George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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And what a breeze that was that came singing over the hills, sharp,
keen, and blood dancing. Why, it was no use to try and resist it, for
it seemed to make your very heart glow, so that you wanted to hug
everybody and wish them a merry Christmas. Late, yes, it was late, but
there were glaring lights in many a window, and even bright sparks
dancing out of the tops of chimneys, for wasn't it Christmas-eve, and
was not the elder wine simmering in the little warmer, while many a rosy
face grew rosier through making the toast? And there, too, when you
stood by Rudby churchyard and looked at the venerable pile, glittering
with snow and ice in the moonlight, while the smooth, round hillocks lay
covered as it were with white fur for warmth, the scene brought then no
saddening thoughts, for you seemed only gazing upon the happy, peaceful
resting-place of those who enjoyed Christmas in the days of the past.

For it's of no use, you can't help it, it's in the bells, or the wind,
or the time, or something, you must feel jolly at Christmas, whether you
will or no, and though you may set up your back and resist, and all that
sort of thing, it's of no avail, so you may just as well yield with a
good grace, and in making others enjoy themselves, enjoy yourself too.
Selfishness! Bah, it's madness, folly: why, the real - the true
enjoyment of life is making other people happy, but Sandy Brown thought
that making himself the receptacle for more beer than was good for him
was being happy; and Sandy Brown was wrong.

And perhaps you'll say, too, that you don't believe in ghosts, goblins,
and spirits? Hold your tongue, for they're out by the thousand this
Christmas-time, putting noble and bright inspirations into people's
hearts, showing us the sufferings of the poor, and teaching us of the
good that there is room to do in this wicked world of ours. But there,
fie! fie! fie! to call it this wicked world - this great, wondrous,
glorious, beautiful world, if we did not mar its beauty. But there,
it's Christmas-time, when we all think of the coming year, and hopefully
gird up our loins for the new struggle.

Sandy Brown had left his wife and child at home, while he went out to
enjoy himself after his fashion, which was to drink till he grew so
quarrelsome that the landlord turned him out, when he would go home,
beat his wife, and then lay upon the bed and swear.

Ah, he was a nice man, was Sandy, just the fellow to have had in a glass
case to show as a specimen of a free-born Briton - of the man who never
would be a slave - to anything but his own vile passions.

It was very bleak at Sandy's cottage that night, for the coals were
done, and there was no wood. Little Polly could not sleep for the cold,
and her mother eat shivering over the fire trying to warm the little
thing, who cried piteously, as did its mother. There were no
preparations for spending a happy Christmas there, but poor Mrs Brown,
pale, young, and of the trusting heart, sat watching and waiting till
her lord and master should choose to return.

"There," said Sandy, blundering through the swing-gate and standing in
the churchyard. "Who'sh afraid? Where'sh yer ghosh - eh?"

"Hallo!" said a voice at his elbow, while it seemed that a cold, icy,
chilling breath swept over his cheek.

"Where'sh yer ghosh?" cried Sandy, startled and half sober already.

"Don't make such a noise, man, we're all here," said the voice, "come
along."

"Eh?" cried Sandy, now quite sober and all of a shiver, for a cold
breath seemed to have gone right through him, and he looked behind him
on each side and then in front, but there was nothing visible but the
glittering snow - covered graves and tombstones sparkling in the
brilliant moonlight.

"Bah!" cried Sandy, "I don't believe - "

"Yes, you do," said the same voice, and again the cold breath seemed to
go through Sandy and amongst his hair, so that it lifted his hat,
already half off, and it fell to the ground.

"N-n-no, I don't," cried Sandy, trying to start off in a run, but he
stopped short, for just in front of him stood a bright, glittering,
white figure, apparently made of snow, only that it had jolly rosy
cheeks, and a pair of the keenest eyes ever seen.

"Yes, you do, Sandy Brown," said the same voice, "and so don't
contradict. Bring him along."

In a moment, before he could turn himself, there came a rushing sound
like when the wintry breeze plunges into a heap of leaves, and whirls
and rustles them away, when Sandy felt himself turned in a moment as it
were to ice, and then rising higher and higher as he was borne round and
round for some distance; when in the midst of myriads of tiny,
glittering, snow-like figures, he was carried all at once right over the
church; while like a beam of light the figures swept on after him as now
rising, now falling, then circling, he was at last wafted round and
round the old church, till he was placed upon the tower top, and like a
swarm of bees in summer, the tiny figures came clustering and humming
round him till they were all settled.

