There were three distinct types of home in the hamlet. Those of the old couples in comfortable circumstances, those of the married people with growing families, and the few new homes which had recently been established. The old people who were not in comfortable circumstances had no homes at all worth mentioning, for, as soon as they got past work, they had either to go to the workhouse or find accommodation in the already overcrowded cottages of their children. A father or a mother could usually be squeezed in, but there was never room for both, so one child would take one parent and another the other, and even then, as they used to say, there was always the inlaw to be dealt with. It was a common thing to hear ageing people say that they hoped God would be pleased to take them before they got past work and became a trouble to anybody.
But the homes of the more fortunate aged were the most comfortable in the hamlet, and one of the most attractive of these was known as ‘Old Sally’s’. Never as ‘Old Dick’s’, although Sally’s husband, Dick, might have been seen at any hour of the day, digging and hoeing and watering and planting his garden, as much a part of the landscape as his own row of beehives.
He was a little, dry, withered old man, who always wore his smock-frock rolled up round his waist and the trousers on his thin legs gartered with buckled straps. Sally was tall and broad, not fat, but massive, and her large, beamingly good-natured face, with its well-defined moustache and tight, coal-black curls bobbing over each ear, was framed in a white cap frill; for Sally, though still strong and active, was over eighty, and had remained faithful to the fashions of her youth.
She was the dominating partner. If Dick was called upon to decide any question whatever, he would edge nervously aside and say, ‘I’ll just step indoors and see what Sally thinks about it,’ or ‘All depends upon what Sally says.’ The house was hers and she carried the purse; but Dick was a willing subject and enjoyed her dominion over him. It saved him a lot of thinking, and left him free to give all his time and attention to the growing things in his garden.
Old Sally’s was a long, low, thatched cottage with diamond-paned windows winking under the eaves and a rustic porch smothered in honeysuckle. Excepting the inn, it was the largest house in the hamlet, and of the two downstair rooms one was used as a kind of kitchen-storeroom, with pots and pans and a big red crockery water vessel at one end, and potatoes in sacks and peas and beans spread out to dry at the other. The apple crop was stored on racks suspended beneath the ceiling and bunches of herbs dangled below. In one corner stood the big brewing copper in which Sally still brewed with good malt and hops once a quarter. The scent of the last brewing hung over the place till the next and mingled with apple and onion and dried thyme and sage smells, with a dash of soapsuds thrown in, to compound the aroma which remained in the children’s memories for life and caused a whiff of any two of the component parts in any part of the world to be recognized with an appreciative sniff and a mental ejaculation of ‘Old Sally’s!’
The inner room —‘the house’, as it was called — was a perfect snuggery, with walls two feet thick and outside shutters to close at night and a padding of rag rugs, red curtains and feather cushions within. There was a good oak, gate-legged table, a dresser with pewter and willow-pattern plates, and a grandfather’s clock that not only told the time, but the day of the week as well. It had even once told the changes of the moon; but the works belonging to that part had stopped and only the fat, full face, painted with eyes, nose and mouth, looked out from the square where the four quarters should have rotated. The clock portion kept such good time that half the hamlet set its own clocks by it. The other half preferred to follow the hooter at the brewery in the market town, which could be heard when the wind was in the right quarter. So there were two times in the hamlet and people would say when asking the hour, ‘Is that hooter time, or Old Sally’s?’
The garden was a large one, tailing off at the bottom into a little field where Dick grew his corn crop. Nearer the cottage were fruit trees, then the yew hedge, close and solid as a wall, which sheltered the beehives and enclosed the flower garden. Sally had such flowers, and so many of them, and nearly all of them sweet-scented! Wallflowers and tulips, lavender and sweet william, and pinks and old-world roses with enchanting names — Seven Sisters, Maiden’s Blush, moss rose, monthly rose, cabbage rose, blood rose, and, most thrilling of all to the children, a big bush of the York and Lancaster rose, in the blooms of which the rival roses mingled in a pied white and red. It seemed as though all the roses in Lark Rise had gathered together in that one garden. Most of the gardens had only one poor starveling bush or none; but, then, nobody else had so much of anything as Sally.
A continual subject for speculation was as to how Dick and Sally managed to live so comfortably with no visible means of support beyond their garden and beehives and the few shillings their two soldier sons might be supposed to send them, and Sally in her black silk on Sundays and Dick never without a few ha’pence for garden seeds or to fill his tobacco pouch. ‘Wish they’d tell me how ’tis done,’ somebody would grumble. ‘I could do wi’ a leaf out o’ their book.’
