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Little Book of Christmas, A

THE CHILD WHO HAD EVERYTHING BUT—

I

I KNEW it was coming long before it got there. Every symptom was in sight. I had grown fidgety, and sat fearful of something overpoweringly impending. Strange noises filled the house. Things generally, according to their nature, severally creaked, soughed and moaned. There was a ghost on the way. That was perfectly clear to an expert in uncanny visitations of my wide experience, and I heartily wished it were not. There was a time when I welcomed such visitors with open arms, because there was a decided demand for them in the literary market, and I had been able to turn a great variety of spooks into anywhere from three thousand to five thousand words apiece at five cents a word, but now the age had grown too sceptical to swallow ghostly reminiscence with any degree of satisfaction. People had grown tired of hearing about Visions, and desired that their tales should reek with the scent of gasoline, quiver with the superfervid fever of tangential loves, and crash with moral thunderbolts aimed against malefactors of great achievement and high social and commercial standing. Wherefore it seemed an egregious waste of time for me to dally with a spook, or with anything else, for that matter, that had no strictly utilitarian value to one so professionally pressed as I was, and especially at a moment like that—it was Christmas morning and the hour was twenty-eight minutes after two—when I was so busy preparing my Ode to June, and trying to work out the details of a midsummer romance in time for the market for such productions early in the coming January.

And right in the midst of all this pressure there rose up these beastly symptoms of an impending visitation. At first I strove to fight them off, but as the minutes passed they became so obsessively intrusive that I could not concentrate upon the work in hand, and I resolved to have it over with.

"Oh, well," said I, striking a few impatient chords upon my typewriting machine, "if you insist upon coming, come, and let's have done with it."

I roared this out, addressing the dim depths of the adjoining apartment, whence had risen the first dank apprehension of the uncanny something that had come to pester me.

"This is my busy night," I went on, when nothing happened in response to my summons, "and I give you fair warning that, however psychic I may be now, I've got too much to do to stay so much longer. If you're going to haunt, haunt!"

It was in response to this appeal that the thing first manifested itself to the eye. It took the shape first of a very slight veil of green fog, which shortly began to swirl slowly from the darkness of the other room through the intervening portières into my den. Once within, it increased the vigor of its swirl, until almost before I knew it there was spinning immediately before my desk something in the nature of a misty maelstrom, buzzing around like a pin-wheel in action.

"Very pretty—very pretty indeed," said I, a trifle sarcastically, refusing to be impressed, "but I don't care for pyrotechnics. I suppose," I added flippantly, "that you are what might be called a mince-pyrotechnic, eh?"

Whether it was the quality of my jest, or some other inward pang due to its gyratory behavior, that caused it I know not, but as I spoke a deep groan issued from the centre of the whirling mist, and then out of its indeterminateness there was resolved the hazy figure of an angel—only, she was an intensely modern angel. She wore a hobble-skirt instead of the usual flowing robes of ladies of the supernal order, and her halo, instead of hovering over her head as used to be the correct manner of wearing these hard-won adornments, had perforce become a mere golden fillet binding together the great mass of finger-curls and other distinctly yellow capillary attractions that stretched out from the back of her cerebellum for two or three feet, like a monumental psyche-knot. I could hardly restrain a shudder as I realized the theatric quality of the lady's appearance, and I honestly dreaded the possible consequences of her visit. We live in a tolerably censorious age, and I did not care to be seen in the company of such a peroxidized vision as she appeared to be.

"I am afraid, madam," said I, shrinking back against the wall as she approached—"I am very much afraid that you have got into the wrong house. Mr. Slatherberry, the theatrical manager, lives next door."

She paid no attention to this observation, but, holding out a compelling hand, bade me come along with her, her voice having about it all the musical charm of an oboe suffering from bronchitis.

"Not in a year of Sundays I won't!" I retorted. "I am a respectable man, a steady church-goer, a trustee for several philanthropic institutions, and a Sunday-School teacher. I don't wish to be impolite, but really, madam, rich as I am in reputation, I am too poor to be seen in public with you."

"I am a spirit," she began.

"I'll take your word for it," I interjected, and I could see that she told the truth, for she was entirely diaphanous, so much so indeed that one could perceive the piano in the other room with perfect clarity through her intervening shadiness. "It is, however, the unfortunate fact that I have sworn off spirits."

"None the less," she returned, her eye flashing and her hand held forth peremptorily, "you must come. It is your predestined doom."

My next remark I am not wholly clear about, but, as I remember it, it sounded something like "I'll be doomed if I do!" whereupon she threatened me.

