from Monthly Story Magazine
A Christmas Stop-Over
by Ellis Parker Butler
On account of the Christmas rush it was customary to send out train No. 11 in four sections on Christmas Eve, but this year the rush was greater than ever and at the last moment two day coaches and three sleepers were coupled up and the only available engine, old squeaky No. 564, was hitched on in front and the combination pulled out as section five, running on No. 11's schedule, with nearly every seat and berth filled.
No. 564 was a wonderful engine. She was regarded as an infant phenomenon, but it was her second infancy, and when she pulled out of the station this Christmas Eve with her usual rattle of asthmatic coughs every employee, except those on the train, grinned. No. 564 running on No. 11's schedule was a joke.
But she fooled them all. Not one of them had believed she would get beyond Cuylerville, but she did not break down until she reached Weston's, and by that time the snow was a foot deep and the section was only an hour behind schedule. The conductor and the brakemen and the engineer and the fireman gathered around No. 564 with lanterns and monkey-wrenches and screw-drivers and other tools and prodded her in the ribs, and put liniment on her hocks.
You can easily see that this is not a professional railroad story if you study my technical expressions. I have bigger things to tell of than the anatomy of a big tin boiler on rollers. This is the story of Edgar Wallingford, the maddest man in two states.
He was mad because he was aboard No. 11, and madder still because the train paused in the middle of nowhere, and the longer it paused the madder he became.
Edgar Wallingford had run down to the city the day before on an urgent business call, and the whole trip had been distasteful. He hated the city; he hated the man he had come down to see; and more than all else, he hated to come at that particular moment.
Mr. Wallingford was a business man, slightly bald on the forward deck of his head, and while he was stout and well fed he was not quite stout enough nor well fed enough to be irritation proof. He worried too much to be quite happy and he always had too many irons in the business fire, with the result that he fretted unnecessarily over trifles and over other things that were not trifles.
When the train stopped within a hundred yards of the small frame shanty that served as a station at Weston's, Mr. Wallingford was the first to guess that something was wrong. He had been expecting that the unexpected would happen. He had a particular reason for wishing to get home, and now he was doubly sure that he had been a fool to risk going to the city. True, the doctor had said he thought Mr. Wallingford would have ample time for the trip, and had told him he would be of as much use in New York as at home on such an occasion, but Wallingford had his own ideas of where he ought to be, and it made him mad to be stranded at nowhere in particular. That he was entirely displeased with the event that was about to take place at home only served to increase his disgust.
Wallingford detested children. So far as his observations went they were little nuisances, upsetting all the smoothness of home life, demanding attention, and creating havoc with well-ordered domesticity in a general manner. Children were all right when they fell to the lot of some old molly-coddle of a sentimentalist, but they were misfits in a business-man's life. He hoped it would be a girl, at least. Girls belonged to the mother. He knew that much.
It may be understood what a sweet, gentle temper Mr. Wallingford was in under the circumstances. He glared ahead of him at the red plush seat back as if he would like to take a bite out of it.
The conductor tramped through the car, snow covered and with his lantern swung on his arm, running the fire of a battery of questions, to which he replied "Don't know," "Can't tell," "Hard to say," and similar unsatisfactory answers such as conductors alone know how to give, but he did not get past Mr. Wallingford so easily. Mr. Wallingford stood squarely before him, blocking the aisle.
"Now, see here!" he exclaimed, I want to know why this train is stopping here. I want to know how long it is going to lie here. I want to know what the directors of this infernal road mean by permitting such a thing."
The other passengers pressed forward and filled the aisle about the two men. One of the six young men who had entered the car together and who had been respectably jolly all the way from New York said,
"Yes, why!" and his companions seconded him with a vigorous, "Hear! hear!"
The conductor pushed gently but firmly through them.
"Something out of order with the engine," he said good-naturedly. "We may be here an hour or two. Can't tell. May have to lie here all night." One of the young fellows uttered a deep "Tut! tut!" and another added a falsetto "Oh, fudge," and they all laughed, and every one in the car laughed or smiled except Mr. Wallingford. He sat down hard in his seat and frowned.
