From the Improvement Era, December 1936 –
“I Heard the Bells of Christmas Ring”
By Maryhale Woolsey
Half-way up the third flight of stairs, Tony felt a dizzy weakness sweeping over her. She sank down in the near-darkness, resting her bag of groceries on the step beside her. How heavy they seemed! — but of course, it was only because she was so tired; the load really was small. To Mart, it would have been nothing at all. If only he had been there to carry it for her!
She lifted the broken bit of evergreen which she had picked up from the sidewalk near the store, and sniffed its fragrance wistfully. Back on the mountain farm where she had grown up, there was a little grove of spruce from which had come, each year, a tree for Tony. She’d always had a Christmas tree! Tears came into her eyes, but she blinked them away determinedly. She mustn’t be such a baby — she, a grown woman, a married woman who would have a baby of her own before another Christmas-time! Why — her baby would be old enough to notice its own little tree, by then; next Christmas would be a real Christmas again! For surely Mart would be “located” long before another year passed. All he needed was a chance, Tony told herself loyally.
If only Mart would come tonight, though, — then at least she could have Christmas in her heart! It was unthinkable that Christmas might pass while she was so unhappy within herself, so discouraged, so weary of everything. She couldn’t seem to shake off her dark mood; not with Mart staying away so long, and Grandmere lying so weak and ill — though the doctor did say she really was better.
Maybe Mart would come tonight — because of Christmas, and he’d know she’d be wanting him. But then, he’d said Christmas “didn’t mean anything to him; nothing to all that bunk, anyway!”
Mart had known nothing but suffering and unhappiness in all his life; she mustn’t blame him if he felt bitter. Tony had had troubles and sorrows; she, too, had lost both father and mother, had known only poverty — but she’d had Grandmere to look after her and comfort her and teach her about things … Mart had had only a brother much older, uncaring if Mart “ran wild,” as the neighbors used to say.
Queer, how Mart should have wanted Tony, who was pale and thin and frail, when he was so big and strong. Of course, people said “Opposites always attract;” maybe it was as simple as that!
Or perhaps it had been their common need for companionship and sympathy that brought them together — Mart, “that wild boy,” and Tony, daughter of “that queer French girl Henry Mellor had married — convert, she was — and her old mother, too; but the Grandmere, as they called her, never had learned to put aside her old-world ways, quite. Poor Henry! — and poor little girl of his, left all alone, you might say …”
When Tony, barely eighteen, married Mart — who was less than two years older — Grandmere said, in the French that she must always use to express herself clearly: “Now we have a man to tend the farm, and things will be better.”
But Mart, when Tony had blushingly translated for him, laughed loudly and exclaimed,
“Not by a jugful! Nobody’s going to hitch me up to any little old handful of mud like this farm! We’re going to the city, Tony, and be somebody that is somebody. We’re going to have things you never dreamed of having, you funny little angel-face. We’ll sell the farm — and I’ll show you!” And masterfully he slapped down his unruly red-brown hair, and his dark eyes smiled into Tony’s adoring blue ones, and promised wonderful things. They hadn’t sold the farm, because it developed that Tony could not legally sell her inheritance until she was twenty-one. So, because Mart was impatient, and in spite of the Bishop’s pleading that they remain, they left it standing bleakly and alone, a neighbor agreeing to look after the chickens running at will in and out of the broken coops and yards, and a cow mooing lonesomely in her bit of a pasture. Grandmere wept when they left the little Mormon community, but Tony knew only a great pride and confidence in Mart’s ability to bend the world to his will.
She hadn’t dreamed of what they would experience in the city. The weeks of temporary jobs, the uncertainty of tomorrow’s food and next week’s rent; the noises and smells and drabness, — and the steps to climb! They’d taken these little high-up rooms because they were cheap and yet had more light than most, and there was a tiny balcony where Grandmere could have a chair in the sunshine — when there was sunshine; they’d not dreamed of the smoke and fog that could shut away the sun for days at a time; but so it had been. Grandmere wept much and prayed more, and grew thin for lack of eggs and cream and garden-things; Tony paled and worried as the days went by and Mart could not find his “chance.”
