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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter V. Christmas Day in England {continued}

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Chapter V. Christmas Day in England {continued}.

Perhaps some of the children who will read these pages don't know anything about humble village Christmas-trees, such as the one of which I am going to tell them. Their only idea of the happy toy-bearing fir will, probably, be taken from an artificial symmetrical tree, stiff and trim in stature, standing on a low table in a smart drawing-room, blazing with tapers, sparkling with coloured crystal balls, presided over by a lovely waxen angel, and with a general air of fairy-land and Mr. Cremer's shop about it. The guests are worthy of the treat provided for them, at least so far as their outside page 84appearance goes. There are rosy-cheeked, velvet-frocked little boys, in their best tempers, and with their best manners: there are little girls in white muslin and bright ribbons, with crimped manes of fluffy hair hanging over their shoulders, whilst the background is composed of admiring papas and mammas, aunts and cousins, with a sprinkling of nurses, just to act as a female police if required.

Now this was not at all like our Christmas-tree in Groundholme village, nestled among the wooded hills of a far inland county. None of us were very rich about there, and though we emptied our light purses completely at this happy season, still by the time we had provided the school children with a big tea, and the old women with a similar and yet more substantial meal, we had not much margin left for decorating the tree in the school-room; so every one worked hard for weeks beforehand at its adornments. The little children were as busy as bees in behalf of their poorer sisters and brothers, page 85and it was both touching and pretty to see them at work. I think it must have been Jack who made very substantial, though perhaps rather rough frames for some gay-coloured prints; whilst Nora and Cathy covered his work with the prettiest devices of leaves and berries you ever saw. Alice and Lucy knitted dozens of pairs of bright warm socks and comforters, their mother provided a great pile of crochet half-shawls, whilst we elders contributed a goodly array of' small linsey petticoats of every colour under the dyer's sun. Nor were the toys forgotten. We begged scraps of all our fine lady friends, and our dolls looked like models of beauty and fashion, when the lady's-maid had turned them out of her skilful hands. Indeed, I felt half tempted to apologize to these elegant young ladies, as I propped them up round the rude box in which the tree was planted. There were basketfuls of balls for the boys, hard and soft, solid and hollow, bounding and cricket balls; knives enough to cut page 86all their fingers off, and drums and trumpets by the score.

The tree itself was a fine young fir; it had only one fault in my eyes,—its branches were astonishingly limp. They looked sturdy enough to bear a cannon ball, and yet if I hung a penny whistle or an orange at the extremity of a bough, it immediately dropped nearly to the ground, and amid a chorus of voices crying out, "Oh! that will never do, it's much too heavy," I had to unfasten the decoration again. This made me rather cross in my heart, but I don't think any one knew what I felt, all were so busy. The first thing we did was to lay white cotton wool lightly all over the branches, so that our tree looked as if it was covered with soft snow-flakes; then at the top we fastened a little trophy of gay silken flags on gilt paper staves. The tiny children had all been busy for two days past in stringing holly-berries together; and these bright scarlet garlands, hanging in festoons from branch page 87to branch, had an exceedingly pretty effect. Close to the strong stem, dangled oranges and rosy-cheeked apples; the sugar-plums were contained in silken bags, made in the shape of flour-sacks, and tied at the neck with a gilt string. A few cheap masks grinned at us from the depths of the lower foliage, whilst books and tops rested on the moss which concealed the earth around the roots. The little petticoats were balanced by a heap of red and blue flannel cricket caps for the boys, and a regiment of dolls kept solemn, open-eyed guard around the box.

Just at the last moment, when we heard the grace being sung at the children's tea in the adjoining room, Mrs. Owen lighted up the tapers in their tin sconces, and the curtain was drawn back by the schoolmaster with quite a theatrical flourish, revealing a crowd of shining rosy faces all turned one way. We genii of the tree stood in the deep shadow, and watched the expression of the little eager countenances. To our disappointment, page 88however, the smallest children set up a loud howl, and had immediately to be comforted and soothed by their attendant mothers; whilst the elder ones stared stolidly at our handiwork with round, expressionless eyes. Here and there a finger went up to a small mouth, but that was the only tribute of admiration which the tree elicited for a long time. At last the schoolmaster suggested that the children should all be marshalled in order and made to walk round the tree four or five times, singing a carol. This idea was an excellent one, and had the effect of familiarizing the little ones with the shining splendour which alarmed quite as much as it attracted them; and by the time the last notes of the quaint old tune died away, all the little band were ready and willing to come up and receive their gifts.

Each boy and girl had first some article of warm clothing handed to them, then a book, next a few toys, and sacklets of pink and white sugarplums; whilst an apple or an orange ended the page 89distribution. All looked joyous and bright; they seemed to realize their happiness more and more each moment I believe at first that they thought the whole thing was a beautiful dream, which would presently vanish away into thin air, and that they would awaken to their usual dull every-day life. But the tapers began to burn low; here and there a hasty puff from one of the guardians of the now stripped and bare tree, told of the sudden necessity for extinguishing a flaming light. The fat staring babies began to compose themselves to sleep in their mother's arms, dozing off in the most unexpected and uncomfortable positions. The school children appeared to be quite laden with small treasures, and more than one officious little gossip proclaimed "Please 'm, Tom (or Dick, or Harry) has bin an' cut 'is finger, orful." However, no boy worth a pin cares for a cut finger: it is the fruit of his own awkwardness, and is a lesson to be more careful next time; so, in spite of sundry slices and slashes on small hands, the boys filed past us page 90with grinning, joyous faces and a tremendous wave of the hand; whilst the little girls hardly dared to curtsey, lest they should drop some of the precious possessions with which they were laden. By the time it was all over, and we had prepared to return to our respective homes, it was quite dark, and very cold. There were many slips and stumbles before our own porch was reached; but as we all drew round the supper table, there was only one feeling amongst us, big and little, old and young,—that of satisfaction at the happiness all had helped to diffuse. We felt the truth of the biblical assurance, that it is much pleasanter to give than to receive.

