubt, for she was told afterwards that the collection was the unsaleable remains of a library from one of the large houses in the district. Her uncle, who was known to be a great reader, had been at the sale of furniture and been told that he might have what books were left if he cared to cart them away. A few of the more presentable bindings had already been taken downstairs; but the bulk of the collection still awaited the time when he should not be too busy to look through them.
That attic was very quiet for the next quarter of an hour, for Laura, still in her bridal veil, was down on her knees on the bare boards, as happy and busy as a young foal in a field of green corn.
There were volumes of old sermons which she passed over quickly; a natural history of the world which might have detained her had there not been so many other vistas to explore; histories and grammars and lexicons and ‘keepsakes’ with coloured pictures of beautiful languishing ladies bending over graves beneath weeping willows, or standing before mirrors dressed for balls, with the caption ‘Will he come to-night?’ There were old novels, too, and poetry. The difficulty was to know what to look at first.
When they missed her downstairs and came to call her to dinner she was deep in Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, and it was afterwards a standing joke against her that she had jumped and looked dazed when Amy hissed into her ear, ‘Do you like apple dumplings?’
‘Laura’s a bookworm, a bookworm, a bookworm!’ she sang to her sisters with the air of having made an astonishing discovery, and Laura wondered if a bookworm might not be something unpleasant, until she added: ‘A bookworm, like Father.’
She had brought the first volume of Pamela down with them to illustrate Laura’s bookworminess and now asked her mother if Laura might not have it to keep. After glancing through it, her mother looked doubtful, for she gathered that it was a love story, though not, perhaps, the full extent of its unsuitability for a reader of such tender age. But Uncle Tom, coming in just then to his dinner and hearing the whole story, said: ‘Let her keep it. No book’s too old for anybody who is able to enjoy it, and none too young, either, for that matter. Let her read what she likes, and when she’s tired of reading to herself she can come to my shop and read to me while I work.’
‘Poor Laura! You’re in for it!’ laughed mischievous Nell. ‘Once you start reading to Dad, he’ll never let you go. You’ll have to sit in his smelly old shop and read his dry old books for ever.’
‘Now! Now! The less you say about that the better, my girl. Who was it came to read to me and made such a hash of it that I never asked her to come again?’
‘Me,’ and ‘Me,’ and ‘Me’, cried the girls simultaneously, and their father laughed and said: ‘You see, Laura, what a lot of dunces they are. Give them one of their mother’s magazines, with fashion pictures and directions for making silk purses out of sows’ ears and pretty little tales that end in wedding bells, and they’ll lap it up like a cat lapping cream; but offer them something to read that needs a bit of biting on and they’re soon tired, or too hot, or too cold, or they can’t stand the smell of cobbler’s wax, or think they hear somebody knocking at the front door and have to go to open it. Molly started reading The Pilgrim’s Progress to me over a year ago — her own choice, because she liked the pictures — and got the poor fellow as far as the Slough of Despond. Then she had to take an afternoon off to get a new frock fitted. Then there was something else, and something else, and poor Christian is still bogged up in the slough for all she knows or cares. But we won’t have The Pilgrim’s Progress when you read to me, Laura. That is a shade dull for some young people. I’ve read it a good many times and hope to read it a good many more before I wear my eyesight out getting a living for these ungrateful young besoms. A grand old book, The Pilgrim’s Progress! But I’ve something here you’ll like better. Cranford. Ever heard of it, Laura? No, I thought not. Well, you’ve got a treat in store.’
They sampled Cranford that afternoon, and how Laura loved dear Miss Matty! Her uncle was pleased with her reading, but not too pleased to correct her faults.
Seated on the end of the bench on which he worked, with both arms extended as he drew the waxed thread through the leather, his eyes beaming mildly through his spectacles, he would say: ‘Not too fast now, Laura, and not too much expression. Don’t overdo things. These were genteel old bodies, very prim and proper, who would not have raised their voices much if they’d heard the last trump sounding.’ Or, more gently, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if, although it did not matter much how words were pronounced as long as one knew their meaning, it might still be just as well to conform to usage: ‘I think that word is pronounced so-and-so, Laura,’ and Laura would repeat the syllables after him until she had got it more or less correctly. Having read so much to herself and being a rapid reader, she knew the meanings of hundreds of words which she had never even attempted to pronounce until she came to read aloud to her uncle. Though he must have been sorely tempted to do so, he never once smiled, even at her most grotesque efforts. Years later in conversation he pronounced magician ‘magicun’ and added, ‘as Laura once called one of that kidney’, and they both laughed heartily at the not altogether inapt rendering.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00