George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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anodyne or unguent to my raw temper; and when my smiling partner left us
over our wine, I leaped out of my chair, opened the door, and earned the
smile tendered for my acceptance.

"Hem!" said Retort, as soon as we were alone.

"Come, fill your glass, Tom," I said; "that's a capital glass of wine,
even if it isn't one of your wonderful vintages. I call that Pantheon
Port - fit drink for all the gods - ruby Ambrosia."

"Hum," said Retort very superciliously - "Gilbey's, eh?"

"Now, I do call that shabby," I said, "to sneer at a fellow because he
frankly offers you a cheap glass, and isn't above owning to it. Now, if
you had dined with old Blunkarn, he'd have given you a worse glass, and
vowed it was '20 port."

"But how did you get on at the sale?" said Retort hastily, so as to
change the subject.

"Rascally!" I exclaimed, firing up. "Those confounded Jews!"

"Wasn't it scandalous," said Retort.

"The most iniquitous affair I ever saw!" I exclaimed.

"The scoundrels ought to be indicted for conspiracy," said my friend.

"_I'll_ show them up, my boy," I said. "I'll send columns to the papers
if they'll only put them in."

"Ah, do," said my companion. "Now, you see, I bid for a thing or two."

"You," I said; "why, what for? Bachelor in lodgings?"

"Well - er - er - yes," said Retort, stammering, "er - er at present, you
know - at present."

"Why, you don't mean to say - " I burst out.

"Hush, my dear fellow! don't speak so loud."

"That you've proposed to Miss Visite?"

"Well - er - yes, my dear sir, I have," simpered the great booby.

"Then I congratulate you," I exclaimed. "Here, Nelly," I said, running
towards the door.

"No, no, no - don't, don't, there's a good fellow," cried Retort,
dragging me back towards the table; "don't call Mrs Scribe. Let me
break it to her gently some other time. I'd rather do it myself."

"Just as you like," I said, good-humouredly; and then I toasted the
future Mrs Retort's most honoured name.

"Well," continued Retort, drawing forth his catalogue, "I was telling
you that I bid for a few lots, but those fellows run them up so, that I
couldn't get a thing."

"Yes, it was too bad," I muttered, fumbling in my pocket for my
catalogue, to find that I had left it in the coat I had taken off.

"Here, Emily," I said, when the maiden answered the bell, "fetch that
catalogue out of my coat-pocket in the dressing-room. Don't show it to
any one else. Bring it straight here;" for I was rather alarmed lest
Mrs Scribe should see the figures made beside the lots I had secured.

Emily soon returned, and then, with a somewhat darkened brow, I began to
refer to the different items.

"What did you bid for, Tom?" I said to my friend, who was poring over
the list, evidently deep in for furnishing. "But I never thought of
your getting married, old chap; though I did half fancy that you were
sweet after Miss V."

"Why, you don't suppose I should have wasted a day at a sale if I had
not wanted things, do you?"

"Never gave it a thought," said I. "And so you didn't buy anything
after all?"

"No," said Retort. "Did you?"

"Well - er - er - um, ye-e-es; a few things - a few."

"Things went dear, though, didn't they?"

"Well, yes, on the whole, they did. But what did you bid for?"

"Oh, I thought that Turkey carpet would just suit us; and as you were
going in for the drawing-room Brussels, why, I bid for it; but those
Israelitish villains run it up to twenty-two pounds."

I was so out of breath for a moment that I couldn't speak.

"Then," continued my dear friend, "I wanted those card and occasional
tables, but couldn't get them; they bought the dinner-service, too, at
six ten, and the china for seven pounds. Then I took a strong fancy to
that wool mattress, but of course I wasn't going to give five guineas
for it. It certainly was a beautifully soft and thick one, but one
could buy it new for the money, or less."

"Did you bid for any of the plate?" I gasped in husky tones.

"Well, 'pon my word, old chap, I'm half ashamed to own it, but I really
was stupid enough to go as far as eleven and sixpence an ounce for it -
which is an absurd price, you know. But there, thank goodness! I've
escaped, for I haven't bought a single lot."

I did not speak for quite five minutes, for the simple reason that I
could not. What was I to do, or what was I to say? I wanted to call
him names, and take him by the collar to shake him till his teeth
chattered. But who could so treat a guest?

