“Here you'll find delicious wit, quirky characters, the colorful intrigues of daily life, and certainly love and laughter. . . . Delightful.” —Jan Karon
Throughout her years as schoolmistress, Miss Read has gathered excellent accounts of the rich and varied history of her beloved English village, often through neighborly conversation over the gate. Fairacre has garnered its share of odd incidents, entertaining episodes, and village folklore, from an unusual recipe for weight loss found in an old notebook—and used with alarming consequences—to the tragic story of the village ghost. In Over the Gate, Miss Read retells many of these treasured stories of Fairacre past and present, with characteristic grace and wit.
“Affectionate, humorous, and gently charming . . . sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always appealing.” —The New York Times
“Miss Read has a humble, laughing heart.” —Mademoiselle
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IF you walk down the village street of Fairacre you will come before long to 'The Beetle and Wedge' on the left-hand side. It is a long, low public house, sturdily built of brick and flint, and so attractive to the eye that it is easy to miss the narrow lane which runs between its side and the three cottages, also of brick and flint, which stand next to it.
This lane leads to the downs which shelter our village from the northeast wind. It begins, fairly respectably, with a tarred and gravelled surface, but after a quarter of a mile such refinement ends; the road narrows suddenly, the tarmac finishes, and only a muddy track makes its way uphill to peter out eventually on the windy slopes high above the village.
Here, where the hard surface ends and the rutted lane begins, stands a pair of dour grey houses which bear no resemblance to the cheerful brick-and-thatch architecture of most of Fairacre. They are faced with grey cement which has fallen off, here and there, leaving several scabrous patches. Each has a steep gable terminating in a formidable spike, and the roofs are of cold grey slate. Even on a day of shimmering heat, when the small blue butterflies of the chalk downs hover in the still gardens before them, these two houses present a chilly visage to the passer-by.
They were built in the latter half of Queen Victoria's reign by a well-to-do retired ironmonger from Caxley. At the same time he had built a larger and more imposing residence in the village street for his own use. This was called Jasmine Villa and boasted a black and white tiled path, an ornate verandah of iron trellis-work, and was magnificently out of keeping with the modest dwellings nearby.
Laburnum Villas, as the two were called, had housed the ironmonger's aged mother and two spinster sisters in one, and a married couple with two sons, all of whom worked for the family, in the other.
When I first took up the headship of Fairacre village school, some years ago, the property belonged to a descendant of the ironmonger's, and was pathetically shabby. The owner lived in Caxley, but Jasmine Villa became familiar to me, inside and out, for the tenant, Mrs Pratt, played the church organ and sometimes invited me in to hear one of my pupils practising his solo part in an anthem. At one time too she let a room to one of the school staff so that I became well acquainted with the chill of the late ironmonger's drawing-room and the gloom of his stairway.
But Laburnum Villas remained a mystery. The windows of one were shrouded in dirty lace, and inside, I heard, dwelt an old lady of ninety, who supped innumerable cups of strong tea and dozed between whiles. The tea was made when she rose in the morning and the pot kept hot on the hob all day, the kettle steaming comfortably beside it, ready for refilling. Sometimes, when the children and I walked past on our way to the downs, I thought of that somnolent room murmurous with the humming of the kettle, the gentle snoring of the old lady and the purring of her great black cat which was sometimes to be seen sitting in the window sunning itself.
Next door seemed a little livelier. The windows were clean, the curtains fresh, and a trim lawn sloped down to the front gate. Occasionally we saw a middle-aged man and woman working in the garden, but we rarely met them in the village street, a bare two hundred yards away. They seemed to lead a retired life tucked away from the main street of Fairacre and, like all curious country people, I was interested to hear more about them from Mrs Pringle, the school caretaker.
'A very respectable pair,' was Mrs Pringle's dictum when I asked. This was high praise from my curmudgeonly school cleaner and she must have noticed my surprise.
