George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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When the waiter had gone out of the room, and the little ones were
hooraying and tapping with their knives, I got to the top of the table,
the wife went to the bottom, and I began to say grace, when our eyes
met, she ran to me, and then for a good ten minutes she was a sobbing in
my arms; while I - there; that's private, and I think I've confessed
enough.

There; I don't care whose it was, or where it was, all I know is this,
that there wasn't such a dinner eaten or enjoyed anywhere that day
throughout the length and breadth of our old country; and though
sometimes it was hard to see where I stuck the fork, or cut with the
knife, I was smiling all the time. As for the wife, she would keep
breaking down till I shouted at her, when she went at it and helped me
keep the young ones going; and at last of all I'd have taken a shilling
for what was left of the goose, and whoever bought it wouldn't have been
the best off in the bargain.

The very next week I was took on the London, Highshare, and Ploughshare
railway, and that through the gent who got me discharged from the Great
Central, which happened this way.

The Christmas-Eve afore what I've told you was one of those yaller,
smoky, foggy times, when trains are all later than they should be, even
worse than might be expected at Christmas-time. The lamps were burning
in the booking offices all day, while the steam hung like a cloud in the
roof of the terminus. I was sitting in the engine-shed on our horse -
steam-horse you know - waiting to run the mail down to the north, when
Ben Davis, my stoker, says:

"There they goes again, `bang, bang,' I wonder what it's cost the
company to-day in fog signals;" and then as I didn't say nothing, he
says, "Ah! this is just such a night as it was four years agone, when
poor Tom Harris was cut up the night afore the pitch in," - smash you
know. "Poor Tom; he knowed it was a-comin' to that, and he told me all
about it; for I stoked him."

Just then time was up, and all hot and hissing, I runs out to the
switches, and comes back on to the down line, where we were coupled on
to the train, when Ben goes on: "Poor chap; he'd been outer sorts for
some time, and I do think he took more than he should; but one way and
another, he was horribly low-spirited, and would quite upset you with
the way he'd talk. The last night as I stoked him, he got telling me
his reg'lar tale, about a run down he had, and one as he had never
forgotten about, being on full swing in a terribly dark foggy night, he
heard a whistle, and looking back he could see a train coming on at an
awful rate just behind him, when of course he put on more steam. But
that didn't seem no good; for coming round the curve, he could see the
train closing up fast; and at last, when half mad with fear, and ready
to jump off, he saw that the train was on the up line, and the next
minute it was alongside his; and there they two were racing abreast of
each other; when he slackened, the other slackened; and when he did
t'other, they did t'other. Same length train; same size engine; same
lights; and fire door open like his; so that he could see the driver's
face; and he says, says he, `I nearly dropped; for it was me as was
driving that 'tother train.' On they goes together into the tunnel, and
out they goes together. When he looked back, there was all the
carriages lit up, and all just as if it was his own train; but whistling
at the short stations when he did, and keeping an exactly same pace. It
was like being in a cloud, the fog was so heavy; while the steam from
both funnels mixed together.

"It was Christmas-eve, just like this; and yet cold as it was, he said,
poor chap, the water dripped from his face as they rushed on. He knew
it couldn't last long, for there'd be an up-train directly, and then
there must be a fearful smash; but yet something seemed to tell him as
there wouldn't; and watching as they went by station after station, he
stood trembling at his post. All at once he could see the up-train
coming; and then he put on a spurt so as to be ahead when the smash
came; but that was no use, for the train kept aside his, and then all at
once there was a shriek, and a rush, and the up-train was right behind;
while along side his, there was that same engine just in the same place,
and him a-driving it. Poor Tom used to make me creep when he told that
tale, and he didn't live long arter; for one night there was something
wrong in front of our engine, when he wouldn't wait till we stopped, but
got along as we were going, and when I was expecting him to come back,
and looked - for I'd been putting on more coal - there was some blood
splashed all about the screen, and when I stopped and run back, there
was poor Tom lying all to bits in the six foot. And they do say as he's
been seen by some of the chaps a running a ghost engine along the line
at express rate, sometimes one line, and sometimes the other; and when
he meets another train, there's a whistle and shriek, and he's gone."

