she said all at once:
"Ralph, I can't read. Will you read it for me?"
"Do try to read it yourself, my dear," said her husband.
"I am sure I shall break down," she answered.
"If you were able to write it, surely you are able to read it," said the
colonel. "I know what my difficulty would be."
"It is a very different thing to read one's own writing. I could read
anything else well enough. - Will you read it for me, Henry?"
"With pleasure, if it must be any other than yourself. I know your
handwriting nearly as well as my own. It's none of your usual
lady-hands-all point and no character. But what do you say, Ralph?"
"Read it by all means, if she will have it so. The company has had
enough of my reading. It will be a change of voice at least."
I saw that Adela looked pleasedly expectant.
"Pray don't look for much," said Mrs. Armstrong in a pleading tone.
"I assure you it is nothing, or at best a mere trifle. But I could
not help myself, without feeling obstinate. And my husband lays so
much on the cherished obstinacy of Lady Macbeth, holding that to be
the key to her character, that he has terrified me from every
indulgence of mine."
She laughed very sweetly; and her husband joining in the laugh, all
further hindrance was swept away in the music of their laughter; and
Harry, taking the papers from his sister's hand, commenced at once.
It was partly in print, and partly in manuscript.
"MY UNCLE PETER.
"I will tell you the story of my Uncle Peter, who was born on
Christmas-day. He was very anxious to die on Christmas-day as well;
but I must confess that was rather ambitious in Uncle Peter. Shakespeare
is said to have been born on St. George's-day, and there is some ground
for believing that he died on St. George's-day. He thus fulfilled a cycle.
But we cannot expect that of any but great men, and Uncle Peter was not
a great man, though I think I shall be able to show that he was a good
man. The only pieces of selfishness I ever discovered in him were, his
self-gratulation at having been born on Christmas-day, and the ambition
with regard to his death, which I have just recorded; and that this
selfishness was not of a kind to be very injurious to his fellowmen,
I think I shall be able to show as well.
"The first remembrance that I have of him, is his taking me one
Christmas-eve to the largest toy-shop in London, and telling me to
choose any toy whatever that I pleased. He little knew the agony of
choice into which this request of his, - for it was put to me as a
request, in the most polite, loving manner, - threw his astonished
nephew. If a general right of choice from the treasures of the whole
world had been unanimously voted me, it could hardly have cast me into
greater perplexity. I wandered about, staring like a distracted ghost
at the 'wealth of Ormus and of Ind,' displayed about me. Uncle Peter
followed me with perfect patience; nay, I believe, with a delight that
equalled my perplexity, for, every now and then when I looked round to
him with a silent appeal for sympathy in the distressing dilemma into
which he had thrown me, I found him rubbing his hands and spiritually
chuckling over his victim. Nor would he volunteer the least assistance
to save me from the dire consequences of too much liberty. How long I
was in making up my mind I cannot tell; but as I look back upon this
splendour of my childhood, I feel as if I must have wandered for weeks
through interminable forest-alleys of toy-bearing trees. As often as I
read the story of Aladdin - and I read it now and then still, for I have
children about, and their books about - the subterranean orchard of
jewels always brings back to my inward vision the inexhaustible riches
of the toy-shop to which Uncle Peter took me that Christmas-eve. As soon
as, in despair of choosing well, I had made a desperate plunge at
decision, my Uncle Peter, as if to forestall any supervention of
repentance, began buying like a maniac, giving me everything that took
his fancy or mine, till we and our toys nearly filled the cab which he
called to take us home.
"Uncle Peter was little round man, not _very_ fat, resembling both
in limbs and features an overgrown baby. And I believe the resemblance
was not merely an external one; for, though his intellect was quite up
to par, he retained a degree of simplicity of character and of tastes
that was not childlike only, but bordered, sometimes, upon the childish.
To look at him, you could not have fancied a face or a figure with less
of the romantic about them; yet I believe that the whole region of his
brain was held in fee-simple, whatever that may mean, by a race of fairy
architects, who built aerial castles therein, regardless of expense.
His imagination was the most distinguishing feature of his character.