'I always speaks fair of folks when I can,' continued Mrs Pringle self-righteously, putting down her dustpan and settling herself on the front desk for a good gossip. The desk groaned under her thirteen stone but knew better than to let the lady down. 'There's mighty few these days as can be spoke fair of in Fairacre — a proper lazy, shiftless, godless, money-grubbing lot as they be. As I said to Mr Pringle only last night: "If this is the age of flatulence," I says, "then there's something in being poor but honest!'"
'But tell me about Laburnum Villa,' I urged, steering Mrs Pringle back to the point. Once launched on a sea of invective she will sail on for hours, as well I know. The great clock on the wall, ticking ponderously, already said ten minutes to nine, and very soon the children would be called in from the playground.
'Well, these Hursts,' said Mrs Pringle dismissively, 'have only been here two or three years; but before that the Fletchers were there. As nice a family as ever come to Fairacre,' boomed Mrs Pringle, warming to her theme, 'despite their old grandad being a byword in Caxley for pinching things he never had no need of off of the market stalls. A real affliction he was to them — everlasting having his name in The Caxley Chronicle for all to see.'
'But the Hursts —' I persisted, one eye on the clock.
'Highly respectable,' replied Mrs Pringle, inclining her head graciously. 'Chapel goers, but none the worse for that, I daresay.' The parish church of St Patrick's has Mrs Pringle's support and the choir stalls there reverberate to her powerful contralto lowing, so that this was magnanimous indeed.
'Both been in good service,' continued the lady, 'and was with Sir Edmund over Springbourne way for donkey's years. When the old gentleman passed on they went to one of his relations, I seem to recall. Some long way away it was. Let me think.'
There was a pause while Mrs Pringle frowned with concentration. New Zealand, I thought, or the Argentine, perhaps. The sound of children's voices stirred my conscience and I rose from behind my desk.
'Leicester!' said she triumphantly. 'I knew I'd get it in the end! That's right, it was Leicester they went to —.'
At this point a small girl appeared dramatically between us.
'Please, miss, Ernie made me give him half of my toffee bar and now his tooth's come out in it,' she gabbled agitatedly, 'and what's more he says it's all my fault.'
'Rubbish!' I said, advancing to the door. 'It's nothing more or less than rough justice.'
'I was about to tell you,' boomed Mrs Pringle's voice behind me, heavy with outraged dignity.
'Sorry!' I called back above the rising din. 'It'll have to wait!'
Slowly, Mrs Pringle collected her paraphernalia together and limped heavily from the room, her back expressing outrage in every sturdy line. Mrs Pringle's bad leg 'flares up', as she puts it, whenever anything goes wrong. It looked as though I should have to wait some time before she would be in a fit state to tell me more about the mysterious Hursts.
But, before long, I had occasion to call at Laburnum Villas. The leg of a small brass trivet came off in Mrs Pringle's massive hand whilst she was polishing it. As she explained: 'When things are let get that filthy they needs a bit of purchase put on them.' It was apparent that the purchase this time had been too much for my elderly trivet. I looked at it sadly.
'I'd take it to Fred Hurst,' advised Mrs Pringle. 'I daresay Mr Willet would have a go if he had a soldering iron, but he hasn't, so there you are.'
'How do you know Mr Hurst has one?' I asked.
'Because he fixed the twiddly-bits up to the chapel pulpit real lovely,' replied Mrs Pringle proudly. 'Mr Lamb told me at the Post Office, and what's more he says he likes doing soldering jobs any time he's asked.'
I must have looked a little diffident for Mrs Pringle's normal bellow rose to a crescendo of hearty encouragement.
'You pop down after school and see him,' she advised. 'Better than taking it to Caxley. You won't see it again this side of Christmas if it gets in there.'
There was some truth in this remark. Urged by Mrs Pringle's exhortations and my own curiosity I decided to walk down the lane after tea carrying my trivet with me.
It was one of those bell-like May evenings described by Edmund Blunden. A sharp shower had left the village street glistening and the bushes and trees quivering with bright drops. Now, bathed in evening sunlight, the village sparkled. Scent rose from the wallflowers and polyanthuses in the cottage gardens, and blackbirds scolded from the plumed lilac bushes. Our village of Fairacre is no lovelier than many others. We have rats as well as roses in our back gardens, scoundrels as well as stalwarts ploughing our fields, and plenty of damp and dirt hidden behind the winsome exteriors of our older cottages. But at times it is not only home to us but heaven too; and this was just such an occasion.
