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The Greatest Christmas Stories of All Time is a treasury of short fiction by great writers of the past two centuries — from Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Willa Cather, Damon Runyon and Beatrix Potter. As a literary subject, Christmas has inspired everything from intimate domestic dramas to fanciful flights of the imagination, and the full range of its expression is represented in this wonderfully engaging anthology.
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THE GREATEST CHRISTMAS STORIES OF ALL TIME
2017 © Book House Publishing
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Table of Contents
At Christmas Time
The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree
The Boy with the Box
Mary Griggs van Voorhis
The Burglar’s Christmas
A Child’s Christmas in Wales
A Christmas Carol
The Christmas Cuckoo
Christmas Day in the Morning
Pearl S. Buck
A Christmas Inspiration
Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Christmas Rose
A Country Christmas
Louisa May Alcott
Dancing Dan’s Christmas
The Elves and the Shoemaker
The Brothers Grimm
The Fir Tree
Hans Christian Andersen
The Gift of the Magi
The Holy Night
A Kidnapped Santa Claus
L. Frank Baum
The Legend of the Christmas Tree
A Letter from Santa Claus
Little Gretchen and the Wooden Shoe
The Little Match Girl
Hans Christian Andersen
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
E. T. A. Hoffmann
The Other Wise Man
Henry Van Dike
Papa Panov’s Special Christmas
Reginald’s Christmas Revel
The Selfish Giant
The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Hans Christian Andersen
The Tailor of Gloucester
Louisa May Alcott
“What shall I write?” asked Yegor, dipping his pen in the ink.
Vasilissa had not seen her daughter for four years. Efimia had gone away to St. Petersburg with her husband after her wedding, had written two letters, and then had vanished as if the earth had engulfed her, not a word nor a sound had come from her since. So now, whether the aged mother was milking the cow at daybreak, or lighting the stove, or dozing at night, the tenor of her thoughts was always the same: “How is Efimia? Is she alive and well?” She wanted to send her a letter, but the old father could not write, and there was no one whom they could ask to write it for them.
But now Christmas had come, and Vasilissa could endure the silence no longer. She went to the tavern to see Yegor, the innkeeper’s wife’s brother, who had done nothing but sit idly at home in the tavern since he had come back from military service, but of whom people said that he wrote the most beautiful letters, if only one paid him enough. Vasilissa talked with the cook at the tavern, and with the innkeeper’s wife, and finally with Yegor himself, and at last they agreed on a price of fifteen copecks.
So now, on the second day of the Christmas festival, Yegor was sitting at a table in the inn kitchen with a pen in his hand. Vasilissa was standing in front of him, plunged in thought, with a look of care and sorrow on her face. Her husband, Peter, a tall, gaunt old man with a bald, brown head, had accompanied her. He was staring steadily in front of him like a blind man; a pan of pork that was frying on the stove was sizzling and puffing, and seeming to say: “Hush, hush, hush!” The kitchen was hot and close.
“What shall I write?” Yegor asked again.
“What’s that?” asked Vasilissa, looking at him angrily and suspiciously. “Don’t hurry me! You are writing this letter for money, not for love! Now then, begin. To our esteemed son-in-law, Andrei Khrisanfltch, and our only and beloved daughter Efimia, we send greetings and love, and the everlasting blessing of their parents.”
“All right, fire away!”
“We wish them a happy Christmas. We are alive and well, and we wish the same for you in the name of God, our Father in heaven — our Father in heaven —”
Vasilissa stopped to think, and exchanged glances with the old man.
“We wish the same for you in the name of God, our Father in Heaven —” she repeated and burst into tears.
That was all she could say. Yet she had thought, as she had lain awake thinking night after night, that ten letters could not contain all she wanted to say. Much water had flowed into the sea since their daughter had gone away with her husband, and the old people had been as lonely as orphans, sighing sadly in the night hours, as if they had buried their child. How many things had happened in the village in all these years! How many people had married, how many had died! How long the winters had been, and how long the nights!
“My, but it’s hot!” exclaimed Yegor, unbuttoning his waistcoat. “The temperature must be seventy! Well, what next?” he asked.
The old people answered nothing.
“What is your son-in-law’s profession?”
“He used to be a soldier, brother; you know that,” replied the old man in a feeble voice. “He went into military service at the same time you did. He used to be a soldier, but now he is in a hospital where a doctor treats sick people with water. He is the door-keeper there.”
“You can see it written here,” said the old woman, taking a letter out of her handkerchief. “We got this from Efimia a long, long time ago. She may not be alive now.”
Yegor reflected a moment, and then began to write swiftly.
“Fate has ordained you for the military profession,” he wrote, “therefore we recommend you to look into the articles on disciplinary punishment and penal laws of the war department, and to find there the laws of civilisation for members of that department.”
When this was written he read it aloud whilst Vasilissa thought of how she would like to write that there had been a famine last year, and that their flour had not even lasted until Christmas, so that they had been obliged to sell their cow; that the old man was often ill, and must soon surrender his soul to God; that they needed money — but how could she put all this into words? What should she say first and what last?
“Turn your attention to the fifth volume of military definitions,” Yegor wrote. “The word soldier is a general appellation, a distinguishing term. Both the commander-in-chief of an army and the last infantryman in the ranks are alike called soldiers —”
The old man’s lips moved and he said in a low voice:
“I should like to see my little grandchildren!”
“What grandchildren?” asked the old woman crossly. “Perhaps there are no grandchildren.”
“No grandchildren? But perhaps there are! Who knows?”
