George Manville Fenn.

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Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England




Christmas Penny Readings
Original Sketches for the Season
By George Manville Fenn
Published by George Routledge and Sons
This edition dated 1867

Christmas Penny Readings, by George Manville Fenn.

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CHRISTMAS PENNY READINGS, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.



CHAPTER ONE.

CUTTING TIMES; OR, A FROST AND THAW.

ONE - FREEZING SHARP.

Twenty years ago, Hezekiah Thornypath was in Luck's way - so much so,
that Luck kicked him out of it. Hez went up to London to make his
fortune, and he took his wife and children with him to help to make it:
Hez meant "to make his crown a pound," as the old song says, but he did
not. Either times, trade, or Hez's management was bad; things went
contrary; and, as though it were a punishment for marrying against old
Thornypath's wish, Hezekiah's few hundred pounds melted away, troubles
came upon him, friends forsook him, and when he considered that his
affairs could be no worse, he had to fetch the doctor, who came, shook
his head, and in a few hours Hez and his wife were weeping bitterer
tears than they had ever shed before, for the rigour of death was fast
stealing away the beauty from the features of their youngest child.

The house looked sad and sombre with the blinds drawn down; footsteps
were hushed, and voices were heard but in a whisper - how needlessly Hez
too well knew, as he gazed, with his weeping wife, upon the little
sleeper. The world looked in advance one dreary desert, while hope
seemed to have parted from them for ever. No friendly word of comfort
was spoken, no whispered consolation - they were alone in the great city,
and the tears that fell had no earthly witness.

A few days dragged slowly past, and then the lid of the little painted
deal coffin hid from aching eyes the tiny spirit's cast-off robe.
Blinding tears, breasts heaving while the thrilling words of the Apostle
fell upon the grieving parents' ears, a last long look at the deep cold
grave, and a catching of the breath as the earth fell heavily upon their
infant's breast, and then, slowly, sadly, hand-in-hand, away from the
little grave.

Three months passed away, and the shabby mourning had grown more rusty -
three months of sorrow and struggles for the bare necessaries of life -
and then again the slow, creaking step of the doctor; the same anxious
faces watching the hard-drawn breath and fevered countenance of another
little sufferer - watching with aching hearts, and moaning in the
bitterness of their spirit at their helplessness, their utter impotence
to give relief. Gazing with awe at the wild eye, unearthly look, and
startled mien; ever and anon trying to soothe the child, whose spirit
seemed to hold communion with another world. The same sad, sad scene:
the creaking step departing, with the assurance, "nothing can be done;"
and then, by the gloomy light of the wretched candle, the shades of that
deepest night were seen to gather upon the little brow, as the eyes were
closed in the sleep whose waking is into life eternal.

Through the crowded streets again, to the crowded habitation of the
dead, a shabby funeral, with shabby mourners, hardly noticed but by the
children, who cease their play and cling to the churchyard rails, or
follow the sad procession amongst the mouldering graves. Another little
coffin close beside the first in the cold, black earth, while hearts
filled to bursting mourn for the lost ones, drinking deeply of
affliction - of those bitter waters of Marah; and then on again, toiling
through life's weary way.

Months of struggling - months of privation and misery; and after a day
spent in a vain effort to gain employ, Hez slunk through the
gaily-lighted streets of the West End, shrinking within himself as
though it were dishonest of him to be poor, and to show his haggard face
amid so much wealth. Christmas was at hand, and the gaily-decorated
shops were thronged with merry faces; the streets, too, were crowded,
vehicles were loaded, and railway-vans groaned beneath the weight of the
presents they were bearing away. Boys home for the holidays, visitors
from the country, busy purchasers and sight-seers, hurried through the
teeming arteries of the mighty city; and the light of many a roaring
fire danced upon the window-blinds, or sent its curtain-shaded radiance
glowing across the road, telling of home and comfort, and the welcome
awaiting those away. Soft flakes of snow were falling fast, and
deadened the footfalls of those he met. A little farther on, strains of
music greeted his ear, and a voice arrested him for an instant as he
heard the words of a song well-known in happier days. Again onwards, to
pass a merry party of young men, laughing and happy. Everything
betokening comfort, wealth, and the festivity of Christmas, met his eye;
but no misery save his own, for the bitter night had sent all others
hiding down in courts and alleys, seeking in their darkness' for shelter
from the winter's icy breath. Hez groaned; for he thought of past
Christmas-days, and now of the present, with his one beggarly room in a
court; of his patient, long-suffering wife, and half-starving children;
of the dire pressure upon him, and his impotence to ward off the
troubles. Want had him tightly in her clutches, and, with the thought
of his misery, he looked down upon his wretched garb in despair. He had
sold everything that the traffickers with poverty would buy; little by
little, furniture, plate, watches, books, clothes, the little trifles
interchanged in brighter days, all, all had gone; and now Hez hurried
back to his lodging, knowing that he could not stir again in search of
employment but as a shoeless beggar.

