George Manville Fenn.

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trespass against us."

"And you'll leave the back door unfastened, Mary?" whispered Shadrach.

Mrs Pratt nodded.

"And forget the past if she should come?"

"Ah, me! ah, me! my poor girl!" cried the mother, thoroughly
heart-broken, and for the first time since her child forsook her home
showing any emotion; "what have we done that we should be her judges?"

The moonbeams shone brightly in as the couple rose, and after listening
for a moment at the stair foot, Shadrach walked to the back door, opened
it, uttered a cry, and then fell upon his knees; for there, upon the
cold snow, with her cheek resting upon the threshold, lay the lost one
of the flock - cold, pale, and motionless, but with her hands
outstretched, and clasped together, as if praying for forgiveness.
Stretched upon the cold snow by the door she had stolen from two years
before; lying where she had crept, with trembling hands, and quivering,
fevered lips, whispering to herself that she would die there, for she
dared ask no entrance.

Need the story be told of that Christmas-day, and of the joy in that
poor man's home - of the sick one weeping in her mother's arms - of the
welcome given to one the world called lost! I trow not; but let us skip
another year, and then stand in the same room, in the same place, and at
the same hour, as with a bright light in his humble, ordinary face,
Shadrach Pratt, a man not addicted to quoting Scripture, takes his
homely wife's hand, and whispers -

"More than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance."



CHAPTER FIVE.

UPON CHRISTMAS-EVE.

And I've found that out that it isn't money, nor a well-furnished house,
nor clothes that make a man happy, but the possession of a good wife;
and it took me ten years to find it out. It took me ten selfish years -
years that I had been spending thinking more about myself than anybody
else, you know. And all that while I'd got so used to it that I never
took any notice of the patience and forbearance and tenderness that was
always being shown to me. It's all right, thinks I, and it's me that's
master, and I've a right to be served. And that's the case with too
many of us: we get married, and are precious proud taking the wife out
for a bit; but then come the domestic duties, and mostly a few children,
when it's hard work to make both ends meet, and so the poor wife gets
lower and lower and lower, till she's a regular slave, while the husband
looks on, and never stretches out a hand to save her a bit of trouble.

Well, that's measuring other people's corn by your own bushel, and
that's right - that's just what it is: that's my bushel, and allowing for
it being a bit battered and knocked about, it's surprising what a
correct measure it is, and if ever I use that old measure to try any
other man's corn, and I find as it don't do for it, I always feel as if
I should like to shake that fellow's hand off, for I know he's a trump
and a man worth knowing.

Now, I'm going to tell you how I found it all out, and in finding it all
out as I call it, let me tell you I mean principally what a fool I had
been for ten long years. I needn't tell you when it was, and Jane there
don't care to be too nice about the day - very well, we'll say you do,
but never mind now - only it was Christmas-eve, and I come home from work
with my hands in my pockets, and a week's wage there too, and when I
mounted the stairs and went into our shabby room, there was the wife
down in the low rocking-chair, with two of the little ones in her lap,
and though her head was partly turned away I could see she was crying,
and another time I should have flown at her about it, for I don't mind
saying as I was a regular brute to her - not hitting or anything of that
sort, you know, but sending hard words such as she's told me since hit
harder than blows. But I couldn't fly at her then on account of a
strange chap as was there. Shabby, snuffy-looking little fellow, with
flue in his hair and pits in his chin, where he couldn't shave into, so
that, what with his face not being over well washed, and his old black
clothes looking greasy, he didn't seem the sort of visitor as you'd care
about having in your place, because, though I came home dirty with my
trade, I always set that down as clean dirt, and don't mind it.

"Well, what's for you?" I says, precious gruff.

"Two pun fifteen and ninepence, with costs," he says, bringing out a
paper; and then you might have knocked me down with it, for I knew it
was for rent. There'd been a bother about it several times, and no
wonder, and as I'd promised again and again, and never kept my word, as
I should have done, why this was come on me, and there was a man in
possession.

There was only one thing to be done, and of course that I does at once;
goes over the way to the landlord, and when I got into his room I began
to bluster a bit.

"It's a deal too bad," I says.

