George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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grand spread, in honour of the old day and them as we'd left behind us.

"Well, the officers made themselves very sociable, and the grog went
round. Some chaps danced, others smoked, and one way and another things
went on jolly; but though the little stoves roared till they got
red-hot, yet there was a regular fog down between decks, while the
captain said that it was about the coldest day we had had yet.

"Towards night it seemed to come on awful all at once, and first one and
then another chap began shivering and twisting up his shoulders, and
then I saw the captain, who was down, give a sharp look round, and then
slip up on deck, where I heard him shout out.

"A dozen of us scrambled up on the covered-in deck, feeling cut in two
with the icy wind that came down, and then we found as the door out of
the bulwarks, and fitted in at the side, had been left open by some
one - a door you know that just about this time used to mostly have a man
aside it, and when our chaps went to the little ice-observatory it used
to be banged to after 'em directly; while if it had been left open but
one night, I daresay some on us wouldn't have woke up any more.

"`Who's gone out?' cries the captain, and then the men begins looking
from one to the other, but no one answered.

"`Where's Joe Perry,' shouts out some one in front of me. `It's Joe
Perry as is gone.'

"`You're a - something,' I was going to say, but I was that vexed I
didn't say it; but, forgetting all about the officers, I gives my
gentleman such a cuff on the ear, as sent him staggering; when instead
of being angry, I saw the Cap bite his lip, and no end of chaps began
sniggering.

"`But where's Bill Barker,' I says, looking round, for I remembered
seeing Bill go up the companion ladder about ten minutes before.

"`Pass the word for William Barker,' says the captain, and they passed
it, but there was no answer, and then we knew that Bill must have
slipped out against orders, thinking he wouldn't be missed, while the
chaps were keeping up Christmas, and forgetting that we should feel the
cold from the door he was obliged to leave open, so as to get in again.

"`Foolish fellow,' cried the captain, stamping about the deck.
`Volunteers there, who'll fetch him in? These five will do,' he says,
and in a few minutes the first luff with five men, were all ready in
their fur coats and boots, and masks over their faces, or I oughter say,
our faces, for I was one of 'em. And yet you say it's cold here now.
Pooh! Why, we were no sooner outside in that bright starlight, with the
northern lights hanging ahead of us, much like a rainbow, than it was as
if your breath was taken away, and the wind cutting right through and
through you, stiffening your joints, tingling powerfully in your nose,
and seeming to make you numbed and stupid.

"`Double,' shouts the luff, and keeping our eyes about us, we began to
trot along the snowy path towards the little observatory. But he wasn't
there. Then we ran a little one way, then another, and all keeping
together as well as we could for the rough ice we were going over. But
there was nothing to be seen anywhere on that side of the ship, so we
trotted round to the other side, always keeping a sharp look out for our
poor mate, and hoping after all that he would be all right; but going by
my own feelings, I could not help feeling sure that if he had come out
without the same things on as we had, it would go hard with him.

"`Here look!' some one shouted in a thick muffly voice, but we were all
looking now towards where a couple of bears were coming slowly towards
us, while quite plain between us lay on the white snow, the body of poor
Bill Barker.

"`Back to the ship,' shouted the first luff, and we were soon once more
a-top of the steps and inside, but you needn't think we were going to
leave our shipmet in that way, for the next minute saw us going back at
the double, but this time well armed.

"As soon as we were within shot, the first luff kneels down, and taking
aim, fired his double rifle right and left at the two great brutes that
stood growling over poor Bill Barker.

"`Stand firm, men,' he says, then `prepare to charge.' And then we five
stood with our guns and bayonets ready for the brutes as began to come
down upon us, while the luff got behind us, and began to load. You see
he wouldn't let us fire on account of poor Bill, and I s'pose he had
more trust in his own gun than in ours, for he kept on fumbling away in
the cold till he was loaded, which was when the brutes were only about a
dozen yards off, when he drops on one knee aside me, and taking a good
long aim fired when one brute was only five or six yards off - both
barrels right into him, and rolled him over and over, just as he would
have done a rabbit. But the next moment it was helter-skelter, and
hooraying, for t'other bear was down on us with a rush, taking no more
notice of our bayonets than if they had been so many toothpicks, and
downing two of our chaps like nine-pins.

