A mile and a half up the straight, narrow road in the opposite direction to that of the turnpike, round a corner, just out of sight of the hamlet, lay the mother village of Fordlow. Here, again, as soon as the turning of the road was passed, the scene changed, and the large open fields gave place to meadows and elm trees and tiny trickling streams.
The village was a little, lost, lonely place, much smaller than the hamlet, without a shop, an inn, or a post office, and six miles from a railway station. The little squat church, without spire or tower, crouched back in a tiny churchyard that centuries of use had raised many feet above the road, and the whole was surrounded by tall, windy elms in which a colony of rooks kept up a perpetual cawing. Next came the Rectory, so buried in orchards and shrubberies that only the chimney stacks were visible from the road; then the old Tudor farmhouse with its stone, mullioned windows and reputed dungeon. These, with the school and about a dozen cottages occupied by the shepherd, carter, blacksmith, and a few other superior farm-workers, made up the village. Even these few buildings were strung out along the roadside, so far between and so sunken in greenery that there seemed no village at all. It was a standing joke in the hamlet that a stranger had once asked the way to Fordlow after he had walked right through it. The hamlet laughed at the village as ‘stuck up’; while the village looked down on ‘that gipsy lot’ at the hamlet.
Excepting the two or three men who frequented the inn in the evening, the villagers seldom visited the hamlet, which to them represented the outer wilds, beyond the bounds of civilisation. The hamlet people, on the other hand, knew the road between the two places by heart, for the church and the school and the farmhouse which was the men’s working head-quarters were all in the village. The hamlet had only the inn.
Very early in the morning, before daybreak for the greater part of the year, the hamlet men would throw on their clothes, breakfast on bread and lard, snatch the dinner-baskets which had been packed for them overnight, and hurry off across fields and over stiles to the farm. Getting the boys off was a more difficult matter. Mothers would have to call and shake and sometimes pull boys of eleven or twelve out of their warm beds on a winter morning. Then boots which had been drying inside the fender all night and had become shrunk and hard as boards in the process would have to be coaxed on over chilblains. Sometimes a very small boy would cry over this and his mother to cheer him would remind him that they were only boots, not breeches. ‘Good thing you didn’t live when breeches wer’ made o’ leather,’ she would say, and tell him about the boy of a previous generation whose leather breeches were so baked up in drying that it took him an hour to get into them. ‘Patience! Have patience, my son’, his mother had exhorted. ‘Remember Job.’ ‘Job!’ scoffed the boy. ‘What did he know about patience? He didn’t have to wear no leather breeches.’
Leather breeches had disappeared in the ‘eighties and were only remembered in telling that story. The carter, shepherd, and a few of the older labourers still wore the traditional smock-frock topped by a round black felt hat, like those formerly worn by clergymen. But this old country style of dress was already out of date; most of the men wore suits of stiff, dark brown corduroy, or, in summer, corduroy trousers and an unbleached drill jacket known as a ‘sloppy’.
Most of the young and those in the prime of life were thick-set, red-faced men of good medium height and enormous strength who prided themselves on the weights they could carry and boasted of never having had ‘an e-ache nor a pa-in’ in their lives. The elders stooped, had gnarled and swollen hands and walked badly, for they felt the effects of a life spent out of doors in all weathers and of the rheumatism which tried most of them. These elders wore a fringe of grey whisker beneath the jaw, extending from ear to ear. The younger men sported drooping walrus moustaches. One or two, in advance of the fashion of their day, were clean-shaven; but as Sunday was the only shaving day, the effect of either style became blurred by the end of the week.
