After she had become accustomed to her new surroundings at Candleford Green, Laura was happier, or at least gayer, than she had been since early childhood. Because of her age, or the overflowing abundance of Miss Lane’s table, or because something in the air or the life suited her, her thin figure filled out, a brighter colour appeared in her cheeks, and such an inrush of energy and high spirits took hold of her that she would dance, rather than walk, about the house and garden, and felt she could never tire.
This may have been partly due to her release from home cares. At home she had been a little mother to her younger brothers and sisters and the sharer in many of her mother’s perplexities. Now she was the youngest in a houseful of adults, the elder of whom treated her as a child. Miss Lane was, at times, even indulgent to her, calling her ‘my chick’ and making her presents of small, pretty things, which she knew would please her. The old servant, Zillah, tolerated her when she found that she had now some one at hand willing to run upstairs ‘to save her poor feet’, or to whisk the washing off the line and bring it indoors when it started to rain, or to creep into the low henhouse to collect the eggs for her. She would still sometimes refer to Laura as ‘that lafeting little thing’ and tell her to wait until the black ox trod on her toes, and, once, in a very bad-tempered moment, she foretold that ‘Our missis’ll rue the day when she brought that hoity-toity little piece to live along with her’, but that was only because Laura had accidentally left footprints on her newly scoured flagstones. Often she was quite pleasant, and on the whole their relations may be described as a state of armed neutrality.
There was no neutrality about Matthew. As he said, if he liked anybody, he liked them; if not, they had better keep out of his way. His liking for Laura took the form of kindly teasing. He quizzed her about her clothes and accused her of altering the shape of her best hat once a fortnight. She had retrimmed it once and he, happening to come into the kitchen while she was doing it, had asked what she thought she was up to. When she said she was trying to make the crown a little lower, he had offered to take the hat out to the forge and lower the crown with his sledge-hammer on the anvil, and that episode furnished him with a standing joke which he repeated every time Laura appeared in anything new. That is a sample of Matthew’s jokes. He had scores of similar ones which he was constantly repeating with the intention of amusing her.
Matthew was a small, bent, elderly man with weak blue eyes and sandy whiskers. No one looking at him would have guessed at his importance in the eyes of the local farmers and land-owners. He was a farrier as well as a smith, and such a farrier, it was said, as few neighbourhoods could boast of. Horses, indeed, appeared to be more to him than human beings; he understood and could cure so many of their ailments that the veterinary surgeon had seldom to be sent for by the Candleford Green horse-owners.
A cupboard, known as ‘Matthew’s cupboard’, high up on the kitchen wall, held the drugs he used. When he unlocked it, bottles of all shapes and sizes could be seen; big embrocation bottles, stoppered glass jars containing powder or crystals, and several blue poison bottles, one of which must have held at least a pint and was labelled ‘Laudanum’. He would hold this last bottle up to the light, shake it gently, and say: ‘A wineglass of this wouldn’t do some folks I know much harm. Their headaches and whimseys ‘udn’t trouble them no more, nor other folks neither.’
That was another of Matthew’s jokes. He had no enemies, and, as far as was known, no intimate friends among his own kind. His affections were reserved for animals, especially for those he had cured of some sickness or injury. If a cow had a difficult calving, or a pig went off its food, or an infirm old dog had to be put away, Matthew was sent for. He had a tame thrush which he had found in the fields with a broken wing and brought home to treat. He had succeeded to some extent in mending its wing, but it could still only flutter, not fly, so he bought a round wicker cage for it which he kept hung on the wall outside the back door. He released it every day during his dinner-hour, when it would follow him round the garden, hoppity-hop.
The younger smiths, who called Laura ‘Missy’, had little to say to her in public, but when they met her alone in the garden they would offer to reach her a pear or a greengage, or show her some new flower which had come out, or ask her if she had seen old Tibby’s new kittens in the woodshed, blushing the while in a way which delighted Laura, who loved to come soundlessly upon them in her new rubber-soled shoes.