“And from this you may deduce,” Yegor hurried on, “which is an internal, and which is a foreign enemy. Our greatest internal enemy is Bacehus —”
The pen scraped and scratched, and drew long, curly lines like fish-hooks across the paper. Yegor wrote at full speed and underlined each sentence two or three times. He was sitting on a stool with his legs stretched far apart under the table, a fat, lusty creature with a fiery nape and the face of a bulldog. He was the very essence of coarse, arrogant, stiff-necked vulgarity, proud to have been born and bred in a pot-house, and Vasilissa well knew how vulgar he was, but could not find words to express it, and could only glare angrily and suspiciously at him. Her head ached from the sound of his voice and his unintelligible words, and from the oppressive heat of the room, and her mind was confused. She could neither think nor speak, and could only stand and wait for Yegor’s pen to stop scratching. But the old man was looking at the writer with unbounded confidence in his eyes. He trusted his old woman who had brought him here, he trusted Yegor, and, when he had spoken of the hydropathic establishment just now, his face had shown that he trusted that, and the healing power of its waters.
When the letter was written, Yegor got up and read it aloud from beginning to end. The old man understood not a word, but he nodded his head confidingly, and said:
“Very good. It runs smoothly. Thank you kindly, it is very good.”
They laid three five-copeck pieces on the table and went out. The old man walked away staring straight ahead of him like a blind man, and a look of utmost confidence lay in his eyes, but Vasilissa, as she left the tavern, struck at a dog in her path and exclaimed angrily:
“Ugh — the plague!”
All that night the old woman lay awake full of restless thoughts, and at dawn she rose, said her prayers, and walked eleven miles to the station to post the letter.
Doctor Moselweiser’s hydropathic establishment was open on New Year’s Day as usual; the only difference was that Andrei Khrisaufitch, the doorkeeper, was wearing unusually shiny boots and a uniform trimmed with new gold braid, and that he wished every one who came in a happy New Year.
It was morning. Andrei was standing at the door reading a paper. At ten o’clock precisely an old general came in who was one of the regular visitors of the establishment. Behind him came the postman. Andrei took the general’s cloak, and said:
“A happy New Year to your Excellency!”
“Thank you, friend, the same to you!”
And as he mounted the stairs the general nodded toward a closed door and asked, as he did every day, always forgetting the answer:
“And what is there in there?”
“A room for massage, your Excellency.”
When the general’s footsteps had died away, Andrei looked over the letters and found one addressed to him. He opened it, read a few lines, and then, still looking at his newspaper, sauntered toward the little room down-stairs at the end of a passage where he and his family lived. His wife Efimia was sitting on the bed feeding a baby, her oldest boy was standing at her knee with his curly head in her lap, and a third child was lying asleep on the bed.
Andrei entered their little room, and handed the letter to his wife, saying:
“This must be from the village.”
Then he went out again, without raising his eyes from his newspaper, and stopped in the passage not far from the door. He heard Efimia read the first lines in a trembling voice. She could go no farther, but these were enough. Tears streamed from her eyes and she threw her arms round her eldest child and began talking to him and covering him with kisses. It was hard to tell whether she was laughing or crying.
“This is from granny and granddaddy,” she cried — “from the village — oh, Queen of Heaven! — Oh! holy saints! The roofs are piled with snow there now — and the trees are white, oh, so white! The little children are out coasting on their dear little sleddies — and granddaddy darling, with his dear bald head is sitting by the big, old, warm stove, and the little brown doggie — oh, my precious chickabiddies —”
Andrei remembered as he listened to her that his wife had given him letters at three or four different times, and had asked him to send them to the village, but important business had always interfered, and the letters had remained lying about unposted.
“And the little white hares are skipping about in the fields now —” sobbed Efimia, embracing her boy with streaming eyes. “Granddaddy dear is so kind and good, and granny is so kind and so full of pity. People’s hearts are soft and warm in the village — There is a little church there, and the men sing in the choir. Oh, take us away from here, Queen of Heaven! Intercede for us, merciful mother!”
Andrei returned to his room to smoke until the next patient should come in, and Efimia suddenly grew still and wiped her eyes; only her lips quivered. She was afraid of him, oh, so afraid! She quaked and shuddered at every look and every footstep of his, and never dared to open her mouth in his presence.
Andrei lit a cigarette, but at that moment a bell rang up-stairs. He put out his cigarette, and assuming a very solemn expression, hurried to the front door.
The old general, rosy and fresh from his bath, was descending the stairs.
“And what is there in there?” he asked, pointing to a closed door.
Andrei drew himself up at attention, and answered in a loud voice:
“The hot douche, your Excellency.”
I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write “I suppose,” though I know for a fact that I have made it up, but yet I keep fancying that it must have happened on Christmas Eve in some great town in a time of terrible frost.
I have a vision of a boy, a little boy, six years old or even younger. This boy woke up that morning in a cold damp cellar. He was dressed in a sort of little dressing-gown and was shivering with cold. There was a cloud of white steam from his breath, and sitting on a box in the corner, he blew the steam out of his mouth and amused himself in his dullness watching it float away. But he was terribly hungry. Several times that morning he went up to the plank bed where his sick mother was lying on a mattress as thin as a pancake, with some sort of bundle under her head for a pillow. How had she come here? She must have come with her boy from some other town and suddenly fallen ill. The landlady who let the “concerns” had been taken two days before the police station, the lodgers were out and about as the holiday was so near, and the only one left had been lying for the last twenty-four hours dead drunk, not having waited for Christmas. In another corner of the room a wretched old woman of eighty, who had once been a children’s nurse but was now left to die friendless, was moaning and groaning with rheumatism, scolding and grumbling at the boy so that he was afraid to go near her corner. He had got a drink of water in the outer room, but could not find a crust anywhere, and had been on the point of waking his mother a dozen times. He felt frightened at last in the darkness: it had long been dusk, but no light was kindled. Touching his mother’s face, he was surprised that she did not move at all, and that she was as cold as the wall. “It is very cold here,” he thought. He stood a little, unconsciously letting his hands rest on the dead woman’s shoulders, then he breathed on his fingers to warm them, and then quietly fumbling for his cap on the bed, he went out of the cellar. He would have gone earlier, but was afraid of the big dog which had been howling all day at the neighbor’s door at the top of the stairs. But the dog was not there now, and he went out into the street.