"Have you brought the money, my man?" he says.

"No, I ain't," I says, "and I thinks - "

"Now, look here, Roberts," he says, quite quietly, and holding up his
finger, "You're not the sort of tenant I want. You're no credit to the
place. If you had been a decent fellow, struggling against the world,
and you owed me twice as much, and I saw you meant to pay, why I'd never
have put in the bailiffs; but when I see a man going on as you do, why I
say if you've money to waste you can pay your rent. Sorry for your
wife, but if you can't pay the money now, there's the door. I'm not
going to be annoyed in my own place."

He wasn't a big man, but he took me down twenty pegs in a minute in his
cool, easy way, and before I knew where I was I'd backed out, and was
going across the street, when I recollects the man sitting there at
home, and of a Christmas-eve too, and I slowly went back and sent in a
message to landlord, and directly after I stood before him again, and
after no end of a hard fight he consented to let a pound stop on, and
send the man off if I'd pay down one pound fifteen and ninepence.

Well, I thought a minute, and hesitated, and thought again, and then
recollected the dirty, snuffy fellow there, and that settled me, so that
I paid down the money, took my receipt, and a note to the man, and
directly after I was standing in my own place, with that chap gone, and
only threepence left of my six-and-thirty shillings for a Christmas
dinner; and now it came upon me hot and strong why it was that I stood
there like that, and as I saw it all so plain I set my teeth and brought
my fist down upon the table in a way as made the candlestick jump, and
sent the children trembling up to their mother.

"It's because nobody ever said to me, `Sam Roberts, what'll you take to
eat?'" And then I banged my fist on the table again, and began walking
up and down the room.

Nobody spoke to me, but the wife got the children off quietly to bed,
and at last, when I was still striding up and down, I felt her hand on
my shoulder, and she whispered quite low like -

"Don't mind it, dear."

"But I do," I said, quite fierce and loud, and the poor thing stole away
from me again, and though I didn't look at her, I knew she wasn't able
to keep the tears back, and that I'd been the cause again.

I took no notice then though, for something was working in me, and at
last I told her to go to bed, and she did, while I sat before the bit of
fire in the room and thought it over.

Now don't laugh at me when I tell you that I believe in bells, but I
can't help it if you do, for they always seem to speak to me like music
does, and if there's ever anything will act on me it's the sound of a
peal of bells. It was bitter cold that night, and yet I didn't feel it;
the wind howled along the street, and I could now and then hear the
great flakes of snow come softly patting at the window, and then the
sashes would shake, and the wind rumble in the chimney, while every now
and then came the sound of the bells, not bright and joyful, but sad and
sobbing and mournful. I knew it was a merry, rejoicing time with every
one else. I could not attend to that, for I was gradually getting to
see one thing that I kept on fighting against, and that was, what a fool
I had been.

Fight against it I did, but it was no use, for as the streets got more
quiet, and the wind sunk, the bells rang out clearer and clearer, and
seemed to keep telling me of it. Now I knew of it by the threepence in
my pocket; now it was by the shabby floor; then the beggarly furniture
and the miserable fire; and though I didn't cross the room I had it in
my mind's eye, and there it all was written plain enough in my wife's
face.

And yet I wouldn't own to it, though the bells seemed to be speaking to
me, and rang out plainer and plainer all my waste and carelessness, till
all at once they stopped for a minute; when one big bell began to toll
slowly, "boom, boom, boom"; and that did it, for the next moment I gave
a wild sort of cry, and was down on my knees with my hands over my face,
and the big tears, hot and blinding, bursting out from between my
fingers. But the tears might blind, they could not hide that, though
every one seemed like hot lead. They could not hide what I then saw,
for the bell still went on, now swept away in the distance, now coming
nearer and nearer, till it filled the room, and made the very place seem
to tremble and quiver, as did every nerve in my body.

