A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters
Chapter I. Christmas Day in England
Chapter I. Christmas Day in England.
Once upon a time there was a lady who liked telling stories to children, and once upon a time—which time exists up to this very moment—there were a great many children who liked listening. This lady used to be constantly surrounded by boys and girls in a chronic state of story-hunger; but fortunately she never seemed to tire of telling all that they wanted to hear. Indeed, to say the page 4exact truth, I think she enjoyed these story-feasts quite as much as the children did, so everybody was pleased and lived happily ever after.
Now, if there was one time of year more than another when the demand for stories grew fast and furious, it was Christmas-time; for then the boys were all at home, and they generally brought other boys with them, whose appetite for the marvellous was quite as keen as their own, and the girls were just as bad.
No sooner had the breakfast-things been cleared away than, before the merry party dispersed, first one little voice, and then another, might be heard crying, as a parting entreaty, "You'll tell us a good long story to-night, won't you?" So whilst the children were out skating, or having a paper-chase on the common, or building a snow castle, this lady used to go to her desk and look out her old journals and note-books, in order to refresh her recollections of all those long-ago days. The children never knew how sad it sometimes made page 5her to touch the spring on the magic door of Memory, causing it to fly open and let the now solitary woman wander at will through the empty corridors and deserted rooms of the silent Past. Yet it often happened that a little hand would steal into hers, or a delicious soft cheek be pressed against her own, when some sudden random question would revive too vividly a recollection which had once been happy, but now was sad.
Such a heap of children as she had around her on this particular Christmas Eve about which I am going to tell you! When I came into the school-room and saw her—or rather guessed she was there, for she could scarcely be seen for children—I exclaimed, "Why, you look just like the old woman in the shoe," and a half-smothered voice answered, "I really must whip them all round and send them to bed." No one took this in earnest except Baby Violet, who had an eminently practical way of regarding things; this young person waved her hand at me, and said, page 6solemnly, "No, no, go 'way!" that being the chief extent of her vocabulary.
Violet was the ruler of the circle; what Mr. Aytoun calls "a queen by right of nature, she." It was quite impossible that she could have understood any of these stories, for she was only about two years old; but she considered it the correct thing to assist at their recital, and sat with great gravity and decorum on her Aunt's knee as long as she could keep awake. At last the lovely eyelids used to close over the bright dark eyes, and the long eyelashes droop on the round peachy cheek, whilst the firelight danced and glanced over the little curly head, bringing out wonderful flashes of gold from among its tangled mass of auburn curls. What a picture she would have made! and how good all the other children were to her! As for the boys, they were regular thralls to the little lady, who believed that their devoted service was amply repaid by a bewitching smile, and the word "Boy!" lisped out in a tone of approval. She page 7was always enthroned in the place of honour on the story-teller's lap; whilst at her feet sat Hope, with his golden curls shining like cocoon silk as they hung down his back and rested on his little blue tunic Hope used to be rather a serious child, with deep grey eyes and a passion for adventures, to the recital of which he listened with breathless interest Then there was chubby-cheeked Georgie, who was dreadfully matter-of-fact, and acted as a check on all flights of imagination, asking perpetually at the marvellous parts, "Is it quite puffectly true?" That is the way these stories come to be all about true things. Georgie would not let them pass without this voucher.
On one arm of the chair perched Frank, one of the most perfect little gentlemen of my acquaintance; and on the other side sat Gerald, surnamed the Archbishop, on account of the tone in which he used to say "Amen" at prayers. It was very difficult to find any place for Jack where page 8he could sprawl without inconveniencing the rest of the company, for if he had been a centipede his legs could hardly have appeared more numerous. His tastes were for what he called the "grim and grisly;" whilst Cathy demanded incessant tales of pink or blue ghosts, considering that if they were all arrayed in spectral white they would look both ghastly and monotonous. Cathy might have sat for the portrait of the Fair One with the Golden Locks; whilst in contrast to her flaxen mane was Irish Nora's dark curly little head, never still for a second, her deep grey eyes sparkling with fun or filling with tears, as the stories changed from gay to grave and back again.
