XIX. A LONDONER'S CHRISTMAS.
MY name is Job Blunt. Probably you have heard of me
before; if so, you are aware that am not a sentimental man, nor an admirer of
veneer, and stucco, and french-polish. They hide the true grain and breed
speculation, and speculation, to me, is detestable. "Downright" is my
motto, and I am entitled to it, for I ask no more than I offer. I am as plain as
an oaken post, and as rough and as tough, and I hope I may say as stanch. I'm
not ashamed of the nakedness of my hand, and I would'nt wear gloves if I was
worth a thousand a year. I can find my way about without the aid of spectacles,
and am quite content to follow my nose. It is a sound, homely, sagacious organ,
and though, at present, it has not scented out the way to Tom Tiddler's ground,
it has warned me of several paths promising enough to look at, but which turned
out "no thoroughfare," being barred at the further end by a workhouse
I never take anything " for granted." If I don't see the way clear before me, I halt till some one is kind enough to show me a light. If a man doesn't understand a thing, he had better say so, and lay his case open to enlightenment.
Christmas is one of the things which I don't understand a bit. Don't misunderstand me. Why it should be a season of Christian rejoicing is as plain to me as to any other poor mortal with a soul to save; but either I am a dull, unemotional blockhead, or some people are dreadful hypocrites in their observance of it. There's that old Jobbling. I am a poor man, and live in a poor neighbourhood, and Jobbling keeps a porkshop round the corner. Jobbling had a goose club last year, and passing his shop early on Christmas Eve, I saw the porkman at high words with a poor woman, who had only paid up half her subscription-money, and who begged that she might have out the four shillings she had paid in bacon, that being, she declared, her only prospect of meat for her Christmas dinner. Jobbling would not let her have it; he referred her to the rules of the club, and fiercely told her that if she stayed there kicking up a row he would lock her up. Yet at church-time on Christmas morning I met Jobbling, looking as sleek, and as meek, and as sanctimonious as though Peace and Goodwill, in their search for worthy vessels, had lit on the porkman and filled him to the brim. Or, as though He whose birthday was celebrated just a year ago had died yesterday, and the new Prince, born when midnight had tolled and the merry bells began to peal, was too young to know anything of Mr. Jobbling's sinful ways of the past and many a previous year, enabling him to pass as a proper man if he only stuck well to his mask; that is, if it is a mask, and I am not a heathen. But, for that matter, I have observed the same behaviour in a dozen other men besides Mr. Jobbling. One would think that they held their lives on lease from year to year, from Christmas to Christmas, and that the only way of gaining a renewal of the lease was by a display of much humility and contrition, and shaking of hands, and charitable thoughts of distant enemies on the twenty-fifth of December. The next day, the new leaseholder steps into the world of weights and measures and chops and changes with less of the whites of his eyes apparent than was the case yesterday, and with the corners of his mouth at their accustomed angles. For a whole year the lease is stowed away-forgotten, buried; and this may be the true reason why the day following Christmas Day is called Boxing Day.
After all, however, and admitting that Mr. Jobbling's behaviour on a Christmas morning is that of a humbug, it remains a question whether he or they who made him so are most to blame. Who are they? Who are responsible for the wishy-washy sentimental nonsense that fills the heads of the people at Christmas time? Why, the story-writers: the literary gentlemen who, regularly as December sets in, take to saturating every journal and magazine in the three kingdoms with mystery and superstition, and all manner of unearthliness, a mere sniff at which, to weak minds, is as potent as chloroform. I've no objection to the writer of fiction; indeed, I can enjoy as well as any man a crisp, startling, rattling tale of adventure: but the stories of your Christmas writers are seldom or ever of this sort. They are artfully written, as though they were either the personal experiences of the writer, or confided to him by one who never would have divulged the tragic business that he had a hand in only for the "mysterious influence " of the season. The writer's aim is, not to amuse his reader, but to make him shudder-to give him the creeps; he cleverly insinuates "Who knows?" in the matters of churchyard warnings and visitations from disembodied spirits; it is his delight to make timid people afraid of shadows, and to mistrust the comfortable fire because of the " faces " that haunt it.
