Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Sam Bentley's Christmas - Part 1
SAM BENTLEY’S CHRISTMAS.
A YORKSHIRE TALE. IN FOUR CHAPTERS.
Miss Julia Moore was not a young lady, nor could she fairly be called an old one. She was of mature age,—neither of green youth nor yellow autumn, but in the summer of life. She was tall;—“of commanding height” some of her flatterers said; for she, like everyone else, had, at times, flatterers, but hers were all of her own sex. She declared that no man had ever praised her, much less been guilty of flattery towards her. She kept a small shop in Oxford Street; one of those little places boxed off from a large establishment, and so diminutive, that to find room for the pretence of a window the door has to be pushed round to the side. The articles in which she dealt were many in number but small in size. It was, in fact, what you or I would call a “Button Shop,” but which she delighted to hear called, according to the Golden Legend which was inscribed in long, slim characters upon its front;—“Moore’s Establishment for the Sale of Trimmings and Work.” The last word, “work,” was typical of her origin and experience. It was a provincialism which had stuck to her in language, a reality which had always been present to her. When she was a child in bonnie Yorkshire, running wild among the crags and fells of Rombald’s moor, or wading in the clear waters of the Wharfe, as it brawled among the pebbly shallows beneath the woods of Middleton, “work,” in her vocabulary, meant muslin work and embroidery; when adverse circumstances had brought her to London, with her mother and young sister, “work” put on its hardest and most earnest meaning. She laboured hard as an apprentice and assistant, and might have remained all her life a dressmaker had it not been that she was too blunt of speech and too independent in manner. She wished to be her own mistress, and so, by much pinching and saving, she had just succeeded in getting together a scanty, in truth, a paltry stock. The paint and gilding were yet fresh and painfully new to her, because they showed that her shop was, as she styled it, an upstart, when she would rather that it had had that respectability and honour which age gives to establishments as well as to men.
She was sitting, busy at her work, one October afternoon, wearily and despondingly looking for customers, when her attention was attracted by a very stout man, who was examining the front of her shop. He cast rapid glances up at the superscription, then across the window and round to the door. He then walked to the window, which he seemed to cover from side to side, and peered into the shop, and ran his eye over the shelves and stock. He then muttered something with a rapid movement of his lips, and darted off for a few yards. By and by he returned and stood at the door. Miss Moore put down her work and stood up to attend to him if he came in. This seemed to decide him, for he bounced in as though forcibly impelled from behind, and hurried out the words, “I say, lass, ha’ ye any shirt-buttons?” The ring—the flavour of the expression was familiar to her; was such as in her childhood she had been accustomed to, and, coming upon her unexpectedly, it carried her thoughts back to her father’s home and her tongue to its early utterances. A flushing smile of joy beamed on her face as she replied, “Aye, sir, I have.”
“Then wilt thou sew us one on here?” rejoined her customer, as he stretched out his arm, pulled back his coat, and showed that a button was wanting on his wristband.
She quietly proceeded to perform the required service, and whilst doing so perceived that he was a man of about fifty, rather undersized, had a red, healthy face, brawny arms and hands that had been accustomed to labour, though plump, fleshy, and soft; his eyes, half hidden by dimply folds of fat, were bright and indicative both of good nature and hasty temper. He was dressed in dark blue, wore strong half boots, disdained gloves, and his linen was of purest white.
During the short time which was occupied in sewing on the button, he was continually moving about and talking to himself, yet aloud, like one who had been much accustomed to solitary but active work. “Four foot seven frontage,” said he, “nine foot fro’ back to front, includin’ winder, counter, goods, and lass. Swing a cat! noa, couldn’t throttle a kitten wi’ ease—buttons, bobbins, beads, and braid, all in t’ winder—boxes, dummies—cost price, not a couple of ten pund notes!” Then, turning quickly towards Miss Moore, he said:
“I say, how long ha’ ye been started in business?”
Again he glanced round, and with a peculiar jerk of his head seemed to indicate that he had made a full, fair, and complete appraisement of everything, gave a short, quick whistle—a note half of interrogation and half of exclamation, and blurted out another question:
“How many customers?”
“You’re the first.”
It was fortunate that the operation was now complete, for on receiving this reply, he dashed his hand upon the counter with a hearty knock which threatened to crack the thin boards, and exclaimed, “Well, that beats Lambert!” and then went off in a roar of unrestrained laughter so loud that it attracted the attention of the passers-by, some of whom stopped and clustered together in front of the shop. Miss Moore was rather alarmed both for the credit of her establishment and the safety of her person, her customer seemed so reckless, and with a flushed face and nervous tone suggested that this conduct was uncalled for. He at once caught up her words, and said:
“Thou’rt raight, lass,—quite so. It isn’t the thing, but I couldn’t help it. Thou’rt so big an’ thy shop’s so little, and thy takins less still,—I can’t help it, I mun laugh.”
