In this short story, the children are feeling sorry for themselves. This is their first Christmas without their mother. And. Their father is going to be gone for Christmas handling a serious financial matter. Knowing that they won't have their Christmas pudding, they decide to raise the money themselves to buy the ingredients...and cook it themselves. Hilariousness results!!!
"We don't want that anyhow. 'Christmas, 517'–that's the one."
It took her a long time to find the page. Oswald got a shovel of coals and made up the fire. It blazed up like the devouring elephant the Daily Telegraph always calls it. Then Dora read–
"'Christmas plum-pudding. Time six hours.'"
"To eat it in?" said H.O.
"No, silly! to make it."
"Forge ahead, Dora," Dicky replied.
Dora went on–
"'2072. One pound and a half of raisins; half a pound of currants; three quarters of a pound of breadcrumbs; half a pound of flour; three-quarters of a pound of beef suet; nine eggs; one wine glassful of brandy; half a pound of citron and orange peel; half a nutmeg; and a little ground ginger.' I wonder how little ground ginger."
"A teacupful would be enough, I think," Alice said; "we must not be extravagant."
"We haven't got anything yet to be extravagant with," said Oswald, who had toothache that day. "What would you do with the things if you'd got them?"
"You'd 'chop the suet as fine as possible'–I wonder how fine that is?" replied Dora and the book together–"'and mix it with the breadcrumbs and flour; add the currants washed and dried.'"
"Not starched, then," said Alice.
"'The citron and orange peel cut into thin slices'–I wonder what they call thin? Matilda's thin bread-and-butter is quite different from what I mean by it–'and the raisins stoned and divided.' How many heaps would you divide them into?"
"Seven, I suppose," said Alice; "one for each person and one for the pot–I mean pudding."
"'Mix it all well together with the grated nutmeg and ginger. Then stir in nine eggs well beaten, and the brandy'–we'll leave that out, I think–'and again mix it thoroughly together that every ingredient may be moistened; put it into a buttered mould, tie over tightly, and boil for six hours. Serve it ornamented with holly and brandy poured over it.'"
"I should think holly and brandy poured over it would be simply beastly," said Dicky.
"I expect the book knows. I daresay holly and water would do as well though. 'This pudding may be made a month before'–it's no use reading about that though, because we've only got four days to Christmas."
"It's no use reading about any of it," said Oswald, with thoughtful repeatedness, "because we haven't got the things, and we haven't got the coin to get them."
"We might get the tin somehow," said Dicky.
"There must be lots of kind people who would subscribe to a Christmas pudding for poor children who hadn't any," Noël said.
"Well, I'm going skating at Penn's," said Oswald. "It's no use thinking about puddings. We must put up with it plain."
Matilda is in a frightful rage about your putting those coals on the kitchen fire, Oswald. She says we shan't have enough to last over Christmas as it is. And Father gave her a talking to before he went about them–asked her if she ate them, she says–but I don't believe he did. Anyway, she's locked the coal-cellar door, and she's got the key in her pocket. I don't see how we can boil the pudding."
"What pudding?" said Oswald dreamily. He was thinking of a chap he had seen at Penn's who had cut the date 1899 on the ice with four strokes.
"The pudding," Alice said. "Oh, we've had such a time, Oswald! First Dora and I went to the shops to find out exactly what the pudding would cost–it's only two and elevenpence halfpenny, counting in the holly."
"It's no good," Oswald repeated; he is very patient and will say the same thing any number of times. "It's no good. You know we've got no tin."
"Ah," said Alice, "but Noël and I went out, and we called at some of the houses in Granville Park and Dartmouth Hill–and we got a lot of sixpences and shillings, besides pennies, and one old gentleman gave us half-a-crown. He was so nice. Quite bald, with a knitted red and blue waistcoat. We've got eight-and-sevenpence."
Oswald did not feel quite sure Father would like us to go asking for shillings and sixpences, or even half-crowns from strangers, but he did not say so. The money had been asked for and got, and it couldn't be helped–and perhaps he wanted the pudding–I am not able to remember exactly why he did not speak up and say, "This is wrong" but anyway he didn't.
