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THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY.
MORE simple and kind-hearted being than Bob Parsons—little Bob Parsons, as he was called, on account of his somewhat diminutive size—was not known within the sound of Bow Bells. Bob had for >ryears been a slave to the counting-house; and, while other ^clerks were occasionally indulged with a holiday, he was quite contented to toil on as usual, without any idea that he deserved or required a similar relaxation. At length the little man's time came. Bob, unasked, got a week's holiday at Christmas; and having such a monstrous allowance of time, he resolved to spend it in the country. In the country!—Christmas spent in the country!—that sounds like going to visit at some castle, or manor, or old farmhouse at the very least; where roaring fires are kept up all day and all night, where casks of ale are as plentiful as blackberries in autumn, and where roast beef and plumpudding are by no means dainties, but quite ordinary every-day occurrences.
But it was to no place so grand as a farmhouse even that Bob thought of going on this particular Christmas. Bob's relations, he believed, were few—and those few, as far as he knew, were all poor; but it was a very long time since he had seen any if them.
He had been a clerk in the firm of Linsey, Woolsey, and Co., Aldermanbury, for the last twenty years, and he was now hard opon five-and-forty. During these years he had maintained little intercourse with the place of his nativity—a remote village In Lincolnshire, called Littlethorpe, which I defy you to find on the map. Bob's father and mother were dead long ago, and so were Bob's sisters and brothers: that he knew well enough; but he did not know what number of aunts, uncles, and cousins he might have living still just on the other side of Grantham. As he felt a strange yearning to see or hear something about bis kindred on this occasion—a yearning which he could not very easily account for, as he was not much given to the romantic— Bob made up his mind to go down into Lincolnshire, and announced his intention accordingly.
This announcement astonished his friends in the countinghouse; and Jack Hooper was so incredulous on the subject, that he was heard to declare " he believed it was all a joke—that little Bob Parsons was not going into the country at all. He had known Bob thirty years, as long as he (Jack Hooper) could remember, and he had never heard of Bob's knowing any one out of London. As to Bob's relations, he believed they were all merely ideal." As Jack was the wag of the counting-house, every one joined him in laughing at the idea of little Bob Parsons' journey into the country; and they were quite sure nothing would ever come of it. Now we shall see that they were never more mistaken in their lives. It was in the days of long stages —before these panting, screeching, flying railway days—that Bob and his portmanteau were hoisted to the top of the Grantham coach on a fine 23d of December morning. It was a sharp frost to be sure; but Bob's greatcoat was a very great one indeed for so little a man, and it wrapped him well from head to foot, so that he did not mind the cold; beside his portmanteau, on the roof of the coach, Bob placed a small basket, which his landlady had stored with provender for the inward man; including a small bottle of brandy—a sacred deposit, made by Bob himself with a view to spiritual comfort on the road.
By the time the coach stopped at Barnet, Bob felt ten years younger than he had seemed the day before, when his mates in the counting-house had wished him "a very merry Christmas with nobody, at nowhere, in Lincolnshire." Bob ate some sandwiches at Barnet, and felt as strong as a giant afterwards. When the coach started once more, he gave himself up to thoughts something like these :—
"Well, it is a pleasing thing to live in such improving times! I scarcely remember this road at all. To be sure it is thirty years ago since I travelled it. How strange! it seems but yesterday since I left the old place down there. I wonder whether that's altered. Ah, it is long ago! How well I remember poor mother's kissing and hugging me, and crying like anything all the time when I was coming away to London. 'Robert,' says she to my father, as he sat ready in the cart— 'Robert, something tells me I shall never see him again. He's jroing all the way to London, and he's sure to die, or make his fortune there; and either way, I'm afraid he'll never come here to see his old mother again!' Ah ! didn't I kiss her then 1 Poor mother! And my father said—' Nonsense, woman,' says he; 'you'll see him fast enough in a year or two. There, let him go now; the horse wont stand.' And so I got into the cart, and, sure enough, mother was right; she never did see me any more; nor father neither. But I always wrote to them regularly, and I know they never wanted for anything. Brothers and sisters all dead too! Poor Polly! I think I loved her the best, though she was a little sharp-tempered; she was always so kind to me because I was the youngest, and the least, and the weakest. So she's gone! But she had children; I may see them. And Dick, what a fellow he was to be sure! The daring things he used to do. But he is gone also; and all his little ones but two, they tell me. The girl married somewhere about Littlethorpe, and the boy settled at Wisbeach. And sister Anne, and Bill—both dead too! and never married, like myself. I wonder whether the people in Littlethorpe will know me again? I must be altered a good deal. Thirty years is a long time!"
Here Bob felt his face with his hand, and tried to take a survey of his figure, the lower part of which was eclipsed by the somewhat globular form of the central portion. On the whole, Bob had worn well. He was of a contented, cheerful, kindly disposition: much given to mirth, and by no means averse to good cheer in moderation. He took a gentle interest in politics, but was disposed to believe that Providence ordered all things for the best; and he had no new lights on religion to trouble his soul. He always went to church twice on the Sunday; and when a free-thinking friend tried to argue him out of the habit, he listened quietly to what was said, and never contradicted him; for Bob had learned, by experience, that arguing about religion was not the way to be religious. He went to church on Sunday to worship God in his own way; and he believed in God, and trusted in his goodness all the rest of the week, without thinking himself better or wiser than his neighbours; in which last respect he did not resemble most of his free-thinking, free-living friends.
