The Promise of the Dawn: A Christmas Story
A WINTER’S evening. Do you know how that comes here among the edges of the mountains that fence in the great Mississippi valley ? The sea-breath in the New-England States thins the air and bleaches the sky, sucks the vitality out of Nature, I fancy, to put it into the brains of the people : but here, the earth every day in the year pulses out through hill or prairie or creek a full, untamed animal life, — shakes off the snow too early in spring, in order to put forth untimed and useless blossoms, wasteful of her infinite strength. So when this winter’s evening came to a lazy town bedded in the hills that skirt Western Virginia close by the Ohio, it found that the December air, fiercely as it blew the snow-clouds about the hill-tops, was instinct with a vigorous, frosty life, and that the sky above the clouds was not wan and washed-out, as farther North, but massive, holding yet a sensuous yellow languor, the glow of unforgotten autumn days.
The very sun, quite certain of where he would soonest meet with gratitude, gave his kindliest good-night smile to the great valley of the West, asleep under the snow: very kind to-night, just as calm and loving, though he knew the most plentiful harvest which the States had yielded that year was one of murdered dead, as he gave to the young, untainted world, that morning, long ago, when God blessed it, and saw that it was good. Because, you see, this was the eve of a more helpful, God-sent day than that, in spite of all the dead: Christmas eve. To-morrow Christ was coming, — whatever He may be to you, — Christ. The sun knew that, and glowed as cheerily, steadily, on blood as water. Why, God had the world ! Let them fret, and cut each other’s throats, if they would. God had them: and Christ was coming. But one fancied that the earth, not quite so secure in the infinite Love that held her, had learned to doubt, in her six thousand years of hunger, and heard the tidings with a thrill of relief. Was the Helper coming ? Was it the true Helper ? The very hope, even, gave meaning to the tender rose-blush on the peaks of snow, to the childish sparkle on the grim rivers. They heard and understood. The whole world answered.
One man, at least, fancied so: Adam Craig, hobbling down the frozen streets of this old-fashioned town. He thought, rubbing his bony hands together, that even the wind knew that Christmas was coming, the day that Christ was born: it went shouting boisterously through the great mountain-gorges, its very uncouth soul shaken with gladness. The city itself, he fancied, had caught a new and curious beauty : this winter its mills were stopped, and it had time to clothe the steep streets in spotless snow and icicles ; its windows glittered red and cheery out into the early night: it looked just as if the old burgh had done its work, and sat down, like one of its own mill-men, to enjoy the evening, with not the cleanest face in the world, to he sure, but with an honest, jolly old heart under all, beating rough and glad and full. That was Adam Craig’s fancy : but his head was full of queer fancies under the rusty old brown wig: queer, maybe, yet as pure and childlike as the prophet John’s : coming, you know, from the same kinship. Adam had kept his fancies to himself these forty years. A lame old chap, cobbling shoes day by day, fighting the wolf desperately from the door for the sake of orphan brothers and sisters, has not much time to put the meanings God and Nature have for his ignorant soul into words, has he ? But the fancies had found utterance for themselves, somehow: in his hatchet-shaped face, even, with its scraggy gray whiskers ; in the quick, shrewd smile ; in the eyes, keen eyes, but childlike, too. In the very shop out there on the creek-bank you could trace them. Adam had cobbled there these twenty years, chewing tobacco and taking snuff, (his mother’s habit, that,) but the little shop was pure : people with brains behind their eyes would know that a clean and delicate soul lived there ; they might have known it in other ways too, if they chose : in his gruff, sharp talk, even, full of slang and oaths; for Adam, invoke the Devil often as he might, never took the name of Christ or a woman in vain. So his foolish fancies, as he called them, cropped out. It must be so, you know : put on what creed you may, call yourself chevalier or Sambo, the speech your soul has held with God and the Devil will tell itself in every turn of your head, and jangle of your laugh: you cannot help that.
But it was Christmas eve. Adam took that in with keener enjoyment, in every frosty breath he drew. Different from any Christmas eve before: pulling off his scuffed cap to feel the full strength of the “ nor’rer.” Whew ! how it blew ! straight from the ice-fields of the Pole, he thought. So few people there were up there to be glad Christ was coming ! But those filthy little dwarfs up there needed Him all the same : every man of them had a fiend tugging at his soul, like us, was lonely, wanted a God to help him, and — a wife to love him. Adam stopped short here a minute, something choking in his throat. “ Jinny ! ” he said, under his breath, turning to some new hope in his heart, with as tender, awe-struck a touch as one lays upon a new-born infant. “Jinny!” praying silently with blurred eyes. I think Christ that moment came very near to the woman who was so greatly loved, and took her in His arms, and blessed her. Adam jogged on, trying to begin a whistle, but it ended in a miserable grunt: his heart was throbbing under his smoke-dried skin, silly as a woman’s, so light it was, and full.
“ Get along, Old Dot, and carry one ! ” shouted the boys, sledding down the icy sidewalk.
“ Yip ! you young devils, you ! ” stopping to give them a helping shove and a cheer: loving little children always, but never as to-day.
Surely there never was such a Christmas eve before ! The frozen air glistened grayly up into heaven itself, he thought; the snow-covered streets were alive, noisy,—glad into their very cellars and shanties; the sun was sorry to go away. No wonder. His heartiest ruby-gleam lingered about the white Virginia heights behind the town, and across the river quite glorified the pale stretch of the Ohio hills. Free and slave. (Adam was an Abolitionist.) Well, let that be. God’s hand of power, like His sunlight, held the master and the slave in loving company. Tomorrow was the sign.
The cobbler stopped on the little swinging foot-bridge that crosses the creek in the centre of the city. The faint saffron sunset swept from the west over the distant wooded hills, the river, the stone bridge below him, whose broad gray piers painted perpetual arches on the sluggish, sea-colored water. The smoke from one or two far-off foundries hung just above it, motionless in the gray, in tattered drifts, dyed by the sun, clear drab and violet. A still picture. A hit of Venice; poor Adam thought, who never had been fifty miles out of Wheeling. The quaint American town was his world: he brought the world into it. There were relics of old Indian forts and mounds, the old times and the new. The people, too, though the cobbler only dimly saw that, were as much the deposit and accretion of all dead ages as was the coal that lay bedded in the fencing hills. Irish, Dutch, whites, blacks. Moors, old John Bull himself: you can find the dregs of every day of the world in any milltown of the States. Adam had a dull perception of this. Christmas eve came to all the world, coming here.
