Story type: Literature
The clock in the West Side Boys’ Lodging-house ticked out the seconds of Christmas eve as slowly and methodically as if six fat turkeys were not sizzling in the basement kitchen against the morrow’s spread, and as if two-score boys were not racking their brains to guess what kind of pies would go with them. Out on the avenue the shopkeepers were barring doors and windows, and shouting “Merry Christmas!” to one another across the street as they hurried to get home. The drays ran over the pavement with muffled sounds; winter had set in with a heavy snow-storm. In the big hall the monotonous click of checkers on the board kept step with the clock. The smothered exclamations of the boys at some unexpected, bold stroke, and the scratching of a little fellow’s pencil on a slate, trying to figure out how long it was yet till the big dinner, were the only sounds that broke the quiet of the room. The superintendent dozed behind his desk.
A door at the end of the hall creaked, and a head with a shock of weather-beaten hair was stuck cautiously through the opening.
“Tom!” it said in a stage-whisper. “Hi, Tom! Come up an’ git on ter de lay of de Kid.”
A bigger boy in a jumper, who had been lounging on two chairs by the group of checker players, sat up and looked toward the door. Something in the energetic toss of the head there aroused his instant curiosity, and he started across the room. After a brief whispered conference the door closed upon the two, and silence fell once more on the hall.
They had been gone but a little while when they came back in haste. The big boy shut the door softly behind him and set his back against it.
“Fellers,” he said, “what d’ye t’ink? I’m blamed if de Kid ain’t gone an’ hung up his sock fer Chris’mas!”
The checkers dropped, and the pencil ceased scratching on the slate, in breathless suspense.
“Come up an’ see,” said Tom, briefly, and led the way.
The whole band followed on tiptoe. At the foot of the stairs their leader halted.
“Yer don’t make no noise,” he said, with a menacing gesture. “You, Savoy!”–to one in a patched shirt and with a mischievous twinkle,–“you don’t come none o’ yer monkey-shines. If you scare de Kid you’ll get it in de neck, see!”
With this admonition they stole upstairs. In the last cot of the double tier of bunks a boy much smaller than the rest slept, snugly tucked in the blankets. A tangled curl of yellow hair strayed over his baby face. Hitched to the bedpost was a poor, worn little stocking, arranged with much care so that Santa Claus should have as little trouble in filling it as possible. The edge of a hole in the knee had been drawn together and tied with a string to prevent anything falling out. The boys looked on in amazed silence. Even Savoy was dumb.
Little Willie, or, as he was affectionately dubbed by the boys, “the Kid,” was a waif who had drifted in among them some months before. Except that his mother was in the hospital, nothing was known about him, which was regular and according to the rule of the house. Not as much was known about most of its patrons; few of them knew more themselves, or cared to remember. Santa Claus had never been anything to them but a fake to make the colored supplements sell. The revelation of the Kid’s simple faith struck them with a kind of awe. They sneaked quietly downstairs.
“Fellers,” said Tom, when they were all together again in the big room,–by virtue of his length, which had given him the nickname of “Stretch,” he was the speaker on all important occasions,–“ye seen it yerself. Santy Claus is a-comin’ to this here joint to-night. I wouldn’t ‘a’ believed it. I ain’t never had no dealin’s wid de ole guy. He kinder forgot I was around, I guess. But de Kid says he is a-comin’ to-night, an’ what de Kid says goes.”
Then he looked round expectantly. Two of the boys, “Gimpy” and Lem, were conferring aside in an undertone. Presently Gimpy, who limped, as his name indicated, spoke up.
“Lem says, says he–“
“Gimpy, you chump! you’ll address de chairman,” interrupted Tom, with severe dignity, “or you’ll get yer jaw broke, if yer leg is short, see!”
“Cut it out, Stretch,” was Gimpy’s irreverent answer. “This here ain’t no regular meetin’, an’ we ain’t goin’ to have none o’ yer rot. Lem he says, says he, let’s break de bank an’ fill de Kid’s sock. He won’t know but it wuz ole Santy done it.”
A yell of approval greeted the suggestion. The chairman, bound to exercise the functions of office in season and out of season, while they lasted, thumped the table.
“It is regular motioned an’ carried,” he announced, “that we break de bank fer de Kid’s Chris’mas. Come on, boys!”
The bank was run by the house, with the superintendent as paying teller. He had to be consulted, particularly as it was past banking hours; but the affair having been succinctly put before him by a committee, of which Lem and Gimpy and Stretch were the talking members, he readily consented to a reopening of business for a scrutiny of the various accounts which represented the boys’ earnings at selling papers and blacking boots, minus the cost of their keep and of sundry surreptitious flings at “craps” in secret corners. The inquiry developed an available surplus of three dollars and fifty cents. Savoy alone had no account; the run of craps had recently gone heavily against him. But in consideration of the season, the house voted a credit of twenty-five cents to him. The announcement was received with cheers. There was an immediate rush for the store, which was delayed only a few minutes by the necessity of Gimpy and Lem stopping on the stairs to “thump” one another as the expression of their entire satisfaction.
The procession that returned to the lodging-house later on, after wearing out the patience of several belated storekeepers, might have been the very Santa’s supply-train itself. It signalized its advent by a variety of discordant noises, which were smothered on the stairs by Stretch, with much personal violence, lest they wake the Kid out of season. With boots in hand and bated breath, the midnight band stole up to the dormitory and looked in. All was safe. The Kid was dreaming, and smiled in his sleep. The report roused a passing suspicion that he was faking, and Savarese was for pinching his toe to find out. As this would inevitably result in disclosure, Savarese and his proposal were scornfully sat upon. Gimpy supplied the popular explanation.
“He’s a-dreamin’ that Santy Claus has come,” he said, carefully working a base-ball bat past the tender spot in the stocking.
“Hully Gee!” commented Shorty, balancing a drum with care on the end of it, “I’m thinkin’ he ain’t far out. Looks’s ef de hull shop’d come along.”
It did when it was all in place. A trumpet and a gun that had made vain and perilous efforts to join the bat in the stocking leaned against the bed in expectant attitudes. A picture-book with a pink Bengal tiger and a green bear on the cover peeped over the pillow, and the bedposts and rail were festooned with candy and marbles in bags. An express-wagon with a high seat was stabled in the gangway. It carried a load of fir branches that left no doubt from whose livery it hailed. The last touch was supplied by Savoy in the shape of a monkey on a yellow stick, that was not in the official bill of lading.
“I swiped it fer de Kid,” he said briefly in explanation.
When it was all done the boys turned in, but not to sleep. It was long past midnight before the deep and regular breathing from the beds proclaimed that the last had succumbed.
The early dawn was tinging the frosty window panes with red when from the Kid’s cot there came a shriek that roused the house with a start of very genuine surprise.
“Hello!” shouted Stretch, sitting up with a jerk and rubbing his eyes. “Yes, sir! in a minute. Hello, Kid, what to–“
The Kid was standing barefooted in the passageway, with a base-ball bat in one hand and a trumpet and a pair of drumsticks in the other, viewing with shining eyes the wagon and its cargo, the gun and all the rest. From every cot necks were stretched, and grinning faces watched the show. In the excess of his joy the Kid let out a blast on the trumpet that fairly shook the building. As if it were a signal, the boys jumped out of bed and danced a breakdown about him in their shirt-tails, even Gimpy joining in.
“Holy Moses!” said Stretch, looking down, “if Santy Claus ain’t been here an’ forgot his hull kit, I’m blamed!”