Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Sam Bentley's Christmas - Part 4
SAM BENTLEY’S CHRISTMAS.
After Mr. Bentley’s visit, Miss Julia Moore carried on her business with varying success, varying only in the degree of smallness, like the fluctuations of a wind-blown pool, and unlike the refreshing swell and growing strength of the flowing stream. Her stock remained on her hands. Her capital was, in every sense, fixed and stationary. It would not “turn itself over,” which, when rapidly performed, is the proper gymnastic exercise by "which capital grows from weakness to strength—from leanness to plethora. Her sister’s letter was not very cheering, but was satisfactory to her in enabling her to get rid of the note which had from the first been a burden to her, and which was now in her gathering difficulties becoming a temptation. After writing to Mr. Bentley she waited impatiently for the reply, which should instruct her how to dispose of the note, and—which was of equal importance to her—put her in possession of the sum due to her from Mr. Bentley.
It was now the day before Christmas, and she had received no answer. The next day her rent was due, and her means were inadequate to discharge it; on that day, too, her sister would come up from the country, and Julia had wished to have something of Christmas cheer for her, in humble imitation of the hospitality and profusion of her native place. She and Miss Manks had pinched, contrived, and consulted to accomplish this, and had at last to confess that their feast would be of a very meagre kind, and would require unbounded fun and merriment to give it anything of a festive character.
It was a wretched day. Snow clouds hung thickly over the town, darkening the air, but only occasionally dissolving into flakes which fell heavily and slowly, and half melted as they fell, turning to a cold, chilling sleet, soaking quickly through boots and clothes, and giving all the discomfort of a snowfall without any of the bracing, clear, enlivening influence which usually accompanies it. The frost seemed reluctant to come and unwilling to go. Julia was dispirited by the weather, for on such a day she could look for little or any business. As she watched the lagging and irresolute snow-flakes, she said in allusion to the legend of her native place relative to the snow, “The witches in Greenland must be as down-hearted as I am, for they pluck not their geese heartily, nor plump down the white rain feathers as if they were pleased with the coming year, but slowly and lazily, like the mocking Barguest that robs the beef and spoils the pudding. Ill luck betides somebody:
Bonnie north wind blow,
Send us the Christmas snow.”
About noon a young man entered her shop. He was quite unsettled what he wanted. Julia immediately concluded that as it was Christmas he wished to make a present, and was not particular as to what he purchased. She hinted this to him, and he admitted that her opinion was correct.
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“To a lady?” she suggested.
“Yes—why—not exactly—to a young girl.”
“We,” replied Julia, “in trade generally call them all ladies.”
“That in my opinion is not exactly correct,” replied the young man, evidently more inclined to talk than to buy; the latter, however, was what Julia wished him to do, and she therefore inquired about the age and other particulars of the girl, and the nature of the present he proposed to make. He replied by giving a glowing account of a lovely face and shape, and then asked:
“Do you happen to know any girl of that kind?”
Julia could not but laugh as she replied:
“Not except in a book—I have known very pretty girls, but your description is too good for any of them. What would you like to take?”
She placed before him collars, ribbons, cuffs, embroidery, and all the various articles of feminine use or wear which her shop contained. He turned them over, tossed them about, quite unable to appreciate their good qualities, or to make a choice, and at length looking up at Julia, boldly and frankly, as if growing conscious of his awkwardness and gaining courage to be more open, said:
“You will oblige me by picking out a few things—such as, if you had a sister, and were going to give her a pleasant surprise, you would choose.”
Julia began to make her selection, and he then somewhat timidly asked, “Have you a sister?”
Julia’s face brightened, for the question recalled to her the happy thought that to-morrow her sister would be with her, and she smilingly replied, “Yes, I have.”
“Of course you live together?”
Julia did not approve of the inquiry being pushed so closely, but as she was in a cheerful mood, and had apparently a good customer, she would answer it. She did so, coolly saying:
“Not yet—she comes from the country to-morrow, and then we shall live together.”
Her customer fidgetted about as if he was impatient, so Julia hastily finished her selection, and said: “Any of these will do—not too expensive if she be a poor girl—not too coarse if she be not.”
He scarcely looked at them, but said moodily, “What’s the price for the lot?”
Julia could scarcely believe it was true. She reckoned up the prices, and replied, “They come to five pounds, sir.”
“Wrap them up.” He put down the money and took up the parcel, and loitered as though there was something else to be done, and then abruptly said, “Is your sister’s name Susan?”
“And she’s coming from Bradford, where she’s been working at a mill?”
“Yes; but how do you know this, sir! Who are you?”
Julia became not only interested but also alarmed.
“Stop a bit,” said he. “You sent a message lately by her to my—to a Mr. Bentley?”
“Yes: are you come about the note?”
