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A Christmas Story -"The Grandfather's Story"

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

This story appeared in Charles Dickens publication 'Household Words' in the 25th December 1852 edition.

It may surprise many that we have our very own local contributor to the magazine,

James White known as the 'developer of Bonchurch'(c1838).

Dickens and his wife Catherine with their children became very close friends of Rev. White and Rosa White (nee Hill) and their children during their holiday at Winterbourne in 1849.

James White had already had success with plays performed in London and stories contributed to 'Blackwells Magazine' in Edinburgh. Dickens was developing his idea for Household Words during his stay on the Isle of Wight, asked if White would consider making contributions.

Here is White's Christmas story that has interesting parallels for our time - dealing with bankers, emigration and poverty. The story navigates the socialist leanings of James White, and is a reminder that Charles Dickens was a pioneer in bringing the problems of the Victorian Era into view. Elizabeth Gaskell was also a regular contributor from the first edition of Household words.

Having just heard the Reith Lecture on Radio 4 by Darren McGarvey, we need pioneers and enablers just as much today.


WHEN I first took my seat as a clerk in our Bank, the state of the country was far less safe than it is now. The roads were not only unconscious of Macadam, and fatal in many places to wheels and springs, but dangerous to a still more alarming degree from the outrages and robberies to which travellers were

exposed. Men's minds were unsettled by the incidents of the war on which we had just entered; commerce was interrupted, credit was at an end, and distress began to be discovered among whole classes of the population who had hitherto lived in comfort. However harshly the law was administered, it seemed to have no terrors for the evil-doer, and, indeed, the undiscerning cruelty of the Statute book defeated its own object by punishing all crimes alike. But, a time of pecuniary pressure is not a bad season for a bank. The house flourished, though the country was in great straits; and the enormous profits at that time realised by bankers— which enabled them to purchase large estates and outshine the old territorial aristocracy— made the profession as unpopular among the higher classes as it had already become among the unreasoning masses. By them, a banker was looked upon as a sort of licensed forger, who created enormous sums of money by merely signing square pieces of flimsy paper; and I am persuaded the robbery of a bank would have been considered by many people quite as meritorious an action as the dispersal of a band of coiners. These, however, were not the sentiments of us bankers' clerks. We felt that we belonged to a mighty corporation, on whose good will depended the prosperity of half the farms in the county. We considered ourselves the executive government, and carried on the business of the office with a pride and dignity that would have fitted us for Secretaries of State. We used even to walk the streets with a braggadocio air, as if our pockets were loaded with gold; and if two of us hired a gig for a country excursion, we pretended to look under the driving-seat as if to see to the safety of inconceivable amounts of money: ostentatiously examining our pistols, to show that we were determined to defend our treasure or die. Not seldom these precautions were required in reality; for, when a pressure for gold occurred among our customers, two of the most courageous of the clerks were despatched with the required amount, in strong leathern bags deposited under the seat of the gig, which bags they were to guard at the risk of their lives. Whether from the bodily strength I was gifted with, or from some idea that as I was not given to boasting, I might really possess the necessary amount of boldness, I do not know, but I was often selected as one of the guards to a valuable cargo of this description; and as if to show an impartiality between the most silent and the most talkative of their servants, the partners united with me in this service the most blustering, boastful, good-hearted and loud-voiced young gentleman I have ever known. You have most of you heard of the famous electioneering orator Tom Ruddle— who stood at every vacancy for county and borough, and passed his whole life between the elections, in canvassing for himself or friends. Tom Ruddle was my fellow clerk at the time I speak of, and generally the companion of my drives in charge of treasure.

"What would you do," I said to Tom, "in case we are attacked?"

"Tell ye what!" said Tom, with whom that was a favourite way of beginning almost every sentence, "Tell ye what! I'll shoot 'em through the head."

"Then you expect there will be more than one?"

"I should think so," said Tom; "if there was only one, I'd jump out of the gig and give him a precious licking. Tell ye what! 'T would be a proper punishment for his impertinence."

"And if half a dozen should try it?"

"Shoot 'em all!"

Never was there such a determined custodier as the gallant Tom Ruddle.

One cold December evening we were suddenly sent off, in charge of three bags of coin, to be delivered into customers' hands within ten or twelve miles of the town. The clear frosty sky was exhilarating, our courage was excited by the speed of the motion, the dignity of our responsible office, and a pair of horse-pistols which lay across the apron.

"Tell ye what!" said Tom, taking up one of the pistols and (as I afterwards found) full-cocking it, "I should rather like to meet a few robbers. I would serve them as I did those three disbanded soldiers."

