From the Improvement Era, December 1930 –
Who Sent Santa Claus?
By Grant Allyn Caproni
Illustrated by Nelson White
“Wonder what MacBride will do now, Stell?” asked Walter Goodhue, calling from his comfortable couch to his wife, busy in the kitchen preparing the Sunday dinner. “I hear they’ve listed their place with Roylance’s. No job, taxes due, fifty dollars a month on that house and no gas for that fine new car.”
“I feel terrible about it,” answered Mrs. Goodhue, entering the parlor doorway and looking thoughtfully out across the sparsely settled Sudley Springs Addition.
“I felt right along that they were spreading too much and wanting to show up their neighbors. Last summer Mac got to telling me all about the investments they were carrying with National Thrift, the building and loan societies, three hundred dollars a year on insurance policies and other things. Then he turns suddenly on me and wants to know much insurance I am carrying?”
“Showing up their neighbors? Why, Walter, you know as well as I do that Mac hasn’t a stuck-up hair in his head. His question was one of friendly interest.” Mrs. Goodhue continued to wipe a bowl she held in her hand, meditating. “His heart is all wrapped up in that home and family of his,” said Mrs. Goodhue, returning to the kitchen sink, “and I admire him for it. Look how Mrs. MacBride went out and nursed when she wasn’t well herself, to help meet payments when they were building. It’s just a pity if anything happens to them.”
“Stell, a draftsman’s job in this man’s town is a mighty uncertain disease when things are favorable, but when you inject political hazards into it, that’s worse yet. Mac was a draftsman in the government’s employ. You know what a rotten political mess that is. Before plunging like Mac has, it seems to me that I would surely have pictured in my mind what Mac has had to actually experience in order to see it. Maybe I’m seeing things, but it does seem to me he’s been a little higher in the air with his chin than he was when they lived in the cabin.”
“Why do you persist in saying that, dear? Because he is a college man and a little out of our class there are some on this street who wish they could find something wrong with him. Didn’t he janitor the meeting house free of charge one winter when he had four hundred gymnasium pupils on his hands? Scrubbing the floors every Saturday while others who were so ignorant they could hardly sign their names, were holding down the offices?
* * *
It was nearly dark when Loring MacBride stopped in front of his house. A heavy fog filled the cold wet air adding gloom to his depressed spirits. In and out of office buildings in the congested business district and through sparsely settled sections to various industrial plants he had tramped through slush and snow all the day, seeking work, with always the same response. “We’re laying men off instead of taking them on.” And, “Sorry, but we have nothing to offer.” Or, “We have a couple of girls who do all our drafting.”
And Christmas only three weeks away! What would he say to loyal little Katie who lived the whole year waiting for Christmas? And poor little Martha, not old enough to understand. Then again, he wondered, as he had a hundred times before, where and how he might borrow a little money for Christmas. The car was sold. Among his friends there was not one to whom he might go for financial help. He could not raise another cent on the house.
Stoically he strode into the house, his senses benumbed from unending thinking, anxiety and misery, and with no word of greeting, his face expressionless except for the same look of dumb suffering it had borne of late, he stood before them. Mrs. MacBride and the two little daughters were huddled about the kitchen stove, the family rendezvous since they left off using the furnace.
“Here’s Dad,” greeted Mrs. MacBride, smiling up into his face. Katie clung to him and little Martha’s first words were to inquire if he had seen Santa Claus.
Even the kitchen, he thought, seemed dingy of late, as he looked up dismally at the ceiling light. He glanced at the stove. There would be potatoes and gravy and boiled onions for supper.
MacBride removed his overcoat and sank heavily into a chair by the stove. His elbows went to his knees and his chin to his palms. No one talked as the children helped their mother set the table. What a different home from this time last year! The shouts of joy which had gone up when he entered the house after work, and the deluge of Christmas prattle. The parlor was dark and cold. The fireplace had not been lighted once this winter. Where were the childish decorations and laughter and letters to Santa Claus? The squares on the linoleum floor ran together. Mrs. MacBride kissed away a lone forbidden tear and whispered something to him.
“Dad, do you remember,” asked Katie suddenly, “the time I prayed that the lights would come on again in that awful storm, and sure enough they did?”
“And we’re going to have a Christmas and Santa will surely come,” interposed little Martha.
“Dad,” Katie went on, “do you remember the time they made you talk in Church and you said you knew God answered prayers? You still believe it, don’t you?”
“Yes, darling, when it’s for the best. Of course sometimes we are carried away by our impulses and ask for things we later see would not have been right and then God has to get us straightened out again.”
“Is it right to ask for Santa to come?”
“Yes, darling. Yes, Katie.”
