Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
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From the Archives
December 12, 2023

The Two Christmas Eves, by G. S. Stevens.

Published in the Picton Gazette, 25 December, 1863.

Christmas Eve came down upon the city. At the door of Horace Winter, Esq., the bells rang merrily as sleigh after sleigh drove up through the fleecy snow, and their occupants sprang forth and entered the princely mansion. Within doors, bounding feet moved lightly through the voluptuous dance, keeping time to the sweet music of the viol and the harp. The sumptuous hangings of the window curtains vibrated with the measured tread of fashionable quadrilles and the fragrance of perfumes, the radiance of many lamps, and the echoes of merry voices, filled the air.

Fairest among the fair was Jessie Winter period she was passing here and there welcoming the lady guests and speaking words of pleasantness to all around. — An only child, she had received the favors of fond parent without being spoiled.–She had a loving heart, two, and there was room enough there for a host of friends, and a wealth of affection was kept in reserve for him whose joyous lot it should be to win that happy heart. She stood near one of the doors, when a voice from behind attracted her attention:

“Miss winter, do you not dance this evening? I should think one so full of merriment would not be content to stand still while such stirring symphonies are waking the soul to life and action.”

She turned quickly, and a brighter smile came into her sparkling eyes a keen observer of human nature would have a fit subject for study in the complete change which came over her it seemed as if that voice had swept the chords of her being as the low breathing of the summer winds sweep the harp of Aeolus, calling forth a music before unsuspected and unfelt there was a heightened colour on her cheek. As she extended her hand and greeted the new comer.

“Why, Mr. Bell, I did not think to see you here to-night. I am glad you have come.”

He was a young man of seven or eight and twenty–not classically faultless in feature, but with an eye that burned with an unutterable power of expression, full of the fire of genius, and with form and manner that were the impersonation of grace. There was in his look at that moment the language of a soul pouring itself out in the desire to express the fullness of its adoration. So Jessie read it, and her eyes sought the floor and instant as Mr. Bell replied:

“And I am pleased to be here, near you.”

Jessie felt the meaning of his words: she glanced quickly around, fearful that their import might have been caught by some other ear. But what he had said in solo a tone had escaped notice from the others; so she recovered herself possession, and with a careless smile, as if she took no note of the earnestness of his words, she evaded the subject, saying—

“How fortunate. See, the quadrille is over: you have arrived just in time to take a place in the next set. Come with me, and I will introduce you to as fair a dancer as there is in the room.” And she hurried off, looking back to see if Mr. Bell followed her.

“Miss Winter,” said he, as soon as he could catch up with her, “you do not need to run across the room to get the fairest partner for me. If you will dance with me yourself, your purpose will be fully answered.”

“No, no,” returned Jessie with a laugh; “not yet, I thank you. By and by, perhaps, I shall have leisure to dance.”

“But why not now?” earnestly entreated Mr. Bell; just this one quadrille, and I will not ask such a favor again for an hour.”

The next moment he was introduced to a lady with whom he was already partially acquainted and away went Jessie into the thickest of the company, casting an arch glance over her shoulder at Henry Bell. He, almost regardless of the lady at his side, watched Jessie till she was lost to view, disappointment and chagrin visible in every linament of his face.

Jessie passed close to them soon after and as his eye caught her laughing glance, he murmured:

“Ay, fair mocker, you are merry enough now, but your fate and mine shall be decided this very night. I will not leave this house till I have heard from your own lips what of bliss or woe the future has in store for me.”

***

Two hours passed before Henry Bell had the opportunity to dance with Jessie Winter. It was a long and somewhat fatiguing dance; but it was finished at last, and with her little hand upon his arm, he turned away and asked for a seat.

“There are the ottomans in the projecting window unoccupied,” said he, as he led her toward it. “Now,” thought he, but he did not say so, “the hour of destiny is come.”

She made no objection, and took her seat, and with a commonplace remark about fatigue; then she leaned her head upon her hand to such a position that she could look between the parted curtains into the room. Henry Bell’s back was against the drapery, and his countenance in the shade. He sat there gazing into her eyes. He was inwardly troubled, and wished that she would speak first; but she pertinaciously kept silent, and watched the guests.

“Jessie, said he, finally, “I have a word to say to you which concerns my future welfare and the present seems as fitting a moment as any.”

“Well,” she responded, with provoking coolness, still looking at the company.

“You have tortured me long enough, and I will know my fate at once. It is for you to say whether it shall be a happy or an unhappy one.”

“Why Mr. Bell,” ejaculated Jessie, glancing at him with feigned surprise, “what can you mean?”

