George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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and periodical visits to the Bank. Be that as it may, Mrs Cripps had a
comfortable business of her own; and heavy was the load of linen - clean
or dirty - that the man with the rough pony took backwards and forwards
from "the squares."

It was some time before the visitor to Pounce Court could summon up
enough courage to turn the handle of the door and enter the backroom,
"to take them by surprise;" but when by a mighty effort she did so, the
surprise was not with them, but returned upon herself. Poor Mrs
Cripps, she gave a sort of hysterical gulp as she closed the door behind
her and hurried across the room to greet Hez and his wife; but she had
not gone many steps ere she was overcome by what she saw, and, sinking
upon her knees, she burst forth into a wild fit of sobbing and weeping,
rocking herself to and fro, and moaning at intervals - "My poor bairns!
oh, my poor bairns!"

She had cause; seated side by side, cold, gaunt, and hunger pinched, Hez
and his wife watched with famished eyes their two children eating the
bare crusts which their last pence had purchased. There was no fire in
the room; scarcely a bit of furniture, and cold gusts of wind rushed
through the ill-filled window. But Mrs Cripps, though fat, was gifted
with energy; her hand dived into her capacious pocket and brought forth
a large blue cotton handkerchief, and in a moment her eyes were wiped;
and as the astonished family gazed upon her she scuffled back to the
door, and was gone. In a few seconds, however, she was back again to
fetch her basket which she had left upon the floor; was gone again; but
only to return and fetch the great gingham umbrella which stood leaning
against the table, with its large stag-horn hook gazing in a pensive way
into a broken saucer.

Few minutes elapsed before the silence was again broken, when heavy
steps were heard ascending the staircase; the coal man gave his
customary shout at the door, and half a hundred weight and some bundles
of wood were deposited in the cupboard; while before Hez's wife had
recovered from her surprise, in puffed Mrs Cripps, with a loaf under
her shawl, and the big basket in such a plethoric condition that the
handles would not half close.

A portion of the outer sunshine seemed to have crept into the room, or
to have been reflected from Mrs Cripps's face; and what with attempted
smiles, and the efforts required to gulp down an occasional sob, that
lady's countenance was a physiognomical study. The umbrella was soon
crowned with the big black bonnet, and stood up in a corner, the shawl
hung up on a nail, the gown skirts pinned up all round, and the old lady
bustling about the place as though she belonged to it. Twice only had
she to run up in a corner to bury her face in the big blue handkerchief;
but making a cheerful fire, and picking out the most nubbly coals,
getting the kettle on in the most eligible position for heat, and
fanning the blazing wood with the dust-pan, took up so much time that
the old lady soon forgot to sob. The odds and ends of cups and saucers
were then arranged upon the table; and the children, with eager eyes,
watched the disgorging of the big basket, until they clapped their
little hands with delight in anticipation of the coming banquet.
Rashers of bacon, fresh butter, eggs, coffee, sugar, all were there; and
then the kettle gave two or three premonitory snorts by way of clearing
its throat, and to announce that it was going to sing; whereupon the
elder girl was enlisted into Mrs Cripps's working committee, and set to
do duty as toaster of a rasher of bacon before the now cheerful fire.
Plates were put to warm; the small saucepan rummaged out, and a piece of
rag drawn tightly through a hole in the bottom. "Tos it yuns!" as Hez's
little one informed the dame after she had seen it herself and
temporarily repaired the evil; and then eggs were placed in it, upon the
hob, all in readiness; so that, what with the brightness of the fire,
and Mrs Cripps's smiling face, the bare and not wretched room began to
wear an aspect of unwonted cheerfulness.

Everything was progressing to a satisfactory state of readiness; and now
the demands upon the old lady's time were multifarious: the kettle was
sputtering and boiling over into the fire; the bacon was nearly done;
the coffee required tossing in and out of a tea-cup; the eggs wanted
watching while they seethed their prescribed three minutes and a half;
and then there was the bread and butter to cut and the butter wouldn't
spread, but kept coming off in great crumb-lined flakes. But
perseverance overcomes all difficulties, and as Mrs Cripps had plenty
of that virtue in her composition, she surmounted all her trials, and
set the two children to work with an egg each, and some bread and
butter, before she turned to the elders.

