CHAPTER I–THE PROMISE
“An old-fashioned Christmas.–A lively family will accept a gentleman as paying guest to join them in spending an old-fashioned Christmas in the heart of the country.”
That was the advertisement. It had its points. I was not sure what, in this case, an old-fashioned Christmas might happen to mean. I imagine there were several kinds of “old-fashioned” Christmases; but it could hardly be worse than a chop in my chambers, or–horror of horrors!–at the club; or my cousin Lucy’s notion of what she calls the “festive season.” Festive? Yes! She and her husband, who suffers from melancholia, and all the other complaints which flesh is heir to, and I, dragging through what I call a patent-medicine dinner, and talking of everybody who is dead and gone, or else going, and of nothing else.
So I wrote to the advertiser. The reply was written in a sprawling feminine hand. It was a little vague. It appeared that the terms would be five guineas; but there was no mention of the length of time which that fee would cover. I might arrive, it seemed, on Christmas Eve, but there was no hint as to when I was to go, if ever. The whole thing was a trifle odd. There was nothing said about the sort of accommodation which would be provided, nothing about the kind of establishment which was maintained, or the table which was kept. No references were offered or asked for. It was merely stated that “we’re a very lively family, and that if you’re lively yourself you’ll get on uncommonly well.” The letter was signed “Madge Wilson.”
Now it is a remarkable thing that I have always had an extraordinary predilection for the name Madge. I do not know why. I have never known a Madge. And yet, from my boyhood upward, I have desired to meet one. Here was an opportunity offered. She was apparently the careworn mother of a “lively family.” Under such circumstances she was hardly likely to be “lively” herself, but her name was Madge, and it was the accident of her Christian name which decided me to go.
I had no illusions. No doubt the five guineas were badly wanted; even a “lively family” would be hardly likely to advertise for a perfect stranger to spend Christmas with them if they were not. I did not expect a princely entertainment. Still I felt that it could hardly be worse than a chop or cousin Lucy; the subjects of her conversation I never cared about when they were alive, and I certainly do not want to talk about them now they are dead. As for the “pills” and “drops” with which her husband doses himself between the courses, it makes me ill even to think of them.
On Christmas Eve the weather was abominable. All night it had been blowing and raining. In the morning it began to freeze. By the time the streets were like so many skating rinks it commenced to snow. And it kept on snowing; that turned out to be quite a record in the way of snow-storms. Hardly the sort of weather to start for an unknown destination “in the heart of the country.” But, at the last moment, I did not like to back out. I said I would go, and I meant to go.
I had been idiot enough to load myself with a lot of Christmas presents, without the faintest notion why. I had not given a Christmas present for years–there had been no one to give them to. Lucy cannot bear such trifling, and her husband’s only notion of a present at any time was a gallon jar of somebody’s Stomach Stirrer. I am no dealer in poisons.
I knew nothing of the people I was going to. The youngest member of the family might be twenty, or the oldest ten. No doubt the things I had bought would be laughed at, probably I should never venture to offer them. Still, if you have not tried your hand at that kind of thing for ever so long, the mere act of purchasing is a pleasure. That is a fact.
I had never enjoyed “shopping” so much since I was a boy. I felt quite lively myself as I mingled with the Christmas crowd, looking for things which might not turn out to be absolutely preposterous. I even bought something for Madge–I mean Mrs. Wilson. Of course, I knew that I had no right to do anything of the kind, and was aware that the chances were a hundred to one against my ever presuming to hint at its existence. I was actually ass enough to buy something for her husband–two things, indeed; alternatives, as it were–a box of cigars, if he turned out to be a smoker, and a case of whiskey if he didn’t. I hoped to goodness that he would not prove to be a hypochondriac, like Lucy’s husband. I would not give him pills. What the “lively family” would think of a perfect stranger arriving burdened with rubbish, as if he had known them all their lives, I did not dare to think. No doubt they would set him down as a lunatic right away.