There was a tremor in his voice, but a world of earnest worship in his eyes as he replied, impulsively—

“Have I given attendance upon you so long, and you have not divined my secret, then? Surely, you are wanting in the keen perceptions and readiness of your sex if you have not long ago become conscious of the true state of my feelings toward you. Jessie I love you, and you know it. Will you be my wife?”

Her eyes dropped before his impassioned gaze. There was a directness about his appeal for which she had been unprepared, and she could not conceal the nature of her emotions. An expression of mingled pleasure and embarrassment crossed her face, and she sat toying with her fan in her lap. A thrill of joy ran through the bosom of Henry Bell, and eagerly he pressed for a reply.

“Dear Jessie, speak to me, and tell me in words what your looks and manner so plainly say. Tell me that my suit is not unacceptable, and that you will bless me with this fair hand. Speak to me, Jessie!”

She allowed her hand to be grasped in his open palm; but when she felt the trembling of his fingers, a feeling of triumph swept over her being, and she recalled her self-possession. All of the etiquette in her nature was awakened. She raised her eyes, though she did not dare to meet his gaze, and with a musical laugh, said:

“You are in a romantic mood tonight.”

“Jessie–Jessie!” returned he, “do not trifle with me! I am in earnest, deeply so. The happiness of my whole life is staked on your reply, and you are cruel to Daly thus with the welfare of a human heart. Speak to me soberly, and tell me that I have not read in vain the language of those speaking, love-lit eyes.”

She hastily withdrew her hand, and with an assumed air of offended haughtiness, said—

“I should like to know what right you have to talk of my love-lit eyes? Let me tell you, sir, you were mistaken. I never loved anyone; and I do not think I have yet seen the person whom I shall love.”

“Jessie, speak like a true woman, and frankly tell me, will you or will you not be mine?”

“No, Mr. Bell,” for reasons of my own I will not.”

“And this is your answer–you will not. Why, then, did you encourage me to hope for your love? Why did you draw me on, step by step, till you made me your slave? Was it that you might trample my soul in the dust with your bold refusal? Jessie you have deceived me, basely deceived me!”

“Mr. Bell,” retorted she with a look of fire, “you are entirely mistaken. I never dreamed of awakening in you any other feelings than those of friendship; and as for deceiving you, that would hardly be worth my while.”

“You said you had reasons for your refusal,” remarked Bell. “Tell me what they were, for perhaps I can remove them. Let me have all the hope that can fall to my lot.”

Jessie replied with unnecessary severity—

“You are no doubt perfectly aware that I am the future heiress to nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Probably you have never lost sight for a moment of that very important fact.

“Jessie Winter!” exclaimed Henry Bell, rising to his feet, and a flush of indignation crossing his features at this gratuitous insult, “what do you take me for.”

“Well, Mr. Bell, you know we must not say all that we think.”

“No, no, Miss Winter, do not regard my feelings; you have already done your worst. Tell me all your opinion of me. Do not think that I have come before you in the light of an unprincipled adventurer, sacrificing love to gold?”

What induced the reckless girl to say what she did, she could hardly tell afterwards, but she replied, in a very measured way–

“Well, really, to tell you the truth, it looks very much like it. I cannot help my belief, you know.”

“It is enough, Jessie,” said Henry, “it is enough. I have loved you with a love beyond the power of words to depict–a love such as you will never have on earth again; but this last stroke of your cruel tongue has decided my course. Jessie, loved Jessie, farewell forever!”

He seized her hand, pressed the white fingers to his lips and went hurriedly away.

But it was too late. She saw him glide around the nearest seats and out at the door, and she knew that all was over.—Then Jessie bowed her head upon her hands, and wept tears which almost burned as the flowed—tears of useless repentance and of sad regret for her bitter words.

“O!” murmured she, “what have I done?—what have I done? Farewell forever! O, no, it cannot be!”

Absorbed in her grief, she did not perceive what was passing in the room period a servant brought in a letter, and handed it to Mr. Winter. As he perused it, a deadly pallor over spread his features, and a wild look appeared in his eyes. It was but a few lines, yet it seemed to have a terrible effect on him, for when he had finished reading he dropped it and reeled helplessly backward. But for gentlemen standing near, he would have fallen to the floor.

“What is the matter, Mr. Winter?’–asked one, seating the old merchant in a chair, while another gentleman brought water, and a third a fan.

“Ruined! ruined! ruined!” was the ejaculated response, and his chin dropped upon his bosom in hopeless misery.

A friend picked up the missive. It was a telegraphic dispatch, and ran thus:

“DEAR SIR:–I am directed to inform you that the clipper ship Hindoo Queen has been lost on the coast of Formosa, in the Indian Ocean, and every soul on board has perished. The ship and cargo, valued at nearly seven hundred thousand dollars, are totally lost.”

