A PLUM-PUDDING

Lydia French had a shop opposite the church. The little town or
overgrown village had no market, but there were fairs held in the space
before the church on one side and Lydia French’s shop on the other
twice in the year. Both were cattle fairs, frequented by farmers. On
such occasions bullocks ran about with tails lifted, yelling men and
barking dogs behind and before them, and made either for the churchyard
wall or for Lydia French’s shop window. The Oddfellows, moreover, held
their annual feast there, and processionised behind a band, and waved
banners and wore sashes, and ate and drank heartily at the “Peal of
Bells.” On such occasions stalls were erected in the open space, where
nuts were shot for, and barley-sugar-sticks and twisted peppermint rods
and brandy-balls were sold, also ginger-pop and lemonade. On all these
occasions Lydia French’s shop was full of customers. She, moreover, had a
good _clientèle_ in the entire parish, but experienced less difficulty in
disposing of her goods than in getting her little bills paid.

But though there were defaulters, yet those who liquidated were in the
majority, or Lydia French would not have been the prosperous woman she
was. Her aspect breathed a fulness of purse and flush of comfort that
were convincing. She could afford herself, on occasion, a silk gown. She
made weekly expeditions to the bank to pay in hebdomadal profits. She had
recently repapered her little parlour, and the paper was white and gold.

She was generous. When children put down their pennies for acid drops
or almond rock, she always made the balance incline in their favour,
to their great admiration; when their mothers bought calico, she was
not particular to a quarter of a yard; and she was large-hearted—she
subscribed equally to the missionaries of Church and Chapel.

Lydia French was a widow. She had been married but for a twelvemonth to a
commercial traveller, who had in the brief year tried her forbearance and
strained her means, and she had now been a widow of three years, and was
without encumbrance.

Several had made advances to her, but she soon let commercial travellers
understand that none of them need apply. There was one who trafficked
in a “Life of Wellington,” with magnificent steel engravings, issued
in parts, who laid siege to her; and when he would not take a “No”
she refused to receive any more numbers of the series. Whereupon he
threatened her with legal proceedings, averring that she had bound
herself to Wellington from the cradle to the grave when she received the
first part. She paid up rather than go into court, and nursed bitterness
of heart against travellers thenceforth. The man whom she had married was
bad enough; this Wellingtonian man was “wusser,” as she expressed it. It
really was preposterous that such a woman, plump, prosperous, comely,
should not find her man.

But, indeed, there were plenty of men who wanted her, only she was hard
to please. A young farmer—she did not relish farm-work; she did not wish
to give up the shop. The blooming butcher—she had an aversion for the
trade. A handsome drover—he tippled. A Methodist class-leader—he was a
teetotaller, and she liked her drop of mild ale.

But, finally she seemed to hesitate between two—John Newbold, the mason,
and Jack Westcott—or, as the children called him, Jackie Waistcoat, the
sailor.

Both were fine men, and both had good characters; the first was somewhat
too heavy, the latter somewhat too lively. But where is perfection to be
found? In woman, perhaps—nay, certainly—not in man.

There was this advantage to whichsoever she cast the kerchief, that he
would not require her to give up the shop. To the shop she was attached.
The shop made her a power in the parish, brought her into relation with
all, gave her consequence, and drew to her a good deal of money. This,
then, was a _sine quâ non_—that she should keep the shop after marriage
as before. Besides, she did not desire to have a husband always hanging
about her, like a fly in hot weather, that will not be driven away. She
was accustomed to independence. A man on the premises all day implied
interference, and that she was determined not to tolerate.

Lydia French sat in her shop; no business was doing this day. She had
made up her account to midsummer, and the balance was good; it made
her feel good—like a bracing sermon or a melting hymn. She had taken
stock—roughly. Everything was satisfactory. The little house was in
excellent condition, she owned it; that is to say, on three lives, and
she had paid Newbold’s bill for putting it in thorough repair. The
chimney had smoked; that was cured by the new revolving cowl. The drain
from the sink had emitted smells; that was rectified—Newbold had put
down a stink-trap. Newbold was a useful man when any masoning work was
required. Could she put up with him for always—for better, for worse?

She looked up, and looked out at her little window between the bottles
of pink and pallid drops, and the withered oranges that would no longer
sell, and the stay-laces, and the ginger-beer bottles, and the can of
mustard, and the tin of biscuits. And she saw that which was to her a
constant worry—the weathercock on the church spire.

In the great gale of the preceding November the cock had been blown on
one side, the spindle on which for many years it had revolved had been
bent over, so that now the poor bird lay on his back in mid-air, and
could neither right himself nor turn with the wind.

Mrs. French, neat in herself, orderly in her house, above all, in the
shop, could not endure to see what was out of place, inverted, useless.
She had liked to know from which direction the wind blew. It had provided
her with conversation with her customers. It had satisfied her sense of
the fitness of things that the spindle on the spire should be upright,
and that the vane should fulfil the object for which it was ordained.

Now more than six months had passed, and the cock was still reversed. She
had remonstrated with the parson.

“My dear Mrs. French,” he had replied, “that is the affair of the
churchwardens. I have badgered all my friends, and impoverished myself
over the restoration of the church—I can do no more.”

She complained to the churchwardens. “Lor’ bless y’,” said they, “there
be no levying o’ church-rates now, what can _we_ do?”

“It really is a scandal,” said Lydia. “And now the village feast is
coming on, and the Oddfellows will march about, and the cock will——”

“Be an odd fellow, too, turned upside down, like many of the heads after
ale and punch.”

“I don’t like it,” said Lydia. “I sees it with its blessed feet turned up
and its comb down—helpless. It is real unchristian and inhuman to let it
bide so.”

The churchwardens said, “Meddlin’ with aught on the steeple is darned
expensive. Beside, ’tain’t everywhere you can find a steeplejack.”

So Lydia fidgeted and mused and schemed: that vane became the trouble of
her life.

In at the shop door came simultaneously, from opposite directions, the
builder and the mariner.

They had a curious knack, these men, of spying on each other, and of
denying each other the opportunity of having a few words in private with
the widow.

In this, however, the sailor had the advantage over the mason, for he was
not daily engaged, as was the other. But Newbold so contrived that when
he was absent, should Westcott endeavour to steal a march on him, his
mother or his sister should invade the shop and so prevent privacy.

Which was the favoured swain neither could decide; but that was not
wonderful, for Lydia had not decided for herself.

“Good-morning, mem,” said the mason. “I’ll just trouble you for an ounce
of bird’s-eye.”

“And I’ll have same of Virginia shag,” said the sailor.

“Fine day, mem,” said Newbold.

“Which way is the wind?” asked the widow.

