Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
MY UNCLE PETER.
"Why don't you write a story, Percy?" said his mother to him next morning at breakfast.
"Plenty of quill-driving at Somerset-House, mother. I prefer something else in the holidays."
"But I don't like to see you showing to disadvantage, Percy," said his uncle kindly. "Why don't you try?"
"The doctor-fellow hasn't read one yet. And I don't think he will."
"Have patience. I think he will."
"I don't care. I don't want to hear it. It's all a confounded bore. They're nothing but goody humbug, or sentimental whining. His would be sure to smell of black draught. I'm not partial to drugs."
The mother frowned, and the uncle tried to smile kindly and excusingly. Percy rose and left the room.
"You see he's jealous of the doctor," remarked his mother, with an upward toss of the head.
The colonel did not reply, and I ventured no remark.
"There is a vein of essential vulgarity in both the brothers," said the lady.
"I don't think so," returned the colonel; and there the conversation ended.
Adela was practising at her piano the greater part of the day. The weather would not admit of a walk.
When we were all seated once more for our reading and Mrs. Armstrong had her paper in her hand, after a little delay of apparent irresolution, she said all at once:
"Ralph, I can't read. Will you read it for me?"
"Do try to read it yourself, my dear," said her husband.
"I am sure I shall break down," she answered.
"If you were able to write it, surely you are able to read it," said the colonel. "I know what my difficulty would be."
"It is a very different thing to read one's own writing. I could read anything else well enough.--Will you read it for me, Henry?"
"With pleasure, if it must be any other than yourself. I know your handwriting nearly as well as my own. It's none of your usual lady-hands-all point and no character. But what do you say, Ralph?"
"Read it by all means, if she will have it so. The company has had enough of my reading. It will be a change of voice at least."
I saw that Adela looked pleasedly expectant.
"Pray don't look for much," said Mrs. Armstrong in a pleading tone. "I assure you it is nothing, or at best a mere trifle. But I could not help myself, without feeling obstinate. And my husband lays so much on the cherished obstinacy of Lady Macbeth, holding that to be the key to her character, that he has terrified me from every indulgence of mine."
She laughed very sweetly; and her husband joining in the laugh, all further hindrance was swept away in the music of their laughter; and Harry, taking the papers from his sister's hand, commenced at once. It was partly in print, and partly in manuscript.
"MY UNCLE PETER.
"I will tell you the story of my Uncle Peter, who was born on Christmas-day. He was very anxious to die on Christmas-day as well; but I must confess that was rather ambitious in Uncle Peter. Shakespeare is said to have been born on St. George's-day, and there is some ground for believing that he died on St. George's-day. He thus fulfilled a cycle. But we cannot expect that of any but great men, and Uncle Peter was not a great man, though I think I shall be able to show that he was a good man. The only pieces of selfishness I ever discovered in him were, his self-gratulation at having been born on Christmas-day, and the ambition with regard to his death, which I have just recorded; and that this selfishness was not of a kind to be very injurious to his fellowmen, I think I shall be able to show as well.
"The first remembrance that I have of him, is his taking me one Christmas-eve to the largest toy-shop in London, and telling me to choose any toy whatever that I pleased. He little knew the agony of choice into which this request of his,--for it was put to me as a request, in the most polite, loving manner,--threw his astonished nephew. If a general right of choice from the treasures of the whole world had been unanimously voted me, it could hardly have cast me into greater perplexity. I wandered about, staring like a distracted ghost at the 'wealth of Ormus and of Ind,' displayed about me. Uncle Peter followed me with perfect patience; nay, I believe, with a delight that equalled my perplexity, for, every now and then when I looked round to him with a silent appeal for sympathy in the distressing dilemma into which he had thrown me, I found him rubbing his hands and spiritually chuckling over his victim. Nor would he volunteer the least assistance to save me from the dire consequences of too much liberty. How long I was in making up my mind I cannot tell; but as I look back upon this splendour of my childhood, I feel as if I must have wandered for weeks through interminable forest-alleys of toy-bearing trees. As often as I read the story of Aladdin--and I read it now and then still, for I have children about, and their books about--the subterranean orchard of jewels always brings back to my inward vision the inexhaustible riches of the toy-shop to which Uncle Peter took me that Christmas-eve. As soon as, in despair of choosing well, I had made a desperate plunge at decision, my Uncle Peter, as if to forestall any supervention of repentance, began buying like a maniac, giving me everything that took his fancy or mine, till we and our toys nearly filled the cab which he called to take us home.