Alice and Dora went out and bought the things next morning. They bought double quantities, so that it came to five shillings and elevenpence, and was enough to make a noble pudding. There was a lot of holly left over for decorations. We used very little for the sauce. The money that was left we spent very anxiously in other things to eat, such as dates and figs and toffee.
Concealed under our jackets and overcoats, we carried the parcels up to the nursery, and hid them in the treasure-chest we had there. It was the bureau drawer. It was locked up afterwards because the treacle got all over the green baize and the little drawers inside it while we were waiting to begin to make the pudding. It was the grocer told us we ought to put treacle in the pudding, and also about not so much ginger as a teacupful.
When Matilda had begun to pretend to scrub the floor (she pretended this three times a week so as to have an excuse not to let us in the kitchen, but I know she used to read novelettes most of the time, because Alice and I had a squint through the window more than once), we barricaded the nursery door and set to work. We were very careful to be quite clean. We washed our hands as well as the currants. I have sometimes thought we did not get all the soap off the currants. The pudding smelt like a washing-day when the time came to cut it open. And we washed a corner of the table to chop the suet on. Chopping suet looks easy till you try.
Father's machine he weighs letters with did to weigh out the things. We did this very carefully, in case the grocer had not done so. Everything was right except the raisins. H.O. had carried them home. He was very young then, and there was a hole in the corner of the paper bag and his mouth was sticky.
Lots of people have been hanged to a gibbet in chains on evidence no worse than that, and we told H.O. so till he cried. This was good for him. It was not unkindness to H.O., but part of our duty.
Chopping suet as fine as possible is much harder than any one would think, as I said before. So is crumbling bread–especially if your loaf is new, like ours was. When we had done them the breadcrumbs and the suet were both very large and lumpy, and of a dingy grey colour, something like pale slate pencil.
They looked a better colour when we had mixed them with the flour. The girls had washed the currants with Brown Windsor soap and the sponge. Some of the currants got inside the sponge and kept coming out in the bath for days afterwards. I see now that this was not quite nice. We cut the candied peel as thin as we wish people would cut our bread-and-butter. We tried to take the stones out of the raisins, but they were too sticky, so we just divided them up in seven lots. Then we mixed the other things in the wash-hand basin from the spare bedroom that was always spare. We each put in our own lot of raisins and turned it all into a pudding-basin, and tied it up in one of Alice's pinafores, which was the nearest thing to a proper pudding-cloth we could find–at any rate clean. What was left sticking to the wash-hand basin did not taste so bad.
"It's a little bit soapy," Alice said, "but perhaps that will boil out; like stains in table-cloths."
It was a difficult question how to boil the pudding. Matilda proved furious when asked to let us, just because some one had happened to knock her hat off the scullery door and Pincher had got it and done for it. However, part of the embassy nicked a saucepan while the others were being told what Matilda thought about the hat, and we got hot water out of the bath-room and made it boil over our nursery fire. We put the pudding in–it was now getting on towards the hour of tea–and let it boil. With some exceptions–owing to the fire going down, and Matilda not hurrying up with coals–it boiled for an hour and a quarter. Then Matilda came suddenly in and said, "I'm not going to have you messing about in here with my saucepans"; and she tried to take it off the fire. You will see that we couldn't stand this; it was not likely. I do not remember who it was that told her to mind her own business, and I think I have forgotten who caught hold of her first to make her chuck it. I am sure no needless violence was used. Anyway, while the struggle progressed, Alice and Dora took the saucepan away and put it in the boot-cupboard under the stairs and put the key in their pocket.
This sharp encounter made every one very hot and cross. We got over it before Matilda did, but we brought her round before bedtime. Quarrels should always be made up before bedtime. It says so in the Bible. If this simple rule was followed there would not be so many wars and martyrs and law suits and inquisitions and bloody deaths at the stake.
All the house was still. The gas was out all over the house except on the first landing, when several darkly-shrouded figures might have been observed creeping downstairs to the kitchen.