It was a horrible journey. The trains were late, and, of course, overcrowded; there was enough luggage in our compartment to have filled it, and still there was one more passenger than there ought to have been; an ill-conditioned old fellow who wanted my hat-box put into the van because it happened to tumble off the rack on to his head. I pointed out to him that the rack was specially constructed for light luggage, that a hat-box was light luggage, and that if the train jolted, he ought to blame the company, not me. He was impervious to reason. His wrangling and jangling so upset me, that I went past the station at which I ought to have changed. Then I had to wait three-quarters of an hour for a train to take me back again, only to find that I had missed the one I intended to catch. So I had to cool my heels for two hours and a half in a wretched cowshed amidst a bitter, whirling snowstorm. It is some satisfaction for me to be able to reflect that I made it warm for the officials, however cold I might have been myself.
When the train did start, some forty minutes after scheduled time, it jolted along in a laborious fashion at the rate of about six miles an hour, stopping at every roadside hovel. I counted seven in a distance, I am convinced, of less than twenty miles. When at last I reached Crofton, my journey’s end, it turned out that the station staff consisted of a half-witted individual, who was stationmaster, porter, and clerk combined, and a hulking lad who did whatever else there was to do. No one had come to meet me, the village was “about half a mile,” and Hangar Dene, the house for which my steps were bent, “about four miles by the road”–how far it was across ploughed fields my informant did not mention.
There was a trap at the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” but that required fetching. Finally the hulking lad was dispatched. It took him some time, considering the distance was only “about half a mile.” When the trap did appear it looked to me uncommonly like an open spring cart. In it I was deposited, with my luggage. The snow was still descending in whirling clouds. Never shall I forget the drive, in that miserable cart, through the storm and those pitch black country lanes. We had been jogging along some time before the driver opened his mouth.
“Be you going to stop with they Wilsons?”
There was something in the tone of his “Ah!” which whetted my curiosity, near the end of my tether though I was.
“Why do you ask?”
“It be about time as someone were to stay with them as were a bit capable like.”
I did not know what he meant. I did not ask. I was beyond it. I was chilled to the bone, wet, tired, hungry. I had long been wishing that an old-fashioned Christmas had been completely extinct before I had thought of adventuring in quest of one. Better cousin Lucy’s notion of the “festive season.”
We passed through a gate, which I had to get down to open, along some sort of avenue. Suddenly the cart pulled up.
“Here we be.”
That might be so. It was a pity he did not add where “here” was. There was a great shadow, which possibly did duty for a house, but, if so, there was not a light in any of the windows, and there was nothing visible in the shape of a door. The whereabouts of this, however, the driver presently made clear.
“There be the door in front of you; you go up three steps, if you can find ’em. There’s a knocker, if none of ’em haven’t twisted it off. If they have, there’s a bell on your right, if it isn’t broken.”
There appeared to be no knocker, though whether it had been “twisted” off was more than I could say. But there was a bell, which creaked with rust, though it was not broken. I heard it tinkle in the distance. No answer; though I allowed a more than decent interval.
“Better ring again,” suggested the driver. “Hard. Maybe they’re up to some of their games, and wants rousing.”
Was there a chuckle in the fellow’s voice? I rang again, and again with all the force I could. The bell reverberated through what seemed like an empty house.
“Is there no one in the place?”
“They’re there right enough. Where’s another thing. Maybe on the roof; or in the cellar. If they know you’re coming perhaps they hear and don’t choose to answer. Better ring again.”
I sounded another peal. Presently feet were heard advancing along the passage–several pairs it seemed–and a light gleamed through the window over the door. A voice inquired: “Who’s there?”
“Mr. Christopher, from London.”
The information was greeted with what sounded uncommonly like a chorus of laughter. There was a rush of retreating feet, an expostulating voice, then darkness again, and silence.
“Who lives here? Are the people mad?”
Once more I suspected the driver of a chuckle. My temper was rising. I had not come all that way, and subjected myself to so much discomfort, to be played tricks with. I tolled the bell again. After a few seconds’ interval the pit-pat of what was obviously one pair of feet came towards the door. Again a light gleamed through the pane. A key was turned, a chain unfastened, bolts withdrawn; it seemed as if some one had to drag a chair forward before one of these latter could be reached. After a vast amount of unfastening, the door was opened, and on the threshold there stood a girl, with a lighted candle in her hand. The storm rushed in; she put up her hand to shield the light from danger.
“Can I see Mrs. Wilson? I’m expected. I’m Mr. Christopher, from London.”
That was all she said. I looked at her; she at me. The driver’s voice came from the background.
