The Old Man’s Christmas by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Story type: Literature
Though there was wrong on both sides, they never would have separated had it not been for the old man.
He was Ben’s father, and Ben was an only child–a spoiled, selfish, high-tempered lad, who had grown up with the idea that his father, Anson English, or the “old man,” as his dutiful son called him, was much richer than he really was, and that he had no need of any personal effort–any object in life, aside from the pursuit of pleasure.
Ben’s mother had died when he was fifteen years old and his father had never married again. Yet it was not any allegiance to her memory which had kept Anson English from a second marriage. He remembered her, to be sure, and scarcely a day passed without his mentioning her. But after her death, as during her weary life, he used her name as a synonym for all that was undesirable. He compared everybody to “‘Liz’beth,” and always to her disadvantage. He had a word of praise and encouragement and approval for every housewife in the neighborhood except–his own. Whatever went wrong, in doors or out, “‘Liz’beth” was the direct or indirect cause.
During the first five years of her married life, Elizabeth made strenuous exertions to please her husband. She wept her sweet eyes dim over her repeated failures. Then she found that she had been attempting an impossible labor, and grew passively indifferent–an indifference which lasted until death kindly released her.
Elizabeth had been a tidy housekeeper during these first years.
“You’d scrub and scour a man out ‘er house an’ home!” was all the praise her husband gave her for her order and cleanliness; and to his neighbors, to whom he was fond of paying informal visits, he would often say–“Liz’beth’s at it again–sweepin’ and cleanin’, so I cleared out. Never see her without out a broom in her hand. I’d a good deal rather have a little more dirt, than so much tearin’ ’round. ‘Liz’beth tires me, with her ways.”
Yet, when in the indifference of despair which seized upon Elizabeth before her death, she allowed her house to look after itself, Anson was no better satisfied.
“I’ve come over to find a place to set down,” he would tell his neighbors. “‘Liz’beth’s let things ‘cumulate, till the house is a sight to see–she’s gettin’ dreadful slack, somehow. A man likes order when he goes home to rest from all his cares.”
Even when she died she displeased him by choosing a busy season for the occasion.
“Just like ‘Liz’beth, to die in hayin’ time,” he said. “Everything got to stop–hay spoilin’–men idle. Women never seem to have no system about work matters–no power of plannin’ things, to make it convenient like for men folks.”
Yet after she was gone, Anson found how much help she had been to him, how wonderful her economy had been, how light her expenditures. He knew he could never find any one to replace her, in these respects, and as money considerations were the main ones in his mind he believed it would be the better economy to remain a widower, and hire his work done.
So during those most critical years of Ben’s life, he had been without a woman’s guidance or care.
At eighteen he was all that arrogance, conceit, selfishness, and high temper could render him. Yet he was a favorite with the fair sex for all that, as he had a manly figure, and a warm, caressing way when he chose, that won their admiration and pleased their vanity.
Anson English favored early marriages, and began to think it would be better all around if Ben should bring a wife home.
She could do the work better than hired help, and keep the money all in the family. And Ben would not waste his time and means on half a dozen, as he was now doing, but would stay at home, no doubt, and settle down into a sensible, practical business man. Yes, Ben ought to marry, and his father told him so.
“I’m already thinking of it,” he said. He had expected opposition from his father, and was surprised at his suggestion.
“Yes,” continued the “old man,” as Ben already designated him, “I’d like to see you settle down before you’re twenty-one. But you want to make a good choice. There’s Abby Wilson, now. She’s got the muscle of a man, and ain’t afraid of anything. And her father has a fine property–a growin’ property. Abby’ll make a man a good, vigorous helpmate, and she’ll bring him money in time. You’d better shine up to Abby, Ben.”
Ben gave a contemptuous laugh. “I’d as soon marry a dressed-up boy,” he said. “She’s more like a boy than a girl in her looks and in her ways. I have other plans in my mind, father, more to my taste. I mean to marry Edith Gilman, if she’ll take me, and I think she will.”
A dark frown contracted Anson English’s brow.
“Edith Gilman?” he repeated; “why, that puny schoolma’m, with her baby face and weak voice, ‘ll never help you to get a livin’, Ben. What are you thinkin’ of?”
“Of love, father, I guess. I love her, and that’s all there is of it. And I shall marry her, if she’ll take me, and you can like it or lump it, as you please. She’s a good girl, and if she’s treated well all round, she’ll make a good wife, and she’s the only woman that can put the check rein on me, when I get in my tempers. She’ll make a man of me yet.”
