1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 2 (24 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.

Chapter IV

Frank Moreland Gets Acquainted with Mr Simeon Sturges

A day or two subsequent to Ben’s visit to Pine Grove Cottage, as described in the last chapter, Mr Frank Moreland received a note of the following tenor:—

“Pine Grove, Wednesday Evening.

“Dearest Frank,—Uncle Ben was here last night, and surprised us by the unwelcome tidings that my father’s estate has just cleared itself—not to say suspicious, that the balance should have happened to be so very exact? I confess I am not at all satisfied with the result. Something must be wrong. I have told mamma so, but she can’t see the matter in the same light that I do. He has, moreover, prevailed on mamma to invest the remnant of her fortune in Western Bank shares—a most unwise step in my opinion, risking as it does our whole means on a single throw of the dice. Say whether anything, and, if so, what, should be done, and oblige your

“Emma.”

On reading this note Frank’s first impulse was to run down to Pine Grove to learn more of the matter from Emma’s own lips, but on father reflection he decided on obtaining, if possible, an interview with Mr Simeon Sturges, Ben’s clerk, with the view of ascertaining whether he had any knowledge of the transactions connected with the winding up of Mr George Aymer’s estate. Full of this idea he set off in search of Mr Ben’s counting-house, feeling not a little perplexed all the while as to how he should get introduced to Mr Sturges. Threading his way down the Saltmarket, he alighted on an old chum, Tom Winter, a clerk in the office of Messrs Cleekum & Hook, to whom he mentioned his difficulty. Tom knew Sturges intimately, and promised to introduce Frank to him the first opportunity, but refused to call on him at the office lest they should encounter Old Ben, whom he described as a “crusty old bear, who was always either cursing or praying.” As good luck would have it, however, Sturges was soon descried crossing the street, and Tom having hailed him, introduced Frank, and then took his leave.

Frank, having a polished and rather insinuating address, soon got on the most intimate terms with his new acquaintance. Though neither of them cared for drinking, yet, for convenience sake, Frank proposed an adjournment to an adjoining tavern, where, over a bottle of champagne, he explained to Sturges the object of his seeking an interview with him. The simple mention of the family at Pine Grove was a sufficient passport to the confidence of the honest clerk, for, during the preceding winter, he had been on frequent business-visits at Park Place, had seen Rosabelle, and, need it be said, had fallen desperately in love with her, though, being a prudent young man, he as yet cherished the flame in his own bosom.

“Egad, Mr Moreland, but I’m glad to find you know the Misses Aymer, aren’t they nice girls—especially Miss Emma?” said Simeon, singling out the eldest, though in truth, he was all the while thinking of Rosabelle.

“Nice girls—why, yes, very nice girls, Mr Sturges. Rosabelle is, indeed, a sweet fairy-looking creature, though still very young,” said Frank thoughtfully. “But,” added he, staring hard at Simeon, “isn’t it a thousand pities they have no fortune?”

“No fortune!” exclaimed Sturges, opening his eyes to their utmost width. “That must be a mistake, surely. Mr George Aymer’s estate, after meeting all contingencies, must have produced a very handsome surplus. Of that I am quite certain—that is, I suppose so, you observe—for I have neither the information to enable me to speak with absolute certainty on the point, nor would it altogether consist with my duty to mention circumstances relative to Mr Aymer’s private affairs, even if I could.”

“There must be, as you observe, a mistake somewhere, Mr Sturges,” said Frank, “for, to my certain knowledge, Mr Benjamin Aymer has been to Pine Grove within these two days, with the final state of Mr George’s affairs, when it appeared that the debtor and creditor sides of the balance-sheet exactly tallied with each other—not one farthing of difference either way.”

“Well, I can’t say as to that, Mr Moreland; my master’s affairs are best known to himself. He is expert at cooking accounts, I know; but I can swear Mr George Aymer’s ledger told a different story.”

“Have you examined the whole documents relative to this matter?” inquired Frank.

“No—not the whole of them. I believe Ben Aymer has the bump of Secretiveness very largely developed, for he never admits his clerks fully into his confidence. He keeps a private desk, into which he deposits all his confidential correspondence, or such papers as he does not wish any one to see but himself. It closes with a spring, and only himself understands how to open it.”

“Now, observe you, Mr Sturges, what you have told me shall be regarded as strictly entre nous. Be the upshot what it may, you shall be perfectly safe; but I confess I should like exceedingly to see this mystery unravelled.”

“’Pon my honour so would I, Mr Moreland,” said Sturges emphatically, “for the sake of justice, and especially for the sake of the poor girls.”

“Couldn’t you render some assistance, Mr Sturges?” said Frank, encouraged by Simeons’s openness of manner, to go a step farther than he had yet dared to go with him. “Is there nothing you could do to help in discovering the real state of Mr George Aymer’s affairs, without, of course, violating those feelings of duty and honour which you must necessarily entertain towards the man who is your employer, however great a rogue he may be?”

“And a most accomplished rogue he is, sir, God knows,” said Simeon, rising, and smoothing his hat with the sleeve of his coat. “As black at heart, sir, as the nap on that hat; a consummate hypocrite, sir, that sends people to heaven with one side of his mouth, and to t’other place with the other!”

“But won’t you keep an eye on that private repository—eh?” urged Frank. “O for a peep into that sanctum sanctorum of his!”

“We shall see each other before long, I hope,” remarked Sturges, with a significant wink, which was meant to imply “yes”—and so the interview terminated.

Frank lost no time in repairing to Pine Grove, and acquainting Emma with the substance of what he had gleaned from Mr Sturges. But what could be done? Of Ben’s supposed villany they had no legal evidence whatever—nothing but the word of Mr Sturges, and Frank had promised not to implicate him in any eventualities that might arise; and, besides, it would have been highly impolitic, even if it had been quite honourable, to have involved Simeon in a quarrel with his master just yet, because he might prove the instrument of worming out the real facts of the case, if any such existed. Influenced by these considerations, they determined to keep strictly silent until it should be seen what time would do towards unfolding the mystery. Thus the matter was allowed to rest in the meantime.

 

Chapter V

Emma’s Worst Fears are Realised

It was now the autumn of ‘57. The dark clouds which usually portend a commercial hurricane had been accumulating for some months. Reports of the suspension of long-established mercantile houses began ere long to be wafted from the other side of the Atlantic. Traders lost all confidence in each other. Selfishness became the ruling principle in the commercial world. The panic spread with appalling rapidity. Men’s hearts were failing them for fear. The merchant princes of the western metropolis, owing to their intimate business relationship with American houses, were the first to feel the full weight of the commercial tempest. The number of failures increased as by geometrical progression, every succeeding disaster being the immediate precursor of a multitude of smaller ones.

Rumours of those calamities would reach Pine Grove from time to time, but commercial affairs had ceased to interest its inmates to the same extent as formerly. Sadly grieved when they heard of old friends being reduced to beggary, they still imagined that they themselves were secure.

Amongst the earliest sufferers from Transatlantic insolvency was the firm of which Frank’s father, Mr Quentin Moreland, was the head. Frank hurried down to Pine Grove with the evil intelligence, and to bid his friends farewell, preparatory to his sailing on the morrow for the United States on a mission of the utmost urgency and delicacy relative to his father’s business. Of course his departure, and the untoward events which had rendered that step necessary, were sources of deep sorrow and regret to the family at Pine Grove, and more especially to Emma. It would be months, perhaps years, till he returned, and how lonely and cheerless would everything seem during his long, long absence! Frank could have lingered a few days, but the gravity of the crisis admitted of no delay, and next morning he waved a sad adieu to his Pine Grove friends from the deck of the steamer, which was already on its way to New York.

As weeks rolled on, the monetary crisis became daily more frightful. People, deeming their money no longer secure even in the bank coffers, made a simultaneous rush to withdraw their deposits. Silver and gold would alone satisfy the public craving—paper was nothing accounted of. This only served still farther to aggravate the evil. At length dawned the fatal 9th of November, and ere that day’s sun set thousands were involved in irretrievable ruin and misery.

Mrs Aymer had been made aware two days previous that a “run” had commenced on that bank in the stability of which she was so deeply interested; but she, and many more besides, clung fondly to the hope that the panic was but temporary, and that the bank would be able to withstand the pressure. Alas! how delusive was that hope, and with what a bitter pang did the fatal intelligence fall upon her heart, when, on the evening of that eventful 9th of November, she learned for the first time that she and those whom she loved so tenderly were ruined—penniless—reduced to absolute beggary! On that night Pine Grove was indeed a Bochim; and, as the intelligence sped with lighting flash to all corners of the land, how many were the happy homes which it converted into “places of weeping.”

Next morning came Mr Benjamin Aymer down to Pine Grove, bringing along with him, of course, a very extensive assortment of consoling Scripture texts, but comfort or encouragement of a more tangible consistency he had none.

“Bad business this, Mrs Aymer!” said Ben, after the first sad greetings had been exchanged; “a very bad business, ma’am. Sorry, very sorry indeed, ma’am, that I should have had the luck—the bad luck as it has turned out—to advise you to a step which has, I grieve to say it, proved your ruin. Well, after all, who would have thought it? Who could have supposed it possible? I didn’t, I know, and nobody else did. Just one of those mysterious events in Providence, ma’am, about which it is best for us, poor blind mortals that we are, to be like the Psalmist, silent, opening not our mouths. Your case is hard—indeed, I may say very hard, ma’am, but it is not more so than that of thousands, I know people who will lose hundreds of thousands by this catastrophe, so you may be thankful you haven’t lost more, ma’am.”

“More I could not well have lost, when I have lost my all, sir,” sobbed Mrs Aymer. “O, my poor, dear girls! what shall become of them?”

“As to that, my dear ma’am, the only course I can suggest is that they try to find some kind of employment. They are well-educated, both of them, and they can easily find situations as teachers, or governesses, or milliners, whichever they may most incline. To labour with one’s hands, ma’am, is no disgrace to any one. The Apostle Paul worked at tent-making, and a greater than he as a carpenter.”

“O, Mr Aymer! what are we to do? what shall we do?” cried the lady, in deep distraction. “The thought is awful, not to have a penny in the world we can call our own!”

“You are not in absolute want just yet, I suppose, ma’am,” said Ben, soothingly; “and I would advise you, in the meantime, to curtail your expenditure, and hang on here for a little, till it is seen what turn affairs shall take. The opinion is pretty general, I believe, that the Bank may yet regain its legs. Wait till that be ascertained, and if the worst fears should unfortunately be realised, you can then remove into the city, where your daughters will find plenty of employment.”

Having tendered such consoling and economic advices, Ben took his departure.

Next morning, after breakfast, Mrs Aymer called up the servants, and told them, with a sorrowful heart, that she could no longer afford to employ them.

“But, mem, ye cannot want me at no rate,” remonstrated old Janet Bald, who had faithfully served in the family for upwards of twenty years, and who had nursed Emma and Rosabelle in their infancy, “Ye’ve had mony trials to abide, mem, and I’m sure ye’ve had my sympathy in them all. This affliction is a very misfortunate ane, that’s true; but the loss of world’s wealth is no to be compared with your tribulation, mem, when he was taken from ye. The wark behoves to be prosecute by somebody, and it would be very onbecoming in you, mem, to fyle your genteel hands with diry work; and as for Emma and Rosabelle, I could not allow them.”

“But, Janet, I have no longer the means of paying your wages, and therefore we must part, painful though it must be, to both of us. Your irreproachable character will procure you a better home than I can afford to give you.”

“Only let me tarry here, mem,” urged Janet, as the big round tears came hopping down her honest cheeks, “and I’ll round tears came hopping down her honest cheeks, “and I’ll no look for a farthing of remuneration, no a morsel of sustenation either, mem, if ye cannot afford it, for I’ve by me what will both vittle and cleed be for a year or two, and by that time Providence will teach us the path of duty. You will not put me to your door by force, I think, and my mind is made up to gang of my own free will, mem, at least, until I am of no more service to you or yours.”

“Well, Janet,” said Mrs Aymer, deeply moved by the self-sacrificing devotion of her worthy servant, “your kindness this day is truly greater than I had any right to expect from one in your position, nor shall I be able to repay you on this side the grave, but you shall be rewarded, though I cannot; your with shall be granted, and may God bless you.”

 

Chapter VI

In Deep Water

As weeks rolled on, it became every day more evident that the holders of Western Bank shares would never recover a single halfpenny of their money. Nay, not only was the purchase money irrecoverably lost, but as the investigation proceeded it was found necessary to make a call on the shareholders for additional funds.

When this call came Mrs Aymer was quite unable to meet it by any means short of selling off the whole of her family plate, together with the most valuable portion of her elegant household furniture. Having reserved only as many thing as would furnish out two or three rooms, she bade adieu to Pine Grove Cottage, with an aching heart, and removed to a humble attic flat in one of the poorest districts of the city. She never once appealed to Benjamin for assistance, and he took care not to offer any, but pocketed his last quarter’s rent with as little apparent remorse as if he had had no hand whatever in originating her misfortune.

No longer able to meet their former acquaintances on equal terms, the poor ladies resolved to withdraw, as far as possible from thier observation. The removal from Pine Grove was effected with the utmost quietness and secrecy. None of the neighbours knew wither the family had gone. All that was known for certain, was that they had got into very straitened circumstances, and that they had gone into the city somewhere, probably with the view of seeking a living by keeping lodgers. After their removal several of their old friends called at Pine Grove, inquiring after them, but nobody could tell anything about them, and people soon ceased to inquire.

The apartments which Mrs Aymer now occupied were very dark—very dilapidated—very wretched—very different, indeed, in every respect, from those to which she had hitherto been accustomed. It was an awful change, but Mrs Aymer murmured not, for she feared to dishearten Emma and Rosabelle. She made an effort to appear contented, strove to accommodate herself to her strangely altered circumstances, and cheered the desponding hearts of her daughters with comforting and hopeful words.

Honest Janet Bald, too, with what zeal did she labour to make everything look tidy and comfortable about the humble dwelling! Nothing escaped her scrutiny. She scrubbed and whitewashed and papered the insides of presses, and stuffed up a chink in the partition here, and knocked in a nail there, until, under her active superintendence, the place began to assume internally an aspect very different from that of the dingy habitations adjoining. For neighbours they had some of the very worst specimens of our city populations. They were now daily familiar with drunken brawls, with foul sights and fouler smells, with vice in all its hideousness and in all its shamelessness. Yet they struggled on amid all these surrounding abominations, and strove to shut their eyes and ears against them, scarcely daring to hope that better days would dawn upon them, but acting their part bravely and virtuously under the dark cloud of present adversity. It became necessary ere long to determine in what way Emma and Rosabelle should earn a little money. Newspaper advertisements were, of course, eagerly scanned. Many suitable situations were observed, but how were they to be obtained? The poor girls were destitute of experience, and that was the qualification most sought after.

Emma was an expert needlewoman, but her accomplishments in that line were rather more showy than useful. She could embroider beautifully, and work in Berlin wool with exquisite taste, but work of that description was in less request than plain sewing, and in it she was much less expert. She made repeated inquiries in answer to advertisements, but met with little save rebuffs and disappointments. With a sore heart would she return home on those occasions to report her ill-success to her mother and Rosabelle, and many and butter were their mutual tears, as they would sit down and contemplate their gloomy prospects. Weeks and months passed over in this state of painful suspense. Their slender means of subsistence was gradually wasting away, and they would soon lack bread. At length a young lady was wanted as assistant in a sewed muslin warehouse. Emma set out to apply, taking with her a few specimens of her needlework as evidences of her qualifications. She was successful. The wages were paltry enough—only six shillings a-week at first—but Emma was truly thankful, for she had been taught by the sad experiences of the last few months, not to despise the day of small things.

The younger sister, Rosabelle, has been already mentioned as having acquired a great proficiency in music. At the removal from Pine Grove her piano, held sacred as the last gift of a father now no more, was almost the only article of considerable value rescued from the hammer of the auctioneer, and now its cheering tones mingled strangely amid the discordant sounds incessantly issuing from the neighbouring dens of squalor and misery. Rosabelle was still young—so young, indeed, that the parties to whom she applied for employment as a music instructor refused on that account to accept of her services. Thus it happened that in finding employment she experienced even greater difficulty than Emma; but by persevering in her applications she, too, was at length rewarded with success. She was engaged by a lady whose wealth was not very considerable, “to teach her elder childring an ear for music,” as she expressed it, and to instruct the younger ones in reading and spelling; besides which great leading duties she would be also called upon to assist in the nursery on any special emergency, and in the laundry on washing days. In consideration of those services, she was to be rewarded with the magnificent sum of one guinea per month, she finding herself in bed, board, and washing.

The united earnings of the two girls were scarcely adequate to maintain themselves, even on the meanes tfare [sic], much less to meet the expenses of the entire household, small as those expenses were; but by observing the most rigid economy in all things—and, it is to be feared, b oftentimes denying themselves needed sustenance—the family managed to tide over the next few months without being in absolute want.

 

Chapter VII

Ben Encounters the Rev. Teddy O’Trumpeter, and the Result Thereof

Mr Benjamin Aymer, after having settled with Mrs Aymer as to house-rent, troubled her no more with his pious visits. The many insolvencies, requiring to be wound up, brought in a large accession of business to his office. Owing to the general scarcity of money, tradesmen were under the necessity of looking sharply after outstanding accounts, and as Ben was well known to be a most relentless screw in all such cases, he found no lack of employment. Needy creditors crowded his chambers to be advised as to the shortest and easiest method of pouncing on their debtors; and needy debtors came inquiring how they should avoid settling with their debtors came inquiring how they should avoid settling with their remorseless and impatient creditors. Ben’s advice was at the service of both kinds of customers for the accustomed fee; and, whoever may have lost by the commercial crisis, he did not.

One evening when out prowling in pursuit of some skulking defaulter, his attention was arrested by the stentorian declamation of a revivalist divine, who was holding forth to a crowd of eager listeners, in a public hall, situated in one of a crowd of eager listeners, in a public hall, situated in one of the adjoining bye-lanes. Ben having seen some newspaper accounts of the revival movement, the genuineness of which he rather doubted, resolved to step into this meeting and judge for himself. The preacher, on his occasion, was none other than the Rev. Teddy O’Trumpeter, the famous revivalist divine, from Ballymawhakit, county Antrim, Ireland. His subject was, of course, the wonderful religious awakening which had taken of course, the wonderful religious awakening which had taken place over the whole of Ulster, but more particularly in the township of Ballymawhakit aforesaid. As the preacher proceeded with his discourse, many of the hearers were “stricken down,” and carried out one by one to an ante-room adjoining, where they were attended to by a number of pious gentlemen, who alternately prayed and sung hymns over the “stricken” penitents, with the view of tranquilising [sic] their agitated souls. On peeping into this ante-room, Ben was not a little surprised to observe some men of great note and influence in the city, not only present, which they might have been from no higher motive than mere curiosity, but taking an active part in administering religious advice and consolation to the poor penitents. Convinced by this circumstance of the entire respectability of the revival movement, Ben was not long in forming the resolution of becoming revivalist himself. He perceived that it could be done very cheaply, and it would establish his reputation for piety among religious people—a point which some recent proceedings of his had rendered rather doubtful. As to the irreligious portion of the community, why, he would undertake that he should not suffer in thier opinion for any revival zeal he might display. In short, he would endeavour to conciliate the one party by his professions, and the other by his deeds.

Early next morning he surprised Mr Simeon Sturges by presenting himself at the office with a large family Bible, which he carried ostentatiously under his arm.

“A most wonderful troubling of the waters this revival business, Mr Sturges,” said Ben, as he carefully deposited the Bible on the desk, “really, my dear sir, we must come to the help of the Lord against the mighty. To-night, at seven o’clock precisely, we told a revival meeting in the back office here, and I’ve spoken to the Rev. Teddy O’Trumpeter, who has kindly consented to conduct the opening services. We live in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Mr Sturges—indeed the villanies perpetrated in that horrid Saltmarket are enough to bring down the judgement of heaven on the whole city. We must do something, sir, to reform those poor waifs.”

During the delivery of this harangue, Mr Sturges had sad with his eyes wide open, staring at his master with an air of mute astonishment, not unmingled with contempt.

“So you’ve been hearing the celebrated Mr O’Trumpeter, sir,” said Mr Sturges, after a short pause.

“Yes, sir.” replied Ben, “and a noble fellow he is; goes right through to the very bones and marrow of his subject, sir, and no mistake.”

“But how shall we get the people to attend our meeting?” inquired Sturges. “The Saltmarket waifs wont attend church, and it’s not likely they’ll attend here.”

“Go to the highways and hedges and compel them to come in—that’s the Apostolic rule,” answered Ben. “Mr Trumpeter and I are to run through a number of families after dinner, and invite them to come. You’ll oblige me by leading the psalmody, Mr Sturges.”

“Why, as to that it don’t matter much to me though I do,” said Sturges, who had a bit of weakness for exhibiting himself in this line, though his musical abilities were considerably below par.

“Well, consider that matter as settled, and now for business,” said Ben, seating himself at his desk, and putting on his spectacles. “You’ve been to Walker about that bill of his?”

“Yes, sir,” said Sturges.

“And he has consented to behave himself like a man, of course?” said Ben.

“Not quite,” said Sturges; “but he will, if allowed a little time; he is a poor man, sir, with a large family.”

“Can’t accept any such plea, Mr Sturges—quite unbusiness-like, you know. We must be down on him at once. You told him so, no doubt?”

“Well, no, I didn’t exactly know your intentions in the matter,” said Sturges, apologetically.

“Must know my intentions pretty well by this time, Mr Sturges,” said Ben, curtly. “The principle I go upon in all such cases is invariably the same—parties must either pay or go to gaol.”

At the appointed hour the Rev. Teddy O’Trumpeter called, and found Ben deep in the contents of his secret repository. Roused from his reverie by the apparition of the white neck-cloth, he started to his feet, seized the reverend gentleman by the hand, giving it a cordial shake, and then, having pulled no his greatcoat, the couple went forth on their mission of mercy.

After they were away, Mr Sturges observed that Ben had neglected, in the hurry of the moment, to close his jealously-guarded arcanum. This was precisely the opportunity for which Simeon had been watching for months. He lost not a moment, but dived into its contents, without taking time to reflect whether he was doing right or wrong. He soon alighted on what he wanted, made a hasty memorandum of the main facts, and then closed the desk that it might not be known that any one had had access to it.

The evening meeting, which was pretty numerously attended, came off with great eclat. Ben quite surpassed himself in putting on a sanctimonious countenance; the Irish divine spoke with great unction and acceptance; and Mr Sturges performed his part with becoming solemnity, except in raising the last tune, at which he made many abortive attempts, and was at last glad to be relieved from his perplexity by Mr O’Trumpeter, who, after running up and down the gamut two or three times, dexterously sent him rattling on the road to “Bangor.”

Next morning a flattering account of the meeting appeared in the papers, wherein Ben was extolled as “a distinguished pattern of piety and philanthropy”—just what he wanted—and what he wrote himself.

(To be continued.)

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