Before becoming editor of ‘The People’s Journal’ W.D. Latto made several contributions to the paper. In 1859 he won the New Year’s short story prize for his effort, ‘Clouds and Sunshine’.
The New Year’s Prize Tale.
By Mr W.D. Latto, Johnshaven.
“What a magnificent dress you have got, Maria! Well, upon my word, you will look stunning to-night at the ball. I am quite distressed about having mine spoiled. I think I shall employ Madam Rampline in future when I want anything particularly well fitted; for that Mrs Clarke is so destitute of taste that she always makes a perfect fright of me—always does.”
“Well, Fanny, there is no accounting for tastes, and certainly our’s are quite opposite to each other in this instance. Why, do you know, I think your’s the neater of the two?”
“No, no, Maria, dear, you are astray as to that—most unmistakeably so. I can assure you, if you could only see how well your dress becomes you, the inferiority of mine would appear in a moment. I am so vexed; for everybody at the ball will be drawing contrasts between us, and noticing my frightful appearance. I don’t think I shall go after all.”
“Not go to the ball! after cousin Bill has kindly consented to escort you thither?”
“No, I don’t think I shall. Bill can take his inamorato to bear him company, if he has one,” said Fanny, making an effort to appear the light-hearted girl which in truth she was not.
“Well, that would be using him rather indifferently, I think. Cousin Bill has no lady-love, never had, and never will have one. His love is too universal for that. Allow me to ask you one question, Fanny—Had Jack Oswald been at home, would you have refused to go to the ball with him?”
“Perhaps I would, and perhaps I would not; but then you know the case would have been altogether different,” said Fanny, with a deep sigh.
“Ay, ay, Fanny, it is pretty evident what your reasons are for not going to the ball. Be truthful now, and say if it is not more owing to your not having a sweetheart handy than to your not having a suitable dress.”
“Suppose it does, Maria, what then? Had Mr Duckworth been at sea in the late dreadful storms which have plunged so many dauntless hearts beneath the angry billows, and had no intelligence of him arrived for a week after his ship was due, would you have been in the best mood possible for a ball?”
“My imagination is not lively enough to enable me to realize what would have been my feelings in a situation such as you suppose, and so I cannot possibly say in what sort of a mood I would have been for the ball; but, dearest Fanny, don’t be in the slightest degree alarmed as to Jack’s safety. Did’nt [sic] you hear Captain Bowline say that the good ship Ben Cruachan would ride out, without danger, a much stronger hurricane than any we have had of late.”
“But, Maria, accidents will happen at times to the strongest and the bravest, against which no human foresight can provide, and who can tell what may have happened to the Ben Cruachan. I can only hope that all is well; but I had a fearful dream last night, Maria—a fearful dream”—and here a tear, which had been springing for some time, and which she had striven to keep concealed, welled up in Fanny’s deep blue eye, and her emotion for the moment paralysed her lips.
“A dream, Fanny, and what was it about?”
“I saw Jack Oswald in his shroud,” sobbed the distressed girl, “and, Oh, what a pale and ghastly look he bore; I fear, I fear the worst!”
“Tuts, Fanny dear, dreams always go by the contraries, you know,” said Maria, striving to put her sister in better spirits.
“I fear the worst, I fear the worst!” reiterated Fanny, while the big tears came coursing down her pale cheeks, revealing the dark forebodings that harboured in her bosom.
“Well, well,” said Maria, rather pettishly, for she felt a little nettled at having her pleasing anticipations so unseasonably damped by what she considered the childish fears and superstitious credulity of her sister. “Well, well, if you will be foolish enough to give heed to idle dreams, I won’t, and that’s the sum and substance of what I think of the matter. Duckworth and I shall go to the ball alone, and you may dream at home if you will.”
The above colloquy ended, Fanny retired to her room to indulge her evil forebodings in private, while the light-hearted Maria commenced buying herself with preparations for the approaching Christmas ball.
