On Approval (Boyce)
A Christmas Story
By NEITH BOYCE
SIDE by side, on a bench in the waiting room of the big station in the heart of the city, sat a pretty young woman and a boy of ten. The young woman was dressed in a smartly fitting cloth suit and gay little hat, and a luxurious fur muff and scarf lay beside her on the seat, together with a small hand bag and a large lunch box. The boy was very plainly and cheaply, though warmly, clothed. One hand, in a red worsted mitten, rested on a straw suit case, which contained his entire worldly possessions.
The two had come early, for if they missed the train for which they were waiting they could not reach their destination that day, and it was important that they should do so. It was so important, in fact, that the pretty young woman had made a considerable sacrifice to that end.
"I hate to ask you to do it, Miss Wetherbee," the superintendent had said to her the day before, "but you know how it is at this time of year—everybody has their Christmas plans. I don't doubt you have, too, and it's hard, for you'll have to stay over the day up there so as to make the necessary inquiries. You understand that when people ask for a child of this age we have to be very careful, as they may want them for the work they can get out of them. Now these people make such a special point of the boy's getting there for Christmas that I want to manage it if possible. You see, it will be a more cheerful beginning for him, and as he has already been sent back from two places—"
Miss Wetherbee had hesitated. But in a moment she had said quietly: "I'll do it." Now, as she sat watching the rushing crowds, holiday bound, her face was soberly wistful. For the first time she would miss a Christmas at home—the gathering of the clans in the big house under the New England elms—the joyful turmoil, the streaming in and out of guests, neighbors, old friends, the big tree glittering up to the ceiling, the dinner, the dance.
Swiftly she dried her eyes, glancing at Gregory. But he had not noticed. He was busy observing the scene about him. His small figure was tensely quiet, his mouth firmly closed. He had not asked a single question. Miss Wetherbee reflected that for a troublesome boy—so reputed—he had been very little trouble to her, especially in comparison with other of her charges. More than once, in the course of her year's work as a humble substitute for the by no means infallible stork, she had paced the floor of this same station with a baby in arms loudly wailing. Gregory showed no such crude egotism. He had been disciplined by ten years of an institution.
THE announcement for which they were waiting, moaned out by the invisible megaphone, roused Miss Wetherbee from her reverie.
"Our train, Gregory," she said gently.
The boy started. Without a word he stood up. lifted his suit case, and followed her.
People were crowding into the day coach. Miss Wetherbee put Gregory into an aisle seat, with a cake of chocolate and a boys' magazine. He was, she had been told, fond of reading, and stood well in school. The people to whom he was going had asked for "a smart boy," but whether Gregory's kind of smartness would suit them was, of course, the question. They were stock farmers in the Massachusetts hills, whereas the two families who had previously tried to adopt Gregory had lived in small places in the suburbs, where he had promptly got into difficulties with the neighbors' chickens, fruit trees, and children. This was all Miss Wetherbee knew about him.
Presently the seat beside her was vacated, and she called fire-gory and put him next the window. She noticed that neither the magazine nor the cake of chocolate had been touched. He gazed persistently out at the snowy landscape; but when Miss Wetherbee named to him the places they were passing and pointed out the Sound, he merely nodded in silence. After a time she gave up her attempt to talk to the back of his head and returned to her novel. But between her eyes and the printed page pictures kept slipping in—the big hall at home, the bustle of arrivals, laughing greetings, the yule log blazing in the chimney place, masses of holly against the white walls—and Somebody there who was coming at her special invitation and who would be bitterly disappointed and her new dress, a love of a pink chiffon dress with little rosebuds, in which she would have danced with Somebody. She could almost hear the thin, sweet, poignant music of the violins, the dreaming waltz that they had danced together only twice.
She had closed her eyes, the better to see and to hear. With a long sigh she opened them and looked fixedly at Gregory—at his cheek, which had the city pallor; at his narrow shoulders, tightly buttoned in a jacket that, though new, did not fit him very well. The institution always dressed its wards neatly—even the babies had pink or blue ribbons when they went forth to try their fates. But Gregory had been given a green necktie, and Miss Wetherbee knew in her soul that he would have preferred red. She had grown up with a large number of brothers, and they all had preferred red ties. But Gregory, of course, had to take what he could get. What he would like was, after all, a mystery, never having been much inquired into.
