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The Snow Babies' Christmas by Jacob A. Riis

 

“All aboard for Coney Island!” The gates of the bridge train slammed, the whistle shrieked, and the cars rolled out past rows of houses that grew smaller and lower to Jim's wondering eyes, until they quite disappeared beneath the track. He felt himself launching forth above the world of men, and presently he saw, deep down below, the broad stream with ships and ferry-boats and craft going different ways, just like the tracks and traffic in a big, wide street; only so far away was it all that the pennant on the topmast of a vessel passing directly under the train seemed as if it did not belong to his world at all. Jim followed the white foam in the wake of the sloop with fascinated stare, until a puffing tug bustled across its track and wiped it out. Then he settled back in his seat with a sigh that had been pent up within him twenty long, wondering minutes since he limped down the Subway at Twenty-third Street. It was his first journey abroad.

Jim had never been to the Brooklyn Bridge before. It is doubtful if he had ever heard of it. If he had, it was as of something so distant, so unreal, as to have been quite within the realm of fairyland, had his life experience included fairies. It had not. Jim's frail craft had been launched in Little Italy, half a dozen miles or more up-town, and there it had been moored, its rovings being limited at the outset by babyhood and the tenement, and later on by the wreck that had made of him a castaway for life. A mysterious something had attacked one of Jim's ankles, and, despite ointments and lotions prescribed by the wise women of the tenement, had eaten into the bone and stayed there. At nine the lad was a cripple with one leg shorter than the other by two or three inches, with a stepmother, a squalling baby to mind for his daily task, hard words and kicks for his wage; for Jim was an unprofitable investment, promising no returns, but, rather, constant worry and outlay. The outlook was not the most cheering in the world.

But, happily, Jim was little concerned about things to come. He lived in the day that is, fighting his way as he could with a leg and a half and a nickname,—“Gimpy” they called him for his limp,—and getting out of it what a fellow so handicapped could. After all, there were compensations. When the gang scattered before the cop, it did not occur to him to lay any of the blame to Gimpy, though the little lad with the pinched face and sharp eyes had, in fact, done scouting duty most craftily. It was partly in acknowledgment of such services, partly as a concession to his sharper wits, that Gimpy was tacitly allowed a seat in the councils of the Cave Gang, though in the far “kid” corner. He limped through their campaigns with them, learned to swim by “dropping off the dock” at the end of the street into the swirling tide, and once nearly lost his life when one of the bigger boys dared him to run through an election bonfire like his able-bodied comrades. Gimpy started to do it at once, but stumbled and fell, and was all but burned to death before the other boys could pull him out. This act of bravado earned him full membership in the gang, despite his tender years; and, indeed, it is doubtful if in all that region there was a lad of his age as tough and loveless as Gimpy. The one affection of his barren life was the baby that made it slavery by day. But, somehow, there was that in its chubby foot groping for him in its baby sleep, or in the little round head pillowed on his shoulder, that more than made up for it all.

Ill luck was surely Gimpy's portion. It was not a month after he had returned to the haunts of the gang, a battle-scarred veteran now since his encounter with the bonfire, when “the Society's” officers held up the huckster's wagon from which he was crying potatoes with his thin, shrill voice, which somehow seemed to convey the note of pain that was the prevailing strain of his life. They made Gimpy a prisoner, limp, stick, and all. The inquiry that ensued as to his years and home setting, the while Gimpy was undergoing the incredible experience of being washed and fed regularly three times a day, set in motion the train of events that was at present hurrying him toward Coney Island in midwinter, with a snow-storm draping the land in white far and near, as the train sped seaward. He gasped as he reviewed the hurrying events of the week: the visit of the doctor from Sea Breeze, who had scrutinized his ankle as if he expected to find some of the swag of the last raid hidden somewhere about it. Gimpy never took his eyes off him during the examination. No word or cry escaped him when it hurt most, but his bright, furtive eyes never left the doctor or lost one of his movements. “Just like a weasel caught in a trap,” said the doctor, speaking of his charge afterward.

But when it was over, he clapped Gimpy on the shoulder and said it was all right. He was sure he could help.

“Have him at the Subway to-morrow at twelve,” was his parting direction; and Gimpy had gone to bed to dream that he was being dragged down the stone stairs by three helmeted men, to be fed to a monster breathing fire and smoke at the foot of the stairs.

Now his wondering journey was disturbed by a cheery voice beside him. “Well, bub, ever see that before?” and the doctor pointed to the gray ocean line dead ahead. Gimpy had not seen it, but he knew well enough what it was.

