Christmas Bells and Prussic Acid: The Christmas Number: 1837, 1897

Mr Fezziwig's Christmas Ball, John Leech, 1853

Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas Ball, John Leech, 1843, The British Library

SEASONABLE LITERATURE

The Last Chapter Of A Christmas Number. (1837 )

“Harry,” said Sir Jasper, with a sob strangely foreign to his wonted lack of feeling, “you must forgive me. I don’t deserve it, I know. Through forty-seven pages my ingenious schemes have kept you and your Mary apart, and if that missing will hadn’t turned up, I should have won the game. But you won’t be hard on a poor old villain, Harry, my boy? There’s only a page or two more, so you can afford to be generous. And, if my words are weak, that sound will reach your heart— the sound of Christmas bells!”

He flung open the window as he spoke, and the chimes from the sweet old village church sounded merrily across the snow-covered fields.

“jasper,” answered Harry, in impressive tones, “I forgive you. If, indeed, I followed my natural inclination, I should throw you out of window. But no true hero in a Christmas number was ever yet unmoved by the sound of church bells in the last chapter. I forgive you, and Mary forgives me, and we forgive everybody else, and it’s away with melancholy, and up with the holly, and let’s be jolly. There’s only a page more to fill, and we’ll end the story in the proper way. To-night will the dear old Hall re-echo with mirth and happiness, and the elders will unbend and become young again. Excuse me now. We dine at six, and I must drink a gallon of milk-punch before then.”

“I thank you!” cried Sir Jasper. “Now that you’ve foiled all my schemes, I was sure you ‘d forgive me. My regards to Miss Mary, and after a few glasses of hot brandy-and-water, I’ll step round to the Hall.”

And that night they revelled in the most thorough-going style. All of them were there, the hero Harry, and the heroine Mary, and the villain Jasper, together with the old-fashioned uncle, the humorous mother-in-law, and lots of other characters who have been mentioned incidentally in the story, and lone since forgotten. Every one of them turned up for the old-fashioned Christmas revel. And there was roast beef, and mistletoe, and Sir Roger de Coverley, and snapdragon, and blind-man’s buff, and ghost stories, and love-making, and, above all, gallons and gallons of punch. Not till every drop of the latter was finished did the company disperse. Finally they left in pairs, to be married next morning, and to live happily ever after, which is the only proper way of finishing up an old-fashioned Christmas number.

Too much Christmas cheer, 1856

Too much Christmas cheer, 1856

The Same Chapter. (1897.)

At the window of the foulest garret in the slums of London (for full description, vide previous pages), Harry the hero stood and twiddled his thumbs. With a languid interest he watched a cat in the yard lick its paw, and miaow twice. Then he turned to his companion and regarded him curiously.

“Jasper,” he said, with a yawn, “don’t you think we might as well end somewhere here?”

“Just as you like,” answered Jasper, who was sitting on a dust-heap in the far corner. “It really doesn’t matter where we stop in a story of this kind, one place does as well as another.”

“There isn’t much to go on with,” replied Harry, thoughtfully chewing a piece of string. “Now that you’ve murdered Mary, and all the others are disposed of, it’s about time to finish. I can’t go on talking to you for many more pages.”

“Why not?” Jasper replied. “We can always fill up the gaps with ‘dreary silences.’ Surely you don’t hate me?”

Harry sighed. “Nobody hates in modern stories—that is far too strong an emotion. But, as you’ve killed my fiancee, besides murdering three other characters, and driving five more to suicide, I do slightly dislike you. Here’s the poison bottle, and there ‘s just enough left, for us both. You’re sure none of the others are left out by mistake? How about that costermonger mentioned on the second page?”

“Sent to penal servitude,” responded Jasper. “And his wife has gone mad in Consequence, and killed off three minor characters who weren’t accounted for. As you say, we may as well stop; we’ve provided a splendid story for a modern Christmas number. Pass the poison bottle when you’ve taken your share. And don’t forget to make a vague remark just before you die—readers expect it.”

Harry nodded, and having consumed a pint of pure prussic acid, handed the remainder to Jasper, who quickly swallowed the rest.

For a few moments there was silence. Then Harry sat up.

“Why didn’t he boil the butter?” he murmured.

Then there was a dreary silence.

Punch 18 December 1897

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is undecided as to which era of Christmas Number fiction is more odious: the Dickensian or the Decadent.  One surfeits on the aggressive heartiness of Mr Dickens, while the Decadents make Mrs Daffodil want to spray the pages with carbolic acid.

Sir Roger de Coverley was the quintessential Christmas dance, or made so by being immortalised thus by Dickens. Snapdragon was a game requiring participants to snatch raisins or other preserved fruit from a shallow bowl of flaming brandy. Mrs Daffodil has looked on indulgently as footmen and parlour-maids scorched their fingers and their tongues and has laid in a discreet supply of dampened blankets under the sideboard when tipsy young officers visiting the Hall for Christmas demanded a blazing bowl of spirits. Mrs Daffodil is pleased to say that she has never lost a visitor to a flaming raisin.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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