But Dick and Sally did not talk about their affairs. All that was known of them was that the house belonged to Sally, and that it had been built by her grandfather before the open heath had been cut up into fenced fields and the newer houses had been built to accommodate the labourers who came to work in them. It was only when Laura was old enough to write their letters for them that she learned more. They could both read and Dick could write well enough to exchange letters with their own children; but one day they received a business letter that puzzled them, and Laura was called in, sworn to secrecy, and consulted. It was one of the nicest things that happened to her as a child, to be chosen out of the whole hamlet for their confidence and to know that Dick and Sally liked her, though so few other people did. After that, at twelve years old, she became their little woman of business, writing letters to seedsmen and fetching postal orders from the market town to put in them and helping Dick to calculate the interest due on their savings bank account. From them she learned a great deal about the past life of the hamlet.
Sally could just remember the Rise when it still stood in a wide expanse of open heath, with juniper bushes and furze thickets and close, springy, rabbit-bitten turf. There were only six houses then and they stood in a ring round an open green, all with large gardens and fruit trees and faggot piles. Laura could pick out most of the houses, still in a ring, but lost to sight of each other among the newer, meaner dwellings that had sprung up around and between them. Some of the houses had been built on and made into two, others had lost their lean-tos and outbuildings. Only Sally’s remained the same, and Sally was eighty. Laura in her lifetime was to see a ploughed field where Sally’s stood; but had she been told that she would not have believed it.
Country people had not been so poor when Sally was a girl, or their prospects so hopeless. Sally’s father had kept a cow, geese, poultry, pigs, and a donkey-cart to carry his produce to the market town. He could do this because he had commoners’ rights and could turn his animals out to graze, and cut furze for firing and even turf to make a lawn for one of his customers. Her mother made butter, for themselves and to sell, baked their own bread, and made candles for lighting. Not much of a light, Sally said, but it cost next to nothing, and, of course, they went to bed early.
Sometimes her father would do a day’s work for wages, thatching a rick, cutting and laying a hedge, or helping with the shearing or the harvest. This provided them with ready money for boots and clothes; for food they relied almost entirely on home produce. Tea was a luxury seldom indulged in, for it cost five shillings a pound. But country people then had not acquired the taste for tea; they preferred home-brewed.
Everybody worked; the father and mother from daybreak to dark. Sally’s job was to mind the cow and drive the geese to the best grass patches. It was strange to picture Sally, a little girl, running with her switch after the great hissing birds on the common, especially as both common and geese had vanished as completely as though they never had been.
Sally had never been to school, for, when she was a child, there was no dame school near enough for her to attend; but her brother had gone to a night school run by the vicar of an adjoining parish, walking the three miles each way after his day’s work was done, and he had taught Sally to spell out a few words in her mother’s Bible. After that, she had been left to tread the path of learning alone and had only managed to reach the point where she could write her own name and read the Bible or newspaper by skipping words of more than two syllables. Dick was a little more advanced, for he had had the benefit of the night-school education at first hand.
It was surprising to find how many of the old people in the hamlet who had had no regular schooling could yet read a little. A parent had taught some; others had attended a dame school or the night school, and a few had made their own children teach them in later life. Statistics of illiteracy of that period are often misleading, for many who could read and write sufficiently well for their own humble needs would modestly disclaim any pretensions to being what they called ‘scholards’. Some who could write their own name quite well would make a cross as signature to a document out of nervousness or modesty.
After Sally’s mother died, she became her father’s right hand, indoors and out. When the old man became feeble, Dick used to come sometimes to do a bit of hard digging or to farm out the pigsties, and Sally had many tales to tell of the fun they had had carting their bit of hay or hunting for eggs in the loft. When, at a great age, the father died, he left the house and furniture and his seventy-five pounds in the savings bank to Sally, for, by that time, both her brothers were thriving and needed no share. So Dick and Sally were married and had lived there together for nearly sixty years. It had been a hard, frugal, but happy life. For most of the time Dick had worked as a farm labourer while Sally saw to things about home, for the cow, geese and other stock had long gone the way of the common. But when Dick retired from wage-earning the seventy-five pounds was not only intact, but had been added to. It had been their rule, Sally said, to save something every week, if only a penny or twopence, and the result of their hard work and self-denial was their present comfortable circumstances. ‘But us couldn’t’ve done it if us’d gone havin’ a great tribe o’ children,’ Sally would say. ‘I didn’t never hold wi’ havin’ a lot o’ poor brats and nothin’ to put into their bellies. Took us all our time to bring up our two.’ She was very bitter about the huge families around her and no doubt would have said more had she been talking to one of maturer age.
They had their little capital reckoned up and allotted; they could manage on so much a year in addition to the earnings of their garden, fowls, and beehives, and that much, and no more, was drawn every year from the bank. ‘Reckon it’ll about last our time,’ they used to say, and it did, although both lived well on into the eighties.
