Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson


On Her Majesty’s Service

The interview next morning did not turn out so terrifying as Laura had expected. Sir Timothy smiled very kindly upon her when the footman ushered her into his Justice Room, saying: ‘The young person from the Post Office, please, Sir Timothy.’

‘What have you been up to? Poaching, rick-burning, or petty larceny?’ he asked when the footman had gone. ‘If you’re as innocent as you look, I shan’t give you a long sentence. So come along,’ and he drew her by the elbow to the side of his chair. Laura smiled dutifully, for she knew by the twinkle of his keen blue eyes beneath their shaggy white eyebrows that Sir Timothy was joking.

As she leaned forward to take up a pen with which to sign the thick blue official document he was unfolding, she sensed the atmosphere of jollity, good sense, and good nature, together with the smell of tobacco, stables, and country tweeds he carried around like an aura.

‘But read it! Read!’ he cried in a shocked voice. ‘Never put your name to anything before you have read it or you’ll be signing your own death warrant one of these days.’ And Laura read out, as clearly as her shyness permitted, the Declaration which even the most humble candidate for Her Majesty’s Service had in those serious days to sign before a magistrate.

‘I do solemnly promise and declare that I will not open or delay or cause or suffer to be opened or delayed any letter or anything sent by the post’, it began, and went on to promise secrecy in all things.

When she had read it through, she signed her name. Sir Timothy signed his, then folded the document neatly for her to carry back to Miss Lane, who would send it on to the higher authorities.

Sir Timothy could not have been very busy that morning, for he kept her talking a long time, asking her age and where she came from and how many brothers and sisters she had and what she had learnt at school and if she thought she would like the post office business. ‘You’ve been well brought up,’ he said at last, as weightily as if pronouncing sentence in Court. ‘And you should do well. Miss Lane is an excellent woman — most efficient, and kind, too, to those of whom she approves, though I should not like to offend her myself. By gad! I should not! I remember one day when she was a girl — but perhaps I had better not tell you that story. Now, I expect you would be glad of some refreshment. Ask Purchase, or Robert, to show you the way to the housekeeper’s room. There’s sure to be tea or coffee or something going there at this time,’ and Laura dropped a little curtsy as she said ‘No, thank you, Sir Timothy. No, thank you,’ and passed through the door which he courteously held open and down the long, resounding stone passage which led to the side door, and was very glad that she saw no one, for when she arrived the footman had teasingly pulled her hair and asked for a kiss.

Out in the park, she turned and looked back at the long, white, battlemented façade of the mansion, with its terraces, fountains, and flower-beds, and thought: ‘Thank goodness that’s over. I don’t suppose I shall ever see this place again.’ But she erred in her supposition. She was to cross the park, come clanging through the iron swing gate, and pass beneath the tall, rook-noisy elms to the mansion every morning in all weathers for nearly three years.

For the first few days Laura feared she would never learn her new duties. Even in that small country Post Office there was in use what seemed to her a bewildering number and variety of official forms, to all of which Miss Lane who loved to make a mystery of her work referred by number, not name. But soon, in actual practice, ‘A/B35’, ‘K.21’, ‘X.Y.13’, or what not became ‘The blue Savings Bank Form’, ‘The Postal Order Abstract’, ‘The Cash Account Sheet’, and so on, and Laura found herself flicking them out of their pigeonholes and carrying them without a moment’s hesitation to where Miss Lane sat doing her accounts at the kitchen table.

Then the stamps! The 1d. and ½d. ones she already knew by sight were in 10s. and 5s. sheets which hot, nervous hands were inclined to tear, and those of higher value, neatly hinged in a cardboard-leaved book, ready to be sold for parcels and telegrams, had to be detached just so, working up from the left-hand bottom corner. And the cash drawer, with its three wooden bowls for gold, silver, and copper, and all three bowls at least half full, even the one for sovereigns and half-sovereigns! What a lot of money there must be in the world! Laura would run her fingers through the shining gold coins when the cash was counted at night and placed in the black japanned box ready to be taken upstairs, wrapped in an old woolly shawl as disguise, and stood on the top shelf of Miss Lane’s clothes cupboard. Occasionally there was a banknote in the japanned box, but no Treasury notes, for there were none issued; there was plenty of gold to serve as currency in those days. Gold in plenty flowed through the country in a stream, but a stream to which only the fortunate had access. One poor half-sovereign was doled out on Saturday night to the lowest-paid workers; men who had a trade might get a whole sovereign and a few pieces of silver.

