1859’s Christmas Story ‘The Aymer Family: A Tale of the Western Bank’ Part 3 (31 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 VIII

St Mungo Redivivus, and a Visit to the Necropolis

On reaching his lodgings, at the close of the revival meeting mentioned towards the end of the last chapter, Mr Sturges found a note awaiting him on his table. It was from Mr Frank Moreland, who had arrived in town from New York that morning, and it arranged for a meeting between the writer and Mr Sturges on the afternoon of the following fay, which, it so happened, was to be held as a general holiday. Mr Sturges was delighted at the prospect of meeting Mr Moreland, for he had entirely lost sight of the Misses Aymer since their leaving Pine Grove, and he hoped that Moreland would be able to give him some intelligence regarding them. That very night, too, he had procured the information which Frank was so desirous of obtaining before his departure for New York.

The place appointed for their interview was in the immediate vicinity of St Mungo’s Cathedral. Precisely at the hour indicated, Mr Sturges reached the spot, where he found Mr Moreland impatiently waiting his arrival. Their joy at meeting was mutual. The first inquiry Frank made was as to the residence of Mrs Aymer.

“Don’t you know?” said Simeon in evident surprise.

“No, no, Mr Sturges; and if you can’t tell me no body can,” said Frank.

“Well I can’t,” said Simeon, shaking his head. “Mr Aymer has never seen them, so far I know, and never so much as named them in my hearing since their misfortune. You have heard of that matter no doubt?”

“I have,” answered Frank, much agitated; “before leaving New York a letter reached me from Emma, in which she related the whole tale of their misfortunes, how they were resolved to hide their poverty in retirement, how she released me from any engagement I might have come under to her, and how she had determined on seeing me no more.”

“Could we only discover their residence,” said Simeon, pulling from his pocket a paper, which he thrust into Frank’s hand, “I think that document might be of some use to them.”

“That’s the very thing, Mr Sturges,” cried Frank, after a momentary glance at its contents. “We have the old fellow now, sir; but is he aware of your having it?”

“You don’t suppose I’m a fool,” replied Simeon, with a knowing wink.

“Anything but a fool, Mr Sturges. Well, if old Ben isn’t obliged to fork out now, it shan’t be my blame,” said Frank, with great emphasis; “and if you should happen to be suspected in connection with this business, as it is more than likely you will, never mind, you shall lose nothing.”

Their minds being wholly engrossed in this conversation, they had entered quite unconsciously an open door in St Mungo’s venerable pile, and by-and-bye they found themselves pacing arm-in-arm the damp floor of the crypt—a mouldy, sombre, awe-inspiring chamber, underneath the main body of the edifice, with just light enough in it to render the darkness visible. Pausing for an instant, as most visitors do, to contemplate the tomb of St Mungo, they were startled by an unearthly voice, which seemed to issue from the tomb of the worthy saint.

“Unhallowed mortals,” said the voice, with deep sepulchral solemity [sic], “how dare ye presume to disturb my sleep of a thousand years! St Mungo’s dust is sacred—defile it not! Beware! beware! beware!”

As the words died away in faint echoes through the distant recess, strange chocking-like sounds, as if of some one striving to suppress an outburst of laughter, could be distinctly heard in a part of the chamber, whose obscurity the “dim religious light” struggled in vain to illuminate. Not a spark of superstitution [sic?] adhered to either Frank or Simeon, yet at that moment they owned to an uncomfortable sensation creeping through their nerves. Their suspense was of short duration, however, for Tom Winter, with a loud laugh, burst from his concealment, and grasped Frank by the hand.

“So, my dear Tom, you are still a bit of a ventriloquist,” said Frank. “But come now, we have no time for foolery. Tom can keep a secret,” continued Frank, turning to Mr Sturges, and so saying, he proceeded to unfold to Tom the Sturges, and so saying, he proceeded to unfold to Tom the whole story of Ben’s villany—the main facts of which, Tom assured them, were already guessed at by the public.

“And the old rascal has turned revivalist too, I believe,” remarked Tom, with a sarcastic smile.