After they had gone, their house stood empty for years. The population of the hamlet was falling and none of the young newly married couples cared for the thatched roof and stone floors. People who lived near used the well; it saved them many a journey. And many were not above taking the railings or the beehive bench or anything made of wood for firing, or gathering the apples or using the poor tattered remnant of the flower garden as a nursery. But nobody wanted to live there.
When Laura visited the hamlet just before the War, the roof had fallen in, the yew hedge had run wild and the flowers were gone, excepting one pink rose which was shedding its petals over the ruin. To-day, all has gone, and only the limy whiteness of the soil in a corner of a ploughed field is left to show that a cottage once stood there.
Sally and Dick were survivals from the earliest hamlet days. Queenie represented another phase of its life which had also ended and been forgotten by most people. She lived in a tiny, thatched cottage at the back of the end house, which, although it was not in line, was always spoken of as ‘next door’. She seemed very old to the children, for she was a little, wrinkled, yellow-faced old woman in a sunbonnet; but she cannot have been nearly as old as Sally. Queenie and her husband were not in such comfortable circumstances as Sally and Dick; but old Master Macey, commonly called ‘Twister’, was still able to work part of the time, and they managed to keep their home going.
It was a pleasant home, though bare, for Queenie kept it spotless, scrubbing her deal table and whitening her floor with hearthstone every morning and keeping the two brass candlesticks on her mantelpiece polished till they looked like gold. The cottage faced south and, in summer, the window and door stood open all day to the sunshine. When the children from the end house passed close by her doorway, as they had to do every time they went beyond their own garden, they would pause a moment to listen to Queenie’s old sheep’s-head clock ticking. There was no other sound; for, after she had finished her housework, Queenie was never indoors while the sun shone. If the children had a message for her, they were told to go round to the beehives, and there they would find her, sitting on a low stool with her lace-pillow on her lap, sometimes working and sometimes dozing with her lilac sunbonnet drawn down over her face to shield it from the sun.
Every fine day, throughout the summer, she sat there ‘watching the bees’. She was combining duty and pleasure, for, if they swarmed, she was making sure of not losing the swarm; and, if they did not, it was still, as she said, ‘a trate’ to sit there, feeling the warmth of the sun, smelling the flowers, and watching ‘the craturs’ go in and out of the hives.
When, at last, the long-looked-for swarm rose into the air, Queenie would seize her coal shovel and iron spoon and follow it over cabbage beds and down pea-stick alleys, her own or, if necessary, other peoples’, tanging the spoon on the shovel: Tang-tang-tangety-tang!
She said it was the law that, if they were not tanged, and they settled beyond her own garden bounds, she would have no further claim to them. Where they settled, they belonged. That would have been a serious loss, especially in early summer, for, as she reminded the children:
A swarm in May’s worth a rick of hay;
And a swarm in June’s worth a silver spoon;
A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.
So she would follow and leave her shovel to mark her claim, then go back home for the straw skep and her long, green veil and sheepskin gloves to protect her face and hands while she hived her swarm.
In winter she fed her bees with a mixture of sugar and water and might often have been seen at that time of the year with her ear pressed to one of the red pan roofs of the hives, listening. ‘The craturs! The poor little craturs,’ she would say, ‘they must be a’most frozed. If I could have my way I’d take ’em all indoors and set ’em in rows in front of a good fire.’
Queenie at her lace-making was a constant attraction to the children. They loved to see the bobbins tossed hither and thither, at random it seemed to them, every bobbin weighted with its bunch of bright beads and every bunch with its own story, which they had heard so many times that they knew it by heart, how this bunch had been part of a blue bead necklace worn by her little sister who had died at five years old, and this other one had belonged to her mother, and that black one had been found, after she was dead, in a work-box belonging to a woman who was reputed to have been a witch.
There had been a time, it appeared, when lace-making was a regular industry in the hamlet. Queenie, in her childhood, had been ‘brought up to the pillow’, sitting among the women at eight years old and learning to fling her bobbins with the best of them. They would gather in one cottage in winter for warmth, she said, each one bringing her faggot or shovel of coals for the fire, and there they would sit all day, working, gossiping, singing old songs, and telling old tales till it was time to run home and put on the pots for their husbands’ suppers. These were the older women and the young unmarried girls; the women with little children did what lace-making they could at home. In very cold winter weather the lace-makers would have a small earthen pot with a lid, called a ‘pipkin’, containing hot embers, at which they warmed their hands and feet and sometimes sat upon.
In the summer they would sit in the shade behind one of the ‘housen’, and, as they gossiped, the bobbins flew and the lovely, delicate pattern lengthened until the piece was completed and wrapped in blue paper and stored away to await the great day when the year’s work was taken to Banbury Fair and sold to the dealer.
