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"A CHRISTMAS MATINEE"

from The Children's Book Of Christmas Stories





It was the day before Christmas in the year 189-. 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 because of your stupidity!"

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

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. "The compliment makes up for the blame. But
how it snows!"

"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. "There's your money," he said, "and be quick about the
change, will you? We've lost time enough!"

The man 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 went on
into the drifting storm.

Armstrong laughed shortly as he rapidly counted the bits of silver
lying in his open palm. He turned instinctively, but two or three cars
were already between him and the one he was looking for.

"The fellow must be an imbecile," he said, rejoining the group on the
crossing. "He's given me back a dollar and twenty cents, and I handed
him a dollar bill."

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

The Harvard junior, who was carrying her umbrella, protested: "What's
the use. Miss Williams? He'll make it up before he gets to Scollay
Square, you may be sure. Those chaps don't lose anything. Why, 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
count."

"But that doesn't make any difference," insisted the girl warmly.
"Because one conductor was dishonest, we needn't be. I beg your pardon,
Frank, but it does seem to me just stealing."

"Oh, come along!" said her cousin, with an easy laugh. "I guess the
West End Corporation won't go without their dinners to-morrow. Here,
Maidie, here's the ill-gotten fifty cents. _I_ think you ought to treat
us all after the concert; still, I won't urge you. I wash my hands of
all responsibility. But I do wish you hadn't such an unpleasant
conscience."

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

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

"No, I never thought of it" said Frank, 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 thinking of making a complaint," said Maidie; but 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 said, 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 beautiful, perhaps, but she was the kind of girl he liked. 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 man again. I know sometimes they have to make it up if
their accounts are wrong, and 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, "you are
perfectly absurd. Here it is within five minutes of the tune for the
concert to begin. It is impossible to tell when that car is coming
back. You are making us all very uncomfortable. Mrs. Tirrell, won't you
please tell her not to spoil our afternoon?"

"I think he's right, Maidie," said Mrs. Tirrell. "It's very nice of you
to feel so sorry for the poor man, but he really was very careless. It
was all his own fault. And just think how far he made us walk! My feet
are quite damp. We ought to go in directly or we shall all take cold,
and I'm sure you wouldn't like that, my dear."

She led the way as she spoke, the two girls and young Armstrong
following. Maidie hesitated. It was so easy to go in, to forget
everything in the light and warmth and excitement.

"No," said she, 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, Mr. Harris, but if you will tell them--"

"Why, I'm going with you, of course" said the young fellow,
impulsively. "If I'd only looked once at the man I'd go alone, but I
shouldn't know him from Adam."

Maidie laughed. "Oh, I don't want to lose the whole concert, Mr.
Harris, and Frank, has all the tickets. You must go after them and try
to make my peace. I'll come just as soon as I can. Don't wait for me,
please. If you'll come and look for me here 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!" cried Walter Harris, with
honest admiration in his eyes.

But she was gone already, and conscious that further delay was only
making matters worse, he went on into the hall.

Meanwhile, the car 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 stepped inside
the car.

"Too bad I forgot those young people wanted to get off at Music Hall,"
he was thinking to himself. "I don't see how I came to do it. That chap
looked as if he wanted to complain of me, and I don't know as I blame
him. I'd have said I was sorry if he hadn't been so sharp with his
tongue. I hope he won't complain just now. 'Twould be a pretty bad time
for me to get into trouble, with Mary and the baby both sick. I'm too
sleepy to be good for much, that's a fact. Sitting up three nights
running takes hold of a fellow somehow when he's at work all day. The
rent's paid, that's one 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. "Why, I gave him 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. 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 reluctantly. Fifty cents short, ten fares! Gone into
the pocket of the young gentleman with the fur collar! 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.

Christmas Eve! A dark dreary little room upstairs in a noisy tenement
house. A pale, thin woman on a shabby lounge vainly trying to quiet a
fretful child. The child is thin and pale, too, with a hard, racking
cough. There is a small fire in the stove, a very small fire; coal is
so high. The medicine stands on the shelf. "Medicine won't do much
good," the doctor had said; "he needs beef and cream."

Jim's heart sank at the thought. He could almost hear the baby asking;
"Isn't papa coming soon? Isn't he, mamma?"

"Poor little kid!" Jim said, softly, under his breath. "And I shan't
have a thing to take home to him; nor Mary's violets, either. It'll be
the first Christmas that ever happened. I suppose that chap would think
it was ridiculous for me to be buying violets. He wouldn't understand
what the flowers mean to Mary. Perhaps he didn't notice I gave him too
much. That kind don't know how much they have. They just pull it out as
if it was newspaper."

The conductor went out into the snow to help the nurse, who was
assisting 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
feet. There was the florist's shop where he had meant to buy the
violets, and the toy-shop was just around the corner.

A thought flashed across his tired brain. "Plenty of men would do it;
they do it every day. Nobody ever would 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. 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 with a curious sense of unreality.
It couldn't be 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 thirty years?

"It's no use," he thought. "I couldn't do it. The first time I gave
Mary violets was the night she said she'd marry me. I told her then I'd
do my best to make her proud of me. I guess she wouldn't be very proud
of a man who could cheat. She'd rather starve than have a ribbon she
couldn't pay for."

He rang up a dozen fares with a steady hand. The temptation was over.
Six more strokes--then nine without a falter. He even imagined the bell
rang more distinctly than usual, even encouragingly. The car stopped.
Jim flung the door open with a triumphant sweep of his arm. He felt
ready to face the world. But the baby--his arm dropped. It was hard.

He turned to help the young girl who was waiting at the step. Through
the whirling snow he saw her eager face, with a quick recognition
lighting the steady eyes, and wondered dimly, as he stood with his hand
on the signal-strap, where he could have seen her before.

He knew immediately.

"There was a mistake," she said, with a shy tremor in her voice. "You
gave us too much change and here it is." She held out to Jim the piece
of silver which had given him such an unhappy quarter of an hour.

He took it like one dazed. Would the young lady think he was crazy to
care so much about so small a coin? 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 you can't understand--"

It certainly was not remarkable that she couldn't.

"But I do," she said, simply. "I was afraid of that. And I thought
perhaps there was a baby, so I brought my Christmas present for her,"
and something else dropped into Jim's cold hand.

"What you waiting for?" shouted the motorman from the front platform.
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.

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

"Poor Jim!" said Mary, with a little laugh as she put up her hand to
stroke his rough cheek. "I guess you're tired."

"And I should say," he 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 I couldn't be sure."

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

"Bless her heart!" said Mary, softly.


"Well, Miss Williams," said Walter Harris, as he sprang to meet a
snow-covered figure coming swiftly along the sidewalk. "I can see that
you found him. You've lost the first number, but 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 don't care now if they do. I
should have lost more than that if I had stayed."





Next: TOINETTE AND THE ELVES

Previous: LITTLE GIRL'S CHRISTMAS WINNIFRED E. LINCOLN



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