1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 1 (17 December, 1859)

‘The People’s Journal’ was a considerable contributor to the creation of the modern image Christmas in Scotland. The images and aesthetic of the celebration of Christmas we know to day largely began with the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens in 1843, the publication and celebration of Christmas stories of this ilk became a regular feature of ‘The Journal’, with a special Christmas edition eventually been produced each year due to the demand for festive content.

Our Christmas Story.

Chapter I

The House of Mourning

The grave had just closed over the mortal remains of Mr George Aymer, who was reputed to have been one of the most thriving, certainly one of the most enterprising, merchants in the great commercial capital of Scotland. It was a keen, cold day in winter—showers of snow and hail fell at intervals—the sun shot forth timid, momentary glances through the rifts of the hurrying clouds—the streets along which the funeral cavalcade slowly crept were gloomy and deserted—wreaths of driven snow found shelter behind the tomb-stones that crowd the noble “city of the dead,” which looks solemnly down on the hallowed fane of St Mungo’s, and in which the dust of George Aymer was that day gathered to its kindred dust. For a moment the crowd of mourners hung sadly over the grave into which the coffin of their deceased friend had been lowered, saw the first shovel-full of earth filled in, and then hurried back to their desk and counting-houses, there to speculate as eagerly as if nothing had happened to warn them of their frail mortality.

Mr Aymer had been snatched away with awful suddenness. But one short week had elapsed since he was in his wonted vigour, and now the elegant mansion in Park Place, so recently the scene of gaiety and happiness, was filled with weeping and lamentation. He left a widow and two daughters. On the latter, who were just blooming into womanhood, he had doted with more than a father’s fondness. Hitherto his had been a happy home, over which love shed her benign influence, and around whose hearth was never heard the jarring sound of a discordant word, nor seen the semblance of an unkind or distrustful glance; all was peace and harmony. In proportion as one is beloved in his life, however, will he be lamented in his death; and hence the bitter, choaking [sic] tears wept by those whom he had let behind to bewail his untimely fate.

The only male relative of Mr Aymer’s in this country was a paternal uncle, Mr Benjamin Aymer, who for forty years had pursued the occupation of a pettifogging lawyer in an obscure street of the city. All his other relatives were either dead or had emigrated to the colonies. Uncle Ben, as he was called by the young people, had been married in early life, but his wife, with whom he lived rather unhappily, had been dead for many years. An only son, for whom he had procured a situation in a commercial house in Calcutta, was his sole heir. By a mere superficial observer Mr Aymer would have been thought a very godly, conscientious, charitable individual. He was a systematic church-goer—sighed and shook his head with becoming gravity at the more thrilling passages of the discourse—quoted Scripture on all seasonable, as well as on many unseasonable, occasions—subscribed an occasional guinea to city charities, when he was absolutely certain that the subscribers names would find their way into the newspapers;—in short, Mr Aymer was an admirable specimen of the consistent exemplary Christian, as those terms are understood by the world at large.

As Mr Aymer’s nearest male relative, Old Ben had of course to act as chief mourner. Returning from the Necropolis to the house of mourning, he found assembled a company of kind, matronly neighbours, who were comforting and consoling the sorrowing family with such pious suggestions as only woman’s heart can conceive, and with such soothing words as only woman’s lips can utter. The shades of evening had already crept in, and the light from the parlour fire was casting weird-like flickering gleams through the apartment, when Ben entered, and seated himself amid the sorrowful circle. Mrs Aymer and her two girls were sobbing aloud in the deep intensity of their mental anguish.

“Oh! my dear friends! you must learn to moderate your grief,” said Ben, in his most sanctified tones, and casting up the white of his eyes, “The Lord hath given, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!”

“What an unspeakable comfort to poor dear Mrs Aymer, to be sure, to have such a good and true Christian friend as is dear Mr Benjamin, to console her in the midst of her sore afflictions,” observed a middle-aged spinster, who had her own reasons for wishing Ben to hear her good opinion of him, and who, on seeing her eulogium was well appreciated by that gentleman, proceeded in her blandest tones—”And no doubt, Mr Aymer, you will look well to the interests of this desolate family—left as it is this day without its natural protector. But really I need not suggest that to one whose praise for piety and charity is in all the churches. It ill becomes the like of me to say what is or what is not proper to be done by one so kind and considerate as is dear Mr Benjamin Aymer.”

