George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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Asher stared about him, and then saw that the tiny figure which first
gazed at him from the keyhole was now squatted, nursing its knees, upon
his lanthorn, and gazing fixedly at him.

"They wouldn't vanish, Asher," said the tiny figure; "and here they

As it finished speaking, the little spirits came trooping towards Asher,
and dragged out of his pocket a small key, which opened a padlock, and
loosened a chain, and set at liberty the key of the great timepiece; for
Asher was determined that no other hands should touch _his_ clock, as he
called it; but now he saw a couple of score of little figures seize the
key, fit it in the hole, and then toil at it till they turned it round
and round, and wound up first one and then the other weight.

"How much longer?" cried the little spirit upon the lanthorn.

"One hour," cried all the other spirits in chorus; and the two words
seemed to ring in Asher's ears, and then go buzzing round the place, and
even up and amongst the bells, so that there was a sort of dumb pealing
echo of the words.

"`One hour,'" cried Asher, at length; "what's `one hour'?"

"One hour more for you," said the little spirit, staring unwinkingly,
with its little diamond eyes fixed upon Asher, while its mite of a chin
rested upon its little bare knees.

"What do you mean," said Asher, fiercely, "with your one more hour?" and
then he tried to get up, but could not, for he found that a number of
the little figures had busily tied him with the bell-ropes; and there he
was fast, hand and foot.

"What do I mean?" said the little figure; "lie still, and I'll tell you,
Asher. I mean that your time's nearly up, and that you have now only
fifty-six minutes left."

"It must be the strong ale," muttered Asher, turning hot all over, after
vainly trying to loosen his bands. "It must be the strong ale; but I
think, perhaps, I'll let Mrs Bond stay another week."

"Ha! ha! ha! she's all right. You see you didn't make a will, Asher."

"How do you know?" cried the old man, now growing quite alarmed. "Who
says I didn't make a will?"

"I do," said the little figure. "But don't waste time, man. Only fifty
minutes; and time's precious."

"But who are you?" cried Asher, excitedly.

"Me?" said the little thing. "Oh, I'm only a second, like those
climbing about the clock; and I'm the last one in your hour. There's
one beat off by the pendulum every moment. Don't you see fresh ones
keep going down?"

"No!" growled Asher, savagely, "I don't." But he did though, for all
that, though he would not own to it. There they were, clinging to the
great round ball of the pendulum, and one dropping off at every beat,
while fresh ones kept gliding down the long shaft into their places.
What became of the others he could not tell, for, as they fell off, they
seemed to dissolve in the glow which lit up the old clock's works.

It was of no use to struggle, for the efforts only made the ropes cut
into his wrists and legs; and if it had not been that the rope which
went round his neck was the part covered with worsted to save the
ringers' hands, it seemed to him that he would have been strangled. He
was horribly frightened, but he would not own to it, and, in spite of
the fierce cold, he felt wet with perspiration.

"How slow the time goes," said the little figure. "I want to be off.
You're about ready, I suppose."

"No I'm not," cried Asher furiously, "I've no end to do."

"Turn out Widow Bond for one thing," said the figure with a mocking
leer. "Never mind about that. Only forty-five more minutes now."

"What a horrible dream," cried Asher in agony.

"'Tisn't a dream," said the little figure. "You pinch your leg and try
now, or stop, I will," and in a moment the tiny fellow leaped down and
nipped the clerk's leg so vigorously that he shrieked with pain.

"Don't feel like a dream, does it?" said the spirit.

"Don't think it does," said Asher, "at least I never dreamed so loud
before that I know of."

"No, I shouldn't think you did, but you won't dream any more," said the
little spirit.

"You don't mean that?" said Asher in a pitiful voice.

"I shouldn't have said it if I had not," said the spirit. "Do you
suppose we speak falsely?"

"Oh, I don't know," groaned Asher. "But, I say, let me go this time."

"Thirty-five minutes," said the little spirit; "only thirty-five minutes
more, and then my work's done, and yours too."

Asher groaned again, and then gave a furious struggle, which only
tightened the ropes and made one of the bells above give a sonorous
clang, which sounded like a knell to the groaning clerk.

"How are you going to do it?" he cried at last.

"Going to do what?" said the spirit.

"Going to - to - to - make an end of me?" said Asher.

"Oh!" said the spirit, "I shan't have anything to do with it. Some of
those to come will do that; I shall be gone. I suppose they'll only put
your head under the big hammer which strikes the hour, and it will do
all that, so that people will say it was an accident. Only twenty-five
minutes now."