“I drove him over from the station, Miss. There be a lot of luggage. He do say he’s come to stay with you.”
“Is that you, Tidy? I’m afraid I can offer you nothing to drink. We’ve lost the key of the cellar, and there’s nothing out, except water, and I don’t think you’d care for that.”
“I can’t say rightly as how I should, Miss. Next time will do. Be it all right?”
The girl continued to regard me.
“Perhaps you had better come inside.”
“I think I had.”
I went inside; it was time.
“Have you any luggage?” I admitted that I had. “Perhaps it had better be brought in.”
“Perhaps it had.”
“Do you think that you could manage, Tidy?”
“The mare, she’ll stand still enough. I should think I could, miss.”
CHAPTER II–AND THE PERFORMANCE
By degrees my belongings were borne into the hall, hidden under an envelope of snow. The girl seemed surprised at their number. The driver was paid, the cart disappeared, the door was shut; the girl and I were alone together.
“We didn’t expect that you would come.”
“Not expect me? But it was all arranged; I wrote to say that I would come. Did you not receive my letter?”
“We thought that you were joking.”
“Joking! Why should you imagine that?”
“We were joking.”
“You were? Then I am to gather that I have been made the subject of a practical joke, and that I am an intruder here?”
“Well, it’s quite true that we did not think you were in earnest. You see, it’s this way, we’re alone.”
“Alone? Who are ‘we’?”
“Well, it will take a good while to explain, and you look tired and cold.”
“I am both.”
“Perhaps you’re hungry?”
“I don’t know what you can have to eat, unless it’s to-morrow’s dinner.”
“To-morrow’s dinner!” I stared. “Can I see Mrs. Wilson?”
“Mrs. Wilson? That’s mamma. She’s dead.”
“I beg your pardon. Can I see your father?”
“Oh, father’s been dead for years.”
“Then to whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”
“I’m Madge. I’m mother now.”
“You are–mother now?”
“The trouble will be about where you are to sleep–unless it’s with the boys. The rooms are all anyhow, and I’m sure I don’t know where the beds are.”
“I suppose there are servants in the house?”
She shook her head.
“No. The boys thought that they were nuisances so we got rid of them. The last went yesterday. She wouldn’t do any work, so we thought she’d better go.”
“Under those circumstances I think it probable that you were right. Then am I to understand that there are children?”
As she spoke there came a burst of laughter from the other end of the passage. I spun round. No one was in sight. She explained.
“They’re waiting round the corner. Perhaps we’d better have them here. You people, you’d better come and let me introduce you to Mr. Christopher.”
A procession began to appear from round the corner of boys and girls. In front was a girl of about sixteen. She advanced with outstretched hand and an air of self-possession which took me at a disadvantage.
“I’m Bessie. I’m sorry we kept you waiting at the door, but the fact is that we thought it was Eliza’s brother who had come to insult us again.”
“Pray, don’t mention it. I am glad that it was not Eliza’s brother.”
“So am I. He is a dreadful man.”
I shook hands with the rest of them. There were six more, four boys and two girls. They formed a considerable congregation as they stood eyeing me with inquiring glances. Madge was the first to speak.
“I wondered all along if he would take it as a joke or not, and you see he hasn’t. I thought all the time that it was a risky thing to do.”
“I like that! You keep your thoughts to yourself then. It was you proposed it. You said you’d been reading about something of the kind in a story, and you voted for our advertising ourselves for a lark.”
The speaker was the biggest boy, a good-looking youngster, with sallow cheeks and shrewd black eyes.
“But, Rupert, I never meant it to go so far as this.”
“How far did you mean it to go then? It was your idea all through. You sent in the advertisement, you wrote the letters, and now he’s here. If you didn’t mean it, why didn’t you stop his coming?”
The girls cheeks were crimson. Bessie interposed.
“The thing is that as he is here it’s no good worrying about whose fault it is. We shall simply have to make the best of it.” Then, to me, “I suppose you really have come to stay?”
“I confess that I had some notion of the kind–to spend an old-fashioned Christmas.”
At this there was laughter, chiefly from the boys. Rupert exclaimed:
“A nice sort of old-fashioned Christmas you’ll find it will be. You’ll be sorry you came before it’s through.”