"That's werry pretty," I says. "I'd have that put in a book, if I was
you;" and just then there was a bit of door banging, the second bell
rang, the guard's whistle chirrupped, and then with a scream we started,
the steam puffing out of the funnel in round white balls, and slowly
spreading overhead till it came faster, and hanging over us like a plume
of white feathers, it streamed back over the train.

Such a night: thick as thick; and every now and then it was "bang, bang"
as we went over the fog signals, and had to pull up and go very slowly,
so that we were a good ten minutes going the first half-mile; and then
past the first short station we went very slowly.

Thirty-five miles down was our first stoppage, where we took in water,
and then another forty took us to Moreton, which was our next stoppage.
By degrees we got on faster and faster, but the darkness was something
terrible; while the signal lights at the short stations were almost
useless, for I couldn't see them till we were close up, so being already
very late through its being Christmas-time I pushed her along, trusting
to the line being all clear.

"Ah!" says Ben all at once, "we're jest a-coming to the spot where poor
Tom was cut up. Poor old chap," he says; "and it was just here as he
first saw that train running by his side."

Now, of course, I knew well enough that it was all gammon; but Ben
talked so serious that it give me quite a shiver, and as we came
suddenly upon the lights of a station, and raced through, my heart gave
a jump, for it almost seemed as if a train was aside us; and even after
passing the station, I looked out, for there was the train lights
reflected on the fog on each side; but directly after I laughed at
myself.

"It was just about here as he must have gone down," says Ben to me -
shouting in my ear, for we were going fast; "and they do say as
sometimes he mounts an engine and - _Yah-h-h_!" cried the poor fellow,
falling down upon his hands and knees; while regularly took aback, I
shrunk trembling up in the corner of the screen, and there stopped
staring at a horrible looking figure, as seemed to start all at once
into the light just as if he'd rose out of the coals. And then he came
right up to me, for poor Ben had fainted.

As we were staring at one another I could see as the figure was buttoned
up in an oilskin coat, while a close fur cap covered its head, and a
handkercher was round the lower part of the face, so that I could see
nothing but a pair of fierce bright eyes; and there it stood with one
hand holding the side of the screen.

As long as I kept quiet it never moved; but directly I tried to get to
my place it motioned me back. At last, half-desperate, I faced it; for
a bit of thinking told me it must be a man, though Ben's story had a bit
upset me.

"Here's Richford close here," I shouts, "where we stops;" but in a
moment I saw the barrel of a pistol flashing in the light of the fire,
and then I shrunk back again into the corner. If he would only have
turned his back for a moment I should have pinned him, but he only
glanced round once, when Ben shuffled back into the far corner of the
tender; and there we were five minutes after rushing through Richford at
full speed.

"Now," he says, leaning down to me, "rouse up, and push on faster; and
don't you dare to stop till we get to Moreton:" and when a man says this
to you with a pistol in his hand, why, what else can you do but mind.

"Now," thinks I, "this is a pretty go;" and then I kicks up Ben to come
and stoke; but he wouldn't move, and what wanted doing I had to do
myself; and so we raced on, for he made me put on more steam, seeing
through my dodge in a moment, when I slackened instead; and on we went,
with the night seeming to grow darker every moment. But it was race on,
past station after station like a flash; and, one way and another, I
began to grow excited. The guard had been letting go at the gong, but
of course I could take no notice; no doubt, too, he had screwed down his
break, but that seemed to make very little difference, with the metals
in such a greasy state with the heavy frosty mist; and we raced along at
such a rate as I've never been at since.

More than once, I made sure we should be crash into the tail of some
goods-train; but though we passed several coming up, nothing was in our
way, and at last, after the wildest ride I ever had, we began to get
near Moreton, just as the water was beginning to get low. "And now," he
says, fiercely, "draw up just this side of the station;" and I nodded:
but, for all that, I meant to have run right in, but he was too quick
for me, and screwed down the brake so that we stopped a good fifty yards
short of the platform, when he leaped down, and I was going to follow,
but a rough voice said, "Stand back," and I could see some one in front
of me; while, by the lights of the train, I just saw a carriage next the
tender opened, and some one hurried off to where a couple of lights were
shining; and I could hear horses stamping; and then - it all didn't take
a minute - there was the trampling of hoofs and the rolling of wheels,
and the man who stopped me from getting down was gone.

