DAVID’S CHRISTMAS GIFT
The choir at Wood Grange Chapel was known for miles around. The quality of its sing was the pride of the village. It was the ambition of every boy and girl to become, as years rolled by, a member of that choir. It was the fond hope of all the parents that their children might some day be desirable recruits to that popular army of musicians. Still, there was no professionalism about it. No one received, or expected, payment, but each one sang as if the beauty and the glory of the service depended upon him or her. This had been the practice for generations, and so the little old chapel, with its ivy-clad walls, was famed for the simplicity of its service and the excellency of its music.
There was no organ. There never was one; and neither the choir nor the congregation wanted one. They had no desire to sing to machinery. They had a few ﬁddles, and the players had generally been provided by the same families for ages past. There was no show and no seeking after special effect, except at the Annual Sing, when the aid of friends from over the borders of the village would be enlisted. Then would the little chapel be crowded to excess by old and young from near and far. Then would the singers and the players use their best efforts to inspire the assembled worshippers, and then would the people join heartily in the familiar hymns of praise.
At Christmas the villagers loved to hear their choir give selections from oratorios, or break forth into singing some quaint and homely carol. As soon as the clock struck twelve on Christmas Eve, they would set forth on their yearly pilgrimage through the village.
Out of their gratitude, many people gave contributions to the funds of the chapel, and so the practice began to assume a business as well as a missionary aspect.
At the time of which we speak, however, these contributions were not only few, but small. It was during the American Civil War, and the Cotton Panic touched, with its clammy and icy hand, almost every home in Lancashire. The dwellers at Wood Grange suffered, perhaps, as much as any others. Parents denied themselves raiment and nourishment, so that their little ones might not feel the pinch of want and the piercing sting of cold. Still, it did not always avail. Sometimes those who could not understand it had to go with bare feet and empty stomachs. How often the thin face, the bright eyes, and yet the hopeless mien told of the deep tragedy which was daily being enacted in their comfortless lives. The Wood Grange choir were not strangers to the prevailing distress, but they determined to give solace even where food could not be obtained, and to convey glad tidings of great joy to those who had no message of hope in this wide, wide world.
They decided to have the usual Christmas Sing. There were many absentees, for the night was wild, and cold, and damp, but there was a welcome accession in the person of one David Brown. David had never been out as a Christmas Wait before, and he was anxious to try the new experience. He had only just returned from the goldﬁelds of Australia, where his parents had taken him some years before, and the sight of his boyish home seemed to have a bracing effect upon him, and he longed for the moment to live a little of the old life once more. He was a ﬁnely-built young fellow, tall, broad-shouldered, fair, muscular, and genial. He was an acceptable companion anywhere, but on this occasion he was especially so, as he was a good singer, and had a remarkably well-balanced and musical bass voice.
Ah! there goes the midnight hour. It is Christmas morn — the morn on which the Prince of Peace was born. Thousands of churches and millions of people will to-day be proclaiming and blessing the gospel of Peace, and millions of men, women, and children will be suffering and starving as a consequence of a bloody war between two sections of a civilised community.
But it is Christmas morn, and the choir must away, and sing of peace to the innocent and ill-clad, ill-fed victims of war.
Their ﬁrst stop is at old Sam o’ Bob’s, formerly a member of the choir. They arranged themselves in front of the door in a semi-circular form, with Jimmy o’ Joe’s in the centre. The ﬁddlers screwed and scraped at the strings in their efforts to secure the right pitch, but it was a difficult task, owing to the damp atmosphere.
“Neaw, then! Come, chaps,” said Jimmy, appealingly. “Let’s mak’ a start if we are to ﬁnish afore th’ next Kesmus.”
“We’re doin’ eawr best,” answered Bill o’ Yeb’s; “but we connot stop th’ strengs fro’ ratchin’ ony moor nor we con stop nations fro’ feightin’.”
“Well, but do be sharp, then,” urged Jimmy. “Neaw, are yo’ o ready? One, two, three —”
“Howd on a bit, Jimmy,” interrupted Billy, “aw’ve letten my rozzin fo’.”
“Never mind thy rozzin, Billy, so lung as theau doesn’t drop thy purse.”