At first, when giving change, Laura boggled and hesitated and counted again, but although she had learned little arithmetic at school she was naturally quick at figures, and that part of her work soon became easy to her. And she liked seeing and speaking and being spoken to by the post office customers, especially the poorer ones, who would tell her about their affairs and sometimes ask her advice. The more important at first would ignore her if Miss Lane was present, or, if she was absent, would ask to see her; but they soon got used to seeing a new face there, and once, when Laura had gone indoors to tea, a gentleman farmer from a neighbouring hamlet actually inquired what had become of ‘that charmin’ young gal you’ve got now’. That set the seal of acceptance upon her and, fortunately, it was the only compliment so definitely expressed. Further inquiries of the kind might not have pleased Miss Lane. She liked Laura and was glad to find she was giving satisfaction, but naturally expected to stand first in her customers’ regards.

Working hours in such small post offices as that where Laura was employed were then from the arrival of the seven o’clock morning mail till the office was closed at night, with no weekly half-day off and Sunday not entirely free, for there was a Sunday morning delivery of letters and an outward mail to be made up in the evening. Slave’s hours, she was told by those employed directly by Government in the larger post offices, where they worked an eight-hour-day. And so they would have been had life moved at its present-day pace. At that time life moved in a more leisurely manner; the amount of business transacted in such village post offices was smaller and its nature more simple, there were no complicated forms with instructions for filling in to be dealt out to the public, no Government allowances to be paid, and the only pensions were the quarterly ones to exService men, of whom there would not be more than three or four in such a place. During the day there were long, quiet intervals in which meals could be taken in comparative peace, or reading or knitting were possible, while where two were engaged in the business, as at Candleford Green, there were opportunities of getting out into the fresh air.

Most important of all, there was leisure for human contacts. Instead of rushing in a crowd to post at the last moment, villagers would stroll over the green in the afternoon to post their letters and stay for a chat, often bringing an apple or a pear or a nosegay from their gardens for Laura. There was always at least one pot of cut flowers in the office, pink moss-roses, sweet williams and lad’s love in summer, and in autumn the old-fashioned yellow-and-bronze button chrysanthemums which filled cottage gardens at that time.

In time Laura came to know these regular customers well. Some letter or telegram they had received or were sending opened the way to confidences and often, afterwards, she was treated as an old friend and would ask if the daughter in Birmingham had made a good recovery from her confinement, or if the son in Australia was having better luck, or how the wife’s asthma was, or if the husband had succeeded in getting the job he was trying for. And they would ask Laura if her people at home were well, or compliment her upon a new cotton frock she was wearing, or ask her if she liked such-and-such a flower, because they had some at home they could bring her.

The morning mail arrived from the head office by walking postman at seven o’clock, and it was Laura’s first duty of the day to attend to the opening of the mailbag and the distribution of its contents in what had in times past been one of the numerous out-buildings of the house, wash-house, brew-house, or pantry. New-floored and new-ceiled and with sorting-benches placed around, it made a convenient little sorting office, although, with no other means of heating than an oil stove, it was cold there in winter.

Every morning, the postman who had brought the mail remained to sort out his own letters for the village delivery, and the two women letter-carriers who did cross-country deliveries to outlying houses and farms had their own sorting. The elder woman, Mrs. Gubbins, was an old country-woman who wore for her round a lilac sunbonnet with apron and shawl. She was a crabbed old creature who seldom spoke beyond grunting a ‘Good morning’, except when some local scandal was afoot, when she could be voluble enough. The other postwoman was still in her thirties and as pleasant in manner as Mrs. Gubbins was uncouth. Her name was Mrs. Macey, and more will be told about her later.

