---- A Victorian Christmas Tale ----
from the journal of Ravindra Bhalerao
LATE IN THE EVENING when the night has cast its shadow and the town begins to put out its lights, when the mist from the river stalks along the streets shrouding the lamps in a dusky, orange glow, on such an evening as this no one would care to stir from the warmth of his home unless he was hooded and muffed, unless he had good reason to stir out. On such a cold evening were seen an old man and his girl making their way to the town market. They had good reason to stir out ; leaving their dismal home behind, they strolled on looking forward to an evening filled with amusement—that was something which did not come their way often. Passersby looked at the pair curiously—for they were a curious pair indeed: the old man with the cap bending in comic fashion over his stick, starting at almost every sound that fell on his ears, his step unsure and faltering. Yet he had eyes that shone under the city lights; he was guided along by the little maiden bounding alongside, a bunch of daisies in one hand, eagerly exclaiming at every new sight that came along her way.
They were here to watch the busy throngs of Christmas shoppers; for it was Christmas eve today, and all the merry folks with even merrier faces seemed to have poured into the street today with their capacious bags and pockets jangling with coins, and hearts set on the candles and the toys, the cakes and the pies, the presents and the roast goose, the holly and the mistletoe. The very air seemed laden with the spirit of cheer and festivity, of mirth and gaiety.
“Have you ever known of a Santa who hugs and greets visitors?” asked old Muddlestone of the girl by his side as they trudged along.
Little Gerda—for that was her name—looked up at her grandpa wonderingly. “A Santa who greets people? Then he must be an enormously big Santa!” she exclaimed with glee throwing up her hands apart.
“Umphh—yes—yes. And he is known to give away presents too, dearie,” Muddlestone said cheerily, clasping the girl’s hand more firmly than ever.
The very thought of a Santa giving away presents warmed their hearts. What a great difference, such a stark contrast between the warmth and cheer of the marketplace and the dismal one-room tenement known as ‘home’ where they lived. For the old man lived all by himself in a dingy room at the back of a warehouse on Warren Street. His room was sparsely furnished: a chair that needed mending, a bed falling apart and musty with age, a fireplace that rarely if ever blazed with a log in it; hunger, cold that pierced through to the marrows, a constant longing for common necessaries had made their home with him. But of late, things had brightened up a bit when his granddaughter, a little maiden of eight, made homeless when her father eloped with a lady of his fancy, had joined him in his dreary home.
With the little mite beside him, old Muddlestone felt his spirits wonderfully revive; he was no longer a lone soul living in misery, groping for his way in a city where no one seemed to care. And thus the old man and the child clung to each other, each drawing succour from the other. The man, charmed by the girl’s playful babble nearly forgot his rheumatism, his cares; the girl, now no longer an orphan with no one to care, found the grandfather a most patient and agreeable friend; on her grandpa’s knee she would find all the safety, all the love she needed in the world.
And yet for all this, they remained poor; in the eyes of the world, poor, yes; the man and the child. The arrival of the girl was promptly noticed by Mrs Hudson, the landlady, and being of a practical bent of mind she seized the opportunity and decided to usefully employ the girl; thus little Gerda, pale and perpetually starved and dressed in the scantiest clothing found a place in Mrs Hudson’s bakery. And there she worked from morning to night, amidst trays of dough, amid scents of breads and buns, amid the shrieks and cries of the forbidding woman she had come to accept with an air of resigned silence and despair. For the scantiest of wages she labored on till night came when she would return to the little room; then all was quiet, as she sobbed out her troubles on the trembling old man’s breast; it was comfort at last, comfort and warmth and relief amid the frost and cold; an uncertain comfort that gave way to drowsiness, followed by troubled sleep. Oh, how he wished he could bring a spot of warmth, some cheer to the unhappy little girl ! The very mice that scurried along the floor at night seemed to share the misery of the two, for they would make their way into the tattered blanket that covered the girl, seeking shelter from the howling wind that found its way in through the shutters, and gently nip at her feet before settling down for a night’s warmth and rest.
