Copyright
H.S. Armstrong.

Trifles for the Christmas Holidays online

. (page 1 of 6)
Online LibraryH.S. ArmstrongTrifles for the Christmas Holidays → online text (page 1 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Curtis Weyant, Josephine Paolucci and the
Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
(This file was produced from images produced by the Wright
American Fiction Project.)









TRIFLES

FOR THE

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS.


BY

H.S. ARMSTRONG.

PHILADELPHIA:
J.B. LIPPINCOTT & CO.
1869.

Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1868, by

HENRY S. ARMSTRONG,

In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the
District of Louisiana.


TO

JAS. DAVIDSON HILL,

OF NEW ORLEANS,

A CHOSEN SCHOOL-FELLOW, A STANCH COMRADE IN ARMS, AND THE TRUE FRIEND OF
LATER YEARS,

THESE

"Trifles"

ARE AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED.




CONTENTS.


THE OVERTURE 9

A CHRISTMAS MELODY 15

STORY OF A BEAST 29

LEAVES IN THE LIFE OF AN IDLER 45

MR. BUTTERBY RECORDS HIS CASE 71

DIAMONDS AND HEARTS 98




TRIFLES

FOR

THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS.




THE OVERTURE.


Christmas! What worldly care could ever lessen the joy of that eventful
day? At your first waking in the morning, when you lie gazing in drowsy
listlessness at the brass ornament on your bed-tester, when the ring of
the milkman is like a dream, and the cries of the bread-man and
newspaper-boy sound far off in the distance, it peals at you in the
laughter and gay greetings of the servants in the yard. Your senses are
aroused by a promiscuous discharging of pistols, and you are filled with
a vague thought that the whole city has been formed into a line of
skirmishers. You are startled by a noise on the front pavement, which
sounds like an energetic drummer beating the long roll on a barrel-head;
and you have an indistinct idea that some improvident urchin (up since
the dawn) has just expended his last fire-cracker.

At length there is a stir in the room near you. You hear the patter of
little feet on the stairs, and the sound of childish voices in the
drawing-room. What transports of admiration, what peals of joyous
clamor, fall on your sleepy ears! The patter on the stairs sounds louder
and louder, the ringing voices come nearer and nearer; you hear the
little hands on your door-knob, and you hurry on your dressing-gown; for
it is Christmas morning.

What a wonderful time you have at breakfast! There are a half-dozen
silver forks for ma, a new napkin-ring for you, and what astonishing
hay-wagons and crying dolls for the children! Jane, the house-maid, is
beaming with happiness in a new collar and black silk apron; and Bridget
will persist in wearing her silver thimble and carrying her new
work-basket, though they threaten utter destruction to the
beefsteak-plate.

You sit an unusually long time over your coffee that morning, and say an
unusual number of facetious things to everybody. You cover Jane with
confusion, and throw Bridget into an explosion of mirth, by slyly
alluding to a blue-eyed young dray-man you one evening noticed seated on
the kitchen steps. Perhaps you venture a prediction on the miserable
existence he is some day destined to experience, - when a look from the
little lady in the merino morning-wrapper checks you, and you confess to
yourself that you are feeling uncommonly happy.

At last the breakfast ends, and the children go out for a romp. Perhaps
you are a little taken aback when you are informed your easy-chair has
been removed to the library; but you see Bridget, still in secure
possession of her thimble and work-basket, with a huge china bowl in one
hand and an egg-beater in the other, looking very warm and very much
confused, and you take your departure to your own domain, to con over
the morning papers.

You hear an indistinct sound of the drawing of corks and beating of
eggs; of a great many dishes being taken out of the china-closet, and a
good many orders being given in an undertone, - why is it women always
will speak in a whisper when there is a man about the house? - and you
lose yourself in the "leader," or the prices current.