Grandmere fell ill; Mart resented her pains and aches and the extra work for Tony; they quarreled. And he left, one day when everything seemed to go dead wrong, flinging himself out with the heart-chilling statement that he’d come back when he had a real job, and not until then; he was sick of — all this! That was — three weeks ago; such ages and ages!
Tony sprang to her feet in dismay. The stairs were quite dark; Grandmere was all alone, waiting for her — and here she sat dreaming, with wet cheeks and heavy heart and tired, tired body. She was so tired!
Grandmere was awake. Tony bathed her face and hands, arranged the pillows comfortably, and hurried to warm the soup left from yesterday, and the bowl of milk pudding. For herself, remembering the clinic doctor’s admonition regarding raw vegetables every day, she scrubbed a carrot and laid it on her plate. She was too tired to prepare a proper salad. Tomorrow she’d take time to fix everything just right. If only Mart would be there, too!
She helped Grandmere eat first, and as she tucked an old blanket around the thin shoulders, she thought with momentary pleasure of the rose wool shoulder cape she had been knitting for Grandmere’s Christmas-gift. It needed but a few stitches more, and it would be so warm and pretty. She’d done a muffler for Mart, too, striped gray and blue; it had been finished and waiting for days. Waiting for Christmas — and Mart’s return.
Tony ate her lonely meal, washed the dishes, and tidied the room. Grandmere had fallen asleep; the stillness was all but unendurable. She settled herself in the big, old cushioned chair, the room’s one luxury, and took the rose-colored cape to finish it; her knitting-needles clicked, a desolate sound. This — this, she thought bitterly, was Christmas Eve. Her first wedded Christmas!
Tears burned behind her eyelids. She felt that weeping would be a relief, but she could not weep; her throat ached, throbbing painfully. She found her eyes constantly turning toward the door, her ears straining for the sound of a firm step on the stairs. … Mart … Mart … please come….
And then she heard a new sound. So suddenly it came, she started from her chair, a cry stifled on her lips. She stood staring about, wondering; and her face grew bright with pleasure, her heart seemed to be lifted up.
Bells! Christmas bells! Clear and sweet of tone, they pealed out joyfully, seeming far away, yet near, chiming out the melody of a beloved old hymn. Tony dropped her work and clasped her hands in ecstasy, lost in listening. In the other room, Grandmere stirred, cried out. Tony was at her bedside in an instant, and found her half sitting up, her wrinkled face alight.
“Carillons!” she cried. “The window, Toinette — open the window!”
Tony obeyed, mechanically getting her coat as a gust of cold air swept in upon her. The beautiful sound of the bells filled the room.
“Noel, Noel,” Grandmere whispered. “The blessed Noel comes again! The bells, Toinette — it is as if I were home again in my beloved France. I would kneel to pray, cherie — and I cannot; you will kneel for me, Toinette? And give thanks for the coming of the blessed Noel?”
Tony knelt obediently; she could find no words, but in her heart was a prayer of gratitude for this interlude of beauty. … There were voices now, singing; she could hear the words clearly: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come; Let Earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare Him room –”
They listened breathlessly to the end. When silence came again, Grandmere sank back upon her pillow, but a smile was on her lips and peace in her eyes. She was murmuring something; Tony bent to catch the words:
“I am better now — better. Noel, Noel –”
Softly Tony went away, back to her work. And now the needles clicked merrily; to their accompaniment, Tony sang very low, the song the bells had brought: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!”
The bells — the beautiful bells! Their joyous message had changed everything. They had told her that gladness and beauty and sweet tidings yet had a place in the world, in her life.
“I think I know now,” she said half aloud, “how the Shepherds felt when the angels sang over Bethlehem!”
The last stitch was taken. Tony fastened the threads carefully, folded the cape and laid it aside. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, with a deep breath of exquisite peace.
“Blue’s Place,” that one of “Big Bronson” Blue’s tiny lunchrooms that huddled close to the Central Depot, was having a slow evening. “Manager” Pete and his assistant lounged against the wall back of the counter, arguing lazily. Behind the thin partition that set off the kitchen from the main part of the room, the young fellow taken in to wash dishes for his dinner, sat teeterishly on a broken chair, waiting.
