This is the first three chapters of a book I’ve been working on, about the coming of the railway to a small village in Kent in the mid Victorian era, and the impact it has on the community.
All comments, suggestions and ideas are very welcome. It’s a work in progress!
The gate banged to, and feet came slapping up the garden path. With a sigh, William Lethwaite put down his pen, which had been about to complete another handsomely written sentence on the copperplate-covered page in front of him, and pushed his chair back from the desk. Hurriedly pulling on his rusty black coat, he went out into the passage, where he could see the shadow of a small child outlined behind the frosted glass of the front door. She was now banging her fist against it, shouting for him breathlessly.
“Goodness, what is all this haste?” William looked down on the filthy child with a kindly smile as he opened the door. It was Martha Cuthbert, the daughter of a drunkard and a mother so fecund that in the seven years since he had come to the village, he had never seen her not heavy with child.
“There’s something posted to our gate, Mister Rector, sir, and Ma says can you come and read it, please, because she can’t make no head nor tail of it.” Martha rubbed her running nose with the back of her grimy hand, and pulled nervously at the tattered hem of her dress. William nodded.
“Of course, though I daresay it’s nothing but a notice about the County Fair, and not worth becoming excited about in the least, my dear.” Closing the door behind him, he slipped his hand into the tiny one proffered by Martha, who half ran, half skipped, to keep up with William’s loping stride.
Ashenden was a sleepy backwater, mainly composed of tumbledown cottages clustered together along a maze of overgrown lanes. These cottages were largely inhabited by the sprawling families of agricultural workers, whose lives revolved around drinking and the begetting of children. Some attempt at gentrification in the previous century had brought a scattering of smart residences and shops to the main thoroughfare, though these were now considerably run down. The George and Dragon public house was the only profitable enterprise in the village, its handsome frontage with its gaily-painted sign the centre of the community. There was a village shop and a baker’s, both of whom managed to just about scrape subsistence, but beside these meagre conveniences, Ashenden could offer nothing to visitors but sweeping, unspoiled views of the rolling Kent countryside.
William and Martha walked briskly along the main street, where Mr Francis, the proprietor of the village shop, and Mrs Grange, owner of the bakery, were standing gossiping outside their respective establishments. As they saw the Rector, they stopped talking and stepped out into the street to greet him.
“Good morning, Mr Lethwaite!” Mrs Grange knelt down to smile at Martha. “Where are you two off to in such a hurry?”
“To Nightingale Lane, Mrs Grange, to solve a mystery young Martha here has for me.” Both Mrs Grange and Mr Francis laughed heartily at this and teased Martha, who blushed bright pink at the attention being lavished upon her.
“You’ll be wanting a stick of barley sugar, I shouldn’t wonder,” Mr Francis said kindly, disappearing briefly into the cool darkness of his spice-scented shop before emerging with his famous glass jar, filled to the brim with tantalising twists of sparkling sugar. Martha, whose mother could never afford the penny for such a treat, couldn’t believe her luck. Eyes wide and mouth watering, she took the barley twist Mr Francis chose for her with a trembling hand, and promptly thrust it into her mouth, revelling in the burst of sweetness that broke over her tongue.
“There’s a good girl,” Mrs Grange said indulgently, her matronly bosom swelling with pity for the poor scrap who had the misfortune of being born to two of the most feckless parents she had ever set eyes on. “Rector, will you be wanting something to take to the cottages with you?” She raised her eyebrows meaningfully; everyone knew that the Cuthberts could barely feed themselves, but they were proud about charity and those with a mind to help had to resort to various ingenious means to sneak food into the cottage for the sake of the poor children. William placed a grateful hand on Mrs Grange’s arm.
“That would be a blessing, I’m sure, Mrs Grange, if you have anything to spare.” Both Mrs Grange and Mr Francis, nodding and smiling, melted away into the interior of their establishments, emerging a few moments later with bulging paper bags.
“I’d have had to throw it out otherwise, and mind you tell Mrs Cuthbert that.” Mr Francis handed William a hefty packet of butter. “It’s on the turn, that’s the only reason I’m giving it away.”
“And this bread is past its best. I couldn’t sell it with a good conscience, and that’s the truth.” Mrs Grange patted Martha on the head gently. William smiled warmly at them.
“Bless you. You’re too kind, the both of you.” Mr Francis said it was no bother at all, and the least they could do, and Mrs Grange flushed pink and waved a hand dismissively as Martha pulled at William’s coat tails and said she didn’t want to keep her Ma waiting.
Calling out goodbyes, William balanced the donated bags of food in the crook of his arm as he took Martha’s hand in his once more, leading her down one of the labyrinthine lanes that sloped gently downhill over the chalky downs to the farmland beyond. The thickets were filled with cow parsley, spreading across the greenery like a bridal veil of the finest lace. It was a beautiful spring morning, and the trees overhead cast a dappled light across the path as they made their way through the tunnel of leaves to the first in a row of whitewashed cottages. There were ten of them in a huddle in this pretty green hollow, cobbled together with wattle and daub unknown centuries ago, and topped with a mess of thatch. They looked charming enough from out here, surrounded by wildflowers and twined with ivy, but William had been inside each of them and knew the truth of what squalor lay within, though the women did their best. He saw with surprise that at each of the gate posts, a notice had been nailed, and recently, for there had been rain overnight, and none of them showed any sign of having been smeared by it. Strange, too, that it was just these cottages, and no notice had been given in at the Rectory, or posted to the houses on the main road. He pulled the paper off the Cuthbert’s gate and read it quickly, his eyes widening as he did so. Martha kept pulling at his hand to be told what it was, begging to know if it was the circus that were coming, because she wanted to see a real live bear ever so much, but William merely told her to fetch the other notices for him, and to tell her Ma that there was nothing on the poster to bother her, before pressing a penny and the bags of food into the poor child’s hand and making his way back to the Rectory as quickly as his legs would decently carry him.
“Emma! Emma!” William called as soon as he opened the front door. “Emma! Where are you?” He hung his coat and hat up on the hook and rushed down the passage to the drawing room at the back of the house. “Emma?” He burst into the room, gasping for breath, as his wife lifted herself heavily from the sofa to greet him.
“Good heavens, Will! Whatever is the matter?” Emma’s fine eyebrows met endearingly in the middle as she frowned and held out her pretty hands to his.
“This,” William breathed, handing his wife the now crumpled batch of papers Martha had pulled from the gateposts. Emma, putting a hand to the small of her back as she adjusted the weight of the child growing inside of her, read the bold, black print quickly, and then looked up at her husband, shaking her head.
“Well, I would never have thought for a moment that they would want to bring it here. Surely there must be some sort of mistake. They can’t have visited yet. They must have merely been plucking names from a map. Once they see, once they realise…” William had begun to pace the room.
“I hardly think they would post notices without being certain of their plans. They must know what hysteria news such as this will bring.”
