George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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arm. "Now Browsem, you and Todds go round, and we'll come forward, only
mind when I whistle, it's for help."

The next moment I was going to speak to the keeper, but I started, for
he was gone, and on looking behind I found Todds had also vanished,
quiet as a snake, for my uncle and I stood alone.

"You'll stick to me, Dick?" whispered the old gentleman.

"Conditions," I said in the same voice.

"What? the white feather," growled the old gentleman.

"No, no," I said, "but if I enlist now on your side, will you join me in
a siege afterwards?"

"Siege? what the deuce? Why don't you speak plain, sir?"

"Well," I said, "I mean about - about - a certain young lady at the
Priory, you know."

"Confound your thick head, sir. Why, if you had had an ounce of brains,
you could have seen what I meant, and - "

"Bang, bang!" from the wood.

"Forward," shouted my uncle, and crossing a small open field, we entered
the Spinney.

Now, if I were to say that I was brave, the assertion would be a fib,
for I possess but few of the qualifications for making a good soldier;
but all the same, as we pushed our way in that night amongst the thick
hazel stubs, I felt a sort of tingly sensation in my arm, which made me
grasp my weapon more tightly, and feel as if I wished there was
something to hit.

"Keep your eyes well open, Dick," whispered my uncle, "and if you come
across a tall thin squinting rascal with his nose on one side, mind,
that's Ruddle's. Fell him to the ground in an instant, sir. No mercy:
capture him as you love me, and if you do take the scoundrel, you shall
have another cool thousand down on your wedding morning."

"And if I don't?" I whispered.

"Hold your tongue, you dog, and don't talk nonsense."

On we went in silence as to our tongues, but with the leaves rustling
and sticks cracking as we pushed on. Now I could hear my uncle
ejaculating; then he'd stumble and mutter, while once I had to haul him
out of a small hole half full of water.

"Confound it!" growled the old gentleman; "but I'll pay some one for all
this. Open out a bit to the right, Dick."

I separated from the main body, and on we still pressed, rustling and
crackling along, while now and again I could make out the well-defined
forms of pheasants roosting amidst the low branches of the trees. All
at once I heard my uncle stop short, for about a hundred yards to my
right there came again a sharp "bang, bang" of two guns.

"Push on, my boy," whispered the old gentleman, closing up; and then, as
fast as we could for the dense undergrowth, we made our way in the
direction of the sounds. "They're out strong, my boy, but we're four
determined men with right on our side, and a prize to win; eh, you dog?"

"Oof!" I involuntarily exclaimed, for just then my uncle gave me a poke
in the ribs with his stick - very facetiously, no doubt; but it hurt.

We were now in the thickest part of the wood; and, after going a little
farther, I felt my shoulder clutched, and "Here they come," was
whispered in my ear. "Seize one man, Dick, and hold on to him like a
bull-dog."

Just then I could hear in front the sharp crackling and rustling made by
bodies being forced through the underwood; and, grasping my staff and
pressing eagerly forward, I waited with beating heart for the coming of
the enemy.

I did not have to wait long, for the next moment I was face to face with
Browsem.

"Lord, sir! I thought it had been one on 'em," he exclaimed, and then a
whispered consultation having been held, we opened out about twenty
yards apart, and went straight away in the direction we supposed the
poachers to have taken.

On, slowly and painfully, with the twigs flying back and lashing our
faces, roots trying to trip us up, and the night growing darker and
darker. Right and left I could hear my uncle and Browsem, while right
off beyond the old gentleman, Mr Todds, the reticent, was making his
way. Every eye was strained and every ear attent to catch the slightest
sound; but for quite ten minutes we crept on until right in our rear
came the sharp, loud report of a gun; and then, after the interval of a
few moments, another louder and apparently nearer.

"Back again!" cried my uncle; and then, casting off all caution, we all
pushed forward eagerly, closing in as we went, till we were only
separated by a few bushes, so that I could hear the hard breathing on
either side. Hard work blundering and stumbling along; but the will was
good, and at last we all drew up again in a small opening, panting, hot,
and regularly breathed.

"Hist!" whispered my uncle, and we all listened eagerly; but, with the
exception of a wild, strange cry some distance off, all was silent.

"What's that?" I whispered to Browsem.

"Only a howl, sir," he whispered again. "Blessed rum start this, ain't
it?"