Asher turned as white as the parson's surplice, and his teeth chattered
as he groaned out: -

"Oh! what for? what for?"

"Why, you see, you are no good," said the spirit, "and only in the way,
so some one else may just as well be in your place. What do you know of
love, or friendship, or affection, or anything genial? Why you're cold
enough to chill the whole parish. Only a quarter of an hour now."

Ten minutes after the little spirit told the trembling man that he had
but five minutes more, and four of these were wasted in unavailing
struggles and prayers for release, when all at once Asher felt himself
seized by hundreds of tiny hands. The cords were tightened till their
pressure was agonising; and then he seemed to be floated up into the
great open floor where the bells hung in the massive oaken framework,
and though he could not see it, he knew well enough where the tenor bell
was, and also how the great iron clock hammer was fixed, which would
crush his skull like an egg-shell.

Asher struggled and tried to scream, but he felt himself impelled
towards the bell, and directly after his cheek was resting upon the cold
metal on one side, while the great hammer barely touched his temple on
the other, and he knew when it was raised that it would come down with a
fierce crash, and he shuddered as he thought of the splashed bell, and
the blood, and brains, and hair clinging to the hammer.

"And they'll say it was an accident," muttered Asher to himself, quoting
the spirit's remark. "They'll never give me credit for doing it myself.
I'm the wrong sort." And then the thoughts of a life seemed crowded
into that last minute, and he shuddered to see what a little good he had
done. Always money and self, and now what was it worth? He had pinched
and punished all around him for the sake of heaping up riches, and now
above all would come in those words -

"Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee."

Thoughts crowded through the wretched man's brain thick and fast. He
seemed living his life through in these few remaining seconds, while
above all there was the reproaching face of the poor widow whom he would
have cast out that night homeless and friendless upon the bitter world.
He could not explain it to himself, but it seemed that this face kept
him down where he was more than anything else. There was no anger upon
it, nothing but bitter sorrowful reproach, and though he would have
closed his eyes he could not hide from his gaze that sad countenance.
But now came the horror of death, for he seemed to see the little
spirits glide down the pendulum far beneath him, rest for a moment upon
the bob, and then as one was beaten off, up rose the hammer, and he felt
its cold touch leave his temple. Up - up - higher - higher - and now it was
about to come down and would dash out his brains. It was coming, and
all was over, and for that second the agony he suffered was intense.
Then down it came, after seeming to be poised in the air for an awful
space of time, and at last came the fearful stroke.

"Clang," and his brain rocked and reeled as the blow fell upon the
sonorous metal close by his forehead. The piercing tones rang through
him, but before he could collect his thoughts - "Clang" went the hammer
again again, and yet his heart did not revive, for he felt that it would
be the _last_ stroke which would crush him.

"Clang - clang - clang - clang" came the solemn tones of the great bell;
solemn, although they seemed to split his head with the noise, and now
he had counted eleven, and the last blow was about to fall. The hammer
was rising - slowly rising - and in less than a moment he felt that the
blow would come. He could not struggle, though he was being impelled
nearer and nearer. He could not cry. He could not move; and at last,
after an agonising suspense, during which the widow's imploring,
reproachful face was pressing closer and closer, down came the great
hammer for the twelfth stroke -


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

"The clock stopped; and the bells won't ring," said a cheery voice; "and
on a Christmas-morning, too. Let me try."

Asher Skurge heard the voice, and directly after he shrieked out with
pain, for he felt something cutting into his leg, and this caused him to
open his eyes, and to see that his lanthorn lay close beside him; that
he was regularly wrapped, tied, and tangled with the bell-ropes, while
the clock cupboard lay open before him - the clock at a standstill -
probably from the cold; while, as for himself, he was quite at a
lie-still, and there had been some one dragging at one of the ropes so
as almost to cut his leg in two.

Directly after the head of young Harry Thornton appeared above the
trap-door, and then at his call came the sexton; but more help was
needed before Asher Skurge could be got down the ladders and across the
churchyard to his cottage, where, what with rheumatics and lumbago, the
old man is not so fond of winter night walks as of old.

But though Asher would as soon of thought of turning himself out as
Widow Bond, he did not have her long for a tenant, for her husband's
ship was not lost; and after three years' absence, Frank Bond came back
safe and sound, but so weatherbeaten as hardly to be recognised.