“But she can’t work,” insisted the father. “She looks as white and puny as ‘Liz’beth did the year she died.”
“She’s overworked in the school-room. I mean to take her home, and give her a rest. I don’t ask any woman to marry me and be my drudge. I expect my wife will keep help.”
The old man groaned aloud. Ben’s ideas were positively ruinous. If he married this girl, it would add to, not decrease, the family expenses. But it was useless to oppose. Ben would do as he pleased, the old man saw that plainly, and he might as well submit.
He did submit, and Ben married Edith on his twenty-first birthday, and brought her home.
Edith was a quiet little creature, with a soft voice, and a pale, sweet face, and frail figure. She came up to Anson English when she entered the house, and put her hands timidly upon his arms.
“I want you to love me,” she said; “I have had no father or mother since I can remember. I want to call you father, and I want to make you happy if I can.”
“Well, I’ll tell you how,” the old man retorted. “Discharge the hired girl, and make good bread. That’ll make me happy,”–and he laughed harshly.
Edith shrank from his rough words, so void of the sympathy and love she longed for. But she discharged the girl within a week, and tried to make good bread. It was not a success, however, and the old man was not slow to express his dissatisfaction. Edith left the table in tears.
“Another dribbler–‘Liz’beth was always cryin’ just that way over every little thing,” sighed the old man.
Edith eventually conquered the difficulties of bread making, and became a famous cook. But she did not please her husband’s father any the better by this achievement.
“You’re always a-fixin’ up some new sort of trash for the table,” he said to her one day. “Dessert is it, you call it? ‘Nuff to make a man’s patience desert him to see sugar and flour wasted so. ‘Liz’beth liked your fancy cooking, but I cured her of it.”
“Yes, and you killed her too,” cried Edith, for the first time since her marriage losing control of her temper and answering back. “Everybody says you worried her into the grave. But you won’t succeed so well with me. I will live just to defy you, if no more. And I’ll show you that I’ll not bear everything, too.”
It was all over in a moment, and it was not repeated. Indeed, Edith was kinder and gentler and more submissive in her manner after that for days, as sweet natures always are when they have once broken over the rules which govern their lives.
Yet the old man always spoke of Edith as a virago after that.
“She’s worse’n ‘Liz’beth,” he said, “and she had a temper of her own at times that would just singe things.”
Ben passed most of his evenings and a good part of his days at the village “store.” He came home the worse for drink occasionally, and he was absolutely indifferent to all the work and care of the farm and family.
“She’s just like ‘Liz’beth,” the old man said to his neighbors; “she don’t make home entertainin’ for her husband. But Ben isn’t balanced like me, and he goes wrong. He’s excitable. I never was. The right kind of a woman could keep him at home.”
After a child came to them matters seemed to mend for a time. So long as the infant lay pink and helpless in its mother’s arms or in its crib, it was a bond to unite them all.
So soon as it began to be an active child, with naughty ways which needed correction, it was another element of discord.
The old man did not think Edith capable of controlling the child, and Ben was hasty and harsh, and he did not like to hear the baby cry. So he stayed more and more at the store, and was an object of fear to the child and of reproach to the mother when he did return.
They drifted farther apart, and the old man constantly widened the breach between them. They had been married six years, and the baby girl was four years old, when Ben struck Edith a blow, one day, and told her to take her child and leave the house.
In less than an hour she had gone, no one knew whither.
“She’ll come back, more’s the pity,” the old man said. “‘Liz’beth, she started off to leave me once, but she concluded to come back and try it over again.”
But Edith did not come back. Months afterward they heard of her in a distant part of the State teaching school and supporting her child.
Ben applied for a divorce on the plea of desertion. Edith never appeared against him, and he obtained it.
One year from the time Edith left him, he married Abby Wilson. She had grown into a voluptuous though coarse maturity, and was dashing in dress and manner. Her father had recently died, leaving her a fine property. She had always coveted Ben, and did not delay the nuptials from any sense of delicacy, but rather hastened the hour which should make him legally her own.
The old man was highly pleased at the turn affairs had taken. After all these years Ben was united to the woman he had chosen for him so long ago, and now surely Ben would settle down, and take the care off his shoulders–shoulders which were beginning to feel the weight of years of labor. In truth, the old man was breaking down.