"Let's go up and have some tea," I said at last, very hoarsely; and
then, recovering myself, I stopped him, for I felt sure he would begin
talking upstairs, while Mrs Scribe, on the subject being broached,
would ask - what as yet she had not had opportunity for - what I had

"Stop a minute, Tom," I said. "Don't say a word about the sale

He looked at me strangely, and kept his counsel as well as mine - and not
a single word has since passed our lips; but in after days, when dining
at our house in company with his wife, I have seen his eyes wander from
the Turkey carpet to the dinner-service, and again, in the drawing-room,
from the occasional tables to the china tea-cups and saucers; and then
he has glanced darkly at me, with the look of a found-out conspirator,
and I have looked darkly at him. But, no, not even to the wife of my
bosom have I ever unburdened myself respecting the prices I paid for the
new acquisitions to our furnishing department. While as to that
five-guinea wool mattress, I could almost swear that, whoever stuffed
it, stuffed in the miserable sheep's trotters and bones, for whenever by
chance we have slept in the visitors' room, upon airing principles, I
have always felt lumps right through the feather bed.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"No, my love, the price has nothing to do with you," I said, while being
cross-questioned. "You have the things, so you ought to be satisfied."

"So I am, and it's very good of you," said Mrs Scribe; "and now you'll
be good, too, and not tease mamma - now, won't you!"

"All right."

"And I say, dear."

"Well!" (from under the counterpane).

"Don't, now - same as you did last time - don't ask poor mamma how long
she means to stay."

"All right," (very muffled in tone).

"No, dear, it isn't all right if you ask her such a thing. It looks as
if you meant that you wanted to get rid of her again."

"So I do," (this time so smothered that it was audible only to self).

"Good-night, dear."


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"What a nice, comfortable, pleasant-feeling, long-napped carpet, George.
I do like a Turkey carpet above all things; it is so warm and
aristocratic-looking, and then, too, so durable. Now, I'm sure, my
dear, I am right in saying that you picked it up a bargain at a sale."

"Yes, that he did, mamma dear," said Mrs Scribe; "but he won't tell me
what he gave for it. Do tease him till he tells you."

"Now, how much was it, sir?"

"Another slice of turkey, Mrs Cubus?"

"Well, really, my dear, I don't think - er - er - well, it really is a
delicious turkey. Oh! half that, George. And why don't you say mamma?
Yes, just the least bit of stuffing, and - er - a chestnut or two. That's
quite enough gravy, thank you. Now, what did you give for the carpet?"

"Oh," I said, "it's Christmas-time, so I shall make a riddle of it.

"Well, let me see," said Mrs S's Mamma. "You gave - what shall I say?
About eighteen feet square, isn't it?"

"Very good - that's it exact."

"Well, then, my dear, as you bought it a bargain, I should say you gave
five pounds for it - or say guineas - but, no, I'll say pounds."

"Capital!" I said, with the most amiable smile I ever had upon my
countenance; "I did give five pounds for it."

"_Plus seventeen_," I whispered into my waistcoat.

"What, dear?"

"Merry Christmas to you," I said, bowing over my glass of sherry.

And that was my last bargain-hunt.



Down by the woods in the rocky valley,
Where the babbling waves of the river sally,
Where the pure source gushes
And the wild fount rushes,
There's the sound of the roar
That is heard on the shore,
Where the tumbling billows the chalk cliffs bore;
For down from each hill
With resistless will,
The floods are fast pouring their waters so chill,
And the West has risen with a cry and a shout,
Dash'd at the North to the Ice-king's rout;
Then off and away,
For the livelong day
Has rush'd through the woodlands - no longer gay,
Splitting the branches;
While avalanches
Of melting snow
Bend the pine-boughs low,
And the earth with the spoil of the warfare strow.

And now once again
Comes the pitiless rain,
Pouring its torrents from black clouds amain;
Till the river is swollen and bursting its bounds,
And its muttering wrath sweeps in ominous sounds
On the wintry breeze,
Louder and louder by rising degrees.

