Nonsense Novels by Stephen Leacock
IX. -- Caroline's Christmas: or, The Inexplicable Infant
It was Xmas--Xmas with its mantle of white snow, scintillating from a thousand diamond points, Xmas with its good cheer, its peace on earth--Xmas with its feasting and merriment, Xmas with its--well, anyway, it was Xmas.
Or no, that's a slight slip; it wasn't exactly Xmas, it was Xmas Eve, Xmas Eve with its mantle of white snow lying beneath the calm moonlight--and, in fact, with practically the above list of accompanying circumstances with a few obvious emendations.
Yes, it was Xmas Eve.
And more than that!
Listen to where it was Xmas.
It was Xmas Eve on the Old Homestead. Reader, do you know, by sight, the Old Homestead? In the pauses of your work at your city desk, where you have grown rich and avaricious, does it never rise before your mind's eye, the quiet old homestead that knew you as a boy before your greed of gold tore you away from it? The Old Homestead that stands beside the road just on the rise of the hill, with its dark spruce trees wrapped in snow, the snug barns and the straw stacks behind it; while from its windows there streams a shaft of light from a coal-oil lamp, about as thick as a slate pencil that you can see four miles away, from the other side of the cedar swamp in the hollow. Don't talk to me of your modern searchlights and your incandescent arcs, beside that gleam of light from the coal-oil lamp in the farmhouse window. It will shine clear to the heart across thirty years of distance. Do you not turn, I say, sometimes, reader, from the roar and hustle of the city with its ill-gotten wealth and its godless creed of mammon, to think of the quiet homestead under the brow of the hill? You don't! Well, you skunk!
It was Xmas Eve.
The light shone from the windows of the homestead farm. The light of the log fire rose and flickered and mingled its red glare on the windows with the calm yellow of the lamplight.
John Enderby and his wife sat in the kitchen room of the farmstead. Do you know it, reader, the room called the kitchen?--with the open fire on its old brick hearth, and the cook stove in the corner. It is the room of the farm where people cook and eat and live. It is the living-room. The only other room beside the bedroom is the small room in front, chill-cold in winter, with an organ in it for playing "Rock of Ages" on, when company came. But this room is only used for music and funerals. The real room of the old farm is the kitchen. Does it not rise up before you, reader? It doesn't? Well, you darn fool!
At any rate there sat old John Enderby beside the plain deal table, his head bowed upon his hands, his grizzled face with its unshorn stubble stricken down with the lines of devastating trouble. From time to time he rose and cast a fresh stick of tamarack into the fire with a savage thud that sent a shower of sparks up the chimney. Across the fireplace sat his wife Anna on a straight-backed chair, looking into the fire with the mute resignation of her sex.
What was wrong with them anyway? Ah, reader, can you ask? Do you know or remember so little of the life of the old homestead? When I have said that it is the Old Homestead and Xmas Eve, and that the farmer is in great trouble and throwing tamarack at the fire, surely you ought to guess!
The Old Homestead was mortgaged! Ten years ago, reckless with debt, crazed with remorse, mad with despair and persecuted with rheumatism, John Enderby had mortgaged his farmstead for twenty-four dollars and thirty cents.
To-night the mortgage fell due, to-night at midnight, Xmas night. Such is the way in which mortgages of this kind are always drawn. Yes, sir, it was drawn with such diabolical skill that on this night of all nights the mortgage would be foreclosed. At midnight the men would come with hammer and nails and foreclose it, nail it up tight.
So the afflicted couple sat.
Anna, with the patient resignation of her sex, sat silent or at times endeavoured to read. She had taken down from the little wall-shelf Bunyan's Holy Living and Holy Dying. She tried to read it. She could not. Then she had taken Dante's Inferno. She could not read it. Then she had selected Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. But she could not read it either. Lastly, she had taken the Farmer's Almanac for 1911. The books lay littered about her as she sat in patient despair.
John Enderby showed all the passion of an uncontrolled nature. At times he would reach out for the crock of buttermilk that stood beside him and drained a draught of the maddening liquid, till his brain glowed like the coals of the tamarack fire before him.
"John," pleaded Anna, "leave alone the buttermilk. It only maddens you. No good ever came of that."
"Aye, lass," said the farmer, with a bitter laugh, as he buried his head again in the crock, "what care I if it maddens me."
