A Musing of Christmas
Inhale as large a stock of charity as man ever possessed—be as forgiving as a due remembrance of the season should make us—have everything to receive and nothing to pay away: and yet Christmas on this side of the Equator cannot resemble a Christmas on the other. How can you relish a hot plum pudding, with the thermometer at 110°. Can snap-dragon be enjoyed, when there ‘a no place to put your fingers to cool? and, as for hanging up a mistletoe—although the colony holds plenty of pretty girls—there’s no fun in chasing a lass in broad day, nor having to pause in the chase to divest of coat and neckcloth. As for ghosts, or ghost stories, who can believe in a Christmas ghost story in Victoria? Not all the fascination of the Countess D’Anois would make her goblin elves and demons palatable here. A ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ might, perhaps, become an object of the imagination, but Oberon and his fairy crew are not Christmas fairies; and, somehow, Christmas and the winter are so mixed up together that—that—it ought to be cold and snowy on that day. And, really, as this is the age of wonders, it is a pity some enterprising firm cannot import an artificial atmosphere, to be used for that day only, at the public expense. What is the use of a pantomime in our holidays? The gas lamps, saw dust, and blue fire, lose their charm when it is recollected that broad day reigns without, and there is no dark fog, for which a link boy’s services is required to await one. The only time the colony is thoroughly disagreeable is a few days before Christmas and a few days after. No—I ‘ll contradict myself, the colony is not disagreeable, even then. But I like a cold Christmas. Forty years of cold Christmases force one to like them. But, I cannot say I find Victoria disagreeable : for, just as I make up my mind it is, and I ‘ll visit Europe at Christmas, something turns up, rendering the place dearer and dearer ; and twelve years have thus glided on, like a dream of enchantment. But, then, there are no ghost stories; and, old as I am, I like a ghost story. I do not care if I get it after the form of the Arabian Nights. That Fisherman and the Genie is a fine tale. It used to make one frightened; and, told in bed, after the light was blown out on a cold night, what can equal it %—Or Grimm’s Tales ?—The Dwarf Hand !—Or Fortunio!—Or Monk Lewis’ mystic productions! all of which require a cold night, a wassail bowl, and a few auxiliary noises, to render them perfectly pleasant, and horrid enough to make you fearful of being left in the dark one single minute. Alas!—Christmas must be got cold somehow.
I don ‘t know whether Old John Delver thought all this, as he gathered a pretty bunch of bright flowers early last Christmas morning, but there was something on his mind, that was quite clear, and when he cast his eyes as usual round his little garden, and took a sweeping glance at Mount Macedon, where it reared its gigantic head in the background, it was easy to see that his thoughts were not on the flowers, nor on the garden, nor on Mount Macedon either, but farther, much farther, away.
Perhaps John was thinking of his son, who was fighting in the Crimea, or who had been; perhaps he was thinking of his wife, whose remains lay in the pretty parish churchyard of Thorncliffe; perhaps he was thinking of the pretty blue-eyed grand-daughter, that now came bounding from the little cottage to call him in to breakfast; or, it may be he was meditating on the quiet form that was then engaged in pouring out the tea her father-in-law was called to partake of. If he was musing on the last, he might have found a worse subject for his thoughts than Martha Delver: although she would not be called good-looking, and, so far as book learning went, might be termed ignorant.
John was a hale old man, although long past three-score. His cheek was ruddy, and his eyes clear. A day’s work could still be had from him when needed, and, as he sat in the outer room of the little wooden cottage wherein he dwelt, he might, in truth, have passed for the husband of the woman who sat opposite him, and the father of the blue maiden that seated herself on his knee.
“I always took a bunch of flowers to the clergyman every Christmas morning at home,” said John, “and, please God, I will here.”
“The flowers are brighter here than at home at this time?”
“Well—yes: Kent showed nothing like this at Christmas,” replied John; “and yet, to my mind, the winter berry is the prettiest sight one can see.”
“He thought so, too,” replied Martha.
“I wonder if he’ll make us out,” said John, after a pause.
“Wonder! gracious! yes,” screamed his daughter. “Oh! father, how you frighten me by wondering that.”
“Soldiers may never get the letters sent them, and, somehow, Richard was a careless fellow about his home.”