Those new lightweight shoes in which Laura hopped and skipped when she should have walked were the thin black rubber ones with dingy-looking, greyish-black uppers, now known as ‘gym shoes’. They were known then by the ugly name of ‘plimsolls’ and had for some time been popular for informal seaside wear by otherwise well-dressed women and children. Now they had been introduced into country districts as a novelty for summer wear, and men and women and girls and boys were all sporting their ‘softs’. They were soon found unsuitable for wear in wet weather and on rough country roads, and newer and smarter styles in buck-skin or canvas superseded them for tennis and croquet, but for a summer or two they were ‘all the rage’, and the young, hitherto accustomed to stiff, heavy leather shoes, luxuriated in them.
Miss Lane still kept to the old middle-class country custom of one huge washing of linen every six weeks. In her girlhood it would have been thought poor looking to have had a weekly or fortnightly washday. The better off a family was, the more changes of linen its members were supposed to possess, and the less frequent the washday. That was one reason why our grandmothers counted their articles of underwear by the dozen. And the underwear then in fashion was not of the kind to be washed out in a basin. It had to be boiled and blued and required much ironing. There may have already been laundries, though Laura never heard of one in that district. A few women in cottages took in washing, but most of it was done at home.
For the big wash at Miss Lane’s, a professional washerwoman came for two days, arriving at six o’clock on the Monday morning in a clean apron and sunbonnet, with a second apron of sacking and a pair of Pattens in a large open basket upon her arm. Charwomen, too, carried these baskets, ‘in case’, as they said — meaning in the hope that something or other would be given them to put into them. They were seldom disappointed.
All day on the two washdays, steam and the smell of soapsuds came in great puffs from the window and door of the small, detached building known as the ‘wash-house’, and the back yard was flooded with waste water flowing down the gutter to the open drain, while the old washerwoman clattered about in her pattens, or stood at her wooden washtub, scouring and rinsing and wringing and blueing, and Zillah, as red as a turkeycock and in a fiendish temper, oversaw and helped with the work in hand. Indoors, Laura washed up and got the meals. If Miss Lane wanted anything cooked, she had to cook it herself, but cold food was the rule. A ham or half a ham had usually been boiled a few days before.
Soon, sheets and pillow-cases and towels were billowing in the wind on a line the whole length of the garden, while Miss Lane’s more intimate personal wear dried modestly on a line by the henhouse, ‘out of the men’s sight’. All went well if the weather happened to be fine. If not, very much the reverse. The old country saying which referred to a disagreeable-looking man or woman: ‘He’— or she —‘looks about as pleasant as a wet washday’ would have lost its full flavour of irony if used in these days.
On the evening of the second washday, the washerwoman departed with three shillings, wages for the two days, in her pocket, and in her basket whatever she had been able to collect. The rest of the week was spent by the family in folding, sprinkling, mangling, ironing and airing the clothes. The only pleasant thing about the whole orgy of cleanliness was to see the piles of snowy linen, ironed and aired and mended, with lavender bags in the folds, placed on the shelves of the linen closet and to know that six whole weeks would pass before the next upheaval.
Laura’s modest stock of three of everything was, of course, inadequate for such a period; so, before she had come there, it had been arranged that her washing should be sent home to her mother every week. The clothes Laura sent home one week were returned by her mother the next, so Laura received a parcel from home every Saturday. It had had a cross-country journey in two different carriers’ carts, but it still seemed to smell of home.
It was her treat of the week to open it. She would bundle the clean clothes, beautifully ironed and folded as they were, higgledy-piggledy upon her bed and seize the little box or package she always found within containing a few little cakes her mother had baked for her, or a cooked home-made sausage or two, or a tiny pot of jam or jelly, or flowers from the home garden. There was always something.
But before she put the flowers in water or tasted a crumb of the food, she would read her mother’s letter. Written in the delicate, pointed Italianate handwriting her mother had been taught when a child by an old lady of ninety, the letter would usually begin, ‘Dear Laura’. Only on special occasions would her mother write, ‘My own dear’, for she was not demonstrative. After the beginning would come the formula: ‘I hope this will find you still well and happy, as it leaves us all at home. I hope you will like the few little things I enclose. I know you have got plenty and better where you are, but you may like to taste the home food’, or ‘smell the home flowers’.