They still spoke the dialect, in which the vowels were not only broadened, but in many words doubled. ‘Boy’ was ‘boo-oy’, ‘coal’, ‘coo-al’, ‘pail’, ‘pay-ull’, and so on. In other words, syllables were slurred, and words were run together, as ‘brenbu’er’ for bread and butter. They had hundreds of proverbs and sayings and their talk was stiff with simile. Nothing was simply hot, cold, or coloured; it was ‘as hot as hell’, ‘as cold as ice’, ‘as green as grass’, or ‘as yellow as a guinea’. A botched-up job done with insufficient materials was ‘like Dick’s hatband that went half-way round and tucked’; to try to persuade or encourage one who did not respond was ‘putting a poultice on a wooden leg’. To be nervy was to be ‘like a cat on hot bricks’; to be angry, ‘mad as a bull’; or any one might be ‘poor as a rat’, ‘sick as a dog’, ‘hoarse as a crow’, ‘as ugly as sin’, ‘full of the milk of human kindness’, or ‘stinking with pride’. A temperamental person was said to be ‘one o’ them as is either up on the roof or down the well’. The dialect was heard at its best on the lips of a few middle-aged men, who had good natural voices, plenty of sense, and a grave, dignified delivery. Mr. Frederick Grisewood of the B.B.C. gave a perfect rendering of the old Oxfordshire dialect in some broadcast sketches a few years ago. Usually, such imitations are maddening to the native born; but he made the past live again for one listener.
The men’s incomes were the same to a penny; their circumstances, pleasures, and their daily field work were shared in common; but in themselves they differed; as other men of their day differed, in country and town. Some were intelligent, others slow at the uptake; some were kind and helpful, others selfish; some vivacious, others taciturn. If a stranger had gone there looking for the conventional Hodge, he would not have found him.
Nor would he have found the dry humour of the Scottish peasant, or the racy wit and wisdom of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. These men’s minds were cast in a heavier mould and moved more slowly. Yet there were occasional gleams of quiet fun. One man who had found Edmund crying because his magpie, let out for her daily exercise, had not returned to her wicker cage, said: ‘Doo’nt ‘ee take on like that, my man. You goo an’ tell Mrs. Andrews about it [naming the village gossip] an’ you’ll hear where your Maggie’s been seen, if ’tis as far away as Stratton.’
Their favourite virtue was endurance. Not to flinch from pain or hardship was their ideal. A man would say, ‘He says, says he, that field o’ oo-ats’s got to come in afore night, for there’s a rain a-comin’. But we didn’t flinch, not we! Got the last loo-ad under cover by midnight. A’moost too fagged-out to walk home; but we didn’t flinch. We done it!’ Or,‘Ole bull he comes for me, wi’s head down. But I didn’t flinch. I ripped off a bit o’ loose rail an’ went for he. ’Twas him as did th’ flinchin’. He! he!’ Or a woman would say, ‘I set up wi’ my poor old mother six nights runnin’; never had me clothes off. But I didn’t flinch, an’ I pulled her through, for she didn’t flinch neither.’ Or a young wife would say to the midwife after her first confinement, ‘I didn’t flinch, did I? Oh, I do hope I didn’t flinch.’
The farm was large, extending far beyond the parish boundaries; being, in fact, several farms, formerly in separate occupancy, but now thrown into one and ruled over by the rich old man at the Tudor farmhouse. The meadows around the farmstead sufficed for the carthorses’ grazing and to support the store cattle and a couple of milking cows which supplied the farmer’s family and those of a few of his immediate neighbours with butter and milk. A few fields were sown with grass seed for hay, and sainfoin and rye were grown and cut green for cattle food. The rest was arable land producing corn and root crops, chiefly wheat.
Around the farmhouse were grouped the farm buildings; stables for the great stamping shaggy-fetlocked carthorses; barns with doors so wide and high that a load of hay could be driven through; sheds for the yellow-and-blue painted farm wagons, granaries with outdoor staircases; and sheds for storing oilcake, artificial manures, and agricultural implements. In the rickyard, tall, pointed, elaborately thatched ricks stood on stone straddles; the dairy indoors, though small, was a model one; there was a profusion of all that was necessary or desirable for good farming.
Labour, too, was lavishly used. Boys leaving school were taken on at the farm as a matter of course, and no time-expired soldier or settler on marriage was ever refused a job. As the farmer said, he could always do with an extra hand, for labour was cheap and the land was well tilled up to the last inch.
When the men and boys from the hamlet reached the farmyard in the morning, the carter and his assistant had been at work for an hour, feeding and getting ready the horses. After giving any help required, the men and boys would harness and lead out their teams and file off to the field where their day’s work was to be done.