Leaving them meanwhile to their respective pursuits, it may be proper, ere the story proceeds further, to detail to the reader a little more fully than can be gathered from their conversation the history of the two fair dialogists to whom he has just been introduced. Mr Bishop, the father of the young ladies in question, was a West India merchant, who, by dint of industry and perseverance, had been enabled, though late in life, to retire from business to enjoy the otium cum dignitate in the family—his wife and several of his children having been cut off by yellow fever in the West Indies. Maria was a strong-minded, though not a hard-hearted girl. She had just spoken with apparent harshness to her sister, reproving her for what she could not but think her over-sensitiveness and simplicity; but it was quite foreign to her real nature to feel so bitterly as she had spoken, for a while she chid her fears in words, she yet sincerely and tenderly sympathised with her in heart. As already hinted, Maria had found an admirer in the person of Mr Duckworth, a young man of promising fortune and amiable character, and whose bride she was pledged to become as soon as Jack Oswald, who had gone out a voyage to China, should return home to marry Fanny. Mr Bishop entertained a curious desire to see his two daughters married, as they had been born together, and hence, by common consent, the marriages were postponed until Jack’s arrival.
Fanny was altogether a more thoughtful, imaginative, etherial [sic] sort of being than her sister. She was more timid and shrinking in her disposition, more given to reading poetry and fiction, more apt to find “sermons in stones and good in every thing,” more affectionate withal, and hence more lovable. The characters of the two sisters thus presented a distinct contrast; yet though their moral qualities were in some respects so different, their attachment to each other was most devoted. No two sisters could have loved each other more tenderly, more unswervingly, than did Fanny and Maria. They had grown up from infancy so intimately associated with each other, in their pastimes, in their lessons, in fatherly counsels and reproofs, yea in thier very existence, that it would have been strange indeed had their love not been as mutual as it was deep and fervent. The sentiments so beautifully expressed by the American poet might, with the greatest truthfulness, have been adopted by them:—
“We in one mother’s arms were locked—
Long be her love repaid!
In the same cradle we were rocked;
Round the same hearth we played.
We are but one—be that the bond
To hold us till we die;
Shoulder to shoulder let us stand
Till side by side we lie!”
The evening shadows were fast closing in. The street lamps one after another were beginning to twinkle through the murky atmosphere. Maria had been repeatedly in Fanny’s room during the afternoon striving to make her alter her determination not to go to the ball that evening, but all her endeavours were fruitless. Fanny felt moody and heartsick, and refused to be comforted. Coaxing and bantering had both been tried, but equally without effect. The ball could have no attractions for her. The frightful dream of the preceding night was ever present to her imagination. Just as Maria was making what she had resolved should be her final effort to induce her sister to go to the ball, a loud tap came to the door. She was at it in a moment, and admitted Cousin Bill, fully equipped for the assembly, his manly chest encased in a snow-white vest, and on his hands a pair of the tightest-fitting kid gloves. He had provided himself with a large bunch of misletoe [sic], a plant less valued in Scotland than in England on Christmas days. Without taking time to observe the usual civilities, he bounded at once into the parlour, sans ceremonie, where Mr Bishop, “spectacles on nose,” was sitting in a corner conning over the commercial columns of his evening paper, and in a trice he had the misletoe [sic] suspended from the centre chandelier, and was hugging Maria.
“Under the blossom that hangs on the bough,” after the most approved souther fashion, he being all the while unobservant of Mr Bishops’s presence.
“Stop, stop, cousin Bill,” cried Mr Bishop, with a vehemence which sufficiently startled the object of his address, yet with a smile of the utmost good humour beaming on his countenance, “none of your English pranks here, my boy. Remember we’re on Scottish ground, and don’t observe Christmas in that heathenish manner.”
“O, you know, papa, cousin Bill has been ‘half a Saturday in England,’ as the saying is, and is not quite responsible for his actions on Christmas,” said Maria, apologetically, while she strove to conceal her blushes in her efforts to re-arrange her curls, which had suffered somewhat form the “billing” performed under the chandelier.
“Ha! ha! discovered us, Uncle, eh?” said cousin Bill, laughing, and seizing the old gentleman by the hand, “Puritanism! It’s downright Puritanism your Scottish disrespect of Christmas. What should hinder a Scotsman from enjoying his good fat goose, apple-sauce, and plum-pudding on this day as well as an Englishman? Narrow-minded Puritanism, ‘Pon my word it is.
‘The plums these prophets sons defy,
And spin-broths are too hot;
Treason’s in a December pie,
And death within the plot.’
But where’s Fanny?” he inquired, pulling out and glancing at his watch, “Dressing for the ball, I suppose.”
Ere his interrogatory could be answered, another intimation from the knocker on the street-door announced the arrival of some one whose peculiar rat-tat-tat was quite familiar to Maria, so she ran to answer it without taking time to blush. Mr Duckworth entered. His whole demeanour was different from what it used to be. His gay attire evidently hid a canker underneath. On his countenance, which was ashy pale, not the faintest lineament of smile could be traced. His voice when he spoke was marked by a husky tremour, as if the words were about to choke him. Maria was getting agitated, supposing him to be unwell.
“Where is poor Fanny?” he enquired, after the customary salutations had been interchanged.
“On her own room,” said Maria, striving to hide her anxiety at his unwonted behaviour under the guise of a levity which she was far from feeling at that moment. “In the pouts at something, I suppose. She isn’t going to the ball, she says; but may-be Cousin Bill will be able to convert her,” she added, casting a significant glance towards that gentleman’s spotless waistcoat.
“If you only knew the truth, Maria, you would add that none of us shall go to the assemble to-night,” said Mr Duckworth, with a solemnity which filled Maria with alarm.
“Bah! to the mischief with your mock-solemnity. Not go to the ball! Why not?” cried Bill, who was under the impression that Mr Duckworth was merely feigning his concerment by way of a joke. “ Believe me,” said Mr Duckworth, with increasing earnestness. “I am quite serious; this is no joking matter. I am sorry to have to dim the prospect of this evening’s mirth by evil intelligence, but the truth cannot be hid; it must be known. All isnot as it should be with the Ben Cruachan. She has foundered in the Channel, and all hands are—lost!”
The concluding words, uttered in a suppressed whisper, lest Fanny should have overheard them, were nevertheless quite audible to all within the room. Mr Bishop dropt [sic] his paper and raised his spectacles; Maria burst into tears; Bill stood motionless and speechless. The dreadful intelligence had fallen with a leaden weight upon their hearts. Poor Jack Oswald!
“Sad if not fatal news this to poor Fanny, I fear,” said Mr Bishop. “Oh, how can we break this fearful intelligence to her? It will kill her, she is so sensitive,” said Maria, sobbing.
“It must be done gradually,” said Bill. “Leave it to me to prepare her mind for it, if you please.”
Bill was on the point of quitting the parlour on his melancholy mission, when a loud piercing shriek from Fanny’s room caused them all to hurry thither in a body.
They found the unfortunate girl prostrate on the floor in a swooning condition. Restoratives were promptly applied. While administering these the hoarse croaking voice of an itinerant newsvendor, who was playing his vocation in the street immediately under the window, was heard soliciting purchasers for the Evening Express—”Loss of the Ben Cruachan; all hands perished; news just arrived by electric telegraph.”
Though Fanny, owing to her troubled dream of the previous night, had been half prepared all day for some such intelligence, yet when the croaking tones of the newsman actually fell upon her ear, they did so with a weight which crushed her to the earth.
