ON THE MINDING OF OTHER PEOPLE'S BUSINESS
I walked one bright September morning in the Strand. I love London
best in the autumn. Then only can one see the gleam of its white
pavements, the bold, unbroken outline of its streets. I love the
cool vistas one comes across of mornings in the parks, the soft
twilights that linger in the empty bye-streets. In June the
restaurant manager is off-hand with me; I feel I am but in his way.
In August he spreads for me the table by the window, pours out for
me my wine with his own fat hands. I cannot doubt his regard for
me: my foolish jealousies are stilled. Do I care for a drive after
dinner through the caressing night air, I can climb the omnibus
stair without a preliminary fight upon the curb, can sit with easy
conscience and unsquashed body, not feeling I have deprived some
hot, tired woman of a seat. Do I desire the play, no harsh,
forbidding "House full" board repels me from the door. During her
season, London, a harassed hostess, has no time for us, her
intimates. Her rooms are overcrowded, her servants overworked, her
dinners hurriedly cooked, her tone insincere. In the spring, to be
truthful, the great lady condescends to be somewhat vulgar--noisy
and ostentatious. Not till the guests are departed is she herself
again, the London that we, her children, love.
Have you, gentle Reader, ever seen London--not the London of the
waking day, coated with crawling life, as a blossom with blight, but
the London of the morning, freed from her rags, the patient city,
clad in mists? Get you up with the dawn one Sunday in summer time.
Wake none else, but creep down stealthily into the kitchen, and make
your own tea and toast.
Be careful you stumble not over the cat. She will worm herself
insidiously between your legs. It is her way; she means it in
friendship. Neither bark your shins against the coal-box. Why the
kitchen coal-box has its fixed place in the direct line between the
kitchen door and the gas-bracket I cannot say. I merely know it as
an universal law; and I would that you escaped that coal-box, lest
the frame of mind I desire for you on this Sabbath morning be
A spoon to stir your tea, I fear you must dispense with. Knives and
forks you will discover in plenty; blacking brushes you will put
your hand upon in every drawer; of emery paper, did one require it,
there are reams; but it is a point with every housekeeper that the
spoons be hidden in a different place each night. If anybody
excepting herself can find them in the morning, it is a slur upon
her. No matter, a stick of firewood, sharpened at one end, makes an
Your breakfast done, turn out the gas, remount the stairs quietly,
open gently the front door and slip out. You will find yourself in
an unknown land. A strange city grown round you in the night.
The sweet long streets lie silent in sunlight. Not a living thing
is to be seen save some lean Tom that slinks from his gutter feast
as you approach. From some tree there will sound perhaps a fretful
chirp: but the London sparrow is no early riser; he is but talking
in his sleep. The slow tramp of unseen policeman draws near or dies
away. The clatter of your own footsteps goes with you, troubling
you. You find yourself trying to walk softly, as one does in
echoing cathedrals. A voice is everywhere about you whispering to
you "Hush." Is this million-breasted City then some tender Artemis,
seeking to keep her babes asleep? "Hush, you careless wayfarer; do
not waken them. Walk lighter; they are so tired, these myriad
children of mine, sleeping in my thousand arms. They are
over-worked and over-worried; so many of them are sick, so many
fretful, many of them, alas, so full of naughtiness. But all of
them so tired. Hush! they worry me with their noise and riot when
they are awake. They are so good now they are asleep. Walk
lightly, let them rest."
Where the ebbing tide flows softly through worn arches to the sea,
you may hear the stone-faced City talking to the restless waters:
"Why will you never stay with me? Why come but to go?"
"I cannot say, I do not understand. From the deep sea I come, but
only as a bird loosed from a child's hand with a cord. When she
calls I must return."
"It is so with these children of mine. They come to me, I know not
whence. I nurse them for a little while, till a hand I do not see
plucks them back. And others take their place."
Through the still air there passes a ripple of sound. The sleeping
City stirs with a faint sigh. A distant milk-cart rattling by
raises a thousand echoes; it is the vanguard of a yoked army. Soon
from every street there rises the soothing cry,
London like some Gargantuan babe, is awake, crying for its milk.
