In the early ‘nineties the change which had for some time been going on in the outer world had reached Candleford Green. A few old-fashioned country homes, such as that of Miss Lane, might still be seen there, especially among those of the farming class, and long-established family businesses still existed, side by side with those newly-established or brought up to date; but, as the older householders died and the proprietors of the old-fashioned businesses died or retired, the old gave place to the new.
Tastes and ideas were changing. Quality was less in demand than it had been. The old solid, hand-made productions, into which good materials and many hours of patient skilled craftsmanship had been put, were comparatively costly. The new machine-made goods cost less and had the further attraction of a meretricious smartness. Also they were fashionable, and most people preferred them on that account.
‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away,’ and its daughters, too, and the tastes and ideas of each generation, together with its ideals and conventions, go rolling downstream with it like so much debris. But, because the generations overlap, the change is gradual. In the country at the time now recorded, the day of the old skilled master-craftsman, though waning, was not over.
Across the green, almost opposite to the post office, stood a substantial cottage, end to end with a carpenters’ shop. In most weathers the big double door of the workshop stood open and white-aproned workmen with their feet ankle-deep in shavings could be seen sawing and planing and shaping at the benches, with, behind them, a window framing a glimpse of a garden with old-fashioned flowers and a grape-vine draping a grey wall.
There lived and worked the three Williams, father, son, and grandson. With the help of a couple of journeymen, they not only did all the carpentry and joinery of the district at a time when no doors or mantelpieces or window-frames came ready made from abroad, but they also made and mended furniture for the use of the living and made coffins for the dead. There was no rival shop. The elder William was the carpenter of the village, just as Miss Lane was the postmistress and Mr. Coulsdon the vicar.
Although less popular than the smithy as a gathering place, the carpenters’ shop had also its habitués: older and graver men, as a rule, especially choirmen, for the eldest William played the organ in church and the middle William was choirmaster. Old Mr. Stokes not only played the organ, but he had built it with his own hands, and these services to the Church and to music had given him a unique local standing. But he was almost as much valued for his great experience and his known wisdom. To him the villagers went in trouble or difficulty, and he was never known to fail them. He had been Miss Lane’s father’s close and intimate friend and was then her own.
At the time Laura knew him he was nearly eighty and much troubled by asthma, but he still worked at his trade occasionally, with his long, lean form swathed in a white apron and his full white beard buttoned into his waistcoat; and, on summer evenings, when the rolling peal of the organ came from the open door of the church, passers-by would say: ‘That’s old Mr. Stokes playing, I’ll lay! And he’s playing his own music, too, I shouldn’t wonder.’ Sometimes he was playing his own music, for he would improvise for hours, but he loved more to play for his own pleasure the music of the masters.
The second William was unlike his father in appearance, being short and thick of figure while his father was as straight and almost as thin as a lath. His face resembled that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti so closely that Laura, on seeing the portrait of that poet-painter in later years, exclaimed, ‘Mr. William!’ For, of course, he was called ‘Mr. William’. His father was always spoken of respectfully as ‘Mr. Stokes’, and his nephew as ‘Young Willie’.
Like his father, Mr. William was both musician and craftsman of the old school, and it was naturally expected that as a matter of course these gifts would descend to the third William. It had been a proud day for old Mr. Stokes when young Willie’s indentures were signed, for he thought he saw in them an assured future for the old family business. When he was at rest, and his son, there would still be a William Stokes, Carpenter and Joiner, of Candleford Green, and, after that, perhaps, still another William to follow.
But Willie himself was not so sure. He had been legally apprenticed to his grandfather’s business, as was the custom in family establishments in those days, rather because it was the line laid down for him than because he desired to become a carpenter. His work in the shop was to him but work, not a fine art or a religion, and for the music so sacred to his elders he had but a moderate taste.
He was a tall, slim boy of sixteen, with beautiful hazel eyes and a fair — too fair — pink-and-white complexion. Had his mother or his grandmother been alive, his alternating fits of lassitude and devil-may-care high spirits would have been recognized as a sign that he was outgrowing his strength and that his health needed care. But the only woman in his grandfather’s house was a middle-aged cousin of the middle William, who acted as housekeeper: a hard, gaunt, sour-looking woman whose thoughts and energies were centred upon keeping the house spotless. When the front door of their house was opened upon the small bare hall, with its grandfather’s clock and oilcloth floor-covering patterned with lilies, an intruding nose was met by the clean, cold smell of soap and furniture polish. Everything in that house which could be scrubbed was scrubbed to a snowy whiteness; not a chair or a rug or a picture-frame was ever a hairbreadth out of place; horsehair chair and sofa coverings were polished to a cold slipperiness, tabletops might have served as mirrors, and an air of comfortless order pervaded the whole place. It was indeed a model house in the matter of cleanliness, but as a home for a delicate, warm-hearted orphan boy it fell short.
