From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1938 –
By Sibyl Spande Bowen
Myra paused at the door of the ballroom with the ecstatic gasp of a surprised child. “Now aren’t you glad I made you come? Did you ever see anything so perfectly gorgeous? Just like fairyland. They do make Christmas look so luscious these days – all this silver and blue. Come on, I want to dance and dance and dance.”
Ned was not sharing her mood. He looked tired and a little worried. “I’ll dance till I drop – and I’ll probably do just that – if it will please you,” he said, trying to meet her gaiety. “You look as though you belonged, at that. A gold fairy in a silver fairyland. Yes, you do look like a fairy – a brown-eyed, yellow-haired one, all done up in gold – er – ”
“Tulle. I thought you’d trip yourself on all those words.” Myra’s eyes were already roaming about the hall, cataloging prospects for an exciting evening.
“– Tulle, then. I see I’m going to have to fight off the stag line. Here comes the first one.”
The young man touched Ned’s arm. “Dr. Marshall?”
“They want you at the hospital at once, sir. There’s been an accident – a woman run down and seriously hurt, they said to tell you.”
“Tell them I’ll leave immediately. Myra, you understand, of course. I’m sorry. Oh, here comes North. Clem, I’ll leave Myra in your willing hands.”
Myra’s face puckered like a slapped child’s. “Ned! You promised you wouldn’t let them bother you tonight.”
Ned half turned. Already he was looking far past her, his boredom and tiredness burnt away by some inner flame of energy. “I know, Honey, but they wouldn’t call unless they needed me. I’ll take a taxi – leave you the car, just in case –” He was gone. And Myra was dancing in the arms of Clem North, her eyes bright with anger.
“Well, here I am, dumped unceremoniously on you. Do you mind?”
Clem North’s experienced gray eyes, about even with the top of her smooth yellow head, caressed her. “Do I mind! Lady, when a glass of champagne is handed to a thirsty soul – does he mind? Myra, you’re perfect tonight.”
This was pleasant, like ointment on a bruise. But that didn’t excuse Ned. She coddled her grievance warmly. “Here I’d planned on this club dance for weeks. Ned knew about it. I’d warned him I’d expect him to stay it out, and he promised. Now look at me! Don’t I rate any consideration?”
Clem laughed maliciously. “You’re a lovely little person, Myra, and you rate the whole world on a silk cushion. But you asked for this, now you’ve got it. You had a chance to take on a perfectly good lawyer – one of the best in town, if I do say it, who shouldn’t – and you engaged yourself to a doctor. You deliberately let yourself in for a life of spoiled dinners, canceled bridge dates, and telephone answering. Aren’t you being just a bit inconsistent, kicking about it?”
This was quite unanswerable. Myra was sulkily silent.
They danced into a dim arc of shaded blue lights. The air was heady with the mixed perfumes of Christmas spruce, expensive cosmetics and the high odor of gardenias.
Clem bent his sleek head. “You’re not married yet, you know, Darling. The offer still stands, for a limited time.”
Before the end of many dances Myra was well up the lower slopes of a high mountain of righteous indignation and self-pity. She glared at the modest diamond on her left hand. A link in a chain, a prison chain! That’s all it was. Clem was right, oh, so right!
And it wasn’t too late. There was still something she could do about it – right now, while her anger gave her courage. Ned had asked for it, with his total indifference to her rights. She found her coat, golden velvet, like the gold of her gown, and slipped out of the room. In the crowd nobody noticed her.
“Dr. Marshall’s car, please,” she told the doorman, shivering in her excitement.
She brought the car to a defiant stop in the parking strip sacred to the doctors. She gathered her long golden skirts about her and ran into the hospital.
She knew where to go. the accident ward was on the first floor, right. Her gilt heels tapped the hard tiles insolently as Myra clicked down to the door of the receiving room and stopped, panting a little.