‘Them wer’ the days!’ she would sigh. ‘Money to spend.’ And she would tell of the bargains she had bought with her earnings. Good brown calico and linsey-woolsey, and a certain chocolate print sprigged with white, her favourite gown, of which she could still show a pattern in her big patchwork quilt. Then there was a fairing to be bought for those at home — pipes and packets of shag tobacco for the men, rag dolls and ginger-bread for the ‘little ‘uns’, and snuff for the old grannies. And the homecoming, loaded with treasure, and money in the pocket besides. Tripe. They always bought tripe; it was the only time in the year they could get it, and it was soon heated up, with onions and a nice bit of thickening; and after supper there was hot, spiced elderberry wine, and so to bed, everybody happy.
Now, of course, things were different. She didn’t know what the world was coming to. This nasty machine-made stuff had killed the lace-making; the dealer had not been to the Fair for the last ten years; nobody knew a bit of good stuff when they saw it. Said they liked the Nottingham lace better; it was wider and had more pattern to it! She still did a bit to keep her hand in. One or two old ladies still used it to trim their shifts, and it was handy to give as presents to such as the children’s mother; but, as for living by it, no, those days were over. So it emerged from her talk that there had been a second period in the hamlet more prosperous than the present. Perhaps the women’s earnings at lace-making had helped to tide them over the Hungry ‘Forties, for no one seemed to remember that time of general hardship in country villages; but memories were short there, and it may have been that life had always been such a struggle they had noticed no difference in those lean years.
Queenie’s ideal of happiness was to have a pound a week coming in. ‘If I had a pound a week,’ she would say, ‘I ‘udn’t care if it rained hatchets and hammers.’ Laura’s mother longed for thirty shillings a week, and would say, ‘If I could depend on thirty shillings, regular, I could keep you all so nice and tidy, and keep such a table!’
Queenie’s income fell far short of even half of the pound a week she dreamed of, for her husband, Twister, was what was known in the hamlet as ‘a slack-twisted sort o’ chap’, one who ‘whatever he died on, ‘uldn’t kill hisself wi’ hard work’. He was fond of a bit of sport and always managed to get taken on as a beater at shoots, and took care never to have a job on hand when hounds were meeting in the neighbourhood. Best of all, he liked to go round with one of the brewers’ travellers, perched precariously on the back seat of the high dogcart, to open and shut the gates they had to pass through and to hold the horse outside public houses. But, although he had retired from regular farm labour on account of age and chronic rheumatism, he still went to the farm and lent a hand when he had nothing more exciting to do. The farmer must have liked him, for he had given orders that whenever Twister was working about the farmstead he was to have a daily half-pint on demand. That half-pint was the salvation of Queenie’s housekeeping, for, in spite of his varied interests, there were many days when Twister must either work or thirst.
He was a small, thin-legged, jackdaw-eyed old fellow, and dressed in an old velveteen coat that had once belonged to a gamekeeper, with a peacock’s feather stuck in the band of his battered old bowler and a red-and-yellow neckerchief knotted under one ear. The neckerchief was a relic of the days when he had taken baskets of nuts to fairs, and, taking up his stand among the booths and roundabouts, had shouted: ‘Bassalonies big as ponies!’ until his throat felt dry. Then he had adjourned to the nearest public house and spent his takings and distributed the rest of his stock, gratis. That venture soon came to an end for want of capital.
To serve his own purposes, Twister would sometimes pose as a half-wit; but, as the children’s father said, he was no fool where his own interests were concerned. He was ready at any time to clown in public for the sake of a pint of beer; but at home he was morose — one of those people who ‘hang their fiddle up at the door when they go home’, as the saying went there.
But in old age Queenie had him well in hand. He knew that he had to produce at least a few shillings on Saturday night, or, when Sunday dinner-time came, Queenie would spread the bare cloth on the table and they would just have to sit down and look at each other; there would be no food.
Forty-five years before she had served him with a dish even less to his taste. He had got drunk and beaten her cruelly with the strap with which he used to keep up his trousers. Poor Queenie had gone to bed sobbing; but she was not too overcome to think, and she decided to try an old country cure for such offences.
The next morning when he came to dress, his strap was missing. Probably already ashamed of himself, he said nothing, but hitched up his trousers with string and slunk off to work, leaving Queenie apparently still asleep.
At night, when he came home to tea, a handsome pie was placed before him, baked a beautiful golden-brown and with a pastry tulip on the top; such a pie as must have seemed to him to illustrate the old saying: ‘A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more you beat ’em the better they be.’
‘You cut it, Tom,’ said a smiling Queenie. ‘I made it a-purpose for you. Come, don’t ‘ee be afraid on it. ’Tis all for you.’ And she turned her back and pretended to be hunting for something in the cupboard.
