“Did you see this committee yesterday, Mr. Mathews?” asked the philanthropist.
His secretary looked up.
“You recommend them then?”
“For fifty thousand?”
“For fifty thousand—yes, sir.”
“Their corresponding subscriptions are guaranteed?”
“I went over the list carefully, Mr. Carter. The money is promised, and by responsible people.”
“Very well,” said the philanthropist. “You may notify them, Mr. Mathews, that my fifty thousand will be available as the bills come in.”
Old Mr. Carter laid down the letter he had been reading, and took up another. As he perused it his white eyebrows rose in irritation.
“Mr. Mathews!” he snapped.
“You are careless, sir!”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Carter?” questioned the secretary, his face flushing.
The old gentleman tapped impatiently the letter he held in his hand. “Do you pay no attention, Mr. Mathews, to my rule that NO personal letters containing appeals for aid are to reach me? How do you account for this, may I ask?”
“I beg your pardon,” said the secretary again. “You will see, Mr. Carter, that that letter is dated three weeks ago. I have had the woman’s case carefully investigated. She is undoubtedly of good reputation, and undoubtedly in need; and as she speaks of her father as having associated with you, I thought perhaps you would care to see her letter.”
“A thousand worthless fellows associated with me,” said the old man, harshly. “In a great factory, Mr. Mathews, a boy works alongside of the men he is put with; he does not pick and choose. I dare say this woman is telling the truth. What of it? You know that I regard my money as a public trust. Were my energy, my concentration, to be wasted by innumerable individual assaults, what would become of them? My fortune would slip through my fingers as unprofitably as sand. You understand, Mr. Mathews? Let me see no more individual letters. You know that Mr. Whittemore has full authority to deal with them. May I trouble you to ring? I am going out.”
A man appeared very promptly in answer to the bell.
“Sniffen, my overcoat,” said the philanthropist.
“It is ‘ere, sir,” answered Sniffen, helping the thin old man into the great fur folds.
“There is no word of the dog, I suppose, Sniffen?”
“None, sir. The police was here again yesterday sir, but they said as ‘ow—”
“The police!” The words were fierce with scorn. “Eight thousand incompetents!” He turned abruptly and went toward the door, where he halted a moment.
“Mr. Mathews, since that woman’s letter did reach me, I suppose I must pay for my carelessness—or yours. Send her—what does she say—four children?—send her a hundred dollars. But, for my sake, send it anonymously. Write her that I pay no attention to such claims.” He went out, and Sniffen closed the door behind him.
“Takes losin’ the little dog ‘ard, don’t he?” remarked Sniffen, sadly, to the secretary. “I’m afraid there ain’t a chance of findin’ ‘im now. ‘E ain’t been stole, nor ‘e ain’t been found, or they’d ‘ave brung him back for the reward. ‘E’s been knocked on the ‘ead, like as not. ‘E wasn’t much of a dog to look at, you see—just a pup, I’d call ‘im. An’ after ‘e learned that trick of slippin’ ‘is collar off—well, I fancy Mr. Carter’s seen the last of ‘im. I do, indeed.”
Mr. Carter meanwhile was making his way slowly down the snowy avenue, upon his accustomed walk. The walk, however, was dull to-day, for Skiddles, his little terrier, was not with him to add interest and excitement. Mr. Carter had found Skiddles in the country a year and a half before. Skiddles, then a puppy, was at the time in a most undignified and undesirable position, stuck in a drain tile, and unable either to advance or to retreat. Mr. Carter had shoved him forward, after a heroic struggle, whereupon Skiddles had licked his hand. Something in the little dog’s eye, or his action, had induced the rich philanthropist to bargain for him and buy him at a cost of half a dollar. Thereafter Skiddles became his daily companion, his chief distraction, and finally the apple of his eye.
Skiddles was of no known parentage, hardly of any known breed, but he suited Mr. Carter. What, the millionaire reflected with a proud cynicism, were his own antecedents, if it came to that? But now Skiddles had disappeared.
As Sniffen said, he had learned the trick of slipping free from his collar. One morning the great front doors had been left open for two minutes while the hallway was aired. Skiddles must have slipped down the marble steps unseen, and dodged round the corner. At all events, he had vanished, and although the whole police force of the city had been roused to secure his return, it was aroused in vain. And for three weeks, therefore, a small, straight, white bearded man in a fur overcoat had walked in mournful irritation alone.
He stood upon a corner uncertainly. One way led to the park, and this he usually took; but to-day he did not want to go to the park—it was too reminiscent of Skiddles. He looked the other way. Down there, if one went far enough, lay “slums,” and Mr. Carter hated the sight of slums; they always made him miserable and discontented. With all his money and his philanthropy, was there still necessity for such misery in the world? Worse still came the intrusive question at times: Had all his money anything to do with the creation of this misery? He owned no tenements; he paid good wages in every factory; he had given sums such as few men have given in the history of philanthropy. Still—there were the slums. However, the worst slums lay some distance off, and he finally turned his back on the park and walked on.
It was the day before Christmas. You saw it in people’s faces; you saw it in the holly wreaths that hung in windows; you saw it, even as you passed the splendid, forbidding houses on the avenue, in the green that here and there banked massive doors; but most of all, you saw it in the shops. Up here the shops were smallish, and chiefly of the provision variety, so there was no bewildering display of gifts; but there were Christmas-trees everywhere, of all sizes. It was astonishing how many people in that neighbourhood seemed to favour the old-fashioned idea of a tree.
Mr. Carter looked at them with his irritation softening. If they made him feel a trifle more lonely, they allowed him to feel also a trifle less responsible—for, after all, it was a fairly happy world.
At this moment he perceived a curious phenomenon a short distance before him—another Christmas-tree, but one which moved, apparently of its own volition, along the sidewalk. As Mr. Carter overtook it, he saw that it was borne, or dragged, rather by a small boy who wore a bright red flannel cap and mittens of the same peculiar material. As Mr. Carter looked down at him, he looked up at Mr. Carter, and spoke cheerfully:
“Goin’ my way, mister?”
“Why,” said the philanthropist, somewhat taken back, “I WAS!”
“Mind draggin’ this a little way?” asked the boy, confidently, “my hands is cold.”
“Won’t you enjoy it more if you manage to take it home by yourself?”
“Oh, it ain’t for me!” said the boy.
“Your employer,” said the philanthropist, severely, “is certainly careless if he allows his trees to be delivered in this fashion.”
“I ain’t deliverin’ it, either,” said the boy. “This is Bill’s tree.”
“Who is Bill?”
“He’s a feller with a back that’s no good.”
“Is he your brother?”
“No. Take the tree a little way, will you, while I warm myself?”
The philanthropist accepted the burden—he did not know why. The boy, released, ran forward, jumped up and down, slapped his red flannel mittens on his legs, and then ran back again. After repeating these manoeuvres two or three times, he returned to where the old gentleman stood holding the tree.
“Thanks,” he said. “Say, mister, you look like Santa Claus yourself, standin’ by the tree, with your fur cap and your coat. I bet you don’t have to run to keep warm, hey?” There was high admiration in his look. Suddenly his eyes sparkled with an inspiration.
“Say, mister,” he cried, “will you do something for me? Come in to Bill’s—he lives only a block from here—and just let him see you. He’s only a kid, and he’ll think he’s seen Santa Claus, sure. We can tell him you’re so busy to-morrow you have to go to lots of places to-day. You won’t have to give him anything. We’re looking out for all that. Bill got hurt in the summer, and he’s been in bed ever since. So we are giving him a Christmas—tree and all. He gets a bunch of things—an air gun, and a train that goes around when you wind her up. They’re great!”
“You boys are doing this?”
“Well, it’s our club at the settlement, and of course Miss Gray thought of it, and she’s givin’ Bill the train. Come along, mister.”
But Mr. Carter declined.
“All right,” said the boy. “I guess, what with Pete and all, Bill will have Christmas enough.”
“Who is Pete?”
“Bill’s dog. He’s had him three weeks now—best little pup you ever saw!”
A dog which Bill had had three weeks—and in a neighbourhood not a quarter of a mile from the avenue. It was three weeks since Skiddles had disappeared. That this dog was Skiddles was of course most improbable, and yet the philanthropist was ready to grasp at any clue which might lead to the lost terrier.
“How did Bill get this dog?” he demanded.
“I found him myself. Some kids had tin-canned him, and he came into our entry. He licked my hand, and then sat up on his hind legs. Somebody’d taught him that, you know. I thought right away, ‘Here’s a dog for Bill!’ And I took him over there and fed him, and they kept him in Bill’s room two or three days, so he shouldn’t get scared again and run off; and now he wouldn’t leave Bill for anybody. Of course, he ain’t much of a dog, Pete ain’t,” he added “he’s just a pup, but he’s mighty friendly!”
“Boy,” said Mr. Carter, “I guess I’ll just go round and”—he was about to add, “have a look at that dog,” but fearful of raising suspicion, he ended—”and see Bill.”