“It's the river,” he said, “that I cross when I go to Italy.”

“Right!” and his companion held out a helping hand as the train pulled up at the end of the journey. “Now let's see how we can navigate.”

And, indeed, there was need of seeing about it. Right from the step of the train the snow lay deep, a pathless waste burying street and sidewalk out of sight, blocking the closed and barred gate of Dreamland, of radiant summer memory, and stalling the myriad hobby-horses of shows that slept their long winter sleep. Not a whinny came on the sharp salt breeze. The strident voice of the carpenter's saw and the rat-tat-tat of his hammer alone bore witness that there was life somewhere in the white desert. The doctor looked in dismay at Gimpy's brace and high shoe, and shook his head.

“He never can do it. Hello, there!” An express wagon had come into view around the corner of the shed. “Here's a job for you.” And before he could have said Jack Robinson, Gimpy felt himself hoisted bodily into the wagon and deposited there like any express package. From somewhere a longish something that proved to be a Christmas-tree, very much wrapped and swathed about, came to keep him company. The doctor climbed up by the driver, and they were off. Gimpy recalled with a dull sense of impending events in which for once he had no shaping hand, as he rubbed his ears where the bitter blast pinched, that to-morrow was Christmas.

A strange group was that which gathered about the supper-table at Sea Breeze that night. It would have been sufficiently odd to any one anywhere; but to Gimpy, washed, in clean, comfortable raiment, with his bad foot set in a firm bandage, and for once no longer sore with the pain that had racked his frame from babyhood, it seemed so unreal that once or twice he pinched himself covertly to see if he were really awake. They came weakly stumping with sticks and crutches and on club feet, the lame and the halt, the children of sorrow and suffering from the city slums, and stood leaning on crutch or chair for support while they sang their simple grace; but neither in their clear childish voices nor yet in the faces that were turned toward Gimpy in friendly scrutiny as the last comer, was there trace of pain. Their cheeks were ruddy and their eyes bright with the health of outdoors, and when they sang about the “Frog in the Pond,” in response to a spontaneous demand, laughter bubbled over around the table. Gimpy, sizing his fellow-boarders up according to the standards of the gang, with the mental conclusion that he “could lick the bunch,” felt a warm little hand worming its way into his, and, looking into a pair of trustful baby eyes, choked with a sudden reminiscent pang, but smiled back at his friend and felt suddenly at home. Little Ellen, with the pervading affections, had added him to her family of brothers. What honors were in store for him in that relation Gimpy never guessed. Ellen left no one out. When summer came again she enlarged the family further by adopting the President of the United States as her papa, when he came visiting to Sea Breeze; and by rights Gimpy should have achieved a pull such as would have turned the boss of his ward green with envy.

It appeared speedily that something unusual was on foot. There was a subdued excitement among the children which his experience diagnosed at first flush as the symptoms of a raid. But the fact that in all the waste of snow on the way over he had seen nothing rising to the apparent dignity of candy-shop or grocery-store made him dismiss the notion as untenable. Presently unfamiliar doings developed. The children who could write scribbled notes on odd sheets of paper, which the nurses burned in the fireplace with solemn incantations. Something in the locked dining-room was an object of pointed interest. Things were going on there, and expeditions to penetrate the mystery were organized at brief intervals, and as often headed off by watchful nurses.

When, finally, the children were gotten upstairs and undressed, from the headpost of each of thirty-six beds there swung a little stocking, limp and yawning with mute appeal. Gimpy had “caught on” by this time: it was a wishing-bee, and old Santa Claus was supposed to fill the stockings with what each had most desired. The consultation over, baby George had let him into the game. Baby George did not know enough to do his own wishing, and the thirty-five took it in hand while he was being put to bed.

“Let's wish for some little dresses for him,” said big Mariano, who was the baby's champion and court of last resort; “that's what he needs.” And it was done. Gimpy smiled a little disdainfully at the credulity of the “kids.” The Santa Claus fake was out of date a long while in his tenement. But he voted for baby George's dresses, all the same, and even went to the length of recording his own wish for a good baseball bat. Gimpy was coming on.

