At a Toy-Shop Window

On this Christmas night, as I stand before the toy-shop in the whirling storm, the wind brings me the laughter of far-off children. Time draws back its sober curtain. The snow of thirty winters is piled in my darkened memory, but I hear shrill voices across the night.

IN this Christmas season, when snowflakes fill the air and twilight is the pleasant thief of day, I sometimes pause at the window of a toy-shop to see what manner of toys is offered to the children. It is only five o’clock, and yet the sky is dark. The night has come to town to do its shopping before the stores are shut. The wind has Christmas errands.

And there is also a throng of other shoppers. Fathers of families drip with packages and puff after street-cars. Fat ladies — Now then, all together! — are hoisted up. Old ladies are caught in revolving doors. And the relatives of Santa Claus — surely no nearer than nephews (anæmic fellows in faded red coats and cotton beards) — pound their kettles for an offering toward a Christmas dinner for the poor.

But, also, little children flatten their noses on the window of the toy-shop. They point their thumbs through their woolly mittens in a sharp rivalry of choice. Their unspent nickels itch for large investment. Extravagant dimes bounce around their pockets. But their ears are cold, and they jiggle on one leg against a frosty toe.

Here in the toy-shop window is a tin motor-car. Here is a railroad train, with tracks and curves and switches, a pasteboard mountain, and a tunnel. Here is a steamboat. With a turning of a key it starts for Honolulu behind the sofa. The stormy Straits of Madagascar lie along the narrow hall. Here in the window, also, are beams and girders for a tower. Not since the days of Babel has such a vast supply been gathered. And there are battleships and swift destroyers and guns and armored tanks. The nursery becomes a dangerous ocean, with submarines beneath the stairs; or it is the plain of Flanders, and the Great War echoes across the hearth. ChâteauThierry is a pattern in the rug, and the andirons are the towers of threatened Paris.

Once upon a time, — in the days when noses and tables were almost on a level, and manhood had wavered from kilts to ‘pants’ that button at the sides, — once there was a great chest that was lodged in a closet behind a sitting-room. It was from this closet that the shadows came at night, although at noon there was plainly a row of hooks with comfortable winter garments. And there were drawers and shelves to the ceiling where linen was kept, and a cupboard for cough-syrup and oily lotions for chapped hands. A fragrant paste, also, was spread on the tip of the little finger, which, when wiggled inside the nostril and inhaled, was good for wet feet and snuffles. Twice a year these bottles were smelled all round and half of them discarded. It was the rag-man who bought them, a penny to the bottle. He coveted chiefly, however, lead and iron, and he thrilled to old piping as another man thrills to Brahms. He was a sly fellow and, unless Annie looked sharp, he put his knee against the scale.

But at the rear of the closet, beyond the lamp-light, there was a chest where playing-blocks were kept. There were a dozen broken sets of various shapes and sizes — the deposit and remnant of many years. These blocks had once been covered with letters and pictures. They had conspired to teach us. C had stood for cat. D announced a dog. Learning had put on, as it were, a sugar coat for pleasant swallowing. The arid heights teased us to mount by an easy slope. But we scraped away the letters and the pictures. Should a holiday, we thought, be ruined by insidious instruction? Must a teacher’s wagging finger always come among us? It was sufficient that five blocks end to end made a railway car, with finger-blocks for platforms; that three blocks were an engine, with a block on top to be a smokestack. We had no toy mountain and pasteboard tunnel, as in the soft fashion of the present, but we jacked the rug with blocks up hill and down, and pushed our clanking trains through the hollow underneath. It was an added touch to build a castle on the summit. A spool on a finger-block was the Duke himself on horseback, hunting across his sloping acres.

There was, also, in the chest, a remnant of iron coal-cars, with real wheels. Their use was too apparent. A best invention was to turn playthings from an obvious design. So we placed one of the coal-cars under the half of a folding checkerboard, and by adding masts and turrets and spools for guns we built a battleship. This could be sailed all round the room, on smooth seas where the floor was bare, but it pitched and tossed upon a carpet. If it came to port battered by the storm, should it be condemned like a ship that is broken on a sunny river? Its plates and rivets had been tested in a tempest. It had skirted the stairway and passed the windy Horn.

Or perhaps we built a fort upon the beach before the fire. It was a pretty warfare between ship and fort, with marbles for shot and shot in turn. A lucky marble toppled the checkerboard off its balance and wrecked the ship. The sailors, after scrambling in the water, put to shore on flat blocks from the boat-deck and were held as prisoners until supper in the dungeons of the fort. It was in the sitting-room that we played these games, under the family’s feet. They moved above our sport like a race of tolerant giants; but when callers came, we were brushed to the rear of the house.

