On one of her visits to Candleford, Laura herself found a friend, and one whose influence was to shape the whole outward course of her life.
An old friend of her mother’s named Dorcas Lane kept the Post Office at Candleford Green, and one year, when she heard that Laura was staying so near her, she asked her and her cousins to go over to tea. Only Molly would go; the others said it was too hot for walking, that Miss Lane was faddy and old-fashioned, and that there was no one to talk to at Candleford Green and nothing to see. So Laura, Edmund, and Molly went.
Candleford Green was at that time a separate village. In a few years it was to become part of Candleford. Already the rows of villas were stretching out towards it; but as yet the green with its spreading oak with the white-painted seats, its roofed-in well with the chained bucket, its church spire soaring out of trees, and its clusters of old cottages, was untouched by change.
Miss Lane’s house was a long, low white one, with the Post Office at one end and a blacksmith’s forge at the other. On the turf of the green in front of the door was a circular iron platform with a hole in the middle which was used for putting on tyres to wagon and cart wheels, for she was wheelwright as well as blacksmith and postmistress. She did not work in the forge herself; she dressed in silks of which the colours were brighter than those usually worn then by women of her age and had tiny white hands which she seldom soiled. Hers was the brain of the business.
To go to see Cousin Dorcas, as they had been told to call her, was an exciting event to Laura and Edmund, for they hoped to be shown her famous telegraph machine. There had been some talk about it at home when their parents heard it had been installed, and their mother, who had seen one, described it as a sort of clock face, but with letters instead of figures, ‘and when you turn the handle,’ she said, ‘the hand goes round and you can spell out words on it, and that sends the hand round on the clock face at the other Post Office where it’s for, and they just write it down, pop it into an envelope, and send it where it’s addressed.’
‘And then they know somebody’s going to die,’ put in Edmund.
‘After they’ve paid three and sixpence,’ said their father, rather bitterly, for an agitation was being worked up in the hamlet against having to pay that crushing sum for the delivery of a telegram. ‘For Hire of Man and Horse, 3s. 6d.’ was written upon the envelope and that sum had to be found and paid before the man on the horse would part with the telegram. But about that time, the innkeeper, tired of having to lend three and sixpence with little prospect of getting it back, every time the news arrived that some neighbour’s father or mother or sister or aunt was ‘sinking fast’ or had ‘passed peacefully away this morning’, had, in collaboration with a few neighbours of whom the children’s father was one, written a formal and much-thought-out protest to the Postmaster General, which resulted in men coming with long chains to measure the whole length of the road between the hamlet and the Post Office in the market town. The distance was found to be a few feet under, instead of over, the three-miles limit of the free delivery of telegrams. This made quite an interesting little story for Laura to tell Cousin Dorcas. ‘And to think of those poor things having paid that sum! As much as a man could earn in a day and a half’s hard work,’ was her comment, and there was something in the way she said it that made Laura feel that, although, as her cousins said, Miss Lane might be peculiar, it was a nice kind of peculiarity.
Laura liked her looks, too. She was then about fifty, a little, birdlike woman in her kingfisher silk dress, with snapping black eyes, a longish nose, and black hair plaited into a crown on the top of her head.
The famous telegraph instrument stood on a little table under her parlour window. There was a small model office for the transaction of ordinary postal business, but ‘the telegraph’ was too secret and sacred to be exposed there. When not in use, the dial with its brass studs, one for every letter of the alphabet, was kept under a velvet cover of her own devising, resembling a tea-cosy. She removed this to show the children the instrument and even allowed Laura to spell out her own name on the brass studs — without putting the switch over, of course, or, as she said, Head Office would wonder what they were up to.