Hez and his wife supped that night upon the luxury he took in with him -
a hot potato; the two children lay asleep in their corner when he
returned; and bare and wretched as the back room was, lighted only by a
rushlight, there was still one bright ray to illumine its darkness - love
was there; and the same fond smile welcomed Hez back, as greeted him in
brighter days; the same arms - albeit thin and attenuated - clung round
his neck, and the same gentle face was laid to his, as when, in the full
career of prosperity, he had returned to a comfortable home.

Christmas-Eve, and things at the worst: the tide of prosperity floated
away, and Hez's bark stranded. A bitter night; no furniture to sell; no
coals; no fire; and three weeks' rent in arrear. A few hours before,
and a message came, that the landlady wanted to see Mr Thornypath; when
the poor fellow encountered the storm of abuse in waiting for him; to
listen to the threats of bailiffs, and finally, as no money was produced
by the wordy warfare, to receive notice to quit. It was ten o'clock,
and Hez sat by the empty grate upon a broken stool; the children with
their mother were asleep upon a mattress stretched in the corner of the
room. Poor things, they had cried with the cold, and their mother,
trying to lend warmth to their little chilled forms, in her weariness
and misery slept by their side. Hez had knelt down, and kissed away a
half-dried tear from the pallid cheek, as he had added his ragged coat
to his wife's scanty covering. It was a bitter, biting night, and Hez
felt half stupefied with the cold; the pane of glass which the children
had broken was badly stopped, and through it the chilly blast rushed in.
Earlier in the night there had been an organ in the court; but the man
gave in after playing half a tune, and shivered off, thinking of his own
sunny land; some musicians, too, and a carol singer, had been to the
public-house hard by; but their strains raised no response; and now,
Christmas-Eve though it was, the occasional tramp of a policeman, and
the hum of the distant street, were all the sounds that greeted the ear.

Hez sat upon his stool and mused, unmindful of the cold that crept
beneath his ragged shirt, and pinched him until it left blue marks upon
his flesh; unmindful of all but the half-muttered words and sighs of his
sleeping wife, when he would lightly cross the room to re-adjust the
wretched coverlet, and listen to her breathings, as though afraid that
she might leave him in her sleep. Hez sat and mused: the bygone came
back, and the thinker saw himself as child, boy, and man.