Going to bed in that queer place fairly “stumped” Gimpy. “Peeli'” had been the simplest of processes in Little Italy. Here they pulled a fellow's clothes off only to put on another lot, heavier every way, with sweater and hood and flannel socks and mittens to boot, as if the boy were bound for a tussle with the storm outside rather than for his own warm bed. And so, in fact, he was. For no sooner had he been tucked under the blankets, warm and snug, than the nurses threw open all the windows, every one, and let the gale from without surge in and through as it listed; and so they left them. Gimpy shivered as he felt the frosty breath of the ocean nipping his nose, and crept under the blanket for shelter. But presently he looked up and saw the other boys snoozing happily like so many little Eskimos equipped for the North Pole, and decided to keep them company. For a while he lay thinking of the strange things that had happened that day, since his descent into the Subway. If the gang could see him now. But it seemed far away, with all his past life—farther than the river with the ships deep down below. Out there upon the dark waters, in the storm, were they sailing now, and all the lights of the city swallowed up in gloom? Presently he heard through it all the train roaring far off in the Subway and many hurrying feet on the stairs. The iron gates clanked—and he fell asleep with the song of the sea for his lullaby. Mother Nature had gathered her child to her bosom, and the slum had lost in the battle for a life.

The clock had not struck two when from the biggest boy's bed in the corner there came in a clear, strong alto the strains of “Ring, ring, happy bells!” and from every room childish voices chimed in. The nurses hurried to stop the chorus with the message that it was yet five hours to daylight. They were up, trimming the tree in the dining-room; at the last moment the crushing announcement had been made that the candy had been forgotten, and a midnight expedition had set out for the city through the storm to procure it. A semblance of order was restored, but cat naps ruled after that, till, at daybreak, a gleeful shout from Ellen's bed proclaimed that Santa Claus had been there, in very truth, and had left a dolly in her stocking. It was the signal for such an uproar as had not been heard on that beach since Port Arthur fell for the last time upon its defenders three months before. From thirty-six stockings came forth a veritable army of tops, balls, wooden animals of unknown pedigree, oranges, music-boxes, and cunning little pocket-books, each with a shining silver quarter in, love-tokens of one in the great city whose heart must have been light with happy dreams in that hour. Gimpy drew forth from his stocking a very able-bodied baseball bat and considered it with a stunned look. Santa Claus was a fake, but the bat—there was no denying that, and he had wished for one the very last thing before he fell asleep!

Daylight struggled still with a heavy snow-squall when the signal was given for the carol “Christmas time has come again,” and the march down to breakfast. That march! On the third step the carol was forgotten and the band broke into one long cheer that was kept up till the door of the dining-room was reached. At the first glimpse within, baby George's wail rose loud and grievous: “My chair! my chair!” But it died in a shriek of joy as he saw what it was that had taken its place. There stood the Christmas-tree, one mass of shining candles, and silver and gold, and angels with wings, and wondrous things of colored paper all over it from top to bottom. Gimpy's eyes sparkled at the sight, skeptic though he was at nine; and in the depths of his soul he came over, then and there, to Santa Claus, to abide forever—only he did not know it yet.

To make the children eat any breakfast, with three gay sleds waiting to take the girls out in the snow, was no easy matter; but it was done at last, and they swarmed forth for a holiday in the open. All days are spent in the open at Sea Breeze,—even the school is a tent,—and very cold weather only shortens the brief school hour; but this day was to be given over to play altogether. Winter it was “for fair,” but never was coasting enjoyed on New England hills as these sledding journeys on the sands where the surf beat in with crash of thunder. The sea itself had joined in making Christmas for its little friends. The day before, a regiment of crabs had come ashore and surrendered to the cook at Sea Breeze. Christmas morn found the children's “floor”—they called the stretch of clean, hard sand between high-water mark and the surf-line by that name—filled with gorgeous shells and pebbles, and strange fishes left there by the tide overnight. The fair-weather friends who turn their backs upon old ocean with the first rude blasts of autumn little know what wonderful surprises it keeps for those who stand by it in good and in evil report.

When the very biggest turkey that ever strutted in barnyard was discovered steaming in the middle of the dinner-table and the report went round in whispers that ice-cream had been seen carried in in pails, and when, in response to a pull at the bell, Matron Thomsen ushered in a squad of smiling mamas and papas to help eat the dinner, even Gimpy gave in to the general joy, and avowed that Christmas was “bully.” Perhaps his acceptance of the fact was made easier by a hasty survey of the group of papas and mamas, which assured him that his own were not among them. A fleeting glimpse of the baby, deserted and disconsolate, brought the old pucker to his brow for a passing moment; but just then big Fred set off a snapper at his very ear, and thrusting a pea-green fool's-cap upon his head, pushed him into the roistering procession that hobbled round and round the table, cheering fit to burst. And the babies that had been brought down from their cribs, strapped, because their backs were crooked, in the frames that look so cruel and are so kind, lifted up their feeble voices as they watched the show with shining eyes. Little baby Helen, who could only smile and wave “by-by” with one fat hand, piped in with her tiny voice, “Here I is!” It was all she knew, and she gave that with a right good will, which is as much as one can ask of anybody, even of a snow baby.