“All those matters have been duly weighed, my dear madam,” said Ben, thoughtfully, “and this bereaved family shall never lack either counsel or sympathy when needed, for they that put their trust in the Lord shall be safe, their defence shall be the munition of rocks.”

Here the old lady looked around her with the air of one who has just done a very dexterous and very meritorious deed; in fact, nothing at that moment could have convinced her that she had not been the honoured instrument of discovering a friend and protector for the desolate household; and next morning it was known through all the neighbouring streets that Mr Benjamin Aymer was to act the part of a father to the fatherless family, and that he had been voted into that office by the officious well-meaning old lady aforesaid.

The company by-and-bye dispersed, leaving Ben to arrange matters with the widow. Mr Aymer, it has been already intimated, died very suddenly, so suddenly indeed, that his affairs were left in a most unsettled condition. Immediate attention to this matter was of prime importance, for bills would be falling due, and many unforseen [sic] contingencies might arise calling for prompt action. Mr Aymer had left no will, and had made no reference to business matters on his death-bed, further than to whisper a faint wish that the winding up of his affairs should be entrusted to his uncle; and that a life-interest in his estate should be held by his widow at whose decease the residue should be equally divided between his two daughters, Emma and Rosabelle. His life had been insured for five thousand pounds, which was the extent of the means of living on which the family could in the first instance securely calculate.

As Mrs Aymer’s income would now be limited, it was judged expedient that the house in Park Place should be given up, and part of its costly furnishings brought to the hammer. A small marine villa, called Pine Grove Cottage, situated a few miles down the Clyde, and belonging to Ben, was pitched upon as the future residence of the family. Everything having been arranged according to Ben’s own ideas—for poor Mrs Aymer was as yet too much absorbed in grief to be able to think coherently on worldly matters—the old gentleman at last took his departure for the night, not, however, without uttering a string of pious sentiments touching the duty of bearing up under adversities with holy resignation, and of having one’s loins girt about, and one’s lamp burning.

Thus did the widow and her daughters find themselves alone for the first time; and O how sad and silent did the house now seem, and how strangely did the events of the preceding week crowd back to their troubled recollections! It was only now indeed that they began to realise the full extent of their loss, for so long as we can gaze on the form of one we love, cold inanimate clay though it be, bust fancy still dreams of him as belonging to the number of living men.

 

Chapter II

Old Ben Does a Stroke of Business

The writing chambers of Mr Benjamin Aymer were situated in an old-fashioned, dirty-looking street in the vicinity of the famous Saltmarket. This edifice, both externally and internally, was of the most inelegant description; and, were it allowable to estimate the extent of a man’s means from the appearance of his place of business, the conclusion would certainly have been, that old Ben Aymer was a very poor man. It is not always he who exhibits the finest and costliest wardrobe, however, that can turn the most money out of his pockets. Dingy and dilapidated as Old Ben’s workshop was, more money was made in it in one year than was realised in many a finer-looking office in three or four.

Within this gloomy den, early on the morning of the day succeeding that on which took place the events narrated in the preceding chapter, sat Mr Simeon Sturges, principal clerk to Mr Benjamin Aymer. This gentleman was deeply absorbed in the pages of a huge, well-thumbed folio, from which he was busily jotting down sundry memoranda on a long, narrow sheet of paper, such as is commonly used for accounts. Having completed the operation by summing up the figures in the money columns of said sheet, he thrust his hands deeply into his breeches pockets in search of a little warmth, and commenced humming a tune, to which he beat time with his toes on the floor. While the clerk was thus engaged the office door swung open, and in stalked Mr Benjamin Aymer, followed by a burly Highland porter, groaning and sweating under a weary load of huge, over-grown folios, which he piled up, one above another, against the wall.