"Uncle Peter was little round man, not very fat, resembling both in limbs and features an overgrown baby. And I believe the resemblance was not merely an external one; for, though his intellect was quite up to par, he retained a degree of simplicity of character and of tastes that was not childlike only, but bordered, sometimes, upon the childish. To look at him, you could not have fancied a face or a figure with less of the romantic about them; yet I believe that the whole region of his brain was held in fee-simple, whatever that may mean, by a race of fairy architects, who built aerial castles therein, regardless of expense. His imagination was the most distinguishing feature of his character. And to hear him defend any of his extravagancies, it would appear that he considered himself especially privileged in that respect. 'Ah, my dear,' he would say to my mother when she expostulated with him on making some present far beyond the small means he at that time possessed, 'ah, my dear, you see I was born on Christmas-day.' Many a time he would come in from town, where he was a clerk in a merchant's office, with the water running out of his boots, and his umbrella carefully tucked under his arm; and we would know very well that he had given the last coppers he had, for his omnibus home, to some beggar or crossing-sweeper, and had then been so delighted with the pleasure he had given, that he forgot to make the best of it by putting up his umbrella. Home he would trudge, in his worn suit of black, with his steel watch-chain and bunch of ancestral seals swinging and ringing from his fob, and the rain running into his trousers pockets, to the great endangerment of the health of his cherished old silver watch, which never went wrong because it was put right every day by St. Paul's. He was quite poor then, as I have said. I do not think he had more than a hundred pounds a-year, and he must have been five and thirty. I suppose his employers showed their care for the morals of their clerks, by never allowing them any margin to mis-spend. But Uncle Peter lived in constant hope and expectation of some unexampled good luck befalling him; 'For,' said he, 'I was born on Christmas-day.'
"He was never married. When people used to jest with him about being an old bachelor, he used to smile, for anything would make him smile; but I was a very little boy indeed when I began to observe that the smile on such occasions was mingled with sadness, and that Uncle Peter's face looked very much as if he were going to cry. But he never said anything on the subject, and not even my mother knew whether he had had any love-story or not. I have often wondered whether his goodness might not come in part from his having lost some one very dear to him, and having his life on earth purified by the thoughts of her life in heaven. But I never found out. After his death--for he did die, though not on Christmas-day--I found a lock of hair folded in paper with a date on it--that was all--in a secret drawer of his old desk. The date was far earlier than my first recollections of him. I reverentially burnt it with fire.
"He lived in lodgings by himself not far from our house; and, when not with us, was pretty sure to be found seated in his easy-chair, for he was fond of his simple comforts, beside a good fire, reading by the light of one candle. He had his tea always as soon as he came home, and some buttered toast or a hot muffin, of which he was sure to make me eat three-quarters if I chanced to drop in upon him at the right hour, which, I am rather ashamed to say, I not unfrequently did. He dared not order another, as I soon discovered. Yet, I fear, that did not abate my appetite for what there was. You see, I was never so good as Uncle Peter. When he had finished his tea, he turned his chair to the fire, and read--what do you think? Sensible Travels and Discoveries, or Political Economy, or Popular Geology? No: Fairy Tales, as many as he could lay hold of; and when they failed him, Romances or Novels. Almost anything in this way would do that was not bad. I believe he had read every word of Richardson's novels, and most of Fielding's and De Foe's. But once I saw him throw a volume in the fire, which he had been fidgeting over for a while. I was just finishing a sum I had brought across to him to help me with. I looked up, and saw the volume in the fire. The heat made it writhe open, and I saw the author's name, and that was Sterne. He had bought it at a book-stall as he came home. He sat awhile, and then got up and took down his Bible, and began reading a chapter in the New Testament, as if for an antidote to the book he had destroyed."
* * * * * * *
"I put in that piece," said the curate.
* * * * * * *
"But Uncle Peter's luck came at last--at least, he thought it did, when he received a lawyer's letter announcing the demise of a cousin of whom he had heard little for a great many years, although they had been warm friends while at school together. This cousin had been brought up to some trade in the wood line--had been a cooper or a carpenter, and had somehow or other got landed in India, and, though not in the Company's service, had contrived in one way and another to amass what might be called a large fortune in any rank of life. I am afraid to mention the amount of it, lest it should throw discredit on my story. The whole of this fortune he left to Uncle Peter, for he had no nearer relation, and had always remembered him with affection.