No one in the sleeper thought of retiring. It was too much like an adventure to be wasted in sleep. The thin, red-bearded man was thinking what an excellent story it would make next day at dinner, and the few ladies in the car put aside their traveler's reserve and gradually moved together. Those who had books took comfortable positions and prepared for a long, fictioned evening, and three or four of the men turned up their overcoat collars and stumbled out into the snow, to come back again a little later with red cheeks and noses to retail the absolute nothing they had learned by personal observation. It amounted to an embroidered statement that one of the trainmen was down on his back under the engine fixing it, and that if the engine happened to start, it would be "good-by" trainman; but no one seemed to have any idea that the engine would start. Every passenger who had ever had anything happen to him on a train proceeded to tell it, and the six young men stood in the aisle at one end of the car and sang college songs.
Mr. Wallingford stood it as long as he could and then he went into the smoking compartment, where the porter was pretending to do things to the spotless lavatory appliances.
"George," said Mr. Wallingford, I want to send a telegram; I must send a telegram!"
"Yes, sah," said the porter with tipendous courtesy, "I don't believe you can, sah. Not from heah, sah."
"Why not?" demanded Mr. Wallingford. "Isn't this a station just ahead? Do you mean to tell me this road maintains stations without telegraph operators?"
"No, sah," said the porter. "Theh's an operator theh, sure enough, but he can't take public messages. No, nothing but company business. It's contrary to rules, sah."
"Is it!" exclaimed Mr. Wallingford. "You mean to say that this corporation of robbers sends out its passengers behind a leaky tin dish-pan of an engine, and stalls them, Lord knows where, and then refuses to send a message? Pretty road this is, isn't it?"
The porter bent down and polished a faucet to hide his grin.
"It's against the rules, that's all I know, sah," he said, softly.
"Can you tell me, then," demanded Mr. Wallingford, "how I am going to send a message? Tell me that, will you?"
The porter shook his head sorrowfully.
"I dunno, sah," he replied. "Onless," he added, with sudden inspiration, "you might find a tellyphone over at that farmhouse yonder." He went to the window and pointed to two lights that showed mistily through the falling snow. "Seems like that house ought to have a tellyphone. Bein' so neah the station, and the only house close by, seems as if it ought, sah. Most all these well-off farmers has tellyphones now. If it's special important to send a message you might try it, sah."
Mr. Wallingford considered. He certainly must let his wife know where he was. Possibly there might be a telephone there. He uttered a few curses on the railroad, its trains, and its officials, buttoned his overcoat close around his neck, pulled his hat firmly on his head, and stepped out into the snow.
He made his way first to the engine and accosted a bystander.
"How long will we be here?" he asked.
The bystander shook his head.
"They say we may lie here until morning, now," he said. "I can't tell. They won't say what's the matter. I remember one time when I was going to Rexham on the C. & L. --"
Mr. Wallingford left him to tell his story to some more patient man and waded off through the snow. He skirted the high fence that lined the tracks until he came to a crossroad, and plunged up this at a dog trot, panting. The snow blew into his face and found its chilly way to his wrists above his short gloves. He ran unsteadily, for the road was full of rough spots and loose stones under the deceptive level of the snow, and every time he staggered his anger increased. Once he tripped and fell full length and his hands went deep into the soft, fluffy chilliness and the snow filled his wrists. His low shoes were filled about his ankles and he could feel the snow melting and wetting the soles of his feet.
The farmhouse seemed farther from the train than he had supposed, but he reached its enclosure just as the engine gave a short warning toot and moved forward with loud puffing. Mr. Wallingford turned abruptly. The dull glares of light that marked the car windows were moving more and more rapidly. He started toward them, gasping and stumbling, but one by one the lights disappeared behind an intervening hill, and as the last car began to fade away Mr. Wallingford stood still and yelled.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Hey!" but the few remaining lights glided rapidly out of sight, and Mr. Wallingford was left alone in the midst of the beautiful snow. At that moment, if there was anything he hated worse than children it was the beautiful snow.
Mr. Wallingford stamped on to the porch of the farmhouse and rapped loudly on the door. He knew it would ruin his soaked gloves to rap on the door, but he did not dare to kick it for fear the farmer might come out and shoot him. He felt he was in a rather delicate position. If the farmer happened to be a suspicious or unfriendly person and should refuse him admittance there would be nothing for him to do but to lie down in the snow and wait for morning. Probably he would die if he slept in the snow. It made him mad to think that if he should die his wife would not have sense enough to sue the railway company. Therefore, he smiled when the farmer opened the door. He tried to look like a meek, genial, accommodating, good-natured man. This was quite a difficult thing to do, for he was none of them. He was a pushing, grumpy, cross, disagreeable individual, and felt so. His smile was hardly more than a pained expression.
The farmer opened the door, first cautiously, then hospitably wide.