“Good morning, Mr Sturges,” was Ben’s salutation; “it is a sad event—sad event, indeed, sir, but it is the Lord’s will, and,” continued he, eyeing the folios, “it is an ill wind that blows good to nobody.”

“So I have heard it remarked, sir,” replied the clerk.

“Poor fellow, though; how true it is that all flesh is as grass!” rejoined Ben, piously shaking his head, “in the morning we flourish, at noon put forth fruit, at even we are cut down—and where are we, Mr Sturges?”

“Ay, ay, it was a very sudden dispensation,” said Simeon thoughtfully. “He was interred yesterday, I believe?”

“Why, yes, that he was. Poor George! gone to the house appointed for all living!”

“And his family?” inquired the clerk, “how do they bear up under the sad stroke?”

“Middling—only very middling, Mr Stures.”

“Those are his business books, I presume,” said Simeon, pointing to the pile of folios.

“The same,” said Ben, brightening up and rattling the loose silver in his pockets. “We do the winding up, you’ll observe; and no time is to be lost, so you commence balancing the accounts, and I’m off to the warehouse to see after the stock. By the bye, Mr Sturges, before I go, has Wilson cleared that old score of his yet?”

“N—o,” said Simeon, half reluctantly, “I—I called for the cash last night, and found the poor creature in want both of fire and food—in fact, utterly destitute. He said he had been ill and unable to work, and couldn’t pay just yet; and what he said I believe to be true.”

“Confound the old rascal!” roared the incensed lawyer, stamping on the floor and uttering a volley of profane oaths. “But he shall pay though. Aye, if there is sufficient substance outside the worthless soul of him, he shall pay, and that instanter. There is not, there cannot be the slightest mistake about that. Yes, pay he shall to the uttermost farthing. Go and tell him so.”

“Very well, very well, your will is my duty, sir, in matters of that kind,” said Simeon drily; “but it will be a difficult job to divest a Highlandman of his nether garment, I’m thinking.”

“We’ll see as to that pretty soon,” said Ben, in a towering fury, “and that swindling teague of a fellow, Mr Guire have you been to him about yon business?”

“Just this moment made out his account,” said Simeon, handing to his master the long sheet previously referred to.

“Three—fifteen—nineteen and elevenpence three farthings—that’s right, Mr Sturges; but you might have made it the even three-sixteen,” said Ben, returning the account; “and now look ‘e, be sharp with that fellow—sharp mind!—and take no excuses—no excuses whatsoever!”

Having delivered his instructions after this approved Christian fashion, the old gentleman sallied forth into the street. As soon as he was at a convenient distance, Mr Simeon Sturges gave vent to his pent up feelings in language which was by no means complimentary to the hypocritical old hunks. Nature had, in fact, never intended Mr Sturges for a peddling lawyer; he was too much of a philanthropist; for a peddling lawyer; he was too much of a philanthropist; had too much of the milk of human kindness in his breast to take kindly to that grinding profession. His heart was filled with the finest and tenderest sympathies which can adorn and enoble [sic] humanity, and hence it may be easily imagined how distasteful, how abhorrent, it must have been to his very nature to be compelled thus to dun money out of people whom he well knew to be destitute of the commonest necessaries of life.

“O the callous-hearted, griping, sanctimonious old villain!” groaned honest Simeon, stiking the desk violently with his clenched fist. “Those poor Aymers, if he doesn’t fleece them ere he has done with them, his name’s not Ben; and all his cruelties are perpetrated in the name of the Lord, too! Bah! Sheer blasphemy—that’s what it is.”

On his way to Mr George Aymer’s warehouse, Ben encountered the clergyman of the parish, who stopped him to inquire for his bereaved relatives.

“Ah, sir, sorely wounded indeed, sir, and in a very tender part, sir; much humbled in spirit; indeed, I may say, humbled to the very dust, sir; but I have endeavoured to lead them to the sure foundation of all consolation.”

“Poor creatures, how I do feel for them! I’m not aware in that sort of worldly circumstances they have been left; but whatever these may be, I’m sure you—you won’t see them come to want, Mr Aymer.”

