Cutting Times; or, A Frost and Thaw.
Twenty years ago, Hezekiah Thornypath was in Luck’s way—so much so, that Luck kicked him out of it. Hez went up to London to make his fortune, and he took his wife and children with him to help to make it: Hez meant “to make his crown a pound,” as the old song says, but he did not. Either times, trade, or Hez’s management was bad; things went contrary; and, as though it were a punishment for marrying against old Thornypath’s wish, Hezekiah’s few hundred pounds melted away, troubles came upon him, friends forsook him, and when he considered that his affairs could be no worse, he had to fetch the doctor, who came, shook his head, and in a few hours Hez and his wife were weeping bitterer tears than they had ever shed before, for the rigour of death was fast stealing away the beauty from the features of their youngest child.
The house looked sad and sombre with the blinds drawn down; footsteps were hushed, and voices were heard but in a whisper—how needlessly Hez too well knew, as he gazed, with his weeping wife, upon the little sleeper. The world looked in advance one dreary desert, while hope seemed to have parted from them for ever. No friendly word of comfort was spoken, no whispered consolation—they were alone in the great city, and the tears that fell had no earthly witness.
A few days dragged slowly past, and then the lid of the little painted deal coffin hid from aching eyes the tiny spirit’s cast-off robe. Blinding tears, breasts heaving while the thrilling words of the Apostle fell upon the grieving parents’ ears, a last long look at the deep cold grave, and a catching of the breath as the earth fell heavily upon their infant’s breast, and then, slowly, sadly, hand-in-hand, away from the little grave.
Three months passed away, and the shabby mourning had grown more rusty—three months of sorrow and struggles for the bare necessaries of life—and then again the slow, creaking step of the doctor; the same anxious faces watching the hard-drawn breath and fevered countenance of another little sufferer—watching with aching hearts, and moaning in the bitterness of their spirit at their helplessness, their utter impotence to give relief. Gazing with awe at the wild eye, unearthly look, and startled mien; ever and anon trying to soothe the child, whose spirit seemed to hold communion with another world. The same sad, sad scene: the creaking step departing, with the assurance, “nothing can be done;” and then, by the gloomy light of the wretched candle, the shades of that deepest night were seen to gather upon the little brow, as the eyes were closed in the sleep whose waking is into life eternal.
Through the crowded streets again, to the crowded habitation of the dead, a shabby funeral, with shabby mourners, hardly noticed but by the children, who cease their play and cling to the churchyard rails, or follow the sad procession amongst the mouldering graves. Another little coffin close beside the first in the cold, black earth, while hearts filled to bursting mourn for the lost ones, drinking deeply of affliction—of those bitter waters of Marah; and then on again, toiling through life’s weary way.
Months of struggling—months of privation and misery; and after a day spent in a vain effort to gain employ, Hez slunk through the gaily-lighted streets of the West End, shrinking within himself as though it were dishonest of him to be poor, and to show his haggard face amid so much wealth. Christmas was at hand, and the gaily-decorated shops were thronged with merry faces; the streets, too, were crowded, vehicles were loaded, and railway-vans groaned beneath the weight of the presents they were bearing away. Boys home for the holidays, visitors from the country, busy purchasers and sight-seers, hurried through the teeming arteries of the mighty city; and the light of many a roaring fire danced upon the window-blinds, or sent its curtain-shaded radiance glowing across the road, telling of home and comfort, and the welcome awaiting those away. Soft flakes of snow were falling fast, and deadened the footfalls of those he met. A little farther on, strains of music greeted his ear, and a voice arrested him for an instant as he heard the words of a song well-known in happier days. Again onwards, to pass a merry party of young men, laughing and happy. Everything betokening comfort, wealth, and the festivity of Christmas, met his eye; but no misery save his own, for the bitter night had sent all others hiding down in courts and alleys, seeking in their darkness’ for shelter from the winter’s icy breath. Hez groaned; for he thought of past Christmas-days, and now of the present, with his one beggarly room in a court; of his patient, long-suffering wife, and half-starving children; of the dire pressure upon him, and his impotence to ward off the troubles. Want had him tightly in her clutches, and, with the thought of his misery, he looked down upon his wretched garb in despair. He had sold everything that the traffickers with poverty would buy; little by little, furniture, plate, watches, books, clothes, the little trifles interchanged in brighter days, all, all had gone; and now Hez hurried back to his lodging, knowing that he could not stir again in search of employment but as a shoeless beggar.