"`Be firm, men,' shouts the luff, and we three ran at the great brute
that stood growling over our two mates, and I don't know about what
t'others did, but at one and the same moment, I drove the bayonet up to
the gun muzzle right in the bear's flank, and fired as well. Then it
seemed that the gun was wrenched out of my hand, and I saw the great
brute rear up above me, fetch me a pat with one of its paws, when I
caught a glimpse of the luff and heard the sharp ring of his rifle
again, and then I seemed to be smothered, for the great beast fell right
upon me.

"I don't know how long it was before they got help from the ship, and
the great brute dragged off me; but I know that the next thing I
remember is being carried into the ship through the doorway, and hearing
some one say, that Bill Barker was frozen stiff and cold. But I soon
came to, and excepting the bruises, there was nothing worse the matter
than a broken rib, which I soon got the better of. But poor Bill was
dead and frozen hard when they got him aboard, with his gun tight fixed
in his hand, so that they could not get it away for some time; for
though the poor chap knew all the orders well enough about going out
without proper preparations, like many more of us, he couldn't believe
as the frost would have such power - power enough to cut him down before
he'd walked a couple hundred yards, for it was something awful that
night, though the little brawny chaps that live in those parts, seem to
bear it very well.

"Freeze! why this is nothing: them two bears were masses of ice next
morning when they hauled 'em on board, while everything we cut, had to
be thawed first before the stove-fires. But then we had plenty of
provisions, and I don't think I once saw the grog get down so low, as in
this here glass of mine - here present."

My father took the hint, and replenished the old sailor's glass.



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

ASHER'S LAST HOUR.

"Now, once for all," said Asher Skurge, "if I don't get my bit o' rent
by to-morrow at four o'clock, out you goes, bag and baggage,
Christmas-eve or no Christmas-eve. If you can't afford to pay rent,
you'd best go in the house, and let them pay as will." And Asher girded
up his loins, and left Widow Bond and her children in their bare
cottage, to moan over their bitter fate.

And then came Christmas-eve and four o'clock, and no money; and, what
was better, no Asher Skurge to turn out Widow Bond, "bag and baggage,"
not a very difficult task, for there was not much of it. The cottage
was well-furnished before Frank Bond's ship was lost at sea, and the
widow had to live by needlework, which, in her case, meant starving,
although she found two or three friends in the village who were very
sorry for her, or at all events said they were, which answered the same
purpose.

However, four o'clock grew near - came - passed - and no Asher. It was not
very dark, for there was snow - bright, glittering snow upon the ground;
but it gradually grew darker and darker, and with the deepening gloom.
Mrs Bond's spirits rose, for she felt that, leaving heart out of the
question, old Skurge, the parish clerk, dare not turn her out that night
on account of his own character. Five o'clock came, and then six, and
still no Asher; and Widow Bond reasonably thought that something must be
keeping him.

Mrs Bond was right - something was keeping the clerk, and that something
was the prettiest, yellow-haired, violet-eyed maiden that ever turned
out not to be a dreadful heroine given to breaking up, and then
pounding, the whole of the ten commandments in a way that would have
staggered Moses himself. No; Amy Frith, the rector's daughter, was not
a wicked heroine, and now that she was busy giving the finishing touches
to the altar-screen, and pricking her little fingers with holly till
they bled, she would not let the old man go because young Harry
Thornton, her father's pupil, was there. And Amy knew that so sure as
old Skurge took himself off, the young man would begin making love,
which, though it may be crowned in a church, ought not to be made in the
same place.

The young man fumed and fretted; and the old man coughed and groaned and
told of his rheumatics; but it was of no use; the maiden pitied them
both, and would have set them at liberty on her own terms, but remained
inexorable in other respects till the clock chimed half-past six, when
the candles were extinguished, the dim old church left to its repose,
and the late occupants took their departure to the rectory, and the long
low cottage fifty yards from the church gates.

"No; it couldn't be done at any price - turn the woman out on such a
night; the whole place would be up in arms; but he would go and see if
there was any money for him;" and so Asher Skurge partook of his frugal
tea by his very frugal fire, a fire which seemed to make him colder, for
it was so small that the wintry winds, which came pelting in at keyhole
and cranny, all hooted, and teased, and laughed at it, and rushed, and
danced, and flitted round, so that they made a terrible commotion all
about Asher's chair, and gave him far more cause to complain of
rheumatics than he had before.