"It is useless to resist," she said. "If you decline to come voluntarily, I shall hypnotize you and force you to follow me. We have need of you."

"But, my dear lady," I pleaded, "please have some regard for my position. I never did any of you spirits any harm. I've treated every visitor from the spirit-land with the most distinguished consideration, and I feel that you owe it to me to be regardful of my good name. Suppose you take a look at yourself in yonder looking-glass, and then say if you think it fair to compel a decent, law-abiding man, of domestic inclinations like myself, to be seen in public with—well, with such a looking head of hair as that of yours."

My visitor laughed heartily.

"Oh, if that's all," she said, most amiably, "we can arrange matters in a jiffy. Your wife possesses a hooded mackintosh, does she not? I think I saw something of the kind hanging on the hat-rack as I floated in. I will wear that if it will make you feel any easier."

"It certainly would," said I; "but see here—can't you scare up some other cavalier to escort you to the haven of your desires?"

She fixed a sternly steady eye upon me for a moment.

"Aren't you the man who wrote the lines,

The World's a green and gladsome ball,
And Love's the Ruler of it all,
And Life's the chance vouchsafed to me
For Deeds and Gifts of Sympathy?

Didn't you write that?" she demanded.

"I did, madam," said I, "and I meant every word of it, but what of it? Is that any reason why I should be seen on a public highway with a lady-ghost of your especial kind?"

"Enough of your objections," she retorted firmly. "You are the person for whom I have been sent. We have a case needing your immediate attention. The only question is, will you come pleasantly and of your own free will, or must I resort to extreme measures?"

These words were spoken with such determination that I realized that further resistance was useless, and I yielded.

"All right," said I. "On your way. I'll follow."

"Good!" she cried, her face wreathing with a pleasant little nile-green smile. "Get the mackintosh, and we'll be off. There's no time to lose," she added, as the clock in the tower on the square boomed out the hour of three.

"What is this anyhow?" I demanded, as I helped her on with the mackintosh and saw that the hood covered every vestige of that awful coiffure. "Another case of Scrooge?"

"Sort of," she replied as, hooking her arm in mine, she led me forth into the night.

II

We passed over to Fifth Avenue, and proceeded uptown at a pace which reminded me of the active gait of my youth. My footsteps had grown unwontedly light, and we covered the first ten blocks in about three minutes.

"We don't seem to be headed for the slums," I panted.

"Indeed, we are not," she retorted. "There is no need of carrying coals to Newcastle on this occasion. This isn't a slum case. It's far more acute than that."

A tear came forth from her eye and trickled down over the mackintosh.

"It is a peculiarity of modern effort on behalf of suffering humanity," she went on, "that it is concentrated upon the relief of the misery of the so-called submerged, to the utter neglect of the often more poignant needs of the emerged. We have workers by the thousand in the slums, doing all that can be done, and successfully too, to relieve the unhappy condition of the poor, but nobody ever seems to think of the sorrows of the starving hundreds on upper Fifth Avenue."

"See here, madam," said I, stopping suddenly short under a lamp-post in front of the Public Library, "I want to tell you right now that if you think you are going to take me into any of the homes of the hopelessly rich at this hour of the morning, you are the most mightily mistaken creature that ever wore a psyche-knot. Why, great heavens, my dear lady, suppose the owner of the house were to wake up and demand to know what I was doing there at this time of night? What could I say?"

"You have gone on slumming parties, haven't you?" she demanded coldly.

"Often," said I. "But that's different."

"Why?" she asked, with a simplicity that baffled me. "Is it any worse for you to intrude upon the home of a Fifth Avenue millionaire than it is to go unasked into the small, squalid tenement of some poor sweatshop worker on the East Side?"

"Oh, but it's different," I protested. "I go there to see if there is anything I can do to relieve the unhappy condition of the persons who live in the slums."

"No doubt," said she. "I'll take your word for it, but is that any reason why you should neglect the sufferers who live in these marble palaces?"

As she spoke, she hooked hold of my arm once more, and in a moment we were climbing the front door steps of a palatial residence. The house showed a dark and forbidding front at that hour in the morning despite its marble splendors, and I was glad to note that the massive grille doors of wrought iron were heavily barred.

"It's useless, you see. We're locked out," I ventured.

"Indeed?" she retorted, with a sarcastic smile, as she seized my hand in her icy grip and literally pulled me after her through the marble front of the dwelling. "What have we to do with bolts and bars?"

"I don't know," said I ruefully, "but I have a notion that if I don't bolt I'll get the bars all right."

I could see them coming, and they were headed straight for me.

