George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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shoulder as I clasped her to my breast and reiterated my vows of love.
And she? Ah! she would be mine - mine for ever; and she whispered those
words as a ribald street boy sung out "Lul-liety."

Oh, life of blisses! Oh, hours of too-brief happiness! Why passed
away - why gone - gone for ever? The moments were too bright to endure,
and a cloud crossed the sun of my young and ardent love, raining tears -
tears of agony upon my earthly paradise. Doubt, suspicion, hope, fear,
all swept across my trusting spirit ere I would give entrance to that
fearful brain-enslaving jealousy - maddening jealousy. Oh, but it was a
hard battle, for I could not believe her false, even though the evidence
was clear as the noon-day sun. The current of my life was changed, and
from an open trusting soul I became a spy. I dogged her footsteps,
coward that I was, for I dared not upbraid her. But the villain who had
robbed me of my peace, for him was reserved the corked-up bottle of my
wrath, ready for pouring upon his devoted head. I felt that I could
rend him limb from limb, and tear out his false, deceitful heart. I had
three times seen him leave the house, and knew him at once as a rival.
I hated him with ten thousand-fold fury, but still I must be just. Of
noble mien, of polished exterior he was fitted by nature to gain the
heart of a weak woman; and even as I passed him I fancied that I could
trace a smile of triumph beneath his black moustache. For yes, he
passed me almost upon the steps of the house, and then entering a
well-appointed brougham, he was driven off.

For days I watched for this demon in black, with his dark eyes, lustrous
hair and whiskers, and glistening teeth, for he was, in my sight, a dark
tempter, but he did not return. But I saw something which set my brain
almost on fire. She left the house morning after morning, and my heart
whispered that it was to keep assignations with the treacherous villain.

But I did not upbraid her; I was cheerful and sarcastic in her presence,
while she grew strained and strange. And I, knowing that my manner had
produced the change, laughed a loud, long, harsh laugh, and left the
house with a dramatic scowl upon my brow, and at last, after days of
watching, I followed her with the sensation of a hand clutching and
compressing my heart. My temples throbbed, my brain swam, and as I
hurried along I stumbled against the passers-by.

At last I staggered so heavily against a man that an altercation ensued,
a crowd collected, and when I escaped, the cab that I had been tracking
was gone.

Oh, the tortures I suffered! oh, the agonies of my mind! but impotent as
I felt, what could I do, but wait hours until I saw her return, and then
with closely-drawn veil hurry into the house, where I dared not trust
myself to follow, for I felt, oh! so bad - so dreadfully bad, I didn't
know what to do.

I returned to my abode where I offended my father, upset my mamma, and
quarrelled viciously with my poor saintly sisters. And oh! what a night
I passed! In the morning when gazing in the mirror, I started with
affright from the wretch who met my gaze.

"Take some medicine, Alfy," exclaimed mamma, when she saw that I turned
with disgust from my breakfast.

Kind, well-meant words, but what medicine would ease my
sorely-distressed mind. But no, I could not eat; and though hours too
soon, I could contain myself no longer, but hurried off, engaged a cab,
driven by a tiger, who afterwards preyed fearfully upon my pocket, and
then had the vehicle posted, where, unseen, I could watch the door of
her habitation. The hours passed slowly away as I sat gnawing my
fingers, and comparing the present tempest of the heart with the past
bliss.

"Go, ungrateful!" I exclaimed aloud.

"Where, sir?" said the cabman; coming to the door and touching his hat.

"No where;" I exclaimed, "stay here."

"Certainly sir, only I thought you shouted."

At length the wretch slept upon his box, whilst I, wretch that I was,
envied the poor fellow, and longed for peace and rest from the burning,
maddening, torturing pain I suffered. Then I started, for I saw her
page come from the house, and in a short space of time return with a
cab.

She, false girl, was evidently waiting in the hall - yes, ready now for
an assignation, though I had been kept an hour at a time when about to
take her to horticultural fete or opera - and directly after and still
more closely veiled, she tripped lightly over the pavement and entered
the vehicle.

My driver was already well tutored, but he was asleep.

"Follow that cab!" I cried, hurriedly, as I poked at the somnolent
wretch with my cane.

"Aw right;" he exclaimed; till I savagely thrust at his ear, when he
roused up with a start, jerked the reins, and began to follow the wrong
cab.