"I happened to be seated beside my uncle when the lawyer's letter arrived. He was reading 'Peter Wilkins.' He laid down the book with reluctance, thinking the envelope contained some advertisement of slaty coal for his kitchen-fire, or cottony silk for his girls' dresses. Fancy my surprise when my little uncle jumped up on his chair, and thence on the table, upon which he commenced a sort of demoniac hornpipe. But that sober article of furniture declined giving its support to such proceedings for a single moment, and fell with an awful crash to the floor. My uncle was dancing amidst its ruins like Nero in blazing Rome, when he was reduced to an awful sense of impropriety by the entrance of his landlady. I was sitting in open-mouthed astonishment at my uncle's extravagance, when he suddenly dropped into his chair, like a lark into its nest, leaving heaven silent. But silence did not reign long.
"'Well! Mr, Belper,' began his landlady, in a tone as difficult of description as it is easy of conception, for her fists had already planted themselves in her own opposing sides. But, to my astonishment, my uncle was not in the least awed, although I am sure, however much he tried to hide it, that I have often seen him tremble in his shoes at the distant roar of this tigress. But it is wonderful how much courage a pocketful of sovereigns will give. It is far better for rousing the pluck of a man than any number of bottles of wine in his head. What a brave thing a whole fortune must be then!
"'Take that rickety old thing away,' said my uncle.
"'Rickety, Mr. Belper! I'm astonished to hear a decent gentleman like you slander the very table as you've eaten off for the last--'
"'We won't be precise to a year, ma'am,' interrupted my uncle.
"'And if you will have little scapegraces of neveys into my house to break the furniture, why, them as breaks, pays, Mr. Belper.'
"'Very well. Of course I will pay for it. I broke it myself, ma'am; and if you don't get out of my room, I'll--'
"Uncle Peter jumped up once more, and made for the heap of ruins in the middle of the floor. The landlady vanished in a moment, and my uncle threw himself again into his chair, and absolutely roared with laughter.
"'Shan't we have rare fun, Charlie, my boy?' said he at last, and went off into another fit of laughter.
"'Why, uncle, what is the matter with you?' I managed to say, in utter bewilderment.
"'Nothing but luck, Charlie. It's gone to my head. I'm not used to it, Charlie, that's all. I'll come all right by-and-by. Bless you, my boy!'
"What do you think was the first thing my uncle did to relieve himself of the awful accession of power which had just befallen him? The following morning he gathered together every sixpence he had in the house, and went out of one grocer's shop into another, and out of one baker's shop into another, until he had changed the whole into threepenny pieces. Then he walked to town, as usual, to business. But one or two of his friends who were walking the same way, and followed behind him, could not think what Mr. Belper was about. Every crossing that he came to he made use of to cross to the other side. He crossed and recrossed the same street twenty times, they said. But at length they observed, that, with a legerdemain worthy of a professor, he slipped something into every sweeper's hand as he passed him. It was one of the threepenny pieces. When he walked home in the evening, he had nothing to give, and besides went through one of the wet experiences to which I have already alluded. To add to his discomfort, he found, when he got home, that his tobacco-jar was quite empty, so that he was forced to put on his wet shoes again--for he never, to the end of his days, had more than one pair at a time--in order to come across to my mother to borrow sixpence. Before the legacy was paid to him, he went through a good many of the tortures which result from being 'a king and no king.' The inward consciousness and the outward possibility did not in the least correspond. At length, after much manoeuvring with the lawyers, who seemed to sympathize with the departed cousin in this, that they too would prefer keeping the money till death parted them and it, he succeeded in getting a thousand pounds of it on Christmas-eve.
