George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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social cheer, and perhaps, more than all, the spirits, tended to drive
away any dread that might otherwise have taken possession of those
present, and the night wore on.

Twelve struck by the old church-clock, and the wind lulled.

"Now is the witching - what's the rest of it?" said one of the party.

"Ah," said another, "now's the ghostly time."

"Don't you wish you were at home, Hemson?" said another.

"Not I," said the agent. "I'm perfectly cool, so far."

"Well, I'm not," said the first speaker, "for my shins are scorching."

"Pass the kettle this way," said my friend, "and - "

"Hush!" exclaimed Mr Hemson, and a dead silence fell upon the group.

"Well, what is it?" said my friend, holding his glass to the
kettle-spout.

"I fancied I heard a noise," said Mr Hemson, while all listened
attentively.

"Pooh," said my friend; "the wind," and he then filled up his glass and
placed it upon the table, but the next moment he started up.

"Well, what now?" said Mr Hemson.

"Didn't you hear that?" exclaimed my friend.

"No, what?" said Mr Hemson.

"Why that noise - there!" he exclaimed, and now every man started to his
feet, having distinctly heard some sounds proceeding from the direction
of the hall.

"Hush, be quiet," whispered Mr Hemson, hastily examining his lanthorn.
"Now then, follow me," and all hastily passed up the few steps and stood
in the hall listening to the sound as of some one talking in the room
right in front - the dining-room.

The hall was quite dark save where the light from the breakfast-parlour
shone out and cast a long streak upon the dining-room door, while there,
each man holding his breath, and armed as they were with stout
walking-sticks, pokers, or whatever came to their reach, the party stood
listening as the loud utterance of some voice reached their ears,
succeeded by various noises, as if there were some occupant of the room.

"Now then," whispered Mr Hemson, "are you all ready?"

"Yes," was the whispered response.

Mr Hemson turned on his dark lanthorn, almost with one movement turned
key and handle, threw open the door, and as every man rushed in, the
light was flashed all over the room, but no one was visible. There
stood the old-fashioned dining-room chairs formally against the walls,
the pictures looked down grimly, the wine cooler beneath the sideboard
yawned gloomily and black, but nothing more could be seen; not even a
chair was out of place, though every eye was now directed to a large
closet in one corner.

"Come along, gentlemen," said Mr Hemson, and he swung the door of the
empty closet open.

"But the table cover," whispered my friend, pointing to the large
dust-covered cloth, whose corners touched the floor.

To whisk off the great pall-like cloth from the long dining-table was
but the work of an instant, and then the light was flashed beneath the
table; but nothing save a cloud of penetrating dust rewarded the
searchers, who then stood, pale and puzzled, looking at one another,
till Mr Hemson proposed an adjournment to the little room, where, after
carefully locking the dining-room door, they retook their places, every
man feeling uncomfortable and put out.

But attention was soon drawn by my friend to the arrangement agreed
upon, when pencils were eagerly seized, and for a quarter of an hour not
a word was spoken, when the last man laid down his pencil.

"Has every man signed his name?" asked my friend.

This caused another trifling delay, for no man had placed his name at
the bottom of his manuscript; but this being done, the first man's paper
was read over. It was, of course, very brief, but to the effect that,
while standing in the hall, he had heard the sound as of a man talking
to himself in a wild, agitated manner; that it seemed that a book was
thrown hastily down upon the table by some one, who then hurriedly
pushed his chair back, so that it scraped along the floor, while at the
same time the table gave way and cracked audibly. Then followed the
hurried pacing of some one up and down the room, till the door was
thrown open and all became silent.

"Precisely what I have stated," exclaimed Mr Hemson.

"Mine is almost word for word the same," cried my friend; while, with
trifling exceptions, the narratives of the other watchers tallied.

Rather pale and uncomfortable, the party now eat talking in whispers,
starting at every loud gust of wind or loud pat of snow upon the window,
while the rattling of casement or door was enough to send a shiver
through the stoutest man present. But as the night wore on and nothing
more alarming was heard, first one and then another dropped off to
sleep, though the majority sat watching till the cold grey light of the
winter's morning dawned; and then, after another glance at the
dining-room, now looking more weird than ever as seen by the light
streaming through the round, eye-like holes in the window shutters, the
party gladly left the house, and doubtless made the best of their way to
bed.