She said to him suddenly:
"Gregory, you didn't like those other places they sent you to, did you?"
He answered, with a shy movement of his shoulders:
"No, there wasn't anything to do there."
"You don't know what a real farm is like. There'll be animals—horses and cows—and perhaps you can have some rabbits, and a dog that you can feed and take around with you."
GREGORY wriggled slightly without looking at her. And she could feel the small soul of him shrinking uneasily from any touch, preoccupied perhaps with vague recollections of the past and misgivings about the future. He was not going to commit himself as what he would like. Miss Wetherbee looked at him pensively and forbore to press him. After all, she no more of what was awaiting him than he did, it was no use drawing rosy pictures which might be realized. She would have liked to say something to divert his mind, but nothing suggested itself at the moment. He reminded her of a small hermit crab retreating into the inmost recess of its shell and tucking even its toes in. She had an idea, likewise, that he was not very far from tears and that he would hate to have to cry before her. Gregory had never been esteemed a soft boy, having indeed been rejected as "tough" by both those pairs of tentative foster parents.
After a little she looked at her watch.
"Twelve o'clock! I'm hungry, and we have to change cars in forty minutes. Shall we eat our lunch?"
Gregory cheered up at this, and helped to arrange the contents of the lunch box on the empty seat opposite, and even smiled as he contemplated the various sandwiches, the doughnuts, and the large red apples. He showed keen interest also in the Thermos bottle which Miss Wetherbee took out of her bag, and wanted the mystery of the hot cocoa explained to him in detail. By the time they had eaten all the sandwiches and doughnuts, Miss Wetherbee felt that the hermit crab was edging out of its shell; or, rather, for Gregory was really not a crablike boy, it was as though some timid furry wild creature had been half won to confidence, looking at her speculatively with its big bright eyes, ready to scurry again at the first move.
"Put the rest of the apples in your suit case," said Miss Wetherbee when she had cleared away the crumbs and papers.
GREGORY opened his suit case and put the apples in. Miss Wetherbee had noticed that this ancient straw receptacle seemed already strained to bursting, and she now saw that it contained, besides some clothes, a couple of books, a bundle of newspaper comic supplements, a wooden boat, a baseball, several empty glass bottles and pieces of wood, and a mass of parti-colored string—the accumulated treasures of Gregory's youth.
They had to change cars several times, and once to wait for an hour at a junction. Each succeeding train was emptier, slower, and more full of coal dust than the last, and the last one of all was very cold. By now the short winter afternoon was nearly gone. They were climbing slowly, with much puffing and blowing of the old engine, up into the high hills, covered by an almost unbroken sheet of snow. The outlook from the grimy windows was very beautiful, but Miss Wetherbee shivered in her furs and Gregory in his overcoat. In the single passenger car was a merry party—father, mother, and six children—going back, so they told Miss Wetherbee, to the old home for Christmas. The two boys made overtures to the solemn Gregory, and they raced up and down the aisle; the four girls sang lively songs; the conductor lounged by the stove and joined in the cheerful chatter of the elders. Then, at the last station but one, all these people got out and were received with shouts of welcome; and the conductor helped to transport their baggage to the two big waiting sleighs and waved them farewell, and then came leisurely back and shouted "All aboard."
And the engine shrieked and groaned and clanked and slowly got into motion again.
"Only twenty minutes more now, Gregory," said Miss Wetherbee.
Gregory nodded soberly.
A SUNSET of scarlet and purple flamed over the snowy hills. The conductor came in, slamming the door and stamping his feet, and lit the swinging oil lamp in the middle of the car.
"Fine Christmas weather—must be pretty close to zero," he said amiably. "Next station's yours."
"Don't you want to eat an apple before we get off, Gregory?" asked Miss Wetherbee. "We have a pretty long drive still."
Gregory shook his head and said he wasn't hungry.
"I thought boys were always hungry," said Miss Wetherbee with an attempt at lightness.
Gregory did not respond. He was visibly nervous. The last twenty minutes seemed endless. They were both tired and cold. The car rocked roughly. The oil lamp smoked and swung, sending flickering lights and shadows over the rows of empty seats.