Again he burst into a loud peal.
“Sir, I beg you—” remonstrated Julia, shaking with excitement as she saw the crowd thickening before the door.
“Aye, aye,” replied her customer as he jerked his head towards the door, and by a sharp glance over his shoulder saw the crowd. “Thou doesn’t like it, but ’twill draw custom—mak’ a noise—folk will think thou keeps a tame wild beast. There, that’ll do,” composing himself, and by a sideward dash of his head shaking his merriment from him. He looked round as he wiped his face, and said with a chuckle, as though his risibility was again waking up, “Why, it isn’t as big as a good-sized skip!”
Julia on the instant replied, “Not quite so small as that, nor yet so well bobbined. I’ve seen plenty of skips.”
“I was born in Wharfdale, and afterwards lived near Shipley.”
“Was a delver. He was killed at Baildon Glen Upper Quarry.”
“Aye, aye, just so,” said her customer, jerking his head and looking up, sharply and pertly, like a sparrow, whilst he thrust his hands into his pockets, and chinked his money up and down. “Aye, aye, what wor he called?”
He turned round, as Julia uttered these words, rubbed his forehead violently with his open hand, as though he was determined to bring out some deeply buried recollection, again gave a sparrow-like jerk and glance at Julia, nodded rapidly several times, and then fidgetted about like a restless beast in a cage too small for him, and blurted out, quite oblivious of his auditor, “By George—auld Jacob! debt and dirt—bad lot—left wife and two lasses.” He then turned round to Julia and said, abruptly and almost fiercely, “Where’s his wife?”
“My mother, sir?”
“Aye, thy mother. He hadn’t two wives, had he?—one wor too mony.”
“She is dead, sir;” and with tearful eyes she glanced towards her black dress.
“Dead!” cried he in a tone of deep grief or commiseration, and in the warmth of his interest, or the strength of his excitement, he clutched her arm in his strong hand until she almost fainted with the pain. “Dead!” repeated he, “what, both dead?” and reading the confirmatory answer in her countenance, at once let go his grasp, his hand dropped heavily by his side, and his voice was low and roughened, as he added—“Poor lass! both gone. Well, well, we mun all go.” He stood for some time engrossed in thought, during which he performed innumerable head-jerkings, and kept up an unbroken cataract of coins in his pockets. At length he seemed to settle things to his satisfaction, for darting round his sparrow-like glance, he again asked, “How long sin’ she died? and where’s t’other bairn—I think thou said a lass younger nor thee?”
Julia could not remember that she had said anything of the kind, but replied, “My mother died about three months ago, and soon after that my sister Susan—” here her sobs would come, and she had to pause before she could continue, “my sister would not stay to be beholden to me, and left to seek work—and—I don’t know where she is.” The tears clustered in her eyes, and at last ran over.
“Ran away,—aye, I see. Bad lot. Like father. I’m very sorry for thee, but such things will happen, ’specially in Lon’on. What’s to pay?”
Julia handed him a very minute packet, saying, “One button sewn on, five here, make the half-dozen, which is twopence.”
“Let’s see if it be raight,” said he, deliberately opening the paper, and counting the buttons, which he then put up. He thrust his hand to the bottom of one capacious pocket, then another, bringing out nondescript pieces of papers, crumpled bank notes, old nails, bits of tobacco, fragments of wool, and a number of sovereigns, but he could not find either silver or copper coin. He looked up to the corner of the ceiling, he jerked round, plunged again in the recesses of his numerous pockets, turned the contents from one hand to the other, and endeavoured by a still closer scrutiny to detect the coin that was wanted. It was without success, and he put down a sovereign.
“I cannot give you change. You may pay it when next you pass, and these (giving him her address cards), will remind you where to call, and send your friends.”
On this they parted.
Within an hour afterwards he returned in great haste, bounced into the shop, and shouted out:—“I’ve lost a fifty pund note. It’s tumbled out here. Ha’ ye seen it?”
Miss Moore had not seen it, had not stirred from her seat, and had had no other customer in the shop, therefore if it had been left there, it would easily be found. They searched for it, but it was not to be found. During the search the stranger, without being aware of what he was doing, continued to fire off sharp expressions, which seemed to hiss, crackle, and threaten like crackers, and all of them most uncomplimentary to the establishment. He jumped from side to side, peered over the counter, squeezed himself behind it, tossed the goods and boxes about without consideration, and at last desisted, less from conviction than from weariness. “It mun,” said he, “ha’ tumbled out here. I couldn’t ha’ hed my pocket picked, ’cause t’ rest are here. She may ha’ gotten it,” (giving a piercing glance towards Julia,) “but she looks honest, and she’s Yorkshire, and a neighbour like. Humph! maybe she’s like her father. Bad lot. I shouldn’t wonder. One has run away. A precious bad lot. I mun’nt stop, or I shall tell her she has stolen it, and it’s no use to her when stopped. All t’ ould woman’s fault. I wish t’button had been in t’goit. Nance shall pay for it; she shan’t hear t’ last on it, sending me out wi’ such a shirt; she’s doited; but when milk’s spilt it’s no use greeting, but tak’ t’ bucket and fin’ another cow. But t’ lass may be honest, she looks right cast down. Trade’s bad. I’ll ha’ my revenge on t’ old woman, if this lass knows t’ old Bradford cut.”