A said Christmas eve was that in Mr Bishop’s household. How suddenly and awfully had that night of festivity been turned into one of mourning. In the ball room, between the dances, the sorrowful news circulated from lip to lip, and the unhappy fate of two lovers called forth, as well it might, expressions of sincere lamentation from the revellers, but when the music struck up afresh away they went with tripping footsteps in the mazy whirl, as thoughtless and light-hearted as if nothing had happened out of the common. What passed in Mr Bishop’s family circle during the few days immediately succeeding this sorrowful Christmas eve must remain undescribed. There was grief therein too intense, too sacred to be lightly unveiled to the public gaze. Suffice it to say that everything which the tenderest affection or the sincerest sympathy could suggest was done to console the heart-stricken mourner and to alleviate her heavy bereavement. It was only then that the real amiability and warmth of Maria’s heart became fully apparent. Cousin Bill and Mr Duckworth, too, were daily visitants, each striving to contribute as far as he could to the mitigation of poor Fanny’s mental distraction, while Mr Bishop was all that a tender-hearted father, who had himself experienced many bitter bereavements, could be in circumstances so peculiarly painful.
It was drawing towards the evening of the last day of the year. The streets without echoed the noisy foot-falls of bust crowds bent on the pursuit of pleasure. The merry voices of children shouting rhymes peculiar to Hogmanay, mingled strangely at times with the drunken troll of the inebriate, as he staggered forth from the scene of his debauchery. But for the calamity which had befallen the Ben Cruachan this would have been the joyful eve preceding Fanny’s and Maria’s wedding. On New Year’s Day it had been pre-arranged that their nuptials should be solemnized. The preparations for that usually auspicious event had been all but completed. Now, however, instead of the gay bridal garment, there was to be seen only the sable weeds of mourning.
Mr Bishop and his two daughters were still alone. Neither Mr Duckworth nor cousin Bill had as yet dropt in to pay their wonted evening call of condolence. They had staid away later than usual. Were they, too, joining the crowds in pursuit of that illusive thing called pleasure? Had they forgotten poor Fanny’s situation thus early? Surely not: they had promised to call that evening, something must have detained them; what could it be?
All uncertainty, however, was ere long dispelled by the arrival of cousin Bill. He looked more cheerful than he had done since Christmas. In manner he was somewhat flurried, but his agitation evidently arose from feelings the reverse of painful. There was even an occasional smile to be detected flitting over his honest countenance. Maria cast on him sundry glances which nearly amounted to an avowal of her belief that he must have been indulging to some extent in the follies incident to that season of festivity. This buoyancy of spirit was so ill-timed, so unsuited to their present mournful circumstances, so contrary to the tender sympathy he had heretofore evinced and expressed, that on no other hypothesis could she account for his strangely altered demeanour.
“Glad to see you, Bill,” said Mr Bishop; “we were beginning to feel lonesome without you. What can have detained Mr Duckworth?”
“Would have been sooner,” replied Bill, “but alighted upon an old acquaintance, who understands maritime affairs well, and, what d’ye think? he is of opinion that some, if not all, of the crew of the Ben Cruachan may yet cast up!”
“Their bodies may, and it were some consolation to think that they will, but there is little hope of seeing any of them alive,” said Mr Bishop sadly.
“No, no; to suppose such a thing possible would only be to indulge in ‘the hope that keeps alive despair,’” said Maria.
Fanny’s opinion found vent in a deep sigh. The safety of any of the crew seemed a circumstance too improbable to awaken even the slightest expectation in the only heart that might well have been pardoned for “hoping against hope.”
“But there is still good hope that some of the crew may have been picked up by some other vessel,” resumed Bill.
“Do you really think it possible,” enquired Fanny, eagerly and falteringly.
“Not only possible, my dear Fanny, but extremely probable,” answered Bill, with an air of confidence.
“Oh, what a joy it would be could we really believe so,” said Maria.
“But I believe so,” said Bill, with increasing emphasis.
“What grounds have you for such a belief?” enquired Mr Bishop, rising from his seat.
“Just this,” said Bill, with a smile, “that some of the crew are actually alive and well at this moment!”
“Who? where? Does Mr Oswald still live? Speak; does he still live?” cried Fanny, wildly.
“Jack Oswald indeed lives!” answered Bill, seizing Fanny in his arms at the same time, to prevent her from sinking on the floor.