The door of the receiving room opened and Ned came out. he looked strangely out of place in this stark, barren place, in his evening clothes. At any other time Myra would have felt a thrill of proprietary admiration for his dark good looks, the bony, tired distinction of his face, but now she thought of nothing on earth but the party he had walked out on, the one he had promised solemnly to let nothing interrupt. It stood like a tall symbol of the mountain of difference between them. All the girl’s indignation rose to aid her.
“Myra! what on earth are you doing here?” Ned stared at her, as if he didn’t quite recognize her.
That was the final touch. “This is what I’m doing here!” She twisted the ring from her finger with violent hands. “You can have this back. I’m not something to pick up and throw down again as your job happens to dictate. I’m a woman – a pretty woman – who wants to live a little while she’s young.”
He scarcely glanced at her. “Some other time, Myra, some other time,” he said impatiently. Certainly his mind wasn’t on what she was saying; but, even so, he accepted the ring mechanically and tucked it into his vest pocket just as the others followed him out of the room. A crisp nurse managed to conceal most of an amused smile as her alert glance went from the ring to the enraged girl! Standing by was a tall, bewildered, youngish man, his shabby hat still clutched in his thin hands. A very young intern, white-garbed, tried to look as important as possible. Myra hadn’t expected an audience. She was annoyed, but too completely possessed of herself to be ashamed. She was certainly not sorry.
Ned spoke to the shabby young man. “We’ll have to operate at once, Mr. Carlson. It’s her only chance.” He turned to the nurse. “Get my things ready. Call Dr. Morgan. We’ll operate immediately – the quicker the better.” He remembered Myra again, briefly.
“You’re just in time, Myra, to take the Carlson children home. They came up with their father, but he must stay while we operate. It may be – ” he broke off, in consideration for the thin man who was near collapse.
A nurse brought the children from a waiting room: a boy and a girl, perhaps ten and eight, with shaggy hair, big, wistful eyes, and thin faces. The drab, nondescript clothes were those worn by children of the poor. The nurse murmured with her impersonal brightness, “Run along now, children. Your mother is going to be all right. Miss – er – Miss – will take good care of you,” and dismissed them entirely from her mind as she hurried to join Dr. Marshall down the hall.
Myra looked after them, quite literally speechless. Tears of enraged humiliation started to her eyes. Of all the – why, he hadn’t said a word. He hadn’t even looked at her. Oh, she was well rid of that ring, of that man, who could look at her and not see her.
She became aware of the two children beside her. Here she was with them foisted upon her without so much as a by-your-leave. Just another example of Ned’s utter callousness where she was concerned. The children stared up at her fearfully, looking as utterly wretched as only frightened children can.
Myra felt a pang of pity for them. After all, they were not responsible for Ned’s high-handedness. Grudgingly, she imitated the nurse’s false brightness of manner. “Come on, children, this is no place for us. We’ll go home and wait for your daddy.” Then she remembered she didn’t even know where “home” was.
But Jimmy, the ten-year-old, knew. Across the city to the other side of the tracks he guided Myra, to a humble, down-trodden little house. A tiny fire burning in the sitting room stove was putting up a losing fight to the cold that sifted in around the window frames, through the thin walls.
Myra shivered. So she was to freeze in addition to the rest. “You’d best get to bed at once, then,” she advised, trying not to be short with the pathetic little things. “I’ll stay right here until Dr. Marshall and your daddy come.” Then added to herself, crossly, “Which, heaven permitting, will be soon.”
Between unbuttoning dresses, fastening night clothes, reminding about toothbrushes, she learned the story. Common enough, she knew – but still, when you met it face to face –
The father had been ill. The mother had found work behind the Christmas counters of a huge department store. Not much, but enough to see the family through the worst of the winter. Coming home tonight the road had been slippery. A hurrying truck driver, impatient to get home and start his holiday, a woman in the street too tired to be watchful! And now she was in the hospital fighting for the life that meant so much to these wide-eyed, anxious children.
They were in bed, finally, tucked under insufficient blankets in their icy bedroom. Myra returned to the but faintly warmer sitting room, her temper not at all improved by her discomfort.