The morning postman, Thomas Brown, was a stockily built man with greying hair, who had, as far as was known, always led a quiet, respectable life. Until recently he had taken great interest in local affairs and had had such good judgement that he had occasionally been asked to arbitrate in local disputes. A teetotaller and a non-smoker, his only known vice had been an addiction to grumbling, especially about the weather, which, he seemed convinced, was ordered by some one with a special grudge against postmen.

Then, just before Laura knew him, he had been converted at a chapel revivalist meeting and the people who had formerly lain in wait for him on his round to ask his advice about their worldly affairs — what, for instance, could they ask from the M.F.H. for those three hens that old fox’d carried off in the night, or for the cabbage patch the hunt had trampled — now almost ran in the opposite direction when they saw him coming, lest he should ask impertinent questions about their souls. ‘How is it with your soul?’ he would unblushingly inquire of any chance-met acquaintance, or, more directly, ‘Have you found salvation?’ and, in face of a question like that, what could a man or woman do but mumble and look silly.

All but Miss Lane, who, suddenly asked in an earnest tone, ‘Miss Lane, are you a Christian?’ replied haughtily, ‘I do not see that whether I am or not is any business of yours, but, if you particularly want to know, I am a Christian in the sense that I live in a Christian country and try to order my life according to Christian teaching. Dogma I leave to those better qualified than myself to expound, and I advise you to do the same.’

That last was a shrewd thrust, because he had recently become a local preacher, but he did not feel it as such, for he only shook his grey head and said mournfully, ‘Ah, I see you’ve not found Christ yet.’

Laura was pleased when she heard that his wife had been converted, for, outside his home, he found little sympathy. His position seemed to her quite clear. He had found, as he thought, a priceless treasure which all mankind might share if they would, and he wanted to make it known to them. The pity was that he himself was so poor an advertisement of the change of heart he wished them to experience. His expression and voice when he spoke of Divine Love failed to light up or to soften, and, although he now declared that he had been the chief of sinners, his outward life had always been so exemplary that there could be no sudden change there to illustrate and enforce his new faith. Moreover, he was still grumbling and censorious.

But at least he had the courage of his convictions. Laura discovered that in him once when one of the higher officials was paying the office a visit of inspection. He was a very great man officially and had arrived, wearing a top-hat and an immaculate morning suit, in the station fly. When the office had been surveyed and a few criticisms made, none of them very severe, because the business was really well run and the delicious tea which followed the survey had softened the edges before they were delivered, he announced that he had to see Postman Brown, then about due with a letter-box collection. Laura, quietly sorting the night mail, could not help hearing what was said at this interview.

‘About this new Sunday evening collection, now, began the surveyor in his high-pitched, public-school-boyish accent, ‘I hear you object to doing it.’

Postman (subdued, but not intimidated): ‘Yes, sir, I do object.’

Surveyor: ‘On what grounds, may I ask? Your colleagues have agreed, and there is extra pay for it. It is your place, my man, to carry out the duties laid down for you by the Department, and I advise you for your own good to withdraw your objection immediately.’

Postman (firmly): ‘I can’t, sir.’

Surveyor: ‘But why, man, why? What do you usually do on a Sunday evening? Got another job? Because, if so, I warn you that to undertake outside employment of any kind is against the regulations.’

Postman (manfully and with spirit): ‘My job on Sunday evenings, sir, is to worship my Creator, who Himself laid down the law, “Keep holy the Sabbath Day”, and I can’t go against that, sir.’

By that time the man was trembling. He knew that his post and the pension he had so nearly earned hung in the balance. He drew out a big red, white-spotted handkerchief and mopped his forehead. Yet there was still a certain dignity about him far removed from his ordinary demeanour.

The gentleman appeared to less advantage. His easy, urbane, authoritative manner dropped from him, and there was an ugly sneer in the way he pronounced the words: ‘Takes a lot out of you, I suppose, this worshipping business! Better attend to the work which provides you with bread and butter. But you can go now. I will report what you have said and you will hear further about it.’ Then, to Laura, as Brown went out with a humble ‘Good night, sir’: ‘A cantankerous man. I know his kind. Out to make trouble. But he will find he will have to fit in the Sunday evening work with his psalm-singing.’