These be the white-smocked nurses hastening with its morning
nourishment. The early church bells ring. "You have had your milk,
little London. Now come and say your prayers. Another week has
just begun, baby London. God knows what will happen, say your
One by one the little creatures creep from behind the blinds into
the streets. The brooding tenderness is vanished from the City's
face. The fretful noises of the day have come again. Silence, her
lover of the night, kisses her stone lips, and steals away. And
you, gentle Reader, return home, garlanded with the self-sufficiency
of the early riser.
But it was of a certain week-day morning, in the Strand that I was
thinking. I was standing outside Gatti's Restaurant, where I had
just breakfasted, listening leisurely to an argument between an
indignant lady passenger, presumably of Irish extraction, and an
"For what d'ye want thin to paint Putney on ye'r bus, if ye don't GO
to Putney?" said the, lady.
"We DO go to Putney," said the conductor.
"Thin why did ye put me out here?"
"I didn't put you out, yer got out."
"Shure, didn't the gintleman in the corner tell me I was comin'
further away from Putney ivery minit?"
"Wal, and so yer was."
"Thin whoy didn't you tell me?"
"How was I to know yer wanted to go to Putney? Yer sings out
Putney, and I stops and in yer jumps."
"And for what d'ye think I called out Putney thin?"
"'Cause it's my name, or rayther the bus's name. This 'ere IS a
"How can it be a Putney whin it isn't goin' to Putney, ye
"Ain't you an Hirishwoman?" retorted the conductor. "Course yer
are. But yer aren't always goin' to Ireland. We're goin' to Putney
in time, only we're a-going to Liverpool Street fust. 'Igher up,
The bus moved on, and I was about cross the road, when a man,
muttering savagely to himself, walked into me. He would have swept
past me had I not, recognizing him, arrested him. It was my friend
B-----, a busy editor of magazines and journals. It was some
seconds before he appeared able to struggle out of his abstraction,
and remember himself. "Halloo," he then said, "who would have
thought of seeing YOU here?"
"To judge by the way you were walking," I replied, "one would
imagine the Strand the last place in which you expected to see any
human being. Do you ever walk into a short-tempered, muscular man?"
"Did I walk into you?" he asked surprised.
"Well, not right in," I answered, "I if we are to be literal. You
walked on to me; if I had not stopped you, I suppose you would have
walked over me."
"It is this confounded Christmas business," he explained. "It
drives me off my head."
"I have heard Christmas advanced as an excuse for many things," I
replied, "but not early in September."
"Oh, you know what I mean," he answered, "we are in the middle of
our Christmas number. I am working day and night upon it. By the
bye," he added, "that puts me in mind. I am arranging a symposium,
and I want you to join. 'Should Christmas,'"--I interrupted him.
"My dear fellow," I said, "I commenced my journalistic career when I
was eighteen, and I have continued it at intervals ever since. I
have written about Christmas from the sentimental point of view; I
have analyzed it from the philosophical point of view; and I have
scarified it from the sarcastic standpoint. I have treated
Christmas humorously for the Comics, and sympathetically for the
Provincial Weeklies. I have said all that is worth saying on the
subject of Christmas--maybe a trifle more. I have told the
new-fashioned Christmas story--you know the sort of thing: your
heroine tries to understand herself, and, failing, runs off with the
man who began as the hero; your good woman turns out to be really
bad when one comes to know her; while the villain, the only decent
person in the story, dies with an enigmatic sentence on his lips
that looks as if it meant something, but which you yourself would be
sorry to have to explain. I have also written the old-fashioned
Christmas story--you know that also: you begin with a good
old-fashioned snowstorm; you have a good old-fashioned squire, and
he lives in a good old-fashioned Hall; you work in a good
old-fashioned murder; and end up with a good old-fashioned Christmas
dinner. I have gathered Christmas guests together round the
crackling logs to tell ghost stories to each other on Christmas Eve,
while without the wind howled, as it always does on these occasions,
at its proper cue. I have sent children to Heaven on Christmas
Eve--it must be quite a busy time for St. Peter, Christmas morning,
so many good children die on Christmas Eve. It has always been a
popular night with them.--I have revivified dead lovers and brought
them back well and jolly, just in time to sit down to the Christmas
dinner. I am not ashamed of having done these things. At the time
I thought them good. I once loved currant wine and girls with
towzley hair. One's views change as one grows older. I have
discussed Christmas as a religious festival. I have arraigned it as
a social incubus. If there be any joke connected with Christmas
that I have not already made I should be glad to hear it. I have
trotted out the indigestion jokes till the sight of one of them
gives me indigestion myself. I have ridiculed the family gathering.