Now, I make no defence of this story, for I have placed it upon paper in
much the same form that it was told to me. What the noise was that the
convivial watchers heard I cannot say, but though I consider my
informant worthy of credence, and though it was singular that the
impression made on all was the same, yet I cannot help thinking that the
best thing to imbibe while sitting up o' night is tea.



CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.

CAUGHT IN HIS OWN TRAP.

Fancy being almost born a DD, like unto Mr Dagon Dodd, a gentleman who
resided, when in what he called his prime, at Number Nine, Inkermann
Villas, Balaclava-road, Russiaville - who resided there for the simple
reason that he paid his rent and rates with the same punctuality that he
did his Income Tax, or it is within the range of probability that Number
Nine would soon have possessed another tenant.

Now, although Mr Dagon Dodd had a great right to the letters DD, since
they formed his initials; yet he was in no wise related to a celebrated
doctor of the same name. Mr Dodd was a bachelor - rather a bald
bachelor, with a great deal of very smooth white crown, surrounded by a
neat little stubbly fence of very black bristly hair. You never caught
Mr DD with his hair brushed in greasy streaks across his head, for the
simple reason that his was hair that would not brush, nor yet comb; it
grew in a particular way, and stuck to that way most obstinately,
besides which what hair existed was so much like a brush itself, that
when the well-known toilet appendage came into contact with Mr DD's
head there was such violent antagonism that electricity was evolved, and
my only wonder is that Mr DD had not brought the powerful current into
use in some way.

Mr Dodd was in person slightly stout, slightly asthmatical, and
decidedly short; and though a single person, report said that it was not
the fault of the gentleman, for he had once proposed to a lady and been
rejected. At all events, Mr Dodd was a single gentleman in the popular
acceptation of the term, but decidedly not so in appearance, for in
addition to his person, which might have been called after the contents
of certain brewers' barrels, "Double Stout," he wore double-breasted
coats and waistcoats, double-soled shoes, with large black ferret
strings, tied in bows, even in snowy weather, while his double chin and
double show of importance made the little gentleman do very great credit
to Number Nine, Inkermann Villas.

But though a bachelor, Mr Dodd was wedded - wedded to science - science
as applied to domestic economy - social science, and he experimentalised
largely, greatly to the disgust of his staff of servants - cook,
housemaid, and buttons, - who stigmatised him as _messy_. For the fact
is, Mr Dodd delighted in patents, and was in himself a little fortune
to those men who are for ever trying to perfect that steam-engine which
shall draw corks. Though far from sneering at improvements, what a
blessing it would be if some ingenious mortal would invent a patent
noiseless dressing-machine - a dressing-machine for babies. Oh, _bliss_!
bliss!! bliss!!! However such an invention could not be expected from a
single gentleman, who had, though, patent locks on all his doors; a
patent rotary knife-cleaner polished the knives; a patent boot-cleaner
the boots; a patent roasting-jack nearly drove the cook mad, as it
basted the meat itself, and all the while splashed the clean hearth and
wasted the perquisites. Then there was a patent potato-peeler, a patent
potato-masher - egg-beater - carpet-sweeper - cinder-sifter - and prize
Kitchener. Patent something with an unpronounceable name covered the
hall; patent candles burned in patent lamps; patent enamel saucepans
cooked the viands; while Mr Dodd almost fed himself by means of a
little chewing thing, which turned with a handle, for teeth and
digestion were failing, and in spite of a patent base artificial teeth
will prove more ornamental than useful. There was a patent ventilator
for regulating the temperature of every room - instruments that were
remarkable for their awkward propensities, for, like the greater part of
the machinery in Mr Dodd's establishment, these ventilators always made
a point of doing the very opposite to what was required of them. For
instance, they always stuck and remained open in winter, to give
entrance to all the tooth-chattering winds; and as obstinately remained
closed when the summer heats prevailed, and a little fresh air would
have been a blessing. The patent, or rather to be made patent,
coal-scuttle of Mr Dodd's own designing was certainly a noble
invention, only that, like Artemus Ward's first novel, it was far from
"perfeck," for in consequence of working with a crank the article was
cranky, and always put on either too much or too little of the
heat-affording mineral, while it had been known to scatter a knubbly
shower all over the hearthrug.

