A Christmas Present For A Lady by Myra Kelly

Story type: Literature

It was the week before Christmas, and the First-Reader Class had, almost to a man, decided on the gifts to be lavished on “Teacher.” She was quite unprepared for any such observance on the part of her small adherents, for her first study of the roll-book had shown her that its numerous Jacobs, Isidores, and Rachels belonged to a class to which Christmas Day was much as other days. And so she went serenely on her way, all unconscious of the swift and strict relation between her manner and her chances. She was, for instance, the only person in the room who did not know that her criticism of Isidore Belchatosky’s hands and face cost her a tall “three for ten cents” candlestick and a plump box of candy.

But Morris Mogilewsky, whose love for Teacher was far greater than the combined loves of all the other children, had as yet no present to bestow. That his “kind feeling” should be without proof when the lesser loves of Isidore Wishnewsky, Sadie Gonorowsky, and Bertha Binderwitz were taking the tangible but surprising forms which were daily exhibited to his confidential gaze, was more than he could bear. The knowledge saddened all his hours and was the more maddening because it could in no wise be shared by Teacher, who noticed his altered bearing and tried with all sorts of artful beguilements to make him happy and at ease. But her efforts served only to increase his unhappiness and his love. And he loved her! Oh, how he loved her! Since first his dreading eyes had clung for a breath’s space to her “like man’s shoes” and had then crept timidly upward past a black skirt, a “from silk” apron, a red “jumper,” and “from gold” chain to her “light face,” she had been mistress of his heart of hearts. That was more than three months ago. And well he remembered the day!

His mother had washed him horribly, and had taken him into the big, red school-house, so familiar from the outside, but so full of unknown terrors within. After his dusty little shoes had stumbled over the threshold he had passed from ordeal to ordeal until at last he was torn in mute and white-faced despair from his mother’s skirts.

He was then dragged through long halls and up tall stairs by a large boy, who spoke to him disdainfully as “greenie,” and cautioned him as to the laying down softly and taking up gently of those poor dusty shoes, so that his spirit was quite broken and his nerves were all unstrung when he was pushed into a room full of bright sunshine and of children who laughed at his frightened little face. The sunshine smote his timid eyes, the laughter smote his timid heart, and he turned to flee. But the door was shut, the large boy gone, and despair took him for its own.

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Down upon the floor he dropped, and wailed, and wept, and kicked. It was then that he heard, for the first time the voice which now he loved. A hand was forced between his aching body and the floor, and the voice said: “Why, my dear little chap, you mustn’t cry like that. What’s the matter?”

The hand was gentle and the question kind, and these, combined with a faint perfume suggestive of drug stores and barber shops–but nicer than either–made him uncover his hot little face. Kneeling beside him was a lady, and he forced his eyes to that perilous ascent; from shoes to skirt, from skirt to jumper, from jumper to face, they trailed in dread uncertainty, but at the face they stopped. They had found–rest.

Morris allowed himself to be gathered into the lady’s arms and held upon her knee, and when his sobs no longer rent the very foundations of his pink and wide-spread tie, he answered her question in a voice as soft as his eyes, and as gently sad.

“I ain’t so big, und I don’t know where is my mamma.”

So, having cast his troubles on the shoulders of the lady, he had added his throbbing head to the burden, and from that safe retreat had enjoyed his first day at school immensely.

Thereafter he had been the first to arrive every morning, and the last to leave every afternoon; and under the care of Teacher, his liege lady, he had grown in wisdom and love and happiness. But the greatest of these was love. And now, when the other boys and girls were planning surprises and gifts of price for Teacher, his hands were as empty as his heart was full. Appeal to his mother met with denial prompt and energetic.

“For what you go und make, over Christmas, presents? You ain’t no Krisht; you should better have no kind feelings over Krishts, neither; your papa could to have a mad.”

“Teacher ain’t no Krisht,” said Morris stoutly; “all the other fellows buys her presents, und I’m loving mit her too; it’s polite I gives her presents the while I’m got such a kind feeling over her.”

“Well, we ain’t got no money for buy nothings,” said Mrs. Mogilewsky sadly. “No money, und your papa, he has all times a scare he shouldn’t to get no more, the while the boss”–and here followed incomprehensible, but depressing, financial details, until the end of the interview found Morris and his mother sobbing and rocking in one another’s arms. So Morris was helpless, his mother poor, and Teacher all unknowing.

And the great day, the Friday before Christmas came, and the school was, for the first half hour, quite mad. Doors opened suddenly and softly to admit small persons, clad in wondrous ways and bearing wondrous parcels. Room 18, generally so placid and so peaceful, was a howling wilderness full of brightly coloured, quickly changing groups of children, all whispering, all gurgling, and all hiding queer bundles. A newcomer invariably caused a diversion; the assembled multitude, athirst for novelty, fell upon him and clamoured for a glimpse of his bundle and a statement of its price.