Hez and his wife supped that night upon the luxury he took in with him—a hot potato; the two children lay asleep in their corner when he returned; and bare and wretched as the back room was, lighted only by a rushlight, there was still one bright ray to illumine its darkness—love was there; and the same fond smile welcomed Hez back, as greeted him in brighter days; the same arms—albeit thin and attenuated—clung round his neck, and the same gentle face was laid to his, as when, in the full career of prosperity, he had returned to a comfortable home.
Christmas-Eve, and things at the worst: the tide of prosperity floated away, and Hez’s bark stranded. A bitter night; no furniture to sell; no coals; no fire; and three weeks’ rent in arrear. A few hours before, and a message came, that the landlady wanted to see Mr Thornypath; when the poor fellow encountered the storm of abuse in waiting for him; to listen to the threats of bailiffs, and finally, as no money was produced by the wordy warfare, to receive notice to quit. It was ten o’clock, and Hez sat by the empty grate upon a broken stool; the children with their mother were asleep upon a mattress stretched in the corner of the room. Poor things, they had cried with the cold, and their mother, trying to lend warmth to their little chilled forms, in her weariness and misery slept by their side. Hez had knelt down, and kissed away a half-dried tear from the pallid cheek, as he had added his ragged coat to his wife’s scanty covering. It was a bitter, biting night, and Hez felt half stupefied with the cold; the pane of glass which the children had broken was badly stopped, and through it the chilly blast rushed in. Earlier in the night there had been an organ in the court; but the man gave in after playing half a tune, and shivered off, thinking of his own sunny land; some musicians, too, and a carol singer, had been to the public-house hard by; but their strains raised no response; and now, Christmas-Eve though it was, the occasional tramp of a policeman, and the hum of the distant street, were all the sounds that greeted the ear.
Hez sat upon his stool and mused, unmindful of the cold that crept beneath his ragged shirt, and pinched him until it left blue marks upon his flesh; unmindful of all but the half-muttered words and sighs of his sleeping wife, when he would lightly cross the room to re-adjust the wretched coverlet, and listen to her breathings, as though afraid that she might leave him in her sleep. Hez sat and mused: the bygone came back, and the thinker saw himself as child, boy, and man.
Then he recalled stormy interviews with his father; insubordination and defiance; the smarting of a blow upon his flushing cheek; and then, married life, and still happiness for a time; years of sunshine, and his barque floating gently along the stream, which now bore him for a time upon his way. Then the recollection of others’ pains; the affliction, ruin, and distress he had witnessed, where adversity had been bravely battled with for long, long years.
A black cloud shrouding the man’s soul: why should he suffer thus? what had he done? where was his sin? should wife and little ones bear the offence of the father?—suffer for his disobedience? Thousands around were in opulence; and he, willing to fight for his daily bread, eager to seize the work that should give him the labourer’s independence, pushed to the wall by the hundreds striving to grasp the coveted food-procurer. Why should he not take what stern fate denied? must he sit and watch his little ones’ agony, or apply as a pauper for parish relief? What was honesty to him now? he must have gold—gold—not to satisfy greed or the avarice of possession, but because it was the life of all most dear to him. Glittering stores of life-blood—wife’s, children’s life-blood—breath—lay in the windows close, at hand; could he not clutch the spoil, and let them live and be happy once more? “Thou shalt not steal!” What whispered of theft? It was no theft, but duty; the right of a strong man to grasp the possessions of the weaker, as kings made conquests. Gold, jewellery, wealth for the taking, and then in some country home to forget once more this hideous act in life’s drama. “Thou shalt not steal!” Hush, conscience, hush! Man must live! But not by bread alone. Not one sparrow should fall to the ground without He willed it so! But life—life for the sleeping ones; life for his long, long-suffering wife—for his prattling children! Must he keep laws and see the famine-pinched cheeks, the blue lips, and listen to wailing cries for bread? Had he not waited and hoped—hoped still against the crushing desolation that pressed upon his weary brain? But why not die? Why should they not all sleep—sleep together? A little charcoal and the door well closed; the chimney stopped; and then, with them gently sleeping, without a struggle, wafted away from this weary life to eternal rest. His would be the sin; and they, poor, gentle, loving hearts, would be tenderly led by the hand of Mercy to their Father’s home. Life! what was life but one great sorrow? They, poor sleepers, would not suffer. But what was that? A merry gentle laugh and a few half-muttered words from little golden hair, nestling close to her mother’s breast; prattling words of playful glee; some happy dream playing round that little flame of life. And should he crush it out? slay as a murderer that tiny innocent? to hear no more the music of its mirth, the ringing silver of its laugh, and the broken, half-framed words and sentences of its lips—words so sweet and playful that the child itself would peer through the golden tangle that overhung its bright blue eyes, and laugh—merrily laugh—to hear its own attempts. Those blue eyes, pure in their light as the heaven reflected in their liquid depth. Must this be so? God—God forgive the thought! They should live—live to bless him yet, for his secret should be his own.