So far, I can only say that I believe the Christmas-story writer to be an impostor. I can't say for certain. There may be faces in the fire; the frost on the windows may take more fantastic shapes on Christmas morning than any other; there may be such things as ghosts. When I see 'em I'll believe in 'em. Perhaps it is only people that are more F. than R. who have the privilege of seeing such things, and of writing about them after they have seen 'em. If so, the Christmas-story writer is not so blameable a person as if he were more R. than F. I don't understand it; so will let this part of the subject drop.
What I do understand is what the Christmas-story writer has got to say about Christmas parties. In this matter I have no hesitation in saying that he is either a very ignorant person or a-well, I want a milder expression that will convey my meaning-a deliberate falsifier. I've seen three-and-twenty married Christmases, to say nothing of the six-and-twenty single ones passed down home: and I am bound to say that if the whole number could be squeezed in a press they would not yield a quarter as much sentiment, and romance, and pathetic incident-all due to the "mystic influence " of the season -as may be found in any one of the fifty domestic Christmas stories to be bought to-day at the publisher's shop. My name is Job Blunt; and, at the risk of being considered rude, I'm bound to express my opinion that the Christmas parties met in the Christmas stories are never met out of 'em; they're all bosh.
I believe I'm entitled to this opinion on all sorts of grounds. I flatter myself that I am not less wide-awake than most people, and that if any member of any Christmas circle of which I have made one had been seized with pathos, or sentiment, or anything of that kind, it would not have escaped me. For that matter, why should not I feel the "mystic influence" at Christmas time, since it's so much about? I'm ready! I'm not like an affected milksop who would shrink from it. Let it fall on me, or over me, or whatever it is, and when I feel it I'll up and say so like a man.
If not on me, why not on my family circle? It's a circle of the regular Christmas-story sort. Boys and girls, they count nine; and when they stand in a row the gradual descent from Thomas, who is a porter at a milinary establishment, to little Jess, the youngest, is very suggestive of a flight of stairs, which I believe is very often the case with Christmas-story family circles. My wife is a plump woman enough, and little, since the Christmas-story writers like plump little mothers of large families; and she has merry, brown eyes, which, as is known, they are likewise partial to. My father is an old man, with thin white hair, and a bent back, and a crutch stick (it is one of the oddest sticks you ever saw; made out of the ironwood paddle of a South Sea Islander's canoe, and carved from top to bottom with ships and whales, and pictures of cannibal customs; my father has been a seafaring man); he's a good-tempered old chap; and the young ones, when they know he is expected, are as pleased as Punch. He always spends Christmas with us. Then I've got an uncle a soldier, with a wooden leg, and a silver plate in his skull, both earned fighting in the China wars; and a nephew a middy in Green's service; and another nephew a warder at one of the London prisons. I could go on with the list a goodish while; but it isn't worth while, my only object being to show that the Christmas circle gathered in our parlour is one in which the "mystic influence," if it exists, might not unreasonably be expected.
Anyhow, we are jolly enough without it. If a man asks me to a party, I make up my mind to enjoy myself, relying that nothing on his part will be wanting to make me comfortable. I abide by the same rule. My Christmas guests may depend on good meat and good liquor, and as big a fire as they please. They'll find a piece of holly in the pudding and a bunch of mistletoe hanging from the centre of the ceiling. They'll find my son Tom, who, if they are inclined to singing, can accompany any of them upon the flute. If they are smokers, they'll find a good supply of the best birdseye and some straw pipes. But what they won't find, as I said before, unless they bring it with them, is the " mystic influence." "It is there, nevertheless," Mr. Jobbling would probably say. "You ignorant man, it has not a corporeal existence; you can't catch hold of it; it's as subtle as air; it is air; your house is full of it; you breathe it and are full of it, you and all your family. Jolly enough ? of course you are. It is the mystic influence that makes you jolly, and free of heart, and hand, and speech; it's that which gives a delicious flavour to the sirloin and that indescribable odour to the big plum pudding, and adds hops to the ale, and sets the fire roaring and crackling. What would the old stories and the old songs be with- out the mystic influence ? What but it links the members of your merry-making circle so lovingly, and brightens dull eyes, and sharpens dull memories, and makes you speak and act as you only can this once a year ?"