If it rained, they donned sacks, split up one side to form a hood and cloak combined. If it was frosty, they blew upon their nails and thumped their arms across their chest to warm them. If they felt hungry after their bread-and-lard breakfast, they would pare a turnip and munch it, or try a bite or two of the rich, dark brown oilcake provided for the cattle. Some of the boys would sample the tallow candles belonging to the stable lanterns; but that was done more out of devilry than from hunger, for, whoever went short, the mothers took care that their Tom or Dicky should have ‘a bit o’ summat to peck at between meals’— half a cold pancake or the end of yesterday’s roly-poly.
With ‘Gee!’ and ‘Wert up!’ and ‘Who-a-a, now!’ the teams would draw out. The boys were hoisted to the backs of the tall carthorses, and the men, walking alongside, filled their clay pipes with shag and drew the first precious puffs of the day, as, with cracking of whips, clopping of hooves and jingling of harness, the teams went tramping along the muddy byways.
The field names gave the clue to the fields’ history. Near the farmhouse, ‘Moat Piece’, ‘Fishponds’, ‘Duffus [i.e. dovehouse] piece’, ‘Kennels’, and ‘Warren Piece’ spoke of a time before the Tudor house took the place of another and older establishment. Farther on, ‘Lark Hill’, ‘Cuckoos’ Clump’, ‘The Osiers’, and ‘Pond Piece’ were named after natural features, while ‘Gibbard’s Piece’ and ‘Blackwell’s’ probably commemorated otherwise long-forgotten former occupants. The large new fields round the hamlet had been cut too late to be named and were known as ‘The Hundred Acres’, ‘The Sixty Acres’, and so on according to their acreage. One or two of the ancients persisted in calling one of these ‘The Heath’ and another ‘The Racecourse’.
One name was as good as another to most of the men; to them it was just a name and meant nothing. What mattered to them about the field in which they happened to be working was whether the road was good or bad which led from the farm to it; or if it was comparatively sheltered or one of those bleak open places which the wind hurtled through, driving the rain through the clothes to the very pores; and was the soil easily workable or of back-breaking heaviness or so bound together with that ‘hemmed’ twitch that a ploughshare could scarcely get through it.
There were usually three or four ploughs to a field, each of them drawn by a team of three horses, with a boy at the head of the leader and the ploughman behind at the shafts. All day, up and down they would go, ribbing the pale stubble with stripes of dark furrows, which, as the day advanced, would get wider and nearer together, until, at length, the whole field lay a rich velvety plum-colour.
Each plough had its following of rooks, searching the clods with side-long glances for worms and grubs. Little hedgerow birds flitted hither and thither, intent upon getting their tiny share of whatever was going. Sheep, penned in a neighbouring field, bleated complainingly; and above the ma-aing and cawing and twittering rose the immemorial cries of the land-worker: ‘Wert up!’ ‘Who-o-o-a!’ ‘Go it, Poppet!’ ‘Go it, Lightfoot!’ ‘Boo-oy, be you deaf, or be you hard of hearin’, dang ye!’
After the plough had done its part, the horse-drawn roller was used to break down the clods; then the harrow to comb out and leave in neat piles the weeds and the twitch grass which infested those fields, to be fired later and fill the air with the light blue haze and the scent that can haunt for a lifetime. Then seed was sown, crops were thinned out and hoed and, in time, mown, and the whole process began again.
Machinery was just coming into use on the land. Every autumn appeared a pair of large traction engines, which, posted one on each side of a field, drew a plough across and across by means of a cable. These toured the district under their own steam for hire on the different farms, and the outfit included a small caravan, known as ‘the box’, for the two drivers to live and sleep in. In the ‘nineties, when they had decided to emigrate and wanted to learn all that was possible about farming, both Laura’s brothers, in turn, did a spell with the steam plough, horrifying the other hamlet people, who looked upon such nomads as social outcasts. Their ideas had not then been extended to include mechanics as a class apart and they were lumped as inferiors with sweeps and tinkers and others whose work made their faces and clothes black. On the other hand, clerks and salesmen of every grade, whose clean smartness might have been expected to ensure respect, were looked down upon as ‘counter-jumpers’. Their recognized world was made up of landowners, farmers, publicans, and farm labourers, with the butcher, the baker, the miller, and the grocer as subsidiaries.