On the way, with superior precaution, we got out our saucepan. The kitchen fire was red, but low; the coal-cellar was locked, and there was nothing in the scuttle but a little coal-dust and the piece of brown paper that is put in to keep the coals from tumbling out through the bottom where the hole is. We put the saucepan on the fire and plied it with fuel–two Chronicles, a Telegraph, and two Family Herald novelettes were burned in vain. I am almost sure the pudding did not boil at all that night.
"Never mind," Alice said. "We can each nick a piece of coal every time we go into the kitchen to-morrow."
This daring scheme was faithfully performed, and by night we had nearly half a waste-paper basket of coal, coke, and cinders. And in the depth of night once more we might have been observed, this time with our collier-like waste-paper basket in our guarded hands.
There was more fire left in the grate that night, and we fed it with the fuel we had collected. This time the fire blazed up, and the pudding boiled like mad. This was the time it boiled two hours–at least I think it was about that, but we dropped asleep on the kitchen tables and dresser. You dare not be lowly in the night in the kitchen, because of the beetles. We were aroused by a horrible smell. It was the pudding-cloth burning. All the water had secretly boiled itself away. We filled it up at once with cold, and the saucepan cracked. So we cleaned it and put it back on the shelf and took another and went to bed. You see what a lot of trouble we had over the pudding. Every evening till Christmas, which had now become only the day after to-morrow, we sneaked down in the inky midnight and boiled that pudding for as long as it would.
On Christmas morning we chopped the holly for the sauce, but we put hot water (instead of brandy) and moist sugar. Some of them said it was not so bad. Oswald was not one of these.
Then came the moment when the plain pudding Father had ordered smoked upon the board. Matilda brought it in and went away at once. She had a cousin out of Woolwich Arsenal to see her that day, I remember. Those far-off days are quite distinct in memory's recollection still.
Then we got out our own pudding from its hiding-place and gave it one last hurried boil–only seven minutes, because of the general impatience which Oswald and Dora could not cope with.
We had found means to secrete a dish, and we now tried to dish the pudding up, but it stuck to the basin, and had to be dislodged with the chisel. The pudding was horribly pale. We poured the holly sauce over it, and Dora took up the knife and was just cutting it when a few simple words from H.O. turned us from happy and triumphing cookery artists to persons in despair.
He said: "How pleased all those kind ladies and gentlemen would be if they knew we were the poor children they gave the shillings and sixpences and things for!"
We all said, "What?" It was no moment for politeness.
"I say," H.O. said, "they'd be glad if they knew it was us was enjoying the pudding, and not dirty little, really poor children."
"You should say 'you were,' not 'you was,'" said Dora, but it was as in a dream and only from habit.
"Do you mean to say"–Oswald spoke firmly, yet not angrily–"that you and Alice went and begged for money for poor children, and then kept it?"
"We didn't keep it," said H.O., "we spent it."
"We've kept the things, you little duffer!" said Dicky, looking at the pudding sitting alone and uncared for on its dish. "You begged for money for poor children, and then kept it. It's stealing, that's what it is. I don't say so much about you–you're only a silly kid–but Alice knew better. Why did you do it?"
He turned to Alice, but she was now too deep in tears to get a word out.
H.O. looked a bit frightened, but he answered the question. We have taught him this. He said–
"I thought they'd give us more if I said poor children than if I said just us."
"That's cheating," said Dicky–"downright beastly, mean, low cheating."
"I'm not," said H.O.; "and you're another." Then he began to cry too. I do not know how the others felt, but I understand from Oswald that he felt that now the honour of the house of Bastable had been stamped on in the dust, and it didn't matter what happened. He looked at the beastly holly that had been left over from the sauce and was stuck up over the pictures. It now appeared hollow and disgusting, though it had got quite a lot of berries, and some of it was the varied kind–green and white. The figs and dates and toffee were set out in the doll's dinner service. The very sight of it all made Oswald blush sickly. He owns he would have liked to cuff H.O., and, if he did for a moment wish to shake Alice, the author, for one, can make allowances.
Now Alice choked and spluttered, and wiped her eyes fiercely, and said, "It's no use ragging H.O. It's my fault. I'm older than he is."