But scarcely anything had taken up more of Mr Dodd's attention, than
the springs which opened and closed his doors. He very reasonably said
that such a trivial matter might easily be worked by machinery
sympathising with the approaching feet; but in spite of all his care and
trouble, the springs beneath the boards of the floor would not be
regulated to the required strength, they would go either too stiffly or
too easily. Now this was very often most troublesome, as exemplified
upon one occasion, when Mr Dodd was bowing out a lady visitor, taking
leave with her husband. The owner of the inventions stood too long upon
the spring board, and just in the midst of one of his most profound
bows, clap-to came the door, shooting Mr Dodd forward, as if out of a
Roman catapult, and making him butt his male friend, ram fashion, right
in the region known to us in school days as "the wind," when the effects
were most disastrous: the gentleman's watch-glass was broken, and the
visitor doubled up in the large umbrella-stand, with his internal
inflatable organs in a state of vacuum, while by the recoil, Mr Dodd
came down in a sitting posture upon the door mat, where he remained
staring at his collapsed friend until he thought better of it, and
helped him to rise.

He was often on the very point of becoming a martyr to science was Mr
Dodd, and never nearer than upon one dismal, dreary, snowy, scrawmy
morning, one of those cheerful times when people are wont to feel put
out with everything and everybody - a sort of three-cornered time - a
Boxing-day in fact, when, after a little extra jollity on the previous
night, there was a strong suspicion of headache and disordered liver.
Mr Dodd began the day all askew, by getting out of bed the wrong way,
and then felt as if all the skin was off his temper which as naturally
became chafed, as that people who have sore places, manage to hit them
in preference to other parts of their body however sound. Everything
went wrong with Mr Dodd upon that morning. His shaving water was
nearly cold, and in spite of the patent guard razor, Mr Dodd cut
himself severely; then there was hard water in place of soft, in the
ewer, and his face was chapped with the previous day's cutting wind; he
felt as if he had taken cold, for the ventilator had not closed when Mr
Dodd went to bed, even when he stood upon a chair and hammered it with a
poker; while, worse than all, an irritating cough tickled and tormented
him, tried as it was by the smoke which ascended the staircase and
penetrated his bedroom.

Descending at last through the clouds, like an angry Jove, Mr Dodd
encountered Mary, housemaid, with an angry - "Where does all this smoke
come from?"

"Oh, it's all that nasty jester, sir, as won't keep up. It's only
propped up now by two little deary pieces of firewood, a waiting to be
burnt through and let it down again."

Mary's angry master seemed to think the "nasty jester" was no joker; but
a little examination soon enabled him to put the register right, and
dispense with the "two little deary pieces of firewood;" but directly
after Mr Dodd summoned the maiden to the dining-room, by apparently
trying to play a tune upon some instrument, whose ivory mouthpiece
projected from the wall.

"No stove fire alight in the hall this morning, Mary?" said Mr Dodd, as
his attendant brought, in some very badly made dry toast.

"Won't burn a bit, sir," said Mary. "It's wuss than this, and smokes
awful."

"Did you turn the little knob by the pipe?"

"No, sir, I didn't, sir."

"Tutt - tutt - tutt," exclaimed Mr Dodd impatiently, as he went to the
foot of the well staircase, opened the stove damper, and then stooped
down to open the door and see whether a spark yet remained.

It was well for Mr Dodd that he stooped as he did, for with a fearful
crash down came a coal-scuttle from the second floor, striking from side
to side of the well staircase, and bestowing upon the stooping
gentleman's bald head a regular douche of knubbly coals, mingled with
dust, while the copper scuttle itself fell upon the stove, and knocked
off the pineapple knob which formed its apex.

"Lawk-a-mercy, sir, what a good job as it wasn't the scuttle," exclaimed
Mary, as her master shook himself free from the cheerful coal, and gazed
up at the skylight at the top of the staircase, to see whence came the
fearful shower, but only to find his eyes resting upon the fat, round,
inanimate countenance of the page staring over the bannisters, perfectly
aghast at the mischief.

The explanation Mr Dodd sought was most simple. Mr Dodd had not yet
fitted his house with a hydraulic lift, after the fashion of those used
in our Brobdignagian hotels, but had contented himself with a crane and
winch for drawing up coals and other loads. This machine, too, was a
failure from the ignorance and apathy of the page, who was a regular
grit in Mr Dodd's cog-wheels, and who this very morning, from some
mismanagement, had nearly offered up his master as a sacrifice upon the
altar of science.

Under these untoward circumstances Mr Dodd went and acted in the most
sensible of ways, that is to say, he went and washed himself; but it is
not surprising that he should afterwards feel more gritty than ever when
he sat down to partake of his matutinal coffee, made in a patent pot
with an impossible name. He boiled his eggs, too, himself, by means of
a small tin affair - patent, of course - in which a certain quantity of
spirit of wine was burned, and when extinct the eggs were done.

Mr Dodd finished his breakfast in a very excitable and vicious manner.
He felt sore, mentally and bodily sore, for his inventions and patents
were his hobby, and they either would not work right, or people would
not take the trouble to comprehend them. He suffered terribly; but for
all that he persevered, and, being a bachelor, he did as he liked. And,
being a bachelor, what wonder that he should have a sewing-machine, and
amuse himself with his Wheeler and Lathe in stitching round the
half-dozen new table-cloths? But the sewing-machine was useless for
buttons, so Mr Dodd set to, to invent one that should meet that want,
and so be a blessing for every single man. A week passed - two weeks -
three weeks; and then, after no end of brain work and modelling for the
new machine, to be called the patent button-fixer, invented by Mr Dagon
Dodd, that gentleman didn't do it, and gave up, if not in despair, at
all events in despair's first cousin.

But Boxing-day seemed to have set in badly; while Mr Dodd felt
ill-disposed to suffer the stings and arrows. According to the old
saying, "it never rains but it pours" - in this case coals - and while the
hero of these troubles was sternly gazing upon his fire, with a foot
planted against each bright cheek of the stove, Mary came to announce
the arrival of a tradesman, now in attendance to take certain orders.

Mr Dodd tried to place himself in a less American position, but found
that he was a fixture. It was a wet, slushy morning, and Mr D had
determined to try the new patent compo-ment-elastical-everlasting-soled
boots - a new patent, and one which should have been devoted to the
practice of walking upon ceilings, for they were now tightly fixed to
the sides of the fireplace, and Mr Dodd in them, to his unutterable
discomfort and annoyance. At the first he imagined that it must be
owing to the tar he burned upon his fire - a coke fire, whose combustion
was aided by the drips from a small vessel behind the register,
containing tar; but Mr D soon found that the material of his new
impervious boot-soles was alone to blame; and consequently while the man
waited he unlaced and set himself at liberty, a culmination at which he
did not arrive without slipping off his chair once, and coming into
sharp contact with the fender.

Mr Dodd determined in future to stick to his shoes, for it was evident
that his boots meant to stick to something else, and they did too so
tightly that they had to be flayed off with the carving-knife, and not
easily either, for sometimes the knife became a fixture, and at others
the sole became again attached, while the heel was set at liberty, and
_vice versa_. So Mr Dodd felt ill-tempered.

"Now, Mr Pouter," said Mr Dodd at last to the tradesman, who had been
for some time standing within the door, and smelling very strongly of
glue; "now, Mr Pouter, I want the door-springs eased a little, and I
want this fixed."

"Certainly, sir," said Mr Pouter, smiling at the recollection of his
old friends the spring-doors, which had been quite a little fortune to
him, and bade fair to remain so, seeing that they required his
ministering hands about once a week. _We_ already know how that they
would occasionally bang too hard, but they would also bang too softly;
when the application of a hand was necessary to make them close, and
they might just as well have been common doors. So Mr Pouter smiled.

"What are you laughing at, sir?" exclaimed Mr Dodd, angrily. "I tell
you what it is, sir," he continued, rubbing his sore head, for he could
not touch his sore temper, "I'll tell you what it is, if you can - not
attend to my orders without grinning like a gorilla, I'll - I'll - I'll -
employ some one else. Such impudence!"

This was an awful threat for Mr Pouter. It was like saying, "I'll take
fifty pounds away from you;" and therefore Mr Pouter, who hated losing
a customer, and was much given to cuddling his jobs - that is to say,
holding one very tightly till another came in - Mr Pouter looked
exceedingly dove-like and mild, ceased smiling, and said appealingly -

"Plee, sir, I didn't laugh."

"Hold your tongue, sir," exclaimed Mr Dodd, "I say you did laugh."

"But plee, sir, I really didn't, sir, and I didn't mean nothin' at all,
sir," expostulated Mr Pouter, in a most ill-used tone.

"You laughed at me very rudely, sir," said Mr Dodd, with dignity, "and
I now beg that the subject may be dropped. Have you brought your
tools?"