Leaning on the iron wires, while the unsteady little bridge shook under him, he watched the stunned beams of the sun urging themselves through the smoke-clouds. He thought they were like “ the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ' Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’ ” It wakened something in the man’s hackneyed heart deeper even than the thought of the woman he had prayed for. A sudden vision that a great Peace held the world as did that glow of upper light : he rested in its calm. Up the street a few steps rose the walls of the old theatre, used as a prison now for captured Confederates: it was full now ; he could see them looking out from behind the bars, grimy and tattered. Far to the north, on Mount Woods, the white grave-stones stood out clear in the darkening evening. His enemies, the busy streets, the very war itself, the bones and souls of the dead yonder, — the great Peace held them all. We might call them evil, but they were sent from God, and went back to God. All things were in Him.
I tell you, that when this one complete Truth got into this poor cobbler’s brain,—in among its vulgar facts of North and South, and patched shoes, and to-morrow’s turkey, — a great poetinsight looked out of his eyes for the minute. Saint John looked thus as he wrote that primitive natal word, “ God is love.” Cobblers, as well as Saint John, or the dying Herder, need great thoughts, and water from God to refresh them, believe me.
Trotting on, hardly needing his hickory stick, Adam could see the little brown shop yonder on the creek-bank. All dark: but did you ever see anything brighter than the way the light shone in the sitting-room, behind the Turkey-red curtains? Such a taste that little woman had! Two years ago the cobbler finished his life-work, he thought: he had been mother and father both to the orphans left with him, faithful to them, choking down the hungry gnawing within for something nearer than brother or sister. Two years ago they had left him, struck out into the world for themselves.
“ Then, you see,” Adam used to say, “ I was settlin’ down into an old man ; dryin’ up, d’ ye see ? thinkin’ the Lord had forgotten me, when He said to other men, ‘Come, it’s your turn now for home and lovin’.’ Them young ones was dear enough, but a man has a cravin’ for somethin’ that’s his own. But it was too late, I thought. Bitter ; despisin’ the Lord’s eyesight; thinkin’ He did n’t see or care what would keep me from hell. I believed in God, like most poor men do, thinkin’ Him coldblooded, not hearin’ when we cry out for work, or a wife, or child. I did n’t cry. I never prayed. But look there. Do you see — her? Jinny?” It was to the young Baptist preacher Adam said this, when he came to make a pastoral visit to Adam’s wife. “ That ’s what He did. I ’m not ashamed to pray now. I ask Him every hour to give me a tight grip on her so that I kin follow her up, and to larn me some more of His ways. That’s my religious ’xperience, Sir.”
The young man coughed weakly, and began questioning old Craig as to his faith in immersion. The cobbler stumped about the kitchen a minute before answering, holding himself down. His face was blood-red when he did speak, quite savage, the young speaker said afterward.
“ I don’t go to church, Sir. My wife does. Idon’t say now, ‘Damn the churches ! ’ or that you, an’ the likes of you, an’ yer Master, are all shams an’ humbugs. I know Him now. He ’s ’live to me. So now, when I see you belie Him, an’ keep men from Him with yer hundreds o’ wranglin’ creeds, an’ that there ’s as much honest love of truth outside the Church as in it, I don’t put yer bigotry an’ foulness on Him. I on’y think there ’s an awful mistake : just this : that the Church thinks it is Christ’s body an’ us uns is outsiders, an’ we think so too, an’ despise Him through you with yer stingy souls an’ fights an’ squabblins; not seein’ that the Church is jes’ an hospital, where some of the sickest of God’s patients is tryin’ to get cured.”
The preacher never went back ; spoke in a church-meeting soon after of the prevalence of Tom Paine’s opinions among the lower classes. Half of our sham preachers take the vague name of “ Paine ” to cover all of Christ’s opponents, — not ranking themselves there, of course.
Adam thought he had won a victory. “ Ef you ’d heard me flabbergast the parson ! ” he used to say, with a jealous anxiety to keep Christ out of the visible Church, to shut his eyes to the true purity in it, to the fact that the Physician was in His hospital. To-night some more infinite gospel had touched him. “ Good evenin’, Mr. Pitts,” he said, meeting the Baptist preacher.
“ Happy Christmas, Sir ! ” catching a glance of his broken boots. “ Danged ef Idon’t send that feller a pair of shoes unbeknownst, to-morrow ! He ’s workin’ hard, an’ it’s not for money.”
The great Peace held even its erring Church, as Adam dully saw. The streets were darkening, but full even yet of children crowding in and out of the shops. Not a child among them was more busy or important, or keener for a laugh than Adam, with his basket on his arm and his hand in his pocket clutching the money he had to lay out. The way he had worked for that! Overjobs, you know, done at night when Jinny and the baby were asleep. It was carrying him through splendidly, though: the basket was quite piled up with bundles : as for the turkey, had n’t he been keeping that in the back-yard for weeks, stuffing it until it hardly could walk ? That turkey, do you know, was the first thing Baby ever took any notice of, except the candle ? Jinny was quite opposed to killing it, for that reason, and proposed they should have ducks instead ; but as old Jim Farley and Granny Simpson were invited for dinner, and had been told about the turkey, matters must stay as they were.
“ Poor souls, they ’ll not taste turkey agin this many a day, I ’m thinkin’, Janet. When we give an entertainment, it ’s allus them-like we ’ll ask. that ’s the Master’s biddin’, ye know.”
But the pudding was yet to buy. He had a dirty scrap of paper on which Jinny had written down the amount. “The hand that woman writes ! ” He inspected it anxiously at every streetlamp. Did you ever see anything finer than that tongue, full of its rich brown juices and golden fat ? or the white, crumbly suet ? Jinny said veal: such a saving little body she was ! but we know what a pudding ought to be. Now for the pippins for it, yellow they are, holding summer yet; and a few drops of that brandy in the window, every drop shining and warm:
that ’ll put a soul into it, andHe stopped before the confectioner’s: just a moment, to collect himself; for this was the crowning point, this. There they were, in the great, gleaming window below : the rich Malaga raisins, bedded in their cases, cold to the lips, but within all glowing sweetness and passion; and the cool, tart little currants. If Jinny could see that window ! and Baby. To be sure, Baby might n’t appreciate it, but - White frost-
ed cakes, built up like fairy palaces, and mountains of golden oranges, and the light trembling through delicate candies, purple and rose-color. “ Let’s have a look, boys ! ” — and Adam crowded into the swarm outside.