“No, no—I know nothing about any note, and I want to know nothing about it, or anything else,” said he, growing red in the face, and hot with tremulous excitement, “except about Susan. It’s through me that she got into trouble—and—and I must know—” He stopped a moment, and then hurriedly said, “It’s no matter, I must know—they talk about her before she left London, and I’ve come to know—is she a good, honest lass or no? There, it’s out, whether ye like it or not. My uncle, that’s Mr. Bentley, has turned me out, but I don’t care if—ye know what I mean—I can’t say it, but for Heaven’s sake speak truth, and I’ll be satisfied.”
“Then you,” replied Julia, contemptuously, but without passion, “are Mr. Henry Bentley, and you have met my sister, have persecuted her, I may say, with your attentions, which have been both to her and others of a suspicious kind. You have tried to lead her astray;—don’t speak, sir,—I repeat you have tried to lead her astray, driven her from her friends, injured her character, and—” Julia could no longer control her passion, her eyes flamed, her voice deepened and quivered, “and after that you dare to come to me, and insinuate vile doubts as to her conduct, and repeat wicked calumnies. Leave the shop this instant!”
He impassionately entreated to be heard—he would explain, he would apologise, he would retract—anything, if she would but hear him. It was in vain; her passion was lord of the hour, and Henry was driven ignominiously and dejected from the shop.
This incident would have given Julia much food for thought had not her reverie been cut short by the entrance of another customer. Julia’s hopes rose,—trade was certainly improving. There might, after all, be good cheer for Susan tomorrow.
The fresh customer was a thin, spare woman, who came straight to the counter, asked for what she wanted, selected it without delay or comment, handling the goods in a manner which showed that she was fully acquainted with their quality and value, but, at the same time, scrutinising Julia very closely without being observed. She paid for her small purchase, took a minute survey of the shop, and then said to Julia:
“Some time ago ye had a customer who lost a note—one Sam Bentley o’ Bradford, an’ ye sent him word about it—here’s your letter to him, an’ that other paper hes t’number an’ all particulars o’ t’note, an’ I’ve come for’t.”
Julia replied that she had the note, and would gladly give it up, but she was not free from doubt about the right of her present visitor to claim it.
Miss Bentley (for of course it was she) replied:
“Ye see I ken all ’bout it. He cam’ in an’ had a button set on, an’ he finished by orderin’ shirts, which I should never hev forgi’en him but for other troubles; but Sam’s t’first of t’ family that had ’em made but by his own woman folk, tho’ in a manner it’s some’ut of t’same now, nobbut he didn’t know, so it’s more good luck nor good meanin’ as lawyers get to heaven—but I’ve forgi’en him, though I’m his ain sister, an’ by rights oughtn’t to hev done so, but it wor sore again t’grain, an’ if it hedn’t been for his bein’ put out ’bout Harry——”
Julia interrupted her at once.
“Do you mean young Mr. Henry Bentley? If so, he’s been here a few minutes ago.”
“I wor comin’ to that. Of course he’s been here, an’ he’ll be dawdling about, an’ he’ll hev seen me come in, nobbut he were flayed, an’ daren’t let himsel’ be seen. He’s crazed, an’ they say it’s ’bout a factory lass that he brought up to Lun’on wi’ him last night.”
“They came together!” cried Julia, pale and trembling with anxiety.
“Why so they say. I didn’t see ’em, but ye know it’s like enough. Mill hands hev no souls ye know, an’ are of no use, nobbut to work for their maisters an’ to sin on their own account. If ye’ll find t’note I’ll be goin’.”
Julia leant down resting on the counter, and with struggling sobs and tears, exclaimed piteously:
“Oh! Susan, Susan!—my poor sister! Would thou hadst died!—anything but this!”
Miss Bentley looked at her most sorrowfully, and, gently stroking her head, endeavoured to cheer her by saying:
“Don’t tak’ on so. It mayn’t be true, an’ I know that what folk say isn’t al’ays gospel nor believed by theirselves. So cheer up. I’m sure Harry will be in here again. Gi’e him this bit of a letter, an’ don’t fret. We’ll make it all right some way, nobbut gi’e me t’ note as I mun be goin’.”
Julia endeavoured to compose herself, and, with a sorrowful look, took out the bank-note, saying:
“Take it and go. It has brought me nothing but sorrow.”
Miss Bentley, as she left the shop, clutched the note with delighted fingers, and muttered:
“I wor determined to hev it before Sam cam’, but she wouldn’t hev gi’en it up if I hadn’t rapped at Susan. It wor too bad, but Sam shan’t see it again; I’ll hev my revenge now, if he nobbut don’t frighten t’ poor lass again.”