“Poverty never knocks in vain at the door of my heart, sir,” said Ben, pulling from his purse a guinea, which he handed to the reverend gentleman as a donation to the Parochial Soup Kitchen, the receipt of which, the latter assured him, should be duly notified in the papers of the morrow.

“Help a poor woman, for the love of God; haven’t tasted a morsel of food this blessed day, and my poor baby, too—it is dying—dying!” supplicated a miserable-looking female, who crept up to them with trembling steps, bearing a sickly-looking child in her arms, whose wailing cry might have moved a heart of adamant. The good clergyman, looking piteously into the woman’s care-worn countenance, which still retained a few vestiges of better times, shining dimly though the cloud of present suffering, dropped a small coin into her skinny, shivering hand. Ben, fearing she would assail him in turn, abruptly took his leave, and went on his way, anathematizing the whole fraternity of beggars, gentle and simple, and congratulating himself that he had escaped with his coppers in his pocket. Charity bestowed on a poor outcast on the street had no chance of being reported in the newspapers, however it may be recorded in Heaven; and hence Ben took good care to do no alms-deeds in that way.

Over the warehouse of the deceased merchant Ben forthwith assumed the supreme command, and immediately set about getting the whole stock valued and inventoried, preparatory to its being advertised for sale. This business kept him at his mettle for the next month or two, during which he managed to quarrel in succession with the whole staff of assistants whom he found in the establishment. Most of those young men he succeeded in turning out of doors, with a profusion of pious advices for their future guidance, but without a halfpenny of their quarter’s salaries. Ben always managed to have the law on his side. Leaving him in the meantime to wind up the business in his own way, we must attend for a little to the father development of the story.

 

Chapter III

Pine Grove Cottage

Very slowly and very cheerlessly did the gloomy months of winter pass away at the old mansion in Park Place. Sometimes of an evening Ben would step in, but not often, and when he did he was either bringing unwelcome tidings as to the ultimate solvency of Mr George’s estate, or, which was about as bad, quoting scripture with a hypocritical nasal twang. A pretty frequent visitor was Mr Frank Moreland, whose father, Mr Quentin Moreland, was at the head of a very extensive mercantile house in the American trade. By the lively conversation of this young gentleman the tedium of many a long dark evening was agreeably beguiled. To Emma his calls signified something more than mere friendship. In fact, Frank Moreland was a suitor for the hand of Miss Aymer.

The time, rendered thus tolerable in no small degree to the bereaved family by the sympathies of kind neighbours, stole slowly away; and at length the day arrived on which it behoved them to quit the old fondly-cherished city residence for ever.

Pine Grove Cottage, to which they retired, occupied a beautiful situation on the right bank of the Clyde, immediately overlooking the finely-wooded grounds surrounding the noble seat of the Blantyre family on the left. From the front windows could be obtained a splendid view of the ships which were at all hours and seasons passing up and down the majestic river, and whose freights were oftentimes more precious than were those wafted by the Argosies of old times. A pleasant spot truly was Pine Grove Cottage, and if true happiness dwells anywhere in this weary world,—

“The heart that is humble might hope for it here.”

Change of scene, country air, and the genial warmth of returning spring, exerted a most beneficial influence on the health of Mrs Aymer. Her drooping spirits now began to revive. In the engrossing interests and duties of the present, she found refuge from the painful recollections of the past. A great many little things about the cottage required to be put to rights before it would satisfy her somewhat fastidious tastes, and in superintending those alterations and improvements, she took an especial interest.