“Will, darling.” Emma put the papers down on a side table and went over to her husband, placing a hand on his arm. “I’m sure there will be a perfectly reasonable explanation, and it will all come to nothing.” She smiled up at him, her girlish face with its bright blue eyes and pink cheeks still possessing the ability to charm him out of any mood six years after their marriage. William sighed good-naturedly and kissed the top of Emma’s fair head.
“No doubt you’re right, as you always are.” He looked out of the French windows into the garden, which was a mass of pinks and reds where Emma’s roses had come into riotous bloom. Edged with a low red brick wall, it was her pride and joy, and its abundance of flowers and fruit trees backed onto acres of open grassland, where sheep roamed carelessly and no trace of human existence could be seen for miles save the occasional plume of smoke from a cottage chimney.
“Would you like me to read your sermon over for you?” Emma had lowered herself back onto the sofa, and was fussing with an excess of cushions as she tried to make herself comfortable. She was nearing her time, and was tired of her bulk.
“I haven’t quite finished.” William turned abruptly from the window, and ran his hand through his hair. “Martha Cuthbert interrupted me with this notice business, and now I fear I’ve lost my train of thought entirely.” Emma raised an eyebrow.
“Well, you’d best find it again quickly. Remember, my father is coming this evening.” William sighed. Emma’s father would never let him escape to his study after their meal; he always had some topic of discussion to grill him about, some point of doctrine to debate, or some unsolicited advice to offer, and once the man had a glass of wine in him, he could talk for England. It would be near on midnight before they would get rid of him.
“I shall endeavour to be done with it by six.”
William stroked the top of Emma’s head tenderly as he went out of the room and back to his study. He sat down at the desk and looked over what he had written that morning before he had been disturbed, and though he thought at the time that it had been really quite inspired, now he found it merely dry and insipid. He put his head in his hands. Seven years he had been here, and still he did not know what to say, did not know how to reach these people whose lives he was so intimately involved with, and yet could never truly know. He had come here straight from Oxford, filled with fervour to help the poor, much to his father’s disapproval. The Bishop had despaired of his distressingly Low Church son, for whom he had lined up an excellent living in a prosperous village with a stipend that would ensure him the comforts he had been born into. William’s determination to turn his back on his father’s form of Christianity had only deepened the long-standing rift between them, and though William had often had cause to regret his idealism in moving to Ashenden, he would never have dreamed of admitting it. It was a daily struggle to be a pastor to this flock of largely disinterested country folk, who, if they believed in an Almighty at all, saw no reason why they should find him in the draughty medieval church as anywhere else. More often than not, he was preaching to a sea of empty pews, and over time, had lost faith in his ability to lead any of his sheep to Christ. This did not prevent the villagers coming to him with their many and various problems, all of which he was expected to solve, as a representative of the ruling classes they looked up to with unquestioning devotion. They did not seek spiritual consolation from him, but practical guidance, and it was through this gentle, benign influence over their lives that he had hoped to show them the wonders of God’s mercy. Emma still believed that in time, this would prove to be the case; she had never given up on the souls of the people she had grown to love, but William increasingly had ceased to believe in the possibility of their salvation. He kept this from his wife, and, in many ways, from himself, continuing to agonise over the writing of every sermon as if it had the power to make a difference to one of his hard-hearted flock. He ripped up his morning’s work with a viciousness borne from his frustration, and, with a sigh, pulled a fresh sheet of paper from the drawer of his desk. He would not, could not, give up yet.
In the garden, Emma sat in state on a blanket that had been spread on the blossom-strewn grass, her head crowned with a wreath of roses made by her daughter. Elizabeth, a sturdy, apple-cheeked, fair haired child of three, was now delightedly tottering through the rose bushes, filling her lap with petals. Her infant brother, Edward, his damp hair forming ringlets about his flushed face, was sleeping in his mother’s lap, his moth-breath hot against her chest. Emma thought that there could be no greater happiness than this; a smile stole across her face as she stroked Edward’s silky hair tenderly while watching Elizabeth’s unsteady progress amongst the flowers. She felt a sudden thrill of excitement as the child within her stirred and flung out a limb, rippling the surface of her belly beneath the folds of her dress. The thought of this new life soon to come filled her with a sudden, irrepressible joy. She began to hum a favourite hymn of her childhood softly under her breath, before bursting into gentle song, rocking Edward as she did so. She looked down at Edward’s sleeping face as she sang, her face glowing with delight in her child and the beneficence of the God who had given him to her. Oh Lord, she thought, I am so happy. I am so happy my heart could burst with it.
“Well, you’ll never believe the like. Would you have a look at this, then?” Ellen, the young housemaid, had been doing her rounds of the downstairs rooms when she found a pile of papers on a table in the drawing room. Tutting at how absent minded the Rector was wont to be, she thought she best check they weren’t important before throwing them straight into the waste-paper basket. Smoothing them out against her apron, it hadn’t taken her long to understand the enormity of the message they contained. Suppressing the small scream she would have made had she not been in the Rector’s drawing room, she ran hell-for-leather down the passage and into the kitchen, where a sweating Sarah was in the midst of her preparations for the evening meal. Mr Townsend, madam’s father, was a regular guest, and she knew what he liked. She had a soft spot for Mr Townsend, him being a widower, and she lived for his saucy wink at the kitchen door when he left on a Saturday night, saying he might never have been to Paris, but he could be sure there was no finer cook in all of Europe than Mrs Sarah Hancock. She coloured at the mere thought of it as she stirred the gravy for the game pie: his favourite. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Ellen came running in, her eyes popping out of her head.
“Whatever is it that you’re on about, girl?” Sarah wiped her forehead with her sleeve and turned to look at Ellen, who was thrusting a scrap of paper at her. “Well I can’t be reading that now, can I? Just tell me what it says, for heaven’s sake!” Ellen, bursting with the thrill of it, triumphantly read out the notice. Sarah, her mouth gaping open, dropped her spoon onto the floor, splashing her famous rich brown gravy everywhere.
“Well,” said Arthur Townsend, wiping gravy from the tips of his elaborate sand-coloured moustache with his napkin, “that Mrs Hancock of yours knows how to feed a man. I don’t know where you found her, but if I could steal her from you, I would.” He smiled broadly at his daughter, pushing back his chair from the table and resting his hands underneath his ample stomach.
“I’ll be sure to tell her you said so, Papa.” Emma rang the small hand bell at her side. Ellen came in swiftly and took away the plates, as well as the hearty compliments of Mr Townsend to report back to a delighted Sarah.