The kitchen was the only inhabited room. There the three generations of Williams took their meals, and there they carefully removed their shoes before retiring to the bedrooms which were sleeping-places only. To come home with wet clothes on a rainy day was accounted a crime. The drying of them ‘messed up the place’, so Willie, who was the only one of the three to be out in such weather, would change surreptitiously and leave his clothes to dry as they might, or not dry. His frequent colds left him with a cough that lingered every year into the spring. ‘A churchyard cough,’ the older villagers said, and shook their heads knowingly. But his grandfather did not appear to notice this. Although he loved him tenderly, he had too many other interests to be able to keep a close watch over his grandson’s physical well-being. He left that to the cousin, who was absorbed in her housework and already felt it a hardship to have what she called ‘a great hulking hobble-dehoy’ in the house to mess up her floors and rugs and made enough cooking and washing up for a regiment.
Willie did not care for the music his grandfather and uncle loved. He preferred the banjo and such popular songs as ‘Oh, dem Golden Slippers’ and ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’ to organ fugues — except in church, where he sometimes sang the anthem, looking like an angel in his white surplice.
Yet, in other ways, he had a great love of and craving for beauty. ‘I do like deep, rich colours — violet and crimson and the blue of those delphiniums — don’t you?’ he said to Laura in Miss Lane’s garden one day. Laura loved those colours, too. She was almost ashamed to answer the questions in the Confession Books of her more fashionable friends: Favourite colours? Purple and crimson. Favourite flowers? The red rose. Favourite poet? Shakespeare. The answers made her appear so unoriginal. She almost envied previous writers in the books their preferences when she read: Favourite flower? Petunia, orchid, or sweet-pea; but she had not as yet the social wit to say, ‘Favourite flower? After the rose, of course?’ or to pay mere lip service to Shakespeare, so she was obliged to appear obvious.
Willie was fond of reading, too, and did not object to poetry. Somehow he had got possession of an old shattered copy of an anthology called A Thousand and One Gems, and when he came to tea with Miss Lane, who had known his mother and had a special affection for him, he would bring this book, and after office hours Laura and he would sit among the nut-trees at the bottom of the garden and take turns at reading aloud from it.
Those were the days for Laura when almost everything in literature was new to her and every fresh discovery was like one of Keats’s own Magic casements opening on the foam. Between the shabby old covers of that one book were the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Shelley’s ‘Skylark’, Wordsworth’s ‘Ode to Duty’, and other gems which could move to a heart-shaking rapture. Willie took their readings more calmly. He liked where Laura loved. But he did honestly like, and that meant much to Laura, for none of those she had previously known in her short life, except her brother Edmund, cared twopence for poetry.
But one incident she shared with Willie remained more vivid in her memory than the poetry readings or the scrapes he got into with other boys, such as being let down into a well by the chain to rescue a duck which had spent a day and a night, quacking loudly, as it searched in vain for a shore to that deep, narrow pool into which it had tumbled, or the time when the hayrick was on fire and, against the advice of older men, he climbed to the top to beat the burning thatch with a rake.
She had gone one day to his home with a message from Miss Lane to the housekeeper and, finding no one at home in the house, had crossed the yard to a shed where Willie was working. He was sorting out planks and, intending to tease and perhaps to shock her, he showed her a pile at the farther end of the shed in the semi-darkness. ‘Just look at these,’ he said. ‘Here! Come right in and put your hand on them. Know what they’re for? Well, I’ll tell you. They’re all and every one of them sides for coffins. I wonder who this one’s for, and this and this. This nice little narrow one may be for you; it looks about the right size. And this one at the bottom’— touching it with his toes —‘may be for that very chap we can hear kicking up such a row with his whistling outside. They’re all booked for somebody, mostly somebody we know, but there aren’t any names written on them.’
