George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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At last a window upstairs was opened, and I asked if the doctor was at

"Who wants him?" said a voice.

"I want him to come to my poor husband, for he's - " I couldn't finish
the word for a sob that seemed to choke me.

"Where do you live?" said the same voice.

"At the show in the market-place," I said, feeling all the while half

"You'd better go to Mr Smith, he's the parish doctor," said the voice,
and then the window was shut. And I stood half blind with the tears
that would come, as I dragged my shawl closer round me, and stood
shivering and wondering which way to turn so as to find the parish
doctor. The wind was sweeping and howling along; the snow came in heavy
squalls which whitened me in a few moments, while the cold seemed to
chill one's very marrow; but I hardly thought of it, for I was all the
time seeing poor Dick lying in our miserable bit of a bed by the light
of the flaring candle, while above the howling of the wind I seemed to
be hearing his low hacking cough.

Oh! it was pitiful, pitiful, standing out there on that bitter night,
close to Christmas-time, when people's hearts are said to be more
charitably disposed; but now, though bright lights shone in windows here
and there, I was alone, alone, in the bitter storm, without a soul to
direct me or teach me where to go for a doctor. I hurried to the end of
the street - then back along the other side, up one street and down
another, eagerly looking for a lighted lamp over a door, or for some one
to tell me; but not a soul was to be seen, and every public-house was

On I went again, growing almost frantic, for the howling wind seemed to
form itself into cries - wild, appealing cries to me for help for my boy,
who lay suffering in our wretched wandering home; and at last I ran up
to a door and rang the bell, but no one answered. Then I heard the
muffled sound of wheels, and stood listening. Yes, they were coming
nearer and nearer - they were in the street, and I ran into the road to
try and stay the driver, as I shrieked for help, for I was most mad with
anxiety; but there was the sharp stinging cut of a whip across my cheek,
and half-blinded and smarting, I started back, and the next minute the
round of the wheels had died away.

"Oh, oh, oh!" I moaned piteously, wringing my hands; what shall I do,
what shall I do? But the next moment my heart leaped, for by the light
of one of the street lamps I saw a man approaching and hurried up to

"Sir, sir," I cried; "the doctor - the - " But an oath and a rude push,
which sent me staggering off the pavement to fall in the mud and snow of
the road, was my answer, and then, as half bewildered I slowly got up, I
heard a harsh laugh and the man began whistling.

I could not sob now, but felt as if something was clutching at my heart
and tearing it, but again I hurried along half blind with the heavy
snow, and now once more I saw a man in front, but dimly seen through the
heavy fall.

"Help, help," I cried hoarsely, with my hands clasped together.

"Eh! what?" he said.

"Oh, sir, a doctor, for God's sake - for pity's sake - my poor boy!"

"Who, who?" he said, taking hold of my arm.

"My poor husband," I said, "he's dying."

The next moment he was walking beside me, as I thought to show me where
the doctor lived, and it was nearer the market-place where the show

"Come in here," he said, opening a door with a key, when feeling
trembling and suspicious, I hung back, but the light falling upon my new
companion, showed me a pleasant faced old man, and I followed him into a
surgery, where he put something into a bottle, and five minutes after we
were standing in the booth where Balchin and his wife and a couple more
of the company were standing about the bed where poor Dick lay,
breathing so heavily that it was pitiful to hear him, and me not daring
to wake him for fear of his cough.

"God bless my soul," muttered the doctor I had so fortunately met; "what
a place and what a night! Can't you move him to a house?"

"No," said Dick, suddenly sitting up. "I'll die here. This is good
enough for a rogue and a vagabond of a strolling player. But doctor,"
he said, with his eyes almost blazing, "can you cure my complaint?"

"Well, well! we'll see," said the doctor, laying his hand upon poor
Dick's chest.

"No, no; not there, sir," said Dick. "It's here - here - in my heart, and
it's sore about that poor girl and this little one: that's my complaint,
not this cough. What are they to do? Where are they to go? Who's to
keep them when I'm gone? Not that I've done much for them, poor

"Dick, Dick," I said, reproachfully.

"My girl!" he says, so softly and tenderly and with such a look, that I
was down next moment upon my knees beside him, when he threw one arm
round my neck and rested his head again my cheek so loving, so tender,
while his other arm was round the little one now fast asleep.