“So, William, what news of Ashenden? Have you managed to secure this school of yours yet?” Arthur raised a sceptical eyebrow at his son-in-law. He had never said a word against him, because he wasn’t that sort of a father and no man could deny the truth of him never having meddled in his daughter’s affairs, but he thought William a soft touch and couldn’t understand the man’s lack of energy. Arthur Townsend was a self-made man; he’d come from nothing and been determined to make something of himself, and make something of himself he had. He’d had no help from anyone, mind you, and he liked that to be remembered; he’d pulled up his own bootstraps thank you very much, and he’d never so much as asked anyone else for a favour. His small village shop in neighbouring Gladhurst had grown over the years into an emporium in Tunbridge Wells, and now he had a red-brick villa and his own carriage with a staff of seven at his beck and call. A far cry from the one up one down cottage where he’d grown up, topped and tailed with his seven brothers and sisters. Oh, yes, God had blessed him, and blessed him mightily, for God helps those who help themselves, and that was a scriptural truth that could not be denied. Those who dithered about with their heads in books never got on, and that was the problem with young William, though he would never dream of saying a word against the boy.
“Well, as you know, I have been making enquiries about the use of the empty building at the end of the High Street, but there’s been some difficulty agreeing a price.” William took a sip of wine to fortify himself. Arthur folded his arms across his stomach.
“Oh, I’m sure there has been. The minute the Church gets involved, people think they can ask what they like. Shameful business.” Arthur shook his head. “Though, there’s no reason why you couldn’t just build somewhere new, you know. Purpose-built. You’ve got acres of land here, ripe for the development.” William shrugged.
“Where would I find the money for that? The grant the Church has given me is pitiful as it is, and I can hardly expect to raise more than a few pounds from the villagers, Arthur. It has to be an existing building, to keep the costs down. I want to be able to buy equipment for the children, hire a proper teacher…” Arthur exhaled, shaking his head.
“Well, at this rate, my boy, you’ll have a school in nineteen fifty three, not eighteen fifty three.” He chortled. Emma gave her father a stern look.
“Will is doing the best he can.”
“I’m sure he is, and I didn’t say otherwise.” Arthur nodded curtly at his son-in-law. “I meant no offence.”
“None was taken.” William coughed and reached for his wine. He glanced up at the mantle clock. Only nine. There would be no chance of getting rid of Arthur for at least another two hours.
“You know, I’d all but forgotten to mention it, but I just remembered…have you seen The Times today? Though I daresay you haven’t, because if you had, you would have mentioned it before now.” Arthur felt about himself until he found what he was looking for and pulled a folded newspaper clipping from his breast pocket. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read it. I had to read it twice to be sure I wasn’t seeing things. It will certainly make for a change in these parts, though what your villagers will make of it, I can’t say.” He smoothed the neatly trimmed clipping out on the surface of the table with his broad, red fingers so that Emma and William could read it.
NEW BRANCH LINE FOR KENT
The South Eastern Railway Company has announced to-day that they will construct a new branch line from Tunbridge Wells to connect a series of outlying Kentish villages directly to London. The new stations along the branch line are to be at the villages of Crowden, Levesham, Broadhurst and Ashenden, and the Company intends for construction to commence in the autumn of this year.
“Well now, what do you think of that, then?” William looked at Emma, his face draining of colour.
“Well, it’s going to be quite the change, isn’t it?” Emma said faintly, as she clutched William’s hand beneath the table.
William paced up and down his study, one hand holding his pocket watch. They were late, considerably so, and he was beginning to fear that they would not come at all. The room was bathed in bright, green-hued light from the mass of ivy that had grown over the large bay window, and had he not been waiting for the representatives of the South Eastern Railway, he would have been outside in the spring sunshine, catching butterflies with Elizabeth. He sighed with impatience as the grandfather clock in the hall struck eleven. Just as he had determined that he would not wait a moment longer, the sound of the wicket gate clanging turned his head to the window. Two men in black coats and top hats were making their way down the garden path. Too impatient to stand on the ceremony of waiting for Ellen to clatter her way up from the kitchen, he strode out into the hall and opened the front door to the men himself.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said, holding out his hand. He smiled, he hoped, with warmth, though to his shame he could feel nothing but dislike for these dry, dusty men who spent their lives in offices deciding which stretch of countryside and which community to poison next. He had written to them in the first flush of his horror at the thought of what destruction the proposed railway would bring to Ashenden, with the hope that, once he could make them understand the folly of their plan, they would agree to reconsider. Now they were here, however, exuding drab, impersonal officiousness as they smiled and proffered their hands, his heart sunk within him as he realised how vain his hope must surely be. As they bustled into the small passageway, the leader of the two men, who was comfortably rotund and sported an impressive, greying moustache, said that he was Mr Gregor, Chief of New Works, and his wiry, bespectacled companion was Mr Hambleton, his Chief Clerk. He declared with an air of breezy indifference that he was delighted to have been invited to Ashenden, and was much looking forward to a tour of the village once their discussion had been brought to – he hoped – a satisfactory conclusion. William smiled mechanically and beckoned them in to his study, where Ellen, on hearing the men’s voices, had swiftly brought up the tray with the pot she had been keeping warm for the past half hour.
The men removed their hats and perched awkwardly on the rickety chairs William had kept meaning to replace, murmuring how glad they were for a nice cup of tea after the journey they’d had, the roads being what they were once you got outside of London. William said nothing to this as he poured out their tea, and then sat, his arms folded, as he waited for them to speak.
“Now, Mr Lethwaite, I have to admit I was somewhat perplexed by your letter,” Mr Gregor began, taking out William’s hastily penned missive from his Gladstone bag, its expensive, supple brown leather shining like a conker. “It seems to me, if I have understood you correctly, and please do enlighten me if I have failed to do so, that you take objection to the railway’s proposed station at Ashenden for the mere reason that you do not see a need for it.” He exchanged a wry glance with his clerk, before looking at William with a curiosity one might regard an exotic species in a zoo. “And of course, the business with the cottages, which, as Mr Hambleton informs me, is of no great import, being as it is that they certainly appeared to him to be in a considerably advanced state of decay. One might say that the Company would in fact be doing an act of charity in removing the people from them.” Mr Hambleton nodded enthusiastically.
“Yes indeed. Exactly so, sir, exactly so.” William felt his cheeks colour as rage began to burn within him.
“Of no great import? You think that it is of no great import that you propose to destroy half of this village, for a railway that no one who lives here will ever use?” He laughed shortly in disbelief. “What benefit will a railway truly give these people? Please, do tell me, because at the moment all I can see is how it will ruin everything they hold dear.” William paused for breath, trembling slightly, having surprised himself at the passion of his speech. The two men shifted in their chairs, glancing at one another with raised eyebrows. Mr Gregor sighed wearily as one must who has sat through many a similar interview in his time, and is already sure of his victory.