He fell ill of a low fever soon after Ben’s second marriage, and when he rose from his bed he seemed to have grown ten years older. He was more childish in his fault-finding, and more irritable than ever before, and this new wife of Ben’s had little patience with him. She was not at all like Edith. She bullied him, and frightened him into silence when he began to find fault with her extravagances. For she was extravagant–there was no denying that. She cared only for show and outward appearance. She neglected her home duties, and often left the old man to prepare his own food, while she and Ben dashed over the country, or through the neighboring villages, behind the blooded span she had insisted upon his purchasing soon after their marriage.
Poor old Anson English! He was nearing his sixtieth year now, and he looked and seemed much older. Ben was his only earthly tie, and the hope and stay of his old age. And he was but a reed–a reed. His father saw that at last. Ben would never develop into a practical business man. He was unstable, lazy, and selfish. And this new wife seemed to encourage him in every extravagant folly, instead of restraining him as the old man had hoped. And someway Ben had never been the same since Edith went away. He had been none too good or kind to his father before that; but since then–well, when she went, it seemed to Anson that she took with her whatever of gentleness or kindness lurked in Ben’s nature, and left only its brutality and selfishness.
And strive as he would to banish the feeling, the old man missed the child.
Ah, no! he was not happy in this new state of affairs, which he had so rejoiced over at the first. He grew very old during the next two years. Like all men who worry the lives of women in the domestic circle, he was cowardly at heart. And Ben’s new wife frightened him into silent submission by her masculine assumption of authority and her loud voice and well-defined muscle.
He spoke little at home now, but he still paid frequent visits to his neighbors, and he remained firm in the Adam-like idea that Elizabeth had been the root of all evil in his life.
“Yes, Ben’s letting the place run down pretty bad,” he confessed to a neighbor who had broached the subject. “Ben’s early trainin’ wasn’t right. ‘Liz’beth, she let him do ’bout as he pleased. Liz’beth never had no notions of how a boy should be trained. He’d a’ come out all right if I’d a’ managed him from the start.”
Strange to say, he never was known to speak one disparaging word of Abby, Ben’s second wife. Her harshness and neglect were matters of common discussion in the neighborhood, but the old man, who had been so bitter and unjust toward his own wife and Edith, seemed to feel a curious respect for this Amazon who had subjugated him. Or, perhaps, he remembered how eager he had been for the marriage, and his pride kept him silent. Certain it is that he bore her neglect, and later her abuse, with no word of complaint, and even spoke of her sometimes with praise.
“She’s a brave one, Abby is,” he would say. “She ain’t afraid of nothin’ or nobody. Ef she’d a’ been a man, she’d a’ made a noise in the world.”
Ben drank more and more, and Abby dressed and drove in like ratio. The farm ran down, and debts accumulated–debts which Abby refused to pay with her money, and the old man saw the savings of a long life of labor squandered in folly and vice.
People said it was turning his brain, for he talked constantly of his poverty, often walking the streets in animated converse with himself. And at length he fell ill again, and was wildly delirious for weeks. It was a high fever; and when it left him, he was totally blind, and quite helpless.
He needed constant care and attention. He could not be left alone even for an hour; Ben was seldom at home, and Abby rebelled at the confinement and restraint it imposed upon her. Hired help refused to take the burden of the care of the troublesome old man without increased wages, and Ben could not and Abby would not incur this added expense. Servants gave warning; Ben drank more deeply and prolonged his absences from home, and Abby finally carried out a resolve which had at first caused even her hard heart some twinges.
She made an application to the keeper of the County Poor to admit her husband’s father to the department of the incurably insane, which was adjacent to the Poor House.
“He’s crazy,” she said, “just as crazy as can be. We can’t do anything with him. He needs a strong man to look after him. Ben’s never at home, and he has everything to look after any way, and can’t be broken of his rest, and the old man talks and cries half the night. I’m not able to take care of him–I seem to be breaking down myself, with all I have to endure, and besides it isn’t safe to have him in the house. I think he’s getting worse all the time. He’d be better off, and we all would, if he was in the care of the county.”
The authorities looked into the matter, and found that at least a portion of the lady’s statements were true. It was quite evident that the old man would be better off in the County House than he was in the home of his only son. So he was taken away, and Abby had her freedom at last.
“We are going to take you where you will have medical treatment and care; it is your daughter’s request,” they told him in answer to his trembling queries.