Mercy on us, what a town! He had never seen anything like it before. In the town from he had come, it was always such black darkness at night. There was one lamp for the whole street, the little, low-pitched, wooden houses were closed up with shutters, there was no one to be seen in the street after dusk, all the people shut themselves up in their houses, and there was nothing but the howling all night. But there it was so warm and he was given food, while here — oh, dear, if he only had something to eat! And what a noise and rattle here, what light and what people, horses and carriages, and what a frost! The frozen steam hung in clouds over the horses, over their warmly breathing mouths; their hoofs clanged against the stones through the powdery snow, and everyone pushed so, and — oh, dear, how he longed for some morsel to eat, and how wretched he suddenly felt. A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.
There was another street — oh, what a wide one, here he would be run over for certain; how everyone was shouting, racing and driving along, and the light, the light! And what was this? A huge glass window, and through the window a tree reaching up to the ceiling; it was a fir tree, and on it were ever so many lights, gold papers and apples and little dolls and horses; and there were children clean and dressed in their best running about the room, laughing and playing and eating and drinking something. And then a little girl began dancing with one of the boys, what a pretty little girl! And he could hear the music through the window. The boy looked and wondered and laughed, though his toes were aching with the cold and his fingers were red and stiff so that it hurt him to move them. And all at once the boy remembered how his toes and fingers hurt him, and began crying, and ran on; and again through another window-pane he saw another Christmas tree, and on a table cakes of all sorts — almond cakes, red cakes and yellow cakes, and three grand young ladies were sitting there, and they gave the cakes to any one who went up to them, and the door kept opening, lots of gentlemen and ladies went in from the street. The boy crept up, suddenly opened the door and went in. oh, how they shouted at him and waved him back! One lady went up to him hurriedly and slipped a kopeck into his hand, and with her own hands opened the door into the street for him! How frightened he was. And the kopeck rolled away and clinked upon the steps; he could not bend his red fingers to hold it right. the boy ran away and went on, where he did not know. He was ready to cry again but he was afraid, and ran on and on and blew his fingers. And he was miserable because he felt suddenly so lonely and terrified, and all at once, mercy on us! What was this again? People were standing in a crowd admiring. Behind a glass window there were three little dolls, dressed in red and green dresses, and exactly, exactly as though they were alive. Once was a little old man sitting and playing a big violin, the two others were standing close by and playing little violins, and nodding in time, and looking at one another, and their lips moved, they were speaking, actually speaking, only one couldn’t hear through the glass. And at first the boy thought they were alive, and when he grasped that they were dolls he laughed. He had never seen such dolls before, and had no idea there were such dolls! All at once he fancied that some one caught at his smock behind: a wicked big boy was standing beside him and suddenly hit him on the head, snatched off his cap and tripped him up. The boy fell down on the ground, at once there was s shout, he was numb with fright, he jumped up and ran away. He ran, and not knowing where he was going, ran in at the gate of some one’s courtyard, and sat down behind a stack of wood: “They won’t find me here, besides it’s dark!”
He sat huddled up and was breathless from fright, and all at once, quite suddenly, he felt so happy: his hands and feet suddenly left off aching and grew so warm, as warm as though he were on a stove; then he shivered all over, then he gave a start, why, he must have been asleep. How nice to have a sleep here! “I’ll sit here a little and go and look at the dolls again,” said the boy, and smiled thinking of them. “Just as though they were alive!…” and suddenly he heard his mother singing over him. “Mammy, I am asleep; how nice it is to sleep here!”
“Come to my Christmas tree, little one,” a soft voice suddenly whispered over his head.
He thought that this was still his mother, but no, it was not she. Who it was calling him, he could not see, but someone bent over to him, and… and all at once — oh, what a bright light! Oh, what a Christmas tree! And yet it was not a fir tree, he had never seen a tree like that! Where was he now? Everything was bright and shining, and all around him were dolls; but no, they were not dolls, they were little boys and girls, only so bright and shining. They all came flying round him, they all kissed him, took him and carried him along with them, and he was flying himself, and he saw that his mother was looking at him and laughing joyfully. “Mammy, Mammy; oh, how nice it is here, Mammy!” and again he kissed the children and wanted to tell them at once of those dolls in the shop windows.
“Who are you, boys” who are you, girls?” he asked, laughing and admiring them.
“This is Christ’s Christmas tree,” they answered. “Christ always has a Christmas tree on this day, for the little children who have no tree of their own…” and he found out that all these little boys and girls were children just like himself; that some had been frozen in the baskets in which they had as babies been laid on the doorsteps of well-to-do Petersburg people, others had been boarded out with Finnish women by the Foundling and had been suffocated, others had died at their starved mothers’ breasts (in the Samara famine), others had died in the third-class railway carriages from the foul air; and yet they were all here, they were all like angels about Christmas, and He was in the midst of them and held out His hands to them and blessed them and their sinful mothers... and the mothers of these children stood on one side weeping; each one knew her boy or girl, and the children flew up to them and kissed them and wiped away their tears with their little hands, and begged them not to weep because they were so happy.
And down below in the morning the porter found the little dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack; they sought out his mother too... she had died before him. They met before the Lord God in heaven.
Why have I made up such a story, so out of keeping with an ordinary diary, and a writer’s above all? And I promised two stories dealing with real events! But that is just it, I keep fancying that all this may have happened really — that is, what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack; but as for Christ’s Christmas tree, I cannot tell you whether that could have happened or not.