“Not he,” hastily answered Martha; “besides, did I not tell him of little Martha here; and what father could keep away from his child, and such a child?”
The little girl looked first in her mother’s face, now suffused with tears, and then into her grandfather’s, whose eyes were also moist, and inquired what they were crying for?
“His will be done!” reverently observed the old man, and made an end of his meal. “Can I do anything before I go?” he asked.
“No: all is clear—the cows are milked. You may take little Patty, if you will. Will you go to church with grandpapa to-day, love?” And, the little girl answering in the affirmative, she was got ready, and grand-father and grand-daughter started for a two-miles walk, and a visit to the building which served as a church for the denizens of that district. While John Delver is at church, let us take a retrospective glance at himself and family.
John Delver was a native of Kent—that garden of England, a market gardener by trade, and well to do, according to the Kentish notions of wealth. His wife and himself loved on and worked on, and, perhaps, their only care, apart from a night or two’s anxiety about a bed of strawberries or a gathering of cherries, was the doings of their only child—a fine specimen of an English rustic—Richard Delver. This son was a good sample of the open-hearted Englishman: his provincialisms sat upon him not unpleasantly, and the exuberance of spirits, into which youth will often be betrayed, and which Richard often displayed, was but a wild outpouring of an innocent mind. With other parents Richard Delver would soon have sobered into a staid gardener, but John and his wife were of the respectable elect class: so pure, so grim, and so exacting, that their very virtues forced their son into trifling excuses: the stiff rigidity of the parents appearing so repulsive to the child’s openness and candour. To add to other crimes, Richard fell in love with a servant girl—a poor parish child—sent out to a harsh mistress, hardly worked, hardly fed, and hardly clothed.
It is a curious thing (but, nevertheless, a true one) that people who take servants from parish walls consider them much as the Southern American is said to consider his Negro. Instead of bestowing on them much kindness, to make amends for former hardships, it has been the fashion in England to treat the unhappy children with great severity—perhaps not so as to render the act illegal—nothing more than unchristian. And even if the law has been broken, vestry meetings have a horror of lawyer’s bills: and any charge, for prosecuting an inhuman master or mistress, would scarcely pass the audit of enlightened rate-payers in the nineteenth century.
Martha Thorne was the orphan daughter of a gardener, who, with his wife, had died of a fever. The poor-house was the only refuge of his child, to be left for a harder home, where, for the slightest fault, corporeal punishment was unsparingly administered. From such chastisement young Delver one day saved her, and, although Martha was too plain to inspire him with love, her situation was so hard that it inspired him with interest. Beyond this all familiarity would have ceased, but the knowledge of his son’s actions coming to the ears of John Delver, he so worried the young man with homilies, and so disgusted him with close, harsh, worldly maxims, that Richard’s obstinacy joined issue with his father’s, and, in the end, the banns were put up at a neighbouring church, and Richard Delver and Martha Thorne were man and wife, while the unconscious parents were congratulating themselves that the last homily had effectually turned the rebellious character of their son.
Had the Delvers been of the blood royal, and Martha Thorne of the Delvers, a greater outcry could not have been made than was made at the misalliance of the young gardener; harsh words arose on both sides. Family disunions are always bad things to contemplate. Richard was driven from his father’s roof, and sent forth to starve. He tried to get any work he could, but the respectability of his parents swayed the feelings of the neighbours, and nobody would employ him. Rustics are not a moving people: where they are born, there would they die. While Richard was musing upon his future, he took to drinking. There are always men to be found who, while unwilling to lend a shilling to purchase a loaf, or to bestow a slice of meat, will ‘stand’ drink to any one that will partake of it. Richard took to drinking: began to neglect his wife, and, in one of these drinking bouts, was inveigled with a shilling of Her Majesty’s, and ordered off, ere quite sober, to the depot of his regiment at Chatham, under sailing orders to Gibraltar.