When Julia’s sorrow had abated, and she was able to review the matter with some degree of calmness, her confidence in Susan returned. She then thought it was singular and rather suspicious that Mr. Bentley’s sister (if indeed she were his sister) had not recalled to her recollection what she had, in her distress, forgotten—namely, the sum due to her from Mr. Bentley for the shirts. Whilst pondering on this she observed Henry Bentley loiter past the shop-door, and then back again, casting wistful glances within. She beckoned to him, and on his going in, gave him the note left for him, saying: “The person who left this has made me wretched by what she has told me. I cannot bear to think it true; but if it be, bring her home at once. Oh! is it true?—did you come alone? or did you——” She paused for his reply, but he, being confounded with her agitation and perplexed with her questions, knew not what to say. She misinterpreted his silence, and in a voice of utter anguish implored him, “Oh! where is my sister? Give her back to me! Where—where is she?”
Henry was not in a mood to be trifled with, and he was irritated with this question, which seemed to mock him; he had come for no other purpose than to find out Susan, and to ascertain where, who, and what she was, and the only source to which he could apply—her sister—had, in the first instance, driven him out of her shop, and now, forsooth, asked him where Susan was!
He was put out of temper, and grumblingly replied:
“I came to tell you all about it, and you kicked me out. I shall say no more to you about her,” and then walked suddenly out of the shop.
This was “confirmation strong” of all Julia’s worst fears. All the merriment and joy of the blessed Christmastide were now no more for her. Dashed from her were the pleasure of the long-schemed surprise and the anticipated delights of the great holiday and festive assembly of scattered families, drawn together in a sweet and joyous participation of customs hallowed by the memory of their parents, and beautified by the hope that the glad tradition would be handed down by their children so as to keep for ever—long as the earth should roll around the sun—undimmed and unforgot the mingled recollections and hopes which fill all hearts as they welcome the advent of Christmas. Bleak misery, desecrated affection, and the inconsolable bereavement, worse than death; the falling into sin of the beloved; the ever-gnawing pang of doubt; the dread of gazing on the dearly-cherished face, the old familiar countenance, lest it should turn from the loving gaze oppressed with shame and loadened with guilt. These must now be the Christmas guests of her heart, gibe at her intended joy, and turn even her prayers into heaviness and anguish of spirit. Those who hurried along the street, in the cold and wet, had happy looks and merry voices, as though they caught the radiance from afar of the coming happiness. She heard their gaiety and merriment run over in superabundant congratulations and mutual good wishes, as friends or acquaintances met, and she saw their hearty joy displayed in closely clasped hands, in glowing countenances, and in happy smiles. But, to her, all was an empty fearful mockery. She hated to look upon it. The light of her heart had gone out—the star of her hope washed away by a terrible raging sea. Would that it were night that she might hide herself from sight, and in secret weep for the sister “that was not!”
But other troubles awaited her. In a short time Mr. Bentley came in, glowing like a peony, both hands thrust deep down in their usual quarters, and performing their usual chinking duet. With a quick nod and jerk over his shoulder towards the street, as if to say that he had left the hawks abroad, he went up to Julia, pulled out his hand, and, giving her a hearty shake, said: “Come again, like Dame Gurnett’s pig. Glad to see thee. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Miserable day. Trade any better? Humph. Old stock, I see.”
Julia could not reply to him. Her heart gave a jump when he came in, and whispered fear and trouble came with him.
“Got thy letter, lass; much obliged to thee, an’ called for t’note.”
“I’ve not got it, sir?” replied she, with trepidation.
“Not gotten it!” shouted he, with the most incredulous look, and a long whistle, as plainly expressive of contempt and disbelief as any words could have made out. The hands were again busy, and the jerk came towards her telling her most unmistakeably to prepare for the hawks of the law.
“I’ve not got it, sir,” repeated Julia. “An hour ago a woman, tallish, thin, sharp-featured, bright-eyed, dressed in black, came with my letter to you, and said she was your sister, and had come for the note, which I gave to her.”
A long, low, prolonged whistle, and a sudden ceasing of the moneyed duet, was Bentley’s answer to this, and he, with great difficulty, prevented himself putting his thoughts into words, and blurting out, “Egad, Nance hes do neme, makin’ me stop for ould Dame Womersley that she might get t’brass. She’s got t’blind side on me.” Checking himself from thus committing himself, he said, with assumed sternness to Julia, “Then of course thou’s gotten my note and her receipt for t’brass.”
Julia was struck at once with her want of caution, and perceived the strong case which might be made against her, and her voice shook as she replied, “I’ve neither. She made me wretched with what she told me, and I forgot to keep the letter or to ask for a receipt.”
“Dost thou think I’ll believe that story? Thee a Lon’oner, an’ a woman of business. Tell that in t’stable an’ t’horses would kick thee brains out. It won’t do for me. I mun hev my note.”