Such machinery as the farmer owned was horse-drawn and was only in partial use. In some fields a horse-drawn drill would sow the seed in rows, in others a human sower would walk up and down with a basket suspended from his neck and fling the seed with both hands broadcast. In harvest time the mechanical reaper was already a familiar sight, but it only did a small part of the work; men were still mowing with scythes and a few women were still reaping with sickles. A thrashing machine on hire went from farm to farm and its use was more general; but men at home still thrashed out their allotment crops and their wives’ leazings with a flail and winnowed the corn by pouring from sieve to sieve in the wind.
The labourers worked hard and well when they considered the occasion demanded it and kept up a good steady pace at all times. Some were better workmen than others, of course; but the majority took a pride in their craft and were fond of explaining to an outsider that field work was not the fool’s job that some townsmen considered it. Things must be done just so and at the exact moment, they said; there were ins and outs in good land work which took a man’s lifetime to learn. A few of less admirable build would boast: ‘We gets ten bob a week, a’ we yarns every penny of it; but we doesn’t yarn no more; we takes hemmed good care o’ that!’ But at team work, at least, such ‘slack-twisted ‘uns’ had to keep in step, and the pace, if slow, was steady.
While the ploughmen were in charge of the teams, other men went singly, or in twos or threes, to hoe, harrow, or spread manure in other fields; others cleared ditches and saw to drains, or sawed wood or cut chaff or did other odd jobs about the farmstead. Two or three highly skilled middle-aged men were sometimes put upon piecework, hedging and ditching, sheep-shearing, thatching, or mowing, according to the season. The carter, shepherd, stockman, and blacksmith had each his own specialized job. Important men, these, with two shillings a week extra on their wages and a cottage rent free near the farmstead.
When the ploughmen shouted to each other across the furrows, they did not call ‘Miller’ or ‘Gaskins’ or ‘Tuffrey’ or even ‘Bill’, ‘Tom’, or ‘Dick’, for they all had nicknames and answered more readily to ‘Bishie’ or ‘Pumpkin’ or ‘Boamer’. The origin of many of these names was forgotten, even by the bearers; but a few were traceable to personal peculiarities. ‘Cockie’ or’Cock-eye’ had a slight cast; ‘Old Stut’ stuttered, while ‘Bavour’ was so called because when he fancied a snack between meals he would say ‘I must just have my mouthful of bavour’, using the old name for a snack, which was rapidly becoming modernized into ‘lunch’ or ‘luncheon’.
When a few years later, Edmund worked in the fields for a time, the carter, having asked him some question and being struck with the aptness of his reply, exclaimed: ‘Why, boo-oy, you be as wise as Solomon, an’ Solomon I shall call ‘ee!’ and Solomon he was until he left the hamlet. A younger brother was called ‘Fisher’; but the origin of this name was a mystery. His mother, who was fonder of boys than girls, used to call him her ‘kingfisher’.
Sometimes afield, instead of the friendly shout, a low hissing whistle would pass between the ploughs. It was a warning-note and meant that ‘Old Monday’, the farm bailiff, had been sighted. He would come riding across the furrows on his little long-tailed grey pony, himself so tall and his steed so dumpy that his feet almost touched the ground, a rosy, shrivelled, nutcracker-faced old fellow, swishing his ash stick and shouting, ‘Hi, men! Ho, men! What do you reckon you’re doing!’
He questioned them sharply and found fault here and there, but was in the main fairly just in his dealings with them. He had one great fault in their eyes, however; he was always in a hurry himself and he tried to hurry them, and that was a thing they detested.