“I am not so sure of that.”
There appeared to be something in my tone which caused a touch of silence to descend upon the group. They regarded each other doubtfully, as if in my words a reproof was implied. Bessie was again the spokeswoman.
“Of course, now that you have come, we mean to be nice to you, that is as nice as we can. Because the thing is that we are not in a condition to receive visitors. Do we look as if we were?”
To be frank, they did not. Even Madge was a little unkempt, while the boys were in what I believe is the average state of the average boy.
“And,” murmured Madge, “where is Mr. Christopher to sleep?”
“What is he to eat?” inquired Bessie. She glanced at my packages. “I suppose you have brought nothing with you?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t. I had hoped to have found something ready for me on my arrival.”
Again they peeped at each other, as if ashamed. Madge repeated her former suggestion.
“There’s to-morrow’s dinner.”
“Oh, hang it!” exclaimed Rupert. “It’s not so bad as that. There’s a ham.”
“You can cut a steak off, or whatever you call it, and have it broiled.”
A meal was got ready, in the preparation of which every member of the family took a hand. And a room was found for me, in which was a blazing fire and traces of recent feminine occupation. I suspected that Madge had yielded her own apartment as a shelter for the stranger. By the time I had washed and changed my clothes, the impromptu dinner, or supper, or whatever it was, was ready.
A curious repast it proved to be; composed of oddly contrasted dishes, cooked–and sometimes uncooked–in original fashion. But hunger, that piquant sauce, gave it a relish of its own. At first no one seemed disposed to join me. By degrees, however, one after another found a knife and fork, until all the eight were seated with me round the board, eating, some of them, as if for dear life.
“The fact is,” explained Rupert, “we’re a rum lot. We hardly ever sit down together. We don’t have regular meals, but whenever anyone feels peckish, he goes and gets what there is, and cooks it and eats it on his own.”
“It’s not quite so bad as that,” protested Madge, “though it’s pretty bad.”
It did seem pretty bad, from the conventional point of view. From their conversation, which was candour itself, I gleaned details which threw light upon the peculiar position of affairs. It seemed that their father had been dead some seven years. Their mother, who had been always delicate, had allowed them to run nearly wild. Since she died, some ten months back, they appeared to have run quite wild. The house, with some six hundred acres of land, was theirs, and an income, as to whose exact amount no one seemed quite clear.
“It’s about eight hundred a year,” said Rupert.
“I don’t think it’s quite so much,” doubted Madge.
“I’m sure it’s more,” declared Bessie. “I believe we’re being robbed.”
I thought it extremely probable. They must have had peculiar parents. Their father had left everything absolutely to their mother, and the mother, in her turn, everything in trust to Madge, to be shared equally among them all. Madge was an odd trustee. In her hands the household had become a republic, in which every one did exactly as he or she pleased. The result was chaos. No one wanted to go to school, so no one went. The servants, finding themselves provided with eight masters and mistresses, followed their example, and did as they liked. Consequently, after sundry battles royal–lively episodes some of them had evidently been–one after the other had been got rid of, until, now, not one remained. Plainly the house must be going to rack and ruin.
“But have you no relations?” I inquired.
“We’ve got some cousins, or uncles, or something of the kind in Australia, where, so far as I’m concerned, I hope they’ll stop.”
When I was in my room, which I feared was Madge’s, I told myself that it was a queer establishment on which I had lighted. Yet I could not honestly affirm that I was sorry I had come. I had lived such an uneventful and such a solitary life, and had so often longed for someone in whom to take an interest–who would not talk medicine chest!–that to be plunged, all at once, into the centre of this troop of boys and girls was an accident which, if only because of its novelty, I found amusing. And then it was so odd that I should have come across a Madge at last!
In the morning I was roused by noises, the cause of which, at first, I could not understand. By degrees the explanation dawned on me; the family was putting the house to rights. A somewhat noisy process it seemed. Someone was singing, someone else was shouting, and two or three others were engaged in a heated argument. In such loud tones was it conducted that the gist of the matter travelled up to me.
“How do you think I’m going to get this fire to burn if you beastly kids keep messing it about? It’s no good banging at it with the poker till it’s alight.”
