One cold winter morning, when snow was on the ground and the ponds were iced over, Laura, in mittens and a scarf, was sorting the early morning mail and wishing that Zillah would hurry with the cup of tea she usually brought her at that time. The hanging oil lamp above her head had scarcely had time to thaw the atmosphere, and the one uniformed postman at a side bench, sorting his letters for delivery, stopped to thump his chest with his arms and exclaim that he’d be jiggered, but it was a fact that on such mornings as this there was bound to be a letter for every house, even for those which did not have one once in a blue moon. ‘Does it on purpose, I s’pose,’ he grumbled.
The two women letter-carriers, who had more reason than he to complain, for his round was mostly by road and theirs were cross-country, worked quietly at their bench. The elder, Mrs. Gubbins, had got herself up to face the weather by tying a red knitted shawl over her head and wearing the bottoms of a man’s corduroy trouser-legs as gaiters. Mrs. Macey had brought out an old, moth-eaten fur tippet which smelt strongly of camphor. As the daylight increased, the window became a steely grey square with wads of snow at the corners of the panes. From beyond it came the crunching sound of cart-wheels on frozen snow. Laura turned back her mittens and rubbed her chilblains.
Then, suddenly, the everyday dullness of work before breakfast was pierced by a low cry of distress from the younger postwoman. She had an open letter in her hand and evidently it contained bad news, but all she would say in answer to sympathetic inquiries was: ‘I must go. I must go at once. Now, immediately.’ Go at once? Go where? And why? How could she go anywhere but on her round? Or leave her letters half-sorted? were the shocked questions the eyes of the other three asked each other. When Laura suggested calling Miss Lane, Mrs. Macey exclaimed: ‘No, don’t call her here, please. I must see her alone and in private. And I shan’t be able to take out the letters this morning. Oh, dear! Oh, dear! What’s to be done?’
Miss Lane was downstairs and alone in the kitchen, with her feet on the fender, sipping a cup of tea. Laura had expected she would be annoyed at being disturbed before her official hours, but she did not even seem to be surprised, and in a few moments had Mrs. Macey in a chair by the fire and was holding a cup of hot tea to her lips. ‘Come. Drink this,’ she said. ‘Then tell me about it.’ Then to Laura, who had already reached the door on her way back to her sorting, ‘Tell Zillah not to begin cooking breakfast until I tell her to,’ and, as an afterthought: ‘Say she is to go upstairs and begin getting my room ready for turning out,’ a message which, when delivered, annoyed Zillah exceedingly, for she knew and she knew Laura would guess that the upstairs work was ordered to prevent listening at keyholes.
The sorting was finished, the postman had gone reluctantly out, five minutes late, and old Mrs. Gubbins was pretending to hunt for a lost piece of string in order to delay her own exit when Miss Lane came in and carefully shut the door after her. ‘What? Not out yet, Mrs. Gubbins?’ she asked coldly, and Mrs. Gubbins responded to the hint, banging the door behind her as the only possible expression of her frustrated curiosity.
‘Here’s a pretty kettle of fish! We’re in a bit of a fix, Laura. Mrs. Macey won’t be able to do her round this morning. She’s got to go off by train at once to see her husband, who’s dangerously ill. She’s gone home now to get Tommy up and get ready. She’s taking him with her.’
‘But I thought her husband was abroad,’ said the puzzled Laura.
‘So he may have been at one time, but he isn’t now. He’s down in Devonshire, and it’ll take her all day, to get there, and a cold, miserable journey it’ll be for the poor soul. But I’ll tell you more about that later. The thing now is what we are going to do about the letters and Sir Timothy’s private postbag. Zillali shan’t go. I wouldn’t demean myself to ask her, after the disgraceful way she’s been banging about upstairs, not to mention her bad feet and her rheumatism. And Minnie’s got a bad cold. She couldn’t take out the telegrams yesterday, as you know, and nobody can be spared from the forge with this frost, and horses pouring in to be rough-shod; and every moment it’s getting later, and you know what old Farmer Stebbing is: if his letters are ten-minutes late, he writes off to the Postmaster–General, though, to be sure, he might make some small allowance this morning for snow and late mails. What a fool I must have been to take on this office. It’s nothing but worry, worry, worry ——’
‘And I suppose I couldn’t be spared to go?’ asked Laura tentatively. Miss Lane was inclined to reconsider things if she appeared too eager. But now, to her great delight, that lady said, quite gratefully, ‘Oh, would you? And you don’t think your mother would mind? Well, that’s a weight off my mind! But you’re not going without some breakfast inside you, time or no time, or for all the farmers and squires in creation.’ Then, opening the door: ‘Zillahl Zillah! Laura’s breakfast at once! And bring plenty. She’s going out on an errand for me. Bacon and two eggs, and make haste, please.’ And Laura ate her breakfast and dressed herself in her warmest clothes, with the addition of a sealskin cap and tippet Miss Lane insisted upon lending her, and hurried out into the snowy world, a hind let loose, if ever there was one.