And there we all stayed for a bit; no one speaking, for the doctor stood
with his head bent down and his hat off, while the light of the candle
shone amongst his silver-looking hair. Two or three times over I saw
Balchin and his wife and the others look hard at him, and once Balchin
touched him on the sleeve, but he stood still looking on, while poor
Dick lay there with his head upon my shoulder, and me, not crying but
confused and struck down, and dazed like with sorrow.

At last every one seemed so still and quiet, that I looked up wondering
to see the doctor hold up his hand to the others to be silent, when,
whispering to me that he would be back in a few minutes, he hurried
away. And still no one moved for perhaps a quarter of an hour, when
through being half blind now with the tears that began to come, I could
not see the doctor come back; and this time he had something in his hand
which he made as though he would give to Dick, but he shrunk back next
moment shaking his head, gave the glass to Balchin to hold, and then as
Mrs Balchin began sobbing loudly, the doctor knelt down beside the bed
and said some words in a low tone at first, but getting more earnest and
loud as he went on and then he was silent, and Dick seemed to give a
deep drawn sigh.

Then I waited to hear the next sigh, for all was still and quiet;
Balchin and his wife stood with their heads bent down, and Mrs Balchin
had left off sobbing; the others stood about, one here and one there,
and the good doctor was still upon his knees, and I couldn't help
thinking how calm and easy poor Dick's laboured breathing had become,
when all at once little Totty began to say some prattling words in her
sleep, and then as if some bright little dream was hers she began to
laugh out loud in her little merry way, and nestled closer to her

All at once I started, for a horrible thought came into my mind, and
turning my face I looked as well as I could at poor Dick's eyes. The
light was very dim and I could only see that they were half open, while
there was a quiet happy smile upon his lip. Then I eagerly held the
back of my hand to his mouth to feel his breath, but there was nothing.
I felt his heart - it was still. I whispered to him -

"Dick! Dick! speak to me," and I fancied there was just another faint
sigh, but no answer - no reply - for with his arms round all he loved and
who loved him on this earth, he had gone from us - gone without me
fancying for a moment it was so near. And then again for a moment I
could not believe it, but looked first at the doctor, and then at first
one and then another, till they all turned their heads away, when with a
bitter cry I clasped him to me, for I knew poor Dick was dead.



Of course they were - the good old times, or, as Macaulay has it, "the
brave days of old." Things are not now as they used to be; and mind, O
reader, these are not my words, but those of a patriarch. Things are
not as they used to be; the theatres even have not the casts now that
they had fifty years since; those were the fine old coaching times, when
team after team started from the old Post-office in style. There were
beaux and bucks, and men of spirit then - men who could dress, and spent
their money as it should be spent. Gambling, duelling, and such
spirited affairs were common, and really, there can be no doubt of it,
times are altered.

I am foolish enough to think for the better - but then I am only a
unit, - and I think so in spite of the incessant mess the railway, gas,
water, telegraph, pneumatic, and all the other companies are making of
our streets. One cannot help admiring our monster hotels, gigantic
railway schemes, palatial warehouses, etcetera, etcetera, but then we
miss many of our delightful old institutions. Where are the dustmen's
bells of our childhood? Surely those polished articles in our railway
stations, always reposing upon a wooden block when one is at a distance,
but which our approach seems to be the signal for the "stout porters" to
seize and jangle harshly in our ears - surely those are not the "bells,
bells, bells" so familiar of old. Where are the organs with the
waltzing figures turning round and round to the ground-up music of
Strauss or Weber, then in their popularity? Where the people who so
horrified our diaper pinafore-encased bosom by walking upon stilts to
the accompaniment of drum and Pan pipes? Where the ancient glories of
Jack in the Green and Guido Fawkes? Where are numbers of our old street
friends who seem gone, while Punch alone seems immortal, and comes out
yearly with fresh paint covering his battered old phiz? Certainly we
had in the street "twopence more and up goes the donkey," though no man
had the good fortune to be present when the twopence more was arrived
at, and the miserable asinine quadruped was elevated upon the ladder and
balanced upon its owner's chin - certainly we had that; but after all
said and done, how our acrobats have improved, how much brighter are the
spangles, how much better greased the hair and developed the muscles.
Look at that tub feat, or the man balanced upon the pole, of course an
improved donkey trick. Look at - look at the length of thy article, oh!