For worldly matters, certainly Bob was not rich: but he was not poor; and he was contented with what he had. His salary had been £150 per annum for the last ten years, and he had contrived to save about half of that; for he dined with the other clerks at his employers' expense. He did not smoke, and he was economical in all things, except that he never denied himself a penny to give to a poor body in the street, or sometimes a sixpence, if the poor body happened to be a woman; for Bob was a bachelor, and retained his youthful feeling of chivalrous reverence for the sex, and took shame to himself when he saw a woman starving, and never could be virtuous enough to think that "it served her right for her misconduct."
To return. The Grantham coach, with Bob on the top, went on, on all day, and at about seven o'clock in the evening it -stopped at the George Inn at Grantham. Whoever knows this inn needs no description of it. To all my readers who do not know it, let me say briefly that it is, or was, perfect. Our friend Bob was quite afraid of its grandeur at first, but he took courage from the respect paid him by the waiters; and he said to himself, "This one night I'll enjoy myself like one of thejirm. I'll have a first-rate supper, and I'll sleep in a first-rate bed." So he ordered one man to take his portmanteau to a bedroom, and to light i fire there directly; and he ordered another man to take him to a small sitting-room; and then he ordered tea and supper, all in one; for Bob could not do without his tea.
Bob slept soundly that night, in spite of the surpassing grandeur of the rose-coloured damask curtains of his bed, and the unparalleled luxury of a fire, which flickered, and glimmered, and crackled, to his intense satisfaction long after he was in bed. He slept, and dreamed he was again a boy at Littlethorpe. Everything that occurred when he was a boy seemed to come over again. Real people, or people who had been real, in bygone days, went and came. They spoke to him—sat beside him—looked kindly into his eyes; and when he awoke, he rubbed his eyes and exclaimed, " How strange! Was that all thirty years ago? Why not again now 1"
Ah, Bob Parsons—why not again now 1 Because such things never come again, except in dreams and in memory, where they look fairer and brighter than they really were. It is better only to dream of, and remember them.
While he dressed and ate his breakfast, Bob meditated on the probability that no one at Littlethorpe would remember him. Mr Greenbury, the old schoolmaster, to whom he used to write after his father and mother were dead, and who gave him news of the village about every two years, had ceased to write five years ago, and Bob feared he too was dead. But if so, why had not ins daughter written to tell him so? She could write, could Esther Greenbury—a very nice hand too for a girl. Bob remembered her as she was thirty years ago. A kind, bright-eyed, freshcoloured lass, some three years his senior, and at the top of the writing-class, in those days when boys and girls learned together. And now Bob recalled to mind distinctly a little affair that happened at that period. He remembered how Esther, with her stout arm, had one day tried to defend him from the attack of a big boy. This big boy had been reproved by the master for idleness, and had been told to take example from Little Bob Parsons. Of course the big boy watched the first opportunity to bully Bob: it was in the old schoolroom, after the rest of the scholars were gone, that the said big boy proceeded "to give it him well," and "to teach him how to set himself up above his betters;" when Esther Greenbury, who was not gone with the rest, and who had a particular dislike to the said "big boy, interfered in behalf of Little Bob, who was a favourite of hers, and, armed with a ruler, warded off the blows which would otherwise have fallen upon poor Bob's head. She, in short, saved Bob from injury, ami Bob, in turn, assisted her to get out of the clutches of the tyrant. It was a mutual benefit; and founding on the circumstance, Bob endeavoured, boy as he was, to raise an interest in Esther's feelings; but somehow he never was able to make himself understood, which occasioned him some little unhappiness; and he even went the length of being piqued with his kind-hearted deliverer, which she of course could never comprehend. £
Bob smiled at this and other recollections of his childhood. And then he called for his bill, and told the waiter to take care of his portmanteau till he sent for it in the course of the day. Then he set off from the George Inn. He turned back, however, in a few minutes, with a sadder face, to tell the waiter that he might perhaps return again that night. The thought had come across his mind that perhaps, after all, no one at Littlethorpe might know him, or be disposed to receive him as a guest. This thought made him sorrowful for a little while; but he soon recovered his usual cheerfulness, and said to himself, as he walked briskly out of Grantham, " God is very good. Who knows I may find many kind friends living still?"
When he got to the half-way house—that is, about three miles on his road—he had a glass of ale, and after that he seemed to recall everything he came to. The alterations hereabouts were very trifling, and he recognised almost every farm and gate that he saw. When he came to the brow of the hill that overlooks Littlethorpe, he sat down on a stile to rest himself, and determine who he would ask for first in the village. There it lay below him—looking just as it used to look. There was the old church, with its green environment, where lay so many who were dear to him. Bob felt a tear in his eye; but at that moment the church bells rang out merrily, and he reflected that it was Christmas eve, and not at all a time of year to give way to feelings of sadness. So he dashed aside the tear, and muttered to himself, "They are happy in heaven!" and then began to descend the hill at a brisk pace.
The first place in the village that he came to was the blacksmith's forge. Often and often had he stood there, to watch the bright sparks fall from the anvil when he was a boy; and now he stood there again a man. Not one of the group before the forge knew him. They all stared at him after the fashion of countrymen looking at a Londoner. Bob stared at the blacksmith himself, with a notion that he ought to know that face. He watched it in the light of the fire. It was an honest, broad, somewhat coarse and heavy face. Yes; something like that face he had known years ago. He could not recollect who it was, till some one of the lookers-on called out to the smith, "I say, Nat Gibbs, what dost say to a sup of beer?"