The grate bar—the broken poker! Enough: they would suffice. He would go—go at once; but stay, he must wait awhile; his wife had moaned in her sleep, the wind had rattled the window, and he felt numbed with the cold. He had thought too much; but he was now relieved and determined.
Two—Down to Zero.
Fleet Street. The wind whistling down the river lanes and moaning through the courts. The night far advanced, and a thin section of the moon rising behind the distant cathedral. Stars bright, and sparkling like diamonds through the keen frosty air. The gas within the lamps quivering in the chilling draught, and the policeman passing a figure cowering in a dark alley near Temple-bar. The warder of the night passes, and a single vehicle rattles by directly after, the horse’s breath rising like a vapour; and then wheels and footsteps gradually fade upon the ear as they pass, echoing down the long street. The bareheaded, coatless figure emerges from its concealment, and looks around. All still as death, and no eye upon its actions but the stars of heaven, as it were, spirits looking down to chronicle what passed. The rattling of a shutter bar—the grating noise as of iron upon iron, mingled with the crackling of woodwork; the figure wrenching and tearing with maniacal fury at the firm fastenings, while huge drops of sweat roll down his face. More resistance; more noise; but the figure, straining with the might of a giant, again and again, till the iron snaps in the frosty air; and then, wrenched out by its protecting bar, an iron-sheeted shutter lies upon the pavement. To dash in the thick glass, and, with bleeding hands, to seize watches, chains, trays of rings, and sparkling jewels, and force them into a bag, is but the work of a few moments, and, grasping with both hands all that he can clutch, the figure turns to flee, just as the sharp report of a pistol rings from the interior of the shop. The glass shivers, but the figure is untouched, and grasping the stolen treasure, darts along the pavement, hardly avoiding the blow aimed at him by a policeman. Away down the well-lit street, followed by sounds that lend speed to the enfeebled frame, for, joined to the shouts of the alarmed inmates of the house, the policeman’s rattle sends its harsh whirring alarm-notes through the still night air. Onward, clutching the booty to his breast, and panting as the pursuing steps sound fainter; a race for more than life, and the street nearly passed, when another enemy darts from a side court, and grasps the fugitive’s arm. There is a sharp struggle for a few moments, and the policeman falls, stricken to the ground by an iron bar, and the figure dashes on again. But the alarm has spread as he turns down Bridge Street, where the sharp air seems to numb the limbs of the runner. Battle after rattle and shrill whistles are heard, and the figure stands for a moment undecided, wiping the half-frozen drops from his brow. Again onward, with enemies springing up on all sides, and shouts ringing in his ears; panting up the steep slope of the old bridge, but at the top two more enemies. Beaten, wearied, fainting; no hope; escape closed; prison; felon’s dock; transportation; a starving wife and children; and a dishonoured name—all crowding thoughts, rushing to the brain to add anguish to the moment, as, still clutching his ill-gotten booty, the despairing wretch, with a last look around, climbs the heavy stone balustrade, gives one wild shriek, and parts the air in a plunge down into the dark abyss of rushing waters. The waters part to receive him in their cold embrace, and then the struggle for life—for breath—above water—borne away by the swirling eddies, and dashed against the sharp buttress; gliding along by the slimy stone, and hurried through the arch, to be caught by the back eddy, and swept into still water, and borne down by the heavy booty. One glance at the bright stars, with the stream bubbling at his mouth; arms failing with beating the waves; and then the tide roaring in the drowning wretch’s ears, spreading his long hair for a moment upon the surface, and then closing above his head—the concentric rings swept away, and all cold, dark, and familiar once more—the gas in the court shining up through the window upon the ceiling, and wife and children asleep upon the floor.
Cold and stiff, Hez staggered to his feet; a heavy dew was upon his brow; a deep groan burst from his breast; and, sinking upon his knees, he covered his haggard face with his hands, and, by the side of his sleeping ones, a prayer of thankfulness welled forth from the depths of his heart that it was but a dream. Overwrought nature could bear no more, and at last, sinking beside his sleeping wife, that happy oblivion, given alike to rich and poor, closed his eyes once more in rest.
Three—Rays from the Crystals.