The nickname of ‘Old Monday’, or ‘Old Monday Morning’, had been bestowed upon him years before when some hitch had occurred and he was said to have cried: ‘Ten o’clock Monday morning! To-day’s Monday, tomorrow’s Tuesday, next day’s Wednesday — half the week gone and nothing done!’ This name, of course, was reserved for his absence; while he was with them it was ‘Yes, Muster Morris’ and ‘No, Muster Morris’, and ‘I’ll see what I can do, Muster Morris’. A few of the tamer-spirited even called him ‘sir’. Then, as soon as his back was turned, some wag would point to it with one hand and slap his own buttocks with the other, saying, but not too loudly, ‘My elbow to you, you ole devil!’
At twelve by the sun, or by signal from the possessor of one of the old turnip-faced watches which descended from father to son, the teams would knock off for the dinner-hour. Horses were unyoked, led to the shelter of a hedge or a rick and given their nosebags and men and boys threw themselves down on sacks spread out beside them and tin bottles of cold tea were uncorked and red handkerchiefs of food unwrapped. The lucky ones had bread and cold bacon, perhaps the top or the bottom of a cottage loaf, on which the small cube of bacon was placed, with a finger of bread on top, called the thumb-piece, to keep the meat untouched by hand and in position for manipulation with a clasp-knife. The consumption of this food was managed neatly and decently, a small sliver of bacon and a chunk of bread being cut and conveyed to the mouth in one movement. The less fortunate ones munched their bread and lard or morsel of cheese; and the boys with their ends of cold pudding were jokingly bidden not to get ‘that ’ere treacle’ in their ears.
The food soon vanished, the crumbs from the red handkerchiefs were shaken out for the birds, the men lighted their pipes and the boys wandered off with their catapults down the hedgerows. Often the elders would sit out their hour of leisure discussing politics, the latest murder story, or local affairs; but at other times, especially when one man noted for that kind of thing was present, they would while away the time in repeating what the women spoke of with shamed voices as ‘men’s tales’.
These stories, which were kept strictly to the fields and never repeated elsewhere, formed a kind of rustic Decameron, which seemed to have been in existence for centuries and increased like a snowball as it rolled down the generations. The tales were supposed to be extremely indecent, and elderly men would say after such a sitting, ‘I got up an’ went over to th’ osses, for I couldn’t stand no more on’t. The brimstone fair come out o’ their mouths as they put their rascally heads together.’ What they were really like only the men knew; but probably they were coarse rather than filthy. Judging by a few stray specimens which leaked through the channel of eavesdropping juniors, they consisted chiefly of ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, together with a lavish enumeration of those parts of the human body then known as ‘the unmentionables’.
Songs and snatches on the same lines were bawled at the plough-tail and under hedges and never heard elsewhere. Some of these ribald rhymes were so neatly turned that those who have studied the subject have attributed their authorship to some graceless son of the Rectory or Hall. It may be that some of these young scamps had a hand in them, but it is just as likely that they sprung direct from the soil, for, in those days of general churchgoing, the men’s minds were well stored with hymns and psalms and some of them were very good at parodying them.
There was ‘The Parish Clerk’s Daughter’, for instance. This damsel was sent one Christmas morning to the church to inform her father that the Christmas present of beef had arrived after he left home. When she reached the church the service had begun and the congregation, led by her father, was half-way through the psalms. Nothing daunted, she sidled up to her father and intoned:
‘Feyther, the me-a-at’s come, an’ what’s me mother to d-o-o-o w’it?’
And the answer came pat: ‘Tell her to roast the thick an’ boil th’ thin, an’ me-ak a pudden o’ th’ su-u-u-u-et.’ But such simple entertainment did not suit the man already mentioned. He would drag out the filthiest of the stock rhymes, then go on to improvise, dragging in the names of honest lovers and making a mock of fathers of first children. Though nine out of ten of his listeners disapproved and felt thoroughly uncomfortable, they did nothing to check him beyond a mild ‘Look out, or them boo-oys’ll hear ‘ee!’ or ‘Careful! some ‘ooman may be comin’ along th’ roo-ad.’