These stories used to be told in the school-room. I never could make out why that room was so called, for certainly no lessons were ever done there. It always looked cheerful and sunny, with great shelves round its walls for toys, and games, and models of boats; a large clear space in the middle for unlimited romping; whilst in the bay page 9window stood a table and chair for Nurse. She was sitting there on this particular evening, her shaded lamp being the only one in the room; whilst the others were gathered round the fire, Jack's legs being very much in everybody's way. The room was like a bower, with its wreaths and garlands of holly and ivy. Each door and window was framed in glistening green; the bright prints shone out still brighter from their background of glossy leaves. A laurel wreath crowned the portrait of a beloved hero, near and dear to many in the room; whilst over its frame hung, worked in scarlet berries, Dickens's beautiful motto, "Lord, keep my memory green."The firelight flickered brightly about the room, lighting up its dark corners; and the storytelling party looked so warm and cosy that I came in and sat myself down with the children at Mrs. Owen's feet on the great bear-skin hearth-rug.
She had been telling them something about Christmas days in other lands when I joined the small party, and the boys were in full clamour page 10for accounts of how the Great Birthday was kept in New Zealand and in Jamaica; whilst amid the impetuous demands could be heard sweet little Georgie's entreaty, "Tell us what you did when you went t'India!"
Mrs. Owen, for that was the name of the chief constructor of stories upon this occasion, promised to tell them about tropical Christmases, one by one, on the three following evenings, but said she thought it much too late to begin them that evening, when they were all so dreadfully tired from skating.
Here a chorus of voices arose, declaring that they were not a bit tired or sleepy, and that, at all events, they must have a ghost story. So whilst the poor Scherazade of these imperious little sultans and sultanas was racking her brains for a story about ghosts which would be sufficiently horrible to be interesting, and yet not ghastly enough to frighten the children out of their wits, I began to talk to the boys about their day's amusement, in page 11order to leave her thoughts free to search in the cupboards of her memory for a suitable tale.
All the children agreed that skating was the "jolliest fun" in the whole world. Frank and Jack avowed their fixed intention of going to live at the North Pole when they grew up, so as to ensure enough of their beloved amusement, whilst Cathy wisely said she thought Holland would be very well; but this did not sound adventurous or difficult enough for the boys, who stuck to the idea of their Arctic home. A difference of opinion soon arose, however, as to where they should live, Frank preferring to live in a ship which was to be firmly fixed among the icebergs, like the Resolute; whilst Jack wished to do the thing thoroughly, and live in a hut with the Esquimaux. As I dreaded lest a battle should ensue upon this subject, I hastened to change the conversation, and tell of my experiences of that day's skating. I was soon corrected by reminders that I had not been skating at all, and had only ventured on the ice in a page 12sleigh. However, I offered to tell the children of the dreadful fright whilst in my chair.
Then there were ladies, venturing for the first time on the frozen surface, with spick and span new skates fastened on dainty little boots worn with the gayest of stockings. These toilettes were rather too smart to be workman-like, but it was well that all the arrangements about the chaussure page 14were so pretty, for the public saw a good deal ot it, as every moment a shrill scream prefaced the appearance of these natty boots and new skates sticking straight up in the air!