Bravely, each morning Mr. MacBride would go forth searching for work. He no longer confined himself to his own profession as he sought work but would inquire wherever likelihood of employment was possible. Walking south on State Street he turned suddenly into a restaurant with a sign in the front window “Dishwasher Wanted.” The position was already filled but the proprietor had forgotten to remove the sign. Then he went to a warehouse down near the railroad yards where work had been partially promised to him. But the man who was to cause a vacancy had decided to retain his job.
He had not gone far from the warehouse when he was hailed by a hearty young voice. Harry Holler drove up to the curb, stopped short and threw a leg over the Ford door. He once took mechanical drawing in MacBride’s class in one of the local high schools.
“Say, Mac, I was coming over to see you tonight. I want to get your advice on something. I have a couple of offers and I’m stuck which to take. They’re both drafting jobs with one-fifty per, and promise of a permanent job with a raise after I’ve learned the biz.”
A shadow crossed Mac’s face. And in that shadow, silhouetted against the sunshine of happier days stood the little family with the smiles he had always looked forward to seeing when returning home from work. The scene dissolved into the somber gray of the present moment. He could see the hole in the sole of dear little Katie’s shoe, discovered by her mother. He tried to choke down the bitterness that rose within him. Girls and high school lads getting, almost without effort, jobs which married men with families would be glad to have. Inwardly he cursed the man who was always saying that life is what we make it. The lad rattled on while Mac meditated. After he had finished and MacBride had duly weighed the facts as presented, he advised him the position to accept.
“If I remember correctly, you took less than a half a year in the three-year drafting course, or was it the four-year one?”
“The four-year course.”
“And have you had any further training or experience since?”
“No, Mac, I haven’t.”
“Well, Harry, how do you get these jobs? I have been to both of these firms and they told me they had nothing in sight.”
“I’ll tell you how it is, Mac. Both of the men who are offering me these jobs owe my dad political debts and that is the way they want to pay them off.”
MacBride walked dejectedly down the street. Of what value was his college degree and years of experience in such a situation? Christmas only four days away! Dark thoughts crowded in on him. He walked over to one of the railroad passenger stations to watch a train pull in, and idle away his time for he knew well the futility of seeking work with so forlorn a countenance as his. Mac had never learned to hide his feelings.
Returning home early that afternoon, he entered the basement and went to his den. There stood his guitar, untouched the past two months, and dusty. He stared at it without seeing it. His experiments on valve gears, turbines and link mechanisms lay there too, untouched, forgotten. He went into the provision room. There were a scant few bottles of fruit left over from the year before last. He turned to the coal bin. Would the coal hold out till after Christmas?
That night MacBride went into the children’s chamber to hear their bedtime prayers. Little Martha’s first utterance was to ask God to send Santa Claus, and Katie prayed, too, for Santa to come, laying before the Lord her reasons why he should be sent, what he should bring and that he must not forget Mrs. Cox who was always doing a kind deed for others. “And Father,” concluded little Katie, “we’ll leave the front door unlocked so Santa can get in with a big pack, and don’t forget the poor blind lady on Seventh Street.”
Early in the forenoon of the day before Christmas it began to snow and by noon the landscape lay under a heavy blanket of white. There were muffled sounds of voices passing in the street. Once a horse went trotting by with two sleds hitched behind. Mrs. MacBride could make out two figures on the sled, and the horse’s sleigh bells made a soft far-away sound. She made molasses candy and baked some cakes and cookies, after which she gave a few final touches to two small dresses she made out of her wedding dress, the dress poor Mac liked so much. For a moment the bronze and blue of love’s memories lent glory to the sky and she forgot the present. Then the terror of reality began to overtake her. Tonight would be Christmas Eve. From the playroom in the basement came the sounds of Martha’s sweet little voice in song – happy, trusting, unsuspecting, and untouched by the desperation eating at her mother’s heart.
For the first time, June MacBride gave way to despair. Crumpled up at the foot of the couch, she shook with convulsive sobbing. Oh, the naked disillusionment of shattered faith. What would she do Christmas morning when the children ran into the parlor? Would they stop short at the door, unable to believe their eyes? No tree! Empty stockings! There would be two little parcels done up in newspaper and a dish of miserable molasses candy on the mantel!
* * *
“Well, good land!”
The distracted woman looked up with a start, her eyes two great red circles.
“What’s all this mean?” It was Mrs. Ash who had walked quietly in. Mr. MacBride had often declared that Mrs. Ash was a good-luck sign, and Mrs. MacBride inwardly rejoiced at the sight of her good neighbor.
Mrs. MacBride said little but the discerning eye of Mrs. Ash saw much.