As I waited in the porch, cradling the trivet, I wondered if there would be the usual delay in answering a country front door. A back door is usually open, or quickly answered, but I knew from experience that rusty bolts and heavy chains are often involved in front-door transactions in Fairacre. Only on formal occasions do we call at front doors, but this, I felt, was one of them.
To my surprise, the door opened quickly and quietly, showing an elegant white-painted hall and staircase. Mrs Hurst greeted me politely.
'I wondered if your husband —' I began diffidently.
'Come in,' she smiled, and I followed her into the drawing-room on the right-hand side of the corridor. The sight that greeted me was so unexpected that I almost gasped. Instead of the gloomy interior which I had imagined would match Laburnum Villa's unlovely exterior I found a long light room with a large window at each end, one overlooking the front, and the other the back garden. The walls were papered with a white-striped paper and the woodwork was white to match. At the windows hung long velvet curtains in deep blue, faded but beautiful, and a square carpet echoed the colour. Each piece of furniture was fine and old, shining with daily polishing by a loving hand.
But by far the most dominating feature of the room was a large portrait in oils of a black-haired man dressed in clothes of the early nineteenth century. It was not a handsome face, but it showed strength of character and kindliness. Surrounded by an ornate wide gold frame it glowed warmly above the white marble fireplace.
'What a lovely room!' I exclaimed.
'I'm glad you like it,' replied Mrs Hurst. 'My husband and I got nearly everything here at sales. We go whenever we can. It makes a day out and we both like nice things. Our landlord let us have the wall down between these two rooms, so that it's made one good long one, which is a better shape than before, and much lighter too.'
I nodded appreciatively.
'Sit down, do,' she continued. 'I'll get Fred. We live at the back mostly, and I'll tell him you're here.'
I waited in an elegant round armchair with a walnut rim running round its back, and gazed at this amazing room. What a contrast it was, I thought, to Mrs Pratt's counterpart at Jasmine Villa! There the room was crowded with a conglomeration of furniture, from bamboo to bog oak, each hideous piece bearing an equally hideous collection of malformed pottery. That was, to my mind, the most distracting room in Fairacre, whereas this was perhaps the most tranquil one I had yet encountered.
Fred Hurst returned with his wife. He was short while she was tall, rosy while she was pale; and certainly more inclined to gossip than his dignified wife. He examined my trivet carefully.
'Nice little piece,' he said admiringly. 'A good hundred years old. I can mend it so as you'll never know it was broken.'
He told me that he could get it done in a week, and we talked generally about our gardens and the weather for a little while before I rose to go.
'I envy you this room,' I said truthfully. 'The school house has tiny rooms and furniture always looks so much better with plenty of space for it.'
'Pictures too,' added Fred Hurst. He pointed to the portraits. 'One of my ancestors,' he continued.
I heard Mrs Hurst draw in her breath sharply.
'Fred!' she said warningly. Her husband looked momentarily uncomfortable, then moved towards me with hand outstretched.
'We mustn't keep you, Miss Read,' he said politely. 'I'll do my best with the trivet.'
I made my farewells, promised to return in a week, and walked to the gate. There I turned to wave to Mrs Hurst who stood regally still upon her doorstep. She wore upon her pale face such an expression of stony distaste that I forebore to raise my hand, but set off soberly for home.
What in the world, I asked myself in astonishment, had happened in those few minutes to make Mrs Hurst look like that?
A week later, in some trepidation, I called again. Somewhat to my relief, only Fred Hurst was at home. He took me into the charming drawing-room again and lifted my mended trivet from a low table. The repair had been neatly done. It was clear that he was a clever workman.
'My wife's gone down to the shop,' he said. 'She'll be sorry to miss you.'
I murmured something polite and began to look in my purse for the modest half crown which was all that he charged for his job.