The voice was unmistakably Rupert’s. There was the sound of a scuffle, cries of indignation, then a girlish voice pouring oil upon the troubled waters. Presently there was a rattle and clatter, as if someone had fallen from the top of the house to the bottom. I rushed to my bedroom door.
“What on earth has happened?”
A small boy was outside–Peter. He explained,
“Oh, it’s only the broom and dustpan gone tobogganing down the stairs. It’s Bessie’s fault; she shouldn’t leave them on the landing.”
Bessie, appearing from a room opposite, disclaimed responsibility.
“I told you to look out where you were going, but you never do. I’d only put them down for a second, while I went in to empty a jug of water on to Jack, who won’t get out of bed, and there are all the boots for him to clean.”
Injured tones came through the open portal.
“You wait, that’s all! I’ll soak your bed tonight–I’ll drown it. I don’t want to clean your dirty boots, I’m not a shoe-black.”
The breakfast was a failure. To begin with, it was inordinately late. It seemed that a bath was not obtainable. I had been promised some hot water, but as I waited and waited and none arrived, I proceeded to break the ice in my jug–it was a bitterly cold morning, nice “old-fashioned” weather–and to wash in the half-frozen contents. As I am not accustomed to perform my ablutions in partially dissolved ice, I fear that the process did not improve my temper.
It was past eleven when I got down, feeling not exactly in a “Christmassy” frame of mind. Everything, and everyone, seemed at sixes and sevens. It was after noon when breakfast appeared. The principal dish consisted of eggs and bacon; but as the bacon was fried to cinders, and the eggs all broken, it was not so popular as it might have been, Madge was moved to melancholy.
“Something will have to be done! We can’t go on like this! We must have someone in to help us!”
Bessie was sarcastic.
“You might give Eliza another trial. She told you, if you didn’t like the way she burned the bacon, to burn it yourself, and as you’ve followed her advice, she might be able to give you other useful hints on similar lines.”
Rupert indulged himself in the same vein.
“Then there’s Eliza’s brother. He threatened to knock your blooming head off for saying Eliza was dishonest, just because she collared everything she laid her hands on; he might turn out a useful sort of creature to have about the place.”
“It’s all very well for you to laugh, but it’s beyond a jest. I don’t know how we’re going to cook the dinner.”
“Can I be of any assistance?” I inquired. “First of all, what is there to cook?”
It seemed that there were a good many things to cook. A turkey, a goose, beef, plum pudding, mince pies, custard, sardines–it seemed that Molly, the third girl, as she phrased it, could “live on sardines,” and esteemed no dinner a decent dinner at which they did not appear–together with a list of etceteras half as long as my arm.
“One thing is clear; you can’t cook all those things to-day.”
“We can’t cook anything.”
This was Rupert. He was tilting his chair back, and had his face turned towards the ceiling.
“Because there’s no coal.”
“There’s about half a scuttle full of dust. If you can make it burn you’ll be clever.”
What Rupert said was correct. Madge confessed, with crimson cheeks, that she had meant, over and over again, to order some coal, but had continually forgotten it, until finally Christmas Day had found them with an empty cellar. There was plenty of wood, but it was not so dry as it might have been, and anyhow, the grate was not constructed to burn wood.
“You might try smoked beef,” suggested Rupert. “When that wood goes at all it smokes like one o’clock. If you hung the beef up over it, it would be smoked enough for anyone by the time that it was done.”
I began to rub my chin. Considering the breakfast we had had, from my point of view the situation commenced, for the first time, to look really grave, I wondered if it would not be possible to take the whole eight somewhere where something really eatable could be got. But, when I broached the subject, I learned that the thing could not be done. The nearest hostelry was the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” and it was certain that nothing eatable could be had there, even if accommodation could be found for us at all. Nothing in the shape of a possible house of public entertainment was to be found closer than the market town, eight miles off; it was unlikely that even there a Christmas dinner for nine could be provided at a moment’s notice. Evidently the only thing to do was to make the best of things.
When the meeting broke up Madge came and said a few words to me alone.
“I really think you had better not stay.”
“Does that mean that you had rather I went?”
“No; not exactly that.”
“Then nearly that?”
“No; not a bit that. Only you must see for yourself how awfully uncomfortable you’ll be here, and what a horrid house this is.”