She glanced at her watch. At the club they would be pairing off for supper now. It wouldn’t help her with Clem to be missing when he looked for her. Another score against Ned. Myra’s impatient glance roved around the dimly lit room, and riveted blankly on the worn settee.
There, fastened to each end of the couch with a large safety pin was a pair of limp, dangling stockings. Christmas Eve! Two stockings, waiting for a visit from Santa Claus!
Myra shook her head impatiently. What of it? She needn’t take over all the family’s problems just because she had been accidentally marooned here with the two youngsters. After all, she had more than done her duty by them. She thought hungrily of the turkey supper – Cesare’s incomparable trimmings – that she was missing.
But even as she did, she was turning in her mind the possible places to look for the Christmas cache. It was irritating, but Mr. Carlson might be away all night. She waited for a time, huddling near the feeble heat of the little stove. When she was quite sure the children were in that first heavy sleep, she opened the door of the other bedroom cautiously. Closet shelves were the time-honored hiding places of Santa Claus. Resolutely she began her search.
There was a box containing a doll, cheap, but bright enough with its pink face and crisp, blue dress. This for Susan, the girl, and a pair of roller skates for Jimmy. Lay-away tickets, with the tiny sums paid against them over a long period were still attached. Myra’s face burned as she noted them. Both poor little toys cost about as much as a pair of her own carelessly regarded silk stockings. She found a further package, some cotton handkerchiefs. Two for Jimmy, two for Susan. Search as she might, not another thing came to light.
Myra arranged these offerings in the stockings and stood back to look at them. Pretty meagre! Nothing much here to excite the shouts of joy that are every child’s right on Christmas morning.
But there was nothing more. Reluctantly she returned to the post by the stove. The faint excitement of playing Santa Claus subsided, and her own bored discomfort possessed her again.
Myra closed her eyes, but closing her eyes did not shut out her thoughts. Suppose the mother didn’t come back – ever. Suppose that in the cold gray of Christmas morning the man should come back to tell them – that! She pictured the children in their grief, looking out on this drab exhibition of Christmas. Her thoughts ran on. They ought to have their minds diverted by a tree, a perfectly lovely tree simply glittering with tinsel and lights, and little, half-hidden surprises of candy and small toys! They ought to have a tree like the one Mrs. James, the office manager at Uncle Robert’s factory, had had just that afternoon for the girls. Why couldn’t she – but no, that was the height of ridiculousness. One just didn’t barge out on a freezing midnight and pluck Christmas trees out of dark, closed factories, even if the factory were just a couple of blocks away. There was no sense in getting all emotional and soggy over this affair. The sensible thing to do would be to stay here as close to this miserable little fire as possible and try to ward off pneumonia till Ned or Mr. Carlson got back.
Yes, that would be the sensible thing to do. If only those children, dreaming shining visions behind that closed door could sensibly realize they couldn’t possibly expect a lovely Christmas. If only they could sensibly face the morning and their mother’s probable death, quite resigned to the doll, the roller skates – and nothing else. If only – tears blurred Myra’s eyes. Quite wrathfully she hitched the collar of her coat around her chin and sneaked out of the house. She closed the door softly, and headed Ned’s car toward the tall night outline of the factory.
She knocked at the big glass door of the place. Silent and dark, the big building towered above her. Myra’s teeth chattered in the still cold. If only she could get in. Gus must be sleeping, to be away so long. She must get in, or freeze to death. Like a flashback in a movie she had a momentary remembrance of Uncle Robert talking to Gus that very afternoon when she had come to pick him up in the car. “Gus, the hasp of that third basement window is weak. Attend to it.” Gus had promised, but Gus was old and forgetful.
Myra ran down the loading alley and dropped to her knees at the third basement window. Good old careless Gus! The hasp gave easily. Gilt slippers first, she slipped over the grimy sill – and bedlam and confusion broke loose in a thousand whirrs, burrs, bells and gongs. Myra clung to the sill, quite unable to move. Then she remembered. The burglar alarms, of course! She had set them off.
She dropped to the floor and raced for the stairs. Halfway up strong arms hurtled themselves around her, pinning her to the spot. Suddenly the alarm bells stopped, lights went on all over the place.