Over the shops there was a high brick building, a concert-hall. You could hear the soft, dreamy air floating down from it, made vocal into a wordless love and pathos. Adam forgot the splendors of the window, listening; his heart throbbed full under his thin coat; it ached with an infinite tenderness. The poor old cobbler’s eyes filled with tears : he could have taken Jesus and the great world all into his arms then. How loving and pure it was, the world ! Christ’s footsteps were heard. The eternal stars waited above; there was not a face in the crowd about him that was not clear and joyous. These delicate, pure women flitting past him up into the lighted hall, — it made his nerves thrill into pleasure to look at them. Jesus’ world ! His creatures.
He put his hand into the basket, and shyly took out a bunch of flowers he had bought, — real flowers, tender, sweet-smelling little things. Would n’t Jinny wonder to find them on her bureau in the morning? Their fragrance, so loving and innocent, filled the frosty air, like a breath of the purity of this Day coming. Just as he was going to put them back carefully, a hand out of the crowd caught hold of them, a dirty hand, with sores on it, and a woman thrust her face from under her blowzy bonnet into his: a young face, deadly pale, on which some awful passion had cut the lines; lips dyed scarlet with rank blood, lips, you would think, that in hell itself would utter a coarse jest.
“ Give ’em to me, old cub ! ” she said, pulling at them. “I want ’em for a better nor you.”
“ Go it, Lot! ” shouted the boys.
He struck her. A woman ? Yes ; if it had been a slimy eel standing upright, it would have been less foul a thing than this.
“ Damn you ! ” she muttered, chafing the hurt arm. Whatever words this girl spoke came from her teeth out,— seemed to have no meaning to her.
“ Let’s see, Lot.”
She held out her arm, and the boy, a black one, plastered it with grime from the gutter. The others yelled with delight. Adam hurried off. A pure air? God help us! He threw the flowers into the gutter with a bitter loathing. Her fingers would be polluted, if they touched them now. He would not tell her of this : he would cut off his hand rather than talk to her of this, — let her know such things were in the world. So pure and saintly she was, his little wife ! a homely little body, but with the cleanest, most loving heart, doing her Master’s will humbly. The cobbler’s own veins were full of Scotch blood, as pure indignant as any knight’s of the Holy Greal. He wiped his hand, as though a leper had tainted it.
Passing down Church Street, the old bell rang out the hour. All day he had fancied its tone had gathered a lighter, more delicate sweetness with every chime. The Christ-child was coming; the world held up its hands adoring; all that was needed of men was to love Him, and rejoice. Its tone was different now : there was a brutal cry of pain in the ponderous voice that shook the air, — a voice saying something to God, unintelligible to him. He thrust out the thought of that woman with a curse : he had so wanted to have a good day, to feel how great and glad the world was, and to come up close to Christ with Jinny and the baby ! He did soon forget the vileness there behind, going down the streets; they were so cozy and friendly-hearted, the parlor-windows opening out red and cheerfully, as is the custom in Southern and Western towns; they said “Happy Christmas” to every passer-by. The owners, going into the houses, had a hearty word for Adam. “ Well, Craig, how goes it ? ” or, “ Fine, frosty weather, Sir.” It quite heartened the cobbler. He made shoes for most of these people, and whether men are free and equal or not, any cobbler will have a reverence for the man he has shod.
So Adam trotted on, his face a little redder, and his stooped chest, especially next the basket, in quite a glow. There she was, clear out in the snow, waiting for him by the curb-stone. How she took hold of the basket, and Adam made believe she was carrying the whole weight of it ! How the fire-light struck out furiously through the Turkey-red curtains, so as to show her to him quicker ! — to show him the snug coffee-colored dress, and the bits of cherry ribbon at her throat,—to show him how the fair curly hair was tucked back to leave the rosy ears bare he thought so dainty,— to show him how young she was, how faded and worn and tired-out she was, how hard the years had been,— to show him how his great love for her was thickening the thin blood with life, making a child out of the thwarted woman,— to show him — this more than all, this that his soul watched for, breathless, day and night — that she loved him, that she knew nothing better than the ignorant, loving heart, the horny hands that had taken her hungry fate to hold, and made of it a color and a fragrance. “ Christmas is coming, little woman ! ” Of course it was. If it had not taken the whole world into its embrace yet, there it was compacted into a very glow of love and warmth and coziness in that snuggest of rooms, and in that very Jinny and Baby, — Christmas itself,— especially when he kissed her, and she blushed and laughed, the tears in her eyes, and went fussing for that queer roll of white flannel.
Adam took off his coat: he always went at the job of nursing the baby in his shirt-sleeves. The anxious sweat used to break on his forehead before he was through. He got its feet to the fire. “ I 'm dead sure that much is right,” he used to say. Jinny put away the bundles, wishing to herself Mrs. Perkins would happen in to see them: one did n’t like to be telling what they had for dinner, but if it was
known accidentallyYou poets, whose brains have quite snubbed and sent to Coventry your stomachs, never could perceive how the pudding was a poem to the cobbler and his wife,— how a very actual sense of the live goodness of Jesus was in it, — how its spicy steam contained all the cordial cheer and jollity they had missed in meaningless days of the year. Then she brought her sewing-chair, and sat down, quite idle.
