Across the roof-tops, chill Winter struck. The East wind bit at the City and life was stripped from the starving streets, the reeking swills of Holborn. In Periwig Passage, the dogs whined from the cold, the windows shook, the gas lamps paled and the rain turned to driven sleet. The very shadows shrank from the storm.
And yet, in the house at the end of the Passage, all was bright with hope. Mrs Crockett's busy little figure hummed a busy little tune: her Christmas plan was going well. The fire crackled and, beside it, rum punch simmered with promise of a merry Occasion. The table was set for twenty; the sideboard displayed all manner of treats and tracklements. From her kitchen bubbled a wonderment of smells, a declaration of delights to come. For the first time, she had money to spend at Christmas and she had spared neither effort nor ingenuity.
Above the sound of her humming there came a commotion, a kicking at the front door. As she went to the hall, a tall figure burst into the house. Mr Crockett's coat was rain-soaked, his face was at once pinch-white with cold and puff-red with exertion. But he was home: home to the beloved bosom of his family.
The bosom breathed deep. 'The door sticks in the wet, Mr Crockett.'
The in-comer slammed the door, unwound his scarf and fought for breath. 'Truly it does, o' wind in my sails. All in good time. Troubles are afoot.'
'Can they not wait, Mr Crockett? Our guests arrive within the hour.'
'I know it well, o' will-o-my-wisp, but I speak of an unexpected other. My Master comes to dine.'
'The Master! Coming here? How can this be!'
'Always I ask him, o' hinge of my heart. Every year, as a token of goodwill, I entreat him to join us at this time. Every year, he turns aside with a sneer and I think no more of it. But tonight he said 'Yes'. He will be here at seven o'clock. Alas.'
'Well might you say 'alas', Mr Crockett. Here am I, with festive board a-groan and all set in cheerful spirit. We cannot let the Master see us in this happy state. If he sees our comfort, he will know something is afoot.'
'Indeed, my candle-gleam. He is a grasping, cantankerous wretch, but he is no fool. Though tonight be Christmas Eve, if he sees there is money in the house, he will wonder where it came from. He will spend the night combing the ledgers. He will find me out.'
'We cannot allow it, sir. We must show our lives as cheerless and painful, albeit bravely borne. And the children too. They must play their part, with winsome smile and troubling cough.'
The father went to the stairs and called 'Come, small Crocketts. I have news.'
Four children appeared: a boy of ten, two younger girls and a toddler. Their pink-scrubbed skin and the smell of carbolic spoke of vigorous attention to matters of the toilet. The elder girl twirled to show her ribboned dress and asked. 'Do we do you credit, father dear?'
'Yes, my Moll - fine as princes and princesses all. But times have changed. For this evening, we must become poor - poorer than church-mice.'
'As poor as we used to be, father?'
'Poorer still, child. My Master comes to dine in half an hour and he must not see how well situated we are. Or he will know that my sorry tales, my pleas for a better wage, are but a ruse. My schemes will come to naught, or worse.'
Mrs Crockett clapped her hands. 'Do you hear, children? Get along with you. Take off those fine clothes. Tonight you must be wretched and barefoot. Snivelling and scratching.' She gave energetic example.
The three older children ran up to their rooms and she called after them. 'I want you back down here in 10 minutes. Urchins every one. Ready for work.'
The toddler clung to his mother's skirt. 'Oo-oo.'
'You too, Baby Boo. You're the real tear-jerker.' She sent him up to his sisters.
Mr Crockett set to work, leaving but the barest of furniture. 'Darkness shall be our friend, Mrs Crockett. Put away the lamps, dampen the fire.'
'We shall set a cushion to burn, Mr Crockett. Ten minutes of open window for the cold and then roasted horse-hair for the fug. Perfick, as they say.'
'And our friends? They are due soon after seven o'clock.'
'Set the boy to wait at the corner, Mr Crockett. They must go up the back stairs and wait for us. We cannot let folk of their quality be seen here tonight, else a rat is smelt.'