Pete, presently yawning and slipping off his soiled apron, said: “Say, Larry, I might’s well go uptown and do some lookin’ around. You’ll be okay for an hour or so — or, wait; I’ll call in the kid to keep you company. Huh? — Hi, there, youngster — come here!”
Mart, scowling slightly — for he resented being called “youngster” — pushed the swinging door open. “You calling me?”
“Yeah. I’m going out. You step in here and help if you’re needed.”
“Okay, Pete.” Mart looked about somewhat uneasily.
“Prob’ly nothin’ to do, but just in case,” Pete told him, as, taking his hat and overcoat from the rack, he went out into the murky twilight.
Larry winked at Mart. “Pete’s got some last-minute shoppin’ to do,” he grinned. “How about yours, pal?”
“All done,” Mart returned, ironically.
“Smart guy! So’s mine — last July…Oh-oh; business is movin’ — “ he added as three men entered the lunchroom.
Two went to the rearmost table, but the third, a big good-natured-appearing fellow, appropriated a stool at the counter.
“Gimme two ham sandwiches an’ a apple pie, an’ a milk — an’ rush it,” he said. “I’m catchin’ a train in about twelve minutes.”
“Take ‘im, you,” Larry said in an undertone to Mart. “I’ll tend them others.”
Mart noticed the big man, grinning, take a paper napkin from the container and begin wiping his hands on it; his expression was of keen anticipation. He looked as if he wanted to talk.
“Yessir,” he announced loudly, “I’m goin’ home fer Christmas, by gum. I’d give up hopin’ — but things come my way the last minute, almost — an’ here I am. Get home in time to help the wife do the Santy Claus stuff, too — thought sure I couldn’t make it, an’ it’d be the first time I ever missed. Gosh, I’m tickled. Christmas — say, it’s a great institooshun, ain’t it?”
“Is it?” Mart said. He watched the big man take an enormous bite into the first sandwich. “Never meant much of anything to me.”
“Didn’t?” The man shook his head. “Too bad. Course –” the words came indistinctly from the well-filled mouth — “I know there’s folks as don’t care, an’ then again, some goes to extremes t’other way. Me an’ mine, we make it one grand holiday; not a whole lot o’ spendin’ new style, but fun — good, wholesome fun. Sort o’ thing a family likes to remember an’ laugh about, years afterward. Got a mother, Kid?” he asked suddenly in a lower tone.
“No. She died when I was little.”
“Thought maybe … Too bad; makes a heap o’ difference … Father livin’?”
“I don’t know. He — he left after mother died.” Mart wondered why he bothered to tell; the words seemed to come of their own accord.
“You don’t say. That’s sure too bad … Got — anybody?”
“A — wife? You? Why — you look like a high-school kid. But say — with a wife, Christmas’ll mean somethin’ to you now, young feller. … Well –” the last gulp of milk went to wash down the last of the pie; the big man got to his feet and vigorously wiped his mouth with a large handkerchief — “I’m on my way. Merry Christmas, youngster — an’ here — keep the change fer a extry bit o’ Santy Claus, from me.”
He was gone, and in Mart’s hand a five-dollar-bill reposed crisply. Mart stared at it.
Larry, seeing, came over.
“’Smatter? Phoney or something?” Then, seeing the bill, he whistled. “Why — whaddayuh-know! — Well, it’s yours, kid; guess you can stand it, — huh?”
Turning to the cash-register, he counted change into Mart’s outstretched hand.
At that moment a burly figure filled the entrance door. “Big” Blue himself walked in, and cast suspicious eyes upon Larry and Mart.
“Whassup, here?” he demanded.
“The kid got a tip — big one,” Larry explained. “Pete took a spell off — and is this bozo in luck!”
Mart grinned broadly, feeling the cold weight of the money in his hand.
“H’m … Still lookin’ fer that job, Mart?” “Big” Blue chewed on his long black cigar and eyed Mart closely. “I got a use for you, maybe.
“Come out to my car, while we talk it over.”
The car was long and shining, and the array of gadgets within caused Mart’s eyes to open wide with admiration.
