Here to return to
I WALKED one bright September morning in the Strand. I love London best in the autumn. Then only can one see the gleam of its white pavements, the bold, unbroken outlines of its streets. I love the cool vistas one comes across of mornings in the parks, the soft twilights that linger in the empty bye-streets. In June the restaurant manager is off-hand with me; I feel I am but in his way. In August he spreads for me the table by the window, pours out for me my wine with his own fat hands. I cannot doubt his regard for me: my foolish jealousies are stilled. Do I care for a drive after dinner through the caressing night air, I can climb the omnibus stair without a preliminary fight upon the curb, can sit with easy conscience and unsquashed body, not feeling I have deprived some hot, tired woman of a seat. Do I desire the play, no harsh, for bidding "House full" board repels me from the door. During her season, London, a harassed hostess, has no time for us, her intimates. Her rooms are overcrowded, her servants overworked, her dinners hurriedly cooked, her tone insincere. In the spring, to be truthful, the great lady condescends to be somewhat vulgar – noisy and ostentatious. Not till the guests are departed is she herself again, – the London that we, her children, love.
Have you, gentle Reader, ever seen London? – not the London of the waking day, coated with crawling life, as a blossom with blight, but the London of the morning, freed from her rags, the patient city clad in mists. Get you up with the dawn on Sunday in summer time. Wake none else, but creep down stealthily into the kitchen, and make your own breakfast. Be careful you stumble not over the cat. She will worm herself insidiously between your legs. It is her way; she means it in friendship. Neither bark your shins against the coal-box. Why the kitchen coal-box has its fixed place in the direct line between the kitchen door and the gas-bracket I cannot say. I merely know it as an universal law; and I would that you escaped that coal-box, lest the frame of mind I desire for you on this Sabbath morning be dissipated.
A spoon to stir your tea I fear you must dispense with. Knives and. forks you will discover in plenty; blacking-brushes you will put your hand upon in every drawer; of emery paper, did one require it, there are reams; but it is a point with every housekeeper that the spoons be hidden in a different place each night. If anybody excepting herself can find them in the morning, it is a slur upon her. No matter, a stick of firewood, sharpened at one end, makes an excellent substitute.
Your breakfast done, turn out the gas, remount the stairs quietly, open gently the front door and slip out. You will find yourself in an unknown land. A strange city has grown round you in the night. The sweet long streets lie silent in the sunlight. Not a living thing is to be seen save some lean Tom that slinks from his gutter feast as you approach. From some tree there will sound perhaps a fretful chirp: but the London sparrow is no early riser; he is but talking in his sleep. The slow tramp of an unseen policeman draws near or dies away. The clatter of your own footsteps goes with. you, troubling you. You find yourself trying to walk softly, as one does in echoing cathedrals. A voice is everywhere about you whispering to you, "Hush." Is this million-breasted City, then, some tender Artemis, seeking to keep her babes asleep. "Hush, you careless wayfarer; do not waken them. Walk lighter; they are so tired, these myriad children of mine, sleeping in my thousand arms. They are overworked and overworried; so many of them are sick, so many fretful, many of them, alas! so full of naughtiness. But all of them so tired. Hush! they worry me with their noise and riot when they are awake. They are so good now they are asleep. Walk lighter; let them rest."
Where the ebbing tide flows softly through worn arches to the sea, you may hear the stone-faced City talking to the restless waters: "Why will you never stay with me? Why come but to go?"
"I cannot say; I do not understand. From the deep sea I come, but only as a bird loosed from a child's hand with a cord. When she calls I must return."
"It is so with these children of mine. They come to me, I know not whence. I nurse them for a little while, till a hand I do not see plucks them back. And others take their places."
Through the still air there passes a ripple of sound. The sleeping City stirs with a faint sigh. A distant milk-cart rattling by raises a thousand echoes; it is the vanguard of a yoked army. Soon from every street there rises the soothing cry, "Mee'hilk – mee'hilk." London, like some Gargantuan babe, is awake, crying for its milk. These be the white-smocked nurses hastening with its morning nourishment. The early church bells ring. "You have had your milk, little London. Now come and say your prayers. Another week has just begun, baby London. God knows what will happen; say your prayers."
