A Christmas Melody by Henry S. Armstrong
"Twenty-nine dollars! Very well, Mr. John Redfield: I think you have cut your allowance a little low. With bracelets, bonbons, and other gewgaws for your interesting friends, I must say your enjoyment of this prospective Twenty-fifth of December is somewhat reduced. When a man has skated over the frozen surface of society a little matter of one-and-thirty years, it is just reasonable to hope he has reached that desideratum known as years of discretion. There is a little adage relating to the immeasurably short time the feeble-minded enjoy pecuniary advantages, which I think decidedly applicable to you.
"A rather severe epigram, occurring in the Holy Scriptures, goes to show the impossibility--even though the somewhat unsatisfactory argument of the pestle and mortar be resorted to--of separating the same class of people from their rather confused ideas of the fitness of things. However, when the Mussulman, careering over Sahara, finds himself, by a stumble of his horse, rolling in the sand, with his yataghan, pistols, and turban scattered around him, he rises quietly, and exclaims, 'Allah is great!' I know a Christian would have expended his wrath in a variety of anathemas highly edifying, and close by wishing his unfortunate steed in a much warmer climate than the Mohammedan has any idea of. I am a poor church-man: let me emulate the philosophy of the simple child of the desert, and when I fall into trouble bear it patiently.
"I wonder what the grim savage would do were he short of money in a land thronging with beggars and other blissful adjuncts of civilization? Woe unto every blind or club-foot man, and every one-armed or scalded woman, I meet to-day! They shall work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, or I'm an idiot.
"Why, bless my soul, the fortunes bequeathed to all the novel-heroes created this century, would not begin to supply them!"
Redfield shook his head decidedly when he came to this part of his monologue, and put the gold and silver coins back into his pocket.
"I hate poor people--I positively do! I despise their pale faces and cadaverous expression. I detest straggling little girls who come up to you and say their mothers have been bedridden for three months, and all their little brothers and sisters are down with the fever. I know it's a lie. I can detect at once the professional whine, and am certain the story has been repeated by rote a hundred times that day; but for the life of me I cannot put out from my mind the imaginary picture of the half-furnished room in some filthy back street, with a forlorn woman with red hair stretched on a bed of straw, and half a dozen or more red-haired children piled about promiscuously.
"There is a wretched little German girl, always managing to have a boil either on her forehead or the back of her neck,--I believe in my soul it's from overfeeding,--who follows my footsteps like a misanthropic vampire. By what ingenuity she manages to cajole me out of my money I know not, but I positively assert that in the last fortnight, according to her account, her unhappy mother has suffered from eleven different incurable diseases. My God! what a complication of misfortune! Why not let them starve? When a man is not capable of maintaining a family, why in Heaven's name does he ever have one?
"I think I will follow the maxims of political economists and all respectable members of society, and vote beggars a nuisance. I wonder how many people to-day, praying for deliverance by Christ's 'agony and bloody sweat,' by his 'cross and passion,' his 'precious death and burial,' his 'glorious resurrection and ascension,' and the 'coming of the Holy Ghost,' don't?
"This is a charitable frame of mind to precede a Christmas morning. When did I contract the habit of talking to myself?
"I must be impressed with the two grand reasons of the man we all know of: first, I like to talk to a sensible man, and second, I like to hear a sensible man talk.
"I wonder if there is not something under the surface in Sol Smith's charity sermon? I rather like its pithy style:
"'He that giveth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord. Now, brethren, if you are satisfied with the security, down with the dust.'
"I once repeated it to a gaunt little parson, and his look of unmitigated horror caused me to hide my diminished head. I knew from his manner--he did not condescend a reply--what chamber in the Inferno was being heated up for my especial benefit. Well, well! the sentiment is doubtless creditable to his head and heart.
"What a pity it is I am not one of the 'good' people! What an agonizingly cerulean expression I would wear, to be sure!
"I wonder why young mothers don't write for their children's first copy Dante's inscription, and teach their baby lips to lisp of the world what he says of hell. It's surprising to me that that parson is not crazed at his sense of the certain perdition into which everybody except himself is hurrying. Perhaps, after all, there is something in the question of La Rochefoucauld, 'Is it not astonishing that we are not altogether overpowered at the misfortunes of our friends?' Well, man learns something every day. When I first saw a chicken take a billful of water and hold up its head, in my childish simplicity I imagined it thanking God: I afterward discovered it was only letting the water run down its throat. My mind, like good wine or bad butter, must be strengthening by age.
"Why can't we take things quietly, as we did when we were boys? I expect I had a rather comfortable time of it then, though I did get whipped for tearing my clothes, and killing flies, which I used to do worse than any bald hornet.
"Now, that youngster walking before me is whistling like a lark, and, by the Lord Harry, he has scarcely a shoe to his foot!"