He then gave a side glance to Julia, cocking his head over his shoulder, and bawled out, “It can’t be fun’. It’s a sad loss. It’ll tak’ some spinning for, but it won’t quite ruin me,” here he chuckled, and gave a loud clack with his tongue, as if highly enjoying the joke of such a loss operating towards his ruin, and then continued, “Never heed it, I’ve gotten t’ number, and I’ll stop it. Do ye think ye could mak’ shirts like this,” pulling back his coat and showing the breast of his coarse but well bleached shirt.
“Yes, I could. All linen. Knaresbro’ cloth—how many do you want.”
“Oh, mak’ a dozen, lass; and,” continued he, springing to the door, “let ’em be ready in a month or two. Put stuff enow in ’em.”
“But, sir, I must have some measure!”
He looked jerkingly up in the old sparrow way, twitched his mouth very tightly and rapidly, as if trying to prevent some unwished-for disclosure, bounced to the door, and seemed to be intent on measuring the floor as he plumped out the words—“I knew thy father—a bad lot—spent all t’wife’s brass. No matter for that; what fit him fits me; charge low; but not less than thou can afford, and t’brass is as safe as the bank.” He then bolted out of the shop, and when safely in the street shook his head and muttered, “What an ould fool—I didn’t mean to tell her that—now she’ll be wondering who I am—she’ll look out for th’ advertisement, and be hanging about me. I wont ha’ her. She’s her father’s chick. Bad lot—no gumption about one of ’em. Couldn’t keep brass when others addled it. Lost fifty pund and fun’ a relation. The findings’s war nor t’loising.”
Her eccentric customer left Julia in a state of great perplexity. His reference to her father—the tones of his voice—his knowledge that she had a sister, and of the name of that sister, for, on reflection, Julia was certain that he was the first to refer to Susan—all showed that he had lived in the neighbourhood of her birthplace, and might be even more nearly related to her. She determined that she would not think about these things, until she was at home. She could not afford to indulge in day-dreams; she must not let her thoughts wander from the business before her, and the work she had to do. She sat industriously plying her needle, with longing lookings for the purchasers who would not come, listening to the tide of traffic which rolled so noisily and unceasingly past her door; but no part of which, not so much as the dashing of loose spray, reached the little nook where she sat, thirsting for employment, for gain, not covetously, nor avariciously, but only for that needful gain which might enable her to live, might obtain the sustenance which would let her continue to labour. Day sank until it was lost in the obscurity of the foggy evening, which gradually cut off from her the hope of counting this day among her days of profit, and she welcomed with a feeling of relief the hour of closing, when Miss Manks called to accompany her home.
Miss Manks and Miss Moore were friends of long standing. They had formerly been fellow assistants in the same work-rooms, and they were now fellow-lodgers, Miss Manks being, as she observed, not quite an orphan, but something worse, as her father was living, but had by his irregular life, and by the companions whom he forced upon his daughter, and one of whom he installed in his house, not only rendered home disagreeable to her, but also justified her in leaving it. This took place immediately after Susan went away, when Julia feeling the want of some friendly voice, and the presence of some familiar face to enliven her solitary lodging, offered to share it with Miss Manks, who gladly accepted a proposal which secured her a home at less cost than she could have expected. She was several years younger than Julia, and was a good natured, confiding girl, with a strong tendency to “hero-worship.” A phrenologist would have said that there was a morbid development in her head of the organ of veneration. She had little else in character; her reasoning powers were small and wholly uneducated. She could attach herself strongly to any one in whom she found more firmness of character, and a more practical intellect. It was as natural and as necessary to her to have some one to cling to, as for the ivy or bindweed to twine around a stronger plant, and the result was as graceful. She was pretty, and rather little—pretty in the style of those waxen effigies of humanity, which decorate the windows of artistes in hair or clothes—as fair, smooth, and rounded a face, and just as little of expression. A pretty plaything for a good-hearted sister friend; a passing toy for any evil-intentioned and designing pretended friend of the other sex. She was now an assistant in a large mantle and jacket warehouse, not far from Miss Moore’s shop, where her services of ten or twelve hours each day were considered to be properly remunerated by the weekly payment of nine shillings, out of which sum her worthy employers, Messrs. Ridge, Bridge, and Widge (who were very liberal contributors to advertised charities), expected her to find food, pay rent, dress well, and keep herself honest and “unspotted from the world.” When Miss Moore opened her establishment, Miss Manks looked up to her as to one who had attained to a station far superior to her own, and was enthusiastic in her praises of that establishment to her fellow assistants; and unbounded, on all possible occasions, in her prognostications of the importance to which it would eventually attain.