The bells rang forth merrily upon that Christmas-morn; the sun shone out in unclouded splendour, and danced in vivid flashes from the snowy covering of the house-tops. Water frozen in the bedrooms, and, far off in the country, the rivers ringing with the pick-axe blows to break the massive ice. Birds upon the house-tops setting all their feathers up perpendicularly, and looking as if they had put in an appearance against the cold by donning an extra suit. There was a crisp feeling in the air that sent the blood tingling through the veins, and gave a rosy hilarity even to the porters of the gate-ways about Lincoln’s Inn; for they seemed to drop their pounce and parchment air for the time, and beat their breasts, and stamped about the fresh-swept pavement with such an air of jollity, that people turned round to look at them; and one wayfarer gave it as his opinion that the Court of Chancery was dead, and the porters had received the news of a pension from a grateful country. The policemen, too, for once looked good-tempered; and one was actually seen to smile upon a ragged urchin going surreptitiously down a slide.
It was Christmas-morning, but there was plenty of business going on: the poulterer’s boy from round the corner showed ears that looked like raw beef; but he had a broad grin upon his countenance as he puffed along, sending his vapoury breath on high in little clouds, and evidently happy, although laden with a tray of “Aldermen hung in chains;” and fat and plump those turkeys looked; rich, too, those sausages, but freezing hard in the sharp air. The greengrocer up Hez’s Court was doing a powerful stroke of business in potatoes and greens; oranges, parsnips, and sticks of celery and horse-radish disappeared like magic. “’Taters at three pound tuppence” went off like shots; and, as for the penny a pound “flukes,” there was great fear lest they should not last out, for the “floury Regents” were almost sold off. People seemed to have run mad after greens at “five-pence the market bunch;” and the master of the shop had been heard to say to his wife, that “if it hadn’t ha’ been Christmas-day, he’d ha’ kep’ open all church time!” But it was Christmas-day, as anyone might have seen by the bareheaded butcher-boys taking home the mottled beef that they could not find time for on the previous night; for trade was so brisk that there was no occasion to cry “What d’ye buy, buy, buy!” every moment being taken with weighing and cutting up.
It was Christmas-day; and, for once in a way, London seemed disposed to forget all the troubles of work-a-day life in the full enjoyment of the festive season. “Clang-clash” went the bells. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and then backwards and forwards, and in and out, chopping and changing, dodging, bob-majoring, tripling and doubling, and rolling out their peals in every way connected with campanology; until they all went off together with a mighty clash, as though they had gone mad with delight because it was Christmas-day. Many were the puddings that, tightly bound in the well-floured cloth, had been plunged into the seething copper, as soon after six o’clock as cook could get the water to boil; and many were the happy hearts collected from far to eat of the tiresome old cloying, surfeiting, sweet, lovable, festive dish.
Saint Dunstan’s church-clock had just pointed to half-past nine, when a stoutish old lady in a black silk dress, ditto bonnet, bright-hued shawl, a basket of the celebrated old check pattern, and bearing a genuine stag-horn handled gingham umbrella, secured round its waist by a piece of black tape, and much resembling its owner in bodily proportions—a stoutish old lady struggled between the knees of the passengers from the very bottom of the first “up” Kensington ’bus that morning; and then tried the patience of the key-bugle playing conductor to its fullest stretch while she sought for the money to pay her fare. Of course the ’bus had stopped before the stoutish old lady had expected it, or she would have been prepared, and she said so; while, by a series of the most terrible contortions she contrived to force her hand through the lumber-room full of pin-cushions, nutmegs, orris-root, scissors, bodkin-cases, pearl buttons, thimbles, stilettoes, etcetera, etcetera, which the stoutish old lady called her pocket, and extricated from its snug, warm place, at the very bottom, the flat tin-box which was her purse; and also, as a matter of course, which would not open at any price, till the old lady grew almost purple in the face, when off flew the lid—“spang”—scattering sixpences and shillings half over the road. But it was Christmas-day, and the conductor must have had just such a jolly-looking old soul for his own mother, for he good-humouredly and nimbly hopped about and picked up the scattered coins, put the old lady “all square agin,” and then, upon the strength of its being Christmas-morning, gave the motherly-looking old soul a sounding kiss upon one of her puckered cheeks, and hopped upon his perch before the old lady could get her breath.
