We are still in the period of Christmastide, and it seemed a good idea to post another short story from that delightful book ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues and Other Stories’, written by Fr Bernard Basset S.J. in or about the 1950s. This particular story ‘Mrs Peabody’s Present’, emphasises a particular aspect of the Christmas story, which is recognised by all Christians, but which is also so easy to overlook.
I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.
Mrs Peabody’s Present
The quickest and safest way to Mrs Peabody’s sweet-shop was to cut down the little alley behind the grocer’s and then take the second turning on the right. There was another, more respectable route via Warwick Street, but this took longer and carried with it the risk of being recognised.. Once in the alley one was safe from adult observation and could study Mrs Peabody’s window at one’s ease.
` Mrs Peabody’s display always deserved careful attention, for she crammed her window with every sort of confectionary guaranteed to upset the stomach and satisfy the taste. With our noses glued to the glass we could count forty-three different kinds of sweets without squinting, divided roughly into two classes, those which lasted a long time but tasted of nothing, and those which went off with a bang and tasted of nothing on earth.
You could buy long strips of liquorice labelled “Charlie Chaplin’s braces”, or nougat wafers which did in two minutes what a dentist did in half an hour. Then there were Sherbert Suckers which supplied a sudden and very satisfying sensation, but ended in a sore mouth if you went on too long. Treacle toffees and boiled sweets could be bought for fractions of a penny, and cannon balls, called by a less elegant name, cost only a farthing, though, with a certain sobriety in sucking, they had been known to last for three hours and a half!
We boys loved Mrs Peabody’s shop. It stood in what the nurses called a “disreputable district”, and when we were out in a convoy with nurses, prams, sisters and other children, we were not allowed to loiter but had to zig-zag by. Though no-one said so explicitly, yet we always felt that Mrs Peabody was included in the “Lead us not into temptation” of our night prayers. Certainly she was the personification of wickedness to our small intelligences, and some of us hinted that she was a witch.
We reckoned her age was well over a hundred, though Jimmy, who was cautious, plumped for ninety-nine and a bit. Whatever her age, she was stout, florid and forbidding, for she had wrinkled hands, tin spectacles and was short of breath. Although we knew that she was a Catholic and had once seen her at Church on Sunday, yet we thought that she must be very wicked, and no matter how kind she was when we popped in with our pennies, we should not have been astonished if suddenly, with a hideous cackle, she had flown away on a broom.
At Christmastide when all the shops were decorated with tinsel and holly, Mrs Peabody also had a burst of window dressing; she washed the glass and swept away the wasps which had fallen into temptation the previous summer, and had been buried beneath a new consignment of boiled sweets. New delicacies appeared beneath lurid labels, and crackers also came if there was room. One Christmas a row of cardboard cribs stood at the back of the window among the sweets. They were not very elegant cribs, but you could see Joseph and Mary with the Infant Jesus in the middle and a palm tree at the back.
I remember this occasion well, for we happened to be passing while Mrs Peabody’s wrinkled hands were putting the cribs in place. As luck would have it, the Parker baby, in the last pram but one, had come unstrapped at that moment, and the whole convoy of children, prams and nurses came to a halt outside Mrs Peabody’s door. We boys were walking on ahead, and of course we blessed the Parker baby and began to rub our noses on Mrs Peabody’s glass. There were the usual squeals of “Oo, look at that nougat” and “Bet you couldn’t swallow three lumps without chewing”, and then one of the girls noticed the cribs.
“Look, there’s Bethlehem,” she cried, “and there’s another and another; see Jesus, Mary and Joseph with a palm tree.”
“There aren’t any shepherds and kings,” rejoined one of the boys sulkily, “and I don’t want a crib without shepherds, do you?”
By now the Parker baby had been strapped into the cockpit, and the various nurses were ready to move on.
“Elizabeth, I don’t want to have to tell you again not to rub your face on that dirty window; Master Henry, it is bad manners to point. Yes, yes, I can see the Child Jesus, but we can’t stop any longer, we’re late as it is.”
Off we all moved, but the nurses and governesses, when they thought we were busy talking nougat, had a few words together on the sly.
“I don’t hold with putting cribs in the window along with dirty sweets, do you, Miss Philips?”
“No, my dear, I think it’s downright irreverent; what are we coming to these days?”
That was that, and a few days before Christmas I was out on some small commission at the grocer’s, and it was only one minute down the alley and the second turning on the right to Mrs Peabody’s shop. Perhaps I had persuaded myself that my father would like a nougat wafer for his present, perhaps I had settled my doubts by an earnest glance at the cribs in the window; all I can remember is that I was in the shop with my eyes on a box of chocolates, and with four pennies in my hand. Heavy breathing off-stage heralded the approach of Mrs Peabody, and I clasped my coppers as Casablanca might have gripped a floating spar.
“One of these, please,” said I in a faint whisper, keeping my eyes averted lest Mrs Peabody should cast a spell.
She shuffled across the shop to survey the window, then looked at my quaking finger to see which way it led.
“One of which, my dear?” she queried, breathing over the bon-bons, then all at once she smiled and pounced upon a crib.
“There you are, dearie,” said she, “the cave of Bethlehem for four-pence, and you are a good, pious well-instructed boy to want a crib with all them sweets about.”
A good, pious, well-instructed boy I may have been, but I was also greedy, and the sudden danger of losing the chocolates and my four-pence brought panic to my head.
“Excuse me, please,” said I, “but I wanted a box of chocolates. I don’t want a crib, because there aren’t any shepherds, and I don’t hold with putting cribs in the window along with the sweets. I think it’s downright irreverence.”
Mrs Peabody looked at me and blinked behind her spectacles, and then she paused and gazed at the crib in her hands. Next she peeped at the row of cribs in the window as though making up her mind. Slowly, and perhaps sadly, she reached down for a packet of chocolates, and stood it on the counter with the rejected crib by its side. I knew now that I had hurt her, and being kind-hearted like most children, I was anxious to make amends
“Excuse me,” said I, “But I hope that you are not offended, I only told you what Nurse Parker said.”.
Mrs Peabody looked at me again and made a clicking noise with her teeth to denote disapproval of Nurse Parker, and then she picked up the crib.
“See here, my dear,” said she, pointing to the Child in the manger, “Who is this?”
“Jesus,” said I promptly, bowing my head in the approved manner and feeling less afraid.
“What is He doing in the manger?” asked Mrs Peabody kindly, to which I answered with some hesitation:
“He’s not doing nothing; He’s just waiting for the shepherds to arrive. You haven’t got any shepherds in your crib, but we’ve got ever so many on the mantelpiece at home.”
Mrs Peabody smiled.
“Well, dearie,” she replied, “You can’t expect shepherds and sheep for four-pence, and besides, they don’t matter so very much anyway. All those shepherds who went to the cave on the first Christmas, they died hundreds of years ago, didn’t they, and they are all now enjoying themselves in heaven, as they deserve.”
“Suppose so,” said I, though I’d never before thought of the lot of the first shepherds, but Mrs Peabody obviously wanted me to agree,
Mrs Peabody was pleased
“They are all dead,” she continued, “but the Holy Child is still in the manger, isn’t He? He’s still alive, the same yesterday, today and for ever, because He’s God.”
She had been bending over the counter, holding the crib before her, but now she suddenly stood up.
“Run home, dear,” she said, “and take your chocolates, four-pence, thank you, and you can have the crib without the shepherds as Mrs Peabody’s Christmas present. There ain’t no shepherds now, they’re all dead and buried, but He’s still alive and He’s waiting for you. That is why I put a whole row of cribs in my window, so that all you children, when you peep through the window, can take the shepherds’ place. There ain’t no shepherds now, and don’t you forget it, because it now rests with you and me. If we don’t remember Him at Christmas then He lies alone in the manger just as much as if the first shepherds had not bothered to come. He’s always the same, He always wants the same love and affection, but the shepherds change. Each Christmas the chance and the choice comes to a new crowd of people, and this Christmas, if you and I don’t bother about Him, then there ain’t no shepherds at all. Now you run home, there’s a good boy, and enjoy your chocolates; maybe you’re a bit young to twig what old Mrs Peabody is trying to say. Just take a peek now and again, at old Mrs Peabody’s present, and remember that if you can’t be bothered, then He’s one shepherd short. There ain’t no shepherds now, they are all dead and buried, but He is still living and waiting for me.”
Perhaps Mrs Peabody did cast a spell, for I cannot otherwise explain how a boy of ten stood so still for seven minutes in a sweet shop, nor is it usual to remember a lesson or sermon after more than twenty years. Her shop has gone, her sweets are now sold at double the price in hygienic wrappers, and Mrs Peabody is with the other shepherds on the eternal hills. But her point remains and deserves a thought each Christmas, for the shepherds are gone, but the Child remains and it is our choice now.
“There ain’t no shepherds now and He’s waiting for me,” is Mrs Peabody’s message, to which the governess replied:
“You wicked boy, you’ve been playing in that disreputable district: how many times have I told you not to say ‘ain’t’?”
(Ack. ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues and Other Stories’ by Rev. Bernard Basset S.J.)