The Last Of The Peasants
When we first came to our present home Mrs Tuck had been doing the housework in the mornings for our predecessors for some years. She was due in nine months to receive the old age pension, and she said she would stay on with us only during the intervening period, to help us settle down, and then she would retire. That was eleven years ago, and the mornings since then when she has failed to appear at the elastic 8-30 might be counted on the fingers of one hand.
If I had known she would be with us so long, I might never have taken her on. I am a snob about appearances, and Mrs Tuck is like some glorious, old she-elephant devised in the brain of a rural George Belcher. The immensity and the variety of the curves of her figure are not those of the human body, as she must measure something like 40 inches across the beam. She wears, winter and summer, a dark but excessively short cotton dress with a cardigan, and, beneath the skirts of this inappropriate garment, she twists her stockings into a neat roll below her knees. When she bends over to do some chore, even the least conventional of our guests are startled into a pop-eyed disbelief. Her face is red and strong featured, except for her eyes which are small, blue and deep-set beneath the prominent cheekbones. Her teeth are mostly still with her but they have a sunken appearance, and her hair has both the unnatural frizz of a new and bad permanent wave and the colour of hair which has for long been dyed but, in the weariness and resignation of old age, allowed to grow out dead and tow-like as it will. Mrs Tuck has achieved these effects without the aid of artifice.
I could never have got rid of her even if I had wished to do so, because in all this village there has never been anyone to take her place. But I have never wished to. Long ago my embarrassment and my desire to keep up appearances, even the pride it might be proper to take in my household arrangements, was submerged by love.
Old Bill and Mrs Tuck are brother and sister, and, when we first came here they both worked at Saddlewood, the farm of our neighbour, Ian Scott, Old Bill all day and Mrs Tuck in the afternoons after she had finished in our house. Ian told us that four or five years before, when he first came to Saddlewood, he had decided that he could not employ either of them. He might have taken them on and paid them what he thought their labour was worth if he had been allowed to, but, at the minimum agricultural wage, they were both too old and too unskilled in modern practice to be of any use to him. So, when he engaged the other men on the farm, he had to tell these two he would not want them.
They were both very kind to him about this, as country people usually are if you explain to them that you are doing something because you cannot afford to do otherwise, since they find this human and understandable, and their sympathies are aroused. So they did their best to help him out. When he said he could not take them on because he could not afford their wages, Mrs Tuck told him the price she had had to pay for her meat that week, a commentary on the mad times in which we live. And when he explained that he was not allowed to offer them less than the minimum wage, she said: “Aw! Shut up!” By which she meant: “Not possible, or: “Whatever next?”
Ian felt a little mean after this interview, but he knew that Mrs Tuck could get plenty of housework if she wanted it, and that Old Bill could earn a living walling on peace work for the neighbouring farmers. So he soon forgot about them.
On the morning that he first took over the farm, he went down to the yard at seven-thirty to give orders to the five men he had engaged, and found to his surprise that six awaited him. From the end of the row Old Bill, only as bent as nature had made him, otherwise upright and true, smiled at him, a sweet and shy smile.
When Ian had given his orders to each of the other five men, he sent them about their business and then he turned to Bill. Bill told him there was a great “shore” in the wall of the field he had instructed the men to put his sheep, through which they would be bound to get out, and he suggested he best go down and mend it. Ian lost his nerve, dithered and let him go. He decided he must take time to consider this problem.
He was still considering it that afternoon when he turned into the stables to look at his pony and found Mrs Tuck mucking out. She said good afternoon to him in a pleasant, welcoming way, but without effusion or subservience, and Ian knew he was a beaten man. He understood enough of the countryside to know that, although he had just paid good money for Saddlewood, Bill and Mrs Tuck had worked there all their lives, and their old, flat feet and misshapen bodies had acquired rights in its service which he could never contravene.
As it turned out, he never regretted Bill, for Bill has a local knowledge and a tireless and undistracted interest in his work which makes up for his lack of the more modern skills. There is only one thing he ever does that Ian would like to change. When the weather is bad he protects himself from it by a trick he learned as a boy. Taking two sacks, he forces holes through them, and, slotting them together with two pieces of string, he slings one pair over his shoulders to cover his chest and back and ties another pair round his waist to protect his legs.
