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The Baker of Barnbury, A Christmas Story

by Frank R. Stockton

 

It was three days before Christmas, and the baker of the little village of Barnbury sat in the room behind his shop. He was a short and sturdy baker, a good fellow, and ordinarily of a jolly demeanor, but this day he sat grim in his little back room.

"Christmas, indeed," he said to himself, "and what of Christmas? 'Thank you, baker, and a merry Christmas to you,' and every one of them goes away with the present of a raisin-cake, or a horse ginger-cake, if they like that better. All this for the good of the trade, of course. Confound the trade, I'm tired of trade. Is there no good in this world, but the good of the trade? 'Oh, yes,' they'll say, 'there's Christmas, and that's good.'—'But what is the good of it to me?' say I. Christmas day is a family day, and to a man without a family it's no day at all. I'm not even fourth cousin to a soul in the town. Nobody asks me to a family dinner. 'Bake! baker!' they cry, 'that we may eat and love each other.' Confound them! I am tired of it. What is Christmas to me? I have a mind to skip it."

As he said this, a smile broke out on his face. "Skip Christmas," said he; "that is a good idea. They did not think of me last year; this would make them think of me this year."

As he said this he opened his order-book and ran his eye over the names. "Here's orders from every one of them," said he, "from the doctor down to Cobbler John. All have families, all give orders. It's pastry, cake, or sweetmeats, or it's meat or fowl to be baked. What a jolly Christmas they will have without me! Orders from all of them, every one; all sent in good time for fear of being crowded out."

Here he stopped and ran his eye again over the list.

"No, not all," he said; "the Widow Monk is not here. What is the matter with her, I wonder. The only person in Barnbury who has not ordered either pastry, cakes, or sweetmeats; or fowls or meat to be baked. If I skip Christmas, she'll not mind it, she'll be the only one—the only one in all Barnbury. Ha! ha!"

The baker wanted some fresh air, and, as this was supper-time for the whole village, he locked up his shop and went out for a walk. The night was clear and frosty. He liked this; the air was so different from that in his bakery.

He walked to the end of the village, and at the last house he stopped.

"It's very odd," said he to himself; "no cakes, pastry, or sweetmeats; not even poultry or meat to be baked. I'll look in and see about this," and he knocked at the door.

The Widow Monk was at supper. She was a plump little body, bright and cheerful to look upon, and not more than thirty.

"Good evening, baker," said she; "will you sit down and have a cup of tea?"

The baker put down his hat, unwound his long woollen comforter, took off his overcoat, and had a cup of tea.

"Now, then," said he to himself, as he put down his cup, "if she'd ask me to dinner, I wouldn't skip Christmas, and the whole village might rise up and bless her."

"We are like to have a fine Christmas," he said to her.

"Fine enough for the rest of you," she said, with a smile, "but I shall not have any Christmas this year."

"How's that?" cried the baker; "no Christmas, Widow Monk?"

"Not this year, baker," said she, and she poured him another cup of tea. "You see that horse-blanket?" said she, pointing to one thrown over a chair.

"Bless me, Widow Monk," cried the baker, "you're not intending to set up a horse?"

"Hardly that," she answered, with a smile, "but that's the very last horse-blanket that I can get to bind. They don't put them on horses, but they have them bound with red, and use them for door curtains. That's all the fashion now, and all the Barnbury folks who can afford them, have sent them to me to be bound with red. That one is nearly finished, and there are no more to be bound."

"But haven't the Barnbury folks any more work for you?" cried the baker; "haven't they shirts or gowns, or some other sort of needling?"

"Those things they make themselves," answered the widow; "but this binding is heavy work, and they give it to me. The blankets are coarse, you see, but they hang well in the doorway."

"Confound the people of Barnbury!" cried the baker. "Every one of them would hang well in a doorway, if I had the doing of it. And so you can't afford a Christmas, Widow Monk?"