“Oh! yes, yes–Abby thinks I’ll get my sight back, I suppose, if I’m doctored up. Well, maybe so, but I’m pooty old–pooty old for the doctors to patch up. But Abby has a powerful mind to plan things–a powerful mind. ‘Liz’beth never would a’ thought of sending me away–‘Liz’beth was so easy like. Abby ought to a’ been a man, she had. She’d a’ flung things.”
So he babbled on as they carried him to the Poor House.
It was November, and the holidays were close at hand. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. Abby meant to enjoy them, and invited all her relatives to a time of general feasting and merrymaking.
“I feel as if a great nightmare were lifted off my heart and brain, now the old man has gone,” she said. “He will be so much better off, and get so much more skillful treatment, you know, in a place like that. They are very kind in that institution, and so clean and nice, and he will have plenty of company to keep him from being lonesome. We have been all through it, during the last year, or else we never should have sent him there. It is really an excellent home for him.”
It was just a year later when a delicate, sweet-faced woman was shown through the wards of that “excellent home” for the poor and unfortunate. She walked with nervous haste, and her eyes glanced from room to room, and from face to face, as if seeking, yet dreading, some object.
Presently the attendant pushed open a partly closed door, which led into a small, close room, ventilated only by one high, narrow window.
“This is the room, I believe,” he said, and the lady stepped in–and paused. The air was close and impure, and almost stifled her.
On the opposite side of the room she saw a large crib with a cover or lid which could be closed and locked when necessary, but which was raised now. In this crib, upon a hard mattress and soiled pillow, lay the emaciated form of an old man. He turned his sightless eyes toward the door as he heard the sound of footsteps.
“What is wanted?” he asked, feebly; “does anybody want me? Has anybody come for me?”
“O father, father!” cried the woman in a voice choked with sobs. “Don’t you know me? It is I–and I have come to take you away–to take you away home with me. Will you go?”
A glow of delight shone over the old man’s wasted face, like the last rays of the sunlight over a winter landscape. He half arose upon his elbow, and leaned forward as if trying to see the speaker.
“Why, it’s Abby, it’s Abby, come at last!” he said. “You called me father, didn’t you–and you was crying, and it made your voice sound kind o’ strange and broken like. But you must be Abby come to take me home. Oh, I thought you’d come at last, Abby. It seems a long, long time since I came away. And you’ve never been to see me; no, nor Ben, either. But you’ve come at last, Abby, you’ve come at last. Let me take your hand, daughter, for I can’t see yet. They don’t seem to help me here as you thought they would. And I’m so hungry, Abby!–do you think you could manage to get the old man a little something to eat before we start home?”
The woman had grown paler and paler as she listened to these words which the old man poured out in eager haste, like one whose thoughts and feelings long pent within himself for want of a listener now rushed forth pell-mell into speech.
“He does not know me,” she whispered–“he does not know me. Well, I will not undeceive him now. He is happy in this delusion,–let him keep it for the present.” Then, aloud, she said:
“You are hungry, father? do you not have food enough here?”
“Oh, I have my share, Abby; I have my share. But my appetite’s varying, and sometimes when they bring it I can’t eat it, and then when I want it most I can’t get it. I’m one of many here, and I’ve been so lonesome, Abby. But then I knew you’d come for me all in good time. And, Ben–how is Ben, Abby? does he want to see his old father again? Ah, Ben was a nice little boy–a nice little boy. But ‘Liz’beth wan’t no kind of a mother for such a high-strung lad. And then he hadn’t oughter married that sickly sort of girl that ran off an’ left him. Sakes alive! what a temper she had! It sort of broke Ben down living with her as long as he did. But he remembers his old father at last, don’t he? And he wants to have me home to die. Ah, Ben has a good heart after all!”
“I must not tell him; I must not,” whispered the woman as she listened. “Bitter to me as his deception is, I must let him remain in it.” Then with a sudden bracing of the nerves, and a visible effort, she said:
“Ben is away from home now, father. He will not be there to meet you, but you’ll not mind that: I shall make you so comfortable; I want you at home during the holidays.”
So he went out from the horror and loneliness and gloom of the Poor House, to the comfortable home which Edith had provided for herself and child in the years since she left Ben. Eva was a precocious little maiden of nine now, wise and womanly beyond her years. So soon as Edith learned of the old man’s desolate fate, she resolved to bring him home. Eva could attend to his wants during the day, while she was in the school-room, and the interrupted studies could be pursued in the evening. Or she could hire assistance if he were as troublesome as report had said. He had been a harsh old man, and had helped to widen the breach between her and Ben. But he was the father of the man she had married, and she could not let him die in the Poor House. So she brought him home.