On the evening in question Miss Manks’s first inquiry, on joining Miss Moore, was, as usual, as to the success of the business.
“Any customers to-day, Julia?”
Miss Moore communicated to her very briefly the fact that she had had only one customer, who had not paid for what he purchased. This was said with some asperity, which led Miss Manks to infer that there was something even more unpleasant, which was yet uncommunicated to her; and being unwilling and rather afraid to make further inquiries, she walked on for sometime in silence, hoping that Miss Moore would become more communicative. This, however, she did not appear inclined to do, and few words passed between them during their walk home.
During the evening Miss Moore was very thoughtful and abstracted, and Miss Manks became, in consequence, more curious and desirous of having a full account of the day’s occurrences.
“One would think,” said she, “to look at you, Julia, that your customer made an impression upon you, and left his bill unpaid as an excuse to call again. Was he a nice man? I suppose I shall be losing you soon. I knew you could not be there long without some one finding you out—you have all the airs of a superior woman.”
Miss Moore smiled sadly as she replied: “He did make an impression, Jane, but it was a painful one.”
“Oh, I knew there would be quite a tale,—do let me hear it. Did he propose at once? I wish it had been me.”
“There’s very little of a tale—he came from my own part—he said he knew my father, and he knew of Susan, but he went away before I could ask him more.”
“He’ll be sure to come again—and take you away.”
“Nothing of the kind, you silly girl. It may be all right for you to sigh for a husband, but marrying is not in my way. If even
Might we lasses nobbut go
And sweetheart them we like,
I’d neither sweetheart nor be sweethearted. There’ll never be any tale about me. I have a trader’s soul, and wish to make money—money for Susan, for she has a lady’s heart if ever girl had. She would be happy as a wife. I think I’ve more of my mother and she of her father. Bentleys were always fond of getting money, and the Moores always knew how to spend it. There’s nothing but work for me, and I’m fond of it.”
They talked long together, but Julia never alluded to the loss of the note.
Next morning Miss Moore, in looking through her boxes to find something which a customer asked for, found in one of them the missing note. She then remembered that this box was on the counter when the owner of the note paid his first visit, and that immediately after he left she had closed it and put it away.
She hastily concealed the note. As soon as she was alone she spread it out on the counter to examine it. It was, as she had been told, a Bank of England note for fifty pounds. This was to her a large sum, and she was perplexed what to do with it.
She was too poor and too much engrossed with her work to be able or desirous to read the newspapers, and therefore she was ignorant that the morning papers contained advertisements of the loss and offered a reward to the finder of the note. Her experience in life had not been such as to make her acquainted with banking operations, and she was not aware that, on application at any of them, either to pass the note or for information, she would learn to whom it was to be returned; neither did it occur to her to give notice to the police authorities. She was not by nature dishonest, nor had she any wish to do otherwise than to restore it to the owner; but still the possession of it was a temptation and a trouble. It was a burden to her to have the care of it. She was afraid of losing it, and she knew not how to dispose of it with safety. She was not free from more painful thoughts. She had denied having it at the time when it was in her shop, and concealed it, as might seem, with design. She might be suspected of having acted improperly. Even if she now returned it she might be supposed to have done so only from a feeling of remorse or the fear of detection. The stigma of an original intention to retain it might attach to her. She was almost tempted to destroy it lest it should criminate her, but this feeling was instantly checked by the reflection that this would be the wanton destroying of so much money, as well as a wrong to the owner. She could not make up her mind to speak to any one about it. Her morbid anxiety prevented her seeking any advice. She would be silent and wait—wait until the owner again called—and then she would tell him everything, and throw herself upon his mercy. If he never came, then—she would not finish the thought—she thrust it away; but again and again it would return, and all the day through she was vaguely speculating how she could or might act if he did not come. She found out all possible hiding-places for it, and tried and rejected them one after the other; and when she closed her shop at night she put it in her pocket and took it home with her—she could not part with it. She thought about it all the evening, feeling repeatedly in her pocket to ascertain that it was still there. The confused dreams of her broken sleep were about it, and the advantages which such a sum would give her—what profit might be made out of it before it had to be returned-all gain to her without any loss or injury to any one—suggestions which her waking thoughts put away as dishonest; and yet she never mentioned it to her friend.