So Asher buttoned himself up, body and soul too; he buttoned his soul up
so tight that there was not space for the smallest, tiniest shade of a
glance or a ray of good feeling to peep out; and then he sallied forth
out into the night-wind, with his nose as sharp and blue as if it had
been made of steel; and, as he hurried along, it split the frosty wind
right up, like the prow of a boat does water, and the sharp wind was
thus split into two sharper winds, which went screeching behind him, to
cut up the last remains of anything left growing.

He was a keen man was Asher; as keen a man as ever said "Amen" after a
prayer and didn't mean it. Ill-natured folks said he only seemed in his
element on Commination-day, when, after all the Curseds, he rolled out
the Amens with the greatest of gusto, and as if he really did mean it,
while the rector would quite shiver - but then the wind generally is
easterly at commination time, in the cold spring. He used to boast that
he had neither chick nor child, did Asher; and here again people would
say it was a blessing, for one Skurge was enough in a village; and that
it was a further blessing that his was a slow race. He was a
cold-blooded old rascal; but for all that he was warm, inasmuch as he
had well feathered his nest, and might by this time have been
churchwarden; but he preferred being clerk, to the very great disgust of
Parson Frith, who would gladly have been rid of him long enough before.

It did seem too bad to go worrying a poor widow for rent on a
Christmas-eve; but nothing was too bad for Asher, who soon made the poor
woman's heart leap, and then sink with despair.

Old Skurge was soon back in his own room, and the wind at last blew so
very cold that he indulged in the extravagance of an extra shovel of
coals, and a small chump of wood, and then he drew his pipe from the
corner and began to smoke, filling the bowl out of a small white
gallipot containing a mixture, half tobacco, half herbs, which he found
most economical; for it did not merely spin out the tobacco, but no
dropper-in ever cared about having a pipe of "Skurge's particular," as
it was named in the village.

Then, after smoking a bit, Asher seemed moved to proceed to further
extravagance, in consequence of its being Christmas-eve; so he laid down
his pipe, rubbed his ear, and then plunged his hand into his pocket and
brought out a small key. The small key opened a small cupboard, wherein
hung upon nails some half-dozen larger keys, one of which was taken down
and used to open a larger cupboard, from which Asher Skurge brought
forth a well-corked and tied-down bottle.

A cunning, inhospitable old rascal, bringing out his hidden treasures to
bib on a winter's night alone. What was it in the old black bottle?
Curacoa, maraschino, cherry brandy, genuine hollands, potent rum,
cognac? Hush! was it smuggled-up remains, or an odd bottle of
sacramental wine? No, it was none of these; but it poured forth clear,
bright, and amber-hued, with a creaming foam on the top; and - "blob;"
what was that? a swollen raisin, and the grains that slipped to the
bottom were rice.

Then what could the liquid be? The old man sipped it and tried to look
gratified, and sipped again, and took a long breath, and said "ha!" as
he set down the glass, and proceeded to fish out the raisin and bits of
rice, which he threw on the fire, and disgusted it to that extent that
it spat and sputtered; after which he let the glass stand again for a
long time before he attempted another taste, for the liquid was very
small, very sour beer, six months in bottle. Another year, perhaps,
might have improved its quality; but one thing was certain, and that
was, that it could be no worse.

But Asher Skurge was not going to show that he did not appreciate the
sour beverage, for he considered himself quite bacchanalian; and, after
one loud gust of wind, he poked his fire so recklessly that the poor
thing turned faint, and nearly became extinct, but was at length tickled
and coaxed into burning.

"Nine of 'em," said Asher, as the old Dutch clock in the corner gave
warning of its intention to strike shortly; a chirping, jarring sound,
as much as to say "stand clear or you'll be hit;" and just then the
clerk stopped short, put down his pipe again, and rubbed the side of his
nose uneasily; got up and looked closer at the clock; went to the window
and moved the blind to get a peep out, and then came back to the fire
and sat rubbing his hands.