Laura pretended to laugh and called him a horrid boy, but the bright day seemed to her suddenly to become dark and cold, and, afterwards, whenever she passed that shed she shivered and thought of the pile of coffin boards waiting in the half-darkness until they should be needed to make coffins for people now going happily about the green on their business and passing the shed without a shudder. The elm or the oak which had yet to make her coffin must then have been growing green, somewhere or other, and Willie had no coffin tree growing for him, for his was a soldier’s grave out on the veld in South Africa.
He, the youngest, was the first of the three Williams to go. Soon after, the middle William died suddenly while working at his bench, and his father followed him next winter. Then the carpenters’ shop was demolished to make way for a builder’s showroom with baths and tiled fireplaces and w.c. pans in the window, and only the organ in church and pieces of good woodwork in houses remained to remind those who had known them of the three Williams.
Squeezed back to leave space for a small front garden, between the Stores and the carpenters’ shop, was a tall, narrow cottage with three sash windows, one above the other, which almost filled the front wall. In the lowest window stood a few bottles of bullseyes and other boiled sweets, and above them hung a card which said: Dressmaking and Plain Sewing. This was the home of one of the two postwomen who, every morning, carried the letters to outlying houses off the regular postman’s beat.
Unlike her colleague, who was old, grumpy and snuffy, Mrs. Macey was no ordinary countrywoman. She spoke well and had delicate, refined, if somewhat worn, features, with nice grey eyes and a figure of the kind of which country people said: ‘So-and-So’d manage to look well-dressed if she went around wrapped in a dishcloth.’ And Mrs. Macey did manage to look well-dressed, although her clothes were usually shabby and sometimes peculiar. For most of the year on her round she wore a long grey cloth coat of the kind then known as an ‘ulster’, and, for headgear, a man’s black bowler hat draped with a black lace veil with short ends hanging at the back. This hat, Miss Lane said, was a survival of a fashion of ten years before. Laura had never seen another like it, but worn as Mrs. Macey wore it, over a head of softly waving dark hair drawn down into a little tight knob on the neck, it was decidedly becoming. Instead of plodding or sauntering country fashion, Mrs. Macey walked firmly and quickly, as if with a destination in view.
Excepting Miss Lane, who was more of a patron than a friend, Mrs. Macey had no friends in the village. She had been born and had lived as a child on a farm near Candleford Green where her father was then bailiff; but before she had grown up her family had gone away and all that was known locally of fifteen years of her life was that she had married and lived in London. Then, four or five years before Laura knew her, she had returned to the village with her only child, at that time a boy of seven, and taken the cottage next to the Stores and put the card in the window. When the opportunity offered, Miss Lane obtained for her the letter-carrier’s post and, with the four shillings a week pay for that, a weekly postal order for the same amount from some mysterious organization (the Freemasons, it was whispered, but that was a mere guess) and the money earned by her sewing, she was able in those days and in that locality to live and bring up her boy in some degree of comfort.
She was not a widow, but she never mentioned her husband unless questioned, when she would say something about ‘travelling abroad with his gentleman’, leaving her hearer to conclude that he was a valet or something of that kind. Some people said she had no husband and never had had one, she had only invented one as a blind to account for her child, but Miss Lane nipped such suspicions in the bud by saying authoritatively that she had good reasons which she was not at liberty to reveal for saying that Mrs. Macey had a husband still living.
Laura liked Mrs. Macey and often crossed the green to her house in the evening to buy a screw of sweets or to try on a garment which was being made or turned or lengthened for her. It was as cosy a little place as can be imagined. The ground floor of the house had formerly been one largish room with a stone floor, but, by erecting a screen to enclose the window and fireplace and cut off the draughty outer portion, where water vessels and cooking utensils were kept, Mrs. Macey had contrived a tiny inner living-room. In this she had a table for meals, a sofa and easy chair, and her sewing-machine. There were rugs on the floor and pictures on the walls and plenty of cushions about. These were all of good quality — relics, no doubt, of the much larger home she had had during her married life.
There Laura would sit by the fire and play ludo with Tommy, with Snowball, the white cat, on her knee, while Mrs. Macey, on the other side of the hearth, stitched away at her sewing. She did not talk much, but she would sometimes look up and her eyes would smile a welcome. She seldom smiled with her lips and scarcely ever laughed and, because of this, some villagers called her ‘sour-looking’. ‘A sour-looking creature,’ they said, but any one with more penetration would have known that she was not sour, but sad. ‘Ah! you’re young!’ she once said when Laura had been talking a lot, ‘You’ve got all your life before you!’ as though her own life was over, although she was not much over thirty.
