HE was only a little bit of a chap, and so, when for the first time in his life he came into close contact with the endless current of human things, it was as hard for him to "stay put" as for some wayward little atom of flotsam and jetsam to keep from tossing about in the surging tides of the sea.
His mother had left him there in the big toy-shop, with instructions not to move until she came back, while she went off to do some mysterious errand. She thought, no doubt, that with so many beautiful things on every side to delight his eye and hold his attention, strict obedience to her commands would not be hard. But, alas, the good lady reckoned not upon the magnetic power of attraction of all those lovely objects in detail. She saw them only as a mass of wonders which, in all probability, would so dazzle his vision as to leave him incapable of movement; but Little Billee was not so indifferent as all that.
When a phonograph at the other end of the shop began to rattle off melodious tunes and funny jokes, in spite of the instructions he had received, off he pattered as fast as his little legs would carry him to investigate. After that, forgetful of everything else, finding himself caught in the constantly moving stream of Christmas shoppers, he was borne along in the resistless current until he found himself at last out upon the street—alone, free, and independent.
It was great fun, at first. By and by, however, the afternoon waned; the sun, as if anxious to hurry along the dawn of Christmas Day, sank early to bed; and the electric lights along the darkening highway began to pop out here and there, like so many merry stars come down to earth to celebrate the gladdest time of all the year. Little Billee began to grow tired; and then he thought of his mama, and tried to find the shop where he had promised to remain quiet until her return. Up and down the street he wandered until his little legs grew weary; but there was no sign of the shop, nor of the beloved face he was seeking.
Once again, and yet once again after that, did the little fellow traverse that crowded highway, his tears getting harder and harder to keep back, and then—joy of joys—whom should he see walking slowly along the sidewalk but Santa Claus himself! The saint was strangely decorated with two queer-looking boards, with big red letters on them, hung over his back and chest; but there was still that same kindly, gray-bearded face, the red cloak with the fur trimmings, and the same dear old cap that the children's friend had always worn in the pictures of him that Little Billee had seen.
With a glad cry of happiness, Little Billee ran to meet the old fellow, and put his hand gently into that of the saint. He thought it very strange that Santa Claus's hand should be so red and cold and rough, and so chapped; but he was not in any mood to be critical. He had been face to face with a very disagreeable situation. Then, when things had seemed blackest to him, everything had come right again; and he was too glad to take more than passing notice of anything strange and odd.
Santa Claus, of course, would recognize him at once, and would know just how to take him back to his mama at home—wherever that might be. Little Billee had never thought to inquire just where home was. All he knew was that it was a big gray stone house on a long street somewhere, with a tall iron railing in front of it, not far from the park.
"Howdidoo, Mr. Santa Claus?" said Little Billee, as the other's hand unconsciously tightened over his own.
"Why, howdidoo, kiddie?" replied the old fellow, glancing down at his new-found friend, with surprise gleaming from his deep-set eyes. "Where did you drop from?"
"Oh, I'm out," said Little Billee bravely. "My mama left me a little while ago while she went off about something, and I guess I got losted."
"Very likely," returned the old saint with a smile. "Little two-by-four fellows are apt to get losted when they start in on their own hook, specially days like these, with such crowds hustlin' around."
"But it's all right now," suggested Little Billee hopefully. "I'm found again, ain't I?"
"Oh, yes, indeedy, you're found all right, kiddie," Santa Claus agreed.
"And pretty soon you'll take me home again, won't you?" said the child.
"Surest thing you know!" answered Santa Claus, looking down upon the bright but tired little face with a comforting smile. "What might your address be?"
"My what?" asked Little Billee.
"Your address," repeated Santa Claus. "Where do you live?"
The answer was a ringing peal of childish laughter.
"As if you didn't know that!" cried Little Billee, giggling.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Santa Claus. "Can't fool you, can I? It would be funny if, after keeping an eye on you all these years since you was a babby, I didn't know where you lived, eh?"