The passenger, who was no other than Mrs Cripps, clear-starcher and laundress, of Kensington Gravel Pits, had walked some distance up Fetter Lane before she had recovered her equanimity, when a pleasant-looking smile began at one corner of her mouth, at the side where she had lost most teeth, and gradually overspread her mottled old face, till she looked like what she was—such a true specimen of a comfortable old English dame, that a fat butcher standing at his door, with a face red as his own beef, looked as if he would have liked to take the old lady under the mistletoe hanging so temptingly with its pearly berries outside the greengrocers over the way. But he did not do it; and, directly after, a shade crossed Mrs Cripps’s countenance as she turned up a court to the left. She walked up and down it several times, as she said to herself, “to get breath,” but in reality to try and rid herself of a nervous trembling that would come over her, and make her old hands shake so that she could hardly hold umbrella and basket. Truth must out; and at last the nervousness so increased that the dame went into the “Rising Sun,” and again brought the tin-box into requisition to pay for a glass of gin; and thus fortified Mrs Cripps turned into the shabbiest house in the court, pointed out to her as Number 9, where she puffed and panted up the stairs until she reached the second floor landing, leaving out the customary summons of two rings at the second bell, so as “to take them by surprise.”
For three or four days Mrs Cripps had been in a state of great excitement; for she had found out that Master Hez, whom she had nursed when a baby, and her dear bairn, Miss Celia, whom she knew before the little darling was as tall as her umbrella, were in London and very badly off. The old lady, who had settled in the great city’s suburb at the death of her husband, an event which had taken place many years before, hugged herself with the idea that she could now repay an old debt, and determined to try and get them to dine with her on Christmas-day. A real north country goose was obtained expressly for the occasion; the raisins were stoned and the suet chopped over-night, and before starting that morning the old lady had seen the pudding in the copper, and left her aide-de-camp with full munitions and instructions for carrying on the management of the batterie de cuisine until her return with “company to dinner.”
In her homely way the world had prospered with the old lady. The best parlour was, though perhaps no example of refined taste, snug and comfortable; and if any one could brew a good cup of tea in the best china teapot it was Mrs Cripps. Rumour said something about dividends, and periodical visits to the Bank. Be that as it may, Mrs Cripps had a comfortable business of her own; and heavy was the load of linen—clean or dirty—that the man with the rough pony took backwards and forwards from “the squares.”
It was some time before the visitor to Pounce Court could summon up enough courage to turn the handle of the door and enter the backroom, “to take them by surprise;” but when by a mighty effort she did so, the surprise was not with them, but returned upon herself. Poor Mrs Cripps, she gave a sort of hysterical gulp as she closed the door behind her and hurried across the room to greet Hez and his wife; but she had not gone many steps ere she was overcome by what she saw, and, sinking upon her knees, she burst forth into a wild fit of sobbing and weeping, rocking herself to and fro, and moaning at intervals—“My poor bairns! oh, my poor bairns!”
She had cause; seated side by side, cold, gaunt, and hunger pinched, Hez and his wife watched with famished eyes their two children eating the bare crusts which their last pence had purchased. There was no fire in the room; scarcely a bit of furniture, and cold gusts of wind rushed through the ill-filled window. But Mrs Cripps, though fat, was gifted with energy; her hand dived into her capacious pocket and brought forth a large blue cotton handkerchief, and in a moment her eyes were wiped; and as the astonished family gazed upon her she scuffled back to the door, and was gone. In a few seconds, however, she was back again to fetch her basket which she had left upon the floor; was gone again; but only to return and fetch the great gingham umbrella which stood leaning against the table, with its large stag-horn hook gazing in a pensive way into a broken saucer.
Few minutes elapsed before the silence was again broken, when heavy steps were heard ascending the staircase; the coal man gave his customary shout at the door, and half a hundred weight and some bundles of wood were deposited in the cupboard; while before Hez’s wife had recovered from her surprise, in puffed Mrs Cripps, with a loaf under her shawl, and the big basket in such a plethoric condition that the handles would not half close.
A portion of the outer sunshine seemed to have crept into the room, or to have been reflected from Mrs Cripps’s face; and what with attempted smiles, and the efforts required to gulp down an occasional sob, that lady’s countenance was a physiognomical study. The umbrella was soon crowned with the big black bonnet, and stood up in a corner, the shawl hung up on a nail, the gown skirts pinned up all round, and the old lady bustling about the place as though she belonged to it. Twice only had she to run up in a corner to bury her face in the big blue handkerchief; but making a cheerful fire, and picking out the most nubbly coals, getting the kettle on in the most eligible position for heat, and fanning the blazing wood with the dust-pan, took up so much time that the old lady soon forgot to sob. The odds and ends of cups and saucers were then arranged upon the table; and the children, with eager eyes, watched the disgorging of the big basket, until they clapped their little hands with delight in anticipation of the coming banquet. Rashers of bacon, fresh butter, eggs, coffee, sugar, all were there; and then the kettle gave two or three premonitory snorts by way of clearing its throat, and to announce that it was going to sing; whereupon the elder girl was enlisted into Mrs Cripps’s working committee, and set to do duty as toaster of a rasher of bacon before the now cheerful fire. Plates were put to warm; the small saucepan rummaged out, and a piece of rag drawn tightly through a hole in the bottom. “Tos it yuns!” as Hez’s little one informed the dame after she had seen it herself and temporarily repaired the evil; and then eggs were placed in it, upon the hob, all in readiness; so that, what with the brightness of the fire, and Mrs Cripps’s smiling face, the bare and not wretched room began to wear an aspect of unwonted cheerfulness.
