But the holidays at Candleford only occupied a small part of Laura’s year. At the end of a month or so a letter would come saying that school would begin on the following Monday and she had to return. Excepting the arrival of a new baby or two, or the settling of a stray swarm of bees on somebody’s apple-tree, nothing ever seemed to have happened in the hamlet while she had been away. The neighbours would still be discussing the same topics. The crops were good, or ‘but middling’, according to the season. Someone had nearly a half-bushel more corn from their gleanings than the rest of the hamlet, and that was a mystery to others, who declared they had worked just as hard and spent even more hours afield. ‘A bit of rick-pulling there, I’ll warrant.’ After a dry summer the water in the wells would be dangerously low, but it had not given out yet, and, ‘Please God, us shall get a nice drop of rain ‘fore long. The time of year’s getting on to when we may look for it.’ ‘Look for it! He! He! It’ll come whether you looks for it or not. Nice weather for young ducks and mud up to y’r knees when you goes round to the well, you’ll see, before you knows where you are.’
She found the hamlet unchanged every year; but, beyond the houses, everything had altered, for it was still summer when she went away and when she returned it was autumn. Along the hedgerows hips and haws and crab-apples were ripe and the ivory parchment flowers of the traveller’s joy had become silver and silky. The last of the harvest had been carried and already the pale stubble was greening over. Soon the sheep would be turned into the fields to graze, then the ploughs would come and turn the earth brown once more.
At home, the plums on the front wall of the house were ripe and the warm, fruity smell of boiling jam drew all the wasps in the neighbourhood. Other jams, jellies, and pickles already stood on the pantry shelves. Big yellow vegetable marrows dangled from hooks, and ropes of onions and bunches of drying thyme and sage. The faggot pile was being replenished and the lamp was again lighted soon after tea.
For the first few days after her return the house would seem small and the hamlet bare, and she was inclined to give herself the airs of a returned traveller when telling of the places she had seen and the people she had met on her holiday. But that soon wore off and she slipped back into her own place again. The visits to Candleford were very pleasant and the conveniences of her cousins’ home and their way of life had the charm of novelty; but the plain spotlessness of her own home, with few ornaments and no padding to obscure the homely outline, was good, too. She felt she belonged there.
Her freedom of the fields grew less every year, however, for, by the time her last year at school approached, her mother had five children. One little sister shared her bed and another slept in the same room; she had to go to bed very quietly in the dark, not to awaken them. In the day-time, out of school hours, the latest baby, a boy, had to be nursed indoors or taken out for his airing. These things, in themselves, were no hardship, for she adored the baby, and the little sisters, who held on, one on each side of the baby-carriage, were dears, one with brown eyes and a mop of golden curls, and the other a fat, solemn child with brown hair cut in a straight fringe across her forehead. But Laura could no longer read much indoors or roam where she would when out, for the baby-carriage had to be kept more or less to the roads and be pushed back punctually at baby’s feeding-time. Her mother’s bedtime stories were still a joy, although no longer told to Edmund and her, but to the younger children, for Laura loved to listen and to observe the effect each story had on her little sisters. She was also rather fond of correcting her mother when her memory went astray in telling the old familiar true stories, which did not add to her popularity, of which she had little enough already. She had come to what the hamlet called ‘an ok’ard age, neither ‘ooman nor child, when they oughter be shut up in a box for a year or two’.
At school about this time she made her first girl friend and wearied her mother by saying, ‘Emily Rose does this,’ ‘Emily Rose does that,’ and ‘That is what Emily Rose says,’ until she said she was sick of the sound of Emily Rose’s name, and could not Laura talk about somebody else for a change.
Emily Rose was the only child of elderly parents who lived on the other side of the parish in a cottage like a picture on a Christmas card. It had the same diamond-paned windows and pointed thatched roof and the same mass of old-fashioned flowers around the doorway. There was even a winding footpath leading across a meadow to its rustic gate. Laura often wished she lived in such a house, away from interfering neighbours, and sometimes almost wished she was an only child like Emily Rose.