"Well! well! well!" he exclaimed. "How in the -- Come in. Come right in. But how in the -- Got a team outside? No? Well, how in the dickens did you get here this time of night?"
Mr. Wallingford peeled his oozy gloves from his hands and took off his hat gingerly. As he stepped toward the fire to which his host motioned him, his feet squashed in his wet shoes.
He explained that through the illegal carelessness of the soulless corporation that owned the everlastingly condemned railway he had been left stranded. He explained fully and minutely what he would do to that railway when he got home. He called on the farmer to witness that his feet were wet, that the bottoms of his trousers were wet, and that he was otherwise wet, and that he would probably take a cold and have pneumonia.
"Sally," said the farmer, "you just see if you can't find some dry socks for this man, will you? I declare, I'm glad we had a light burning or you might never have found the house. Plumb luck me and ma set up to trim the Christmas tree, now wasn't it?"
"Christmas tree?" said Mr. Wallingford. "So that's the foolishness that made me lose that train is it? If you hadn't sat up with that blessed nonsense I wouldn't have got off the train, would I? And I'd be near Wampax Junction on the way home by now. Christmas tree! Tommyrot!"
"Now I wouldn't say that," said the farmer. "It may look like nonsense to you, for I take it you haven't no children, since you say that, but it's sport for the young ones, it is. And I guess, maybe, I get some fun out of it, too, seeing the young ones have their sport. I've got quite a houseful."
Mr. Wallingford mentally groaned.
"I guess," said the farmer, "you'll have to sleep with one of them. We're a little shy of room. Ma can put you in with Reuben, he's got a full-length bed and he sleeps pretty quiet when he ain't kickin' the covers off. But don't you mind if he does. It don't hurt him none. He's used to it."
Mr. Wallingford was getting warm again. He had taken off his shoes and stockings and his feet were drying before the fire. He had been feeling almost cheerful until Reuben was mentioned. Reuben pained him. He felt at once that he did not care for Reuben.
Mrs. Wilbur entered the room smiling. In one hand she bore a pair of heavy woolen socks, and in the other a pair of gaudy carpet slippers.
"Pa," she said, "I was goin' to hang these slippers on the tree for you, but I guess it'll be a good beginning for them to be worn by the stranger."
"Now, Sally," Mr. Wilbur exclaimed, "if that ain't just like you, to go and spend your chicken money on me. I guess you know I don't need nothing to let me know it's Christmas. You certainly are the thoughtfullest woman I ever see. I don't know anything I'd rather had than a new pair of slippers."
"Now, pa," she beamed, "you're just saying that."
"No, I ain't," he declared. "I mean it. I been wishing I had a new pair this two months back."
Mrs. Wilbur laughed with pleasure.
"What you think Reuben said when I went up-stairs?" she asked. "He must have heard you and the gentleman talking. He says, 'Ma, who's downstairs? Is it Santy Claus?' And I says, 'Yes.' 'Well,' he says, I'll shut my eyes real tight.' You know," she explained to Mr. Wallingford, we tell them that they mustn't peek on Santy Claus. That's so we can fix up the tree without them peeking in."
"Reuben's a cute one, sure enough," said Mr. Wilbur. "I'm dying to see what he'll say when he sees the tree in the morning."
The tree stood in one corner of the room, and its branches already bore numerous strings of snow-white popcorn and a few glittering ornaments, but the task of decking it was far from complete,
"If you don't mind," Mr. Wilbur continued, "I'll just go ahead fixing it up. We've got quite a lot to do yet."
Mr. Wallingford had no objections. The warmth was making him sleepy.
Mrs. Wilbur set cider and apples before him, which he refused to touch, on hygienic grounds. He asked and learned that they had no telephone; learned that the only train that stopped at Weston's was a 12:30 A. M. local and that it was annuled on Sundays and holidays, and resigned himself to his fate. He was in for a day of children and Christmas noise and nonsense.
"If you don't mind," he said, when he had watched Mr. Wilbur arrange yard after yard of popcorn strings on the tree, I'll retire."
They did not mind. They were relieved. Mr.Wallingford's face dampened their pleasure, and was a restraint. Mrs. Wilbur gave him a squatty oil lamp and led the way to his bedroom.
Mr. Wallingford cast a glance of distaste about the room. The ceiling sloped almost to the floor at one side, but on the other three walls was the most hideous wall-paper he had ever seen. The only chair in the room was one that had evidently outworn its parlor welcome and had been degraded to a place in the bedroom. The floor was unpainted and bare, except for a square of rag carpet near the bed. The table was the kind that thrifty housewives get with a can of baking powder for fifty cents.