I had noticed one poor lady especially, who was attempting to walk on skates, just as she would do without them. I felt very sorry for her, but it was impossible to help laughing at her evident wretchedness. She must have made a vow to cross the ice. or else she would have turned back at once, for her difficulties began before she had gone any distance. She had two supporters, her husband and her brother, I believe, but they were quite as unsteady as she was. The anxious, terrified faces of all three skaters were enough to upset any one's gravity. Still they valiantly proceeded for about four yards, when suddenly the respectable middle-aged gentleman, who we imagined to be her husband, suddenly dipped forward, for no reason that the spectators could discover, and ran along on his hands and skates for a little way. page 15This mode of progression tore his nice warm woollen gloves all to pieces, and he looked very cross and angry when some friendly stranger picked him up by his coat-collar and set him on his feet, where he swayed back and forwards like a pendulum. All this time the lady found standing still so difficult that she attempted to strike boldly out. The effect of this was to send her flat on her back, where she lay shrieking and kicking, whilst her relatives made useless efforts to pick her up. I am sure they must have hurt her dreadfully with their skates, for I saw her receive several involuntary kicks from them; and I believe she would have been still in the same position if the young Russian lady had not come swiftly and gracefully, with long swinging skate-steps, to her rescue. The poor prostrate lady clung to the little fur gauntlet which was extended to her, until I thought its owner must have been pulled over, but the stranger Was once more raised to her feet, where she tried hard to balance her-page 16self. She looked very cold and miserable, and held tightly on to her two protectors, although she had surely found out by this time that they were worse than useless.
After two or three minutes spent in trying to recover her breath, and in receiving most perplexing and contradictory advice from everyone, she made another attempt to get on. I heard a very encouraging chorus of "That's it!" as she set forth once more; but that evidently was not it, for suddenly she relinquished her convulsive grasp of her husband's hand—he immediately began to sway preparatory to falling again on his hands and knees—flung her arms round her brother's neck, who naturally staggered under the sudden embrace, and, with a series of piercing screams, she fairly knocked him down and fell over him. I was glad to see that, at all events, she was uppermost, and therefore not so likely to be hurt; when her husband came, head first, floundering down on the heap, wildly digging his sharp skates into those page 17he meant to help. The spectators laughed dreadfully, but it really was very dangerous, and the polite old head-gardener of the beautiful demesne where the lake lay, came up with a Windsor chair, which he suggested the poor lady should push before her. Oh, how she thanked him! she grasped her chair and pulled herself up by it whilst he steadied it; then she tidied her hat, and, shoving her chair before her, like a baby learning to walk, set forth with a smiling face. But, alas! her troubles were not over; for as the game of hockey swept past her, a dexterous blow from a mischievous boy-player sent her chair spinning away like a top, twirling round as it went, and the poor lady sat plump down on the ice, where I left her, ruefully gazing at her vanishing support The gardener and her friends were cautiously approaching her, so I hope they picked her up. Later in the day I saw her very smiling and radiant on the bank, declaring she had enjoyed her first attempt at skating very much. Her page 18husband did not appear so happy; I suspect he was very black and blue. The poor man happened to have a hooked nose, so some one whispered to me—"Did he not look just like a parrot who was going to have a fit and tumble off its perch, when he swayed about in that way before coming down head foremost?"
I laughed and walked off to another part of the lake, to watch the pretty daughter of our Rector practising by herself on a clear space sheltered by a miniature island from the ever-increasing crowd. Agnes Murray would have done as a study for a portrait of the Goddess of Winter, if there be such a divinity in Pagan lore. I am afraid, however, those old dwellers in sunny lands would not have appreciated the low temperature necessary for Miss Murray's favourite sport, but to our Northern eyes she seemed beautiful Fresh and blooming as a flower, with the child-look still lingering in her laughing eyes, she skated like a sunbeam glancing over the mirror-smooth floor. I joined her mother page 19on the bank, and we stood silently admiring—with that admiration which is at once love and a prayer—the joyous girl-form as it flitted about, bending first to one side and then to the other, as the swing of her lithe shapely body sent her skimming on. Suddenly there dashed round the wooded corner of the island a devouring monster in the shape of a handsome young Australian, whom we had remarked early in the day for his bronzed, healthy face, long brown beard, and general air of being quite at home—not with a vulgar at home-ishness, but with the simple absence of mauvaise honte peculiar to dwellers-in regions where everyone is sure of being a welcome guest Mrs. Murray and I shrieked; our feelings were akin to those of two hens who have hatched ducklings, and see a watery danger threatening their beloved foster children. Our warning cry was too late, neither of the skaters could stop themselves—though I shall always think that young Australian only made-believe to try—and poor dear Agnes dashed right page 20into his outstretched arms, flinging both her own around him, whilst her rosy glowing face disappeared altogether in his great beard.