And to hear him defend any of his extravagancies, it would appear that he
considered himself especially privileged in that respect. 'Ah, my dear,'
he would say to my mother when she expostulated with him on making some
present far beyond the small means he at that time possessed, 'ah, my
dear, you see I was born on Christmas-day.' Many a time he would come in
from town, where he was a clerk in a merchant's office, with the water
running out of his boots, and his umbrella carefully tucked under his
arm; and we would know very well that he had given the last coppers he
had, for his omnibus home, to some beggar or crossing-sweeper, and had
then been so delighted with the pleasure he had given, that he forgot to
make the best of it by putting up his umbrella. Home he would trudge,
in his worn suit of black, with his steel watch-chain and bunch of
ancestral seals swinging and ringing from his fob, and the rain running
into his trousers pockets, to the great endangerment of the health of
his cherished old silver watch, which never went wrong because it was
put right every day by St. Paul's. He was quite poor then, as I have
said. I do not think he had more than a hundred pounds a-year, and he
must have been five and thirty. I suppose his employers showed their
care for the morals of their clerks, by never allowing them any margin
to mis-spend. But Uncle Peter lived in constant hope and expectation of
some unexampled good luck befalling him; 'For,' said he, 'I was born on
"He was never married. When people used to jest with him about being an
old bachelor, he used to smile, for anything would make him smile; but
I was a very little boy indeed when I began to observe that the smile
on such occasions was mingled with sadness, and that Uncle Peter's face
looked very much as if he were going to cry. But he never said anything
on the subject, and not even my mother knew whether he had had any
love-story or not. I have often wondered whether his goodness might not
come in part from his having lost some one very dear to him, and having
his life on earth purified by the thoughts of her life in heaven. But
I never found out. After his death - for he did die, though not on
Christmas-day - I found a lock of hair folded in paper with a date on
it - that was all - in a secret drawer of his old desk. The date was far
earlier than my first recollections of him. I reverentially burnt it
"He lived in lodgings by himself not far from our house; and, when not
with us, was pretty sure to be found seated in his easy-chair, for he
was fond of his simple comforts, beside a good fire, reading by the
light of one candle. He had his tea always as soon as he came home,
and some buttered toast or a hot muffin, of which he was sure to make
me eat three-quarters if I chanced to drop in upon him at the right hour,
which, I am rather ashamed to say, I not unfrequently did. He dared not
order another, as I soon discovered. Yet, I fear, that did not abate my
appetite for what there was. You see, I was never so good as Uncle
Peter. When he had finished his tea, he turned his chair to the fire,
and read - what do you think? Sensible Travels and Discoveries, or
Political Economy, or Popular Geology? No: Fairy Tales, as many as he
could lay hold of; and when they failed him, Romances or Novels. Almost
anything in this way would do that was not bad. I believe he had read
every word of Richardson's novels, and most of Fielding's and De Foe's.
But once I saw him throw a volume in the fire, which he had been
fidgeting over for a while. I was just finishing a sum I had brought
across to him to help me with. I looked up, and saw the volume in the
fire. The heat made it writhe open, and I saw the author's name, and
that was _Sterne_. He had bought it at a book-stall as he came
home. He sat awhile, and then got up and took down his Bible, and began
reading a chapter in the New Testament, as if for an antidote to the
book he had destroyed."
* * * * *
"I put in that piece," said the curate.
* * * * *
"But Uncle Peter's luck came at last - at least, he thought it did, when
he received a lawyer's letter announcing the _demise_ of a cousin
of whom he had heard little for a great many years, although they had
been warm friends while at school together. This cousin had been brought
up to some trade in the wood line - had been a cooper or a carpenter,
and had somehow or other got landed in India, and, though not in the
Company's service, had contrived in one way and another to amass what
might be called a large fortune in any rank of life. I am afraid to
mention the amount of it, lest it should throw discredit on my story.
The whole of this fortune he left to Uncle Peter, for he had no nearer
relation, and had always remembered him with affection.
"I happened to be seated beside my uncle when the lawyer's letter
arrived. He was reading 'Peter Wilkins.' He laid down the book with
reluctance, thinking the envelope contained some advertisement of slaty
coal for his kitchen-fire, or cottony silk for his girls' dresses.
Fancy my surprise when my little uncle jumped up on his chair, and
thence on the table, upon which he commenced a sort of demoniac hornpipe.