"All you have to do is to follow me," she went on, as we floated upward for two flights, paying but little attention to the treasures of art that lined the walls, and finally passed into a superbly lighted salon, more daintily beautiful than anything of the kind I had ever seen before.

"Jove!" I ejaculated, standing amazed in the presence of such luxury and beauty. "I did not realize that with all her treasures New York held anything quite so fine as this. What is it, a music-room?"

"It is the nursery," said my companion. "Look about you and see for yourself."

I did as I was bidden, and such an array of toys as that inspection revealed! Truly it looked as if the toy-market in all sections of the world had been levied upon for tribute. Had all the famous toy emporiums of Nuremberg itself been transported thither bodily, there could not have been playthings in greater variety than there greeted my eye. From the most insignificant of tin-soldiers to the most intricate of mechanical toys for the delectation of the youthful mind, nothing that I could think of was missing.

The tin-soldiers as ever had a fascination for me, and in an instant I was down upon the floor, ranging them in their serried ranks, while the face of my companion wreathed with an indulgent smile.

"You'll do," said she, as I loaded a little spring-cannon with a stub of a lead-pencil and bowled over half a regiment with one well-directed shot.

"These are the finest tin-soldiers I ever saw!" I cried with enthusiasm.

"Only they're not tin," said she. "Solid silver, every man-jack of them—except the officers—they're made of platinum."

"And will you look at that little electric railroad!" I cried, my eye ranging to the other end of the salon. "Stations, switches, danger-signals, cars of all kinds, and even miniature Pullmans, with real little berths that can be let up and down—who is the lucky kid who's getting all these beautiful things?"

"Sh!" she whispered, putting her finger to her lips. "He is coming—go on and play. Pretend you don't see him until he speaks to you."

As she spoke, a door at the far end of the apartment swung gently open, and a little boy tiptoed softly in. He was a golden-haired little chap, and I fell in love with his soft, dreamy eyes the moment my own rested upon them. I could not help glancing up furtively to see his joy over the discovery of all these wondrous possessions, but alas, to my surprise, there was only an unemotional stare in his eyes as they swept the aggregation of childish treasures. Then, on a sudden, he saw me, squatting on the floor, setting up again the army of silver warriors.

"How do you do?" he said gently, but with just a touch of weariness in his sad little voice.

"Good morning, and a Merry Christmas to you, sir," I replied.

"What are you doing?" he asked, drawing near, and watching me with a good deal of seeming curiosity.

"I am playing with your soldiers," said I. "I hope you don't mind?"

"Oh, no indeed," he replied; "but what do you mean by that? What is playing?"

I could hardly believe my ears.

"What is what?" said I.

"You said you were playing, sir," said he, "and I don't know exactly what you mean."

"Why," said I, scratching my head hard in a mad quest for a definition, for I couldn't for the life of me think of the answer to his question offhand, any more than I could define one of the elements. "Playing is—why, it's playing, laddie. Don't you know what it is to play?"

"Oh, yes," said he. "It's what you do on the piano—I've been taught to play on the piano, sir."

"Oh, but this is different," said I. "This kind is fun—it's what most little boys do with their toys."

"You mean—breaking them?" said he.

"No, indeed," said I. "It's getting all the fun there is out of them."

"I think I should like to do that," said he, with a fixed gaze upon the soldiers. "Can a little fellow like me learn to play that way?"

"Well, rather, kiddie," said I, reaching out and taking him by the hand. "Sit down here on the floor alongside of me, and I'll show you."

"Oh, no," said he, drawing back; "I—I can't sit on the floor. I'd catch cold."

"Now, who under the canopy told you that?" I demanded, somewhat impatiently, I fear.

"My governesses and both my nurses, sir," said he. "You see, there are drafts—"

"Well, there won't be any drafts this time," said I. "Just you sit down here, and we'll have a game of marbles—ever play marbles with your father?"

"No, sir," he replied. "He's always too busy, and neither of my nurses has ever known how."

"But your mother comes up here and plays games with you sometimes, doesn't she?" I asked.

"Mother is busy, too," said the child. "Besides, she wouldn't care for a game which you had to sit on the floor to—"

I sprang to my feet and lifted him bodily in my arms, and, after squatting him over by the fireplace where if there were any drafts at all they would be as harmless as a summer breeze, I took up a similar position on the other side of the room, and initiated him into the mystery of miggles as well as I could, considering that all his marbles were real agates.

"You don't happen to have a china-alley anywhere, do you?" I asked.

"No, sir," he answered. "We only have china plates—"

"Never mind," I interrupted. "We can get along very nicely with these."