The skirmishers have evidently suffered disaster; for the firing becomes
more and more distant, and at length dies from your hearing. You are
favored with a call from the improvident little boy, who requests you to
grant him the privilege of collecting such of his unexploded
fire-crackers as may be in your front yard, giving you, at the same
time, the interesting information that they are to be made into
"spit-devils." You are overwhelmed by a profound bow from the grocer's
lad as he passes your window, and you invite him in and beg that he will
honor you by accepting half a dollar and a handful of doughnuts: - the
lady in the merino morning-wrapper has provided a cake-basket full for
the occasion. You are also waited on by the milkman, who, you are glad
to see, is really flesh and blood, and not, as you have sometimes
supposed, an unearthly bell-ringer who visited this sublunary sphere
only at five A.M., and then for the sole purpose of disturbing
your morning nap. You are also complimented by the wood-man and
wood-sawyer, an English sailor with a wooden leg, who once nearly
swamped you in a tornado of nautical interjections, on your presenting
him a new pea-jacket. And then comes the German fruit-woman, whose first
customer you have the distinguished honor to be, and who, in
consequence, has taken breakfast in your kitchen for the last ten years.
You remember that on one occasion she spoke of her little boy, named
Heinderich, who was suffering with his teeth; and when you hope that
Heinderich is better, you are surprised to learn that he is quite a
large boy, going to the public school, and that the lady in the merino
morning-wrapper has just sent him a new cap.

The heaping pile of doughnuts gradually lessens, until finally there is
not one left. The last dish is evidently taken from the china-closet,
and the whole house is filled with that portentous stillness which
causes the mothers of mischievous offspring so much trepidation.

You expect to see the merino morning-wrapper reconnoitering the
movements of your own sweet pledges of affection; but she doesn't: you
can only hear the ticking of the little French clock on the
mantle-piece, and the spluttering of the coal as it bursts into a gassy
flame between the bars of the grate, and you almost imagine Christmas
has passed. You are deceived; for by-and-by you hear your children's
footsteps as they skip over the garden-walk, and the sound of their
ringing laughter as they rush in out of the cold, and their clamor rises
louder and gladder and more jubilant than ever. Grandpa! Who does not
know him, with his joyous face and hearty morning greeting? How
resplendent he looks in his broadcloth suit, his gold-headed cane and
great blue overcoat! What quantities of almonds and raisins, of oranges
and sweetmeats, those overcoat-pockets contain! What child ever lived
who did not believe grandpa's pocket a cornucopia for all juvenile
desires? The day passes on. The turkey never looked browner or juicier,
and the blaze on the pudding-sauce never burned bluer; the kissing under
the mistletoe was never more delightful, nor the blindman's-buff ever
played with a greater zest: but the merriest Christmas must end. Your
little girl, tired and sleepy, kneels at your feet, and you pass your
fingers through her soft curls, while she repeats her simple prayer:
"God bless pa, God bless ma, God bless grandpa, God bless little
brother, and God bless Santa Claus;" and you hope that God _will_ bless
Santa Claus. You thank your Creator you _are_ the master of that quiet
home and the father of those dear children, and go to your rest with a
heart full of gratitude. You hope that all the newspaper-boys, and all
the milkmen and bread-men's children, and all the little boys and girls
who have no fathers or mothers or grandpas, and all the poor, and all
the sick, and all the blind, and all the distressed, have had a merry
Christmas.

At a time like this, when the security of your own reward relaxes
scrutiny for the shortcomings of others, I would have you take up these
"_Trifles_."




A CHRISTMAS MELODY.


The Prelude.

"Twenty-nine dollars! Very well, Mr. John Redfield: I think you _have_
cut your allowance a _little_ low. With bracelets, bonbons, and other
gewgaws for your interesting friends, I must say your enjoyment of this
prospective Twenty-fifth of December is somewhat reduced. When a man has
skated over the frozen surface of society a little matter of
one-and-thirty years, it is just reasonable to hope he has reached that
desideratum known as years of discretion. There is a little adage
relating to the immeasurably short time the feeble-minded enjoy
pecuniary advantages, which I think decidedly applicable to you.

"A rather severe epigram, occurring in the Holy Scriptures, goes to show
the impossibility - even though the somewhat unsatisfactory argument of
the pestle and mortar be resorted to - of separating the same class of
people from their rather confused ideas of the fitness of things.
However, when the Mussulman, careering over Sahara, finds himself, by a
stumble of his horse, rolling in the sand, with his yataghan, pistols,
and turban scattered around him, he rises quietly, and exclaims, 'Allah
is great!' I know a Christian would have expended his wrath in a variety
of anathemas highly edifying, and close by wishing his unfortunate steed
in a much warmer climate than the Mohammedan has any idea of. I am a
poor church-man: let me emulate the philosophy of the simple child of
the desert, and when I fall into trouble bear it patiently.

