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Crackling's sccret - His Christmas guests and his novel way of inviting them - I am an eye-witness of a banquet - The hungry fish for whom his window was baited - The first catch: the cigar-light boy, the small newsvendor, and the boy with the broom - The miraculous surprise and the haughty waiter - The next guest: "God bless you for such goodness to a stranger" - The two artful dodgers who swindled the charitable Crackling - The boy with the broom returns thanks in behalf of himself and friends.
ONLY that his widow exacted of me a solemn promise that I would refrain from
so doing, few things would afford me more pleasure than to make known to the
world the real name of as kind a creature as ever - well, at all events, as ever
kept a cook-shop.
It is now as nearly as possible twelve months since I first made his acquaintance. It was one of those good things, however, that are none the worse for being kept awhile, especially as I looked forward to another Christmas-time visit to his establishment, feeling, no doubt, that I should thus be able to add to my stock of material already in store. But when I proceeded to fulfil the last-mentioned intent, I discovered his amiable relict still doing a thriving business among the baked, and the roast, and the boiled; but, alas her prim little cap of ribbon and lace had given place to widow's crape.
I was glad to find, however, that, all things considered, she was in excellent spirits, and I think she had abated not much of her buxomness. She had been bereaved, she informed me, since August last; and when I told her the business I had come on, she hastened to inform me that it was one of her husband's latest expressed wishes that she should keep up the old Christmas custom that for fifteen years they had faithfully observed.
"And please goodness," said she, her good-natured face beaming with kindly remembrance, "I intend doing so as long as I live and remain in business."
She was delighted when I intimated that her good man's demise need not prevent the appearance in print of my ex-[-173-]periences and observations on the occasion of my visiting the shop last Christmas Day, but she very much objected to his real name being mentioned, and she was equally anxious that the exact whereabouts of the premises should not be revealed. "I should not mind if I had no intention of keeping up the custom," said she, "but if it became commonly known it would quite spoil the idea. I should have such a crowd of those who were not the right sort here that I should be obliged to put up the shutters." In this last I felt compelled to agree with her, and as regards the suppression of her husband's name, I asked her if she would like to suggest a nom de plume. She pondered the matter for several seconds, her gaze meanwhile wandering over the well-stocked window-board as though for inspiration, and then suddenly, and with the satisfaction of a person who has exactly hit on what is required, she replied, "Call him Mr. Crackling."
Crackling himself was as jealous of his "secret" as though lasting disgrace would have been his portion had it been discovered, and the amazement and vexation visible on his jolly round face when, accompanied by a friend at noon of Christmas Day, I entered his shop and boldly taxed him with it, would not be easy to describe, whereas the real wonder was that it had not leaked out years before. It was simply as follows: Compassionating the melancholy and down-heartedness of those whose hard fate it was to go dinnerless on the day of all days when most folk were feasting, he had hit on an ingenious expedient to give comfort to some few of them, at any rate. His shop, though situated in a prosperous highway, is in the vicinity of an exceedingly poor "back" neighbourhood. He had observed that on Christmas Day more than at any other time the handsome array of eatables displayed in his window attracted the attention of "hard-up" wayfarers. From his place behind the counter it was his custom with his wife to keep a sharp look-out for the most manifestly miserable of these window-gazers, and without ceremony to beckon them in and sit them down to what he called a "fair tuck-in" of roast beef and plum pudding. There was not very much doing in the ordinary way of business at his establishment on Christmas, and for the respectable and paying class of customers there were the dining-rooms upstairs. The place set apart for his impecunious guests was the space at the [-174-] back of the shop, where there are several compartments calculated to accommodate ten or a dozen sitters, the occupants of each box being screened from the observation of adjoining diners by means of a short red curtain ringed overhead to a brass rail. My companion and myself occupied the box nearest the shop, from whence, without being seen, we had a view of the window; and the compartments being divided one from the other only by a thin partition, it was easy for a listener to overhear any conversation that might be going on amongst his neighbours.
Punctually at twelve o'clock, though more, I believe, as a lure for that particular class of guests the benevolent cookshop keeper had foremost in his mind than in the ordinary way of business, there was brought up from the kitchen a weighty and handsome joint of ribs of beef, deliciously fragrant and browned and garnished with horse-radish, and a couple of prodigious Christmas puddings, one of which, ornamented with a sprig of holly, was placed on either side of the beef. Within the first ten minutes several regular customers came in and were passed upstairs by the waiter, but it was fully twenty minutes before any of the hungry fish for whom the window was specially baited put in an appearance.
It never rains but it pours, they say, and when at last they arrived it was in a batch of three. They scarcely could be called chance passers-by, however; nor were they, strictly speaking, penniless. They were three boys, dirty, tattered, and pinched with the cold, and it was easy at a glance to discover what occupations they followed. The youngest, who was a capless, shoeless little wretch, certainly not more than eight years old, had a "cigar-light" box tucked under his arm; another, a couple of years older, perhaps, carried the stump of a birch-broom; while the third, who was the oldest and the hungriest, looking the most decently dressed, held in his hand a few local newspapers - dismally "dead" stock, considering the day and the hour.