“Indeed, sir, I tell you the truth. If you will not believe me, do as you think fit. I am weary of life. My heart’s nearly broken.” She wept aloud. Bentley was moved. He was satisfied that his sister had obtained the note, and that to carry the matter further with Julia would be cruel. Still he scarcely knew what to say. He was freed from the dilemma by Julia, who said, “Mr. Bentley, your sister—for she must have been your sister—told me that my sister, Susan, had been led off by your nephew, and had come up to town with him. Is it so? Tell me where she is, that I may go to her, and I care not what you do to me.”
Bentley turned away from her, shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head, as if he had a wager to outnod a mandarin. “That’s too bad o’ Nance,” muttered he. “She’s war nor me now. Women al’ays are.” Then, facing Julia, with a chuckling laugh, which sounded to her like the rejoicing of a fiend, said: “Whoever said that said a lie. Harry is a big scamp, and a disgrace to any decent family, an’ I hev done wi’ him, at least when I’ve fun’ him, an’ he has come to Lon’on about Susan; but he cam by himsel’, for she stopped at our house all night, an’ she’ll be here to-day.”
Julia’s heart and looks thanked him, and not her voice. Her great tribulation was passed. All else was trifling compared with this unutterable grief. Christmas would bring her sister—her only joy—who would return to her as innocent, as good, and as love-worthy as ever. She cared for no danger, no difficulty, now.
At this moment a dapper-looking man, with an air of importance, entered the shop, and when he saw Bentley, said, in a polite voice—which, however, scarcely disguised his contempt—“I beg pardon. I hope you will be prepared for me tonight,” and then withdrew, without waiting for a reply.
“Who’s that cockney fellow?” asked Bentley.
Julia replied, “My next neighbour and landlord. He wants his rent, as he’s about to leave.”
“Humph!” growled Bentley, and his glance again hopped all round the shop, now on the top shelves, and then step by step down to the floor; up again with a merry chuckle, and fluttering round the window, flew out of the door with a loud laugh.
Julia was at a loss to understand what he meant to do; and, full of perturbation, waited his pleasure.
“I’ve no objection,” said he, seeing her troubled look, “to gi’e a bit of time to mak’ up t’money, an’ I’ll call on thee to-night at home when Susan comes, an’ we’ll talk it over. Cheer up, my lass, I shan’t hurt thee.”
He darted out, and Julia saw him for a considerable time afterwards walking backwards and forwards in front of her shop and the adjoining one, examining them as intently as if counting the bricks, or expecting a sudden conflagration, and heard his bursts of laughter ring out as some merry thought seemed to strike him.
There was no doubt about it. He was merry. He was thoroughly happy; and these were his cogitations and exclamations as he walked up and down: “Thou’rt a soft-liver’d fool, Sam. But she took it so badly. Nance shouldn’t hev said Susan had gone wi’ Harry. Confound his stupidity, I’ll baste him when I catch him. A likely shop, but a snivellin’ rogue. I’ll get that chap i’ t’city to tackle him. She’d do, then. By George, I’ll finish it off. Poor lass, I thought I should hev split ’bout Susan. If she’d nobbut known she wor all the time at t’Circus gettin’ donned out—wi’ Dame Womersley—what an old cat that is—whatever mad’ me bring her—aye, an’ mak’ her come, I can’t tell, an’ she will hev that Susan’s one o’ t’lost, now when she’s just fund.” He finished with a regular peal of laughter, hailed a cab, and went Citywards.
To return to Miss Bentley. When she called in Oxford Street, she left, a few doors below Julia’s shop, the cab which had brought her from the railway station, and which was loaded inside and out with hampers; and on her return from seeing Julia, and obtaining possession of the coveted note, she drove to the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court Road, to the address given by Susan, as that of Julia’s lodgings.
On inquiring for them, she was shown into a small dingy room. “I’m come to stop wi’ her,” said she to the surprised and open-mouthed landlady, “so get my things in.”
Miss Bentley at once took off her bonnet, shawl, and wrappers, and, looking round, saw much that to her was disgraceful and unendurable. She ran the nail of her finger along the rim of the panelling, and brought it out covered with dust, and then said to the landlady, in a sharp voice, “Don’t ye call that shameful? I’ve no patience wi’ muck in-doors. Get some boilin’ water an’ soap an’ brushes, an’ see if ye can find somebody that knows how to clean. Do ye hear? Don’t stand gapin’ there, but look sharp; it isn’t fit for Christians.”
The woman hurried off, and on her return found Miss Bentley with her dress rolled up, her sleeves tucked up, the carpet rolled together, and the little furniture huddled in the middle of the room.
“Tak’ ’em all away,” said Miss Bentley, sweeping her hand round, “an’ mak’ up som’at like a fire.”