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Teacher watched in dumb amaze. What could be the matter with the children, she wondered. They could not have guessed the shrouded something in the corner to be a Christmas-tree. What made them behave so queerly, and why did they look so strange? They seemed to have grown stout in a single night, and Teacher, as she noted this, marvelled greatly. The explanation was simple, though it came in alarming form. The sounds of revelry were pierced by a long, shrill yell, and a pair of agitated legs sprang suddenly into view between two desks. Teacher, rushing to the rescue, noted that the legs formed the unsteady stem of an upturned mushroom of brown flannel and green braid, which she recognized as the outward seeming of her cherished Bertha Binderwitz; and yet, when the desks were forced to disgorge their prey, the legs restored to their normal position were found to support a fat child–and Bertha was best described as “skinny”–in a dress of the Stuart tartan tastefully trimmed with purple. Investigation proved that Bertha’s accumulative taste in dress was an established custom. In nearly all cases the glory of holiday attire was hung upon the solid foundation of every-day clothes as bunting is hung upon a building. The habit was economical of time, and produced a charming embonpoint.

Teacher, too, was more beautiful than ever. Her dress was blue, and “very long down, like a lady,” with bands of silk and scraps of lace distributed with the eye of art. In her hair she wore a bow of what Sadie Gonorowsky, whose father “worked by fancy goods,” described as black “from plush ribbon–costs ten cents.”

Isidore Belchatosky, relenting, was the first to lay tribute before Teacher. He came forward with a sweet smile and a tall candlestick–the candy had gone to its long home–and Teacher, for a moment, could not be made to understand that all that length of bluish-white china was really hers “for keeps.”

“It’s to-morrow holiday,” Isidore assured her; “and we gives you presents, the while we have a kind feeling. Candlesticks could to cost twenty-five cents.”

“It’s a lie. Three for ten,” said a voice in the background, but Teacher hastened to respond to Isidore’s test of her credulity:

“Indeed, they could. This candlestick could have cost fifty cents, and it’s just what I want. It is very good of you to bring me a present.”

“You’re welcome,” said Isidore, retiring; and then, the ice being broken, the First-Reader Class in a body rose to cast its gifts on Teacher’s desk, and its arms around Teacher’s neck.

Nathan Horowitz presented a small cup and saucer; Isidore Applebaum bestowed a large calendar for the year before last; Sadie Gonorowsky brought a basket containing a bottle of perfume, a thimble, and a bright silk handkerchief; Sarah Schrodsky offered a pen-wiper and a yellow celluloid collar-button, and Eva Kidansky gave an elaborate nasal douche, under the pleasing delusion that it was an atomizer.

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Once more sounds of grief reached Teacher’s ears. Rushing again to the rescue, she threw open the door and came upon Woe personified. Eva Gonorowsky, her hair in wildest disarray, her stocking fouled, ungartered, and down-gyved to her ankle, appeared before her teacher. She bore all the marks of Hamlet’s excitement, and many more, including a tear-stained little face and a gilt saucer clasped to a panting breast.

“Eva, my dearest Eva, what’s happened to you now ?” asked Teacher, for the list of ill-chances which had befallen this one of her charges was very long. And Eva’s wail was that a boy, a very big boy, had stolen her golden cup “what I had for you by present,” and had left her only the saucer and her undying love to bestow.

Before Eva’s sobs had quite yielded to Teacher’s arts, Jacob Spitsky pressed forward with a tortoise-shell comb of terrifying aspect and hungry teeth, and an air showing forth a determination to adjust it in its destined place. Teacher meekly bowed her head; Jacob forced his offering into her long-suffering hair, and then retired with the information, “Costs fifteen cents, Teacher,” and the courteous phrase–by etiquette prescribed–“Wish you health to wear it.” He was plainly a hero, and was heard remarking to less favoured admirers that “Teacher’s hair is awful softy, and smells off of perfumery.”

Here a big boy, a very big boy, entered hastily. He did not belong to Room 18, but he had long known Teacher. He had brought her a present; he wished her a Merry Christmas. The present, when produced, proved to be a pretty gold cup, and Eva Gonorowsky, with renewed emotion, recognized the boy as her assailant and the cup as her property. Teacher was dreadfully embarrassed; the boy not at all so. His policy was simple and entire denial, and in this he persevered, even after Eva’s saucer had unmistakably proclaimed its relationship to the cup.

Meanwhile the rush of presentation went steadily on. Other cups and saucers came in wild profusion. The desk was covered with them, and their wrappings of purple tissue paper required a monitor’s whole attention. The soap, too, became urgently perceptible. It was of all sizes, shapes and colours, but of uniform and dreadful power of perfumes Teacher’s eyes filled with tears–of gratitude–as each new piece or box was pressed against her nose, and Teacher’s mind was full of wonder as to what she could ever do with all of it. Bottles of perfume vied with one another and with the all-pervading soap until the air was heavy and breathing grew labourious. But pride swelled the hearts of the assembled multitude. No other Teacher had so many helps to the toilet. None other was so beloved.