“Yes,” replied Simeon, “and our next meeting comes off on Friday evening, at seven o’clock.”

“I’ll be there, as sure as a gun. Good-bye,” said Tom, marching off, snapping his fingers, and humming to himself a tune.

On parting with Tom at the Cathedral gate, Frank and Sturges directed their steps towards the Necropolis. In the mottoes on the tombstones, with which the grounds are thickly dotted, they found sufficient food for reflection. Having spent some time in this way, Frank suggested a visit to the last resting-place of Mr George Aymer. Drawing near to the spot they beheld two ladies sitting beside the grave, gazing intently on the sod, and wiping a tear now and then from their eyes.

“Heavens!” whispered Frank to his companion, “can you be Emma and Rosabelle.”

At this instant one of the ladies turned her face towards them, and Frank’s eyes encountered those of his beloved Emma. It was even so. Prompted by filial duty, the two sisters had come to spend their holiday at the grave of their deceased parent “to weep there.” Seldom has unexpected meeting, between long-separated friends, been so tender, so full of the opposite emotions of joy and sorrow, as was that singular meeting over the tomb of a beloved father, and dear departed friend. Over that silent grave Frank reasserted his unalterable fidelity to Emma—a fidelity which nothing on earth would or could shake. His means were ample. By his vigilance and activity in America, his father’s firm had been saved from bankruptcy, and arrangements had been made, since his return, to admit him to a partnership in the business. Would Emma persist in refusing his hand? No! She dared not if she would. She had released him from his engagement, but he never would release her from hers.

On leaving the cemetery, Frank and his companion accompanied the two girls to their humble abode, where, it is needless to say, they were heartily welcomed by Mrs Aymer. Ere they parted that evening, Frank laid such evidence before Mrs Aymer, as fully convinced her of Ben’s heartless cruelty and criminal dishonesty, both in the matter of her late husband’s estate, and in the fatal purchase of the bank shares, and indicated the means by which he might be made to disgorge at least a portion of his ill-gotten gains.


Chapter IX

Ben’s Evil Star in the Ascendant

Ben’s revival meetings were beginning to render him famous. Complimentary letters, written by serious people, reached him daily from all parts of the country. The officials of religious and benevolent societies came to him seeking advice as to the best mode of investing the funds at their disposal. He fell occasionally into the ecstatic state, wherein he saw what he called “beatific visions.” In short he was on the highway to canonization.

Friday night arrived, and true to his promise Tom Winter was at his post, selecting his seat in as obscure a corner as he could find. Many distinguished persons were present to witness the wonderful work going on under Ben’s superintendence. The rev. Gentleman from Ballymawhakit conducted the services as formerly, and at his right hand, “the observed of all observers,” sat Ben on high among the people, with most grave observers,” sat Ben on high among the people, with most grave and solemn countenance. Mr O’Trumpeter was unusually eloquent on this occasion—the special vice against which he inveighed being that of dishonesty. Under his powerful denunciations many of the audience became visibly affected. Some men cried out, confessing particular instances of covetousness of which they had been guilty. Tom Winter cast his eyes occasionally towards Ben, wondering if he would be honest enough to confess his iniquity, but Ben, though he looked the very picture of the penitent thief, opened not his lips. Something must be done to bring him to a sense of his duty, thought Tom, and sure enough something was done, and that with most startling effect, for suddenly both preacher and people were thrown into a state of indescribable consternation by an extraordinary voice, proceeding apparently from the ceiling of the following portentous words:—

“Benjamin Aymer! I conjure thee to confess thine iniquity in the presence of heaven and this congregation, in that thou hast wickedly defrauded the widow and the fatherless, thine own kindred, of their rightful inheritence! [sic]”

A death-like silence succeeded! Pale as a corpse, and quivering like an aspen, Ben sat unable from terror to utter a single syllable in reply to this supernatural rebuke as it was deemed by most of those who were present. All eyes were directed towards the trembling culprit. There he sat just as Haman may be supposed to have done when his villany was unveiled by Queen Esther. The audience were greatly moved—all except two—Messers Winter and Sturges, both of whom, however, feigned as much astonishment as they thought would be necessary to bring them off without being suspected as in any way responsible for the strange occurrence.