And then for half an hour, despite the rich quality of our paraphernalia, that little boy and I indulged in a glorious game of real plebeian miggs, and it was a joy to see how quickly his stiff little fingers relaxed and adapted themselves to the uses of his eye, which was as accurate as it was deeply blue. So expert did he become that in a short while he had completely cleaned me out, giving joyous little cries of delight with every hit, and then we turned our attention to the soldiers.

"I want some playing now," he said gleefully, as I informed him that he had beaten me out of my boots at one of my best games. "Show me what you were doing with those soldiers when I came in."

"All right," said I, obeying with alacrity. "First, we'll have a parade."

I started a great talking-machine standing in one corner of the room off on a spirited military march, and inside of ten minutes, with his assistance, I had all the troops out and to all intents and purposes bravely swinging by to the martial music of Sousa.

"How's that?" said I, when we had got the whole corps arranged to our satisfaction.

"Fine!" he cried, jumping up and down upon the floor and clapping his hands with glee. "I've got lots more of these stored away in my toy-closet," he went on, "but I never knew that you could do such things as this with them."

"But what did you think they were for?" I asked.

"Why—just to—to keep," he said hesitatingly.

"Wait a minute," said I, wheeling a couple of cannon off to a distance of a yard from the passing troops. "I'll show you something else you can do with them."

I loaded both cannon to the muzzle with dried pease, and showed him how to shoot.

"Now," said I, "fire!"

He snapped the spring, and the dried pease flew out like death-dealing shells in war. In a moment the platinum commander of the forces, and about thirty-seven solid silver warriors, lay flat on their backs. It needed only a little red ink on the carpet to reproduce in miniature a scene of great carnage, but I shall never forget the expression of mingled joy and regret on his countenance as those creatures went down.

"Don't you like it, son?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said, with an anxious glance at the prostrate warriors. "They aren't deaded, are they?"

"Of course not," said I, restoring the presumably defunct troopers to life by setting them up again. "The only thing that'll dead a soldier like these is to step on him. Try the other gun."

Thus reassured, he did as I bade him, and again the proud paraders went down, this time amid shouts of glee. And so we passed an all too fleeting two hours, that little boy and I. Through the whole list of his famous toys we went, and as well as I could I taught him the delicious uses of each and all of them, until finally he seemed to grow weary, and so, drawing up a big arm-chair before the fire and taking his tired little body into my lap, with his tousled head cuddled up close over the spot where my heart is alleged to be, I started to read a story to him out of one of the many beautiful books that had been provided for him by his generous parents. But I had not gone far when I saw that his attention was wandering.

"Perhaps you'd rather have me tell you a story instead of reading it," said I.

"What's to tell a story?" he asked, fixing his blue eyes gravely upon mine.

"Great Scott, kiddie!" said I, "didn't anybody ever tell you a story?"

"No, sir," he replied sleepily; "I get read to every afternoon by my governess, but nobody ever told me a story."

"Well, just you listen to this," said I, giving him a hearty squeeze. "Once upon a time there was a little boy," I began, "and he lived in a beautiful house not far from the Park, and his daddy—"

"What's a daddy?" asked the child, looking up into my face.

"Why, a daddy is a little boy's father," I explained. "You've got a daddy—"

"Oh, yes," he said. "If a daddy is a father, I've got one. I saw him yesterday," he added.

"Oh, did you?" said I. "And what did he say to you?"

"He said he was glad to see me and hoped I was a good boy," said the child. "He seemed very glad when I told him I hoped so, too, and he gave me all these things here—he and my mother."

"That was very nice of them," said I huskily.

"And they're both coming up some time to-day or to-morrow to see if I like them," said the lad.

"And what are you going to say?" I asked, with difficulty getting the words out over a most unaccountable lump that had arisen in my throat.

"I'm going to tell them," he began, as his eyes closed sleepily, "that I like them all very, very much."

"And which one of them all do you like the best?" said I.

He snuggled up closer in my arms, and, raising his little head a trifle higher, he kissed me on the tip end of my chin, and murmured softly as he dropped off to sleep,

"You!"

III

"Good night," said my spectral visitor as she left me, once more bending over my desk, whither I had been re-transported without my knowledge, for I must have fallen asleep, too, with that little boy in my arms. "You have done a good night's work."

"Have I?" said I, rubbing my eyes to see if I were really awake. "But tell me—who was that little kiddie anyhow?"

"He?" she answered with a smile. "Why, he is the Child Who Has Everything But—"

And then she vanished from my sight.

"Everything but what?" I cried, starting up and peering into the darkness into which she had disappeared.

But there was no response, and I was left alone to guess the answer to my question.


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