From the Children’s Friend, December 1926 –
Jimmy’s First Christmas
By Lucy M. Blanchard
“Vagrants!” muttered the policeman, pausing on his beat. “The town is full of them. As I knows my duty, there’s nothing to do but to run the kid in and turn the cur over to the dog catcher.”
He was such a little fellow and so forlorn as he stood shivering on his puny legs with the dejected looking dog by his side.
He was just eight and his name was Jimmy. That was all he was sure of, although he had vague recollections of a cross man whom the neighbors had called Baker. He supposed that must have been his father, although he had not seen him since long before his mother died. He had never missed him and was perfectly convinced in his own mind that he and Spot were just as well off without anyone else bothering around.
Spot was a kind of spaniel, black with white spots and a lot of company for a fellow to have. Jimmy had found him whimpering on the street, having been run over by an automobile, and had nursed the injured leg back to strength. Since then he and Spot had been inseparable.
After Jimmy’s mother had died, they had found a refuge in an abandoned water tank atop of a tenement house. He had taken the ragged blankets off her bed and with them they had set up housekeeping. In the summer, the water tank answered the purpose finely; they could look up at the stars, if they happened to wake, and they didn’t need any covering, but when fall came it was different. With the first cool nights, they were glad to crawl under the blankets and sleep as close to each other as was possible. It wasn’t so very bad, even when the first rains came, for the sun was hot in the daytime and they soon dried off.
For one reason or other, Jimmy had formulated his own code of morals and wouldn’t steal, no matter how the world went against him. He managed to earn a little money selling papers, although the bigger newsboys jostled and elbowed him so he didn’t have more than half a chance. There was many a night when he and Spot went to bed hungry, and Jimmy’s arms would go around his faithful companion, as he fell asleep, murmuring: “We’re pals, anyway, old fellow, and I guess tomorrow will turn out better than today.”
There was ever the hope that tomorrow would turn out better than today. But, steadily, the nights grew colder and the holes in the blankets seemed bigger.
Christmas approached. Even Apple Street knew it and bright colored festoons of red and green crepe were wound around the chandeliers in the shops. Together Spot and his master went window-wishing, and Jimmy indulged in considerable speculation as to whether Santa Claus could possibly come to a water tank on a tenement house.
“It ain’t that I expect much,” he would say wistfully, “but I would like some of them red candies, just to get the taste in my mouth, and shoes and stockings would come in awful handy.” With that he would stoop down and try to draw the strings tighter or pull off a bit of the hanging sole. On such occasions, Spot invariably improved the opportunity by licking him full in the face, and both would forget pressing troubles.
Then the worst happened!
It was two days before Christmas when the big storm came. It beat on the tenement roof and poured into the improvised home, soaking the miserable waifs through and through, and forcing them to crawl out, climb down the fire escape and seek refuge in a sheltering doorway. Tough luck and no mistake! Then the rain turned to snow – a perfect blizzard.
So, the policeman found them. Eying them suspiciously, boy and dog, he set them down as vagrants and proceeded to do his duty.
“Come, Sonny,” he urged, “come along with me. I’ll get ye a place where ye can be comfortable.”
But Jimmy was wary, he had seen cops before and knew what it meant to be run in. Besides, he would have to part with Spot.
“No,” he cried in terror as he hugged his companion closer. “No, I won’t go! I ain’t doin’ no harm to anybody. Me and Spot’s got a place to sleep and everythin’.”
“Come along and don’t make a scene,” the police officer insisted, at the same time taking him a little roughly by the arm.
And then the miracle!
Mrs. Marshall had awakened that morning to the realization that there remained but two days until Christmas. Christmas, as if that mattered! She wished the word could be dropped from the language. Still there were purchases that must be made and, stormy as it was, she rang for Timothy and told him she would drive to the shops.
Owing to the storm, he took a short cut and, contrary to his custom, drove through the poorer section of the city, while Kate Marshall leaned wearily back in her luxurious limousine, lost in sad reflections.
It had not always been so. Once she had looked forward as eagerly as anyone to the joys of the holiday season. Her husband and child had filled her life completely. Now all was changed. Six years previously Mr. Marshall had lost his life in a railroad accident, and three years later, Robert, her only child, had been taken from her by pneumonia. She shuddered at the memories of that dreadful December. Since then, her life had been a blank. It was the old story of a rich, lonely woman. Three years since Robert had gone, the gay, happy child of eight!
Suddenly her thoughts were interrupted. What was the matter? The car was slowing down. She glanced listlessly from the window. Crowds of poorly dressed men, women and children were gathering. There was evidently some disturbance. She hoped not a distressing accident. She hated crowds, and what on earth had possessed her chauffeur to drive through such a street? Thoroughly out of patience, she cried:
“Hurry on, Timothy, let’s get out of this as soon as possible!”