“Mr Lethwaite, we understand your misgivings, truly, we do. Change is naturally something that breeds anxiety, and at the Company, we do see that for some, especially in more rural communities, the railway is seen as rather a fearsome prospect.” He chuckled softly at the absurdity of this idea, before smiling condescendingly at William, whose finely drawn features and large, honest brown eyes revealed an excess of sensitivity he had no patience for. “But can I impress upon you the fact that the railway is a force of great good, and though of course there may be some upset in the initial stages, once the line is down and the station built, there is nothing to be done but watch the prosperity of your surroundings increase exponentially. It will change your lives, Mr Lethwaite, I cannot deny you that, but I can promise you that the change will undoubtedly be for the better.” Mr Gregor sat back in his chair and cleared his throat, inclining his head slightly towards his clerk. Mr Hambleton, on cue, rifled through his battered bag and produced a sheaf of papers, which he handed to his superior. Mr Gregor offered these to William with a smile. “Take these, Mr Lethwaite, please, and look over the information they convey. You will find it most interesting, I am perfectly sure. They are accounts of the many benefits the railway has brought to small villages such as yours in other parts of the country. I am sure in many of these villages there were people such as yourself who had their misgivings about the changes they feared would be wrought upon their communities, but facts are facts, Mr Lethwaite, and it cannot be denied that the railway has proven itself time and again to be a tremendous blessing to the communities it serves.” William took the papers and glanced at their contents; it was nothing but tables of statistics.
“I don’t want to look at facts and figures, gentlemen. I am talking about people’s lives here, and they cannot be weighed and measured and calculated into statistics.” William forcefully handed the papers back to a shocked Mr Hambleton, who adjusted his pince-nez nervously as the now rather crumpled evidence he had so carefully compiled was thrust into his lap. “My objection is not at all about me being afraid of change. My objection is based upon the fact that these people don’t want or need a railway. This is what you must understand. I have been here for seven years, and I know these people. They do not need a great black iron machine belching out smoke arriving on their doorsteps, destroying their homes and their way of life. This is a close knit community, where most have spent the entirety of their lives, and you wish to carve it up and force people to leave the only homes they have ever known, the only friends they have ever known, all in the name of what you call progress?” Mr Hambleton, his eyes wide, turned to Mr Gregor, his precious papers clutched to his chest. Mr Gregor closed his eyes briefly, and laced his fingers together in his lap.
“Mr Lethwaite, Mr Lethwaite, please.” He gave William an oily smile. “Your viewpoint is rather – and forgive me, I do not mean to be rude, but I can see no other way of saying it – histrionic. There is no need for such dramatic pronouncements, I can assure you. The railway is not here to carve anything up, or to force anyone to do anything. It is not the force of destruction you seem to be so keen to paint it as. It is, in fact, a service to the community. It will bring so much more than it will take away, Mr Lethwaite. So very much more. ” Mr Hambleton nodded.
“If you would just look at the findings from Ripley, in Yorkshire, Mr Lethwaite, then you will see-” Mr Hambleton handed William a piece of paper, pointing enthusiastically at the middle paragraph. William refused to take it, folding his arms across his chest as his jaw worked furiously.
“Are you both blind? Can you not see that the path of this railway necessitates the demolition of ten cottages, and the destruction of a good deal of farmland where many of the people of this village work? Ten families made homeless, many more men made jobless, and no doubt countless more disruption and change, and all for what? Please do not insult me by trying to convince me that this is about anything other than lining the railway company’s pockets. Your agenda is perfectly clear to me!” William launched himself out of his chair and began to pace the room agitatedly. “I tell you, the people of Ashenden don’t want this railway. I intend to challenge its construction through every possible avenue available to me. I will not stand back and let you and your company destroy this village. I tell you, I will not!” Mr Gregor, his eyes wide with shock, opened and closed his mouth wordlessly as he stared at William’s flushed face. Mr Hambleton, clutching his sheaf of papers with an almost religious reverence, saw an opportunity; he leapt forward and murmured something into his superior’s ear. He nodded, sharply, and seemed to recover his sense of authority. He drew himself up and raised his eyebrows challengingly at William.
“Mr Lethwaite, I must tell you that this is not a matter open for negotiation. You may attempt to challenge us if you wish, but your efforts will be in vain. This branch line has already been approved by Her Majesty’s Government, and all is in place for its construction. Like it or not, Mr Lethwaite, there can be no going back; work will begin by the end of the summer, and though we would ideally commence with the support of the local community, that is most certainly not a condition we are required to meet before breaking ground.” William took a sharp intake of breath, his fingers blanching as their grip tightened around the back of his chair.
“But you cannot just come here and take down people’s homes without their consent!” He trembled with the effort of remaining composed. “You cannot!”
“I beg to differ, Mr Lethwaite.” Mr Gregor, his eyes cold, pursed his lips into a thin line. “I am afraid that we can do exactly that, if we wish to do so.” William threw his arm into the air, making Mr Hambleton duck for cover.
“This is outrageous! Those cottages you are intent on knocking down to make way for this entirely unnecessary scheme of yours have been the homes of these people’s families for generations-”
“And they will be amply compensated for leaving them behind, Mr Lethwaite, of course,” Mr Gregor interjected, putting out a hand to stop the flow of William’s passion. He sighed with irritation at Mr Hambleton, who was fumbling about on the floor for the spectacles he had dropped, before fixing William with a withering stare. “It is always regrettable when we must destroy private property in order to lay a line, but in the vast majority of cases those people who must be moved on find that they are able to find much more amenable lodgings with the generous funds given to them by the Company.” Mr Hambleton, beads of sweat breaking out across his forehead as he stood up, clutching his recovered spectacles, nodded forcefully.
“I made a thorough investigation of the properties under question, Mr Lethwaite, and I can assure you that were we not to demolish them, they would surely be demolished in the very near future regardless, as being not fit for human habitation-”
“Not fit for human habitation! What utter nonsense!” William clenched his fists as he struggled to contain his rage. “These people are not animals in a pen for you to move along as it pleases you! Do you not see that?” Mr Gregor cleared his throat and adjusted his collar before standing up. “You cannot do this to them!”
“Mr Lethwaite, please. I suggest that you calm yourself. I understand that the prospect of your parishioners finding themselves without a home is of great distress to you, but I can assure you that the Company is well practiced in managing just this type of circumstance and we do not – I repeat, do not, sir – treat people with the indifference you suggest, and I must say that I resent the inference.” Mr Gregor gave William a stern glare. “All the same, and though it may seem heartless to you, sir, one has to think of the common good, and in this case, the very real and considerable benefits to a great number of individuals, as detailed in Mr Hambleton’s very thorough findings – which you have, most regrettably, refused to read – far outweigh the temporary inconvenience to a very small number. Are we to arrest the tides of progress for all in order to appease the wants of the few? I hardly think you could agree that a prudent course of action, Mr Lethwaite.” Mr Gregor pursed his lips. “After all, the good Lord himself-” William put up a hand.
“Please sir, do not preach the Gospel at me.” Mr Gregor, his face flushing an alarming shade of puce, folded his arms across his stout chest.
“Mr Lethwaite, I do not see that we can continue discussing this matter to any satisfaction. As such, Mr Hambleton and I will take our leave. With all due respect, I must say that your perspective on this matter I find nothing short of puzzling, and I only hope that you will, in due course, come to see that the great waves of change currently rolling across our country are not those of destruction but of progress, and of great benefit to all of us, no matter how meek or poor.” Mr Gregor, pleased with the eloquence of his speech, and under the admiring gaze of his perspiring young clerk, picked up his bag and tucked his hat beneath his arm with a flourish. Mr Hambleton, keen to ape his superior in every aspect, promptly did the same. William reluctantly extended a hand to Mr Gregor.