“Don’t I hear a child’s voice?” he asked, as Eva came dancing out to greet them. “Who is it, Abby?”
“Why, it’s your own little granddaughter Eva,” cried the child, clasping his withered hand in her two soft palms. “Don’t you remember me? Mamma says you used to love me.”
Edith’s heart stood still. Surely now he would understand. And would he be angry and harsh with her?
The old man’s face lighted.
“Ah, I see, I see,” he said musingly, “Abby and Ben have taken the little one home. It must be Edith is dead. She was such a puny thing.” Then turning his face to the woman who was guiding his faltering footsteps, he asked:
“And is Edith dead?”
“Yes,” she answered quietly, “Edith is dead.” And added “to you,” in a whisper.
“He must never be undeceived,” she thought. “It would be too severe a blow; the truth might kill him.” And to Eva she said a little later:
“Dear, your grandfather is very ill, and not quite right in his mind. He thinks my name is Abby, and you must not correct him or dispute any strange thing he may say.”
The journey left the old man very weak indeed, but he talked almost constantly.
“It was so good of you, Abby, to take the little girl home,” he would say. “But I knowed you had a good heart, and Ben too. He was fond of his old father, spite of his rough ways. It was pooty lonesome–pooty lonesome, off there at that place–that Institute where you sent me. Some folks said it was the Poor House, but I knew better–I knew better. Ben and you would never send me there. I s’pose it was a good place, but they had too many patients. Sometimes I was cold and hungry and all alone for hours and hours. Oh, it’s good to be back home with you–you, Abby–but why don’t Ben come?”
“Ben is away, father.”
“Oh, yes, yes. Business, I suppose. Ben’ll turn out all right at last. I always thought so. After he sort o’ outgrows ‘Liz’beth’s trainin’. But I hope he’ll get back for Christmas. Somehow I’ve been thinkin’ lately ’bout the Christmas days when Ben was a little boy. We allus put something in his stockin’ that night, no matter if twan’t no more’n a sweet cake. Sakes alive! how he prized things he found in his stockin’ Christmas mornin’s! I got to thinkin’ ’bout it all last Christmas out at that there Institute, and I just laid an’ bawled like a baby, I was so home-sick like. Seemed to me if I could just see Ben’s face again, I’d ask nothin’ more of Heaven. And now I think if I can just hear his voice again, it’ll be enough. Do you think he’ll git home for Christmas, Abby?”
“I hope so, dear father, but I cannot tell.” Edith answered softly, her heart seeming to break in her breast as she listened.
She knew very well that Ben would not go across the street to see the father he had deserted, and that she could never send for him to come to her house, to pay even a last visit of mercy.
“What will I do–how can I explain to him, when Christmas comes and Ben does not appear?” she thought.
But the way was shown her by that great Peace-Maker who helps us out of all difficulties at last.
Christmas Eve, the old man’s constant chatter grew flighty and incoherent. He talked of people and things unknown to Edith, and spoke his mother’s name many times. Then he fell asleep. In the morning he seemed very weak, and his voice was fainter.
“Such a strange dream as I have had, ‘Lis’beth,” he said, as Edith put her hand on his brow, and smoothed back the thin, white hair.
“Such a strange dream, I thought Ben had grown into a man, and had left me alone–all alone to die. I’m so glad to be awake and find it isn’t true. How dark it is, and how long the night seems! To-morrow is Christmas. Did you put something in Ben’s stockings, ‘Lis’beth? I have forgotten.”
“Yes,” answered Edith, in a choked voice.
“And it’s gettin’ colder, ‘Lis’beth. Hadn’t you better look after Ben a little? See if he’s covered up well in his crib. You’re so careless, ‘Lis’beth, the boy’ll take his death o’ cold yet. And he’s all I’ve got. He’ll make a fine man, a fine man if you don’t spoil him, ‘Lis’beth. But you hain’t no real sense for trainin’ a boy, somehow. Is he covered up? It’s bitter, bitter cold.”
“He is well covered,” Edith answered. The old man seemed to doze again. Then he roused a little.
“It’s dawn,” he said. “I see the light breaking. Little Ben’ll be crawling out for his stockin’ pooty quick: I oughter had the fire made afore this, to warm his little toes. Strange you couldn’t a’ waked me, ‘Liz’beth! You don’t never seem to have no foresight.”
Then the old man fell back on Edith’s arm, dead.