“The dammed old fool doesn’t realise,” Ian says ruefully, “that nowadays it would cost me less to dress him in Savile Row. And I haven’t the guts to tell him”.
He has never, however, been come completely reconciled to Mrs Tuck. Mrs Tuck is domineering. She knows exactly how everything should be done, how it always has been done, and it is not so much that she has a contempt for newfangled ways as that her opinion of the mental powers and the administrative ability of the boss are low.
“I do tell him”, she sighs when something goes wrong. (This construction of speech, invariably used locally, is sometimes pronounced with the vowel dropped thus: I d’tell him.)
I have never objected to her tyrannical ways in my house. I am insufficiently houseproud, and I am too lost in gratitude to anyone who will do the housework to have room for views on method. There is only one small disagreement between Mrs Tuck and me, and that I keep to myself. No one would suspect her of aesthetic views, but she has an eye for form. Every day she places the furniture in every room in a different position from that which I have chosen, and every day, abject and wordless, I go round behind her and return it to the positions I prefer. For eleven years no communication has passed between us on this subject, and I do not know whether, spontaneous and creative, her talent burgeons anew each day, or whether she has settled intention to teach me something.
When we first took over the farmhouse and with it Mrs Tuck my predecessor warned me that Mrs Tuck had one failing.
“She is a little light fingered,” she said.
And she showed me how everything of value in her house and all the accumulations for the winter, such as apples and cheese, were kept locked against these depredatory fingers.
This is an instance of the black power of words. As a family we are incurably untidy and lax about our personal possessions, and it is impossible for us to lock up anything, because if we do we could never find the key. It took as a very short while to find out that, if one makes allowances for one small weakness, Mrs Tuck is the soul of honour. Money, taken out of Jack’s pockets and left on his chest of drawers, may be tidied into a neat pile, but not one penny of it is otherwise touched. All our handkerchiefs and stockings (goods which have a peculiar attraction for Mrs Tuck we were told) return every week from being washed and ironed. My earrings which, when they hurt me, are thrust in unexpected places, are retrieved from under the cushions of a chair and handed back. And yet, when we first came here, nothing big or small was ever missing, either in the house or even in the farmyard behind it, without the men winking slyly at each other and remarking with jocose and happy certainty:
“Ah! We d’know where that be gone.”
On these hills in Gloucestershire nearly all the farm men, many of the farmers and occasionally a member of the class called gentry share a strange physical trait. They speak in high castrato voices. No one can explain this but it must surely be a freak result of soil or climate, since it is heard only here, but here in men of environment in other ways dissimilar. One soon gets used to it and almost ceases to hear it, but when, on our first arrival, the men made these piping allegations against poor Mrs Tuck it had a sinister effect.
If I had known as much of life as I do now, I would have guessed immediately from the archness of their glances and their beastly merry mien that they were merely making mischief. When they really believe that something has been stolen, their attitude is far more grave. They had adopted a theme supplied to them by their employer and embroidered it to enliven the eventless days; and it is years now since any such suggestion has been made.
Mrs Tuck’s one small weakness is for sweets. When the children were young and sweets still rationed, we decided to keep this temptation out of her way. Every night when we went to bed we hid the sweets at the back of a large, dark cupboard behind a screen of books and toys. It was only when we discovered that, on the occasions when we forgot to do this, Mrs Tuck herself, as she did the room next morning, restored them a little depleted to their hiding place, that we made up our mind to grudge her nothing. But by then we had also discovered that on the not infrequent evenings – for I am an absent-minded housekeeper – that we run out of bread or sugar or something else is essential, Billy, Mrs Tuck’s son, will always come up from the village with enough to last till morning. The surplus from her kitchen garden finds its way into our saucepans, too, and her flowers decorate our house. We became ashamed of the lack of generosity which defines possessions between friends.