But, although highly placed, it appeared that Mr. Cochrane was not all-powerful. Some one at headquarters was more sympathetically disposed to Sabbatarian principles, or perhaps the head postmaster, who was a bit of a psalm-singer himself, interceded for Brown, for, after a few weeks of suspense, he was excused Sunday evening attendance. The other postmen did his collection with pleasure, for it brought them in a little extra pay, and he continued to add to his already high weekly walking mileage by tramping the countryside to preach in little local chapels.

Twice a year the head postmaster from Candleford came to audit the accounts and made a general survey of the office. This was officially supposed to be a surprise visit, with the object of detecting any shortage of cash or neglect of duty, but Mr. Rushton and Miss Lane were on such terms that on the morning of the day of his intended visitation the head postmaster would himself come to the telegraph instrument and with his own hands signal to Laura: ‘Please tell Miss Lane I shall be paying her a surprise visit this afternoon.’

That saved trouble all round. By the time Mr. Rushton’s pony-carriage drew up at the post office door, the account books, sheets of stamps, postal orders, licences, and so on, together with the cash, ready-counted in neat piles, would be arranged in readiness on the kitchen table. So the official business did not take long and, that despatched, the occasion became a social one.

Tea was laid on the round table in the parlour for Mr. Rushton’s visits, with Miss Lane in her best silk, and a long gold chain twice round her neck and tucked into her waistband, pouring out tea from the best silver teapot, Mr. Rushton doing full justice to the country fare (there was once cold duck on the table), and Laura bobbing in and out between her calls to the post office counter. The first time she was trusted to warm the pot and put in the tea from the special caddy for this function, she forgot to put in the tea and nearly dropped on the floor with nervous terror when the other two stared blankly at the crystal stream proceeding from the teapot.

After tea the garden and chickens and pigs had to be surveyed and the pony-cart loaded up with country produce, including a huge, old-fashioned bouquet of flowers for Mrs. Rushton.

It was an old-fashioned way of conducting business and Mr. Rushton was an old-fashioned postmaster. He was a neat, middle-aged little man, very precise in his speech and manner, and with what many considered an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Pleasant, if somewhat patronizing to well-doers on his staff, but a terror to the careless and slipshod worker. He was under the impression that his own office staff adored him. ‘The crew of my little ship’, he would say when speaking of those under him, ‘the crew of my little ship know who is captain.’ It is sad to have to record that the crew in private spoke of their captain as ‘Holy Joe’.

That was because in private life Mr. Rushton was a pillar of the Methodist Connexion in Candleford town, Sunday School superintendent, occasional preacher, and the ready host of visiting ministers, a great man locally in his Church. Which perhaps accounted for his style of dress. In his black, or very dark grey clothes and round, black soft felt hat, driving his fat grey pony in the lanes, he might himself have been taken for a minister, or even for a clergyman of the Established Church. On his salary of at most two hundred and fifty a year, he was able in those spacious days to keep his own pony carriage, a maid for his wife, and to entertain his friends and educate his children.

He was liked by the Candleford townspeople, but with those in the big country houses he was not a favourite. They thought him a too pedantic stickler for official rules. ‘That little jack-inoffice’, one of the squires called him, and there was a story of a fox-hunting baronet who had terminated an interview in the private office marked ‘Postmaster’ by hurling a stone bottle of ink at the official head. It missed its mark, fortunately, but some of the younger clerks in his office still took a pride in pointing out the faint remaining traces of the splashes on the wallpaper.