Edmund preferred the forge to the telegraph office, and Molly the garden where Zillah, the maid, was picking greengages bursting with ripeness. Laura liked all these; but, best of all, she liked Cousin Dorcas herself. She said such quick, clever things and seemed to know what one was thinking before a word was spoken. She showed Laura her house, from attic to cellar, and what a house it was! Her parents had lived in it. and her grandparents, and it was her delight to keep all the old family possessions just as she had inherited them. Other people might scrap their solid old furniture and replace it with plush-covered suites and what-nots and painted milking-stools and Japanese fans; but Dorcas had the taste to prefer good old oak and mahogany and brass, and the strength of mind to dare to be thought old-fashioned. So the grandfather’s clock in the front kitchen still struck the hours as it had done on the day of the Battle of Waterloo. The huge, heavy oak table at the head of which she carved for the workmen and maid, sitting in higher or lower seats according to degree, was older still. There was a legend that it had been made in the kitchen by the then village carpenter and was too large to remove without taking it to pieces. The bedrooms still had their original four-posters, one of them with blue-and-white check curtains, the yarn of which had been spun by her grandmother on the spinning wheel lately rescued from the attic, repaired and placed with the telegraph instrument in the parlour. On the dresser shelves were pewter plates and dishes, with a few pieces of old willow-pattern ‘to liven them up’, as she said; and in the chimney corner, where Laura sat looking up into the square of blue sky through the black furry walls, a flint and tinder box, used for striking lights before matches were in common use, stood on one ledge, and on another stood a deep brass vessel with a long point for sticking down into the embers to heat beer. There were brass candlesticks on the mantelpiece, and, flanking it, a pair of brass warming-pans hung on the wall. These were no longer in use, nor was the sandbox for drying wet ink instead of using blotting-paper, nor the nest of wooden chopping bowls, nor the big brewing copper in the back kitchen, but they were piously preserved in their old places, and, with them, as many of the old customs as could be made to fit in with modern requirements.
The grandfather’s clock was kept exactly half an hour fast, as it had always been, and, by its time, the household rose at six, breakfasted at seven and dined at noon; while mails were despatched and telegrams timed by the new Post Office clock, which showed correct Greenwich time, received by wire at ten o’clock every morning.
Miss Lane’s mind kept time with both clocks. Although she loved the past and tried to preserve its spirit as well as its relics, in other ways she was in advance of her own day. She read a good deal, not poetry, or pure literature — she had not the right kind of mind for that — but she took in The Times and kept herself well-informed of what was going on in the world, especially in the way of invention and scientific discovery. Probably she was the only person on or around the Green who had heard the name of Darwin. Others of her interests were international relationships and what is now called big business. She had shares in railways and the local Canal Company, which was daring for a woman in her position, and there was an affair called the Iceland Moss Litter Company for news of which watch had to be kept when, later, Laura was reading the newspaper aloud to her.
Had she lived later she must have made her mark in the world, for she had the quick, unerring grasp of a situation, the imagination to foresee and the force to carry through, which mean certain success. But there were few openings for women in those days, especially for those born in small country villages, and she had to be content to rule over her own small establishment. She had been thought queer and rather improper when, her father having died and left his business to her, his only child, instead of selling out and retiring to live in ladylike leisure at Leamington Spa or Weston-super-Mare, as her friends had expected, she had simply substituted her own name for his on the billheads and carried on the business.
‘And why not?’ she asked. ‘I had kept the books and written the letters for years, and Matthew is an excellent foreman. My father himself had not put foot inside the shop for ten months before he died.’
Her neighbours could have given her many reasons why not, the chief one being that a woman blacksmith had never been known in those parts before. A draper’s or grocer’s shop, or even a public-house, might be inherited and carried on by a woman; but a blacksmith’s was a man’s business, and they thought Miss Lane unwomanly to call herself one. Miss Lane did not mind being thought unwomanly. She did not mind at all what her neighbours thought of her, and that alone set her apart from most women of her day.
She had consented to house the Post Office temporarily in the first place, because it was a convenience badly needed on and around the Green, and no one else could be found willing to undertake the responsibility. But the work soon proved to be a pleasure to her. There was something about the strict working to a time-table, the idea of being a link in a great national organization and having some small measure of public authority which appealed to her businesslike mind. She liked having an inside knowledge of her neighbours’ affairs too — there is no denying that — and to have people coming in and out, some of them strangers and interesting. As she ran the office, she had many of the pleasures of a hostess without the bother and expense of entertaining.