"Get up," I says to Ben, as we run into the station; "it warn't a
ghost:" but Ben seemed anything but sure on that point. While, as we
finished our journey that night, I put that and that together, and made
out as this chap, who must have been a plucky fellow, got from the next
carriage on to the tender while we were crawling through the fog just
outside London; and all to prevent stopping at Richford, where, no
doubt, somebody had telegraphed for him to be taken; while, though the
message would perhaps be repeated to Moreton, it was not sure to be so,
and his dodge of stopping short where a conveyance was in waiting made
that all right.

I drove the up-mail next day to town; but that was my last on the Great
Central, for, when summoned before the Board, it was pay off, and go;
and that, too, without a character.



CHAPTER EIGHT.

PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS.

"You want to go to sleep? Well you shall directly, but I want to say
just a word about next week and Christmas-Day."

"Well say away," I said very drowsily.

"Well, dear," said Mrs Scribe, "You see mamma's coming."

"Sorry to hear it," I said in an undertone.

"For shame," said Mrs S. "How can you talk in that way, when you know
what interest she takes in you, and how she praises all you write. No,
now, it isn't gammon, as you so politely call it. Well, and if she did
say you always introduced `the wife,' or `the missus,' so often, what
then? You would not have her flatter you, and say what she didn't mean,
would you now, dear?"

I couldn't help it, for the wind was easterly and I was very tired, so I
only said, "Bother!" But there, I dare not commit to paper all that was
said to me upon the subject. A word or two will suffice upon a matter
familiar to every Benedict.

"Ah, sir," said Mrs S, "you did not say `bother' after that walk when
we gathered cowslips, and I gave you leave to speak to mamma. What did
you say then?"

"Too long ago to recollect," I said.

"No it is not, sir. You said - "

"There, for goodness sake, don't be casting all one's follies in one's
teeth," I exclaimed.

"Well then, just listen quietly to what I was going to say about mamma
coming."

"Go on then."

"Now don't be a cross old goose, and - "

"Gander," I suggested.

"Now don't be so stupid and tiresome, dear, but just listen. Now, Mrs
Parabola's furniture is going to be sold to-morrow, and you'd better go
and pick up a few things."

"Pick up," I said, "why they won't let you have anything unless you pay
for it."

"Dear me, how exceedingly witty," said Mrs S. "Have you quite
finished, sir?"

I felt scorched, so held my tongue, and submitted to the scolding.

"Now I see that Jane has completely ruined that dinner-service: the
vegetable-dish covers are all broken but one, and that has no handle;
the soup tureen has a great piece out of the side; there are only five
soup plates left, while as to the dinner plates, they are that cracked
and chipped, and - "

"If you want a new service, why don't you say so, and not go dodging
about and beating the bush in that way?" I exclaimed viciously.

"Then you know, dear," continued Mrs S, without noticing my remark, "we
want some more glass, and I'd get one of those nice wool mattresses Mrs
Parabola was so proud of, and we must have a fresh carpet in the
dining-room, for ours is perfectly disgraceful. What? people come to
see us and not our carpets? Well I suppose they do, but we need not
disgrace them by making believe to be so poor. And let's see, there's a
very pretty china tea-service that I certainly would get, dear, and a
few of those damask table-cloths and napkins."

"`Those damask table-cloths and napkins?'" I said. "Why, how the
dickens do you know anything about them?"

"Why, I went to see, of course, and the auctioneer's men were very civil
and let us go over the house."

"Humph," I said. "Anything else you would like?" When if she did not
keep on talk, talk, talk for a good hour about the odds and ends, as she
called them, that it would be advantageous to buy.

Now, it so happened that when I married I thought I had properly
furnished my house; but year after year I have gone on finding out that
this was a complete mistake, while now, at the end of some thirteen
years, it seems to me to be as far from perfect as ever. But here, in
this case, as Mrs Scribe's mamma was coming down to spend Christmas, I
could of course say nothing, so after faithfully promising that I would
visit Mrs Parabola's during the three days' sale, I was allowed to go
to sleep.

"Going to the sale, Retort?" I said the next day to a friend.

"Well, no," was the stammered reply; "I never buy at sales."