"Bang, bang!" again a hundred yards off.

"Come on!" roared my uncle furiously, "there won't be a bird left in the
place;" and away we dashed again, but only to pull up once more,
regularly puzzled.

"'Tain't no good, sir," whispered Browsem. "We might go on like this
all night, and ketch no one."

"Why?" I said, mopping my brow.

"That 'ere, sir, as I said was a howl, must ha' been Munday's Ghost, and
them 'ere shots as we keeps hearing's the ones as killed the poor
fellow, and that's why the poachers never comes to this bit."

"Browsem," puffed my uncle.

"Yes, sir," said Browsem.

"You're a fool, Browsem," puffed my uncle.

"Thanky, sir," said Browsem.

"What do you mean by that, sir?" cried my uncle, fiercely.

"Nothing, sir," said the keeper, mildly.

"For two pins, sir," cried my uncle, fiercely, "I'd discharge you, sir.
D'yer hear? discharge you, sir, for talking such foolery. Ghosts -
posts! pooh! bah! puff! stuff! yah! Forward."

Mr Todds, who was at my elbow, murmured his approval of his superior's
language, but gave a superstitious shiver at the same moment. And then
once more we opened out, and tramped through the wood, till regularly
beaten out; and, without having heard another shot or seen a single
enemy, we reluctantly retraced our steps to the Priory.

The next morning, at breakfast, the parlour-maid again announced
Browsem - for my uncle abjures men-servants in the house - and the keeper,
looking puzzled and long-faced, appeared at the door.

"Now, then," sputtered my uncle, "have you caught them?"

"They cleared Sandy Plants last night, sir," growled the man.

"Who? what?" cried my uncle, upsetting his coffee.

"Some on 'em - Ruddles's, I s'pose," said Browsem. "Don't b'leeve
there's a tail left out'er scores," said the man.

"There, go down and wait, and I'll come directly after breakfast."

But to all intents and purposes my uncle had finished his breakfast, for
nothing more would he touch, while his face grew purple with rage.
Gout - everything - was forgotten for the time; and half an hour after,
Browsem was pointing out the signs of the havoc made on the preceding
night in the fir-plantation. Here and there lay feathers, spots of
blood, gun-wads; and many a trunk was scarred and flayed with shot. In
one place, where the trees were largest, the poachers seemed to have
been burning sulphur beneath the boughs, while twice over we came upon
wounded pheasants, and one dead - hung high up in the stubbly branches,
where it had caught.

My uncle looked furious, and then turning in the direction of the scene
of the last night's adventures, he strode off, and we followed in
silence.

On reaching the wood, we very soon found, from the trampled underwood
and broken twigs, traces of our chase; but the birds seemed plentiful,
and no feathers or blood-stains were to be found.

"They didn't get many here, at all events," muttered my uncle.

Both Browsem and Todds shook their heads at me, and looked ghosts.

"Strange thing, though," muttered my uncle. "What do you think of it,
Browsem?"

The keeper screwed up his face, and said nothing.

"Confound you for a donkey!" ejaculated the irascible old gentleman.
"What Tom-fool rubbish you men do believe. Hullo! though, here's a
wad;" and he stooped and picked up a wadding evidently cut out of an old
beaver hat. "That don't look ghostly, at all events; does it, booby?"

Browsem only screwed up his phiz a little tighter.

"Why, tut, tut, tut! Come here, Dick!" shouted the old gentleman,
excitedly. "We've been done, my lad; and they've cleared out the
plantation while we were racing up and down here."

I followed the old gentleman to one of the openings where we had stopped
together the night before, when Todds, who was close behind, suddenly
gave a grunt, and stooping down, picked up a half-empty horn
powder-flask.

"That's Ruddles's, I'd swear," growled Browsem.

"Of course," said my uncle. "And now, look here, Dick," he cried,
pointing to the half-burnt gun-wads lying about near a large pollard
oak. "There, shin up, and look down inside this tree."

With very little difficulty, I wonderingly climbed up some fifteen feet,
by means of the low branches, which came off clayey on my hands, as
though some one had mounted by that same means lately, and then I found
that I could look down right through the hollow trunk, which was lighted
by a hole here and there.

"That'll do; come down," cried my uncle. "If I'd only thought of it
last night, we could have boxed the rascal up - a vagabond! keeping us
racing up and down the wood, while he sat snugly in his hole, blazing
away directly we were a few yards off."

