And other Sketches

by Seranus (Susie Frances Harrison)


“As it was in the Beginning.”




     It is Christmas day in the morning.  There is no doubt about it.  The shine of the sun, the frost on the trees, the voice of the birds, and the unusual crow, and cackle and clatter and confusion outside the house can leave no doubts upon the subject, to say nothing of the inside of the house.  Here it is Christmas day and no mistake.  On what other day is the larder so full?—full is not expressive enough; crammed, rammed, jammed full is more like the actual condition of things, so tightly wedged are pheasants and partridges, grouse and quail, great roasts of beef and haunches of venison, pork and pasty, mutton and fowl.  On what other day is the still-room so alluring, where cordials are at their liveliest of brown and amber, and the white fingers of the lady of the house gleam in and out of the piling of herbs and the stirring of compounds—both innocent and inebriating?  On what other day is the kitchen so important?  Why, the cook is actually thinner than she was yesterday!  Christmas day in the morning is taking it out of her.  “No men cooks about me,” growls Sir Humphrey Desart, “we’ll keep Sarah.”  So Sarah is kept, and though she be fat, aye, and getting on to three score, yet her strength faileth not, as you may observe.  Somewhat of a martinet, yet kindly withal and leading the hubbub in the kitchen with all the gusto of twenty years ago.  My lady [page 31] will descend presently to see if all goes on properly, and Sarah must lose no time.  Heavens, how many eggs is she going to break?  What are they all for?  Will not the resources of the farmyard fail her?  This, then, explains all the crow and cackle outside.  Now what is she at?  Lemons this time, and anon giving a fine stimulus with her master-hand to the lumpy yellow contents of the smooth yellow bowl.  Ah! no lumps now; one turn and all resolved into a perfect cadence.  Anyone is an artist and a great one who can so resolve a discordant measure.  And now she is busy with the brandy!  Ah!  Sarah, will no temptation accrue from the pouring of the warm draught?  “Out upon thee!” says Sarah.  “Am I not already as warm over my work as I want to be, and shall not have my good glass of beer at my dinner?  Leave the quality upstairs their brandy,” says Sarah, “and let me get to my work.”
     Well, and the upshot of all this is, that, despite all one may affirm to the contrary, the one grand essential, the peculiar and individualizing attribute of Christmas is—the dinner.  The parson may think of his preaching (and if he ever does so, surely most of all on this day) and the virtuous may think of the poor; the old may remember the young, and the young may be pardoned for only remembering each other, but the chief thought, the most blissful remembrance is still—The Dinner.
     If the parson preach a little better sermon than usual, it is because his nine children have not been forgotten by Lady Bountiful, and are actually going to have—A Dinner.
     My Lady Bountiful in her turn may go to church, and appear devoutly removed from the mundus edibilis, yet if you could look into her reflections, you would perceive that she has but one thought—The Dinner.  Do you suppose, much as the youths from Oxford and their friend the captain, from London, are devoted to mamma and her daughters, they are not at the same time being eaten up, as it were, devoured, by the intense wish for the hour to come when they may partake of—That Dinner!
            Sir Humphrey has asked a particularly large party down this Christmas, and seems to have forgotten nobody he ever knew.  Not a poor relation but has been remembered, and things are on a grander scale than usual.   The candles build famously, set in the chimney candelabra; the logs are all of the biggest, and as for the yule himself, he is a veritable Brobdignag; the staircases drop flowers, and holly and mistletoe hang all about.  Everything [page 32] shines, and gleams, and glows.  There is to be a boar’s head, with no lack of mustard and minstrelsy, and nothing eatable or drinkable that pertains to Christmas will be wanting.  Carols and waits, and contended tenants; merry chimes and clinking glasses; twanging fiddles and the rush down the middle—nothing is spared and nobody is forgotten.  So the hour draws on, the guests pull through the dreary day (for as I have said before, everything on Christmas day gives place to the dinner), and at least the dinner becomes an absolute fact, something to be apprehended, sat down to, and finally eaten.  It is eaten, and everyone has come into the long hall, at one end of which the yule burns.  There is merry talk, and it is easier now for the captain to devote himself to the girls, having left the dinner behind; there is talk, too, of a little wonder at the gorgeousness of the dinner, for Sir Humphrey has not been so gay for years, yes, just twenty years, when it is evident that Sir Humphrey is going to make a speech.  He stands alone in front of the fire, and this is what he says.  If you want to know what he looks like, you may think of an old man who is a gentleman, white-haired, noble and resolute, but with a sense of broken fortunes and deferred hopes upon him.