But that sober article of furniture declined giving its support to such
proceedings for a single moment, and fell with an awful crash to the
floor. My uncle was dancing amidst its ruins like Nero in blazing Rome,
when he was reduced to an awful sense of impropriety by the entrance of
his landlady. I was sitting in open-mouthed astonishment at my uncle's
extravagance, when he suddenly dropped into his chair, like a lark into
its nest, leaving heaven silent. But silence did not reign long.
"'_Well_! Mr. Belper,' began his landlady, in a tone as difficult
of description as it is easy of conception, for her fists had already
planted themselves in her own opposing sides. But, to my astonishment,
my uncle was not in the least awed, although I am sure, however much
he tried to hide it, that I have often seen him tremble in his shoes
at the distant roar of this tigress. But it is wonderful how much
courage a pocketful of sovereigns will give. It is far better for
rousing the pluck of a man than any number of bottles of wine in his
head. What a brave thing a whole fortune must be then!
"'Take that rickety old thing away,' said my uncle.
"'Rickety, Mr. Belper! I'm astonished to hear a decent gentleman like
you slander the very table as you've eaten off for the last - '
"'We won't be precise to a year, ma'am,' interrupted my uncle.
"'And if you will have little scapegraces of neveys into my house to
break the furniture, why, them as breaks, pays, Mr. Belper.'
"'Very well. Of course I will pay for it. I broke it myself, ma'am;
and if you don't get out of my room, I'll - '
"Uncle Peter jumped up once more, and made for the heap of ruins in the
middle of the floor. The landlady vanished in a moment, and my uncle
threw himself again into his chair, and absolutely roared with laughter.
"'Shan't we have rare fun, Charlie, my boy?' said he at last, and went
off into another fit of laughter.
"'Why, uncle, what is the matter with you?' I managed to say, in utter
"'Nothing but luck, Charlie. It's gone to my head. I'm not used to it,
Charlie, that's all. I'll come all right by-and-by. Bless you, my boy!'
"What do you think was the first thing my uncle did to relieve himself
of the awful accession of power which had just befallen him? The
following morning he gathered together every sixpence he had in the
house, and went out of one grocer's shop into another, and out of one
baker's shop into another, until he had changed the whole into
threepenny pieces. Then he walked to town, as usual, to business. But
one or two of his friends who were walking the same way, and followed
behind him, could not think what Mr. Belper was about. Every crossing
that he came to he made use of to cross to the other side. He crossed
and recrossed the same street twenty times, they said. But at length
they observed, that, with a legerdemain worthy of a professor, he
slipped something into every sweeper's hand as he passed him. It was
one of the threepenny pieces. When he walked home in the evening, he
had nothing to give, and besides went through one of the wet experiences
to which I have already alluded. To add to his discomfort, he found,
when he got home, that his tobacco-jar was quite empty, so that he was
forced to put on his wet shoes again - for he never, to the end of his
days, had more than one pair at a time - in order to come across to my
mother to borrow sixpence. Before the legacy was paid to him, he went
through a good many of the tortures which result from being 'a king
and no king.' The inward consciousness and the outward possibility did
not in the least correspond. At length, after much manoeuvring with
the lawyers, who seemed to sympathize with the departed cousin in this,
that they too would prefer keeping the money till death parted them and
it, he succeeded in getting a thousand pounds of it on Christmas-eve.
"'NOW!' said Uncle Peter, in enormous capitals. - That night a thundering
knock came to our door. We were all sitting in our little
dining-room - father, mother, and seven children of us - talking about
what we should do next day. The door opened, and in came the most
grotesque figure you could imagine. It was seven feet high at least,
without any head, a mere walking tree-stump, as far as shape went,
only it looked soft. The little ones were terrified, but not the bigger
ones of us; for from top to toe (if it had a toe) it was covered with
toys of every conceivable description, fastened on to it somehow or
other. It was a perfect treasure-cave of Ali Baba turned inside out.
We shrieked with delight. The figure stood perfectly still, and we
gathered round it in a group to have a nearer view of the wonder.
We then discovered that there were tickets on all the articles, which
we supposed at first to record the price of each. But, upon still
closer examination, we discovered that every one of the tickets had one
or other of our names upon it. This caused a fresh explosion of joy.