Hez and his wife had hardly moved since their visitor entered the room,
but Mrs Thornypath was weeping tears of thankfulness upon her husband's
shoulder; while the latter, with feelings of mingled gratitude and
wounded pride, sat with head half averted, until his old nurse
approached with so apologetic an air, such a union of respect and pity,
withal such tenderly, motherly words, that Hez completely broke down,
and burying his face in his hands, he wept like a child.

Poor Mrs Cripps, she was thirty years old when Hez was born, and she
was thirty years older than he still; in her eyes he was but a boy, and,
sobbing aloud, she knelt by his side, and parting the long hair from his
forehead, the good old soul kissed him tenderly, and wiped his eyes with
her big blue handkerchief. But the sun came out again all over Mrs
Cripps's face, and dissipated the cloud that was lending gloom to the
festive morn; whispering words of comfort to the stricken couple, Mrs
Thornypath brightened up; and Hez, passive as a child, let them lead him
to the table, where the old lady presiding beamed upon them all during
the repast.

But it was Christmas-day, and Mrs Cripps's plans had not yet reached
fruition; so, after the breakfast, she retired with Mrs Thornypath into
a corner, where, during a long discussion, the latter lady seemed trying
to beg off some arrangement that the other was proposing; but she was
speedily conquered by her energetic adversary, who, watching her
opportunity, attacked poor Mrs Thornypath in her weakest point, and
carried the day by saying it would "do the dear children good." Mrs
Thornypath then crossed over to her husband, who was leaning against the
mantel-piece, and whispered with him for a minute; when he, poor fellow,
glancing at his clothes, sorrowfully shook his head. But it was of no
use; Mrs Cripps reinforced the attacking party, and poor Hez,
completely beaten, gave a silent acquiescence to their entreaties.

There was now a busy interval of preparation, when a heavy footstep was
heard upon the stairs. Hez gave an involuntary shiver as a loud rap was
heard at the door, and then, without waiting for an answer, in stalked a
stout, red-faced woman - the landlady - who, having gained scent of the
new friend who appeared upon the scene, thought this a favourable
opportunity for renewing her importunities. She had come with a speech
all ready made up, and began: -

"Now, Mr Thornypath, about this here rent?"

Hez was about to reply, when Mrs Cripps confronted the intruder, and
with the most cutting politeness said, "Pray, mum, have you brought your
receipt?"

This was hardly what the landlady had prepared herself for, so she
replied in the negative, when Mrs Cripps, with the same show of
politeness, requested her to fetch it; and after backing the red-faced
woman out, stood waiting her return; for Mrs Cripps was ready to face
twenty Mrs Prodgers, and give them all a bit of her mind. This feeling
was also strongly shared by the lady in question, who had determined
also to make the second floor back a present of the above popular
portion of a quarrelsome person's thinking apparatus; but upon her
return, very much out of breath with her ascent, in spite of Hez's
remonstrances, she was paid in full, and before a sufficiency of lung
inflation had taken place, the closing door cut short all attempts at
recrimination.

Mrs Prodgers was one of that class of householders who so abound in our
thickly-populated neighbourhoods. She took a house with the intention
of making all she could out of it, and not such a very unbusiness-like
proceeding after all. But it is the cause of a vast amount of misery
amongst those who are compelled to seek a house close to their daily
avocation. They are obliged to live upon the spot, and so, in the
scarcity of abodes, pay whatever rent is demanded, always a most
exorbitant one, and this they contrive to pay while work holds out, but
the first drawback places them at the tender mercies of their Mrs
Prodgers, when their life becomes a burden, and too often that most real
of all distresses, a distress for rent, sweeps away the little
hardly-gained furniture. In many cases, however, Mrs Prodgers, through
her over-reaching, finds that her tenants have left suddenly, leaving
"not a wrack behind." Would it not be better to receive a moderate and
well-paid refit?