“ No work for to-night ! I ’ll teach you how to keep Christmas, Janet, woman ! ”
It was her first, one might say. Orphan girls that go about from house to house sewing, as Jinny had done, don’t learn Christmas by heart year by year. It was a new experience : she was taking it in, one would think, to look at her, with all her might, with the earnest blue eyes, the shut-up brain behind the narrow forehead, the loving heart : a contracted tenement, that heart, bythe-by, adapted for single lodgers. She was n’t quite sure that Christmas was not, after all, a relic of Papistry, — for Jinny was a thorough Protestant: a Christian, as far as she understood Him, with a keen interest in the Indian missions. “ Let us begin in our own country,” she said, and always prayed for the Sioux just after Adam and Baby. In fact, if we are all parts of God’s temple, Jinny was a very essential, cohesive bit of mortar. Adam had a wider door for his charity : it took all the world in, he thought, — though the preachers did enter with a shove, as we know. However, this was Christmas: the word took up all common things, the fierce wind without, the clean hearth, the modest color on her cheek, the very baby, and made of them one grand, sweet poem, that sang to the man the same story the angels told eighteen centuries ago : “ Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.”
Sitting there in the evenings, Adam was the talker: such a fund of anecdote he had! Jinny never could hear the same story too often. To-night there was a bit of a sigh in them: his heart was tender : about the Christmases at home, when he and Nelly were little chubs together, and hung up their stockings regularly every Christmas eve.
“ Twins, Nelly an’ me was, oldest of all. When I was bound to old Lowe, it went hard, ef I could n’t scratch together enough for a bit of ribbon-bow or a ring for Nell, come Christmas. She used to sell the old flour-barrels an’ rags, an’ have her gift all ready by my plate that mornin’: never missed. I never hed a sweetheart then.”
Jinny laid her hand on his knee
“Ye 'r' glad o’ that, little woman ? Well, well! I did n't care for women, only Ellen. She was the only livin’ thing as come near me. I gripped on to her like death, havin’ only her. But she — hed more nor me.”
Jinny knew the story well.
“ She went away with him ? ” softly.
“ Yes, she did. I don’t blame her. She was young, unlarned. No man cared for our souls. So, when she loved him well, she thort God spoke to her. So she was tuk from me. She went away.”
He patted the baby, his skinny hand all shaking. Jinny took it in hers, and, leaning over, stroked his hair.
“You’ve hed hard trouble, to turn it gray like this.”
“ No trouble like that, woman, when he left her.”
“ Left her ! An’ then she was tired of God, an’ of livin’, or dyin’. So as she loved him ! You know, my husband. As I love you. An’ he left her ! What wonder what she did ? All alone ! So as she loved him still ! God shut His eves to what she did.”
The yellow, shaggy face was suddenly turned from her. The voice choked.
“ Did He, little woman ? You know.”
“ So, when she was a-tryin’ to forget, the only way she knew, God sent an angel to bring her up, an’ have her soul washed clean.”
Adam laughed bitterly.
“ That’s not the way men told the story, child. I got there six months after : to New York, you know. I found in an old paper jes’ these words: ' The woman, Ellen Myers, found dead yesterday on one of the docks, was identified. Died of starvation and whiskey.’ That was Nelly, as used to hang up her stockin’ with me. Christian people read that. But nobody cried but me.”
“ They ’re tyrin' to help them now at the Five Points there.”
“ God help them as helps others this Christmas night! But it’s not for such as you to talk of the Five Points, Janet,” rousing himself. “ What frabbit me to talk of Nelly the night? Someways she ’s been beside me all day, as if she was grippin’ me by the sleeve, beggin’, dumb-like.”
The moody frown deepened.
“ The baby ! See, Adam, it ’ll waken ! Quick, man ! ”
And Adam, with a start, began hushing it after the fashion of a chimpanzee. The old bell rang out another hour : how genial and loving it was !
“ Nine o’clock ! Let me up, boys !” — and Lot Tyndal hustled them aside from the steps of the concert-hall. They made way for her : her thin, white arms could deal furious blows, they knew from experience. Besides, they had seen her, when provoked, fall in some cellar-door in a livid dead spasm. They were afraid of her. Her filthy, wet skirt flapped against her feet, as she went up ; she pulled her flaunting bonnet closer over her head. There was a small room at the top of the stairs, a sort of greenroom for the performers. Lot shoved the door open and went in. Madame
—was there, the prima-donna, if you chose to call her so: the rankest bloom of fifty summers, in white satin and pearls: a faded dahlia. Women hinted that the fragrance of the dahlia had not been healthful in the world ; but they crowded to hear her: such a wonderful contralto! The manager, a thin old man, with a hook-nose, and kindly, uncertain smile, stood by the stove, with a group of gentlemen about him. The wretch from the street went up to him, unsteadily.
“Lot ’s drunk,” one door-keeper whispered to another.
“ No ; the Devil’s in her, though, like a tiger, to-night.”
Yet there was a certain grace and beauty in her face, as she looked at the manager, and spoke low and sudden.
“ I’m not a beggar. I want money, — honest money. It ’s Christmas eve. They say you want a voice for the chorus, in the carols. Put me where I ’ll be hid, and I ’ll sing for you.”
The manager’s hand fell from his watch-chain. Storrs, a young lawyer of the place, touched his shoulder.
“ Don’t look so aghast, Pumphrey. Let her sing a ballad to show you. Her voice is a real curiosity.”
Madame-looked dubiously across the room : her black maid had whispered to her. Lot belonged to an order she had never met face to face before: one that lives in the suburbs of hell.
“ Let her sing, Pumphrey.”
“ If”looking anxiously to the lady.
“ Certainly,” drawled that type of purity. “ If it is so curious, her voice.”
“ Sing, then,” nodding to the girl.
There was a strange fierceness under her dead, gray eye.
“ Do you mean to employ me tonight ? ”
Her tones were low, soft, from her teeth out, as I told you. Her soul was chained, below : a young girl’s soul, hardly older than your little daughter’s there, who sings Sunday-school hymns for you in the evenings. Yet one fancied, if this girl’s soul were let loose, it would utter a madder cry than any fiend in hell.
“ Do you mean to employ me ? ” biting her finger-ends until they bled.
“ Don’t be foolish, Charlotte,” whispered Storrs. “ You may be thankful you ’re not sent to jail instead. But sing for him. He ’ll give you something, may-be.”
She did not damn him, as he expected, stood quiet a moment, her eyelids fallen, relaxed with an inexpressible weariness. A black porter came to throw coals into the stove : he knew “ dat debbil, Lot,” well: had helped drag her drunk to the lock-up a day or two before. Now, before the white folks, he drew his coat aside, loathing to touch her. She followed him with a glazed look.