One by one the little creatures creep from behind the blinds into the streets. The brooding tenderness is vanished from the City's face. The fretful noises of the day have come again. Silence, her lover of the night, kisses her stone lips and steals away. And you, gentle Reader, return home, garlanded with the self-sufficiency of the early riser.
But it was of a certain week-day morning in the Strand that I was thinking. I was standing outside Gatti's Restaurant, where I had just breakfasted, listening leisurely to an argument between an indignant lady passenger, presumably of Irish extraction, and an omnibus conductor.
"For what d' ye want thin to paint Putney on ye'r bus, if ye don't go to Putney?" said the lady.
"We do go to Putney," said the conductor.
"Thin why did ye put me out here?"
"I didn't put you out; yer got out."
"Shure, didn't the gintleman in the corner tell me I was comin' further away from Putney ivery minit?"
"Wal, and so yer was."
"Thin whoy didn't you tell me?"
"How was I to know yer wanted to go to Putney? Yer sings out Putney, and I stops and in yer dumps."
"And for what d' ye think I called out Putney, thin?"
"Cause it's my name, or rayther the bus's name! This 'ere is a Putney."
"How can it be a Putney whin it isn't goin' to Putney, ye gomerhawk?"
"'Ain't you an Hirishwoman?" retorted the conductor. "'Course yer are. But yer aren't always goin' to Ireland. We're goin' to Putney in time, only we're a-going to Liverpool Street fust. 'Igherup, Jim."
The bus moved on, and I was about to cross the road, when a man, muttering savagely to himself, walked into me. He would have swept past me had I not, recognising him, arrested him. It was my friend B–, a busy editor of magazines and journals. It was some seconds before he appeared able to struggle out of his abstraction and remember himself. "Halloo!" he then said, "who would have thought of seeing you here?"
"To judge by the way you were walking," I replied, "one would imagine the Strand the last place in which you expected to see any human being. Do you ever walk into a short-tempered, muscular man?"
"Did I walk into you?" he asked, surprised.
"Well, not right in," I answered, " if we are to be literal. You walked on to me; if I had not stopped you, I suppose you would have walked over me."
"It is this confounded Christmas business," he explained. "It drives me off my head."
"I have heard Christmas advanced as an excuse for many things," I replied, "but not early in September."
"Oh, you know what I mean," he answered; "we are in the middle of our Christmas number. I am working day and night upon it. By the bye," he added, "that puts me in mind. I am arranging a symposium, and I want you to join. 'Should Christmas' " – I interrupted him.
"My dear fellow;" I said, "I commenced my journalistic career when I was eighteen, and I have continued it at intervals ever since. I have written about Christmas from the sentimental point of view; I have analysed it from the philosophical point of view; and I have scarified it from the sarcastic standpoint. I have treated Christmas humourously for the Comics, and sympathetically for the Provincial Weeklies. I have said all that is worth saying on the subject of Christmas maybe a trifle more. I have told the new-fashioned Christmas story – you know the sort of thing: your heroine tries to understand herself, and, failing, runs off with the man who began as the hero; your good woman turns out to be really bad when one comes to know her; while the villain, the only decent person in the story, dies with an enigmatic sentence on his lips that looks as if it meant something, but which you yourself would be sorry to have to explain. I have also written the old-fashioned Christmas story you know that also: you begin with a good old-fashioned snowstorm; you have a good old-fashioned squire, and he lives in a good old-fashioned Hall; you work in a good old-fashioned murder; and end up with a good old-fashioned Christmas dinner. I have gathered Christmas guests together round the crackling logs to tell ghost stories to each other on Christmas Eve, while without the wind howled, as it always does on these occasions, at its proper cue. I have sent children to Heaven on Christmas Eve – it must be quite a busy time for St. Peter, Christmas morning, so many good children die on Christmas Eve. It has always been a popular night with them. I have revivified dead lovers and brought them back well and jolly, just in time to sit down to the Christmas dinner. I am not ashamed of having done these things. At the time I thought them good. I once loved currant wine and girls with tously hair. One's views change as one grows older. I have discussed Christmas as a religious festival. I have arraigned it as a social incubus. If there be any joke connected with Christmas that I have not already made I should be glad to hear it. I have trotted out the indigestion jokes till the sight of one of them gives me indigestion myself. I have ridiculed the family gathering. I have scoffed at the Christmas present. I have made witty use of paterfamilias and his bills. I have –"
"Did I ever show you," I broke off to ask as we were crossing the Haymarket, "that little parody of mine on Poe's poem of 'The Bells'? It begins –" He interrupted me in his turn –
"Bills, bills, bills," he repeated.