No; the tears could not hide that scene as the tolling bell brought up,
and there I could see the snow upon the ground, and two mourners
following a little coffin through the street of a country-town with
their footmarks left black in the pathway, as though even they were
marks of the funeral. And there, too, was the church, and the
grey-haired clergyman meeting us at the gate, and me hard, bitter, and
sullen, seeing it all unmoved, and listening to the words as came now to
my ears borne upon the bells. There, too, was the little grave, and the
earth thrown out all black round it, and every spade-full of earth, too,
black, just as though everything was in mourning for the little flower
as the bitter winter had nipped. Yes; there it all was, with the poor
wife sinking down at last upon her knees beside the open grave, and
letting a few of a mother's tears fall silently upon the little plain,
white coffin, and me - hard, bitter, and cold.

"Boom, boom, boom" - how it all came back, and how I saw it all now. How
plain it all was that I had been a fool and my own enemy, and ready to
blame every one but myself for my ill success; and at last muttering
"pardon, pardon," I held up my hands, and then started to my feet, for
the bells had stopped, and my hands were taken by some one there in the
dark, so that I trembled; till I heard my name whispered, and this time
I did not turn from the offered comfort.

Just then out rang the bells again, bright, cheerful, and merry; and,
though I listened attentively, and tried to make them go with my
thoughts, they seemed now quite to have left me to myself.

And then, without thinking of the bitter night, or our poverty, or what
we should do for a Christmas dinner, we sat there together wrapped up in
one idea, and that was that there was a change come over me, for somehow
I felt quite a different man; and, though no word was spoken, we seemed
to understand one another, and that was quite enough for us.

All at once I turns to the wife, and I says, "I don't know what's come
over me, lass; feelings have got the better of me; I'm almost choking."
And then we both started up, for it seemed hot, and close, and heavy in
the room.

"Why, it's fire somewhere," I says, and then I turned all over hot and
trembling, and the wet stood upon my forehead, for I thought the place
below was on fire, and we on the second floor with three children.

I ran to the window and opened it, and just then there was the rattle of
a policeman going, and first one voice and then another shouting,
"Fire!" while directly after there was a tremendous noise as shook the
house from top to bottom, and made the plaster off the ceiling come
rattling down on our heads, while the shop-front seemed to be blown out.
Then there came another crashing explosion, and that was the jingling
noise and falling of window-glass upon the pavement; and then came
screaming and crying out, the sounds of people running and kicking at
doors, shouting cries for help, and a hundred people outside shrieking,
"Fire!"

For a minute I stood with my hands to my head, as though it was all a
dream. I felt lost, and could not tell what to do, but the next moment
I had two of the children in my arms; and, shouting to the wife, "Slip
on a few things!" I tore open the door and darted down the stairs
through the heat and smoke to the first-floor, where the rush of flame
and smoke almost drove me back; but I knew it was for life, and I dashed
down the rest of the way along the passage, and then fell staggering
down with my load upon the pavement.

They had us up, though, in a moment, blackened, scorched, half
suffocated, and smarting; and then, after casting one look up at our
window, where the wife stood with one little one in her arms, I ran
towards the blazing passage, but a policeman and two men had hold of me
in a moment.

"Hold back, man!" said one of 'em; "it's madness to try it."

"Certain death," says another.

"Yes, if you don't let go!" I roared, feeling as furious as a wild
beast at being held back. "Let go; I tell you they'll be burnt to death
if I don't save them;" and then I fought with 'em to get away, but they
were too strong for me; and, more coming to help, I could do nothing.

"Pray, let me go," I cried at last, quite pitifully, for I could hear
shrieks for help from up above, and felt that some one would think I had
taken care of myself and left her to perish; and then, what with the
shrieks and the thoughts, I felt almost mad, and strove and plunged so,
that I got free and dashed at the door where the flames came pouring
out.

I believe that I should have rushed in, but at that moment there was
another loud explosion, and I seemed to be lifted off my feet, and
thrown back into the road, where I lay quite helpless and half-stunned
for a few moments. But I soon came to again, just as they were going to
carry me through the crowd, and begging of them not to take me away, I
got them to let me stop, for the men wanted to see what was going on;
for now the flames were mounting up higher and higher, and rushing out
of the first-floor windows, while that one under where my poor wife
stood shrieking for help was glowing with light, and I knew the fire
would burst out there directly.