Then he recalled stormy interviews with his father; insubordination and
defiance; the smarting of a blow upon his flushing cheek; and then,
married life, and still happiness for a time; years of sunshine, and his
barque floating gently along the stream, which now bore him for a time
upon his way. Then the recollection of others' pains; the affliction,
ruin, and distress he had witnessed, where adversity had been bravely
battled with for long, long years.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A black cloud shrouding the man's soul: why should he suffer thus? what
had he done? where was his sin? should wife and little ones bear the
offence of the father? - suffer for his disobedience? Thousands around
were in opulence; and he, willing to fight for his daily bread, eager to
seize the work that should give him the labourer's independence, pushed
to the wall by the hundreds striving to grasp the coveted food-procurer.
Why should he not take what stern fate denied? must he sit and watch
his little ones' agony, or apply as a pauper for parish relief? What
was honesty to him now? he must have gold - gold - not to satisfy greed or
the avarice of possession, but because it was the life of all most dear
to him. Glittering stores of life-blood - wife's, children's
life-blood - breath - lay in the windows close, at hand; could he not
clutch the spoil, and let them live and be happy once more? "Thou shalt
not steal!" What whispered of theft? It was no theft, but duty; the
right of a strong man to grasp the possessions of the weaker, as kings
made conquests. Gold, jewellery, wealth for the taking, and then in
some country home to forget once more this hideous act in life's drama.
"Thou shalt not steal!" Hush, conscience, hush! Man must live! But
not by bread alone. Not one sparrow should fall to the ground without
He willed it so! But life - life for the sleeping ones; life for his
long, long-suffering wife - for his prattling children! Must he keep
laws and see the famine-pinched cheeks, the blue lips, and listen to
wailing cries for bread? Had he not waited and hoped - hoped still
against the crushing desolation that pressed upon his weary brain? But
why not die? Why should they not all sleep - sleep together? A little
charcoal and the door well closed; the chimney stopped; and then, with
them gently sleeping, without a struggle, wafted away from this weary
life to eternal rest. His would be the sin; and they, poor, gentle,
loving hearts, would be tenderly led by the hand of Mercy to their
Father's home. Life! what was life but one great sorrow? They, poor
sleepers, would not suffer. But what was that? A merry gentle laugh
and a few half-muttered words from little golden hair, nestling close to
her mother's breast; prattling words of playful glee; some happy dream
playing round that little flame of life. And should he crush it out?
slay as a murderer that tiny innocent? to hear no more the music of its
mirth, the ringing silver of its laugh, and the broken, half-framed
words and sentences of its lips - words so sweet and playful that the
child itself would peer through the golden tangle that overhung its
bright blue eyes, and laugh - merrily laugh - to hear its own attempts.
Those blue eyes, pure in their light as the heaven reflected in their
liquid depth. Must this be so? God - God forgive the thought! They
should live - live to bless him yet, for his secret should be his own.

The grate bar - the broken poker! Enough: they would suffice. He would
go - go at once; but stay, he must wait awhile; his wife had moaned in
her sleep, the wind had rattled the window, and he felt numbed with the
cold. He had thought too much; but he was now relieved and determined.

TWO - DOWN TO ZERO.

Fleet Street. The wind whistling down the river lanes and moaning
through the courts. The night far advanced, and a thin section of the
moon rising behind the distant cathedral. Stars bright, and sparkling
like diamonds through the keen frosty air. The gas within the lamps
quivering in the chilling draught, and the policeman passing a figure
cowering in a dark alley near Temple-bar. The warder of the night
passes, and a single vehicle rattles by directly after, the horse's
breath rising like a vapour; and then wheels and footsteps gradually
fade upon the ear as they pass, echoing down the long street. The
bareheaded, coatless figure emerges from its concealment, and looks
around. All still as death, and no eye upon its actions but the stars
of heaven, as it were, spirits looking down to chronicle what passed.
The rattling of a shutter bar - the grating noise as of iron upon iron,
mingled with the crackling of woodwork; the figure wrenching and tearing
with maniacal fury at the firm fastenings, while huge drops of sweat
roll down his face. More resistance; more noise; but the figure,
straining with the might of a giant, again and again, till the iron
snaps in the frosty air; and then, wrenched out by its protecting bar,
an iron-sheeted shutter lies upon the pavement. To dash in the thick
glass, and, with bleeding hands, to seize watches, chains, trays of
rings, and sparkling jewels, and force them into a bag, is but the work
of a few moments, and, grasping with both hands all that he can clutch,
the figure turns to flee, just as the sharp report of a pistol rings
from the interior of the shop. The glass shivers, but the figure is
untouched, and grasping the stolen treasure, darts along the pavement,
hardly avoiding the blow aimed at him by a policeman. Away down the
well-lit street, followed by sounds that lend speed to the enfeebled
frame, for, joined to the shouts of the alarmed inmates of the house,
the policeman's rattle sends its harsh whirring alarm-notes through the
still night air. Onward, clutching the booty to his breast, and panting
as the pursuing steps sound fainter; a race for more than life, and the
street nearly passed, when another enemy darts from a side court, and
grasps the fugitive's arm. There is a sharp struggle for a few moments,
and the policeman falls, stricken to the ground by an iron bar, and the
figure dashes on again. But the alarm has spread as he turns down
Bridge Street, where the sharp air seems to numb the limbs of the
runner. Battle after rattle and shrill whistles are heard, and the
figure stands for a moment undecided, wiping the half-frozen drops from
his brow. Again onward, with enemies springing up on all sides, and
shouts ringing in his ears; panting up the steep slope of the old
bridge, but at the top two more enemies. Beaten, wearied, fainting; no
hope; escape closed; prison; felon's dock; transportation; a starving
wife and children; and a dishonoured name - all crowding thoughts,
rushing to the brain to add anguish to the moment, as, still clutching
his ill-gotten booty, the despairing wretch, with a last look around,
climbs the heavy stone balustrade, gives one wild shriek, and parts the
air in a plunge down into the dark abyss of rushing waters. The waters
part to receive him in their cold embrace, and then the struggle for
life - for breath - above water - borne away by the swirling eddies, and
dashed against the sharp buttress; gliding along by the slimy stone, and
hurried through the arch, to be caught by the back eddy, and swept into
still water, and borne down by the heavy booty. One glance at the
bright stars, with the stream bubbling at his mouth; arms failing with
beating the waves; and then the tide roaring in the drowning wretch's
ears, spreading his long hair for a moment upon the surface, and then
closing above his head - the concentric rings swept away, and all cold,
dark, and familiar once more - the gas in the court shining up through
the window upon the ceiling, and wife and children asleep upon the
floor.