"I wonder what the grim savage would do were he short of money in a land
thronging with beggars and other blissful adjuncts of civilization? Woe
unto every blind or club-foot man, and every one-armed or scalded woman,
_I_ meet to-day! They shall work out their own salvation with fear and
trembling, or I'm an idiot.

"Why, bless my soul, the fortunes bequeathed to all the novel-heroes
created this century, would not begin to supply them!"

Redfield shook his head decidedly when he came to this part of his
monologue, and put the gold and silver coins back into his pocket.

"I hate poor people - I positively do! I despise their pale faces and
cadaverous expression. I detest straggling little girls who come up to
you and say their mothers have been bedridden for three months, and all
their little brothers and sisters are down with the fever. I know it's
a lie. I can detect at once the professional whine, and am certain the
story has been repeated by rote a hundred times that day; but for the
life of me I cannot put out from my mind the imaginary picture of the
half-furnished room in some filthy back street, with a forlorn woman
with red hair stretched on a bed of straw, and half a dozen or more
red-haired children piled about promiscuously.

"There is a wretched little German girl, always managing to have a boil
either on her forehead or the back of her neck, - I believe in my soul
it's from overfeeding, - who follows my footsteps like a misanthropic
vampire. By what ingenuity she manages to cajole me out of my money I
know not, but I positively assert that in the last fortnight, according
to her account, her unhappy mother has suffered from eleven different
incurable diseases. My God! what a complication of misfortune! Why not
let them starve? When a man is not capable of maintaining a family, why
in Heaven's name does he ever have one?

"I think I will follow the maxims of political economists and all
respectable members of society, and vote beggars a nuisance. I wonder
how many people to-day, praying for deliverance by Christ's 'agony and
bloody sweat,' by his 'cross and passion,' his 'precious death and
burial,' his 'glorious resurrection and ascension,' and the 'coming of
the Holy Ghost,' don't?

"This _is_ a charitable frame of mind to precede a Christmas morning.
When did I contract the habit of talking to myself?

"I must be impressed with the two grand reasons of the man we all know
of: first, I like to talk to a sensible man, and second, I like to hear
a sensible man talk.

"I wonder if there is not something under the surface in Sol Smith's
charity sermon? I rather like its pithy style:

"'He that giveth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord. Now, brethren, if you
are satisfied with the security, down with the dust.'

"I once repeated it to a gaunt little parson, and his look of
unmitigated horror caused me to hide my diminished head. I knew from his
manner - he did not condescend a reply - what chamber in the Inferno was
being heated up for my especial benefit. Well, well! the sentiment is
doubtless creditable to his head and heart.

"What a pity it is I am not one of the 'good' people! What an
agonizingly cerulean expression I would wear, to be sure!

"I wonder why young mothers don't write for their children's first copy
Dante's inscription, and teach their baby lips to lisp of the world what
he says of hell. It's surprising to me that that parson is not crazed at
his sense of the certain perdition into which everybody except himself
is hurrying. Perhaps, after all, there is something in the question of
La Rochefoucauld, 'Is it not astonishing that we are not altogether
overpowered at the misfortunes of our friends?' Well, man learns
something every day. When I first saw a chicken take a billful of water
and hold up its head, in my childish simplicity I imagined it thanking
God: I afterward discovered it was only letting the water run down its
throat. My mind, like good wine or bad butter, must be strengthening by
age.

"Why can't we take things quietly, as we did when we were boys? I expect
I had a rather comfortable time of it then, though I did get whipped for
tearing my clothes, and killing flies, which I used to do worse than any
bald hornet.

"Now, that youngster walking before me is whistling like a lark, and, by
the Lord Harry, he has scarcely a shoe to his foot!"

He was a poor boy, perhaps seven or eight years old. His face was pale
and careworn, and though he whistled, it was a solemn kind of whistle,
that sounded more like a lamentation than the outburst of childish
gladness. His clothes were too thin and worn for his slight frame, for
the morning, though clear and bright, was frosty, and his little bare
toes peeping out of his shoes were blue with the cold. He hurried
through the streets with a bundle of papers, but, even while intent on
their sale, he had the walk of an old man, and his small shoulders
stooped as though they bent under the weight of years.

Redfield eyed him narrowly.

"Paper, sir?"

"So, in this frenzied struggle after bread, you are an itinerant vendor
of periodical literature?"