As soon as she had left the village behind, she ran, kicking up the snow and sliding along the puddles, and managed to reach Farmer Stebbing’s house only a little later than the time appointed for the delivery of his letters in the ordinary way by the post-office authorities. Then across the park to Sir Timothy’s mansion and on to his head gardener’s house and the home farm and half a dozen cottages, and her letters were disposed of.
Laura never forgot that morning’s walk. Fifty years later she could recall it in detail. Snow had fallen a few days earlier, then had frozen, and on the hard crust yet more snow had fallen and lay like soft, feathery down, fleecing the surface of the level open spaces of the park and softening the outlines of hillocks and fences. Against it the dark branches and twigs of the trees stood out, lacelike. The sky was low and grey and soft-looking as a feather-bed.
Her delivery finished, and a little tired from her breathless run, she stopped where her path wound through a thicket to eat the crust and apple she had brought in her pocket. It was an unfrequented way and the only human footprints to be seen were her own, but she was not alone in that solitude. Everywhere, on the track and beneath the trees, the snow was patterned with tiny claw-marks, and gradually she became aware of the subdued, uneasy fluttering and chirping noises of birds sheltering in the undergrowth. Poor birds! With the earth frozen and the ponds iced over, it was indeed the winter of their discontent, but all she could do for them was to scatter a few crumbs on the snow. The rabbits were better off: they had their deep, warm burrows; and the pheasants knew where to go for the corn the gamekeeper spread for them in such weather. She could hear the honk of a pheasant somewhere away in the woods and the cawing of rooks passing overhead and Sir Timothy’s stable clock chiming eleven. Time for her to be going!
In spite of a late start and a leisurely return, Laura managed to reach the office only a few minutes later than the official time fixed for that journey, which pleased Miss Lane, as it saved her the trouble of making a report, and that, perhaps, made her more communicative than usual, for, at the first opportunity, she told Laura what she knew of Mrs. Macey’s story.
Her husband, Laura now learned, was not a valet, although he might at one time have been one; nor was he travelling with his gentleman. He was by profession a bookmaker, which interested Laura greatly, as she at first concluded that he was in some way engaged in the production of literature. But Miss Lane, who knew more of the world, made haste to explain that his kind of bookmaker had something to do with betting on racehorses. In the course of his bookmaking, she said, he had been involved in a public-house quarrel which had led to blows, and from blows to kicks, and a man had been killed. The crime had been brought home to him and he had been given a long sentence for manslaughter. Now he was in prison on Dartmoor, nearing the end of his sentence. A long, long way for that poor soul to go in that wintry weather; but the prison authorities had written to say he was dangerously ill with pneumonia and the prison doctor thought it advisable that his wife should be sent for.
Miss Lane had known all the time where he was, though not what crime had caused him to be there, and she had not breathed a word to a living soul, she assured Laura, and would not be doing so now had not Mrs. Macey said, as she went out of the door: ‘Perhaps Laura will go over and feed Snowball. I’ll pay for his milk when I get back. And tell her whatever you think fit about where we are going. She’s a sensible little soul and won’t tell anybody if you ask her not to.’
Poor Mrs. Macey! No wonder she had been distressed. The strain of the journey in such weather and the ordeal at the end of it were not the whole of her trouble. As far as Tommy knew, his father was a gentleman’s servant travelling abroad with his employer. Now, at some point on their journey, she would have to tell him the truth and to prepare him for whatever might follow.
Furthermore, her husband’s sentence would expire in a year and, if his conduct had been good, he would be released sooner — unless — unless — well, unless he died now through this illness, which Miss Lane thought would be the best thing that could happen for all parties. Still, a husband was a husband, and often the worst husbands were most mourned for. She would not pretend to say whether his wife would be relieved or sorry if the Lord saw fit to take him. All she could say was that she had never seen a poor creature more upset by bad news, and her heart ached at the thought of her, setting off on such a journey, to the end of the earth, as one might say, and snow on the ground, and a prison hospital and all manner of humiliations at the end of it. However, dinner was ready, and Zillah had made a delicious damson jam roly-poly with a good suety crust. Laura must feel hungry after her cold walk, and she felt a bit peckish herself. ‘So come along; and not a word of what you’ve been told to anybody. If any one asks you, it’s her mother who’s ill, and she’s gone to London to nurse her.’