Marvelling what wild creature had taken possession of her house, the landlady obeyed in silence, and Miss Bentley was soon busy with practically instructing two charwomen in the art of cleaning down. She was occupied with this when Henry, in accordance with the instructions left for him by his aunt, came in. She ran to him, and shaking a wet brush in his face, and plenteously bedewing him with its contents, said, “Oh, Harry, Harry, it wor foolish an’ wicked on thee to mind Sam’s short temper, when he’s done so much for thee. It would hev broken his heart if it hadn’t been for Susan, who’s a relation, we find. He’s mighty savage yet, but he’ll forgi’e thee if thou promise to gi’e her up an’ come back.”
“Aunt, I can’t give her up.”
“Well, well, lad, but thou mun, for Sam says he’ll hev nought to do wi’ neither on ye if thou don’t, an’ he al’ays keeps his word when he shouldn’t. But thou shall see her again. She’ll be here to-night, an’ I mun hev t’place tidied up a bit. It’s a sad hole. Oh dear, I wonder how folk can live at all in Lun’on. We mun hev some evergreens, an’ mak’ it look some’at like home.” She then gave him directions to get what she wanted, and continued: “I shall pay Sam out for his deceit. I’ve got his fifty-pund note, and thou mun get it changed. It’s stopped, an’ so thou mun go to t’agent, an’ then get what I’ve tell’d thee, an’ bring me t’change, for I mean to spend it all. He shan’t see a penny on’t; an’ there’s chairs, an’ tables, an’ spoons, an’ everything to get;—t’ poor lass has nought at all, an’ look here,” continued she, taking some bits of card from her pocket, “I’ve fun these.”
Henry looked at them, and then said, “What are they?”
“Thou may well say that, lad; we know nought about them at our house; but she’ll been forced to part wi’ all her sheets an’ linen an’ good things. I mun get them all back.”
Henry hastened away, delighted with his errand, and with the prospect of seeing Susan, and as to the rest, in imitation of his uncle, whistling down all thoughts of trouble.
Miss Bentley, with great bustling and exercise of voice and hands, at length got her staff into working order. She had at first a wild notion of having the room re-papered, but was obliged to give it up for want of time, and then called the landlady to inquire for additional rooms. She found there were two which she might have, but the landlady was sulky, and showed signs of rebellion. This rather gratified Miss Bentley, who, however, took no notice of it, but gave directions for her hampers to be carried into one of the empty rooms, and proceeded to unpack them. As they were emptied, the astonishment of the landlady grew beyond bounds. There seemed to be no end to the stores of good things which were produced from them—a huge ham, a fat goose, hares, game pies, mince tarts, loaves of spiced bread, unboiled plum puddings, a huge piece of beef, cakes, and bottles—a prodigality of edible wealth. Last came a large can of milk and a pot of butter. “Good honest milk,” said Miss Bentley, “such as ye never see here;” and then, observing the landlady’s two children, sallow-faced but bright-eyed, who had crept up to the half-opened door, and were looking longingly at the good things scattered around, she continued, “Poor things, it would be a treat for them,” and pouring out a large jug full, she passed it to them, then casting her eyes around till they fell on a pile of mince pies, she cried to the children, “Hold out your brats, for some’at good.” The children stared at her, but did not stir.
“Drat ’em,” said she, “they don’t even understand plain English—what helpless things Lun’oners are!” and suiting her action to her words, she took up their pinafores and filled them with pies, and then muttered, “They’ll mak’ ’em poorly, they’re too good for ’em, but it ’ill be more like Christmas.” She then made her selection of viands for the Christmas dinner, for which she set apart the huge piece of beef, the goose, a hare, game pies and puddings.
When Henry returned, he had a cab laden with holly, laurel, larch, and ivy, and a large “Yule log,” tied on the top. Nearly an hour passed whilst he and his aunt transformed the dull room into a bright verdant arbour, full of “Christmas” in every corner and on every side. He was then dismissed with positive injunctions not to return until nine o’clock, and Miss Bentley then went out to make her purchases of furniture and other articles, and to enjoy the spending of “Sam’s fifty-pund note.”
Meanwhile the day passed, and at last evening came, when Julia closed her shop, and walked homewards with Miss Marks, to whom she hastily communicated the day’s adventures. Their talk ran almost entirely on Susan, but Julia’s thoughts were mixed. She could not but fear that she was liable for the note, and her inability to pay her rent troubled her. Both chattered pleasantly together until they reached the house. They were surprised by the littering of green leaves and of straw which lay around the door, and by seeing a knot of excited children in front of the window of Julia’s room. Looking up, they were astonished to see a strong blaze of light shining through bright red curtains “where no curtains used to be.”
“We can’t have made a mistake,” said Julia; “what can it mean?”
