Their First Christmas
J. Cambell Ver Planck

The Path, December, 1890.

The sparkling Christmas morning of 1889 saw a strange and early commotion in a suburban corner of the city of X. During the night a heavy snow had fallen as though to obliterate the dark traces of sin from the earth, freshly preparing for a new life, a new light, a nobler day. But man had already frustrated the purpose of nature; the black tracks crossing in every direction seemed like highways of crime. In one instance, at least, they were so, if the whispers of groups gathered about the villa of Joseph Hollister were to be believed. These groups were composed of all species of humanity, from the squalid undersized girl bearing an oversized baby with big, pasty face, to the tramps furtively watching the knot of prominent citizens discussing the revelations of the night. Two policemen paced to and fro at the front and side of the villa. Inside its open door a third officer could be seen, submissively listening to an authoritative soldierly man in plain clothes. Grave gentlemen conversed in the dining room. Maids with scared faces flitted up and down the stairs. When distant doors were softly opened the deep sobbing of a woman could be momentarily heard, and a strange, labored sound, as if some fine mechanism were slowly running down. Both were sounds to make men shudder.

Two hours earlier, the authority in plain clothes, hastily summoned, had gathered these facts. Joseph Hollister, a respected merchant had been wakened in the night by unusual sounds outside his door. Springing up to investigate, he found the gas brightly burning in the entry, some figures going, catlike, down the stairs, and a masked man confronting him, covering the retreat of others with their booty. Towards

this man Hollister sprang, unarmed. In the tussle which ensued the burglar lost his mask. Freeing an arm, he shot his antagonist in the side. As Hollister fell, a second shot was sent to ensure his silence, but he still lived, though the moments of his life were briefly numbered, to the regret of everyone who knew the upright, honorable gentleman. The only fault found with him in this practical age was thus expressed by his close friend, Dr. Grant. "Hollister is a grain too fine for rough use, but what can you expect of a theosophist who believes that even brutes - and human brutes - have souls?"

Dr. Grant presently came down stairs with that exaggerated creaking which attends the efforts of well-meaning persons to walk with unwonted quiet. To him Captain Scofield of the detective force addressed himself.

"How is he, Doctor?"

"Sinking fast."

"Conscious?"

"Yes. Mind clear as a bell."

"Good!" Scofield twirled his hat with satisfaction.

"Why?"

"I think we've got one of the crowd."

"The man who shot him?"

"Perhaps."

"In God's name be quick then. Hollister could still identify him."

"He's here. Prepare your man." With a complacent sense

being beforehand with the Doctor, Scofield pointed towards the walk. Two detectives with a hand-cuffed man between them had alighted from a close carriage and were coming towards the house, accompanied by the noise of the eager crowd and the taps of their fellow officers' clubs upon too obtrusive bodies. "It's Jim Hogan; I suspected his gang and found Jim at his lodgings, quiet enough, but a bit too sleepy for a professional thief abed in wet boots. That mask about fits him and the job was worked in his style, but Mr. Hollister can settle the question."

"Of course," said the Doctor. "You've done sharp work, Scofield. I'd better be as quick with mine." He retraced his steps. It was a melancholy scene which met his eyes on opening a bedroom door. Accustomed as he was to such, he was sharply impressed by the opened windows courting every breath of the cold heavens for laboring lungs; the heavy stagnant odors of drugs, liniments, and dried blood; the injured min propped high in pillows, ghastly, drained of life, but meeting his questioning look with eyes as steady as his own. The deep gentleness, the calm serenity of those eyes, the firmness of lips drawn by pain, the hand lovingly laid upon the head of a young and beautiful woman who knelt by the bedside in all the abandonment of grief, were all so many witnesses, to Hollister's friend, of the magnitude of the coming loss. At the foot of the bed a woman held a fresh, cooing babe in her arms. The little one gurgled at its father, reached out and struggled to go to him. A second child, a splendid boy of four, his eyes still heavy with sleep, broke from the nurse's restraining hand and ran to the bedside.

"It smells nasty here, Papa," he said, clambering up. "Why's mamma cryin? Didn't Santa Claus bring her anything?" Impressed by the silence, his eyes grew big with a sudden idea. "Didn't Santa Claus come at all?" he said, with quivering lips. "Didn't anything come in the night?"

At the recollection of what had come in the night the mother's form trembled convulsively. Hollister stopped his little son with a warning gesture, a faint smile. "Go, my son," whispered he, "to the play room, and see if Santa Claus has forgotten a good boy. Stop! kiss Father first; and, Robbie, remember this." He looked impressively into the radiant face of his son. "Be good; try always for that." Smiling at the child's haste to be gone, he kissed him again, motioned the nurse to bring the lively baby to his last embrace, then firmly signed them from the room. As they went, without one backward glance, their mother's heart hardened to them for an instant. Hollister saw it in her face. "Let them be glad while they can, Dear," he whispered.

The Doctor spoke. "You are exerting yourself too much, Hollister."

"What can it matter now?" replied the sick man with patient gentleness. "But you Doctors will be obeyed till the last."

"It does matter, my dear fellow. Mrs. Hollister, I want your husband to save his strength. Will you not leave him to me for a time?"