And Mrs Tuck’s friendship is not so lightly won, nor given without due consideration. Once I had living in my house as nanny to my youngest child a Swiss girl of a rather lurid appearance named Betty. The village gossip, which swirls ceaselessly around, centred on this poor girl’s head. The tales of what she did on her afternoons out, or when I turned my back or went to London were so extreme that I decided to convey to the village, through Mrs Tuck, the threat that I would not indefinitely permit a member of my household to be so slandered without invoking the law. The point was lost on Mrs Tuck, as I had been afraid it might be.
“Tis her own fault,” she said severely, “I d’tell her.”
I waited nervously for some further revelation of Betty’s unsuitable conduct. It appeared that ever since she had first come to us she had attempted to make friends with the villagers, smiling as she passed them pushing Kate’s pram, and sometimes even stopping to talk. If one would persist in being so friendly to people, how could one hope that sooner or later terrible tales would not be invented about one?
“Tis better not,” Mrs Tuck said, “My own sister d’live 20 yards from me, but ‘tis ten years now since I did talk to her”.
However, it would be wrong to think that Mrs Tuck is incapable of the tender emotions. It is only that her approach to other people is more cautious and her idea of social intercourse more contained than is usual with the rest of us. In the last year or two we have acquired a farm manager. From certain signs which I observed I lately realised that Mrs Tuck held this gentleman in affection and respect. Mr Kennedy is a Scot and a little dour himself, so I wondered what communication passed between these two people that their hearts were thus entwined. However, when Mr Kennedy went on holiday, Mrs Tuck confessed to me that she missed him.
“You see,” she said, “when he d’walk up the village, we d’wave to him.”
This village contained only about sixty households, and, clinging to a fold of the hills of Gloucestershire, it kept to the ways it had known over hundreds of years until we came. Our presence here has altered much. We put the first bathroom into the village and the first boiler to heat the water in the tap; we were the first to pay attention to the law relating to overtime, and we brought with us every kind of new-fangled farm implement. But we have exercised by far our greatest influence through the men who came here with us. We need, for agricultural undertakings, at least two skilled cowmen, a skilled mechanic and his assistant. We could not find these in this district, so we imported them from outside, and we have supplied the village not merely with families used to quite different ways, but with nearly all its bridegrooms for the past eleven years. In this time local thought, local ways, the whole civilisation has changed more than it had during the past 200 years.
We in our sentimental, townbred way sometimes regret this. So we are glad that Mrs Tuck and Old Bill are still with us, representatives of the older days.
In those days there were fixed rules in relation to the work undertaken by the different sexes. The men went out to work each day to earn an income for the family, but it was the task of the women to supply their household with all the rest of its needs. One of these was wood for the winter. It is the local custom to allow the villagers to scavenge on the farms for wood. Nothing may be cut (this rule is occasionally infringed), but any pieces of wood blown down in a storm and lying about are considered free to all, as mushrooms or blackberries are. All through the summer parties of women laboured up and down the part of our farm which lies in a valley, transporting this fallen wood, and it was a mark of the bachelor to be seen in their company. Sometimes they wheeled old, derelict prams or other improvised wheelbarrows, but the more stalwart among them carried great branches, like beasts of burden, on their backs.
The advent of the foreigners from the outside world changed all this. Our men mocked at the villagers’ notion of chivalry, while their women put on very superior airs. More important than this, our foreman took out a tractor and trailer on Sundays, and, collecting on one afternoon more wood than could be gathered in a summer by the old-fashioned method, used the mechanical saw to cut it up. The young brides who married our cowmen sneered at their elders and sat ladylike minding their babies while contemplating a storehouse full of wood. So nowadays only Mrs Tuck and Old Bill, a bachelor, are left to remind us how this society conducted itself through hundreds of years until we came.
All through the summer Bill comes home through the fields from Saddlewood in the evening, collecting and bearing wood on his back, while Mrs Tuck goes down the valley and returns flushed and breathless to compare her haul with his. For Mrs Tuck d’speak to Bill, and this in relation to a circumstance I will presently relate, is a curious fact. They are each as strong as two ordinary people (though Mrs Tuck can be very delicate if I ask her to lift something heavy in the house), and the limbs of trees they carry are a matter for astonishment to strangers to the village. Once, when Mr Kennedy had been here only a short time, as we walked round the farm together we passed a great elm tree which had stood for hundreds of years and then blown down in a storm. As we passed Mr Kennedy remarked with the grim humour he sometimes permits himself:
“Mrs Tuck hasn’t had that one yet.”