A boy out of the first-floor back soon fetched a hackney coach, and into
it Mrs Cripps hurried all her party, to be conveyed by her to the
"Gravel Pits." There was plenty of delicacy, too, in the old dame, for
she could not see anything upon the journey but the children, nor attend
to anything but their wants, and so by degrees Hez's shame and wounded
pride, that so far had covered him with an icy reserve, melted before
the genial dame. The bright morning, and the merry faces of his
children, listening to the details of the pudding that awaited them,
these, too, tended to bring to his remembrance the dream of the previous
night, and to show him that one loving, honest heart on earth was more
than a match for despair. The streets were full of happy faces, and to
Hez's eye everything appeared already to wear a brighter aspect. "Try
again" seemed to ring in his ears, and during a temporary stoppage the
greeting of one rosy-faced old man to another, "Merry Christmas and
Happy New Year to you, my boy," seemed to thrill through him. Why
should it not be a happy new year to him too? And with the thought the
saddening, vacant, helpless look vanished from his countenance, driven
away by the spirit of energy and determination; his carriage became more
erect, and this unwonted aspect was communicated to her who had divided
with him the troubles of the past.

Mrs Cripps still kept too busy on the front seat with the children to
observe what passed opposite, but somehow or other a very large tear
trickled slowly down her nose, until it descended "plash" upon the hand
of the child she held in her lap, making the little thing ask in her
wonderment "what made it yain there?" There was too much to point out
to the children for any notice to be taken of what took place, and when
at last Hez and his wife each held out a hand to the dame, the former
felt that there was no cause to fear humiliation, for the hearty, honest
pressure, accompanied as it was by the motherly, loving smile, showed
the full extent of the existing sympathy, and how little need there was
for wordy thanks.

FOUR - THE SUN'S INFLUENCE.

There never was such a goose before! never - brown, crimply, fragrant,
and luscious, as - as - as - there; nothing else will compare with it -
luscious as roast goose. The cooking too: one turn more would, nay
must, have spoiled it; and as to the consequences of one turn less, they
were not to be thought of. It was just, to do Mary justice, "done to a
turn," and Mrs Cripps was put out of her misery; for, as she had told
Mrs Hez in confidence, she had had her doubts; but they were all
cleared up, and the old lady's face shone and looked for all the world
like the pippins that had composed the sauce. Such mashed potatoes,
beautifully worked all over the surface into elegant designs with a
fork, and showing brown where they had been to the fire; while just
under Hez's nose, and sending forth a maddening jet of steam, was a
tureen full of supplementary gravy, and sage and onions, in case the
great levy that lay within the internal regions of the goose should
fail. There was a big brown jug of the brownest stout; bread of the
whitest; greens of the greenest; and the table had all the best cut
glass on, so as to give the effect to Mrs Cripps's six silver
table-spoons. There was a real oak Christmas log upon the fire,
crackling away and sending whole regiments of soldiers flying up the
chimney, when poked for the gratification of little Goldenhair. Hez's
eldest child, too, had had a peep in the sideboard cupboard, where there
were oranges, apples, figs, nuts, decanters, and all sorts of unheard-of
treasures. But at last the whole party were settled at the table; Mr
and Mrs Hez top and bottom, and Mrs Cripps and the children taking the
posts of the visitors.

There never was such a goose before. "Ciss-s-s-s" at the first plunge
of the carving-knife a fountain of rich brown gravy spurted right across
the snow-white table-cloth, and right into the salt-cellar; and then
there was such scraping and rubbing up of the mess, only ending in
making bad doubly worse; but at last the carver's duty was well
performed, the choice morsels distributed, and Mrs Cripps idle, from
the fact that she really could not force more mashed potatoes or gravy
upon anyone.

At last, when summoned, Mrs Cripps's Mary came in to change the plates,
and brought with her such a fragrant scent as could only have belonged
to a Christmas pudding; and, sure enough, it directly afterwards made
its appearance, with sides bursting open to disclose the richness
within. It had been on the boil for six hours; and what with the piece
of holly stuck in the top, and the wine-glassful of brandy set blazing
in the dish, there never could have been such a luxurious pudding
before. As to the children, they again clapped their hands with
delight, but otherwise gave silent testimony of their admiration by
being helped three times, and eating as only children can eat pudding.

But the best of dinners must have a termination, and so did this one;
and when the hearth had been swept up, and the treasures of the cupboard
shone upon the little table; and whilst the fire-light danced in golden
hues within the old-fashioned decanters, full of old-fashioned home-made
wine, the chairs being all drawn up round the fire, Mrs Cripps began to
tell her visitors of her savings; and how that she had two hundred
pounds in the bank; and it not being likely that she would want it for
many years to come, it was her wish that Hez - "dear Master Hez" - should
take it to begin the world with afresh, and pay his old nurse again when
he could spare it. And when Hez and his wife would not hear of such a
thing, the old woman grew quite angry, and took the upper hand, saying,
"that they were children and ought not to dictate to an old body of her
years, and that she would do what she liked with her own money," and
last of all pretended to get in such a passion, that the visitors were
obliged to be silent.

