George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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"Ah, but we'll soon drive that out," said Ned. "But you'd better give
in, my boy. 'Pon my word, I'm ashamed to let you come in here."

"Pooh! nonsense!" I said. "Give me a roaring fire, and that's all I
want."

"Ah!" cried Ned. "But what a while that girl is;" and then he stepped
out into the passage. "Why, what are you standing there for?" he cried.
"Come and light this fire."

"Plee', sir, I dussent," said the maid.

"Here, give me hold," cried Ned, in a pet; "and send your mistress
here;" and then he made his appearance with a coal-scuttle, paper, and
wood; when between us we soon had a fire alight and roaring up the huge
chimney, while the bright flames flickered and danced, and gave quite a
cheerful aspect to the place.

"Well," cried Mrs Harrington, who now appeared, "how are you getting
on?" but neither Ned's wife nor her sister stood looking, for, in spite
of all protestations, dressed as they were, they set to sweeping,
dusting, airing linen, bed, mattress, etcetera, we helping to the best
of our ability - for no maid, either by threats or persuasion, would
enter the place - and at last we made the place look, if not comfortable,
at all events less dismal than before we entered. The old blinds came
down like so much tinder when touched, while, as to the curtains, the
first attempt to draw them brought down such a cloud of dust, that they
were left alone, though Mrs Harrington promised that the place should
be thoroughly seen to in the morning.

Returning to the drawing-room, the remainder of the evening was most
agreeably spent; while the cause of my host and hostess's prolonged
absence produced endless comments and anecdotes respecting the Red
Chamber - some of them being so encouraging in their nature that Ned
Harrington, out of sheer compassion, changed the conversation.

"Well, my boy," said Ned, when the ladies had all retired for the night,
"you shan't go to bed till the witching hour is past;" so he kept me
chatting over old times, till the clock had gone one - the big old
turret-clock, whose notes flew booming away upon the frosty air.
"Christmas-eve to-morrow, so we'll have a tramp on the moors after the
wild ducks - plenty out here. I say, my boy, I believe this is the
original Moated Grange, so don't be alarmed if you hear the mice."

"There's only one thing I care for," I said, "and that is anything in
the shape of a practical joke."

"Honour bright! my boy," said Ned; "you need fear nothing of that kind;"
and then I was alone in the Haunted Chamber, having locked myself in.

My first proceeding was to give the large fire an extra poke, which sent
a flood of light across the room, and the flames gushing up the chimney;
my next, to take one of the candles and make a tour of my bedroom,
during which I looked under the bed, behind the curtains, and into
armoire and cupboard, but discovered nothing. Next thing I tried the
windows, through which I could just dimly see the snow-white country,
but they were fast and blackened with dirt. The chimney-glass, too, was
so injured by damp, that the dim reflection given back was something
startling, being more like a bad photograph of life-size than anything
else; and at length, having fully made up my mind that I was alone, and
that, as far as I could make out, there were neither trap-doors nor
secret passages in the wall, I undressed, put out the candles, and
plunged into bed.

But I was wrong in what I had said to my host about sleeping, for I
never felt more wakeful in my life. I watched the blaze of the fire
sink down to a ruddy glow, the glow turn blacker and blacker till at
last the fire was all but extinct, while the room was dark as could be.
But my eyesight was painfully acute, while my hearing seemed strained to
catch the slightest passing sound. The wind roared and rumbled in the
great chimney, and swept sighing past the windows; and, though it had a
strange, wild sound with it, yet I had heard the wind before, and
therefore paid but little heed to its moans.

All at once the fire seemed to fall together with a tinkling sound, a
bright flame leaped up, illumining the room for a moment, then becoming
extinct, and leaving all in darkness; but there was light for a long
enough interval for me to see, or fancy I saw, the cupboard door open
and the great horseman's cloak stand out in a weird-like manner before
me, as though covering the shoulders of some invisible figure.

I felt warm - then hot - then in a profuse perspiration, but I told myself
it was fancy, punched my pillow, and turned over upon the other side to
sleep. Now came a long, low, dreary moan, hollow and heartrending, for
it seemed like the cry of some one in distress; when I raised myself
upon one elbow and listened.