I was certainly very close to Jenny that afternoon when my uncle, whom
we thought to be napping in his study, rushed into the room.

"Hurrah, Dick! Tompkins has peached, and they sent fifty pheasants up
in Ruddles's cart this morning; but the old rascal's locked up, and -
hum! That sort of thing looks pretty," he continued, for we were
certainly taken somewhat by surprise. "But, you dog," he roared, as
Jenny darted from the room, "you did not catch the scoundrel."

However, after that morning's take, even if a hundred pheasants had been
sent in the cart, my uncle would have been plastic as clay, while, an
hour afterwards, he exclaimed:

"Why, Dick, I'd almost forgotten my gout."



CHAPTER NINETEEN.

THE SPIRITS OF THE BELLS.

Heart-sore and spirit-weary,
Life blank, and future dreary,
Mournfully I gazed upon my fire's golden glow,
Pondering on idle errors,
Writhing under conscience terrors,
Gloomily I murmured, with my spirits faint and low.

I had drained the golden measure,
Sipped the sweets of so-called pleasure,
Seeing in the future but a time for newer joy;
Now I found their luscious cloying,
Ev'ry hope and peace destroying,
Golden visions, brightest fancies - bitter, base alloy.

Riches, comfort spoke then vainly,
To a brain thus tinged insanely,
Wildly throbbing, aching, teeming,
Fancy-filled with hideous dreaming,
Speaking of an aimless life, a life without a goal:
While as if to chide my murmur,
Came a voice which cried, "Be firmer,
Would'st be like the beasts that perish? Think thou of thy soul."

Starting from my chair and trembling,
Vainly to my heart dissembling,
'Twas an idle fancy that had seemed to strike my ear;
Still the words came stealing round me,
Horror in its chains had bound me;
Dripping from my aching brow, were beads of deepest fear.

Hurrying to my moonlit casement,
Throwing up the sash,
Highest roof to lowest basement
Seemed to brightly flash,
Glitt'ring white, with Winter's dressing;
While each crystal was caressing
Purest rays that glanced around it from the moon's pale light.
Nature slept in sweetest beauty,
Gleaming stars spoke hope and duty:
Calmer grew my aching brow, beneath the heavenly sight.

Christmas-Eve! the Christian's morrow
Soon would dawn on joy and sorrow,
Spreading cheer and holy pleasure brightly through the land;
Whilst I, lonely, stricken-hearted,
Under bitter mem'ries smarted,
Standing like an outcast, or as one the world had banned.

Sadly to my chair returning,
By my fire still brightly burning,
Battling with the purer rays that through the window gleamed;
Like two spirits floating o'er me,
Vividly rays played before me,
Each to wrap me in its light that on my forehead streamed.

The glowing fire with warm embracing
Told of earthly, sinful racing:
Warmth and pleasure in its looks, but in its touch sharp pain;
While the moonbeams, paler, purer,
Spoke of pleasures, sweeter, surer,
Oft rejected by Earth's sons for joys that bear a stain.

Suddenly with dread I shivered,
As the air around me quivered,
Laden with the burden of a mighty spirit-tone,
Rolling through the midnight stilly,
Borne upon the night-wind chilly,
Rushing through my chamber, where I sat in dread alone.

"Soul!" it cried, in power pealing,
"Soul!" the cry was through me stealing,
Vibrating through each fibre with a wonder-breeding might.
"Soul!" the voice was deeply roaring;
"Soul!" rang back from roof and flooring,
Booming thro' the silence of the piercing winter night.

Now came crashing, wildly dashing,
Waves of sound in power splashing,
Ringing, swinging, tearing, scaring,
Shrieking out in words unsparing,
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
Roaring through my chamber portal,
Borne thro' window, borne thro' ceiling
Ever to my sense revealing,
Still the bells these words were pealing,
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
Till my room seemed filled with bells that rang the self-same strain;
While, above the brazen roaring,
Mightily the first tone pouring,
Boomed out "Soul!" in mighty pow'r, and linked in with the chain.

Then an unseen presence o'er me
Leant, and from my chamber tore me:
Out upon the night-wind I was swept among the sounds,
Whirling on amid the pealing,
Warning to the city dealing
Of the coming morrow, in reverberating rounds.