He was a poor boy, perhaps seven or eight years old. His face was pale and careworn, and though he whistled, it was a solemn kind of whistle, that sounded more like a lamentation than the outburst of childish gladness. His clothes were too thin and worn for his slight frame, for the morning, though clear and bright, was frosty, and his little bare toes peeping out of his shoes were blue with the cold. He hurried through the streets with a bundle of papers, but, even while intent on their sale, he had the walk of an old man, and his small shoulders stooped as though they bent under the weight of years.
Redfield eyed him narrowly.
"So, in this frenzied struggle after bread, you are an itinerant vendor of periodical literature?"
"You mean I sell papers, sir? Yes. I've only been at it three weeks. I'm 'stuck' this morning. Haven't got a good beat yet. Paper, sir?"
"Have you no fears of risking your commercial character by appearing on the streets in that unheard-of dress?"
The boy reddened.
"I've been sick," said he, at length, "for a very long time."
"My Lord!" groaned the philosopher; "here's another conspiracy against my unfortunate pocket-book! Why don't your mother take care of you?"
"She did, sir; but she sews for slop-shops, and has worked so much at night that she's almost blind."
"Worse and worse! and here's an outfitting establishment just across the street. When will I acquire anything like habits of prudence? Boy," said he, fiercely, "you are a young vagabond, and deserve to starve. Your mother should be put in the pillory for ever marrying. That's what the world says,--and what I would think, if I wasn't a consummate ass. Were you ever blessed with a view of the most unmitigated simpleton the sun ever shone upon? Look at me! Look good: I am worthy of a close inspection. Now come along, and see to what extent my folly sometimes carries me."
He caught the boy roughly by the arm, jerked rather than led him across the street, and thrust him bodily among a crowd of astonished clerks who stood at the door of a clothing-house.
"Take this young vagrant and put him into new boots, with woolen socks, some kind of a gray jacket and trowsers, and a hat that's fit for a civilized age."
Seeing that Redfield was really in earnest, the proprietor obeyed the order promptly, and in half an hour the boy reappeared, rather red, a little uncertain, but decidedly altered for the better.
"Now go," cried the cynic, with a smile, and a shake of his hand, "and thank your stars the fool-killer did not come along before you."
"Nineteen dollars and a half! Bless me! what am I coming to? It may be laying up treasures in heaven; but, by Jove, I had rather see it than hear tell of it."
It certainly was the dreariest 24th of December an unhappy boy ever had the misery of witnessing. In a vain endeavor to get up an excitement, I expended my last fire-cracker; but the continuous drizzle drowned out every one. It was only four o'clock, and yet the fog hung like a pall over the windows, and the gas-men were lighting the lamps in the street. My mother, and an old schoolmate, Mrs. Mary Morton, adjourned to the privacy of her bedroom; and, a pet navigation enterprise, conducted in the gutter, having resulted in shipwreck and a severe sore throat, I also was permitted to enjoy its cosey quiet. John Redfield came in as the evening advanced. He had been sick; and my mother, wheeling the lounge near the fire, made him lie down and have something warm to drink. He and Mrs. Morton were intimate with the family from my earliest recollection.
The four, in their childhood, lived near each other, among the picturesque hills of Western Pennsylvania. They went to the same school, played in the same woods, and now, in mature life, retained the warm regard of the days gone by. I say four; for Mr. Redfield had a sister,--Mrs. Hague, a pale, lovely little lady, who at one time visited my mother very often. There had been some estrangement between her and her brother, the particulars of which I never knew. She had married, years before, a worthless kind of a man, who kept a shoestore; but he became involved, the store was sold out by the sheriff and since then both were in a manner lost.
John Redfield, though an abrupt man, and rather eccentric, had as kind a heart as any one I ever knew. He was connected with a newspaper in the city, and wrote wonderful articles about police courts, that, somehow, sounded more like sermons than stories. In my early days, before Gutenberg and his movable types came within the scope of my knowledge, I believed he printed out the whole edition with a lead-pencil, and entertained most exalted ideas of his capacity. He had a passion for giving boys painted boats. I must have received twenty--all exactly alike--at various outbreaks of his generosity. He had the queerest way of bestowing favors I almost ever saw. When he wished to make a boy a present, he shoved it roughly into his pocket, and then started off as if the house was on fire. What brought up the subject I do not now remember, but that evening Mrs. Morton persisted in talking about Clara Hague. She spoke of their childhood, of the old homestead, of the nutting, the apple-picking, the cider-making, and the hundred other occupations and amusements of their young life.