At an early stage of their acquaintance, Mr. Rushton promised Laura the offer of the next vacancy for a learner in his office. But the vacancy never occurred. His only two women clerks were the daughters of a minister, a friend of his own, and boarded with his family. They were quiet, refined, pleasant young women in the early thirties, of a type to which most women clerks in the post office at that time belonged. The ‘young ladies’ with the artificial pearls and bad manners belonged to the early years of this century and disappeared before the last war. In Laura’s time post office employment was largely the preserve of ministers’ and schoolmasters’ daughters. It had not become popularized. The pay of a learner in the larger offices was very small, not nearly sufficient to live upon away from home, and the smaller offices, where learners were boarded, demanded a premium. Laura had crept in by a kind of back door and later she was sometimes reminded of that fact. ‘Why should I teach you? My parents paid for me to learn’ was a spirit not unknown in the service.

For some time Laura hoped one of the Miss Rapleys would marry; but neither of them showed the least disposition to oblige her in that manner, and gradually her hopes of a Candleford vacancy faded. And no other offered which it was possible for her to accept. This is no success story. She remained what was officially known as an assistant throughout her brief official career. But there were compensations, which might not have appealed to everybody, but appealed to her.

The telegraph instrument had been installed in the parlour, where its scientific-looking white dials and brass trimmings looked strikingly modern against Miss Lane’s old rosewood and mahogany furniture. It was what was known as the ‘ABC’ type of instrument, now long superseded even in such small offices by the telephone. But it served very well in its day, being easy to learn and reliable in working. Larger and busier offices had Sounder and Single Needle instruments, worked by the Morse code and read by sound. The ABC was read by sight. A handle, like that of a coffee mill, guided a pointer from letter to letter on a dial which had the alphabet printed around it, clockwise, and this came out and was read on a smaller dial at the other end of the circuit. Surrounding the operating dial were brass studs, or keys, one for each letter, and the operator, turning the handle with one hand, depressed the keys with the fingers of the other, and by so doing spelt out the words of a telegram. A smaller dial above, known as the ‘receiver’, recorded incoming messages.

For a few days Laura, with a book propped open before her to supply the words, practised sending. Round and round went the handle and blick, blick, blick, went the keys, slowly and jerkily at first, then more smoothly and quickly. Sometimes a bell attached to the instrument would ring and a real telegram come through, which Miss Lane would take off while Laura tried hard to follow the pointer on the smaller, upper dial. It whirled round so madly that she feared her eyes would never be able to follow it, but, gradually, they became accustomed to note its brief pauses and in about a week she was able to take charge of the simple apparatus.

How to get the telegrams delivered promptly was one of Miss Lane’s problems. A girl named Minnie, who lived in one of the cottages near, could usually be depended upon to do this if she happened to be at home; but although there were only about a dozen incoming telegrams a day on the average, they were apt to come in rushes with long intervals between, and often Minnie had barely had time to get out of hailing distance before another telegram arrived. Then there was running to and fro to find another messenger, or Zillah or the apprentice from the blacksmith’s shop would be pressed into the service. Neither of these went willingly, and often they could ill be spared from their work, but it was a strict rule of the establishment that no telegram must be delayed. Another worrying thing about the delivery of telegrams was that even when two came fairly close together they were bound to be for addresses in opposite directions. Many were for farms or for country houses two or even three miles distant, and Minnie trailed many miles about the countryside in a day.

Trailing is the only way to describe her method of progress, for she had an apparently slow, languid walk, which was, in fact, deceptive, as she managed to cover long distances and usually be back to time. She was a pretty, doll-faced country girl of fifteen, with wide, rather vacant-looking blue eyes and a great love of finery. She usually appeared at the office in a very clean, if sometimes old, print frock and a flower-wreathed hat. One very hot day in a very hot summer, Miss Lane brought forth from her hoard an old white silk parasol with a deep cream lace frill and presented it to Minnie. Her face as she went off beneath it to deliver her telegram wore an expression Laura never forgot. It was one of utter felicity.

Miss Lane’s parlour door opened out into the public portion of the office and it sometimes happened that after attending to the telegraph instrument Laura found herself cut off from the inner side of the counter by what appeared to be a private and confidential conversation between Miss Lane and a customer. Then she would close the door softly and go straight to the bookcase. A few books, such as Cooking and Household Management, The Complete Farrier, and Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, were kept on one of the kitchen window-seats, but all the best books were kept behind glass doors above the bureau in the parlour. When one of these was lent to Laura, it had first to be fitted with a brown-paper jacket, for Miss Lane was very particular about her books, most of which had belonged to her father.