It was an ideal Christmas day. The sun shone brightly but the air was crisp and cold, and snow and ice lay sparkling everywhere. A light wind, the night before, had swept the blue, icebound river clean of scattering snow; and, by two o’clock in the afternoon, the broad bend near Creighton’s mill was fairly alive with skaters. The girls in gay caps and scarfs, the boys in sweaters and mackinaws of every conceivable hue, with here and there a plump, matronly figure in a plush coat or a tiny fellow in scarlet, made a picture of life and brilliancy worthy of an artist’s finest skill.
Tom Reynolds moved in and out among the happy throng, with swift, easy strokes, his cap on the back of his curly head, and his brown eyes shining with excitement. Now and again, he glanced down with pardonable pride, at the brand new skates that twinkled beneath his feet. “Jolly Ramblers,” sure enough “Jolly Ramblers” they were! Ever since Ralph Evans had remarked, with a tantalizing toss of his handsome head, that “no game fellow would try to skate on anything but ‘Jolly Ramblers,’” Tom had yearned, with an inexpressible longing, for a pair of these wonderful skates. And now they were his and the ice was fine and the Christmas sun was shining!
Tom was rounding the big bend for the fiftieth time, when he saw, skimming gracefully toward him through the merry crowd, a tall boy in a fur-trimmed coat, his handsome head proudly erect.
“That’s Ralph Evans now,” said Tom to himself. “Just wait till you see these skates, old boy, and maybe you won’t feel so smart!” And with slow, cautious strokes, he made his way through laughing boys and girls to a place just in front of the tall skater, coming toward him down the broad white way. When Ralph was almost upon him, Tom paused and in conspicuous silence, looked down at his shining skates.
“Hullo,” said Ralph good naturedly, seizing Tom’s arm and swinging around. Then, taking in the situation with a careless glance, he added, “Get a new pair of skates for Christmas?”
“‘Jolly Ramblers,’” said Tom impressively, “the best ‘Jolly Ramblers’ in the market!”
Ralph was a full half head the taller, but, as Tom delivered himself of this speech with his head held high, he felt every inch as tall as the boy before him.
If Ralph was deeply impressed he failed to show it, as he answered carelessly, “Huh, that so? Pretty good little skates they are, the ‘Jolly Ramblers!’”
“You said no game fellow would use any other make,” said Tom hotly.
“O but that was nearly a year ago,” said Ralph. “I got a new pair of skates for Christmas, too,” he added, as if it had just occurred to him, “‘Club House’ skates, something new in the market just this season. Just look at the curve of that skate, will you?” he added, lifting a foot for inspection, “and that clamp that you couldn’t shake off if you had to! They’re guaranteed for a year, too, and if anything gives out, you get a new pair for nothing. Three and a half, they cost, at Mr. Harrison’s hardware store. I gave my ‘Jolly Ramblers’ to a kid about your size. A mighty good little skate they are!” And, with a long, graceful stroke, Ralph Evans skated away.
And it seemed to Tom Reynolds that all his Christmas joy went skimming away behind him. The sun still shone, the ice still gleamed, the skaters laughed and sang, but Tom moved slowly on, with listless, heavy strokes. The “Jolly Ramblers” still twinkled beneath his feet, but he looked down at them no more. What was the use of “Jolly Ramblers” when Ralph Evans had a pair of “Club House” skates that cost a dollar more, had a graceful curve, and a faultless clamp, and were guaranteed for a year?
It was only four o’clock when Tom slipped his new skates carelessly over his shoulder and started up the bank for home. He was slouching down the main street, head down, hands thrust deep into his pockets, when, on turning a corner, he ran plump into — a full moon! Now I know it is rather unusual for full moons to be walking about the streets by daylight; but that is the only adequate description of the round, freckled face that beamed at Tom from behind a great box, held by two sturdy arms.
“That came pretty near being a collision,” said the owner of the full moon, still beaming, as he set down the box and leaned against a building to rest a moment.
“Nobody hurt, I guess,” said Tom.
“Been down to the ice?” asked the boy, eagerly. “I could see the skaters from Patton’s store. O, I see, you got some new skates for Christmas! Ain’t they beauties, now?” And he beamed on the despised “Jolly Ramblers” with his heart in his little blue eyes.
“A pretty good little pair of skates,” said Tom, in Ralph’s condescending tone.
“Good! Well I should guess yes! And Christmas ice just made o’ purpose!” In spite of his ill humor, Tom could not help responding to the warm interest of the shabby boy at his side. He knew him to be Harvey McGinnis, the son of a poor Irish widow, who worked at Patton’s department store out of school hours. Looking at the great box with an awakening interest, he remarked, kindly, “What you been doin’ with yourself on Christmas day?”
“Want to know, sure enough?” said Harvey, mysteriously, his round face beaming more brightly than ever, “Well, I’ve been doin’ the Santy Claus act down at Patton’s store.
“About a week ago,” he went on, leaning back easily against the tall building and thrusting his hands down deep into his well worn pockets, “about a week ago, as I was cleaning out the storeroom, I came on three big boxes with broken dolls in ‘em. Beauties they were, I kin tell you, the Lady Jane in a blue silk dress, the Lady Clarabel in pink, and the Lady Matilda in shimmerin’ white. Nothin’ wrong with ‘em either only broken rubbers that put their jints out o’ whack and set their heads arollin’ this way and that. ‘They could be fixed in no time, I ses to myself, ‘and what a prize they’d be fer the kids to be sure!’ For mom and me had racked our brains considerable how we’d scrape together the money for Christmas things for the girls.
