Christmas For Half A Dollar

 

By MRS. M.A.L. LANE
All Rights Reserved



It was the day before Christmas in the year 1892. Snow was falling heavily in the streets of Boston, but the crowd of shoppers seemed undiminished. As the storm increased, groups gathered at the corners and in sheltering doorways to wait for belated cars; but the holiday cheer was in the air, and there was no grumbling. Mothers dragging tired children through the slush of the streets; pretty girls hurrying home for the holidays; here and there a harassed-looking man with perhaps a single package which he had taken a whole morning to select--all had the same spirit of tolerant good-humor.

"School Street! School Street!" called the conductor of an electric car. A group of young people at the farther end of the car started to their feet. One of them, a young man wearing a heavy fur-trimmed coat, addressed the conductor angrily.

"I said, 'Music Hall,' didn't I?" he demanded. "Now we've got to walk back in the snow, all because of your stupidity!"

"Oh, never mind, Frank!" one of the girls interposed. "We ought to have been looking out for Music Hall ourselves! Six of us, and we went by without a thought! Besides, it is all Mrs. Morris's! She shouldn't have been so entertaining!"

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The young matron dimpled and blushed. "That's charming of you, Maidie," she said, gathering up her silk skirts as she prepared to step down into the pond before her. "Your compliment makes the blame feel worth taking. But look how big the snow flakes are!"

"It doesn't matter. We all have gaiters on," returned Maidie Williams, undisturbed.

"Fares, please!" said the conductor stolidly.

Frank Armstrong thrust his gloved hand deep into his pocket with angry vehemence and pulled out a silver dollar. "There's your money," he said, "and be quick with the change, will you? We have already lost time enough!"

The conductor counted out the change with stiff, red fingers, closed his lips firmly as if to keep back an obvious rejoinder, rang up the six fares with careful accuracy, and gave the signal to go ahead. The car edged forward into the drifting storm.

As everyone gathered around to begin their stroll Armstrong laughed shortly and stared down at the bits of silver lying in his open palm. He turned about instinctively to look for the conductor, but it was already too far away to hail. "Hey, look," he said. "The conductor gave me back a dollar and twenty cents."

"Oh, can't you stop him?" cried Maidie Williams. She took a backward step into the street wet with crushed snow.

The Harvard junior, who was carrying her umbrella, reached out to pull her back. "Don't worry about him, Miss Williams. He'll make it up before he gets to Scollay Square, you may be sure. Conductors that lose money don't have a job for long. Just the other day, I gave one a quarter and he went off as cool as you please. 'Where's my change?' said I. 'You gave me a nickel,' said he. And there wasn't anybody to swear that I didn't except myself, and I didn't matter."

"But that doesn't make any difference," Maidie insisted. "Just because one conductor was dishonest doesn't mean that we have to be. My Church teaches that keeping money that doesn't belong to us is the same as stealing it."

"Oh, come along!" said her dark-eyed cousin. She addressed the group and said “Listen to Maidie and we'll cough up a retirement fund for the poor conductor. I guess the West End Corporation won't go without their dinners to-morrow.”

Armstrong laughed and held out half a dollar. “Here, Maidie, here's my ill-gotten fifty cents. I was going to treat us all to a hot chocolate after the concert; but, I won't urge you to do that. I wash my hands of all responsibility. But your cousin didn't tell me you had such an unpleasant conscience."

Maidie flushed under the sting of his rudeness, but she went on quietly with the rest. It was obvious even to her that any attempt to overtake the car was out of the question.

"Did you notice his number, Joe?" she asked, suddenly.

"No, I never thought of it" said Joe, stopping short. "However, I probably shouldn't make any complaint if I had. I shall forget all about it tomorrow. I find it's never safe to let the sun go down on my wrath. It's very likely not to be there the next day."

"I wasn't going to make a complaint," said Maidie. The two young men were enjoying the small joke too much to notice what she said.

The great doorway of Music Hall was just ahead. In a moment the party were within its friendly shelter, stamping off the snow. The girls were adjusting veils and hats with adroit feminine touches; the pretty chaperon was beaming approval upon them, and the young men were taking off their wet overcoats, when Maidie turned again in sudden desperation.

"Mr. Harris," she called rather faintly, for she did not like to make herself disagreeable, "do you suppose that car comes right back from Scollay Square?"

"What car?" asked Walter Harris, blankly. "Oh, the one we came in? Yes, I suppose it does. They're running all the time, anyway. Why, you are not sick, are you, Miss Williams?"



There was genuine concern in his tone. This girl, with her sweet, vibrant voice, her clear gray eyes, seemed very charming to him. She wasn't really beautiful, but sometimes it looked as if she were. Besides, there was a steady earnestness in the gray eyes that made him think of his mother.

"No," said Maidie, slowly. "I'm all right, thank you. But I wish I could find that conductor again. I just know they have to make up the shortage if their accounts are wrong, and fifty cents is a whole day's wages. I couldn't--we couldn't feel very comfortable--"

Frank Armstrong interrupted her. "Maidie," he said, with the studied calmness with which one speaks to an unreasonable child, "your pastor is perfectly absurd in telling you things like that. Nobody can be perfectly honest all the time. Look at the facts here. Here it is within five minutes of the tune for the concert to begin. It is impossible to know when – or if -- that car is coming back. He really was quite careless, and you are making us all very uncomfortable carrying on like this. Mrs. Harris, (She teaches Sunday School at our church, Maide) won't you please tell her not to spoil our whole afternoon?"

"I do think he's right this time, Maidie," Mrs. Harris admitted. "It's very nice of you to feel so sorry for the poor conductor, but it really was all his own fault. And just think how far he made us walk! My feet are quite damp now and I may get a chill because of him. We ought to all go in directly or we might all take cold, and I'm sure you wouldn't like that, would you my dear."

Mrs. Harris turned and led the way in even as she spoke. Maide's cousin and young Armstrong got right behind her. Maidie hesitated. It would be so easy to go in, to forget everything in the light and warmth and excitement. But, she thought again, Fifty Cents Was A Whole Day's Wages!

"No," she told herself very firmly, and as much to herself as to the young man who stood waiting for her. "I must go back and try to make it right. I'm so sorry, Joe, but if you will tell them--"

"Why, I'm going back with you, of course" said the young fellow, impulsively. "If I had only just looked once at the man I'd go alone and in your place, but I know that I wouldn't be able to tell him from Adam."

Maidie laughed. "Oh, I don't want to lose the whole concert, Joe and you know, Frank has all the tickets. You must go after them and try to make my peace. I'll come back just as soon as I can. Don't wait for me, please. If you'll come back out and look for me here after the first number, and not let them scold me too much--" She ended with an imploring little catch in her breath that was almost a sob.

"They sha'n't say a word, Miss Williams!" Joe cried. He glanced back and saw that somehow his date had gotten herself attached to Armstrong. He turned back to look at Maidie. But she was gone already, and, being conscious that further delay was only making matters worse, Joe went on into the hall, although he hung back so as to give Armstrong a good, strong hold on the arm of Maidie's dark-eyed cousin.

Meanwhile, the electric car had swung heavily along the wet rails on its way to the turning-point. It was nearly empty now. An old gentleman and his nurse were the only occupants. Jim Stevens, the conductor, had wearily stepped back inside the car. He was still reliving the insult he had felt from his contact with the children. "It's too bad I forgot those young people wanted to get off at Music Hall," he was thinking to himself. "I don't understand how I came to do it. That big bruiser looked as if he wanted to complain of me. He looked like a football player anyway, barging in, barking orders and expecting the whole world to idolize him. Well, even for all that I would have said I was sorry if he hadn't been so sharp with that tongue of his.
“I hope he won't complain to the company about me just now. 'Twould be a pretty bad time for me to get into trouble, what with Mary and the baby both sick. I guess I'm just too sleepy to be good for much, that's a fact. Sitting up all night for three nights running takes hold of a fellow's stamina somehow when he's on his feet at work all day. The rent's paid, that's one good thing, if it hasn't left me but half a dollar to my name. Hullo!" He was struck by a sudden distinct recollection of the coins he had returned to the young children. "Why, I gave that rich kid fifty cents too much!"

He glanced up at the dial which indicated the fares and began to count the change in his pocket. He knew exactly how much money he had had at the beginning of the trip and the dial told him how much he needed to have now. He counted carefully. Then he plunged his hand into the heavy canvas pocket of his coat. Perhaps he had half a dollar there. No, it was empty!

He faced the fact of his loss reluctantly. Fifty cents short, ten fares! The company would take it out of him, that was for sure, they might even let him go. The conductor's hand shook as he put the money back in his pocket. It meant--what did it mean? He drew a long breath.. It meant his money was gone into the pocket of the rich young gentleman with the fur collar!.

In his mind's eye the conductor saw a room, not far away, it was Christmas Eve though it didn't look much like it in his home! His home was a dark, dreary little room found upstairs in a noisy tenement house. He knew there was a pale, thin woman reclining on a shabby lounge vainly trying to quiet their fretful child.

His little boy was so thin, and pale, too, and he tossed and turned with a hard, choking cough. There was a small fire in the stove, a very small fire you can be sure with the price of coal so high. The medicine stands on the shelf. At $3 a bottle, it gets used sparingly. "Medicine won't do him much good," the doctor had told them. "What he really needs is a heavy diet of beef and cream."