Emily Rose was a strong, sturdy little girl with faintly pink cheeks, wide blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail. Some pigtails in the school were as thin as rats’ tails and others stuck out at an angle behind the head of the wearer, but Emily Rose’s pigtail was thick as a rope and hung heavily to her waist, where it was finished off with a neat ribbon bow and a fluff of little loose curls. She had a way of drawing it up over her shoulder and stroking her cheek with this soft end, which Laura thought very captivating.
Her parents were in somewhat more comfortable circumstances than the hamlet folk; for not only had they but one child to keep, instead of the usual half-dozen or more, but her father, being a shepherd, had slightly higher wages and her mother took in needlework. So Emily Rose had pretty clothes to set off her flaxen pigtail, a pleasant, comfortable home, and the undivided affection of both parents. But, although she had the self-confidence of one who was seldom thwarted, Emily Rose was not a spoilt child. Nothing could have spoiled one of her calm, well-balanced, straightforward disposition. Hers was one of those natures which are good all through, good-tempered, good-natured, and thorough in all they do; a little obstinate, perhaps, but, as they are usually obstinate with good cause, that also counts as a virtue.
Laura thought Emily Rose’s bedroom was worthy of a princess, with its white walls scattered with tiny pink rosebuds, little white bed and frilly white window-curtains tied up with pink bows. There were no babies for her to nurse, and apparently no household tasks were expected of her. She could have read all day and in bed at night, if she had cared to, for her room was well apart from that of her parents. But she did not want to read; her delight was in needlework, at which she excelled, and in wading through brooks and climbing trees. Her way home from school skirted a wood, and she boasted that she had climbed every tree by the pathway at some time or other and this for her own pleasure, without spectators, not because she had been dared to do it.
At home she was petted and made much of. She was asked what she would like to eat, instead of being given whatever was on the table, and if the food she fancied were not forthcoming her mother was quite apologetic. But there were delicious things to eat at Cold Harbour. Once, when Laura called for Emily Rose during school holidays they had sponge fingers and cowslip wine, which Emily Rose poured out herself into real wineglasses. On another of Laura’s visits there was lambs’ tail pie. The tails in the pie were those of still living lambs which had been cut off while their owners were still very young, because, Laura was told, if sheep were allowed to have long tails they would, in wet weather, become heavy with wet and mud and injure or irritate them. So the shepherd docked them and took the tails home to be made into a pie, or gave bundles of them to friends as a great favour. Laura did not like the idea of eating the tails of live lambs; but it had to be done, for she had been told it was rude to leave anything at all, excepting bones or fruitstones, on one’s plate.
At school, that last year, Emily Rose and Laura were known as Class I and had several advantages, although these did not include much education. They were trusted with the Key containing the answers to their sums and heard each other’s spellings, or anything else that had to be committed to memory. This was partly because the schoolmistress, with all the other classes in the school on hand, had no time at all to devote to them; but also as a mark of her confidence. ‘I know I can trust my big girls,’ she would say. There were but the two of them and no boys at all in Class I. Most of the children who had been with Laura in the lower classes had by that time left school for work, or, having failed to pass their examinations, were being kept back in Standard IV to make another attempt at the next examination.
In summer the two ‘big girls’ were allowed to take out their lessons and do them under the lilac tree in the mistress’s garden, and, in winter, they sat cosily by the fire in her cottage living-room, the condition attached to this latter privilege being that they kept up the fire and put on the potatoes to cook for her dinner at the appropriate time. Laura owed these advantages to Emily Rose. She was the show pupil of the school; good at every subject and exceptionally good at needlework. She was so good a needlewoman that she was trusted to make garments for the mistress’s own wear, and perhaps that was the chief reason for their being given the freedom of the sitting-room, for Laura remembered her sitting with her feet on a hassock with yards, and yards of white nainsook around her, putting thousands of tiny stitches into the nightdress she was feather-stitching, while Laura herself knelt before the fire toasting a kipper for the mistress’s tea.
That picture remained with her because it was the day after St. Valentine’s Day, and Emily Rose was telling her about the valentine she had found awaiting her when she reached home the evening before. She had brought it to show Laura, pressed between cardboard and wrapped in layers of notepaper, all silver lace and silk-embroidered flowers, with the words:
Roses are red
And violets blue,
And so are you,
and when Laura asked if she knew who had sent it, she pretended she had lost her needle and bent down to the floor, looking for it, and, when pressed again, told Laura that her kipper would never be cooked if she pointed it at the window, instead of at the fire.