“East by nor’-east,” answered Westcott.

“Ah! then we shall have fine weather, and lasting for the revel.”

“Hope so,” said the mason.

“It is really distressing—I can now never tell the way of the wind. It
is as bad as having a kitchen clock as won’t work. That there church
stag——”

Mrs. French never spoke of the weathercock, but used the local term for a
cock, which throughout Devon is invariably—a stag.

“Ah!” said Newbold.

“Well, now,” said Westcott.

“It really do seem a burnin’ shame to have the poor unfort’nate bird
lyin’ on his back and kickin’ at the clouds, and that, too, on the day of
the parish feast. What will folk say of us? That we’ve no public spirit
left. The farmers might get up a subscription. Would it be so amazin’
expensive? Would they have to scaffold all the tower up, and to the top
of the spire?”

“That’s the way masons ’ud set about it,” said Jack Westcott
contemptuously.

“And pray how ’ud sailors do it?”

“Swarm up,” said Jack.

“Get along! That wouldn’t do it.”

“Yes, it would, I bet a guinea. I might, but you——” The sailor shrugged
his shoulders.

“For the matter of that,” observed the builder, after musing a while,
“I don’t see but what it might be done, and done at no terrible cost.
There’s a sort of a window on each side of the spire, and I suppose it
would be possible to run out planks and make a sort of a platform and set
up a ladder agin the steeple.”

“Would it not be dangerous?”

“Oh, of course there’s nothing in that way without danger. But if it has
to be done, it can be done.”

“I warrant I’d get up without any of your arrangements,” said the mariner.

“I daresay you might,” responded the builder slowly; “but what good would
that be? You’ve more to do than spike a Jacky Tar at the top; you’ve
got to remove the spindle, and that must be roped and let down with
caution. There’s a deal of things belonging to all things,” said Newbold
sententiously, “and that’s what escapes the likes of you.”

“I bet I’d do it!” said the sailor.

“I bet so would I!” said the mason.

“But,” added the latter, “I ain’t going to risk my precious life and
sacrifice time and labour for nothin’.”

“Now look here,” said Westcott, “there be you and me hoverin’ round about
this here lovely creetur, each sunnin’ of ourselves in her beamin’ eyes
and neither on us gettin’ no closer, and both of us lusty fellows, one
accustomed to masts and other to scaffold-poles——”

“I take you,” interrupted the mason; “we between us is to set the
weathercock to rights out of love to this adorable female.”

“Not just precisely that,” said the mariner. “Between us won’t do. What
if we each went up the steeple simultaneous, and from opposite sides?
Wouldn’t the distance atween us be every foot of ascent lessenin’ and
lessenin’, till our faces met at the top? And I bet a guinea we wouldn’t
kiss there; we’d come to a grapple.”

“Really,” said the widow, with a shudder, “this is startling. A contest
on the pinnacle of the spire between you—and all for me. I ain’t worth
it.”

“Not worth it!” exclaimed the mason, and was about to fall on his knees,
when the sailor pointed to his boot, and brandished his foot menacingly.
“I can’t allow that—not in my presence.”

“We will draw lots who is to go up and attempt it,” said the mason.

“And who is to have fair field and no interference for courtin’,” said
the mariner.

“Done! It shall be so!” said Newbold.

“I agrees,” said Westcott.

“Now there is one thing I bargain for,” observed the builder. “If he who
first attempts it fails and falls, and gets squelched, don’t let the
other take advantage, and shirk doing of it in his turn. Let him also
venture like a man.”

“Like a man!” echoed the tar. “‘England expects every man to do his
dooty.’”

“Come, shall we draw matches?”

“Matches! It’s a match for one alone.”

“Then toss up.”

“Toss up you are. And the winner has fair field and no just cause or
impediment why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony.”

“Here is a penny,” said Newbold.

“A penny! You ought to blush the colour of the copper to suggest it.
I will toss only gold for such a bloomin’ and lovely lady. Here is a
sovereign. Heads or Royal Arms—which?”

“Heads for me!” said Newbold.

“And arms—them extended arms for me,” said Jack Westcott, with a leer at
the widow.

The sailor tossed the sovereign.

“Heads!” he exclaimed.

“Best of three,” said the mason condescendingly.

“Tails!” said Jack, after the second toss.

Now all paused and looked at each other. The widow’s face expressed
anxiety.

Up went the gold piece once more, whisking high, and Westcott caught it,
but paused a moment before opening his palms.

“Come, man! Let us see our fate,” said Newbold.

The sailor raised his right hand, and the sovereign in his left disclosed
the reverse of the coin uppermost.

“I’ve won!” said the builder. “It is I who am to have the first shot at
the weathercock.”

“And I bide below with the lady,” said the mariner.

“Let me consider,” mused Newbold. “I have a little job on hand for Squire
Theobald; it will take me about a week, and my ladders be all engaged.
But I’ll tell you what. Monday week will suit me, and that will be time
enough before the feast.”

“Oh, Mr. Newbold, do not be _too_ rash,” pleaded the widow.

“Ma’am, I would dare anything for you,” he answered gravely.

The tidings that John Newbold was going to ascend the spire and put
the vane to rights produced lively satisfaction in the breasts of the
villagers, and awoke vast curiosity to know how he would set to work to
accomplish it.

The day was fine—grey with occasional drifts of fog, but nothing to
signify, and there was happily no wind. Nearly every parishioner was
out to observe proceedings. Nearly—not all; there were exceptions. Mrs.
French did not quit her shop. It neither comported with her ripe dignity
to be seen among the rabble staring up at the sky, nor with her affairs,
for a crowd on the green promised customers for ginger-beer and lollipops.

To her came Jack Westcott.

“Good-morning, mem. I thought, with your good favour, I’d fill my pouch
with Virginia shag. And I’d like—if you have no objection—to see how that
chap goes about it from within, on your premises.”

The widow bowed.

“Do you think, Mr. Westcott, there is real danger? I should never forgive
myself——”

“Lord bless you. That mason chap wouldn’t do nothing that would hurt the
tip of his nose. You’ll see. He’ll just run out some planks and nail a
strip o’ wood across, and lash his ladders as well as lean them agin the
strip. Bless your angel face and shining eyes, he’ll make all secure for
himself.”

“But, Mr. Westcott, it really looks a most perilous undertaking.”

“Not more so than this,” said the sailor, suddenly swinging himself over
the counter. “Excuse me, lovely creature! But I can’t well see what goes
on on the side of the shop door; there’s all them darned advertisements
block it up. But here—if I may be so bold as to watch.”

“You can take a chair, Mr. Westcott.”

“Never! unless you take one as well.”