"How was that?"

"Oh! it's as well," said Tom, pretending to grow very serious, "to say nothing about these unfortunate accidents. Blood is a frightful thing on the conscience, and a bullet through a fellow's head is a disagreeable sight; but— tell ye what!— I'd do it again. Fellows who risk their lives must take their chance, my boy."

And here Tom put the other pistol on full cock, and looked audaciously on both sides of the road, as if daring the lurking murderers to come forth and receive the reward of their crimes. As to the story of the soldiers, and the fearful insinuations of a bloody deed executed on one or all, it was a prodigious rhodomontade— for Tom was such a tender-hearted individual, that if he had shot a kitten it would have made him unhappy for a week. But, to hear him talk, you would have taken him for a civic Richard the Third, one who had "neither pity, love, nor fear." His whiskers also were very ferocious, and suggestive of battle, murder, and ruin. So, he went on playing with his pistol, and giving himself out for an unpitying executioner of vengeance on the guilty, until we reached the small town where one of our customers resided, and it was necessary for one of us to carry one of the bags to its destination. Tom undertook this task. As the village at which the remaining parcels were to be delivered was only a mile further on, he determined to walk across the fields,

and join me after he had executed his commission. He looked carefully at the priming of his pistol, stuck it ostentatiously in the outside breast pocket of his great-coat; and, with stately steps, marched off with the heavy money-bag in his hand. I put the whip to the horse, and trotted merrily forward, thinking nothing whatever of robbery or danger, in spite of the monitory conversation of Tom Ruddle.

Our first customer resided at the outskirts of the village— a farmer who required a considerable amount in gold. I pulled up at the narrow dark entrance of the lane that led up to his house; and, as my absence couldn't be for more than a few minutes, I left the gig, and proceeded up the lane with my golden treasure. I delivered it into the hands of its owner; and, manfully resisting all his hospitable invitations, I took my leave, and walked rapidly towards the gig. As I drew near, I perceived in the clear starlight a man mounted on the step, and groping under the seat. I ran forward, and the man, alarmed by my approach, rapidly raised himself from his stooping position, and, presenting a pistol, fired it so close to my eyes that the flash blinded me for a moment; the action was so sudden and my surprise so great, that for a short time too I was bewildered, and scarcely knew whether I was alive or dead.

The old horse never started at the report, and I rested my hand on the rim of the wheel, while I endeavoured to recover my scattered thoughts. The first thing I ascertained was that the man had disappeared. I then hurriedly examined under the seat; and, to my intense relief, perceived the remaining money- bag still in its place. There was a slit in it, however, near the top, as if made by a knife— the robber probably resolving merely to possess himself of the coin, without the dangerous accompaniment of the leathern sack, by which he might have been traced.

"Tell ye what!" said a voice close beside me, as I concluded my scrutiny; "I don't like practical jokes like that— firing off pistols to frighten folks. You'll alarm the whole village."

"Tom," I said, "now's the time to show your courage. A man has robbed the gig— or tried to do it— and has fired at me within a yard of my face."

Tom grew perceptibly pale at this informaton. "Was there only one?"

"Only one."

"Then the accomplices are near. What's to be done? Shall we rouse farmer Malins and get his men to help?"

"Not for the world," I said, "I would rather face a dozen shots than have my carelessness known at the Bank. It would ruin me for life. Let us count the money in this bag, quietly deliver it if it be correct, and then follow the robber's course."

It was only a hundred guinea bag, that one, but the counting was nervous work. We found three guineas wanting. We were luckily able to supply them from our own pockets (having just received our quarter's salaries), and I left Tom there, delivered the bag at its destination very near at hand, without a word of the robbery, and went back to him.

"Now! Which way did he go?" said Tom, resuming a little of his former air, and clutching his pistol like the chief of a chorus of banditti in a melodrama.

I told him I had been so confused that I had not observed which way he had retreated. Tom was an old hand at poaching— though he was a clergyman's son, and ought to have set a better example.

"I have heard a hare stir at a hundred yards," he said, and laid his ear close to the frosty ground. "If he's within a quarter of a mile, I shall hear him move." I lay also down on the ground. There was silence for a long time. We heard nothing but our breathing and the breathing of the horse.

"Hush!" said Tom at last. "He has come out of hiding. I hear a man's step far away to the left; bring your pistol, and let us follow." I took the pistol and found the flint down on the pan. The man had fired at me with my own weapon, and no wonder he had fired so suddenly; for Tom now acknowledged to his belief that he had forgotten to uncock it.