Miss Wetherbee stretched her cramped muscles and stamped her feet. She wanted to say something reassuring, but instead she felt that she shared Gregory's panic. Yes, he was frightened, and so was she, now that the end of their journey was in sight. The end was the beginning for Gregory. Once more he was to be cast into the bosom of a strange family, and perhaps he would get on and perhaps he wouldn't. This rather elderly couple might not take to him. After a critical inspection and a trial of his abilities, they might want to exchange him again. And perhaps he wouldn't like them. Poor Gregory! He hadn't anything special to recommend him. He wasn't handsome, he hadn't a winning manner, he displayed no striking intelligence. He was just a plain boy. He was a boy that nobody had wanted so far, neither the people who had brought him into the world nor any others. He seemed to be aware of this, and to be feebly and forlornly on the defensive more than ever now that the moment of meeting was at hand. He shrank into a corner of the seat, staring out of the blank window.
"King-ston!" shouted the conductor as the engine slowed down and whistled. He flung open the door, and the car, sliding and clanking, came to a stop.
"Here we are!" cried Miss Wetherbee with choking cheerfulness.
She took her bag and Gregory followed with his suit case. They stepped out upon an empty snowy platform. A keen, pure wind was blowing from the white summits above them. The sky was still faintly colored with the sunset red, but it was almost dark. Lights twinkled from a few buildings near by. There was no one in sight.
"Expectin' somebody to meet ye?" asked the conductor kindly. "Or did ye count on gittin' a sleigh' Too cold to wait here— better go over there to Holcomb's store, mebbe they can tell ye."
ACROSS the puffing of the wheezy engine came a silver tingle of sleigh bells, distant up the deep-furrowed snowy road that wound into the deeper shadow of the hills.
"Somebody comin'— guess it's your folks— well, good-by," said the conductor heartily. "All aboard—"
The engine, with a shrill scream, pulled out into the twilight.
"I think we'd better wait here a few minutes—Mr. Bassett was to meet us," said Miss Wetherbee, shivering.
Gregory said nothing.
They waited while the chime of the bells grew louder out of the darkness, approaching fast, tinkling, silver sweet, the song of the crisp, pure winter night.
A two-horse sleigh dashed out into the open space and pulled up beside the platform with a loud "Whoa, boy!" and a clash of the bells over the smoking horses. A stout figure in a furry coat and cap leaped out, holding the reins in one hand, peering through the dusk.
"You're my folks, ain't ye?" cried the big voice. "My name's Bassett. Yes, yes! I started time enough, only I had to break a road—drifts four feet deep some places! Still, I thought I'd 'a' got here before the train— she's gen' rally some late—but, of course, the old girl had to be on time to-day, an' I heard her whistle a piece up the road. But jump in, jump in! You must be half froze! You're Miss—Miss—there, if I ain't forgot your name in the telegram!"
A fur-mittened hand seized Miss Wetherbee's and helped her into the sleigh.
"And here's Gregory! Boy, I'm glad to see ye!" said the hearty voice. "In you go!"
They settled into one buffalo robe and another was flung up over them and carefully tucked in.
"You'll find some hot bricks—that is, they was hot—for your feet," shouted Mr. Bassett as he climbed to his seat. "Now, I'll just put along. The old lady'll be hangin' out of the window, lookin' for us. She wanted to start me off an hour before I come, but, says I, don't you worry, I'll get there on time. Cuddle down in there, it's some cold, an' we've got pretty near an hour's drive—"
He shouted over his shoulder some further remarks, but the clash of the bells rang out loudly, and the rush of the wind seemed to bite the words from his lips. The two horses sprang forward at a fast trot that at moments broke into a gallop; the sleigh slipped, creaking, over the snow. The road dipped into the shadow of the hills and wound upward. The sky above was a clear greenish blue, and presently a bright half moon rose over the hilltops. The night was white and softly luminous and sparkling. Miss Wetherbee, nestled under the furry robe, with her feet in the straw against the hot bricks, fell into a dreamy doze. Once she bestirred herself and asked: "Gregory, are you warm?"
"Yes," said a sleepy voice.