"You are quite right," I admitted. "I forgot I ever showed it to you."
"You never did," he replied.
"Then how do you know how it begins?" I asked.
"I don't know for certain," he admitted; "but I get, on an average, sixty-five a-year submitted to me, and they all begin that way. I thought perhaps yours did also."
"I don't see how else it could begin," I retorted. He had rather annoyed me. "Besides, it doesn't matter how a poem begins. It is how it goes on that is the important thing; and, anyhow, I'm not going to write you anything about Christmas. Ask me to make you a new joke about a plumber; suggest my inventing something original and not too shocking for a child to say about heaven: propose my running you off a dog story that can be believed by a man of average determination, and we may come to terms. But on the subject of Christmas I am taking a rest."
By this time we had reached Piccadilly Circus.
"I don't blame you," he said, "if you are as sick of the subject as I am. So soon as these Christmas numbers are off my mind, and Christmas is over till next June at the office, I shall begin it at home. The housekeeping is gone up a pound a week already. I know what that means. The dear little woman is saving up to give me an expensive present that I don't want. I think the presents are the worst part of Christmas. Emma will give me a water-colour that she has painted herself. She always does. There would be no harm in that if she did not expect me to hang it in the drawingroom. Have you ever seen my cousin Emma's water-colours?" he asked.
"I think I have," I replied.
"There's no thinking about it," he retorted angrily. "They're not the sort of water-colours you forget."
He apostrophised the Circus generally.
"Why do people do these things?" he demanded. "Even an amateur artist must have some sense. Can't they see what is happening? There's that thing of hers hanging in the passage. I put it in the passage because there's not much light in the passage. She's labelled it Reverie. If she had called it Influenza I could have understood it. I asked her where she got the idea from, and she said she saw the sky like that one evening in Norfolk. Great Heavens! then why didn't she shut her eyes, or go home and hide behind the bedcurtains? If I had seen a sky like that in Norfolk, I should have taken the first train back to London. I suppose the poor girl can't help seeing these things, but why paint them?"
I said, "I suppose painting is a necessity to some natures."
"But why give the things to me?" he pleaded.
I could offer him no adequate reason.
"The idiotic presents that people give you!" he continued. "I said I'd like Tennyson's poems one year. They had worried me to know what I did want. I didn't want anything, really; that was the only thing I could think of that I wasn't dead sure I didn't want. Well, they clubbed together, four of them, and gave me Tennyson in twelve volumes, illustrated with coloured photographs. They meant kindly, of course. If you suggest a tobacco-pouch, they give you a blue velvet bag capable of holding about a pound, embroidered with flowers, life-size. The only way one could use it would be to put a strap to it and wear it as a satchel. Would you believe it, I have got a velvet smoking-jacket, ornamented with forget-me-nots and butterflies in silk; I'm not joking. And they ask me why I never wear it. I'll bring it down to the Club one of these nights and wake the place up a bit: it needs it."
We had arrived by this at the steps of the Devonshire.