"Never mind," said Tom, "I'll blow his brains out with mine, and you can split his skull with the butt end of yours. Tell ye what! It's of no use to spare those malefactors. I'll fire, the moment I see him."

"Not till I tell you whether it is the robber or not."

"Should you know him, do you think?"

"In the flash of the powder I saw a pair of haggard and amazed eyes which I shall never forget."

"On, then!" said Tom; "we'll have a three hundred pound reward, and see the rascal hanged besides."

We set off, slowly and noiselessly, in the direction Tom had pointed out. Occasionally he applied his ear to the ground, and always muttering "We have him! we have him!" proceeded in the same careful manner as before. Suddenly Tom said, "He's doubling. He has been leading us on the wrong scent all this time; he has turned towards the village."

"Then our plan," I said, "should be to get there before him. If we intercept him in that way, he can't escape; and I feel sure I could identify him if I saw him by candle- light."

"Tell ye what!— that's the plan," replied my companion. "We'll watch at the entrance of the village, and arrest him the moment he comes in."

We crept through an opening of the hedge, and got once more in the straight lane that

led to the village. It was now very late, and the cold was so intense that it kept every person within-doors; for, we heard no sound in the whole hamlet, except, high up in the clear air, the ticking of the church clock, and the loud jangle of the quarters that seemed like peals of artillery in the excited state of our minds and senses. Close to the church— which appeared to guard the entrance of the village, with its low buttressed walls, and its watch-tower of a steeple— there was a wretched ruined-looking cottage, which projected so far into the lane that the space between it and the church was not more than eight or nine feet. It struck us both at the same moment that if we could effect a lodgment here, it was impossible for the man to slip into the village without our observation.

After listening for a while at the windows and doors of the building, we concluded it was uninhabited; gently pushing open the door, we climbed a narrow stone stair-case, and were making for a gable end window which we had observed from the road, and which commanded the whole approach to the village, when we heard a voice say in a whisper, as we attained the garret we were in search of, "Is that you, William ?"

We stopped for a minute or two and the speaker's expectation was disappointed. We now placed ourselves at the window, and listened for the slightest sound. We remained there, listening, for a long time. Several quarters had died off into "the eternal melodies" far up in the church tower, and we were just beginning to despair of seeing the object of our search, when Tom nudged me noiselessly with his elbow.

"Tell ye what!" he whispered very softly, "there's a footstep round the corner. See! There's a man under the hedge looking up at the next window. There— he moves! We must be after him. Hallo! Stop— he crosses the lane. He's coming into this very house!"

I certainly did see a figure silently steal across the road and disappear under the doorway of the building we were in. But, we had no light; and we knew nothing of the arrangement of the rooms. Another quarter thrown off from the old church clock, warned us that the night was rapidly passing away. We had almost resolved to retrace our steps if possible, and get back to where we had left our unfortunate horse, when I was again nudged by my friend's elbow.

''Tell ye what!" he whispered. "Something's going on;" and he pointed to a feeble glimmer on the rafters of the roof above us.

The light proceeded from the next room., which had not been built up above the height of the ceiling joists, so that the roof was common to both chambers— the adjoining one, and that in which we were— the partition- wall being only seven or eight feet high. We could have heard anything that was said, but we listened in vain for the slightest sound. The light, however, continued to burn; we saw it flickering across the top of the habitation, and dimly playing far up among the dark thatch of the roof.

"Tell ye what!" said Tom. "If we could get up, on these old joists, we could see into the next room. Hold my pistol till I get up and— tell ye what!— then I can shoot 'em easy."

"For Heaven's sake, Tom!" I said, "be careful. Let me see whether it is the man."

"Come up, then," said Tom, who now bestrode one of the main beams and gave me a hand to aid my ascent. We were both on the level of the dividing wall, and, by placing our heads a little forward, could see every portion of the neighbouring room. A miserable room it was. There was a small round table, there were a couple of old chairs; but utter wretchedness was the characteristic of the cheerless and fireless apartment.

There was a person, apparently regardless of the cold, seated at the table and reading a book. The little taper which had been lighted without any noise, was only sufficient to throw its illumination on the features and figure of the reader, and on the table at which she sat. They were wasted and pallid features— but she was young, and very pretty; or the mystery and strangeness of the incident threw such an interest around her, that I thought so. Her dress was very scanty, and a shawl, wrapped closely round her shoulders, perhaps displayed, rather than concealed the deficiency of her clothing in other respects. Suddenly we saw at the farther end of the room a figure emerge from the darkness; Tom grasped his pistol more firmly, and put the cock back, preventing it from making any noise with his thumb. The man stood in the doorway, as if uncertain whether to enter or not. He looked for a long time at the woman, who still continued her reading; and then silently advanced. She heard his step, and lifted up her head, and looked in his face without saying a word. Such a face, so pale, so agitated, I never in my life saw.