Everything was progressing to a satisfactory state of readiness; and now the demands upon the old lady’s time were multifarious: the kettle was sputtering and boiling over into the fire; the bacon was nearly done; the coffee required tossing in and out of a tea-cup; the eggs wanted watching while they seethed their prescribed three minutes and a half; and then there was the bread and butter to cut and the butter wouldn’t spread, but kept coming off in great crumb-lined flakes. But perseverance overcomes all difficulties, and as Mrs Cripps had plenty of that virtue in her composition, she surmounted all her trials, and set the two children to work with an egg each, and some bread and butter, before she turned to the elders.
Hez and his wife had hardly moved since their visitor entered the room, but Mrs Thornypath was weeping tears of thankfulness upon her husband’s shoulder; while the latter, with feelings of mingled gratitude and wounded pride, sat with head half averted, until his old nurse approached with so apologetic an air, such a union of respect and pity, withal such tenderly, motherly words, that Hez completely broke down, and burying his face in his hands, he wept like a child.
Poor Mrs Cripps, she was thirty years old when Hez was born, and she was thirty years older than he still; in her eyes he was but a boy, and, sobbing aloud, she knelt by his side, and parting the long hair from his forehead, the good old soul kissed him tenderly, and wiped his eyes with her big blue handkerchief. But the sun came out again all over Mrs Cripps’s face, and dissipated the cloud that was lending gloom to the festive morn; whispering words of comfort to the stricken couple, Mrs Thornypath brightened up; and Hez, passive as a child, let them lead him to the table, where the old lady presiding beamed upon them all during the repast.
But it was Christmas-day, and Mrs Cripps’s plans had not yet reached fruition; so, after the breakfast, she retired with Mrs Thornypath into a corner, where, during a long discussion, the latter lady seemed trying to beg off some arrangement that the other was proposing; but she was speedily conquered by her energetic adversary, who, watching her opportunity, attacked poor Mrs Thornypath in her weakest point, and carried the day by saying it would “do the dear children good.” Mrs Thornypath then crossed over to her husband, who was leaning against the mantel-piece, and whispered with him for a minute; when he, poor fellow, glancing at his clothes, sorrowfully shook his head. But it was of no use; Mrs Cripps reinforced the attacking party, and poor Hez, completely beaten, gave a silent acquiescence to their entreaties.
There was now a busy interval of preparation, when a heavy footstep was heard upon the stairs. Hez gave an involuntary shiver as a loud rap was heard at the door, and then, without waiting for an answer, in stalked a stout, red-faced woman—the landlady—who, having gained scent of the new friend who appeared upon the scene, thought this a favourable opportunity for renewing her importunities. She had come with a speech all ready made up, and began:—
“Now, Mr Thornypath, about this here rent?”
Hez was about to reply, when Mrs Cripps confronted the intruder, and with the most cutting politeness said, “Pray, mum, have you brought your receipt?”
This was hardly what the landlady had prepared herself for, so she replied in the negative, when Mrs Cripps, with the same show of politeness, requested her to fetch it; and after backing the red-faced woman out, stood waiting her return; for Mrs Cripps was ready to face twenty Mrs Prodgers, and give them all a bit of her mind. This feeling was also strongly shared by the lady in question, who had determined also to make the second floor back a present of the above popular portion of a quarrelsome person’s thinking apparatus; but upon her return, very much out of breath with her ascent, in spite of Hez’s remonstrances, she was paid in full, and before a sufficiency of lung inflation had taken place, the closing door cut short all attempts at recrimination.