Tom cut it; then recoiled, for, curled up inside, was the leather strap with which he had beaten his wife. ‘A just went as white as a ghoo-ost, an’ got up an’ went out,’ said Queenie all those years later. ‘But it cured ‘en, it cured ‘en, for’s not so much as laid a finger on me from that day to this!’
Perhaps Twister’s clowning was not all affected; for, in later years, he became a little mad and took to walking about talking to himself, with a large, open clasp-knife in his hand. Nobody thought of getting a doctor to examine him; but everybody in the hamlet suddenly became very polite to him.
It was at this time he gave the children’s mother the fright of her life. She had gone out to hang out some clothes in the garden, leaving one of her younger children alone, asleep in his cradle. When she came back, Twister was stooping over the child with his head inside the hood of the cradle, completely hiding the babe from her sight. As she rushed forward, fearing the worst, the poor, silly old man looked up at her with his eyes full of tears. ‘Ain’t ‘ee like little Jesus? Ain’t ‘ee just like little Jesus?’ he said, and the little baby of two months woke up at that moment and smiled. It was the first time he had been known to smile.
But Twister’s exploits did not always end as happily. He had begun to torture animals and was showing an inclination to turn nudist, and people were telling Queenie he ought to be ‘put away’ when the great snowstorm came. For days the hamlet was cut off from the outer world by great drifts which filled the narrow hamlet road to the tops of the hedges in places. In digging a way out they found a cart with the horse still between the shafts and still alive; but there was no trace of the boy who was known to have been in charge. Men, women, and children turned out to dig, expecting to find a dead body, and Twister was one of the foremost amongst them. They said he worked then as he had never worked before in his life; his strength and energy were marvellous. They did not find the boy, alive or dead, for the very good reason that he had, at the height of the storm, deserted the cart, forgotten the horse, and scrambled across country to his home in another village; but poor old Twister got pneumonia and was dead within a fortnight.
On the evening of the day he died, Edmund was round at the back of the end house banking up his rabbit-hutches with straw for the night, when he saw Queenie come out of her door and go towards her beehives. For some reason or other, Edmund followed her. She tapped on the roof of each hive in turn, like knocking at a door, and said, ‘Bees, bees, your master’s dead, an’ now you must work for your missis.’ Then, seeing the little boy, she explained: ‘I ‘ad to tell ’em, you know, or they’d all’ve died, poor craturs.’ So Edmund really heard bees seriously told of a death.
Afterwards, with parish relief and a little help here and there from her children and friends, Queenie managed to live. Her chief difficulty was to get her ounce of snuff a week, and that was the one thing she could not do without; it was as necessary to her as tobacco is to a smoker.
All the women over fifty took snuff. It was the one luxury in their hard lives. ‘I couldn’t do wi’out my pinch o’ snuff,’ they used to say. “Tis meat an’ drink to me,’ and, tapping the sides of their snuffboxes, ”Ave a pinch, me dear.’
Most of the younger women pulled a face of disgust as they refused the invitation, for snuff-taking had gone out of fashion and was looked upon as a dirty habit; but Laura’s mother would dip her thumb and forefinger into the box and sniff at them delicately, ‘for manners’ sake’, as she said. Queenie’s snuffbox had a picture of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort on the lid. Sometimes, when every grain of the powder was gone, she would sniff at the empty box and say, ‘Ah! That’s better. The ghost o’ good snuff’s better nor nothin’.’
She still had one great day every year, when, every autumn, the dealer came to purchase the produce of her beehives. Then, in her pantry doorway, a large muslin bag was suspended to drain the honey from the broken pieces of comb into a large, red pan which stood beneath, while, on her doorstep, the end house children waited to see ‘the honeyman’ carry out and weigh the whole combs. One year — one never-to-beforgotten year — he had handed to each of them a rich, dripping fragment of comb. He never did it again; but they always waited, for the hope was almost as sweet as the honey.
There had been, when Laura was small, one bachelor’s establishment near her home. This had belonged to ‘the Major’, who, as his nickname denoted, had been in the Army. He had served in many lands and then returned to his native place to set up house and do for himself in a neat, orderly, soldier-like manner. All went well until he became old and feeble. Even then, for some years, he struggled on alone in his little home, for he had a small pension. Then he was ill and spent some weeks in Oxford Infirmary. Before he went there, as he had no relatives or special friends, Laura’s mother nursed him and helped him to get together the few necessities he had to take with him. She would have visited him at the hospital had it been possible; but money was scarce and her children were too young to be left, so she wrote him a few letters and sent him the newspaper every week. It was, as she said, ‘the least anybody could do for the poor old fellow’. But the Major had seen the world and knew its ways and he did not take such small kindnesses as a matter of course.