I have scoffed at the Christmas present. I have made witty use of
paterfamilias and his bills. I have--"
"Did I ever show you," I broke off to ask as we were crossing the
Haymarket, "that little parody of mine on Poe's poem of 'The Bells'?
It begins--" He interrupted me in his turn--
"Bills, bills, bills," he repeated.
"You are quite right," I admitted. "I forgot I ever showed it to
"You never did," he replied.
"Then how do you know how it begins?" I asked.
"I don't know for certain," he admitted, "but I get, on an average,
sixty-five a year submitted to me, and they all begin that way. I
thought, perhaps, yours did also."
"I don't see how else it could begin," I retorted. He had rather
annoyed me. "Besides, it doesn't matter how a poem begins, it is
how it goes on that is the important thing and anyhow, I'm not going
to write you anything about Christmas. Ask me to make you a new
joke about a plumber; suggest my inventing something original and
not too shocking for a child to say about heaven; propose my running
you off a dog story that can be believed by a man of average
determination and we may come to terms. But on the subject of
Christmas I am taking a rest."
By this time we had reached Piccadilly Circus.
"I don't blame you," he said, "if you are as sick of the subject as
I am. So soon as these Christmas numbers are off my mind, and
Christmas is over till next June at the office, I shall begin it at
home. The housekeeping is gone up a pound a week already. I know
what that means. The dear little woman is saving up to give me an
expensive present that I don't want. I think the presents are the
worst part of Christmas. Emma will give me a water-colour that she
has painted herself. She always does. There would be no harm in
that if she did not expect me to hang it in the drawing room. Have
you ever seen my cousin Emma's water-colours?" he asked.
"I think I have," I replied.
"There's no thinking about it," he retorted angrily. "They're not
the sort of water-colours you forget."
He apostrophized the Circus generally.
"Why do people do these things?" he demanded. "Even an amateur
artist must have SOME sense. Can't they see what is happening?
There's that thing of hers hanging in the passage. I put it in the
passage because there's not much light in the passage. She's
labelled it Reverie. If she had called it Influenza I could have
understood it. I asked her where she got the idea from, and she
said she saw the sky like that one evening in Norfolk. Great
Heavens! then why didn't she shut her eyes or go home and hide
behind the bed-curtains? If I had seen a sky like that in Norfolk I
should have taken the first train back to London. I suppose the
poor girl can't help seeing these things, but why paint them?"
I said, "I suppose painting is a necessity to some natures."
"But why give the things to me?" he pleaded.
I could offer him no adequate reason.
"The idiotic presents that people give you!" he continued. "I said
I'd like Tennyson's poems one year. They had worried me to know
what I did want. I didn't want anything really; that was the only
thing I could think of that I wasn't dead sure I didn't want. Well,
they clubbed together, four of them, and gave me Tennyson in twelve
volumes, illustrated with coloured photographs. They meant kindly,
of course. If you suggest a tobacco-pouch they give you a blue
velvet bag capable of holding about a pound, embroidered with
flowers, life-size. The only way one could use it would be to put a
strap to it and wear it as a satchel. Would you believe it, I have
got a velvet smoking-jacket, ornamented with forget-me-nots and
butterflies in coloured silk; I'm not joking. And they ask me why I
never wear it. I'll bring it down to the Club one of these nights
and wake the place up a bit: it needs it."
We had arrived by this at the steps of the 'Devonshire.'