She had arranged her Post Office with its shining counter, brass scales, and stamps, postal orders, and multiplicity of official forms neatly pigeonholed, in what had been a broad passage which ran through the house from the front door to the garden. The door which led from this into the front kitchen, where meals were taken, marked the boundary between the new world and the old. In after days, when Laura had read a little history, it gave her endless pleasure to notice the sudden transition from one world to the other.
It was still the custom in that trade for unmarried workmen to live-in with the families of their employers; and, at meal-times, when the indoor contingent was already seated, sounds of pumping and sluicing water over hands and faces would come from the paved courtyard outside. Then ‘the men’, as they were always called, would appear, rolling their leather aprons up around their waists as they tiptoed to their places at table.
The foreman, Matthew, was a bow-legged, weak-eyed little man with sandy whiskers, as unlike as possible the popular picture of a village blacksmith. But he was a trustworthy foreman, a clever smith, and, in farriery, was said to approach genius. The three shoeing-smiths who worked under him were brawny fellows, all young, and all of them bashful indoors; although, by repute, ‘regular sparks’ when out in the village, dressed in their Sunday suits. Indoors they spoke in a husky whisper; but in the shop, on the days when they were all three working there together, their voices could be heard in the house, above the roaring of the bellows and the cling-clang of the anvil as they intoned their remarks and requests to each other, or sang as an anthem some work-a-day sentence, such as ‘Bil-h-l-l, pass me o-o-o-ver that s-m-m-a-ll spanner.’ When Matthew was out of the way, they would stand at the shop door for ‘a breather’, as they called it, and exchange pleasantries with passers-by. One had recently got into trouble with Cousin Dorcas for shouting ‘Whoa, Emma!’ after a girl; but no one who only saw him at table would have thought him capable of it.
There, the journeymen’s place was definitely below the salt. At the head of the long, solid oak table sat ‘the mistress’ with an immense dish of meat before her, carving knife in hand. Then came a reserved space, sometimes occupied by visitors, but more often blank table-cloth; then Matthew’s chair, and, after that, another, smaller, blank space, just sufficient to mark the difference in degree between a foreman and ordinary workmen. Beyond that, the three young men sat in a row at the end of the table, facing the mistress. Zillah, the maid, had a little round table to herself by the wall. Unless important visitors were present, she joined freely in the conversation; but the three young men seldom opened their mouths excepting to shovel in food. If, by chance, they had something they thought of sufficient interest to impart, they always addressed their remarks to Miss Lane, and prefixed them by ‘Ma-am’. ‘Ma-am, have you heard that Squire Bashford’s sold his Black Beauty?’ or ‘Ma-am, I’ve heard say that two ricks’ve bin burnt down at Wheeler’s. A tramp sleeping under set ’em afire, they think.’ But, usually, the only sound at their end of the table was that of the scraping of plates, or of a grunt of protest if one of them nudged another too suddenly. They had special cups and saucers, very large and thick, and they drank their beer out of horns, instead of glasses or mugs. There were certain small delicacies on the table which were never offered them and which they took obvious pains not to appear to notice. When they had finished their always excellent meal, one of them said ‘Pardon, Ma-am,’ and they all tiptoed out. Then Zillah brought in the tea-tray and Matthew stayed for a cup before he, too, withdrew. At tea-time they all had tea to drink, but Miss Lane said this was an innovation of her own. In her father’s time the family had tea alone, it was their one private meal, and the men had what was called ‘afternoon bavour’, which consisted of bread and cheese and beer, at three o’clock.
As a child, Laura thought the young men were poorly treated and was inclined to pity them; but, afterwards, she found they were under an age-old discipline, supposed, in some mysterious way, to fit them for becoming in their turn master-men. Under this system, such and such an article of food was not suitable for the men; the men must have something substantial — boiled beef and dumplings, or a thick cut off a gammon, or a joint of beef. When they came in to go to bed on a cold night, they could be offered hot spiced beer, but not elderberry wine. They must not be encouraged to talk and you must never discuss family affairs in their presence, or they might become familiar; in short, they must be kept in their place, because they were ‘the men’.