Nor was it the children only that were thus remembered. A little box
bore my mother's name. When she opened it, we saw a real gold watch and
chain, and seals and dangles of every sort, of useful and useless kind;
and my mother's initials were on the back of the watch. My father had a
silver flute, and to the music of it we had such a dance! the strange
figure, now considerable lighter, joining in it without uttering a word.
During the dance one of my sisters, a very sharp-eyed little puss,
espied about half way up the monster two bright eyes looking out of a
shadowy depth of something like the skirts of a great coat. She peeped
and peeped; and at length, with a perfect scream of exultation, cried
out, 'It's Uncle Peter! It's Uncle Peter!' The music ceased; the dance
was forgotten; we flew upon him like a pack of hungry wolves; we tore
him to the ground; despoiled him of coats, and plaids, and elevating
sticks; and discovered the kernel of the beneficent monster in the
person of real Uncle Peter; which, after all, was the best present he
could have brought us on Christmas-eve, for we had been very dull for
want of him, and had been wondering why he did not come.
"But Uncle Peter had laid great plans for his birthday, and for the
carrying out of them he took me into his confidence, - I being now a lad
of fifteen, and partaking sufficiently of my uncle's nature to enjoy at
least the fun of his benevolence. He had been for some time perfecting
his information about a few of the families in the neighbourhood; for
he was a bit of a gossip, and did not turn his landlady out of the room
when she came in with a whisper of news, in the manner in which he had
turned her out when she came to expostulate about the table. But she
knew her lodger well enough never to dare to bring him any scandal.
From her he had learned that a certain artist in the neighbourhood was
very poor. He made inquiry about him where he thought he could hear more,
and finding that he was steady and hard-working (Uncle Peter never cared
to inquire whether he had genius or not; it was enough to him that the
poor fellow's pictures did not sell), resolved that he should have a more
pleasant Christmas than he expected. One other chief outlet for his
brotherly love, in the present instance, was a dissenting minister and
his wife, who had a large family of little children. They lived in the
same street with himself. Uncle Peter was an unwavering adherent to the
Church of England, but he would have felt himself a dissenter at once if
he had excommunicated any one by withdrawing his sympathies from him.
He knew that this minister was a thoroughly good man, and he had even
gone to hear him preach once or twice. He knew too that his congregation
was not the more liberal to him that he was liberal to all men. So he
resolved that he would act the part of one of the black angels that
brought bread and meat to Elijah in the wilderness. Uncle Peter would
never have pretended to rank higher than one of the foresaid ravens.
"A great part of the forenoon of Christmas-day was spent by my uncle and
me in preparations. The presents he had planned were many, but I will
only mention two or three of them in particular. For the minister and
his family he got a small bottle with a large mouth. This he filled as
full of new sovereigns as it would hold; labelled it outside, _Pickled
Mushrooms_; 'for doesn't it grow in the earth without any seed?' said
he; and then wrapped it up like a grocer's parcel. For the artist, he
took a large shell from his chimney-piece; folded a fifty-pound note in
a bit of paper, which he tied up with a green ribbon; inserted the paper
in the jaws of the shell, so that the ends of the ribbon should hang
out; folded it up in paper and sealed it; wrote outside, _Enquire
within_; enclosed the whole in a tin box and directed it, _With
Christmas-day's compliments_; 'for wasn't I born on Christmas-day?'
concluded Uncle Peter for the twentieth time that forenoon. Then there
were a dozen or two of the best port he could get, for a lady who had
just had a baby, and whose husband and his income he knew from business
relations. Nor were the children forgotten. Every house in his street
and ours in which he knew there were little ones, had a parcel of toys
and sweet things prepared for it.
"As soon as the afternoon grew dusky, we set out with as many as we
could carry. A slight disguise secured me from discovery, my duty being
to leave the parcels at the different houses. In the case of the more
valuable of them, my duty was to ask for the master or mistress, and see
the packet in safe hands. In this I was successful in every instance.