"Let me go home, please," cried Sandy, as soon as he could speak, but
before the last word was well said, the first figure he had seen clapped
its hand upon his mouth, when the tailor's jaw seemed to freeze stiff,
so that he could not move his jaw.

"How dare you?" cried the spirit angrily.

"Dare I what?" Sandy said with his eyes.

"Profane good words," cried the spirit, in answer. "How dare you talk
about home, when you have murdered it, and cast the guardian spirit out?
Freeze him. But there, stop a bit."

Hundreds of the little fellows round had been about to make a dash at
Sandy, but they fell back once more, and the tailor sat immoveable.

"There, look there," said the cold voice; "that's what you have spoilt."
And Sandy began to weep bitterly, so that his tears froze and fell in
little hard pellets of ice on to the snow before him, for he was looking
upon the happy little home he had once had before he took to drinking,
and watching in the humble but comfortable spot the busy wife preparing
for the next day's Christmas feast, while he, busy and active, was
finishing some work to take back.

"Now, look," cried the cold voice, and in an instant the scene had
changed from light to darkness, for he could see his own dissipated,
ragged self standing in the open door of his cottage, with the moonlight
casting his shadow across the figure of his wife, lying cold and pale,
with her child clasped to her breast. The black shadow - his shadow - the
gloomy shade of her life cast upon her; and in speechless agony Sandy
tried to shriek, for it seemed that she was dead - that they were dead,
frozen in the bitter night while waiting for him.

The poor wretch looked imploringly at the figure before him, but there
was only a grim smile upon its countenance as it nodded its head; and
then, as if in the midst of a storm of snow flakes, Sandy was borne away
and away, freezing as he went, now higher, now lower; now close up to
some bright window, where he could see merry faces clustering round the
fire; now by the humblest cottage, now by the lordly mansion; but see
what he would, there was still the black shadow of himself cast upon
those two cold figures, and he turned his eyes imploringly from tiny
face to tiny face, till all at once he found that they were sailing once
more round and round, now higher, now lower, till from sailing round the
church the tiny spirits began to settle slowly down more and more in the
churchyard, till they left Sandy, stiff and cold, lying between two
graves, with the one tall ghostly figure glittering above him.

And now began something more wondrous than ever, for the bright figure
glittering in the moonlight began to hover and quiver its long arms and
legs above the tailor, and as it shook itself it seemed to fall all away
in innumerable other figures, each one its own counterpart, till there
was nothing left but the face, which stayed staring right in front.

The old clock struck four, when, groaning with pain and trembling with
fear and cold, Sandy Brown slowly raised himself, keeping his eyes fixed
upon a stony-faced cherub powdered with snow, which sat upon a tombstone
in front, and returned the stare with its stony eyes till Sandy slowly
and painfully made his way across the churchyard, leaving his track in
the newly fallen snow; while, after an hour or two's overclouding, the
heavens were once more bright and clear, so that when Sandy stood
shuddering at his own door he feared to raise the latch, for the moon
shone brightly behind him, and he trembled and paused in dread, for he
knew where his black shadow would fall.

But in an agony of fear he at length slowly and carefully raised the
latch, gazed upon his shadow falling across his wife and child, and
then, in the revulsion of feeling to find that they only slept, he
staggered for a moment, and as his frightened wife shrieked, he fell to
the ground, as if stricken by some mighty blow.

But joy don't kill, especially at Christmas-time, and when Mrs Brown
rose rather late that morning, she could not make out why Sandy was gone
out so soon, for his usual custom was to lie half the day in bed after a
drinking bout. But Sandy had gone to see about the day's dinner, and -

But there, Sandy's home a year after showed the effect of his meeting
with the Christmas spirits, for it was well-furnished, and his wife
looked happy, plump, and rosy - another woman, in fact; while as to
people saying that Sandy fell down drunk in the churchyard, and that it
was the little snow storm that he saw, why that's all nonsense; the
story must be true, for a man picked up Sandy's old hat just by the
swing-gate, where it fell off when he felt the spirit's breath. And as
to there being no spirits out at Christmas-time, why I could name no end
of them, such as love, gratitude, kindness, gentleness, good humour, and
scores more with names, besides all those nameless spirits that cluster
round every good, true, and loving heart at Christmas; ay, and at all
times. While among those who have listened to this story and thought of
its moral, surely there is at this moment that most gracious of
spirits - Forbearance.



CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

KING BOREAS.

Away with a shout and a shriek from the North,
The host of the Storm King in rage hurries forth;
With the monarch to lead them away o'er the main,
Sweep with whistle and wild shriek the winterly train.

O'er the sea, o'er the waves that spring tossing in wrath,
To fly after the host in a storm of white froth,
Till they dash in their anger on sand-hill and rock,
Or make some ship shiver, and groan with their shock.

Away rush the train with a howl 'mid each cloud,
That no longer moon-silvered floats massive and proud;
But torn by the Storm King, and rent by his crew,
Wild and ragged scuds onward in murkiest hue.

'Mid the rocks, through the caves that o'er ocean's waves scowl,
Away speeds the King, and his followers howl
As they toss the dark sea-weed, and tear up the sand,
Which flies frightened in drifts at the touch of their hand.

And away, and away, where the forest trees wave,
Where the willow and silver birch drooping boughs lave
In the silver-like stream, in the mossy green vale,
That ere yet the storm cometh breaks forth in a wail.

Now crashing 'mid beech-tops, now rending the oak,
Then laying the larch low with mightiest stroke;
While through the frail willow the storm spirits tear,
And the boughs stream aloft like a maniac's hair.

Rejoicing and shrieking anew at each feat,
Away o'er the moorlands, away sharp and fleet;
By the cotter's low hovel, the steep-cresting mill,
To the town by the hill-slope, as yet calm and still.

Bursting now o'er the roofs with a brain-piercing yell,
Round the old abbey towers they mock at each bell
As the past hour's chimed, when they sweep off the tone,
And away o'er the woodlands the summons has flown.

Again with a shriek, and again with a cry,
The King and his crew keep their revel on high;
They bear the cold snow-drift aloft in their train,
The sleet-darting arrow, and icy North chain.

They bind up the streamlet, they fetter the lake,
The huge rocky mountain they shivering break;
They rage through the forest, they strew the sea-shore,
While the echoing hill-sides resound with their roar.

King Boreas passes, his revel is o'er,
But the waves still in anger toss down by the shore;
The trees lie half broken and torn by the gale,
While the streamlets are fettered and bound in the vale.



CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.

A LADY IN THE CASE.

Well, no, sir, I can't complain, I've risen well in the force, and I'm
very well satisfied with my position, but then there's a great deal of
responsibility attached to one's office, and, I can assure you, police
inspectors have something else to do besides sitting still and growing
fat. Many a smart young fellow would rise and get to be sergeant,
inspector, or super in his turn, but for some little failings that creep
out - I have my failings, too, of course, but still somehow I've crept up
till here I am on the shady side of fifty and busy as ever.

Now you want me to give you an anecdote to put into print, that's what
you want, eh? Well, of course it was easy enough to tell that, and I
don't mind obliging you, for, as you very reasonably say, truth is
stranger than fiction. But that disposition to tattle or talk about
their business has been the ruin of more than one promising young
officer. Now just think for a moment and suppose us to be always ready
to talk of the cases we had in hand, where should we be? Marked men
would slip us, planned jobs would be stopped, and many a gaol bird,
whose tail we want to salt, would be off and escape. Ah, thirty years
in the force have shown me some strange sights, and laid bare some
curious tricks, all planned for the purpose of getting hold of
somebody's money. I've seen and had to do with robbery, and murder, and
garrotting, and burking, and suicide, and swindling, and embezzlement,
and every kind of felony or larceny you can find a name for.

You know, our part is decidedly, I think, more lively than the city, for
with the exception of a good bold robbery now and then at a bank or big
gentleman's, there's seldom anything much there, while in our part we're
always busy. For somehow or another there's always so many really
clever rascals laying their heads together and making schemes, and then
you have something new coming out all at once, like a clap of thunder
over the town, and people are very much disgusted because the police
have not bad more foresight, when all the while it's like a game of
chess, and though we who play with the white pieces can to a certain
extent see through the manoeuvres of black, yet we cannot see through
everything as a matter of course.