Sloping downward towards the river in front of the cottage was a little garden, well stocked with fruit-trees and choice flowers, in weeding and hoeing which the young ladies found work and amusement to wile away their leisure moments. Seldom has sweet little garden had more interesting, more fairy-like cultivators. Emma, without being what may be strictly called beautiful, had qualities nevertheless which could not fail to draw admiration. The habitual expression of her sweet face was peculiarly quiet and pleasing. With a tall, slim person, which she moved with majestic ease, and with a mind adorned by most feminine accomplishments, Miss Aymer was every whit a lady. Rosabelle, younger than Emma by two years, was still a light-hearted romping girl. In personal charms, she gave promise ere long to eclipse her sister. Possessing a fine ear for music, she had become a proficient on the piano, which, silent since Mr Aymer’s death, began now to enliven the household with its soft dulcet tones. Thus accomplished, the two sisters never found time weighing heavily on their hands, for they had within themselves sources of amusement on which they could always draw, whenever from lack of society in their rural retreat they felt ennui creeping over their spirits. Happiness gradually returned to the household as time by degrees wrote of the keen edge of recent sorrow and suffering.

Among the first to find his way to Pine Grove, after the family had been fairly settled in their snug retreat, was Mr Frank Moreland.

“What a sweet little Paradise!” cried Frank, as he stood at the front door, and cast his eyes admiringly over the lovely scenery in the vicinity, “and how I should relish living in just such another tidy little box as this.”

“Very well, Mr Moreland,” said Rosabelle with one of those arch little smiles which pretty little girls know so well how to put on when they aim at being teasing, “perhaps you can rent one of similar dimensions and equally attractive too, if you really wish it; but unless you could, at the same time, pick up an engaging companion, to share you Paradise along with you, I fear you would find it rather dull.”

“A companion,” replied Frank, chucking the little lady under the chin, “to be sure I’d have a companion, you don’t suppose I should like to become a hermit, Rosabelle.”

“O no, no, no; I wasn’t thinking of that at all, Frank.”

“Then what were you thinking about you provoking gipsey [sic]?” said Frank casting a knowing glance towards Emma, who was by this time, however, tripping down the walk to the bottom of the garden.

“Perhaps Emma wouldn’t be well pleased were I to tell it you, Mr Frank,” said Rosabelle with a merry laugh. “Only you know Paradise would have been a lonely place wanting Eve in it.”

Rosabelle bounded into the cottage with the grace and agility of a fawn, and Frank sauntered away to join Emma at the bottom of the garden, where they enjoyed a quiet chit-chat, the purport of which it would be unmannerly to repeat.

They had been at Pine Grove three or four weeks ere Uncle Ben could find time to run down to see how they did in their new domicile, and when he did come, it was on matters of business, for Ben Aymer was one of those practical individuals who never travel either for their own or for other people’s especial pleasure.

“How comfortable you do seem here, Mrs Aymer,” said Ben, surveying the room; “and as to a more important matter, I hope you have now learned to bow with meekness to the behests of an all-wise Providence who never afflicts us but for our profit, ma’am.”

“I hope I have,” replied Mrs Aymer sadly.

“Because,” pursued Ben, “I am very sorry that what I have got to communicate to you will vex you very considerably; in fact it will require a fresh exercise of christian meekness to bear it calmly, but you know I’ve always been preparing your mind to hear—to hear—”

“To whatever you may find it necessary to say I shall endeavour to listen with calmness,” interposed Mrs Aymer, making an effort to appear firm and collected.

“Then it is my painful duty—very painful duty, ma’am, to inform you that after satisfying every claim on your late husband’s estate there remains not a single sixpence behind—all is gone! Please to look at this abstract of liabilities and assets, ma’am, and you will see that the one thing just exactly balances the other.”

“Then we owe no man anything,” observed Mrs Aymer, still making an effort to preserve her self-possession.

“Not one farthing, so far as I am aware,” replied Ben.

“That is so far fortunate Mr Aymer, for if we must be poor we shall at least be honest,” said the widow, putting particular emphasis on the last word, not what she suspected his integrity in the slightest degree, but because she really felt it to be a relief to be assured that her husband had died “even with the world.” Old Ben, however, felt evidently disconcerted by the emphasis innocently laid on the word honest. In fact, it was a word which he seldom heard without shrinking. He coughed, changed colour, sat perfectly silent for a little while, and in a word, was confused and felt thoroughly uncomfortable—circumstances which did not altogether escape the notice of Miss Aymer, who sat watching him with scrutinising eye.