"And I'm just as bad," he went on, "when I give presents. I never give them what they want. I never hit upon anything that is of any use to anybody. If I give Jane a chinchilla tippet, you may be certain chinchilla is the most out-of-date fur that any woman could wear. 'Oh! that is nice of you,' she says ; 'now that is just the very thing I wanted. I will keep it by me till chinchilla comes in again.' I give the girls watch-chains when nobody is wearing watch-chains. When watch-chains are all the rage, I give them ear-rings, and they thank me and suggest my taking them to a fancy-dress ball, that being their only chance to wear the confounded things. I waste money on white gloves with black backs, to find that white gloves with black backs stamps a woman as suburban. I believe all the shopkeepers in London save their old stock to palm it off on me at Christmas time. And why does it always take half-a-dozen people to serve you with a pair of gloves, I'd like to know? Only last week Jane asked me to get her some gloves for that last Mansion House affair. I was feeling amiable, and I thought I would do the thing handsomely. I hate going into a draper's shop; everybody stares at a man as if he were forcing his way into the ladies' department of a Turkish bath. One of those marionette sort of men carne up to me and said it was a fine morning. What the devil did I want to talk about the morning to him for? I said I wanted some gloves. I described them to the best of my recollection. I said, 'I want them four buttons, but they are not to be button-gloves; the buttons are in the middle and they reach up to the elbow, if you know what I mean.' He bowed, and said he understood exactly what I meant, which was a damned sight more than I did. I told him I wanted three pair cream and three pair fawn-coloured, and the fawn-coloured were to be swedes. He corrected me. He said I meant 'Suede.' I dare say he was right, but the interruption put me off, and I had to begin over again. He listened attentively until I had finished. I guess I was about five minutes standing with him there close to the door. He said, 'Is that all you require, sir, this morning?' I said it was.
"'Thank you, sir,' he replied. 'This way, please, sir.'
"He took me into another room, and there we met a man named Jansen, to whom he briefly introduced me as a gentleman who 'desired gloves.'
'Yes, sir,' said Mr. Jansen; 'and what sort of gloves do you desire?'
"I told him I wanted six pairs all together, – three suede, fawn-coloured, and three cream-coloured – kids.
"He said, 'Do you mean kid gloves, sir, or gloves for children?'"
"He made me angry by that. I told him I was not in the habit of using slang. Nor am I when buying gloves. He said he was sorry. I explained to him about the buttons, so far as I could understand it myself, and about the length. I asked him to see to it that the buttons were sewn on firmly, and that the stitching everywhere was perfect, adding that the last gloves my wife had had of his firm had been most unsatisfactory. Jane had impressed upon me to add that. She said it would make them more careful.
"'He listened to me in rapt ecstasy. I might have been music.
"'And what size, sir ?' he asked.
"I had forgotten that. 'Oh, sixes,' I answered, "unless they are very stretchy indeed, in which case they had better be five and three-quarter.'
"'Oh, and the stitching on the cream is to be black,' I added. That was another thing I had forgotten.
"'Thank you very much,' said Mr. Jansen; 'is there anything else that you require this morning?'
"'No, thank you,' I replied, 'not this morning.' I was beginning to like the man. "He took me for quite a walk, and wherever we went everybody left off what they were doing to stare at me. I was getting tired when we reached the glove department. He marched me up to a young man who was sticking pins into himself. He said 'Gloves,' and disappeared through a curtain. The young man left off sticking pins into himself, and leant across the counter.
"'Ladies' gloves or gentlemen's gloves?' he said.
"Well, I was pretty mad by this time, as you can guess. It is funny when you come to think of it afterwards, but the wonder then was that I didn't punch his head.
"I said, 'Are you ever busy in this shop? Does there ever come a time when you feel you would like to get your work done, instead of lingering over it and spinning it out for pure love of the thing?'
"He did not appear to understand me. I said: 'I met a man at your door a quarter of an hour ago, and we talked about these gloves that I want, and I told him all my ideas on the subject. He took me to your Mr. Jansen, and Mr. Jansen and I went over the whole business again. Now Mr. Jansen leaves me with you, – you, who do not even know whether I want ladies' or gentlemen's gloves. Before I go over this story for the third time, I want to know whether you are the man who is going to serve me, or whether you are merely a listener, because personally I am tired of the subject?'