“Purse! Purse! did ta’ say, Jimmy? Sithi, aw’ve no moore use for a purse nor I have for th’ Bank of England,” and Billy turned his pockets inside out to show that they were empty.
“Ther’ isn’t mich to choose between us,” said Jimmy, “Aw dunnot think ’at we’ve sixpence amung us, unless David here has a nugget or two o’ gowd wi’ him, ’at he’s browt back fro’ th’ other side o’ th’ world.” Everybody looked at David, and Billy remarked: “Eh! aw nobbut wish aw could rozzin my ﬁddle bow wi’ a nugget o’ gowd. Aw’ll warrant ’at th’ strengs would never go flat again.”
“Aw’m noane so sure abeawt that,” said Jimmy. “Gowd doesn’t cure o th’ ﬂats i’ this world.”
“P’raps it doesn’t,” replied Billy; “but it’s a medicine ’at aw shouldn’t object to givin’ a gradely good trial.”
“Well, suppose theau tries thy ﬁddle again neaw, an’ happen th’ nugget ’ll come some day. Neaw then! One, two, three, four.”
They all started this time, the ﬁddlers attempting to play the tune known as “Yorkshire,” and the singers trying to ﬁll in the familiar words written by Dr. John Byrom. But it was a failure. The ﬁddles were out of tune, and the effect they produced on the singing was disastrous.
Jimmy o’ Bob’s put up both hands in amazement, and cried out: “Stop thoose ﬁddles, for God’s sake, or yo’ll have us o i’ th’ madheause.”
“Didn’t aw tell thee?” remonstrated Billy. “Didn’t aw tell thee ’at my ﬁddle wanted a lump o’ gowd rozzin?”
“Well, let it rest, Billy, till it gets it,” said Jimmy. “Neaw, let’s try ’beawt instrumental music. Again. One, two, three, four. Aye, that’s better,” he said to himself, as the hymn went smoothly through to the ﬁnish. “Neaw, con yo’ manage ‘O! Come O Ye Faithful’?”
”Aw’m feeart my ﬁddle winnot be faithful witheawt some gowd rozzin,” replied Billy.
“Aye! an’ aw’m feeart ’at we’st ha’ to dispense wi’ thy services otogether if theau doesn’t be quiet,” answered Jimmy.
Billy was quiet after this. The second hymn was sung under greater disadvantages than the ﬁrst, as the night grew wilder and wetter. Dan o’ Ben’s suggested that they should only sing one verse of each hymn at the various calling places, on account of the weather.
“Aw’ll agree to that,” said Bill o’ Yeb’s, “obbut for Nancy Bradley’s. Yo’ know ’at it’s noane theer fault ’at theer Esther isn’t eawt wi’ us to’neet.”
“Aye, lad! Theau’rt reet, Billy,” said several. “An’ th’ singin’ would be better if hoo wur.”
And so it was decided that, with the exception of Mrs. Bradley’s, all the places visited were to have only one verse each of two hymns, unless the weather improved.
David felt a great longing to know something of the circumstances which warranted the special treatment of the Bradley family, and after alittle while he contrived to monopolise the companionship of Bill o’ Yeb’s, and ask him for information.
“Well, dunnot yo’ see?” said Billy. “It’s o’ this road. Nancy Bradley’s been badly left. Hoo’s a biggish family, an’ theer Jacob took it in his yed to dee this last back eend. He’d been ailin’ a bit before, so what wi’ sickness an’ doctorin’, an’ th’ cotton panic, th’ poor woman’s nobbut badly off. Hoo goes a helpin’ a bit at th’ Grange sometimes, or else aw dunnot know heaw they’d keep body an’ soul together. Aw’m rayther sorry for theer Esther. Hoo’s gettin’ into a ﬁne yung woman neaw, but her face shows signs o’ clemmin’, an’ her clooas con hardly be said to be o’ th’ latest fashion. But hoo’ll mak’ someb’dy a good wife, will Esther, if onybody’s fause enoof to look for seawnd sense, i’stead o’ ﬁne ribbins. But Esther hasn’t time to bother wi’ cooartin’. Hoo has to do a bit o’ bakin’ i’ th’ daytime, an’ at neet hoo goes reawnd tryin’ to sell a twothri’ taycakes. Then hoo has to look after th’ childer a bit when her mother’s deawn at th’ Grange; so hoo’s no time for fellies. But yo’d know her, wouldn’t yo’, Mesthur Brown? Yi! aw’m sure yo’ would. Hoo’d be gettin’ into a nice strappin’ wench when yo’ went away. They used to co’ her mother Nan o’ Sal’s sometimes.”