The lessons set them by their kind but overworked mistress, learning long columns of spelling words, or of the names of towns, or countries, or of kings and queens, or sums to be worked out of which Laura had never grasped the rules, were waste of time as far as she was concerned. The few scraps of knowledge she managed to pick up were gleaned from the school books, in which she read the history and geography portions so many times over that certain paragraphs remained with her, word for word, for life. There were stories of travel, too, and poems, and when these were exhausted there was the mistress’s own bookshelf.
The lessons were soon finished; the long lists repeated to each other, parrot fashion; Emily Rose had done Laura’s sums for her and Laura had written Emily Rose’s essay for her to copy, and the spare hour or two was passed pleasantly enough over Ministering Children, or Queechy, or The Wide, Wide World or Laura would knit while Emily Rose sewed, for she liked knitting, and they would sit there, very cosily, while the fire flared up and the kettle sang on the hob and the school sounds came faint and subdued through the dividing wall.
During their last few months at school they had plenty to talk about, for Emily Rose was in love and Laura was her confidante. It was no childish fancy, she was really deeply in love, and it was one of those rare cases where first love was to lead to marriage and last a lifetime.
Her Norman was the son of their nearest neighbours, who lived about a mile from their cottage. On the evenings when Emily Rose stayed after school for choir practice he would meet her and they would walk through the wood arm in arm, like grown-up lovers. ‘But you must only kiss me when we say good night, Norman,’ said sensible little Emily Rose, ‘because we are too young yet to be properly engaged.’ She did not tell Laura what Norman said to that, or whether he always observed her rule about kissing; but when asked what they found to talk about her blue eyes opened wide and she said, ‘Just about us,’ as though there were no other possible subject.
They had made up their minds to marry when they were old enough and nothing on earth could have shaken that resolve; but, as it turned out, they met with no opposition. When, a year or two later, their respective parents discovered the state of things between them, they were at once asked to each other’s houses as accepted lovers, and when Emily Rose went as an apprentice to a dressmaker in a neighbouring village she already wore a little gold ring with clasped hands on her finger and Norman came openly to fetch her home on dark evenings.
The last time Laura saw her she was as little changed as anything human could be after a decade. A little fuller of figure, perhaps, and with her flaxen hair wreathed in coils round her head instead of hanging in a pigtail, but with speedwell eyes as innocently candid and milk-and-rose complexion as fresh as ever. She had two lovely children in a perambulator, ‘The very spit and moral of herself,’ another stander-by assured her; and, according to the same observer, the kind, steady husband who stood by her side would not have let the wind blow upon her if he could have helped it. She was still the same Emily Rose, kind, straightforward and a little dictatorial; convinced that the world was a very nice place for well-behaved people.
Laura felt old and battered beside her, a sensation she enjoyed, for that was in the ‘nineties, when youth loved to pose as world-weary and disillusioned, the sophisticated product of a dying century. Laura’s friends away from the hamlet called themselves fin de siècle and their elders called them fast, although the fastness went no further than walking, hatless, over Hindhead at night in a gale, bawling Swinburne and Omar Khayyam to each other above the storm.
But the ‘nineties were barely beginning when Laura left school and where she would be and what she would be doing when they ended she had no idea. For some months that was her great trouble, that, and the changed conditions at home and a growing sense of inability to fit herself into the scheme of things as she knew it.
Her mother, with five children to keep and care for, was hard-pressed, especially as she still insisted upon living up to her old standard of what she called ‘seemliness’. Her idea of good housekeeping was that every corner of the house should be clean, clean sheets should be on the beds, clean clothes on every one of the seven bodies for which she was responsible, a good dinner on the table and a cake in the pantry for tea by noon every Sunday. She would sit up sewing till midnight and rise before daybreak to wash clothes. But she had her reward. She was passionately fond of little children, the younger and more helpless the better, and would talk by the hour in baby language to the infant in the cradle or upon her lap, pouring out love and lavishing endearments upon it. Often when Laura began speaking she would cut her short with a request to go and do something, or take no notice at all of what she said, not from deliberate unkindness, but simply because she had no thought to spare for her older children. At least, so it appeared to Laura.