It must have been a great relief to my uncle when the number of parcels
was sufficiently diminished to restore to him the use of his hands,
for to him they were as necessary for rubbing as a tail is to a dog for
wagging - in both cases for electrical reasons, no doubt. He dropped
several parcels in the vain attempt to hold them and perform the usual
frictional movement notwithstanding; so he was compelled instead to go
through a kind of solemn pace, which got more and more rapid as the
parcels decreased in number, till it became at last, in its wild
movements, something like a Highlander's sword-dance. We had to go home
several times for more, keeping the best till the last. When Uncle Peter
saw me give the 'pickled mushrooms' into the hands of the lady of the
house, he uttered a kind of laugh, strangled into a crow, which startled
the good lady, who was evidently rather alarmed already at the weight
of the small parcel, for she said, with a scared look: -
"'It's not gunpowder, is it?'
"'No,' I said; 'I think it's shot.'
"'Shot!' said she, looking even more alarmed. 'Don't you think you had
better take it back again?'
"She held out the parcel to me, and made as if she would shut the door.
"'Why, ma'am,' I answered, 'you would not have me taken up for stealing
"It was a foolish reply; but it answered the purpose if not the
question. She kept the parcel and shut the door. When I looked round
I saw my uncle going through a regular series of convolutions,
corresponding exactly to the bodily contortions he must have executed
at school every time he received a course of what they call _palmies_
in Scotland; if, indeed, Uncle Peter was ever even suspected of improper
behaviour at school. It consisted first of a dance, then a double-up;
then another dance, then another double-up, and so on.
"'Some stupid hoax, I suppose!' said the artist, as I put the parcel
into his hands. He looked gloomy enough, poor fellow.
"'Don't be too sure of that, if you please, sir,' said I, and vanished.
"Everything was a good joke to uncle all that evening.
"'Charlie,' said he, 'I never had such a birthday in my life before;
but, please God, now I've begun, this will not be the last of the sort.
But, you young rascal, if you split, why, I'll thrash the life out of
you. No, I won't - 'here my uncle assumed a dignified attitude, and
concluded with mock solemnity - 'No, I won't. I will cut you off with a
"This was a _crescendo_ passage, ending in a howl; upon which he
commenced once more an edition of the Highland fling, with impromptu
"When all the parcels were delivered, we walked home together to my
uncle's lodgings, where he gave me a glass of wine and a sovereign
for my trouble. I believe I felt as rich as any of them.
"But now I must tell you the romance of my uncle's life. I do not mean
the suspected hidden romance, for that no one knew - except, indeed,
a dead one knew all about it. It was a later romance, which, however,
nearly cost him his life once.
"One Christmas-eve we had been occupied, as usual, with the presents of
the following Christmas-day, and - will you believe it? - in the same
lodgings, too, for my uncle was a thorough Tory in his hatred of change.
Indeed, although two years had passed, and he had had the whole of his
property at his disposal since the legal term of one year, he still
continued to draw his salary of L100 of Messrs. Buff and Codgers.
One Christmas-eve, I say, I was helping him to make up parcels, when,
from a sudden impulse, I said to him -
"'How good you are, uncle!'
"'Ha! ha! ha!' laughed he; 'that's the best joke of all. Good, my boy!
Ha! ha! ha! Why, Charlie, you don't fancy I care one atom for all these
people, do you? I do it all to please myself. Ha! ha! ha! It's the
cheapest pleasure at the money, considering the quality, that I know.
That _is_ a joke. Good, indeed! Ha! ha! ha!'
"I am happy to say I was an old enough bird not to be caught with this
metaphysical chaff. But my uncle's face grew suddenly very grave, even
sad in its expression; and after a pause he resumed, but this time
without any laughing: -
"'Good, Charlie! Why, I'm no use to anybody.'
"'You do me good, anyhow, uncle,' I answered. 'If I'm not a better man
for having you for an uncle, why I shall be a great deal the worse,
"'Why, there it is!' rejoined my uncle; 'I don't know whether I do good
or harm. But for you, Charlie, you're a good boy, and don't want any
good done to you. It would break my heart, Charlie, if I thought you
weren't a good boy.'
"He always called me a boy after I was a grown man. But then I believe
he always felt like a boy himself, and quite forgot that we were uncle
"I was silent, and he resumed, -
"'I wish I could be of real, unmistakeable use to anyone! But I fear I
am not good enough to have that honour done me.'
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