“Yes,” responded David, and the recollection of years ago seemed to crowd upon him. “Yes, I remember Nan o’ Sal’s, and I remember Esther, too. How she must have changed!”
“Hoo connot change for th’ better,” interjected Billy; “but hoo met ha’ been prattier if hoo could have had less anxiety an’ moore o’ summat to ate.”
But David did not answer. His mind was wandering back to his schooldays, when he and Esther were schoolmates, and when they, in their own innocent and childlike ways, loved one another.
David was glad when his self-appointed task was over. He wanted time to think and to collect his scattered thoughts. He wanted to know more of Nan o’ Sal’s, and more of Esther. How must he do it? Should he call upon them? And then the thought arose that perhaps they would not know him. Foolish fellow! He did not know then that neither men nor women ever forget their ﬁrst loves. But he could not think of any more feasible plan than calling, so on the afternoon of Christmas Day he knocked timidly at the door.
It was opened by Mrs. Bradley, who stood for a moment before her visitor could blurt out the needless inquiry, “Does Mrs. Bradley live here, please?”
“Aye! hoo does,” replied Nancy. “Winnot yo’ come forrad?” Then, looking at him more closely, she exclaimed: “What, is it thee, David? Well, aw shouldn’t ha’ known thee. Come forrad, lad, into th’ heause. Theighur! Sit thee deawn at th’ hob-eend, wheer it’s a bit warmer. Aw dar’say theau ﬁnds it a bit cowd eawtside. Theau’rt lookin’ weel, aw’m fain to say. Foreign parts seem to agree wi’ thee. An’ heaw’s thy faythur, an’ thy mother, an’ o yo’r family?”
David replied that they were all tolerably well in health.
“An’ aw reckon they’re weel off i’ money matters, too?” added Mrs. Bradley.
David answered that he was thankful to say that they were.
“Aw’m sure theau art, David; aw’m sure theau art. An’ we’ve o reason to be thankful ’at we’re gooin’ throo these hard times as weel as we are. Of course, some are better off nor others, but we connot o be alike. Ther’ mun be leet an’ shade. If o th’ ﬂeawers wur o’ one colour, nob’dy would want a garden; an’ if everybody wur as weel off as one another there’d be nowt to strive for, there’d be no sense o’ happiness, an’ we should o goo back’ards till we geet to that stage o’ barbarism ’at we started fro’.”
This was not what David expected. He was prepared to hear the usual complaints of bad luck on the one part, and favoured treatment on the other; but he felt compelled to agree with the views expressed by Mrs. Bradley. Yet, in spite of all that, he said he hoped that she and her family were sharing, to a fair extent, in the world’s good things.
“Well,” said Nancy, “we’re noane as weel off as some folks an’ we’re better off nor others. We’ve never been gradely beawt a meal’s mate i’ th’ heause yet. We may not awlus have had as mich as we wanted, but then yo’ dunnot need as mich when yo’ aren’t wortchin’. Aw dunnot think, see yo’, ’at these bad times are o loss. Folks dunnot poo feaw faces neaw at porritch, they dunnot shy the’r noses up at potyto-pies beawt beef, an’ yo’ winnot ﬁnd so mony buttercakes an’ traycle cakes lyin’ abeawt i’ th’ streets till even th’ dogs winnot touch ’em.”
David was still forced to agree with her, but he was still unsatisﬁed. He wanted to know something about Mrs. Bradley’s difficulties; he wanted to know without asking directly, whether Esther was suffering; he wanted to help a little, if he could. But there was no appeal for help; no room, apparently, for charity. When he ventured to suppose that most of the poor people would be running into debt for their food and clothing, he was corrected by Mrs. Bradley, who informed him that many of the poorest would go short of food rather than incur a debt which their children might have to wash out with the sweat of their brows. Most of the people of Wood Grange, she was pleased to say, were members of the co-operative store, where no debts were allowed. She knew that ‘relief’ was regularly given, both by the store and by the branch of the County Relief Committee, but she had tried, and her neighbours had tried, to do without it.