"I guess," said Mrs. Wilbur, with a glance of approval at the room, "you'll be comfortable. You won't be cold when you once get into bed, and you'd better go to sleep as soon as you can, for the children don't sleep late Christmas mornings. They're up as soon as there is light enough to see by."
Mr. Wallingford bowed and closed the door almost before she was out of the room. The windows were coated with thick frost; he glanced into the water pitcher and saw that a thin skum of ice was already forming there, but what displeased him most was the sight of his bedfellow.
The curly yellow head lay with its back toward him, and the quilt was drawn close to its neck, while the little body was drawn up into a warm, tight knot that occupied the smallest space possible. Mr. Wallingford moved softly. He removed his coat so silently that it did not make the slightest sound. He would not have awakened his bedfellow for worlds. He turned to hang his coat on the chair, and as he turned he heard the bed creak, and the noise of a turning body. He looked over his shoulder. Reuben's face was turned toward him, but Reuben's eyes were closed so tightly that they were surrounded by a circle of tight little wrinkles.
"How doo," said Reuben, tremulously.
Mr. Wallingford continued to disrobe. He set his lips firmly.
"How doo, Santy Claus," said Reuben again. He said it bravely, but his voice invited an answer. It was the voice of one who had faith in the kindness of Santa Claus, but who longed for a gentle reply. It was shivery to lie in bed with one's eyes shut and hear Santa Claus shedding garment after garment and to know that the wonderful man would soon lie beside one in bed.
Mr. Wallingford was in no mood for conversation with children. He was too mad to talk, and he was so cold that he was afraid to speak for fear his teeth would chatter. He sat down on the antique chair and unlaced his shoes hastily.
Reuben waited as long as a man of his age could be expected to await an answer.
"Santy Claus," he called gently.
Mr. Wallingford dropped a shoe on the floor, and hastily peeled off his socks.
"Santy Claus," repeated Reuben, lingering pleadingly on the syllables. He heard Mr. Wallingford gingerly moving about on the cold, cold floor in his bare feet. "I'm got my eyes shut tight. I'm can't see you," Reuben assured him. "My won't peek."
Mr. Wallingford scurried into the icily clean nightgown that had been provided for him. He made a dash for the lamp and blew out the flame, and made another dash for the bed, into which he dashed trembling with cold. Reuben moved over.
For a minute the boy lay very still. It was chilly where he had moved. The warm spot his body had made was occupied by Mr. Wallingford. Mr. Wallingford drew his knees up until they were in the neighborhood of his chin. The depths of the bed were unutterably icy.
"Santy Claus," said Reuben.
"Be still, now, and go to sleep," growled Mr. Wallingford.
"Good-night," Reuben replied obediently, but he could not go to sleep. It was so strange, so wonderful, to have Santa Claus in bed with one. In the absolute dark of the room it was safe to open one's eyes. One could not peek in the dark. Reuben lay still, thinking.
"My likes you," he said, quite suddenly, "My's not afraid of you."
He was trying to make himself believe he was not. He half believed he was not afraid, but he was not quite sure. He felt that he ought to do the right thing by Santa Claus. Santa Claus was going to do the right thing by him in the morning.
"My -- my's got a doggie," he said; "my's got a catty. You want my's doggie?" He awaited the answer, but none came. "My hurted me," he continued, seeking the most important facts to offer this strangely taciturn saint. "My failed down-stair, and hurted my. There," he informed him, holding out a little plump hand. It had been weeks since the never-to-be-forgotten tumble, but it was the great event of his past, and he offered it gladly to Santa Claus. His hand brushed Mr. Wallingford's face.
"You ain't got no whiskers!" he announced. "Santy Claus ain't got no whiskers!" It puzzled him. He had counted on the long white beard. Evidently his parents had been sadly misinformed. He ran his soft hand gently over Mr. Wallingford's face.
"No whiskers!" he repeated wonderingly.
Mr. Wallingford turned his back and growled. He moved to the far edge of the bed.
"I'm got a Tissimus tree," began Reuben. "Nice Tissimus tree."
Mr. Wallingford turned upon his back and gazed in the direction of the ceiling. He wanted to sleep. He seemed to be dying for sleep. He would have given anything to be able to sleep, but the excited, eager voice of Reuben pattered against his brain and refused to let him sleep.
"Great big Tissimus tree," said Reuben.