Cold and stiff, Hez staggered to his feet; a heavy dew was upon his
brow; a deep groan burst from his breast; and, sinking upon his knees,
he covered his haggard face with his hands, and, by the side of his
sleeping ones, a prayer of thankfulness welled forth from the depths of
his heart that it was but a dream. Overwrought nature could bear no
more, and at last, sinking beside his sleeping wife, that happy
oblivion, given alike to rich and poor, closed his eyes once more in
rest.

THREE - RAYS FROM THE CRYSTALS.

The bells rang forth merrily upon that Christmas-morn; the sun shone out
in unclouded splendour, and danced in vivid flashes from the snowy
covering of the house-tops. Water frozen in the bedrooms, and, far off
in the country, the rivers ringing with the pick-axe blows to break the
massive ice. Birds upon the house-tops setting all their feathers up
perpendicularly, and looking as if they had put in an appearance against
the cold by donning an extra suit. There was a crisp feeling in the air
that sent the blood tingling through the veins, and gave a rosy hilarity
even to the porters of the gate-ways about Lincoln's Inn; for they
seemed to drop their pounce and parchment air for the time, and beat
their breasts, and stamped about the fresh-swept pavement with such an
air of jollity, that people turned round to look at them; and one
wayfarer gave it as his opinion that the Court of Chancery was dead, and
the porters had received the news of a pension from a grateful country.
The policemen, too, for once looked good-tempered; and one was actually
seen to smile upon a ragged urchin going surreptitiously down a slide.

It was Christmas-morning, but there was plenty of business going on: the
poulterer's boy from round the corner showed ears that looked like raw
beef; but he had a broad grin upon his countenance as he puffed along,
sending his vapoury breath on high in little clouds, and evidently
happy, although laden with a tray of "Aldermen hung in chains;" and fat
and plump those turkeys looked; rich, too, those sausages, but freezing
hard in the sharp air. The greengrocer up Hez's Court was doing a
powerful stroke of business in potatoes and greens; oranges, parsnips,
and sticks of celery and horse-radish disappeared like magic. "'Taters
at three pound tuppence" went off like shots; and, as for the penny a
pound "flukes," there was great fear lest they should not last out, for
the "floury Regents" were almost sold off. People seemed to have run
mad after greens at "five-pence the market bunch;" and the master of the
shop had been heard to say to his wife, that "if it hadn't ha' been
Christmas-day, he'd ha' kep' open all church time!" But it was
Christmas-day, as anyone might have seen by the bareheaded butcher-boys
taking home the mottled beef that they could not find time for on the
previous night; for trade was so brisk that there was no occasion to cry
"What d'ye buy, buy, buy!" every moment being taken with weighing and
cutting up.