Her Tommy was a quiet, thoughtful little lad with the man-of-the-house air of responsibility sometimes worn by fatherless only sons. He liked to wind up the clock, let out the cat, and lock the house door at night. Once when he had brought home a blouse which Mrs. Macey had been making out of an old muslin frock for Laura and with it the bill, for some now incredibly small amount — a shilling at the most, probably ninepence — Laura, by way of a mild joke, handed him her pencil and said, ‘Perhaps you’ll give me a receipt for the money?’ ‘With pleasure,’ he said in his best grown-up manner. ‘But it’s really not necessary. We shan’t charge you for it again.’ Laura smiled at that ‘we’, denoting a partnership in which the junior partner was so very immature, then felt sad as she thought of the two of them, entrenched in that narrow home against the world with some mysterious background which could be felt but not fathomed.
Whatever the nature of the mystery surrounding the father, the boy knew nothing about it, for twice in Laura’s presence he asked his mother, ‘When will our Daddy come home?’ and his mother, after a long pause, replied: ‘Oh, not for a long time yet. He’s travelling abroad, you know, and his gentleman’s not ready to come home.’ The first time she added, ‘I expect they’re shooting tigers’, and the next, ‘It’s a long way to Spain.’
Once Tommy, in all innocence, brought out and showed Laura his father’s photograph. It was that of a handsome, flashy-looking man posing before the rustic-work background of a photographer’s studio. A top-hat and gloves were carefully arranged on a little table beside him. Not a working man, evidently, and yet he did not look quite like a gentleman, thought Laura, but it was no business of hers, and when she saw Mrs. Macey’s pained look as she took away the photograph she was glad that she had barely glanced at it.
At one end of the green, balancing the doctor’s house at the other end, stood what was known there as a quality house, which meant one larger than a cottage, but smaller than a mansion. There were several such houses in the neighbourhood of Candleford Green, mostly occupied by ladies, elderly maiden or widowed, but here there lived only one gentleman. It was a white house with a green-painted balcony, green outside shutters, and a beautifully kept lawn with clipped yew trees. It was a quiet house, for Mr. Repington was a very old gentleman and there were no young people to run in and out or to go to parties or hunting. His maidservants were elderly and uncommunicative, and his own man, Mr. Grimshaw, was as white-headed as his master and as unapproachable.
Sometimes, on summer afternoons, a carriage with champing horses, glittering harness, and cockaded coachman and footman would stand at the gate, while, from within, through the open windows, came the sounds of tinkling teacups and ladies’ voices, gossiping pleasantly, and every year, at strawberry time, Mr. Repington gave one garden party to which the local gentlepeople came on foot because his stabling accommodation and that of the inn was strained to the utmost by the equipages of guests from farther afield. That was all he did in the way of entertaining. He had long given up dining out or dining others, on account of his age.
Every morning, at precisely eleven o’clock, Mr. Repington would emerge from his front door, held ceremoniously open for him by Grimshaw, visit the Post Office and the carpenters’ shop, stand for a few minutes to talk to the Vicar or any one else of his own class whom he happened to meet, pat a few children on the head and give a knob of sugar to the donkey. Then, having made the circuit of the green, he would disappear through his own doorway and be seen no more until the next morning.
His dress was a model of style. The pale grey suits he favoured in summer always looked fresh from the tailor’s hand, and his spats and grey suede gloves were immaculate. He carried a gold-headed cane and wore a flower in his button-hole, usually a white carnation or a rosebud. Once when he met Laura out in the village he swept off his Panama hat in a bow so low that she felt like a princess. But his manners were always courtly. It was not at all surprising to be told that he had formerly held some position at the Court of Queen Victoria. Which perhaps he had, perhaps not, for nothing was really known about him, excepting that he was apparently rich and obviously aged. Laura and Miss Lane knew and the postman may have noticed that he had many letters with crests and coronets on the flap of the envelope, and Laura knew that he had once sent a telegram signed with his Christian name to a very great personage indeed. But, his servants being what they were, such things were not matter for village gossip.