“All I had in the world, all I could borrow, and large credits besides, were risked on that one ship! groaned out the old gentleman. An hour ago I was worth a quarter of a million: now I am half a million in debt! O, my poor wife! my poor child! What misery this will bring to you.”

Jessie’s bitter words to Henry Bell were bitterly punished by this dispensation.

One by one the guests retired from the house of the broken merchant, and all knew that in that year of commercial embarrassment his was an utter, hopeless ruin.

***

A year rolled on, and again the eve of Christmas came. In a city many miles away from that where Horace Winter had dwelt in his better days, he now lived and labored for his bread. The winter snow lay piled deep in the streets. At evening the sleigh bells rang merrily out in the frosty air, and the lamps of the shop cast a bright light on the new fallen purity which covered all things. There were many pedestrians about, and the shopkeepers were gathering rich harvests from the disciples of good St. Nicholas.

Wearily Horace Winter trod his way along to a house in a retired street. He was tired of the drudgery of the counting room, where he had toiled from early morn to gather a subsistance to his family. There was deep sadness in his heart when he thought of departed days.

He reached the door of his little tenements, and stretched forth his hands to the latch. Ere he touched it the door was flung wide open, and a pair of snowy arms encircled his neck, while a sweet voice cried–

“A Merry Christmas, papa dear, if it be not too soon! I have been watching at the side light to open the door for you, and be the first to give you the holiday kiss. You know who ever kissed you when you came home on Christmas Eve, always had her choice of presents.”

And the bright eyed maiden pressed the old man’s cheek again and again with her warm, rosy lips. A teardrop trembled is the old man’s eyes, and he sighed.

“Ah, Jessie dear, said he, “I fear it will only be a present of good wishes that your father can make you now. It will hardly be a merry Christmas for us, my child, this coming holiday.”

They turned into the little front room, where supper was on the table a frugal meal of bread, and butter and cocoa; but Mrs. Winter sat there and smiled a welcome as she gave her husband the good wishes of the hour.

“Why, father,” said Jessie, as she helped her parent off with his coat, “we are all well and are all here, and we ought to be happy. We have enough to eat, and for one bright weekday at least you shall have good cheer and a bright fire instead of that dingy old counting room.”

“Only one year ago to night,” said he, as he took his seat at the table, “how fast the carriages came and went bringing favourites and friends to revel in the brightness of our home and the warmth of our welcome. False friends, all fled with the first stroke of misfortune!”

“No matter, papa,” returned Jessie; “we are beyond the sting of their heartless neglect, and we may find yet that there is more happiness here then there.”

Jessie’s thoughts, however, flew back to that night, one year before, and a tear came into her eye as she thought there was one friend who, but for her suspicions and coquetry, might have been true through all chance and change.

They had half finished supper when the front door opened and shut, and a knock came at the room door. Jessie opened it, and starting back in surprise, stood speechless and pale.

“Jessie,” said a manly voice, “do you not know me? Am I not welcome?”

The colour came back to her face, and her little hand met that of the new-comer in a warm grasp. Then she flew past Henry Bell, and rushing up to her attic chamber threw herself on her bed and wept from excess of emotion. In due time the impoliteness of her conduct came into her mind, and she calmed her throbbing heart and went downstairs.

In the warm front room her father, her mother and Henry Bell were seated before the fire. They all looked up when she entered. Mr. Bell rose and placed a chair for her in the circle, and she seated herself without venturing to say a word. But their eyes had met, and as he saw the traces of tears, and the mournfully tender expression of her look, a new hope leaped up in his bosom.

“See, Jessie,” handing her a written paper, while his voice showed that he was deeply affected “see here; all our friends have not forgotten us. This is a deed assigning to me the lease, fixtures, stock and good will of a store in the retail business, which is worth a thousand a year clear–double my present salary. And Mr. Bell has been kind enough to act as the agent of our old acquaintances, and bring us this rich present on Christmas Eve.”

Jessie took the papers. One was a deed of the store, the other a note of presentation. The conviction flashed over her mind that Mr. Bell was alone in this generous aid, and the remembrances of the past stung her to the soul.

“These are Mr. Bell’s handwriting,” cried she. “O, my father, you have no one to thank but him! I need no one to tell me so; I feel it in the depths of my soul. O, what a wicked girl I have been! And she put her handkerchief over her eyes and hurriedly wiped them.

“Why, Jessie, what is the matter?” asked her mother. “What have you done, my sweet girl, that you find occasion for tears?” And the kind mother moved her chair close up to Jessie’s and putting her arm around her daughter’s neck gave her a kiss of parental this sympathy.

“I have done very wrong, very wrong mother,” she murmured. Mr. Bell told me last Christmas Eve that he loved me; he asked me to be his wife, and I heaped insults upon him; I called him a base fortune hunter, and drove him away. O, he can he ever, ever forgive me?”