This was all the information that David could get, and he went away with his desire to be of some assistance intensiﬁed, but with a doubt in his heart as to how it would be received. He could do nothing, however, that day, as all the shops were closed for Christmas Day, but early on the following morning he went to the store, where he thought Mrs. Bradley would purchase her goods. He found that the shopman did not know Mrs. Bradley, but he knew Nan o’ Sal’s; and, in answer to David’s whispered inquiry as to whether he thought the family had sufficient to eat, replied that he did not know how they managed to live.
This was sufficient for David. He ordered a full supply of the best articles which they had been accustomed to have. The shopman informed him that they had not usually used white ﬂour, except for the tea-cakes, which the daughter had baked for sale: that they had bought very little butter, sugar and such common luxuries.
But David ordered enough of these and to spare. He asked for the goods to be sent to Nan o’ Sal’s, but the shopman explained that to do so would be against their rules, but he would get a reliable man to take them. David readily agreed to this, and left a small sum of money to pay for the work. Then he went into the butcher’s shop and bought a large piece of beef, and ordered it to go with the other goods. He next visited the drapery department, and asked the young lady in charge to select a neat and substantial piece for a dress; and, having purchased sufficient to make a good dress, he asked them to direct it to Esther Bradley and send it, along with the other articles, to Nan o’ Sal’s. He was going away, when he suddenly remembered the little ones. He did not know what to do for them, but he turned back to the shop and bought a few mince pies and a number of oranges and apples, which he hoped would be acceptable as a seasonable greeting.
It would be impossible to describe the scene at Nan o’ Sal’s when the man arrived with the goods on a handcart. Mrs. Bradley was conﬁdent that there was a mistake somewhere, but the man said he had been told to leave them there, and if they didn’t chose to have them, he knew plenty of people who would be glad of them.
Meanwhile, Esther, who had been made acquainted with David’s visit to her home, felt an instinctive assurance that she knew the kind doner, and, without saying anything of this, she quietly advised her mother to accept the goods.
The rejoicings in that house were of such a character as had not been witnessed for some time past, but, amid all the glowing excitement, the mother insisted that they should receive those blessings with becoming thankfulness.
The all-absorbing question was: Who had sent all these good things? Mrs. Bradley said that they were indebted to God for this unexpected blessing, and she asked her children to thank Him with their whole heart for His mercies. Esther thought it was the spirit of God in the heart of David that had wrought this wondrous kindness, and her heart was full of love and gratitude to both.
David called at Nan o’ Sal’s again that evening. Mrs. Bradley was out, but, happily, Esther was at home. She rose joyfully to receive David, but the tears in her eyes and the throbbing of her heart prevented her from welcoming him in words. He pressed her hand which she extended to him with loving tenderness, and took the chair which she offered to him.
For a time, all was silent. Esther and David were too full to speak, and the younger ones were lost in wonder. Presently, Esther, speaking to her brothers and sisters, and pointing to David, said, “This is the kind gentleman whom you must thank for the gifts which we have received to-day.”
The eldest thanked him in fervent and graceful words, the younger ones expressed gratitude in their beaming and trustful eyes, whilst the youngest nestled close to him; and, as he lifted it on his knee, she asked him, with perfect conﬁdence: “Is you Dod?”
David was startled, but he quickly recovered, and answered: “No, darling, I am not God, but I wish to be a brother to you, if Esther will allow me.”
“Oh! Esther winnot refuse aw know,” said one of the others, “becose hoo never refuses out ’at’s good for us.”
“What do you say, Esther, my love? Shall I be a brother to your brothers and sisters, and help them, a little, through these dark and troublesome times? Shall I be a son to your mother, and help her to enjoy that peace and comfort for which she has so honourably worked? Shall I be your best friend, to love and to cherish till death does us part?”
Esther was again too full for words, but her eyes, and the kiss which she allowed him to impress on her lips, said “Yes,” and David’s Christmas gift was complete.