It seems only yesterday, but some years have passed now since we used to
lie in bed of a cold, dark winter's morning, and listen to the prolonged
rattle of the sweep's brush upon some chimney-pot far on high, and then
hear the miserable little fellow's doleful "halloo, halloo, halloo," by
way of announcement that he had achieved his task, and had head and
shoulders right out of the pot. And it seems only yesterday, too, that,
by special favour, our household Betty allowed me to descend and see the
sweeps do the kitchen chimney, when I stood trembling in presence of our
blackened visitors and the smoke-jack, and then saw the great black pall
fastened before the fireplace with three forks, when the sooty boy
covered his head and face with a cap, grinning diabolically at me before
he eclipsed his features, and then by the light of the blackened tallow
candle I saw him disappear behind the cloth.

That was quite enough, and I could stand no more, but turned and fled
upstairs, feeling convinced that he would never come down again.

And it really was but yesterday, comparatively speaking, when, in the
depth of winter, a few days before Christmas, Mrs Scribe and self were
staying at a friend's house in Lower Bleak Street, Grimgreen Square,
close by Glower Street, North. I had a cold whose effect was to make me
insufferably hot and feverish, and as I lay in bed, somewhere about what
seemed the middle of the night, by which I mean the middle of one's
sleeping night, not twelve o'clock, when one has just plunged into bed -
about the middle of the night, while I was dreaming of being where there
were rows upon rows of lights, through which I was being somehow
propelled at the risk of being dashed against an indescribable object,
while my hands were apparently swelling out to a large size, and I was
in a wild, semi-delirious dream, from which it was a charity to wake me,
I felt my arm roughly grasped, and a well-known voice whispered in my
ear -

"Are you awake?"

As soon as I could collect myself and make sure that I really was in the
required state, I said, "Yes." But that was not until some few seconds
had passed.

"Only listen, dear," there's some one in the room, the voice whispered
again in an agitated manner.

"Pooh, nonsense," I said perversely, "I know that. There's been some
one all night." And then I stopped short, for though I knew that I had
fastened the door when we came to bed, I could hear a gentle rustling
noise, as of some one in a silk dress slowly gliding about the room very
slowly, and then coming to a stop, and apparently agitating the robe,
when again the rustling began, and it appeared just opposite the foot of
our bed.

"What shall we do?" gasped Mrs Scribe in a smothered voice, from
beneath the clothes.

I didn't know, so of course I could not tell her. I knew what I ought
to do, which was to have leaped boldly out of bed, and grappled the
intruder, but then the rustling was like that of a silk dress, and if a
ghost, of course it was of the feminine gender, and one could not help
studying decorum.

"Hadn't you better get up and see what it is?" said Mrs S, accompanying
the remark with a touch from her elbow.

"I'm in such a perspiration, I daren't stir," I whispered. "Remember
what a cold I have." And how I blessed that cold just then, for to a
man not too brave in his constitution, it did seem such a neat
creephole, for if one is no hero to his valet, one likes to be somebody
in the eyes of a wife. But still I must confess to a horrible dread of
ghosts, owing no doubt to the fact, that in our old house in Pimlico,
where I dwelt till the age of five, there was a huge black bogie who had
his habitat in the cellar, and though I never saw him, I was assured of
his existence upon the competent authority of both maids, and
consequently always had a wholesome dread of the coal-scuttle and the
coals, over which he must have walked.

"But what shall we do?" whispered Mrs Scribe again. "You really must
get out, dear."

Which was likely, wasn't it, to jump out of bed in the dark on purpose
to attack an unseen form in a rustling silk dress, creeping and gliding
about apparently by the wall? Why, to have attacked a ghost one could
have seen would have been bad enough, but in the dark when it could take
one at such disadvantage, it was not to be thought of, so I said by way
of compromise -

"Stop a minute," and there I lay listening to the horrible, creeping,
gliding, rustling noise. Ah! I could see it all plainly enough in my
imagination. We were in one of the old houses of the past century, and
here no doubt there had been a lady murdered after betrayal, and
concealed behind the wainscot. And now I remembered a peculiar smell
there was in the place when we entered it, a smell that I could not name
then, but which I know now, from having experienced it in the British
Museum - it was a mummy. There it was, all as plain as could be, a tall
slight figure in a brocaded silk dress extended with hoops, short
sleeves, and long lace trimmings hanging over the soft well rounded
arms; and there she was with her hair built right up, and secured by a
great comb, slowly gliding along by the wall, not on the floor, but some
feet up, and slowly rising higher and higher towards the ceiling.