All the regret imaginable, when reason had assumed its sway, was of no avail; and, to add to to the misery of the wedded pair, the complement of women allowed had already been made up: so that Martha was not permitted to leave the place where she had lived so long, but was, a second time, left penniless in a hard country, and without a friend. But marriage had effected this good in the poor young woman: it had given her firmness, and she sought employment at hop pulling, or among the fruit trees, with a courage she never before possessed. She longed to hear from her husband, who, at parting, had promised to write to her soon. Write to him she could not: parochial schools, especially in country places, seldom teaching more than the mode of ‘capping ‘ to the great people of the district. And time wore away—old Delver regarding her as the author of what he now called ‘his trials’; and his wife preaching at her, whenever she had an opportunity, and people were present to be edified thereby. The year succeeding this a fever broke out in the district; John and his wife were stricken with it, and a sore wrestle with death Delver had. He recovered, it is true, to find the partner of his toils dead by his side; to hear of a blight, that had destroyed his finest trees; and to behold, in the nurse who had so faithfully succoured him and his deceased spouse, the ‘good for nothing hussey’ who ‘had the audacity to marry his son.’ Yes. If there was little learning in Martha’s breast, God had implanted there the two great principles of religion; and, when others kept aloof from the tainted house, and all the neighbours declared the fever to be infectious, she had boldly crossed the threshold, and, day by day, and night by night, attended upon the suffering pair. John rose from his bed a poorer but a wiser man. None of his neighbours had done one thing for him during all his sickness; not a helping hand had been given to his garden. That was spoiled: and he was ruined. Once, and once only, did he utter an expression of surprise and regret at the neglect shewn him. It was to his clergyman; but the rebuke he met with for ever silenced him—” Pray, John, who have you befriended in your long life?—’As you sow, so surely will you reap.'”
A ruined man, Delver gave up the orchards he so long had rented, and was content to lean on his daughter’s arm—a staff he had long rejected. It happened that, at this time, there came on a visit in the neighbourhood an old resident of Australia. The little episode of John’s misfortunes had become a topic of conversation, and it occurred to the Australian settler, while hearing it, that men of Delver’s practical experience as a gardener would be a great adjunct to Port Phillip. To act upon this thought was not a work of time: and old John found himself, before long, upon a vessel bound to Melbourne; his accompaniments, his daughter-in-law and an infant grandchild, now verging on sixteen months old.
The old man was glad to quit Kent when he found the real estimation in which his neighbours held him. His respectability had vanished, not only in a monetary point of view, but in the importance which, he imagined, attended all his actions. Perhaps he regretted leaving the remains of his wife behind him; and, yet, sometimes a thought—it was a consoling one to him, though, perhaps, an unjust one to the dead—a thought flashed across his mind that, without his wife’s admonitions, he might have acted differently to his son, and so have escaped much sorrow. On the whole, he was, therefore, glad to quit England; and, having written to his son of his destination, and got his new master to make certain applications at the War Office, Delver quitted his home for a new world, looking forward with hope to the future.
Planted near Gisborne, on the homestead of an excellent master, Delver partially forgot his sorrows. Everything was new around him. The manners and customs of all that crossed him, excepting, indeed, the richness of the soil, which rivalled his own Kentish ground, against which (he talked and boasted) no other soil could compare. But here, sixteen thousand miles from his own land, there flourished around him flowers of as brilliant a hue, and fruit as rich in taste, as even he himself had reared at home. To the soil the Delvers took kindly, and the digging rush, which unsettled so many, scarcely affected him, unless it was by adding to his already good wages what his master felt he could afford him from the increased profit of his station, and the value of his garden produce.
But John’s master died, and John Delver, not caring for other service; having, too, ‘a few pounds’ from his own and daughter’s industry (for right well had Martha Delver taken to the Australian colony, and few around shewed better butter and eggs than she); got, at a moderate rent, land sufficient for a garden, and pasturage for the cows they now owned, and so we find them, on the morning of Christmas day, cheerful, well to do, and contented, their only regret being Richard’s absence: for the war with Russia had broken out. His regiment was sent from Gibraltar to the Crimea before his release had been obtained; and the sanguinary conflicts that had taken place in that fertile part of Europe had often blanched the cheek of both father and daughter with doubt and apprehension.
