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It was Christmas Eve.  An old-fashioned Christmas Eve.  The snow was gently falling and covering with a mantle of glistening white all that came in its way.  Yet it fell very gently.  The flakes seemed to wander hither and thither, round and abeawt, up and down, before they made up their minds where to alight.  It was a bright starlight night, and you could see the flakes dancing about you with the wildest delight, as though they were rejoicing at the return of the old festive season.  Near and far they were rejoicing.  Out in the distance you could see thousands — aye millions — of white specs whirling about in the air as if they were tiny visitors from another world come to rejoice with us in welcoming our old friend Christmas.  And how quietly they touched everything.  There was no hurry, no confusion, no jarring sounds, no grating discords.  Just a gentle falling, falling, falling.  By and bye the leafless trees were covered, and their whitened branches stood out like spectres of the night.  The hedgerows gathered the flakes about them and found room for them on every twig till they looked like never ending and never spending billows, enveloping the whole earth ip their steady advances.  The roofs of the houses caught the flakes as they fell, and they made them into a beautiful white summer’s blouse, with a pattem that no human being could fashion.  The flakes gathered in the corners of the windows, and on the window sills, and peeped in as though they would like to have stepped inside and taken part in the season’s fun and frolic.  They fell on the doorsteps and formed a soft white carpet whereon the guests might tread who had been bidden to the festive board.  Aye; they fell everywhere.  Nothing escaped them.  They found all the nooks and corners which were sacred to the young folks as favourite retreats in the games of hide and seek.  They found all the odds and ends and all the neglected playthings of the little ones, that lay in the yard, and quietly wrapped them up for use on another occasion.  They gave a familiar greeting to the traveller as he wended his way along the road which now responded to the twinkling of the stars above him.  Though he had a cap, with long ear-flaps, that almost reached under his chin, the flakes found them and nestled on them as if they had known each other for ever.  And though he had on a great overcoat, which reached nearly to his feet, and was buttoned up to his chin, the flakes didn’t mind it.  They delighted in spreading all over it.  They even crept into the pockets, and peeped up the sleeves, and when the traveller was laughing at their pretty gambols they would steal down his neck, and into the corners of his eyes, and even hasten to be dissolved in the portals of his mouth.  They were merry, sprightly, mischievous elves, but Dan o’ Ben’s loved them from the bottom of his heart.  He was trudging home on this Christmas Eve when the flakes began to fall, and he revelled in the enjoyment.  He said that it reminded him of old times when the snow always fell on Christmas Eve, and when the ghost of old-time chums would fraternise with their jovial companions who still clung to the temporary pleasures of the life below.  He had seen many Christmasses, had Dan, and in looking back he always found the greatest delight in his remembrances of snowy Christmasses.  He lived at Chadderton Fold, within the shadow of the old Chadderton Hall, and he was making his way home when the snow met him and played with him in its own fondling way.  He knew every inch of the road though it was covered with snow.  He knew every house, and he knew almost everyone who lived in the houses along that country lane.  Burnley Lane, or “Brunley Lone,” as its inhabitants called it, had special attractions for him.  There was the quaint old public house, called the “Black Cow,” which has since given place to a more up-to-date structure, the owners of which used to depend more upon farming than beer selling.  There was “Brunley Broo,” sacred to many of the present generation as the home of “John Buckley’s Schoo’,” and there were the farms tenanted by such well-known characters as Billy Booth, Tim Smith, owd Thorp, and others.

Dan had passed Tim Smith’s farm and had reached the bend of the road near to Thorpe’s farm when he saw a figure running up the road as if it were a matter of life and death.  He heard a voice also shouting in fear: “Eh, dear!  Oh, my!  Help me, mesthurl  Save me, mesthur!  As the form approached nearer Dan recognised a well-known local character named Josiah Gregory, better known by the soubriquet of “Siah” or “Greggy.”  Siah was the handyman of the village.  He had no regular occupation.  Nobody ever knew him to have.  As a boy he ran errands and did odd jobs for the neighbours.  As a man he did the same, only his neighbours were more numerous and extended over a greater area.  He would wind bobbins for the hand-loom weavers or get in a load of coal when the weavers were pushing hard to finish a piece for “bearin’ whoam.”  He would turn his hand to whitewashing, gardening, haymaking, or anything of a loose nature.  Nothing came amiss save the regular routine and monotony of the mill or workshop.  He was a philosopher in his way.  He declared that God never intended that man should be shut up “i’ th’ facthry o day an’ i’ th’ heause o th’ neet.”  He would have tackled hand-loom weaving, he said, but “that trade wur deein’ eawt an’ he wanted to be amung th’ livin’.”  He was married and the father of a large family, and he was never so happy as when playing with children.