The Ice-king is routed - his reign is past,
And the frost-bound river is rending fast;
And the West wind sweeps with a mournful sough,
And the flood tears through with the force of a plough.
Splitting and rending,
The ice unbending,
As with mighty burrow,
It carves out a furrow
Of churning wreck;
While, as if at its beck,
The foam-capped streams
Loose the Ice-king's beams,
And each crystal fragment, with wild weird gleams,
Now sinks - now rises,
As each stream still prises,
Till the loosen'd river in fury rolls
Away through the valley; while icy scrolls
Are swept from the bank, where the snow lay heavy,
And snow-drift and ice joins the West's rude levy;
Which at barrier scouts,
At each rock mound shouts;
Sweeping along towards the land of the plain,
Tingeing the waters with many a stain;
Foaming along in an eddying sweep,
And gliding in speed where the flood ploughs deep,
Rooting the reeds from their hold on the bank,
And widening its track where the marsh lies dank.

Away tears the river
With an earthquake's speed,
Over the snow-cover'd lowland mead,
Laughing aloud at each reckless deed,
As the stricken farmers the ruin heed,
Whirling along on its bosom the reed
And the sharp, jagg'd ice and the harmless bead,
With the unchained course of a wild-born steed,
Till the hills where it passes quiver.

Away and away, and still onward away,
And there's ruin and havoc in lowland this day;
For the waters brown
In their rage tear down,
Menacing shipping and threatening the town;
They've beat down the weir,
And dash'd at each pier,
And swept o'er the bank to the widespread mere,
Whose icy sheet,
As though torn by heat,
Has fallen in fragments where torrents meet;
While now for the bridge,
There's an icy ridge
On the river's breast,
Swept along by the West,
Whose might shall the strong beams and deep piles wrest,
Till the bridge goes down,
By the flooded town,
Where the lowing kine and the penn'd flocks drown.

But the damm'd stream rages,
For naught assuages
Its thirst for ruin;
And again undoing
The toil of years,
It hurries along till the rocks it wears.

And now there's a crash and a mighty rattle
As a stalwart mound gives the river battle;
And soon engaging,
The waves leap raging,
Where the mound is gash'd,
By the churn'd ice dash'd,
While from out of the dam,
With the force of a ram,
Comes each huge, strong beam,
On the breast of the stream,
With the speed of an arrow,
Where the banks are narrow;
But the rocky face
Stays the furied race,
As round it the waters in madness enlace;
Lashing and tearing
With rage unsparing,
To beat down the stay
In the deadly fray;
And then, for more ruin, to hurry away;
But the hill stouthearted
The water has parted,
And away in a sever'd stream they tear
Like famish'd lions fresh from their lair,
Devouring, destroying, and bearing away
Each barrier, bank, or each timber'd stay;
Till they slacken their race by the sandy verge
Of the parent sea, whose wild, restless surge
Lashes the shore.
Towards her breast leap the rivers in eager guise,
Lost in the billows that hurrying rise
To welcome the treasures they pour.



"Very, very glad to see you, my boy," said my friend Broxby, as I
reached his house quite late on Christmas-eve, when he introduced me to
his wife, a most amiable woman of an extremely pleasing countenance; to
Major and Mrs Major Carruthers, a very pimply-faced gentleman, with a
languishing wife troubled with an obliquity of vision, which worried me
greatly that evening from her eye seeming to be gazing upon me, while
its owner wore a perpetual smile upon her lip. Mrs Major Carruthers'
brother was also there, a young man, like myself, of a poetic turn, and
troubled with headaches, besides several others, ladies and gentlemen,
who occupied divers relative distances in connection with my friend
Broxby and his charming wife.

"Why you're as nervous and bashful as ever, my boy," said Broxby, in his
rough, good-natured way, and I tried to laugh it off, particularly as it
was said before so many people in the well-lit drawing-room; but even
before the fearful shock my nerves received I always was of a terribly
nervous temperament, a temperament which makes me extremely susceptible.

As I am now forty I have given up all hopes of ever getting the better
of it, even as I have felt compelled to give up the expectation of
whiskers, curling hair, and - well no, not yet, for, as the poet says,
"We may be happy yet," and some fond, loving breast may yet throb for me
in the future. I may add that my hair is fair, my face slightly
freckled, and that I have a slight lisp, but it is so slight that you do
not notice it when you get used to me.

After a long, cold ride down by train to Ancaster, and a six miles' ride
in Broxby's dog-cart from the station, where I was met by his groom, the
well-lit drawing-room seemed so cheering and comfortable, and as I grew
a little more at home I began to be glad that I had left my chambers to
their fate for the time, and come down to bask awhile in the light of so
many lustrous orbs.