She hid her face on her mother’s bosom. Henry Bell, who was sitting on the opposite side of her, leaned forward and took Jessie’s hand, and she did not withdraw it from his possession. He spoke to her:

“Jessie, do not think of that. They were the bitterest words that ever were addressed to me by any human being but they were forgiven long ago, and shall now be forgotten. Those tears would wash them all away, were they a thousand fold more bitter.”

Mr. Winter had risen, and stood in the centre of the circle, with his back to the fire, and facing Jessie.

“And yet, my daughter,” said the old man, you loved Mr. Bell all the time; is it not so, Jessie?

Jessie made no reply, for her face was still hid on her mother’s bosom. It was easy to see, however, that a blush had over spread her countenance.

“Jessie, dear Jessie, cried Henry Bell, only let me know that you loved me, and I shall be happy. Tell me that and it will need no more to fill my soul with joy!”

Jessie’s hand was still in his, but it was motionless.

“Did you love Mr. Bell, Jessie?” whispered her mother in her ear, and do you love him now?”

There was a hardly audible “yes” from her lips. Her father smiled, and her mother clasped her tighter. Henry Bell kissed her hand, and said:

“Then you will be my wife soon, dear Jessie. I have waited long, and being sorrowful long enough to have the hour of our union hastened. You will be mine soon, Jessie?”

“Come, Jessie,” said her father, “the least amends you can make for your fault will be to give a fair answer. You are willing to marry Mr. Bell and make him happy, since you love each other so well.

“No, no,” exclaimed she, looking up, “not yet–not yet. Henry will delay a little while to press his suit, if I wish it. He says he loves me, I know he loves me. It may seem strange, but I do not want to speak fully yet. You will wait, will you not, Henry?”

“Ah, Jessie, it is a hard request to grant, but I can deny you nothing. You have filled me with hope, and I shall go out into the world stronger and more fired to win success, knowing the bright hour must come when your dear hand will be my own.”

After Mr. Bell left the house that night, Jessie made explanations to her mother from which it appeared that her reluctance to promise an early day for marriage was owing to a sort of unnecessary feeling that whereas if when she was wealthy she rejected him, and now being very poor should marry him, it would seem as if she had married him to better her condition. Her mother ridiculed the notion but Jessie preferred to wait, till some change in their circumstances might occur, resulting from her father’s again being engaged in business.

***

Henry Bell spent Christmas Day with them. Thereafter he had to go back to his office in that other city, and to make a long tour thence, on professional business to the far West. Going from place to place he could maintain no correspondence. On his return home, after two months’ absence, he went directly to his office. Among the letters awaiting him was one in the handwriting of Mr. Winter, as follows:

“DEAR MR. BELL:–You have no doubt heard the joyful news. The ship Hindoo Queen was not losst on Formosa. That was some other vessel. The mistake arose from a portion of my ship’s spars, and one of her boats being thrown ashore on that island the Hindoo Queen was driven far to south, became locked in the Antarctic ice, and after five months of great hardship she was extricated, and eventually arrived at Philadelphia. The rise in the price of teas and silks meanwhile has covered nearly all losses, and we are again, thank Heaven, as we were of old. As soon as you return call upon us at the old place. Jessie waits to see you, and so we also do as soon as possible. Yours affectionately, HORACE WINTER.”

Henry, strange to say, had not heard of this, and he felt more joyful than if this good fortune had been all his own.—Flinging the various business letters into a drawer of his desk, and putting the key in his pocket, he hurried away and ere long presented himself at the door of th princely mansion of Horace Winter, and inquired for Jessie.

He was shown into the sitting room.–There was a warm fire, but no one was present period soon, however, Jessie bounded into the room, her cheeks glowing and her eyes sparkling, and received his warm welcome.

“O, Henry, I did not expect you so soon how glad I am to see you!”

“Almost the very words you welcomed me with in your parlor above, on Christmas eve, fourteen months ago,” returned Henry with a smile. “But this meeting is far different from that, the last time we had here, for I have come in hope that you are prepared to fix the happy day when we shall be one.”

Jessie replied, smiling merrily and blushing; “Papa has fixed it for us dear Henry. He says that mother and I are to spend this summer in Europe; that he would like to have you meet us there in September; and that after we all come home again, he intends that the largest party of the next holiday time shall be a wedding party in the parlours.”

“Your wedding and mine, you mean, Jessie,” returned Henry, as they seated themselves before the fire.

“Yes, and he says that to punish me for my coquetry, he means we shall be married right before that very projecting window, up stairs where you first asked for my heart and hand on Christmas Eve just fourteen months ago.”

 

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