But the lewd scandalizer did not always have everything his own way. There came a day when a young exsoldier, home from his five years’ service in India, sat next to him. He sat through one or two such extemporized songs, then, eyeing the singer, said shortly, ‘You’d better go and wash out your dirty mouth.’
The answer was a bawled stanza in which the objector’s name figured. At that the exsoldier sprung to his feet, seized the singer by the scruff of his neck, dragged him to the ground and, after a scuffle, forced earth and small stones between his teeth. ‘There, that’s a lot cleaner!’ he said, administering a final kick on the buttocks as the fellow slunk, coughing and spitting, behind the hedge.
A few women still did field work, not with the men, or even in the same field as a rule, but at their own special tasks, weeding and hoeing, picking up stones, and topping and tailing turnips and mangel; or, in wet weather, mending sacks in a barn. Formerly, it was said, there had been a large gang of field women, lawless, slatternly creatures, some of whom had thought nothing of having four or five children out of wedlock. Their day was over; but the reputation they had left behind them had given most country-women a distaste for ‘goin’ afield’. In the ‘eighties about half a dozen of the hamlet women did field work, most of them being respectable middle-aged women who, having got their families off hand, had spare time, a liking for an open-air life, and a longing for a few shillings a week they could call their own.
Their hours, arranged that they might do their housework before they left home in the morning and cook their husband’s meal after they returned, were from ten to four, with an hour off for dinner. Their wage was four shillings a week. They worked in sunbonnets, hobnailed boots and men’s coats, with coarse aprons of sacking enveloping the lower part of their bodies. One, a Mrs. Spicer, was a pioneer in the wearing of trousers; she sported a pair of her husband’s corduroys. The others compromised with ends of old trouser legs worn as gaiters. Strong, healthy, weather-beaten, hard as nails, they worked through all but the very worst weathers and declared they would go ‘stark, staring mad’ if they had to be shut up in a house all day.
To a passer-by, seeing them bent over their work in a row, they might have appeared as alike as peas in a pod. They were not. There was Lily, the only unmarried one, big and strong and clumsy as a carthorse and dark as a gipsy, her skin ingrained with field mould and the smell of the earth about her, even indoors. Years before she had been betrayed by a man and had sworn she would never marry until she had brought up the boy she had had by him — a quite superfluous oath, her neighbours thought, for she was one of the very few really ugly people in the world.
The ‘eighties found her a woman of fifty, a creature of earth, earthy, whose life was a round of working, eating, and sleeping. She lived alone in a tiny cottage, in which, as she boasted, she could get her meals, eat them, and put the things away without leaving her seat by the hearth. She could read a little, but had forgotten how to write, and Laura’s mother wrote her letters to her soldier son in India.
Then there was Mrs. Spicer, the wearer of the trousers, a rough-tongued old body, but independent and upright, who kept her home spotless and boasted that she owed no man a penny and wanted nothing from anybody. Her gentle, hen-pecked, little husband adored her.
Very different from either was the comfortable, pink-cheeked Mrs. Braby, who always carried an apple or a paper of peppermints in her pocket, in case she should meet a child she favoured. In her spare time she was a great reader of novelettes and out of her four shillings subscribed to Bow Bells and the Family Herald. Once when Laura, coming home from school, happened to overtake her, she enlivened the rest of the journey with the synopsis of a serial she was reading, called His Ice Queen, telling her how the heroine, rich, lovely, and icily virtuous in her white velvet and swansdown, almost broke the heart of the hero by her cool aloofness; then, suddenly melting, threw herself into his arms. But, after all, the plot could not have been quite as simple as that, for there was a villainous colonel in it. ‘Oh! I do just about hate that colonel!’ Mrs. Braby ejaculated at intervals. She pronounced it ‘col-on-el’, as spelt, which so worked upon Laura that at last she ventured, ‘But don’t they call that word “colonel”, Mrs. Braby?’ Which led to a spelling lesson: ‘Col-on-el; that’s as plain as the nose on your face. Whatever be you a-thinkin’ of, child? They don’t seem to teach you much at school these days!’ She was distinctly offended and did not offer Laura a peppermint for weeks, which served her right, for she should not have tried to correct her elders.