“I wish you good day, sir,” he said, brusquely. “And I will pray for your soul; that it does not find itself washed away with the tide, to borrow your metaphor.” He raised a challenging eyebrow. Mr Gregor’s eyes flashed with anger, and he motioned for his clerk to go ahead of him as he strode towards the door.
“I thank you for your hospitality, Mr Lethwaite, though please save your prayers for your parishioners; I have no need of them.” The two railwaymen made their hasty way back up the garden path, Mr Gregor furiously denouncing the stubbornness of the young Rector to his nodding acolyte as they went.
William shut the front door behind them forcefully and slammed his hand against the wall, letting out a furious shout of rage as he did so. This brought Emma running into the hall, her face furrowed with distress. She rushed over and put a hand on his arm.
“They don’t care. They don’t care about any of it,” William spat, bitterly. “They didn’t listen to a word I had to say. It seems that everything has already been decided, and we are utterly powerless to stop it.”
“Darling, please, don’t let them upset you like this. If the railway truly is to come, we will make the best of it. If it is the Lord’s will, I have no doubt that He will see us through it.” He looked at her innocent face, as trusting as a child’s.
“This is not the Lord’s will, but man’s, Emma.” He drew himself up, his face hardening. “That is why I cannot reconcile myself to it. I do not see that it is the Lord’s will for this village to be destroyed, for the villagers to be sent away from their homes, all to line the pockets of the shareholders of the South Eastern Railway Company.” He clenched his fists. “It is not the God Almighty that these railwaymen serve, but Mammon.” Emma winced as a pain shot through her stomach, and she bent forward to steady herself. “My darling-” William, his anger turning to panic at the sight of his wife’s distress, put an arm around her waist. “Is it starting?” Emma took a deep breath and straightened herself. She smiled at him and waved a hand dismissively.
“No, no, not yet. These pains always come and go in the weeks before. It’s nothing for you to worry about. Now, come. Forget all this railway business and see the fine butterfly Elizabeth has captured to show you. She thinks it a rarity but I hadn’t the heart to tell her it is merely a common cabbage white.”
Emma took his hand and made her lumbering way back down the passage and into the pretty drawing room, flooded with light and filled with the scent of roses that drifted in from the open windows. Though the chintz curtains were faded and the moss green velvet sofas well worn, it had an air of grace and charm about it effected by Emma’s tasteful choice of pictures and ornaments. It was a warm, homely room that never failed to lift William’s spirits, and as he saw his little daughter run towards him with her butterfly net, her chubby legs protruding from the froth of her white dress, his heart soared with love and he felt the rage that had taken hold of him evaporate amid a rush of tenderness.
“And what do we have here, then?” He knelt down on the grass outside the window and held out his arms to her. She rushed into them, her cheeks flushed with excitement.
“It’s terribly pretty and terribly rare,” she breathed, her pronounced difficulty with the letter r along with her eagerness blurring her words into an almost incomprehensible stream. She thrust the net at him, within which was fluttering the most common of garden butterflies. William made a face of mock astonishment.
“Well now, what is this? I don’t think I’ve ever come across the like before!” he gasped, looking at Elizabeth with enormous eyes. Emma, her eyes dancing, hid her twitching lips behind her hand. Elizabeth beamed with pride.
“I think it is the only one in the entire world.” William nodded, sagely.
“Indeed, I think you are right. I should think we ought to write to the Zoological Society in London and tell them of what you have found.” Elizabeth gasped with delight.
“Oh, really, Papa?”
“Yes, really and truly.” William hoisted her up onto his hip, and kissed her hot cheeks with passionate affection. “And from now on this butterfly will be called the Elizabeth Lethwaite, and you shall be famous throughout all the land.” Elizabeth clapped her hands together.
“Oh, Papa!” Shifting her onto his back, he proceeded to caper about the garden, the peals of her laughter echoing into the kitchen, where Sarah and Ellen, stopping in the midst of their preparations for lunch, shook their heads at each other and smiled at the softness of their master.
“There never was a one for his children like the Rector,” Sarah said indulgently.
After lunch, William reluctantly left his wife and children under the shade of an apple tree in the garden, and went to his study. He had a pile of correspondence he had been putting off for days, and he sat down heavily in his chair to begin the task. However, before he could get to the first letter, a banging of the wicket gate startled him, and he looked up to see a rabble of villagers descending upon the house. It appeared as if they had come straight from the fields, their shirtsleeves rolled half way up their sun-browned arms, and their boots caked in mud. William raised himself with a sigh and went to the door to greet them. As they saw his figure appear in the doorway, one of them, nudged forward by the rest, doffed his cap and clutched it in his hands as he came before William.
“We’ve heard tell, Rector, of the railway coming to Ashenden.” Murmurs came from the crowd behind him. “And we’re wanting to know whether what those men came and told our wives this morning, about our cottages being knocked down, is true.” More murmurs. William closed his eyes briefly and sighed.
“What exactly is it that you’ve heard?” He ran a hand through his hair. “What have these men said to you?” One of the men, John Waites, who was more accustomed to a night out in The George and Dragon than an appearance in the pews of a Sunday, came forward tentatively, taking his cap off as he did so.
“Well, Rector, they said to my Nancy that they was from the railway company, and they’d posted a notice to our door last week, but we didn’t see no notice, and we didn’t know nothing about it, and that’s what Nancy told ‘em. And then they told my Nancy that owin’ to there bein’ a railway comin’ here, they was going to ‘ave to knock down all of our cottages, being as it were that they were goin’ to be in the way of the line. That’s what they said, Rector, and my Nancy said she couldn’t believe a word of it. A railway in Ashenden, Rector? I said to her and pigs might fly, Nance, they’re havin’ you on, they are. She came runnin’ out to the fields to get me, she did, and then the other women came out of their cottages, and said the railway men had said the same to them. There were two of ‘em, Rector, and they said they’d come from London.” The man paused for breath, his anxious hands twisting his cap. “There’s no truth in all this, is there Rector?” The men all looked to him, their eyes large and trusting as a herd of cows. William could not think what to say. His throat felt intolerably dry.
“Look, John, I – ” He paused, his cheeks flushing. “Can I ask you in, gentlemen, for something to drink?” He stepped back into the hall, and gestured for them to come through, but they shook their heads. John Waites motioned with his grimy thumb over his shoulder.
“We’ve got to be gettin’ back to the fields, Rector, but thank you kindly for the offer. I’m gasping for a glass of something myself, but Mr Tice has only given us leave to come and speak with you for half an hour, and it’s taken us almost half that just to come up ‘ere from the fields.” He wiped his broad, mud-streaked forehead with his cloth cap. “Now tell us, Rector, is there any truth in this? The women are beside themselves.” William pressed his hands together.