He came home from the hospital late one Saturday night, after the children were in bed, and, next morning, Laura, waking at early dawn, thought she saw some strange object on her pillow. She dozed and woke again. It was still there. A small wooden box. She sat up in bed and opened it. Inside was a set of doll’s dishes with painted wax food upon them — chops and green peas and new potatoes, and a jam tart with criss-cross pastry. Where could it have come from? It was not Christmas or her birthday. Then Edmund awoke and called out he had found an engine. It was a tiny tin engine, perhaps a penny one, but his delight was unbounded. Then Mother came into their room and said that the Major had brought the presents from Oxford. She had a little red silk handkerchief, such as were worn inside the coat-collar at that time for extra warmth. It was before fur collars were thought of. Father had a pipe and the baby a rattle. It was amazing. To be thought of! To be brought presents, and such presents, by one who was not even a relative! The good, kind Major was in no danger of being forgotten by the family at the end house. Mother made his bed and tidied his room, and Laura was sent with covered plates whenever there was anything special for dinner. She would knock at his door and go in and say in her demure little way, ‘Please, Mr. Sharman, Mother says could you fancy a little of so-and-so?’
But the Major was too old and ill to be able to live alone much longer, even with such help as the children’s mother and other kind neighbours could give. The day came when the doctor called in the relieving officer. The old man was seriously ill; he had no relatives. There was only one place where he could be properly looked after, and that was the workhouse infirmary. They were right in their decision. He was not able to look after himself; he had no relatives or friends able to undertake the responsibility; the workhouse was the best place for him. But they made one terrible mistake. They were dealing with a man of intelligence and spirit, and they treated him as they might have done one in the extreme of senile decay. They did not consult him or tell him what they had decided; but ordered the carrier’s cart to call at his house the next morning and wait at a short distance while they, in the doctor’s gig, drove up to his door. When they entered, the Major had just dressed and dragged himself to his chair by the fire. ‘It’s a nice morning, and we’ve come to take you for a drive,’ announced the doctor cheerfully, and, in spite of his protests, they hustled on his coat and had him out and in the carrier’s cart in a very few minutes.
Laura saw the carrier touch up his horse with the whip and the cart turn, and she always wished afterwards she had not, for, as soon as he realized where he was being taken, the old soldier, the independent old bachelor, the kind family friend, collapsed and cried like a child. He was beaten. But not for long. Before six weeks were over he was back in the parish and all his troubles were over, for he came in his coffin.
As he had no relatives to be informed, the time appointed for his funeral was not known in the hamlet, or no doubt a few of his old neighbours would have gathered in the churchyard. As it was, Laura, standing back among the graves, a milk-can in her hand, was the only spectator, and that quite by chance. No mourner followed the coffin into the church, and she was far too shy to come forward; but when it was brought out and carried towards the open grave it was no longer unaccompanied, for the clergyman’s middle-aged daughter walked behind it, an open prayer-book in her hand and an expression of gentle pity in her eyes. She could barely have known him in life, for he was not a church-goer; but she had seen the solitary coffin arrive and had hurried across from her home to the church that he might at least have one fellow human being to say ‘Farewell’ to him. In after years, when Laura heard her spoken of slightingly, and, indeed, often felt irritated herself by her interfering ways, she thought of that graceful action.
The children’s grandparents lived in a funny little house out in the fields. It was a round house, tapering off at the top, so there were two rooms downstairs and only one — and that a kind of a loft, with a sloping ceiling — above them. The garden did not adjoin the house, but was shut away between high hedges on the other side of the cart track which led to it. It was full of currant and gooseberry bushes, raspberry canes, and old hardy flowers run wild, almost solid with greenery, for, since the gardener had grown old and stiff in the joints, he had not been able to do much pruning or trimming. There Laura spent many happy hours, supposed to be picking fruit for jam, but for the better part of the time reading or dreaming. One corner, overhung by a damson tree and walled in with bushes and flowers, she called her ‘green study’.
Laura’s grandfather was a tall old man with snow-white hair and beard and the bluest eyes imaginable. He must at that time have been well on in the seventies, for her mother had been his youngest child and a latecomer. One of her outstanding distinctions in the eyes of her own children was that she had been born an aunt, and, as soon as she could talk, had insisted upon her two nieces, both older than herself, addressing her as ‘Aunt Emma’.
Before he retired from active life, the grandfather had followed the old country calling of an eggler, travelling the countryside with a little horse and trap, buying up eggs from farms and cottages and selling them at markets and to shopkeepers. At the back of the round house stood the little lean-to stable in which his pony Dobbin had lived. The children loved to lie in the manger and climb about among the rafters. The death of Dobbin of old age had put an end to his master’s eggling, for he had no capital with which to buy another horse. Far from it. Moreover, by that time he was himself suffering from Dobbin’s complaint; so he settled down to doing what he could in his garden and making a private daily round on his own feet, from his home to the end house, from the end house to church, and back home again.