Still they cried, as from doom's portal,
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
Shrieking all around me as I floated with the wind,
Ever borne away and crying,
Every bell-tone swiftly flying
O'er the silent city, to its slumber now consigned.

Hurried round each airy tower,
Writhing with the unseen power
Vainly, for a spirit-chain each struggling limb would bind;
Doomed to hear those words repelling,
Ever on my senses knelling,
Still - a booming hurricane - we wrestled with the wind.

Sweeping o'er the sluggish river,
Where dark piles the waves dissever,
'Neath the bridges, by the shipping,
Sluice-gates, with the waters dripping,
By the rustling, moaning rushes,
Where the tribute-water gushes;
Forced to gaze on ghastly faces,
Where the dread one left his traces,
Faces of the suicide, the murdered floated on,
Whose blue, leaden lips, unclosing,
Shrieked out words, my brain that froze in,
Crying I had stayed my help in hours long passed and gone.

"Hopeless, hopeless!" ever crying,
"Hopeless we are round you dying,
Asking vainly for the aid withheld in selfish grasp;
Hopeless, from the crime that's breeding,
Ever to new horrors leading,
Horrors, growing, flow'ring, seeding,
Soon to spread a poison round more deadly than the asp."

Still an unseen presence bound me;
Still the bells were shrieking round me,
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
Rising, falling, ever calling,
Thought and mem'ry, soul appalling,
Borne away and louder crying,
In the distance softly dying;
Here in gentle murmurs sighing,
Then again far higher flying,
Swiftly o'er the houses hieing;
While around these fear-begetters
Bound me in their brazen fetters.
On I sped with brain on fire,
'Mid the bell-tones, higher, higher,
List'ning to their words upbraiding,
Each with dread my soul new lading.
Now away, the mighty chorus
Swept around a church before us,
In whose yard were paupers lying.
From their graves I heard them crying,
Joining in the words upbraiding,
Loudly piercing, softly fading:
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
"Cease your murmurs, cease your sorrow,
From our fate a lesson borrow:
Never heeded, lost to pity,
Dying round you through the city.
Leave us to our peaceful sleeping,
Freed from hunger, care, and weeping."

O'er and o'er the hillocks grassy,
Now away o'er buildings massy:
Ever cries, as from doom's portal,
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
Thro' the wards where pain was shrieking,
Where disease was vengeance wreaking,
Still the sounds were hurrying, crying,
As in emulation trying;
Many a fev'rish slumber breaking;
O'er the lips that knew no slaking.
All were crying, help imploring;
While the bells from roof to flooring,
Still, as from the first beginning,
Still the self-same burden dinning,
Spite of all my writhing, tearing,
Onward still my spirit bearing
Far away in booming sallies,
Rushing thro' the crowded alleys,
Where grim Want his wings was quiv'ring
O'er the pinched forms, half clad, shiv'ring;
Where disease and death were hov'ring;
Where deep sorrow earth was cov'ring.

Away, again, where life was failing;
Away, again, by orphans wailing;
Thro' the prison bars now darting,
Where the fettered wretch lay smarting,
Wakened from his sleep, and starting,
He too shrieked in bitter parting
Curses on my aid withholden,
In the glorious hours golden,
Wasted, thrown away in madness -
Hours that might deep sorrow, sadness.
Misery, have chased from numbers, -
Chased the want the earth that cumbers.

Away, away, and faster speeding,
Away, the tones seemed round me pleading
Lessons to my madness reading,
From the scenes I'd lived unheeding.
Still the unseen fetters bound me;
Still the burden floated round me:
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"

But the words came softer, lower,
Calmer still, and sweeter, slower,
Till they murmured off in silence on the wintry air;
Save returning, booming, rolling,
Came that one vast warning, tolling
"Soul!" as when at first it called me, sitting in my chair.

Now again from earth rebounding,
Quick and fast, the bells were sounding,
And I sprang from out my seat, with wild and startled look.
'Twas the blest Redeemer's morning! -
Sunshine brightly Earth adorning, -
And the Christmas jocund peal my brightened casement shook.

Hope has risen clearer, purer,
O'er my life-course firmer, surer,
Since that eve, when gloomily I pondered on my life;
When I heard, as from doom's portal,
"Soul of sorrow! murm'ring mortal!"
Booming on my aching brain, with murmurs thickly rife.