"Never knew such a thing before in my life," said Asher. "Never once
forgot it before. And just at a time, too, when I'm comfortable. All
that confounded woman's fault for not paying her rent. Running after
her when I'd my own business to attend to." In fact, the old clerk had
been so put out of his regular course that night, what with church
decorations and hunting up Widow Bond, that he had quite forgotten to
wind up the clock, the old church time-keeper that he had never let run
down once for twenty years.

It was a rough job though upon such a night, just as he was so
comfortable, and enjoying his beer and tobacco in so jovial a manner.
He looked in his almanac to make sure this was the right evening, and
that he had not worked his ideas into a knot; but, no; his ideas were
all straight and in good order, and this was the night for winding up.

Couldn't he leave it till the morning?

Couldn't he forget all about it?

Couldn't he wait half an hour?

Couldn't he - couldn't he? - No; he couldn't; for habits that have been
grown into, can't be cast off in a moment. They may be shabby, and they
may be bad habits; they may hang in rags about the wearer, but for all
that it takes some time to get rid of them; and if Asher Skurge had not
wound up the clock upon this particular night, he would have been unable
to sleep in his bed, he would have had the weights upon his chest, the
lines hanging round his neck, and the pendulum vibrating within an inch
of his nose, while the hands pointed at him, and called attention to his
neglect.

No; once a week had Asher Skurge wound up that clock; and, "will he,
nill he," it seemed he must go this night and perform his old duty. But
he did wait more than half an hour, and then how he did snap, and snarl,
and worry the air - the cold air of the room. He might have been taken
for a wiry terrier showing his teeth with impotent rage while worried by
the attacks of a flea legion; but there was nothing for it, and he got
up and tied his comforter three times round his neck; brought the horn
lanthorn out of the cupboard, and then tried to illumine the scrap of
candle at the bottom. But there was no illumination in that candle. To
begin with, it was only a fag-end - one where the cotton did not reach
the end of the grease, and to make matters worse, it had been
extinguished in that popular manner - snuffing out with wet fingers.
Consequently the candle end spit, spat, and sputtered; sent off little
fatty scintillations, and then went out. Lit again, it went through the
same process, and upon repeating this twice, Asher grew wroth, seized
the offending morsel, and dashed it into the fire, where it flared up
and seemed to rejoice in the warmth, whilst its indignant owner wiped
his fingers in his scant hair, and then lit a fresh piece, closed the
lanthorn, and opened the door for a start.

Talk about Will-o'-the-Wisps and hobgoblins, why Asher looked quite the
equal of any ugly monstrosity of the imagination, as he went crunching
and grumbling along the snowy path on his way to the belfry-door. The
wind was colder than ever, while in spite of the howling din, it was
bright and clear overhead, and the stars seemed not merely to twinkle,
but quiver and dance.

Asher's journey was but a short one, and mostly along the narrow side
path which led amongst the tombstones and wooden tablets; but he cared
no more for tombstones, and night walks in churchyards, than he did for
walks in the meadows; so on he went, "crunch, crunch," on the frozen
snow, never pausing to admire the beautiful old church in its Christmas
mantle, but growling and grumbling, and if it had been any other man we
might have said swearing, till he reached the door in the tower and
fumbled in the big key.

"Scraun-n-n-n-tch" went the old wards as the rusty key turned in the
rusty lock; and "Crea-ee-ee-ak" went the great door upon its old hinges;
and then setting down his lanthorn, Asher tried to shut the door again
to keep out the bitter wind. But the door would not shut, but seemed as
if something was pushing it back against him; and it was not until after
two or three vigorous thrusts, that the old man stopped to scratch his
head, and took up his lanthorn and examined the hinges; when, sure
enough, there was something which prevented the door closing, for there
was a great bone stuck in the crack, and it was so squeezed and jammed
in that it took a great deal of getting out. But when it was got out,
Asher threw it savagely away, for he minded not a bone or two when there
was quite a heap in the corner behind him; so he threw it savagely away,
and gave the door a bang which made the old tower jar, and the light in
his lanthorn quiver, while just then there was a rattling noise, and
something round came rolling up to him and stopped up against his feet
so that the old man gave quite a start.

"Bah!" exclaimed Asher directly after, for he made no more account of a
skull than the grave-digger in Hamlet. "Bah?" he exclaimed; and he gave
the skull a fierce kick to send it back to the heap from whence it had
rolled. But just then Asher gave a leap - a most nimble one, too, for so
old a man; for the skull seemed to have seized him by the foot, and
stuck tightly to his heavy boot, which he had driven through the thin
bone, and half buried in the internal cavity.