But Asher Skurge was ever after an altered man, for it seemed to him
that he had taken out a new lease of his life, and in spite of
neighbourly sneers, he set heartily to work to repair his soul's
tenement. You can see where it has been patched; and even now it is far
from perfect, but there are much worse men in the world than Asher
Skurge, even if he does believe in spirits, and you might have a worse
man for a landlord than the obstinate old clerk, who so highly offended
the new vicar because he would not go and wind up the clock after dark.



"Shoot the lot, Sir, if I had the chance. I would, O by Jove; that is,
if I had dust shot in the gun - a set of rogues, rascals, scamps, tramps,
vagabonds, and robbers. Don't tell me about pheasants and partridges
and hares being wild birds - there don't laugh; of course, I know a hare
isn't a bird - why, they're nothing of the sort, and if it wasn't for
preserving, there wouldn't be one left in a few years. Try a little
more of that bread sauce. Fine pair of tender young cocks, ain't they?
Well, sir, they cost me seven-and-sixpence a bird at the very least, and
I suppose I could buy them at seven-and-sixpence a brace at the outside.
Game preserving's dear work, sir; but there, don't think I want to
spoil your dinner. I aint reckoning up the cost of your mouthfuls, but
fighting upon principle. How should you like me to come into your yard,
or field, or garden, and shoot or suffocate or wire your turkeys or

"But, my dear, sir," I said, "I don't keep turkeys or peafowl."

"Or cocks or hens, or pigeons, or ducks," continued my uncle, not
noticing my remark.

"But we don't keep anything of the kind in London, my dear sir; the
tiles and leads are the unpreserved grounds of the sparrows."

"Don't be a fool, Dick," said my uncle, pettishly. "You know well
enough what I mean. And I maintain, sir," he continued, growing very
red-faced and protuberant, as to his eyes, "that every poacher is a
down-right robber, and if I were a magistrate I - "

"Wouldn't shoot them; would you, sir?" said Jenny, roguishly.

"Hold your tongue, you puss," said my uncle, shaking his fist playfully
at the bright, saucy-eyed maiden; "you're as bad as Dick."

Oh, how ardently I wished she was in one particular point of view.

My uncle continued. "Ever since I've been in the place, the scoundrels
have gone on thin - thin - thin - till it's enough to make one give up in
despair. But I won't; hang me if I do! I won't be beaten by the
hypocritical canting dogs. Now, look here; one hound whines out that he
did it for hunger, but it won't do, that's a tale; while 'fore George,
sir, if a man really was driven to that pitch, I'd give him the worth of
a dozen of my birds sooner than have them stolen."

Well, really, one could not help condoling with the old gentleman, for
he was generous and open-handed to an extent that made me wonder
sometimes how my portion would fare, and whether the noble old fellow
might not break faith through inability to perform his promises. Ever
since he had settled in Hareby, and worked hard to get his estate into
condition, the poaching fraternity seemed to have made a dead set at
him, leading his two keepers a sad life, for one of them had passed two
months in hospital through an encounter; while one fellow, who was
always suspected of being at the head of the gang, generally contrived
to elude capture, being "as cunning as Lucifer, sir," as my uncle said.

I was down at Hareby to spend Christmas, as had been my custom for
years, and on going out the day after my arrival -

"You see, sir," said Browsem, the keeper; "there's no knowing where to
take him. I've tried all I knows, and 'pon my sivvy, sir, I don't know
where to hev him. It warn't him as give me that dressing down, but it
were some of his set, for he keeps in the back grun', and finds the
powder and shot, and gets rid o' the birds. War-hawk to him if I do get
hold on him, though - "

"But do you watch well?" I said.

"Watch, sir? I've watched my hyes outer my head a'most, and then he's
dodged me. Hyes aint no good to him. Why, I don't believe a chap
fitted up with telescopes would get round him. The guv'nor swears and
goes on at me and Bill, but what's the good o' that when you're arter a
fellow as would slip outer his skin, if you hed holt on him? Now, I'll
jest tell you how he served me last week. I gets a simple-looking chap,
a stranger to these parts, but a regular deep one, to come over and keep
his hye on this here Mr Ruddle. So he hangs about the public, and
drinks with first one, and then with another, so that they thinks him a
chap outer work, and lars of all he gets friendly with Ruddle, and from
one thing to another, gets on talking about fezzans and 'ares.