'A rat! Well said, Mrs Crockett! The very thing! Set the girls to find one for the fire. And a sparrow, or somesuch. When feathers do burn, the stomach will churn, as they say.'
In a trice, the house buzzed with family purpose. Never was there such a to-do, such a spoiling, such a smearing, such a souring, such a stenchification. Never was a room set so quickly, so artfully, into the mould of Poverty and hard times.
Mrs Crockett cleared the foodstuffs into a back room. Mr Crockett dragged away the table and chairs and brought boxes to sit upon. A single candle was set to struggle against the cold and the lowering, eye-stinging, pall of smoking horse-hair, rat and sparrow.
The children, tattered as dish-mops, joined merrily in the tasks, scattering fire-dust, be-griming the walls - all the while snivelling and coughing fit to burst their little lungs. Their mother gave praise and encouragement. 'That's it, my loves. Get those throats raw. You'll have possets and potions aplenty come the morning.'
Baby Boo appeared in a potato sack and his mother said 'No, my babe. That's a mite too big for you.' She took off the sack, fixed a loin-cloth upon him and rubbed goose-fat all over. 'There, my love, the fat'll keep the cold out, especially with a good layer of ash. Just roll around the fireplace for a while.'
And the little lad rolled cheerfully in the hearth and clapped his hands and croaked 'Merry Christmas.'
His mother stood amazed. 'Do you hear that, Mr Crockett. Our little lad's very first words.'
'God be praised, my dear. And just in time, I'm thinking. Hark ...' Across the Passage, the Church clock beat the hour of seven.
Mrs Crockett fluttered her apron. 'Quick, my children. Into your hiding places and take an onion for the sniffling. Don't come till I call.' She fluffed her hair and went to the window.
A spindle-shanked figure came into view, bent against the wind. One hand held a grey cap to his head, the other gripped a black cloak. It was the man: the miser, the Master. Ezekiel Scroope.
Mrs Crockett turned quickly from the window. 'He comes, Mr Crockett. Get that door open and make him welcome. And make it 'umble.'
Her husband stood upon the step and bowed to the new-comer. 'Welcome, Master. Our 'umble 'ome is 'onoured hindeed.'
The visitor's lips were twisted blue with cold, the voice was of splintered ice. 'In the name of Christendom, man, let me in. The night is fit to freeze the waters of the Styx itself.' He pushed past Crockett, into the house.
The host banged the door shut 'Hindeed, Master, 'tis a fearsome cold. But snug enough inside, I fancy, with our fine new candle.' He took his guest's elbow. 'Come, sir. Allow me to present my wife - the admirable Mrs Crockett.'
Through the gloom came the lady of the house, contriving to bear the candle aloft whilst offering a running curtsey. 'Mr Scroope - 'tis an honour hindeed. Pray let me take your wet accoutrements.'
The newcomer shook water from his cloak, but held up his hand. 'I shall not stop. I come for naught but to give you news.'
'In good time, sir. Tarry a while at least. Meet our family.' She went to the fireplace and clapped her hands. ''Come along, you Crocketts. Take a rest.' She looked at the visitor. 'They're such workers, sir. Cherubs all. For ever at the chimbleys or the drains. Practising.'
Down the chimney, on to the smouldering cushion, came the three elder children, ragged as coal-monkeys. Their onion-teared eyes popped at the visitor; their cheeks were sucked into consumptive hollows, their mouths stretched into terrible, tight-lipped smiles.
The man of the house made introduction. 'Crocketts, we are Honoured beyond our station. This is your father's Master, Mr Scroope.'
Scroope fixed the children with a flinted stare. The youngsters trembled at the immensity of the occasion: they arched their backs and writhed in the grip of an unmentionable, insanitary itch.
Mrs Crockett took a grip of young shoulders and urged them towards the visitor. 'This is Harry, our eldest boy - and the girls Moll and Poll. Which is three, as you will see. As to the fourth ...' She spoke to Moll in fierce undertone. The girl whispered and pointed at the chimney.