Speaking from the Christmas-story-book, this is pretty much what Jobbling would say. He might add, " Now, you take particular notice, next Christmas, of your own feelings towards other folks, and of their behaviour towards yourself; and afterwards tell me whether what I have said on the subject is right or wrong." It is done already, Mr. Jobbling. I did take particular notice on the last Christmas that happened, and have much pleasure in presenting you with the result.
Besides my father and Uncle Haddock-he of the silver plate and the wooden leg before mentioned-there were invited the prison warder and his young woman, and my nephew in Green's service, and a shopmate of mine from the docks (I am a cooper, you will please to understand), and his wife and their daughter Rebecca, who, my wife will have it (it makes me laugh !), is sweet on our Tom. Eight, without our own flock, are as many as I can find table-room for. Bear in mind I have nothing to do with choosing the guests. With the exception of father and uncle Haddock, my wife invited every one. Since I wanted to put the mystic business to the test, I was glad that it came about so.
If any one imagines that I was prejudiced, he is mistaken. "A fair field and no favour" is my constant maxim, and I didn't depart from it on this occasion. Between eleven and twelve I went to bed, quite calm and easy in mind, and prepared to follow the humour the morning, the Christmas morning, brought one. But it happened that I was not to wait till the morning for my first observation of the mystic-influence question; about twelve o'clock there struck up some music close at hand. I don't know what else there was, but I could make out a cornopean, and a flute, and a concertina. It was the "waits." Now, everybody knows how beautifully the Christmas-story writers write about the waits, and their enchanting music. The musicians were just far enough away to make their performance pleasant and soothing to any one pleasantly half-asleep. I could make it out to be " The Last Rose of Summer " they were playing, and they played it so nicely that I was quite sorry when they had finished. They struck up again, however, and this time it was "The Light of other Days." Mrs. Blunt used to sing this when we were courting, and I was always pleased to hear it in any shape. I am bound to say that when I heard the waits playing this familiar old tune, it set me thinking. At the same time, however, I am equally bound to state that it always did set me thinking, more or less. I wondered if she, too, was listening and thinking. I nudged her.
"Hear the waits, Sarah ?"
"Don't you remember- "
"Hush! How can I listen while you talk?" This made me open my eyes. She is a rare woman for sleep, and mortally hates being disturbed; and yet here she was lying awake, listening to the waits! Did the magic of the music enthral her as the story-writers insist it does everybody? Was I enthralled ? If I had thought about it two minutes longer I believe I should have been, but Sarah presently cut short my wondering as effectually as though it had been an egg and she had dropped a brick on it.
"There!" said she; "that's where he's out "
"Where who's out, Sarah ? "
"That flute-player," replied she; "I've got no patience with the new-fangled twists they put into tunes in these days. Our Tom plays six times better than that stupid." And with that she settled her head on the pillow, and in a minute after began to breathe in a way that convinced me she was fast asleep.
Next morning Tom awoke us-at least, he woke his mother by knocking at the door, and she woke me by calling out, " What do you want, Tom ? "
"These precious boots," replied Tom; " I can't get 'em on. I've been trying this half hour. Dash the boots !" and Tom, whose foot I suppose was half in one of the boots (bought new on the previous evening), gave such a violent kick against the skirting of the wall that you might have heard it next door.
Tom had got up early, as he had promised to be over at Rebecca's place at Rotherhithe to breakfast, and then they were all to come back to dinner together. It wasn't more than six o'clock, and pitch dark. To be hammered up in this way put me out a bit.
"Serve you right," said I; " you should be a little less dandified, my boy, and buy boots that fit you."
"So they did fit me when I tried 'em on," replied Tom, saucily; " so they would now, if my stockings were like another fellow's, and not all darned and seamy as these are !"
"Darned and seamy! you false-speaking boy, you- " But there, we won't go further into the matter, Tom's boots and stockings being perfectly private matters, and of no sort of interest to any one besides himself. I shouldn't have mentioned them, only, having resolved to note my waking sensations, I was compelled. Did the row occasioned by Tom's seamy stockings scare away the mystic influence, and had Tom's boots gone on easy, should I have awoke placid and serene ? Perhaps. But I'm pledged not to speculations, but to facts; and the fact is, I did not rise in a meek and charitable spirit, but rather inclined to give Master Tom a word or two of a sharp sort, if he hadn't contrived to get his boots on and set off to Rotherhithe before I got down.