NOW and then Bassett turned to shout:
"Pretty night, ain't it? But cold. Won't be long now. Get along, boys!"
They climbed higher and higher, and the country spread out below them in great white rolling stretches, broken by sharp shadows. There was silence, except for the snorting of the horses and the sweet chatter of the bells.
Miss Wetherbee woke with a start. A dog was barking, a bright golden light streamed over the snow, the sleigh stopped suddenly. Half dazed, she found herself stumbling up the steps of the house. In the open door stood a tall woman, who welcomed her and then Gregory in a deep, quiet, bass voice, with a firm handshake. The room into which she led them seemed a blaze of light. A roaring fire burned in an open stove, and two pink-shaded lamps stood on the table.
"Take off your wraps now," said the bass voice. "You must be about frozen— and starved, too. Supper's ready as soon as father puts up the team—he always will do that himself. Would you like to go up to your rooms first?"
"Yes, please; we're covered with coal dust!" said Miss Wetherbee.
The tall old woman—she had gray hair and blue eyes, and wore a blue dress and a large white apron—smiled down at her. and led the way up the steep, narrow stairs. In the hall above another stove burned. Four small white bedrooms opened off the hall.
"If you'll leave your doors open you'll be plenty warm," said Mrs. Bassett. "There's nobody else up here. Father an' I sleep downstairs. You'll find warm water in your pitchers." She hesitated a moment at the door of the boy's room after lighting his candle. "Can I help you, Gregory?" she asked.
"No," said Gregory, shyly.
Before they were ready there was a clatter at the door below, and it opened to let in a great waft of cold air and a cheerful shout and stamping of feet and a scurrying, barking dog. Mr. Bassett's loud voice filled the house. They went down to find him standing before the fire—a short, broad man with a red face, a bush of white beard and hair, and merry eyes.
"Father Christmas!" cried Miss Wetherbee.
"That's me!" he shouted, jovially. "Got my red suit an' pack in the next room! Come—draw up, folks, and eat a bite. Get away, Towser! He won't bite, sonny; he just wants to see what you look like. Young lady, you sit here, by me—I always like to get next to the pretty girls! Son, this is your place, t'other side of me. Well, mother! ain't we going to eat to-night?"
MRS. BASSETT came in from the kitchen with a smoking dish in her hands.
"Sit down, all. Stop your nonsense, father," she said, indulgently. The merry old man seemed like a boy beside her, and Gregory contemplated him solemnly. Gregory had washed his hands and his face as far as the ears. His wrists and neck still showed the grime of the journey. His dark eyes blinked. He was so fascinated by the appearance and conversation of Mr. Bassett that he had forgotten his self-consciousness.
"Well, mother!" said the fanner in a tone of disappointment as he tucked his napkin under his white beard, "is this all you got for us? Guess you forgot you had a boy to provide for, or you wouldn't 'a' skimped us this way. Dear, dear! Son, you'll have to try to make out on this fried chicken—here you are, breast an' drumstick—an' a dozen or so o' them beaten biscuit, an' sort of fill up on preserves—them peaches is pretty fair, or mebbe you'd like the pears better—an' that chocolate cake'll help out a little. This punkin pie's fillin', too, an' about a plateful of them cookies won't come amiss. Well, we mustn't be too hard on mother—she means well, an' it's good enough what there is of it—or, as ye might say, there's enough, such as it is—hey?"
At this stroke of wit Gregory, with his mouth full of chicken, laughed outright and nearly choked. It was the first time Miss Wetherbee had heard him laugh.
Mrs. Bassett said placidly:
"Well, I've raised six boys, but I've about given up this one," nodding at her husband. "I guess he'll never grow up."
"Never you mind," said Mr. Bassett, "I've got somebody to hang up my stockin' with now. Me an' Towser have had a pretty lonesome time of it lately, bein' the only young things round the farm, unless you count the live stock. But cheer up, Towser! there's three of us now!"
The dog, a shaggy-haired terrier, looked up at Mr. Bassett and thumped the floor heavily with his tail. Hearing his name, he sat up solemnly, with his fore-paws in the air. Mr. Bassett put a bit of biscuit on his nose and counted: "One—two—three—go!" The dog tossed the biscuit up, caught it in his mouth, and swallowed it. Gregory laughed again.