“ Do you see what I am ?” she said to the manager.
Nothing pitiful in her voice. It was too late for that.
“ He would n’t touch me : I ’m not fit. I want help. Give me some honest work.”
She stopped and put her hand on his coat-sleeve. The child she might have been, and never was, looked from her face that moment.
“ God made me, I think,” she said, humbly.
The manager’s thin face reddened.
“ God bless my soul ! what shall I do, Mr. Storrs ? ”
The young man’s thick lip and thicker eyelid drooped. He laughed, and whispered a word or two.
“ Yes,” gruffly, being reassured. “ There ’s a policeman outside. Joe, take her out, give her in charge to him.”
The negro motioned her before him with a billet of wood he held. She laughed. Her laugh had gained her the name of “ Devil Lot.”
“ Why,”—fires that God never lighted blazing in her eyes, — “I thought you wanted me to sing ! I’ll sing. We ’ll have a hymn. It’s Christmas, you know.”
She staggered. Liquor, or some subtler poison, was in her veins. Then, catching by the lintel, she broke into that most deep of all adoring cries, —
A strange voice. The men about her were musical critics : they listened intently. Low, uncultured, yet full, with childish grace and sparkle ; but now and then a wailing breath of an unutterable pathos.
“ Git out wid you,” muttered the negro, who had his own religious notions, “ pollutin’ de name ob de Lord in yer lips ! ”
“ Just for a joke, Joe. My Redeemer ! ”
He drove her down the stairs.
“ Do you want to go to jail, Lot ? ” he said, more kindly. “ It’s orful cold out to-night.”
“ No. Let me go.”
She went through the crowd out into the vacant street, down to the wharf, humming some street-song, — from habit, it seemed; sat down on a pile of lumber, picking the clay out of the holes in her shoes. It was dark : she did not see that a man had followed her, until his white-gloved hand touched her. The manager, his uncertain face growing red.
“ Young woman ”-
Lot got up, pushed off her bonnet. He looked at her.
“My God! No older than Susy,” he said.
By a gas-lamp she saw his face, the trouble in it.
“Well?” biting her finger-ends again.
“ I’m sorry for you, I ”-
“ Why ?” sharply. “ There’s more like me. Fifteen thousand in the city of New York. I came from there.”
“ Not like you, child.”
“ Yes, like me,” with a gulping noise in her throat. “ I ’m no better than the rest.”
She sat down and began digging in the snow, holding the sullen look desperately on her face. The kind word had reached the tortured soul beneath, and it struggled madly to be free.
“ Can I help you ? ”
“ There ’s something in your face makes me heart-sick. I’ve a little girl of your age.”
She looked up quickly.
“ Who are you, girl ? ”
She stood up again, her child’s face white, the dark river rolling close by her feet.
“ I’m Lot. I always was what you see. My mother drank herself to death in the Bowery dens. I learned my trade there, slow and sure.”
She stretched out her hands into the night, with a wild cry, —
“ My God ! I had to live ! ”
What was to be done ? Whose place was it to help her ? he thought. He loathed to touch her. But her soul might be as pure and groping as little Susy’s.
“ I wish I could help you, girl,” he said. “ But I’m a moral man. I have to be careful of my reputation. Besides, I could n’t bring you under the same roof with my child.”
She was quiet now.
“ I know. There’s not one of those Christian women up in the town yonder ’ud take Lot into their kitchens to give her a chance to save herself from hell. Do you think I care ? It ’s not for myself I 'm sorry. It’s too late.”
Yet as this child, hardly a woman, gave her soul over forever, she could not keep her lips from turning white.
“ There ’s thousands more of us. Who cares ? Do preachers and them as sits in the grand churches come into our dens to teach us better ? ”
Pumphrey grew uneasy.
“ Who taught you to sing ? ” he said.
The girl started. She did not answer for a minute.
“What did you say?” she said.
“Who taught you?”
Her face flushed warm and dewy; her eyes wandered away, moistened and dreamy ; she curled her hair softly on her finger.
“ I’d — I’d rather not speak of that,” she said, low. “ He’s dead now. He called me — Lottie,” looking up with a sudden, childish smile. “ I was only fifteen then.”
“ How old are you now ? ”
“ Four years more. But I tell you I ’ve seen the world in that time.”
It was Devil Lot looked over at the dark river now.
He turned away to go up the wharf. No help for so foul a thing as this. He dared not give it, if there were. She had sunk down with her old, sullen glare, but she rose and crept after him. Why, this was her only chance of help from all the creatures God had made !
“ Let me tell you,” she said, holding by a fire-plug. “It’s not for myself I care. It’s for Benny. That’s my little brother. I’ve raised him. He loves me ; he don’t know, I ’ve kept him alone allays. I don’t pray, you know; but when Ben puts his white little arms about me’t nights and kisses me, somethin’ says to me, ‘ God loves you, Lot.’ So help me God, that boy shall never know what his sister was ! He’s gettin’ older now. I want work, before he can know. Now, will you help me ? ”
“ How can I ? ”
The whole world of society spoke in the poor manager.
“ I ’ll give you money.”
Her face hardened.
“ Lot, I ’ll be honest. There ’s no place for such as you. Those that have made you what you are hold good stations among us ; but when a woman’s once down, there’s no raising her up.”
“ Never ? ”
She stood, her fair hair pushed back from her face, her eye deadening every moment, quite quiet.
“ Good bye, Lot.”
The figure touched him somehow, standing alone in the night there.
“ It was n’t my fault at the first,” she wandered. “ Nobody teached me better.”
“ I’m not a church-member, thank God ! ” said Pumphrey to himself, and so washed his hands in innocency.
“ Well, good bye, girl,” kindly. “ Try and lead a better life. I wish I could have given you work.”
“ It was only for Benny that I cared, Sir.”
“ You ’re sick ? Or ”—
“ It ’ll not last long, now. I only keep myself alive eating opium now and then. D’ ye know ? I fell by your hall to-day ; had a fit, they said. It was n’t a fit; it was death, Sir.”
“ Why did n’t you die, then ?”
“ I would n’t. Benny would have known then. I said, — ‘ I will not. I must take care o’ him first.’ Good bye. You ’d best not be seen here.”
And so she left him.