Ben at length gasped out a general confession of iniquity, but he would not acknowledge the particular instance of it to which this supernatural voice had referred. Mr O’Trumpeter was a shrewd man, and, perceiving that Ben was fidgety and ill at ease, he very considerately relieved him from his embarrassment by abruptly bringing the meeting to a close. The conscious-stricken sinner was in such a state of agitation that he had to be steadied home by Mr O’Trumpeter. Awfully crest-fallen, he staggered along the street without exchanging a word with his reverend friend, whom he dismissed at the door of his residence in a rather unceremonious manner. Creeping up stairs to his private room, he there gave way to a terrible storm of tears, curses, and self-reproaches. What a fool he had been to patronise these revival meetings! Instead of procuring him honour and consideration, they had brought him nothing but disgrace and confusion of face. But he had done with such meetings for ever. Was he to be insulted under his own rood? It was plain to him these revivalist preachers had recourse to some occult art to strike terror into their hearers. It was all trick—mere gammon from beginning to end. And as to atoning for past delinquencies—would he? Not he, indeed! Restore the money? Never! But was it really known that he had robbed his relatives? It couldn’t be; that secret lay concealed in his own breast. People might suspect him of dishonesty, but let them come to the proof. Ay, that was the rub! Legal proof? They had none!

On getting out of the meeting Winter and Sturges bolted off, “laughing consumedly,” to Mrs Aymer’s, where they found Frank Moreland and the ladies in grave conversation with a short, hard-visaged gentleman, who proved to be Mr Cleekum, of the legal firm of Cleekum & Hook, in whose office Tom Winter held a situation similar to that which Mr Sturges held under Mr Aymer. To the infinite amusement of the company, Sturges related the comical incident which had brought the meeting to a sudden close. Mr Cleekum, having laughed till his eyes watered, rose to depart, gathering up from the table some documents, which he slipped into his pocket, remarking at the same time in a jocular way, that if Tom’s mode of treatment should fail in producing the desired effect, he had, nevertheless, a pretty strong preparation in his pharmacopoea which he didn’t doubt would produce a certain and instantaneous cure.

Next morning, as Ben sat meditating an attack on his breakfast, in a frame of mind which was very far indeed from being enviable, the servant handed him the following letter:—

“Mr Benjamin Aymer.

“Sir,—We have been instructed by Mrs Aymer, lately residing at Pine Grove Cottage, to communicate with you relative to the estate of her late husband, Mr George Aymer, the residue of whose estate we possess undoubted evidence to prove you have illegally appropriated to your own purposes. We are also in a position to prove, by documentary and other evidence, that the Western Bank shares, which you pretended to have purchased with so much difficulty for Mrs Aymer, were truly your own property, and that you transferred said shares to her with the perfect knowledge on your part that they were utterly worthless. In short, we are prepared to prove you guilty of falsehood, fraud, and wilful imposition—crimes, the grave consequences of which we need not point out to one who has made the law his life-long study and daily professional practice. As Mrs Aymer does not desire to make a public example of one so nearly related to her late husband if she can help it, she has specially requested us to approach you in this friendly manner in the first instance, in order that you may have it in your option to settle the matter privately before we take legal steps against you, which we shall be compelled to do forthwith, unless in the course of this day you call at our office and come to an amicable arrangement with us as agents for Mrs Aymer.

“We have the honour, &c.,

“Cleekum & Hook.”

Having mastered the contents of this ugly missive, Ben, leaving his breakfast untasted, rushed down stairs, and set off as fast as his legs could carry him to his office, where he found Mr Sturges practising with great zeal the unfortunate tune in which he had failed so miserably on a late occasion.

“Just droning over that tune, sir,” said Sturges, addressing Ben, as he entered, “for as I don’t like being beat with anything, I’m reloved to sing it at our next meeting.”

“Hang those meeting,” roared Ben, “There shan’t be any more next meetings here. I know. There’s devilry in them, Mr Sturges—devices of the wicked one, sir; that they are. But it doesn’t matter; Trumpeter has blown his last blast here, I can tell him.”