"You mean I sell papers, sir? Yes. I've only been at it three weeks. I'm
'stuck' this morning. Haven't got a good beat yet. Paper, sir?"

"Have you no fears of risking your commercial character by appearing on
the streets in that unheard-of dress?"

The boy reddened.

"I've been sick," said he, at length, "for a very long time."

"My Lord!" groaned the philosopher; "here's another conspiracy against
my unfortunate pocket-book! Why don't your mother take care of you?"

"She did, sir; but she sews for slop-shops, and has worked so much at
night that she's almost blind."

"Worse and worse! and here's an outfitting establishment just across the
street. When will I acquire anything like habits of prudence? Boy," said
he, fiercely, "you are a young vagabond, and deserve to starve. Your
mother should be put in the pillory for ever marrying. That's what the
world says, - and what I would think, if I wasn't a consummate ass. Were
you ever blessed with a view of the most unmitigated simpleton the sun
ever shone upon? Look at me! Look good: I am worthy of a close
inspection. Now come along, and see to what extent my folly sometimes
carries me."

He caught the boy roughly by the arm, jerked rather than led him across
the street, and thrust him bodily among a crowd of astonished clerks who
stood at the door of a clothing-house.

"Take this young vagrant and put him into new boots, with woolen socks,
some kind of a gray jacket and trowsers, and a hat that's fit for a
civilized age."

Seeing that Redfield was really in earnest, the proprietor obeyed the
order promptly, and in half an hour the boy reappeared, rather red, a
little uncertain, but decidedly altered for the better.

"Now go," cried the cynic, with a smile, and a shake of his hand, "and
thank your stars the fool-killer did not come along before you."

"Nineteen dollars and a half! Bless me! what am I coming to? It may be
laying up treasures in heaven; but, by Jove, I had rather see it than
hear tell of it."


The Refrain.

It certainly was the dreariest 24th of December an unhappy boy ever had
the misery of witnessing. In a vain endeavor to get up an excitement, I
expended my last fire-cracker; but the continuous drizzle drowned out
every one. It was only four o'clock, and yet the fog hung like a pall
over the windows, and the gas-men were lighting the lamps in the street.
My mother, and an old schoolmate, Mrs. Mary Morton, adjourned to the
privacy of her bedroom; and, a pet navigation enterprise, conducted in
the gutter, having resulted in shipwreck and a severe sore throat, I
also was permitted to enjoy its cosey quiet. John Redfield came in as
the evening advanced. He had been sick; and my mother, wheeling the
lounge near the fire, made him lie down and have something warm to
drink. He and Mrs. Morton were intimate with the family from my earliest
recollection.

The four, in their childhood, lived near each other, among the
picturesque hills of Western Pennsylvania. They went to the same school,
played in the same woods, and now, in mature life, retained the warm
regard of the days gone by. I say four; for Mr. Redfield had a
sister, - Mrs. Hague, a pale, lovely little lady, who at one time visited
my mother very often. There had been some estrangement between her and
her brother, the particulars of which I never knew. She had married,
years before, a worthless kind of a man, who kept a shoestore; but he
became involved, the store was sold out by the sheriff and since then
both were in a manner lost.

John Redfield, though an abrupt man, and rather eccentric, had as kind a
heart as any one I ever knew. He was connected with a newspaper in the
city, and wrote wonderful articles about police courts, that, somehow,
sounded more like sermons than stories. In my early days, before
Gutenberg and his movable types came within the scope of my knowledge, I
believed he printed out the whole edition with a lead-pencil, and
entertained most exalted ideas of his capacity. He had a passion for
giving boys painted boats. I must have received twenty - all exactly
alike - at various outbreaks of his generosity. He had the queerest way
of bestowing favors I almost ever saw. When he wished to make a boy a
present, he shoved it roughly into his pocket, and then started off as
if the house was on fire. What brought up the subject I do not now
remember, but that evening Mrs. Morton persisted in talking about Clara
Hague. She spoke of their childhood, of the old homestead, of the
nutting, the apple-picking, the cider-making, and the hundred other
occupations and amusements of their young life.

She had a vivid power of description, and a charming simplicity in her
choice of words, that entertained even me; but I could see Mr. Redfield
was troubled. He moved restlessly on the lounge, and once drew a shawl
over his face. At last she touched on the shoestore, its doleful decay
and downfall, and the years the unhappy woman had struggled on. At this
he started to go; but there was something in her manner that detained
him. Her tone had been light and chatty before; and, though she spoke
with proper gravity, it was sprightly rather than earnest. I did not
notice any striking change; and yet it seemed suddenly to assume the
gentle impressiveness one sometimes fancies we should hear from the
pulpit.