One moment she stood uncertain, being alone, looking down into the seething black water covered with ice.
“ There’s one chance yet,” she muttered. “It ’s hard; but I ’ll try,” — with a shivering sigh ; and went dragging herself along the wharf, muttering still something about Benny.
As she went through the lighted streets, her step grew lighter. She lifted her head. Why, she was only a child yet, in some ways, you know ; and this was Christmas-time; and it was n’t easy to believe, that, with the whole world strong and glad, and the True Love coming into it, there was no chance for her. Was it ? She hurried on, keeping in the shadow of the houses to escape notice, until she came to the more open streets, — the old “ commons.” She stopped at the entrance of an alley, going to a pump, washing her face and hands, then combing her fair, silky hair.
“ I ’ll try it,” she said again.
Some sudden hope had brought a pink flush to her cheek and a moist brilliance to her eye. You could not Help thinking, had society not made her what she was, how fresh and fair and debonair a little maiden she would have been.
“ He ’s my mother’s brother. He 'd a kind face, though he struck me. I ’ll kill him, if he strikes me agin,” the dark trade-mark coming into her eyes. “ But mebbe,” patting her hair, “ he ’ll not. Just call me Charley, as Ben does : help me to be like his wife : I ’ll hev a chance for heaven at last.”
She turned to a big brick building and ran lightly up the stairs on the outside. It had been a cotton-factory, but was rented in tenement - rooms now. On the highest porch was one of Lot’s rooms: she had two. The muslin curtain was undrawn, a red fire-light shone out. She looked in through the window, smiling. A clean, pure room : the walls she had whitewashed herself; a white cot-bed in one corner; a glowing fire, before which a little child sat on a low cricket, building a house out of blocks. A brave, honest-faced little fellow, with clear, reserved eyes, and curling golden hair. The girl, Lot, might have looked like that at his age.
“ Benny ! ” she called, tapping on the pane.
“Yes, Charley!” instantly, coming quickly to the door.
She caught him up in her arms.
“ Is my baby tired waiting for sister ? I ’m finding Christmas for him, you know.”
He put his arms about her neck, kissing her again and again, and laying his head down on her shoulder.
“ I ’m so glad you’ve come, Charley ! so glad ! so glad ! ”
“ Has my boy his stocking up ? Such a big boy to have his stocking up ! ”
He put his chubby hands over her eyes quickly, laughing.
“ Don’t look, Charley ! don’t! Benny ’s played you a trick now, I tell you ! ” pulling her towards the fire. “ Now look ! Not Benny’s stocking : Charley’s. I guess.”
The girl sat down on the cricket, holding him on her lap, playing with the blocks, as much of a child as he.
“ Why, Bud ! Such an awful lot of candies that stocking ’ll hold !” laughing with him. “It ’ll take all Kriss Kringle’s sack.”
“ Kriss Kringle ! Oh, Charley ! I’m too big; I’m five years now. You can’t cheat me.”
The girl’s very lips went white. She got up at his childish words, and put him down.
“ No, I ’ll not cheat you, Benny,— never, any more.”
“ Where are you going, Charley ? ”
“Just out a bit,” wrapping a plain shawl about her. “ To find Christmas, you know. For you — and me.”
He pattered after her to the door.
“ You ’ll come put me to bed, Charley dear ? I’m so lonesome !”
“ Yes, Bud. Kiss me. One, — two, — three times, — for God’s good-luck.”
He kissed her. And Lot went out into the wide, dark world, — into Christmas night, to find a friend.
She came a few minutes later to a low frame-building, painted brown: Adam Craig’s house and shop. The little sitting-room had a light in it: his wife would be there with the baby. Lot knew them well, though they never had seen her. She had watched them through the window for hours in winter nights. Some damned soul might have thus looked wistfully into heaven : pitying herself, feeling more like God than the blessed within, because she knew the pain in her heart, the struggle to do right, and pitied it. She had a reason for the hungry pain in her blood when the kind-faced old cobbler passed her. She was Nelly’s child. She had come West to find him.
“ Never, that he should know me! never that! but for Benny’s sake.”
If Benny could have brought her to him, saying, “ See, this is Charley, my Charley ! ” But Adam knew her by another name, — Devil Lot.
While she stood there, looking in at the window, the snow drifting on her head in the night, two passers-by halted an instant.
“ Oh, father, look ! ” It was a young girl spoke. “ Let me speak to that woman.”
“ What does thee mean, Maria ? ”
She tried to draw her hand from his arm.
“ Let me go, — she ’s dying, I think. Such a young, fair face ! She thinks God has forgotten her. Look ! ”
The old Quaker hesitated.
“ Not thee, Maria. Thy mother shall find her to-morrow. Thee must never speak to her. Accursed ! ‘Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death.’ ”
They passed on. Lot heard it all God had offered the pure young girl a chance to save a soul from death; but she threw it aside. Lot did not laugh : looked after them with tearless eyes, until they were out of sight. She went to the door then. “It ’s for Benny,” she whispered, swallowing down the choking that made her dumb. She knocked and went in.
Jinny was alone : sitting by the fire, rocking the baby to sleep, singing some child’s hymn: a simple little thing, beginning, —
Who wept our path along:
Come, let us sing of Jesus,
The tempted, and the strong.”
Such a warm, happy flush lightened in Charley’s heart at that! She did not know why; but her fear was gone. The baby, too, a white, pure little thing, was lying in the cradle, cooing softly to itself. The mother-instinct is nearest the surface in a loving woman; the girl went up quickly to it, and touched its cheek, with a smile : she could not help it.
“ It ’s so pretty ! ” she said.
Jinny’s eyes glowed.
“ I think so,” she said, simply. “It ’s my baby. Did you want me ? ”
Lot remembered then. She drew back, her face livid and grave.
“ Yes. Do you know me ? I’m Lot Tyndal. Don’t jerk your baby back ! Don’t! I ’ll not touch it. I want to get some honest work. I ’ve a little brother.”
There was a dead silence. Jinny’s brain, I told you, was narrow, her natural heart not generous or large in its impulse; the kind of religion she learned did not provide for anomalies of work like this. (So near at hand, you know. Lot was neither a Sioux nor a Rebel.)