Until that time, or a few years earlier in more advanced districts, these distinctions had suited the men as well as they had done the employers. Their huge meals and their beds in a row in the large attic were part of their wages, and as long as it was excellent food and the beds were good feather beds with plenty of blankets, they had all they expected or wished for indoors. More would have embarrassed them. They had their own lives outside.
When a journeyman was about to marry, it was the rule for him to leave and find a shop where the workers lived out. There was no difficulty about this, especially in towns, where the living-out system was extending, and a good workman was always sure of employment. The young men who still lived in did so from choice; they said they got better food than in lodgings, better beds, and had not to walk to their work at six o’clock in the morning.
Miss Lane’s own father had come to the Green as a journeyman, wearing a new leather apron and with a basket of tools slung over his shoulder. He had walked from Northampton, not on account of poverty, for his father was a master-man with a good smithy in a village near that town; but because it was the custom at that time that, after apprenticeship, a young smith should travel the country and work in various shops to gain experience. That was why they were called ‘journeymen’, Miss Lane said, because they journeyed about.
But her own father journeyed no farther, for his first employer had a daughter, Miss Lane’s mother. She was an only child and the business was a flourishing one, and, although the new journeyman was the son of another master-smith, her parents had objected to the match.
According to her daughter’s story, the first intimation they had of the budding attachment was when her mother found her Katie darning the journeyman’s socks. She snatched them out of her hand and threw them into the fire and her father told her he would rather see her in her coffin than married to a mere journeyman. After all they had done for her, she should marry at least a farmer. However, they must have become reconciled to the match, for the young couple married and lived with the parents until the father died and they inherited the house and business. There was a painting of them in their wedding clothes in the parlour; the bridegroom in lavender trousers and white kid gloves (How did he manage to squeeze his smith’s horny and ingrained hands into them?), and the dear little bride in lavender silk with a white lace fichu and a white poke bonnet encircled with green leaves.
When she was old enough, little Dorcas had been sent to school as a weekly boarder and the school must have been even more old-fashioned than her home. The girls, she said, addressed each other as Miss So-and-So, even during playtime, and spent some time every day lying flat on the bare board floor of their bedroom to improve their figures. Their punishments were carefully calculated to fit their crimes. The one she remembered best and often laughed about later was for pride or conceit, which was standing in a corner of the schoolroom and repeating ‘Keep down, proud stomach’, patting the said organ meanwhile. They learned to write a beautifully clear hand, to ‘cast up accounts’, and to do fine needlework, which was considered a sufficient education for a tradesman’s daughter eighty or ninety years ago.
Once, when she was turning out a drawer to show Laura some treasure, she came upon a white silk stocking, which she held up for inspection. ‘How do you like my darning?’ she asked; but it was not until Laura had drawn the stocking over her own hand to examine it more closely that she saw that the heel and the instep and part of the toe were literally made of darns. The silk of the original fabric had been matched exactly and the work had been exquisitely done in a stitch which resembled knitting.
‘It must have taken you ages,’ was the natural comment.
‘It took me a whole winter. Time thrown away, for I never wore it. My mother turned it out from somewhere and gave it me to darn at such times as the men were indoors. It was not thought proper then to do ordinary sewing before men, except men’s shirts, of course; never our own underclothes, or anything of that kind; and as to reading, that would have been thought a waste of time; and one must not sit idle, that would have been setting a bad example; but cutting holes in a stocking foot and darning them up again was considered industrious. Be glad you weren’t born in those days.’
Although she could darn so beautifully, she no longer darned her own stockings. She left them to Zillah, whose darns could easily be seen across the room. Probably she felt she had done enough darning for one lifetime.