“So I went to the boss and I asked him right out what he’d charge me for the three ladies just as they wus, and he ses, ‘Jimmie,’ he ses (I’ve told him me name a dozen times, but he allus calls me ‘Jimmie’), ‘Jimmie,’ he ses, ‘if you’ll come down on Christmas day and help me take down the fixin’s and fix up the store for regular trade, I’ll give you the dolls fer nothin’,’ he ses.
“So I explained to the kids that Santy’d be late to our house this year (with so many to see after it wouldn’t be strange) and went down to the store early this morning and finished me work and fixed up the ladies es good es new. Would you like to be seein’ ‘em, now?” he added, turning to the great box with a look of pride.
“Sure, I’d like to see ‘em,” said Tom.
With careful, almost reverent touch, Harvey untied the string and opened the large box, disclosing three smaller boxes, one above the other. Opening the first box, he revealed a really handsome doll in a blue silk dress, with large dark eyes that opened and shut and dark, curling locks of “real hair.”
“This is the Lady Jane,” he said, smoothing her gay frock with gentle fingers. “We’re goin’ to give her to Kitty. Kitty’s hair is pretty and curly, but she hates it, ‘cause it’s red; and she thinks black hair is the prettiest kind in the world. Ain’t it funny how all of us will be wantin’ what we don’t have ourselves?”
Tom did not reply to this bit of philosophy; but he laid a repentant hand on the “Jolly Ramblers” as if he knew he had wronged them in his heart. “That’s as handsome a doll as ever I saw and no mistake,” he said.
Pleased with this praise, Harvey opened the second box and disclosed the Lady Matilda with fair golden curls and a dress of “shimmerin’ white.” “The Lady Matilda goes to Josephine,” said Harvey. “Josephine has black hair, straight as a string, and won’t she laugh, though, to see them fetchin’ yellow curls?”
“She surely ought to be glad,” said Tom.
The Lady Clarabel was another fair-haired lady in a gown of the brightest pink. “This here beauty’s for the baby,” said Harvey, his eyes glowing. “She don’t care if the hair’s black or yellow, but won’t that stunnin’ dress make her eyes pop out?”
“They’ll surely believe in Santy when they see those beauties,” said Tom.
“That’s just what I was sayin’ to mom this morning,” said Harvey. “Kitty’s had some doubts, (she’s almost nine), but when she sees those fine ladies she’ll be dead sure mom and I didn’t buy ‘em. If I had a Santy Claus suit, I’d dress up and hand ‘em out myself.”
Tom’s face lighted with a bright idea. “My brother Bob’s got a Santa Claus suit that he used in a show last Christmas,” he said. “Say, let me dress up and play Santa for you. The girls would never guess who I was!”
“Wouldn’t they stare, though!” said Harvey, delightedly. “But do you think you’d want to take time,” he asked apologetically, “and you with a new pair of skates and the ice like this?”
“Of course, I want to if you’ll let me,” said Tom. “I’ll skate down the river and meet you anywhere you say.”
“Out in our back yard, then, at seven o’clock,” said Harvey.
“All right, I’ll be there!” and with head up, and skates clinking, Tom hurried away.
It was a flushed, excited boy who burst into the Reynolds’ quiet sitting room a few minutes later, with his skates still hanging on his shoulder and his cap in his hand. “Say, mother,” he cried, “can I have Bob’s Santa Claus suit this evening, please? I’m going to play Santa Claus for Harvey McGinnis!”
“Play Santa Claus for Harvey McGinnis. What do you mean, child?”
“You know Mrs. McGinnis, mother, that poor woman who lives in the little house by the river. Her husband got killed on the railroad last winter, you know. Well, Harvey, her boy, has fixed up some grand looking dolls for his sisters and he wants me to come out and play Santa tonight,” and Tom launched out into a long story about Harvey and his good fortune.
“He must be a splendid boy,” said Mrs. Reynolds, heartily, “and I am sure I shall be glad to have you go.”
“And another thing, mother,” said Tom, hesitating a little, “do you think grandma would care if I spent part of that five dollars she gave me for a pair of skates for Harvey? He hasn’t any skates at all, and I know he’d just love to have some!”
“It is generous of you to think of it,” said his mother, much pleased, “and you would still have two and a half for that little trip down to grandma’s.”
“But I’d like to get him some ‘Club House’ skates,” said Tom. “They’re a new kind that cost three dollars and a half.”
“But I thought you said the ‘Jolly Ramblers’ were the best skates made?” Mrs. Reynolds looked somewhat hurt as she glanced from Tom to the skates on his shoulder and back to Tom again.
“They are, mother, they’re just dandies!” said Tom blushing with shame that he could ever have despised his mother’s gift. “But these ‘Club House’ skates are just the kind for Harvey. You see, Harvey’s shoes are old and worn, and these ‘Club House’ skates have clamps that you can’t shake loose if you have to. Then, if anything happens to them before the year’s up, you get a new pair free; and Harvey, you know, wouldn’t have any money to be fixing skates.”
“Well, do as you like,” said Mrs. Reynolds, pleased with Tom’s eagerness, for such a spell of generosity was something new in her selfish younger son. “But remember, you will have to wait a while for your visit to grandma.”
“All right, and thank you, mother,” said Tom. “You can buy the skates down at Harrison’s and I’m going over and ask Mr. Harrison if he won’t open up the store and get a pair for me for a special time like this. I’m most sure he will!” and away he flew.
That evening, at seven, as the moon was rising over the eastern hills, a short, portly Santa Claus stepped out of the dry reeds by the river bank and walked with wonderfully nimble feet, right into the McGinnis’ little back yard. As he neared the small back porch, a dark figure rose to greet him, one hand held up in warning, the other holding at arm’s length, a bulky grain sack, full to the brim.