"Ah, John, you'd better be employed in reading the Good Book than in your wild courses. Here take it, father, and read it"--and she handed to him the well-worn black volume from the shelf. Enderby paused a moment and held the volume in his hand. He and his wife had known nothing of religious teaching in the public schools of their day, but the first-class non-sectarian education that the farmer had received had stood him in good stead.
"Take the book," she said. "Read, John, in this hour of affliction; it brings comfort."
The farmer took from her hand the well-worn copy of Euclid's Elements, and laying aside his hat with reverence, he read aloud: "The angles at the base of an isoceles triangle are equal, and whosoever shall produce the sides, lo, the same also shall be equal each unto each."
The farmer put the book aside.
"It's no use, Anna. I can't read the good words to-night."
He rose, staggered to the crock of buttermilk, and before his wife could stay his hand, drained it to the last drop.
Then he sank heavily to his chair.
"Let them foreclose it, if they will," he said; "I am past caring."
The woman looked sadly into the fire.
Ah, if only her son Henry had been here. Henry, who had left them three years agone, and whose bright letters still brought from time to time the gleam of hope to the stricken farmhouse.
Henry was in Sing Sing. His letters brought news to his mother of his steady success; first in the baseball nine of the prison, a favourite with his wardens and the chaplain, the best bridge player of the corridor. Henry was pushing his way to the front with the old-time spirit of the Enderbys.
His mother had hoped that he might have been with her at Xmas, but Henry had written that it was practically impossible for him to leave Sing Sing. He could not see his way out. The authorities were arranging a dance and sleighing party for the Xmas celebration. He had some hope, he said, of slipping away unnoticed, but his doing so might excite attention.
Of the trouble at home Anna had told her son nothing.
No, Henry could not come. There was no help there. And William, the other son, ten years older than Henry. Alas, William had gone forth from the homestead to fight his way in the great city! "Mother," he had said, "when I make a million dollars I'll come home. Till then good-bye," and he had gone.
How Anna's heart had beat for him. Would he make that million dollars? Would she ever live to see it? And as the years passed she and John had often sat in the evenings picturing William at home again, bringing with him a million dollars, or picturing the million dollars sent by express with love. But the years had passed. William came not. He did not come. The great city had swallowed him up as it has many another lad from the old homestead.
Anna started from her musing--
What was that at the door? The sound of a soft and timid rapping, and through the glass of the door-pane, a face, a woman's face looking into the fire-lit room with pleading eyes. What was it she bore in her arms, the little bundle that she held tight to her breast to shield it from the falling snow? Can you guess, reader? Try three guesses and see. Right you are. That's what it was.
The farmer's wife went hastily to the door.
"Lord's mercy!" she cried, "what are you doing out on such a night? Come in, child, to the fire!"
The woman entered, carrying the little bundle with her, and looking with wide eyes (they were at least an inch and a half across) at Enderby and his wife. Anna could see that there was no wedding-ring on her hand.
"Your name?" said the farmer's wife.
"My name is Caroline," the girl whispered. The rest was lost in the low tones of her voice. "I want shelter," she paused, "I want you to take the child."
Anna took the baby and laid it carefully on the top shelf of the cupboard, then she hastened to bring a glass of water and a dough-nut, and set it before the half-frozen girl.
"Eat," she said, "and warm yourself."
John rose from his seat.
"I'll have no child of that sort here," he said.
"John, John," pleaded Anna, "remember what the Good Book says: 'Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another!'"
John sank back in his chair.
And why had Caroline no wedding-ring? Ah, reader, can you not guess. Well, you can't. It wasn't what you think at all; so there. Caroline had no wedding-ring because she had thrown it away in bitterness, as she tramped the streets of the great city. "Why," she cried, "should the wife of a man in the penitentiary wear a ring."
Then she had gone forth with the child from what had been her home.
It was the old sad story.
She had taken the baby and laid it tenderly, gently on a seat in the park. Then she walked rapidly away. A few minutes after a man had chased after Caroline with the little bundle in his arms. "I beg your pardon," he said, panting, "I think you left your baby in the park." Caroline thanked him.
Next she took the baby to the Grand Central Waiting-room, kissed it tenderly, and laid it on a shelf behind the lunch-counter.
A few minutes an official, beaming with satisfaction, had brought it back to her.
"Yours, I think, madame," he said, as he handed it to her. Caroline thanked him.
Then she had left it at the desk of the Waldorf Astoria, and at the ticket-office of the subway.
It always came back.
Once or twice she took it to the Brooklyn Bridge and threw it into the river, but perhaps something in the way it fell through the air touched the mother's heart and smote her, and she had descended to the river and fished it out.