Occasionally, but only occasionally, he was the victim of the generosity of his friends, and then his innocent antics were the cause of much amusement in the “Fold.”  Once he was dancing on the bridge that spanned the brook when he overbalanced himself and fell in.  The water was not so dirty then as it is now.  But the cold bath sobered him, and he was never known to repeat the performance.  Yet he was a good-natured soul and was liked by everybody.  So when he appealed for the help of Dan he did not appeal in vain.  “Whatever’s to do wi’ thee, Siah?  Theau looks as feeart as if theau’d seen a boggart.”

“Aye, an’ — an’ — I have — Dan,” gasped Siah.  “It’s a gradely boggart, too, yond is.  It’s propped up again Owd Thorpe’s shippon wo’ yonder.  Eh, dear, aw shannot go that road while dayleet.”

“Nonsense!” said Dan.  “Theau munnot show th’ white fither like that.  Come wi’ me an’ we’ll two him if he starts o’ bein’ awkart.”

“Yo’ may go if yo’ like,” onsert Siah, “but aw wouldn’t go deawn that road again toneet for five peawnd.  See yo’!  It’s comin’ up th’ road neaw.  Murther! murther! and Siah would have darted up the road, but Dan held him fast.

“Steady, mon, steady,” he said.  “It’s noan a blue ghost ’at theau seed, is it?”

“Nowe, it isn’t,” whimpered Siah.  “It
s a — a white un, a — a gradely white un.

“Well, come on, an’ we’ll see what it’s made on,” and Dan took hold of Siah by the collar and began to force him down the road.  But Siah did not go like a lamb to the slaughter.  He struggled and he cried out pitieously.  “Eh, do le’ me goo, Dan.  Aw’ll do owt for yo’ ‘at ever yo’ want if yo’ll nobbut le’ me goo.”

But Dan gripped him like a vice and went on.  Still Siah did not give it up.

“Yo’ dunnot know — what yo’re doin’ — Dan.  We’st booath be murthert as sure as eggs is eggs.  Eh, dear, aw wish aw’d never comn eawt toneet.  It’ll be a dear Kesmus fuddle if aw — aw lose my life through it.  Eh, aw’ll bet eawr Sally’s nice an’ comfortable on th’ hearthstone neaw, playin’ wi’ th’ childer.  Aw wish aw wur wi’ her.  But aw’st never see ’em no moor.  Nowe!  Aw’st never see ’em no moor.  Aw wonder what’ll become on ‘em when aw’m gone.  What’ll yo’ do, Dan, if th’ goast murthers yo’?”

“What con aw do if aw’m murtherd?” ax’d Dan.

“Of course yo’ con do nowt.  Yo’ll be same as me, an’ booath on us together winnot be wo’th price of a Kesmus drink.  Eh, but aw’d sooner ha’ been awhoam playin’ at blind mon’s buff wi’ th’ childer.  Hello, it’s yonder.  Did yo’ see it shake its legs?  Eh, dear, it’s comin’,
and Siah made a supreme but unsuccessful effort to free himself from Dan’s hold.

Just then the melody of “Christians, awake, salute this happy morn,” came wafting gently o’er the fields, and Siah mournfully reflected, “Aye! aw wish ’at oather Christmas or onybody else would wakken an’ drive this boggart away.  Talk abeawt this bein’ a happy morn.  If aw’d thowt ’at this wur goin’ to be my last day aw wouldn’t ha’ wakkent till momin’.  Aye! yo’d rise to adore if there wur a boggart at th’ side on it.  But yo’d rise to get eawt o’ th’ road on it.  Eh! dunnot goo a bit fur, Dan, dunnot.  Yo’ll never come back.  Dunnot yo’ see ’at it’s gettin’ deawn off it’s peearch?”

Siah was right.  The ghost was breaking it’s bonds, and soon it slid quietly to the ground.