Mrs Prodgers was one of that class of householders who so abound in our thickly-populated neighbourhoods. She took a house with the intention of making all she could out of it, and not such a very unbusiness-like proceeding after all. But it is the cause of a vast amount of misery amongst those who are compelled to seek a house close to their daily avocation. They are obliged to live upon the spot, and so, in the scarcity of abodes, pay whatever rent is demanded, always a most exorbitant one, and this they contrive to pay while work holds out, but the first drawback places them at the tender mercies of their Mrs Prodgers, when their life becomes a burden, and too often that most real of all distresses, a distress for rent, sweeps away the little hardly-gained furniture. In many cases, however, Mrs Prodgers, through her over-reaching, finds that her tenants have left suddenly, leaving “not a wrack behind.” Would it not be better to receive a moderate and well-paid refit?
A boy out of the first-floor back soon fetched a hackney coach, and into it Mrs Cripps hurried all her party, to be conveyed by her to the “Gravel Pits.” There was plenty of delicacy, too, in the old dame, for she could not see anything upon the journey but the children, nor attend to anything but their wants, and so by degrees Hez’s shame and wounded pride, that so far had covered him with an icy reserve, melted before the genial dame. The bright morning, and the merry faces of his children, listening to the details of the pudding that awaited them, these, too, tended to bring to his remembrance the dream of the previous night, and to show him that one loving, honest heart on earth was more than a match for despair. The streets were full of happy faces, and to Hez’s eye everything appeared already to wear a brighter aspect. “Try again” seemed to ring in his ears, and during a temporary stoppage the greeting of one rosy-faced old man to another, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, my boy,” seemed to thrill through him. Why should it not be a happy new year to him too? And with the thought the saddening, vacant, helpless look vanished from his countenance, driven away by the spirit of energy and determination; his carriage became more erect, and this unwonted aspect was communicated to her who had divided with him the troubles of the past.
Mrs Cripps still kept too busy on the front seat with the children to observe what passed opposite, but somehow or other a very large tear trickled slowly down her nose, until it descended “plash” upon the hand of the child she held in her lap, making the little thing ask in her wonderment “what made it yain there?” There was too much to point out to the children for any notice to be taken of what took place, and when at last Hez and his wife each held out a hand to the dame, the former felt that there was no cause to fear humiliation, for the hearty, honest pressure, accompanied as it was by the motherly, loving smile, showed the full extent of the existing sympathy, and how little need there was for wordy thanks.
Four—The Sun’s Influence.
There never was such a goose before! never—brown, crimply, fragrant, and luscious, as—as—as—there; nothing else will compare with it—luscious as roast goose. The cooking too: one turn more would, nay must, have spoiled it; and as to the consequences of one turn less, they were not to be thought of. It was just, to do Mary justice, “done to a turn,” and Mrs Cripps was put out of her misery; for, as she had told Mrs Hez in confidence, she had had her doubts; but they were all cleared up, and the old lady’s face shone and looked for all the world like the pippins that had composed the sauce. Such mashed potatoes, beautifully worked all over the surface into elegant designs with a fork, and showing brown where they had been to the fire; while just under Hez’s nose, and sending forth a maddening jet of steam, was a tureen full of supplementary gravy, and sage and onions, in case the great levy that lay within the internal regions of the goose should fail. There was a big brown jug of the brownest stout; bread of the whitest; greens of the greenest; and the table had all the best cut glass on, so as to give the effect to Mrs Cripps’s six silver table-spoons. There was a real oak Christmas log upon the fire, crackling away and sending whole regiments of soldiers flying up the chimney, when poked for the gratification of little Goldenhair. Hez’s eldest child, too, had had a peep in the sideboard cupboard, where there were oranges, apples, figs, nuts, decanters, and all sorts of unheard-of treasures. But at last the whole party were settled at the table; Mr and Mrs Hez top and bottom, and Mrs Cripps and the children taking the posts of the visitors.
There never was such a goose before. “Ciss-s-s-s” at the first plunge of the carving-knife a fountain of rich brown gravy spurted right across the snow-white table-cloth, and right into the salt-cellar; and then there was such scraping and rubbing up of the mess, only ending in making bad doubly worse; but at last the carver’s duty was well performed, the choice morsels distributed, and Mrs Cripps idle, from the fact that she really could not force more mashed potatoes or gravy upon anyone.
At last, when summoned, Mrs Cripps’s Mary came in to change the plates, and brought with her such a fragrant scent as could only have belonged to a Christmas pudding; and, sure enough, it directly afterwards made its appearance, with sides bursting open to disclose the richness within. It had been on the boil for six hours; and what with the piece of holly stuck in the top, and the wine-glassful of brandy set blazing in the dish, there never could have been such a luxurious pudding before. As to the children, they again clapped their hands with delight, but otherwise gave silent testimony of their admiration by being helped three times, and eating as only children can eat pudding.