     “I have been young and now am old,” says Sir Humphrey, “and I have never yet seen the house, known the family, or penetrated the life where there did not exist some trouble or some secret.  Therefore, if I refer to-night to the skeleton in my own house,” he continues, with a slight shudder, “I only do what perhaps each individual before me might also do were there the like necessity.  The necessity of such reference, in my own case, does not make it less hard for me.”  Here, Sir Humphrey pauses.  When he speaks again he is something straighter and firmer than before.  “But as at this season the Church and our good friend the parson would teach us all to remember each other and to help those we can help, I am about to speak.  You have head, all of you, how twenty years ago I sent my two eldest sons out of the house.  You have heard, all of you, that they were foolish, and that I was hard, something about a girl and cut off with a shilling, I suppose.  Well, to-night you shall hear the true story.  I do not think even Lady Desart knows it.  She was not their mother, but, as you know, my adored and adoring second wife.  I do not know if many of you remember my boys.  I can see Humphrey now—a man does not easily forget his first-born, and Hugh was no less dear.  My dear friends, if I drove the lads from my house [page 33] twenty years ago to-night, I did it in obedience to the rules of my own conscience and with regard to the laws of nature, which I should have put before my conscience, as I have far greater respect for them.  I did it, as we so often futilely say, for the best.  But how often, oh, my dear friends, how often since I have thought that I may have made a terrible mistake.
     They were, Hugh and Humphey, both madly in love with the same girl.  She was no pauper, as you may have been led to believe, but the Lady Barbara Hastings.  Her name is familiar to you.  She was beautiful and talented, never married, and you may remember that about a month ago she died at the house of friends in London.  I knew her, fortunately or unfortunately, however, moving in society as the adopted daughter of a refined gentlewoman, to be the child of a lunatic mother and a father who drank his life away in a Continental retreat.  Knowing this I would not for a moment consent even to the thought of either of my sons marrying her, although I knew her to be all that was gracious in womankind.  I could not tell them the reason: the secret was her’s poor girl, and I did not betray it.  I said ‘No,’ and each knew what was meant.  So we separated, but the worst of it was, my friends, that each lad thought I had refused my consent to save the other the pain of seeing his brother happy; so that greater than their anger with me was their jealousy of one another.  With murder in their hearts they fled to America, I believe, pursuing in self-torture that phantom of revenge which we have all seen sometime or another, and whose hot breath we must have felt.”
     Sir Humphrey pauses oftener now.
     “I tell you all this because I want you to see how possible it may be for a man to think he is doing the very best, the only right thing, and then for perhaps and infinitely worse one to crop up.  I read not long ago in a wild Western paper a story of two Englishman who fought a lonely duel on some slope of those great mountains out there, and I think I have not slept since I read it.  To have exiled my boys only that they might kill one another in foreign lands and sleep so far away from our English ground!”
     Sir Humphrey’s voice is failing now and his eyes grow moist.  A man, you see, does not easily forget his first-born.
     “I tell you all this,” he continues, “that it may help you to be kind and to think twice.  I only thought once, and perhaps [page 34] the worst may have come of it.  Then I tell it to you, too, because I am an old man now, and my voice is not as strong as it was, and I can’t get out to church as regularly as I used to do, and I want you all to help me to remember these absent ones and with them any of your own.  There is virtue in the holding up of many hands and the lifting up of many hearts.  Whether I see them again or not, that does not matter; but for the assurance that they have not harmed each other, let us pray Almighty God this night.”
     Ah!  Sir Humphrey, there are those who would give their life for yours, but they cannot bring you that assurance to-night.  Can you wait?
     “I can wait,” says Sir Humphrey. [page 35]