Belonging to the establishment was a light spring-cart and a bright chestnut mare named Peggy and, three times a week, Matthew and two of the shoeing smiths drove off with strings of horseshoes and boxes of tools to visit the hunting stables. Sometimes the remaining smith was out also and the forge was left, cold and silent and dark, save for the long streamers of daylight which filtered through the cracks in the shutters. Then Laura would steal in through the garden door and inhale the astringent scents of iron and oil and ashes and hoof-parings; and pull the bellows handle and see the dull embers turn red; and lift the big sledge hammer to feel its weight and made the smaller ones tinkle on the anvil. Another lovely sound belonging to the forge was often heard at night when the household was in bed, for then the carrier, returning from market, would fling down on the green in front of the shop the long bars of iron for making horseshoes. Cling-cling, cling, it would go, like a peal of bells. Then the carrier would chirrup to his tired horse and the heavy wheels would move on.
All kinds of horses came to the forge to be shod: heavy cart-horses, standing quiet and patient; the baker’s and grocer’s and butcher’s van horses; poor old screws belonging to gipsies or fish-hawkers; and an occasional hunter, either belonging to some visitor to the neighbourhood or one from a local stable which had cast a shoe and could not wait until the regular visiting day. There were a few donkeys in the neighbourhood, and they, too, had to be shod; but always by the youngest shoeing smith, for it would have been beneath the dignity of his seniors to become the butt for the wit of the passers-by. ‘He-haw! He-haw!’ they would shout. ‘Somebody tell me now, which is topmost, man or beast, for danged if I can see any difference betwixt ’em?’
Most of the horses were very patient; but a few would plunge and kick and rear when approached. These Matthew himself shod and, under his skilful handling, they would quiet down immediately. He had only to put his hand on the mane and whisper a few words in the ear. It was probably the hand and voice which soothed them; but it was generally believed that he whispered some charm which had power over them, and he rather encouraged this idea by saying when questioned: ‘I only speaks to ’em in their own language.’
The local horses were all known to the men and addressed by them by name. Even the half-yearly bills were made out: ‘To So-and-So, Esq. For shoeing Violet, or Poppet, or Whitefoot, or The Grey Lady.’ ‘All round’, or ‘fore’, or ‘hind’, as the case might demand. Strings of horseshoes, made in quiet intervals, hung upon the shop walls, apparently ready to put on; but there was usually some little alteration to be made on the anvil while the horse waited. ‘No two horses’ feet are exactly alike,’ Matthew told Laura. ‘They have their little plagues and peculiarities, like you and me do.’ And the parting words from man to beast were often: ‘There, old girl, that’s better. You’ll be able to run ten miles without stopping with them shoes on your feet.’
Other items which figured in the bills were making hinges for doors, flaps for drains, gates and railings and tools and household requirements. On one occasion a bill was sent out for ‘Pair of Park Gates to your own design, £20’, and Matthew said it should have been fifty, for he had worked on them for months, staying in the shop hours after the outer door was closed, and rising early to fit in another hour or two before the ordinary work of the day began. But it was a labour of love, and, after they were hung, he had his reward when he, who so seldom went out for pleasure, dressed on a Sunday and took a walk that way in order to admire and enjoy his own handicraft.
So the days went on, and, secure in the knowledge of their own importance in the existing scheme of things, the blacksmiths boasted: ‘Come what may, a good smith’ll never want for a job, for whatever may come of this new cast-iron muck in other ways, the horses’ll always have to be shod, and they can’t do that in a foundry!’
Yet, as iron will bend to different uses, so will the workers in iron. Twenty years later the younger of that generation of smiths were painting above their shop doors, ‘Motor Repairs a Speciality’, and, greatly daring, taking mechanism to pieces which they had no idea how they were going to put together again. They made many mistakes, which passed undetected because the owners had no more knowledge than they had of the inside of ‘the dratted thing’, and they soon learned by experiment sufficient to enable them to put on a wise air of authority. Then the legend over the door was repainted, ‘Motor Expert’, and expert many of them became in a surprisingly short time, for they brought the endless patience and ingenuity of the craftsman to the new mechanism, plus his adaptable skill.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00