So much for my waking on Christmas morning. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the breakfast, except that the youngsters were allowed strong coffee and an egg each. After that the youngsters went to Sunday- school, just as they do on Sundays, and the two girls helped to clear up and cook, likewise just as they do on Sundays; the only difference being that there was more than common occasion to put the place to rights, and consequently more work to do, which I had a hand in by touching up the picture frames a bit, and giving the chimney-glass a polish. I tied up the mistletoe, and, being not quite sure about its being in the centre, called up the missus (she has got a wonderfully true eye) to have a look. I didn't tell her what I wanted her for, and when she came in at the door and saw, she for an instant looked a little cross; but then she laughed and said-"Lor! the idea of your bringing me up from the kitchen for such nonsense! What an old stupid you are!"
She'll find out for the first time when she reads this that such a thought never entered my head till she put it there.
"You'll get the goose-fluff all over your black satin waistcoat if you don't mind," said she, and so I did; and the rum being on the sideboard, we each had a little drop.
This was about all that happened out of the general way till the old gentleman came. Grandfather, white-haired old grandfather, with his pockets crammed with toys for the youngsters, is almost as great a favourite as the waits with the Christmas-story writer. The father of the family in the Christmas story usually gives the old man a welcome in the passage, or at the gate even, the children swarming over him, and picking his pockets, and crushing his hat, and well-nigh strangling him out of gratitude. I knew that, however powerful the mystic influence might be, there was small chance of this happening, my father being a man very suspicious of fuss. Besides, the children had not yet returned from Sunday-school. The missus opened the door for him, both the eldest girls greeting him in the passage.
"Here you are, then, grandfather! Why, how well you are looking ! "
"Yes, thank God ! and I'm feeling well, except from my old complaint-you know. I wish you a merry Christmas, my lass; and you, too, my dears. Where's Job ?"
" Here he is. When you've done kissing the women, come up, father."
"How are you, my boy ? How well Sally looks! "
"Oh, yes; she's all right, I believe. How precious cold your hands are, father ! "
"Cold! Blessed if I don't feel like a mouthful of frost-bite! Outside that precious Camden Town 'bus, Job-crawl, crawl! It was as much as I could do to keep from swearing. Thankee. Well, here's health and prosperity to us all! That's as tidy a drop of rum, Job, as I've tasted since I left the service."
Then we had a little to say about hot Christmases and cold Christmases; and then he went back to the subject of his cold ride on the omnibus, and from that we got to talking about railways, and of steam-boats, and of steamrams, and of the war in America-just exactly as we should had it been Easter Monday, or Good Friday, or the most ordinary Tuesday or Wednesday. It was easy to see the mystic influence had not got over my father.
"The North can't do it, sir!" said he, bringing his fist down with a bang, as was his way when he argued about war. " The South will lick 'em into fits, sir; they might have done it months ago, but for their lady-like generosity, and sparing this, that, and the other, instead of putting it to fire and sword. They should 'mow as they go,' sir, as they did when I was a fighting-man. That's the way to put a quick finish to a fight, my lad! Why, look at that time when our little squadron was hammer and tongs with the Malayan pirates! ' Mow as you go !' was our motto there, sir; and "So the fierce old man-o'-war's man went on-about as peaceful and charitable as a mastiff. He kept it going till Uncle Haddock, and Joe Haddock, the warder; and Elizabeth, his young woman; and Mr. and Mrs. Cole, from Rotherhithe, along with their daughter Rebecca and my Tom (his feet having settled into the boots, he was all right now), arrived, and the dinner was ready. It certainly was a capital dinner-as good a dinner as I ever sat down to. If the mystic influence had anything to do with it, I'm sure I am very much obliged to it; but, at the same time, it is only fair to state that it ought to have been a good dinner. Tenpence-halfpenny is a long price to give for ribs of beef; and when a man gives fourteen shillings for a goose, he can hardly be expected to be astonished. if it turns out plump, and fat, and tender. Besides, my missus is a cook-a real cook, you understand. She was getting her sixteen pounds a year and perquisites when I married her, so I think I may make bold to say that the mystic influence wouldn't be able to put her up to much in preparing a dinner: It was a nice dinner; everybody said so. Everybody looked so hearty and happy that it seemed quite a pity to take the dishes away.