Then followed the home news and news of the neighbours, all told in simple, homely language, but with the tang of wit and occasional spice of malice which made her conversation so racy. She always wrote four or five pages and often ended her letters with ‘My pen has run away with me again’, but there never was a word too much for Laura. She kept her mother’s letters to her for years and afterwards wished she had kept them longer. They deserved a wider public than one young daughter.
At that time Laura had, as it were, one foot in each of two worlds. Behind her lay her country childhood and country traditions, many of which were still current at Candleford Green. Miss Lane’s and several similar establishments also still flourished there; but new ideas and new ways were seeping in from the outer world which were still unknown at Lark Rise, and with these Laura was becoming acquainted through friends she was making of her own age.
Some of these she came to know through talking to them over their post-office business; others through her relatives in Candleford town, or because they belonged to families approved of by Miss Lane. They had most of them been brought up in different circumstances from those of her own childhood and they spoke of ‘poor people’ and ‘cottage people’ in a way which grated on Laura; but they were lively and amusing and, on the whole, she enjoyed their company.
When she met one of these girls in the street, she would sometimes be invited to ‘Come into the wigwam and have a palaver’, and they would go up carpeted stairs into the crowded, upholstered drawing-room over the shop and exchange confidences. Or the friend would play her latest ‘piece’ upon the piano for Laura and Laura would sit and listen, or not listen, but just sit and take mental notes.
There was a piano in every drawing-room and there were palms in pots and saddle-bag suites of furniture and hand-painted milking-stools and fire-screens, and cushions and antimacassars in the latest art shades; but, beyond bound volumes of the Quiver and the Sunday at Home and a few stray copies of popular novels, mostly of a semi-religious character, there were no books to be seen. The one father who was a reader remained faithful to those works of Charles Dickens which his parents had taken in monthly parts. Most of the fathers of such families found sufficient reading in their Daily Telegraph, and the mothers, on Sunday afternoons, dozed over Queechy or The Wide Wide World. The more daring and up to date among the daughters, who liked a thrill in their reading, devoured the novels of Ouida in secret, hiding the book beneath the mattresses of their beds between whiles. For their public reading they had the Girls’ Own Paper.
And that was in the ‘nineties, afterwards to be named — by a presumably more innocent generation — the ‘Naughty Nineties’. The clever, witty, but, oh! so outrageous! books of the new writers of the day were, no doubt, read in some of the large country houses around, and they may even have found their way into rectories; but no whisper of the stir they were making in the outer world of ideas had penetrated to the ordinary country home. A little later, the trial of Oscar Wilde brought some measure of awareness, for was it not said that he was ‘one of these new poets’? and it just showed what a rotten lot they were. Thank God, the speaker had always disliked poetry.
The tragedy of Oscar Wilde did nothing to lessen their natural distrust of intellect, but it did enlighten the younger generation in a less desirable manner. There were vices, then, in the world one had not hitherto heard of — vices which, even now, were only hinted at darkly, never described. Fathers for weeks kept the newspaper locked up with their account books. Mothers, when appealed to for information, shuddered and said in horrified accents: ‘Never let me hear that name pass your lips again.’
Miss Lane, when asked outright what all this fuss was about, said: ‘All I know is that it’s some law about two men living together, but you don’t want to bother your head about things like that!’ ‘But what about Old Ben and Tom Ashley?’ Laura persisted, and was told that those two innocent old comrades had already had their windows broken with stones after dark. People thought, after that, they would leave the village, but they did not. Whoever heard of old soldiers running away? All that happened was that Tom, who had formerly spent most of his time indoors, went out more, and that Ben’s walk made him look more than ever as if he had a ram-rod down his back. It was those who had thrown the stones who slunk round corners when they saw Ben or Tom coming.