"No! no!" I shrieked, excitedly; "the other street. That! that! The
one turning the corner."

"Then why didn't yer say so at first;" growled the ruffian, blaming me
for his own neglect; when on jangled the wretched vehicle closely behind
that containing the false one, whilst I pressed and stifled down the
feelings battling for escape. Then I endeavoured to arrest the desire
to stay her in the street, and prevent the meeting my instinct told me
was to take place; for I was determined to confront them, and then cast
her off in his vile presence, ere in the far-off Antipodean South I
fled, to seek forgetfulness or a grave.

The cabs stopped, and then I saw her enter the door of a noble-looking
mansion, where she was evidently expected. What could I do? In my
impotence I sat for a while madly raging in my cab, for, gifted with a
strong imagination, I could, in fancy, see all that was taking place:
soft glances, clasped hands, the arm of the foreign-count-looking fiend
around her waist, her head resting upon his shoulder, and then eyes
meeting eyes, and her face buried in that hideous black beard. Oh! it
was too much; and I sprang out of my cab, ran up the steps, tore at the
bell, and then, as if by magic, the door was opened, when, guided by
instinct, I pushed by the servant, and hurried up the drawing-room
stairs. Unheeding the shout of the liveried menial, I paused for a
moment undetermined before three doors, when, hearing low muttered
sounds, I opened the one right before me, and entered.

Will time ever erase the agony of that moment from my memory? Shall I
ever again know that state of happy rest - those peaceful hours, ere I
gazed upon thy false, false face? Oh, Eva! Alas! no. My heart still
answers No!

I glided like an avenging serpent into the room, so silently that they
heard me not, and then for a moment I was spell-bound with agony, for
there was almost what I had pictured. With her bonnet thrown off, her
long dark hair hanging over the back of the fauteuil in which she
reclined, and her eyes raised towards his, was the false one. While
_he_, the blight and crusher of my life, leant over her, caressing her
cheek, and bending nearer and nearer, and nearer still - but I could bear
no more: my eyes seemed blinded with fury, and to be starting out of
their sockets; my brain burned; and with one wild, hoarse cry of
"Fiend," Nemesis-like I launched myself upon him.

In a moment, with a cry of dread, he wrenched himself round and
confronted me with his ashen face, but with a wild "Ha! ha!" I had him
by the throat, and we wrestled here and there, tumbling the rich
furniture in every direction, till, with almost superhuman strength, I
dashed his head through the pier-glass behind him.

There was a fearful crash, and the wretched woman shrieked aloud; but I
was deaf to her cries as she implored me to spare him. I laughed again
madly, and still held to the struggling wretch, till, half strangled and
in despair, he dashed something in my face, when, as it fell shattering
to the floor, I started back and held my enemy at arm's length.

Aghast I gazed upon Eva, but she covered her face with her hands, and
tried to swoon, as she sank in a heap upon the floor. But I had seen
all - all in that horribly-distorted mouth. A fearful light had flashed
across my brain, and, as servants came hurrying into the room, I thrust
my enemy from me, and parting the people at the door, darted down the
stairs and fled for my life.

Forgetful of the waiting cab, I was tearing along the pave, when the
driver, fearful for his fare, galloped his wretched knacker after me,
and then I staggered in, and sunk back amongst the hard cushions, ready
almost to heap the dirty straw from beneath my feet upon my wretched
head, but still I could hear the sympathising words of the cabby as he
closed the door.

"Pore chap, it must ha' been a scrauntch."

For he knew where I had been - where I had seen all - all in that fearful
moment - the gnashing teeth which lay at my feet, the man's face, Eva's
distorted, mumbling mouth; and I had fled, never to see her more - never
to know rest for the aching misery within my heart. Alas! I had seen
all, and oh! cabby, faithful charioteer, 'twas indeed an awful
scrauntch, for my fancied rival was Michael Angelo Raphael, the Dentist.

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

It is only fair to state, on behalf of the young gentleman from whom the
above emanated, that he really seemed very bad indeed; in fact,
desperate. But as he could eat very heartily, and evidently used a
great deal of pomatum, his case is hopeful.



CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

THE MONARCH OF THE MOULD.

Sing, poet divine
Of your sparkling wine
Of Catawba, the luscious nectar;
While my humbler lays
Shall rise in praise
Of a king on whose fame I'll hector.