Like all those of good birth Laura met when in business, his voice was quiet and natural, and he was pleasant in his manner towards her. One morning he found her alone in the office, and perhaps intending to cheer what he may have thought her loneliness, he asked: ‘Do you like ciphers?’ Laura was not at all sure what kind of a cipher he meant — it could not be the figure nought, surely — but she said, ‘Yes, I think so,’ and he wrote with a tiny gold pencil on a leaf torn from his pocket-book:
U O A O, but I O thee.
I give thee A O, but O O me,
which, seeing her puzzled look, he interpreted:
‘You sigh for a cipher, but I sigh for thee.
I give thee a cipher, but O sigh for me.’
And, on another occasion, he handed her the riddle:
The beginning of Eternity,
The end of Time and Space,
The beginning of every end
And the end of every place,
to which she soon discovered that the answer was the letter ‘E’.
Laura wondered in riper years how many times and in how many different environments he had written those very puzzles to amuse other girls, unlike her in everything but age.
There were a number of small cottages around the green, most of them more picturesque than that occupied by Mrs. Macey. Of these Laura knew every one of the occupants, at least well enough to be on speaking terms, through seeing them at the post office. She did not know them as intimately as she had known similar families in her native hamlet, where she had been one of them and had had a lifelong experience of their circumstances. At Candleford Green she was more in the position of an outside observer aided by the light of her previous experiences. They appeared to have a similar home life to that of the Lark Rise people, and to possess much the same virtues, weaknesses, and limitations. They spoke with the same country accent and used many of the old homely expressions. Their vocabulary may have been larger, for they had adopted most of the new catchwords of their day, but, as Laura thought afterwards, they used it with less vigour. One new old saying, however, Laura heard for the first time at Candleford Green. It was used on an occasion when a woman, newly widowed, had tried to throw herself into her husband’s grave at his funeral. Then some one who had witnessed the scene said dryly in Laura’s hearing: ‘Ah, you wait. The bellowing cow’s always the first to forget its calf.’
The Candleford Green workers lived in better cottages and many of them were better paid than the Lark Rise people. They were not all of them farm labourers; there were skilled craftsmen amongst them, and some were employed to drive vans by the tradesmen there and in Candleford town. But wages for all kinds of work were low and life for most of them must have been a struggle.
The length of raised sidewalk before the temptingly dressed windows of the Stores was the favourite afternoon promenade of the women, with or without perambulators. There The Rage or The Latest, so ticketed, might be seen free of charge, and the purchase of a reel of cotton or a paper of pins gave the right of entry to a further display of fashions. On Sundays the two Misses Pratt displayed the cream of their stock upon their own persons in church. They were tall, thin young women with frizzy Alexandra fringes of straw-coloured hair, high cheek-bones and anaemic complexions which they touched up with rouge.
At the font they had been given the pretty, old-fashioned names of Prudence and Ruth, but for business purposes, as they explained, they had exchanged them for the more high-sounding and up-to-date ones of Pearl and Ruby. The new names passed into currency sooner than might have been expected, for few of their customers cared to offend them. They might have retaliated by passing off on the offender an unbecoming hat or by skimping the sleeves of a new Sunday gown. So, to their faces, they were ‘Miss Pearl’ and ‘Miss Ruby’, while, behind their backs, as often as not, it would be ‘That Ruby Pratt, as she calls herself’, or ‘Pearl as ought to be Prudence’.
Miss Ruby ran the dressmaking department and Miss Pearl reigned in the millinery showroom. Both were accepted authorities upon what was being worn and the correct manner of wearing it. If any one in the village was planning a new summer outfit and was not sure of the style, she would say, ‘I must ask the Miss Pratts,’ and although some of the resulting creations might have astonished leaders of fashion elsewhere, they were accepted by their customers as models. In Laura’s time the Pratts’ customers included the whole feminine population of the village, excepting those rich enough to buy elsewhere and those too poor to buy at all at first-hand.
They were good enough girls, enterprising, hard-working, and clever, and if Laura thought them conceited, that may have been because she had been told that Miss Pearl had said to a customer in the showroom that she wondered that Miss Lane had not been able to find some one more genteel than that little country girl to assist her in her office.
At the time of her marriage, it was said, their mother had been looked upon as an heiress, having not only inherited the Stores, then a plain draper’s shop with rolls of calico and red flannel in the window, but also cottages and grazing land, bringing in rent, so it may be supposed she felt justified in marrying where her fancy led her. It led her to marriage with a smart young commercial traveller whose round had brought him to the shop periodically, and together they had introduced modern improvements.