“I’m afraid I too was visited by these railway men this morning, and it does indeed seem that there are plans for a railway at Ashenden. But-” William put up a hand as the men began to exclaim amongst themselves, “I am going to do everything in my power to ensure that the cottages are not destroyed. I shall speak to my father and see if he can intercede on our behalf, if necessary. As you know, he is a man of some influence.”
“But what are we to tell the women, Rector?” John looked up at William, his face marked with distress. “They can’t take our cottages, surely they can’t?” William shook his head sadly. The men looked around at each other, shaking their heads in disbelief.
“It’s not right. It’s not fair!” one of them shouted. William stepped down onto the path and went among the men, placing a hand on their shoulders.
“Now, all of you, please. Please, don’t distress yourselves. Even if demolishing the cottages becomes an unavoidable necessity, the railway company has assured me that the compensation they offer is very generous, and will ensure you can set up home elsewhere.”
“But we don’t want to live anywhere else, Rector! They can’t make us, surely!” William put his hands up.
“I know, gentlemen, I know, and I have said all of this to the railway men. I have told them how earnestly I disapprove of their plan, and I can only pray that they will listen.” The men shifted about and murmured ominously.
“Well, thank you, Rector. We’d best be getting back. But please, do what you can for us. We don’t want a railway comin’ through our houses, that we don’t, and we don’t see how it’s fair that they can make us have one.” William nodded and said he quite agreed, before watching the dejected troupe slope back off down the lane to Tice’s farm. He put his hand to his head as the last of them disappeared from view, in despair at the thought that they were depending on him to help them. He had no faith in his ability to do so, and he knew that if he were to be able to bring about any remedy, he would have to appeal to his father. They had not spoken in some time, after the last disastrous visit to the village by the Bishop, when he had questioned everything William felt he stood for, and ridiculed his calling to this pig sty in the back of beyond that was as Godless a mire as the day William had entered it. The thought of running to him now for help was abhorrent. However, if it could give the cottagers a chance of remaining in their homes, he knew he would have to humble himself for their sake.
Too overcome with anxiety to even think of going back to his study, William shut the front door behind him and walked out into the village. Though it was only early May, the sun was strong and he soon felt the need to unbutton his collar. As he came onto the main street, he nodded to a knot of women who were gossiping at the roadside, their bare footed children playing merrily around their faded, much mended skirts with bottle tops found in the yard of The George and Dragon. They all called out to him in greeting, fond of him as they were, and he waved at them cheerily and wished them a good day before disappearing down one of the lanes that would take him up Ashenden Hill and out into the open countryside beyond. It was cool and dim in the lane, the trees forming a canopy overhead that dappled the muddy, horse-churned path with bright splashes of gold. The ground was littered in dried leaves and remnants of pinecones that crunched beneath his feet as he made his way out into the open. Suddenly the lane gave onto a clearing that offered a dizzying view across the rolling countryside below, the fields a glorious display of green and gold beneath the chasing beams of the sun. He breathed in the freshness of the air, infused with the rich scent of the damp earth beneath his feet, as he uttered a prayer, begging the Lord to guide him. He stood there, his eyes closed, waiting to feel the presence of the Almighty wash over him, but he felt nothing but the strength of the afternoon sun beating on his face. When he opened his eyes, he found them dazzled by the beauty that lay before him.
“Surely, Lord, you cannot countenance the destruction of this?” he murmured, marvelling at the glory of all that nature had spread at his feet. He imagined this landscape transformed by the carving out of a railway line: the gently undulating fields that had offered local men employment and sustenance for hundreds of years collapsing into a dark abyss from which would emerge a great iron machine, belching destruction. He shuddered at the thought of it.
June was flaming over the village. The cottage gardens were choked with foxgloves and wild peonies, and the fields a mass of poppies and cornflowers. Scantily clad children wandered barefoot in the lanes, their hands and mouths sticky with the juice of wild strawberries. The main street was full of dust, the dirt road having baked to a hard crust, and Mr Francis had pulled down his faded green and white striped awning over the many-paned window of the village shop. The sun-browned men sat outside The George and Dragon until late at night, their pipes keeping the swarms of midges at bay, discussing nothing but the news of the railway. There was always a man claiming inside information to be found in the pub of an evening, a small crowd gathering around him as he waved his foaming amber glass in the air and told of fresh horrors that would be coming their way as soon as the first piece of track was laid. William had long ceased trying to quell their talk, recognising that it was their means of managing the fears that assailed them. Poor Emma had the women of Nightingale Lane sobbing on her shoulder every day of the week with some new worry about their precarious situation, and he hoped for her sake at the very least that his father would deign to do something to help. He had written to him almost a month ago, and still had no response, though this came as no great surprise. His father had always enjoyed making him suffer.
William and Emma were at breakfast when Ellen came in with the morning post. William marked the extravagant scrawl of his father’s on one of the envelopes immediately.
“Father’s written, at last,” he said, plucking the envelope from the pile. Emma put down her knife and the piece of toast she had been buttering, and sat eagerly to attention. A month after her confinement, she was as pink-cheeked as ever, and her fair hair was plaited and pinned back from her face to show the pretty new gold earrings William had rashly bought her as soon as he knew she was safe. William slit the envelope open with his knife and unfolded the several sheets of paper that had been enclosed within, all covered with the large, commanding slope of his father’s hand. He sighed at the thought of reading through all of what he knew these papers would contain; a volley of condescension thinly veiled as well meaning advice that would criticise and belittle every aspect of the life he had chosen for himself.
“Let me hear it, then,” Emma said, a smile spreading across her face. “What wisdom does the Bishop have to give us this time?” William looked up at his wife, a burst of love for her making a bubble of laughter spring up into his throat. Her unwavering loyalty was a gift he felt he hardly deserved; shortly after they had become engaged, she had sat through her first meal at his parents’ house with her hand in his under the table, squeezing his fingers firmly every time his father had slighted him. She had, despite the Bishop’s reputation, seen him for what he was immediately, and the relief of it had been almost too much for him to bear.
William was about to start reading the letter when Ellen opened the door again and brought in the baby, who was wailing piteously.
“I’m ever so sorry, but Miss Alice is hungry and there’s no settling her, else I would have waited for you to finish your breakfast.” Emma, beaming, held her arms out for her fractious child, and cradled her in the crook of her arm.
“It’s no trouble at all, Ellen.” She put her finger into the baby’s mouth and let her suckle on it. “Go on, Will,” She smiled at William as Ellen left the room. “I think I can mollify her with my finger just long enough to hear the letter.” William grinned at her.
