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WASSAIL: A CHRISTMAS STORY.
PART I.-CHAPTER I.
It was a cold night-a hard, clear Christmas night. The cold was everywhere. It was in the sky, clear as it was; it fell in the rays of the stars, bright as they were; it lay on the crisp frost which covered the fields, and in the rags and tatters of snow which hung from the bushes, making them look like iced scarecrows. It was a cold which you would set your teeth against, walk at, buffet with, perhaps swear at; but it was a cold which would not make you bear malice, like an east wind or damp sou'-wester. It was a cold, too, which, when yielding to the proper antidotes of warm fires and warm rooms, left rather a crisp, braced, pleasant feeling behind.
It had it all its own way at the Garland Ox. That famed public, as it stood with its bare stone walls and unlit windows in the open sky, sheltered only by an old battered yew-tree and a hedge of blackthorn, seemed to offer as yet only a dogged resistance. The cold lay in layers of snow on the roof, meandered in little fretwork and imperfect cobwebs along the window-panes, had fallen in little heaps on the top of the signboard, and even bedabbled the figure of the noble animal represented thereon, giving him the appearance of having been snowballed, and taking away altogether the vernal and festive character which the garland of Lent lilies around his neck was supposed to impress. The fowls and animals had all cowered under the sheds, and the path from the village was as yet silent and solitary, it being too early for the rustics to meet the cold for the sake of the cheer and revelry within. Inside, too, the cold held a sort of neutral ground. A single dip flickered on the table, showing dimly the outline of the large kitchen, though a
VOL. XC.-NO. DLIV.
row of brass candlesticks on the dresser, profusely adorned with holly and laurel, promised that byand-by the tapers would glimmer fair. Christmas eve was only in expectation at the Garland Ox. The fire was banked up with black coal, and the embers beneath glowed only fitfully across the sanded floor, scarcely counteracting the chill from the frosted windows, though now and then shooting forth a light which revealed rows of pewters, clear and highly burnished, hanging from the shelves, and occasionally darted into the depths of the bar, where casks stood, already tapped; and bottles of the vine-leaf design, bearing the labels rum, brandy, &c., and dangling nets of lemons, gave goodly promise of coming joviality. Two individuals sat in the chimney - nook. One was mine host-just such as a host should be, according to the orthodox type, fat, ruddy, short-necked, short-legged, and wheezy. He had gone through the grades of knife-boy and footman ere he attained the dignity of landlord; and a skilful anatomist might perhaps have discovered in his well-fleshed body the different strata belonging to each period. The other was a large and apparently young man, who lay lolling on a bench, and was so disguised by a loose dress, half-sailor, halfnavvy, and by a fur-cap drawn well over his face, that it was hard to see what he was. Between them the hostess-sharp, thin, weasel-likebustled up and down, engaged in what she called righting the hearth. The opinion of the good Sarah Battle relative to a clear fire and a clean hearth is doubtless true and orthodox, though the process by which these are attained is as certainly very disturbing to the domestic economy. It seemed especially so in the present instance, as
the broom in its sweeps invariably came in contact with mine host's fat legs, and the poker or tongs, or any other implement which required removal, took the same direction, so that he was obliged to be constantly drawing them up or hoisting them round, and sat in a state of harassing defensive warfare. He found little consolation in the stranger, who was silent and unsocial. The Garland Ox had made many overtures without effect, and he was not a man to force his conversation on any guest. At length the stranger began to smoke, and the fragrant fumes of his pipe overcame even the exclusiveness of the host, and forced him to break into colloquy.
"That's fine baccy of yours, sir." The only reply was an outstretched arm with a hairy pouch in it. The Garland Ox accepted the proffer, filled and lit his pipe, puffed, gurgled, gyrated on his stool, choked and puffed again, but at each puff he seemed to abandon the attitude of hostile defence, and to regard all exterior circumstances, including even the eccentric movements of the broom and the flight of missiles, with a most benignant suavity. He was tasting cavendish for the first time.
ing forth, in a nasal twang, “Wassail, wassail, a jolly wassail!”