"'NOW!' said Uncle Peter, in enormous capitals.--That night a thundering knock came to our door. We were all sitting in our little dining-room--father, mother, and seven children of us--talking about what we should do next day. The door opened, and in came the most grotesque figure you could imagine. It was seven feet high at least, without any head, a mere walking tree-stump, as far as shape went, only it looked soft. The little ones were terrified, but not the bigger ones of us; for from top to toe (if it had a toe) it was covered with toys of every conceivable description, fastened on to it somehow or other. It was a perfect treasure-cave of Ali Baba turned inside out. We shrieked with delight. The figure stood perfectly still, and we gathered round it in a group to have a nearer view of the wonder. We then discovered that there were tickets on all the articles, which we supposed at first to record the price of each. But, upon still closer examination, we discovered that every one of the tickets had one or other of our names upon it. This caused a fresh explosion of joy. Nor was it the children only that were thus remembered. A little box bore my mother's name. When she opened it, we saw a real gold watch and chain, and seals and dangles of every sort, of useful and useless kind; and my mother's initials were on the back of the watch. My father had a silver flute, and to the music of it we had such a dance! the strange figure, now considerable lighter, joining in it without uttering a word. During the dance one of my sisters, a very sharp-eyed little puss, espied about half way up the monster two bright eyes looking out of a shadowy depth of something like the skirts of a great coat. She peeped and peeped; and at length, with a perfect scream of exultation, cried out, 'It's Uncle Peter! It's Uncle Peter!' The music ceased; the dance was forgotten; we flew upon him like a pack of hungry wolves; we tore him to the ground; despoiled him of coats, and plaids, and elevating sticks; and discovered the kernel of the beneficent monster in the person of real Uncle Peter; which, after all, was the best present he could have brought us on Christmas-eve, for we had been very dull for want of him, and had been wondering why he did not come.
"But Uncle Peter had laid great plans for his birthday, and for the carrying out of them he took me into his confidence,--I being now a lad of fifteen, and partaking sufficiently of my uncle's nature to enjoy at least the fun of his benevolence. He had been for some time perfecting his information about a few of the families in the neighbourhood; for he was a bit of a gossip, and did not turn his landlady out of the room when she came in with a whisper of news, in the manner in which he had turned her out when she came to expostulate about the table. But she knew her lodger well enough never to dare to bring him any scandal. From her he had learned that a certain artist in the neighbourhood was very poor. He made inquiry about him where he thought he could hear more, and finding that he was steady and hard-working (Uncle Peter never cared to inquire whether he had genius or not; it was enough to him that the poor fellow's pictures did not sell), resolved that he should have a more pleasant Christmas than he expected. One other chief outlet for his brotherly love, in the present instance, was a dissenting minister and his wife, who had a large family of little children. They lived in the same street with himself. Uncle Peter was an unwavering adherent to the Church of England, but he would have felt himself a dissenter at once if he had excommunicated any one by withdrawing his sympathies from him. He knew that this minister was a thoroughly good man, and he had even gone to hear him preach once or twice. He knew too that his congregation was not the more liberal to him that he was liberal to all men. So he resolved that he would act the part of one of the black angels that brought bread and meat to Elijah in the wilderness. Uncle Peter would never have pretended to rank higher than one of the foresaid ravens.
"A great part of the forenoon of Christmas-day was spent by my uncle and me in preparations. The presents he had planned were many, but I will only mention two or three of them in particular. For the minister and his family he got a small bottle with a large mouth. This he filled as full of new sovereigns as it would hold; labelled it outside, Pickled Mushrooms; 'for doesn't it grow in the earth without any seed?' said he; and then wrapped it up like a grocer's parcel. For the artist, he took a large shell from his chimney-piece; folded a fifty-pound note in a bit of paper, which he tied up with a green ribbon; inserted the paper in the jaws of the shell, so that the ends of the ribbon should hang out; folded it up in paper and sealed it; wrote outside, Enquire within; enclosed the whole in a tin box and directed it, With Christmas-day's compliments; 'for wasn't I born on Christmas-day?' concluded Uncle Peter for the twentieth time that forenoon. Then there were a dozen or two of the best port he could get, for a lady who had just had a baby, and whose husband and his income he knew from business relations. Nor were the children forgotten. Every house in his street and ours in which he knew there were little ones, had a parcel of toys and sweet things prepared for it.