"Awful funny," agreed Little Billee. "But tell me, Mr. Santa Claus, what sort of a boy do you think I have been?" he added with a shade of anxiety in his voice.
"Pretty good—pretty good," Santa Claus answered, turning in his steps and walking back again along the path he had just traveled—which Little Billee thought was rather a strange thing to do. "You've got more white marks than black ones—a good many more—a hundred and fifty times as many, kiddie. Fact is, you're all right—'way up among the good boys; though once or twice last summer, you know—"
"Yes, I know," said Little Billee meekly, "but I didn't mean to be naughty."
"That's just what I said to the bookkeeper," said Santa Claus, "and so we gave you a gray mark—half white and half black—that doesn't count either way, for or against you."
"Thank you, sir," said Little Billee, much comforted.
"Don't mention it; you are very welcome, kiddie," said Santa Claus, giving the youngster's hand a gentle squeeze.
"Why do you call me 'kiddie' when you know my name is Little Billee?" asked the boy.
"Oh, that's what I call all good boys," explained Santa Claus. "You see, we divide them up into two kinds—the good boys and the naughty boys—and the good boys we call kiddies, and the naughty boys we call caddies, and there you are."
Just then Little Billee noticed for the first time the square boards that Santa Claus was wearing.
"What are you wearing those boards for, Mr. Santa Claus?" he asked.
If the lad had looked closely enough, he would have seen a very unhappy look come into the old man's face; but there was nothing of it in his answer.
"Oh, those are my new-fangled back-and-chest protectors, my lad," he replied. "Sometimes we have bitter winds blowing at Christmas, and I have to be ready for them. It wouldn't do for Santa Claus to come down with the sneezes at Christmas-time, you know—no, sirree! This board in front keeps the wind off my chest, and the one behind keeps me from getting rheumatism in my back. They are a great protection against the weather."
"I'll have to tell my papa about them," said Little Billee, much impressed by the simplicity of this arrangement. "We have a glass board on the front of our ortymobile to keep the wind off Henry—he's our shuffer—but papa wears a fur coat, and sometimes he says the wind goes right through that. He'll be glad to know about these boards."
"I shouldn't wonder," smiled Santa Claus. "They aren't very becoming, but they are mighty useful. You might save up your pennies and give your papa a pair like 'em for his next Christmas."
Santa Claus laughed as he spoke; but there was a catch in his voice which Little Billee was too young to notice.
"You've got letters printed there," said the boy, peering around in front of his companion at the lettering on the board. "What do they spell? You know I haven't learned to read yet."
"And why should you know how to read at your age?" said Santa Claus. "You're not more than—"
"Five last month," said Little Billee proudly. It was such a great age!
"My, as old as that?" cried Santa Claus. "Well, you are growing fast! Why, it don't seem more than yesterday that you was a pink-cheeked babby, and here you are big enough to be out alone! That's more than my little boy is able to do."
Santa Claus shivered slightly, and Little Billee was surprised to see a tear glistening in his eye.
"Why, have you got a little boy?" he asked.
"Yes, Little Billee," said the saint. "A poor white-faced little chap, about a year older than you, who—well, never mind, kiddie—he's a kiddie, too—let's talk about something else, or I'll have icicles in my eyes."
"You didn't tell me what those letters on the boards spell," said Little Billee.
"'Merry Christmas to Everybody!'" said Santa Claus. "I have the words printed there so that everybody can see them; and if I miss wishing anybody a merry Christmas, he'll know I meant it just the same."
"You're awful kind, aren't you?" said Little Billee, squeezing his friend's hand affectionately. "It must make you very happy to be able to be so kind to everybody!"
Santa Claus made no reply to this remark, beyond giving a very deep sigh, which Little Billee chose to believe was evidence of a great inward content. They walked on now in silence, for Little Billee was beginning to feel almost too tired to talk, and Santa Claus seemed to be thinking of something else. Finally, however, the little fellow spoke.
"I guess I'd like to go home now, Mr. Santa Claus," he said. "I'm tired, and I'm afraid my mama will be wondering where I've gone to."