"Yes, sir; yes, sir!" exclaimed Mr Pouter, glad enough to have the
subject changed, and now looking as solemn and stiff in his features as
if his skin were composed of his own shavings.

"Then turn up that carpet, remove the loose boards, and ease the
door-spring - not too much, mind; but, there, let that girl pass with the
tray."

"That girl" was Mr Dodd's housemaid, Mary, who gave her head a
dignified toss; but her step was arrested by the sound of a heavy body
falling, followed by an exclamation of pain.

"Dear me, sir - very sorry, sir - wouldn't have had it happen on any
account," said Mr Pouter, stooping to pick up the mallet he had dropped
upon Mr Dodd's particular corn.

But Mr Dodd did not reply, he only limped about the room with anguish
depicted upon every feature, while Mr Pouter tremblingly went on with
his work.

"There!" exclaimed Mary, upon reaching the kitchen, "I declare if I'll
stop. There's nothing but messing going on from morning till night.
It's too bad! for there's that Pouter again, chipping and hammering, and
sending the dust a-flying all over the room worse than ever."

"What was all that noise?" croaked Cook, a very red-faced and red-armed
lady.

"Carpenter dropped one of his tools on master's toe, and sent him
a-hopping about the room like a singed monkey," exclaimed Mary, in a
tone of the deepest disgust. And it must be said that this was a very
disrespectful and doubtful simile, for the odds were strongly against
Mary Housemaid having seen a monkey suffering from the effects of fire.

"What's the carpenter a-doing of?" said Cook, who was busy making paste,
and now paused to have her question answered, and to rub her itching
nose with the rolling-pin.

"Why," exclaimed Cook's mortal enemy, the Buttons, "master said as old
Pouter was to come and fix a jam - something or other."

"There, now, you be off into the hairy and finish them shoes," exclaimed
Mrs Cook, fiercely. "Nobody arst your opinion; so come, now, be off!"

Buttons did "be off," for under the circumstances it would have been
rash to have stayed, since Mrs Cook was going at him, rolling-pin in
hand, with the very evident intention of using it in the same way as her
friend Q1866 did his truncheon. But Buttons was not going to be bundled
out of the kitchen that way "he knowed," so he took his revenge by
flattening his nose against the kitchen-window, just where he would be
most in his culinary tyrant's light; and then in pantomimic show he
began to deride Mrs Cook's actions, till that lady rushed out at him,
when he retreated to his den beneath the pavement, and went on with his
work for quite five minutes, then, with a shoe covering one hand and a
brush in the other, he made his appearance at the kitchen-door, to
deliver the following mystic announcement: -

"It worn't a jam, it were a preserver," but he retreated again with
great rapidity to avoid the paste pin launched at his head by the irate
cook, but the utensil only struck the closed door, when Master Buttons
again inserted his head to howl out a derisive "Boo-o-o," and then
disappeared till dinner time.

But matters progressed so satisfactorily up stairs, that by five o'clock
Mr Pouter departed, basket on back, with half a yard of saw sticking
out, to tickle and scratch those whom he met, to whom on the pavement he
was just such an agreeable obstacle to encounter as a British war
chariot, with its scythed axletrees, must have been to all concerned.
But Mr Dodd was placid, the door worked beautifully, and he determined
to have every other door in the house seen to and re-adjusted. So Mr
Dodd dined, and at last retired to bed, serene and happy in his
expression.

That very night something happened.

It was midnight, and, save when the noise of some cab, conveying the
Christmas folk home, could be heard, all was still. But there were
voices to be heard in the attic of Number Nine. There was a candle on a
chair beside the bed, and Cook and Mary were sitting up, the one
listening, while the other slowly waded through the thrilling plot of
the "to be continued" tale in the Penny Mystifier.

The night was cold, and shawls thrown over shoulders was the mode, while
slowly see-sawing her body backwards and forwards in bed, Mary, after
once reading, went back and epitomised the tale for Cook's benefit, that
lady not having been very clear upon two or three points.

"Then," said Mary, "when she finds as her par won't let her marry De
Belleville, she sits by the open winder, with the snow rivalling her
arm's whiteness, and a lamenting of her hard fate, and it's quite dark,
and her lover comes and begs of her to fly with him."

"Go in a fly," said Cook, approvingly.

"No! no! go off with him," said Mary.


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