But your lips don't shoot,
For my king's but fruit,
And your brows don't frown with scorning;
For if to an end
Came my noble friend,
The nation would go into mourning.

'Tis that fruit of earth
That the West gave birth,
Introduced to our good Queen Bessy;
For its glorious savour
Has a sweeter flavour
Than an epicure's _entree_ messy.

Potato, potato,
My heart's elate, oh!
When you smile on my table brightly;
With an epidermis
That, so far from firm is
That it cracks when I grasp you tightly.

For a roast, bake, boil,
Stew or fry in oil,
No fruit can be called thy equal;
For carrot or turnip
Might him or her nip,
And cause an unpleasant sequel.

But thou, free from guile,
Indigestion - bile -
Brought home to thy charge were never;
For thy soft white meal
Is the dinner leal
Of Great Britain's sons for ever.

To say the least,
For a Christmas feast,
'Twould be quite an act of folly,
And far less shirky
To leave goose or turkey,
Than a bowl of potatoes jolly.

Why, the old king's friend
Sir Loin to attend,
Would surely ne'er brown if he knew it;
And the very ale
Turn beadless - pale,
While the beef turn'd cold in its suet.

The firmest friend
Mother earth could send
To her children when pots were minus;
Of a pan not the ghost,
But they still could roast
The old king whereon still we dine us.

By disease tried sore -
May it come no more!
For what should we do without him?
For Jamaica yam
Is a sorry flam,
And an artichoke - There, pray scout him!

Or who'd think nice
Soppy plain-boil'd rice,
Or parsnips or chestnuts toasted?
Earth has no fruit
As a substitute
For the 'tater plain-boil'd or roasted.

So waxy and prime
In the summer-time,
When new, with your lamb and gravy,
And your young sweet peas,
Devour'd with ease -
Of that you may make "affidavy."

Or in autumn glowing
To crown the sowing,
I love to gaze on the furrows
And ridges tumid
Where moistly humid
The jolly old nubbly burrows.

O vegetable!
Long as we're able
Our gardens shall smile with your flower;
As in long straight rows
This old friend grows
So humbly where others tower.

A cabbage to cut
Is all right, but
Where is its strength and stamina?
Though right with ham on
Your table, or gammon,
At best 'tis a watery gammoner,

You may go if you list,
Where you like 'tis miss'd
Before any _entree_ or other
Grand preparation
Of a French cook's nation,
And naught can the great want smother.

Feast on, grandee!
From your board I'll flee
To my honest old friend in his jacket;
For 'twill sit but light,
Though you may feel tight
If you too indiscreetly attack it.

And, glorious thought!
It can be bought -
This gem of whose wealth I've boasted -
For a bronze to be got,
In our streets "all hot,"
Half cooked by steam and half roasted.

Who wouldn't be poor
(Not I, I'm sure),
To enjoy such a feast for a copper?
Split open - butter'd -
Oh, joy ne'er utter'd!
And pepper'd - and - "what a whopper?"

Just look at the steam,
At the can's bright gleam,
And look at the vendor cheery;
And hark to his cry,
Now low, now high,
Speaking feasts for the traveller weary.

Go pick yourself,
And spend your pelf,
Three pound for twopence - they ask it -
With eyes full winking;
And while you're thinking,
The scale's tipp'd into your basket.

And you who'd wive,
Pray, just look alive,
And before you declare each feeling,
Watch your little mouse
On her way through the house,
And catch her potato peeling.

You know of the cheese,
And Pimlico's ease,
When he pick'd out a wife by the paring;
But a better plan
For an every-day man -
Though an innovation most daring -

Is to watch the play
Of the knife, and the way
That the coat of potato's falling;
Just look out for waste,
And beware of haste,
For thrift's not the meanest calling.

Kidney, regent, fluke,
Fit for earl or duke,
Or a banquet for Queen Victoria;
Own'd I but lyre,
I'd never tire,
Of singing to thy praise a "Gloria."

May you mealy wax,
Never tried by tax,
Ever free from _Aphis vastator_.
Of fruits the king,
Its praise we'll sing,
Potent, pot-boy, "potater!"



CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

SPUN YARN.

Uncle Joe came and spent Christmas with us last year; a fine, dry,
mahogany-visaged old man-o'-war's-man as ever hitched up his trousers,
and called it, "hauling in slack."