“But, Ma’am,” he answered, “you don’t understand – it ain’t best to hurry. Not that there’s anything to be afraid of! It’s only a policeman doing his duty – arresting some vagrant. Goodness knows there’s plenty of ‘em.”
She settled back discontentedly, just as the car stopped, and a childish voice rang out, full of pain and pathos.
“Please, Mister, can’t I have him? I can’t go without Spot. We’re pals!” and she looked out of the window at a pale, hollow-eyed boy who, with one hand on the head of a dejected looking dog, was turning a pleading face to the policeman.
What was it caused Mrs. Marshall’s heart to flutter so wildly? Was it that something in the quivering, upturned features recalled her boy, now gone from her? She wasn’t a woman of impulse, but this time at least she acted without consideration. Opening the window, and regardless of spectators, she commanded in a voice thick with emotion:
“Wait! Do you have to take him to the station? He’s such a little fellow. What has he been doing?”
“Not much of anything, Ma’am,” the officer replied politely, at the same time touching his hat. “But it’s this way: I don’t know what else to do with him. He’s got no home, and no one to care for him. Mother dead, and father cleared out years ago. He’s a vagrant, Ma’am, and I know my business.”
“Ye–es,” she faltered, “ye–es.” Her heart pounded furiously as she tried to speak calmly. “But suppose – I – should – take – him? Could I – have – him?”
Timothy, forgetful of his training, stared. Was his mistress crazy? The policeman stood amazed. In his twenty years’ service, he had never before had such an experience as this.
“You mean –“
“Yes, I mean to take him home, look after him, be responsible for him.”
“Whew!” the officer gave a low whistle. The excited mob of curious people was closing in upon them – he waved his stick to keep them away.
“We–el, Ma’am, I guess if ye want him, there’s no one to object.”
Meantime, Jimmy stood, first on one foot and then on the other. He knew he was being discussed and hadn’t an idea what it was all about. He hugged Spot closer than ever.
“Very well, Ma’am,” the policeman continued, eying ruefully first the elegant car and then the shabby boy. “I’ll bring him to your house, anytime you say, if that’s what you want –”
“Not at all,” continued Mrs. Marshall. She was calm now and had perfect command of her emotions. “Not at all. I wish to drive him home myself.” Then, addressing the object of the discussion: “Get in, Jimmy. I am going to take you with me.”
What? Jimmy stood with open mouth. Was she asking him to jump in? There must be some mistake. He gazed helplessly at the car and then at the crowd of neighbors that pressed nearer.
“Haven’t ye any manners?” It was the policeman who spoke – “don’t ye know that the lady asked ye to get in?” and with that he gave him a friendly push with his stick.
“Yes,” continued Mrs. Marshall steadily, “I want you.”
Jimmy’s eyes shone like stars. So she meant it, she – wanted him – wanted him, in spite of his ragged sweater and his dripping clothes. No one had ever wanted him before. He turned to obey. Then he remembered Spot. No, he couldn’t leave Spot – the only pal he had ever had.
“Plea–se– ma’am,” he stammered, “I thank you – ev–er so much, but I c–an–t,” and his voice trailed into a sort of sob. There was nothing in all his life he had wished to do as to get into that automobile.
“You can’t?” Mrs. Marshall’s voice was incredulous. People always did as she asked. Her heart hardened. As long as he was so ungrateful, perhaps she had better let him go to the police station. But there was something so pathetic in the shivering little figure that she did not utter the words and, as there came to her mind the picture of her Robert, with his pet collie, in a flash she understood. She hadn’t invited Spot!
“I mean your dog, too,” she said very clearly and distinctly. “Of course, I know you couldn’t desert him.”
“Oh, Ma’am!” How his voice rang with joy! “Then it’s all right. You see, I couldn’t go back on him – he sticks to me and I sticks to him, no matter what happens.” And again he turned to her a look so like Robert’s that the quick tears came, unbidden, to Kate Marshall’s eyes.
All the way home, she was busy with her thoughts while the two bedraggled waifs sat on the floor of the car, cuddled very close to each other, looking at her with a kind of rapture in their eyes.
What would she do with this homeless wanderer now that she had befriended him? She could not look ahead – she was only sure of this much. He must have a bath, something to eat and some decent clothes. There were Robert’s still hanging in the closet, just as they had done when he was alive.
Soon, lulled by the unaccustomed motion of the car, Jimmy had fallen asleep, one hand on his pal, the other laid confidingly on her knee. But by the time they turned into the driveway, both boy and dog were wide awake, eager to see what lay before them in this strange world.
As she put her key in the lock, Jimmy drew back.
“No, Ma’am, no – me and Spot can’t go in there – we ain’t used to places like that!” and he pointed a grimy finger at the heavy oak door.
“But you must,” she insisted. “That’s what I brought you here for. Don’t you want something to eat and a bath?”
Jimmy couldn’t resist – eat, why he hadn’t had anything since the noon before. As for a bath, he wondered what it could be like, in such a place.
