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In the evening we reached a village where I had determined to pass the night. As we drove into the great gateway of the inn, 1 saw on one side the light of a rousing kitchen fire beaming through a window. I entered, and admired for the hundredth time, that picture of convenience, neatness, and broad honest enjoyment, the kitchen of an English inn. It was of spacious dimensions; hung round by copper and tin vessels highly polished, and decorated here and there with a Christmas green. Hams, tongues, and flitches of bacon, were suspended from the ceiling; a smoke-jack made its ceaseless clanking beside the fire-place, and a clock ticked in one corner. A well scoured deal table extended along one side of the kitchen, with a cold round of beef, and other hearty viands upon it, over which two foaming tankards of ale seemed mounting guard. Travellers of inferior order were preparing to attack this stout repast, while others sat smoking and gossipping over their ale, on two high-backed oaken settles beside the fire.
Trim housemaids were hurrying backwards and forwards under the directions of a fresh, bustling landlady; but still seizing an occasional moment to exchange a flippant word, and have a rallying laugh with the group round the fire. The scene completely realised poor Robin's humble idea of the comforts of mid-winter:
"Now trees their leafy hats do bare,
CHRISTMAS IN AN OLD HALL.
As we approached the house we heard the sound of the music, and now and then a burst of laughter, from one end of the building. This, Bracebridge said, must proceed from the servants' hall, where a great deal of revelry was permitted, and even encouraged, by the squire throughout the twelve days of Christmas, provided everything were done conformably to ancient usage. Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob-apple, and snap-dragon: the yule clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the misletoe, with its white berries, hung up to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.
So intent were the servants upon their sports, that we had to ring repeatedly before we could make ourselves heard. On our arrival being announced, the squire came out to receive us, accompanied by his two sons; one a young officer in the army, the other an Oxonian just fresh from the University. The squire was a fine healthy-looking old gentleman, with silver hair curling lightly round an open florid countenance. The family meeting was warm and affectionate: as the evening was far advanced, the squire would not permit us to change our travelling-dresses, but ushered us at once to the company, which was assembled in an old-fashioned hall. It was composed of different branches of a numerous family connection, where there were the usual proportion of old uncles and aunts, comfortable married dames, superannuated spinsters, blooming country cousins, half-fledged striplings, and bright-eyed boarding-school hoydens. They were variously occupied; some at a round game of cards, others conversing round the fire-place; at one end of the hall was a group of the young folks, some nearly grown up, others of a more tender and budding age, fully engrossed by a merry game; and a profusion of wooden horses, penny trumpets, and tattered dolls about the floor, showed traces of a troop of little fairy beings, who, having frolicked through a happy day, had been carried off to slumber through a peaceful night.
Over the heavy projecting fire-place was suspended a picture of a warrior in armour, standing by a white horse, and on the opposite wall hung a helmet, buckler, and lance. At one end an enormous pair of antlers were inserted in the wall, the branches serving as hooks on which to suspend hats, whips, and spurs; and in the corners of the apartment were fowling-pieces, fishing-rods, and other sporting implements. The furniture was of the cumbrous workmanship of former days, though some articles of modern convenience had been added, and the oaken floor had been carpeted; so that the whole presented an odd mixture of parlour and hall.
The grate had been removed from the wide overwhelming fire-place to make way for a fire of wood, in the midst of which was an enormous log glowing and blazing, and sending forth a vast volume of light and heat; this, I understood, was the yule clog, which the squire was particular in having brought in and illumined on a Christmaseve according to ancient custom.
Supper was announced shortly after our arrival. It was
served up in a spacious oaken chamber, the panels of which shone with wax, and around which were several family portraits, decorated with holly and ivy. Besides the accustomed lights, two great wax tapers, called Christmas-candles, wreathed with greens, were placed on a highly-polished beaufet among the family plate. The table was abundantly spread with substantial fare; but the squire made his supper of frumenty, a dish made of wheat cakes boiled in milk, with rich spices, being a standing dish in old times for Christmaseve. I was happy to find my old friend, mince-pie, in the retinue of the feast, and I greeted him with all the warmth wherewith we usually greet an old and very genteel acquaintance.
The supper had disposed every one to gaiety, and an old harper was summoned from the servants' hall, where he had been strumming all the evening, and, to all appearance, comforting himself with some of the squire's homebrewed. He was a kind of hanger-on, I was told, of the establishment.
The dance, like most dances after supper, was a merry one; some of the old folks joined in it, and the squire himself figured down several couples with a partner with whom he affirmed he had danced at every Christmas for nearly
half a century.
The party now broke up for the night with the kindhearted old custom of shaking hands. As I passed through the hall on my way to my chamber, the dying embers of the yule clog still sent forth a dusky glow, and had it not been the season when "no spirit dares stir abroad," I should have been half-tempted to steal from my room at midnight, and peep whether the fairies might not be at their revels about the hearth.
I had scarcely got into bed, when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band, which I concluded to be the waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtain to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement, partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened; they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow, and I fell asleep.
When I woke the next morning, it seemed as if all the events of the preceding evening had been a dream, and nothing but the identity of the ancient chamber convinced me of their reality. While I lay musing on my pillow, I heard a sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispered consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted forth an old Christmas carol, the burden of which was—
Rejoice, our Saviour he was born
I rose softly, slipped on my clothes, opened the door suddenly and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs. They were going the round of the house, and singing at every chamber-door; but my sudden appearance frightened them into mute bashfulness. They remained for a moment playing upon their lips with their fingers, and now and then stealing a shy glance from under their eyebrows, until, as if by one impulse, they scampered away and so turned an angle of the gallery; I heard them laughing in triumph at their escape.
Everything conspired to produce kind and happy feelings in this stronghold of old-fashioned hospitality. I had scarcely dressed myself when a servant appeared to invite me to family prayers. * * * Our breakfast consisted
of what the squire denominated true old English fare. ******
While we were talking we heard the distant toll of the village bell, and I was told that the squire was a little particular in having his household at church on a Christmas morning; considering it a day of pouring out of thanks and rejoicing; for as old Tusser observes,
At Christmas be merry, and thankful withal,
And feast thy poor neighbours, the great with the small.