From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1938
SANTA WITH A HIGH HAND
By Mabel S. Harmer
Stephen, overcoated and mufflered to meet the challenge4 of the brisk December morning, had all but reached the front door when the telephone rang. He glanced back at it with a look of annoyance on his face and half decided to ignore it. But the telephone refused to be ignored so Stephen went over, jerked it up and called “Hello” in an almost resentful voice. His tone and facial expression underwent a remarkable change, however, when he heard the answering voice. Had Elinor Fabian called him from his first meal after a ten-day hunger strike, he still would have been delighted to talk with her.
“How are you?” he called cheerily. “I was just going to give you a ring to see if you would lunch with me today.”
“Never mind,” came the answer in tones that bordered on the depths of woe. “Those children have come.”
“What children? I didn’t know that you had ordered any children.”
“I didn’t order them,” she replied coldly, “and if you have to be facetious about it, I’ll hang up.”
“Oh, no, don’t do that,” he cried in alarm. “Tell me all about it. No, wait a minute – I’ll run over.”
Five minutes later he was being ushered into Elinor’s apartment. He found her in the throes of trying to fasten an apparently unlimited number of leggings, caps and galoshes onto two small, wriggling children. “David and Nancy,” she said, “Mr. Stephen is our neighbor and perhaps if you are very good you may go over and play in his yard for a while.”
“How do you do,” said David, putting out a small mittened fist. Nancy only stared with wide, brown eyes.
“How do you do,” Stephen answered smiling. “I hope you’ll like my yard and will come often.”
“May we build a snowman?” David asked with sudden interest.
“A dozen if you like.”
“Run along now,” Elinor interrupted, starting them toward the door, “and be sure that you don’t go far away.” She closed the door behind them and leaned against it as if for support.
“May I suggest a chair?” said Stephen dryly.
“It isn’t funny,” answered Elinor, throwing him a withering look. “They’re Helen’s children and I’m afraid they’ve come to stay.”
“Who might Helen be?”
“My cousin. I thought perhaps you remembered her. She used to come here as a child. She and her husband were killed in an automobile accident a year ago. The children have been with the grandmother since then, but it seems that she has developed a cough or something and has gone to Arizona. The cough is bound to be permanent and I’ll have them here for good.” she threw out her hands in a gesture of despair.
“She’s lovely – even now,” thought Stephen irrelevantly. The slightly flushed cheeks and blue-grey eyes, darkened by emotion, only added to her beauty. Her fair hair, drawn back into a classical knot, was as smooth and shining as if it had just been arranged for an evening party. Aloud he said, “Poor little tykes. it’s rather hard for them to lose both father and mother and not be wanted by anyone in particular now.”
“It isn’t that I don’t want them,” Elinor answered quickly. “They’re adorable children and I would love to have them, but I don’t think it’s fair that I should have to be burdened with them now when I have given up everything else for my career. I have just now reached a point where they are giving me important roles on the radio. I may have a chance at national broadcasting soon, but how can I practice if I have to spend all my time running around with bowls of milk and cod liver oil!”
Stephen walked over and sat down beside her on the couch. “Do you love me, Elinor?” he asked gravely, taking one of her slim white hands in his own.
“Why, yes. Of course I do,” she answered in a rather matter-of-fact tone.
“Then why don’t you chuck the broadcasting and marry me, and you and the children live in my big house. there has hardly been a time in a hundred years when there haven’t been children sliding down the banisters and tumbling about in the old garden.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Elinor cried, snatching her hand away. “Why in the name of reason should I throw away the thing that I have been working for years to obtain in order that children might be kept sliding up and down your banisters?”
It was Stephen’s turn now to flush with anger. “I wasn’t aware that you regarded my love as ridiculous,” he cried, standing up.
Elinor stood up too, the flash from her grey eyes matching the fire from his darker ones. “It is ridiculous for you to insist upon hanging on to that big house in this day and age and to suppose that I could spend all of my time keeping up its silly antiquated traditions. if you would be reasonable and give it up I might think differently about marrying you.”
Stephen seized his hat. “Do you realize that my great-grandmother came to that house as a bride?” he asked in a tense voice. “four generations of Trents have lived in that house. Every room is full of cherished memories for me.”