"And I'm just as bad," he went on, "when I give presents. I never
give them what they want. I never hit upon anything that is of any
use to anybody. If I give Jane a chinchilla tippet, you may be
certain chinchilla is the most out-of-date fur that any woman could
wear. 'Oh! that is nice of you,' she says; 'now that is just the
very thing I wanted. I will keep it by me till chinchilla comes in
again.' I give the girls watch-chains when nobody is wearing
watch-chains. When watch-chains are all the rage I give them
ear-rings, and they thank me, and suggest my taking them to a
fancy-dress ball, that being their only chance to wear the
confounded things. I waste money on white gloves with black backs,
to find that white gloves with black backs stamp a woman as
suburban. I believe all the shop-keepers in London save their old
stock to palm it off on me at Christmas time. And why does it
always take half-a-dozen people to serve you with a pair of gloves,
I'd like to know? Only last week Jane asked me to get her some
gloves for that last Mansion House affair. I was feeling amiable,
and I thought I would do the thing handsomely. I hate going into a
draper's shop; everybody stares at a man as if he were forcing his
way into the ladies' department of a Turkish bath. One of those
marionette sort of men came up to me and said it was a fine morning.
What the devil did I want to talk about the morning to him for? I
said I wanted some gloves. I described them to the best of my
recollection. I said, 'I want them four buttons, but they are not
to be button-gloves; the buttons are in the middle and they reach up
to the elbow, if you know what I mean.' He bowed, and said he
understood exactly what I meant, which was a damned sight more than
I did. I told him I wanted three pair cream and three pair
fawn-coloured, and the fawn-coloured were to be swedes. He
corrected me. He said I meant 'Suede.' I dare say he was right,
but the interruption put me off, and I had to begin over again. He
listened attentively until I had finished. I guess I was about five
minutes standing with him there close to the door. He said, 'Is
that all you require, sir, this morning?' I said it was.
"' Thank you, sir,' he replied. 'This way, please, sir.'
"He took me into another room, and there we met a man named Jansen,
to whom he briefly introduced me as a gentleman who 'desired
gloves.' 'Yes, sir,' said Mr. Jansen; and what sort of gloves do
"I told him I wanted six pairs altogether--three suede,
fawn-coloured, and three cream-coloured--kids.
"He said, 'Do you mean kid gloves, sir, or gloves for children?'
"He made me angry by that. I told him I was not in the habit of
using slang. Nor am I when buying gloves. He said he was sorry. I
explained to him about the buttons, so far as I could understand it
myself, and about the length. I asked him to see to it that the
buttons were sewn on firmly, and that the stitching everywhere was
perfect, adding that the last gloves my wife had had of his firm had
been most unsatisfactory. Jane had impressed upon me to add that.
She said it would make them more careful.
"He listened to me in rapt ecstacy. I might have been music.
"'And what size, sir?' he asked.
"I had forgotten that. 'Oh, sixes,' I answered, 'unless they are
very stretchy indeed, in which case they had better be five and
"'Oh, and the stitching on the cream is to be black,' I added. That
was another thing I had forgotten.
"'Thank you very much,' said Mr. Jansen; 'is there anything else
that you require this morning?'
"'No, thank you,' I replied, 'not this morning.' I was beginning to
like the man.
"He took me for quite a walk, and wherever we went everybody left
off what they were doing to stare at me. I was getting tired when
we reached the glove department. He marched me up to a young man
who was sticking pins into himself. He said 'Gloves,' and
disappeared through a curtain. The young man left off sticking pins
into himself, and leant across the counter.
"'Ladies' gloves or gentlemen's gloves?' he said.
"Well, I was pretty mad by this time, as you can guess. It is funny
when you come to think of it afterwards, but the wonder then was
that I didn't punch his head.
"I said, 'Are you ever busy in this shop? Does there ever come a
time when you feel you would like to get your work done, instead of
lingering over it and spinning it out for pure love of the thing?'
"He did not appear to understand me. I said, 'I met a man at your
door a quarter of an hour ago, and we talked about these gloves that
I want, and I told him all my ideas on the subject. He took me to
your Mr. Jansen, and Mr. Jansen and I went over the whole business
again. Now Mr. Jansen leaves it with you--you who do not even know
whether I want ladies' or gentlemen's gloves. Before I go over this
story for the third time, I want to know whether you are the man who
is going to serve me, or whether you are merely a listener, because
personally I am tired of the subject?'