She sprang to her feet. "Oh, Doctor! Doctor! You have hope?" she cried. The two men exchanged glances of pity. She paused, then bent her head in acceptance of the Doctor's silence. "Then why should I leave him?"

"Will you not do so for a few moments?" "A few moments? Now." A change, a grey veil creeping up Hollister's face emphasised her words. "What can you be going to do?"

The Doctor too saw there was no time to lose. He felt the patient's pulse and gave him a reviving drink. "Scofield wants to speak to him," he said rapidly.

"He can do so in my presence." The Doctor hesitated. "You are hiding something from me." At her feverish vehemence Hollister unclosed his eyes and took her hand. She kissed his, holding it in both her own.

"Tell her," the husband whispered to his friend.

The latter obeyed him. "Scofield has a man who he thinks - "

The wife sprang up as if a bullet had struck her. "It is the man who shot my husband," she cried.

"It is a man who may have been one of the gang and - "

"Bring him; bring him quick. Don't lose a moment. Joe can identify the wretch, can't you, my Darling? Oh, hurry; hurry!" She made as if to push the Doctor from the room.

Hollister too was energized by the news. The grey veil slipped away from mouth and chin. A commanding gesture stopped both wife and Doctor. Clearly, his low voice said:

"Do not bring him here."

Dismayed, the wife ejaculated:

"My dearest one! You are able. For my sake, try. The wretch must not escape. He shall not." She stepped towards the door, an eager messenger of Fate.

"Kate! Come here." She flew to him. He laid his chill hand again in hers. "I wish to die at peace with all the world," he said.

"No! No! Do not sacrifice me. When you are gone my only comfort will be in - " sobs choked her throat.

"In revenge, dear Love?" he questioned.

"In Justice. Oh! Call it what you will, but send for him. You are not fit to judge now." She felt the deep reproach, the pain of his look. "Husband, forgive me. But send for him. Could I breathe with your murderer at large? Send quickly." She encircled the sick man with her glowing arms. She pillowed his head upon the loved fragrance of her breast. Large with entreaty, lustrous with determination, her eyes fastened upon his to draw consent from them. All her rich beauty came about the dying man. She pressed him closer. The husband to whom her wishes had been a delight yielded now, at the repetition of the formula of her will. He gave a sign of assent. The Doctor left the room. A few moments were consecrated to their love and grief. Then quick steps were heard in the hall. The wife, erect, listening, watching the door as if to snatch something from it, forgot him who observed her with pitying, pardoning gaze. Hogan, entering between two constables, met the blazing passion of her face and dropped his hardened eyes.

"It is the man. I know it," she exclaimed. She advanced one step, as if to tear him from his keepers, to thrust him beneath the eyes of his accuser.

"Can you swear to him, Madame?" asked Scofield.

"No. I hardly saw him as he ran down stairs. But Mr. Hollister will know. Doctor, raise all the blinds. Bring the man nearer. Now " - as the bright light poured full upon the prisoner - "look at him, Joe; do you recognize him? And you" - to Hogan, "look at Mr. Hollister."

All obeyed as if they were the automata of her will. Even Hogan, stealing looks about the room, made an effort, and met those eyes fast growing dim upon the blood-streaked pillow. He sought his death warrant upon that ghastly face. His guilty heart questioned it savagely for recognition. He saw mild eyes beneath a brow that was calm, unfurrowed, but damp with the death agony, the crowning shadow of the hair above the wistful, patient lips of one who bore his cross, and a look he had never seen before on human face and could not therefore know for a look of love. The wife's passion blinded her to it. The Doctor, trained to nice observation, saw and understood it, with an oath caught under his breath. For one full minute Hollister studied Hogan; then he spoke.

"Turn his face a little more to the light." The constables moved their man. Everyone seemed to stop breathing. Hogan, encircled by eyes of hatred and scorn, deliberately returned that hate to each and all with slowly-traveling glance, then returned it to the implacably gentle face of his victim, who at that instant said distinctly, slowly: "I do not recognize this man."

Hogan flung him a scathing look and said in his heart: "Curse him for a fool." A hissing sound as of pent-up breath escaping came from each person in the room. Kate Hollister broke into a hoarse and baffled cry.

"Look again, Dear. Look once more. Can't we have more light? Doctor, you see he doesn't know what he is saying. I am sure it is the man. Oh, my Darling! Look again, again."

He did look again. Then he visited every face in the room with that look of majesty, reassuring them all.

"Hush, Kate. I do not recognize the man." He held out his hand to Hogan, dissipating the doubts of every looker on except one. She tried to intervene, then fell fainting against the Doctor.

"Shake hands, man. There's no ill will between us." The constables pushed Hogan towards him. Their hands met. Instantly a something, a change, swept over Hogan's face, mastered by the steady warning of peaceful eyes.

"Try to do some good with your life, lad. When a man lies here, he wishes he'd made better use of his time." His grasp relapsed; Hogan walked from the room with clenched hands, pursued by a long rattle, a gasp, a woman's shriek- and silence.