MRS. BASSETT watched him with her calm blue eyes. Turning to Miss Wetherbee, she said in her deep voice:
"It didn't seem as if we could go through another Christmas without a boy in the house. When you've had six clattering an' whistling about, in an' out, mother this an' mother that, you just can't settle down to live in an empty house. The last one was married a year ago an' went to California. That's the worst of it, they all live so far away. I've got grandchildren, but I scarcely ever see 'em. And this year, it so happens, that not one of 'em could come. I'm obliged to you for bringin' Gregory to us. It's a long journey. You're younger than I thought you would be. Why, you ain't but a girl yourself!"
"Well, mother what's the harm of that?" chirruped Mr. Bassett. "I like her all the better for it. Give us another cup of coffee. And I guess Gregory'll take another glass of milk. Have some more cake, son?"
Gregory shook his head. He had eaten his fill. The warmth of the room after the long ride overcame him. His eyelids fluttered drowsily. Now and then he opened his eyes and fixed them on Mr. Bassett, who filled and lit a slimy dark pipe and chattered away about his stock—Jerseys, Orpingtons, the colt, etc.
Finally he got up with a clatter and asked for his lantern. "Always go the rounds myself last thing," he said, knocking the ashes out of his pipe and running his broad, blackened "thumb over its glossy bowl.
"Hello, the kid's asleep!"
Gregory's head was tilted uncomfortably against the back of his chair. He looked younger with the long dark lashes lying on his flushed cheeks. The three looked at him for a moment in silence.
"Nice boy," said Mr. Bassett.
"So are all boys," said Mrs. Bassett calmly, rising. "I never see a boy that wasn't nice if you treated him right. Now we must get him to bed. He's tired out. Come, Gregory!"
"Don't forget to hang up your stockin', son!" called Mr. Bassett, putting on his furry coat.
Gregory stumbled sleepily up the stairs and Miss Wetherbee helped him undress, and fastened a stocking to the foot of his bed. By this time his dark eyes were wide open.
"Do you want anything else?" she asked.
"Shall I blow out your candle?"
"No—I'll blow it out."
"Will you kiss me good night, Gregory?"
He kissed her cheek awkwardly, his slender body rigid against her arm.
Mrs. Bassett came to the door and said gently: "Good night, Gregory."
"Good night," he answered.
THEN they went downstairs, and Miss Wetherbee helped Mrs. Bassett to clear the table and wash the dishes.
"I have a girl to help me, but she's gone home for Christmas. I'll be bound you've missed your holiday coming up with the boy. It was good of you," said Mrs. Bassett. "How did you happen to do it?"
Miss Wetherbee explained, and they talked about her work and the children. She told all she knew about Gregory. Mr. Bassett came in and listened, filling his pipe again.
"Think of all those poor kids," he said, shaking his white head sadly. "I hope they get good homes. I hope this 'un will be contented here."
"Why shouldn't he?" asked Mrs. Bassett. "We've done well by our own, and I guess we'll do well by him. He'll have as good schooling an' care as they had," she explained this to Miss Wetherbee, "an' we calculate to leave him part o' the farm an' stock. There's no reason he shouldn't be well off."
"It seems to me he's very fortunate," said Miss Wetherbee.
Then she mentioned rather diffidently the formal inquiries that she would have to make—simply as a matter of record—of the minister and one or two others.
"Of course," said Mrs. Bassett promptly. "It's a good thing you're careful. There are people in the world, I guess, that ain't above takin' advantage of a helpless child. We'll all go down to church in the mornin', an' you can speak to our minister—he's known us twenty years. The doctor'll likely be there too, an' Lawyer Holcomb. They'll give us a good enough character, eh, father?" And she smiled proudly at her husband.
"Yes, yes, we ain't committed no hangin' offenses so fur," boomed the old man, cheerfully. "Never can tell, though. I had an uncle once went to jail for beatin' his wife. Don't know as I blame him, though. They're terrible aggravatin' sometimes, the wimmen are. I never dared tackle you, though, mother. I guess you could lick me, hey?"