"As soon as the afternoon grew dusky, we set out with as many as we could carry. A slight disguise secured me from discovery, my duty being to leave the parcels at the different houses. In the case of the more valuable of them, my duty was to ask for the master or mistress, and see the packet in safe hands. In this I was successful in every instance. It must have been a great relief to my uncle when the number of parcels was sufficiently diminished to restore to him the use of his hands, for to him they were as necessary for rubbing as a tail is to a dog for wagging--in both cases for electrical reasons, no doubt. He dropped several parcels in the vain attempt to hold them and perform the usual frictional movement notwithstanding; so he was compelled instead to go through a kind of solemn pace, which got more and more rapid as the parcels decreased in number, till it became at last, in its wild movements, something like a Highlander's sword-dance. We had to go home several times for more, keeping the best till the last. When Uncle Peter saw me give the 'pickled mushrooms' into the hands of the lady of the house, he uttered a kind of laugh, strangled into a crow, which startled the good lady, who was evidently rather alarmed already at the weight of the small parcel, for she said, with a scared look:--
"'It's not gunpowder, is it?'
"'No,' I said; 'I think it's shot.'
"'Shot!' said she, looking even more alarmed. 'Don't you think you had better take it back again?'
"She held out the parcel to me, and made as if she would shut the door.
"'Why, ma'am,' I answered, 'you would not have me taken up for stealing it?'
"It was a foolish reply; but it answered the purpose if not the question. She kept the parcel and shut the door. When I looked round I saw my uncle going through a regular series of convolutions, corresponding exactly to the bodily contortions he must have executed at school every time he received a course of what they call palmies in Scotland; if, indeed, Uncle Peter was ever even suspected of improper behaviour at school. It consisted first of a dance, then a double-up; then another dance, then another double-up, and so on.
"'Some stupid hoax, I suppose!' said the artist, as I put the parcel into his hands. He looked gloomy enough, poor fellow.
"'Don't be too sure of that, if you please, sir,' said I, and vanished.
"Everything was a good joke to uncle all that evening.
"'Charlie,' said he, 'I never had such a birthday in my life before; but, please God, now I've begun, this will not be the last of the sort. But, you young rascal, if you split, why, I'll thrash the life out of you. No, I won't--'here my uncle assumed a dignified attitude, and concluded with mock solemnity--'No, I won't. I will cut you off with a shilling.'
"This was a crescendo passage, ending in a howl; upon which he commenced once more an edition of the Highland fling, with impromptu variations.
"When all the parcels were delivered, we walked home together to my uncle's lodgings, where he gave me a glass of wine and a sovereign for my trouble. I believe I felt as rich as any of them.
"But now I must tell you the romance of my uncle's life. I do not mean the suspected hidden romance, for that no one knew--except, indeed, a dead one knew all about it. It was a later romance, which, however, nearly cost him his life once.
"One Christmas-eve we had been occupied, as usual, with the presents of the following Christmas-day, and--will you believe it?--in the same lodgings, too, for my uncle was a thorough Tory in his hatred of change. Indeed, although two years had passed, and he had had the whole of his property at his disposal since the legal term of one year, he still continued to draw his salary of L100 of Messrs. Buff and Codgers. One Christmas-eve, I say, I was helping him to make up parcels, when, from a sudden impulse, I said to him--
"'How good you are, uncle!'
"'Ha! ha! ha!' laughed he; 'that's the best joke of all. Good, my boy! Ha! ha! ha! Why, Charlie, you don't fancy I care one atom for all these people, do you? I do it all to please myself. Ha! ha! ha! It's the cheapest pleasure at the money, considering the quality, that I know. That is a joke. Good, indeed! Ha! ha! ha!'
"I am happy to say I was an old enough bird not to be caught with this metaphysical chaff. But my uncle's face grew suddenly very grave, even sad in its expression; and after a pause he resumed, but this time without any laughing:--
"'Good, Charlie! Why, I'm no use to anybody.'
"'You do me good, anyhow, uncle,' I answered. 'If I'm not a better man for having you for an uncle, why I shall be a great deal the worse, that's all.'
"'Why, there it is!' rejoined my uncle; 'I don't know whether I do good or harm. But for you, Charlie, you're a good boy, and don't want any good done to you. It would break my heart, Charlie, if I thought you weren't a good boy.'
"He always called me a boy after I was a grown man. But then I believe he always felt like a boy himself, and quite forgot that we were uncle and nephew.
"I was silent, and he resumed,--
"'I wish I could be of real, unmistakeable use to anyone! But I fear I am not good enough to have that honour done me.'