"We shall go to-morrow," he said; "I have got some money as I expected." And with these words he laid three golden guineas on the table before her. Still, she said nothing but watched his countenance with her lips apart.

"Tell ye what!" said Tom; "That's the money. Is that the man?"

"I don't know yet, till I see his eyes." In the meantime, the conversation went on below.

"I borrowed these pieces from a friend," continued the man, as if in answer to the look she bent on him; "a friend, I tell you. I might have had more, but I would take only three. They are enough to carry us to Liverpool, and, once there, we are sure of a passage to the West. Once in the West, the world is before us. I can work,

Mary. We are young—a poor man has no chance here, but we can go to America with fresh hopes——"

"And a good conscience?" said the woman, in a whisper like Lady Macbeth's.

The man was silent. At last he seemed to grow angry at the steadiness of her gaze. "Why do you look at me in that manner? I tell you we shall start to-morrow."

"And the money?" said the woman.

"I will send it back to my friend from whom I borrowed it, out of my first earnings. I took only three, in case it should incommode him to lend me more."

"I must see that friend myself," said Mary, "before I touch the money."

"Tell ye what! Is it the man ?" again asked Tom.

"Hush!" I said; "let us listen."

"I recognised a friend of mine in one of the clerks in the Melfield Bank. I give you my word I got the coins from him."

"Tell ye what! He confesses," said Tom; "let us spring on him by surprise— an ugly ruffian as ever I saw!"

"And with that sum," he continued, "see what we can do. It will relieve us from our distress, which has come upon us— Mary, you know I speak the truth in this— from no other fault of mine than too much confidence in a treacherous friend. I can't see you starve. I can't see the baby reduced from our comfortable keeping to lie on straw at the end of a barn like this. I can't do it— I won't!" he went on, getting more impassioned in his words. "At whatever cost, I will give you a chance of comfort and independence."

"And peace of mind?" replied Mary. "Oh, William, I must tell you what terrible fears have been in my heart, all this dreary night, during your absence; I have read, and prayed, and turned for comfort to Heaven. Oh, William, give the money back to your friend — I say nothing about the loan— take it back; I can't look at it! Let us starve— let us die, if it must be so— but take that money away."

Tom Ruddle gently put down the cock of his pistol, and ran the sleeve of his coat across his eyes.

"Let us trust, William," the woman went on, "and deliverance will be found. The weather is very cold," she added. "There seems no visible hope; but I cannot altogether despair at this time of the year. This barn is not more humble than the manger at Bethlehem, which I have been reading about all night."

At this moment, a great clang of bells pealed from the old church tower; it was so near that it shook the rafters on which we sat, and filled all the room with the sharp ringing sound. "Hark!" cried the man, startled, " What's that ?" "It is Christmas morning," said the woman. "Ah, William, William, what a different spirit we should welcome it with; in what a different spirit we have welcomed it, many and many a happy time!"

He listened for a moment or two to the bells. Then he sank on his knees, and put his head on her lap; and there was perfect silence except the Christmas music. "Tell ye what!" said Tom. "I remember we always sang a hymn at this hour, in my father's house. Let us be off— I wouldn't disturb these people for a thousand guineas."

Some little noise was made by our preparations to descend. The man looked up, while the woman still continued absorbed in prayer. My head was just on the level of the wall. Our eyes met. They were the same that had flashed so wildly when the pistol was fired from the gig. We continued our descent. The man rose quietly from his knees, and put his finger to his lip. When we got down stairs he was waiting for us at the door. "Not before her" he said. "I would spare her the sight, if I could. I am guilty of the robbery, but I wouldn't have harmed you, sir. The pistol went off, the moment I put my hand upon it. For God's sake tell her of it gently, when you have taken me away!"

"Tell ye what! " said Tom Ruddle— whose belligerent feelings had entirely disappeared— "the pistol was my mistake, and it's all a mistake together. Come to my friend and me, at the Bank, the day after to-morrow, and— tell ye what!— the sharp wind brings water to my eyes— we'll manage to lend you some more."

So, the bells still rang clear in the midnight air; and our drive home through the frosty lanes was the pleasantest drive we ever had in our lives.


Ventnor Foodbank welcomes donations

Ventnor Community Foodbank does not require a voucher or referral and are open every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 10am to 12pm noon at Ventnor Baptist Church, Pier Street.

Drop in or Call on 07862 247694

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