So, with a little complimenting and resistance, it was settled: the
widow and the suitor seated themselves on her side of the counter on two
chairs, and looked out through the shop window at the proceedings of the
builder.

Now it was seen how he emerged from the lower window of the spire, and
how cautiously a short ladder was set up against it, by which, when made
secure, he mounted, and placed himself astride the gable. Then a larger
ladder was advanced against the incline of the steeple, and set so as to
reach a considerable way up. This the mason ascended, and by some means
he secured the ladder.

“It’s as easy as telling lies,” said the sailor. “I believe there are
iron crooks let into the steeple.”

“But it looks dreadfully insecure,” said the widow. “Do see! he is like a
fly against a rod.”

“More like a bumble-bee,” said Jack.

“What if he was to lose his head?”

“Not such a risk to him as to me,” sighed the mariner.

“What _do_ you mean, Mr. Westcott?”

“Only I never can see any man swarmin’ up a mast or so but I feel an itch
in my palms to be grapplin’ of somethin’. You’ll excuse me if I put my
arm round and lay hold of the back of your chair.”

“If it’s any comfort to you, Mr. Westcott.”

“I don’t think that chair-back very firm,” observed Jack.

“Oh! do, do look!” exclaimed the widow. “He is on one ladder, and
thrusting up another hands over head! and, oh! if his feet were to give
way! if he were to stagger! if the ladder were to slip! oh, I feel—I feel
quite giddy and faint.”

“Lean on me,” said Jack; “and—drat that chair-back! it is cracked. That’s
more substantial and agreeable to both parties.” He slipped his arm round
her waist. “England expects every man to do his dooty.”

“I really cannot bear to see poor dear Mr. Newbold thus risk his precious
life.”

“Then don’t,” said Westcott; and rising, he brought close together the
bottles of mixed sweets and almond-rock in the window. “There, now you
can’t see nor be seen. Are you better, my angel?”

“Rather,” responded Lydia in a faint voice. “And yet I’m all of a
tremble. What if he was to fall?”

“We’d mingle our tears over his grave,” said the sailor. “Now, look you
here.”

“I can’t; I’ve such a swimming in my head. O Jack! I can still see
something—a fog has swept over the top of the spire; or is it that my
eyes are deceived? He’s gone! He’s gone!”

“It is so—a passing drift of vapour. He’s all right. It will cool him.
Now, Lydia, this won’t do. You’ll fret yourself into a brain-fever if
you look at him even between the interstices of sweetie-bottles and
biscuit-tins. I must convey you where you cannot see him at all; and
there’s no place better than inside the church. And, by ginger! there
goes the parson. I’ll call him; he will let us in. And—Lydia, I took the
precaution to have a license; it cost me half-a-guinea—here it is. You’d
never be so unreasonable as to have that chucked away, so come along.”

“O Jack! I wouldn’t do anything as wasn’t right and honourable. He, up
there”—with her chin she indicated the top of the spire, then enveloped
in fog—“he’ll expect to have me if he brings down the stag.”

“Not a bit, my dear. Nothing was set down in writing, but I call you to
witness—he who had the choice was to go up the spire and leave the coast
clear for the other to propose, and to offer no just cause or impediment.
Was it not so?”

“I did not quite understand it in that light.”

“But I did.”

“Will Mr. Newbold, though?”

“My dear Lydia, he is up in a fog. England expects every man to do his
dooty. Here’s the license. Come along.”

* * * * *

Two hours later, with a triumphant air and firm stride, the builder
entered the shop, dragging along an immense battered weathercock detached
from the spindle. It had once been gilt, it was now in a rusty, measly
condition. Within he saw the widow and sailor side by side.

“Done!” shouted he. “I’ve got the cock!”

“Done!” replied the mariner. “I’ve won the hen!”

“I’ve been up in the clouds,” said Newbold.

“And I _am_ in the seventh heaven. I’ve not been in the clouds like you.
Let me introduce you to Mrs. Westcott!”

A PLUM-PUDDING

As far as man could suppose, every element that goes to make up happiness
was united to bless Mr. and Mrs. Birdwood.

He was in easy circumstances; that is to say, he had earned enough money
not to be obliged to work any longer, and had his own little house, and
could keep a “slavey.” He was inoffensive in his pursuits, being fond of
flowers, especially of roses, which he grafted; and what harm can there
be in a man who loves gardening? Next to marrying a curate, a woman
has a good certainty of her husband turning out amiable and orderly if
he grafts roses. Then, again, he was in the prime of life, by no means
bad-looking, amiable and placid. You could not study his face and not
see that he was good-humoured. On the other hand, Mrs. Birdwood was
comely, a lively woman, neat in shape, under thirty, and of a florid
complexion—which ought to suit a man addicted to flowers.

She had made a good match, said her friends, for she was one of fourteen,
and had come penniless to his arms. She had been Eliza Gubbins, and had
dropped the Gubbins at the altar. No one could deny that she was the
gainer when she acquired a name that carried with it a suggestion of
piping and tooting and whistling and jug-jugging and cooing of all kinds
of song-birds.

But there is a fly in every cup, a thorn to every rose, some bone in
every joint you get from the butcher, a cloud in every sky.

Mr. Birdwood was of an over-placid and too easy-going nature to satisfy
Mrs. Birdwood, who was impulsive, exacting, and sanguine.

He accepted connubial felicity as he did his meals—as something
anticipated, necessary, and ordinary. Instead of exhibiting an effusion
of gratitude to his wife for making him happy, he budded his roses, and
divided his bulbs, and potted his tubers as though that were the main
object of his life, instead of falling down and admiring that luminous
transcendental being who had condescended to come into Jessamine Villa to
be _his happiness_.

They had been married a twelvemonth—rather more. Eliza Gubbins had
supposed that an enamoured swain, after marriage, would grow in love,
like a conflagration, which increases as you add fuel. But it was not so;
he was warm and approving, but never rose above blood-heat. Moreover, he
had a provoking Christian name—Josiah—that he could not alter. Eliza had
fed on poetry and romance in her maiden days, and the name, Josiah, had
in it nothing poetical, no romance.

“I can’t call you Jos,” she said, “for that is the short for Joseph or
Joshua.”

“Then call me Siah.”

“Sire. No, thank you; it would seem as though I regarded you as my
sovereign.”

As yet there was no child, nor prospect of one. This fact might have been
considered a reason why they should have been more than ever devoted to
one another, as there was no distraction, no one else in the house to
love, except the slavey, and she was, naturally, out of the question.

But it was not so. Mrs. Birdwood had nothing else to think about except
the lack of ardour in Mr. Birdwood, and nothing else to do but fret over
it.

“My dear,” said Josiah Birdwood one day at table, “my dear, I think
Maggie Finch is just about your size and build.”

