For once the weather bureau had scored a good, clean hit. The bull's-eye was pierced squarely in the middle, and the promised blizzard falling upon the city at noon held the metropolis completely in its grip. Everything in the line of public transportation in and out of the town was tied up so tightly that it did not seem possible that it would ever be unraveled again. The snow was piling waist high upon the streets, and the cutting winds played their fantastic pranks with a chill and cruel persistence.
It was with great difficulty that Dobbleigh made his way into the Grand Central Railway Station. Like other suburban commuters at Christmas time, he was heavily laden with bundles of one kind and another. He fairly oozed packages. They stuck out of the pockets of his heavy ulster. A half dozen fastened together with a heavy cord he carried in his right hand, and some were slung about his shoulders, and held there by means of a leathern strap. The real truth was that Dobbleigh had been either too busy, or had forgotten the wise resolutions of the autumn, and had failed to do his Christmas shopping early, with the result that now, on Christmas Eve, he was returning to the little Dobbleighs with a veritable Santa Claus' pack, whose contents were designed to delight their eyes in the early hours of the coming morning.
It was with a great sense of relief that he entered the vast waiting room of the station, and shook the accumulated snow from his coat, and removed the infant icicles from his eyes, but his joy was short-lived. Making his way to the door, he paused to wish the venerable doorman a Merry Christmas.
"Fierce night, Hawkins," he said, as he readjusted his packages. "I shall be glad enough to get home."
The old man shook his head dubiously.
"I'm afraid you won't enjoy that luxury to-night, Mr. Dobbleigh," he said. "We haven't been able to get a train out of here since one o'clock, and the way things look now there won't be any business at this stand for twenty-four hours, even if we have luck."
"What's that?" returned Dobbleigh. "You don't mean to say—"
"No trains out to-night, sir," said the doorman. "The line's out of commission from here to Buffalo, anyhow, and nobody knows what's going on west of there. The wires are down, and we're completely shut off from the world."
Dobbleigh gave a long, low whistle.
"By Jove, Hawkins," he muttered ruefully. "That's tough."
"Kind o' hard on the kiddies, eh?" said the old doorman sympathetically.
"Mighty hard," said Dobbleigh, with a catch in his voice. "No chance of anything—not even a freight?" he went on anxiously.
"Couldn't pull a feather through with thirty locomotives," was the disheartening response. "I guess it's the hotel for yours to-night, sir."
Dobbleigh turned away, and pondered deeply for a few moments. Taking care of himself for the night was not, under the circumstances, a very difficult proposition, for his club was not far away, so that he was not confronted with the uncomfortable prospect of sleeping on the benches of the railway station, but the idea of the little Dobbleighs not finding their treasures awaiting them on the morrow, to say nothing of the anxiety of Mrs. Dobbleigh over his non-arrival, was, to say the least, disconcerting.
"Oh, well," he said philosophically, after going over the pros and cons of the situation carefully, "what's the use of worrying? What must be must be, and I'll have to make the best of it."
He buttoned his heavy coat up snugly about his neck, and, seizing his bundles with a firmer grip, wished the old doorman a good night, and went out again into the storm. Fifteen minutes later, looking more like a snowman than an ordinary human being, he entered the club, and, if it be true that misery finds comfort in company, he was not doomed to go without consolation. There were five other fellow-sufferers there trying to make the best of it.
"Hello, Dobby," cried his friend and neighbor, Grantham. "What's happened to you—an eighteen-karat family man spending his Christmas Eve at a club? Shame on you!"
"I am duly repentant, Gran," replied Dobbleigh, "but you see, as your neighbor, I felt it my duty to keep an eye on you this night. There are hobgoblins in the air. Why are you not at home in the bosom of your family yourself?"
"The walking is too bad," said Grantham. "And, besides, that confounded valet of mine forgot to put my snowshoes in my suit-case."
"They say the river is frozen solid all the way up," put in Billie Ricketts, who is a good deal of a wag, as all old bachelors are apt to be. "Why don't you fellows skate home?"
"I tried it," smiled Grantham, "but the wind is blowing down the river, and I live up. I hadn't been going more than two hours when I landed on Staten Island."