The gunpowder canisters in the shop as they exploded had all helped to
make the fire burn more rapidly, and before the first engine came, the
place was blazing furiously, while, instead of trying anything to save
her who stood at the window, people did nothing but shriek and scream
and wring their hands. I soon saw, unless something was done the fire
would get the better of us, while in spite of all I could think of,
there seemed no way to save her who stood crying there for the help we
could not give - nothing but for her to jump out. I ran about through
the crowd here and there, calling to the people to save her, and for the
time quite mad and frantic that I could not get at her, when all at once
there was a loud shout and cheer, and the people gave way, as along at
full speed came the tall fire-escape.

I ran to help drag it along, and in a few moments they had it leaning
beneath the window, but it was too short, and I groaned again, for it
seemed only brought to raise our hopes, and then dash them down; but the
next moment the fly ladder was pulled up by ropes, and before any one
could stay me, I tried to get up.

But the escape man was before me, and up and up he went, till there came
a fierce burst of flame and smoke right upon him and beat him back, so
that he crept down again, till he reached where I was coming up, and
then I got past him and past the flames where the escape was quite on
fire, and then up to the window where my wife stood clutching the child,
and leaned half-fainting from the window.

It was a hard matter to reach to them, but I got one foot upon the sill,
dashed out a pane of glass to get a hold of the sash for my hand, and
then began to wonder how I could save them, when I heard a cry from
below and a regular yell of shrieks as the light escape ladder was
burned through and fell to the ground, so that it was only by an effort
I saved myself from felling; but I crept inside the room with a horrid
sensation upon me, for I felt that our last hour was come, and a
frightful one it was.

The wife just turned her horrified face to me once, and then fainted,
while I could see but little of what was going on below, on account of
the rising flame and smoke, and as to the heat it was awful - so
stifling, that I was glad to hold out the heads of them with me, for the
smoke came rolling through the door.

I knew that in a few minutes we must be burned to death, and how awful
those thoughts were that came upon me is more than I can describe, and
yet in spite of all there seemed a calmness, even when I heard a
crackling behind me, and saw the flickering light playing through the
smoke behind as the flames were creeping into the room.

Just then I heard a shouting below, and some one to the left cried to
me. I looked up and found there were two men at the third-floor window
of the next house, and one of them shouted: -

"Put her down and try and catch this," and then he began swinging a rope
towards me till I got hold of it; and without waiting for instructions
made it fast round the wife's waist, helped her out of the window, and
held on till they had the rope tight, and shouted to me, when I left go,
and saw her go clear of the flame and smoke with such a fearful swing
that I felt sure they would let go, and I shrunk back, for I dared not
look.

Before a minute was over I heard them shout again, and then I looked out
trembling, and caught at the rope again two or three times before I
could get it, for it was a hard matter to get it swung far enough. But
I had it at last, and pulled in as much as they could spare, so as to
tie it round the little child somewhere about the middle, when they saw
me make a sign, for I could not shout, I was that choked, and then they
hauled in while I kept hold too, so as to keep the little thing from
swinging down so fearfully.

It was a good long rope, and even when they had the little one safe
there was enough left for me to fasten it with a half hitch round my
waist and climb out and hang by the window-sill till they were ready,
for the room was burning, and the flames came over me, quite scorching
my hands, so that in another few minutes I must have dropped. But the
rope tightened, and I left go, swinging through the air right clear of
the smoke and flame; and then I felt myself dragged up and in at the
window, but I did not see or hear anything more for some little time.

It was a shocking fire, certainly, but it's when people are at the worst
that they find out how neighbourly those around could be, for we found
them as took us in; and in spite of being so frightened and scorched,
after two or three hours' sleep we did not feel so bad but we could put
on the things that were lent us, and I can't help thinking that we
should have given thanks somewhere else for our escape besides in our
bedroom, if it had not been for our burnt-off hair.

And in spite of all loss and care, that was a pleasant Christmas-day we
spent, where everybody seemed as if they could not make enough of us;
and, at the same time, there was a feeling in my heart that seemed to
cheer me and make me look hopefully to the future. For the clothes and
furniture that we had lost were none to be so proud of - rather different
to what we now have round us, and when I tell the wife so, I get a
pleasant smile, for she says there's light behind every cloud.