"Old cowl on a chimney," I muttered, letting myself fall back again, now
thoroughly determined to sleep, but the moaning continued, the wind
whistled and howled, while now came a gentle tap, tap, tapping at my
window, as if some one was signalling to be admitted.

"Tap, tap, tap;" still it kept on, as though whoever tapped was fearful
of making too much noise; and at length, nerving myself, I slipped out
of bed, crossed the room, and found that the closet door was open, but a
vigorous poke inside produced nothing but dust and two or three very
sharp sneezes. So I fastened the door, and listened. All silent: but
the next moment began the tapping upon the dirty window-pane again; and,
impelled by a mingled sensation of fear and attraction, I crept closer
to the sash, and at length made out the shadow of something tapping at
the glass.

"Bah! Bah!" I exclaimed the next moment as I shuffled across the room
and back to my bed, "strand of ivy and the wind." But I was not to be
at peace yet, for now there came a most unmistakable noise behind the
wainscot - louder and louder, as if some one were trying to tear a piece
of the woodwork down. The place chosen seemed to be the corner beside
the cupboard; and at last, having made up my mind that it was the rats,
I dropped off to sleep, and slept soundly till morning, when I heard the
cheery voice of my host at the door.

"Oh, all right," he said as I answered; "I only came because the girl
knocked, and said that something must be the matter, for she could not
make you hear."

On descending to breakfast, I found that I was to undergo a rigorous
cross-examination as to what I had seen and heard; but one elderly lady
present shook her head ominously, freely giving it as her opinion that
it was little better than sacrilege to open the haunted chamber, and
finishing a very solemn peroration with the words -

"Stop a bit; they don't walk every night."

This was encouraging, certainly; but in the course of the afternoon I
went up to my room, and found that it had been well cleaned out, while
many little modern appliances had been added to the dingy furniture, so
that it wore quite a brightened appearance. The insides of the windows
had been cleaned, and a man was then upon a ladder polishing away at the
exterior, when I drew his attention to a number of loose ivy strands,
which he cut off.

In the cupboard I found plenty of traces of rats in the shape of
long-gnawed-off fragments of wood pushed beneath the skirting-board;
while, upon holding my head against the chimney, the groaning of the
cowl was plainly to be heard, as it swung round dolefully upon some
neighbouring chimney.

A pleasant day was spent, and then, after a cosy evening, I was once
more ushered into the chamber of horrors, this time being escorted by
the whole of the visitors, the gentlemen affectionately bidding me
farewell, but not one seeming disposed to accept my offer of changing
rooms. However, Ned and Mrs Harrington both wished me to go to their
room, when I of course refused; and once more I was alone.

It was now about half-past twelve and Christmas-morning, a regular storm
was hurrying round the house, and a strange feeling of crepitation came
upon me when I had extinguished the light; and then on climbing into bed
I sat and listened for a while, laid my head upon my pillow, and the
next moment, or what seemed the next moment, I was startled by a strange
beating sound, and as I became aware of a dim, peculiar light,
penetrating the room, I heard a low, muffled voice cry appealingly -

"Your hot water, sir - quarter to eight!" while I could hardly believe my
eyes had been closed.

Christmas-day passed as it generally does in the country, that is to
say, in a most jovial, sociable way; and after fun, frolic, sport,
pastime, forfeit, dance, and cards, I stood once more within the haunted
chamber with the strange sensation upon me, that though I had met with
nothing so far to alarm me - this night, a night when, of all nights in
the year, spirits might be expected to break loose, I was to suffer for
my temerity.

As soon as I entered and secured the door, I felt that something was
wrong, but I roused up the fire, lit the wax candles upon the
dressing-table, and then looked round the room.

Apparently I was alone, but upon opening the big closet door, the great
cloak fell down with a ghostly rustle, while a peculiar odour seemed to
rise from the heap. The long, thin sword too, fell, with a strange
clanging noise as I hastily closed the door, and then setting down the
candle tried to compose myself to look at matters in a calm,
philosophical manner. But things would not be looked at in that way,
and now I began to feel that I was being punished for all, since the
next moment I could see the eyes of the large portrait between the
windows gleam and roll, now showing the whites, now seeming to pierce
me, so intense was their gaze. Then the figure seemed to be slowly
coming down from the frame nearer and nearer, till it was close to me,
when it slowly receded, and a shade passed over the canvas, so that it
was gone.