Mr Crockett voiced concern. 'What is to do, Mrs Crockett? Are we short of children again?'
His wife peered up the chimney. 'It is the young 'un. No sign, nor sound. I'll declare he's on that roof again.'
Mr Crockett turned to Scroope. 'Apologies, sir. It is our youngest. Baby Boo. Scarce three years old, but such an active imp. Climb anywhere, sir. Every nook and cranny. We feeds him small apurpose. Don't we, Mrs Crockett?'
'Indeed we do, Mr Crockett. The acorns - they keeps him nimble as a squirrel.'
The proud father expanded on the absent child's talents. 'And we has him well-greased, sir. Chimbleys or drains, there's none nippier. Like a young ferret, sir. But more slippery.'
Scroope banged his cap on his leg. 'Enough! I haven't come to hear this tara-diddle.'
Mrs Crockett threw up her arms. 'Good gracious, Mr Crockett, what are we thinking of. 'Tis time for the dinner. Pray entertain our guest, while I thin the gruel and do final damage to the birds.' She beamed at Scroope. 'Such birds, sir.' She bustled away into the gloom.
Crockett turned to the guest. 'Hindeed, Master. Such birds, caught but three weeks since - as fine a pair of crows as you'll see. Pickling in my wife's special marinade, sir. I vow you'll not tell them from snipe. Once we get those featbers off. And the eyes spavinned.'
'I need none of your welcome, Crockett. I have come for one thing - to give you news. Kindly fetch your wife. What I have to say is for her ears, too.'
Crockett disappeared through the fug, leaving Scroope alone with the three children. They stood in the fireplace and Moll called up the chimney. ' Baby Boo? Boo-boo? It is Mr Scroope.'
There came the rattle of soot and a muffled cry of 'Ooo-oo!'
The girl turned to the visitor. 'He says "Good day," sir.'
Scroope flailed his hands in the air, 'Is there no end to this madness - this humbug!'
The young Crocketts covered their ears. The boy quavered. 'Humbug, sir?'
'Indeed. Humbug. Humbug. Humbug!' Scroope flapped his cloak like a dark angel and the children put their hands together in supplication.
The parents returned and Mr Crockett took up the thread. 'News, Master? You have news for us?'
'Indeed, Crockett. And I shall be brief. You are dismissed.'
'Dismissed, sir?' Eyes and mouths agape, the Crocketts drew together for support.
'You heard me, man. Dismissed, cut loose - expelled, ejaculated. From this moment, you no longer work for Barley and Scroope. Here is the pay for today's work.' He put half-a-crown on the window-ledge. 'Think yourself lucky - there are still five hours to go.'
'But, sir ...'
'I am selling the company first thing in the morning. I shall be retained, but there is no post for you. The price was all the better for it.'
Crockett made gestures of despair and his wife clung to him. 'Oh, sir.'
'I bid you good day. We shall not meet again.' Scroope swept into the hall and tugged at the latch without success.
'Allow me, sir,' Crockett levered at the wood with his fettling iron. 'We keep it tight, sir, against the weather.' He forced the door open and peered outside. 'And a frightsome night it is, sir. Will you not take something with you for the warmth? A pocket-of hot soot works wonders. Shall the boy scrape some afresh for you? '
'Soot, Crockett? You may stuff yourselves with it, for all I care.' Scroope bent into the rain, pulled his cap low and was gone ... Up the passage, through pools of light and seas of darkness, past the alley where the watcher stood and stamped his feet.
The Crockett's upstairs window was dark, but a crowd of faces bade silent, mocking farewell to the Master.
Crockett closed the door and shouted at his family. 'Quickly, let us make ready for our true guests. Let there be light and warmth, let there be vittles - and later, dare I say, we shall have games. And larks - eh, Mrs Crockett? Such larks.'