Now I'm going to tell you of a little affair that happened one
Christmas-night about twenty years ago, when I was only number so and
so. It was a bright, clear, frosty night; no moon, but plenty of snow
had fallen, quite late in the evening, so that the streets were
regularly muffled; and in spite of feeling a bit ill-tempered at having
to be on duty while other people were enjoying themselves, I could not
help thinking of what a seasonable night it was, and how jovial and
pleasant every place seemed to look. There were the bright lights and
glowing fires, shining ruddy and warm through the drawn curtains; music
and laughing might be heard every here and there, and more than once I
stopped to hear a sweet voice singing, and felt envious like of the
comforts other people enjoyed. Everywhere there seemed jollity and
festivity, but in the midst of my growling I could not help recollecting
that my beat that night was all in the better part, while down in the
slums there was plenty of misery, enough to make even a policeman's
heart sore.

Well, I felt better then, and I went on quietly through the deep snow,
now making a little noise where it was a bit trampled, and now stealing
along as quietly as could be. Once I caught myself humming a bit of a
song I had just heard some one singing, then I whistled a bit, and still
I kept on, buttoned up and gloved, thinking how pleasant it would have
been spending Christmas at some jolly farm-house in the country, far
away from the noise and worry of London.

All at once I came upon a merry party of some half-dozen ladies and
gentlemen, just going in at a large house, when one of the gentlemen
stopped and gave me quite a cheerer.

"How long are you on for, my man?" he says.

"Six o'clock to-morrow morning, sir."

"Hum; long hours on a bitter night like this. Bring a glass, John."

And then I heard him rattle his keys as he says, "stop a minute," and
directly after he came back into the large, handsome hall with a
decanter in his hand, while just about the same time the servant brought
a wine glass on a little silver tray.

"There, my man," says the jolly-looking old gentleman, filling me up a
glass of wine. "You take care of us, so it's only fair that we should
take care of you. Thank you, my man, I hope I may have good health.
There tip it down and have another glass. That's twenty port, that is,
and a couple of glasses of that won't hurt you. Here, take hold of this
lump of cake."

I didn't know anything then about twenty port, but I thought I should
like twenty glasses of the rich red wine, which trickled down your
throat like molten sunshine, and made you feel as if it was a jolly
thing to be out on a cold Christmas-night; so I drank my second glass,
wishing the pleasant, smiling old chap a merry Christmas, and then next
minute, feeling like a new man, I was slowly tramping down the long
street.

As I told you, in places I went along as quiet as a mouse, when I
suppose it was about one o'clock that, in the middle of one street, I
came all at once upon a tall, well-dressed young fellow inside some area
railings, same as you may have seen, sometimes, where, beside the rails,
the top of the area is all covered with iron bars, which make it like
the top of a cage; while, as a matter of course, you can walk up to the
dining-room windows.

Well, that's what this young fellow had done; and, as I went quietly up,
there he was, close up, resting one foot on a ledge of the stucco, while
one hand was on the sill of the open parlour window.

"Hallo!" I said quietly, for I had taken my gentleman quite by
surprise; and I felt very good-tempered and comfortable from the effects
of those two glasses of sunshine; so "Hallo!" I said, "what is it?"
knowing all the while that I must have my gentleman, for he was
regularly caged, and looking at me through the bars.

"Hush!" he said, not in the least taken aback; "Hush! hold your tongue:
there's a lady in the case. Here, catch hold, and be off, there's a
good fellow;" and then he gave me half-a-crown.

Now, seeing that it was light enough for me to make out that he was a
well-dressed, smart-looking young chap, I took the half-crown, and as it
didn't seem to be part of my work to interfere with a bit of billing and
cooing, I went on, leaving my friend whispering to some one inside.

"All right, my fine fellow," I said to myself, turning it over in my
mind; "All right, but I don't mean to be done if there's anything else
on the way." So I went slowly on, and turned the corner; and then,
knowing that my steps couldn't be heard, I slipped into a doorway, and
made myself as small as I could.