“Here’s yer pack, Santy,” he whispered, gleefully. “They’re all waitin’ in the front room yonder. I’ll slip in the back way, whilst you go round and give a good thump at the front door and mom’ll let you in.”
Trembling with eagerness, Tom tiptoed round the house, managing to slip an oblong package into the capacious depths of the big sack as he did so. Thump, thump! how his knock reechoed in the frosty air! The door swung wide, and Mrs. McGinnis’ gaunt figure stood before him.
“Good evenin’, Santy, come right in,” she said.
Tom had always thought what a homely woman Harvey’s mother was when he happened to meet her at the grocery, with her thin red hair drawn severely back from her gaunt face, and a black shawl over her head. But as he looked up into her big, kind face, so full of Christmas sunshine, he wondered he could ever have thought her anything but lovely. The room was small and bare, but wonderfully gay with pine and bits of red and green crepe paper, saved from the ‘fixins’ at the store. And on a large bed in the corner sat the three little girls, Kitty with her bright curls bobbing, Josephine with her black braids sticking straight out, and the baby with tiny blue eyes that twinkled and shone like Harvey’s.
The fine speech that Tom had been saying over to himself for the past two hours seemed to vanish into thin air before this excited little audience. But in faltering, stammering tones, which everyone was too excited to notice, he managed to say something about “Merry Christmas” and “good children” and then proceeded to open the magic sack. “Miss Kitty McGinnis!” he called, in deep, gruff tones. Kitty took the box he offered with shy embarrassment, slowly drew back the lid and gave a cry of amazement and delight. “A doll, O the loveliest doll that ever was!” she cried. Then turning to her brother, she whispered as softly as excitement would permit, “O Harvey, I’m afeard ye paid too much!”
“Aw, go on!” said Harvey, his face more like a full moon than ever. “Don’t ye know that Santy kin do whatever he wants to?”
The other dolls were received with raptures, Josephine stroking the golden curls of the Lady Matilda with wondering fingers, and the baby dancing round and round, waving the pink-robed Lady Clarabel above her head.
“Mr. Harvey McGinnis!” came the gruff tones of Santa Claus; and Harvey smiled over to his mother as he drew out a pair of stout cloth gloves.
“Mrs. McGinnis!” And that good lady smiled back, as she shook out a dainty white apron with a coarse embroidery ruffle.
“I reckon Santy wanted you to wear that of a Sunday afternoon,” said Harvey, awkwardly.
“And I’ll be proud to do it!” said his mother.
Little sacks of candy were next produced and everyone settled down to enjoy it, thinking that the bottom of the big sack must be reached, when Santa called out in tones that trembled beneath the gruffness, “Another package for Mr. Harvey McGinnis!”
“Fer me — why — what — “ said Harvey, taking the heavy oblong bundle; then, as the sparkling “Club House” skates met his view, his face lit up with a glory that Tom never forgot. The glory lasted but a moment, then he turned a troubled face toward the bulky old saint.
“You never ought to a done it,” he said. “These must have cost a lot!”
“Aw, go on,” was the reply in a distinctly boyish tone, “don’t you know that Santy can do whatever he wants to?” and, with a prodigious bow, old Santa was gone.
A few minutes later, a slender boy with a bundle under his arm, was skating swiftly down the shining river in the moonlight. As he rounded the bend, a tall figure in a fur-trimmed coat came skimming slowly toward him, and a voice called out in Ralph Evans’ condescending tones, “Well, how are the ‘Jolly Ramblers’ doing tonight?”
But the answer, this time, was clear and glad and triumphant. “The best in the world,” said Tom, “and isn’t this the glorious night for skating?”
Two very shabby looking young men stood at the corner of Prairie avenue and Eightieth street, looking despondently at the carriages that whirled by. It was Christmas Eve, and the streets were full of vehicles; florists’ wagons, grocers’ carts and car-riages. The streets were in that half-liquid, half-congealed condition peculiar to the streets of Chicago at that season of the year. The swift wheels that spun by sometimes threw the slush of mud and snow over the two young men who were talking on the corner.
“Well,” remarked the elder of the two, “I guess we are at our rope’s end, sure enough. How do you feel?”
“Pretty shaky. The wind’s sharp to-night. If I had had anything to eat I mightn’t mind it so much. There is simply no show. I’m sick of the whole business. Looks like there’s nothing for it but the lake.”
“O, nonsense, I thought you had more grit. Got anything left you can hoc?”
“Nothing but my beard, and I am afraid they wouldn’t find it worth a pawn ticket,” said the younger man ruefully, rubbing the week’s growth of stubble on his face.
“Got any folks anywhere? Now’s your time to strike ‘em if you have.”
“Never mind if I have, they’re out of the question.”
“Well, you’ll be out of it before many hours if you don’t make a move of some sort. A man’s got to eat. See here, I am going down to Longtin’s saloon. I used to play the banjo in there with a couple of coons, and I’ll bone him for some of his free lunch stuff. You’d better come along, perhaps they’ll fill an order for two.”
“How far down is it?”
“Well, it’s clear down town, of course, way down on Michigan avenue.”
“Thanks, I guess I’ll loaf around here. I don’t feel equal to the walk, and the cars — well, the cars are crowded.” His features drew themselves into what might have been a smile under happier circumstances.
“No, you never did like street cars, you’re too aristocratic. See here, Crawford, I don’t like leaving you here. You ain’t good company for yourself to-night.”
“Crawford? O, yes, that’s the last one. There have been so many I forget them.”
“Have you got a real name, anyway?”
“O, yes, but it’s one of the ones I’ve forgotten. Don’t you worry about me. You go along and get your free lunch. I think I had a row in Longtin’s place once. I’d better not show myself there again.” As he spoke the young man nodded and turned slowly up the avenue.