"Next morning,--that was Christmas-day,--he went out for a walk alone, apparently oppressed with the thought with which the serious part of our conversation on the preceding evening had closed. Of course nothing less than a threepenny piece would do for a crossing-sweeper on Christmas-day; but one tiny little girl touched his heart so that the usual coin was doubled. Still this did not relieve the heart of the giver sufficiently; for the child looked up in his face in a way, whatever the way was, that made his heart ache. So he gave her a shilling. But he felt no better after that.--I am following his own account of feelings and circumstances.
"'This won't do,' said Uncle Peter to himself. 'What is your name?' said Uncle Peter to the little girl.
"'Little Christmas,' she answered.
"'Little Christmas!' exclaimed Uncle Peter. 'I see why that wouldn't do now. What do you mean?'
"'Little Christmas, sir; please, sir.'
"'Who calls you that?'
"'Why do they call you that?'
"'It's my name, sir.'
"'What's your father's name?'
"'I ain't got none, sir'
"'But you know what his name was?'
"'How did you get your name then? It must be the same as your father's, you know.'
"'Then I suppose my father was Christmas-day, sir, for I knows of none else. They always calls me Little Christmas.'
"'H'm! A little sister of mine, I see,' said Uncle Peter to himself.
"'Well, who's your mother?'
"'My aunt, sir. She knows I'm out, sir.'
"There was not the least impudence in the child's tone or manner in saying this. She looked up at him with her gipsy eye in the most confident manner. She had not struck him in the least as beautiful; but the longer he looked at her, the more he was pleased with her.
"'Is your aunt kind to you?'
"'She gives me my wittles.'
"'Suppose you did not get any money all day, what would she say to you?'
"'Oh, she won't give me a hidin' to-day, sir, supposin' I gets no more. You've giv' me enough already, sir; thank you, sir. I'll change it into ha'pence.'
"'She does beat you sometimes, then?'
"Here she rubbed her arms and elbows as if she ached all over at the thought, and these were the only parts she could reach to rub for the whole.
"'I will,' said Uncle Peter to himself.
"'Do you think you were born on Christmas-day, little one?'
"'I think I was once, sir.'
"'I shall teach the child to tell lies if I go on asking her questions in this way,' thought my uncle. 'Will you go home with me?' he said coaxingly.
"'Yes, sir, if you will tell me where to put my broom, for I must not go home without it, else aunt would wollop me.'
"'I will buy you a new broom.'
"'But aunt would wollop me all the same if I did not bring home the old one for our Christmas fire.'
"'Never mind. I will take care of you. You may bring your broom if you like, though,' he added, seeing a cloud come over the little face.
"'Thank you, sir,' said the child; and, shouldering her broom, she trotted along behind him, as he led the way home.
"But this would not do, either. Before they had gone twelve paces, he had the child in one hand; and before they had gone a second twelve, he had the broom in the other. And so Uncle Peter walked home with his child and his broom. The latter he set down inside the door, and the former he led upstairs to his room. There he seated her on a chair by the fire, and ringing the bell, asked the landlady to bring a basin of bread and milk. The woman cast a look of indignation and wrath at the poor little immortal. She might have been the impersonation of Christmas-day in the catacombs, as she sat with her feet wide apart, and reaching halfway down the legs of the chair, and her black eyes staring from the midst of knotted tangles of hair that never felt comb or brush, or were defended from the wind by bonnet or hood. I dare say uncle's poor apartment, with its cases of stuffed birds and its square piano that was used for a cupboard, seemed to her the most sumptuous of conceivable abodes. But she said nothing--only stared. When her bread and milk came, she ate it up without a word, and when she had finished it, sat still for a moment, as if pondering what it became her to do next. Then she rose, dropped a courtesy, and said:--'Thank you, sir. Please, sir, where's my broom?'
"'Oh, but I want you to stop with me, and be my little girl.'
"'Please, sir, I would rather go to my crossing.'
"The face of Little Christmas lengthened visibly, and she was upon the point of crying. Uncle Peter saw that he had been too precipitate, and that he must woo the child before he could hope to win her; so he asked her for her address. But though she knew the way to her home perfectly, she could give only what seemed to him the most confused directions how to find it. No doubt to her they seemed as clear as day. Afraid of terrifying her by following her, the best way seemed to him to promise her a new frock on the morrow, if she would come and fetch it. Her face brightened so at the sound of a new frock, that my uncle had very little fear of the fault being hers if she did not come.
"'Will you know the way back, my dear?'"