"Well, this was the right man at last, and I got my gloves from him.
But what is the explanation--what is the idea? I was in that shop
from first to last five-and-thirty minutes. And then a fool took me
out the wrong way to show me a special line in sleeping-socks. I
told him I was not requiring any. He said he didn't want me to buy,
he only wanted me to see them. No wonder the drapers have had to
start luncheon and tea-rooms. They'll fix up small furnished flats
soon, where a woman can live for a week."
I said it was very trying, shopping. I also said, as he invited me,
and as he appeared determined to go on talking, that I would have a
brandy-and-soda. We were in the smoke-room by this time.
"There ought to be an association," he continued, "a kind of
clearing-house for the collection and distribution of Christmas
presents. One would give them a list of the people from whom to
collect presents, and of the people to whom to send. Suppose they
collected on my account twenty Christmas presents, value, say, ten
pounds, while on the other hand they sent out for me thirty presents
at a cost of fifteen pounds. They would debit me with the balance
of five pounds, together with a small commission. I should pay it
cheerfully, and there would be no further trouble. Perhaps one
might even make a profit. The idea might include birthdays and
weddings. A firm would do the business thoroughly. They would see
that all your friends paid up--I mean sent presents; and they would
not forget to send to your most important relative. There is only
one member of our family capable of leaving a shilling; and of
course if I forget to send to any one it is to him. When I remember
him I generally make a muddle of the business. Two years ago I gave
him a bath--I don't mean I washed him--an india-rubber thing, that
he could pack in his portmanteau. I thought he would find it useful
for travelling. Would you believe it, he took it as a personal
affront, and wouldn't speak to me for a month, the snuffy old
"I suppose the children enjoy it," I said.
"Enjoy what?" he asked.
"Why, Christmas," I explained.
"I don't believe they do," he snapped; "nobody enjoys it. We excite
them for three weeks beforehand, telling them what a good time they
are going to have, over-feed them for two or three days, take them
to something they do not want to see, but which we do, and then
bully them for a fortnight to get them back into their normal
condition. I was always taken to the Crystal Palace and Madame
Tussaud's when I was a child, I remember. How I did hate that
Crystal Palace! Aunt used to superintend. It was always a bitterly
cold day, and we always got into the wrong train, and travelled half
the day before we got there. We never had any dinner. It never
occurs to a woman that anybody can want their meals while away from
home. She seems to think that nature is in suspense from the time
you leave the house till the time you get back to it. A bun and a
glass of milk was her idea of lunch for a school-boy. Half her time
was taken up in losing us, and the other half in slapping us when
she had found us. The only thing we really enjoyed was the row with
the cabman coming home."
I rose to go.
"Then you won't join that symposium?" said B-----. "It would be an
easy enough thing to knock off--'Why Christmas should be
"It sounds simple," I answered. "But how do you propose to abolish
it?" The lady editor of an "advanced" American magazine once set
the discussion--"Should sex be abolished?" and eleven ladies and
gentlemen seriously argued the question.
"Leave it to die of inanition," said B-----; "the first step is to
arouse public opinion. Convince the public that it should be
"But why should it be abolished?" I asked.
"Great Scott! man," he exclaimed; "don't you want it abolished?"
"I'm not sure that I do," I replied.
"Not sure," he retorted; "you call yourself a journalist, and admit
there is a subject under Heaven of which you are not sure!"
"It has come over me of late years," I replied. "It used not to be
my failing, as you know."
He glanced round to make sure we were out of earshot, then sunk his
voice to a whisper.
"Between ourselves," he said, "I'm not so sure of everything myself
as I used to be. Why is it?"
"Perhaps we are getting older," I suggested.