The faces of Mr. and Mrs. Crackling lighted up as though the impending good fortune was theirs instead of the trio of poor little ragamuffins; and Crackling, from behind his hand, whispered to us, "Keep your eye on 'em, they're the sort." We did as requested; as well as the steam on the window-pane would [-175-] permit. It was evident that urgent and anxious debate was going on amongst them. They scrutinized the tempting display closely and critically, but apparently with much more of disappointment than admiration; they seemed to be looking for something that was not there. What it was was presently made known, for the boy with the old broom stepped in, chinking halfpence in his hand.
"Ain't you got no plain, mister?" he inquired of Mr. Crackling. With an unmoved countenance that worthy tradesman shook his head.
"Plain plum or curran' I mean," pursued the "crossing boy; "any sort'll do."
"We don't keep plain sorts on Christmas Day," said Crackling; "only the rich kind - this sort," and he indicated one of the luscious spheres with the holly-sprig stuck in it. "You can have a few penn'orth of that if you like; it's dear, but it s beautiful - taste it."
And he helped the boy with the broom with a piece as large as a walnut, while his two friends outside, with their noses pressing the window-pane, stared at him with their mouths agape in wonder and amazement.
The delicious morsel was hot, but, rashly eager to realize all its delights, the boy bolted it, and it burnt his throat. But he didn't mind that.
"How much of it," he gasped, and with tears in his eyes, "how much of it for threepence?"
Mr. Crackling cut off a portion not more than three times larger than the tasting piece. "That s threepenn'orth," said he.
The broom boy's countenance fell.
"A jolly lot of good that'll be for three hungry coves," he remarked; "we've only got threepence amongst us."
"Then I tell you what," said Mr. Crackling, with perfect seriousness, "I've got some cold suet pudding left from yesterday, and I can serve you with a good threepenn'orth of that if you like, and, being Christmas Day, I don't mind you and the other two chaps sitting down here to eat it."
The broom boy retired for a moment to make known the proposition to his friends, and how thankfully it was accepted was betokened by the promptitude with which they all three came in.
[-176-] "Go and sit in the end box," said Mr. Crackling, "and I'll send it to you."
They did as they were bid, and we could hear them whispering together. The two who had remained outside plied the broom boy with eager questions concerning the "liker" of plum pudding they had seen Mr. Crackling give him, and, with the flavour of it still tingling his palate, he described his sensations from the instant it touched his lips till it was gone, prematurely engulphed, in terms that made them smack their lips audibly. They wondered how much of "cold suetty" they would get for their threepence, and augured from the cookshop man's kindness in asking them in to sit down, that they should probably get "a whacking lot" for their money. Meanwhile Mr. Crackling was generously filling their hot plates with beef, and pudding, and baked potatoes, and cabbage; and when all were ready the waiter, who was a lanky young man, with no doubt a good appetite of his own, but who nevertheless evidently experienced some difficulty in concealing his disgust, carried the dinners to where the expectant three sat.
We raised a tiny corner of our curtain that we might witness the effect as the waiter proceeded to lift the plates from his tray and to place them. The boys gazed in speechless amazement at the attendant, with mouths ajar, and then, like boys half awakened from a dream, they looked at each other. The poor hungry-looking newspaper boy turned white as a sheet, and the newspapers he had tucked into the bosom of his jacket rustled with his trembling. The crossing-sweeper was the first one to recover the faculty of speech. He lifted his plate from the tablecloth back on to the tray.
"You'll get yourself into a jolly row, young feller," said he to the waiter in a severe undertone. "Take 'em away to them that ordered 'em ,good luck to yer, before the guvner sees yer. Ourn's three of cold suetty."
"Yours is what's give you," returned the waiter haughtily, but not loud enough for Mr. Crackling to overhear him, "and don't cheek me, so I tell you."
And he was flouncing out of the box when the broom boy laid a detaining hand on the tails of his coat.
"There's summat wrong, I tell you," he exclaimed. "Hi, mister!"
[-177-] This last to Mr. Crackling, who immediately came forward. He walked up to the table, and without anything in his countenance to provide them with the least clue to the mystery, in full view of them and their plates, remarked, "If you three boys don't keep quiet and get on with your dinners, I shall have to be angry with you, and you won't like that, I promise you."
There could be no mistake about it. The roast beef and plum pudding were intended for them, and as Mr. Crackling retreated, the newspaper boy remarked, in a nervous whisper, to the broom boy, who had turned back his cuffs, "What are you going to do?"
"I'm a-going to get on with my lot and chance it," was the sturdy response, "and you" (this to the cigar-light boy) "do the same, young 'un, while it's 'ot."
"But what's the reason of it?"
"Gone mad, I should think," returned the broom boy, bolting a baked potato.