But none of this troubled the wandering pair as they moved under the city lights today. And thus, although it was bitterly cold, and the wind swept through the streets setting up a low sorrowful moan, the man and the girl strolled on, delighting in the sights and sounds and smells of the festive season, seemingly content with the transient comfort afforded by this evening’s excursion.
They stood now before the florist who had a collection of flowers of considerable variety of the most unbelievable magnificence.
“Celandines and dahlias for the pretty young miss!” came a merry voice from behind a wooden box. The florist had set up her tables on the pavement itself for everyone to see, and she waved and gesticulated using the most pronounced endearments at everyone passing that way. Little Gerda smiled back at the old woman with snowy hair, with old Muddlestone looking equally pleased—it was not very often that someone complimented his girl so handsomely. He greeted the lady warmly, and with a shrug of his shoulders made as if to leave, but the old woman, quick to see things, plucked a daffodil and with one quick movement pinned the flower to Gerda’s hair.
“Ah, that should set you up for the evening, miss!” cried the old lady, laughing, before turning away to attend to a pair who had turned up at her stall. Gerda and her grandfather now found themselves amidst the most dazzling show of lights. The marketplace was wonderfully warm; so cheerful. The pavement, now wet with a shower, shone with a thousand glittering reflections. Tramcars and carriages laden with people rumbled past; while throngs of shoppers, gaily dressed, moved around, men in top-hats swinging canes peering at shop windows followed by their children, and women in sweeping skirts, eyeing, choosing, coaxing their men, each one looking for something that would go on to make this festive season more memorable, or perhaps at least as memorable as the last one.
Proceeding in this way, Muddlestone and the girl had barely moved a distance of about a furlong when they suddenly became aware of the sound of raucous laughter issuing from amid the jostling crowd. The source of this disturbance was soon apparent; for leaning against the balustrade of a stone staircase leading to the upper storey of a building were four idle youths. Muddlestone peering through his glasses soon became aware that he had become the centre of attention of these uncouth idlers, who having no better way of spending the evening, had occupied a place next to a shop window adjoining a staircase, finding humour in nearly everything from women’s clacking heels to unbuttoned men’s coats flying apart in the wind.
Above the hum of the throngs came the sound of loud wisecracks interspersed with savage laughter. One of the boys wearing a cap turned up sideways revealing generous locks of red hair, stepped forward and curtseyed to the old man with the girl:
“Not a penny in his pocket, and what does he hope to get for the li’l lady today?” he said twirling himself about his feet as he finished.
“Hold your tongue, Mort,” yelled out another, “that’s no way to speak to an old gent ; ha!”
Muddlestone who had halted on the pavement felt a surge of anger rising within. Street corner loungers were common enough, but it was most unusual to find a group of revellers targeting an old man and his girl.
The boys seemed determined; they looked around gaily, exchanged glances, nodded to each other in agreement, and broke into uproarious laughter. Muddlestone halted in the middle of the path studying the boys with narrowed eyes, his glance moving from one figure to the next. The boy with red hair now drew a coin from his pocket and flourished it in mock generosity. Beside him were his two accomplices having the time of their life, while a third one with a red scarf around his neck seemed to be taken up with some grave concern of his own and stared on with a glum countenance.
“Begone, you foul villains! You are only fit for the sewers of this city!” cried Muddlestone brandishing his stick in vain. Had he been quick witted, he would have simply moved on, but here he stood, adamant and unmoving, while little Gerda, sensing that these new acquaintances showed no inclination toward friendliness, clenched her tiny fists and wildly thrashed about in an effort to ward off the unruly revellers.
How long such a confrontation might have lasted at another time, one cannot say; but today was the night before Christmas; the market place was flooded with shoppers. Presently, a tramcar hooted, and halting by the roadside, disgorged a fair quantity of passengers in lace and high heels. The maidens, some young, plump and melting, others not so young, carrying fancily wrought bags and glancing around coquettishly, began to disperse; some came up straight to the spot where Gerda and her grandfather stood, gazing up with round, wondering eyes at the novelties that beckoned from behind the glass. Such capital fare was not to be missed; the youths soon lost interest in the penniless old man they had singled out for their attentions, and Muddlestone and the little damsel moved on ahead with the crowds unhindered.