A week later, Mrs. Macey returned, sad and subdued, but not in mourning, as Miss Lane had half-expected. She had spent a night in London and left Tommy with her friends there, for she had only come back to settle up her small affairs and to pack her furniture. Her husband was recovering and would shortly be released, and she had decided to make a home for him, for a husband is a husband, as Miss Lane had so sagely remarked, and although Mrs. Macey obviously dreaded the future, she felt she must face it. But she could not let her husband come to Candleford Green to make a nine days’ wonder. She would find a couple of rooms near her friends in London, and the Prisoners’ Aid people would find him a job, or if not, she could earn their keep with her needle. She was sorry to leave her nice little cottage — she had had a few years’ peace there — but, as Laura would find, you can’t always do what you like or be where you would wish in this world.
So she went with her boxes and bundles and with Snowball mewing in a basket. Someone else came to live in her cottage and very soon she was forgotten, as Laura, in her turn, would be forgotten, and as all the other insignificant people would be who had sojourned for a time at Candleford Green.
But her going had its effect upon Laura’s life, for, after a good deal of discussion among her elders and hopes and fears on Laura’s part, it was arranged that she should undertake what was still known as ‘Mrs. Macey’s delivery’. Miss Lane was quite willing to spare her for two and a half hours each morning. She had suggested the plan, pointing out that it would not only give her more fresh air and exercise, but also put another four shillings a week in her pocket.
It was really most generous of Miss Lane; and four shillings a week was considered quite a substantial addition to larger incomes than Laura’s in those days; yet Laura, sent home for a week-end to obtain her parents’ consent to the arrangement found them less pleased with the plan than she had expected. Except in letters from Laura, neither of them had heard of postwomen before, and the idea of letters being delivered by any one but a man in uniform struck them as odd. Her father thought she would demean herself and get coarse and tom-boyish trapesing about the country with a letterbag strapped over her shoulder. Her mother’s objection was that people would think it funny. However, as it was Miss Lane’s suggestion and Laura herself was bent on the plan, they gave, at last, a grudging consent, her father stipulating that she should keep strictly to her official timetable and favour nobody, and her mother that she should never forget to change her shoes in wet weather.
An order for a pair of stout waterproof shoes at her father’s expense was forthwith sent off to her shoemaker Uncle Tom, and it may be recorded here as a testimonial to the old hand-made product that that one pair of shoes outlasted the whole of Laura’s time as a postwoman. They might have been worn several years longer had not her taste in shoes changed. They were still well worth the gipsy’s fervent ‘God bless you, my lady’ when exchanged for a basket of plaited twigs filled with moss and ferns.
Laura had been away from the hamlet less than seven months, and nothing appeared to have changed there. The men still worked in the fields all day and worked on their allotments or talked politics at the village inn in the evening. The women still went to the well on pattens and gossiped over garden hedges in their spare moments, and to them the affairs of the hamlet still loomed larger than anything going on in the outside world. They were just as they had been from the day of her birth, yet to her they seemed rougher and cruder than formerly. When they chaffed her about the way she had grown, saying it was plain to see there was plenty to eat and drink at Candleford Green, or commented on her new clothes, or asked her if she had found a sweetheart yet, she answered them so shortly that one good old soul was offended and told her it was no good trying to make strange with one who had changed her napkins as a baby. After that well-merited reproof, Laura tried to be more sociable with the neighbours, but she was young and foolish, and for several years she held herself aloof from all but a few loved old friends when visiting her home. It took time and sorrow and experience of the world to teach her the true worth of the old homely virtues.
But home was still home; nothing had changed there. Her brother had come part of the way to meet her and her two little sisters were waiting on the road nearer home. As they neared the house, with their arms about her, she saw her father, ostensibly examining a branch of a damson tree the last snowstorm had broken, but with an eye on the road. He kissed her with more feeling than he usually displayed. ‘Why, Laura!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s fine to see you!’ Then, hastily skirting the sentimentality he detested: ‘Quite the prodigal daughter. Well, we haven’t exactly killed the fatted calf, for we hadn’t one handy, but your mother has killed her very best fowl and it’s about done to a turn by this time.’