He was miserable enough to want to be quite alone. Even the crowd that jostled by him annoyed him. He wanted to think about himself. He had avoided this final reckoning with himself for a year now. He had laughed it off and drunk it off. But now, when all those artificial devices which are employed to turn our thoughts into other channels and shield us from ourselves had failed him, it must come. Hunger is a powerful incentive to introspection.
It is a tragic hour, that hour when we are finally driven to reckon with ourselves, when every avenue of mental distraction has been cut off and our own life and all its ineffaceable failures closes about us like the walls of that old torture chamber of the Inquisition. To-night, as this man stood stranded in the streets of the city, his hour came. It was not the first time he had been hungry and desperate and alone. But always before there had been some outlook, some chance ahead, some pleasure yet untasted that seemed worth the effort, some face that he fancied was, or would be, dear. But it was not so to-night. The unyielding conviction was upon him that he had failed in everything, had outlived everything. It had been near him for a long time, that Pale Spectre. He had caught its shadow at the bottom of his glass many a time, at the head of his bed when he was sleepless at night, in the twilight shadows when some great sunset broke upon him. It had made life hateful to him when he awoke in the morning before now. But now it settled slowly over him, like night, the endless Northern nights that bid the sun a long farewell. It rose up before him like granite. From this brilliant city with its glad bustle of Yule-tide he was shut off as completely as though he were a creature of another species. His days seemed numbered and done, sealed over like the little coral cells at the bottom of the sea. Involuntarily he drew that cold air through his lungs slowly, as though he were tasting it for the last time.
Yet he was but four and twenty, this man — he looked even younger — and he had a father some place down East who had been very proud of him once. Well, he had taken his life into his own hands, and this was what he had made of it. That was all there was to be said. He could remember the hopeful things they used to say about him at college in the old days, before he had cut away and begun to live by his wits, and he found courage to smile at them now. They had read him wrongly. He knew now that he never had the essentials of success, only the superficial agility that is often mistaken for it. He was tow without the tinder, and he had burnt himself out at other people’s fires. He had helped other people to make it win, but he himself — he had never touched an enterprise that had not failed eventually. Or, if it survived his connection with it, it left him behind.
His last venture had been with some ten-cent specialty company, a little lower than all the others, that had gone to pieces in Buffalo, and he had worked his way to Chicago by boat. When the boat made up its crew for the outward voyage, he was dispensed with as usual. He was used to that. The reason for it? O, there are so many reasons for failure! His was a very common one.
As he stood there in the wet under the street light he drew up his reckoning with the world and decided that it had treated him as well as he deserved. He had overdrawn his account once too often. There had been a day when he thought otherwise; when he had said he was unjustly handled, that his failure was merely the lack of proper adjustment between himself and other men, that some day he would be recognized and it would all come right. But he knew better than that now, and he was still man enough to bear no grudge against any one — man or woman.
To-night was his birthday, too. There seemed something particularly amusing in that. He turned up a limp little coat collar to try to keep a little of the wet chill from his throat, and instinctively began to remember all the birthday parties he used to have. He was so cold and empty that his mind seemed unable to grapple with any serious question. He kept thinking about ginger bread and frosted cakes like a child. He could remember the splendid birthday parties his mother used to give him, when all the other little boys in the block came in their Sunday clothes and creaking shoes, with their ears still red from their mother’s towel, and the pink and white birthday cake, and the stuffed olives and all the dishes of which he had been particularly fond, and how he would eat and eat and then go to bed and dream of Santa Claus. And in the morning he would awaken and eat again, until by night the family doctor arrived with his castor oil, and poor William used to dolefully say that it was altogether too much to have your birthday and Christmas all at once. He could remember, too, the royal birthday suppers he had given at college, and the stag dinners, and the toasts, and the music, and the good fellows who had wished him happiness and really meant what they said.
And since then there were other birthday suppers that he could not remember so clearly; the memory of them was heavy and flat, like cigarette smoke that has been shut in a room all night, like champagne that has been a day opened, a song that has been too often sung, an acute sensation that has been overstrained. They seemed tawdry and garish, discordant to him now. He rather wished he could forget them altogether.
Whichever way his mind now turned there was one thought that it could not escape, and that was the idea of food. He caught the scent of a cigar suddenly, and felt a sharp pain in the pit of his abdomen and a sudden moisture in his mouth. His cold hands clenched angrily, and for a moment he felt that bitter hatred of wealth, of ease, of everything that is well-fed and well-housed that is common to starving men. At any rate he had a right to eat! He had demanded great things from the world once: fame and wealth and admiration. Now it was simply bread — and he would have it! He looked about him quickly and felt the blood begin to stir in his veins. In all his straits he had never stolen anything, his tastes were above it. But to-night there would be no to-morrow. He was amused at the way in which the idea excited him. Was it possible there was yet one more experience that would distract him, one thing that had power to excite his jaded interest? Good! he had failed at everything else, now he would see what his chances would be as a common thief. It would be amusing to watch the beautiful consistency of his destiny work itself out even in that role. It would be interesting to add another study to his gallery of futile attempts, and then label them all: “the failure as a journalist,” “the failure as a lecturer,” “the failure as a business man,” “the failure as a thief,” and so on, like the titles under the pictures of the Dance of Death. It was time that Childe Roland came to the dark tower.
A girl hastened by him with her arms full of packages. She walked quickly and nervously, keeping well within the shadow, as if she were not accustomed to carrying bundles and did not care to meet any of her friends. As she crossed the muddy street, she made an effort to lift her skirt a little, and as she did so one of the packages slipped unnoticed from beneath her arm. He caught it up and overtook her. “Excuse me, but I think you dropped something.”
She started, “O, yes, thank you, I would rather have lost anything than that.”