"`Ah,' says my chap, `there's some fine spinneys down our way. Go out
of a night there, and get a sackful of birds when you likes.'

"`Nothin' to what there is here,' says another.

"`Why,' says my chap, `we've one chap as is the best hand at a bit o'
night work as ever I did see. You should see him set a sneer or ingle,
he'd captivate any mortial thing. Say he wants a few rabbuds, he'd
a'most whistle 'em outer their holes. Fezzans 'll run their heads into
his ingles like winkin'. While, as fur 'ares, he never sets wires for

"`Why not,' says one on 'em.

"`Oh,' says my chap, `he goes and picks 'em up outer the fields, just as
he likes.'

"`Ha, ha, ha!' laughs lots on 'em there; all but Ruddle, and he didn't.

"`What d'yer think o' that, ole man,' says one.

"`Nothin' at all,' says Ruddle. `Do it mysen,' for you see he was a bit
on, and ready to talk, while mostlings he was as close as a hegg.

"`Bet you a gallon on it,' says my chap.

"`Done,' says Ruddle, and they settles as my chap and Buddie should have
a walk nex' day, Sunday, and settle it.

"Nex' day then these two goes out together, and just ketching sight on
'em, I knowed something was up, but in course I didn't know my chap, and
my chap didn't know me, and I sits at home smoking a pipe, for I says to
myself, I says: Browsem, I says, there's suthin' up, an' if you can only
put salt on that 'ere Ruddle's tail, you'll soon clear the village. You
see, I on'y wanted to bring one home to him, and that would have done,
for he'd on'y got off two or three times before by the skin of his
teeth, and while three or four of his tools was kicking their heels in
gaol, my gentleman was feathering his nest all right.

"So my chap and Ruddle goes along werry sociable, only every now and
then my chap ketches him a cocking one of his old gimlet eyes round at
him, while he looked as knowing and deep as an old dog-fox. By and by
they gets to a field, and old Ruddle tells my chap to stop by the hedge,
and he did, while Ruddle goes looking about a bit slowly and quietly,
and last of all he mounts up on a gate and stands with his hand over his
hyes. Last of all he walks quietly right out into the middle of the
pasture and stoops down, picks up a hare, and holds it kicking and
struggling by the ears, when he hugs it up on his arm strokin' on it
like you'd see a little girl with a kitten.

"My chap feels ready to burst himself with delight to see how old Ruddle
had fallen into the trap. First-rate it was, you know - taking a hare in
open daylight, and in sight of a witness. So he scuffles up to him,
looking as innocent all the time as a babby, and he says to him, he
says -

"`My, what a fine un! I never thought as there was another one in
England could ha' done that 'ere. You air a deep 'un,' he says, trying
hard not to grin. `But aintcher going to kill it?'

"A nasty foxy warming, not he though, for when my chap says, says he,
`Aintcher going to kill it?'

"`What,' he says, `kill the pooty creetur! Oh, no; poor soft pussy, I
wouldn't hurt it; let it go, poor thing.'

"When if he didn't put it down and let it dart off like a shot, while my
chap stood dumbfounded, and staring with his mouth half open, till
Ruddle tipped him a wink, and went off and left him. No, sir, there
ain't no taking that chap nohow, and they do say it was his hand that
fired the shot as killed Squire Todd's keeper in Bunkin's Spinney."

Three nights after Christmas was mild and open, and I was watching a
busy little set of fingers prepare the tea, while my uncle was napping
in his easy-chair, with a yellow silk handkerchief spread over his face.
I had been whispering very earnestly, while all my impressive words had
been treated as if airy nothings; and more than once I had been most
decidedly snubbed. I was at last sitting with a very lachrymose
countenance, looking appealingly at the stern little tyrant, who would
keep looking so bewilderingly pretty by trying to frown with a beautiful
little white brow that would not wrinkle, when the parlour-maid came up
and announced Browsem.

"No, sir," muttered my uncle; "I'll put a stop - stop - " the rest was

"The keeper waits to see you, uncle dear," whispered his late sister's
child, in her soft kittenish way.

"Keeper, sir; yes, sir, I'll give him - Bless my heart, Jenny," exclaimed
the old gentleman starting up, dragging off his handkerchief and
bringing the hair down over his forehead; "bless my heart, Jenny, why I
was almost asleep."

"Here's Browsem, uncle," I said.

"Show him up; show him up," cried my uncle, who would not have accorded
more attention to an ambassador than he did to his keeper - that
gentleman being prime minister to his pleasures.

