From the Juvenile Instructor, December 1909 –
A “Reel” Gold Christmas Present
By Jennie Roberts Mabey
“Father, will you please give me a quarter?”
John Fenton wheeled about in his chair and faced his son. The little fellow stood with flushed cheeks, nervously twirling his cap round and round his fingers.
“What do you want of a quarter?” the father asked, sharply.
Robert looked out apprehensively at the door behind, and coming a little closer said, in a half whisper,
“To buy a bres’ pin for mother – for a Chris’mus present. Tony Foster’s got –”
“Tony Foster! So that’s where you’ve been sense school.”
‘No, I didn’t go into his place at all, father,” Robert answered, with an honest look in the large brown eyes. “You see, he told me he’d bring the pins outside an’ I waited. They’re fifty cents, but Tony says see’in’s it’s me, I could have one for a quarter. They’re reel gold an’ got blue sets in, an’ mother’d be tickled –”
“Real gold!” disgustedly, “your mother’s wouldn’t – oh, go on out o’ here Robert, don’t you talk sech nonsense to me.”
“But, father, they look goldy an’ I know mother’d like one. Why, Tony’s goin’ to give his mother two.”
“Robert! You must think I’m crazy. No! I say, an’ that’s an end o’t. Now you go this minute an’ bed that calf pen like I told you to this mornin’. It seems queer you can’t get home no earlier’n this, every day.”
The boy turned away with trembling lips. If t’was anybody but mother – mother who had never had a Chris’mus present of reel goldy pin with blue sets. So cheap too; and Tony was waiting for him down at the barn now. He had most known that his father wouldn’t, but somehow hope had been strong. Now Tony’d sell ‘em to someone else; and it was only three days before Christmas. A wave of grief swept over the manful little face and he slipped out at the front door lest mother eyes might see.
A few moments after Robert had left the room, Mrs. Fenton came in and sank into a chair beside the table where her husband was writing. Her shoulders were bent, her hands toil hardened. She sat silently with her eyes upon the pencil in his fingers.
“Well, Cinthy, what you want?”
“Why, John,” she began, hesitatingly and with great effort, “I been wishin’ you’d let me get one of them sleds over at Hancock’s for Robbie –”
“Well, I’ll swun!” in utter consternation, “what next? First the boy and now you!”
“Why, what did Robbie want, father?”
“Want? Oh, a brass pin or something.”
The mother’s face flushed painfully and tears came to her eyes. “He’s been sayin’ how he might surprise me Christmas; poor little fellow!”
The man looked at her sharply. He had never understood the bond of feeling that had always existed between her and her boys. It irritated him beyond words.
“I jest guess you been makin’ this up together,” he said testily.
“Why, father, I never dreampt of such a thing. I don’[t want any pin I’m sure, but I do feel sorry for Robbie. Ever since this snow he’s been hankerin’ after a sled. They’re second hand, father, but I been thinkin’ I could paint one over so’t it would look reel nice an’ new. You know he wanted one awful last Christmas, father, but he never said much. Robbie ain’t a hand to tease much either. He’s always understood you’re hard up, an’ been real good that way, but I knew how he keeps wishin’ an’ wishin’. I can go without myself, but when it comes to my children –” she broke off chokingly.
The man turned upon her a self-injured expression.
“N0ow, Cinthy, you take on as if you an’ the boys never had nothin’. Don’t you get jest as much off’n this farm as I do?”
“I wasn’t complainin’ father,” the mother replied, in a gently apologetic tone, ‘about not havin’ anything. I was jest sayin’ I don’t see why we can’t have Christmas like other people. There’s Sam Mills now; his folks always have the nicest time, an’ they ain’t got –”
“An’ never will have,” her husband interrupted. “I don’t b’lieve in such goin’s on. folks these days carry Christmas doin’s altogether too far. Buy a lot o’ foolish toys that’s broke up in a day, an’ eatin’ enough candy an’ stuff to kill a horse. ‘Tain’t my idee at all. if you want a new bunnit you generally get it, or if the boy wants clo’s he gets ‘em an’ you always have plenty o’ good substant’l food. What more do you want, mother?”
“John,” she said, impressively, “don’t you know anybody gets along a hull lot better for indulgin’ in a little foolishness an’ extravagance once in a while. Some day, mebby, you’ll understand it’s what keeps families happy together, and children at home feelin’ contented an’ willing to work for ye.”