One man worked with the field women or in the same field. He was a poor, weedy creature, getting old and not very strong and they had put him upon half-pay. He was known as ‘Algy’ and was not a native, but had appeared there suddenly, years before, out of a past he never mentioned. He was tall and thin and stooping, with watery blue eyes and long ginger side-whiskers of the kind then known as ‘weepers’. Sometimes, when he straightened his back, the last vestiges of a military bearing might be detected, and there were other grounds for supposing he had at some time been in the Army. When tipsy, or nearly so, he would begin, ‘When I was in the Grenadier Guards . . .’ a sentence that always tailed off into silence. Although his voice broke on the high notes and often deteriorated into a squeak, it still bore the same vague resemblance to that of a man of culture as his bearing did to that of a soldier. Then, instead of swearing with ‘d —— s’ and ‘b —— s’ as the other men did, he would, when surprised, burst into a ‘Bai Jove!’ which amused everybody, but threw little light on his mystery.
Twenty years before, when his present wife had been a widow of a few weeks’ standing, he had knocked at her door during a thunderstorm and asked for a night’s lodging, and had been there ever since, never receiving a letter or speaking of his past, even to his wife. It was said that during his first days at field work his hands had blistered and bled from softness. There must have been great curiosity in the hamlet about him at first; but it had long died down and by the ‘eighties he was accepted as ‘a poor, slack-twisted crittur’, useful for cracking jokes on. He kept his own counsel and worked contentedly to the best of his power. The only thing that disturbed him was the rare visit of the German band. As soon as he heard the brass instruments strike up and the ‘pom, pom’ of the drum, he would stick his fingers in his ears and run, across fields, anywhere, and not be seen again that day.
On Friday evening, when work was done, the men trooped up to the farmhouse for their wages. These were handed out of a window to them by the farmer himself and acknowledged by a rustic scraping of feet and pulling of forelocks. The farmer had grown too old and too stout to ride horseback, and, although he still made the circuit of his land in his high dogcart every day, he had to keep to the roads, and pay-day was the only time he saw many of his men. Then, if there was cause for complaint, was the time they heard of it. ‘You, there! What were you up to in Causey Spinney last Monday, when you were supposed to be clearing the runnels?’ was a type of complaint that could always be countered by pleading. ‘Call o’ Nature, please, sir.’ Less frequent and harder to answer was: ‘I hear you’ve not been too smart about your work lately, Stimson. ‘Twon’t do, you know, ‘twon’t do! You’ve got to earn your money if you’re going to stay here.’ But, just as often, it would be: ‘There, Boamer, there you are, my lad, a bright and shining golden half-sovereign for you. Take care you don’t go spending it all at once!’ or an inquiry about some wife in childbed or one of the ancients’ rheumatism. He could afford to be jolly and affable: he paid poor old Monday Morning to do his dirty work for him.
Apart from that, he was not a bad-hearted man and had no idea he was sweating his labourers. Did they not get the full standard wage, with no deduction for standing by in bad weather? How they managed to live and keep their families on such a sum was their own affair. After all, they did not need much, they were not used to luxuries. He liked a cut off a juicy sirloin and a glass of good port himself; but bacon and beans were better to work on. ‘Hard liver, hard worker’ was a sound old country maxim, and the labouring man did well to follow it. Besides, was there not at least one good blowout for everybody once a year at his harvest-home dinner, and the joint of beef at Christmas, when he killed a beast and distributed the meat, and soup and milk-puddings for anybody who was ill; they had only to ask for and fetch them.
He never interfered with his men as long as they did their work well. Not he! He was a staunch Conservative himself, a true blue, and they knew his colour when they went to vote; but he never tried to influence them at election times and never inquired afterwards which way they had voted. Some masters did it, he knew, but it was a dirty, low-down trick, in his opinion. As to getting them to go to church — that was the parson’s job.
Although they hoodwinked him whenever possible and referred to him behind his back as ‘God a’mighty’, the farmer was liked by his men. ‘Not a bad ole sort,’ they said; ‘an’ does his bit by the land.’ All their rancour was reserved for the bailiff.