"'I always know my way anywheres,' answered she. So she was allowed to depart with her cherished broom."
"Uncle Peter took my mother into council upon the affair of the frock. She thought an old one of my sister's would do best. But my uncle had said a new frock, and a new one it must be. So next day my mother went with him to buy one, and was excessively amused with his entire ignorance of what was suitable for the child. However, the frock being purchased, he saw how absurd it would be to put a new frock over such garments as she must have below, and accordingly made my mother buy everything to clothe her completely. With these treasures he hastened home, and found poor Little Christmas and her broom waiting for him outside the door, for the landlady would not let her in. This roused the wrath of my uncle to such a degree, that, although he had borne wrongs innumerable and aggravated for a long period of years without complaint, he walked in and gave her notice that he would leave in a week. I think she expected he would forget all about it before the day arrived; but with his further designs for Little Christmas, he was not likely to forget it; and I fear I have seldom enjoyed anything so much as the consternation of the woman (whom I heartily hated) when she saw a truck arrive to remove my uncle's few personal possessions from her inhospitable roof. I believe she took her revenge by giving her cronies to understand that she had turned my uncle away at a week's warning for bringing home improper companions to her respectable house.--But to return to Little Christmas. She fared all the better for the landlady's unkindness; for my mother took her home and washed her with her own soft hands from head to foot; and then put all the new clothes on her, and she looked charming. How my uncle would have managed I can't think. He was delighted at the improvement in her appearance. I saw him turn round and wipe his eyes with his handkerchief.
"'Now, Little Christmas, will you come and live with me?' said he.
"She pulled the same face, though not quite so long as before, and said, 'I would rather go to my crossing, please, sir.'
"My uncle heaved a sigh and let her go.
"She shouldered her broom as if it had been the rifle of a giant, and trotted away to her work.
"But next day, and the next, and the next, she was not to be seen at her wonted corner. When a whole week had passed and she did not make her appearance, my uncle was in despair. "'You see, Charlie,' said he, 'I am fated to be of no use to anybody, though I was born on Christmas-day.'
"The very next day, however, being Sunday, my uncle found her as he went to church. She was sweeping a new crossing. She seemed to have found a lower deep still, for, alas! all her new clothes were gone, and she was more tattered and wretched-looking than before. As soon as she saw my uncle she burst into tears.
"'Look,' she said, pulling up her little frock, and showing her thigh with a terrible bruise upon it; 'she did it.'
"A fresh burst of tears followed.
"'Where are your new clothes, Little Christmas?' asked my uncle.
"'She sold them for gin, and then beat me awful. Please, sir, I couldn't help it.'
"The child's tears were so bitter, that my uncle, without thinking, said--
"'Never mind, dear; you shall have another frock.'
"Her tears ceased, and her face brightened for a moment; but the weeping returned almost instantaneously with increased violence, and she sobbed out:
"'It's no use, sir; she'd only serve me the same, sir.'
"'Will you come home and live with me, then?'
"She flung her broom from her into the middle of the street, nearly throwing down a cab-horse, betwixt whose fore-legs it tried to pass; then, heedless of the oaths of the man, whom my uncle pacified with a shilling, put her hand in that of her friend and trotted home with him. From that day till the day of his death she never left him--of her own accord, at least.
"My uncle had, by this time, got into lodgings with a woman of the right sort, who received the little stray lamb with open arms and open heart. Once more she was washed and clothed from head to foot, and from skin to frock. My uncle never allowed her to go out without him, or some one who was capable of protecting her. He did not think it at all necessary to supply the woman, who might not be her aunt after all, with gin unlimited, for the privilege of rescuing Little Christmas from her cruelty. So he felt that she was in great danger of being carried off, for the sake either of her earnings or her ransom; and, in fact, some very suspicious-looking characters were several times observed prowling about in the neighbourhood. Uncle Peter, however, took what care he could to prevent any report of this reaching the ears of Little Christmas, lest she should live in terror; and contented himself with watching her carefully. It was some time before my mother would consent to our playing with her freely and beyond her sight; for it was strange to hear the ugly words which would now and then break from her dear little innocent lips. But she was very easily cured of this, although, of course, some time must pass before she could be quite depended upon. She was a sweet-tempered, loving child. But the love seemed for some time to have no way of showing itself, so little had she been used to ways of love and tenderness. When we kissed her she never returned the kiss, but only stared; yet whatever we asked her to do she would do as if her whole heart was in it; and I did not doubt it was. Now I know it was.