"Why, what the - ?" What Asher would have said remains unknown, for he
stopped short just as a mighty rush of wind smote the door, howled
through the bottom of the tower, and nearly extinguished the
horn-protected candle. The old man did not say any more, but kicked and
kicked at the skull till it was loosened, when it flew off, and up
against the stone wall with a sharp crack, and then down upon the floor;
while Asher seized his lanthorn, and, troubled with an unusual feeling
of trepidation, began to ascend the ricketty old oak ladder which led up
to the floor where the bell-ringers had been that night pulling a few
changes out of the five bells.

Asher Skurge crossed the floor, threading his way amongst the ropes, and
then began to mount the next ladder; for there was no spiral staircase
here. Up the ricketty, loose rounds, and then rising like a stage ghost
through a trap-door, the clerk stood at length in the second floor
amongst the ropes, which passed through to the bells above; and here,
shut up in a gigantic cupboard, was the great clock whose announcements
of the flight of time floated over vale and lea.

As the clerk drew near, all at once there began a whizzing, whirring
noise, which drowned the "tic-tac; tic-tac" of the pendulum; and then
loud and clear - too loud and too clear - sounded the great bell-hammer
within, announcing that it was eleven o'clock.

"Ah!" growled Asher, as soon as the clock had struck; "nice time for my
job!" and then he pulled out another key, and prepared to open the great
clock cupboard.

"Hallo?" said Asher, "what now?" and he started back a step, for there
was a tiny head and shoulders poked out of the keyhole, and two bright,
glittering little eyes seemed to gaze at the clerk for a moment, and
then popped in again.

Asher Skurge felt himself to be too old a bird to be caught with that
sort of chaff - he only believed in four spirits, did Asher; and, after
gin, rum, brandy, and whisky had been named, the speaker would have got
to the end of Asher's spiritual tether. So he put down his lanthorn and
the key beside it; rubbed his eyes, lifted his hat, and scratched his
head; and then began to warm himself by beating his hands against his
breast.

"Gammon!" muttered Asher, taking up lanthorn and key, and going towards
the cupboard again. "Gammon!" he exclaimed aloud, and was about to put
the key in the hole, when out popped the tiny head again, and remained
looking at the astonished clerk, who stopped short and opened his mouth
widely.

"It's the strong ale," said Asher; and he made a poke at the keyhole
with the key, when "bang, crash;" the door flew open and struck him in
the face, knocked him down and his lanthorn out; and of course, you'll
say, "there he lay in the dark!"

Not a bit of it. There lay Asher Skurge, certainly; but not in the
dark; for shining out from the middle of the clock was a bright, glowing
light, which filled the place, and made the bell-ropes shine as if made
of gold. There was the great clock with all its works; but high and
low, everywhere, it was covered with tiny figures similar to the one
which gazed out of the keyhole, and all busily at work: there were
dozens clinging to the pendulum and swinging backwards and forwards upon
the great bob, while a score at each side gave it a push every time it
swung within reach; dozens more were sliding down the long shaft to
reach those upon the bob; while the weights seemed quite alive with the
busy little fellows toiling and straining to push them down. Astride of
the spindles; climbing up the cogs as though they were steps; clinging
in, out, and about every wheel; and all, as it were, bent upon the same
object - forcing on the clock - hurry and bustle - bustle and hurry - up and
down - down and up - climbing, crawling, and leaping in the golden light
were the tiny figures pushing on the wheels.

Asher Skurge sat up with his hair lifting on his head, but a staunch and
obstinate man was he, and he wouldn't believe it a bit, and told himself
in learned language it was a delusion; but for all that, he was very
uncomfortable, and felt about for the old horn spectacles he had left in
the room at home.

"I don't care; it's all gammon!" exclaimed the clerk; "and if I was to
say, `crafts and assaults of the devil, Good Lord, deliver us,' they'd
all vanish."

"No, they wouldn't, Asher!" said a small voice close at his ear.

"Eh?" said Asher, starting.

"No, they wouldn't, Asher," said the voice again; "not till they've kept
the clock going till your time's up. You wanted it to run down, but we


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 12 of 19)