I was just feeling somewhat confused from the fact of Mrs Major
Carruthers having rested her eye upon me and smiled sweetly, when as a
matter of course I felt bound to do either one thing or the other, look
angry and suppose that she was laughing at me, or smile sympathetically
in return. I did the latter, when, as I said before, I became confused
to see that Major Carruthers was frowning fiercely at me, while his face
looked quite currant-dumplingified from the fierce hue assumed by his
pimples. But just at that moment a servant announced something to my
host, who came forward, slapped me on the shoulder, and I followed him
out of the room into his study, where a small table was spread expressly
for my delectation.

"You see we dined two hours ago, Augustus, so I'm going to chat and have
a glass of sherry with you while you freshen up. I thought it would be
more snug for you here in my study, so cut away."

I must confess to having felt hungry, and I directly commenced the meal,
while my friend chatted pleasantly about the party I had met in the

"Why, we must find you a wife, one of those fair maidens, my boy. A
good, strong-minded, lovable woman would be the making of you. Good
people, those Carruthers, only the Major is so fearfully jealous of his
wife - simple, quiet, good-hearted soul as ever breathed. And oh, by the
bye, I have to apologise to you for something really unavoidable. I
would not trouble you if I could help myself, but I can't. You see the
Major is a first cousin of my wife's, and we always ask them to our
little gatherings, while it so happened that Mrs Major's brother was
staying with them, when, as it was either bring him or stay away
themselves, Laura, my wife you know, thoughtlessly said `Bring him,'
never stopping to think that every bed in the house was engaged. What
to do I could not think, nor where to put him, till at last I said to
myself why Gus Littleboy will help me out of the difficulty, and
therefore, my lad, for two nights only I have to go down on my
inhospitable marrowbones and ask you to sleep double. We've put you in
the blue room, where there's an old four-poster that is first cousin to
the great bed of Ware, so that you can lie almost a quarter of a mile
from each other, more or less you know, so you won't mind, will you old
fellow, just to oblige us you know?"

Of course I promised not to mind, and a great deal more, but still I did
mind it very much, for I omitted to say that, er - that er - I am
extremely modest, and the fact of having a gentleman in the same room
was most painful to my feelings.

We soon after joined the party in the drawing-room; and, feeling
somewhat refreshed, I tried to make myself agreeable, as it was
Christmas-time, and people are expected to come out a little. So I
brought out two or three conjuring tricks that I had purchased in town,
and Broxby showed them off while I tried to play one or two tricks with
cards; but, somehow or another, when Mrs Major Carruthers drew a card,
I had forgotten the trick, and she had to draw another card which she
dropped; and, when it was on the carpet, we both stooped together to
pick it up; and you've no idea how confusing it was, for we knocked our
heads together, when I distinctly heard some one go "Phut" in precisely
the same way as a turkey-cock will when strutting; when, to my intense
dismay, I again found that the Major was scowling at me fiercely.

"Then I should go to bed if I were you, Timothy," I heard Mrs Major say
soon after; and, on looking across the room, I saw that she was talking
to her brother, but her eye was upon me, and she was smiling, so that I
felt perfectly horrified, and looked carefully round at the Major; but
he was playing cards, and did not see me.

So Mr T Peters left the room, and Broxby did all he could to amuse his
visitors, till the ladies, one and all, declared they must retire, when
the gentlemen drew round the fire; and a bright little kettle having
been set upon the hob and a tray of glasses placed upon the table, my
friend brewed what he called a night-cap, a portion of which I left four
of them discussing when Broxby rang for a candlestick, and told the maid
to show me the bedroom.

"Did you have my portmanteau taken up?" I said to the maid.

"Yes, sir."

"And carpet-bag?"

"Yes, sir."

"And writing-case?"

"Oh yes, sir; all there - that's the door, sir; you'll find everything
well-aired, and a nice fire;" and then the maiden tripped off and
disappeared at the back. But I had left my skin rug in the hall; and,
as it was so excessively cold, I went down the broad staircase once
more, and fetched it; returned to the bedroom door, opened it to make
sure I was right - not a doubt of it: nice fire - the great four-post
bedstead with the great blue hangings. No; they were green, and I was
about to start back, only a heavy breath from the bed told me that I was
right; and, besides, I recollected that blue always looked green by
candle-light; and this was the case, too, with the paper I observed.