It was delightful to sit in the familiar room with all the old, familiar things around her, with a fire ‘half-way up the chimney’, as her mother said, and she usually so frugal. Delightful to have a long secret chat with her brother in the woodshed, to be embraced and made much of by her little sisters and to ride her baby brother on her back round the garden with the wind blowing through their hair.
When her mother called her at five o’clock on the Monday morning to get up and prepare for her long walk back and she tiptoed downstairs and saw the lamplit room and savoured the bacon and potatoes frying for her breakfast, the new interests which had come into her life seemed of small account compared with the permanence of this life at home, to which she felt she belonged. Her father had already gone on his way to work. The children upstairs still slept. For the first time during her visit, she was really alone with her mother.
While Laura ate they conversed in whispers. How glad she was, her mother said, to know she was happy, and how pleased to see her well grown. ‘You won’t be a little bit of a thing like me. Nobody will ever call you a pocket Venus,’ which certainly no one was ever likely to do, and that not for reasons of size alone. Then there was news of the hamlet doings, some of it very amusing when told by the speaker, some of it a little saddening, and, at last, they came to Laura’s own affairs. First of all, her mother wanted to know why Laura had not been home before. ‘Every few weeks,’ she reminded her had been the agreement, and she had been away seven months. Miss Lane had kept saying, ‘You must wait until we hear of some one going that way to give you a lift,’ but to this explanation Laura’s mother retorted: ‘But what was the matter with walking? You could walk here one day and back the next easily enough, as you are doing now’; to which Laura agreed. She had longed to walk home many a time and had several times suggested that she should, but had never been firm and strong enough to insist in face of Miss Lane’s objections.
‘You must stick up for your rights, my dear,’ said her mother that morning. ‘And don’t forget what I’ve always told you; don’t try to be clever, or go speaking ill of anybody just to show off your own wit. I know how it is with these clever people, like Dorcas Lane. They think they can see through everybody, and so they can to some degree, but they see so far through people that they sometimes see more than there is there and miss the things that are. And, of course, it was very kind of her to give you that nice fur and fur cap. They’ll keep you warm this cold weather. But you don’t want to go on accepting a lot of things like that from somebody who, after all, is no relation. You have got your own wages now and can buy what you want, or, if not, we’ll buy it for you, and if you want any advice as to what to buy or where to buy it, you’ve got your two aunts at Candleford town.’
Laura blushed again at that, for, although she was supposed to go to see the Candleford relatives on alternate Sundays, she had not been there for weeks. Something had always turned up to prevent her going. Snow or rain, or one of Miss Lane’s bad headaches, when she could do no other than offer to get off the Sunday evening mail, though it was not her turn to do so. ‘I don’t like keeping you from your friends,’ Miss Lane would say, ‘but I really must lie down for an hour.’ Or: ‘Really, you can’t want to go out in this weather. When you’ve got off the mail, we’ll have a good fire in the parlour and make ourselves cosy and read. Or we might have down that box from upstairs I told you about, and I’ll show you the letters my father had from that gentleman about Shakespeare. After all, Sunday’s the only day of the week we have to ourselves, with Zillah and the men away.’ And, if Laura still looked a little regretful, she would add: ‘I believe you think more of your Uncle Tom than you do of me.’ Laura did. She thought more of that particular uncle in one way than she did of any one else she knew, for no one else, she felt sure, could equal him in wisdom, wit, and sound, homely common sense. But she was fond of Miss Lane, too, and did not wish to displease her, so she stayed.
She did not attempt to describe to her mother a position she had scarcely begun to realize; but her looks and manner must have betrayed something of it, for her mother repeated: ‘You must stand up for your rights, child. Nobody will think any the better of you for making a doormat of yourself. But you’ll be all right. You’ve got a head well screwed on to your shoulders, and a conscience to tell you right from wrong, I should hope’; and they talked of other things until it was time for Laura to go.
Her mother put on her thick cape and walked to the turn of the hamlet road with her. It was a raw, grey winter morning, with stars paling in a veil of cottage chimney smoke. Men, about to start on their way to work, stood lighting pipes at garden gates, or shuffled past Laura and her mother with a gruff ‘G’marnin!’ Although not frosty, the air was cold and the two snuggled closely together, Laura’s arm in her mother’s, under the cape. She had grown so much that she had to lean down to her mother, and they laughed at that and recalled the time when she, a tiny mite, had said: ‘Some day, when I’m grown up, I’ll be the mother and you’ll be my little girl.’ At the turn of the road they halted and, after a close embrace, her mother said good-bye in the old country words: ‘Good-bye. God bless you!’