“Well,” said the good neighbor, “I don’t know how it will happen, but I feel that it will all come out all right somehow.”
It was with renewed hope that Mrs. MacBride got to her feet after Mrs. Ash had gone. When Katie returned from school the mother and two girls played together for a long while. Even Baby John caught the spirit and cooed his part with vigor. Mr. MacBride was later getting home. Where was he? His wife felt sure his delay meant something hopeful. At last he came. How despairing to have one’s hopes buoyed up only to fall to earth again! One glance at the broken-spirited man was enough. At the supper table Katie gradually sensed the situation. Both parents were looking down at their plates when Katie spoke.
“Don’t feel bad, Mother, dear. We’ve said our prayers, you know. Tomorrow we will all be laughing.”
“Yes, Daddy dear.”
“This year Santa has found many, many little tots who are far worse off than we are. Now, if poor Santa tries hard but does not succeed in getting this far, Dad’s own little girls won’t feel too bad, will they?”
A faint “No, Daddy, dear,” came from Katie.
“You know, Katie, poor Dad has been out of work so long that he hasn’t a cent to give Santa –”
“Oh, that’s all right, interrupted the truthful child. “Heavenly Father can get all the money in the world if he wants it, and he is the one who will send Santa!”
* * *
It is almost morning. The snow lies deep in great billowy expanses and the great bright moon lends stern reality to the biting cold. The wind is rising. The branches of the naked trees are shaking and swaying in a wild fandango. The door of a neighboring shed bangs and bangs, and a tub or a bucket, suddenly loosened from its moorings, goes tumbling noisily down the back steps of a nearby house losing itself in the fast drifting snow. Mrs. MacBride has not so much as dozed for an instant. Her feet are cold, though she perspires, and her brain seems burning away. She listens to the heavy troubled breathing of her husband. Once she has caught a broken fragment of a half-smothered groan, the subconscious hysteria of a man.
Listen! What was that? Has the time come? Are the children slipping into the parlor? She raises on an elbow. The children’s room is dark and still. Gratefully she drops back on her comfortless pillow. Listen! Surely that is a noise. She raises her head slightly. Involuntarily her breathing stops. Someone is walking in stockinged feet. No, it must be only her heart beating. Her hand clutches at her throat. There is no mistaking it this time. She sits upright, staring with wild eyes. The crevice between the parlor door and its jamb discloses a light. There is a low strange noise as though papers were being untied. Panic-stricken she is about to rouse her husband, but another sound arrests her attention – the unmistakeable whine of a mama-doll. She struggles to throw the thought out of her mind. How foolish to believe! The inevitable disappointment to follow will be more than she can stand. Wait! That is a queer brushing sound with tinklings. The same noises he made last year when she arranged the tree.
A switch snaps. The light in the crevice is brighter. Cautiously Mrs. MacBride slips over the foot of the bed and peers through the keyhole. Sure enough, someone is filling the stockings. Now he has turned partly her way. He is smiling and chuckling as he surveys his work. The switch snaps again, leaving the room utterly dark. Then a great hoarse shout rends the night air: “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” The front door slams. Loring MacBride springs to his feet. Mrs. MacBride throws her arms about him and in fits of sobbing, tells him Santa has come and Katie’s prayers are answered.
Together they steal into the room, switching on the light and looking back to make sure the children are not awake. They stand in their tracks – stupefied. Speechless, they look upon a beautiful tree with mounds of parcels, packages, bundles and toys heaped about it. MacBride is first to recover. He steps up to the tree and takes hold of an envelope. There is writing on both sides of it. “Do not open until after breakfast.” Mrs. MacBride makes toward one corner of the room. There, in a heap, are groceries, a dressed turkey and everything to go into a Christmas dinner.
* * *
At breakfast the letter, opened, read:
“On my way down from the North Pole I ran into an old pal of yours. He told me all about you – how he strolled into your office years ago when you were a young engineer just starting out for yourself and he laid before you his idea of a new pumping engine he had invented. He asked you if it would work. You said ‘Yes.’ ‘Then,’ said he, ‘would you be willing to go ahead and design such an engine, involving this principle of hydraulics and take your chances of pay on my sometime getting it patented and on the market?’ You said ‘Yes.’ And he told me how you struggled day after day and night after night with plans and little hope of pay – and for a man you had never seen before. Night before last when you went in to hear Katie’s prayer I happened by. Wasn’t that providential? Now, sir, there is a position open for an engineer with half interest in the company that will market that engine. That’s all I’m authorized to say except that your Pal said to tell you he would eat Christmas dinner with you and then he would tell you all about it.
“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.