It was Christmas-day; and, for once in a way, London seemed disposed to
forget all the troubles of work-a-day life in the full enjoyment of the
festive season. "Clang-clash" went the bells. One, two, three, four,
five, six, seven, eight, and then backwards and forwards, and in and
out, chopping and changing, dodging, bob-majoring, tripling and
doubling, and rolling out their peals in every way connected with
campanology; until they all went off together with a mighty clash, as
though they had gone mad with delight because it was Christmas-day.
Many were the puddings that, tightly bound in the well-floured cloth,
had been plunged into the seething copper, as soon after six o'clock as
cook could get the water to boil; and many were the happy hearts
collected from far to eat of the tiresome old cloying, surfeiting,
sweet, lovable, festive dish.

Saint Dunstan's church-clock had just pointed to half-past nine, when a
stoutish old lady in a black silk dress, ditto bonnet, bright-hued
shawl, a basket of the celebrated old check pattern, and bearing a
genuine stag-horn handled gingham umbrella, secured round its waist by a
piece of black tape, and much resembling its owner in bodily
proportions - a stoutish old lady struggled between the knees of the
passengers from the very bottom of the first "up" Kensington 'bus that
morning; and then tried the patience of the key-bugle playing conductor
to its fullest stretch while she sought for the money to pay her fare.
Of course the 'bus had stopped before the stoutish old lady had expected
it, or she would have been prepared, and she said so; while, by a series
of the most terrible contortions she contrived to force her hand through
the lumber-room full of pin-cushions, nutmegs, orris-root, scissors,
bodkin-cases, pearl buttons, thimbles, stilettoes, etcetera, etcetera,
which the stoutish old lady called her pocket, and extricated from its
snug, warm place, at the very bottom, the flat tin-box which was her
purse; and also, as a matter of course, which would not open at any
price, till the old lady grew almost purple in the face, when off flew
the lid - "spang" - scattering sixpences and shillings half over the road.
But it was Christmas-day, and the conductor must have had just such a
jolly-looking old soul for his own mother, for he good-humouredly and
nimbly hopped about and picked up the scattered coins, put the old lady
"all square agin," and then, upon the strength of its being
Christmas-morning, gave the motherly-looking old soul a sounding kiss
upon one of her puckered cheeks, and hopped upon his perch before the
old lady could get her breath.

The passenger, who was no other than Mrs Cripps, clear-starcher and
laundress, of Kensington Gravel Pits, had walked some distance up Fetter
Lane before she had recovered her equanimity, when a pleasant-looking
smile began at one corner of her mouth, at the side where she had lost
most teeth, and gradually overspread her mottled old face, till she
looked like what she was - such a true specimen of a comfortable old
English dame, that a fat butcher standing at his door, with a face red
as his own beef, looked as if he would have liked to take the old lady
under the mistletoe hanging so temptingly with its pearly berries
outside the greengrocers over the way. But he did not do it; and,
directly after, a shade crossed Mrs Cripps's countenance as she turned
up a court to the left. She walked up and down it several times, as she
said to herself, "to get breath," but in reality to try and rid herself
of a nervous trembling that would come over her, and make her old hands
shake so that she could hardly hold umbrella and basket. Truth must
out; and at last the nervousness so increased that the dame went into
the "Rising Sun," and again brought the tin-box into requisition to pay
for a glass of gin; and thus fortified Mrs Cripps turned into the
shabbiest house in the court, pointed out to her as Number 9, where she
puffed and panted up the stairs until she reached the second floor
landing, leaving out the customary summons of two rings at the second
bell, so as "to take them by surprise."

For three or four days Mrs Cripps had been in a state of great
excitement; for she had found out that Master Hez, whom she had nursed
when a baby, and her dear bairn, Miss Celia, whom she knew before the
little darling was as tall as her umbrella, were in London and very
badly off. The old lady, who had settled in the great city's suburb at
the death of her husband, an event which had taken place many years
before, hugged herself with the idea that she could now repay an old
debt, and determined to try and get them to dine with her on
Christmas-day. A real north country goose was obtained expressly for
the occasion; the raisins were stoned and the suet chopped over-night,
and before starting that morning the old lady had seen the pudding in
the copper, and left her _aide-de-camp_ with full munitions and
instructions for carrying on the management of the _batterie de cuisine_
until her return with "company to dinner."

In her homely way the world had prospered with the old lady. The best
parlour was, though perhaps no example of refined taste, snug and
comfortable; and if any one could brew a good cup of tea in the best
china teapot it was Mrs Cripps. Rumour said something about dividends,


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 1 of 19)