Miss Manks could not even venture on an explanation, and they hurried into the house. When they opened the room door, they started back in astonishment. “Oh, how beautiful,” cried Miss Manks. There was a bright cheerful fire, which filled the grate, on it a log of wood, spluttering, cracking, and hissing, and sending long tongues of flame and coruscations of fire up the chimney, and glittering and flickering on the green boughs, blushing among the holly berries, casting a rosy glow on the snow-white cloth which covered the table, in the middle of the room, and glancing and sparkling on the shining cups, glittering spoons and knives, that were interspersed amongst the many dishes of meats, cakes, and pies. By the fire sat a stranger, who rose as they entered, went to Julia, flung her arms around her neck, and then Julia saw it was Mr. Bentley’s sister who hugged her, kissed her, and told her that they were cousins, and bid her sit down and be happy. The words sounded in her ears, but the meaning scarcely reached her brain. She was bewildered. She could not speak for the throbbing, the dancing of her heart. Again the kind voice spoke to her, the loving hands were busy unwrapping her from her outdoor coverings. “Aye, lass,” it said, “thou’rt my own cousin. We fun’ thee out thro’ Susan, and we fun’ Susan thro’ Sam’s fifty-pund note, and we’ve come to bring her home—if anybody can hev a home in Lon’on, an’ to fetch our lad back, an’ to keep Christmas together, as we did when thy mother was a child. That’s right, lass, cry on, it’ill do thy heart good, an’ then thou can tak’ a cup o’ tea till supper’s ready.”
“Where is Susan?” was Julia’s sole inquiry, as it was her only thought.
“She’ll be here soon, wi’ Sam. But didn’t Sam storm when he fun his fifty-pund wor gone? Never heed him, I’ve served him out, a mean, deceitful beggar, as he al’ays wor.”
A loud knock at the door, the cheerful voice of Bentley, the pattering of lighter feet, and then, he, Mrs. Womersley, and Susan, were in the room. Susan ran to her sister, and those were tears of joy which then fell on each other’s cheeks in their close and sisterly embrace.
When their emotion had subsided a little, Mrs. Womersley and Miss Manks were severally and duly introduced, and they gathered round the fire—all except Miss Bentley, who was continually coming and going, as she superintended some important culinary process.
Another knock, and Henry entered. He looked doubtfully round, shrunk back as he observed his uncle, but brightened when he saw Susan.
“Come in, Harry,” said his uncle, “I hevn’t forgi’en thee, but we’ll hev that out another time, we won’t spoil Christmas Eve wi’ that; but thou rascal,” continued he, his irascibility getting the better of his resolution, “if ever thou plays that trick again, I’ll be——”
“No, no,” came hastily in the clear, sweet voice of Susan, “you promised me you would not.” The reproof checked him, and he said no more.
Henry could look at or notice no one and nothing but Susan. She was dressed in mourning, good in quality, correct in cut and fashion, and arranged with taste. She was no longer the factory girl, but apparently of a rank higher than his own. Her face was beaming, nay, sparkling with joy. She was lovelier than ever, but, alas! farther than ever from him. He sought to catch her eye—he could not. He spoke to her. She answered coldly, and evidently and intentionally avoided him. He grew sulky and taciturn. The mystic preparations of Miss Bentley were now complete. Basins of hot, smoking furmity stood round the table: in the middle was a ponderous cheese, flanked with loaves of spiced bread. “Come to,” said she, in general invitation, “we’ll keep Christmas right, Sam, as t’ old folk did, in good Yorkshire fashion, tak’ your furmity, cut the Christmas cake and cheese, and then for oysters, pies, lambs’-wool, grog, snap-apple, or what ye will. God bless all these things, both to our bodies an’ souls, for I believe Christmasing is good for both, an’ brings goodwill to us all.”
In the midst of the glee which followed, and in which all joined except Susan and Henry, who grew more and more reserved and moody, another knock was heard. It announced Julia’s landlord, who inquired not for her but for Mr. Bentley. When he came in, he appeared altogether surprised at the scene before him. “Hev ye the letter?” asked Sam. He produced one, which Bentley took and read, muttering to himself as he did so. It was from Bentley’s city agent, who had, at his request, been down to Oxford-street to ascertain if the bearer was intending to leave, and if so, to form some estimate of bis stock. It stated the approximate value, assuming the statement of quantities and quality to be correct, and concluded by saying that the bearer was obliged to leave, and discontinue business.
“Well, sir,” said Sam, when he had finished reading, “I’m Yorkshire.” The man bowed.
Sam continued, “An’ of course I’m fond of a bargain, but in this case I can’t treat mysel’—I’ve no time for’t to-night. I see your stock, fixtures, goodwill (not worth a groat) an’ all, is worth ’bout 2000l., ta’en as it stands.” The bearer of the letter and owner of the stock blandly remonstrated and expostulated—the value was considerably higher.
“Don’t speak till you’re asked,” thundered Sam, highly displeased with the manner of his visitor. “It’s worth that, an’ not a penny more, an’ that by instalments—one down, one at six, an’ one at twelve months—discount the instalments at say seven an’ a half, an’ it’s worth that, knock off all stock not accordin’ to list, an’ I’ll tak’ it.