The young man turned angrily upon himself. The package must have contained something of value. Why had he not kept it? Was this the sort of thief he would make? He ground his teeth together. There is nothing more maddening than to have morally consented to crime and then lack the nerve force to carry it out.
A carriage drove up to the house before which he stood. Several richly dressed women alighted and went in. It was a new house, and must have been built since he was in Chicago last. The front door was open and he could see down the hall-way and up the stair case. The servant had left the door and gone with the guests. The first floor was brilliantly lighted, but the windows upstairs were dark. It looked very easy, just to slip upstairs to the darkened chambers where the jewels and trinkets of the fashionable occupants were kept.
Still burning with impatience against himself he entered quickly. Instinctively he removed his mud-stained hat as he passed quickly and quietly up the stair case. It struck him as being a rather superfluous courtesy in a burglar, but he had done it before he had thought. His way was clear enough, he met no one on the stairway or in the upper hall. The gas was lit in the upper hall. He passed the first chamber door through sheer cowardice. The second he entered quickly, thinking of something else lest his courage should fail him, and closed the door behind him. The light from the hall shone into the room through the transom. The apartment was furnished richly enough to justify his expectations. He went at once to the dressing case. A number of rings and small trinkets lay in a silver tray. These he put hastily in his pocket. He opened the upper drawer and found, as he expected, several leather cases. In the first he opened was a lady’s watch, in the second a pair of old-fashioned bracelets; he seemed to dimly remember having seen bracelets like them before, somewhere. The third case was heavier, the spring was much worn, and it opened easily. It held a cup of some kind. He held it up to the light and then his strained nerves gave way and he uttered a sharp exclamation. It was the silver mug he used to drink from when he was a little boy.
The door opened, and a woman stood in the doorway facing him. She was a tall woman, with white hair, in evening dress. The light from the hall streamed in upon him, but she was not afraid. She stood looking at him a moment, then she threw out her hand and went quickly toward him.
“Willie, Willie! Is it you!”
He struggled to loose her arms from him, to keep her lips from his cheek. “Mother — you must not! You do not understand! O, my God, this is worst of all!” Hunger, weakness, cold, shame, all came back to him, and shook his self-control completely. Physically he was too weak to stand a shock like this. Why could it not have been an ordinary discovery, arrest, the station house and all the rest of it. Anything but this! A hard dry sob broke from him. Again he strove to disengage himself.
“Who is it says I shall not kiss my son? O, my boy, we have waited so long for this! You have been so long in coming, even I almost gave you up.”
Her lips upon his cheek burnt him like fire. He put his hand to his throat, and spoke thickly and incoherently: “You do not understand. I did not know you were here. I came here to rob — it is the first time — I swear it — but I am a common thief. My pockets are full of your jewels now. Can’t you hear me? I am a common thief!”
“Hush, my boy, those are ugly words. How could you rob your own house? How could you take what is your own? They are all yours, my son, as wholly yours as my great love — and you can’t doubt that, Will, do you?”
That soft voice, the warmth and fragrance of her person stole through his chill, empty veins like a gentle stimulant. He felt as though all his strength were leaving him and even consciousness. He held fast to her and bowed his head on her strong shoulder, and groaned aloud.
“O, mother, life is hard, hard!”
She said nothing, but held him closer. And O, the strength of those white arms that held him! O, the assurance of safety in that warm bosom that rose and fell under his cheek! For a moment they stood so, silently. Then they heard a heavy step upon the stair. She led him to a chair and went out and closed the door. At the top of the staircase she met a tall, broad-shouldered man, with iron gray hair, and a face alert and stern. Her eyes were shining and her cheeks on fire, her whole face was one expression of intense determination.
“James, it is William in there, come home. You must keep him at any cost. If he goes this time, I go with him. O, James, be easy with him, he has suffered so.” She broke from a command to an entreaty, and laid her hand on his shoulder. He looked questioningly at her a moment, then went in the room and quietly shut the door.
She stood leaning against the wall, clasping her temples with her hands and listening to the low indistinct sound of the voices within. Her own lips moved silently. She waited a long time, scarcely breathing. At last the door opened, and her husband came out. He stopped to say in a shaken voice,
“You go to him now, he will stay. I will go to my room. I will see him again in the morning.”
She put her arm about his neck, “O, James, I thank you, I thank you! This is the night he came so long ago, you remember? I gave him to you then, and now you give him back to me!”
“Don’t, Helen,” he muttered. “He is my son, I have never forgotten that. I failed with him. I don’t like to fail, it cuts my pride. Take him and make a man of him.” He passed on down the hall.
She flew into the room where the young man sat with his head bowed upon his knee. She dropped upon her knees beside him. Ah, it was so good to him to feel those arms again!
“He is so glad, Willie, so glad! He may not show it, but he is as happy as I. He never was demonstrative with either of us, you know.”
“O, my God, he was good enough,” groaned the man. “I told him everything, and he was good enough. I don’t see how either of you can look at me, speak to me, touch me.” He shivered under her clasp again as when she had first touched him, and tried weakly to throw her off.
But she whispered softly,
“This is my right, my son.”
Presently, when he was calmer, she rose. “Now, come with me into the library, and I will have your dinner brought there.”
As they went down stairs she remarked apologetically, “I will not call Ellen to-night; she has a number of guests to attend to. She is a big girl now, you know, and came out last winter. Besides, I want you all to myself to-night.”
When the dinner came, and it came very soon, he fell upon it savagely. As he ate she told him all that had transpired during the years of his absence, and how his father’s business had brought them there. “I was glad when we came. I thought you would drift West. I seemed a good deal nearer to you here.”
There was a gentle unobtrusive sadness in her tone that was too soft for a reproach.
“Have you everything you want? It is a comfort to see you eat.”
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