Then Caroline had taken the child to the country. At first she thought to leave it on the wayside and she had put it down in the snow, and standing a little distance off had thrown mullein stalks at it, but something in the way the little bundle lay covered in the snow appealed to the mother's heart.
She picked it up and went on. "Somewhere," she murmured, "I shall find a door of kindness open to it." Soon after she had staggered into the homestead.
Anna, with true woman's kindness, asked no questions. She put the baby carefully away in a trunk, saw Caroline safely to bed in the best room, and returned to her seat by the fire.
The old clock struck twenty minutes past eight.
Again a knock sounded at the door.
There entered the familiar figure of the village lawyer. His astrachan coat of yellow dogskin, his celluloid collar, and boots which reached no higher than the ankle, contrasted with the rude surroundings of the little room.
"Enderby," he said, "can you pay?"
"Lawyer Perkins," said the farmer, "give me time and I will; so help me, give me five years more and I'll clear this debt to the last cent."
"John," said the lawyer, touched in spite of his rough (dogskin) exterior, "I couldn't, if I would. These things are not what they were. It's a big New York corporation, Pinchem & Company, that makes these loans now, and they take their money on the day, or they sell you up. I can't help it. So there's your notice, John, and I am sorry! No, I'll take no buttermilk, I must keep a clear head to work," and with that he hurried out into the snow again.
John sat brooding in his chair.
The fire flickered down.
The old clock struck half-past eight, then it half struck a quarter to nine, then slowly it struck striking.
Presently Enderby rose, picked a lantern from its hook, "Mortgage or no mortgage," he said, "I must see to the stock."
He passed out of the house, and standing in the yard, looked over the snow to the cedar swamp beyond with the snow winding through it, far in the distance the lights of the village far away.
He thought of the forty years he had spent here on the homestead--the rude, pioneer days--the house he had built for himself, with its plain furniture, the old-fashioned spinning-wheel on which Anna had spun his trousers, the wooden telephone and the rude skidway on which he ate his meals.
He looked out over the swamp and sighed.
Down in the swamp, two miles away, could he have but seen it, there moved a sleigh, and in it a man dressed in a sealskin coat and silk hat, whose face beamed in the moonlight as he turned to and fro and stared at each object by the roadside as at an old familiar scene. Round his waist was a belt containing a million dollars in gold coin, and as he halted his horse in an opening of the road he unstrapped the belt and counted the coins.
Beside him there crouched in the bushes at the dark edge of the swamp road, with eyes that watched every glitter of the coins, and a hand that grasped a heavy cudgel of blackthorn, a man whose close-cropped hair and hard lined face belonged nowhere but within the walls of Sing Sing.
When the sleigh started again the man in the bushes followed doggedly in its track.
Meanwhile John Enderby had made the rounds of his outbuildings. He bedded the fat cattle that blinked in the flashing light of the lantern. He stood a moment among his hogs, and, farmer as he was, forgot his troubles a moment to speak to each, calling them by name. It smote him to think how at times he had been tempted to sell one of the hogs, or even to sell the cattle to clear the mortgage off the place. Thank God, however, he had put that temptation behind him.
As he reached the house a sleigh was standing on the roadway. Anna met him at the door. "John," she said, "there was a stranger came while you were in the barn, and wanted a lodging for the night; a city man, I reckon, by his clothes. I hated to refuse him, and I put him in Willie's room. We'll never want it again, and he's gone to sleep."
"Ay, we can't refuse."
John Enderby took out the horse to the barn, and then returned to his vigil with Anna beside the fire.
The fumes of the buttermilk had died out of his brain. He was thinking, as he sat there, of midnight and what it would bring.
In the room above, the man in the sealskin coat had thrown himself down, clothes and all, upon the bed, tired with his drive.
"How it all comes back to me," he muttered as he fell asleep, "the same old room, nothing changed--except them--how worn they look," and a tear started to his eyes. He thought of his leaving his home fifteen years ago, of his struggle in the great city, of the great idea he had conceived of making money, and of the Farm Investment Company he had instituted--the simple system of applying the crushing power of capital to exact the uttermost penny from the farm loans. And now here he was back again, true to his word, with a million dollars in his belt. "To-morrow," he had murmured, "I will tell them. It will be Xmas." Then William--yes, reader, it was William (see line 503 above) had fallen asleep.
The hours passed, and kept passing.
It was 11.30.
Then suddenly Anna started from her place.