The sudden flood of joy which had burst on her heart was nearly too much for her, but her feelings sought relief in a flood of tears.
“Jack Oswald not only lives,” resumed Bill, after her emotions had subsided a little, “but Mr Duckworth and he are at the door!”
“Good Heavens, call him in then!” exclaimed Mr Bishop. “I’ll engage to believe the evidence of my senses.”
To follow up Mr Bishop’s suggestion was but the work of a moment. Jack Oswald verily stood before them! Poor Fanny, locked in his embrace, was laughing and crying by turns like one distracted. Mr Bishop, forgetting his infirmities amid the general gladness evoked by Mr Oswald’s safe arrival, demeaned himself with a vivacity which originated more in the intensely excited feeling of the moment than in any habitual inclination. He actually leaped for joy! He now saw the possibility of realising his fondly cherished hopes. On the morrow he would accompany his two beloved daughters to the altar and see them honourably settled in life. Cousin Bill stood gazing with radiant countenance on the tumultuous emotions of the happy lovers. He felt perhaps for the first time in his life that true love is after all something better and more tangible than the baseless fabric of a vision.
“What faith can we repose in your dreams now, Fanny?” cried Maria, alluding to the events of Christmas afternoon.
“But tell us all about it, my boy,” said Mr Bishop, “how did you escape being drowned?”
“Why, you see it was as terrible a hurricane as ever was,” began Mr Oswald, seating himself on the soda, with Fanny’s fragile form still entwined in his brawny arms. “Our sails wnt to ribbons in no time. Furious waves washed our decks from stem to stern. The water was gaining on us with fearful rapidity. Not a soul could appear on deck. We clung to the shrouds and made up our minds to go to the bottom at a moment’s warning. By and bye the weather abated somewhat, but we saw that the vessel was fast settling down. Escape was impossible, as our boats had been all swept away. Death, a fearful death, stared us in the face! I thought of home, of Fanny, of you all. At last all consciousness deserted me—I saw not, I felt not. Had I gone to the bottom at that moment I should have been made aware of the fact only from awakening in another world. When consciousness returned, I found myself on board a French barque, bound or Havre. I had the satisfaction of finding all my comrades safe and sound. How we had been rescued I cannot possibly imagine. I lost everything but my money and my devotion to Fanny. The only articles I regret having lost were two magnificent cashmere shawls, in which Fanny and Maria should have been arrayed on the morrow.”
“Let the shawls go, but why didn’t you write as soon as you reached Havre?” enquired Maria, “it would have saved us a world of anxiety.”
“Why, I believe in this case Cupid has been fleeter than Mercury would have been,” replied Jack, laughing. “I have travelled by express all the way, for I was determined to keep my appointment; besides, how could I know that you would be apprised of our disaster so soon?”
“Ah! you are a noble fellow,” exclaimed Mr Bishop, unable to suppress his admiration for his destined son-in-law; and so saying he and cousin Bill withdrew, leaving the lovers to concert matters for the morrow.
Next morning dawned more cheerfully on Mr Bishop’s domicile than it had done for a week previous. The first arrival was cousin Bill, arrayed in all the glory of his spotless waistcoat, and fuller of fun and frolic than ever. By and bye the other guests dropped in, and the decisive hour approached which was to seal the destinies of four hopeful hearts. That eventful New Year’s Day was destined to transform Fanny into Mrs Oswald, and Maria into Mrs Duckworth. On that day, too, it was that cousin Bill found himself caught in the toils of the blooming Miss Bowline; in which bondage, however, he felt himself rather happy than otherwise. The lucky fellow wriggled a little, but surrendered at discretion a few months afterwards.
Years have passed away since then, and now there are little Oswalds, little Duckworths, and little Bills, and though they may have brought a few cares along with them, yet who shall attempt to number the joys with which they have been accompanied? May each returning New Year’s Day find their cares diminishing, and their joys increasing.—Cranny Pool.