She had a vivid power of description, and a charming simplicity in her choice of words, that entertained even me; but I could see Mr. Redfield was troubled. He moved restlessly on the lounge, and once drew a shawl over his face. At last she touched on the shoestore, its doleful decay and downfall, and the years the unhappy woman had struggled on. At this he started to go; but there was something in her manner that detained him. Her tone had been light and chatty before; and, though she spoke with proper gravity, it was sprightly rather than earnest. I did not notice any striking change; and yet it seemed suddenly to assume the gentle impressiveness one sometimes fancies we should hear from the pulpit.
"Whatever be her troubles, Clara has been a good sister to you. You were the youngest; and a puny little fellow you were then, with all your greatness. Many and many a time, in your quarrels with other boys, have I seen her get into no end of disgrace for defending you. Do you remember that old log school-house, John? and our dinners under the trees? What baskets of berries and bags of nuts we gathered in those woods! Do you remember the little run we used to cross, and the fish you caught in the pool?
"And oh, John! do you remember that day we started home when it rained? You had been sick, and commenced to cry. We got under a big tree; but it was November; the leaves had all blown down, and the rain beat through the branches. What disconsolate little people we were! And when you sat down on a flat stone, and declared you'd stay there and die, don't you remember how Clara went out in the bushes, and, taking off her little flannel petticoat, put it around your shoulders for a cloak?"
The strong man quivered; his face convulsed, and the hot tears started into his eyes.
"YES! I'll be hanged if I don't!"
He clutched up his hat, and was gone in an instant, and the two women, woman-like, stood sobbing in each other's arms.
The thousand-and-one young gentlemen in blue neck-ties, who for a twelvemonth, in frantic strains, varying from basso profundo to piping tenor, had proclaimed their entire willingness to "mourir pour la patrie," were engrossed at their shops; innumerable fascinating trimmers of bonnets, who, like poor little "Dora," religiously believed the chief end of man consisted in "dancing continually ta la ra, ta la ra," sat busily plying the needle, elbow-deep in ribbons; the consumptive-looking flute-player before the foot-lights trilled out his spasmodic trickle of melody, and contemplated with melancholy pleasure the excited audience; the lank danseuse ogled and smirked at it behind them, and, with passionate gestures of her thin legs, implored its applause; men, women, and children, of all grades and degrees, crowded into the murky night; for a day was coming when the youths of the neck-ties would not agree to mourir on any account; when the flute-player would cease to be contemplative; when the danseuse would forget her attenuated extremities; when the whole world, where the grace of the Redeemer is known, would believe that the chief end of the hour, at least, consisted in "dancing continually ta la ra, ta la ra."
Shall "The Air" ring with the joyous notes of the carols, or breathe low and soft with the sighs of the suffering?
Shall it burst into mad hilarity at the revelry, or wail with the sharp cries of the poor?
It was a painted house, but the paint had worn off; it had a garden, but the garden was choked with weeds; its two rooms were once handsomely furnished, but the furniture was now common and old. It was once a fashionable street; but fashion had fled before the victorious eagles of trade. The tenants of that house were once happy and prosperous. What are they now?
The occupant of the back room was a man, and the occupants of the front room a woman and her children.
He was sitting at a rude deal table; before him were scattered some dirty sheets of music, and around him the place was dreary and bare. By the light of a tallow dip he was playing, in screeching tones, the commonest of ditties and polkas by note. His coat was once of the richest; but now it was old and threadbare. His hands were once white and elegantly shaped; now they were dirty, and blue with cold. His face once beamed with contentment; now it was worn with care and marked by the hard lines of penury.
The other room was darker, and, if possible, more dreary. There were two trundle-beds in a corner, and four bright beings, oblivious to the discomfort, in the happy sleep of childhood. There was a mattress in another corner, with a pile of bedquilts and a sheet.
The fire had burned down to a coal. It shone on the mantle with a sickly glare; and this was the only light there was.
To the mantle-piece were pinned four little stockings, each waiting open-mouthed for a gift from Santa Claus.
Below them crouched a woman, weeping bitterly.
The woman was Clara Hague; and she was weeping because the Christmas dawn would find those little mouths unsatisfied.
Our "Air" is getting mournful,--too mournful for this hour of great joy. The Te Deum Laudamus, not the Miserere, is for outbursts of gladness like these.
Let it sing of the carriage that surprised the man from his fiddle and the woman from her tears by its thunder in the quiet street.
Let it sing of the warm-hearted brother, forgetting the bitterness of the past, his pockets replenished from a well-saved hoard, who rushed in, startling the little sleepers with his joyous greeting. Let it chant the praises of the hampers of wine, and fowls, and dainties, and the bundles of toys, that same lumbering carriage contained. And last, but not least, let it thrill with the glad shout of a little newsboy, who, frantic with delight, hurried on a new gray suit and a pair of bran-new boots, a present received that very day from his then unknown uncle, John Redfield.