The collection was an unusual one to be found in a tradesman’s parlour at that time; but her father had been an unusual man, a lover of poetry, especially of Shakespeare, and a student of history and astronomy.

There were The Works of William Shakespeare in two large, flat volumes, and Hume’s History of England in at least a dozen small fat ones, Scott’s Poetical Works and a number of the Waverley Novels, Cowper’s poems and Campbell’s and Gray’s, Thomson’s Seasons and many other such books. Any of these, she was told, she might borrow; with one exception. That was Byron’s Don Juan, a terrible book, she was told, and most unfit for her reading. ‘I don’t know why I haven’t destroyed it long ago,’ said Miss Lane. ‘Next time there’s a bonfire in the garden, I must see about it.’

Laura knew she ought to be, and was, ashamed of herself when, at every opportunity, she stood before the bookcase with goggling eyes and many a guilty glance at the door, devouring another half-canto of Don Juan. She slipped the book into her pocket one night and took it to read in bed and narrowly escaped detection when Miss Lane came suddenly into her room to give some instruction about the next morning’s mail. She saved herself by tucking the book down into the bed beside her, but the feel of its sharp edges against her side made her so incoherent that Miss Lane glanced round suspiciously. ‘No reading in bed, now,’ she said. ‘You’ve got no need to wear out your eyesight, and I’m sure I don’t fancy being burnt to death in my sleep.’ And Laura replied in a small, meek voice, ‘No, Miss Lane.’

But she went on reading. She could not help it. How fascinating the book was! She felt she simply had to know what came next, and the blue skies and seas of those foreign shores and the seaside caves and golden sands and the wit of the author and the felicity of his language and the dexterity of his rhymes enchanted her. She was shocked by some of the hero’s adventures, but more often thrilled. Laura learned quite a lot by reading Don Juan.

When she had finished eating that forbidden fruit, she turned to Shakespeare. Miss Lane said Shakespeare was the greatest poet who ever lived and vowed that when she had time she would reread every one of the plays herself. But she never did. She had read them all at some time, probably to please her father, and still remembered the stories and a few lines here and there of the poetry. Sometimes, when she was in a good mood, Laura would begin: ‘Good morrow, Father,’ and she would reply, ‘Benedicite. What early tongue so sweet saluteth me?’ and go on being the Friar to Laura’s Romeo. But much more often, in their off-duty hours, she was deep in The Origin of Species, or one of the hooks on human psychology she had bought at a doctor’s sale of furniture. Such books as those and the leading articles in The Times were the kind of reading she liked. But, because of her father, she could understand Laura’s love of quite other literature.

When Laura had read most of the parlour books, Miss Lane suggested that, as she was fond of reading, she should take out a library ticket at the Mechanics’ Institute in Candleford town. Laura took out the ticket and, within a year, she had read and laughed and cried over the works of Charles Dickens, read such of the Waverley Novels as had not before come her way, and made the acquaintance of many other writers hitherto unknown to her. Barchester Towers and Pride and Prejudice gave her a taste for the work of Trollope and Jane Austen which was to be a precious possession for life.

The caretaker at the Institute acted as librarian during the day. He was a one-legged man named Hussey, and his manners and qualifications bore no resemblance to those of librarians today. He seemed to bear a positive grudge against frequent borrowers. ‘Carn’t y’make up y’r mind?’ he would growl at some lingerer at the shelves. ‘Te-ak th’ first one y’comes to. It won’t be no fuller o’ lies than tothers,’ and, if that admonition failed, he would bring his broom and sweep close around the borrower’s feet, not sparing toes or heels. Laura sometimes wondered if his surname was inherited from some virago of a maternal ancestor.

But there was no dearth of books. After she left home, Laura never suffered in that way. Modern writers who speak of the booklessness of the poor at that time must mean books as possessions; there were always books to borrow.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00