“My dear Madge”–everybody called her Madge, so I did–“even if I wanted to go, which I don’t–and I would remind you that you contracted to give me an old-fashioned Christmas–I don’t see where there is that I could go.”
“Of course, there’s that. I don’t see, either. So I suppose you’ll have to stay. But I hope you won’t think that I meant you to come to a place like this–really, you know.”
“I’m sorry; I had hoped you had.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean that if I had thought that you were coming, I would have seen that things were different.”
“How different? I assure you that things as they are have a charm of their own.”
“That’s what you say. You don’t suppose that I’m so silly as not to know you’re laughing at me? But as I was the whole cause of your coming, I hope you won’t hate the others because of me.”
She marched off, brushing back, with an impatient gesture, some rebellious locks which had strayed upon her forehead.
That Christmas dinner was a success–positively. Of a kind–let that be clearly understood. I am not inferring that it was a success from the point of view of a “chef de cuisine.” Not at all; how could it be? Quite the other way. By dint of ransacking all the rooms, and emptying all the scuttles, we collected a certain amount of coal, with which, after adding a fair proportion of wood, we managed. Not brilliantly, but after a fashion. I can only say, personally, I had not enjoyed myself so much for years. I really felt as if I were young again; I am not sure that I am not younger than I thought I was. I must look the matter up. And, after all, even if one be, say forty, one need not be absolutely an ancient. Madge herself said that I had been like a right hand to her; she did not know what she would have done without me.
Looking back, I cannot but think that if we had attempted to prepare fewer dishes, something might have been properly cooked. It was a mistake to stuff the turkey with sage and onions; but as Bessie did not discover that she had been manipulating the wrong bird until the process of stuffing had been completed, it was felt that it might be just as well to let it rest. Unfortunately, it turned out that some thyme, parsley, mint, and other things had got mixed with the sage, which gave the creature quite a peculiar flavour; but as it came to table nearly raw, and as tough as hickory, it really did not matter.
My experience of that day teaches me that it is not easy to roast a large goose on a small oil stove. The dropping fat caused the flame to give out a strong smelling and most unpleasant smoke. Rupert, who had charge of the operation, affirmed that it would be all right in the end. But, by the time the thing was served, it was as black as my hat. Rupert said that it was merely brown; but the brown was of a sooty hue, and it reeked of paraffin. We had to have it deposited in the ashbin. I daresay that the beef would not have been bad if someone had occasionally turned it, and if the fire would have burned clear. As it was, it was charred on one side and raw on the other, and smoked all over. The way in which the odour and taste of smoke permeated everything was amazing. The plum-pudding, came to the table in the form of soup, and the mince pies were nauseous. Something had got into the crust, or mincemeat, or something, which there, at any rate, was out of place.
Luckily we came upon a tin of corned beef in a cupboard, and with the aid of some bread and cheese, and other odds and ends, we made a sort of picnic. Incredible though it may seem, I enjoyed it. If there was anywhere a merrier party than we were, I should like to know where it was to be found. It must have been a merry one. When I produced the presents, in which a happy inspiration had urged me to invest, “the enthusiasm reached a climax”–I believe that is the proper form of words which I ought to use. As I watched the pleasure of those youngsters, I felt as if I were myself a boy again.
* * * * *
That was my first introduction to “a lively family.” They came up to the description they had given of themselves. I speak from knowledge, for they have been my acquaintances now some time. More than acquaintances, friends; the dearest friends I have. At their request, I took their affairs in hand, Madge informally passing her trusteeship on to me. Things are very different with them now. The house is spick and span. There is an excellent staff of servants. Hangar Dene is as comfortable a home as there is in England. I have spent many a happy Christmas under its hospitable roof since then.
The boys are out in the world, after passing with honour through school and college. The girls are going out into the world also. Bessie is actually married. Madge is married too. She is Mrs. Christopher. That is the part of it all which I find is hardest to understand–to have told myself my whole life long that the name of my ideal woman would be Madge, and to have won that woman for my own at last! That is greater fortune than falls to the lot of most men. I thought that I was beyond that kind of thing; that I was too old. But Madge seemed to think that I was young enough. And she thinks so still.
And now there is a little Madge, who is big enough to play havoc with the sheets of paper on which I have been scribbling, to whom, one day, this tale will have to be told.