"Never mind, walk there with me." Mr Retort consented, and we strolled
on together to where a gaily-patterned hearthrug hung out of a window,
bearing one of the auctioneer's bills. Men were hanging about with
porters' knots, and mostly wearing head coverings composed of Brussels
carpet; Abram was there, Isaac was there, Jacob was there, and the whole
of the twelve patriarchs, all looking hook-nosed, unctuous, unsoaped,
and evidently revelling in the idea of what a glorious "knock out" there
would be after the sale. The dining-room was set apart for selling
purposes; the long table stood, with all the leaves in, while its
telescopic principle was so put to it that in places it was quite out of
focus, and the leaves did not meet. The "elegantly-designed genuine
Turkey carpet" was ingeniously folded, so that all the worn parts were
hidden, and the brighter and unworn portions prominently spread out upon
the long table. The scroll fender stood upon the chimney-piece, the
plated-ware upon the sideboard, while ranged along the walls were the
bureaus and wardrobes out of the bedrooms; at which innovation, or
rather intrusion, the large portraits upon the walls gazed down most
ferociously.

"Porter, sir?" said a man, touching his carpet-cap to Retort.

"No, thank you, my man," said my friend, politely, "I never take beer."

"No, sir, I mean to carry home what you buy," said the man.

"Oh, dear me, no," said Retort, "I never purchase at sales."

The man thrust a ribald tongue into his long lank cheek, while, at the
same moment I was earnestly examining the aforesaid Turkey carpet, and
wondering whether it would be an improvement upon the one in our own
room, when a man, whose name must have been Isaacs or Moss,
insinuatingly offered me a catalogue.

"Thank you," I said: "I have one."

"Shouldn't recommend it, sir," said the new-comer. "The drawing-room
carpet would just suit you, for it by rights should have been laid in a
dining-room."

"Thanks," I said, "but don't let me detain you."

No detention in the least. Mr Isaacs was a broker, and for the usual
trifling commission he could secure anything in the sale for me at a
considerable reduction in the price I should have to give.

"For you see," said Mr Isaacs, see-sawing the edge of a leaf of the
catalogue between two of his excessively dirty teeth, "if you attempt to
bid for yourself the brokers will consider that you are taking the bread
out of their mouths, and combine against you, and run things up.
Couldn't secure a thing yourself, I assure you, sir."

"Isn't this a public auction?" I said, in what was meant to be a
dignified way.

"Oh, yes, of course," said Mr Isaacs; "but you see, sir, these sort of
things are always managed for gentlemen by brokers. Gentlemen never bid
for themselves."

I left Mr Isaacs under the impression that I was not a gentleman, since
I fully intended to bid for myself, and steadfastly refused to pay
attention to the various eligible lots he kept introducing to my notice
as I passed from room to room of the mansion, gradually getting better
filled with visitors bound on bargain-seeking errands.

"Why, you'll pay dear enough for what you buy, depend upon it," said
Retort. "What with brokers and buyers, I don't see much chance for
you."

"Perhaps not, but look here," I said. "This is how I manage: I get, say
in a corner, where I can just see the auctioneer's face, and then taking
care not to make much movement or to do anything that will take the
enemy's attention, I give him a quiet nod for my bid each time, while
seeing that I am a buyer, he always looks out for my nods. Don't you
see?"

"Just so," said Retort, "a capital plan, no doubt."

The sale began, and having obtained a pretty good place, I bid for
several little things. Two or three times over I saw that the brokering
clique were running them up, but by a judicious bit of management I let
them run on, and then left my friends with the last bid, so that they
were quite satisfied and let me bid and buy as I liked.

I had secured, as the day wore on, several undoubted bargains, amongst
which was some of the damask linen which had taken Mrs Scribe's fancy;
but the room was insufferably hot and stuffy, and evidently too much for
poor Retort, who disappeared.

At length the dining-room Turkey carpet came on, and in spite of various
shabby parts, I made up my mind to have it for divers reasons, among
which I might enumerate its probably going for a song; secondly,
durability; thirdly, its eminent respectability, for no one could find
fault with a dining-room covered by a Turkey carpet.

"Five pun'," said one of the brokers, after the auctioneer's
introductory remarks.

I nodded.

"Five ten - five ten - six - six ten - seven - seven ten - eight ten - nine
ten. Nine ten," said the auctioneer, drawing bid after bid from
different parts of the room, while, forgetting my nodding system in the
excitement of the moment, I stood confessed. Now I had set ten pounds
down in my own mind as the price I would go to, and was rather surprised
to find how quickly it had reached to "nine ten," as the auctioneer
termed it. However, seeing that the carpet was pretty good, and my room
large, I thought I would go a little farther, for I must confess to
feeling a little spite against the party of Jews who now seemed to be
running me up again. So on went the bidding again, till it had reached
to fourteen pounds.