Her mother told her in after years that she had been anxious about her at that time. She was outgrowing her strength, she thought, and was too quiet and had queer ideas and did not make friends of her own age, which she thought unnatural. Her future and that of Edmund were also causing her anxiety.
Her plans had not changed: Laura was to be a nurse and Edmund a carpenter; but the children themselves had changed. Edmund was the first to protest. He did not want to be a carpenter; he thought it was a very good trade for those who wanted one; but he didn’t, he said firmly. ‘But it is so respectable and the pay’s good. Look at Mr. Parker,’ she urged, ‘with his good business and nice house and even a top hat for funerals.’
But now it seemed that Edmund had no ambition to wear a top hat or to officiate at funerals. He did not want to be a carpenter at all, or a mason. He would not have minded being an engine-driver; but what he really wanted was to travel and see the world. That meant being a soldier, she said, and what was a soldier when his time had expired, regularly ruined for ordinary life, with his roving ideas and, more than likely, a taste for drink. Look at Tom Finch, as yellow as a guinea and eaten up with ague, putting in a day or two here and there on the land and but half alive, for you couldn’t call it living, between one pension day and another. Even if he had been well he had no trade in his hands, and what was land work for a young chap, anyhow?
Then Edmund surprised and hurt her more than he had ever done in his life before. ‘What’s the matter with the land?’ he asked. ‘Folks have got to have food and somebody’s got to grow it. The work’s all right, too. I’d rather turn a good straight furrow any day than mess about making shavings in a carpenter’s shop. If I can’t be a soldier and go to India, I’ll stop here and work on the land.’ She cried a little at that; but afterwards cheered up and said he was too young to know his own mind. Boys did sometimes have these fancies. He’d come to his senses presently.
Laura’s failure troubled her more because she was two years older than Edmund and the time was nearer when she would have to earn her own living. Perhaps she had had doubts about her vocation for some time and that was why she had seemed cold and reserved towards her. The situation came to a head one day when Laura was nursing the baby with a book in her hand and, absent-mindedly, put down the little hand which was trying to clutch her long hair.
‘Laura, I’m sorry to say it, but I’m downright disappointed in you,’ said her mother solemnly. ‘I’ve been watching you for the last ten minutes with that little innocent on your lap and your head stuck in that nasty old book and not so much as one look at his pretty ways. (Didums, didums neglect him then, the little precious! Anybody who could read a book with you on their lap must have a heart of stone. Come to mum-mums, then. She’ll not push, you pretty pawdy away when you try to play with her hair!) No, it won’t do, Laura. You’ll never make a nurse, sorry as I am to say so. You’re fond enough of the baby, I know, but you just haven’t got the knack of nursing. A child’d grow up a perfect dummy if it had to depend upon you. You want to talk to them and play with them and keep them amused. There, don’t cry. You are as you’re made, I suppose. We shall have to think of something else for you to do. Perhaps I could get Cousin Rachel to take you as apprentice to her dressmaking. But, there, that’s no good either, for your sewing’s worse than your nursing. We shall have to see what turns up; but there’s no denying it’s a great disappointment to me, after having had the promise of a start for you and all.’
So there was Laura at thirteen with her life in ruins, not for the last time, but she grieved more over that than her later catastrophes, for she had not then experienced the rebound or learned that no beating is final while life lasts. It was not that she had particularly wanted to be a nurse. She had often wondered if she were suitable for the life. She loved children, but had she the necessary patience? She could keep the older ones amused, she knew; but she was nervous and clumsy with babies. It was the sense of defeat, of having been tried and found wanting, which crushed her.