“Maggie Finch!—and who is she?”

“I mean the girl at Miss Thomas’s, the dressmaker’s.”

“Maggie Finch, indeed!” exclaimed Eliza, turning first red, then white.
“And pray, what do you know about”—witheringly—“Maggie Finch?”

“Oh, nothing, my dear, only she is in Miss Thomas’s shop.”

“And what do _you_ know of Miss Thomas’s shop?”

“Why not, my dear? You go to Mr. Gardener’s—Mr. Gardener the tailor, I
mean.”

“Of course, I do. I have tailor-made dresses.”

“Then why should not I go to the milliner’s to have a milliner-made
suit?”

“It is preposterous. Maggie Finch, indeed! How do you know she is a
Maggie?”

“Miss Thomas calls her so. Besides——”

“Well?” sternly eyeing him.

“I got her the situation.”

“Oh! I see! you got her the situation.”

“Yes. Her poor father——”

“I want to hear nothing of the poor father; it is poor Maggie you think
of. I see all, clear as daylight—a Finch and a Birdwood match much better
than a Gubbins and a Birdwood.” Then she burst into tears.

“My dear, be reasonable, and—kindly give me a spoonful of gravy; my bacon
is dry.”

“How can you! How can you! Heartless, cruel man! Oh that I had married a
commercial traveller!”

“A bagman, my dear!”

“You need not open your mouth, nostrils, and eyes with such a snorting
affectation of surprise. I said it—a commercial traveller.”

“I did not know, my dear——”

“No. You did not know that I had a—a tender corner in my heart, a
general predilection for commercials. They go about in flights, like
humming-birds in the Brazilian forests.”

“Have you been in Brazil, dear?”

“No, I have not; but I have read of them. Living—animated jewels they
are.”

“Which? The bagmen or the humming-birds?”

“I won’t speak to you any more. You purposely misunderstand me to insult
me, that you may go off to your Maggie Finches.”

“There is only one, dear.”

“And so much the worse. You focus, you concentrate, on that wretched
object the admiration, the love, of which I am bereaved. If you go
gallivanting and meandering round dressmakers’ assistants, I can do the
same. I will not be left out in the cold for any Maggie Finches, I can
tell you. There are plenty of bagmen, as you call them—commercials is
their proper designation—who would be only too glad, too proud, to lick
the dust off my feet.”

“My dear, you are hot.”

“I have occasion to be hot.”

“And my tea is cold.”

“This is an outrage!”

Mrs. Birdwood rose and flounced out of the room. She rushed upstairs,
casting at the slavey, _en passant_, a notice to quit, for no particular
reason, but as a vent to her wrath; and she dashed into the bedroom,
where nothing had as yet been put in order, and threw herself in the
arm-chair and burst into a flood of tears. She remained for some time
crying and fanning herself into a greater flame of wrath. Then she rose
and went to the window. She saw her husband—he had taken off his coat,
and he was digging in the garden. He had told her, the previous evening,
that he expected hard frost, and would turn up the mould, that the slugs
might be killed. Actually, after that scene, after those reproaches
hurled at him, after that exposure, he was placidly digging, that the
frost might kill the slugs.

Really the man was unendurable.

About an hour later he drew on his coat and came in, and brushed down his
trousers and washed his hands.

Mrs. Birdwood lurked about watching. He went out at the front door,
passed into the street, and disappeared. Mrs. Birdwood drew on her cloak,
adjusted a hat, and followed.

She had hardly reached the gate before she saw Josiah turn in at a door
to a shop some way up the street, over which was inscribed: “Thomas:
Milliner and Dressmaker.”

“The die is cast. Flaunting his vices in the face of his wife! I, too,
can be vicious. If he goes hunting dressmakers, I—even I—can seek
commercial travellers.”

She set her lips. Her eyes glared. Her face was terrible in its wrath.

She hastened to retrace her steps, gathered together a few of her most
valued and necessary goods, and left the house.

“There!” said she, slamming the iron gate after her. “There! Two can
play at this game. If he deserts me, I also can desert him. Good-bye to
Jessamine Villa! Oh that I had married a commercial!”

She took her way to the station. “Let me see,” said she; “I’ll go
a-junketing to the seaside and enjoy myself. Happily I have money; he
gave me enough to pay the monthly bills. Won’t he be surprised when he
comes back from Finching to find me flown! Yes—I’ll go to Sandbourne
and enjoy the sea breezes, and pick up shells and seaweeds, and look at
the visitors, and perhaps a commercial or two may flit past my admiring
eyes. Their manners are so elegant; they have such persuasive ways; their
address is so engaging!”

Furnished with a ticket, she got into a second-class carriage. She was
about to enjoy herself, so she would not go third—and she had money to
spend.

There was a gentleman in the carriage. He had been seeing a number of
large black boxes put into the luggage van. He took his seat after Mrs.
Birdwood had ensconced herself in a corner, hoping to have a carriage to
herself.

Off went the train.

As already said, Mrs. Birdwood was a comely woman, and this the other
traveller perceived, and was unable to take his eyes off her. If a cat
may look at a king, then surely a commercial may gaze on a pretty woman!
Mrs. Birdwood did not like it, and put up her hand to let down her veil;
unhappily, in her hurry at leaving, she had forgotten her veil.

“Christmas coming soon,” said the gentleman; “a time of holly and
mince-pies—and above all, of mistletoe! I think I know some one who would
like to be under a mistletoe bush with somebody else, unnamed.”

“And I think,” said Mrs. Birdwood, “I know some one who would like to
have a bunch of holly with which to whack into somebody else—unnamed!”

“Going any distance, miss?” asked the bagman.

“I don’t quite know where I am going,” inadvertently replied the runaway
wife. Then she bit her tongue in vexation at having said what she had.

“Let me recommend Sandbourne,” said he confidingly. “A charming
place—beautiful beach. Excuse me, I think the ticket you hold—ah! it is
for Sandbourne. How happy a coincidence! I am going there as well. If I
can be of any assistance with your luggage, command me.”

“I have none.”

“Indeed! Going to friends?”

She was silent. Tears came into her eyes—tears of mortification and anger.

“My dear young lady,” said the fellow-passenger, “I trust I have
not touched on any tender point. When lovely woman stoops to
conquer—especially with tears as her weapons—she is irresistible.”

“Really, sir,” exclaimed Mrs. Birdwood, “I must request you to desist
from these impertinences and this odious familiarity.”

“A thousand pardons—I am mute.”

On reaching Sandbourne station Mrs. Birdwood dismounted from the train,
greatly relieved to be able to shake off the gentleman who had annoyed
her. She sought out a modest inn, and then walked down to the shore.

“A pretty pass Josiah will be in,” thought she, “when he finds that I am
gone! There will be ructions in the house. Well, if he will run after
Finches, he must take the consequences. And Christmas coming on as well,
and no comforts, no plum-pudding. I’ll be bound that Jemima will serve
up the roast beef without any horse-radish—serve him right; and as to
Yorkshire pudding, she can’t make it!—very glad. He’ll suffer where most
sensitive. Oh!” She saw a large coloured poster. “A circus! I have not
seen one since I was a girl. I will go.”

But she did not enjoy herself at the horsemanship. Her mind reverted to
Jessamine Villa, and to a plum-pudding she had made a month ago, and had
put away in a tin to be ready for Christmas. She wished she had brought
it with her; but she had left it behind, locked up. Her husband knew
nothing about it. The slavey was equally ignorant. Now that costly and
excellent plum-pudding would be lost, for she would never go back to
Jessamine Villa—never, never within the sound of the name of Finch.

That plum-pudding had been made from an excellent recipe given her by her
mother—

“5 lb. suet, 4 lb. flour, 3 lb. bread-crumbs, 4½ lb. raisins, 3 lb.
currants, 1½ lb. sugar, 1 lb. mixed peel, 1 pint old ale, 1 nutmeg, 6
teaspoonfuls salt, 2 quarts milk, 12 eggs; boiled 8 hours; a sufficient
quantity for 9 puddings, 4 of which are large.”

She could rehearse it by heart. Of course, in the small establishment at
Jessamine Villa nine puddings—four of which were large—were not required.
But the late Mrs. Gubbins had been a woman with a large family and a
larger heart, and she had been accustomed to send puddings to her married
sons and daughters. Mrs. Birdwood had halved everything, and then had
been able to give a pudding to an aunt at Bandon, another she had sent to
a married brother in London, a small one she had reserved for a poor old
woman who received her charities, and the rest were for Jessamine Villa
consumption. And now——

“Dear, dear, dear!” sighed Mrs. Birdwood, not observing anything in the
arena.

“I beg pardon—did you mean me?” asked a voice. She turned, and saw the
commercial traveller beside her.

“No, sir!” she retorted sharply. “I alluded to the pudding; with raisins
at fivepence, and only nine eggs a shilling, it is dear, very dear,
inexpressibly dear.”

“I beg your pardon again; I don’t quite take it in.”

“The pudding was not for your consumption, sir.”

“You would confer on me, miss, a great favour if you would give me your
name. A thousand apologies for asking.”

“My name is—” She choked; should she give her married or her maiden name?
“Never mind.”

“And mine is Fisher. I am in the hosiery and haberdashery business. That
is to say, I travel for a firm in that line. I am now staying at the
‘Woolpack.’”

“At the ‘Woolpack’! So am I!” she cried in dismay. “This will never
do—no, never!”

She dashed out of the circus, went to the inn, removed her trifling
effects, paid her bill, and departed to the “Red Lion.”

Next morning she came down to the coffee-room, and was dismayed to find
there Mr. Fisher.

“Good gracious me!” she exclaimed, “I thought you were at the ‘Woolpack’?”

“So I was; but as it seemed to offend you, and I could not think of
annoying a lady, I went back when the performance was over, paid my
account, and departed to another inn—the ‘Red Lion.’”

“This will never do!” gasped Mrs. Birdwood. “I shall leave immediately!”

She hastened to the station and took the train for Bandon; she would go
to her aunt. The plum-pudding had preceded her; if she followed, it was
but like a player of bowls, who delivers his ball and then runs after it.

Her aunt was pleased to see her, and asked what occasioned this visit.
Mrs. Birdwood made the excuse that she wished to see her before
Christmas, and that she had friends in Bandon she also desired to see.
She had not visited them since her—she gulped—her marriage. “I dare say,
auntie, I may remain here a few days.”

“Delighted, my dear, to see you; but you do not intend to remain
long—because Christmas is at hand—the day after to-morrow—and of course
you will be back for that?”

Mrs. Birdwood looked down, and did not answer. Next morning she went to
see friends. About mid-day she returned, when she was encountered by her
aunt in the passage. “My dear—dreadful news! Have you heard?”

“Heard—no. What?”

“It comes from Jemima’s mother, your maid-of-all-work as you took from
here at my recommendation. She writ to her mother yesterday evening; and
it is shocking—orful!”

“What is it, aunt?”

Mrs. Birdwood turned white; that slavey had written that her mistress had
run away, and—doubtless with amplifications of her own—run away with a
commercial in the hosiery and haberdashery line, and had been seen with
him at a circus at Sandbourne.

“You must prepare yourself for the worst,” said the aunt.

“I know it—I know it!” gasped Mrs. Birdwood.

“I don’t see how you can, as it only happened yesterday,” said the old
lady.

“Well, tell me all—hold back nothing!”

“Your dear Josiah—he’s gone and scalded hisself to death, in trying to
bile a plum-pudding for his Christmas dinner. The flesh is come off in
collops—just like an over-boiled leg of veal—with rice, you know. Don’t
cling to th’ bone. I had a rabbit too, once——”

Mrs. Birdwood uttered a cry; she did not stay to hear about the rabbit,
but flew to the station. She was just in time to catch a train. She took
her ticket for—she asked for one to Jessamine Villa, but the clerk said
there was no such station; then she recalled the name of the town in the
outskirts of which Jessamine Villa was situated.

Weeping, trembling, sick at heart, she sat in the third-class carriage,
as she was whirled home—to the home she had left, to the husband she had
deserted.

On reaching the station where she had to disembark she flew to the villa.
From a distance she could see—the blinds were drawn down; but then it was
evening, and a lamp was alight within—was it where he was laid out in his
bones?

She burst in at the door, bathed in a dew of anguish as well as heat,
rushed into the sitting-room, and found there Mr. Birdwood in an
arm-chair by the fire, his foot up, reading a catalogue of horticultural
structures.

“Well, my dear,” said he, “back again?”

“And you—you have been scalded?”

“Yes; my foot.”

“How?”

“Jemima said she couldn’t make a Christmas plum-pudding, and I said we
must have one, so I tried my hand.”

“But the flesh—has it left the bone in collops?”

“No; I am blistered, that is all. I spilt the mess over my foot. It was
not quite on the boil, I believe.”

“Goodness me! And how did you make the mess?”

“All right—raisins and flour.”

“No suet?”

“No.”

“No mixed peel?”

“Never thought of it.”

“Any old ale?”

“Of course not.”

“Nor eggs?”

“Did not suppose they were wanted.”

“Then,” said Mrs. Birdwood, “it was a mess. I am glad it was all spilt.”
She heaved a sigh. “Oh, Josiah, how could you?”

“I did my level best,” he replied. “Now look here. Do you see that
parcel? Open it. It is a silk gown—my Christmas present to you, all ready
for you to wear to church to-morrow. It was fitted on Maggie Finch, as
she is your size and shape.”

With trembling fingers Mrs. Birdwood opened the parcel and drew forth a
really gorgeous silk dress.

“Oh!” she said, “and that Finch——”

“She served as dummy on which to fit it, you know.”

“And that was all that took you to Miss Thomas’s?”

“What more do you want? Not an evening dress also—low-breasted and
shoulder-straps?”

“Oh! oh! oh! Josiah, I have been so wicked. I thought—but never mind what
I thought. I intended to run away and desert you—fancy!—for ever.”

“Pshaw! you couldn’t do it.”

“And to take up with a commercial!”

“My dear, you couldn’t do it.”

“And his name Fisher.”

“Not a humming-bird, but a king-fisher, I suppose.”

“But in the hosiery and haberdashery line.”

“You couldn’t do it.”

“I really believe you are right,” said Mrs. Birdwood, throwing herself on
his neck and bursting into tears.

“There, there, dear; that will suffice,” said Josiah.

“And,” asked his wife, “what did you think when I disappeared?”

“I didn’t think anything about it. I knew it was all right.”

“And what have you been doing without me?”

“Well, I have been trying to make up my mind whether to have a span or a
lean-to conservatory.”

“You are positively incorrigible.”

“Then I tried my hand on the plum-pudding and failed. So now we shall
have to do without.”

“No, ten thousand times no,” replied Mrs. Birdwood triumphantly. She went
to a corner cupboard, unlocked it, produced a tin, took off the lid.
“Here—here is a real plum-pudding for our happy Christmas dinner.”

“And,” said Mr. Birdwood, “I bought a sprig of mistletoe at the door, and
will kiss you under it.”

A CHRISTMAS TREE

A CHRISTMAS TREE

Tom Mountstephen was dressed in his very best—a black coat, a tie of blue
satin studded with veritable planets, and in it a new zodiacal sign—a
fox in full career, that formed the head of a pin. Tom’s collar was so
stiffly starched and so high that to turn his head and look over the top
of that Wall of China was impossible. If he desired to see that which lay
to his right or left, he was compelled to turn his entire body, as on a
pivot.

Tom was unaccustomed to such a “rig out,” and therefore did not look
happy in it. Tom in his workaday suit, of the colour of the earth, with
a string tied under his knees, gathering the trouser together, and with
a dusty slouched wideawake stuck at the back of his head, but on one
side of that, and with his great, honest, cheery face, ever with a smile
on the lips and a dancing light in his eyes—thus Tom was picturesque,
delightful. But Tom in his Sunday best did not look at his best.

The day was Christmas Eve, and there was to be a supper with a dance at
the Hall, given by the squire to his workmen and their families. Tom
was on his way to this, with a face that shone with yellow soap and the
friction of a rough towel; and not only so, but he was to attend thither
Isabella Frowd, the belle of the village, and one with whom, as every one
said, he had made it up, and a handsome couple they would be. “Bless y’,”
said Tom, when folks asked him when it would be, “Lor’ bless y’, you know
more about it than me! Go and ax Bella. She, maybe, can fix it. ’Tain’t
my place, you know!” And then he laughed, and thought he had said a good
thing.

Tom Mountstephen was an active, intelligent young fellow, serving as
under-gardener, getting a respectable wage, and there was positively
no reason why he should not marry; but he was inert in just this one
particular, or unable to make up his mind.

Isabella was three years his junior, with a very delicate skin and
lovely rosy complexion, fair hair, and forget-me-not blue eyes; somewhat
doll-like, save in this, that a doll is never self-conscious, and
self-consciousness spoke out of every look of Bella’s eyes, every turn
of her head, every motion of her body. But was she to be blamed? I think
not. The squire always had a pleasant word to give her; the young ladies
at the Hall made much of her; every one with one voice declared that
she was a beauty and the pride of the village. Under such circumstances
she must have been endowed with unusual common-sense and strength of
character not to have become vain and self-satisfied.

Bella lived at the Lodge, and it was her practice to open the gates when
carriages drove up; and on such occasions she was quite aware that the
ladies, and above all the gentlemen, looked at her, and when, immediately
after passing, she saw them turn to each other and say something, then
she was confident that they said: “What a pretty girl!” And being obliged
to keep herself neat and nicely dressed did much towards making her
attractive.

It was understood, or half-understood, that Tom would call at the Lodge
on his way to the Hall and pick up Isabella, and go on with her. It was
in this way. The day before, Tom had said to her: “More wu’nerful things
may hap, Bell, than that I should come and fetch you away to the Hall
to-morrow, and then you’ll give me the fust dance and five arter.”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t mind,” she had replied; and so it was understood
that he should go for her, and that she should expect him.

“Why, whatever be you about, Polly?” exclaimed Tom Mountstephen, as he
came upon a tall, pale girl with pick and spade over her shoulder.

That girl was Mary Mauduit, who lived with a frail, suffering little
sister in a cottage, and supported herself by needlework and starching
and washing. She had been a teacher in the school, but had been compelled
to resign, owing to her sister’s health. These two were together, and
they were orphans. The child could not be left.

“Why, Tom, how fine you be! Where be you a-going to?”

That is the way in the country: a question begets another before it is
answered.

“I be going to the Hall; there’s grand goings on there to-night.”

“So I’ve heerd, but I didn’t mind it. And I reckon that Bella will be
there too?”

“For certain. But what are you after with pick and shovel, I’d like for
to know?”

“If you must know everything, Tom, it’s for little Bess.”

“Not going to dig her grave?”

Tom could have bitten his tongue out—he was mad with himself for uttering
such a question. It had bounced out of his mouth without thought, and
now he saw the colour rush into Mary’s face, her eyes fill, and her lips
tremble.

“Hang me for an idjot!” said Tom; “I didn’t mean it; it’s just like my
ways, Poll. I want to say summut smart, and just say the wrong thing
always. But what be you about wi’ them tools?”

“It’s this, Tom: I thought I’d give little Bessie a Christmas tree. I’ve
got a few trifles to hang on it—some oranges and nuts and a needle-case
and so; and I got Mrs. Wonnacott to come in for an hour and sit wi’ she
whilst I went to the plantation after a tree; the squire gave me leave,”
she added in explanation and self-exculpation.

“But, dear heart alive! you don’t want pick and spade for gettin’ up a
young spruce! You want the chopper or a little handsaw.”

“I don’t wish to kill the tree. I thought if I get her up by the roots I
could plant her again in the garden, and she’d grow up to a big tree, and
it ’ud be something to look at—every year growin’ bigger.”

“What sized tree do you want?”

“Not such a terrible big one. Just middlin’ like. I can’t have her too
small, as I ain’t got no tapers like the tiny red and yaller and green
’uns they had up to the Parsonage last Christmas. I’ve only got bits o’
common candle ends, and they’d be too heavy for a mite of a tree.”

“And how will you bring back your tree and the mores (roots), Mary, wi’
soil, and pick, and all together?”

“I reckon I can make two journeys.”

“You can’t make two for the tree!”

Mary stood silent.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Polly. I’ll off with this dratted collar and
put aside my new coat, and away with you to the plantation. If you go
and mistake and have up a deodara or a douglas instead o’ a spruce, the
squire’ll kick and scream.”

“You’re too kind, Tom; but you’ll be late for the entertainment.”

“Oh, that’s nothing—not two minutes! She’ll wait.”

He did not explain, but Polly understood that _she_ signified Bella. But
she did not know that it had been understood that Tom was to fetch the
pretty girl from the Lodge.

“I daresay you’ll let me put my coat and that dratted collar in your
cottage? Lor’, Polly, I’m like a donkey in a pound when I’ve that there
collar on, jumpin’ up and down and tryin’ to look over the wall and
clear it if I can!”

A couple of minutes later Tom, divested of collar and coat, with pick
and spade over his shoulder, was attending Mary Mauduit, when the
head-gardener passed. He was a Scotchman, and a widower—a man of much
self-confidence and independence.

“What—off, Mr. Mountstephen?”

The gardener addressed his subordinates with a “mister.” It made himself
more important; marked the distance between them more emphatically.

“Yes, Mr. MacSweeny; just to take up a young spruce for she.”

“Ta-ta!” said the Scotchman condescendingly, and passed on.

“He’s been a bit snuffy wi’ me,” said Tom confidingly to his companion.
“What it’s all about I can’t tell. Perhaps he guesses I knows too much;
but Lor’! I’m not one to blab.”

“Perhaps he’s a little jealous,” said Mary slily; “folk do say he has
been thinking about Bella. But there—’tain’t no good dreaming of going
against _you_, Tom.”

“I don’t give no heed to them tales. People will talk. Besides, if he
were lookin’ out for a Missus MacSweeny, I reckon he’d go after widders.
Ain’t he a widderer hisself?”

“That don’t follow,” said Mary.

“Don’t it? Then it ort!” retorted Tom.

“There—don’t be snuffy wi’ me!” said Mary.

The getting up of a suitable tree and its transport to the cottage of
the Mauduits was not a matter of two minutes, nor of half-an-hour.

Tom was aware that Isabella would have been kept waiting, but he relieved
his mind with the consideration that she would take it for granted that
he was detained by some business, and would walk on alone to the Hall;
the distance was trifling. He could explain matters when he arrived, and
she would at once understand the circumstances.

“I don’t see how you’re going to stick them candle ends on to the
branches,” said Tom.

“I shall heat hairpins and run ’em through.”

“That’s fine!” exclaimed Mountstephen derisively; “and when the candles
be burnin’ the flame’ll heat the hairpins red-hot, and they’ll melt the
composite, and there’ll be a pretty mess, and the candle ends falling
about on all sides and firing everything! I hope you’re insured!”

“I can manage it.”

“No, you can’t, excuse me, Polly. I reckon mother at home has got some
bits of tapers from the Parsonage tree last year. Her was up there
helping, and they throwed the tree away when done with; and her’s a
saving woman and can’t abide no waste, and I know her pulled off and kept
the remains of candles. They have wires for fastening of them on. If
you don’t mind my leaving that collar here—you won’t let nothin’ damage
it, nor let the cat get at it, will you, Polly?—I’ll run home and see
what mother have got. I couldn’t run in that collar; ’twould be sheer
impossible!”

So, instead of going on to the Hall, here was another detention. But Tom
was a good-natured lad; he was not _needed_ at the Hall, and here at the
cottage he was of real assistance.

After the young man had been away nearly a quarter of an hour, he
returned with a small box full of portions of tapers, and some entire,
and sundry little sparkling ornaments that had furnished the tree the
preceding Christmas, and had been cast aside, but saved by the prudent
and frugal Mrs. Mountstephen.

“And here, Polly,” said Tom, “here’s a spotted dog in china, as stood on
my mantelshelf, that little Bessie be welcome to. You can set it under
the tree. Now I’ll clap the tree mores into a tub, and then I’m off to
the Hall.”

When Tom, reinvested in collar and coat, arrived at the Lodge and
inquired for Isabella, he learnt, which did not much surprise him, that
she had gone forward. So he went to the Hall by himself, not greatly
concerned at being late. He knew that all who were invited would not be
able to arrive punctually. There would be two “sitting-downs” to supper,
and he would be in time for the second.

When he arrived, he looked about him for Isabella, and saw her seated
beside the Scotch gardener, who was helping her to trifle.

With a little difficulty he made his way behind the chairs, in and out
among the servants who were waiting on the guests, to where Isabella was
dipping into the trifle.

“So sorry, Bella; I couldn’t help it,” said he.

“De-li-ci-ous!” said Bella.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I was speaking to Mr. MacSweeny.”

“I only want to say that I was unavoidably detained.”

“The jam is strawberry,” said Bella.

“Whole strawberries, from our own garden,” said MacSweeny.

“I’m very fond of strawberries,” observed Bella.

“So am I,” said the Scotch gardener. “Have some more. I’ll remember you
in the strawberry time and send you up the first dish I ripen. Of course,
I ripen ’em early—in the greenhouse. You shall have some—as soon as they
are fit to be picked.”

“How good of you, Mr. MacSweeny!”

“Not at all; I live but to oblige, and _you_”—he looked round at her—“for
you I would do anything.”

“Bella,” said Tom over her chair, “I really could not help it.”

“Will you please to move, Mr. Mountstephen; you are jogging my chair.”

“Do you like grapes?” asked MacSweeny. “I rather flatter myself on my
grapes. I am able to keep them, too, so well. My large white Muscats—but
there, you shall have some. I’ll send you up a really choice bunch. I
think the second sitters down are coming in now. Miss Isabella, if you
have done, we will rise and let the others take our places. Here, you,
Mountstephen, can have my seat. If you have brought Mary Mauduit I have
no doubt she can have Miss Frowd’s chair.”

Poor Tom did not enjoy his supper, and that over, when he sought Isabella
to tender his excuses, she deliberately turned her back on him. It was
clear MacSweeny had made mischief. He had told her that for the sake of
that pale Polly Mauduit he had neglected to fulfil his engagement and
keep his appointment.

Dancing began, and Bella sat out with the Scotch gardener, who was too
serious a man to approve of the light fantastic toe; as he explained to
Bella it was against his principles—“but don’t let that interfere with
your enjoyment, if you wish to go to Mr. Mountstephen.”

“Oh! not at all!” said Miss Frowd.

Huffed, hurt, poor Tom withdrew. He slunk away from the Hall. Among so
many, he would not be missed, and of enjoyment there was none after
his rebuff. It would madden him to see how Bella “carried on” with the
Scotchman.

He walked through the park, groaning, grumbling, resentful. He was not
angry with himself for not keeping his appointment, nor with Polly for
having detained him; but with Bella, whom he designated as a minx, and
with MacSweeny, whom he termed a widdered Scottish rogue.

He left the park; he walked hastily on. Then, finding that in the
agitation of his feelings he could not keep his head in one position, and
that he was consequently liable to cut his throat, he halted, and took
off his collar, and fastened it by the stud round his left arm above the
elbow.

Presently he reached the cottage of the Mauduits, and he could see
through the little window that the tree was alight; it twinkled through
the panes. The temptation to turn aside, rap at the door, and enter was
not to be resisted.

To his knock he received an answer, as he opened the door. The answer
came from an inner room.

“It be I, Polly,” called Tom. “Just passin’, and want to see how Bessie
be enjoyin’ of herself.”

“Come in—come in, Tom.”

The young man strode through the kitchen into the adjoining chamber.
There lay, in her bed, the sick girl, a lovely child, with large burning
dark eyes, and a hectic flame in her cheeks. She was supported in the
arms of her sister, and was looking with delight at the little candles,
at the oranges, and the glittering tin ornaments.

“Tom,” said Mary, “Bessie do thank you so for the spotted dog.”

“Yes, I do,” said the sick child, striving to lift herself and extend a
hand to the young gardener.

“But, gracious me, Tom!” exclaimed Mary, “whatever is the meaning o’
that?” pointing to the white band round his arm. “It is like what folks
put on now when in mourning—only it’s white.”

“He’s going to be married,” said the sick child.

“It is only that stiff collar; I couldn’t abear it no longer!” explained
Tom.

Then the child laughed, and laughed till she coughed.

Suddenly Mary uttered a cry—Tom saw a crimson stream.

“Run, run, Tom! For Heaven’s sake run for the doctor!”

And Tom ran.

In half-an-hour he returned.

Polly was kneeling by the bed. On it lay the child, the face almost
white, but yet with a little colour in the delicate cheek. Her hand held
tightly that of her sister.

The doctor had not come; he was out; would not be back till morning.

Tom could not explain this; and he knew, moreover, that the surgeon could
effect nothing. Without a word he knelt also by the child’s bedside.
The candles were quivering to extinction on the Christmas tree. One was
guttering, and sending a stream of wax over the head of the spotted dog.
Then another fell twinkling through the boughs and went out. And at the
same time the light went out in Bessie’s eyes.

A few days later, when the earth had closed over the child, Tom was
speaking with Mary, and she said to him: “Tom, I think now I should like
that Christmas tree to be planted on the little maid’s grave. Will you
oblige me by doing it?” Then, after wiping her eyes: “Tom, that is a
Tree of Death.”

* * * * *

The head-gardener triumphantly carried away Bella; the marriage took
place within six weeks of the Christmas supper and dance. Isabella Frowd
had become Mrs. Sandy MacSweeny, and was planted in the gardener’s
beautiful cottage. But in all things human there comes a change. Within
a very short time certain matters started to light. What these were you
shall hear from the squire’s own lips, as he addressed Tom Mountstephen.

“Tom,” said the squire, his broad, rosy face very hot and agitated, “Tom,
I’ve bundled MacSweeny off. I don’t see why I should have to buy the
fruit I grow from the greengrocer in our market town. I don’t see why, if
I purchase bulbs and greenhouse plants, they should invariably disappear,
and be reported to have died. I don’t see why, if I buy flower seeds,
they should come up in other folks’ gardens. I have not been able to get
fruit for my table without sending to town to buy it. I have been ruined
in procuring vast supplies of choice plants from nurserymen, and have not
enjoyed them. MacSweeny is off. Hang it! you may not be a professional,
and A1, and all that, but you are honest as daylight. I feel I can trust
you, and—dash my buttons!—there is the situation vacant for you, if you
choose to have it. And there is the cottage—the only disadvantage is
that it is too large for you, and you are unmarried.”

“Oh, as to that, sir, that is easily remedied. I be just now on my way to
the pass’n to get him to have Mary and me asked next Sunday.”

“Mary—Mary who?”

“Mary Mauduit, sir.”

“Oh, oh! I wish you joy. An excellent girl! There it is for you—the
house, Tom; you and Mary shall go into it as soon as I have seen the
back of MacSweeny and his Bella, and have had it whitewashed. And—hang
it! Tom, here—come round to my study, and I’ll give you a cheque for ten
pounds towards the furnishing.”

“I thank you, sir; I thank you with all my heart.”

“No need of thanks, Tom! Bless my soul, when a master has a trustworthy,
honest servant, it is he is to be counted lucky; and unless he is an ass
he will keep him. There—come round to the study.”

* * * * *

And now nearly two years have passed. And this time we see a little party
coming out of the church porch. As I live! it is Tom with Mary—no longer
Mauduit, but Mountstephen. But they are not alone; there is a baby in a
long white robe being brought forth—a babe that had been carried into
church to be christened.

As Mary stood in the autumn sunlight outside the porch, she touched Tom’s
arm, and said—

“Let us go to little Bessie’s grave.”

And they went, and the baby was taken there also, over the drooping
grass, wet with autumn rains.

“The poor little Christmas tree,” said Mary, “although a Tree of Death,
lives. See—how hearty it appears!”

“It is no Tree of Death,” answered Tom. “See—here is the first fir-cone;
it is alive, and bears seed. It is no Tree of Death, but a Tree of Life.”

Then Tom laughed.

“Mary,” said he, “I think for once in my life I’ve said a good thing.”

But Mary did not applaud.

“Tom, do you think the little fir-cone really has life in it?”

“Of course it has.”

Mary picked it, and then put it into the tiny hand of the baby.

“Look, Tom,” she said. “But for that Christmas tree you and I would never
have become what we are to each other—and now, in it is the seed of life,
and so on and on and on for evermore. Our baby has it, and it shall be
sown, and so—really, Tom, there seems to be no end to life; it goes on
for ever and for ever!”

“Amen,” responded Tom.