     It is Christmas day in the morning.  At least, so Almanack says, and Almanack ought to know, though he is given in those days to such ornate and emblazoned titivation of himself outwardly, putting himself in the hands of fair Mistress Kate Greenaway at the head of a mischievous throng, that he causes one to seriously consider whether his old head be turned or no.  A scholar and statistician buried in heaps of flowers, with a rope of daisies round his neck, and a belt of primroses round his waist; a sunflower in his buttonhole, and a singing bird upon his shoulder; and, worst of all, the picture of a pink-frocked, pink-faced girl next his heart—can he be relied upon?  But he persists in his claim to be listened to, and we must take his word for it that this is Christmas day in the morning, although it just looks like any other day.  On any other day the sun is just as bright, and the air just as keen.  On other days the snow is just as white, just as deep—two feet where the constant tramping has levelled its crystalline beauty, ten, twelve, fifteen there where a great soft cloud of drift reaches halfway up the side of a small wooden house.  On other days there is just as much blue in the sky, in the smoke, in the shadows of the pines, and the shadows of the icicles.  On other days the house looks just as neat, just as silent, just as poor.  The clearing is small, the house is small, a small terrier suns himself on a pile of wood, and the only large object apparently in existence is the tall, broad-shouldered, well-proportioned man who presently emerges from the wooden house.  His ear has just caught the sound of a bell. It is not a bad bell for Muskoka, and it has a most curious effect on his white, cold silent world of snow and blue shadows.  The owner of the house, who is also the builder of it, stands a few moments listening.  There is only the twitter of the snowbirds to listen to, then the bell; more snowbirds, and then the bell again.
     “It has quite a churchy sound,” he remarks; “I never noticed how churchy before, but it reminds me of some other bell.  Ten years I have read for them here, and I never noticed it [page 36] before.”  More twitter from the snowbirds and the bell again.  Time for church, although the functions of the lay-reader will be this day laid aside, giving place to the more exacting ones of the rector chori.  This being Christmas day in the morning, it devolves upon one clergyman to preach in four different places, if not literally at once, at least on the same day.
     “It isn’t possible,” thinks the tall man swinging along at a tremendous pace, “that this bell—there it is again, confound it; yet no, not confound it—can resemble that other bell I used to know.  No, quite impossible.  Is it likely that anything here,” and the thinker spreads both long arms out to take in the entire landscape, “can resemble or remotely suggest the Old Country, or, as people call it, home?  Home?  Why this is home.  That four-roomed and convenient, if not commodious, mansion I have just quitted is my home.  Talking of commodiousness, it’s quite large enough, too.  I have no wife, no children, no partner, not even a sleeping one, no one ever comes to see me.  So I do not need a drawing-room, a nursery, a guest chamber, or a smoking-room.  I have no books, therefore I need no library; I indulge in no chemical pursuits, therefore I need no laboratory; my music-room is the forest in the summer and the chimney in winter, while my studio, according to the latest aesthetic fad—I think that is the word—opens off the music-room.
     Now, if you take away art, science, literature, and society from the daily life of a man, what do you leave?  Simply the three radical necessities of sleeping, eating, working.  My work I do mostly in the open air, so that, practically, I need but two rooms, one to cook in and the other to sleep in.  I have always felt convinced that to be happy I only require two rooms, except on extra cold nights, when I find that one suffices. That is when Tim and I lie near the kitchen fire to keep warm.  Home! why of course it is home.  Didn’t I build the house myself?  What association is nearer than that?  To come to a pile of half-ruined towers, all gables and gargoyles, built somewhere about the fourteenth century, and added to by every fool who liked, without the slightest pretence to knowledge of architecture and civilization may be very gratifying, but, strange as it may seem, I prefer the work of my own hands.  I am quite a Canadian, of course, though I once was an Englishman.  I array myself in strange raiment, thick and woollen, of many colours; my linen is coarse and sometimes superseded by flannel; I wear a cast-off fur cap on my head and [page 37] moccasins on my feet.  I have grown a beard and a fierce-moustache.  I have made no money and won no friends except the simple settlers around me here.  And I shall grow old and grey in your service, my Muskoka.  I shall be forty-one on my next birthday. Then will come fifty-one, another ten years and sixty-one!  All to be lived here?  Yes, I have sworn it.  Not Arcady, not Utopia, only Muskoka, but very dear to me.  There is the forest primeval!  I know everything in it from the Indian pipe-clammy white thing, but how pretty!—to that great birch there with the bark peeling off in pieces a yard wide.  There is the lovely Shadow river.  Masses of cardinal flowers grow there in the summer, and when I take my boat up its dark waters I feel that no human being has felt its beauty so before.  I think, for a small river it is the loveliest in the world.  And as to my larder now, why I am going to make my Christmas dinner off a piece of pork and ask for nothing better!  I shall have a glorious appetite, which is the main point.  The bell again!”
     Yes, and the snow birds, too, flying round the porch of the little church.  It is a very small and plain edifice and not over warm, and the officiating clergyman, who has just driven eighteen miles with the prospect of eighteen back after service, hurries the proceedings somewhat.  There is a harmonium played by the tall man, and there is a choir consisting of himself and a small boy.  In place of the usual Anglican hymns two carols are sung by the choir, which have the quaintest effect in such a place, and which appear to interest and even excite one of the congregation.  This is a man of middle age, most richly dressed with a certain foreign air about him and evidently in a very delicate state of health.  He is accompanied by a lady whose dress is also a marvel of beauty and costliness though hardly of fitness.  The broad bands of gold which adorn her wrists and neck would alone procure for her the entire attention of the congregation were she seated in a more conspicuous place.  As it is they are seated near the stove for increased comfort.  “Good King Wenceslas” sings the choir, the small boy finding the long word very trying, and coming utterly to grief in the last two verses, for his companion appears to have lost his place.  With the last verse of the carol comes the close of the service, the straggling congregation disperse and the jolly clergyman drives off again.  Then an important thing happens, and happens very quietly.  So quietly that the richly dressed lady who is a bright, shallow and unsentimental Californian does not [page 38] mind it at all.  “Humphrey!” says the tall man, “Hugh!” says the other, and all is said.  There is not much sentiment in the meeting, how can there be?  Their ways have gone too far apart.  The years—nearly twenty, since they parted in Los Angelos—have brought gold and kith and kin to the one, with an enfeebled constitution and an uncertain temper.  To the other, they have brought the glory of health for his manhood’s crown, content and peace unutterable.  To learn to subdue the ground is to learn one great lesson.  So the strange meeting is soon over.  The Christmas spell may not always last and the brothers separate once more.



     The bright little lady who is taking her husband for a winter’s Canadian tour gets restive in this silent snowy world.  But before they part a letter is written to a white-haired old gentleman in England, who has only a month to wait.
     “Whether I see them again or not does not matter,” says Sir Humphrey, “but for the assurance that they have not harmed each other, I thank Almighty God this night!” [page 39]


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