CHAPTER SIX.

HAUNTED BY SPIRITS.

"But what an out-of-the-way place to get to," I said, after being most
cordially received by my old school fellow and his wife, one bitter
night after a long ride. "But you really are glad to see me, eh?"

"Now, hold your tongue, do," cried Ned and his wife in a breath. "You
won't get away again under a month, so don't think it. But where we are
going to put you I don't know," said Ned.

"Oh I can sleep anywhere, chairs, table, anything you like; only make me
welcome. Fine old house this seems, but however came you to take it?"

"Got it cheap, my boy. Been shut up for twenty years. It's haunted,
and no one will live in it. But I have it full for this Christmas, at
all events, and what's more I have some potent spirits in the place too,
but they are all corked down tightly, so there is no fear at present.
But I say, Lilly," cried Ned, addressing his wife, "why we shall have to
go into the haunted room and give him our place."

"That you won't," I said. "I came down here on purpose to take you by
surprise, and to beg for a snack of dinner on Christmas-day; and now you
are going to give me about the greatest treat possible, a bed in a
haunted room. What kind of a ghost is it?"

"You mustn't laugh," said Ned, trying to appear very serious; "for there
is not a soul living within ten miles of this place, that would not give
you a long account of the horrors of the Red Chamber: of spots of blood
upon the bedclothes coming down in a regular rain; noises; clashing of
swords; shrieks and groans; skeletons or transparent bodies. Oh, my
dear fellow, you needn't grin, for it's all gospel truth about here, and
if we did not keep that room screwed up, not a servant would stay in the
house."

"Wish I could buy it and take it away," I said.

"I wish you could, indeed," cried Ned, cordially.

Half an hour after Ned and I were busy with screwdriver and candle busy
in the large corridors, turning the rusty screws which held a large door
at the extreme end of the house. First one and then another was twirled
out till nothing held the door but the lock; the key for which Ned
Harrington now produced from his pocket - an old, many-warded, rusty key,
at least a couple of hundred years old.

"Hold the candle a little lower," said Ned, "here's something in the
keyhole," when pulling out his knife, he picked out a quantity of paper,
evidently very recently stuffed in. He then inserted the key, and after
a good deal of effort it turned, and the lock shot back with a harsh,
grating noise. Ned then tried the handle, but the door remained fast;
and though he tugged and tugged, it still stuck, till I put one hand to
help him, when our united efforts made it come open with a rush,
knocking over the candle, and there we were standing upon the portal of
the haunted room in the dark.

"I'll fetch a light in a moment out of the hall," said Ned, and he
slipped off, while I must confess to a certain feeling of trepidation on
being left alone, listening to a moaning, whistling noise, which I knew
to be the wind, but which had all the same a most dismal effect upon my
nerves, which, in spite of my eagerness to be the inmate of the closed
room, began to whisper very strongly that they did not like it at all.
But the next minute Ned was beside me with the light, and we entered the
gloomy dusty old chamber - a bed-chamber furnished after the fashion of
the past century. The great four-post bedstead looked heavy and gloomy,
and when we drew back the curtains, I half expected to see a body lying
in state, but no, all was very dusty, very gloomy, and soul chilling,
but nothing more.

"Come, there's plenty of room for a roaring fire," said Ned, "and I
think after all we had better come here ourselves, and let you have our
room."

"That you will not," I said, determinedly. "Order them to light a fire,
and have some well-aired things put upon that bed, and it will be a
clever ghost that wakes me to-night, for I'm as tired as a dog."

"Here, Mary," shouted Ned to one of the maids, "coals and wood here, and
a broom."

We waited about, peering here and there at the old toilet-ware and
stands, the old chest of drawers and armoire, old chairs and paintings,
for all seemed as if the room had been suddenly quitted; while inside a
huge cupboard beside the fireplace hung a dusty horseman's cloak, and in
the corner were a long thin rapier and a quaint old-fashioned firelock.

"Strikes chilly and damp," said I, snuffing the smell of old boots and
fine dust.


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 4 of 19)