“I ’m Lot,” — desperately. “You know what I am. I want you to take us in, stop the boys from hooting at me on the streets, make a decent Christian woman out of me. There ’s plain words. Will you do it ? I ’ll work for you. I ’ll nurse the baby, the dear little baby.”
jinny hold her child tighter to her breast, looking at the vile clothes of the wretch, the black marks which years of crime had left on her face. Don’t blame Jinny. Her baby was God’s gift to her : she thought of that, you know. She did not know those plain, coarse words were the last cry for help from a drowning soul, going down into depths whereof no voice has come back to tell the tale. Only Jesus. Do you know what message He carried to those “ spirits in prison ” ?
“ I dare n’t do it. What would they say of me ? ” she faltered.
Lot did not speak. After a while she motioned to the shop. Adam was there. His wife went for him, taking the baby with her. Charley saw that, though everything looked dim to her ; when Adam came in, she knew, too, that his face was angry and dark.
“ It’s Christmas eve,” she said.
She tried to say more, but could not.
“ You must go from here ! ” speaking sharp, hissing. “I’ve no faith in the whinin’ cant of such as you. Go out, Janet. This is no place for you or the child.”
He opened the street-door for Lot to go out. He had no faith in her, No shrewd, common-sense man would have had. Besides, this was his Christmas night: the beginning of his new life, when he was coming near to Christ in his happy home and great love. Was this foul worm of the gutter to crawl in and tarnish it all ?
She stopped one instant on the threshold. Within was a home, a chance for heaven; out yonder in the night — what ?
“ You will put me out ? ” she said.
“I know your like. There’s no help for such as you ” ; and he closed the door.
She sat down on the curb-stone. It was snowing hard. For about an hour she was there, perfectly quiet. The snow lay in warm, fleecy drifts about her : when it fell on her arm, she shook it off: it was so pure and clean, and she
— She could have torn her flesh from the bones, it seemed so foul to her that night. Poor Charley ! If she had only known how God loved something within her, purer than the snow, which no foulness of flesh or circumstance could defile! Would you have told her, if you had been there ? She only muttered, “ Never,” to herself now and then, “ Never.”
A little boy came along presently, carrying a loaf of bread under his arm, — a manly, gentle little fellow. She let Benny play with him sometimes.
“ Why, Lot ! ” he said. “ I ’ll walk part of the way home with you. I ’m afraid.”
She got up and took him by the hand. She could hardly speak. Tired, wornout in body and soul; her feet had been passing for years through water colder than the river of death: but it was nearly over now.
“ It’s better for Benny it should end this way,” she said.
She knew how it would end.
“ Rob,” she said, when the boy turned to go to his own home, “ you know Adam Craig ? I want you to bring him to my room early to-morrow morning, — by dawn. Tell him he ’ll find his sister Nelly’s child there : and never to tell that child that his ‘ Charley ’ was Lot Tyndal. You ’ll remember, Rob ? ”
“I will. Happy Christmas, Charley ! ”
She waited a minute, her foot on the steps leading to her room.
“Rob!” she called, weakly, “when you play with Ben, I wish you ’d call me Charley to him, and never — that other name.”
“ I 'll mind,” the child said, looking wistfully at her.
She was alone now. How long and steep the stairs were ! She crawled up slowly. At the top she took a lump of something brown from her pocket, looked at it long and steadily. Then she glanced upward.
“ It’s the only way tc keep Benny from knowing,” she said. She ate it, nearly all, then looked around, below her, with a strange intentness, as one who says good-bye. The bell tolled the hour. Unutterable pain was in its voice, — may-be dumb spirits like Lot’s crying aloud to God.
“ One hour nearer Christmas, “ said Adam Craig, uneasily. “ Christ’s coming would have more meaning, Janet, if this were a better world. It it was n’t for these social necessities that ”—
He stopped. Jinny did not answer.
Lot went into her room, roused Ben with a kiss. “ His last remembrance of me shall be good and pleasant,” she said. She took him on her lap, untying his shoes.
“ My baby has been hunting eggs today in Rob’s stable,” shaking the hay from his stockings.
“ Why, Charley! how could you know ? ” with wide eyes.
“ So many things I know ! Oh, Charley ’s wise ! To-morrow, Bud will go see new friends, — such kind friends! Charley knows. A baby, Ben. My boy will like that: he ’s a big giant beside that baby. Ben can hold it, and touch it, and kiss it.”
She looked at his pure hands with hungry eyes.
“ Go on. What else but the baby ? ”
“ Kind friends for Ben, better and kinder than Charley.”
“ That’s not true. Where are you going, Charley ? I hate the kind friends. I ’ll stay with you,”—beginning to cry.
Her eyes sparkled, and she laughed childishly.
“ Only a little way, Bud, I’m going. You watch for me, — all the time you watch for me. Some day you and I ’ll go out to the country, and be good children together.”
What dawning of a new hope was this ? She did not feel as if she lied. Some day, — it might be true. Yet the vague gleam died out of her heart, and when Ben, in his white night-gown, knelt down to say the prayer his mother had taught him, it was “ Devil Lot’s ” dead, crime-marked face that bent over him.
“ God bless Charley ! ” he said.
She heard that. She put him into the bed, then quietly bathed herself, filled his stocking with the candies she had bought, and lay down beside him,—her limbs growing weaker, but her brain more lifeful, vivid, intent.
“ Not long now,” she thought. “ Love me, Benny. Kiss me good-night.”
The child put his arms about her neck, and kissed her forehead.
“ Charley’s cold,” he said. “When we are good children together, let ’s live, in a tent. Will you, Sis ? Let’s make a tent now.”
“ Yes, dear.”
She struggled up, and pinned the sheet over him to the head-board ; it was a favorite fancy of Ben’s.
“ That ’s a good Charley,” sleepily. “ Good night. I ’ll watch for you all the time, all the time.”
He was asleep, — did not waken even when she strained him to her heart, passionately, with a wild cry.
“ Good bye, Benny.” Then she lay quiet. “ We might have been good children together, if onlyI don’t know whose fault it is,” throwing her thin arms out desperately. “ I wish — oh, I do wish somebody had been kind to me ! ”
Then the arms fell powerless, and Charley never moved again. But her soul was clear. In the slow tides of that night, it lived back, hour by hour, the life gone before. There was a skylight above her; she looked up into the great silent darkness between earth and heaven, — Devil Lot, whose soul must go out into that darkness alone. She said that. The world that had held her under its foul heel did not loathe her as she loathed herself that night. Lot.