Well, I hadn't been there a minute before I fancied I heard a sound like
somebody sneezing, and trying to smother it down; and then my heart beat
a little heavier, for I knew there was something more than a lady in the
case; while, as I stood squeezed up there, I could make out my friend
coming along by the shadow sent forward by the gas-lamp just round the
corner. At last, very slowly he peeped round to look along the street
where I was, but he could make nothing out, for I kept very snug in my
doorway; though, if he had only come down half-a-dozen yards, he must
have seen me, for there was a light burning over the door.

But the very openness of the place concealed me, and I breathed easier
again as I made out by the shadow that he was going back.

"My turn now," I said; and then, going down on hands and knees, I
crawled quietly and quickly over the snow, and had my peep round the
corner after him, when there he was, slipping along as fast as he could
go. "Stop a minute, my boy," I said, and then I runs as hard as I could
down two streets to where I knew I must meet our sergeant and another
man; for, you see, we all have our points to cross one another at
certain times of the night, so that one man acts as a check on another;
and the sergeant soon knows that, if a man's not at his place, there's
either something wrong or the constable's neglecting his duty.

Just as I thought, there were the sergeant and the man, and the next
minute we were going over my ground again, so as to pass along the
street and come up to the open window, as I did at first. They were
close behind me when I reached the street, and down on my knees I went
again, held my hat behind me, crept to the end of the railings, and
peeped like a boy playing "whoop."

"All right," I whispered back to the sergeant, for there was my friend
at the other corner down on his hands and knees peeping round too, and
watching for me to come back again.

Well, we sent our man back through the mews behind the houses to try and
catch the watcher, while the sergeant and I crawled very quietly along
close to the railings towards the open-windowed house, and next moment
we were safe in the doorway, when I saw a head pop back from the open
window as we came up; and so did the sergeant - by the way he nipped my
arm. But there, we waited quiet and still for our other man to do his
work and take number one, as I'll call the generous half-crown
gentleman, when we meant to take proceedings against the one or two
inside.

About five minutes slipped away very slowly when the sergeant whispered,
"He's a very long time!" But the words were hardly out of his mouth
before we heard some one coming down the street as hard as he could run,
with another in full chase. So we let the first come on without our
showing ourselves, when, as he came near the open window, he gave a low,
peculiar whistle - one which was replied to from inside by a sort of
warning chirrup. But, if meant for a warning, it was of no use, for,
stooping in the shadow of the railings, we darted out just at the right
moment, tripped my amorous friend up; and, though he tried to jump
clear, it was of no use, for down he went, over and over in the snow,
our other man a-top of him, and then we had the "darbies" on him in a
moment.

"I hope we shan't alarm that lady that's in the case," I said to my
friend, as we hauled him up into the doorway; and then with another pair
of bracelets we fastened him tight to the scraper, where he was quite
safe till we liked to take him off.

"Hum," said the sergeant; then, looking at me and chuckling, as he stood
brushing the snow off the knees of his trousers; "Hum, that's the cock
bird, Jones, but I'm afraid the hen will prove rather tough."

"Yes," I says, "and I'm afraid there'll be one or two awkward chicks as
well."

The next thing the sergeant did was to ring well at the door after
sending another man, who now came up, round to the mews at the back to
be on the look-out for escaping in that direction; and then, as he
climbed over the railings to get at the parlour window, we heard a most
tremendous screaming.

"Come now, there is a lady in the case after all," said the sergeant;
and then, telling our other man to mind the prisoner, he made ready to
get in at the window, where all looked very uncomfortably dark and
treacherous.

"Shall I go first?" I said, all in a fidget at the same time lest he
should say "Yes," for I don't mind owning that it looked uncommonly like
putting one's head in a trap to go in at that window; and I felt a bit
nervous, if not frightened.

The next moment I was over the railings too; and, holding my bull's-eye
so as to throw all the light into the room I could, when in went the
sergeant, and directly after, almost before you could say "Jack
Robinson," there was a bit of a scuffle and the sound of a heavy blow,
and some one went down with a crash; while, as I leaned forward and held
in my light, I just caught a glimpse of some one, and at the same moment


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 16 of 19)