But the best of dinners must have a termination, and so did this one; and when the hearth had been swept up, and the treasures of the cupboard shone upon the little table; and whilst the fire-light danced in golden hues within the old-fashioned decanters, full of old-fashioned home-made wine, the chairs being all drawn up round the fire, Mrs Cripps began to tell her visitors of her savings; and how that she had two hundred pounds in the bank; and it not being likely that she would want it for many years to come, it was her wish that Hez—“dear Master Hez”—should take it to begin the world with afresh, and pay his old nurse again when he could spare it. And when Hez and his wife would not hear of such a thing, the old woman grew quite angry, and took the upper hand, saying, “that they were children and ought not to dictate to an old body of her years, and that she would do what she liked with her own money,” and last of all pretended to get in such a passion, that the visitors were obliged to be silent.
At last, when the early winter’s eve was closing in, when the ferny foliage began to appear upon the frosty panes, and before the candles were lighted, Mrs Cripps, who had been for a long time very silent, suddenly asked Hez if he remembered the story he used to read her, years ago, out of his little book, about the mouse helping the lion out of the net. Hez replied in the affirmative, and saw again within the glowing fire the image of his tiny, bygone self, perched upon a tall chair, reading to his comely nurse. While his nurse, old, but comely still, fondly putting her hand upon his shoulder, reminded him, too, of the dreary Christmas-eve when she had come to his father’s house—to her old master—wet, cold, and weary with her long walk from the distant village; how that weeping and sobbing she had come to beg the stern old man to lend her money to save her husband from ruin, and their little home from being broken up; how that Hez’s father had refused—harshly refused—saying that he had too many ways for his money to waste it in helping idle people; and how, when turning heartsick to the door, a little hand had seized hold of old nurse’s gown, telling nurse not to cry, for Hez would give her all his money; and forthwith thrust his little box, containing two new pennies and a lucky sixpence, into her hands, setting her weeping more bitterly than ever; bringing her upon her knees by his side to sob over and kiss the noble-hearted little fellow, till a stern voice had called him away; but only to come rushing after her again with the money she sought clasped in his little hands. “And,” concluded the dame, once more sinking upon her knees by the side of Hez, “I thank God that I can show my dear boy how many years I have remembered his kind—kind act!”
It was growing very dark in the little parlour, and Mary was getting very impatient to bring in the tea-things; but her patience was tried for some time longer, and when at last, unsummoned, she took them in, and lit the candles, the children had fallen asleep upon the sofa, and “missus’s” eyes looked very red.
Hez had found the long lane had a turning in it at last, and the roadway of that turning was smooth and easy to travel upon—so easy that he soon left all the frost and thaw far behind, and got well on in his journey of life. He used to say that a blessing went with old nurse Cripps’s money, for success attended his every venture with it. He is now a man of some note in his little country-town; and it is a fact patent to all that a helping hand can always be found with Hezekiah Thornypath by those who merit it.
I spent a few days with him at Christmas-time, some three or four years since, and there, in the snuggest corner of the room, sat a very old, white-haired dame, pretending to be very busy knitting, propped up in her easy-chair, with one or another of Hez’s numerous youngsters on the watch to pick up the constantly-straying worsted and needles. There was always a smile upon the old lady’s face when any such act was performed for her—a smile that grew brighter still when Hez approached to say a few words.
Christmas-night had come, and a merry day had been spent. The old lady had smiled and looked pleased when Hez talked of never having been able to get such another goose as nurse Cripps gave them that day, years ago, for dinner; and that, for all his money, he had never seen such a pudding upon his table as the one he partook of at Kensington. She had sat in state, too, while having her health drunk by all the family; and feebly she bent forward to “wish Master Hez a merry Christmas.” At last the party was collected round the fire, the evening was fast giving way to night, and quiet conversation was taking the place of the merry laughter and games of the afternoon. Hez and his wife sat on either side of Mrs Cripps, and had risen to once more wish the dame “a merry Christmas” before she left them for her early-sought couch. They had been talking of bygones; and, sitting with a hand grasped by those she had loved so long, the poor old lady suddenly lifted herself up, but only to fall back again in her chair as though asleep.
In the midst of the excitement, I aided Hez to carry her to her room, where she lay for days just gently breathing, but never again conscious. Watched night and day by loving friends, she passed away without a sigh during the still hours of the old year’s death, with only a growing chill to show that her sleep had deepened in intensity, and that here she would wake no more.
Categories: English Literature