Then, almost immediately, as it seemed to Laura when looking back, it was spring. The countryside around Candleford Green was richer and more varied than that near her home. Instead of flat, arable fields, there were low, green hills, and valleys and many trees and little winding streams. Her path as postwoman led over much pasture land and she often returned with her shoes powdered yellow with buttercup pollen. The copses were full of bluebells and there were kingcups and forget-me-nots by the margins of the brooks and cowslips and pale purple milkmaids in the water-meadows. Laura seldom returned from her round without more flowers in her hand than she knew what to do with. Her bedroom looked and smelled like a garden, and she stood as many pots and vases about the kitchen as Zillah would permit.
The official time allowance for the journey was so generous that she found that, by walking quickly on her outward way, she could deliver her letters and still have an hour to spare for sauntering and exploring before she need hurry back home. The scheme had evidently been drawn up for older and more sedate travellers than Laura.
Soon she came to know every tree, flower-patch arid fern-clump beside her path, as well as the gardens, houses, and faces of the people on her round. There was the head gardener’s cottage, semi-Gothic and substantial against the glittering range of glasshouses, and his witty, talkative Welsh wife, kindly, but difficult to escape from; and the dairymaid at the farmhouse who had orders to give her a mug of milk every morning and see that she drank it, because the farmer’s wife thought she was growing beyond her strength; and the row of half a dozen cottages, all exactly alike in outward appearance and inside accommodation, but differing in their degree of comfort and cleanliness. Laura wondered then, as she was often to do in her after-life, why, with houses exactly alike and incomes the same to a penny, one woman will have a cosy, tasteful little home and another something not much better than a slum dwelling.
The women at the cottages, clean and not so clean alike, were always pleasant to Laura, especially when she brought them the letters they were always longing for, but seldom received. On many mornings she did not have to go to the cottages, for there was not a letter for any one there, and this left her with still more time to loiter by the pond, reaching out over the water for brandyballs, as the small yellow water-lily was called there, or to brood with her hand over bird’s eggs in a nest, or to blow dandelion clocks in the sun. Her uniform in summer was a clean print frock and a shady straw hat, which she would sometimes trim with a wreath of living wild flowers. In wet weather she wore her stout new shoes and a dark purplish waterproof cloak, presented to her by one of her Candleford aunts. She carried a postman’s pouch over her shoulder and, for the first part of her outward journey, Sir Timothy’s locked leather private postbag.
The only drawbacks to perfect happiness on her part were footmen and cows. The cows would crowd round the stiles she had to get over and be deaf to all her mild shooings. She had been used to cows all her life and had no fear of them in the open, but the idea of descending from the stile into that sea of heads and horns was alarming. She knew they were gentle creatures and would never attack her; but, accidentally, perhaps —— Their horns were so very sharp and long. Then, one morning, a cowman saw her hesitating and bade her, ‘Coom on.’ If she approached and climbed over the stile quickly, he said the cows would disperse. ‘They dunno what you want to be up to. Let ’em see that you’ve got business on the other side of that stile and that you be in a hurry and they’ll make way for’ee. They be knowin’ old craturs, cows.’ It was as he had said: when she came to and crossed the stile in a businesslike way, they moved politely aside for her to pass, and they soon became so used to seeing her there that they dispersed at her approach.
The footmen were far less mannerly. At the hour at which she reached the great house every morning, their duties, or their pleasure, lay in the back premises, near the door at which Sir Timothy’s postbag had to be delivered. At the sound of the doorbell, two or three of them would rush out, snatch the leather postbag from Laura’s hand and toss it from one to the other — sometimes kick it. They hated that postbag because their own private letters were locked therein, and if Sir Timothy was out on the estate or engaged in his justice Room, they had to wait until he was ready, or chose, to unlock it. They accused him of examining the handwriting and postmarks of their correspondence and of asking inquisitive questions about it. Which he may at some time have done, for, in Laura’s time, they had betting tips and bookmakers’ circulars addressed to the Post Office to be called for.
It was this matter of the postbag which had caused their animosity towards Laura. When she had first appeared as a postwoman they had asked — or, rather, told — her to bring up to the house with the bag their letters addressed to the Post Office. Miss Lane, who was a stickler for strict observance of the official rules, would not permit her to do this. If a letter was addressed to the Post Office to be called for, she said, called for it must be, and although Laura, who thought it unfair that their letters should be inspected, like those of small boys at school, had softened Miss Lane’s message to them when delivering it, they were annoyed and under a show of boisterous horseplay visited their annoyance upon Laura.