There is something exhilarating about pay-day, even when the pay is poor and already mortgaged for necessities. With that morsel of gold in their pockets, the men stepped out more briskly and their voices were cheerier than ordinary. When they reached home they handed the half-sovereign straight over to their wives, who gave them back a shilling for the next week’s pocket-money. That was the custom of the countryside. The men worked for the money and the women had the spending of it. The men had the best of the bargain. They earned their half-sovereign by hard toil, it is true, but in the open air, at work they liked and took an interest in, and in congenial company. The women, kept close at home, with cooking, cleaning, washing, and mending to do, plus their constant pregnancies and a tribe of children to look after, had also the worry of ways and means on an insufficient income.
Many husbands boasted that they never asked their wives what they did with the money. As long as there was food enough, clothes to cover everybody, and a roof over their heads, they were satisfied, they said, and they seemed to make a virtue of this and think what generous, trusting, fine-hearted fellows they were. If a wife got in debt or complained, she was told: ‘You must larn to cut your coat accordin’ to your cloth, my gal.’ The coats not only needed expert cutting, but should have been made of elastic.
On light evenings, after their tea-supper, the men worked for an hour or two in their gardens or on the allotments. They were first-class gardeners and it was their pride to have the earliest and best of the different kinds of vegetables. They were helped in this by good soil and plenty of manure from their pigsties; but good tilling also played its part. They considered keeping the soil constantly stirred about the roots of growing things the secret of success and used the Dutch hoe a good deal for this purpose. The process was called ‘tickling’. ‘Tickle up old Mother Earth and make her bear!’ they would shout to each other across the plots, or salute a busy neighbour in passing with: ‘Just tickling her up a bit, Jack?’
The energy they brought to their gardening after a hard day’s work in the fields was marvellous. They grudged no effort and seemed never to tire. Often, on moonlight nights in spring, the solitary fork of some one who had not been able to tear himself away would be heard and the scent of his twitch fire smoke would float in at the windows. It was pleasant, too, in summer twilight, perhaps in hot weather when water was scarce, to hear the swish of water on parched earth in a garden — water which had been fetched from the brook a quarter of a mile distant. ‘It’s no good stintin’ th’ land,’ they would say. ‘If you wants anything out you’ve got to put summat in, if ’tis only elbow-grease.’
The allotment plots were divided into two, and one half planted with potatoes and the other half with wheat or barley. The garden was reserved for green vegetables, currant and gooseberry bushes, and a few old-fashioned flowers. Proud as they were of their celery, peas and beans, cauliflowers and marrows, and fine as were the specimens they could show of these, their potatoes were their special care, for they had to grow enough to last the year round. They grew all the old-fashioned varieties — ashleaf kidney, early rose, American rose, magnum bonum, and the huge misshaped white elephant. Everybody knew the elephant was an unsatisfactory potato, that it was awkward to handle when paring and that it boiled down to a white pulp in cooking; but it produced tubers of such astonishing size that none of the men could resist the temptation to plant it. Every year specimens were taken to the inn to be weighed on the only pair of scales in the hamlet, then handed round for guesses to be made of the weight. As the men said, when a patch of elephants was dug up and spread out, ‘You’d got summat to put in your eye and look at.’
Very little money was spent on seed; there was little to spend, and they depended mainly upon the seed saved from the previous year. Sometimes, to secure the advantage of fresh soil, they would exchange a bag of seed potatoes with friends living at a distance, and sometimes a gardener at one of the big houses around would give one of them a few tubers of a new variety. These would be carefully planted and tended, and, when the crop was dug up, specimens would be presented to neighbours.
Most of the men sang or whistled as they dug or hoed. There was a good deal of outdoor singing in those days. Workmen sang at their jobs; men with horses and carts sang on the road; the baker, the miller’s man, and the fish-hawker sang as they went from door to door; even the doctor and parson on their rounds hummed a tune between their teeth. People were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements, or knowledge we have today; but they were happier. Which seems to suggest that happiness depends more upon the state of mind — and body, perhaps — than upon circumstances and events.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55