Spools were men. Thread was their short and subsidiary use. Their larger life was given to our armies. We had several hundred of them threaded on long strings on the closet-hooks. But if a great campaign was planned, — if the plains of Abraham w’ere to be stormed, or Cornwallis captured,— our recruiting sergeants rummaged in the drawers of the sewing-machine for any spool that had escaped the draft. Or we peeked into mother’s work-box, and if a spool was almost empty, we suddenly became anxious about our buttons. Sometimes, when a great spool was needed for a general, mother wound the thread upon a piece of cardboard. General Grant had carried black silk. Napoleon had been used on trouser-patches. And my grandmother and a half-dozen aunts and elder cousins did their bit and plied their needles for the war. In this regard grandfather was a slacker, but he directed the battle from the sofa with his crutch.

Toothpicks were guns. Every soldier had a gun. If he was hit by a marble in the battle and the toothpick remained in place, he was only wounded; but he was dead if the toothpick fell out. Of each two men wounded, by Hague convention, one recovered for the next engagement.

Of course, we had other toys. Lead soldiers in cocked hats came down the chimney and were marshaled in the Christmas dawn. A steam-engine with a coil of springs and keys furnished several rainy holidays. A red wheelbarrow supplied a short fury of enjoyment. There were sleds and skates, and a printing-press on which we printed the milkman’s tickets. There was, also, a castle with a princess at a window. Was there no prince to climb her trellis and bear her off beneath the moon? It had happened so in Astolat. The princes of the gorgeous East had wooed, also, in such a fashion. Or perhaps this was the very castle that the wicked Kazrac lifted across the Chinese mountains in the night. It was rather a clever idea, as things seem now in this time of general shortage, to steal a lady, house and all, not forgetting the cook and laundress. But one day a little girl with dark hair smiled at me from next door and gave me a Christmas cake, and in my dreams thereafter she became the princess in my castle.

We had stone blocks with arches, and round columns that were too delicate for the hazard of siege and battle. Once, when a playmate had scarlet fever, we lent them to him for his convalescence. Afterwards, against contagion, we left them for a month under a bush in the side yard. Every afternoon we wet them with a garden hose. Did not Noah’s flood purify the world? It would be a stout microbe, we thought, that could survive the deluge. At last we lifted out the blocks at arm’s length. We smelled them for any lurking fever. They were damp to the nose and smelled like the cement under the back porch. But the contagion had vanished like Noah’s wicked neighbors.

But store toys always broke. Wheels came off. Springs were snapped. Even the princess faded at her castle window.

Sometimes a toy, when it was broken, arrived at a larger usefulness. Although I would not willingly forget my velocipede in its first gay youth, my memory of sharpest pleasure reverts to its later days when one of its rear wheels was gone. It had been jammed, in an accident, against the piano. Three spokes were broken and the hub was cracked. At first, it had seemed that its day was done. We laid it on its side and tied the hub with rags. It looked like a jaw with toothache. Then we thought of the old baby-carriage in the storeroom. Perhaps a transfusion of wheels was possible. We conveyed upstairs a hammer and a saw. It was a wobbling and impossible experiment. But at the top of the house there was a kind of race-track around the four posts of the attic. With three wheels complete, we had been forced to ride with caution at the turns, or be pitched against the sloping rafters. We now discovered that a missing wheel gave the necessary tilt for speed. I do not recall that the pedals worked. We legged it on both sides. Ten times around was a race; and the audience sat on the ladder to the roof and held a watch with a second-hand for records.

Abandoned furniture, also, had uses beyond a first intention. A folding-bed of ours closed to about the shape of a piano. When the springs and mattress were removed, it was a house, with a window at the end where a wooden flap let down. A pile of old furniture in the attic, covered with a cloth, became at twilight a range of mountains with caverns underneath.

Nor must furniture of necessity be discarded. We dived from the footboard of our bed into a Surf of pillows. A sewing-table with legs folded flat was a swift sled upon the stairs. Must I do more than hint that two bed-slats make a pair of stilts, and that one may tilt like King Arthur with the wash-poles? Or who shall fix a narrow use for the laundry tubs, or put a limit on a coalhole? And step-ladders! There are persons who consider a step-ladder as a menial. This is an injustice to a giddy creature that needs but a holiday to show its metal. On Thursday afternoons, when the cook is out, you would never know it for the same thin creature that goes on work-days with a pail and cleans the windows. It is a tower, a shining lighthouse, a crowded grandstand, a circus, a ladder to the moon.