It was a very pretty but a very improper sight, and I began to fear that matters might become further complicated by a tumble; however, the Victorian was as firm as a rock on his skates, and he soon contrived to regain his balance and restore Agnes to hers; but I particularly noticed that he found it necessary to keep his strong arm round her little waist all the time he was making the most earnest apologies, to which Agnes was much too frightened to listen. At last he released her, and, raising his Scotch cap, turned lightly round and sped away. Agnes flew rather than skated up to us on the bank, and cried breathlessly—
"Oh, Mamma! I could not help it"
"I don't suppose you could, my dear," said Mrs. Murray; "but you had better come off the ice now, and rest a little"—an order which poor Agnes obeyed rather ruefully, for it seemed hard page 21that she should be thus punished for her little mishap.
The children were highly amused at the recital of the various adventures, but still they would not let me off the account of my own particular trouble; so I had to give it at full length, and describe how I was wandering rather disconsolately alone on the shore of the lake—for all my charges were on the ice, very hot and very happy—when a friend, who I knew skated beautifully, came up, pushing a low arm-chair mounted on skates before him. He invited mc to take a drive, and I was quickly wrapped up in a beautiful rug made of ostrich skins sewn together—only the long tail-feathers being absent—and gliding away as swiftly as anyone. This, indeed, seemed to be skating made easy, and was just suited to my courage and strength, when I observed, rather with horror, that my guide was pushing me towards a part of the lake where the ice was known to be thinner and less safe, and where a large board page 22with the word dangerous on it warned people off.
"Oh! Mr. Paul," I cried, "don't go there"
"It's all right," was Mr. Paul's answer, "if we go very quickly;" and we sped on swiftly. The wind was in our faces, and, at the rate we were going, my breath was fairly taken away. Just as we had reached the middle of the dangerous part, I remembered with horror to have heard that the lake was deepest there; and as the thought of its cold dark waters flashed across me, I heard a sudden loud report on the ice, like a pistol going off behind my chair, which at the same moment was violently twirled round in a pirouette, and I found myself—in a confused heap of wraps—on the ice. I gave everything up for lost, and expected to feel the icy waters every moment; but as I remained quite dry and warm, I took courage to raise my head from my rugs and peep out. There I saw that wicked Mr. Paul laughing immoderately, and coming towards me, trying to recover his gravity page 23sufficiently to apologize. The ice was not broken at all, and the noise I had heard was caused by dropping some gimlets out of his pocket, and they had made this ringing crack which frightened me so much. He had been startled himself and jerked my chair, which he let go suddenly to pick up his gimlets, causing a twirl and sending me spinning half-a-dozen yards off. I crawled ignominiously to the island and re-embarked from the other side; we reached the shore in safety; but I may truly say I was nearly frightened out of my life.
All the children were by this time so clamorous for the ghost story, that I was compelled to assume the position of a listener; and while Mrs. Owen nestled Violet more comfortably on her lap, so that the little woman might go to sleep at her ease, the others drew still closer around, their eager faces all turned upwards towards the lady's bent head and their bright eyes gazing earnestly upon her kind face.page 24
"Is it really and truly a ghost story?" they asked.
"Yes, dears; that is to say, it was told me by one of the ladies to whom it happened, and it may fairly be called a ghost story, inasmuch as the ghosts which it describes frightened everybody out of their wits, which is exactly what real ghosts are supposed to do."
Frank and Jack were just on the point of arguing the question as to whether this preamble promised a "proper ghost story," when Mrs. Owen raised her hand for silence; and this is the story she told us as we sat round the fire that darkening Christmas Eve.