But for shame and the fear of ridicule, I should have opened the door
and cried for aid; in fact, I believe I did rise from the chair and try
to reach the door, but some invisible power drew me into a corner of the
room, where I leaned panting against the wall to gaze upon a fresh
phenomenon. I had brought a chamber candlestick into the room, and
after igniting the pair of candles upon the toilet table, placed the
flat candlestick between them, and left it alight, but now - no - yes - I
rubbed my eyes - there was no mistake.

_There were six candles burning_.

I started, shook myself, muttering that it was deception; but no, there
burned six candles, while their flames were big and blurred with a
large, ghastly, blue halo round each, that had a strange weird light;
and now I tried to recall what I had read in old ghost stories about
corpse candles, for I felt that these three must be of that character.

In an agony of fear I tried to run up to the dressing-table to dash the
weird lights over, but again the same strange influence guided my steps,
so that I curved off to the bed, where I sat down, trembling in every
limb - limbs that refused their office - while I gazed upon the candles
which now began to float backwards and forwards before me, till I could
bear the strange sight no more, and throwing myself back, I buried my
face in the bed.

But there was no relief here, for as I threw myself down at full length,
the great bedstead gave a crack, a rattle, and a bound, and then in an
agony of dread I was clinging to the bedding, for the huge structure
began to rise slowly higher - higher - higher - sailing away apparently
upon the wings of the wind, and then again sinking lower and lower and
lower to interminable depths, so that I involuntarily groaned and closed
my eyes. But that was of no avail, for I could feel the great bedstead
career, now on one side, now on the other, and ever going onward through
space like some vessel upon a vast aerial sea.

The rapid gliding upward, in spite of the dread, seemed attended with
somewhat of an exhilarating effect; but the falling was hideous in the
extreme - for now it was slowly and gently, but the next moment the speed
was fearful, and I lay trembling in expectation of feeling the structure
dash upon the ground, while every time I unclosed my eyes I could see
the gyrating candles, and turned giddy with confusion.

And now, with one tremendously swift gliding swoop, away we went, faster
and faster, more rapidly than swallows upon the wing. Space seemed
obliterated; and, by the rushing noise and singing in my ears, I could
feel that the bedstead was careering on where the atmosphere was growing
more and more attenuated, while soon, from the catching of my breath, I
felt sure that we should soon be beyond air altogether. The candles
were gone, but there were stars innumerable, past which we sped with
inconceivable rapidity, so that their light seemed continued in one long
luminous streak, while ever more and more the speed was increasing, till
it seemed that we were attached to some mighty cord, and being whirled
round and round with frightful velocity, as if at the end of the string;
and now I trembled for the moment when the cord should be loosed, and we
should fly off into illimitable space, to go on - on - on for ever!

At last it came, and away I went; but now separated from the bedstead,
to which I had clung to the last. On - on - on, with something large and
undefined in front of me, which I felt that I should strike, though I
was powerless to prevent the collision. Nearer - nearer - nearer, but
ever darting along like a shooting-star in its course, I was swept on,
till, with a fearful crash, I struck what I now found to be the lost
bed, and tried to cling to it once more; but, no! I rolled off, and
fell slowly and gradually lower - lower, and evidently out of the sphere
of the former attraction, so that at last I fell, with only a moderate
bump, upon the floor, when, hastily rising, I found all totally dark,
and that the bedpost was beside me; when, shudderingly dragging off some
of the clothes on to the carpet, I rolled myself in them, and went off
into a heavy sleep.

The next morning several of my friends made remarks upon my pale and
anxious looks; and soon after breakfast, Ned beckoned me into his study,
and begged of me to tell him whether I had been disturbed.

For a few minutes I felt that I could not tell of the horrors of the
past night, even though I had vowed to sleep in the haunted room still;
but at last I began my recital, and had arrived at the point where the
bedstead set sail, when Ned jumped up, crying:

"Why, I thought from your looks that you really had been disturbed. But
I say, old boy, I suppose we must look over it, as it's Christmas; but,
do you know, judging by my own feelings, I think I'd better make the
punch rather less potent to-night."