The Christmas-story writer seldom has anything to say about the afternoon (it's all nonsense to say that there is no afternoon between a poor man's Christmas dinner-time and his tea-time; his regular time being twelve, if he puts it off till two, it isn't a slight compliment), and I have nothing to say about it either. The ladies went one way, the young fellows another, and Uncle Haddock and father and myself shut the door and had a pipe and a glass, and fell off one after the other into forty winks round the fire. Likewise, the Christmas-story writer has nothing to say about the party at tea, and I don't wonder; I'm sure I am always glad when it's over. The mystic influence doesn't seem partial to it either, judging from the rare occasions of its touching it.
Now comes the crowning time. The small fry are put to bed (they only get disagreeable and lie about, making pillows of people's new trousers and silk frocks, if you are foolish enough to allow them to sit up), the candles lit, the fire stirred, the chairs set round, and the grog made. Here we are, then; this is the Christmas circle exactly as the Christmas-story writer pictures it, with the exception that a jolly big lump of Wallsend coal does duty for the Christmas log-which is a smoky, ill-looking concern, and I believe burnt more frequently in stories than in fire-grates-and that the grog is not in a bowl, but in tumblers. What next ? There's Mrs. Cole and my missus talking in half whispers about the remarkable manner in which little Charley Cole is cutting his eye-teeth; there is Bill Cole and my nephew, the warder, talking about picking oakum and caulking; Uncle Haddock is swigging his grog, and explaining to father and myself how that he daren't drink because of the silver plate in his skull; while Joe Perkins, Elizabeth, and my eldest girls are giggling together, and observing my Tom and Rebecca looking so lackadaisical, and holding hands as though any one wanted to part 'em. Presently Tom discovers the gigglers, and wants to know if somebody is going to sing.
Then singing commences. Mrs. Cole sings "The Dashing White Sergeant," followed by that merry little old song, " When I lived in my Grandmother's Cot," by my missus; and then " The Wolf," by Joe Perkins, because Elizabeth asked for it. I don't sing; no more does Uncle Haddock; but my old father does-good old sea songs. He sings them-" Harry Hawser," and "The Death of Nelson," and "Hearts of Oak"-with surprising activity for so old a man; getting on his legs and describing the position of the enemy and the various incidents and catastrophes with his crutch-stick, and with such energy that after each song the family circle found itself a good deal spread out, and had to close up again before the next song commenced. He offended Tom, and his mother, too, a little, I think. Tom kindly thought to assist his grandfather with his music; and when the old gentleman, with a stamp of his foot, roared out,
"'Twas in Trafalgar's Bay! " Tom began to tootle-tootle on the flute. The old boy stopped at once. "Drat it, Tom," said he; "if you don't understand the song, don't make a mock of it ! It was a battle fought with cannon, my boy-cannon not with pea-shooters ! Put that farden squeaker down." It was with the greatest difficulty in the world that Tom could be prevailed on, after that, to sing "The Young Man from the Country," though he had had the song-book containing it as long back as October; but when at last he did, father was good-natured enough to heal the wound he had caused Tom, by joining in the chorus to his stupid song.
When we had had enough of singing, somebody asked somebody else the last new conundrum; but, as everybody knew, it was very soon answered. After a few old riddles, in the last one of which some reference was made to a strait-waistcoat, Joe Perkins told us a story about a fighting man who was confined in the prison infirmary with delirium tremens, and the dreadful work they had with him. After that, we ceased for a while to be a circle, and engaged in pairs and threes-Joe Perkins with Elizabeth, Tom with Rebecca, Mrs. Cole and my missus, Whispering, laughing, and joking, while Cole and I talked about the docks, and the old soldier and sailor about their pensions-all perfectly comfortable and jolly. Then a game at cards was proposed, and one and all engaged in a round and cheerful game at speculation, which lasted till supper-time, which ended the party. As a merry party, as one that gave perfect satisfaction to all concerned in it, I'll back it against any in the land; but hang me if I could find anything of " mystic influence" in it from first to last.