The incident was soon forgotten; it did not leave behind any lasting impression, for street ruffians were a common enough thing in busy markets. It did however serve to make the old man painfully aware that his most prominent asset was, as always, a pocket perpetually devoid of cash. As he walked along the cobbled stone street he began to question the wisdom of bringing the girl along to the Christmas bazaar. The girl was pale, nearly starved; that such a thing as a Christmas present would ever come her way was a remote possibility for her, as remote as reaching out for the stars. To treat a girl such as this to the tempting aromas of the confectionery store would be nothing less than criminal. Muddlestone thus sought to bypass the large display he saw ahead showcasing an exotic range of Christmas cakes lighted with innumerable candles that seemed to exude a quality of radiant warmth and sweetness at the same time. Instead, the pair took a side road setting their sights on Reddaway’s, the fashionable toy store a few blocks away.
There were Santas with ruddy cheeks and red caps in nearly every store, giving away gifts to bright eyed children. He had not a penny in his pocket, but what of it? If you can’t own a thing, you can nonetheless rejoice seeing it at a distance—aren’t Christmas fireworks a joy to behold when seen from a far way off? The old man bent over to see his girl as they labored along; little Gerda bounded along exclaiming at the colourful sights that came their way, full of smiles, and brimful with glee. He felt a warmth of happiness seeing the girl rejoice in her own quaint way.
The avenue now grew more crowded than ever; busybodies elbowed their way to take a peek at store windows; some stood at street corners in groups engaged in lofty conversation; others drifted along, each on a mission of his own. Gerda and her grandfather now found themselves in front of a large store set in a two-storey building. Children could be seen scurrying up the entrance, mothers going up the stately flight of steps, wicker baskets in hand, a pandemonium of excited cries coming from all around. High up above, in letters carved out of wood, the name of the store declared to the world that if there ever was a place for Christmas shopping, this was it : REDDAWAY’S DEPARTMENTAL.
The old man and the girl ascended the flight of steps. Reddaway’s truly lived up to its reputation; it was nothing short of paradise, for behind the massive glass pane of this famed center was spread the most splendid collection of toys the girl had ever set her eyes upon. Here in one corner was an oval of rail track, a tiny toy train whizzing around in circles going past a pasteboard station, trees, and a pond with ducks afloat. The train soon came to a halt and Gerda wondered if it would ever start again when a shopman stepped in from behind the pane, picked up the toy and giving a few turns with a key, set it into motion again. Next to the train was a toy castle, again made of pasteboard, fairies ascending the long flight of steps leading to the entrance. In one corner Gerda found three large teddy bears ready to be cuddled, beside which was a large pendulum clock with fancy decoration in gold, and several lamps of vintage design, all new and sparkling under the blazing gas lamps.
“Look Grandpa!” cried Gerda turning around, full of joy, pointing a finger at a lamp with a large glass globe supported within a delicate framework of flourishes and flowers. “Isn’t that the kind of lamp you have in Mrs Hudson’s parlour? And how pretty!” The old man stumbled towards the glass, but before he could stoop to examine the article, two women stepped in accompanied by a man and a little girl, and forthwith embarked on a lively discourse concerning the relative merits of the various lamps displayed.
Her view obscured by the people who had occupied a place before the showcase, Gerda had to content herself watching the group; but presently she saw something that made her eye light up with a sparkle. For the girl among the group, a little mite no older than our Gerda herself, held in her arms a doll of the most exquisite workmanship. Gerda stepped closer and watched the girl spellbound. From over the shoulder of the little girl who stood facing the glass, there peeped back two large smiling eyes with dark lashes; her cheeks pink with rouge, seemed supple enough to admit of a dimple; she had a profusion of golden hair which fell around her neck in tiny curls; and she wore a skirt of the finest muslin that fell around her delicate ankles in waves.