"Forty-five years' boy and man, I've been a sailor," he'd say; "rated
AB, I am; and AB I hope to keep till I'm sewed up in my hammock and sent
overboard; for none of your rotting in harbour for me, thanky."

Uncle Joe ran away to sea when quite a boy, and he had served enough
years in the Royal Navy to have been an admiral, but what with our
scheme of promotion, and some want of ability on the old fellow's part,
he was a first-rate able seaman, but he never got a step farther. One
can always picture him in his blue trousers and loose guernsey, with its
wide turn-down collar, his cap set right back on his head, and the name
of his ship on the band, in gilt letters, while his big clasp-knife hung
by the white lanyard round his waist. Clean, neat, and active, the
sinewy old chap came rolling in after my father; neck open, eyes bright,
and face shining and good-humoured.

"Cold, cold, cold," said my father, entering the room where we were
clustered round the fire. "Freezes sharp; and, bless my heart, there's
a great ball of snow sticking to my boot," saying which, the old
gentleman, who had just been round the farmyard for the last time that
night, went back into the passage and rubbed off the snow, while Uncle
Joe, chuckling and laughing, walked up to the fireplace and scraped his
shoes on the front bar, so that the pieces of hard snow began sputtering
and cissing as they fell in the fire.

"Cold?" said Uncle Joe, filling his pipe, and then shutting his brass
tobacco-box with a snap; "Cold? 'taint cold a bit, no more nor that's
hot," and then, stooping down, he thrust a finger and thumb in between
the bottom bars, caught hold of a piece of glowing coal and laid it upon
the bowl of his pipe, which means soon ignited the tobacco within. "My
hands are hard enough for anything," he growled, taking the place made
for him beside the fire, when he tucked his cap beneath the chair, and
then took one leg upon his knee, and nursed it as he smoked for awhile
in silence.

"Now, come, Christmas-night," cried my father, "and you're all as quiet
as so many mice. What's it to be, Joe - the old thing?"

"Well, yes," growled my uncle; "I won't say no to a tot o' grog," and
then he smoked on abstractedly, while my father mixed for the wanderer
whom he had not seen for five years.

"Wish to goodness I'd brought a hammock," said my uncle, at last. "I
did try whether I couldn't lash the curtains together last night, but
they're too weak."

"I should think so, indeed," exclaimed my mother. "That chintz, too.
How can you be so foolish, Joe?"

My uncle smoked on, apparently thinking with great disgust of the
comfortably-furnished bedroom in which he had to sleep, as compared with
the main-deck of his frigate.

"But 'taint cold," he all at once burst out.

"Three or four degrees of frost, at all events," said my father.

"Pooh; what's that?" said my uncle. "That's hot weather, that is. How
should you like to sleep where yours and your mate's breath all turns
into a fall of snow, and comes tumbling on to you? How should you like
to nibble your rum as if it was sugar-candy, and never touch nothing of
iron for fear of burning your fingers like, and leaving all the skin
behind? This ain't cold."

"Here, draw round close," cried my father; "throw on another log or two,
and Uncle Joe will spin you a yarn."

The fire was replenished, and as the many-hued flames leaped and danced,
and the sparks flew up the chimney, every face was lit up with the
golden glow. The wind roared round the house, and sung in the chimney,
but the red curtains were closely-drawn, the table was well spread with
those creature comforts so oft seen at the genial season, and closing
tightly in - chair against chair - we all watched for the next opening of
Uncle Joe's oracular lips. And we had not long to wait; for, taking his
pipe out of his mouth, he began to point with the stem, describe
circles, and flourish it oratorically, as he once more exclaimed -

"'Taint cold; not a bit! How should you like to spend Christmas up
close aside the North Pole?"

No one answering with anything further than a shiver, the old tar went
on: -

"I can't spin yarns, I can't, for I allus gets things in a tangle and
can't find the ends again, but I'll tell you about going up after Sir
John Franklin."

"Hear, hear!" said my father, and Uncle Joe tasted his grog, and then
winked very solemnly at my father, as much as to say "That's it exact."