Teacher’s aspect was quite changed, and the “blue long down like a lady dress” was almost hidden by the offerings she had received. Jacob’s comb had two massive and bejewelled rivals in the “softy hair.” The front of the dress, where aching or despondent heads were wont to rest, glittered with campaign buttons of American celebrities, beginning with James G. Blaine and extending into modern history as far as Patrick Divver, Admiral Dewey, and Captain Dreyfus. Outside the blue belt was a white one, nearly clean, and bearing in “sure ‘nough golden words” the curt, but stirring, invitation, “Remember the Maine.” Around the neck were three chaplets of beads, wrought by chubby fingers and embodying much love, while the waist-line was further adorned by tiny and beribboned aprons. Truly, it was a day of triumph.

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When the waste-paper basket had been twice filled with wrappings and twice emptied; when order was emerging out of chaos; when the Christmas-tree had been disclosed and its treasures distributed, a timid hand was laid on Teacher’s knee and a plaintive voice whispered, “Say, Teacher, I got something for you;” and Teacher turned quickly to see Morris, her dearest boy charge, with his poor little body showing quite plainly between his shirt-waist buttons and through the gashes he called pockets. This was his ordinary costume, and the funds of the house of Mogilewsky were evidently unequal to an outer layer of finery.

“Now, Morris dear,” said Teacher, “you shouldn’t have troubled to get me a present; you know you and I are such good friends that–“

“Teacher, yiss ma’an,” Morris interrupted, in a bewitching and rising inflection of his soft and plaintive voice. “I know you got a kind feeling by me, and I couldn’t to tell even how I got a kind feeling by you. Only it’s about that kind feeling I should give you a present. I didn’t”–with a glance at the crowded desk–“I didn’t to have no soap nor no perfumery, and my mamma she couldn’t to buy none by the store; but, Teacher, I’m got something awful nice for you by present.”

“And what is it, deary?” asked the already rich and gifted young person. “What is my new present?”

“Teacher, it’s like this: I don’t know; I ain’t so big like I could to know”–and, truly, God pity him! he was passing small–“it ain’t for boys–it’s for ladies. Over yesterday on the night comes my papa to my house, und he gives my mamma the present. Sooner she looks on it, sooner she has a awful glad; in her eyes stands tears, und she says, like that–out of Jewish–‘Thanks,’ un’ she kisses my papa a kiss. Und my papa, how he is polite! he says–out of Jewish too–‘You’re welcome, all right,’ un’ he kisses my mamma a kiss. So my mamma, she sets und looks on the present, und all the time she looks she has a glad over it. Und I didn’t to have no soap, so you could to have the present.”

“But did your mother say I might?”

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“Teacher, no ma’an; she didn’t say like that, und she didn’t to say not like that. She didn’t to know. But it’s for ladies, un’ Ididn’t to have no soap. You could to look on it. It ain’t for boys.”

And here Morris opened a hot little hand and disclosed a tightly folded pinkish paper. As Teacher read it he watched her with eager, furtive eyes, dry and bright, until hers grew suddenly moist, when his promptly followed suit. As she looked down at him, he made his moan once more:

“It’s for ladies, und I didn’t to have no soap.”

“But, Morris, dear,” cried Teacher unsteadily, laughing a little, and yet not far from tears, “this is ever so much nicer than soap–a thousand times better than perfume; and you’re quite right, it is for ladies, and I never had one in all my life before. I am so very thankful.”

“You’re welcome, all right. That’s how my papa says; it’s polite,” said Morris proudly. And proudly he took his place among the very little boys, and loudly he joined in the ensuing song. For the rest of that exciting day he was a shining point of virtue in the rest of that confused class. And at three o’clock he was at Teacher’s desk again, carrying on the conversation as if there had been no interruption.

“Und my mamma,” he said insinuatingly–“she kisses my papa a kiss.”

“Well?” said Teacher.

“Well,” said Morris, “you ain’t never kissed me a kiss, und I seen how you kissed Eva Gonorowsky. I’m loving mit you too. Why don’t you never kiss me a kiss?”

“Perhaps,” suggested Teacher mischievously, “perhaps it ain’t for boys.”

But a glance at her “light face,” with its crown of surprising combs, reassured him.

“Teacher, yiss ma’an; it’s for boys,” he cried as he felt her arms about him, and saw that in her eyes, too, “stands tears.”

“It’s polite you kisses me a kiss over that for ladies’ present.”

Late that night Teacher sat in her pretty room–for she was, unofficially, a greatly pampered young person–and reviewed her treasures. She saw that they were very numerous, very touching, very whimsical, and very precious. But above all the rest she cherished a frayed and pinkish paper, rather crumpled and a little soiled. For it held the love of a man and a woman and a little child, and the magic of a home, for Morris Mogilewsky’s Christmas present for ladies was the receipt for a month’s rent for a room on the top floor of a Monroe Street tenement.

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