At last, when the early winter's eve was closing in, when the ferny
foliage began to appear upon the frosty panes, and before the candles
were lighted, Mrs Cripps, who had been for a long time very silent,
suddenly asked Hez if he remembered the story he used to read her, years
ago, out of his little book, about the mouse helping the lion out of the
net. Hez replied in the affirmative, and saw again within the glowing
fire the image of his tiny, bygone self, perched upon a tall chair,
reading to his comely nurse. While his nurse, old, but comely still,
fondly putting her hand upon his shoulder, reminded him, too, of the
dreary Christmas-eve when she had come to his father's house - to her old
master - wet, cold, and weary with her long walk from the distant
village; how that weeping and sobbing she had come to beg the stern old
man to lend her money to save her husband from ruin, and their little
home from being broken up; how that Hez's father had refused - harshly
refused - saying that he had too many ways for his money to waste it in
helping idle people; and how, when turning heartsick to the door, a
little hand had seized hold of old nurse's gown, telling nurse not to
cry, for Hez would give her all his money; and forthwith thrust his
little box, containing two new pennies and a lucky sixpence, into her
hands, setting her weeping more bitterly than ever; bringing her upon
her knees by his side to sob over and kiss the noble-hearted little
fellow, till a stern voice had called him away; but only to come rushing
after her again with the money she sought clasped in his little hands.
"And," concluded the dame, once more sinking upon her knees by the side
of Hez, "I thank God that I can show my dear boy how many years I have
remembered his kind - kind act!"

It was growing very dark in the little parlour, and Mary was getting
very impatient to bring in the tea-things; but her patience was tried
for some time longer, and when at last, unsummoned, she took them in,
and lit the candles, the children had fallen asleep upon the sofa, and
"missus's" eyes looked very red.

FIVE - WHAT FOLLOWED.

Hez had found the long lane had a turning in it at last, and the roadway
of that turning was smooth and easy to travel upon - so easy that he soon
left all the frost and thaw far behind, and got well on in his journey
of life. He used to say that a blessing went with old nurse Cripps's
money, for success attended his every venture with it. He is now a man
of some note in his little country-town; and it is a fact patent to all
that a helping hand can always be found with Hezekiah Thornypath by
those who merit it.

I spent a few days with him at Christmas-time, some three or four years
since, and there, in the snuggest corner of the room, sat a very old,
white-haired dame, pretending to be very busy knitting, propped up in
her easy-chair, with one or another of Hez's numerous youngsters on the
watch to pick up the constantly-straying worsted and needles. There was
always a smile upon the old lady's face when any such act was performed
for her - a smile that grew brighter still when Hez approached to say a
few words.

Christmas-night had come, and a merry day had been spent. The old lady
had smiled and looked pleased when Hez talked of never having been able
to get such another goose as nurse Cripps gave them that day, years ago,
for dinner; and that, for all his money, he had never seen such a
pudding upon his table as the one he partook of at Kensington. She had
sat in state, too, while having her health drunk by all the family; and
feebly she bent forward to "wish Master Hez a merry Christmas." At last
the party was collected round the fire, the evening was fast giving way
to night, and quiet conversation was taking the place of the merry
laughter and games of the afternoon. Hez and his wife sat on either
side of Mrs Cripps, and had risen to once more wish the dame "a merry
Christmas" before she left them for her early-sought couch. They had
been talking of bygones; and, sitting with a hand grasped by those she
had loved so long, the poor old lady suddenly lifted herself up, but
only to fall back again in her chair as though asleep.

In the midst of the excitement, I aided Hez to carry her to her room,
where she lay for days just gently breathing, but never again conscious.
Watched night and day by loving friends, she passed away without a sigh
during the still hours of the old year's death, with only a growing
chill to show that her sleep had deepened in intensity, and that here
she would wake no more.



CHAPTER TWO.

CORNS.