"Well, this was the right man at last, and I got my gloves from him. But what is the explanation? What is the idea? I was in that shop from first to last five-and-thirty minutes. And then a fool took me out the wrong way to show me a special line in sleeping-socks. I told him I was not requiring any. He said he didn't want me to buy, he only wanted me to see them. No wonder the drapers have had to start luncheon and tea rooms. They'll fix up small furnished flats soon, where a woman can live for a week."
I said it was very trying, shopping. I also said, as he invited me, and as he appeared determined to go on talking, that I would have a brandy-and-soda. We were in the smoke-room by this time.
"There ought to be an association," he continued, "a kind of clearing-house for the collection and distribution of Christmas presents. One would give them a list of the people from whom to collect presents, and of the people to whom to send. Suppose they collected on my account twenty Christmas presents, value, say, ten pounds, while on the other hand they sent out for me thirty presents at a cost of fifteen pounds. They would debit me with the balance of five pounds, together with a small commission. I should pay it cheerfully, and there would be no further trouble. Perhaps one might even make a profit. The idea might include birthdays and weddings. A firm would do the business thoroughly. They would see that all your friends paid up – I mean sent presents; and they would not forget to send to your most important relative. There is only one member of our family capable of leaving a shilling; and of course if I forget to send to any one it is to him. When I remember him I generally make a muddle of the business. Two years ago I gave him a bath, I don't mean I washed him, an india-rubber thing, that he could pack in his portmanteau. I thought he would find it useful for travelling. Would you believe it, he took it as a personal affront, and wouldn't speak to me for a month, the snuffy old idiot."
"I suppose the children enjoy it," I said.
"Enjoy what?'' he asked.
"Why, Christmas," I explained.
"I don't believe they do," he snapped: "nobody enjoys it. We excite them, for three weeks beforehand, telling them what a good time they are going to have, overfeed them for two or three days, take them to something they do not want to see, but which we do, and then bully them for a fortnight to get them back into their normal condition. I was always taken to the Crystal Palace and Madame Tussaud's when I was a child, I remember. How I did hate that Crystal Palace! Aunt used to superintend. It was always a bitterly cold day, and we always got into the wrong train, and travelled half the day before we got there. We never had any dinner. It never occurs to a woman that anybody can want their meals while away from home. She seems to think that nature is in suspense from the time you leave the house till the time you get back to it. A bun and a glass of milk was her idea of lunch for a school-boy. Half her time was taken up in losing us, and the other half in slapping us when she had found us. The only thing we really enjoyed was the row with the cabman coming home."
I rose to go.
"Then you won't join that symposium." said B–. "It would be an easy enough thing to knock off, 'Why Christmas should be abolished.'"
"It sounds simple," I answered. "But how do you propose to abolish it? "The lady editor of an "advanced " American magazine once set the discussion, "Should sex be abolished? "and eleven ladies and gentlemen seriously argued the question.
"Leave it to die of inanition,'' said B–; "the first step is to arouse public opinion. Convince the public that it should be abolished."
"But why should it be abolished?" I asked.
"Great Scott! man," he exclaimed, "don't you want it abolished?"
"I'm not sure that I do," I replied.
"Not sure," he retorted; "you call yourself a journalist, and admit there is a subject under Heaven of which you are not sure!"
"It has come over me of late years," I replied. "It used not to be my failing, as you know."
He glanced round to make sure we were out of earshot, then sunk his voice to a whisper.
"Between ourselves," he said, "I'm not so sure of everything myself as I used to be. Why is it?"
"Perhaps we are getting older," I suggested.
He said, "I started golf last year, and the first time I took the club in my hand I sent the ball a furlong. 'It seems an easy game,' I said to the man who was teaching me. 'Yes, most people find it easy at the beginning,' he replied drily. He was an old golfer himself; I thought he was jealous. I stuck well to the game, and for about three weeks I was immensely pleased with myself. Then, gradually, I began to find out the difficulties. I feel I shall never make a good player. Have you ever gone through that experience?"