When the new plate-glass windows had been put in, the dressmaking and millinery departments established, and the shop renamed ‘The Stores’, the husband’s efforts had ended, and for the rest of his life he had felt himself entitled to spend most of his waking hours in the bar parlour of the ‘Golden Lion’ laying down the law to other commercial gentlemen who had not done so well for themselves. ‘There goes that old Pratt again, shaking like a leaf and as thin as a hurdle,’ Miss Lane would say when taking her morning survey of the green from her window, and Laura, glancing up from her work, would see the thin figure in loud tweeds and white bowler hat making for the door of the inn and know, without looking at the clock, that it was exactly eleven. Some time during the day he would go home for a meal, then return to his own special seat in the bar parlour, where he would remain until closing time.
At home his wife grew old and shrivelled and complaining, while the girls grew up and shouldered the business, just in time to stop its decline. At the time Laura knew them their ‘Ma’, as her daughters called her, had become an invalid on whom they lavished the tenderest care, obtaining far-fetched dainties to tempt her appetite, filling her room with flowers, and staging there a private show of their latest novelties before they were displayed to the public. ‘No. Not that one, please, Mrs. Perkins,’ Miss Pearl said to a customer in Laura’s hearing one day. ‘I’m ever so sorry, but it’s the new fashion, only just come in, and Ma’s not seen it yet. I’d take it upstairs now to show her, but she takes her little siesta at this hour. Well, if you really don’t mind stepping round again in the morning . . . .’
If, through absent-mindedness or a lost sense of direction, Pa wandered in his hat and coat into the showroom, he was gently but firmly led out by a seemingly playful daughter. ‘Dear Papa!’ Miss Pearl would exclaim. ‘He does take such an interest. But come along, darling. Come with your own little Pearlie. Mind the step, now! Gently does it. What you want is a nice strong cup of tea.’
No wonder the Pratt girls looked, as some people said, as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders. They must in reality have carried a biggish burden of trouble, and if they tried to hide it with a show of high spirits and simpering smiles, plus a little harmless pretension, that should have been put down to their credit. Human nature being what it is, their shifts and pretences only served to provoke a little mild amusement. But, by the time Laura went to live at Candleford Green the Pratts’ was an old story, until, one summer morning, a first-class sensation was provided for the villagers by the news that Mr. Pratt had disappeared.
He had left the inn at the usual time, closing time, but had never reached home. His daughters had sat up for him, gone after midnight to the ‘Golden Lion’ to inquire, and then headed the search in the lanes in the early dawn, but there was still no trace, and the police were about, asking questions of early workmen. Would they circulate his photograph? Would there be a reward? And, above all, what had become of the man? ‘Thin as he was, he couldn’t have fallen down a crack, like!’
The search went on for days. Stationmasters were questioned, woods were searched foot by foot, wells and ponds were dragged, but no trace could be found of Mr. Pratt, dead or alive.
Ruby and Pearl, their first grief abating, took counsel with friends as to whether or not to wear mourning. But, no, they decided. Poor Pa might yet return, and they compromised by appearing in church in lavender frocks with touches of mauve, half, or perhaps quarter, mourning. As time went on, the back door, which, so far, had been left on the latch at night in case of the return of the prodigal father, was again locked, and perhaps, when alone with Ma, they admitted with a sigh that all might be for the best.
But they had not heard the last of poor Pa. One morning, nearly a year later, when Miss Ruby had got up very early and, the maid still being in bed, had herself gone to the wood-shed for sticks to boil a kettle to make tea, she found her father peacefully sleeping on a bed of brushwood. Where he had been all those months he could not or would not say. He thought, or pretended to think, that there had been no interval of time, that he had come home as usual from the ‘Golden Lion’ the night before he was found and, finding the door locked and not liking to disturb the household, had retired to the woodshed. The one and only clue to the mystery, and that did not solve it, was that in the early dawn of the day before that of his reappearance a cyclist on the Oxford road, a few miles out of that city, had passed on the road a tall, thin elderly man in a deerstalker cap walking with his head bent and sobbing.
Where he had been and how he had managed to live while he was away was never found out. He resumed his visits to the ‘Golden Lion’ and his daughters shouldered their burden again. By them the episode was always afterwards referred to as ‘Poor Pa’s loss of memory’.