The conductor's heart sank at the thought. "Poor little kid!" he said, softly, under his breath. "And I shan't have a thing to take home to him now; nor even a dime to pick up Mary's violets, either. It'll be the first Christmas that ever happened. I suppose that chap with the fur neck wrap would think it was silly for me to be buying violets on MY wages.
“He wouldn't understand what the flowers mean to Mary. But, I'm being mean; he probably didn't even notice I gave him too much change. That kind don't even know how much they had to start with. They just pull dollar bills out of their pocket as if it was newspaper. It was the silver that confused me, a whole silver dollar, and I wanted it so bad!
I was coveting what wasn't mine, I reckon."

The electric car came to a halt and the conductor leaped out into the snow to help the nurse assist the old gentleman to the ground. Then the car swung on again. Jim turned up the collar of his coat about his ears and stamped his cold, wet feet. There was the florist's shop where he had meant to buy a dime's worth of violets, and the toy-shop was just around the corner.

A thought flashed across his tired brain; he could short the company fifty cents. "Plenty of men would do it; I know some of them that do it every day. Nobody would ever be the poorer for it. This car will be crowded going home. I needn't ring in every fare; nobody could tell.
“But Mary! She wouldn't touch those violets if she knew I had done something like that to get them. And she'd know. I'd have to tell her. I couldn't keep it from her, she's that quick."

He jumped off to adjust the trolley strap. He had a curious sense of warm unreality. It couldn't be happening that he was really going home this Christmas Eve with empty hands. Well, they must all suffer together for his carelessness. It was his own fault, but it was hard. And he was so tired!

To his amazement he found his eyes were blurred as be watched the people crowding into the car. What? Was he going to cry like a baby--he, a great burly man of 30 years?

"It's no use," he thought. "I couldn't cheat the company.
“The first time I gave Mary violets was the night she said she'd marry me. I told her then I'd do my level best to make sure she was always proud of me. I guess she wouldn't be very proud of a man who could cheat his employer. She'd rather starve than have a hair ribbon she couldn't pay for. A wife like that, she's worth all the money in the world."

He rang up a dozen fares with a hand that was rock steady. His temptation was over. Six more strokes--then nine without a falter. He even imagined the bell rang more distinctly than usual on the last one, even encouragingly.

The car stopped. He flung the door open with a triumphant sweep of his arm. He felt ready to face the world, eye to eye, a bold man of integrity. But then he thought of the baby--his arm dropped. “Oh Lord, Why should being honest be so hard?”

With the glint of tears in his eyes he turned around to help the young girl up who was waiting patiently at the step. Through the whirling snow his wet eyes saw her eager face, and noted the glow lighting the steady gray eyes. She looked kind of familiar, but where could he have seen the likes of her before.

"There was a mistake," she said with a shy tremor in her voice. "You gave us too much change and here it is back."

She stopped when he looked so confused. He stared at the piece of silver which had given him such an unhappy start just a few minutes before. “There were ten of us.”

10, 50 cents. Yes, His eyes misted over so thickly he was almost blind. He took the coin like one dazed. He shook his head to stop his tears. Would the pretty, young lady think he was crazy to care so much about so small a coin? But he knew that he must say something. "Thank you, miss," he stammered as well as he could. "You see, I thought it was gone--and there's the baby--and it's Christmas Eve--and my wife's sick--and – the baby too, well, you can't understand--"

"But I do," she said, simply. "My father works for 50 cents a day, and I was afraid this would mean an awful lot to you as well. And I thought perhaps there was a baby at home too, so I brought my Christmas present along for her too," and something else dropped into Jim's cold hand.

"What you waiting for?" shouted the driver from the front platform. Jim looked back and the girl had disappeared in the snow. Jim rang the bell to go ahead, and gazed again at the two shining half dollars in his hand.

He was even more grateful that evening as he explained the matter to his wife. Jim sat in a tiny rocking-chair that was several sizes too small for him, "I didn't have a chance to tell her," "that the baby wasn't a her at all, though if I thought he'd grow up into such a lovely young lady as she is, I don't know but I almost wish he was."

"My Poor Jim!" said Mary. With a little laugh of pride, and joy, and gratitude she put up her hand to stroke his rough cheek. "I know you're tired."

"And I should tell you," Jim added, stretching out his long legs toward the few red sparks in the bottom of the grate, "I should say she had tears in her eyes, too, but I was that near crying myself that I couldn't really be sure."

The little room was sweet with the odour of English violets. Asleep in the bed lay the boy, a little toy horse clasped close to his breast.

"Well, bless her heart!" said Mary, softly.

***

"Well, Miss Williams," said Joe as he sprang to meet her coming swiftly along the sidewalk. "I can see that you found him. You've missed the first number, but they have decided they won't scold you--not this time."

The girl turned a radiant face upon him. "Thank you," she said, shaking the snowy crystals from her skirt. "I am so glad that I went. I know now that I would have lost much more than fifty cents if I had given up and just stayed here."

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Lin Stone