They would creep silently up behind her and clap her heavily upon the shoulders, or knock her hat over her eyes, or ruffle her hair with their hands, or try to kiss her. The maids, several of whom were often present, as the housekeeper and the butler were at that time taking their morning coffee in the housekeeper’s room, would only laugh at her discomfiture, or join in the sport, gutting pebbles down her neck, or flicking her face with their dusting-brushes.
‘You look as if you’d been drawn through a quickset hedge-backwards’, remarked the head gardener’s wife one day when Laura was more than usually dishevelled; but, when told what had happened, she only laughed and said: ‘Well, you’re only young once. You must get all the fun you can. You give them as good as they give you and they’ll soon learn to respect you.’ She dared not tell Miss Lane, for she knew that lady would complain to Sir Timothy and there would be what she thought of as ‘a fuss’. She preferred to endure the teasing, which, after all, occupied but a few minutes during an outing in which there were rich compensations.
Excepting the men working in the fields, she seldom saw any one between the houses on her round. Now and then she would meet the estate carpenter with his bag of tools, going to mend a fence or a gate, and occasionally she saw Sir Timothy himself, spud in hand, taking what he called ‘a toddle round the estate,’ and he would greet her in his jovial way as ‘our little Postmistress–General’ and tell her to go to Geering, the head gardener, and ask him to show her through the glasshouses and give her some flowers. Which was kind of him, but unnecessary, as Mr. Geering had, on his own responsibility, conducted her several times through the long, warm, damp, scented hothouses, picking a flower here and there to add to her bouquet. My glasshouses, the gardener called them; our glasshouses, said his wife when speaking of them; to the actual owner they were merely the glasshouses. So much for the privilege of ownership!
Once she saw Sir Timothy in a more serious mood. That was after a night of high wind had brought down two magnificent elm trees on the edge of the ha-ha, and he called to her to come and look at the damage. It was a sad sight. The trees were lying with their roots upended and their trunks slanting across the ditch to the ruin of broken branches and smashed twigs on the lower level. Sir Timothy appeared to be as much distressed as if they had been the only trees he possessed. There were tears in his eyes as he kept repeating: ‘Wouldn’t have lost them for worlds! Known them all my life. Opened my eyes upon them, in fact, for I was born in that room there. See the window? It’s this damned sunk fence is to blame. No root room on one side. Wouldn’t have lost them for worlds!’ And she left him lamenting.
Although so few people were seen there at the early hour of Laura’s passing, the park was open to all. Couples went there for walks on summer Sundays, and the poorer villagers were permitted to pick up the dead fallen wood for their fires; but the copses and other enclosures were barred, especially in the spring, when the game birds were nesting. There were notice boards in such places to say trespassers would be prosecuted and, although Laura considered herself to some extent a privileged person, she climbed into them stealthily and kept a look-out for the gamekeeper. But he was an old man, getting beyond his work, people said; his cottage stood in a clearing in a wood on the other side of the estate, and she never once sighted him.
She went in and out of the copses, gathering bluebells or wild cherry blossom, or hunting for birds’ nests, and never saw any one, until one May morning of her second year on the round. She had gone into one of the copses where a few lilies-of-the-valley grew wild, found half a dozen or so, and was just climbing down the high bank which surrounded the copse when she came face to face with a stranger. He was a young man in rough country tweeds and carried a gun over his shoulder. She thought for a moment that he might be one of Sir Timothy’s nephews, or some other visitor at the great house, though, of course, she should have remembered that no guest of Sir Timothy’s would have carried a gun at that season. But, when he pointed to a notice board which said Trespassers will be prosecuted and asked, rather roughly, what the devil she thought she was doing there, she knew he must be a gamekeeper, and he turned out to be a new underkeeper engaged to do most of the actual work of the old man, who was failing in health, but refused to retire.
He was a tall, well-built young man, apparently in the middle twenties, with a small fair moustache and very pale blue eyes which, against his dark tanned complexion, looked paler. His features might have been called handsome but for their set rigidity. These softened slightly when Laura held out her half-dozen lilies-ofthe-valley as an excuse for her trespass. He was sure she had meant to do no harm, he said, but the pheasants were still sitting and he could not have them disturbed. There had been too much of this trespassing lately — Laura wondered by whom — too much laxity, too much laxity, he repeated, as if he had just thought of the word and was pleased with it, but it had got to stop. Then, still walking close on her heels on the narrow path, as if to keep her in custody, he asked her if she would tell him the way to Foxhill Copse, as it was his first morning on the estate and he had not grasped the lie of the land yet. When she pointed it out and he saw that her own path led past it, he unbent sufficiently to suggest that they should walk on together.