The doll was all a bundle of prettiness; she stared longingly at the little girl in the tattered frock at the back as though she would much prefer to be cuddled in those grubby, soot laden arms. Gerda stood in a trance watching the doll, while old Muddlestone stood at the back blinking in confusion, when the girl, as though sensing that she was being watched, turned around momentarily. Her eyes met Gerda’s and lit up, and for a brief instant there passed between the two a feeling of kinship, of something common that, given the opportunity, would blossom into comradeship. Emboldened by this gesture, little Gerda stepped forward and with utter gratitude held the doll the girl so magnanimously held out. She stroked the doll on her hair, kissed her, and began uttering endearments, much to the owner’s delight, when she was called to a rude halt by a gruff feminine voice:
“How dare you fondle my girl’s doll, you wretched girl !”
It was the girl’s mother who had spoken and hearing this, the others at the shop window had turned. Poor Gerda now found herself looking up at two stout women, the very picture of extravagance, opulence and high society, glaring down at her with hostile eyes and undisguised contempt, while the man looking over the urchin girl and her aged companion seemed to size up the situation in one sweeping glance.
“Now give me that doll at once!” cried the first lady, and with one brisk movement she snatched the toy from Gerda’s grasp, holding it up to close scrutiny.
“Good heavens!” she gasped, “Oh Martha, what has become of this babe! It’s covered with dirt all over—not a fit thing for our Susie to play with anymore. It’s all a heap of ruins!”
“Susie, who ever asked you to share your doll with a beggar?” cried the other lady, all aghast on seeing the disfiguring marks that the toy now bore. “You have done a most abominable thing. Back home you are never known to share your things with Tom. What ever has come over you? No more playthings for you this Christmas!” she threatened shaking a finger.
The two girls stood with open mouths, bewildered. Muddlestone now stepped in hoping to intervene but was brusquely thrust aside by the man who escorted the ladies:
“And who be you, old boy, that you come here poking your nose in our affair?” the man barked.
“I—I—am the girl’s . . .”
“Whoever you are, you can see what a fine mess your girl has made. Why do you lounge around in this place if you can’t afford a doll for your girl?”
Muddlestone glanced through his glasses and found himself looking at a face nearly drawn into a snarl. Everything seemed to be going wrong today. First it was at the street square, and now at the toy store. If this was what Christmas shopping was going to be like he would rather not take his girl out on such an expedition again.
“Well, old boy,” came the woman’s gruff voice again, “I don’t see any point in you standing here and staring at the floor. Don’t you have a place to go?” Then turning to the gentleman who stood next she exclaimed in a tone or irritation: “Oh Ralph, what are we to do now? Our whole evening’s spoiled …”
The old man’s countenance fell; he looked away wearily as though thinking of something to say. Finding no words, he began to turn away; taking his girl by the hand, he muttered a barely audible apology, and began to move down the steps leading out of the store.
And thus Gerda and her grandpa found themselves on the market street once again. The gusts of wind were more boisterous than ever, candles in shop windows flickered, women drew their cloaks tightly around themselves as they hurried about. Muddlestone did not give much thought to what he saw around him. He would take the road leading out of the bazaar. On he trudged leaning on his stick, his gaze cast down, his girl beside him. Occasionally he looked up. The fog, more dense than ever, drifted in, making the festive lights spread into an irradiation that seemed all pervasive, a kind of ghostly orange glow making everything seem distant and remote. The throngs of shoppers who bustled about appeared as mere phantoms moving around alleyways, eagerly looking for that elusive thing called happiness, and never seeming to be able to grasp at it. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world … No, he would not profit an ounce; riches are mere humbug; for no matter what these bright eyed folks would get for themselves to cheer themselves this season, how much of it would last through the year, through the next?
Muddlestone trudged on with the girl. For his part, he would remain content with his portion : a damp cellar at the back of a warehouse for a home, the shrill cries of Mrs Hudson that rang down the hallway, his worn out clothes through which the wind whistled uninvited, and, of course—how could he forget this—little Gerda herself, his greatest possession in the world. He glanced at his girl; little Gerda trotted by his side quietly. Occasionally she looked up to find a Christmas tree behind a pane of glass with lights shining from it. She spoke not a word.