The owner of the stock hesitated. Sam’s temper had been warmed by his potations during the day, and as he expressed it, he “was not going to stand any nonsense,” so turning fiercely round, he said, “It’s a bargain, or it isn’t—ye needn’t stay—ye see we’re busy—a small family party. If you’ll tak’ it, go to t’ city, and ye’ll get your brass, and tell him to knock that trumpery partition down.” A jerk of the head towards the door and a nod dismissed him.
Julia was wondering what Bentley was intending to do, when he suddenly jumped up, jerked his head as though he intended it to follow the stockowner, and with his eyes twinkling with fun, said to her, “I hate poor relations, an’ I’ve gotten one in thee. I can’t abide them. They’re a disgrace both ways, so I’m determined to be rid on ’em. I don’t mean to gie thee a penny, but I’ll lend thee enough for t’ new shop, at five per cent., good security on all there is—so fill my glass and say nought about it. I hate thanks wor’ nor poor relations.”
Julia’s heart was full. Miss Manks looked upon Bentley as a prodigy of benevolence. Julia spoke of the greatness of her obligation. Sam stopped her. “It’s nobbut a flea-bite. It’s nought at all, but if thou wants to tak’ a weight off thy mind ’bout it thou mun tak’ Dame Womersley here, for as she’s thy aunt, she’ll be turning up a poor relation some day, an’ she’ll keep house for thee, an’ keep t’men away, except they be o’ t’raight Chosen lot: an’ thou can tak’ that round-faced lass besides thee into t’shop to help thee—nobbut don’t say that I’ve done it to do thee good, for I ain’t; it’s ’cause I don’t like to hev a poor relation.”
Julia would not be gainsayed, but would express her thanks, when Miss Bentley interrupted her by saying to Bentley, “Thou thinks thou’s done a fine trick, but I tell thee thou hesn’t got thy fifty-pund, an’ what’s more—it’s gone. I’ve spent it all but three or four pund, an’ I’ve bought all these things; an’, Julia, they’re my Christmas-box to thee, an’ I hope thou’ll never tak’ thy things thou knows where. I’ve fetched ’em out, though I wor raight shamed to go into a pledge shop. Thou mun hev been in a sore way. Here’s t’ odd change.”
She gave to Julia the balance of the money. Julia ran to her and kissed her heartily, and then turning the money over in her hand, looked at Miss Manks. Miss Bentley saw her look, and whispered to her, “If thou likes. It’s raight to mak’ her share good fortune as well as bad.” Julia joyfully threw her arms round Miss Manks, saying, “Jane, here’s my present for you.” And then turning to Bentley, said, “You must let me give you something in return, and accept the shirts which everybody forgot to pay for, and you must let your cousin Julia be the only one who can say that her rich cousin did not pay his debts, for ye owe me for the buttons yet.”
Miss Bentley spoke out before her brother could reply, and said to him, “Sam, here’s another lass here, poor Susan; as I tell’d thee, she’s no better nor she should be—it would be a shame if she wor—but she’s a good an’ a bonnie lass, and she’s a poor relation too—what on her?”
Sam quickly replied, “I’ve said my say ’bout her. She took my lad fro’ me, an’ wi’ her I’ve nought to do.”
Mrs. Womersley had long been itching to interfere, and she now cried out, “Sam Bentley, there’s nought so stupid as a man that’s said his say, he’s wor’ nor a dumb beast. I tell thee it wor thy lad’s fault; he took her character away, an’ took her through me, an’ if she be one of the Lost, more reason to gi’e her good things i’ this world, else it wouldn’t be fair; an’ so it’s thy duty to mak’ him mak’ amends.”
Sam hastily interrupted her by saying, “I’ve made my mind up, an’ so less ye say the sooner ye’ll hev done, an’ I’m not goin’ to talk wi’ Dame Womersley on Christmas Eve ’bout what’s my duty or isn’t my duty. I’m goin’ to enjoy mysel’, an’ hope she’ll do the same.”
Mrs. Womersley had no longer any doubt as to the ultimate destination of Sam Bentley; and, drawing herself up, folded her arms on her breast, and maintained a dignified silence.