"Well, really," I said, "I think so too."

"Do you?" said Ned.

"Oh, yes," I said, "for my head aches awfully;" and no wonder, seeing
how it had been Haunted by Spirits!



CHAPTER SEVEN.

ON THE DOWN LINE.

I couldn't stop indoors, for I couldn't bear to see them all. The
children didn't seem to mind it so much, for they ran about and played,
and their little hearts were light; but there was some one sitting by
the wretched little fire, looking that pale and worn and miserable, that
it went quite to one's heart.

Christmas-morning, with the bright sun shining in through the dirty
windows, while from everywhere the rays went flashing as they lighted
upon the frost, rime, or snow. Such of the blue sky as we could see
from our court, was as bright and clear a blue as could be seen out in
the country, while the pavement looked dry, and you could hear the snow
crunch under the people's feet. But there was no brightness with us,
and at last I went out, for I couldn't stop indoors.

Was it my fault? I kept asking myself; had I tried hard enough to get
took on again; or ought we to have been more saving when I had a
situation? Ah! I asked myself all this again and again as I went out,
leaving them at home in a regular state of beggary; for we had come down
to the last shilling.

I've always noticed as poor men keep their hands in their pockets; and I
did mine that sharp, cold morning, and went sauntering along the
streets, wondering what it would all come to, and how we were to manage.
There was every one I met looking cheerful and bright; here and there
shops a little way open, just as if they were winking at you, because
they were so full of all sorts of good things; people were going in and
coming out with loaded baskets; while, when I got near the baker's, it
was enough to make a hungry man savage to see the stream of people, with
their happy, jolly faces, bearing in geese, turkeys, and great fat
mottled pieces of beef; and all looking as though there wasn't such a
thing as poverty.

Everybody seemed in a hurry, and every face seemed twinkling and bright
with the thoughts of good things to come, till at last, from feeling low
and miserable, I got to be reckless and savage, and felt as if I should
have liked to have had it out with the world there on the spot.

Every one you met in the big streets was like nature that morning -
dressed in the best clothes; some bound for church, some out visiting;
and do what I would, I couldn't find one face that looked miserable.
There were the cabs and carriages rattling along; 'buses loaded; the
bells ringing merrily; while there seemed to be a something in the air
that made you feel bright in spite of yourself; and after being savage
for an hour and a half, I seemed to catch the infection from the people
about, and more than once I caught myself going to whistle.

But the thoughts of what I'd left at home made me stop short, with my
face all screwed up, and from going to one extreme I got to another; and
at last, ready to break down, I found myself sitting on the
stone-setting of the railings of one of the West End churches.

Beadle comes out after a bit and has a look at me, as much as to say,
"Are you a beggar, or ain't you?" but he never says nothing; and after a
bit he goes in again. Policeman comes by beating his white gloves
together, and he looks very suspiciously at me, as if he couldn't quite
make up his mind; and then he goes on, and says nothing. And there I
sat in the cold, feeling nothing but the misery gripping at my heart,
and at last, seeing nothing but a pale worn face in a bare room, where a
troop of hungry children were wanting bread.

Sounds strange that, and some may think it stretched. But let them
climb some of the dirty stairs at the East end, and they can find such
sights any day and every day.

No; I could see nothing then, but the place we called home; and I might
have sat there till I froze, if all at once something that seemed almost
like a vision had not come before me; for as I sat there with my head
upon my hands, there came a light touch, and looking up, there stood a
little bright-eyed, golden-haired child before me, her beautiful cheeks
ruddy with the keen air, while a tiny bright tear was in each eye, as
with a pitying look she pushed a penny into my hand; when I was so
utterly took aback, that her bright scarlet cloak was some distance off
as she tripped along beside a tall stately lady, before I could recover
myself.

That did it. It seemed to bear down pride, anger, everything, and
taking me so suddenly, I couldn't bear it, but there in that open street
my head went down again upon my hands, and in the hopeless misery of my
heart I cried like a child.

But only for a minute, when I jumped up and hurried along the street, to
catch one more sight of the bright pitying little angel; but she was
gone, and at last, making sure that she had gone into one of the houses,
I walked slowly back to the churchyard.