“Big” Blue waited some time before he spoke. “Well, I could use you, kid, because of your lookin’ like a kid — see? All innocence, — judgin’ by looks; but I’ve been watchin’ you — I know you’ve got brains, an’ guts, too. Just the kind of feller I’m lookin’ for. … Now, see here, Mart. I’m not tellin’ details now, — see? I say I can use you; but you have to accept or reject on what you can guess. Get me?”
“I get you.”
“Furthermore, — if you say yes, it’s yes fer keeps; no runnin’ out after you’re in — see? You’ll know too much. An’ I don’t let anybody go around knowin’ my business.”
“I see.” Mart met the steely gaze without flinching.
“But, on the other hand, — I’m a good boss. I make it worth all the chances you have to take. You think it over — I ain’t makin’ you decide too hasty, see — an’ if it’s yes, for keeps as I said, you meet me here tomorrow night for your first little job. Sort of a Christmas present I’m givin’ you,” “Big” Blue laughed shortly. “But if it ain’t yes — then, mind you, you don’t show up around any o’ my places any more, — get me? No more dishwashin’ for a square; you might let slip somethin’ about my havin’ another kind o’ business. See?” He opened the car door.
“I — see.” Mart got out; stood shivering on the curb while the long silvery machine slipped swiftly away into the stream of traffic.
Briefly, he thought of Tony. If she knew — but she didn’t know. He could tell her — oh, something; he’d make it all up to her, anyway, with the swell things he could do for her.
He turned back to the lunchroom, but met Pete at the door.
“Run along, kid — we’ll call it a day. Come around some other time. Goodnight — an’ Merry Christmas!”
Christmas! Mart thought. Christmas! — They wish you Merry Christmas — and what is there to be merry about? They talk peace and goodwill — but they measure it out to you according to what you have of this world’s goods… “Merry Christmas!” he muttered, and it was as if he spat the words into the dirty street.
And then he heard — music — no — bells, it was. Bells! Dozens of them, there must be, — chiming out in tunes; he looked about curiously. Where were those bells?
Mart went on, listening, conscious of a different feeling within him — queer —
He thought of Tony; he wondered if she were hearing the bells — she’d love anything like that! … There were voices, now — they were singing that old hymn they always used to sing at Christmas back in the little valley chapel: “Joy to the world — the Lord has come –” something like that. Only, it sounded different now — grander — oh, and being out-of-doors, coming from above; maybe that was it. Anyway — it got you, somehow. Made your throat feel sort of filled up, like it might if you were going to cry, like a kid —
Mart felt a sudden overwhelming desire for Tony. That song — it had something about angels in it — “angels sing” Tony — Tony — was an angel, herself. The swellest little kid in — anywhere. Maybe — probably — she was wanting him, tonight. Tony loved Christmas — but she’d be wanting him! His not being with her, — it’d spoil things for her; and it wasn’t much of a Christmas for her anyway, poor kid. Good gosh — say — he ought to take her something — some little gift!
He thought of the big good-natured man, and the surprising tip — “extry bit o’ Santy Claus — “
With sudden resolution, Mart turned his steps towards town. The air was crisply cold; the streets were bright with color — funny he’d not noticed, before! He found himself hurrying; it was getting late, and he wanted to — to play “Santy Claus” — for Tony!
The bells had stopped ringing; but he hardly noticed, for their message sang on in his heart.
The stairs were very dark when Mart, carrying a bulging shopping-bag in one hand and a tiny but lovely tree in the other, climbed cautiously up and paused outside the little apartment. All was quiet, but light showed beneath the door. He set down the tree and carefully turned the doorknob.
Tony was sitting there in the chair, asleep. The light shone on her pale hair, and more than ever it reminded him of an angel’s halo. Her face looked thinner — but also it looked — happy. His heart leaped, loving her.
He closed the door behind him, and as the bolt clicked into place, Tony opened her eyes. With a glad cry she sprang to her feet.
“Mart! Mart, darling! You did come — you did!”
He held her close. “You all right, angel? Sure, I came. You knew I’d come, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Mart, I knew. After the bells came, that is.” The miracle was still upon her. “Before that, I — I was afraid. But I heard them, and then I knew you’d come.”