There was also the question of what she could do for a living. She thought she would like to work on the land, like Edmund. It was long before the day of the landgirl; but a few of the older women in the hamlet worked in the fields. Laura wondered if the farmer would employ her. She was afraid not; and if he had been willing, her parents would not consent to it. But when she said this to Edmund, who had found her crying in the woodshed, he said, ‘Why not?’ Then, it appeared, he already had a plan. They would have a little house together and both work on the land; Laura could do the housework, for field-women’s hours were shorter than those of the men; or perhaps Laura need not go out to work at all, but just stay at home and keep house as other women did for their husbands. They talked this over every time they were alone together and even chose their cottage and discussed their meals. Treacle tarts were to figure largely on their menu. But when at last they told their mother of their plan she was horrified. ‘Don’t either of you so much as mention such a silly idea again,’ she said sternly, and ‘for goodness’ sake don’t go telling anybody else. You haven’t, have you? Then don’t, unless you want to be thought mad; for mad it is, and I’m downright ashamed of you for such a low-down idea. You’re going to get on in the world, if I have any say in it, and leave working on the land to them as can’t do better for themselves. And not a word to your father about this. I haven’t told him yet what Edmund said about working on the land, for I know he’d never allow it. And as to you, Laura, you’re the eldest and ought to know better than to put such silly ideas into your brother’s head.’
So that would not do; even Edmund was convinced of that, though he still said to Laura in private that he would not be apprenticed. ‘I want to get about and see things,’ he said, ‘if it’s only things growing.’ Evidently the craftsman spirit of his ancestors on one side of the family had passed over his head to come out again in some future generation.
There was scarlet fever at Candleford that year and Laura did not go there for her usual holiday. Johnny came to stay with them instead, and did not bring the infection; he had been too carefully guarded. But he made one more in the already overcrowded home; although it must be said that he improved marvellously under her mother’s firm rule. It was no longer ‘Johnny, would you like this or that?’ but ‘Now, Johnny, my man, eat up your dinner or you’ll be all behind when the next helping’s given out.’ The fine air and the simple food must have been good for him, for he put on weight and started to shoot up in height. Or perhaps his being there at the time of the turning-point of his health was a lucky accident for which Laura’s mother got the credit.
All that winter Laura went on with her brooding. Then spring came and the bluebells were out and the chestnut candles and young bracken fronds were unrolling; but, for the first time since she could remember, she had no joy in such things. She sat one day on the low-hanging bough of a beech and looked at them all. ‘Here I am,’ she thought, ‘and here are all these lovely things and I don’t care for them a bit this year. There must be something the matter with me.’
There was. She was growing up, and growing up, as she feared, into a world that had no use for her. She carried this burden of care for months, not always conscious of it; sometimes she would forget, and in the reaction become noisy and boisterous; but it was always there, pressing down upon her, until the neighbours noticed her melancholy expression and said: ‘That child looks regular hag-rid.’
This accumulated depression of months slid from her at last in a moment. She had run out into the fields one day in a pet and was standing on a small stone bridge looking down on brown running water flecked with cream-coloured foam. It was a dull November day with grey sky and mist. The little brook was scarcely more than a trench to drain the fields; but overhanging it were thorn bushes with a lacework of leafless twigs; ivy had sent trails down the steep banks to dip in the stream, and from every thorn on the leafless twigs and from every point of the ivy leaves water hung in bright drops, like beads.
A flock of starlings had whirred up from the bushes at her approach and the clip, clop of a cart-horse’s hoofs could be heard on the nearest road, but these were the only sounds. Of the hamlet, only a few hundred yards away, she could hear no sound, or see as much as a chimney-pot, walled in as she was by the mist.
Laura looked and looked again. The small scene, so commonplace and yet so lovely, delighted her. It was so near the homes of men and yet so far removed from their thoughts. The fresh green moss, the glistening ivy, and the reddish twigs with their sparkling drops seemed to have been made for her alone and the hurrying, foam-flecked water seemed to have some message for her. She felt suddenly uplifted. The things which had troubled her troubled her no more. She did not reason. She had already done plenty of reasoning. Too much, perhaps. She simply stood there and let it all sink in until she felt that her own small affairs did not matter. Whatever happened to her, this, and thousands of other such small, lovely sights would remain and people would come suddenly upon them and look and be glad.
A wave of pure happiness pervaded her being, and, although it soon receded, it carried away with it her burden of care. Her first reaction was to laugh aloud at herself. What a fool she had been to make so much of so little. There must be thousands like her who could see no place for themselves in the world, and here she had been, fretting herself and worrying others as if her case were unique. And, deeper down, beneath the surface of her being, was the feeling, rather than the knowledge, that her life’s deepest joys would be found in such scenes as this.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00