At the church he not only attended every service, Sunday and weekday, but, when there was no service, he would go there alone to pray and meditate, for he was a deeply religious man. At one time he had been a local preacher, and had walked miles on Sunday evenings to conduct, in turn with others, the services at the cottage meeting houses in the different villages. In old age he had returned to the Church of England, not because of any change of opinion, for creeds did not trouble him — his feet were too firmly planted on the Rock upon which they are all founded — but because the parish church was near enough for him to attend its services, was always open for his private devotions, and the music there, poor as it was, was all the music left to him.
Some members of his old meeting-house congregations still remembered what they considered his inspired preaching ‘of the Word’. ‘You did ought to be a better gal, wi’ such a gran’fer,’ said a Methodist woman to Laura one day when she saw her crawl through a gap in a hedge and tear her new pinafore. But Laura was not old enough to appreciate her grandfather, for he died when she was ten, and his loving care for her mother, his youngest and dearest child, led to many lectures and reproofs. Had he seen the torn pinafore, it would certainly have provoked both. However, she had just sufficient discrimination to know he was better than most people.
As has already been mentioned, he had at one time played the violin in one of the last instrumental church choirs in the district. He had also played it at gatherings at home and in neighbours’ houses and, in his earlier, unregenerate days, at weddings and feasts and fairs. Laura, happening to think of this one day, said to her mother, ‘Why doesn’t Grandfather ever play his fiddle now! What’s he done with it?’
‘Oh,’ said her mother in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘He hasn’t got it any longer. He sold it once when Granny was ill and they were a bit short of money. It was a good fiddle and he got five pounds for it.’
She spoke as though there was no more in selling your fiddle than in selling half a pig or a spare sack of potatoes in an emergency; but Laura, though so much younger, felt differently about it. Though devoid of the most rudimentary musical instinct herself, she had imagination enough to know that to a musician his musical instrument must be a most precious possession. So, when she was alone with her grandfather one day, she said, ‘Didn’t you miss your fiddle, Granda?’
The old man gave her a quick, searching look, then smiled sadly. ‘I did, my maid, more than anything I’ve ever had to part with, and that’s not a little, and I miss it still and always shall. But it went for a good cause, and we can’t have everything we want in this world. It wouldn’t be good for us.’ But Laura did not agree. She thought it would have been good for him to have his dear old fiddle. That wretched money, or rather the lack of it, seemed the cause of everybody’s troubles.
The fiddle was not the only thing he had had to give up. He had given up smoking when he retired and they had to live on their tiny savings and the small allowance from a brother who had prospered as a coal-merchant. Perhaps what he felt most keenly of all was that he had had to give up giving, for he loved to give.
One of Laura’s earliest memories was of her grandfather coming through the gate and up the end house garden in his old-fashioned close-fitting black overcoat and bowler hat, his beard nicely trimmed and shining, with a huge vegetable marrow under his arm. He came every morning and seldom came empty-handed. He would bring a little basket of early raspberries or green peas, already shelled, or a tight little bunch of sweet williams and moss rosebuds, or a baby rabbit, which some one else had given him — always something. He would come indoors, and if anything in the house was broken, he would mend it, or he would take a stocking out of his pocket and sit down and knit, and all the time he was working he would talk in a kind, gentle voice to his daughter, calling her ‘Emmie’. Sometimes she would cry as she told him of her troubles, and he would get up and smooth her hair and wipe her eyes and say, ‘That’s better! That’s better! Now you’re going to be my own brave little wench! And remember, my dear, there’s One above who knows what’s best for us, though we may not see it ourselves at the time.’
By the middle of the ‘eighties the daily visits had ceased, for the chronic rheumatism against which he had fought was getting the better of him. First, the church was too far for him; then the end house; then his own garden across the road, and at last his world narrowed down to the bed upon which he was lying. That bed was not the four-poster with the silk-and-satin patchwork quilt in rich shades of red and brown and orange which stood in the best downstairs bedroom, but the plain white bed beneath the sloping ceiling in the little whitewashed room under the roof. He had slept there for years, leaving his wife the downstair room, that she might not be disturbed by his fevered tossing during his rheumatic attacks, and also because, like many old people, he woke early, and liked to get up and light the fire and read his Bible before his wife was ready for her cup of tea to be taken to her.
Gradually, his limbs became so locked he could not turn over in bed without help. Giving to and doing for others was over for him. He would lie upon his back for hours, his tired old blue eyes fixed upon the picture nailed on the wall at the foot of his bed. It was the only coloured thing in the room; the rest was bare whiteness. It was of the Crucifixion, and, printed above the crown of thorns were the words:
This have I done for thee.