“That’s a very tame an’ chicken-hearted ghost o’ thine, Siah,” remarked Dan, as he dragged his companion near to where the ghost was lying in a disordered bundle on the floor.  Siah cried for mercy, but Dan released him not until he had shown, by kicking the bundle, that the dreaded ghost was nothing but an old pair of breeches that Jerry, the milkman, sometimes put on when mucking the shippon.  They had been hung out in the air, on some old rakes, but the wind had gradually loosened their hold until they had fallen down as witnessed by Dan and his terror-stricken companion.  When Siah fully realised the absurdity of the situation he broke out into a torrent of abuse on the innocent breeches.

“Yo’ thowt yo’ wur havin’ me, did yo’?  But aw knew o th’ time.  Yo’ thowt aw wur feeart on yo’, but aw’ll show yo’ whether aw wur or not,” and he kicked those poor breeches about as if they had been a football.  “Aw’ll taych yo’ fro’ bein’ a ghost, aw will.  As if onybody believed i’ real ghosts!  Aw knew o th’ time what it wur, but aw didn’t like sayin’ owt.”

Just then Jerry came out of the farmhouse and Dan wished him the compliments of the season.  Jerry thanked him and returned the compliment, at the same time asking Dan if he would not step in and have a drop seeing “as it wur Kesmus, and Kesmus nobbut coom once a year.”

When Siah heard this he pushed the fallen ghost into a corner and sidled up to Jerry, who kindly extended the invitation to him.  Dan was on the point of declining the proffered hospitality, but Siah looked at him in such an earnest way that he felt he was entitled to some consideration.  So he accepted, but neither the farmer, nor his wife, nor Jerry, nor Siah could prevail upon him to stay more than a few minutes.

Then the two resumed their journey to Chadderton Fold.  The snow had ceased to fall, but everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, the transformation was complete.  It was a beautiful night now.  The moon and the stars shone clearly in the heavens, and the earth seemed pure and calm and peaceful.  All was silent, too, for the snow-white carpet was so soft that no sound came from any pedestrians’ footsteps.

As they neared the church a party of carollers, in the distance, began to sing the Christmas hymn.  Ah, how beautiful it sounded in the perfect stillness of the night!  There was nothing but the white earth, and the starry heaven, and that old, old hymn, and that old, old tune, which, like the snow, belonged to no one sect or class, but were the free possessions of God’s children here, there, and everywhere.

Dan and Siah involuntarily stood motionless till the enchanting music ceased, and then they moved on again, thinking, probably, the same thoughts, feeling the same aspirations, but without speaking a word.

Suddenly, as they came close to the church, they were startled by the sound of music.  Low, and sweet, and clear it floated on the midnight air.  Now one carol, then another.  And all so plaintive, so soft, so affecting!  What could it be?  Both Dan and Siah stopped to listen.  Still the music continued.  Now it was an old anthem “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  Then it changed to “He shall Feed His Flock.”  And finally the beautiful strains of “Angels, Ever Bright and Fair,” played around the church and hovered about the little mounds of earth that told their silent stories of angels gone to be ever bright and fair.  Then the music ceased, and all was still once more.

Dan moved towards the graveyard as though he would like to see the player of those heavenly airs amid such strange surroundings.  But Siah held back.  “Graveyards were full o’ ghosts.  Suppose this wur one.”

“No ghost ’at con play sich music as that will ever hurt thee, Siah,” said Dan.  “This is a different ghost to that other theau seed.  Follow me.”

They went in at the gate and round to the back of the church, from whence they judged the music had proceeded.  There they saw a boy in the act of putting his violin into its case.  He had not heard their approach because the snow had silenced the sound of their footsteps.

“Good neet, mother,” he was saying, “good neet.  It’ll be owt obbut a merry Kesmus beawt yo’, mother.  But happen yo’re better off, mother.  Happen yo’ dunnot know what it is to be hungry neaw, witheawt havin’ a crust to bite on.  Aw wish yo’ were wi’ me again, mother.  Aw’d be beawt buthercakes mysel’ so’s yo’ could have enoof.  Yo’ dunnot know heaw lonely I am neaw, mother.  There’s nob’dy to guide me, nob’dy to help me.  Folks do what they con for me, an’ they’re very good to me, but they’re too busy to bother so mich wi’ a blint lad like me.  Aw dunnot blame ’em, but they’re noane like a mother.  Aw wish aw could come to yo’, mother, or else yo’ could come back to me.  But we’st never forget one another, shall we?  Me when aw’m pikin’ me road through this lonely world, an’ yo’ when yo’re singin’ yo’r angel songs i’ Heaven.  Well, good neet, mother.  Aw’st come an’ play for yo‘ again.  When aw’m lonely an’ sad, or merry an’ glad, aw’st come an’ play for yo.  Good neet, mother, good neet, mother.”