All at once I fancied she turned her face to me, and, horror of horrors,
it was fleshless - nothing but the gaping sockets of the eyeballs, and
the grinning white teeth of a skull, and then I could bear no more, but
tried to cover my eyes with my hands, but found they did not need the
cover as the clothes were already to a certain extent over them. I
solemnly protest, however, that this must have been the act of Mrs
Scribe, for I could not have done such a thing.

This convinced me that I could not have seen the figure, so I raised
myself upon my elbow, urged thereto by the words of Mrs S, who
exclaimed -

"Do pray get up, dear, or I shall faint."

"I wish you would," I muttered to myself, but then, thinking of the
cruelty of the remark, I added, "or go to sleep," and then I tried to
pierce the thick darkness, but found that I was unable even to
distinguish the parts of the bedstead, and there, all the while, was the
noise, "rustle, rustle, rustle" - then a stoppage, and a sound as if a
hand beat against the wall, and at last the rustling quite ceased, and
was succeeded by a peculiar scraping sound, at times quite loud, and
then dying away, or stopping, and seeming as if it was not in the room
at all.

"Is it gone?" whispered Mrs S, and then, as I did not answer, and she
could not hear any noise, sitting up in bed by my side, "Oh! how
dreadful it is - isn't it, dear?" she whispered. "Pray do get up and see
what it can be."

The catarrh had made me so weak, and preyed so upon my nerves, that I
was obliged to take refuge again under my cold, and plead perspiration
and sudden check, and then, with the exception of the grating noise, all
seemed quiet; and I was about thinking of lying down again, when
"rustle, rustle," came the sound again, and Mrs S collapsed, that is to
say, sank beneath the clothes, while I - well I _didn't_ leap out of bed,
and try to grapple with our nocturnal visitant. I knew there were
matches upon the table, and I remembered exactly where the candle stood,
but I put it to the reader, who could get out of bed and try to light a
candle when there was a ghost in the room in a brocaded silk dress,
rustling about from place to place, and seeming as if the floor was no
necessity at all, for sometimes the noise came from far up, and
sometimes from low down; and at last, as I sat there in a regular
Turkish Bath, minus the shampooing, it seemed that the tall figure I
imagined to be there gliding about by the wall grew shorter and shorter
until but a foot high, then a few inches, and at last it was upon a
level with the floor, and then the noise grew fainter and fainter, and
at last was gone entirely, leaving a deep silence as intense as the
darkness which closed us in upon all sides.

With what a sigh of relief I fell back in the bed, and exclaimed -

"She's gone?"

"Then get up and light the candle, dear," exclaimed Mrs S; but
suffering as I was from catarrh, I might have made myself worse - at all
events, such a proceeding would have been imprudent - so I lay quite
still, thinking that, perhaps, after all, it was but a delusion and a
snare, and that I might be attacked as soon as I got out of bed; or even
if the ghost were gone, might she not come back again?

It was of no use though. I fought hard, but some women are so powerful
in their arguments; and before ten minutes had passed, I was standing
shivering by the dressing-table, fumbling about after the matches, which
I could not find until I had knocked over the candlestick and a
scent-bottle, and then put my foot upon one of the broken pieces. Then,
when I opened the box and took hold of a match, it would come off all
diabolical and phosphorescent upon my fingers, but no light could I get.
Sometimes it was the wrong end I was rubbing upon the sand-paper;
sometimes the head came off, and I could see it shining like a tiny star
upon the carpet. The beastly things would not light upon the
looking-glass, nor yet upon the table; but after I can't say how many
tries, I managed to get a light, though it went out again in an instant,
and there I stood trembling and expecting to be clutched by a cold hand
or to be dragged back.

Light at last though, for, drying my damp hands as well as I could, I
tried again by rubbing the match upon the paper of the wall, and then,
though the candle would not ignite with the extinguisher upon it, yet I
managed to get it well alight at last, and then tremblingly began to
search the room.

The door was fast, and at the first glance there was nothing to be seen
anywhere; but I examined behind the curtains, beneath the bed, in the
cupboard, and, as a last resource, up the chimney, and found - nothing.

"Why, it was fancy," I said, quite boldly, putting down the candle upon
the dressing-table, and looking at my watch, which, for the moment, I
made sure was wrong, for it pointed to seven.

"Don't put out the candle," said Mrs S, and I left it burning; but I
had hard work to make her believe it was so late.

"But not another night will I stop," she exclaimed. "I could not bear
it, for my nerves would be completely shattered if I had to put up with
this long. The place must be haunted."

Hot water and daylight put a stop to the dissertation which we had upon
the subject, and soon after - that is to say, about nine o'clock - we made
our way to the breakfast-parlour, where our host and hostess did not
appear for another quarter of an hour, and then it was nearly half an
hour more before we began breakfast, on account of delays in the kitchen
relating to toast, eggs, bacon, hot water, and other necessaries for the
matutinal repast.

"You see, it happened so unfortunately," said our hostess; "but I'm sure
you will look over it, as we wanted to be all clear for Christmas-day."

"Oh, don't name it," said Mrs S; "we are often later than this, for Mr
S will keep such late hours, especially if he is interested in anything
he is reading or writing."

"I'm sure I need not ask if you both slept comfortably," said our
hostess, "for you both look so well."

"Hem!" said Mrs Scribe; and I supplemented her cough with another much

"Surely the bed was not damp," exclaimed our hostess.

"Oh, no," said Mrs S; "but - but - er - did you ever hear any particular
noise about the house of a night?"

Our hostess shook her head, and then looked at me, but my face appeared
so placid and happy, that she looked back at Mrs S, who was
telegraphing for me to speak.

"No," said our host, putting down his letters, "no, I don't think we are
much troubled with noises here of a night. I often thought I should
like a good haunted house. But surely you heard nothing?"

"Oh, yes," said my wife, excitedly; "but pray ask Mr S - he will
explain;" and she again telegraphed for me to act as chief speaker.

"Well, what was it, Scribe?" exclaimed our host. "What did you hear?"

"What did I hear?" I said, for I had smelt out the rat - or the soot.
"Oh, I heard nothing but the sweeps."

Mrs S looked daggers.



"You don't believe in ghostsh?"

"No, I don't believe in ghostsh."

"Nor yet in goblinsh?"

"No, nor yet in goblinsh, nor witches, nor nothing of the kind, I
don't," cried Sandy Brown, talking all the while to himself as he was
making his way home from the village alehouse on Christmas-eve. "I'm
the right short I am, and I ain't 'fraid o' nothin', nor I don't care
for nothin', an' I'm aw' right, and rule Britannia never shall be
slaves. I'm a Hinglishman, I am, an' I'm a goin' crosh the churchyard
home, and I'll knock the wind outer any ghosht - azh - azh - azh - you
know - ghosht, and who shaysh it ain't all right? I never shee a ghosht
yet azh could get the better o' me, for I'm a man, I am, a true born
Briton if I am a tailor. And when I getsh to the head of affairsh I'll
do it p'litically, and put a shtop to ghoshts, and all the whole lot of
'em, and my namesh Brown, and I'm a-going home through churchyard I am."

And a very nice man was Sandy Brown, the true born Briton, as he went
rolling along the path that gloriously bright Christmas-eve, when there
were myriads of stars in the East, and the whole heavens above seemed
singing their wondrous eternal chorus -

"The hand that made us is Divine."

The moon shone; the sky was of a deep blue; the stars gemmed the vast
arch like diamonds; ay, and, like the most lustrous of jewels, shone
again the snow and frost from the pure white earth, while from far away
came the northern breeze humming over woodland, down, and lea, turning
everything to ice with its freezing breath, so that river and brook
forgot to flow, and every chimney sent up its incense-like smoke, rising
higher and higher in the frosty air.

The bells had been ringing, and the ringers had shut up the belfry-door.
The curate's and rector's daughters had finished their task, so that
the inside of the church was one great wreath of bright evergreens;
while many a busy housewife was hard at work yet, even though past
twelve, to finish dressing the goose or stoning the plums.

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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 15 of 19)