"No," said she, setting herself to work on her horse-blanket, "not this year. When I came to Barnbury, baker, I thought I might do well, but I have not done well."

"Did not your husband leave you anything?" he asked.

"My husband was a sailor," said she, "and he went down with his brig, the Mistletoe, three years ago, and all that he left me is gone, baker."

It was time for the baker to open his shop, and he went away, and as he walked home snow-drops and tear-drops were all mixed together on his face.

"I couldn't do this sort of thing before her," he said, "and I am glad it was time to go and open my shop."

That night the baker did all his regular work, but not a finger did he put to any Christmas order. The next day, at supper-time, he went out for a walk.

On the way he said to himself, "If she is going to skip Christmas, and I am going to skip Christmas, why should we not skip it together? That would truly be most fit and gladsome, and it would serve Barnbury aright. I'll go in and lay it before her."

The Widow Monk was at supper, and when she asked him to take a cup of tea, he put down his hat, unwound his woollen comforter, and took off his overcoat. When he set down his empty cup he told her that he, too, had made up his mind to skip Christmas, and he told her why, and then he proposed that they should skip it together.

Now, the Widow Monk forgot to ask him to take a second cup of tea, and she turned as red as the binding she had put on the horse-blankets. The baker pushed aside the teacups, leaned over the table, and pressed his suit very hard.

When the time came for him to open his shop she said that she would think about the matter, and that he might come again.

The next day the sun shone golden, the snow shone silvery, and Barnbury was like a paradise to the good baker. For the Widow Monk had told him he might come again, and that was almost the same thing as telling him that he and she would skip Christmas together! And not a finger, so far, had he put to any Christmas order.

About noon of that day, he was so happy, was that good baker, that he went into the village inn to have a taste of something hot. In the inn he found a tall man, with rings in his ears. A sun-browned man he was and a stranger, who had just arrived and wanted his dinner. He was also a handsome man, and a sailor, as any one could see.

As the baker entered, the tall man said to the inn-keeper:—

"Is there a Mrs. Monk now living in this village?"

"Truly there is," said the inn-keeper, "and I will show you her house.
But you'll have your dinner first?"

"Aye, aye," said the stranger, "for I'll not go to her hungry."

The baker asked for nothing hot, but turned him and went out into the cold, bleak world. As he closed the door behind him he heard the stranger say:—

"On the brig Mistletoe."

It was not needed that the baker should hear these words; already he knew everything. His soul had told him everything in the moment he saw the sun-browned man with the rings in his ears!

On went the baker, his head bowed on his breast, the sun shining like tawdry brass, the snow glistening like a slimy, evil thing. He knew not where he was going; he knew not what he intended to do, but on he went.

Presently a door opened, and he was called.

"I saw you coming," said the Widow Monk, "and I did not wish to keep you waiting in the cold," and she held open the door for him.

When he had entered, and had seated himself before the fire, she said to him:—

"Truly, you look chilled; you need something hot"; and she prepared it for him.

The baker took the hot beverage. This much of good he might at least allow himself. He drank it, and he felt warmed.

"And now," said the Widow Monk, seating herself on the other side of the fire-place, "I shall speak as plainly to you as you spoke to me. You spoke very well yesterday, and I have been thinking about it ever since, and have made up my mind. You are alone in the world, and I am alone; and if you don't wish to be alone any longer, why, I don't wish to be either, and so—perhaps—it will not be necessary to skip Christmas this year."

Alas for the poor baker! Here was paradise seen through a barred gate! But the baker's heart was moved; even in the midst of his misery he could not but be grateful for the widow's words. There flashed into his eyes a sudden brightness. He held out his hands. He would thank her first, and tell her afterwards.

The widow took his hands, lowered her bright eyes and blushed. Then she suddenly withdrew herself and stood up.

"Now," she said, with a pretty smile, "let me do the talking. Don't look so downcast. When I tell you that you have made me very, very happy, you should look happy too. When you came to me yesterday, and said what you said, I thought you were in too much of a hurry; but now I think that perhaps you were right, and that when people of our age have anything important to do it is well to do it at once; for in this world there are all sorts of things continually springing up to prevent people from being happy."