"Diet, sir; Diet, decidedly. Now you'll take this to John Bell's, in
Oxford Street, and they'll make up the prescription; then you'll go on
to Gilbey's - crooked-looking place, you know; just as if they'd built
the house somewhere else, and then when they wanted to put it in its
place found it too big, and had to squeeze it in. Well, there you'll
order a few dozens of their light dinner claret. No more '20 port or
fiery sherry. Taboo, sir, taboo. Light wine in moderation. Diet, sir,
diet. _Good_ morning."

I looked at the bristly-headed physician, who handed me a sheet of note
paper with a big capital B, two long blurs, a rough blotch, a few
spidery ink splays, and an ugly MD at the end of a few inky
hooks-and-eyes, which I received in return for the twenty-one shillings
I left upon the table; and then muttering the one word "diet," I stood
in the hall upon a horrible stony-looking piece of floorcloth that quite
struck cold up my legs. Here I was confronted by the footman who
ushered me into his master's presence - a blue-coated, crestless-buttoned
wretch with two round grey eyes that said "shillings" as plainly as any
mute thing could; but I was angry, and determined to come no more: so
giving the fellow only a sixpence, I hobbled away and stood in Saville
Row.

Diet, indeed; why no man could be more moderate. And what's half a
bottle of port for one's dinner? Why, my grandfather, sir, took his two
bottles regularly, and, beyond an occasional fit of the gout, was as
hale a man as ever lived. Why, he'd have lived till fourscore safe if
bad management and country doctors had not drawn the regal complaint
into his stomach, where it would stop. This was coming to a physician
for advice. And then what did he do when I told him of the agonies I
suffered? - smiled pleasantly, and said it was my liver; while when I
hinted at my corns, what did he do then but metaphorically tread upon
them, for he laughed.

Now, putting dyspepsia on one side, I appeal to my fellow-sufferers, and
ask them, Is there any torture to be compared with the infliction of
corns? Headache? - take a little medicine and lie down. Toothache? -
have it out. Earache? - try hot onion. Opodeldoc for rheumatism;
chlorodyne for tic; colchicum for gout. There's a remedy for nearly
every pain and ache; but what will you do for your corns? Ordinary
sufferings come only now and then, but corns shoot, stab, twitch, and
agonise continually. What is the remedy? Plasters are puffs; bandages
empty promises; the knife threatens tetanus; caustic only makes them
black and smarting; while chiropodists - . Mention them not in my
hearing, lest my vengeance fall upon your devoted head. Where can you
put your feet to be safe - at home or abroad? Why, your very boots are
sworn enemies, and the battle at putting on or pulling off makes the
thought of the operation produce beads of cold perspiration upon one's
ample brow. Who can be surprised at one's lying long in bed of a
morning when tortures await, and you know that just outside the door, by
the side of the large white jug whose water grows less and less steamy,
there stand two hollow leather cylinders loaded with fearful pains to be
discharged at your devoted feet.

There isn't a sensible shoemaker on the face of the earth. I've tried
them one after the other until I'm tired of them. One recommends calf,
another kid, another dog-skin, and another "pannus corium," and my feet
are worse than ever. I won't believe in them any more, though they do
show me lasts made to my feet, and insult me with hideous nubbly, bunkly
abortions carved in wood, which they say represent my feet - my feet,
those suffering locomotives. I'll take to sandals, or else follow the
advice of the Countess de Noailles, and go barefoot like the old hen in
the nursery rhyme.

I could suffer the bodily pain if it were not for the mental
accompaniment, and the total want of pity and compassion shown by
people. Only the other day, going down one of those quiet cab-stand
streets, one of the idle wretches that I intended to engage shouted out
to his companions, -

"I say, old 'uns, here's Peter Pindar a-coming."

"Who?" shouted another.

"Cove as turned pilgrim, and went with peas in his shoes," cried Number
One; while, writhing with agony, and gnashing my teeth, I shook my stick
at the rascal.

"You scoundrel," I cried, "it's my corn, - it's not peas."

"Then get it ground, sir," groaned the fellow; when I was so vexed that
I took the omnibus instead, or rather the omnibus took me, and as soon
as I had entered, I was shot into the lap of a stout elderly lady who
looked daggers at me, and revenged herself by putting her fat umbrella
ferrule on my corn at every opportunity. I believe it was Mrs Saunders
herself, the friend of Mrs Bardell, of Goswell Street. And oh! what I


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 2 of 19)