When I got there the people were beginning to come out of the big
church: carriages were drawing up; from out of the open doors there came
the rolling sound of the organ; and as I stood there against the
railings, watching the happy-looking crowd, it seemed to me that I must
be a sort of impostor, for to see how folks were dressed there couldn't
be such a thing as misery in the world.

All at once I started, and took hold of the railing, for I heard a voice
that put me in mind of the time when I was started from the Great
Central line. Just in front of me, and coming towards a carriage that a
lad held open, were a lady and gentleman dressed tip-top, and he was
laughing and chatting to her. But I only just saw that she was very
handsome, for I was watching the gentleman's eyes - bright, piercing blue
eyes, such as you seldom see; and in a regular state of muddle in my own
mind, and wondering about where those eyes had come across me before, I
leaned forward right in the way, staring fixed-like at him.

"Stand back, my good fellow," he says, and then, just as the lady
lightly stepped into the carriage, he stops short, fixes those eyes of
his on to mine, and then, with his hand playing with his big brown
moustache, he burst out laughing, when I knew him in a moment. It _was_
him; and as I thought of the misery of the past year that he had caused,
something seemed to rise up in me, and for a moment I felt as if I could
have knocked him down. But the clenching of my fist made me feel that
penny, and that brought up another face, when turning dejected once
more, I turned aside, saying -

"Ah! it's fun for you, but pretty nigh death for me;" but before I'd got
two steps off, he had his hand on my shabby blackened moleskin jacket,
and he says -

"Gently, my friend, I must introduce you;" and before I knew what he was
about, he had me at the door of the carriage, and he says - "Look,
Marian, here's our honest charioteer, the Vulcan who drove us down to
Moreton;" and then he whispered something that made the lady smile, and
a bright colour come all over her handsome face. "Do you drive the mail
now?" he says, turning to me.

"_Never_ touched a handle since, sir," I says. "They had me afore the
board two mornings after, and discharged me." And then the thoughts of
it all seemed too much for me, and I turned husky and choky, and
couldn't speak for a minute, when I says, with a sort of gulp: -

"Can't help it, sir; I've been werry hard drove since - wife - children - "
and then I choked again as I shunted off what I was saying.

"Stand back a bit," says the gentleman to his servant, and then, in so
kind and gentle a way, he says to me - "Why, my poor fellow, I wouldn't
have had this happen on any account;" and then I saw a tear or two in
his lady's beautiful eyes, and they both stopped talking to me a good
quarter of an hour, free as could be, telling me that they had me to
thank for much happiness, as theirs was a runaway match. And at last,
when they drove off, nodding and smiling at me, I had the gentleman's
card, so as to call on him next morning, when he said his father, being
a railway director, I should be took on the line at once; and, what was
more to the purpose then, there were five sovereigns in my hand.

I didn't know what to do, whether to laugh or cry; and I'm sure I must
have looked like a madman as I tore through the streets, and rushed
upstairs into our room, when the first thing I did was to scrape up
every bit of coal at the bottom of the cupboard and put it a-top of the
fire.

"Lay the cloth, my lass," I says, seizing a dish; "and, Lord bless you,
look alive!" The children stared, and then laughed and clapped their
hands, while I rushed out to the cook's shop in the lane, looking like a
wolf.

There was a roast goose just up, and cissing away in the big pewter dish
all amongst the gravy, with the stuffing a smelling that rich, it was
enough to drive you mad.

Just as I slipped into the door, the waiter - red-nosed chap - with a
dirty white wisp of a handkercher round his neck, looking like a seedy
undertaker - the waiter says: "Two goose - apple sauce - and taters;" and
the master sticks his fork into the buzzum, and makes a cut as sent the
stuffing all out of a gush.

"Hold hard," I says, "that's mine;" and ketching hold of one leg, before
he knew what I was up to, it was on my dish. "Now then, ladle on that
gravy," I says, "and let's have the setrers;" and saying that, I dabs a
sovrin down on the edge of the pewter.

I think they were going to send out for a policeman, but the sight of
that little bit of metal settled it, and five minutes after I was
carrying the change - not much of it neither - the goose under a cover,
and the waiter following behind with a tray, with vegetables, sauce, and
aside the great wedge of pudding, a pot of half-and-half.


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 5 of 19)