H.O. said, "It couldn't be Alice's fault. I don't see as it was wrong."
"That, not as," murmured Dora, putting her arm round the sinner who had brought this degrading blight upon our family tree, but such is girls' undetermined and affectionate silliness. "Tell sister all about it, H.O. dear. Why couldn't it be Alice's fault?"
H.O. cuddled up to Dora and said snufflingly in his nose–
"Because she hadn't got nothing to do with it. I collected it all. She never went into one of the houses. She didn't want to."
"And then took all the credit of getting the money," said Dicky savagely.
Oswald said, "Not much credit," in scornful tones.
"You said lots of kind people would be ready to give money to get pudding for poor children. So I asked them to."
Oswald, with his strong right hand, waved a wave of passing things over.
"We'll talk about that another time," he said; "just now we've got weightier things to deal with."
He pointed to the pudding, which had grown cold during the conversation to which I have alluded. H.O. stopped crying, but Alice went on with it. Oswald now said–
"We're a base and outcast family. Until that pudding's out of the house we shan't be able to look any one in the face. We must see that that pudding goes to poor children–not grisling, grumpy, whiney-piney, pretending poor children–but real poor ones, just as poor as they can stick."
"And the figs too–and the dates," said Noël, with regretting tones.
"Every fig," said Dicky sternly. "Oswald is quite right."
This honourable resolution made us feel a bit better. We hastily put on our best things, and washed ourselves a bit, and hurried out to find some really poor people to give the pudding to. We cut it in slices ready, and put it in a basket with the figs and dates and toffee. We would not let H.O. come with us at first because he wanted to. And Alice would not come because of him. So at last we had to let him. The excitement of tearing into your best things heals the hurt that wounded honour feels, as the poetry writer said–or at any rate it makes the hurt feel better.
We went out into the streets. They were pretty quiet–nearly everybody was eating its Christmas dessert. But presently we met a woman in an apron. Oswald said very I politely–
"Please, are you a poor person?" And she told us to get along with us.
The next we met was a shabby man with a hole in his left boot.
Again Oswald said, "Please, are you a poor person, and have you any poor little children?"
The man told us not to come any of our games with him; or we should laugh on the wrong side of our faces. We went on sadly. We had no heart to stop and explain to him that we had no games to come.
The next was a young man near the Obelisk. Dora tried this time.
She said, "Oh, if you please we've got some Christmas pudding in this basket, and if you're a poor person you can have some."
"Poor as Job," said the young man in a hoarse voice, and he had to come up out of a red comforter to say it.
We gave him a slice of the pudding, and he bit into it without thanks or delay. The next minute he had thrown the pudding slap in Dora's face, and was clutching Dicky by the collar.
"Blime if I don't chuck ye in the river, the whole bloomin' lot of you!" he exclaimed.
The girls screamed, the boys shouted, and though Oswald threw himself on the insulter of his sister with all his manly vigour, yet but for a friend of Oswald's, who is in the police, passing at that instant, the author shudders to think what might have happened, for he was a strong young man, and Oswald is not yet come to his full strength, and the Quaggy runs all too near.
Our policeman led our assailant aside, and we waited anxiously, as he told us to. After long uncertain moments the young man in the comforter loafed off grumbling, and our policeman turned to us.
"Said you give him a dollop o' pudding, and it tasted of soap and hair-oil."
I suppose the hair-oil must have been the Brown Windsoriness of the soap coming out. We were sorry, but it was still our duty to get rid of the pudding. The Quaggy was handy, it is true, but when you have collected money to feed poor children and spent it on pudding it is not right to throw that pudding in the river. People do not subscribe shillings and sixpences and half-crowns to feed a hungry flood with Christmas pudding.
Yet we shrank from asking any more people whether they were poor persons, or about their families, and still more from offering the pudding to chance people who might bite into it and taste the soap before we had time to get away.
It was Alice, the most paralysed with disgrace of all of us, who thought of the best idea.