"After a few years, when Christmas began to be considered tolerably capable of taking care of herself, the vigilance of my uncle gradually relaxed a little. A month before her thirteenth birthday, as near as my uncle could guess, the girl disappeared. She had gone to the day-school as usual, and was expected home in the afternoon; for my uncle would never part with her to go to a boarding-school, and yet wished her to have the benefit of mingling with her fellows, and not being always tied to the button-hole of an old bachelor. But she did not return at the usual hour. My uncle went to inquire about her. She had left the school with the rest. Night drew on. My uncle was in despair. He roamed the streets all night; spoke about his child to every policeman he met; went to the station-house of the district, and described her; had bills printed, and offered a hundred pounds reward for her restoration. All was unavailing. The miscreants must have seen bills, but feared to repose confidence in the offer. Poor Uncle Peter drooped and grew thin. Before the month was out, his clothes were hanging about him like a sack. He could hardly swallow a mouthful; hardly even sit down to a meal. I believe he loved his Little Christmas every whit as much as if she had been his own daughter--perhaps more--for he could not help thinking of what she might have been if he had not rescued her; and he felt that God had given her to him as certainly as if she had been his own child, only that she had come in another way. He would get out of bed in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and go wandering up and down the streets, and into dreadful places, sometimes, to try to find her. But fasting and watching could not go on long without bringing friends with them. Uncle Peter was seized with a fever, which grew and grew till his life was despaired of. He was very delirious at times, and then the strangest fancies had possession of his brain. Sometimes he seemed to see the horrid woman she called her aunt, torturing the poor child; sometimes it was old Pagan Father Christmas, clothed in snow and ice, come to fetch his daughter; sometimes it was his old landlady shutting her out in the frost; or himself finding her afterwards, but frozen so hard to the ground that he could not move her to get her indoors. The doctors seemed doubtful, and gave as their opinion--a decided shake of the head.
"Christmas-day arrived. In the afternoon, to the wonder of all about him, although he had been wandering a moment before, he suddenly said--
"'I was born on Christmas-day, you know. This is the first Christmas-day that didn't bring me good luck.'
"Turning to me, he added--
"'Charlie, my boy, its' a good thing ANOTHER besides me was born on Christmas-day, isn't it?'
"'Yes, dear uncle,' said I; and it was all I could say. He lay quite quiet for a few minutes, when there came a gentle knock to the street door.
"'That's Chrissy!' he cried, starting up in bed, and stretching out his arms with trembling eagerness. 'And me to say this Christmas-day would bring me no good!'
"He fell back on his pillow, and burst into a flood of tears.
"I rushed down to the door, and reached it before the servant. I stared. There stood a girl about the size of Chrissy, with an old battered bonnet on, and a ragged shawl. She was standing on the door-step, trembling. I felt she was trembling somehow, for I don't think I saw it. She had Chrissy's eyes too, I thought; but the light was dim now, for the evening was coming on.
"All this passed through my mind in a moment, during which she stood silent.
"'What is it?' I said, in a tremor of expectation.
"'Charlie, don't you know me?' she said, and burst into tears.
"We were in each other's arms in a moment--for the first time. But Chrissy is my wife now. I led her up stairs in triumph, and into my uncle's room.
"'I knew it was my lamb!' he cried, stretching out his arms, and trying to lift himself up, only he was too weak.
"Chrissy flew to his arms. She was very dirty, and her clothes had such a smell of poverty! But there she lay in my uncle's bosom, both of them sobbing, for a long time; and when at last she withdrew, she tumbled down on the floor, and there she lay motionless. I was in a dreadful fright, but my mother came in at the moment, while I was trying to put some brandy within her cold lips, and got her into a warm bath, and put her to bed.
"In the morning she was much better, though the doctor would not let her get up for a day or two. I think, however, that was partly for my uncle's sake.
"When at length she entered the room one morning, dressed in her own nice clothes, for there were plenty in the wardrobe in her room, my uncle stretched out his arms to her once more, and said:
"'Ah! Chrissy, I thought I was going to have my own way, an die on Christmas-day; but it would have been one too soon, before I had found you, my darling."
THE END of VOLUME II.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.