'She doesn't see many people, living down here,' he went on. 'Bit quiet for her, I think, though she don't complain. I'm the one that likes company more, you know. Take after my old great-great-grandad here.'
He waved proudly at the portrait. The dark painted eyes seemed to follow us about the room.
'A very handsome portrait,' I commented.
'A fine old party,' agreed Fred Hurst, smiling at him. 'Had a tidy bit of money too, which none of us saw, I may say. Ran through it at the card table, my dad told me, and spent what was left on liquor. They do say, some people, that he had some pretty wild parties, but you don't have to believe all you hear.'
It was quite apparent that Fred Hurst's ancestor had a very soft place in his descendant's heart. He spoke of his weaknesses with indulgence, and almost with envy, it seemed to me. Certainly he was fascinated by the portrait, returning its inscrutable gaze with an expression of lively regard.
I could hear the sound of someone moving about in the kitchen, but Mr Hurst, engrossed as he was, seemed unaware of it.
'I should like to think I took after him in some ways,' he continued boisterously. 'He got a good deal out of life, one way and another, did my old great-great-grandad.'
The door opened and Mrs Hurst swept into the room like a chilly wind.
'That'll do, Fred,' she said quenchingly. 'Miss Read don't want to hear all those old tales.' She bent down to pick an imaginary piece of fluff from the carpet. I could have sworn that she wanted to avoid my eyes.
'Your husband has mended my trivet beautifully,' I said hastily. 'I was just going.'
'I'll come to the gate with you,' said Mrs Hurst more gently. We made our way down the sloping path to the little lane.
'My husband enjoys a bit of company,' she said, over the gate. 'I'm afraid he gets carried away at times. He dearly likes an audience.' She sounded apologetic and her normally pale face was suffused with pink, but whether with shame for her own tartness to him or with some secret anger, I could not tell. Ah well, I thought, as I returned to the school house, people are kittle-cattle, as Mr Willet is fond of reminding me.
'A pack of lies,' announced Mrs Pringle forthrightly when I mentioned Mr Hurst's portrait. 'That's no more his great-great-grandad than the Duke of Wellington!'
'Fred Hurst should know!' I pointed out mildly. I knew that this was the best way of provoking Mrs Pringle to further tirades and waited for the explosion.
'And so he does!' boomed Mrs Pringle, her three chins wobbling self-righteously. 'He knows quite well it's a pack of lies he's telling — that's when he stops to consider, which he don't. That poor wife of his,' went on the lady, raising hands and eyes heavenward, 'what she has to put up with nobody knows! Such a god-fearing pillar of truth as she is too! Them as really knows 'em, Miss Read, will tell you what that poor soul suffers with his everlasting taradiddles.'
'Perhaps he embroiders things to annoy her,' I suggested. 'Six of one and half-dozen of the other, so to speak.'
'Top and bottom of it is that he don't fairly know truth from lies,' asserted Mrs Pringle, brows beetling. 'This picture, for instance, everyone knows was bought at Ted Purdy's sale three years back. It's all of a piece with Fred Hurst's goings-on to say it's a relation. He starts in fun, maybe, but after a time or two he gets to believe it.'
'If people know that, then there's not much harm done,' I replied.
Mrs Pringle drew an outraged breath, so deeply and with such volume, that her stout corsets creaked with the strain.
'Not much harm done?' she echoed. 'There's such a thing as mortal sin, which is what plain lying is, and his poor wife knows it. My brother-in-law worked at Sir Edmund's when the Hursts was there and you should hear what went on between the two. Had a breakdown that poor soul did once, all on account of Fred Hurst's lies. "What'll become of you when you stand before your Maker, Fred Hurst?" she cried at him in the middle of a rabbit pie! My brother-in-law saw what harm lying does the middle of a rabbit pie! My brother-in-law saw what harm lying does all right. And to the innocent, what's more! To the innocent!'
Excerpted from "Over The Gate"
Copyright © 1992 Dora Jessie Saint.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Strange, But True?,
A Tale of Love,
The Fairacre Ghost,
Mrs Pringle's Christmas Pudding,
The Old Man of the Sea,
About the Author,
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