In the awkward quiet which succeeded this outbreak, the sudden clang and crash of the church bells, as they heralded the fast-approaching midnight, when they would ring in the returning Christmas, sounded thro’ the room. They listened to it in silence. Unnoticed, Susan left the room. Sam pushed back the curtains, and threw open the window “for a sniff of fresh air.” The night had become sharp and frosty. Silently, but fastly, the snow was falling, casting its white coverings on the housetops, and on the yet busy streets. As Julia looked upon it, it symbolled to her the burying of all her woes and griefs, and the spreading of a beautiful veil over all the things which had annoyed and troubled her in her struggles for a livelihood. As Susan watched the falling snow, she felt the cold fear, the vacant dread fall, as snow upon her breast, and to her it imaged the death and desolation of her dearest hopes, her fondest affection. To Sam it was a familiar picture, recalling many, many years of toil and of enjoyment. Then came the crash of sound which spoke the midnight hour. Christmas had begun. Miss Bentley immediately put out the Yule candles, to be relit to light in the New Year. Her brother turned to her, kissed her affectionately, saying in a voice expressive of manly emotion, “Nance, lass, we never missed this, on this night, sin’ we were bairns together. Happy Christmas to thee, an’ to all. Harry, my lad, shake hands; I mun forgi’e thee, as it’s Christmas day.”
A tap at the door, and an inquiry, “Who’ll open for Christmas?” Mrs. Womersley was about to open the door, but Miss Bentley pushed her aside, saying, “That’s my job, not thine, in this house,” and opened the door. Without it stood Susan, her shawl over her head, in factory fashion, and the snow flakes thickly hanging round it, as when she first stood at Bentley’s door. “I’ve let Christmas in for you,” said she, with a faint smile, “and may it be a merry one, and bring you all a happy New Year.”
They sat down by the fire, lighted only by the glowing log.
Bentley bid Julia and Susan come and sit on either side of him, and then spoke thus: “It’s five-an’-thirty years this day—mind it’s Christmas Day now—sin’ your mother wor married. I wor there, an’ I know we were merry, as lads could be. I rattled two penny bits in my pocket that day, an’ I got a drop—twa or three drops—too much, an’ I lost my pennies, an’ I said I’d never get drunk again, an’ I never hev; but I think that I shall treat my resolution to-night. I then hed ’bout twelve shillin’ a week, an’ now, putting one year wi’ another, an’ samming ’em all up, an’ dividin’ ’em all equal, I mun hev put away ’boon ten thousand pound every year. It’s easy makin’ brass when ye once begin——”
“Raight, Sam,” interrupted Mrs. Womersley; “it’s same as dirt, so long as ye don’t care about being clean, an’ run in t’muck, it’ll keep gatherin’ on ye: but go on.”
“An’ now what I’m going to say is this, that I mad’ up my mind I’d never divide my brass; it’s my own to do as I like, an’ I’ll hev one, an’ I’d give it all to that one, an’ that wor Harry, but he’s left me; but if he like to come back, an’ gie up t’lass that took him away, he shall still hev it all. What does he say?”
Before Henry could speak, Susan said to him, “Henry, go back; forget me and go home.”
Henry’s face worked nervously, and his voice failed him at first. He came to his uncle, put his hand on his shoulder, and said, “Uncle, I am glad you forgive me, but I won’t deceive you again. I cannot promise to give up my first, my only love, so keep your money—keep it, only don’t forget me or condemn me.”
Sam jerked up in the old fashion, nodded to Henry, saying, “That’s honest, Harry; thou mun go an’ work for thy livin’ now;” and then turning to Susan, he continued, “Now, Susan, as he won’t hev nearly a hundred thousand pounds, wilt thou? It all goes in a lump, an’ it an’ thy face may mak’ a duchess on thee some day. Wilt thou hev it, and promise to hev nought to do wi’ Harry?”
Her voice was low but distinct, as she replied,
“No, I could not promise;” and then her face was hidden on her sister’s lap, and her sobs alone broke the deep silence.
“Bravo! lass an’ lad too,” cried Sam, patting her on the head; “ye?re of t’raight sort, but a couple of young fools, that don’t know what brass is;” and then turning to Julia, said, “They think there’s nobody else for it. With thou hev it, an’ me wi’ it. We could carry on bravely?”
Julia laughed loudly and merrily as she replied, “No! no husband for me. I’d rather make a fortune than have one given.”
Sam roared with laughter. A sensible lass! I’ve hopes of thee. Come here, Susan.” She went and stood by him. He continued, “Thou mun let me tak’ care on it while I live, but here, tak’ it in a Christmas kiss.” The hearty smack echoed through the room. “Now, what will thou do wi’ it?”
“Henry,” whispered she.
In a moment he was by her side, and his arm round her. She held up her face, saying, “Take it all back.”
Sam danced up and down, slapped Henry on the back until he winced, poked him in the ribs, and cried, “A sweet kiss that; rather a heavyish Christmas box; nearly a plum, and a bonnie sweetheart into the bargain. Sit down, lad, and Nance, bring out t’wine. We’ll hev bumpers round, an’ drink to t’new couple. Wait a year or two, lad, till we mak’ a lady on her, if brass’ll do’t, and then, by George! we will treat resolution.”
- In Yorkshire it is considered an important matter, as affects the new year, who first enters on Christmas morning, and the door kept closed until an acceptable person comes.