“I heard them too, Tony. They told me — to come to you. I thought I couldn’t — and then — I had to.” He had to confess that much.
“Oh, Mart darling — I’m so glad you’re here! — Mart — “ she stopped suddenly, and sniffed. “Why — why — you’ve brought — a tree! And — “
“Santy Claus,” Mart grinned.
“Oh, Mart! You — you darling! I wanted one so much — a tree!” She went to it, touched the branches carressingly.
“We’ll fix it up pretty soon,” Mart said. “Right now — come and sit here with me.”
The big old chair was very cozy for two, especially when one was as small as Tony. She leaned her head contentedly against his shoulder; he held her hands in his, and sweet silence fell around them.
Presently Mart said, pointing to the window, “It’s starting to snow.”
“Really? A white Christmas! Oh –” remembering the busy streets waiting to receive those feathery flakes, Tony’s enthusiasm waned. “It doesn’t mean so much here, but at the farm it would be all white and shining, Mart.”
He thought of the farm. “Like to — go back, Tony?”
“Would you?” she asked quietly — but he had seen the sudden light glow in her eyes.
“It — isn’t what I wanted for you, angel; you’re so lovely, — I’d like to give you beautiful things — silks and furs and jewels; things we’d never have, from the farm.”
“But it’d be home, Mart. And we’d have roses, every summer; they’re pretty as any rubies. And the white ones — we’ll call those our pearls; shall we?” Her face brightened as the fancy took hold of her: “Let’s see; the sun on the snow — that’ll make acres of diamonds; the sky will be turquoise, and sapphires. Oh, Mart –”
“You funny kid,” he said. “And I suppose you’ll have dandelions for gold.”
“Yes, — and sunshine, too. Oh, Mart — there’d always be lots of sunshine, for Grandmere — and — and” her voice dropped suddenly to a whisper — “for the little one, when it comes.”
She raised her eyes to his, and found him staring at her incredulously.
Mart got unsteadily to his feet, letting Tony find herself standing beside him. She fought against tears.
“Are — aren’t you — glad, Mart?”
Mart’s thoughts were in turmoil. He’d never considered — anything like this. Somehow — he thought of “Big” Blue, whom he was to meet tomorrow. But he couldn’t now. He shouldn’t of course — even with only Tony to consider; but now — he couldn’t explain it exactly — but a kid — a little kid — couldn’t be allowed to grow up under a shadow. A name with a blot on it —
Oh, those bells! Those bells that had set him to thinking of Tony, wanting her — why, they were like a miracle, sent just in time to save him from a terrible mistake!
He gathered Tony into his arms. “Gee, angel! I think it’s — swell! Did you wait, purposely, to tell me — on Christmas?”
Before she could answer, he suddenly raised his head, listening, and put his finger over her lips. “There they are again!”
She ran to the window, laughing gleefully. He followed, and helped her to unfasten the lock and raise the sash. The lovely sound of the bells came in, thrillingly sweet.
“Oh, Mart!” Tony said. “It’s ‘Silent Night,’ now.” Softly she sang with the chimes, “Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia; Christ the Savior is born’.”
“He’s supposed to be — born anew, or something like that, each Christmas, — isn’t He?” Mart asked hesitantly.
“Yes — in our hearts, Mart,” Tony answered. “With peace and goodwill — and courage and hope and — oh, all that’s good and beautiful. Don’t you — don’t you — ” half timidly she moved closer within the circle of his arm — “don’t you feel Him near us, Mart, dear?”
“I think — I do,” he said very slowly. “How could I fail to find Him, Tony — when I have a private angel, all my own, to lead me to Him?”
Sheer delight glowed from Tony’s face. “Why, Mart! What a beautiful, beautiful thing to say! Oh, I’m so happy! I was never so happy in my life!”
And the bells, as if sharing her rapture, rang out afresh; louder, clearer, sweeter than ever; ringing out their age-old message of peace and goodwill, but with new hope, new surety of the goodness that life holds if one will but seek to find it. Ringing Christmas — joyous Christmas!