In this way the exiles strove to comfort each other, and on the surface succeeded, but inwardly a very miserable lot they were. Clubs have their attractions, but we have not yet succeeded in developing an institution of that kind which is a fair substitute for the home fireside on a Christmas Eve. Even the most confirmed old bachelor will confess to you that, way down deep in his heart, the comforts of such organizations seem cheerless and cold in contrast to the visions of smiling hearthstones and merry gatherings of happy children, that come to them in their dreams.
"You've got some bundle there, Dobby," said Grantham, as Dobbleigh relieved himself of his burden of packages. "What are you going to do, open a department store?"
"Huh!" ejaculated Ricketts. "You're a fine fellow to talk. Ought to have seen Gran when he staggered in here an hour ago, Dobby. I thought at first he was a branch office of the American Express Company—honest I did. Talk about your bundle trust—Gran had the market cornered."
"Well, why shouldn't I have?" demanded Grantham. "Haven't I got five of the finest kids that ever climbed a Christmas tree?"
"Nope," said Dobbleigh, with an air of conviction. "Your five are dandies, Gran, but you ought to see my six."
"I've seen 'em," said Grantham, "and I'll give every blessed one of 'em honorable mention as high-steppers and thoroughbreds, but when it comes to the real thing—well, my five are blue-ribbon kids all right, all right."
"How you fathers do brag about little things!" snorted Ricketts. "You two braggarts can roll your eleven into one, and the aggregate wouldn't be a marker to what my children would be if I had any. I've half a mind to give up my state of single blessedness, just to show you vainglorious chaps what—"
Just what Ricketts was going to show the assembled gathering the world will never be able to do more than guess, for he was not permitted to finish the sentence. It was at this precise point that Doctor Mallerby, shedding snow from his broad, burly figure at every step, staggered into the room, and, with a scant greeting to his friends, hastened to the blazing log fire on the club hearth, and kneeling before it, began unwrapping a bundle of some size that he, too, carried in his arms.
"What on earth have you got there, doctor?" cried Ricketts, craning his neck over the newcomer's shoulder. "One of these new character dolls?"
"No, Billie, no," said Mallerby, fumbling away at the bundle. "I wish to Heaven it were. Can't you see, old man—it's the real thing!"
"The real what?" said Ricketts, bending lower.
"The real thing," returned Mallerby, in a low voice. "A poor little tot of a newsboy—"
"Where on earth did you pick him up?" gasped Ricketts, as the others gathered around.
"Out of the storm," said Mallerby. "I found him huddled up in the vestibule of Colonel Mortimer's when I came out of the house ten minutes ago. The poor little devil was curled up almost into a knot, trying to keep warm, and lay there fast asleep, with his papers under his arm. I honestly believe that if I hadn't come out when I did it would have been too late. This is a fierce storm."
"He isn't—he isn't frozen, is he?" faltered Dobbleigh, as he gazed into the blue little face of the unconscious urchin, a face grimy with the frequent mixture of two dirty little fists and his tears.
"Not quite," said Mallerby. "I think I got him in time, and he'll pull through, but he had a mighty close call of it. By George, boys, just think of a wee bit of a tot like that, barely more than six years old, having to be out on a night like this! Why, the poor little cuss ought to be dreaming of Santa Claus in a nice warm bed somewhere, instead of picking pennies out of these arctic streets of ours, in order to keep body and soul together."
Warmed by the glow of the fire, the youngster stirred as the doctor spoke, and a weary little voice, scarce higher than a whisper, broke the stillness of the room:
"Extree! Bigges' blizzid in twenty years. Extree! Piper, sir?"
The seven sophisticated men of the world, gathered about the prostrate figure, stood silent, and three of them turned away, lest the others should see the unmanly moisture of their eyes.
"Here, by thunder!" gasped Ricketts, pulling a roll of bills from his pocket. "Hanged if I won't buy the whole edition."
"That's all right, Billie," smiled the doctor. "What he needs just now is something less cold than money. We'll take him upstairs, and give him a warm bath, fill his little stomach up with milk, and put him to bed, with a nice fuzzy blanket to thaw out his icy little legs."
"Splendid!" said Ricketts. "But, see here, doctor, I want to be in on this. Isn't there anything I can do to help?"
"Yes," said the doctor. "You might make this proceeding regular by putting him up as your guest on a ten-day card."
The little bundle of rags and humanity was tenderly carried to the regions above, and under the almost womanly ministrations of Doctor Mallerby was completely restored to cleanliness and warmth; what hunger he might have been conscious of was assuaged by a great bumper of milk, and then in the most sumptuous apartment the club was able to provide the thawed-out little gamin was put to bed.
The snowy sheets, the soft, downy pillows, and the soul-warming blankets, were not needed to lure him into the land of dreams, for the bitter experiences of the earlier hours of the night still weighed heavily upon his eyelids, even if his mind and heart were no longer conscious of them. He presented a most appealing picture as he lay there, after settling back with a deep-drawn sigh of content into the kindly embrace of a bed seven or eight sizes too big for him, his little legs scarcely reaching halfway to the middle, and his tousled head of red hair forming a rubricated spot on the milk-white pillow-case as it stuck up out of the bed-clothes, and lay comfortably back in what was probably the first soft nest it had known since it lay on its mother's breast—if, indeed, it had ever known that rare felicity.
"There," said the doctor, as the little foundling, with a suspicion of a smile on his pursed-up lips, wandered more deeply into the land of Nod. "I guess he's fixed for the night, anyhow, and the rest of us can go about our business."
The seven men tiptoed softly out of the room, and adjourned to the spacious chambers below, where for an hour they tried to lose themselves in the chaos of bridge. They were all fairly expert players at that noble social obsession, but nobody would have guessed it that night. No party of beginners ever played quite so atrociously, and yet no partner was found sufficiently outraged to be acrimonious. The fact was that not one of them was able to keep his mind on the cards, the thoughts of every one of them reverting constantly to the wan little figure in that upper room.
Finally Dobbleigh, after having reneged twice, and trumped his partner's trick more than once, threw down his cards, and drew away from the table impatiently.
"It's no use, fellows," he said. "I can't keep my eye on the ball. I'm going to bed."
"Same here," said Ricketts. "Every blessed face card in this pack—queen, king, or jack—is a red-headed little newsboy to me, and every spade is a heart. It's me for Slumberland."
So the party broke up, and within an hour the clubhouse went dark. Doctor Mallerby assumed possession of a single room adjoining that of their little guest, so that he might keep an eye upon his newly acquired patient through the night, and the others distributed themselves about on the upper floors.
At midnight all was still as a sylvan dell in the depths of a winter's night, when no sounds of birds, or of rustling leaves, or of babbling waters break in upon the quiet of the scene.
It was three o'clock in the morning when Doctor Mallerby was roused suddenly from his sleep by the sound of stealthy footsteps in the adjoining room, where the little sleeper lay. He rose hastily from his couch, and entered the room, and was much surprised to see, in the dim light of the hall lamp, no less a person than Dobbleigh, acting rather suspiciously, too.
"Hullo, what are you up to, Dobby?" he queried, in a low whisper, as he espied that worthy, clad in a bath robe of too ample proportions, stealing out of the room.
"Why—nothing, Mallerby, nothing," replied Dobbleigh, evidently much embarrassed. "I—er—I just thought I'd run down, and see how the little chap was getting along. I'm something of a father myself, you know."
"What's all this?" continued the doctor, as his eye fell upon a number of strange-looking objects spread along the foot of the bed, far beyond the reach of the little toes of the sleeper—a book of rhymes with a gorgeous red cover; a small tin trumpet, with a pleasing variety of stops; a box of tin soldiers; and a complete rough-rider's outfit, sword, cap, leggings, and blouse; not to mention an assortment of other things well calculated to delight the soul of youth.
"Why," faltered Dobbleigh, his face turning as red as the flag of anarchy, "you see, I happened to have these things along with me, Mallerby—for my own kiddies, you know—and it sort of seemed a pity not to get some use out of them on Christmas morning, and so—Oh, well, you know, old man."
The hand of the doctor gripped that of the intruder, and he tried to assurehim that he did know, but he couldn't. He choked up, and was about to turn away when the door began moving slowly upon its hinges once more, and Grantham entered, quite as much after the fashion of the stealthy-footed criminal as Dobbleigh. He, too, carried a variety of packages, and under each arm was a tightly packed golf stocking. He started back as he saw Dobbleigh and the doctor standing by the bedside, but it was too late. They had caught him in the act.
"Ah, Grantham," said Dobbleigh, with a grin. "Giving an imitation of a second-story man, eh? What are you going to do with those two stuffed clubs? Sandbag somebody?"
"Yes," said Grantham sheepishly. "I've had it in for the doctor for some time, and I thought I'd sneak down and give him one while he slept."
"All right, Granny," smiled the doctor. "Just hang your clubs on the foot of the bed here, and after I've got to sleep again, come in, and perpetrate the dastardly deed."
"Fact is, boys," said Grantham seriously, "these things I was taking home to my youngsters are going to waste under the circumstances, and I had an idea it wouldn't hurt our guest here to wake up just once to a real Santa Claus feast."
"Fine!" said the doctor. "Looks to me as if this youngster had thrown doubles. Dobby here has already fitted him out with a complete army, and various other things, too numerous to mention."
"Why, look who's here!" cried Dobbleigh, interrupting the doctor, as the door swung open a third time, and Seymour appeared, his raiment consisting of a blanket and a pair of carpet slippers, causing him in the dim light to give the impression of an Indian on the warpath. "By Jove, Tommy," he added, "all you need is a tomahawk in one hand, and a bunch of wooden cigars in the other, to pass for the puller-in of a tobacco shop. What are you after, sneaking in here like old Sitting Bull, at this unholy hour of the morning? After the kid's scalp?"
"Why, you see, Dobby," replied Seymour, revealing a soft, furry cap and a pair of gloves that looked as if they had just been pulled off the paws of a bear cub, "I happened to be taking these things home for my boy Jim—he's daft on skating, and it's cold as the dickens up at Blairsport—but Jimmie can wait until New Year's for his, I guess. It came over me all of a sudden, while I was trying to get to sleep upstairs, that our honored guest might find them useful."
"Look at those chapped little fists," said the doctor. "That's your answer, Seymour!"
"They're his, all right," said Seymour, sitting on the side of the bed, and comparing the gloves with the red little hands that lay inert on the counterpane. "By Jove!" he muttered, as he took one of the diminutive hands in his own. "They're like sandpaper."
"Selling papers in winter doesn't give these babies exactly the sort of paddies you'd expect to find on a mollycoddle," said the doctor.
And so, here in the House of the Seven Santas, things went for the next hour. One by one all the prisoners of the night, with the exception of Ricketts, dropped in surreptitiously, to find that the ideas of each were common to them all, and the little mite under the bedclothes was destined soon to emerge from the riches of his dreams into a reality even richer and more substantial. The varied gifts were ranged about the foot of the bed, the golf stockings bulging with sweets were hung at its head, and the big-hearted donors retired, this time to that real sleep which comes to him who has had the satisfaction of some kindly deed to look back upon.
"Poor Ricketts!" sighed the doctor, as he noted the one absentee. "How much these old bachelors lose at this season of the year!"
Two hours later, just as the first rays of the dawn began to light up the guest room, its small occupant opened his eyes, and began rubbing them violently with his fists.
"Chee!" was his first utterance, and then he sat up and gazed about him. His unfamiliar surroundings naturally puzzled him, and a look of childish wonder came over his face. "Where'm I at?" he muttered. "Guess diss must be dat Heaven place de guys down to de mission talks about."
He clambered out of bed, and as he did so his eyes took in the wondrous array of gifts spread before him.
"Well, whad'd'yer know about dat?" he muttered. "What kind of a choint is diss, anyhow?"
As he attempted to walk across the room his small feet became entangled in the flowing skirt of Mallerby's bath robe, which he wore in lieu of a nightshirt.
"Dat's it," he said, as he tripped, and stumbled to the floor. "I'm dead, dat's what I am—and dese is my anchel clo'es. Chee, but dey's hard to walk in. Seems to me I'd radder have me pants."
In a moment he had regained his feet, and the marvelous variety of toys began to reveal themselves in detail to his astounded vision.
"Will yer pipe de layout!" he gasped ecstatically. "Wonder what kid's goin' to have de luck to draw dem in his socks?"
And just then the door opened again, and a sleepy-eyed old bachelor came stealing in, in the person of Ricketts. He wore his pajamas, and a yellow mackintosh thrown over his shoulders.
"Good morning, kiddie," he said, closing the door softly behind him. "Merry Christmas to you!"
"Merry Chrissmus yerself!" smiled the youngster. "Say, mister, kin yer tell me where I'm at? Diss ain't like my reg'lar lodgin' house, and I must ha' got in wrong somehow."
"Where is your regular lodging house?" asked Ricketts, seating himself on the side of the bed.
"Oh, any old place where dere's room fer me an' me feet at de same time," replied the boy. "Packin' boxes mostly in de winter-time, and de docks in de summer."
"But your parents?" demanded Ricketts. "Where are they?"
"Me what?" asked the boy.
"Your parents—your father and mother?" explained Ricketts.
"I ain't never had no mudder," said the boy. "But me fadder—well, me an' him had a scrap over me wages las' summer, and I ain't seen him since."
"Your wages, eh?" smiled Ricketts. The idea of this little tad earning wages struck him as being rather humorous.
"He t'ought I ought to give him de whole wad," said the boy, "and when he licked me for spendin' a nickel on meself and a fr'en' o' mine las' Fourth o' July, I give him de skidoo."
"I see," said Ricketts, regarding the little guest with a singular light in his eye. "You've got a fine lot of stuff here from old Santa Claus, haven't you?"
"What, me?" asked the boy, gazing earnestly into Ricketts' face. "Is dese here t'ings for me?"
"Why, of course," said Ricketts. "Old Daddy Santa Claus on his rounds last night found you occupying a handsome apartment on Fifth Avenue, but the steam heat had been turned off, and, fearing you might catch cold, he picked you up and brought you to his own home. He'd been looking for you all day."
"And dese is—really—fer me?" cried the child.
"Every blessed stick and shred of them," said Ricketts fervently.
The boy squatted flat upon the floor, completely staggered by the sudden revelation of his wealth.
"Chee!" was all he could think of to say.
And then began a romp through a veritable toyland, in which two lonely wanderers through the vales of life had the first taste of joys they had never known before; the red-headed little son of the streets getting the first glimpse of kindness that his starved little soul had ever enjoyed; the confirmed old bachelor finding the only outlet that fate had ever vouchsafed him for those instincts of fatherhood which are the priceless heritage of us all.
Small wonder that the play waxed fast, furious, and noisy. The lad, up to this time confronted ever with the pressing necessities of life, developed a capacity for play that was all the more intense for the privations of his limited years; the bachelor finding the dam of his pent-up feelings loosened into an overwhelming flood of pure joyousness. There were cries of joy, and shrieks of laughter, and when, with some difficulty, because of his lack of experience, Ricketts finally succeeded in getting the lad arrayed in his rough-rider suit, whose buckles and buttons seemed aggravatingly small for hands that had developed nothing but thumbs, the tin trumpet, with all the stops save the one that would silence it even temporarily, was brought into play; and the battles that were fought in the ensuing hour between a noble army of warriors, led by the youngster against himself as either a Spanish army or a wild Indian tribe, have no equals in the annals of warfare.
The morning was pretty well advanced when the other sleeping Santas were roused from their dreams by shouts of victory, to be confronted upon investigation by a prostrate enemy, in the person of Ricketts, lying face downward upon the floor, with a diminutive rough-rider standing upon the small of his back, waving a nickel sword in the air, while he blew ear-splitting blasts upon his trumpet to announce the arrival of the conqueror.
"Well, well, well!" said Doctor Mallerby, with a loud laugh, as he and the others burst into the room. "What's going on? Another San Juan Hill?"
"The same," panted Ricketts, from his coign of disadvantage. "And I'm the hill. All that remains now is for some of you fellows to hurry up, and get a bath towel from somewhere, and hoist the flag of truce."
The morning passed, and the storm showing some signs of abatement, the exiled men began to cherish hopes of getting home before night. Communication with the railway station elicited the gratifying news that about four o'clock in the afternoon a train would be sent forth to carry the marooned suburbanites back to the scenes of their domestic desires.
Meanwhile, the honored guest received to the full all the attention of which the Seven Santas were capable; only in making up for the lost playtime of the past the guest proved to be untiring, while the Seven Santas were compelled now and then to work in relays in order to keep up with the game.
Hence it was that at various hours of the day dignified business men were to be seen squatting upon the floor, irrespective of that dignity, running iron cars over tin railway tracks, arranging the serried ranks of tin soldiers in battle array, answering strident summonses to battle sounded on that everlasting tin trumpet, and, strange to say, joining their young friend in feasts of candy and other digestion-destroying sweets which they had forever eschewed long years before.
"I suppose I'll suffer for this," said Grantham, as at the command of his superior officer he swallowed the handle of a peppermint walking stick, after fletcherizing it carefully for several minutes, "but, by ginger, it's worth it."
"You'll be all right, Gran," laughed the doctor. "If worst comes to the worst, I'll blow you to a pony of ipecac, unless you prefer squills."
But at last even the strenuous nature of the guest began to show signs of the day's inroads upon his strength, and when the hour for the departure of the suburbanites came shortly before four, and they all gathered around to bid him their adieus, they were hardly surprised to find him cuddled up on the bearskin rug before the fire, fast asleep, with his tin trumpet hugged tightly to his breast.
"We're a great lot!" said Dobbleigh suddenly. "We can't all go off, and leave him here alone. What the dickens are we going to do?"
"Don't bother," said Ricketts, from the depths of the lounge, where he had been trying for some minutes to get a much-needed rest. "I—I—er—I haven't anything on hand, boys. Leave him to me. I'll take care of him."
"I move we all meet here to-morrow," said Grantham, "and see what's to be done with the kid."
Ricketts rose up from the lounge, and started to speak, but he was interrupted by the doctor.
"Did any of you think to ask the little tad his name?" he inquired.
"That's where I come in, boys," said Ricketts. "You needn't bother your heads about his name or his to-morrow—I'll take care of both. You men have provided him with the joys of to-day—pretty substantial joys, too, as those of us who have helped him to enjoy them can testify. As a hearthless old bachelor, bundleless and forlorn, I was unable to qualify on the toy end of things, but when it comes to names, I'll give him one as my contribution to his Christmas possessions."
"Good for you, Billie!" laughed Dobbleigh. "Would you mind telling us what it is to be, so that we can put him on our visiting lists?"
"Not in the least," returned Ricketts, with an affectionate glance at the boy. "He is to be known henceforth as William Ricketts, Junior."
"William Ricketts, Junior?" cried the others, almost in one voice.
"Precisely," said Ricketts, turning and facing them. "From now on you fellows will have to quit putting it all over me because you have children, and I haven't. I've come into a ready-made family—rather unexpectedly, but there it is. It's mine, and I'm going to keep it. I've been without one too long, and after what I have tasted this day I find that I have acquired a thirst for paternity that can never be cured. To-morrow I propose to adopt our small guest here formally by due process of law."
"But where do we come in on this?" cried Grantham. "It's bully of you, old man, but we can't permit you to shoulder the whole burden of this boy's—"
"Shut up, Gran!" retorted Ricketts, with an affectation of fine scorn. "You and the rest of this bunch are nothing but a lot of blooming uncles. And by the way, gentlemen," he added, with a courtly bow, "I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your kindness to my son. Good night."
And with that, six of the exiles passed out into the twilight, and hurried back to their own firesides, leaving Ricketts to his own.
And that is why, too, that the club servants, when they came to make their rounds that night before turning out the lights, were surprised to find old Billie Ricketts lying fast asleep in the warm embrace of one of the richly upholstered armchairs of the lounging room, before the blazing log fire on the hearth, with a mite of a boy curled up in his lap, his little red head snuggled close to the manly chest of his protector, and a happy little smile upon his lips, that showed that his dreams were sweet, and that in those arms he felt himself secure from the trials of life.
There was that upon the faces of both that gave the watchers pause, and they refrained from waking them, merely turning out the electric lights, and tiptoeing softly out of the room, leaving the sleepers bathed in the mellow glow of the dancing flames.
Two lonely hearts had come into their own in the House of the Seven Santas!
The House of The Seven Santas - A Christmas Story
by John Kendrick Bangs