He stole a look at her, then asked doubtfully, “Is having a bath like wading in a gutter or swimming in a gym pool? I’ve watched fellers doing that.”
“Yes,” she answered, smiling a little, “only better. Come, you’ll like it, I know,” and she laid her hand in Jimmy’s now unresisting dirty palm, and together they walked into the house, Spot in close attendance.
Janey, the housemaid, saw them and flew with the news to the cook. “Sure and the missus is bringing into the house the raggedest boy I have ever saw, a holdin’ on to him like she meant to keep him. It’s only Timothy can tell us where she picked him up.”
Mrs. Marshall vouchsafed no explanation as she led the boy straight upstairs to the bathroom where they soon heard the water running.
Meantime, Timothy was subjected to a fire of questions, but all he answered was, “There’s nothing to tell ‘cept he’s a kid she picked up on Apple Street – the police was a plannin’ to run him to the station, but the Missus wouldn’t let him. Made both him and his pup climb into the car, all dirty as they was, and it’s me that’s got to clean it,” he ended grumblingly.
It was certainly amazing and cook and maid turned to each other with the breathless exclamation, “Whatever is going to happen!”
Jimmy had looked askance at the white tiled bathtub and the shining faucets, but after Mrs. Marshall had filled the tub and shown him how to temper the water, he was delighted, and nothing would do but he should haul Spot in with him, and so she left them, Jimmy splashing and sputtering, while Spot gave quick, sharp barks which sounded like resentment at the treatment he was thus forced to undergo.
Now for the clothes! Going to Robert’s room which was just as he had left it, she opened the closet door as she had done hundreds of times in the past three years and looked at the little suits hanging there. Robert had been eight, just Jimmy’s age, only Jimmy was thin while Robert had been well nourished and stocky. She took them down, one by one – which should she choose? At last, she decided on a blue sailor suit with red tie. Now for underclothes, shoes and stockings. She had them all.
Then the bathroom door opened a crack and an anxious little face peered out. “Please, Ma’am, I can’t find my sweater anywheres, or any of my other duds. They’s all I got, you know.”
“I took them,” she answered cheerfully, “and you won’t need them anymore. Here are some to take their place.”
As he took them in his wet hand, she heard a delighted chuckle.
“Hey, you dog! Give a look at these swell clothes, and warm – my, but they’re warm!”
When at last he emerged, clean and shining, clad in Robert’s suit, even the policeman would never in the world have recognized him for the vagrant whom he had considered it his duty to take to the station house.
Jimmy tried to thank his benefactor, as with trembling hands she tied the red tie in a flowing knot, but the words stuck in his throat, and nothing came but a broken sob.
“Never mind,” Mrs. Marshall said, “never mind about the thanks,” and the queer part of it was that her voice, too, was full of tears.
Then she left him to the care of Janey and the cook while she summoned the grumbling Timothy to take her at once to the shops.
It was snowing hard, but Christmas was the day after tomorrow and it would not do not to have a tree and all the presents she knew a boy of eight would like. She had the list with her, the very list she had made out for Robert, with all the presents he had asked Santa Claus to bring him. There were books, a sled, skates, and so many other things one couldn’t begin to enumerate them.
By the time she returned home, tired and happy, she found Jimmy had ingratiated himself into the hearts of the servants.
He was in the kitchen watching with fascinated eyes while old Susie was cutting out an astonishing gingerbread man, just the kind Robert had so loved, while Spot stood on his hand legs and begged for scraps.
“Please, Ma’am!” she exclaimed as her mistress entered the room, and she wiped her floury hand on her apron. “Please, Ma’am, it seems as if the old times is come back.”
All the next day, one wonder succeeded another and Jimmy was dazed and confided to Spot, “Tomorrow can’t be any better than this, I know, if it is going to be Christmas.”
But it was! When he awoke in the morning he found a stocking (one of Robert’s) hanging where he could reach it from the bed, and overflowing with red candies and good things.
In a corner of the living room stood a tree, yes, a real tree, hung with everything a boy of eight could possibly wish for, even to a fine collar for Spot.
She smiled as she heard him chuckling: “I allus thought Santa Claus was a man and I can’t get over how he’s turned out to be a lady!”
As for the dinner, it was the first Christmas dinner he had ever eaten with turkey and oysters, plum pudding and mince pie. He tried hard not to seem greedy, but things did taste oh! so good!
It was a real Christmas for Mrs. Marshall, too, and when evening had come and the tree shone in all its glory, she took the little waif on her lap, telling him the age-old story of the shepherds who watched by night and the babe who was born in a manger.
He was growing drowsy in spite of his interest, but roused himself at this point with a reminiscent shudder.
“A manger in a stable couldn’t have been much better than a water tank when it was cold.” With that, his voice trailed into silence. Jimmy’s first Christmas was over.