He lingered a little as if he could not tear himself away, and then he turned from the grave and came towards Dan and Siah on his way out.

“Dun yo’ know him?” inquired Siah of Dan, before the lad reached them.

“Aw connot say that aw do,” replied Dan, “but he’s lost moor nor Napoleon lost at Waterloo."

“Heaw dun yo’ meeon?”

“He’s lost his mother.  But who is he?”

“Yo’d know his fayther, aw dar’say.  They co’ed him Bob o’ Joe’s, of Street Bridge, but his gradely name wur Bobby Wood.  He used to work at th’ Owd Shiloh facthry when he wur weel, but he wur nobbut very cratchety for a lung while before he deed.  His widow had to go eawt charrin’ an’ sich like to keep hersel’ an’ her choilt.  It wur moore, heawever, nor th’ poor woman’s strength could stond, an’ hoo deed abeawt two months sin’ an’ her lad is beawt whoam an’ is knocked abeawt fro’ pillar to post.  Th’ worst on it is ’at th’ lad is blint, havin’ lost his seet through a severe attack o’ scarlet fayver when he wur nobbut very y’ung.  But he took to music wonderfully, an’ his mother worked and saved and scraped till hoo’d enoof to buy him a fiddle.  That’s it ’at he’s been playin’ for her neaw.  Heaw he’d go on beawt it th’ Lord only knows, for it’s o ’at he has to get his livin’ wi’.

Just then, Tommy, for that was the boy’s name, came to where they were standing, and Siah greeted him cheerily, “A merry Kesmus, Tommy.  Artno’ feeart o’ bein’ eawt by thisel’ at this time o’ th’ neet?”

“Nowe, aw’m not, Mesthur Gregory,” replied the lad.  “Neet an’ day are o’ as one to me, for aw con see as weel i’ one as th’ other.  Beside, aw’ve been talkin’ to my mother an’ p1ayin’ for her, an’ aw’m never feeart when aw’m wi’ her.”

“Theau’rt reet, lad,” intervened Dan, “Mothers are th’ greatest protectors an’ th’ best friends i’ this world.  But wheer arto goin’ to-neet if theau’s noather fayther nor mother?”

“Aw’m goin’ to my A’nt Ailse’s to-neet,” he said, “but after then aw dunnot know wheer.”

“Aw’m sorry for thee, lad,” said Dan.  “Aw wish aw could find thee a place mysel’.  But here’s a bit o’ summat to get thee a good Kesmus dinner to-morn, an’ when theau’rt witheawt brass an’ friends again come to me.”

Tommy thanked him with tears in his eyes and tripped over the snow with a lighter heart than he had known since his mother died.  Dan and Siah walked some little distance further in silence.  Both were in deep thought.  Siah was the first to speak.

“Dan, aw’ve been turnin’ it o’er i’ my mind abeawt yon’ lad.  It’s a pity for him to be knocked abeawt like this.  His life’s dark enoof beawt this heavy cleaud hangin’ o’er him.  Neaw, aw’ve just been thinkin’ this road.  We’ve a big family at eawr heause, but one moore will never be felt.  Beside, he’ll be company for eawr lads, an’ they’re fond o’ music.  Aw know eawr Sally will agree to it, becose hoo’s so fond o’ childer.  So aw’ll tak’ him whoam to-morn a neet, Dan.  What dun yo’ think?”

“What do aw think?” repeated Dan, “what do aw think?  Aw think ’at theau’rt a trump, Siah.  Theau may be feeart o’ ghosts, but theau’rt noane feeart o’ givin’ a helpin’ hond to thoose ’at have been more unfortunate than thysel’.  Siah, ghosts or no ghosts theau’rt a gem.  But there’s just one condition aw want to mak’, Siah, an’ it’s this.  Thee tak’ him to yo’r heause, an’ let him go in amung th’ rook, but as for his cloas an’ his books an’ his schoo’in’ theau mun put that deawn to me.

And so it was agreed and carried out.


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