Sturges uttered some exclamation of surprise in reply to this unexpected sally, of which Ben took no notice, but proceeded to open his secret repository, whence he pulled a bundle of papers, which, after minute examination, he stuffed with a jerk of supreme satisfaction into the stove, watching them attentively until he was certain the last shred had been consumed. This done, he went home and swallowed his breakfast, after which, having fortified himself with a glass of brandy, he set off to the office of Cleekum & Hook. What passed in that legal sanctum is unknown, but as the two firms had a mutual enmity at each other the interview could scarcely be a pleasant one on either side—on Ben’s especially. On returning to his office, Ben was in a state of great excitement. Not a word was uttered by him, a most unusual circumstance with Mr Aymer, for when business was prospering he was pretty communicative at times. Sturges, who had a shred suspicion that Mr Cleekum’s medicine was operating, laboured away at his desk with commendable assiduity, taking a peep at Ben’s physiognomy as often as he could do so without being observed. Meanwhile Ben was busy doing nothing. Now he would sit for a few minutes in a fit of profound abstraction, and then he would awake from his reverie with a deep sigh, and set about writing with amazing vigour and rapidity. The unsatisfactory results of his writing, however, were evinced by his committing three of four sheets of foolscap to the flames before succeeding in his purpose. Again he went out, and Mr Sturges saw his ace at the office no more that day.


Chapter X

Ben Comes Off Second Best

The instant the Tron steeple intimated the hour for suspension of business, Mr Sturges flung down his quill, and hastened to Mrs Aymer’s. Here he found Mr Frank Moreland.

“Well, Mr Sturges,” inquired Frank, “how goes it with Mr Benjamin Aymer? Has he got cured of the revival fever yet?”

“Haven’t seen him since twelve—left the office then, a little out of sorts, I guess—revival fever abated rather—pulse very low this morning,” said Simeon.

“Wonder if Cleekum’s potion has been administered yet?” said Frank.

“Judging from appearances, I should think it has,” was the reply.

“And how did he feel under it, think you?”

“Most uncomfortably, Mr Moreland; it evidently produced gripes,” said Simeon, laughing.

“That’s right,” replied the other; “caused a few quams of conscience, I suppose; just the effect intended.”

The conversation was here interrupted by the arrival of Mr Cleekum, who walked up with an air of vast importance to the table, at which sat Mrs Aymer, before whom he deposited, with a respectful inclination of his legal head, a small package of legal papers.

“Done Mr Ben’s goose in no time, you see!” said Mr Cleekum, proud of his professional skill.

“Has he really disgorged the whole, then?” inquired Frank, eagerly.

“Plack and farthing, sir,” said Mr Cleekum, nodding. “Four thousand five hundred—residue of late Mr George Aymer’s estate. You’ve got it all there, Mrs Aymer.”

“And those infernal Bank shares—what about them?” said Frank.

“Would have nothing to do with them at first, you see, but under terror of being brought to trouble for the other thing, he now takes the whole on his own shoulders,” said Mr Cleekum, “and an ugly burden he’ll have of ‘em, for the liquidators have just made another call for a round hundred per share. You’ll observe a draft for six thousand seven hundred among those papers, ma’am; that is the price of those shares, including your advances to meet the first call.”

Mr Cleekum might have spared those explanations addressed to Mrs Aymer, for she was so overwhelmed by the sudden and unexpected turn her fortunes had taken, that she could not for some time realise that it was not all a dream. She sat motionless and speechless, until Frank went forward and grasped her hand to congratulate her on the termination of her misfortunes, when she found relief from her anguish of joy in a flood of tears. Emma and Rosabelle, overpowered by their emotions, clung to each other with tender, sisterly affection. They had comforted and animated each other in the midst of their poverty and wretchedness, and with what a gush of gratitude did they now contemplate the end of all their miseries, and the dawn of brighter and happier days! The exciting news soon spread to the kitchen, where worthy Janet Bald thought proper to celebrate the event by going into hysterics, or some feminine disorder of that sort.

In the midst of this exciting scene, who should present himself but Mr Benjamin Aymer! HE was not immediately aware of the presence of Messrs Moreland and Cleekum, who were just then in an obscure corner of the room, discussing some matter of a private nature.

“So I’ve nursed a snake in my bosom only to be bitten by it!” said Ben, addressing Sturges with a savage scowl. “You come here to take counsel with my enemies, hey? Just dare to show your hanged ugly face in my premises again, sir, and I’ll blacken it for you!”

“Your discharge, Mr Aymer, is accepted with thanks,” said Sturges, sarcastically. “I can have no motive I assure you to wish to prolong a connection with one who has been proved to be a thief, a liar, a sanctified cheat, a most traitorous, most accomplished, most hypocritical villain!”

“Go on, sir, hard words break no bones. And you, too, ma’am,” said Ben, turning to Mrs Aymer, “you respected the memory of your late husband so far as to join in affinity with that horrid scoundrel, Cleekum, in ruining the character of that sainted husband’s nearest relative! But by—

Ben was going to pronounce a fearful anathema on the terror-stricken lady, but found his utterance suddenly arrested by Frank, who, darting from his concealment, seized the enraged old gentleman by the throat, and pinned him up firmly against the wall.

“Insult a lady in her own house, sir!” cried Frank, glaring fiercely into Ben’s face.” “Another disrespectful word, sir, and I’ll pitch your worthless carcase over the stairs!”

“Horrid scoundrel! Eh? Whom do you designate a horrid scoundrel, sir,” said Mr Cleekum, stepping from his concealment, and drawing himself up to his greatest possible altitude right in front of Ben, and staring him proudly and defiantly in the face.

As Ben had never calculated on meeting Frank and Mr Cleekum, the unexpected apparition of those two individuals acted on his choler with all the efficacy of a wet blanket. He subsided at once into perfect docility, and looked so frightened and so utterly helpless that Frank, after bumping his head twice or thrice against the plaster, relinquished his grasp.

“Who is a horrid scoundrel?” again demanded Mr Cleekum.

“Mr Cleekum,” said Ben gasping for breath, “—I—I didn’t come here to talk with you.”

“Maybe you suppose I came here to talk with you. Eh?” said Mr Cleekum. “But who is the horrid scoundrel: that’s what I should like to know.

“My object in coming here to-night,” said Ben with faltering voice “my sole object was to speak with Mrs Aymer—not to be insulted and browbeat by you Mr Cleekum—I’ve had enough of that to-day already.”

“Did you come here to call any one a horrid scoundrel?” interposed Cleekum with a provoking chuckle.

“I wished to explain to Mrs Aymer,” continued Ben, “that I have been made the victim of a base conspiracy in this affair—a conspiracy in which, I am now convinced, my clerk—my late clerk—has played a conspicuous part. ‘Tis he that is the traitorous, accomplished, hypocritical villain—not I. The Lord reward him according to his deeds, for he is a bloody man.”

“Were the prayers of a hypocrite accepted before that Being whose name you have so often on your lips, Mr Aymer, it would indeed stand hard with honest men,” observed Sturges quietly.

“And how dare you deny your villany in my presence, sir?” cried Frank clenching his fist and shaking it alarmingly close to Ben’s nose. “Dare you deny having falsified Mr George Aymer’s accounts in such a way as to make it appear, that at his death he was indebted to Moreland & Co., in the sum of £2000, when in truth he owed them not one penny? And did you not forge documents to show as vouchers for that falsification.”

“And who may you be, young man, that I must needs answer your impertinent interrogatories, forsooth?” retorted Ben haughtily.

“My card, sir?” said Frank pulling out his card case, and handing him the article in question.

A single glance at the card convinced Ben of the gravity of his situation. He stood petrified with terror, not daring to utter another word—his teeth chattering against each other as if he had been striken [sic] with palsy.

“Who’s the horrid scoundrel now, sir,” said Cleekum, with a derisive chuckle.

“Tell you what, old boy,” said Frank, opening the room door, and laying hold of the culprit’s coat-collar, “you had better be off at once, or it may be worse for you.”