“If you would rather live in that old house with your great-grandmother’s ghost than in a smart modern apartment with me, there is nothing more to say,” Elinor replied stonily.
Stephen had one more thing to say, however, and pausing at the door he flung back the words, “You are an utterly selfish and self-centered woman.”
So he and Elinor had quarreled at last with complete and terrible finality. For twenty years now they had been quarreling off and on about trivialities that were usually forgotten overnight. He had called her selfish and self-centered, and so she was – filled with indignation because she had two orphan children to give her time to instead of giving it to her everlasting radio work. He hunched up his shoulders to draw his coat collar closer about his neck and hurried down the last block before he reached the office.
During the next two weeks he saw nothing whatever of Elinor which hurt him more than he would ever have imagined. He made it a point to become very friendly with the children, however, who played about in the snow daily, coming into the house at frequent intervals to warm their feet at the great fireplace in the living room and to be fed cinnamon toast by Mrs. Jennings, the housekeeper.
Stephen refrained scrupulously from asking them anything about Elinor, but he gained from their chatter that she “studied most of the time.” Physically they were being well taken care of, but Stephen thought that he saw a wistful look about their faces which bothered him. Elinor had no business letting mites of four and five grow wistful even if she was by way of becoming a celebrity in the radio world. After a time they stopped playing on his lot altogether, and he suspected that she had given orders to that effect, and he grew more resentful than ever toward her.
As Christmas time drew near Stephen’s only attempt toward creating an atmosphere of festivity was the hanging of wreaths in the windows. He would have liked to trim a Christmas tree. The corner in the living room where one had stood during his childhood seemed to shriek its barrenness, but he decided that a bachelor of 27, living alone in a house with a couple of servants, would probably be considered feeble-minded if he went about hanging tinsel on a tree without some sort of a legitimate excuse. If only Elinor – but Elinor was completely out of the picture.
He read in the papers that she was taking the leading role in the drama to be broadcast Christmas Eve over a national network. So. her ambitions were to be realized at last. She was to be heard over a national system and would probably get the kind of contract she wanted, for Elinor was exceptionally good.
He told himself a dozen times that he would not listen to the broadcast which was scheduled for nine o’clock and would have left the house in order to make sure that his decision held good if there had been any place for him to go.
He took a book and sat down by the fireplace in the4 living room with his back turned resolutely to the radio. The book was strangely uninteresting. He jumped to his feet in a hurry when the bell rang and gave a gasp of surprise when he found small David and Nancy standing outside, their wraps donned in a haphazard manner.
“Hello, young people,” he said in tones of hospitality. “Won’t you come in?” and Stephen ushered them into the living room where they sat down and began looking about intently.
“You haven’t a tree either,” said David, gazing hard at Stephen with accusing brown eyes.
Stephen looked properly guilty. “Well, no – that’s right, I haven’t,” he apologized. “To tell the truth I have been very busy and –”
“So has Aunt Elinor,” David interrupted. “She has been too busy to get a tree or to help us write a letter to Santa Claus or anything. Last year we had a big tree at Granny’s and went right down town and told Santa Claus what we wanted and he bringed every bit, but now he doesn’t even know where we are.” David seemed very close to tears as he detailed the desperateness of their situation.
“By the way,” Stephen asked, “did Aunt Elinor say that you might come over here tonight?”
“No,” Nancy answered. “She was busy and said ‘on no account to ‘sturb her.’ So we put on our things and commed alone.” David added, “We thought that maybe you would have a tree.”
“We can get a tree,” said Stephen suddenly. “There are lots of them down town yet. And I have all kinds of red balls and things in a box up in my attic. Shall we go find one?”
“Oh, yes1″ both children cried in tones of such joy mingled with relief that Stephen felt his throat tighten. as he was putting on his overcoat he glanced at the hall telephone and then at the clock. A quarter of nine. There was no use phoning Elinor now. She would already be on her way to the studio. Besides “on no account must she be disturbed.” Stephen’s lips curled as he thought of her words. He would call her later when the broadcast was over and the tension relieved.