"Yes," I replied ; "I suppose that is the explanation. The game seems so easy at the beginning."
I left him to his lunch, and strolled westward, musing on the time when I should have answered that question of his about Christmas, or any other question, off-hand. That good youth time when I knew everything, when life presented no problems, dangled no doubts before me!
In those days, wishful to give the world the benefit of my wisdom, and seeking for a candlestick wherefrom my brilliancy might be visible and helpful unto men, I arrived before a dingy portal in Chequers Street, St. Luke's, behind which a conclave of young men, together with a few old enough to have known better, met every Friday evening for the purpose of discussing and arranging the affairs of the universe. "Speaking members" were charged ten-and-sixpence per annum, which must have worked out at an extremely moderate rate per word; and "gentlemen whose subscriptions were more than three months in arrear," became, by Rule Seven, powerless for good or evil. We called ourselves "The Stormy Petrels," and under the sympathetic shadow of those wings I laboured two seasons towards the reformation of the human race; until, indeed, our treasurer, an earnest young man, and a tireless foe of all that was conventional, departed for the East, leaving behind him a balance sheet showing that the club owed forty-two pounds fifteen and fourpence, and that the subscription for the current year, amounting to a little over thirty-eight pounds, had been "carried forward," but as to where, the report afforded no indication. Whereupon our landlord, a man utterly without ideals, seized our furniture, offering to sell it back to us for fifteen pounds. We pointed out to him that this was an extravagant price, and tendered him five.
The negotiations terminated with ungentle-manly language on his part, and "The Stormy Petrels " scattered, never to be foregathered together again above the troubled waters of humanity. Nowadays, listening to the feeble plans of modern reformers, I cannot help but smile, remembering what was done in Chequers Street, St. Luke's, in an age when Mrs. Grundy still gave the law to literature, while yet the British matron was the guide to British art. I am informed that there is abroad the question of abolishing the House of Lords! Why, "The Stormy Petrels" abolished the aristocracy and the Crown in one evening, and then only adjourned for the purpose of appointing a committee to draw up and have ready a Republican Constitution by the following Friday evening. They talk of Empire lounges! We closed the doors of every music-hall in London eighteen years ago by twenty-nine votes to seventeen. They had a patient hearing, and were ably defended; but we found that the tendency of such amusements was anti-progressive and against the best interests of an intellectually advancing democracy. I met the mover of the condemnatory resolution at the old "Pav" the following evening, and we continued the discussion over a bottle of bass. He strengthened his argument by persuading me to sit out the whole of the three songs sung by the "Lion Comique;" but I subsequently retorted successfully by bringing under his notice the dancing of a lady in blue tights and flaxen hair. I forget her name, but never shall I cease to remember her exquisite charm and beauty. Ah, me! how charming and how beautiful "artistes" were in those golden days! Whence have they vanished? Ladies in blue tights and flaxen hair dance before my eyes to-day, but move me not, unless it be towards boredom. Where be the tripping witches of twenty years ago, whom to see once was to dream of for a week, to touch whose white hand would have been joy, to kiss whose red lips would have been to foretaste Heaven. I heard only the other day that the son of an old friend of mine had secretly married a lady from the front row of the ballet, and involuntarily I exclaimed, "Poor devil!" There was a time when my first thought would have been, "Lucky beggar! is he worthy of her?" For then the ladies of the ballet were angels. How could one gaze at them – from the shilling pit – and doubt it? They danced to keep a widowed mother in comfort, or to send a younger brother to school. Then they were glorious creatures a young man did well to worship; but nowadays –
It is an old jest. The eyes of youth see through rose-tinted glasses. The eyes of age are dim behind smoke-clouded spectacles. My flaxen friend, you are not the angel I dreamed you, nor the exceptional sinner some would paint you; but under your feathers just a woman, – a bundle of follies and failings, tied up with some sweetness and strength. You keep a brougham I am sure you cannot afford on your thirty shillings a week. There are ladies I know in Mayfair, who have paid an extravagant price for theirs. You paint and you dye, I am told; it is even hinted you pad. Don't we all of us deck ourselves out in virtues that are not our own? When the paint and the powder, my sister, is stripped both from you and from me, we shall know which of us is entitled to look down on the other in scorn.