"Oh, go to sleep! Shut up!" growled Mr. Wallingford.
"Good-night," said Reuben. He turned and buried his face in his pillow. He honestly and truly tried to sleep. He lay very still, and squeezed his eyes shut, but presently he forgot that he was going to sleep, and he popped up and reached out his hand to feel the wonderful, smooth face of Santa Claus.
"Ain't got no whiskers," he said. "Papa's got whiskers. Papa's got a big, big doggie. I'm got a little, little doggie."
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Mr. Wallingford, "won't you go to sleep?"
"Good-night," cheerfully replied Reuben, and buried his face once more. In a second he was up again. "My hold Santa Claus hand?" he queried.
Mr. Wallingford considered. Doubtless the little nuisance would never go to sleep unless he got what he wanted.
"See here," he said, "if I let you hold my hand will you go to sleep?"
"My go to sleep," Reuben assured him, heartily.
Mr. Wallingford took the small hand in his and Reuben sighed happily.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night," replied Mr. Wallingford.
Reuben lay blissfully content. He stared into the dark and was happy. He was also wonderfully awake. As a gentleman he knew he was not playing fair, so he shut his eyes tight.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night," Mr. Wallingford repeated with resignation. He could feel Reuben wiggling his toes. He knew just how wide awake Reuben was. He felt that hope of sleep was not to be entertained. Reuben moved uneasily. He turned half over but retained his hold on Mr. Wallingford's hand.
"Good-night," he said resolutely.
"Good-night," said Mr. Wallingford, sadly. He thought of many things. He felt that he had plenty of time to think of them. He began with the sins of railroads and thought, inconsequentially, of his life, past, present, and to come, and then he suddenly realized that Reuben was asleep. He tried to withdraw his hand but the little fingers tightened on it convulsively. The pressure was soft and warm, and Mr. Wallingford was chilly. Reuben glowed with heat like a little stove. The temptation was great and Mr. Wallingford yielded. He reached out his free hand and drew Reuben to him, winding his arm around him and hugging him close. Reuben was as good as a patent heater, and Mr. Wallingford so accepted him, but Reuben nestled even closer, and put one arm snugly and lovingly about Mr. Wallingford's neck.
Perhaps it was the cold; perhaps it was a nervous chill; at any rate a thrill that was unlike anything Mr. Wallingford had known for years trembled through him. It began where a stray curl touched his forehead, and it left a warm path where it went, and in a mysterious way it suggested the thought, "What if this was my boy?"
Mr. Wallingford turned the idea over in his mind. As a mere boy there was no question that Reuben was an annoyance, except as a heater.
"This," thought Mr. Wallingford, "is what I shall have regularly soon." He tried to imagine just how bad it would be. If this was his bed, and this was his boy, he would --
He raised himself slightly to try to see Reuben, in order to make the supposition more real. He caught the sound of the clear, strong breathing that meant that another whole, complete life was beside him. If this was his boy, now, he would --. He found his arm tightening around Reuben and he bent down and kissed the warm forehead, just where the straying curls left a bare place big enough for a kiss.
"Santa Claus!" he chuckled, "I wish that boy of mine was old enough to understand Santa Claus!"
He squeezed Reuben just a bit too tightly, and Reuben, half awakened, murmured sleepily:
"Oh!" thought Mr. Wallingford, "he's got to be a boy," and then a pang crossed his heart as he thought of his boy.
"Poor little duffer," he thought. "If he's born today he'll have Christmas and his birthday coming on the same day every year! I've got to make that up to him somehow."
"Well, I must say," said Mrs. Wilbur the next morning at breakfast, "your night's rest has done you a heap of good. I never saw sich a change in a man. You seemed plumb wore out."
Mr. Wallingford laughed.
"Well, I do feel different," he admitted. "You see this is Christmas, and Christmas is a birthday, and I rather expect there's a birthday going on up at my home today."
"And you way down here!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilbur. "I wonder you can feel so easy."
"I don't feel easy," said Mr. Wallingford. "I'm as uneasy as possible. I want to get home. This father business is new to me and I want to get home and try it. I think," he added, impressively, "that it's a great thing to be a father."
"Land sakes!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilbur. "Then this is your first! Well, I congratulate you, sure."
"An' -- an' --" said Reuben. He had been trying to say something ever since he had been put in his high chair at the table.
"An' -- an' --," he said now, "an' Santy Claus, he kissed my, he did. An' -- an' -- he ain't got no whiskers. O'ny prickles on his face."