By the time they reached the copse he had become quite human. His name, he told her, was Philip White. His father was head gamekeeper on an estate near Oxford and he had so far worked under him, but had now come to Candleford Park on the understanding that when poor old Chitty died or retired he would take his place as head gamekeeper. Without actually saying so, he managed to convey the impression that by consenting to serve under Chitty for a time he was doing, not only Sir Timothy, but the whole neighbourhood a favour. His father’s estate (he spoke of it as his father’s in the way the Geerings spoke of ‘our glasshouses’) was larger and better preserved than this and belonged to a very great nobleman with an historic title. He did not claim the title as a family possession, but it was evident that he felt its reflected glory.
Laura glanced up at him. No. He was perfectly serious. There was no smile on his face, not even a twinkle in his pale eyes; the only expression there was one of a faint interest in herself. Before they parted she had been shown a photograph of his sister, who worked in a draper’s showroom in Oxford. It was that of a smiling girl in evening dress for some dance, with her fair hair dressed in curls high on her head. Laura was much impressed. ‘All in our family are good-looking,’ he said as he slipped the photograph back into his breast pocket. She had also been given a description of his parents’ model cottage on the famous estate and been told of the owner’s great shoots, to which dukes and lords and millionaires appeared to flock, and would probably have heard much more had not her conscience pricked her into saying: ‘I really must go now, or I shall have to run all the way.’ She had not told him anything about herself, nor had he asked any questions beyond inquiring where she lived and how often she passed that way. Happening to look back as she climbed over the stile, she saw him still standing where she had left him. He raised his hand in a wooden salute, and that, she thought, was the last she would see of him.
But she had not seen the last of Philip White. After that he always seemed to appear at some point on her walk. At first he would spring out of some copse with his gun and seem to be surprised to see her; but soon he would stroll openly along the path to meet her, then turn and walk by her side through the park until just before they came in sight of the great house windows. Beyond telling Miss Lane as an item of news on the first morning that a new under-keeper had come and that he had asked her the way to Fox’lls, Laura mentioned these meetings to no one, and as they met on the loneliest part of her round no one she knew ever saw them together. But for weeks they met almost daily and talked, or rather Philip talked and she listened. Sometimes he would take the hand which swung by her side and hold it in his as they walked on together. It was pleasant at sixteen to be the object of so much attention on the part of a grown man and from one who was spoken of respectfully by the villagers as Keeper White, while to her in secret he was Philip. ‘Call me Philip,’ he had said at their second meeting. ‘I wouldn’t allow any one else here to call me it, but I’d like it from you,’ and she called him by that name occasionally. Never ‘Phil’; it would not have suited him. He called her ‘Laura’, and once or twice when they passed through the kissing gate, he gave her a shy, cold, wooden kind of kiss over the bars.
She supposed they were sweethearts and sometimes looked into the future and saw herself feeding the pheasant chicks hatched out under hens in the little coops upon the green clearing where old Chitty’s cottage stood. She felt she could be happy for life in that pretty cottage on the green, surrounded by waving tree-tops. On one of her walks last spring she had seen the margins of the green and the earth under the trees starred with white wild anenomes, swaying in the wind, and it had looked to her then a perfect paradise. But then came the dampening thought that Philip would be there, too, at least some of the time, and she was not sure that she liked Philip well enough to be able to endure his perpetual company.
He was so self-satisfied, so sure that he and everything and everybody belonging to him were perfect, and he had no interests whatever outside his own affairs. If she tried to talk about other people or of flowers she had found, or some book she was reading, it was never long before he brought the conversation back to himself again. ‘That’s like me,’ he would say, or, ‘What I think about it is ——’ or, ‘I couldn’t stand that sort of thing,’ and she, who loved to listen to most people and found nearly everybody else interesting, wanted to run straight away across the park and fields and leave him talking to himself.
But she was constitutionally incapable of that. And if she tried to offend and quarrel with him, she could not. She knew that from some of the stories against himself he repeated, without the least idea that they were against himself. If she told him openly that she thought they ought not to walk together, as it was against official rules, she would still have to meet and pass him frequently, for it was one of his duties to patrol every part of the estate. There really seemed to be nothing she could do about it, except to bound on a few yards in front as they approached the kissing gate.