The dark hours passed, one by one. Christmas was nearer, nearer,—the bell tolled. It had no meaning for her: only woke a weak fear that she should not be dead before morning, that any living eye should be vexed by her again. Past midnight. The great darkness slowly grayed and softened. What did she wait for? The vile worm Lot,— who eared in earth or heaven when she died ? Then the Lord turned, and looked upon Charley. Never yet was the soul so loathsome, the wrong so deep, that the loving Christ has not touched it once with His hands, and said, “Will you come to me?” Do you know how He came to her? how, while the unquiet earth needed Him, and the inner deeps of heaven were freshening their fairest morning light to usher in the birthday of our God, He came to find poor Charley, and, having died to save her, laid His healing hands upon her ? It was in her weak, ignorant way she saw Him. While she, Lot, lay there corrupt, rotten in soul and body, it came to her how, long ago, Magdalene, more vile than Lot, had stood closest to Jesus. Magdalene loved much, and was forgiven.
So, after a while, Charley, the child that might have been, came to His feet humbly, with bitter sobs. “ Lord, I ’m so tired!” she said. “ I’d like to try again, and be a different girl.” That was all. She clung close to His hand as she went through the deep waters.
Benny, stirring in his sleep, leaned over, and kissed her lips. “ So cold ! ” he whispered, drowsily. “ God —bless — Charley ! ” She smiled, but her eyes were closed.
The darkness was gone: the gray vault trembled with a coming radiance ; from the East, where the Son of Man was born, a faint flush touched the earth : it was the promise of the Dawn. Lot’s foul body lay dead there with the Night: but Jesus took the child Charley in His arms, and blessed her.
Christmas evening. How still and quiet it was ! The Helper had come. Not to the snow-covered old earth, falling asleep in the crimson sunset mist: it did not need Him. Not an atom of its living body, from the granite mountain to the dust on the red sea-fern, had failed to perform its work : taking time, too, to break forth in a wild luxuriance of beauty as a psalm of thanksgiving. The Holy Spirit you talk of in the churches had been in the old world since the beginning, since the day it brooded over the waters, showing itself as the spirit of Life in granite rock or red sea-fern, — as the spirit of Truth in every heroic deed, in every true word of poet or prophet, — as the spirit of
Love as— Let your own hungry heart, tell how. To-day it came to man as the Helper. We all saw that dimly, and showed that we were glad, in some weak way. God, looking down, saw a smile upon the faces of His people.
The fire glowed redder and cheerier in Adam’s little cottage ; the lamp was lighted ; Jinny had set out a wonderful table, too. Benny had walked around and around it, rubbing his hands slowly in dumb ecstasy. Such oranges! and frosted cakes covered with crushed candy ! Such a tree in the middle, hung with soft-burning tapers, and hidden in the branches the white figure of the loving Christ-child. That was Adam’s fancy. Benny sat in Jinny’s lap now, his head upon her breast. She was rocking him to sleep, singing some cheery song for him, although that baby of hers lay broad awake in the cradle, aghast and open-mouthed at his neglect. It had been just “ Benny ” all day, — Benny that she had followed about, uneasy lest the wind should blow through the open door on him, or the fire be too hot, or that every moment should not be full to the brim with fun and pleasure, touching his head or hand now and then with a woful tenderness, her throat choked, and her blue eyes wet, crying in her heart incessantly,
“ Lord, forgive me ! ”
“ Tell me more of Charley,” she said, as they sat there in the evening.
He was awake a long time after that, telling her, ending with,—
“ She said, ‘ You watch for me, Bud, all the time.' That ’s what she said. So she ’ll come. She always does, when she says. Then we ’re going to the country to he good children together. I ’ll watch for her.”
So he fell asleep, and Jinny kissed him, — looking at him an instant, her cheek growing paler.
“ That is for you, Benny,” she whispered to herself, — “ and this,” stooping to touch his lips again, “ this is for Charley. Last night,” she muttered, bitterly, “ it would have saved her.”
Old Adam sat on the side of the bed where the dead girl lay.
“ Nelly’s child ! ” he said, stroking the hand, smoothing the fair hair. All day he had said only that, — “ Nelly’s child! ”
Very like her she was, — the little Nell who used to save her cents to buy a Christmas-gift for him, and bring it with flushed cheeks, shyly, and slip it on his plate. This child’s cheeks would have flushed like hers — at a kind word; the dimpled, innocent smile lay in them, — only a kind word would have brought it to life. She was dead now, and he — he had struck her yesterday. She lay dead there with her great loving heart, her tender, childish beauty, — a harlot, — Devil Lot. No more.
The old man pushed his hair back, with shaking hands, looking up to the sky. “ Lord, lay not this sin to my charge ! ” he said. His lips were bloodless. There was not a street in any city where a woman like this did not stand with foul hand and gnawing heart. They came from God, and would go back to Him. To-day the Helper came; but who showed Him to them, to Nelly’s child?
Old Adam took the little cold hand in his : he said something under his breath: I think it was, “Here am I, Lord, and the wife that Thou hast given,” as one who had found his life’s work, and took it humbly. A sworn knight in Christ’s order.
Christmas-day had come, —the promise of the Dawn, sometime to broaden into the full and perfect day. At its close now, a still golden glow, like a great Peace, filled the earth and heaven, touching the dead Lot there, and the old man kneeling beside her. He fancied that it broke from behind the dark bars of cloud in the West, thinking of the old appeal, “ Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.” Was He going in, yonder ? A weary man, pale, thorn-crowned, bearing the pain and hunger of men and women vile as Lot, to lay them at His Father’s feet? Was he to go with loving heart, and do likewise ? Was that the meaning of Christmas-day ? The quiet glow grew deeper, more restful; the bell tolled : its sound faded, solemn and low, into the quiet, as one that says in his heart, Amen.
That night, Benny, sleeping in the still twilight, stirred and smiled suddenly, as though some one had given him a happy kiss, and, half waking, cried, “ Oh, Charley ! Charley ! ”