Martha had that to do which kept her from church on that morning: a pair of chickens and some peas, a strawberry tart, with just the smallest of plum puddings, to remind John of the Kentish Christmases, was the dinner she designed for her father. A few grapes were to serve as his dessert; and, as the preparations for the meal had been kept a secret from him, she took more than peculiar care with it. The dinner was in a fair state of preparation when he returned, and, waiting its readiness, he sat himself in his garden, musing and dozing alternately. The child, who ever played about his knee, in a short time directed his attention to a cart, coming along at a smart pace; and, presently, the two horses that drew it were jerked up at the entrance leading into Delver’s garden, and a voice inquired if one ‘Delver lived there.’
“Ah! surely,” said old John.
“I’ve a little news for him,” said a burly-looking carter, blue-shirted and cabbage-treed, according to custom, entering the garden.
“From my husband!”—” From my son!”—cried father and daughter simultaneously.
“From one Richard Delver,” said the carter, “and I don’t know a better day than this to bring news, ‘specially if they are good ones; for, on such a day as this, good tidings were brought to all around; at least, they used to sing so in our village; so, I suppose, it’s all right.”
“Are the news good?—Is my son alive—well?” inquired the old man.
“That’s where it is, you see,” answered the carter, who seemed in no hurry to tell his tale—if he had any to tell. “Well, it’s a fine morning, an uncommon fine morning.—And the Mount, too, I’ve seen it a power o’ times, and never thought it looked so grand afore—and, thankye marm, a little milk, if you please!”
Martha and John looked at the man, and the man looked at them. He was evidently in a difficulty. The milk was got, and drank. The carter whistled.
“And my son,” said John.
“Ah!” replied the carter, wiping his face and taking a long breath, “that’s where it is. I was jogging along, thinking this warn’t exactly the Christmas I liked to pass, when who should I see on the road but a man—
“A man, marm.—’ Wantin’ a lift, mate?’ said I. Said he, ‘Which way?’ ‘’Through,’ says I. ‘And take it kindly, too,’ says he. ‘Not at all,’ says I.” Here the carter whistled. “I hadn’t got a Christmas dinner at home to hurry me, so I didn’t mind jogging on a little slower, to ease his wounds.”
“Wounds!” cried both the Delvers, “has he seen Richard? Is it Richard?—Where is he?”
“That’s where it is,” said the carter, “I can’t tell a tale properly. There’s—there’s a man in the cart, who can “—
In an instant John and Martha were at the cart. In two minutes more they had a man suffering from wounds and still weak, but yet a fine-made fellow, on their arms; and, in five minutes more, Richard Delver had embraced his patient wife and was at peace with his now fond old father; had hugged the little maid that called him parent; and looked around the pretty cottage already with an owner’s eye.
It is of no use to detail what Richard told his wife. He had been severely wounded, but the kind Sisters of Mercy had brought him through, as they had brought thousands of others, although their services, now passed away, are being ignored by those who gladly accepted their aid. He had been in the first draft from the Crimea home; had got his discharge; had taken a passage in one of the fastest of the White Ball Line, and landed in Melbourne. Here he was at fault two days, but, hearing where his father lived at last, he had started off that he might join them on merry Christmas, trusting to that which he had got, a lift on the road for speed.
Nor is it of any use for me to say that there sat down to that Christmas dinner as happy a party as any in the colony. The soldier fought his battles o’er again, while the father, in his turn, detailed the changes that he had witnessed. As for the friendly carrier, he was made to stop to dinner, and did; and turned out, long before the grapes had been all eaten, a most astonishing character. He made little wooden dolls for little Martha with his clasp knife and a piece of old stick before one could whistle Jack Robinson; put a new lid on the water butt; and mended a milk pan that had been, like its new owner, in the wars. In short, I question if Christmas Day in the old country ever shone upon more contented or happy faces than last Christmas did on the happy party in the little cottage in the Australian bush: for, what can people require more than this little party had?—a sufficiency for their outward enjoyment, and stronger and holier principles within them: the principles of Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Now, draw up the curtain, Mr. Manager: I think I can look upon a pantomime, although it is warm.
The Journal of Australasia, Volume 2, 1857
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: And with that happy ending, Mrs Daffodil wishes all of her readers, whether in the Antipodes or the Arctic, the happiest of holiday seasons. She will return in the New Year with more stories to educate, elevate, and amuse.
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.