Forgive me, gentle Reader, for digressing. The lady led me astray. I was speaking of "The Stormy Petrels," and of the reforms they accomplished, which were many. We abolished, I remember, capital punishment and war; we were excellent young men at heart. Christmas we reformed altogether, along with Bank Holidays, by a majority of twelve. I never recollect any proposal to abolish anything ever being lost when put to the vote. There were few things that we "Stormy Petrels" did not abolish, we attacked Christmas on grounds of expediency and killed it by ridicule. We exposed the hollow mockery of Christmas sentiment; we abused the indigestible Christmas dinner, the tiresome Christmas party, the silly Christmas pantomime. Our funny member was side-splitting on the subject of Christmas Waits; our social reformer bitter upon Christmas drunkenness; our economist indignant upon Christmas charities. Only one argument of any weight with us was advanced in favour of the festival, and that was our leading cynic's suggestion that it was worth enduring the miseries of Christmas to enjoy the soul-satisfying comfort of the after reflection that it was all over, and could not occur again for another year.
But since those days when I was prepared to put this old world of ours to rights upon all matters, I have seen many sights and heard many sounds, and I am not quite so sure as I once was that my particular views are the only possibly correct ones. Christmas seems to me somewhat meaningless; but I have looked through windows in poverty-stricken streets, and have seen dingy parlours gay with many chains of coloured paper. They stretched from corner to corner of the smoke-grimed ceiling, they fell in clumsy festoons from the cheap gasalier, they framed the fly-blown mirror and the tawdry pictures; and I know tired hands and eyes worked many hours to fashion and fix those foolish chains, saying, "It will please him – she will like to see the room look pretty;" and as I have looked at them they have grown, in some mysterious manner, beautiful to me. The gaudy-coloured child and dog irritates me, I confess; but I have watched a grimy, inartistic personage smoothing it affectionately with toil-stained hand, while eager faces crowded round to admire and wonder at its blatant crudity. It hangs to this day in its cheap frame above the chimney-piece, the one bright spot relieving those damp-stained walls; dull eyes stare and stare again at it, catching a vista, through its flashy tints, of the far off land of art. Christmas Waits annoy me, and I yearn to throw open the window and fling coal at them, – as once from the window of a high flat in Chelsea I did. I doubted their being genuine waits. I was inclined to the opinion they were young men seeking excuse for making a noise. One of them appeared to know a hymn with a chorus, another played the concertina, while a third accompanied with a step dance. Instinctively I felt no respect for them; they disturbed me in my work, and the desire grew upon me to injure them. It occurred to me it would be good sport if I turned out the light, softly opened the window, and threw coal at them. It would be impossible for them to tell from which window in the block the coal came, and thus subsequent unpleasantness would be avoided. They were a compact little group, and with average luck I was bound to hit one of them.
I adopted the plan. I could not see them very clearly. I aimed rather at the noise; and I had thrown about twenty choice lumps without effect, and was feeling somewhat discouraged, when a yell, followed by language singularly unappropriate to the season, told me that Providence had aided my arm. The music ceased suddenly, and the party dispersed, apparently in high glee, – which struck me as curious.
One man I noticed remained behind. He stood under the lamp-post, and shook his fist at the block generally.
"Who threw that lump of coal?" he demanded in stentorian tones.