He said--"I started golf last year, and the first time I took the
club in my hand I sent the ball a furlong. 'It seems an easy game,'
I said to the man who was teaching me. 'Yes, most people find it
easy at the beginning,' he replied dryly. He was an old golfer
himself; I thought he was jealous. I stuck well to the game, and
for about three weeks I was immensely pleased with myself. Then,
gradually, I began to find out the difficulties. I feel I shall
never make a good player. Have you ever gone through that
"Yes," I replied; "I suppose that is the explanation. The game
seems so easy at the beginning. "
I left him to his lunch, and strolled westward, musing on the time
when I should have answered that question of his about Christmas, or
any other question, off-hand. That good youth time when I knew
everything, when life presented no problems, dangled no doubts
In those days, wishful to give the world the benefit of my wisdom,
and seeking for a candle-stick wherefrom my brilliancy might be
visible and helpful unto men, I arrived before a dingy portal in
Chequers Street, St. Luke's, behind which a conclave of young men,
together with a few old enough to have known better, met every
Friday evening for the purpose of discussing and arranging the
affairs of the universe. "Speaking members" were charged
ten-and-sixpence per annum, which must have worked out at an
extremely moderate rate per word; and "gentlemen whose subscriptions
were more than three months in arrear," became, by Rule seven,
powerless for good or evil. We called ourselves "The Stormy
Petrels," and, under the sympathetic shadow of those wings, I
laboured two seasons towards the reformation of the human race;
until, indeed, our treasurer, an earnest young man, and a tireless
foe of all that was conventional, departed for the East, leaving
behind him a balance sheet, showing that the club owed forty-two
pounds fifteen and fourpence, and that the subscriptions for the
current year, amounting to a little over thirty-eight pounds, had
been "carried forward," but as to where, the report afforded no
indication. Whereupon our landlord, a man utterly without ideals,
seized our furniture, offering to sell it back to us for fifteen
pounds. We pointed out to him that this was an extravagant price,
and tendered him five.
The negotiations terminated with ungentlemanly language on his part,
and "The Stormy Petrels" scattered, never to be foregathered
together again above the troubled waters of humanity. Now-a-days,
listening to the feeble plans of modern reformers, I cannot help but
smile, remembering what was done in Chequers Street, St. Luke's, in
an age when Mrs. Grundy still gave the law to literature, while yet
the British matron was the guide to British art. I am informed that
there is abroad the question of abolishing the House of Lords! Why,
"The Stormy Petrels" abolished the aristocracy and the Crown in one
evening, and then only adjourned for the purpose of appointing a
committee to draw up and have ready a Republican Constitution by the
following Friday evening. They talk of Empire lounges! We closed
the doors of every music-hall in London eighteen years ago by
twenty-nine votes to seventeen. They had a patient hearing, and
were ably defended; but we found that the tendency of such
amusements was anti-progressive, and against the best interests of
an intellectually advancing democracy. I met the mover of the
condemnatory resolution at the old "Pav" the following evening, and
we continued the discussion over a bottle of Bass. He strengthened
his argument by persuading me to sit out the whole of the three
songs sung by the "Lion Comique"; but I subsequently retorted
successfully, by bringing under his notice the dancing of a lady in
blue tights and flaxen hair. I forget her name but never shall I
cease to remember her exquisite charm and beauty. Ah, me! how
charming and how beautiful "artistes" were in those golden days!
Whence have they vanished? Ladies in blue tights and flaxen hair
dance before my eyes to-day, but move me not, unless it be towards
boredom. Where be the tripping witches of twenty years ago, whom to
see once was to dream of for a week, to touch whose white hand would
have been joy, to kiss whose red lips would have been to foretaste
Heaven. I heard only the other day that the son of an old friend of
mine had secretly married a lady from the front row of the ballet,
and involuntarily I exclaimed, "Poor devil!" There was a time when
my first thought would have been, "Lucky beggar! is he worthy of
her?" For then the ladies of the ballet were angels. How could one
gaze at them--from the shilling pit--and doubt it? They danced to
keep a widowed mother in comfort, or to send a younger brother to
school. Then they were glorious creatures a young man did well to
worship; but now-a-days--
It is an old jest. The eyes of youth see through rose-tinted
glasses. The eyes of age are dim behind smoke-clouded spectacles.