Ben instantly vanished through the open door, escorted by Frank, who, on reaching the top landing, was observed to have the point of his boot in very menacing proximity to the old gentleman’s posterior regions, but whether he took his leave of him by administering a kick on said protuberance is not known. Be that as it might, however, his descent must have been effected with great expedition, for, ere Frank had time to return to the room, Ben’s well-known voice was heard, from the bottom of the stairs, loudly vociferating a half-intelligible jargon, from which could be gathered the phrases—”horrid scoundrel . . foul conspiracy . . the Lord, my shield and buckler . . persecute the righteous . . great day of final reckoning . . gnashing of teeth, &c.”—a demonstration of holy indignation which Frank put an end to by shutting the door.


Chapter XI

Odds and Ends

It only remains that we gather up the fag ends of this eventful history. Need we say that the widow and her two daughters very soon bade farewell to the humble habitation in which they had been made to drink so deeply of misery’s bitter draught. The old mansion in Park Place happening just then to be in want of a tenant, was secured as their residence, and thither they accordingly removed to begin life anew. Their sufferings and privations had indeed been great, yet how happy their lot compared with that of thousands whom the same calamity hurled from affluence into a similar gulf of wretchedness, but for whom the stern decrees of fate have provided no means of escape!

Emma is no more known by the name of Miss Aymer, but by the more agreeable and dignified style and title of Mrs Francis Moreland. The marriage, which took place a few weeks subsequent to Mrs Aymer’s removal to Park Place, was a splendid affair. Mr Simeon Sturges acted as brideman, and Rosabelle as bride’s maid on that most auspicious occasion. Tom Winter was there, too, and of course came out most brilliantly in the ventriloquial line. Tom being a mischievous rogue, however, as has been already proved, was well nigh spoiling the proceedings, by causing the bride to ejaculate an emphatic negative at the very point where she is expected to breathe a soft empassioned [sic] affirmative. For an instant the officiating clergyman looked puzzled and put out, but Emma’s emphatically-reiterated YES having tranquillised the reverend gentleman’s nerves, he soon brought the ceremony to a successful and happy conclusion.

Mr Benjamin Aymer lost caste. His cruel treatment of his widowed relative oozed out ere long, and circulated all over the city. Henceforth he found himself a marked man. Honest men of all ranks avoided him as they would a pestilence. Nay, even from men of kindred tastes with himself he received the cold shoulder.

“The common damned shunned his society,

And looked upon themselves as fiends less foul.”

He had wished to maintain a character for goodness, and at the same time to play the knave, but the two things are incompatible with each other, as he discovered only when it was too late. His reputation for benevolence and Christian principle was now blasted for ever, and he stood in the sight of all men—what he had ever been at bottom—a most unmitigated hypocritical knave! His business, too, forsook him. No honourable man would employ him, and what villain would entrust another villain with the management of his estate? Nobody would take pity on him, for your sanctified knave, once his wickedness is found out, is commonly the most thoroughly hated and distrusted of all knaves.

Mr Simeon Sturges having been dismissed from Ben’s service in the unceremonious manner described in the previous chapter, resolved to commence business on his own account, along with Mr Thomas Winter as his junior partner. The opening of Sturges and Winter’s office was the signal for the closing of old Ben Aymer’s. Henceforth the new firm monopolised the whole business. Ben soon found his occupation entirely gone. He shewed fight for a few months, however, but was compelled to succumb. His disposed of his effects a few weeks ago, and retired to—nobody knows whither.

We have just one little secret to divulge, and then we have done. A marriage is on between—well, whom do you think? Just between Mr Simeon Sturges and Miss Rosabelle Aymer! Would you believe it?—and she so young too—scarcely nineteen. Fact though! The house has been taken, and painters and upholsterers are working double time to have everything ready for the youthful couple. Mr Thomas Winter is to officiate as brideman on the forthcoming occasion. The name of the bride’s maid has not yet transpired. Her present cognomen, however, is of little consequence, as she is understood to be contemplating changing it by-and-bye into that of Mrs Thomas Winter.

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