“Why, Miss Myra!” Old Gus was struggling to take in the situation, “what you doin’ here, this time of night?”
“Never mind about that,” Myra implored. “I’ve got to get that tree and get back – before those children wake up.”
In a rush of words she told him about the Carlsons. She led him to where the tree stood, in all its shining perfection. “Look,” she pointed out, “still some of the candy canes and the toys the girls amused themselves with!”
It didn’t take long to dismantle the tree and like virtue triumphant Myra drove away a few minutes later; practically immersed in Christmas.
The old clock in the Carlson kitchen struck two as she was hanging the last silver bauble on the tree. “Good heavens,” she thought, “the party’s over!” She had spent the top of her evening on the tree. And quite curiously, the fact of the missed party passed from her mind at once, as something entirely negligible, while she stood back to gaze at her creation with the fond expression of a mother contemplating her only child. Ned and Mr. Carlson came in and stood near her.
“Is she –?”
They both smiled.
“I’m so glad,” Myra murmured, and then demanded, “Isn’t it lovely?”
The tall man’s lips moved, the muscles of his throat convulsed.
“He’s going to cry,” Myra thought, horrified. “Think nothing of it,” she cried hastily, gayly, “It’s more fun than I’ve had in years, and really, it was no trouble at all – ”
“No?” Ned remarked dryly, and his glance traveled over her, up and down.
Myra’s followed it, with consternation. Her gilt shoes were scuffed and blackened. The gold tulle of her skirt was in shreds. One long smudge of soot, about the length of a window sill, blackened the beauty of the velvet coat.
“And there’s soot on your nose,” Ned informed her.
“Oh, dear,” Myra said in a small voice. “I was so hungry, I was going to ask you to take me to a hamburger stand.” She looked down at herself in naive surprise. “How could I forget to look at myself for that long!”
“How, indeed,” Ned murmured. Then, “Come on. We’ll get the sandwiches with, or without, the dirt. I could do with a couple myself.”
He was carefully impersonal, a trifle too much on the courteous side. “He doesn’t care how I look any more,” Myra thought miserably, but kept her silence until they reached the stand and were waiting for their meat cakes to brown.
Then she looked at him. His eyes were ringed with black fatigue, there was weariness in every line of his face, but back of this was a curious light of peace, of satisfaction in a job well done, that made you know that after all, here was a soul refreshed.
“You’ve got it, too,” she whispered.
“Got what? Not a dirty face, I hope,” Ned countered lightly, refusing to be serious.
Myra disregarded this.
“That feeling. You look just the way I feel – all warm and exalted inside. As if you’d given a little bit of the clay of yourself – and it came back to you pure gold. Giver’s gold!”
Ned glanced away, determined not to see her eager, luminous face. “Now you’re going poetic on me,” he said casually. Suddenly his voice was harsh. “Don’t let the emotion of this thing sway you, Myra. It isn’t all Christmas trees and sugar plums and nice warm feelings. It’s hard work, most of it – and precious little thanks. You’re overwrought, excited. Tomorrow you’ll see things differently.”
Myra smiled lightly. She had her share of blue shadows under tired eyes. She spread out her gown. “Do I look particularly excited, or sugar-plumy? and as for nice warm feelings, I’m just as frozen and tired as you ever were, Ned Marshall.” Then she pleaded, “I’ve found something tonight, Ned, that you can help me keep. Will you – give it back?”
“That’s right. I remember now. I’m a jilted man,” he said coldly, and plucked the ring from his pocket to turn it on his palm.
Myra swallowed all her pride and held out her hand for it. “Oh, no, you’re not. You’re all engaged again. I’m going to make a marvelous doctor’s wife, Darling.” Her tone was light, but her brown eyes were deadly serious.
Jerry, the sandwich man, set two smoking plates before them. “Nice Christmas out, eh, folks?”
Beneath the counter Ned sought Myra’s other hand and held it tightly. “A remarkable Christmas, Jerry, perfectly remarkable,” he agreed fervently.