Mr. and Mrs. Richard Horn, not having any blithesome daughter, nor any full-grown son—Oliver being but a child of six—and Richard and his charming wife having long since given up their dancing-slippers—were good enough to announce—(and it was astonishing what an excitement it raised)—that “On the Monday night following Mr. Horn would read aloud, to such of his friends as would do him the honor of being present, the latest Christmas story by Mr. Charles Dickens, entitled ’The Cricket on the Hearth.’” For this occasion Mr. Kennedy had loaned him his own copy, one of the earliest bound volumes, bearing on its fly-leaf an inscription in the great master’s own handwriting in which he thanked the distinguished author of “Swallow Barn” for the many kindnesses he had shown him during his visit to America, and begged his indulgence for his third attempt to express between covers the sentiment and feeling of the Christmas season.
Not that this was an unusual form of entertainment, nor one that excited special comment. Almost every neighborhood had its morning (and often its evening) “Readings,” presided over by some one who read well and without fatigue—some sweet old maid, perhaps, who knew how to grow old gracefully. At these times a table would be rolled into the library by the deferential servant of the house, on which he would place the dear lady’s spectacles and a book, its ivory marker showing where the last reading had ended—it might be Prescott’s “Ferdinand and Isabella,” or Irving’s “Granada,” or Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” or perhaps, Dickens’s “Martin Chuzzlewit.”
At eleven o’clock the girls would begin to arrive, each one bringing her needle-work of some kind—worsted, or embroidery, or knitting—something she could manage without discomfort to herself or anybody about her, and when the last young lady was in her seat, the same noiseless darky would tiptoe in and take his place behind the old maid’s chair. Then he would slip a stool under her absurdly small slippers and tiptoe out again, shutting the door behind him as quietly as if he found the dear lady asleep—and so the reading would begin.
A reading by Richard, however, was always an event of unusual importance, and an invitation to be present was never declined whether received by letter or by word of mouth.
St. George had been looking forward eagerly to the night, and when the shadows began to fall in his now almost bare bedroom, he sent for Todd to help him dress.
“Have you got a shirt for me, Todd?”
“Got seben oh ’em. Dey wants a li’l’ trimmin’ roun’ de aidges, but I reckon we kin make ’em do—Aunt Jemima sont ’em home dis mawnin’. She’s been a-workin’ on ’em, she says. Looks ter me like a goat had a moufful outer dis yere sleeve, but I dassent tell er so. Lot o’ dem butters wanderin’ roun’ dat Marsh market lookin’ fer sumpin’ to eat; lemme gib dem boots anudder tech.”
Todd skipped downstairs with the boots and St. George continued dressing; selecting his best and most becoming scarf; pinning down the lapels of his buff waistcoat; scissoring the points of his high collar, and with Todd’s assistance working his arms between the slits in the silk lining of the sleeves of his blue cloth, brass-buttoned coat, which he finally pulled into place across his chest.