Down on the river bank, amid ooze and mists and all the deadly miasms of swamp lands and sluggish water, stood a reeking, shattered tenement house full to the maw with shattered lives. Hogan climbed its stairs to the roof, savagely cursing constables, crowd, associats, all who had shrunk from him as he shambled away. He flung himself upon a filthy bed, burying his head in his arm, his hand clinched. Out of one end of the bed, like a disturbed rat, scurried a weazened child who sought the next darkest corner of the room. A slatternly woman, her face bruised and swolen, came and stared at Hogan. "He won't hurt ye." she called to the child; then to Hogan; "the brat's just hiding here a bit from his boss. But I didn't look to see ye back here, Jim, curs't if I did." There was a rough tenderness in her tone.

He made no reply. She clattered about, shut the door, then returned to the bed with a rasping whisper of"How'd ye get off?"

Still no answer. She drew his arm away; his sleeve was wet. She gaped in recognition of this unlooked-for fact. "I never saw Jim Hogan cryin' drunk afore."

"An' I aint now," said he gruffly. "Curse ye, can't ye let a fellow be?

Relieved, she muttered:

"That's more like himself." Then aloud. "Tell me how ye got off."

"The old -- the man didn't recognize me."

"He didn't; the bloke. Wasn't he himself, then?"

Hogan sat up, bristling with anger. "Yes, he was. Look here, Moll, don't you say a word agin him. D'ye hear?" He shook his clinched hand in her face. "I seen he knowed me. I heared the gallows creakin' above me. An then - says he, 'I don't know the man,' says he, quiet as a lord."

"D'ye think he was feared on ye?"

"Feared? Him? Why, he was a lookin' straight at death. What was I to be 'feared on? That cuss shook hands with me, - d--n him." A volley of oaths in a meditative tone followed here.

"Must a been stunned, then."

"Stunned? You, Moll, look ahear. When us shook hands, he give me this." He opened his clinched hand, displaying a button attached to a bit of cloth torn from the coat he had on.

The woman gasped.

"He gin up th' evidence to ye? Was he a crank, Jim, or what?"

"An' says he to me: 'Try to do some good with your life, lad.' He was goin' fast. Moll, an' says he, holdin' that into my hand, an' his woman burnin' to tear my heart out, 'Shake hands, man,' says he, 'there's no ill will atween us.' Strike me dead but it made a babby of me, Moll. 'When a man comes to lie here,' says he, 'he wishes he'd made better use' - why Moll, what ails ye? I aint seed ye cry since it died."

"Never you mind me, Jim. I'm a d---d fool. It's because I thought you was done for, sure. I thought you'd swing this time."

"'Try to do some good with you're life,' the man repeated. "See here, Moll: you can say what you're a mind to, but you bet I'm goin' to do it."

"To do what, then?"

"Try to do some good, like he said, cuss him. I look like it, don't I? But it seems owin' to him. He'll hant me, mebby, if I don't. Anyhow - I'm in for a try. But it's a d---d hard thing to know how to try."

"Say, Jim." She moved uneasily, hesitated, then broke out. "If you was to begin with me." Woman-like, she had quickly grasped the situation.

"How?" He stared at her. With downcast look she mumbled, ashamed of being ashamed:

"With me - to make me - if I was more honester like - if you - " She cleared her throat; no more would come.

"Hold on, Moll. D'ye mean, to marry ye?" She nodded. "Lord, but ye're changed all to onct!"

"So are you, Jim."

"That's so. Well, of course I'll do it, soon as we kin. Here's my hand on't."

She flung her arms about his neck. Transfigured by a new humanity, it became evident that both were young and not ill-looking. Standing upright, with hope in their faces, did so much for them. They looked like blind people straining for a promised vision.

The weazened child crept out to their feet.

Say, be you goin' som'eres? Ye might take me with ye. Th' boss 'll kill me soon. He's swore it."

"Yes. You kin come if you're a mind to. But,I say, Moll, we're fools. Where kin we go to? Who'll have us?"

"Jim! Jim! Don't ye go back on it. Don't gin it up."

"It's goin' back on me. What can I do? But I'll try; if we starve, I'll try."

"And I will help you," said a new comer. "Put down your fists, Jim Hogan. The first thing you've got to learn is not to get ready to hit every decent man that speaks to you." Dr. Grant walked up and laid a hand on his shoulder, not unkindly. "I've known Joseph Hollister twenty years; better today than ever. If there's a way out into a better life for you - and I believe there is - I'll help you to find it as a Christmas gift to HoIlister."

The starveling on the floor tugged at the Doctor's coat. "Say; I know what Christmas means, now. It's gettin' a pappy an' a mammy."

Jim Hogan lifted him to his shoulder.

"First Christmas ever I see an' I ain't sayin' as I like it so much, neither, but it's owin' to him, Doc an - well you bet I'll try."

Thus it came about that the faith of the dead Hollister was justified. That the State gained three honest citizens in place of one. That Kate Hollister learned a lesson of peace, Dr. Grant that a living germ Iies hidden in every heart. Finally, that to the Hogan family, working its way slowly but surely up from the slough of humanity, Christmas became a sacred institution and dated first from 1889.

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