Piling both children into the front seat of the car with him, he started out to look for a tree. They selected one in a hurry and laid it on the fender of the car.
“And now shall we go home and trim it?” Stephen asked gaily.
“If we could find Santa Claus first,” Nancy said, “I’d like to tell him that I want a doll with a pink dress this year.”
“And I need a new train,” David added. “We didn’t even bring the old one along.”
“You sit right here in the car and I’ll run in that store and telephone,” Stephen said quickly. “I’m pretty sure to catch the old gent if I hurry.”
Stephen reached the door just as it was about to be locked. “Sorry, sir, we’re just closing,” said the proprietor.
“Not yet, you aren’t,” Stephen said, stepping aside. “I’ve got to get some toys if I have to get them at the point of a gun.”
“Well, you needn’t be so high-handed about it,” was the weary retort.
“Sorry,” smiled Stephen. He could afford to smile now that he was safely inside. “But in an emergency Santa has to use a high hand. I want a doll with a pink dress, and a train and a bunch of these things over here.” He walked over to a table filled with mechanical toys and picked up several at random.
A few minutes later he stowed the bundles in the rear of the car unnoticed by the children who were very much engrossed in staring wide eyed at the myriad lights and holiday decorations. “I fixed it up all right with Santa,” he said as he climbed in beside them once more.
The children beamed happily, seeming to feel that their problems were now in capable hands. When they arrived home, the tree was set up and trimmings were hung upon it plentifully if not too artistically.
“You must go home now,” said Stephen, catching Nancy in the middle of a huge yawn. “I’ll finish the tree and you can come over early in the morning to see it.”
“We’re not going home,” said David briefly but decisively.
“Oh, I say!” exclaimed Stephen. “What would Aunt Elinor think about that?”
“She wouldn’t care. besides, there isn’t any tree there and Santa Claus has to leave presents under a tree. We’re going to stay here. Maybe we’ll always stay here,” he concluded.
“Well, on second thought maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Stephen conceded, “only you must go to bed right now or Santa Claus will think you are staying up all night and won’t stop at all.”
This was sufficient to start them off and they scampered upstairs ahead of Stephen where they were soon undressed and tucked beneath covers.
Smiling to himself, Stephen was about to finish trimming the tree when the door was suddenly flung open and Elinor stepped inside, white-faced and distraught.
“They’re gone,” she gasped. “I’ve searched all over for them. I’ve even called the police. You must help me find them.”
Stephen looked at her in silence for a moment. So she did have a heart after all. She wasn’t entirely centered in the career of the beautiful and talented Elinor Fabian. Then to relieve her distress he said simply, “They’re here.”
for an instant relief flooded her face and then she turned on him furiously. “Oh, why didn’t you call me?” she cried. “I’ve been half frantic all evening.”
“Well, to tell the truth,” Stephen answered, half amused at her anger, which he realized was only the result of the relief she felt, “I was going to, but it was nearly nine when I learned that my guests were runaways, and I thought that you would have left for the studio by then.”
“I didn’t go,” Elinor, exhausted, sank down onto the stairway.
“You didn’t go to the studio tonight?” Stephen stared at her incredulously.
‘No, of course I didn’t go. I discovered the children were missing just as I was about to leave and I have been searching ever since. I didn’t think that they would come here. I – I had told them not to any more,” she confessed, looking away from his earnest dark eyes.
“But what about the play?” he persisted, sitting down beside her.
Elinor shrugged. “There’s always an understudy and the play didn’t really matter.” She looked up at him again. “Where are they? I must get them home and hang up the stockings. I have stacks of presents for them. I really hadn’t forgotten them entirely,” she finished with a wistful smile.
“They’re in bed and probably asleep by now,” said Stephen, “but you can bring your offerings over here and if you come over real early in the morning you can see them get their presents. They’ll probably be so excited that they’ll slide down the banisters. You know there’s something very fascinating about children sliding down banisters.”
“I’m sure there is,” Elinor conceded with a sigh of complete satisfaction as Stephen gathered her close in her arms. “Wasn’t I a fool to turn away from the real thing for the make-believe?”
“Terribly foolish,” Stephen agreed happily, “but terribly sweet.”