“I am glad you will not need to be dependent, I owever,” said Ben, resuming the conversation and making an effort to shake off his embarrassment. “Granting that your income should be rather narrow, you will at least be secured against absolute want. People must just learn, in whatsoever state they are, therewith to be content, ma’am; that’s the grand Apostolic rule.”

“Ah, Mr Aymer, I should’nt [sic], mind poverty much on my own account—but my dear girls—I could’nt [sic] bear to think that they may come to poverty,” said Mrs Aymer, bursting into a flood of tears which she had striven hitherto to restrain.

“But really, my dear Mrs Aymer, there isn’t the slightest probability of that at all—Oh dear, not the slenderest grounds for fearing so—for you have still the five thousand pounds arising from your husband’s life policy, which, lent out on heritable security at 4 per cent, will produce two hundred per annum; and I’m not sure but I would even suggest a mode of investment still more advantageous—one which, while equally if not more secure, would almost double your income.”

“What is that, pray? Inquired Mrs Aymer.

“Why, laying our the money in the purchase of Western Bank shares,” answered Ben. “The Western is paying nine per cent. just now, ma’am, on its original shares. They are much above par, I believe—always are so—but they are still to be had at such a reasonable price as will yield a handsome percentage on the purchase-money.”

“My mind is rather averse to that idea,” said Mrs Aymer, “for I remember my dear husband used to think that establishment very unsafe—and he understood these matters pretty well.”

“Unsafe! my dear ma’am, what can be safer than the bank?” said Ben sharply. “I daresay your husband under stood those matters well enough, but not better than I do, I guess; and for my part, I repose the utmost confidence in the stability of the bank—and all banks, ‘As sure as the bank’ has passed into a proverb, ma’am. Besides, unless you decide on reducing your expenditure still farther, you have no choice left but to make the most of your slender fortune. Let me see, now—the rental of this cottage is forty pounds a year—I have been offered sixty for it within the last few days; but no matter, you shall have it for the forty. Well, forty from two hundred leaves one hundred and sixty—a sum utterly insufficient, you will observe, to support your present equipage, with two servants, and all that sort of thing.”

“What you say, Mr Aymer, is quite true, I daresay, and no doubt you know best,” said the widow, submissibely; “but will it be possible to buy Western Bank shares just now. Are any in the market?”

“Rather difficult to be had, I believe—very difficult, Mrs Aymer—always are—in fact, they are very much above par just now; but I’ll manage for you. Providence is never unkind to the widow and the fatherless,” said Ben, shaking his head reverentially when delivering himself of the last pious reflection.

So it was that Ben departed invested with full powers to expend Mrs Aymer’s five thousand pounds in the purchase of Western Bank shares—a commission whcih he executed with the utmost possible despatch.

“Oh! mamma,” remonstrated Emma, on returning from showing him to the door, “you shouldn’t have consented to this scheme of Uncle Ben’s. I fear it will end in our ruin; and is it not somewhat singular, not to use a stronger term, that papa’s assets should just have covered his liabilities exactly—not one penny more or less?”

“That didn’t strike me as a thing at all singular, Emma. It just so happened.”

“Yes, mamma, but a coincidence of that kind must happen so rarely that I must persist in thinking it very singular; and besides didn’t you observe how ill at east he seemed when you put particular emphasis on the word honest?”

“No, Emma dear, I did not,” said Mrs Aymer, in a tone of surprise.

“But I did,” rejoined Emma firmly, “and if that man doesn’t turn out to be more of a Jew than a Christian in this business I shall be most agreeably disappointed.”

“Time alone can show that, Emma,” replied Mrs Aymer, in a tone of gentle reproof; “and you must really try to think better of Uncle Ben, for though he may be a hard enough man in business matters, I never understood him to be dishonest; and besides, my dear, it isn’t amiable in you to throw out insinuations as to people’s integrity on mere suspicion.”

“Well, mamma, I’m perhaps wrong; I’m a foolish girl I know, and I beg your pardon if I have done wrong,” said Emma, submissively.

(To be continued.)

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