Bill’s back garden has the appearance of the yard of a timber merchant, such is the quantity and variety of wood that stands there – enough to last most people a lifetime. For this humble task has for this old man all the charms the sophisticated find in more complex occupations – the fine exhilaration of a game of golf on a seaside course, the minute, close satisfactions of a stamp collection.
Old Bill is a collector by nature, and, because of this characteristic he, regarded previously with such patronising humour by the youth of the village, one day came to be raised to fame never before known to our simple society.
It had long been said that he was a miser. When I first heard this it brought no picture to my mind except that of a mean and close old man. But Joyce, my afternoon daily, who came in here in the first place with us and then married our tractor driver, and who has an intelligence very different from that of most of the natives of these parts, assured me that this was not what was meant.
“If you pass his cottage at night,” she said, “and look through a chink in the curtain, you can see him counting his money onto the table. Some of it is in pound notes but there’s a lot of gold. He keeps it in sacks under the boards of the floor.”
I was still unable to take this seriously, and for years we heard this story and treated it as we do most of the village gossip.
Then one morning, after we had been here six or seven years, three of our young employees came into our yard at 7-30 in a fine state of excitement. From where they live, in order to reach the farm, they have to passed Bill’s cottage, and Bill, who has several miles to walk to Saddlewood, leaves home half an hour before they do. On this particular morning, as they walked up the hill past his house, they saw a lorry standing in the road and three men enter the house and return again to the lorry. They stopped and questioned these men who said they were engaged on refuse collection, but it seemed an odd time of day for such work, and they were convinced these were thieves, robbing Bill of his miser’s haul. They suggested to Jack that he telephone the police, while they themselves went back to investigate.
Now it happens that thieves are something that Jack is unable to believe it. His natural disinclination has been reinforced by his need to defend himself against the men. Every time five sacks of barley stand where some one thinks there should be six, or a recount of eggs shows two missing out of twenty dozen, or the petrol tank empties itself unexpectedly fast, the men advance suspicions founded on the lowest view of human behaviour. If Jack paid attention to them, he would spend too much of his time telephoning the police and then apologising for a wild goose chase. So this morning he soothed them down, gave them their orders and sent them about their business.
It happened, however, that the business of two of them took them back down the village past Bill’s cottage. The road was now deserted, but curiosity was strong, and they turned into the house.
The scene that met their eyes was satisfactory indeed, for even they had not hoped for so much luck. The floorboards were up to reveal a deep dark hole in the earth beneath, and near the door there lay one sack, its mouth open to disclose that it was undoubtedly stuffed with banknotes. Elated they returned to the farm, and then, unfortunately only then, Jack telephoned the police.
Now weeks of excitement followed for all of us. The police began by taking the one remaining sack the police station. There they examined its contents. There were golden guineas as well as notes on the total amounted to 90 pounds. Then they interviewed Bill. They asked him how much he thought he had lost, but, getting no coherent reply, they changed their tactic in the following dialogue ensued.
“Do you think it could have been five hundred pounds?”
“Could it have been eight hundred?”
After that they gave it up and no one has ever known exactly how much was stolen that day. But at this point Mrs Tuck threw some light on the matter. She remarked to me that she reckoned much of the money stolen had belonged to her. When I asked her why, she explained that her father, from whom it appeared Bill had inherited his propensities, had collected money in this way all his life. When he died she reckoned that half of his fortune should have come to her, but Bill had taken the lot. She said she had never bothered about it, since, as Bill had no direct heir, in good time it would all come back to her children. Mrs Tuck’s husband died immediately before she gave birth the second time, to twins. With an earning power of eighteen shillings a week, she had brought up three children unaided. To those of us with knowledge of the ways of people blessed with a more fortunate environment, it seemed strange that Mrs Tuck, so particular in her choice of those to whom she d’talk, should always have been on the gentlest terms with Bill.
Armed, however with this further piece of knowledge we began to do the arithmetic. It was clear that Bill spent almost nothing. He bought one small piece of meat a week, but except for this he relied on bread or on meals sent in by his neighbours who are all generous in these ways. Apart from an old, coat and pair of trousers, he clothed himself only in Ian’s sacks. If one allowed his father thirty or forty years of saving after his children had reached working age, and Bill himself about fifty-six, if one allowed for the rates of pay during all this time, and these had risen steeply during the last decade, and deducted only what it seemed likely had been spent, one reached a startling figure.
So large indeed was the figure that we all felt cheated, as though we had been robbed ourselves; all that is except Jack, who took up the rather remote view that it was a splendid thing, since money is only money when in circulation.
The police, who had been hampered in their investigations by Jack’s dilatoriness on the telephone, nevertheless arrested all three thieves within the week. These were not it appeared professionals, but three young men who had been working on an electrical installation in a nearby village and had been tempted by the tales they had heard in the pub at nights. In spite, however, of their amateur status, they had had time during the week to dispose of the money, and none of it has ever been seen again. Even Jack was a little shaken when he learned that some quite large proportion of it had been burned by the mother of one of the men in an attempt to save her son from the law.
The three young men who worked for us and who had been involved in these proceedings lived together in a cottage we have turned into a hostel to house them. They were all single and one of them was a pupil, the son of a rich man. This boy’s father had an unusual hobby; he collected vintage Rolls-Royce motor cars. Our pupil drove one of these, and early 20th-century open car, painted yellow. Into this romantic vehicle half our farm staff now piled excitedly day after day, while Jack and I struggled unaided round the lambing ewes and did the milking. On the first of these occasions they were sent for by the police to see if they could recognise one of the thieves in an identity parade. When they returned we were all waiting eagerly to question them. Two of the boys confessed to having been quite unable to distinguish among the line of men they had seen, but Arthur, a virile youth who owns a motor bicycle on which he scours the countryside at night, had had a shot at it.
“You see,” he said, “there were twelve men and I knew nine of them so I thought the other three a reasonable bet.”
But the great day was the day when, after the thieves had been committed for trial, our party went to Gloucester, taking Old Bill with them, to give their evidence in court. Bill had never been to Gloucester before, and, as he heaved himself into the back of the yellow Rolls-Royce, he spoke to its owner.
“You won’t lose I, will ‘ee?” he pleaded.
The thieves all got prison sentences, but, since none of the money had been returned, the case ended on a note of anti-climax. All this time I had been worried about Bill. The excitement and attention had kept him going all these weeks, but it had seemed to me that when these glorious days were over, his life’s work gone, he would have nothing left to live for. He was too old, I thought, to start over again. So two or three weeks after the great case at Gloucester I was surprised to meet him striding along the road beneath the branch of a tree, straight in his back with his head held high. The smile he gave me was as sweet as usual, but it seemed less shy.
“Tis cold,” he said, Old Bill who had never been one for talking.
When I got back to the house I asked Joyce about him.
“What has happened to Bill? I thought all this would finish him. But he seems as bright as a button.”
“Well,” she replied, “he got his picture in the paper.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you know?” She said, “When he went to Gloucester they took his photograph, and next morning it was in the Daily Mirror. He’s been as proud as punch ever since, showing it to everyone in the village.”
The next afternoon she brought the daily Mirror to show me. It was a fine photograph, large and a good likeness. He leaned back against the seat of the old Rolls-Royce and his face, between his cap and his grizzly beard, looked handsome.
I put the daily Mirror down on the kitchen table, and I shrugged my shoulders at Joyce. On our computation it had cost old Bill more than four thousand pounds to get his picture in the paper, but it had been cheap at the price.
Note: The value of money has gone up approx 20 times since 1955. So £4000 would have been £80,000.
Frankie was a perfectionist and striver and this sometimes affected her moods. My brother Thomas and I used to warn each other when we noticed something, saying, “Watch out. Mummy’s in a bait”. Mrs Tuck used to say, calmly and quite fondly, “She d’be hurtable today.” I assumed this was a corruption of the word hysterical, not the word hurt used oddly.