CHAPTER TWENTY.

A ROGUE AND A VAGABOND.

"You must fetch the doctor," says Dick, as I stood over him looking at
his poor worn face, all drawed with pain and hollow-looking, although
he'd got his paint on and the band and spangles were round his head,
though his black hair was all rough with him a-tossing about.

There was the bit of candle flaring away and guttering down, the wind
flapping the canvas backwards and forwards and coming in fierce through
the holes, while the rain was dripping from the top because the canvas
hadn't got well soaked and tight, and I couldn't help thinking about
what a miserable place it was for a sick man. There was the drum
a-going and the clarinet squeaking, while another of the company was
rattling away at a pair o' pot-lid cymbals; the grease-pots were flaring
in front of the stage, and them all a dancing and one thing and another
over and over again, while Balchin's voice, husky and bad with his cold,
could be heard telling people to walk up for the last time that night;
but they wouldn't, for it was wet and miserable and spiritless as could
be.

Poor Dick had been out ever so long in his tights and fleshings doing
his summersets and bits o' posturing, till his thin things were wet
through, when he comes in at last to me, where I was nursing little
Totty, hard at work to keep her quiet, and he says with a bit of a
groan -

"I'm knocked over, lass. It's like a knife in my chest," and I could
hear his breath rattling hard, as he looked that ill I couldn't keep the
tears back. You see he'd been bad for days and taking medicine for his
cough; but then what good was that with us, going from place to place in
wet weather and him obliged to take his turn with the rest, and we
always sleeping under the canvas. Why, he ought to have been in a house
and with a doctor to him, though he wouldn't hear of it when I talked
about it.

"Can't afford it, Sally," he'd say, and then, poor fellow, he'd sit up
in bed and cough till he'd fall back worn out, when as soon as he was
laid down, back came the cough again worse than ever, and I've lain
quiet and still, crying because I couldn't help him. Don't know
anything more sad and wearying than to hear some one cough - cough - cough
the whole long night through, with it resting a little when sitting up,
and then coming on again worse and worse as soon as you lie down.

And that's how it was with poor Dick, but he had a heart like a lion and
would never give up. All the others used to lodge about at the
public-houses, 'cept Balchin, who lived in the van, but Dick said he
liked being under the canvas best, for you were like in your own place,
and there was no noise and bother with the landlords, besides sleeping
in all sorts of dirty places after other people, so we always kept to
the corner of the tent and under the stage, making use of a bit of
charcoal fire in a stand.

And Dick wouldn't have the doctor till that night, when he says at last,
"you must fetch him." I'd been watching him lying there hardly able to
breathe, and sometimes, when his eyes were nearly shut, you could only
see the whites, while his hands tore like at the covering, he seemed in
such pain.

Just then in came Balchin, looking very cross and out of humour, for
there was the ground to pay for, and he'd taken next to nothing that
night.

"What did you sneak off like that for, Dick Parker?" he says, and then
Dick started up, but he fell back with a bit of a groan, when Balchin
grumbled out something, and turned round and went off.

"Could you mind little Totty?" I says to Dick, for I didn't like to
take the child out in the wet.

He didn't speak, but made a place aside him for the little thing, and
the next minute the poor little mite had nestled up close to him, and I
turned to put on my shawl, when who should lift up the canvas and come
in but Balchin, with a steaming hot glass of whisky and water in his
hand?

"Here we are, my boy," he says, in his rough cheery way, that he could
put on when he liked. "Now is the sun of summer turned to glorious
winter, so away with discontent and a merry Christmas and a happy noo
year to you, my boy. You're a bit outer sorts you are, and so was I
just now, but I'm what you're going to be directly, so tip some of this
up."

But Dick only shook his head and smiled, and then whispering him to
please stop till I got back, I slipped out to fetch the doctor.

It isn't hard to find the doctor's place in a town, and I was soon there
standing, ring, ring, ring, while the rain, now half sleet and snow,
began to come down so, that I shivered again. But I hardly thought
about it, for my mind was all upon poor Dick, for a terrible thought had
come into my head, and that was, that my poor boy was going to leave me.
Everything now seemed to tell me of it: the cold howling wind seemed to
shriek as it tore away through the long street, the clock at the big
church seemed to be tolling instead of striking twelve, while the very
air seemed alive with terrible whispers of something dreadful going to


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 14 of 19)