"Whatever be her troubles, Clara has been a good sister to you. You were
the youngest; and a puny little fellow you were then, with all your
greatness. Many and many a time, in your quarrels with other boys, have
I seen her get into no end of disgrace for defending you. Do you
_remember_ that old log school-house, John? and our dinners under the
trees? What baskets of berries and bags of nuts we gathered in those
woods! Do you remember the little run we used to cross, and the fish you
caught in the pool?

"And oh, John! do you remember that day we started home when it rained?
You had been sick, and commenced to cry. We got under a big tree; but it
was November; the leaves had all blown down, and the rain beat through
the branches. What disconsolate little people we were! And when you sat
down on a flat stone, and declared you'd stay there and die, don't you
remember how Clara went out in the bushes, and, taking off her little
flannel petticoat, put it around your shoulders for a cloak?"

The strong man quivered; his face convulsed, and the hot tears started
into his eyes.

"YES! _I'll be hanged if I don't!_"

He clutched up his hat, and was gone in an instant, and the two women,
woman-like, stood sobbing in each other's arms.


The Air.

The thousand-and-one young gentlemen in blue neck-ties, who for a
twelvemonth, in frantic strains, varying from _basso profundo_ to piping
tenor, had proclaimed their entire willingness to "_mourir pour la
patrie_," were engrossed at their shops; innumerable fascinating
trimmers of bonnets, who, like poor little "Dora," religiously believed
the chief end of man consisted in "dancing continually ta la ra, ta la
ra," sat busily plying the needle, elbow-deep in ribbons; the
consumptive-looking flute-player before the foot-lights trilled out his
spasmodic trickle of melody, and contemplated with melancholy pleasure
the excited audience; the lank danseuse ogled and smirked at it behind
them, and, with passionate gestures of her thin legs, implored its
applause; men, women, and children, of all grades and degrees, crowded
into the murky night; for a day was coming when the youths of the
neck-ties would not agree to _mourir_ on any account; when the
flute-player would cease to be contemplative; when the danseuse would
forget her attenuated extremities; when the whole world, where the grace
of the Redeemer is known, would believe that the chief end of the
_hour_, at least, consisted in "dancing continually ta la ra, ta la ra."

Shall "The Air" ring with the joyous notes of the carols, or breathe low
and soft with the sighs of the suffering?

Shall it burst into mad hilarity at the revelry, or wail with the sharp
cries of the poor?

It was a painted house, but the paint had worn off; it had a garden, but
the garden was choked with weeds; its two rooms were once handsomely
furnished, but the furniture was now common and old. It was once a
fashionable street; but fashion had fled before the victorious eagles of
trade. The tenants of that house were once happy and prosperous. What
are they now?

The occupant of the back room was a man, and the occupants of the front
room a woman and her children.

He was sitting at a rude deal table; before him were scattered some
dirty sheets of music, and around him the place was dreary and bare. By
the light of a tallow dip he was playing, in screeching tones, the
commonest of ditties and polkas by note. His coat was once of the
richest; but now it was old and threadbare. His hands were once white
and elegantly shaped; now they were dirty, and blue with cold. His face
once beamed with contentment; now it was worn with care and marked by
the hard lines of penury.

The other room was darker, and, if possible, more dreary. There were two
trundle-beds in a corner, and four bright beings, oblivious to the
discomfort, in the happy sleep of childhood. There was a mattress in
another corner, with a pile of bedquilts and a sheet.

The fire had burned down to a coal. It shone on the mantle with a sickly
glare; and this was the only light there was.

To the mantle-piece were pinned four little stockings, each waiting
open-mouthed for a gift from Santa Claus.

Below them crouched a woman, weeping bitterly.

The woman was Clara Hague; and she was weeping because the Christmas
dawn would find those little mouths unsatisfied.

Our "Air" is getting mournful, - too mournful for this hour of great joy.
The _Te Deum Laudamus_, not the _Miserere_, is for outbursts of gladness


1 3 4 5 6

Online LibraryH.S. ArmstrongTrifles for the Christmas Holidays → online text (page 1 of 6)