"Henry!" she cried as the door opened and a man entered. He advanced gladly to meet her, and in a moment mother and son were folded in a close embrace. It was Henry, the man from Sing Sing. True to his word, he had slipped away unostentatiously at the height of the festivities.
"Alas, Henry," said the mother after the warmth of the first greetings had passed, "you come at an unlucky hour." They told him of the mortgage on the farm and the ruin of his home.
"Yes," said Anna, "not even a bed to offer you," and she spoke of the strangers who had arrived; of the stricken woman and the child, and the rich man in the sealskin coat who had asked for a night's shelter.
Henry listened intently while they told him of the man, and a sudden light of intelligence flashed into his eye.
"By Heaven, father, I have it!" he cried. Then, dropping his voice, he said, "Speak low, father. This man upstairs, he had a sealskin coat and silk hat?"
"Yes," said the father.
"Father," said Henry, "I saw a man sitting in a sleigh in the cedar swamp. He had money in his hand, and he counted it, and chuckled,--five dollar gold pieces--in all, 1,125,465 dollars and a quarter."
The father and son looked at one another.
"I see your idea," said Enderby sternly.
"We'll choke him," said Henry.
"Or club him," said the farmer, "and pay the mortgage."
Anna looked from one to the other, joy and hope struggling with the sorrow in her face. "Henry, my Henry," she said proudly, "I knew he would find a way."
"Come on," said Henry; "bring the lamp, mother, take the club, father," and gaily, but with hushed voices, the three stole up the stairs.
The stranger lay sunk in sleep. The back of his head was turned to them as they came in.
"Now, mother," said the farmer firmly, "hold the lamp a little nearer; just behind the ear, I think, Henry."
"No," said Henry, rolling back his sleeve and speaking with the quick authority that sat well upon him, "across the jaw, father, it's quicker and neater."
"Well, well," said the farmer, smiling proudly, "have your own way, lad, you know best."
Henry raised the club.
But as he did so--stay, what was that? Far away behind the cedar swamp the deep booming of the bell of the village church began to strike out midnight. One, two, three, its tones came clear across the crisp air. Almost at the same moment the clock below began with deep strokes to mark the midnight hour; from the farmyard chicken coop a rooster began to crow twelve times, while the loud lowing of the cattle and the soft cooing of the hogs seemed to usher in the morning of Christmas with its message of peace and goodwill.
The club fell from Henry's hand and rattled on the floor.
The sleeper woke, and sat up.
"Father! Mother!" he cried.
"My son, my son," sobbed the father, "we had guessed it was you. We had come to wake you."
"Yes, it is I," said William, smiling to his parents, "and I have brought the million dollars. Here it is," and with that he unstrapped the belt from his waist and laid a million dollars on the table.
"Thank Heaven!" cried Anna, "our troubles are at an end. This money will help clear the mortgage--and the greed of Pinchem & Co. cannot harm us now."
"The farm was mortgaged!" said William, aghast.
"Ay," said the farmer, "mortgaged to men who have no conscience, whose greedy hand has nearly brought us to the grave. See how she has aged, my boy," and he pointed to Anna.
"Father," said William, in deep tones of contrition, "I am Pinchem & Co. Heaven help me! I see it now. I see at what expense of suffering my fortune was made. I will restore it all, these million dollars, to those I have wronged."
"No," said his mother softly. "You repent, dear son, with true Christian repentance. That is enough. You may keep the money. We will look upon it as a trust, a sacred trust, and every time we spend a dollar of it on ourselves we will think of it as a trust."
"Yes," said the farmer softly, "your mother is right, the money is a trust, and we will restock the farm with it, buy out the Jones's property, and regard the whole thing as a trust."
At this moment the door of the room opened. A woman's form appeared. It was Caroline, robed in one of Anna's directoire nightgowns.
"I heard your voices," she said, and then, as she caught sight of Henry, she gave a great cry.
"My wife," said Henry, and folded her to his heart.
"You have left Sing Sing?" cried Caroline with joy.
"Yes, Caroline," said Henry. "I shall never go back."
Gaily the reunited family descended. Anna carried the lamp, Henry carried the club. William carried the million dollars.
The tamarack fire roared again upon the hearth. The buttermilk circulated from hand to hand. William and Henry told and retold the story of their adventures. The first streak of the Christmas morn fell through the door-pane.
"Ah, my sons," said John Enderby, "henceforth let us stick to the narrow path. What is it that the Good Book says: 'A straight line is that which lies evenly between its extreme points.'"