Then, when she least expected it, the whole affair came to a head and was over. It was just upon closing time one evening, and she had taken some forms to Miss Lane, who was already seated at the kitchen table about to begin on her accounts, when the office doorbell tinkled and she hurried back to find Philip there. That, to begin with, was a surprise to her, for he had never been in the office before — an embarrassment, too, for she knew that Miss Lane, sitting quietly at the kitchen table with the door wide open, would hear every word that was said. But there he was, looking full of importance, and all she could do to cope with the situation was to say ‘Good evening’ in what she hoped was a businesslike voice. She almost prayed that he would say, ‘Three penny stamps’ or something of that kind and go. He might squeeze her hand, if he liked; she did not care if he kissed her, if only he kissed her quietly and Miss Lane did not hear. But she was not to be let off so easily.
Without any formal greeting, he pulled a letter out of his pocket and said: ‘Can you get off for a few days at the end of this week? Well, as a matter of fact, you must. I’ve got this letter from our Cathy’— his sister —‘and she says and our Mum says I’m to bring you. Saturday to Monday, she says, or longer if we can manage it, but, of course, I can’t. Nobody can afford to leave my job for long together — too many bad characters about. Still, I think I have earned a day or two and Sir Timothy’s quite agreeable, so you’d better arrange about it now and I’ll wait.’
Laura looked at the open door; she could positively feel Miss Lane listening. ‘I’m s-s-sorry ——’ she began feebly, but the idea of any one trying to refuse an invitation from his family was unthinkable to Philip. ‘Go and ask,’ he commanded; then, more gently, but still too, too audibly: ‘Go and ask. You’ve got the right. Everybody takes their girl for their people to see; and you are my girl, aren’t you, Laura?’
The papers on the kitchen table rustled, then again dead silence, but Laura was no longer thinking of the danger of being overheard so much as wondering what she should say.
‘You are my girl, aren’t you, Laura?’ asked Philip once more, and for the first time since she had known him, Laura detected a faint note of uneasiness in his voice. She herself was trembling with consternation, but when she said, ‘You’ve never asked me,’ her voice sounded flippant, perhaps coquettish, for Philip took one of her trembling hands and smiled down upon her as he said magnanimously: ‘Well, I thought you understood. But don’t be frightened. You will be my girl. Won’t you, Laura?’ That was inadequate enough as a declaration of love, but Laura’s answer was even more inadequate: ‘No — no thank you, Philip,’ she said, and the most unromantic love scene on record was over, for, without another word, he turned, went out of the door and out of her life. She never saw him again to speak to. On one occasion, months afterwards, she had a momentary view of his distant figure, gun on shoulder, stalking across one of the open spaces of the park, but, if he ever came her way again, he must have chosen a time of day when she was not likely to be there.
But Miss Lane was still with her and had to be dealt with. Laura expected at least a severe scolding. A letter might even be written to her mother. But when Laura returned to the kitchen Miss Lane, who was carefully ruling a line in red ink, did not even look up. ‘Who was that?’ she asked in a casual tone when she had finished, and Laura, trying to sound casual too, replied: ‘Sir Timothy’s new gamekeeper.’ No more was said at that moment, but, as she folded her accounts and slipped them into the large brown paper envelope with the printed address, ‘Accountant–General, G.P.O., London’, Miss Lane eyed Laura closely and said: ‘You seem to know that young man very well,’ ‘Yes,’ admitted Laura. ‘I’ve met him on the round sometimes.’ And Miss Lane said, ‘Umph! So I gathered.’
So there were no reproaches. On the contrary, Miss Lane appeared in a better temper than usual for the rest of the evening. As they were lighting their candles to go up to bed, she said thoughtfully: ‘I don’t see why you should ever leave here. You and I get on very well together, and perhaps, after my time, you might take my place in the office.’
In after years Laura sometimes looked rather wistfully back on that evening when an apparent choice was offered her between two widely differing paths in life. It would have been pleasant to have lived all her days in comparative ease and security among the people she knew and understood. To have watched the seasons open and fade in the scenes she loved and belonged to by birth. But have we any of us a free choice of our path in life, or are we driven on by destiny or by the demon within us into a path already marked out? Who can tell?
Choice or no choice, Laura’s sojourn at Candleford Green was to be but of a few years’ duration. And, if the choice had been hers and she had remained there, her life might not have been as happy and peaceful as she afterwards imagined it would have been. Her mother’s judgement was usually sound, and she had often told her: ‘You’re not cut out for a pleasant, easy life. You think too much!’ Sometimes adding tolerantly: ‘But we are as we are made, I suppose.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00