“What you mean now, mother? If any man could a’ done more for their boys than me, I’d like to see ‘im. Ungrateful, lazy –”
“Well, they never had a Christmas tree in their lives, anyhow. I know I used to think every year that the next I’d sure have something saved up to get one with, but somehow we was always too poor. There wasn’t nothin’ the older boys wanted, seemed like, more’n a Christmas tree with boughs and things, and lit up with colored candles,” she went on chokingly, “and now Robbie’s the last and – and he’s ten – ” her voice trailed off quivering with the suppressed longing of years.
The man looked at his wife with a puzzled expression. He never remembered when Cinthy had gone against him as she had today. She had upset him somewhat and he said impatiently, “Mother, there ain’t no use your settin’ there talkin’ sech stuff to me. You’ve hendered me a hull hour an’ I wanted to get these accounts checked off afore dark. What with buildin’ the new cow shed an’ havin’ that reservoir put in, I don’t know hardly how I’m goin’ to make ends meet, an’ here you come talkin’ about Christmas – it makes me tired!” and with an air of dismissal he settled down to his writing.
His wife arose with a weary, disappointed sigh. The light of excitement had faded from her brown eyes and settled into habitual dullness and melancholy.
“You want the rest o’ them pumpkin seeds bagged up?” she asked.
“U’m, yes,” he said, “an’ see’t you don’t get ‘em mixed.”
For some time after the man sat busied with his writing, but somehow, try as he might, he did not seem to get along very well with his work. Again and again did he go over the same columns of figures without seeming to grasp their meaning, and once or twice he let the pen slip from his fingers.
It had begun to snow again, in great feathery flakes that clung to the window and blotted out the scene outside.
“Well,” he said, “I won’t much mor’n get the cattle fed now afore dark. These accounts can go over till morn’ any how, I guess.”
Outside, the snow lay nearly a foot deep, and as he turned towards the barn two sleighs with jingling bells passed along the street.
“By jingo!” ejaculated the man, “this does look like Christmas, an’ still snowin’,” as a gust of wind blew the wet flakes into his face.
As he entered the barn building, several sleek, fat cows looked up sleepily from where they stood int heir stalls, and the big span of gray horses stopped eating and regarded him with intelligent eyes. They were John Fenton’s greater pride and he stopped to pat their necks and smooth their satiny sides, a moment. As he did so voices on the other side of the partition arrested his attention, and he leaned forward looking through a crack between the boards into the space beyond.
Seated on a box he saw his son Robert, and on a pile of hay in front of him at Tony Foster. Evidently they were in a dispute of some kind for there was an angry gleam in Robert’s brown eyes, while on Tony’s face was a sullen look of defiance.
“I don’t care what you say,” the latter was saying, “your father is one of the meanest, stingiest men in the hull country. Everybody will tell ye the same thing. Why, I heard some men talkin’ about it in the store the other day. An’ my mother says your mother never has nothin’ decent to wear. She says she’s down-trod-on, what ever that is.”
“Oh – oo!” come from Robert’s indignant lips, ‘an’ mother’s just got a new cape an’ a dress an’ a hat.”
“Don’t care,” persisted Tony, “yourn don’t look stily like my ma does. An’ you listen, them men said that’s why your brothers left home – cause yer father never expected them to have nothin’ frum the farm. Poor as my dad is, he hires Sam in the summer, an’ sometimes I even get dimes for helpin’.”
“Well,” said Robert, “I can’t help it. I got a good father anyway. Why, it wasn’t only a little while ago, before school started, that he let me go an’ stay a week with cousin Bennie and –”
“Now wasn’t that good of him!” interrupted the other, who was older and much wiser than Robert. ‘My thunder, what a soft kid you are! Don’t you see it didn’t cost him nothin’ for your board while you was gone. I shouldn’t think you’d stick up for him anyhow, for he never lets you have nothin’ you want. He wouldn’t let you have any o’ them fancy postals an’ now he can’t afford that quarter – jest a quarter.”
“Well, Tony,” said Robert, in a low voice, “it’s like this. Mother says he don’t understand, that’s all. They was awful poor when he was little and it’s been such a long time, I guess – I guess he’s kind of forgot how bad a feller wants things sometimes. Mother says she guesses he couldn’t a had any Chris’musses.”
For a moment there was perfect silence in the barn and the man on the other side leaned thoughtfully against the partition. His little son had touched a tender chord at last. Like a flash his mind reverted years, years back to a low roofed home in far away England. There swept before his mind’s eye a vision of an old-fashioned fire-place, bulging crooked stockings hanging above in a row, a kindly mother’s and children’s ruddy faces, a loaded brilliant Christmas tree, a dinner of turkey, of plum pudding, and an extravagant supply of candy and nuts – and for a moment a thrill of boy-like enthusiasm and appreciation passed through him. True, they had been poor indeed at times; but, he reflected, his mother, who came of the Christmas-loving Germans, had always managed somehow, in the hardest of times, to have something laid by for happy Yuletide.
“I don’t believe your father was a boy,” Tony, on the other side was saying. “I believe he’s always been the same old stingy skinflint.”
Robert suddenly flew at Tony in a passionate whirl-wind of anger.
“Tony Foster, you’ve said enough, you – you – I’ll give you a good lickin’ if you are bigger’n an’ older’n me, if you call my father that!”
Tony straightened himself up in amazement and began to ward off the blows that Robert was aiming at his head; then as if something in the situation struck him as very funny, he threw himself flat on his back and burst into a shout of laughter, rolling over and over in the hay in a perfect convulsion. The rafters over head fairly rang with the mocking sound. At length, however, he stopped laughing and resumed his seat on the hay.
“Oh, dear,” he gasped, “you’re enough to give a feller a fit! Say, kid,” wiping his eyes on his shabby coat sleeve, “you mustn’t look at me like that again. Why, don’t you know I could lick you with my little fingers?”
Robert stood half crying with anger.
“I don’t care,” he said, “you – you keep still about my father.”
“Well,” said Tony, after a moment, “I will. I didn’t come here to scrap with you. Now let’s talk business,” with an important air. ‘You see, kid, it’s like this,” emphasizing each word with his right forefinger on the palm of the other hand, “you want fifty cents an’ your father won’t give it to you. Now though you are such a soft one you must know where your father keeps his money – and a jolly, big pile of it he must have somewhere, too. Now, I’ll tell you what to do,” lowering his voice. “You watch your chance and when your dad ain’t around, you just slip into the place where he keeps it, and take a quarter, bring it to me, and I’ll let you have that beauty with the blue sets I showed you jest now. See?”
To the man listening so intently behind the partition, it seemed that even the animals in their stalls had stopped eating to hear Robert’s answer.
“I – I don’t understand you, Tony,” he said, in a low, troubled tone, “you – you surely don’t mean for me to steal it?”
“Steal it! Great scott, of course not! I don’t call it by that name. I call it jest takin’ what b’longs to you by rights. Ain’t you his son, and hadn’t he orter give you things when you want ‘em, and besides, the money’ll all be yourn some day, anyhow, that is if you live longer than the old skin– there, there, I won’t say that again,” as the dark eyes flashed ominously, “but, anyway, he’d never miss such a small amount and if he wants to know where you got the pins, jest say I give ‘em to you, or something like that, and –”
“Oh – oo!” Robert’s voice rang with indignation. “Do you think – do you think I’d do that. Why, I wouldn’t for your hull card o’ pins, Tony Foster. Why, my mother’d feel terrible, she wouldn’t want a bres’ pin got that way, if she never had one.”
Robert noticed a startled look suddenly pass over Tony’s freckled and shame-faced countenance, and turning about, he felt his father’s hand on his arm.
“I guess I’m goin’ over to Rock City in the mornin’ in the bobs. You boys want to ride over?” asked John Fenton in a voice that sounded husky in spite of his efforts to control it.
“Why – why, I’m ‘fraid I can’t,” faltered Tony, squeezing close to the wall. Then darting hurriedly by, he fled towards home like a whipped puppy.
The hand on Robert’s arm prevented him from doing likewise; hanging his head he dug his toe into the loose hay leaves.
“Robbie – Robbie,” murmured his father brokenly, patting the boy’s shoulder. “We’ll go up to the City tomorrow and bring the boys back to your mother fer Christmas. You’d like to buy her a reel gold pin up there with blue sets, I reckon? I expect you could get a good one for three or four dollars. I guess we’d better git a tree, too, with bangles and colored candles and things. And mebby you’d like one o’ them long red sleds – huh? an’ some skates. How’d ye like to bring one home fer that Tony?”
The last was the most wonderful of all. Robbie pinched himself twice under his coat to see if it was not a dream. Looking up quickly he saw his father’s eyes all “teary” and questioning. The hard lines had vanished from his thin face, and there was a soft expression about his mouth that mystified the boy.
“That would be fine, father!” he said, shyly, with a deep breath of joyful anticipation.