Browsem was shown up - a process which did not become the keeper at all,
for he came in delicately as to pace, not appearance, and held his red
cotton handkerchief in his hand, as if in doubt whether to employ it in
dabbing his damp brow, or to spread upon the carpet for fear that his
boots might soil the brightness.

"Now Browsem," cried the old gentleman, as the keeper was pulling his
forelock to Miss Jenny, thereby making the poor fellow start and
stammer. "Now Browsem, whom have you caught?"

"Caught, sir? No one, sir, only the cat, sir. Ponto run her down, but
she skretched one of his eyes a'most out."

"Cat; what cat?" said my uncle, leaning forward, with a hand upon each
arm of the chair.

"Why, you see, sir," said Browsem, confidentially, "there's a dodge in
it;" and then the man turned round and winked at me.

"Confound you; go on," cried my uncle in a most exasperated tone of
voice, when Browsem backed against Jenny's little marqueterie
work-table, and, oversetting it, sent bobbins, tapes, reels, wools,
silks, and, crochet and tatting apparatus into irremediable chaos.

"There, never mind that trash," shouted the old man; "speak up at once."

"Well, sir," said Browsem, "they've been a-dodgin' of me."

"Well?" cried my uncle.

"Tied a lanthorn to a cat's neck, and sent her out in the open, to make
belief as it were a dog driving the partridges."


"And we've been a-hunting it for long enew, and Ponto ketched her at


"And this was only to get us outer the way, for I heard a gun down
Bunkin's Spinney."

"Well?" shouted my uncle.

"And I've come to know what's right to be done."

"Done," roared my uncle; "why run down to the Spinney, or there won't be
a pheasant left. Here, my stick - my pistols - Here, Dick - Confound -
Scoundrels. Look sharp." And then he hobbled out of the room after the
keeper, when warm with the excitement of perhaps having a brush with the
poachers, I was following, but a voice detained me on the threshold.

"Richard," whispered Jenny; and there was something in the earnest eyes
and frightened look that drew me back in an instant. "Richard, you
won't go - those men - danger - Oh! Richard, pray! There, don't. What
would your uncle say?"

I didn't know, neither did I pause to think, for that newly-awakened
earnestness whispered such sweet hopes that, darting back, I was for the
instant forgetful of all propriety, till some one stood blushing before
me, arranging those bright little curls so lately resting upon my arm.

"But you won't go?" pleaded Jenny. "For _my_ sake Richard?"

"Di-i-i-i-i-ck," roared my uncle, and, wresting myself from the silken
chains, I darted down into the hall.

"Here lay hold of that stick, my lad," cried my uncle, flourishing a
large bludgeon, while Browsem grinning and showing his teeth, was
quietly twisting the leathern thong of a short stout staff round his

"All right my darling," said the old man, turning to the pale-faced
Jenny, who had come quietly downstairs to where we stood. "Don't be
alarmed, we shall take care of one another, and march half a dozen
poaching - here, come along, or me shall miss the scoundrels."

Browsem led the way at a half-trot, and grasping my arm, the old
gentleman followed as fast as his sometimes gouty leg would allow him.
We were soon out of the grounds, and, clambering a gate, made our way
towards the wood, where the keeper had heard the gun.

"Confound them," growled my uncle, "that's where that poor fellow was
shot ten years ago."

"Bang - bang."

"There they are, sir," growled the keeper, halting to let us get up
alongside; and now I started, for in the dusk behind me, and apparently
dodging my heels, was a tall figure.

"It's only Todds, sir," growled the keeper, and Todds his helper growled
in response.

"That is right."

"Amost wonder as they came here, sir," whispered Browsem. "Never knowed
'em do it afore, 'cause they're feared o' Munday's Ghost."

"Munday's Ghost?" I said.

"Yes, sir; pore chap as were shot. They do say as he walks still, but
there's a sight o' pheasants here."

It was one of those dark heavy nights late in winter, when the last
oak-leaves have fallen, and every step you take through the thickly
strewn glades rustles loudly. The wind just sighed by us as we pressed
on along a path through a plantation, and then once or twice I fancied I
heard guns to the right, far off behind the house. But I forgot them
the next moment, for my heart beat, and the excitement increased, for
just on in front came two loud and distinct reports.

"They're at it," growled my uncle, forgetting his gout, and loosing my

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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 13 of 19)