"Most extraordinary people that Major and his wife," I thought; and then
I wound up my watch, laid it upon the chimney-piece, carefully locked
and bolted the door, and then, drawing a chair up to the fire, sat down
to give my feet a good warm. The room was most comfortably furnished,
and the chair soft and well stuffed; when, what with the heat of the
fire, the cold wind during my ride, and, perhaps, partly owing to the
night-cap I had partaken of, I fell into a sort of doze, and then the
doze deepened into a sleep, in which I dreamed that the Major had called
me out for endeavouring to elope with his wife, when it was that strange
eye of hers which had run away with me, while her set of false teeth
were in full chase behind to seize me like some rabid dog.

The horror became so great at last that I started from my sleep, kicking
the fender as I did so, when the fire-irons clattered loudly.

"What's that?" cried a familiar voice, which sounded rather softly, as
if from beneath the clothes.

"Only the fire-irons, my dear sir," I said, blandly - "I kicked them."
The next moment an exclamation made me turn sharply round; when, horror
of horrors! there was a set of teeth upon the dressing-table, and from
between the curtains of the bed Mrs Major's eyes fixing me in the most
horrifying way.

"Monster!" cried a cracked voice, which sent me sprawling up against the
wash-stand, whose fittings clattered loudly; while at one and the same
moment I heard the voice of the Major talking, and the loud, hearty
laugh of Broxby upon the stairs.

I was melting away fast when more of Mrs Major appeared through the
curtains; in fact, the whole of her head, night-cap, papers and all, and
the cracked voice shrieked -

"Monster, there's help at hand! - Alfred, Alfred, help! help!" and then
the head disappeared; when I heard from inside the curtains a choking,
stifling noise; and then came a succession of shrieks for aid.

"For pity's sake, silence, madam!" I cried, running to the door; but
the next moment I ran back.

"Open this door, here! - open!" roared the Major, kicking and thundering,
so that the panels cracked. "Matilda, my angel, I am here."

"Don't, don't; pray don't scream, ma'am," I implored.

"Oh! oh! oh! help, help, help! murder!" shrieked Mrs Major.

"Here, hi! oh! villain! A man's voice! Break in the door; smash it off
the hinges. I am here, Matilda, I am here. Broxby, what is this?"
roared the Major; and then the door cracked and groaned beneath the
blows thundered upon it.

"Oh! oh! oh!" shrieked Mrs Major.

"What shall I do?" I muttered, wringing my hands and trembling like a
leaf. I ran to the bed to implore Mrs Major to be still, but she only
shrieked the louder. I ran to the door, but fled again on hearing the
thunderings and roarings of the Major, who beat frantically, louder and

"Sir, sir," I cried, "it's a mistake."

"Oh! villain," he shrieked. "Here, here, a poker; my pistols. Broxby,
there'll be murder done."

"Madam, oh! madam," I cried, in agony, "have pity, and hear me."

"Oh! oh! oh! help! help!" shrieked the wretched woman; when I heard the
door going crack, crack; the panel was smashed in, and the sounds of the
hubbub of voices entered the room, wherein I could detect that of the
Major, more like a wild beast than anything, when, dashing to the
window, I pushed back the fastener, threw up the sash, and crept out,
lowered myself down till I hung by my hands, when, with my last look, I
saw an arm reaching through the broken panel, the bolt slipped, the key
turned, and a rush of people into the room; when, losing my hold, I fell
crash into a tree, and then from branch to branch to the ground, where I
lay, half-stunned, upon the cold snow.

"There he is," shouted a voice from above me, whose effect was like
electricity to my shattered frame, for I leaped up, and gaining the
pathway, fled to the road, and then on towards the station, only pausing
once to listen for the sounds of pursuit and to tie my handkerchief
round my head to screen it from the icy breeze. I ran till I was
breathless, and then walked, but only to run again, and this I kept on
till I had passed the six miles between Broxby's Beat and Ancaster,
where I arrived just before the night mail came in, at a quarter to

One of the porters was very civil, and, supposing that my hat had been
blown off and lost, sold me a very dirty old greasy cap for five
shillings, and then I once more felt safe as I leaned back in a
carriage, and felt that we were going towards London at the rate of
forty miles an hour. But I did not feel thoroughly safe until I had
gained entrance, in the cold dark morning, to my chambers by means of my
latchkey, and having barricaded the door, tried to forget my sorrows in
sleep, but I could not, while, as my laundress supposed that I should be

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