Presently the door opened, and in rushed twenty or more roughlooking men, some blowing the cold from them, some stamping it out on the floor, and some thrashing it off by beating their arms across their chests. Meantime their leader, with a dark wooden bowl under his arm, had pranced up playfully to the landlord of the Ox, and was shout
"I thought, Kit," said the Garland Ox, that 'twas agin your rules to begin wassail with a dry bowl."
"Or with a dry lip either," replied the wassailer; "so we'll commence proceedings with a drop of Christmas ale."
The hostess was just in her designation of "vagabonds." The seal of vagabondism was set on the whole party. It bore, perhaps, no visible sign, and yet was as plain as the horn on a rhinoceros. It was common to all. There were patriarch Dibbles, middle-aged Dibbles, and young Dibbles-large Dibbles, middle-sized Dibbles, and small Dibbles; yet all bore the same impress of vagabondism. They breathed it; they walked it; it lurked in every look and in every turn of their loose, shambling gait ; vagabondism was evidently a nature hereditary to the Dibbles. There was another trait equally universal
that of ugliness. It was not, however, the scowling low-browed ugliness which looks out garotte, burglary, and murder on the world; but a grotesque and comic ugliness, such as is seen on water-spouts and on the lion-heads of fountains. This ugliness maintained a general likeness throughout, yet had its flights and fancies, and indulged here and there in eccentric touches and variations. The leading feature of the Dibble physiognomy was the nose. In some it had the mangold-wurzel character-coarsely red, warty, and pitted; in some it was slightly fined down to the beetroot standard; in others it took more after the kidney-potato type; but however much toned down or modified, it was always sufficient to identify a Dibble. The other features were worthy of it. The eyes were small and piggy; the mouth large, with loose blubbery lips; the hair was of the lankest and the straightest, tallowy, and of a whitey-brown colour when not grizzled by age.
The costume, too, was based on general principles, though varied in detail. A greatcoat was the garment aimed at; and there were specimens exhibited, illustrative not only of different wardrobes, but of different generations. One Dibble had an upper benjamin fastened alternately by bows of tape and buttons; another had adapted the green plush shooting-jacket of a corpulent squire, which still bore one of its original mother-of-pearl buttons, hanging in unworthy association with others of horn and wood, assisted by an occasional pin; a third was happy in the possession of a braided coat, short-waisted, long-skirted, after the fashion of the Regency; and as this was the most diminutive individual of the party, the garment reached from his neck to his heels, giving him the appearance of a gentleman in his dressing-gown who had made a hasty toilet.
An article of apparel still more common to all was the comforter. It had its variations; sometimes it was white with pink ends, sometimes white with green ends, sometimes of an honest brown; but a comforter enveloped every Dibble chin and touched every Dibble nose. It was evidently either the orthodox costume of a wassailer, or a distinctive badge of the race.
They are vagabonds, all these Dibbles. Yet with a vitality not unusual to vagabond races, they had lived, thrived in their way, and spread like the horse-radish, generation after generation, in the same locality, outlasting and outliving old Norman families and good old Saxon houses, just as the badger and fox survived their mammoth contemporaries. The Dibbles had appeared in the parish register century after century, generally occupying the same place and position neither rising nor falling, hovering on pauperism, and coquetting with petty larceny, and only just skirting the workhouse and bridewell.
It was this pertinacity in multiplying, and this adherence to place,
which had gained them the nickname of the Royal Family.
This Royal Family was divided into several branches-there was the Unicorn, the Mermaid, the Beelzebub, and the Giant; and then the Mermaid had an offshoot, the Pretty Tommy, which had gained a distinctive appellation in consequence of having carried the Dibble physiognomy to the highest standard of development. These titles were a tradition- the unde derivatur was lost in obscurity.
The different houses acknowledged kinship, and formed a sort of oligarchy or union of royal tribes, equal and indivisible, as our friends across the Channel would say. Sometimes circumstances would give one house a temporary predominance, but the old unity and equality was generally very soon restored. Young Kit, a scion of the Unicorns, seized with the ambition of becoming a landed proprietor, squatted on a dreary moor, known only to the snipe and the peeweet, built a cob cottage, surrounded it with a garden, then enclosed a field about the size of a tablecloth, then added another and another tablecloth, until there had grown a tiny farm, which looked like an al fresco café with its boxes and compartments. female member too, about the same time, had set up in the fish, chowder, and apple-stall line, which gave a sort of commercial eclat to the house. The Unicorn was now in the ascendant, but someway they soon lapsed to the old Dibble standard.
Pretty Tommy had his turn. Under the pressure of a warrant for poaching or affiliation, he had entered on board a man-of-war, and served as a deck-swapper in the battle of Algiers. On his return he was paraded by his party as a hero; and 'twas considered doubtful whether he or Lord Exmouth contributed most to the victory. After having appeared, however, several times in the stocks, and suffered other indignities from the hands of officials, the hero-worship.
waned, and he fell back on the usual privileges and dignities of a Dibble. The Beelzebubs had a distinguished era, when their representative man was sexton of the parish for several years.
The Giants enjoyed the notoriety of possessing the most terrible witch in the neighbourhood.
The Royal Family had also its moral characteristics. It was a tradition and law with them never to work except as the alternative of starvation; and then the work chosen was always of a loose, vagabond kind, such as holding horses on fair and market days, lounging after sportsmen, carrying bills, or making brooms. Honest digging and delving was an abomination to them. Cleanliness and sanitary regulations were things also indignantly repudiated. A Dibble was supposed to live and die in utter innocence of cold water. Their homes were generally pitched amid gutters and dunghills; and there the young Dibbles squattered and gambolled and grew strong in defiance of typhus and boards of health. To get a sop from another man's dish, and a sup from another man's cup, was also a royal maxim; and there was a certain oiliness of tongue and wheedling manner peculiar to the members of all the houses, which was supposed to gain them access to larder and wardrobe, and be very effective in procuring broken victuals and cast-off raiment. A certain dry quaint humour, too, was known to be rewarded often by horns of ale and cider when hard-handed labour might go athirst. It was whispered, how ever, that the swains who took the daughters of the royal race to their hearths found that the oily voice could be pitched to a different key, and the wheedling manner raised to the imperiousness of a Zenobia.
Among other privileges, they claimed that of being the hereditary wassailers--the only true and orthodox ministrants of the jolly wassail. Filibusters had time after time attacked these rights, but had
always met with signal discomfiture. The Dibbles were the highpriests of wassail.
With the wassailers had entered a thin wiry man, with a pinched, snipy face and a keen twinkling eye. A stoop in the back and à bend in the knees would have given the impression of decrepitude to those who had not seen him working a cover or going across a country. He was dressed in a grey frockcoat, corduroy breeches and gaiters, and wore a broad-brimmed hat jammed well down over his forehead. There was a hunting-whip under his arm, and a pair of couples peeped from his pocket. He bore about with him a sense of doghe was of dogs, doggy. This was Jim Seecombe, in turn kennelkeeper, whip, huntsman, dog-trainer, dog-breeder, dog-doctor-in fact, holding any office in the dog administration, and sometimes, like the Great Duke, concentrating them all in his own person.
"Halloa, James," said the Garland Ox, "be you turned wassailer! I thoft none but the Royal Family had that privilege."
"No, landlord," replied James, "I han't that honour, but perhaps when my old missus goes I may prowpose to one of the princesses, and shall then tail in somewhere in the chowrusses."
No, James," said Kit the Unicorn, "we doesn't give or be given in marriage so easily. We must see the Peditree or the Jenny-Loggy, as the passon calls it, of a party before we takes un into our family."