The grocer’s business next door to the Pratts was also a thriving and long-established one. From a business point of view, ‘Tarman’s’ had one advantage over the Stores, for while the draper’s depended chiefly on the middle state of village society, the poor not being able to afford to buy their models and the gentry despising them, the grocer catered for all. At that time the more important village people, such as the doctor and clergyman, bought their provisions at the village shops as a matter of principle. They would have thought it mean to go further afield for the sake of saving a few shillings, and even the rich who spent only part of the year at their country houses or their hunting boxes believed it to be their duty to give the local tradesmen a turn. If there happened to be more businesses than one of a kind in a village, orders were placed with each alternately. Even Miss Lane had two bakers, one calling one week and the other the next, but in her case it may have been more a matter of business than of principle, as both bakers had horses to be shod.
This custom of local dealing benefited all the inhabitants. The shopkeeper was able to keep more varieties of goods in stock and often of a better quality than he would otherwise have done, his cheerful, well-lighted shop brightened the village street, and he himself made enough money in the way of profit to enable him to live in substantial comfort. A grocer had to be a grocer then, for his goods did not come to him in packets, ready to be handed over the counter, but had to be selected and blended and weighed out by himself, and for quality he was directly responsible to his customers. The butcher, too, received no stiff, shrouded carcasses by rail, but had to be able to recognize the points in the living animal at the local market sufficiently quickly and well to be able to guarantee the succulent joints and the old-fashioned chops and steaks would melt in the mouth. Even his scrag ends of mutton and sixpen’orth of pieces of beef which he sold to the poor were tasty and rich with juices which the refrigerator seems to have destroyed in present-day meat. However, we cannot have it all ways, and most villagers would agree that the attractions of films and wireless and dances and buses to town, plus more money in the pocket, outweigh the few poor creature comforts of their grandparents.
Above the grocer’s shop, in their large, comfortable rooms, lived the grocer, his wife, and their growing-up family. This family was not liked by all; some said they had ideas above their station in life, chiefly because the children were sent to boarding-school; but practically every one dealt at their shop, for not only was it the only grocery establishment of any size in the place, but the goods sold there could be relied upon.
Mr. Tarman was a burly giant in a very white apron. When he leaned forward and rested his hands on the counter to speak to a customer, the solid mahogany seemed to bend beneath the strain. His wife was what was called there ‘a little pennicking bit of a woman’, small and fair and, by that time, a little worn, though still priding herself upon her complexion, which she touched with nothing but warm rain water. In spite of the fine lines round her mouth and eyes, which the rain water had not been able to prevent, the effect justified her faith in its efficiency, for her cheeks were as fresh and delicately tinted as those of a child. She was a generous, open-handed creature who gave liberally to every good cause. The poor had cause to bless her, for their credit there in bad times was unlimited, and many families had a standing debt on her books that both debtor and creditor knew could never be paid. Many a cooked ham-bone with good picking still left on it and many a hock-end of bacon were slipped by her into the shopping baskets of poor mothers of families, and the clothes of her children when new were viewed by appraising eyes by those who hoped to inherit them when outgrown.
By neighbours of her own class she was said to be extravagant, and perhaps she was. Laura ate strawberries and cream for the first time at her table, and her own clothes and those of her girls were certainly not bought at the Miss Pratts’.
The baker and his wife were chiefly remarkable for their regularity in adding a new unit to their family every eighteen months. They already had eight children and the entire energies of the mother and any margin the father might have left after earning their living were devoted to nursing the younger and keeping in order the elder members of their brood. But theirs was a cheerful, happy-go-lucky household. The only dig ill-natured neighbours could get in at Mrs. Brett was the old one then often heard by young mothers: ‘Ah! You wait! They makes your arms ache now, but they’ll make your heart ache when they get older.’
The parents were too old and too otherwise engaged and the children were too young to be friends for Laura, and she never heard what became of them; but it would not be surprising to learn that those healthy, intelligent, if somewhat unmanageable Brett children all turned out well.
There were a few other, lesser shops around the green, including the one which was really a cottage where an old dame sold penny plates of cooked prunes and rice to the village boys in the evening. She also made what was known as sticky toffee, so soft it could be pulled out in lengths, like elastic. She took snuff so freely that no one over twelve years of age would eat this.
But we must return to the Post Office, where Laura in the course of her duties was to come to know almost every one.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14