"But," gasped the timid young newsvendor, "s'pose he was to come to his senses again before we're done?"
"He'll have to change very sudden if he comes to his senses before I've done," retorted the calm trencherman, speaking through a mouthful of plum pudding; "get on, and don't jaw so much, that's a good feller."
At that moment a short cough from Mr. Crackling caused us to look shopward, and in time to discern at the street side of the shop window a gaunt individual, whose grey hair betokened him as being past middle age. His clothes were of respectable cut, though woefully shabby, with the coat-collar secured at the throat with a pin, and blue-nosed and famished-looking he stood blowing on his knuckles, and staring with a fascinated gaze at the roast beef kept piping hot on its metal dish. Mr. Crackling gave a louder cough, and the man outside started and looked up, and misconstruing the sound to be an indication of the shopkeeper's displeasure that he should stand there blocking the public view of the viands exposed for sale, he was hastily moving off, when he must have seen or fancied that he saw Mr. Crackling beckoning him. He was no beggar, however, and, though he hesitated for a moment, he walked on.
[-178-] "Did you ever see such a poor starved cat of a man?" remarked Mrs. Crackling to her husband. "Drat him, poor fellow! why didn't he step in and see what you was beckoning him for?"
But, as luck would have it, the hunger of the gaunt one rebelled too strongly against his pride to consent to his throwing away even the remotest chance, and slowly, very slowly, and with only half an eye towards the window, he presently passed again. He must have been blind had he missed the signal this time, for Mr. Crackling gesticulated him with all the energy with which a would-be passenger hails a distant and almost hopeless omnibus. He affected surprise, and with one hand in the bosom of his coat, and with an old glove in the other, he turned back and came a step or two into the shop.
"I beg pardon," he began, in genteel tones, "was I mistaken when I thought that you made a sign that you wished to speak with me?"
"Quite right," returned Mr. Crackling, stooping across the counter, so that it was unnecessary for him to raise his voice above a whisper for the other to hear. "I wished to ask you if as a favour - as a favour, mind you, to my wife as well as myself - you will have a bit of dinner?"
We could see plainly enough from our box that the gaunt one had it in his heart to resent the liberty taken with his poverty, and to stiffly decline the invitation. But in facing round, probably with that object, his eyes encountered those of Mrs. Crackling - kindly, pitying eyes, and with her face in such a pucker of womanly sympathy that he was vanquished in an instant.
"God bless you for such goodness to a stranger," he said, huskily.
But I don't think Mr. Crackling heard him, he was so busy with his carving-knife on the ribs of beef. He bad not been seated with a well-filled plate before him five minutes, when my suspicions that occasionally Mr. Crackling's artful plan for relieving the necessitous on Christmas Day might he abused, was, I am afraid, confirmed.
Two young fellows next came to the window, and had his experience been as extensive as mine are among such characters, [-179-] the charitable cookshop keeper would have recognized them as cadgers of the true Mint Street type. Either they had been there on some previous year, or an obliging acquaintance had put them up to it. They were tattered and threadbare, but as much as was shown of their shirts at the chest part was scrupulously clean, as was their face, and their hair was sleek and shiny as soap could make it. They were dolefully wending their melancholy way, when, unexpectedly, they found themselves exactly in front of Mr. Crackling's shop, and there remained transfixed at the abundance of delicious food there exhibited. They overdid the pantomime to such an extent it was a marvel it passed muster. They whimpered and whispered dejectedly one to the other, and hungrily bared their teeth as they eagerly pointed at the beef and at the puddings; they tapped their empty pockets, and soothingly chafed their waistbands with an open hand to pacify inner complainings. But they never once looked at Mr. or Mrs. Crackling, and seemed startled as though electrified when time former presently raised his hand and beckoned them in.
"I suppose you chaps could cat a jolly good dinner if you could get one for nothing? Go and sit down."
"Oh, sir! thank you kindly, too;" and, with a curious instinctive knowledge as to where they were expected to sit, they wriggled their way to a box in an instant.
It was a barefaced imposition ; but I would not have opened the worthy man's eyes to the cheat that had been put on him on any account. His faith was tightly pinned to the system, and, as far as I had seen, in the majority of cases it worked well. It was no fault of his that, being prepared to entertain at least a dozen penniless guests, only six presented themselves during the hour we remained there, though more may have come in after we came away.
Nor, as already remarked, were three of the hungry company absolutely destitute of money - as the haughty waiter found, no doubt, to his deep vexation and humiliation. The three young gentlemen who had just entered, having dined to their hearts' content, came to the counter, and the crossing-sweeper, being spokesman, gratefully and earnestly thanked Mr. Crackling for what they described as "the best tuck-out they d ever had in all their lives." And then, turning to the haughty waiter, the broom [-180-] boy further remarked, "Likewise we re much obliged to you for waiting on us, and we've left you a trifle for yourself on the table." It was the threepence originally mustered among them to pay for the cold suet pudding.