To my horror, it was the voice of the man at Eighty-eight, an Irish gentleman, a journalist like myself. I saw it all, as the unfortunate hero always exclaims, too late, in the play. He, – Number Eighty-eight, – also disturbed by the noise, had evidently gone out to expostulate with the rioters. Of course my lump of coal had hit him, him the innocent, the peaceful (up till then), the virtuous. That is the justice Fate deals out to us mortals here below. There were ten to fourteen young men in that crowd, each one of whom fully deserved that lump of coal; he, the one guiltless, got it – seemingly, so far as the dim light from the gas lamp enabled me to judge, full in the eye.
As the block remained silent in answer to his demand, he crossed the road and mounted the stairs. On each landing he stopped and shouted, –
"Who threw that lump of coal? I want the man who threw that lump of coal. Out you come!"
Now a good man in my place would have waited till Number Eighty-eight arrived on his landing, and then, throwing open the door, would have said with manly candour, –
"I threw that lump of coal. I was –" He would not have got further, because at that point, I feel confident, Number Eighty-eight would have punched his head. There would have been an unseemly fracas on the staircase, to the annoyance of all the other tenants; and later there would have issued a summons and a cross-summons. Angry passions would have been roused, bitter feelings engendered which might have lasted for years.
I do not pretend to be a good man. I doubt if the pretence would be of any use were I to try: I am not a sufficiently good actor. I said to myself, as I took off my boots in the study, preparatory to retiring to my bedroom, "Number Eighty-eight is evidently not in a frame of mind to listen to my story. It will be better to let him shout himself cool; after which he will return to his own flat, bathe his eye, and obtain some refreshing sleep. In the morning, when we shall probably meet as usual on our way to Fleet Street, I will refer to the incident casually, and sympathise with him. I will suggest to him the truth, – that in all probability some fellow-tenant, irritated also by the noise, had aimed coal at the waits, hitting him instead by a regrettable but pure accident. With tact I may even be able to make him see the humour of the incident. Later on, in March or April, choosing my moment with judgment, I will, perhaps, confess that I was that fellow-tenant, and over a friendly brandy-and-soda we will laugh the whole trouble away."
As a matter of fact, that is what happened. Said Number Eighty-eight, he was a big man, as good a fellow at heart as ever lived, but impulsive, – "Damned lucky for you, old man, you did not tell me at the time."
"I felt," I replied, "instinctively that it was a case for delay."
There are times when one should control one's passion for candour; and as I was saying, Christmas Waits excite no emotion in my breast save that of irritation. But I have known "Hark, the herald angels sing," wheezily chanted by fog-filled throats, and accompanied, hopelessly out of time, by a cornet and a flute, bring a great look of gladness to a work-worn face. To her it was a message of hope and love, making the hard life taste sweet. The mere thought of family gatherings, so customary at Christmas time, bores us superior people; but I think of an incident told me by a certain man, a friend of mine. One Christmas, my friend, visiting in the country, came face to face with a woman whom in town he had often met amid very different surroundings. The door of the little farmhouse was open; she and an older woman were ironing at a table, and as her soft white hands passed to and fro, folding and smoothing the rumpled heap, she laughed and talked with the older woman concerning simple homely things. My friend's shadow fell across her work, and she looking up, their eyes met; but her face said plainly, "I do not know you here, and here you do not know me. Here I am a woman loved and respected." My friend passed in and spoke to the older woman, the wife of one of his host's tenants, and she turned towards and introduced the younger: "My daughter, sir. We do not see her very often. She is in a place in London, and cannot get away. But she always spends a few days with us at Christmas."
"It is the season for family reunions," answered my friend with just the suggestion of a sneer, and for which he hated himself.
"Yes, sir," said the woman, not noticing; "she has never missed her Christmas with us, have you, Bess?"
"No, mother," replied the girl, simply, and bent her head again over her work.
So for these few days every year this woman left her furs and jewels, her fine clothes and dainty foods, behind her, and lived for a little space with what was clean and wholesome. It was the one anchor holding her to womanhood; and one likes to think that it was, perhaps, in the end strong enough to save her from the drifting waters. All which arguments in favour of Christmas and of Christmas customs are, I admit, purely sentimental ones, but I have lived long enough to doubt whether sentiment has not its legitimate place in the economy of life.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.