But although, until that time, not only out of the main stream of ideas but unaware of its existence, before the decade was ended the Candleford Greenites had a Yellow Book of their own in the form of the all-conquering weekly periodical called Answers. Already its green counterpart, Tit–Bits, was taken by almost every family, and the snippets of information culled from its pages were taken very seriously indeed. Apparently it gave deep satisfaction to the majority of the younger people to know how many years of an average life were spent in bed and how many months of his life a man spent shaving and a woman doing her hair. ‘If all the sausages eaten at breakfast in this country on one Sunday morning were stretched out singly, end to end, how many miles do you suppose they would reach?’ one neighbour, newly primed, would ask another. Or, in lighter mood, ‘What did the cyclist say to the farmer whose cockerel he had run over?’ and, only too often, the answer came pat, for the neighbour had just read his copy of Tit–Bits. The title of Tit–Bits furnished a catchword which could always be used with effect when an unfamiliar taste was discovered or an unfamiliar opinion expressed. Then ‘Don’t try to be funny. We’ve read about you in Tit–Bits!’ said scathingly was, in the slang of the day, ‘absolutely the last word’.
The girls Laura saw most of at that time were tradesmen’s daughters, living at home, employed only in keeping their fathers’ business books or in helping their mothers with the lighter housework. These were known as the ‘home birds’; others belonging to the same families were away from home, earning their own living as shop assistants in one of the big London stores, or as school-teachers or nursery governesses. One was in training as a nursing probationer in a London hospital and another was book-keeper and receptionist at a boarding-house. Tradesmen’s daughters no longer went into domestic service, unless one, after an apprenticeship to dressmaking and a second apprenticeship to hairdressing, became a lady’s maid. Nor did they associate much with the domestic staffs in the big houses, and this not because of snobbishness, but because their lives and interests ran along different lines. The village social system in which the first footman is paired off with the grocer’s daughter and the second footman with the postoffice girl as a matter of etiquette belongs to the world of fiction.
The home birds were not all of them content with light household duties and, for pleasure, the choir practices and tea-drinkings and village concerts their mothers in their time had found sufficient amusement. A few of the boldest among them were already beginning to talk about their right to live their own lives as they wished. According to them, their parents’ old-fashioned ideas were their main obstacle. ‘Pa’s so old-fashioned. You’d think he had been born in the year dot,’ these would say. ‘And Mama’s not much better. She’d like us to talk prunes and prisms and be indoors by ten o’clock and never so much as look at a fellow before he had shown her a certificate of good character.’ Far from feeling under any obligation to those who had brought them up and, as Laura in her inexperience thought, been so generous to them, they seemed to think their parents existed chiefly to give them whatever they happened to wish for most at the moment — one of the new safety bicycles, or a sealskin coat, or an outing to London. The parents, on their side, preached circumspect behaviour, obedience, and gratitude as a daughter’s first duties, and many clashes ensued.
‘I didn’t ask to be born, did I?’ one girl reported herself as saying to her father, and his retort, ‘No; and if you had you wouldn’t have been if I had known as much about you as I do now,’ was repeated by her as an instance of the ignorance and brutality with which she had to contend.
‘Straining at the leash, I am. Straining at the leash,’ said Alma dramatically when telling the story to Laura, and Laura, looking round the pretty bedroom and at the new summer outfit, complete with white kid gloves and a parasol, laid out on the bed for her admiring inspection, thought that, at least, the leash was a handsome one. But she did not say so, for even she, brought up in a harder school, could understand that it must be annoying to be treated as a child at twenty, and to be forbidden to do this or do that because it was ‘not the thing’, and have to depend for every little thing on a parent’s generosity.
But the rebellious daughter was the exception. Most of the girls Laura knew were contented with their lot. They enjoyed helping in the house and making Mama bring it up to date and giving tea-parties and playing the piano. Some of these were of the type then called ‘sunbeams in the home’: good, affectionate, home-loving girls, obviously created for marriage, and most of them did marry and, there can be no doubt, made excellent wives for their own male counterparts.