"A queer Peditree Jim would show, I thinks," said the Beelzebub, who was evidently the bitter spirit of the race; "for them does say as how old Tom the huntsman found un wrapt up in a 'oss-cloth in the kennel, and the Squire said such a com-by-chance was a real drowit of the kennel, and so kept un there."
"Well, William," retorted Jim, a kennel is as good a place to be born in as a garret, and good dowgs I hould to be better company than bad umans."
"Just so," rejoined Kit; "but we'rn an ould family, Jim, and can't take no com-by-chances-we'rn an ould family."
"You_comed over with the Conqueror, I s'pose; all the ould families comed with him. Old Mrs St Turnup says to me the other day, James,' says she, 'them fellows ought to pay me more respect, for the first St Turnup came over with the Conqueror, you know.' 'Yes, ma'am,' says I; and thinks I to myself, what a lot of shoeblacks and sich cattle comed over with that 'ere Conqueror."
"I don't knows nothing about Conquerors," rejoined Kit, "but we'rn an ould family-we haven't knowed many ups and downs-'tis as we was so we is, I thinks: we haven't changed much back'ards or for'ards, up'ards or down'ards; sometimes we hae a leek to our broth and sometimes we han't; sometimes we hae no puddin' to our flesh, sometimes no flesh to our puddin', and sometimes neyther one nor t'other; but here we've been for years upon years, and here we be still."
"Increasing and multiplying, bless the Lord,” snuffled old Beelzebub, who was a rigid Brianite.
"And you han't falled off in the breed, nayther," said Jim, pointing to the youngest scion of the Pretty Tommy branch.
Ay," said old Kit, patting young Pretty Tommy admiringly on the head, "he's a pretty cheeld, and a raal Dibble."
There was certainly little doubt of the paternity, and no one would have questioned his legitimacy. This youth, like other rising characters, had to contend with the fame of a great father. It had always been prophesied of him that he never could rival that parent in personal appearance, but he had falsified all the predictions by achieving what was allowed to be the ne plus ultra of Dibble beauty. All the features were in him exaggerated-the lips were more blubbery, the nose was turned up, the hair was more lank, and
whiter, if possible, and hung on his head like the thatch of a dishevelled beehive. He had evidently, too, come in for the fag-end of the stage properties, and instead of being allotted a greatcoat, was attired in a blue dress-coat which came down over his hips, the tails hanging about his heels. He seemed to be very much flustered at the public notice he had attracted, and resented all the attempts to bring him forward with pokes of the elbow and abortive kicks.
"Ah," said old Kit, apologetically, "'tis the first time with un, and he is shy before company."
"And where be you a-going to spend your Christmas, Jim?" said the Garland Ox to the huntsman.
"Well, I've been axed to go to Tregarrow faarm, and I think one might go furder and fare wus."
You're right, Jim," chimed in old Kit, "no better than Tregarrow for Christmas cheer, but I thoft you was in disgrace there, and that he han't forgive you for being a 'complice of chuck sheep, as he called it."
"What's that, Kit?" choked out the Ox, chuckling in anticipation of a story.
"Oh, you know, the hounds was a-passing through Faarmer Penrice's fields, when one of un, old Blackcap, was seed to chuck two sheep. The faarmer was in a cruel way, and stormed and cussed, and the Squire says very quietly, Will we gie un a Halgave trial? we'll hang un first and then try un after'ards.' So there was a gallows rose, and Jim was Jack Ketch, and ould Blackcap was left a-hanging. Pursently there was a fine bust, and the pack was going like mad across the thirty acres, when the Squire sings out, 'Why, dang it, there's ould Blackcap leading!' and there he wos, sartain enough. So the faarmer always swore Jim had tied the rope loose, or had gun back and cut un down."
"It's the missus favours James," remarked the mate of the Garland Ox, "'cause of young Maister Tom." "I thoft, marm," observed old