"Little more rum?" hinted my father. Uncle Joe winked with his other
eye and shook his head and went on: -

"You see, ours was a strong-built ship, fitted out on purpose for the
North seas, and what we had to do was to go right up as far nor'ard as
we could get, and leave depots of preserved meats, and spirits, and
blankets, and pemmican, and all sorts of necessaries, at different
places where it was likely that the party might reach; and to mark these
spots we had to build up cairns of stones, so that they might be seen.
Well, we'd got as far as our captain thought it prudent to go, for we
were back'ard in the year, in consequence of the ice having been very
late before it broke up that year, and hindering us a good deal; and now
that we had landed all as was necessary, and built up the last cairn,
the captain says to the officers, he says, `We'll go back now, or we
shall be shut in for the winter.'

"'Twasn't so late in the autumn, and no doubt you were having nice warm
weather, but things began looking precious winterly round about us.
Great icebergs were floating about, and fogs would hang round them.
Snowstorms would come on, with snow with such sharp edges that it would
seem a'most to cut your ears off. The shrouds and clews and sheets
would be all stiff and covered with ice, while, as to the sails, they
were like so much board, and it got to be tough work up aloft.

"`Cold this here,' I says to a shipmet. `Pooh,' he says, `this ain't
nothing yet.' Nor more it warn't nothing at all; and there we were
going along as well as we could, with double lookouts, and plenty of
need for them to use their eyes, for we might have been crash on to an
iceberg ten times over. Captain used to shake his head and look
serious, and enough to make him, with all his responsibility, and all of
us looking up to him to take care of us; and last of all we seemed to be
right in the thick of it, with the ice-pack all around, and ice and
snow, ice and snow everywhere, and us just gently sailing along a narrow
open channel of blue water, sometimes going east, sometimes west, just
as it happened. Sometimes a little more wind would spring up, and the
pack opened a bit, and made fresh channels, so that we got on; then the
wind would drop, and the loose ice close round us, so that we hardly
moved, and at last one morning when I turns out, we were froze in.

"But not hard stuck, you know; for we soon had that ice broken, and got
hauling along by fixing ice-anchors, and then pulling at the cable; but
our captain only did it by way of duty, and trying to the very last to
get free; for his orders were not to winter up there if he could help
it. But there we were next morning tighter in than ever, with the ship
creaking and groaning at the pressure upon her ribs, and the ice
tightening her up more and more, till at last if she weren't lifted
right up ever so many foot, and hung over all on one side, so as we had
cables and anchors out into the ice to make sure as she didn't capsize.
But there was no capsize in her; and there she sat, all on the careen,
just as if she was mounting a big wave; and so she was, only it was
solid.

"Days went by, and the sun got lower and lower, and the weather colder
and colder. Sometimes we'd see flocks of birds going south, then a herd
or two of deer, and once or twice we saw a bear, but they fought very
shy of us; and, last of all, the captain seeing that we must make the
best of our winter quarters, set us to work unbending sails, striking
masts, and lowering spars on deck, and then the stuff was had up, and
the deck regularly roofed in, so as to make a snug house of the ship.
Stoves were rigged, snow hauled up round the hull, steps made up to the
side, and one way or another all looked so jolly, that I began to reckon
on spending my Christmas out in the polar regions. Then, too, extra
clothes were sarved out, and gloves, and masks, and fur caps; and one
way and another we got to make such stuffed mummies of ourselves, that a
rare lot of joking went on.

"`Wait a bit,' says my mate, `it'll be colder yet;' and so it was,
colder and colder, till I couldn't have believed it possible that it
could be a bit worse. But it could, though; for, before the winter was
over, there's been times when if a man went outside the vessel the cold
would have cut him down dead almost in a moment, and he not able to help
himself. Why, as I told you, down on the main-deck, the breath used to
turn into a reg'lar fall of snow, and everything would freeze hard in
spite of the roaring fires we kept up; and only think of it, just at
this time it was always dark, for the sun had gone lower and lower, till
at last he had not risen at all, and it was one long, dreary night, with
every star seeming to shoot bright icy arrows at you to cut you down.

"The captain used to do all he could to cheer us up, and keep the
horrors off; for you know they will come out there when you're all in
the dark and half froze, and wondering whether you'll see home any more.
Sometimes it would be exercise, sometimes a bit of a play, or
skylarking. Then one officer or another would read, and we'd have have
some music or yarn-spinning, and altogether we were very sociable; and
so matters went on till it got to be Christmas-day."

In whose honour Uncle Joe treated himself to a hearty libation from his
steaming tumbler.

" - Christmas-day," said my uncle, "and _pro_ceedings were made for a


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 11 of 19)