Laura cannot be said to have been really popular with any of them. Her Candleford town connections vouched for her to some extent, but her own personal antecedents were too humble and her dress and accomplishments fell too short of their own standards for her to rank entirely as one of themselves. Perhaps she was most valued by them as the possessor of a ready ear for confidences and for what they called ‘repartee’— a light, bantering form of conversation then much in fashion. But Laura enjoyed their company, and it was good for her. She no longer looked, as the neighbours at home had sometimes said, as if she had all the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Those were the days of Miss Lotty Collins’s all-conquering dance and song, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay!’ and the words and tune swept the countryside like an epidemic. The air that summer was alive with its strains. Ploughmen bawled it at the plough-tail, harvesters sang it in the harvest field, workmen in villages painted the outside of houses to its measure, errand boys whistled it and schoolchildren yelled it. Even housewives caught the infection and would attempt a tired little imitation of the high kick as they turned from the clothes-lines in their gardens singing ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay’.
Early in the morning, while dew still roughened the turf of the green, Laura’s friend at the grocer’s, dusting the drawing-room, at sight of the keys of the open piano, would drop her duster, sink down on the music stool, and from the open window the familiar strain would be wafted:
Such a nice young girl, you see,
Just out in Society.
Everything I ought to be.
A blushing bud of innocence,
Pa declares a great expense.
The old maids say I have no sense,
But the boys agree I’m just immense,
Then the madness would seize her and she would pirouette about the room and come down with such weight from the high kick that her father, honest tradesman, would call urgently to her from the foot of the stairs to remember the drawing-room was immediately over the shop and customers might come in any moment. But, even he, having worked off his annoyance, would go back to his books or his scales humming between his teeth the prevailing tune.
During the day, when the master’s back was turned and the shop for the moment was clear of customers, the young men behind the counter would gather up their white aprons in their hands and kick and dance a parody. Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay! Were there such things as death and want and grief and misery in that world? If so, youth possessed a charm to banish them from its thoughts in ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay’.
It would seem that the silly, light-hearted words of the song fitted the tune to perfection; but they were often ‘improved’ upon. One version, sung by lounging youths beneath the chestnut tree on the green, perhaps nearer the end of the long run of the song, went:
Lotty Collins has no drawers.
Will you kindly lend her yours?
She is going far away
To sing Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay!
But that was sung with the intention of annoying any girl who might happen to be passing. And she would be annoyed. Shocked, too, to hear such an intimate undergarment mentioned in public, and little think that the garment, under that name at least, would pass with the song.
Laura enjoyed life at Candleford Green. In summer the sun seemed to shine perpetually and the winter flew past before she had done half the things she had saved for the long evenings. She was young and she had gay new friends and nicer clothes than she had ever had before and was growing up and could kick as high as anybody to the tune of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay!’
But something within her remained unsatisfied. She had her hours of freedom. Every other Sunday, if Miss Lane could spare her, which was not always, she would dress with care and walk into Candleford town for tea with her relatives. She was welcomed warmly, and the hours she spent with her favourite uncle and aunt were pleasant hours, even though her cousins of her own age were away. She enjoyed the Candleford Green village entertainments and the laughing, high-spirited company of her village friends, and Miss Lane’s garden was lovely and green and secluded and she spent many happy hours there. But none of these pleasures seemed entirely to satisfy her. She missed — missed badly and even pined for — her old freedom of the fields.
Candleford Green was but a small village and there were fields and meadows and woods all around it. As soon as Laura crossed the doorstep, she could see some of these. But mere seeing from a distance did not satisfy her; she longed to go alone far into the fields and hear the birds singing, the brooks tinkling, and the wind rustling through the corn, as she had when a child. To smell things and touch things, warm earth and flowers and grasses, and to stand and gaze where no one could see her, drinking it all in.
She never spoke of this longing to any one. She accused herself of discontent and told herself, ‘You can’t have everything,’ but the craving remained until, unexpectedly, it was gratified in fullest measure and in a way which seemed to her to be wholly delightful, though, on this latter point, very few of those she knew were inclined to agree.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00