If there were still lacking a last link to rivet Gimpy's loyalty to his new home for good and all, he himself supplied it when the band gathered under the leafless trees—for Sea Breeze has a grove in summer, the only one on the island—and whiled away the afternoon making a “park” in the snow, with sea-shells for curbing and boundary stones. When it was all but completed, Gimpy, with an inspiration that then and there installed him leader, gave it the finishing touch by drawing a policeman on the corner with a club, and a sign, “Keep off the grass.” Together they gave it the air of reality and the true local color that made them feel, one and all, that now indeed they were at home.

Toward evening a snow-storm blew in from the sea, but instead of scurrying for shelter, the little Eskimos joined the doctor in hauling wood for a big bonfire on the beach. There, while the surf beat upon the shore hardly a dozen steps away, and the storm whirled the snow-clouds in weird drifts over sea and land, they drew near the fire, and heard the doctor tell stories that seemed to come right out of the darkness and grow real while they listened. Dr. Wallace is a Southerner and lived his childhood with Br'er Rabbit and Mr. Fox, and they saw them plainly gamboling in the firelight as the story went on. For the doctor knows boys and loves them, that is how.

No one would have guessed that they were cripples, every one of that rugged band that sat down around the Christmas supper-table, rosy-cheeked and jolly—cripples condemned, but for Sea Breeze, to lives of misery and pain, most of them to an early death and suffering to others. For their enemy was that foe of mankind, the White Plague, that for thousands of years has taken tithe and toll of the ignorance and greed and selfishness of man, which sometimes we call with one name—the slum. Gimpy never would have dreamed that the tenement held no worse threat for the baby he yearned for than himself, with his crippled foot, when he was there. These things you could not have told even the fathers and mothers; or if you had, no one there but the doctor and the nurses would have believed you. They knew only too well. But two things you could make out, with no trouble at all, by the lamplight: one, that they were one and all on the homeward stretch to health and vigor—Gimpy himself was a different lad from the one who had crept shivering to bed the night before; and this other, that they were the sleepiest crew of youngsters ever got together. Before they had finished the first verse of “America” as their good night, standing up like little men, half of them were down and asleep with their heads pillowed upon their arms. And so Miss Brass, the head nurse, gathered them in and off to bed.

“And now, boys,” she said as they were being tucked in, “your prayers.” And of those who were awake each said his own: Willie his “Now I lay me,” Mariano his “Ave,” but little Bent from the Eastside tenement wailed that he didn't have any. Bent was a newcomer like Gimpy.

“Then,” said six-year-old Morris, resolutely,—he also was a Jew,—“I learn him mine vat my fader tol' me.” And getting into Bent's crib, he crept under the blanket with his little comrade. Gimpy saw them reverently pull their worsted caps down over their heads, and presently their tiny voices whispered together, in the jargon of the East Side, their petition to the Father of all, who looked lovingly down through the storm upon his children of many folds.

The last prayer was said, and all was still. Through the peaceful breathing of the boys all about him, Gimpy, alone wakeful, heard the deep bass of the troubled sea. The storm had blown over. Through the open windows shone the eternal stars, as on that night in the Judean hills when shepherds herded their flocks and

  “The angels of the Lord came down.”

He did not know. He was not thinking of angels; none had ever come to his slum. But a great peace came over him and filled his child-soul. It may be that the nurse saw it shining in his eyes and thought it fever. It may be that she, too, was thinking in that holy hour. She bent over him and laid a soothing hand upon his brow.

“You must sleep now,” she said.

Something that was not of the tenement, something vital, with which his old life had no concern, welled up in Gimpy at the touch. He caught her hand and held it.

“I will if you will sit here,” he said. He could not help it.

“Why, Jimmy?” She stroked back his shock of stubborn hair. Something glistened on her eyelashes as she looked at the forlorn little face on the pillow. How should Gimpy know that he was at that moment leading another struggling soul by the hand toward the light that never dies?

“'Cause,” he gulped hard, but finished manfully—“'cause I love you.”

Gimpy had learned the lesson of Christmas,

  “And glory shone around.”

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index