The shops now grew sparse, the lights dim, the crowd a mere trickle of people. They had nearly reached the end of the street when a tap on his shoulder roused the man from his thoughts. The wandering pair halted in their tracks and turned around to find themselves looking at a young man. The youth’s face appeared in silhouette ; far away in the distance a tramcar’s beam highlighted tufts of hair blown about in the wind; in his hand the youth held a mysterious bundle. The boy spoke with an urgency of tone:
“Mister, I thought you might like to have this for the girl.”
Muddlestone did not know what to make of the young intruder. The first thought that struck him was that the boy wished to return something that was his very own; but it was clear this could not possibly be so as he had set out on this evening sojourn with nothing more than an empty pocket.
The tram had drawn near and rumbled past; in the blazing light Muddlestone beheld a young face with freckles, worn out breeches, and a red scarf around the neck. It was a familiar face—ah, yes, it could be none other than one of the young rascals they had come across at the street square earlier that evening.
Muddlestone felt a surge of fear as he beheld the young man, and quickly turned to leave, but the youth was quick; he stepped ahead and pinioned him against a column of granite.
“Look here, I mean no harm,” said the boy. “I thought you might like this for the little girl …”
The old man and the girl peered at the object the youth held out. Under the feeble streetlamp they could see he was holding a large wooden doll dressed in muslin, her large dancing eyes set in a solemn pink face.
The boy stepped closer. “I was there at Reddaway’s when it all happened,” he spoke looking at the old man earnestly. “Such a great shame, but never mind what occurred. Here is the doll for the girl, if you wish! I found it lying by the roadside . . .”
Muddlestone now felt anger rising within his breast. An hour ago this was the young man who with his gang of revellers was making trouble for decent folks on the eve of Christmas, and now the rogue thinks he could wipe out his hideous past by acting the generous uncle!
“Away with you!” cried old Muddlestone, brandishing his stick, half stumbling, thoroughly disgusted with being cornered by a street hoodlum. “What think ye of me? Shall I pick up a castaway toy after my girl has been slighted? Away with you, you and your kind! Am I a man of no honour? The impertinence!”
The boy showed no signs of turning away but held on in patience. For a moment he glanced at Gerda; the little maiden had set her eyes on the doll, her lips parted in longing. He turned to the old man: “Look mister, many a street urchin would die to own a castaway doll from Reddaway’s. This wooden girl is as good as new. Just think of your girl. As for honour—” the boy now looked Muddlestone up and down as he spoke, “….you look as if you could do with a change of clothes. Are you certain that cap you’re wearing is your own?”
Muddlestone looking at the boy could find a trace of softness creep into his heart for the stripling that stood before him holding out the doll. He had seen human nature at its best; he had seen human nature at its worst; he had long believed that not everyone who professes to be good is entirely free of vanity. Now as he stood observing the youth, he marvelled; here was clear evidence that even amongst the most degraded and fallen among the human race could be found buried beneath the debris a glowing ember of goodwill and benevolence.
A distant clock chimed seven. Muddlestone looked at the ruddy face of the boy, then at the doll. Large glass eyes shone back at him in a fixed stare, imploringly. He had spoken of honour, but it had been only in principle. In actual fact, wasn’t he dependent largely on charity for his subsistence? Why, the very frock little Gerda wore today was a castoff piece that earlier belonged to Mrs Hudson’s daughter, his coat a gift from the friendly baker down the street. He thought of the dreary little room he would shortly return to, the cold stew that awaited them for dinner, the shutters of the cellar rattling with the chill winds that blew without, casting a chill, dank, deathlike spell on the night. Oh, what would he not give to bring a bit of warmth and sunshine to the little pale faced girl !
Muddlestone made up his mind. They stood at a corner where the crowd was thin; away in front stretched the cobbled street as far as the eye could see, the lamps receding steadily until the farthest one was lost in the mists of the night. The old man grabbed the doll giving it to the little girl to hold under her arm. Then, muttering a hasty “thank ye, son” he hobbled away with the girl along the dimly lit street.