'Indeed,' said his wife. 'Larks - stuffed and roast, fit to tempt St Francis himself.'
'You are a charmer, Mrs Crockett. Queen of the kitchen and of my every affection.' He made pinching motions and chased her round the room. And the children joined in with much cuddling and giggling.
They lit lamps and threw out the rat and feathers and stoked the fire afresh with sweet pine wood. Mrs Crockett returned to the kitchen and soon the smell of food and spices filled the room. Then the family stood at the foot of the stairs and called great 'hallo' to their guests. Down came Doctor Chizz and Captain Crackspittle and the Squeeps and Mistress Mobb and the Nobbler and the Dreffles. A mixture of 'flash folk' and street-people, game-boys and grotesques; investors all, gathered to celebrate a special Occasion.
'Come,' said their host. 'Let us at the vittles and be merry. But first, a toast to our new venture. To Barley and Scroope - may it long be a mask for our schemes.'
And the party raised their glasses. 'Barley and Scroope.'
Crockett served hot gin and lemon to a shrivelled, sharp-nosed man. 'Merry Christmas, Mr Hagan.'
'And to you, my dear.' The man's eyes glittered. 'You have done well to fillet a fortune from Scroope.'
'Indeed, sir. And, with help from those here, multiplied it ten-fold.'
'And still he suspects nothing?'
Crockett rubbed his hands. 'Not a thing, sir. The offer of ten thousand pounds has cast a golden mist upon his mind.'
'But even now, my dear, he might check his books. If he should find but a pound amiss, he would have the Peelers on you. Christmas Eve or not.'
'Fear not, my dear Hagan. He will not go there again tonight. And tomorrow, they will be my books. Never more to see the light of day.'
Little Moll came from the kitchen with a pile of warm plates.'Tell me, Papa. Is it true that tomorrow your company is to buy Mr Scroope's warehouse?'
'Tis true, dear daughter mine. Though it be Christmas Day itself, my lawyer will seal matters at nine o'clock. Mr Scroope knows naught of the buyer, of course. Imagine his surprise to find that he is working for me.'
'Will he enjoy that, father?'
'Enjoy? His nature is to enjoy misery, my child. And he will have that aplenty.'
'Perhaps, then, you would cheer him with a present from Poll and me.' The girl took from her pocket a sticky lump, covered in blue fluff. 'A humbug, papa - sucked but once and kept fresh in my pocket. I know he will relish it.'
Her father's face split with mirth and he bellowed. 'Mrs Crockett, come and see our daughter's gift for Mr Scroope.' The crowd roared with delight and raised their glasses. 'Humbug, humbug, hairy humbug,' was the toast.
Crockett took one of his guests aside, a heavy man, red of eye and black of beard. 'I have a job for you, William. In the country. A young fellow needs ... settling. Name of Broode - Bedwyn Broode. Nothing obvious, mind. No body, no blood, no clues. Let it remain a mystery.'
'A mystery it shall be, Mr Crockett. One of my silent specials.' The big man twisted his hands together and gave a leering, red-eyed wink.
Crockett went to the window and looked at the snow deckling the City. He pulled the curtains and shut out the night.
It was the wettest of times, it was the coldest of times. The watcher blew on ice-numb fingers and shook his head. There was surely something afoot in the house ... But, although he listened hard at the window, the roistering within drowned any talk and the flickering shadows on the curtains kept their secrets. There was life here, there was lust, there was money, there was mystery. There was nothing, there was everything.
He would never know one tenth of it. But he had seen enough and heard enough to last a lifetime. As he turned to go, there came from the roof-top a ghostly lamentation, 'Oo-ooo-ooo.' On the eaves, in the white-flecked gloom, a small dæmon sat. Its pale body was smeared with soot and it licked fat from its little limbs.
The watcher crossed himself and made speed for home. But perhaps it was a sign. Phantoms and spirits might serve well for a Christmas tale or two. He made a note. He would think about it.