My flaxen friend, you are not the angel I dreamed you, nor the
exceptional sinner some would paint you; but under your feathers,
just a woman--a bundle of follies and failings, tied up with some
sweetness and strength. You keep a brougham I am sure you cannot
afford on your thirty shillings a week. There are ladies I know, in
Mayfair, who have paid an extravagant price for theirs. You paint
and you dye, I am told: it is even hinted you pad. Don't we all of
us deck ourselves out in virtues that are not our own? When the
paint and the powder, my sister, is stripped both from you and from
me, we shall know which of us is entitled to look down on the other
Forgive me, gentle Reader, for digressing. The lady led me astray.
I was speaking of "The Stormy Petrels," and of the reforms they
accomplished, which were many. We abolished, I remember, capital
punishment and war; we were excellent young men at heart. Christmas
we reformed altogether, along with Bank Holidays, by a majority of
twelve. I never recollect any proposal to abolish anything ever
being lost when put to the vote. There were few things that we
"Stormy Petrels" did not abolish. We attacked Christmas on grounds
of expediency, and killed it by ridicule. We exposed the hollow
mockery of Christmas sentiment; we abused the indigestible Christmas
dinner, the tiresome Christmas party, the silly Christmas pantomime.
Our funny member was side-splitting on the subject of Christmas
Waits; our social reformer bitter upon Christmas drunkenness; our
economist indignant upon Christmas charities. Only one argument of
any weight with us was advanced in favour of the festival, and that
was our leading cynic's suggestion that it was worth enduring the
miseries of Christmas, to enjoy the soul-satisfying comfort of the
after reflection that it was all over, and could not occur again for
But since those days when I was prepared to put this old world of
ours to rights upon all matters, I have seen many sights and heard
many sounds, and I am not quite so sure as I once was that my
particular views are the only possibly correct ones. Christmas
seems to me somewhat meaningless; but I have looked through windows
in poverty-stricken streets, and have seen dingy parlours gay with
many chains of coloured paper. They stretched from corner to corner
of the smoke-grimed ceiling, they fell in clumsy festoons from the
cheap gasalier, they framed the fly-blown mirror and the tawdry
pictures; and I know tired hands and eyes worked many hours to
fashion and fix those foolish chains, saying, "It will please him--
she will like to see the room look pretty;" and as I have looked at
them they have grown, in some mysterious manner, beautiful to me.
The gaudy-coloured child and dog irritates me, I confess; but I have
watched a grimy, inartistic personage, smoothing it affectionately
with toil-stained hand, while eager faces crowded round to admire
and wonder at its blatant crudity. It hangs to this day in its
cheap frame above the chimney-piece, the one bright spot relieving
those damp-stained walls; dull eyes stare and stare again at it,
catching a vista, through its flashy tints, of the far-off land of
art. Christmas Waits annoy me, and I yearn to throw open the window
and fling coal at them--as once from the window of a high flat in
Chelsea I did. I doubted their being genuine Waits. I was inclined
to the opinion they were young men seeking excuse for making a
noise. One of them appeared to know a hymn with a chorus, another
played the concertina, while a third accompanied with a step dance.
Instinctively I felt no respect for them; they disturbed me in my
work, and the desire grew upon me to injure them. It occurred to me
it would be good sport if I turned out the light, softly opened the
window, and threw coal at them. It would be impossible for them to
tell from which window in the block the coal came, and thus
subsequent unpleasantness would be avoided. They were a compact
little group, and with average luck I was bound to hit one of them.
I adopted the plan. I could not see them very clearly. I aimed
rather at the noise; and I had thrown about twenty choice lumps
without effect, and was feeling somewhat discouraged, when a yell,
followed by language singularly unappropriate to the season, told me
that Providence had aided my arm. The music ceased suddenly, and
the party dispersed, apparently in high glee--which struck me as
One man I noticed remained behind. He stood under the lamp-post,
and shook his fist at the block generally.
"Who threw that lump of coal?" he demanded in stentorian tones.
To my horror, it was the voice of the man at Eighty-eight, an Irish
gentleman, a journalist like myself. I saw it all, as the
unfortunate hero always exclaims, too late, in the play. He--number
Eighty-eight--also disturbed by the noise, had evidently gone out to
expostulate with the rioters. Of course my lump of coal had hit
him--him the innocent, the peaceful (up till then), the virtuous.