And underneath the pierced and bleeding feet:
What hast thou done for me?
His, two years’ uncomplaining endurance of excruciating pain answered for him.
When her husband was asleep, or lying, washed and tended, gazing at his picture, Laura’s grandmother would sit among her feather cushions downstairs reading Bow Bells or the Princess Novelettes or the Family Herald. Except when engaged in housework, she was never seen without a book in her hand. It was always a novelette, and she had a large assortment of these which she kept tied up in flat parcels, ready to exchange with other novelette readers.
She had been very pretty when she was young. ‘The Belle of Hornton’, they had called her in her native village, and she often told Laura of the time when her hair had reached down to her knees, like a great yellow cape, she said, which covered her. Another of her favourite stories was of the day when she had danced with a real lord. It was at his coming-of-age celebrations, and a great honour, for he had passed over his own friends and the daughters of his tenants in favour of one who was but a gamekeeper’s daughter. Before the evening was over he had whispered in her ear that she was the prettiest girl in the county, and she had cherished the compliment all her life. There were no further developments. My Lord was My Lord, and Hannah Pollard was Hannah Pollard, a poor girl, but the daughter of decent parents. No further developments were possible in real life, though such affairs ended differently in her novelettes. Perhaps that was why she enjoyed them.
It was difficult for Laura to connect the long, yellow hair and the white frock with blue ribbons worn at the coming-of-age fête with her grandmother, for she saw her only as a thin, frail old woman who wore her grey hair parted like curtains and looped at the ears with little combs. Still, there was something which made her worth looking at. Laura’s mother said it was because her features were good. ‘My mother,’ she would say, ‘will look handsome in her coffin. Colour goes and the hair turns grey, but the framework lasts.’
Laura’s mother was greatly disappointed in her little daughter’s looks. Her own mother had been an acknowledged belle, she herself had been charmingly pretty, and she naturally expected her children to carry on the tradition. But Laura was a plain, thin child: ‘Like a moll heron, all legs and wings,’ she was told in the hamlet, and her dark eyes and wide mouth looked too large for her small face. The only compliment ever paid her in childhood was that of a curate who said she was ‘intelligent looking’. Those around her would have preferred curly hair and a rosebud mouth to all the intelligence in the world.
Laura’s grandmother had never tramped ten miles on a Sunday night to hear her husband preach in a village chapel. She had gone to church once every Sunday, unless it rained or was too hot, or she had a cold, or some article of her attire was too shabby. She was particular about her clothes and liked to have everything handsome about her. In her bedroom there were pictures and ornaments, as well as the feather cushions and silk patchwork quilt.
When she came to the end house, the best chair was placed by the fire for her and the best possible tea put on the table, and Laura’s mother did not whisper her troubles to her as she did to her father. If some little thing did leak out, she would only say, ‘All men need a bit of humouring.’
Some women, too, thought Laura, for she could see that her grandmother had always been the one to be indulged and spared all trouble and unpleasantness. If the fiddle had belonged to her, it would never have been sold; the whole family would have combined to buy a handsome new case for it.
After her husband died, she went away to live with her eldest son, and the round house shared the fate of Sally’s. Where it stood is now a ploughed field. The husband’s sacrifices, the wife’s romance, are as though they had never been —‘melted into air, into thin air’.
Those were a few of the old men and women to whom the Rector referred as ‘our old folks’ and visiting townsmen lumped together as ‘a lot of old yokels’. There were a few other homes of old people in the hamlet; that of Master Ashley, for instance, who, like Sally, had descended from one of the original squatters and still owned the ancestral cottage and strip of land. He must have been one of the last people to use a breast-plough, a primitive implement consisting of a ploughshare at one end of a stout stick and a cross-piece of shaped wood at the other which the user pressed to his breast to drive the share through the soil. On his land stood the only surviving specimen of the old furze and daub building which had once been common in the neighbourhood. The walls were of furze branches closely pressed together and daubed with a mixture of mud and mortar. It was said that the first settlers built their cottages of these materials with their own hands.
Then there were one or two poorer couples, just holding on to their homes, but in daily fear of the workhouse. The Poor Law authorities allowed old people past work a small weekly sum as outdoor relief; but it was not sufficient to live upon, and, unless they had more than usually prosperous children to help support them, there came a time when the home had to be broken up. When, twenty years later, the Old Age Pensions began, life was transformed for such aged cottagers. They were relieved of anxiety. They were suddenly rich. Independent for life! At first when they went to the Post Office to draw it, tears of gratitude would run down the cheeks of some, and they would say as they picked up their money, ‘God bless that Lord George! [for they could not believe one so powerful and munificent could be a plain ‘Mr.’] and God bless you, miss!’ and there were flowers from their gardens and apples from their trees for the girl who merely handed them the money.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55