The whole body of the baker was filled with a great groan, but he denied it utterance. He must hear what she would say.

"And so I was going to suggest," she continued, "that instead of skipping Christmas together, we keep it together. That is all the change I propose to your plan."

Up sprang the baker, so suddenly, that he overset his chair. Now he must speak. The widow stepped quickly toward the door, and, turning with a smile, held up her hand.

"Now, good friend," said she, "stop there! At any moment some one might come in. Hasten back to your shop. At three o'clock I will meet you at the parson's. That will surely be soon enough, even for such a hasty man as you."

The baker came forward, and gasped, "Your husband!"

"Not yet," said the widow, with a laugh, and, kissing the tips of her fingers to him, she closed the door behind her.

Out into the cold went the baker. His head was dazed, but he walked steadfastly to his shop. There was no need for him to go anywhere; to tell anybody anything. The man with the earrings would settle matters for himself soon enough.

The baker put up his shutters and locked his shop door. He would do nothing more for the good of trade; nothing more for the good of anything. Skip Christmas! Indeed would he! And, moreover, every holiday and every happy day would now be skipped straight on for the rest of his life. He put his house in order; he arranged his affairs; he attired himself in his best apparel; locked his door behind him; and went out into the cold world.

He longed now to get far away from the village. Before the sun set there would not be one soul there who would care for him.

As he hurried on, he saw before him the parson's house.

"I will take but one thing away with me," he said; "I will ask the good old man to give me his blessing. That will I take with me."

"Of course he is in," said the parson's maid; "there, in the parlor."

As the baker entered the parson's parlor, some one hastened to meet him. It was the Widow Monk.

"You wicked man," she whispered, "you are a quarter of an hour late.
The parson is waiting."

The parson was a little man with white hair. He stepped toward the couple standing together, and the widow took the baker's hand. Then the parson began the little speech he always made on such occasions. It was full of good sense and very touching, and the widow's eyes were dim with tears. The baker would have spoken, but he had never interrupted a clergyman, and he could not do it now.

Then the parson began his appointed work, and the heart of the baker swelled, as the widow's hand trembled in his own.

"Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife?" asked the parson.

"Now for this," quoth the poor baker to himself, "I may bake forever, but I cannot draw back nor keep the good man waiting." And he said, "Yes."

Then it was that the baker received what he had come for,—the parson's blessing; and, immediately, his fair companion, brimming with tears, threw herself into his arms.

"Now," said the baker to himself, "when I leave this house, may the devil take me, and right welcome shall he be!"

"Dearest," she exclaimed, as she looked into his face, "you cannot know how happy I am. My wedding day, and my brother back from the cruel seas!"

Struck by a sudden blast of bewildering ecstasy, the baker raised his eyes, and beheld the tall form of the sun-browned stranger who had been standing behind them.

"You are not a sailor-man," quoth the jovial brother, "like my old mate, who went down in the brig Mistletoe, but my sister tells me you are a jolly good fellow, and I wish you fair winds and paying cargoes." And after giving the baker a powerful handshake, the sailor kissed the bride, the parson's wife, the parson's daughter, and the parson's maid, and wished the family were larger, having just returned from the cruel seas.

The only people in the village of Barnbury, who thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas of that year, were the baker, his wife, and the sailor brother. And a rare good time they had; for a big sea-chest arrived, and there were curious presents, and a tall flask of rare old wine, and plenty of time for three merry people to cook for themselves.

The baker told his wife of his soul-harrowing plight of the day before.

"Now, then," said he, "don't you think that by rights I should bake all the same?"

"Oh, that will be skipped," she said, with a laugh; "and now go you and make ready for the cakes, pastry, and sweetmeats, the baked meats and the poultry, with which the people of Barnbury are to be made right happy on New Year's day."