That is the justice Fate deals out to us mortals here below. There
were ten to fourteen young men in that crowd, each one of whom fully
deserved that lump of coal; he, the one guiltless, got it--
seemingly, so far as the dim light from the gas lamp enabled me to
judge, full in the eye.
As the block remained silent in answer to his demand, he crossed the
road and mounted the stairs. On each landing he stopped and
"Who threw that lump of coal? I want the man who threw that lump of
coal. Out you come."
Now a good man in my place would have waited till number
Eighty-eight arrived on his landing, and then, throwing open the
door would have said with manly candour--
"_I_ threw that lump of coal. I was-," He would not have got
further, because at that point, I feel confident, number Eighty--
eight would have punched his head. There would have been an
unseemly fracas on the staircase, to the annoyance of all the other
tenants and later, there would have issued a summons and a
cross-summons. Angry passions would have been roused, bitter
feeling engendered which might have lasted for years.
I do not pretend to be a good man. I doubt if the pretence would be
of any use were I to try: I am not a sufficiently good actor. I
said to myself, as I took off my boots in the study, preparatory to
retiring to my bedroom--"Number Eighty-eight is evidently not in a
frame of mind to listen to my story. It will be better to let him
shout himself cool; after which he will return to his own flat,
bathe his eye, and obtain some refreshing sleep. In the morning,
when we shall probably meet as usual on our way to Fleet Street, I
will refer to the incident casually, and sympathize with him. I
will suggest to him the truth--that in all probability some
fellow-tenant, irritated also by the noise, had aimed coal at the
Waits, hitting him instead by a regrettable but pure accident. With
tact I may even be able to make him see the humour of the incident.
Later on, in March or April, choosing my moment with judgment, I
will, perhaps, confess that I was that fellow-tenant, and over a
friendly brandy-and-soda we will laugh the whole trouble away."
As a matter of fact, that is what happened. Said number
Eighty-eight--he was a big man, as good a fellow at heart as ever
lived, but impulsive--"Damned lucky for you, old man, you did not
tell me at the time."
"I felt," I replied, "instinctively that it was a case for delay."
There are times when one should control one's passion for candour;
and as I was saying, Christmas waits excite no emotion in my breast
save that of irritation. But I have known "Hark, the herald angels
sing," wheezily chanted by fog-filled throats, and accompanied,
hopelessly out of tune, by a cornet and a flute, bring a great look
of gladness to a work-worn face. To her it was a message of hope
and love, making the hard life taste sweet. The mere thought of
family gatherings, so customary at Christmas time, bores us superior
people; but I think of an incident told me by a certain man, a
friend of mine. One Christmas, my friend, visiting in the country,
came face to face with a woman whom in town he had often met amid
very different surroundings. The door of the little farmhouse was
open; she and an older woman were ironing at a table, and as her
soft white hands passed to and fro, folding and smoothing the
rumpled heap, she laughed and talked, concerning simple homely
things. My friend's shadow fell across her work, and she looking
up, their eyes met; but her face said plainly, "I do not know you
here, and here you do not know me. Here I am a woman loved and
respected." My friend passed in and spoke to the older woman, the
wife of one of his host's tenants, and she turned towards, and
introduced the younger--"My daughter, sir. We do not see her very
often. She is in a place in London, and cannot get away. But she
always spends a few days with us at Christmas."
"It is the season for family re-unions," answered my friend with
just the suggestion of a sneer, for which he hated himself.
"Yes, sir," said the woman, not noticing; "she has never missed her
Christmas with us, have you, Bess?"
"No, mother," replied the girl simply, and bent her head again over
So for these few days every year this woman left her furs and
jewels, her fine clothes and dainty foods, behind her, and lived for
a little space with what was clean and wholesome. It was the one
anchor holding her to womanhood; and one likes to think that it was,
perhaps, in the end strong enough to save her from the drifting
waters. All which arguments in favour of Christmas and of Christmas
customs are, I admit, purely sentimental ones, but I have lived long
enough to doubt whether sentiment has not its legitimate place in
the economy of life.