“Here we are, then. ‘My dear William’,” he looked up, delighting in the amusement in Emma’s eyes as he mimicked his father’s ponderous voice, “‘May I first take the opportunity to send my warmest congratulations to you and dearest Emma on the birth of another daughter, who your mother and I look forward with great joy to meeting in due course. Alice is a fine name indeed, and I pray the Lord’s blessings over her and grant that He will allow her in His mercy to grow into an accomplished young woman who loves Him with all her heart. You must forgive my not writing sooner; I have been much occupied with diocesan matters and as I knew your mother had written on behalf of both of us on the subject of dear Alice’s birth, I deemed it would not be inappropriate for me to wait to write myself until I had time to consider your letter of the 27th in the detail it deserved. And now to that letter’.” William looked to Emma with raised eyebrows; she made a face at him. “‘I read with some interest your concerns regarding the plans for the branch line at Ashenden. I had of course read the announcement in The Times, where I was much surprised to see the name of your little backwater in print, and in such a context. I thought over your remarks on the plight of your villagers with much care, and seeing how deeply you felt towards the matter, I invited the Director of the South Eastern Railway Company to meet with me in order to explain his plans in greater detail. During my most fascinating discussion with the Director, I showed him your letter, and he informed me that you had already met with two of his representatives and given them a considerably frosty reception. I said that unfortunately it did not surprise me to hear such a report, as my son is a man of frequently ungovernable impulse who feels things rather too strongly for his own good; a trait I have been advising you to check for many years, and which it grieves me you have yet to learn to govern’.” Emma tutted.
“What an unkind thing to say. Not to mention entirely untrue.” William smiled gratefully at her.
“Thank you, my darling. I quite agree, though I do say so myself.” He laughed, shortly. “My good father continues – ‘I listened carefully to the justification of his plans for Ashenden and for the need to demolish the cottages you mention in your letter. The Director is of course of the mind that the railway will be a great blessing to the communities it will join through its new line and bring increased prosperity and opportunity to those who have enjoyed little of either for many years. It will particularly be a great help for the farmers in moving their produce &c and not to mention allow much easier transportation of workers to the fields and so on. I was much moved by his descriptions of those whose lives have been transformed by the railway in similar communities elsewhere, and though of course there will be some initial upset as there must always be when change is first effected, in time the Director assured me that all communities who have been served by the railway have come to be greatly improved by it. Evidence such as this is difficult to brush aside as mere propaganda, and though I am just as great an advocate as you for the preservation of our rural cultures and traditions, one must see that change can be a great gift to those who are struggling under the burden of poverty brought about by the following of antiquated traditions. For it seems to me, William, that what you fail to see is that while your villagers may think they are content as they are, from an outsider’s eye, their lives are desperately in need of improvement, and they will too come to see this when those of us with the power and compassion to effect that improvement for them have wrought those changes and they are experiencing the benefit of them. As you know, when I came to Ashenden during my last stay with you and dear Emma, I myself remarked upon the terrible condition of the housing in the village and the undeveloped and uneducated views of the people who live there. It is up to us to help them into the light; it is our Christian duty. Therefore I cannot agree that the cottages should be saved, nor that the railway should not come to Ashenden. I am quite convinced that the Lord is giving you the opportunity through this railway to save the souls of your parishioners, who live in the terrible darkness of ignorance. With the railway will come opportunities for them to mix with new sorts of people, and have their eyes opened to new ways of living that will give them the chance to make better, more prosperous lives for themselves. We are living in an exciting age, William: an age where many minds have been blessed by the Lord with a great vision to move our society into a brighter future. Would you deny your parishioners this? Of course they will complain at first, because they are afraid; they will look to you to comfort and reassure them, and this you must do, by showing them how the Lord Himself in His great wisdom and mercy has sent this railway to you, and how He will use it for your benefit. Set your mind to this, my son, for though you have a heart that is full of compassion, you do not match it with good sense and foresight in the way that you must in order to do what is best for those you shepherd.’” William, his voice having long ceased to sound like his father’s as his anger increased, threw the letter down onto the table. “I knew he would do this,” he said, bitterly. “He seems to always look to spite me.” Emma shook her head, sighing. She adjusted the baby in her arms as she leant forward to take William’s hand in hers across the table.
“It is a shame, and I am sorry for it, but you must see that you have done all you can for the cottagers, Will. You mustn’t think for a moment that there is anything more you could have done. It is my belief that the railway company would never have changed their mind, even if your father had agreed with you and asked them to. You said yourself that they had no intention of negotiating when they came to see you before.” William banged the table with his fist.
“I cannot bear injustice like this. I came here to prevent just this. This constant interference, this constant busy bodying, telling the poor what to do with their lives, enforcing change upon them in the name of God though really it is merely to ease our conscience at the great inequality we have allowed to fester unchecked for generations. We bully them and preach at them and force them into institutions, and this is called progress! No. No, Emma, I do not see how the lives we have made the poor live in this so called great century of ours have been any better than the lives they chose to make for themselves, no matter how low they may have seemed to others. No wonder so few of them come to church.” William, his face red with anger, put his head in his hands. “What am I to tell them, then? What must I do?” He looked at Emma, his eyes wild. Hoisting the mewling baby onto her hip, she eased herself out of her chair and came over to him, bending to kiss the top of his head.
“You will tell them the truth. That you tried your best. That it is your belief that what the railway company is doing is wrong, but it is outside of your power to alter their plans, and you will of course be at their service to give them what assistance you can to help them weather the consequences. That is all you can do, my love.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “They will know that you did all you could. They may not come to hear you preach, but they come to hear your advice, and they know you are a man of your word. They won’t resent you for it. They know it’s not your fault. They’re good people, Will. You know that.” William sighed.
“I know. It makes it all the worse. They don’t deserve this.” Emma cradled his head against her hip.
“Be that as it may; it is happening, and we must come to terms with it.” She stroked his hair gently. “And so will the villagers, after a time.” William sighed, and turned his head to kiss the folds of her blue and white striped skirt.
“You always manage to make everything sound so perfectly simple.” Emma smiled.
“I am a Rector’s wife. That is my duty.” She rumpled his hair. “Now I must go and see to the children. I’ve left them with Ellen long enough, and she has her morning to be getting on with.”
“Of course. Go. I’ll be in my study.”
“Where else?” Emma turned and smiled at him as she left the room, the baby squirming on her hip.
William cleared his throat in an attempt to quiet the clamour that had risen amongst the gathered crowd. The men, uncomfortably stiff in their best clothes, their shirt collars sticking to their raw, sunburnt necks in the close heat of the afternoon, were shouting out in chorus, their combined voices a general din of discontent that William did not know how to arrest.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” William begged, raising his hands above his head for silence. Gradually they quietened. Those men who had risen to their feet in their anger reluctantly sat back down again, and with much shifting about in the dusty pews, settled to listen. “I know this is not the news you wanted me to give you, and I wish you to know how sincerely I championed your cause in every direction I was able. I myself do not wish this outcome, that you know, and had I been able to change the course of the railway company’s plans, I would have done.” He sighed and closed his eyes briefly. “I am afraid that there is little to be done but wait and see what the company proposes to do for you; I do have their sincere assurances that they will offer every assistance to you all to find new homes.” The men began to murmur mutinously. The acknowledged leader among them, Nathaniel Scott, Tite’s brawny foreman, stood up.
“That’s all well and good, Rector, but we don’t want new homes and we don’t see as how they can make us move to ‘em.” There was a shout of agreement. “The way I see it is this; I don’t see how they can make us if we refuse to leave. They can’t knock the walls down over our heads now, can they?” The men cheered.
William put his hands up for quiet again.
“Mr Scott, that is a fine idea, but I’m afraid it is not really a solution. I hardly wish to see you all dragged away by the constabulary. What I would implore of all of you is that you begin to set your minds to the fact that you will be moving in the near future, and make plans accordingly. The railway company will provide adequate compensation to allow you to settle elsewhere, either within the village or in the immediate surroundings, and-”
“We’re not setting our minds to nothing, Rector. We won’t stand for it, and that’s that.” Nathaniel stood up and turned to his fellow villagers, his arms raised. “What do we say to this railway company?” A great hiss went up. “You see, Rector?” Nathaniel turned to William, his eyebrows raised. William shook his head.
“I called this meeting to try and help you face the inevitable,” he said, weakly. “I tell you, there is no reversing this. It is completely unjust, that I freely admit, but there it is.” Nathaniel banged his fist against the pew in front of him.
“Why don’t you ask these railway men here and we’ll tell ‘em no ourselves. They were cowards before, speaking to the women while we were out in the fields. We know it’s not your fault, Rector, and we know you want to help, but we don’t want to be helped to do what we don’t want. What we want is this railway stopped, and we want a chance to tell ‘em so directly.” William sighed.
“I know, Mr Scott, and as I have said repeatedly, I am of entirely the same opinion, but I am afraid that is not an outcome that is possible. I have spoken to them directly, and they will not be moved on the matter. I really would urge you not to cling to it and put your mind to thinking of the future, unwanted as it may be.” The men murmured, shaking their heads. William placed his hands on the pulpit in front of him. “I have nothing more to say to you. I’m afraid, much to my regret, that you will have to move, and imminently. Please know I really have done everything, everything, that I could to avoid this, and whatever I can do to help-” The villagers, heads shaking, began to rise and shuffle their way out of the church, their voices mingling in tones of general discontent. William ran his hands through his hair in despair as he watched them file out.
“I’ve just come to see how you’re getting along, and if there’s anything I can do to help.” Emma smiled brightly as she stepped into the Cuthbert’s cottage on Nightingale Lane. All was in disorder; packing boxes filled with a few meagre treasured possessions were scattered about the dingy front room, which barely received any sunlight due to the overgrown trees whose branches spread across the window, and scraps of crumpled newspaper littered the floor. Mrs Cuthbert, dressed in a grubby green print dress and a greying apron, her straggly hair hanging about her once pretty face, looked the picture of despondency. Her barefoot children were running in out of the house, the door to the small kitchen area at the back being open to the rubble-strewn garden.
“Well, you see how it is, Mrs Lethwaite,” she sighed, gesturing to the debris around her. “I’m doing the best I can to get everything packed up, though what use it is I don’t know, seeing as no doubt we’ll have to sell most of it on to keep us fed these next few weeks with the rent to pay on that new cottage.” She looked mournfully up at Emma, her careworn face suddenly appearing pitifully old as the sun caught it and revealed the fine web of lines that had set in about her forever frowning eyes and mouth. “I still can’t believe as it’s true, but there it is. What do we folk matter when there’s a railway to be built, eh? Lived here all his life, my Jem has, and now it’s to be knocked down to the ground as if we was never here at all. It’s shocking and shameful, and I won’t say anything otherwise.” Emma murmured consolingly as she held up a basket filled with provisions that Mrs Hancock had put together for her to take down to the women.
“Why don’t I make you a nice cup of tea, Mrs Cuthbert, and we’ll have a sit down and a talk. You’ve been so busy all morning by the looks of things that I daresay you could do with a rest.” Mrs Cuthbert, acquiescing meekly to this, allowed herself to be directed into the one armchair the family possessed, its sharp springs beneath the dilapidated leather more of a punishment than a comfort. She put her aching feet up on one of the packing boxes while Emma busied herself in the kitchen, talking merrily to the children as they came running into see her, and pressing sticks of barley sugar into their soiled hands.
There was a knock at the door; news had travelled down the terrace by way of the children that Mrs Rector had arrived, and the women of Nightingale Lane pressed into the close confines of Mrs Cuthbert’s front room to unburden themselves upon her. Their querulous voices soon filled the room, and Emma, making tea for each of them in turn, nodded and sympathised and wrapped her slender arms around their threadbare shoulders, her heart becoming heavy with their collective sorrow.
“I wish there were something I could do that would make this stop for you, really and truly, I do,” she told them, her eyes brimming with tears. “It is such an injustice, I know.” She came into each of their houses in turn, spending her whole day helping them to sort through possessions and begin to lay them reverently in packing boxes. Battered japanned tea trays and chipped floral china cups, given as wedding presents; huge leather covered Bibles that had never been opened and could not be read; cheap pocket watches and mourning rings that had belonged to parents and grandparents; tarnished silver backed combs and brushes, christening cups, bad prints in rickety frames, eyeless dolls. Entire lives reduced to a handful of boxes, a handful of bleak, barren rooms. The houses were suffused with melancholy. By the end of the day, Emma could hardly bear the sadness that weighed on her soul.
“Where have you planned to go?” she asked the women, who each told her of rooms and cottages some distance away, all isolated, all unsuitable, all unwanted. They sobbed as they clung to one another, the neighbours and friends they thought they would never have to leave, talking of the impossibility of doing without one another.
“What will I do now, if I need the children minding, or a bit of something to borrow for the kiddies’ dinner?” one of them wailed, her work-reddened hands clutching her apron.
“Oh, come now, you will meet new neighbours, and make new friends,” Emma soothed, rubbing her back gently. “You’ll see.”
“It’s not goin’ to be no good. Heaven knows where we’ll end up. My Tom’s talking about taking us to London, in the end, where there’s work and houses a plenty for everyone, and I don’t want to go there, I don’t. I like it here. I was born here. I don’t want to go nowhere else and I never asked to and I don’t see as why I should have to.” Emma said no, she quite understood, and quietly continued with the work that needed doing so that they could move away into the futures they did not want. As the air began to cool and the sun to wane, Emma, with a pang of guilt at the clean, comfortable home she had to return to, with its quiet, ordered routines and familiar, worn-in rooms filled with pretty things she loved to touch as she moved around the house over the course of her day, said she must go. The women fluttered about her, expecting her to offer them some sort of peace, and though they were not the sort to come to church, she offered to pray with them and they meekly accepted, heads bowed, as she murmured passionately to the God she knew had His reason in amongst all of this chaos.
Emma, her soft, earnest voice filling the women with a hushed awe that momentarily salved their souls, embraced them each once more before turning out of the hollow that sheltered the doomed cottagers and making her way back up the lane. The women, drooping once Emma’s bright presence had left them, returned disconsolately to their cottages, where their children squabbled over the meagre dinners they had scratched together and everything they owned lay open in boxes before them like festering wounds.