"Let the gentleman have it," said Mr Isaacs, with a grin. But, no,
"fifteen pounds" was bid from somewhere else - evidently by a
confederate.

"Sixteen," I formed with my mouth.

"Seventeen bid," cried the hammer-man.

"I will have it," I muttered, "in spite of the scoundrels, for it would
cost twenty for a good Brussels, and there's no wear in them."

"Going at seventeen - seventeen - _sev-en-teen - sev-en-teen_. Going at
seven-_teen_. `Eighteen.' I thank you, sir. Eighteen - eighteen -
eighteen. Nineteen is bid," said the auctioneer, while the Jews grinned
and chuckled.

"Not half its vally yet, sir," cried Mr Isaacs. "Don't give it away,
sir. Orter make fifty pun', at the least."

"Thou villainous Shylock," I muttered to myself, "but I can afford a few
pounds sooner than be beaten."

"This splendid Turkey carpet, fit for any nobleman's mansion, now stands
at nineteen pounds," cried the man in the rostrum. "Say another pound
for you, sir!"

I nodded.

"Twenty pounds - twenty - twenty - guineas - twenty-one pound is offered.
It's against you, sir, at twenty-one pounds."

I nodded again.

"Twenty-two pounds," cried the auctioneer. "Twenty-two pounds. Any
advance upon twenty-two pounds," he continued, amid much chuckling,
when, as there was no further reply to the challenges, I became the
fortunate owner of the carpet at double its worth.

"Name," cried the auctioneer, and then catching my eye, he nodded, and
went on with the next lot.

"I'll keep out of sight again, I think," I muttered, and returned to my
corner, feeling very hot and bristly, as I determined to reopen the
knocking-out discussion in the morning papers, for it was evident that I
was the victim of a conspiracy.

But I was warm in temper as well as body, and therefore determined not
to be driven away, so I purchased an elegant set of card and occasional
tables at about double their value; gave six pounds ten for the damaged
dinner-service; seven pounds for the china; five guineas for a wool
mattress, and found myself at last bidding twelve shillings an ounce for
some of the plate.

The Jews seemed frantic with delight, but I knew all the while it was
only to conceal their anger and annoyance; and, though I kept carefully
out of sight, I knew the bolts and shafts of their coarse allusions were
being directed at me, while their hidden confederate on the opposite
side of the room bid furiously. Once or twice I felt disposed to leave
off, and let the high-priced lots be knocked down to the Israelitish
villain. "But no," I said, "I'll have what I want in spite of them, and
cunning as they are;" for the rascals kept sending their chaff flying at
their confederate as well.

"What a good job Retort has gone!" I muttered; "I shall never have the
face to tell anyone what I have given." And now, as it was fast getting
dusk, and our Jewish friends were beginning to be sportive and indulge
in such little freaks of fancy as bonneting the porters, and
accidentally causing articles of furniture to fall against their
fellows, all of which tended to make the confusion worse than before, I
left the auctioneer hurrying through the last of that day's lots, and
made the best of my way out; when, to my surprise, I found Retort in the
hall.

"Ah, well met!" I exclaimed, hurriedly following his example; and
thrusting my pencilled catalogue into my pocket, feeling very desirous
not to talk of the day's purchases until a little softened down by
dinner and a glass or two of sherry. However, Retort did not seem at
all disposed to speak upon the subject; and, after a little pressing,
the touchy bachelor consented to dine with me and take pot luck.

But pot luck that day was nothing to be grumbled at, for Mrs Scribe had
exerted herself to have everything snug, as she afterwards told me, in
consequence of my having been "a good boy," and undertaken to get the
few things she wanted before mamma came down. So pot luck that day
consisted of some well-made ox-tail soup - not at all burnt - caught, as
our queen of the kitchen terms it - a nice flakey bit of crimped cod with
oysters; boiled fowls and tongue; two species of kickshaws; Stilton and
celery. The bottled ale was good, the sherry pleasant, and Mrs S
amiability itself; so that by degrees the creature comforts acted like


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 6 of 19)