But perhaps, my dear young sir, you are so lucky as to possess a smaller and inferior brother who frets with ridicule. He is a toy to be desired above a red velocipede. I offer you a hint. Print upon a paper in bold, plain letters — sucking the lead for extra blackness — that he is afraid of the dark, that he likes the girls, that he is a butter-fingers and teacher’s pet and otherwise contemptible. Paste the paper inside the glass of the bookcase, so that the insult shows. Then lock the door and hide the key. Let him gaze at this placard of his weakness during a rainy afternoon. But I caution you to secure the keys of all similar glass doors — of the china closet, of the other bookcase, of the knick-knack cabinet. Let him stew in his iniquity without opportunity of retaliation.

But perhaps, in general, your brother is inclined to imitate you and be a tardy pattern of your genius. He apes your fashion in suspenders, your method in shinny. You wag your head from side to side on your bicycle in the manner of Zimmerman, the champion. Your brother wags his, too. You spit in your catcher’s mitt like Kelly, the ten-thousand-dollar baseball beauty. Your brother spits in his mitt, too. These things are unbearable. If you call him ‘sloppy ’ when his face is dirty, he merely passes you back the insult unchanged. If you call him ‘sloppy two-times,’ still he has no invention. You are justified now in calling him ‘nigger’ and cuffing him to his place.

Tagging is his worst offense — tagging along behind when you are engaged on serious business. ‘Now then, sonny,’ you say, ‘run home. Get nurse to blow your nose.’ Or you bribe him with a penny to mind his business.

I must say a few words about paperhangers, although they cannot be considered as toys or playthings by any rule of logic. There is something rather jolly about having a room papered. The removal of the pictures shows how the old paper looked before it faded. The furniture is pushed into an agreeable confusion in the hall. A rocker seems starting for the kitchen. The great couch goes out the window. The carpet marks the places where the piano-legs came down.

And the paper-hanger is rather a jolly person. He sings and whistles in the empty room. He keeps to a tune until you know it. He slaps his brushes as if he liked his work. It is a sticky, splashing, sloshing slap. Not even a plasterer deals in more interesting material. And he settles down on you with ladders and planks as if a circus had moved in. After hours, when he is gone, you clamber on his planking and cross Niagara, as it were, with a cane for balance. To this day I think of paper-hangers as a kindly race of men, who sing in echoing rooms and eat pie and pickles for their lunch. Except for their Adam’s apples, — surely not the wicked apple of the Garden, — I would wish to be a paper-hanger.

Plumbers were a darker breed, who chewed tobacco fetched up from their hip-pockets. They were enemies of the cook by instinct, and they spat in dark corners. We once found a cake of their tobacco when they were gone. We carried it to the safety of the furnace-room and bit into it in turn. It was of a sweetish flavor of licorice that was not unpleasant. But the sin was too enormous for our comfort.

But in November, when days were turning cold and hands were chapped, our parents’ thoughts ran to the kindling-pile, to stock it for the winter. Now the kindling-pile was the best quarry for our toys, because it was bought from a washboard factory around the corner. Not every child has the good fortune to live near a washboard factory. Necessary as washboards are, a factory of modest output can supply a county, with even a little dribble for export into neighbor counties. Many unlucky children, therefore, live a good ten miles off, and can never know the fascinating discard of its lathes — the little squares and cubes, the volutes and rhythmic flourishes, which are cast off in manufacture and are sold as kindling. They think a washboard is a dull and common thing. To them it smacks of Monday. It smells of yellow soap and suds. It wears, so to speak, a checkered blouse and carries clothes-pins in its mouth. It has perspiration on its nose. They do not know, in their pitiable ignorance, the towers and bridges that can be made from the scourings of a washboard factory.

Our washboard factory was a great wooden structure that had been built for a roller-skating rink. Father and mother, as youngsters in the time of their courtship, had cut fancy eights upon the floor. And still, in these later days, if you listened outside beneath a window, you heard a whirling roar, as if perhaps the skaters had returned and again swept the corners madly. But it was really the sound of machinery that you heard, fashioning toys and blocks for us. At noonday, comely red-faced girls ate their lunches on the windowsills, ready for conversation and new acquaintance, taking the passing world into an occasional flash of confidence about their stockings.

And now for several days a rumor has been running around the house that a wagon of kindling is expected. Each afternoon on our return from school we run to the cellar. Even on bakingday the whiff of cookies holds us only for a minute. And at last the day comes. The fresh wood is piled to the ceiling. It is a great mound and chaos, without form, but certainly not void. For there are long pieces for bridges, flat pieces for theatre scenery, tall pieces for towers, and grooves for marbles. It is a vast quarry for our pleasant uses. You will please leave us in the twilight, sustained by doughnuts, burrowing in the pile, throwing out sticks to replenish our chest of blocks.

And therefore on this Christmas night, as I stand before the toy-shop in the whirling storm, the wind brings me the laughter of these far-off children. The snow of thirty winters is piled in my darkened memory, but I hear shrill voices across the night.