And now Christmas Day was over, with its grave and its gay rites and observances, its sad memories of the past, its bright hopes for the future, and its delightful present, in which only children live. Here this part of my story should end, properly speaking, but as I managed to get up a tremendous excitement in the middle of that night, I think we page 91will not consider that Christmas Day had fairly closed till the great clock over the stables boomed out midnight in deep, solemn tones. A few moments before this happened, I had been awakened from my sleep by a crunching sound on the gravel path beneath the window. "Robbers," I thought at once. Now do you know why this idea came so promptly into my head? Because of a certain alarm bell, the cord of which hung down in tempting proximity to the head of my bed. The very first night that I arrived, Mrs. Owen had pointed out this rather ugly rope, and had said,—

"If ever you are frightened at night, you have only got to pull that cord, and it will not only set every bell in the house going, but it has been carried across the farmyard to the principal buildings where the men sleep, and it rings the great fire-bell in that turret, so you would have plenty of help in a few moments. In fact, we should probably have all the villagers up from Groundshaline page 92if it were to sound in the middle of the night." This was rather awful, I thought, though at the same time I felt it to be a great comfort.

"Why did you have it put up?" I inquired.

"Well, you see, this is a very lonely neighbourhood, and we are only just off the road between those two towns, which are full of factories; so my kind landlord said he would not feel comfortable at our being here all alone without even a gentleman in the house, unless he knew we could summon help in an instant if it were needed. The carters and people belonging to the farm understand that every man who hears that bell is to turn out directly and report himself to me, on pain of instant dismissal, so I feel quite secure. Of course there are plenty of alarmists, who tell me I am very rash to keep the plate chest here during these long dark nights. By the way, dear, that chest stands in the room under this, so if ever you hear anyone trying to break open the iron shutters downstairs, mind you ring the bell."

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Mrs. Owen never knew it, but her cautions kept me awake for nearly a week after I heard this "Story of the Bell," for I felt myself to be on guard as it were, and that the safety of the house depended on my wakefulness. However, the exercise and the excitement of the Christmas Day had proved too much for my watch-dog propensities: no sooner had my head touched the pillow than I was in dreamland, handing cake and tea to the school children all over again, and decorating whole avenues of gigantic Christmas trees in endless succession. From these fatiguing though profound slumbers, I was awakened, as I have said, first by the sound of cautious, heavy boots on the crisp gravel, and next by subdued whispers outside my window. I could hear that there were boyish tones murmuring, as well as one or two deeper voices. "Of course," I thought to myself, "that is the boy one always hears of who is pushed in at the window." Still I paused for half a second, then I heard quite a loud shuffling page 94of feet, and some one apparently urging some one else to begin. "I am glad they have the grace to hesitate, but I must not." So saying to my frightened self, I grasped the bell-rope which dangled close to my head, and pulled it with all my might.

Such a charivari as ensued, for just as my tugs at the alarm-bell began to take effect, the clock struck twelve, and the waits set up outside my window in quavering tones, with their teeth chattering from the cold, an old-fashioned lilt. They had not accomplished more than two bars, however, before their music was silenced by the uproar which my bell-rope had raised. Lights appeared in every window, doors slammed, bells rang furiously in jerking peals, whilst in the clear frosty air outside we could hear the clang of the fire-bell in the turret of the great barn. What a commotion there was! Mingling with the shouts of the men to each other as they hurried towards the house, I heard the clattering of horses' feet.

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One waggoner had ridden off for the nearest fire-engine, whilst another had started to fetch the police; a third was with difficulty dissuaded from going for the doctor, who, he thought, "might come in handy." Everybody was wildly asking everybody else what was the matter, before it occurred to any one that the confusion must have arisen from the alarm-bell sounding, and that no one could touch the rope except me. Mrs. Owen rushed into my room, and I shall never forget her expression of face as I poured forth my apologies.

"Do you mean to say you rang that great bell only on account of the waits?" she asked; "I had no idea you were such a Cockney, or I should have told you your slumbers were liable to be disturbed at this season. Good gracious! what shall I do? Do you hear how they are knocking at the door? That is probably Parker, the bailiff: poor man I fancy bringing him out of bed on such a night for nothing!" Saying this, Mrs. Owen hurried page 96away, leaving me to my reflections, which were most mortifying.

Fortunately we have settled that my story is not to go beyond midnight, so I need not humiliate myself by telling you how the boys teased me the next day, nor how the little girls could not be persuaded but that something very dreadful had happened in the night.

In future, I shall not only think twice, but I will think twenty times before I ring an alarm-bell in the middle of the night, when I am staying in the country.

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