"That's so, my little man," said Santa Claus, stopping short in his walk up and down the block. "Your mother will be worried, for a fact; and your father, too—I know how I'd feel if my little boy got losted and hadn't come home at dinner-time. I don't believe you know where you live, though—now, honest! Come! 'Fess up, Billee, you don't know where you live, do you?"
"Why, yes, I do," said Little Billee. "It's in the big gray stone house with the iron fence in front of it, near the park."
"Oh, that's easy enough!" laughed Santa Claus nervously. "Anybody could say he lived in a gray stone house with a fence around it, near the park; but you don't know what street it's on, nor the number, either. I'll bet fourteen wooden giraffes against a monkey-on-a-stick!"
"No, I don't," said Little Billee frankly; "but I know the number of our ortymobile. It's 'N. Y.'"
"Fine!" laughed Santa Claus. "If you really were lost, it would be a great help to know that; but not being lost, as you ain't, why, of course, we can get along without it. It's queer you don't know your last name, though."
"I do, too, know my last name!" blurted Little Billee. "It's Billee. That's the last one they gave me, anyhow."
Santa Claus reflected for a moment, eying the child anxiously.
"I don't believe you even know your papa's name," he said.
"Yes, I do," said Little Billee indignantly. "His name is Mr. Harrison."
"Well, you are a smart little chap," cried Santa Claus gleefully. "You got it right the very first time, didn't you? I really didn't think you knew. But I don't believe you know where your papa keeps his bake-shop, where he makes all those nice cakes and cookies you eat."
Billee began to laugh again.
"You can't fool me, Mr. Santa Claus," he said. "I know my papa don't keep a bake-shop just as well as you do. My papa owns a bank."
"Splendid! Made of tin, I suppose, with a nice little hole at the top to drop pennies into?" said Santa Claus.
"No, it ain't, either!" retorted Little Billee. "It's made of stone, and has more than a million windows in it. I went down there with my mama to papa's office the other day, so I guess I ought to know."
"Well, I should say so," said Santa Claus. "Nobody better. By the way, Billee, what does your mama call your papa? 'Billee,' like you?" he added.
"Oh, no, indeed," returned Little Billee. "She calls him papa, except once in a while when he's going away, and then she says, 'Good-by, Tom.'"
"Fine again!" said Santa Claus, blowing upon his fingers, for, now that the sun had completely disappeared over in the west, it was getting very cold. "Thomas Harrison, banker," he muttered to himself. "What with the telephone-book and the city directory, I guess we can find our way home with Little Billee."
"Do you think we can go now, Mr. Santa Claus?" asked Little Billee, for the cold was beginning to cut through his little coat, and the sandman had started to scatter the sleepy-seeds all around.
"Yes, sirree!" returned Santa Claus promptly. "Right away off now instantly at once! I'm afraid I can't get my reindeer here in time to take us up to the house, but we can go in the cars—hum! I don't know whether we can or not, come to think of it. Ah, do you happen to have ten cents in your pocket?" Santa added with an embarrassed air. "You see, I've left my pocketbook in the sleigh with my toy-pack; and, besides, mine is only toy-money, and they won't take that on the cars."
"I got twenty-fi' cents," said Little Billee proudly, as he dug his way down into his pocket and brought the shining silver piece to light. "You can have it, if you want it."
"Thank you," said Santa Claus, taking the proffered coin. "We'll start home right away; only come in here first, while I telephone to Santaville, telling the folks where I am."
He led the little fellow into a public telephone station, where he eagerly scanned the names in the book. At last it was found—"Thomas Harrison, seven-six-five-four Plaza." And then, in the seclusion of the telephone-booth, Santa Claus sent the gladdest of all Christmas messages over the wire to two distracted parents:
"I have found your boy wandering in the street. He is safe, and I will bring him home right away."
Fifteen minutes later, there might have been seen the strange spectacle of a foot-sore Santa Claus leading a sleepy little boy up Fifth Avenue to a cross-street, which shall be nameless. The boy vainly endeavored to persuade his companion to "come in and meet mama."
"No, Billee," the old man replied sadly, "I must hurry back. You see, kiddie, this is my busy day. Besides, I never go into a house except through the chimney. I wouldn't know how to behave, going in at a front door."
But it was not to be as Santa Claus willed, for Little Billee's papa, and his mama, and his brothers and sisters, and the butler and the housemaids, and two or three policemen, were waiting at the front door when they arrived.
"Aha!" said one of the police, seizing Santa Claus roughly by the arm. "We've landed you, all right! Where have you been with this boy?"
"You let him alone!" cried Little Billee, with more courage than he had ever expected to show in the presence of a policeman. "He's a friend of mine."
"That's right, officer," said Little Billee's father; "let him alone—I haven't entered any complaint against this man."
"But you want to look out for these fellers, Mr. Harrison," returned the officer. "First thing you know they'll be makin' a trade of this sort of thing."
"I'm no grafter!" retorted Santa Claus indignantly. "I found the little chap wandering along the street, and, as soon as I was able to locate where he lived, I brought him home. That's all there is to it."
"He knew where I lived all along," laughed Little Billee, "only he pretended he didn't, just to see if I knew."
"You see, sir," said the officer, "it won't do him any harm to let him cool his heels—"
"It is far better that he should warm them, officer," said Mr. Harrison kindly. "And he can do that here. Come in, my man," he added, turning to Santa Claus with a grateful smile. "Just for a minute anyhow. Mrs. Harrison will wish to thank you for bringing our boy back to us. We have had a terrible afternoon."
"That's all right, sir," said Santa Claus modestly. "It wasn't anything, sir. I didn't really find him—it was him as found me, sir. He took me for the real thing, I guess."
Nevertheless, Santa Claus, led by Little Billee's persistent father, went into the house. Now that the boy could see him in the full glare of many electric lights, his furs did not seem the most gorgeous things in the world. When the flapping front of his red jacket flew open, the child was surprised to see how ragged was the thin gray coat it covered; and as for the good old saint's comfortable stomach—strange to say, it was not!
"I—I wish you all a merry Christmas," faltered Santa Claus; "but I really must be going, sir—"
"Nonsense!" cried Mr. Harrison. "Not until you have got rid of this chill, and—"
"I can't stay, sir," said Santa. "I'll lose my job if I do."
"Well, what if you do? I'll give you a better one," said the banker.
"I can't—I can't!" faltered the man. "I—I—I've got a Little Billee of my own at home waitin' for me, sir. If I hadn't," he added fiercely, "do you suppose I'd be doin' this?" He pointed at the painted boards, and shuddered. "It's him as has kept me from—from the river!" he muttered hoarsely; and then this dispenser of happiness to so many millions of people all the world over sank into a chair, and, covering his face with his hands, wept like a child.
"I guess Santa Claus is tired, papa," said Little Billee, snuggling up closely to the old fellow and taking hold of his hand sympathetically. "He's been walkin' a lot to-day."
"Yes, my son," said Mr. Harrison gravely. "These are very busy times for Santa Claus, and I guess that, as he still has a hard night ahead of him, James had better ring up Henry and tell him to bring the car around right away, so that we may take him back—to his little boy. We'll have to lend him a fur coat to keep the wind off, too, for it is a bitter night."
"Oh," said Little Billee, "I haven't told you about these boards he wears. He has 'em to keep the wind off, and they're fine, papa!" Little Billee pointed to the two sign-boards which Santa Claus had leaned against the wall. "He says he uses 'em on cold nights," the lad went on. "They have writing on 'em, too. Do you know what it says?"
"Yes," said Mr. Harrison, glancing at the boards. "It says 'If You Want a Good Christmas Dinner for a Quarter, Go to Smithers's Café.'"
Little Billee roared with laughter.
"Papa's trying to fool me, just as you did when you pretended not to know where I lived, Santa Claus," he said, looking up into the old fellow's face, his own countenance brimming over with mirth. "You mustn't think he can't read, though," the lad added hastily. "He's only joking."
"Oh, no, indeed, I shouldn't have thought that," replied Santa Claus, smiling through his tears.
"I've been joking, have I?" said Little Billee's papa. "Well, then, Mr. Billiam, suppose you inform me what it says on those boards."
"'Merry Christmas to Everybody,'" said Little Billee proudly. "I couldn't read it myself, but he told me what it said. He has it printed there so that if he misses saying it to anybody, they'll know he means it just the same."
"By Jove, Mr. Santa Claus," cried Little Billee's papa, grasping the old man warmly by the hand, "I owe you ten million apologies! I haven't believed in you for many a long year; but now, sir, I take it all back. You do exist, and, by the great horn spoon, you are the real thing!"
Little Billee had the satisfaction of acting as host to Santa Claus at a good, luscious dinner, which Santa Claus must have enjoyed very much, because, when explaining why he was so hungry, it came out that the poor old chap had been so busy all day that he had not had time to get any lunch—no, not even one of those good dinners at Smithers's café, to which Little Billee's father had jokingly referred. And after dinner Henry came with the automobile, and, bidding everybody good night, Santa Claus and Little Billee's papa went out of the house together.
Christmas morning dawned, and Little Billee awoke from wonderful dreams of rich gifts, and of extraordinary adventures with his new-found friend, to find the reality quite as splendid as the dream things. Later, what was his delight when a small boy, not much older than himself—a pale, thin, but playful little fellow—arrived at the house to spend the day with him, bringing with him a letter from Santa Claus himself! This was what the letter said:
Dear Little Billee:—You must not tell anybody except your papa and your mama, but the little boy who brings you this letter is my little boy, and I am going to let you have him for a playfellow for Christmas Day. Treat him kindly for his papa's sake, and if you think his papa is worth loving tell him so. Do not forget me, Little Billee. I shall see you often in the future, but I doubt if you will see me. I am not going to return to Twenty-Third Street again, but shall continue my work in the Land of Yule, in the Palace of Good-Will, whose beautiful windows look out upon the homes of all good children.
Good-by, Little Billee, and the happiest of happy Christmases to you and all of yours.
When Little Billee's mama read this to him that Christmas morning, a stray little tear ran down her cheek and fell upon Little Billee's hand.
"Why, what are you crying for, mama?" he asked.
"With happiness, my dear little son," his mother answered. "I was afraid yesterday that I might have lost my little boy forever, but now—"
"You have an extra one thrown in for Christmas, haven't you?" said Little Billee, taking his new playmate by the hand. The visitor smiled back at him with a smile so sweet that anybody might have guessed that he was the son of Santa Claus.
As for the latter, Little Billee has not seen him again; but down at his father's bank there is a new messenger, named John, who has a voice so like Santa Claus's voice that whenever Little Billee goes down there in the motor to ride home at night with his papa, he runs into the bank and has a long talk with him, just for the pleasure of pretending that it is Santa Claus he is talking to. Indeed, the voice is so like that once a sudden and strange idea flashed across Little Billee's mind.
"Have you ever been on Twenty-Third Street, John?" he asked.
"Twenty-Third Street?" replied the messenger, scratching his head as if very much puzzled. "What's that?"
"Why, it's a street," said Little Billee rather vaguely.
"Well, to tell you the truth, Billee," said John, "I've heard tell of Twenty-Third Street, and they say it is a very beautiful and interesting spot. But, you know, I don't get much chance to travel. I've been too busy all my life to go abroad."
"Abroad!" roared Little Billee, grinning at John's utterly absurd mistake. "Why, Twenty-Third Street ain't abroad! It's up-town—near—oh, near—Twenty-Second Street."
"Really?" returned John, evidently tremendously surprised. "Well, well, well! Who'd have thought that? Well, if that's the case, some time when I get a week off I'll have to go and spend my vacation there!"
From which Little Billee concluded that his suspicion that John might be Santa Claus in disguise was entirely without foundation in fact.