When the kitchen was in immaculate order again, Mrs. Bassett opened a door off the living room.
"We've got a few things here for the boy," she said, lighting a lamp.
ON the floor was a long red sled, and on it lay a pair of skates. On the white coverlet of the bed were displayed a large pocketknife, an air gun, a copy of "Robinson Crusoe," a long tin horn, a pair of fur gloves, a red sweater, a mouth organ, and a new hatchet.
"I know what boys like," said Mrs. Bassett. "Then here's a lot o' little things for his stockin', an' some candy animals an' some o' them long candy canes. Now if he's asleep we might put these round his bed. There's nothin' like wakin' up Christmas mornin' in the dim, you know!"
But Gregory was not asleep. His candle was out, the moonlight poured through the dormer windows. He answered Miss Wetherbee's soft call.
"Try to go to sleep—it's late," she said.
"All right," he answered.
"Are you warm enough?"
"Do you want a drink of water or anything?"
She sat down a moment on the side of his bed.
"Gregory, I think you'll be happy here. I think you're a lucky boy. They're such nice people!"
He did not answer, but moved restlessly in the strange bed.
Miss Wetherbee went downstairs and sat before the fire for a little while, talking to the Bassetts.
"He's very shy," she said of Gregory. "I wonder what he's thinking about. He's so tired and yet he lies awake there."
"Natural enough—did you never see a cat in a strange house?" said Mrs. Bassett's deep voice. "Of course he's uneasy. He'll get used to us fast enough."
"I do hope you'll like him," Miss Wetherbee sighed. "Perhaps he's uneasy about that. Of course if you should want to send him back—"
"Not likely," almost snapped Mrs. Bassett. "He's my boy. Send him back! Take him in and then send him back as if he was a package of goods that didn't suit! I wonder at people! A boy's a boy, and, of course, he gives some trouble. So you think that's what's keeping him from his sleep. Poor innocent!"
She got up abruptly, as though disliking this show of feeling, and began to wind the clock. Mr. Bassett made a sorrowful noise, hanging his bushy white head.
"Perhaps he's asleep now," said Miss Wetherbee.
THIS time there was no answer when she spoke his name. The gifts were brought up the stairs and handed to her, and she arranged them round his bed, and filled the stocking, sticking the candy canes in at the top. Her face was bright when she came out, and said good night to the Bassetts.
"He will be happy when he wakes," she said.
Soon the house was quiet, except for the loud ticking of the clock downstairs and the low voices of the farmer and his wife as they moved about in their bed-room. Then the voices ceased. Miss Wetherbee from her bed could look out her open window over the white hillsides in all the solemn glory of the moon. The air was inexpressibly pure and sweet. A cow lowed sleepily near by, the dog snored by the stove below, the clock ticked, there were little creaks and snappings in the old wood of the farmhouse.
At home now the big hall was cleared for the dance. The violins were playing her waltz—their waltz, and he perhaps was dancing with some one else, or perhaps was thinking of her. No matter, she was glad she had done it. Other days would come and go, and this day would be marked with a white stone.
A long sigh came from the little room across the hall. Her last thought as she drifted off to sleep was of the child there, and she smiled.
Something half waked her in the twilight before the dawn—a fluttering, piping note, as of an ecstatic bird—instantly stilled again.
When she really woke, the sun, just risen, was streaming in her window. She looked out upon a wide valley, white and golden pink in the sunrise. A cheerful noise came from the farm buildings across the yard, the animals were all afoot. The stove rattled loudly below stairs. The dog barked. The door opened and shut with a loud slam.
She saw Mr. Bassett, his white hair like an aureole in the sun under his fur cap. He was walking toward the barn, and the shaggy dog ran, barking, in circles about him. Mr. Bassett had Gregory by the hand. The boy was wearing the red sweater and the fur gloves, and dragging the shining sled.
MISS WETHERBEE saw his upturned face. His cheeks were red and his eyes shone.
She put her bead out of the window and cried: "Merry Christmas!"
They looked round. When Gregory saw her he jumped up and down in the snow and waved both arms over bis head. He shouted loudly. His voice rang out full and free, with all the strength of his lungs. Joyous it rang and echoed back again from the snowy slopes.