She said, "Let's take it to the workhouse. At any rate they're all poor there, and they mayn't go out without leave, so they can't run after us to do anything to us after the pudding. No one would give them leave to go out to pursue people who had brought them pudding, and wreck vengeance on then, and at any rate we shall get rid of the conscience-pudding–it's a sort of conscience-money, you know–only it isn't money but pudding."
The workhouse is a good way, but we stuck to it, though very cold, and hungrier than we thought possible when we started, for we had been so agitated we had not even stayed to eat the plain pudding our good Father had so kindly and thoughtfully ordered for our Christmas dinner.
The big bell at the workhouse made a man open the door to us, when we rang it. Oswald said (and he spoke because he is next eldest to Dora, and she had had jolly well enough of saying anything about pudding)–he said–
"Please we've brought some pudding for the poor people."
He looked us up and down, and he looked at our basket, then he said: "You'd better see the Matron."
We waited in a hall, feeling more and more uncomfy, and less and less like Christmas. We were very cold indeed, especially our hands and our noses. And we felt less and less able to face the Matron if she was horrid, and one of us at least wished we had chosen the Quaggy for the pudding's long home, and made it up to the robbed poor in some other way afterwards.
Just as Alice was saying earnestly in the burning cold ear of Oswald, "Let's put down the basket and make a bolt for it. Oh, Oswald, let's!" a lady came along the passage. She was very upright, and she had eyes that went through you like blue gimlets. I should not like to be obliged to thwart that lady if she had any design, and mine was opposite. I am glad this is not likely to occur.
She said, "What's all this about a pudding?"
H.O. said at once, before we could stop him, "They say I've stolen the pudding, so we've brought it here for the poor people."
"No, we didn't!" "That wasn't why!" "The money was given!" "It was meant for the poor!" "Shut up, H.O.!" said the rest of us all at once.
Then there was an awful silence. The lady gimleted us again one by one with her blue eyes.
Then she said: "Come into my room. You all look frozen."
She took us into a very jolly room with velvet curtains and a big fire, and the gas lighted, because now it was almost dark, even out of doors. She gave us chairs, and Oswald felt as if his was a dock, he felt so criminal, and the lady looked so Judgular.
Then she took the arm-chair by the fire herself, and said, "Who's the eldest?"
"I am," said Dora, looking more like a frightened white rabbit than I've ever seen her.
"Then tell me all about it."
Dora looked at Alice and began to cry. That slab of pudding in the face had totally unnerved the gentle girl. Alice's eyes were red, and her face was puffy with crying; but she spoke up for Dora and said–
"Oh, please let Oswald tell. Dora can't. She's tired with the long walk. And a young man threw a piece of it in her face, and–"
The lady nodded and Oswald began. He told the story from the very beginning, as he has always been taught to, though he hated to lay bare the family honour's wound before a stranger, however judgelike and gimlet-eyed.
He told all–not concealing the pudding-throwing, nor what the young man said about soap.
"So," he ended, "we want to give the conscience-pudding to you. It's like conscience-money–you know what that is, don't you? But if you really think it is soapy and not just the young man's horridness, perhaps you'd better not let them eat it. But the figs and things are all right."
When he had done the lady said, for most of us were crying more or less–
"Come, cheer up! It's Christmas-time, and he's very little–your brother, I mean. And I think the rest of you seem pretty well able to take care of the honour of the family. I'll take the conscience-pudding off your minds. Where are you going now?"
"Home, I suppose," Oswald said. And he thought how nasty and dark and dull it would be. The fire out most likely and Father away.
"And your Father's not at home, you say," the blue-gimlet lady went on. "What do you say to having tea with me, and then seeing the entertainment we have got up for our old people?"
Then the lady smiled and the blue gimlets looked quite merry.
The room was so warm and comfortable and the invitation was the last thing we expected. It was jolly of her, I do think.
No one thought quite at first of saying how pleased we should be to accept her kind invitation. Instead we all just said "Oh!" but in a tone which must have told her we meant "Yes, please," very deeply.
Oswald (this has more than once happened) was the first to restore his manners. He made a proper bow like he has been taught, and said–
"Thank you very much. We should like it very much. It is very much nicer than going home. Thank you very much."
© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews