by Charles Hoy Fort
It was Christmas night. Business was dull in the newspaper office.
"Christmas!" exclaimed the night editor. He shook his head so violently that he burned his nose on the incandescent lamp dangling above his desk. Ordinary reporters went on scribbling, but the department men, with their importance of roll-top desks, felt themselves invited to a discussion by the editor's exclamation:
"Christmas! This Christmas sermon Stibble brought in fills me with disgust with its cheap sentimentality, but we must print it."
"Christmas is a nuisance!" declared a rolltop man. "You give all the presents you can afford to, and then hear that Johnson is going to send you something, and have to send out for something for him. Or, you don't give Brown anything, because you think he will skip you this year. A package comes from him, and you feel cheap, and have to send him the fountain pen Jones gave you. Nuisance!"
"Almost as bad as the Fourth of July!" This from another roll-top man. "Christmas-trees are always catching fire, and you have to hustle out in the cold and then get nearly frozen to death following up some other Christmas-tree fire. And the streets are a disgrace for a month afterward. People keep their trees trimmed for a few weeks to show what a fine tree they had, and then the gutters are strewn with dead old branches. In every block your eye will be offended by some dried old corpse of Christmas festivities. Disgraceful! Christmas here in the office is good enough for me!"
"And for me!"
But the very old reporter, who was not a rolltop man, but had been on staff for twenty years, looked up from his ordinary desk and asked:
"Have you looked across the street to-night?"
The whole staff scrambled to the window. There were reporters whom murder did not interest, who were bored with great scandals, who were surfeited with important events; but all either scrambled or ambled to the window. Great events were commonplaces with them, but, with great interest, they looked across the street, for this was something concerning their neighbors.
Every window in the house across the way was lighted, but light absolutely poured from the parlor windows. They saw a tall triangle of sparkles, like a bit cut from the night sky. It was a Christmas-tree, spangled with tiny candles. On the fringes of the rolled-up window-shades wreaths of holly and evergreen were pinned. Evergreen was on the walls, spattered with the red berries of holly. Forms flitted by the windows. Every one was merry within, and outside floated sounds of their merriment.
"Think they're having a deuce of a time!" said a roll-top man scornfully. "I'd rather be here in this quiet, comfortable office. They'll feel all tired out and unable to go to work to-morrow; and maybe catch their deaths of cold -- huh! But what on earth do you suppose they're doing, running and chasing around so excitedly?"
"Why, I know!" exclaimed the very old reporter. "I'd recognize it in a minute. Yes, that's just exactly what they are doing!" They're playing blind man's bluff! Don't you see they are?"
"Well, what of it? Anything to make you so excited?"
"No," answered the very old reporter, a little abashed; "it only reminds me; that's all. I used to play blind man's bluff once; though, of course, it was very long ago."
"Oh, such things are all very well for children, but these seem to be grown people and might have more dignity and -- Look here! Never! Wasn't that neat though? Dodged right clean under his arm! Did you see her?"
"Well, you needn't be so excited about it!" said the very old reporter maliciously.
"Oh, I'm not excited about it, but, as you say, it reminds me. A silly lot, aren't they? Oh, well, it's innocent and better than spending your nights as most of us who have no homes do! Oh, pshaw, she's caught this time! Why didn't she dive under that table?"
"Too much noise!" snapped the night editor; but he was not so important as the day editor, and no one thought much of his authority. "Keep quiet, can't you? If you knew how silly you sound over there with your heads bunched at the windows, you'd stop it."
"Come over and look for yourself!" invited a roll-top man. "They're having a great time across the street!"
"Well, don't bother me with it. I'll stay here where I belong, thanks. There must be somebody with a little sense in the office."
"They've stopped blind man's bluff now!" said the very old reporter. "I suppose she said it wasn't fair and she wouldn't play anymore -- or, no, they're going to have something else! What is it, anyway? I bet it's I-spy!"
"So do I bet it is!" cried a very young reporter. "That's a great game for Christmas! It's nice to make believe you're little kids just once a year, isn't it?"
Then the night editor did indeed groan disgustedly; and disgustedly he went on reading the copy of a Christmas sermon. But the very young reporter repeated:
"A great game! You hide the thimble behind a picture or in a vase -- oh, you're laughing at me, I guess!" The others were laughing, but the laughing was not discouraging, for there seemed to be sympathy in it.
"Hide the thimble in the vase," suggested a rolltop man, as if finding pleasure in having memories recalled to him. "Then what? That's right! Used to do it myself!"
"Hide the thimble in the vase, and when they approach the mantelpiece, you say: `Warm!' and, when they go the other way, as they go you say: `Cold! colder! very cold!'"
Then everybody laughed most good-naturedly, as if at a naïveté that pleased him.
"Oh, say, but that isn't I-spy they're playing! What is it? They're all in the back, so I can't see what they're doing."
"There's some game about `wisket wasket,' or something like that, isn't there?" asked a rolltop man. "Or, no, I believe that's just for very small children. There's that girl in white out in the center of the room now! What on earth do you suppose they're doing?"
"There was a game that had something to do with a post-office that we used to play," said the very old reporter. "I don't remember just how it went, but I believe it used to be pleasant. No, I don't believe it is that post-office game! Then what do you suppose it is?"
"Why, puss-in-the-corner! You ought to recognize puss-in-the-corner!" This from the night editor, who had left piles of copy to come and peer over shoulders. "See! They beckon out with their fingers to one another! See, that girl in white is it, and she must get some one else's corner. Got it! By George, that was slick! They're having a great time, aren't they? You're a great lot not to recognize puss-in-the-corner! Used to play it myself."
But the game broke up, and there seemed to be a lull in the merriment. Then it was seen that the girl in white was saying something seriously, the others listening attentively. There was no more excitement, and the reporters went back to their desks.
"What's the matter?" one rolltop man asked another rolltop man. "That's a fearfully gloomy face you brought away from the window!"
"Oh, pshaw, not at all! Why should it be? I suppose I was thinking a little, though. Your folks aren't in town, are they?"
"Haven't any, have you?"
"Yes, but not within a thousand miles of here. You can just put it down I wouldn't be here this evening if I had. I never saw this old office look so dismal. Why, you're the one that's looking gloomy! What's the matter? Have a smoke, old man?"
"Well, how are you feeling?" said the very old reporter to the very young reporter. Ordinarily he would not have noticed one so unimportant; but this evening he seemed strangely friendly.
"I'm feeling all right -- I guess I am! Lonesome old office, isn't it? Still, it's the only place where I know any one in the whole city."
And the very old reporter answered:
"Oh, I wish!" exclaimed the very young reporter. "I wish -- " but he started to scribble desperately. Others looked at him sympathetically. There were still others who seemed to find it necessary to scribble.
It was the girl in white who had interrupted the festivities in the house across the street.
"I've been thinking!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, think some other night!" cried the girl in yellow and young Bulby and young Harrowsmith.
"Did you see the turkey?" asked the girl in white. "I was just thinking how fine and big it is, and how there are so many poor people, who won't have even a mean little turkey to-night. Just see all the presents on the tree! I know some are for me, and it was very kind to remember me, but I wish those presents could go to some poor people who never have any!"
"You're it!" cried young Bulby. "Aren't you going to play any more?"
But the girl in yellow and the girl in pink and the girl in sky-blue were exclaiming:
"Isn't it awful! There are poor people without any Christmas dinner -- to-night of all nights! Any other night wouldn't matter so much, but just think of people not having a Christmas dinner on Christmas night!"
So young Bulby and young Harrowsmith and all the other young fellows agreed:
"Yes, too bad!"
"Oh, you don't think it's too bad at all! You're not thinking anything about it, but just saying that because you're expected to. If you think it's too bad, why don't you do something?"
Young Bulby, young Harrowsmith, the other young fellows looked helplessly up at the ceiling, over at the mantelpiece, all around, but saw nothing to do, even if called upon to "do something."
"Oh, do something? Why, certainly! Anything in particular?"
"There are poor people -- " began the girl in white; but she paused, as if not knowing very much about poor people.
"Poor little waifs who can't sell their papers!" suggested the girl in yellow.
"Oh, yes, poor little waifs who can't sell their papers, and -- and poor little waifs who can't -- who can't sell their papers, and -- "
"And unfortunate, hard-working men who can't get work to do," suggested the more resourceful girl in yellow.
"Yes, of course! Unfortunate, hard-working men who can't get work to do -- and unfortunate, hard-working men who -- "
"Poor families being dispossessed out into cold and snow!"
"Oh, you must go out and bring in all kinds of unfortunate and deserving people!" cried the girl in white. "If you want to do something, go out and get them so that they may have a Christmas and share our pleasures! Why, how can you stand there when there are unfortunate, deserving people--and unfortunate, deserving people?"
"Why, what must we do?" asked puzzled young Bulby and puzzled young Harrowsmith, for the other young fellows were nowhere in sight.
"You must go out and get waifs! It's wicked to wait another minute!"
"Well, I'd rather be wicked than charitable, any day!" grumbled Bulby; but you may be sure he grumbled that only to himself; and then he was sent forth upon his mission, the girl in white, the girl in pink, and the girl in sky-blue helping him on with his overcoat.
"Well, what do you think of this?" he asked, when dispossessed and out in the street in the cold and the snow. "We'll just walk around the block, and come back and say there isn't a waif to be had."
"No!" said Harrowsmith. "We've been sent for unfortunates, so we must find some. Unfortunates are not very rare, I believe. We'll start on waifs first. I don't know just where to find them, but--" and he asked a policeman, who was slashing with his club at snowflakes, on the corner.
"Officer," said Harrowsmith, "will you kindly tell me whether you have seen any waifs in this neighborhood?"
Harrowsmith was not quite sure, but thought that a waif was a person, preferably a young person, who was waifing, and tried to describe one.
"Never saw one on my beat!" said Officer Grogan. "Maybe there's some in other parts of the city, but there's only tough kids hereabouts. No; I can't say I ever see what you call waifs, but will keep my eye open for, and maybe I'll find some."
Bulby and Harrowsmith went on down the street. Every one they met was discouragingly well-dressed and comfortable-looking, until Bulby exclaimed:
"There's one! I'm positive that's a waif!" They saw a little boy.
"Ragged!" exclaimed well-pleased Bulby.
"Papers that he can't sell under his arm!" exclaimed well-pleased Harrowsmith. And they hastened to the little boy.
"Are you -- let me see! -- are you a waif?" asked Bulby.
"No, that's not the way to go about it!" corrected Harrowsmith.
Then to the boy he said:
"My poor little boy, can't you sell your papers? You are a waif, aren't you? Why Bulby, I am sure this is a most pitiable case, and I think it's good we came along. We can make at least one little fellow happy. Have you been waifing for some time, my poor little fellow?"
"Me eye!" said the poor little fellow.
"Ah, pardon me! Your what?"
"Me eye! 'Tell I care wedder I sell me papes or not!"
"Well, I'm sure that's very independent of you; but wouldn't you like a nice dinner?"
"Me? Look!" pulling out a handful of dimes and quarters, then pulling out another handful. "Done up the gang at craps, and youse can have me papes for all I care about sellin' them. Wot's dat about a Christmas dinner? Sure! Come have dinner wid me! I got de dough an' do de blowin'!"
"Thanks!" said Bulby hurriedly. "But we have something to do just now."
"Well, some odder time, den. S'long! Take de papes, if youse wants dem."
As they went on to continue their search, Bulby was forced to confess:
"I must have been mistaken about that waif. I don't know that I've ever seen one, but I always had the impression that they are most prevalent around Christmas. Doesn't every Christmas story have a waif in it?"
"Oh, I'm right this time! There is a waif, and this time I'm sure of it! Do you see that poor little fellow looking in the toy-store window? On Christmas night waifs always look in a toy-store or a bakery window! That's one of the surest ways of telling them!"
"How forlorn he looks!" said Harrowsmith enthusiastically. "We're very lucky, because I'm sure he is hungry and thoroughly miserable! I'll put in with you and buy him anything he wants in that window!"
And they ran across the street, in their eagerness to capture a waif who seemed genuine.
"Little boy, you're a waif, aren't you? I mean--well, you have something to do with tenements, haven't you? Bulby, don't waifs have something to do with tenements?"
"Sure!" said the waif. "I'm from Mixed Ale Row. What do you think of that express wagon in the window?"
"Why, it looks all right! Do you want it? Now, don't be afraid to say so. Out with it! You needn't hold back any! Do you want it?"
"No?" Harrowsmith and Bulby looked discouraged. "Well, that's all right; perhaps you don't like express wagons. Is there anything else in the window that takes your fancy? You needn't hesitate! Don't be afraid to speak! Is there?"
"No? Why, now, look here; you're a waif, and when waifs look in windows, I always though it was to long for things. What's the matter with those toys?"
"Aw, dey're on de bum besides what I got. Gee! Been joinin' churches since September. All evenin' I been goin' round to de festibals. Hobby-horse better'n any here from de Foist Pres'-terian; skates dat's nickel-plated from de Younitarians; games and puzzles like you can't see here from de 'Manuel Baptist; candy, or'nges, an' gloves an' shoes from de Meth'dists; mos' evey'ting you t'ink of from de Cong'ation'lists; and -- oh dese toys is on de bum besides what I won from dem choiches!"
"Good evening!" said Harrowsmith abruptly. "I think being a waif must be a very good business education!" And they left the boy still gazing scornfully at the toys in the window.
"It strikes me that we'd better give up waifs. Waifs may be all right, of course -- I'm not saying a word against waifs -- but let's try the unfortunate, hard-working, and deserving. He'll be hungry. We'll give him a dinner that he'll remember all his life."
But then again they met the policeman. Perhaps he would know where a deserving case might be found.
"Officer," said Harrowsmith, "we've been a little discouraged with waifs, and, for a time, shall give them up; but we should be greatly obliged if you could tell us if you know of any one unfortunate, hard-working, and deserving?"
"Do I?" said Officer Grogan thoughtfully. "Sure I do!"
"Good! Where can we find him?"
"Sure, 'tis not a him, but a them, because all them qualifications I never met in any one person. I know them that's hard-working and deserving, and usually getting what they deserve, and them that's hard-working sometimes and unfortunate the rest of the time, but any one man that's hard-working and deserving and unfortunate ain't to be found on my beat. But wait! Would an old bum do you? One I've seen for a month trying to pick up a bite to eat, making out with a crumb here and a crumb there?"
"Well, we rather have our hearts set on hard-working and deserving, but unfortunate will do this evening."
"Then he's only up on the next block, by the lamp-post."
There was no doubt that he was unfortunate, when Bulby and Harrowsmith found him. He might have been deserving, but it cannot be said that he looked noticeably hard-working. However, he was so palpably unfortunate that Harrowsmith and Bulby ran to him delightedly.
"My friend," cried Harrowsmith, "is there anything we can do for you? We'd like to do something for a -- hem -- a fellow creature on Christmas night. Tell us, is there anything we can do for you?"
"Surest t'ing you know dere is!"
"Yes? At last!" Harrowsmith and Bulby shook hands over their genuine unfortunate. "Then come along with us and have as fine a Christmas dinner as is to be had in the city!"
"Christmas dinner!" The unfortunate recoiled against the lamp-post. He rubbed his vest, and then held up his hands in horror.
"Don't say dat, gents! Wotever youse say, don't say Christmas dinner to me! Don't mention it to me, gents, I ask you!"
"No? You say there are things you want; then what, on Christmas night, would you want more than a Christmas dinner?"
"Don't gents!" pleaded the unfortunate faintly. "Don't pronounce them fatal words of Christmas dinner at me! I know I'm poor and ain't got a cent nor bed, an' down an' out, but don't go mentionin' no Christmas dinners to me, please!
"I'm near kilt with them!" the unfortunate confided. "Had nine of them to-day! Started off at noon wid de J.S. Gulps Memorial Fund Annual Dinner to de Inddy-gent. Done pretty good wid t'ree drumsticks, but not all off de same boid, but goes on to de dinner gave by Barney O'Rourke, de district-leader. Wantin' a wish-bone for good luck, I den goes on to de Salvation Army. Has a pretty good feed, but not celery enough, and goes to Empire Hall; done all right dere, comin' out strong on da cranberries, and goes on -- "
"I'm afraid, then," interrupted Harrowsmith, "that another would not be very tempting."
"Notton your life, gents! But if youse can stan' me a ball wid a little Gimmaker ginger in it fer me digestion, I'll be fixed up, and knows of a nice holler tree where I can go an' hibby-nate till next Christmas, t'ankin' youse in advance, gents!"
"Here!" said Bulby. "Go and look after that digestion of yours; it must be most stalwart and engulfing.
"I don't know what to do!" he confessed, as they went on, leaving the unfortunate bowing to them profusely. "We've tried waifs and unfortunates, and it seems most enviable to be a waif or an unfortunate. We'd better go back or we won't have our own Christmas dinner."
"No!" said stubborn Harrowsmith. "I've set my mind upon having waifs; and waifs I'll have! You're sure you don't see any squalor around? I think you always find waifs where there's squalor -- "
"I've got it!" cried Bulby. "I know what to do, and what we should have done at first. We should have gone to the newspaper office right across the street. We can find out there where to go."
The night editor, who was also the copy reader, was gloomily making his initials upon copy passed upon. The very young reporter was despondently staring up at the ceiling. So was the very old reporter. The important roll-top men were too dismal.
Harrowsmith and Bulby entered.
"Why, it's this way," said Harrowsmith to the night editor, having formed just the questions he meant to ask, but having forgotten their wording. "We're looking for squalor!"
"You're looking for what?"
"Why, we're looking for squalor."
"Well, you won't find it here, except over among the S's in that dictionary."
"No! What we mean is we'd like to know where real squalid conditions are. We'd like to do something for deserving cases on Christmas night. Maybe make up a collection or something like that for very touching cases. We thought you could help us."
"Oh, that's it, hey?" The night editor opened a drawer in his desk.
"Well, here's the case of Martin Kelly, who appealed to us for aid. Very touching case. Sick and starving."
"Sick?" cried Bulby. "That's fine!"
"Starving?" cried Harrowsmith. "Splendid!"
"Eight months out of work? That's great!"
"Pawned everything? Good enough!"
"Good enough? asked the editor sharply.
"Oh, pardon me! We mean it is a very fine specimen of a deserving case. We'll help him!"
"Yes, others were affected by it. We printed the story, and the next morning's mail brought checks up to three hundred dollars. Contributions are still received."
"Three hundred dollars!" exclaimed Bulby. "Why, that's more than I could save in a lifetime! Do you always have such generous responses?"
"Oh, no; but this is Christmas, you know. Well, here are the Schwartzhammer family. Appealed to us, and we gave them a column and cuts. Let me see -- two hundred and eighty dollars and seventeen cents received for them so far. Would you like to contribute to the Schwartzhammer fund? Very deserving and very touching!"
"I should say not!" cried Harrowsmith. "I'd be more likely to try to borrow from them! Then, where is all this distress I've heard of in the wintertime?"
"Where?" said the editor vaguely. "Oh, lots of places, but not to-night. If you read our paper, you can see what a bad old world we're living in, but it's not such a world that, in this part of it, any one need be hungry or homeless on Christmas day."
"Well, then," said Bulby, "we'll have to go across the street again. Sorry to trouble you. We'll have to look for touching cases some other time."
"Across the street?" cried the very young reporter. "Is that where you're from? From the Christmas tree and blind man's buff? What is it you're looking for? Maybe I can help you!"
"Well, we're looking for waifs, chiefly. It's very hard to find waifs. I don't believe there are any."
"You don't?" cried the very young reporter. "Well, I do! Just wait a moment. I'm sure of it!"
Bulby and Harrowsmith looked about the room for lurking waifs, but the very young reporter ran to the dictionary and fluttered its leaves.
"`Waif,'" he read aloud; "`one who wanders about and has no home.' If that isn't my case, wandering from one end of the city to the other all day, and then going back to a furnished room late at night-- You're looking for a waif? Here I am! Invite me over, and just let me play I-spy once more!"
"No! No!" cried the very old reporter. "I put in my claim by right of seniority! I can't promise to be very spry at I-spy, but I've been a waif for forty years, and you'll have to travel far before you can do better than that!"
"We're waifs!" cried the roll-top reporters. "Of course we're waifs, and the dictionary proves it! If you want to be charitable on Christmas night, invite us over, and we'll all be it, and stay it in any game you play!"
"At last!" cried Bulby and Harrowsmith. "We've found waifs! Come over, and welcome to you, every one!"
"Tut! Tut!" grumbled the night editor. "Have you no spirit to beg for an invitation like that? I'd like to see myself do it! Well, do what you please; I don't care. I'll stay here and look after things."
But the waifs were crowding up the stoop of the house across the way, introducing themselves, bringing the dictionary with them to prove their identity.
"Why, I never knew waifs were so pleasant!" exclaimed the girl in white. And the girl in yellow, very much impressed with a rolltop waif, thought him not an unwelcome addition.
Blind man's buff? Well, I should say so! And it would have done you good to see the very old waif scrambling over the very young waif, both rolling under a table, to escape the blindfolded girl in yellow. And puss-in-the-corner? Yes, and I-spy, too!
It was very late when the Christmas dinner was ready. All were about to march into the dining-room when some one noticed a hard-working and deserving unfortunate, out in the cold and snow, looking hungrily in the window.
The unfortunate was the night editor, who said "Tut! Tut!" when they swarmed out after him; but up the stoop he went, three steps at a time, and ate as many drumsticks as any one, and danced until late with every one in white, sky-blue, pink, and yellow!
"Deserving cases?" said Harrowsmith to Bulby. "I've never seen a more grateful lot of fellows. The Salvation Army is good, and Christmas funds are good, but there are plenty of opportunities for charity among those that have good jobs and are prosperous."
And this time Harrowsmith knew what he was talking about.
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