The tenements to which the boy led him were of brick, and reasonably clean. Nearly every window showed some sign of Christmas.
The tree-bearer led the way into a dark hall, up one flight—Mr. Carter assisting with the tree—and down another dark hall, to a door, on which he knocked. A woman opened it.
“Here’s the tree!” said the boy, in a loud whisper. “Is Bill’s door shut?”
Mr. Carter stepped forward out of the darkness. “I beg your pardon, madam,” he said. “I met this young man in the street, and he asked me to come here and see a playmate of his who is, I understand, an invalid. But if I am intruding—”
“Come in,” said the woman, heartily, throwing the door open. “Bill will be glad to see you, sir.”
The philanthropist stepped inside.
The room was decently furnished and clean. There was a sewing machine in the corner, and in both the windows hung wreaths of holly. Between the windows was a cleared space, where evidently the tree, when decorated, was to stand.
“Are all the things here?” eagerly demanded the tree-bearer.
“They’re all here, Jimmy,” answered Mrs. Bailey. “The candy just came.”
“Say,” cried the boy, pulling off his red flannel mittens to blow on his fingers, “won’t it be great? But now Bill’s got to see Santa Claus. I’ll just go in and tell him, an’ then, when I holler, mister, you come on, and pretend you’re Santa Claus.” And with incredible celerity the boy opened the door at the opposite end of the room and disappeared.
“Madam,” said Mr. Carter, in considerable embarrassment, “I must say one word. I am Mr. Carter, Mr. Allan Carter. You may have heard my name?”
She shook her head. “No, sir.”
“I live not far from here on the avenue. Three weeks ago I lost a little dog that I valued very much I have had all the city searched since then, in vain. To-day I met the boy who has just left us. He informed me that three weeks ago he found a dog, which is at present in the possession of your son. I wonder—is it not just possible that this dog may be mine?”
Mrs. Bailey smiled. “I guess not, Mr. Carter. The dog Jimmy found hadn’t come off the avenue—not from the look of him. You know there’s hundreds and hundreds of dogs without homes, sir. But I will say for this one, he has a kind of a way with him.”
“Hark!” said Mr. Carter.
There was a rustling and a snuffing at the door at the far end of the room, a quick scratching of feet. Then:
“Woof! woof! woof!” sharp and clear came happy impatient little barks. The philanthropist’s eyes brightened. “Yes,” he said, “that is the dog.”
“I doubt if it can be, sir,” said Mrs. Bailey, deprecatingly.
“Open the door, please,” commanded the philanthropist, “and let us see.” Mrs. Bailey complied. There was a quick jump, a tumbling rush, and Skiddles, the lost Skiddles, was in the philanthropist’s arms. Mrs. Bailey shut the door with a troubled face.
“I see it’s your dog, sir,” she said, “but I hope you won’t be thinking that Jimmy or I—”
“Madam,” interrupted Mr. Carter, “I could not be so foolish. On the contrary, I owe you a thousand thanks.”
Mrs. Bailey looked more cheerful. “Poor little Billy!” she said. “It’ll come hard on him, losing Pete just at Christmas time. But the boys are so good to him, I dare say he’ll forget it.”
“Who are these boys?” inquired the philanthropist. “Isn’t their action—somewhat unusual?”
“It’s Miss Gray’s club at the settlement, sir,” explained Mrs. Bailey. “Every Christmas they do this for somebody. It’s not charity; Billy and I don’t need charity, or take it. It’s just friendliness. They’re good boys.”
“I see,” said the philanthropist. He was still wondering about it, though, when the door opened again, and Jimmy thrust out a face shining with anticipation.
“All ready, mister!” he said. “Bill’s waitin’ for you!”
“Jimmy,” began Mrs. Bailey, about to explain, “the gentleman—”
But the philanthropist held up his hand, interrupting her. “You’ll let me see your son, Mrs. Bailey?” he asked, gently.
“Why, certainly, sir.”
Mr. Carter put Skiddles down and walked slowly into the inner room. The bed stood with its side toward him. On it lay a small boy of seven, rigid of body, but with his arms free and his face lighted with joy. “Hello, Santa Claus!” he piped, in a voice shrill with excitement.
“Hello, Bill!” answered the philanthropist, sedately.
The boy turned his eyes on Jimmy.
“He knows my name,” he said, with glee.
“He knows everybody’s name,” said Jimmy. “Now you tell him what you want, Bill, and he’ll bring it to-morrow.
“How would you like,” said the philanthropist, reflectively, “an—an—” he hesitated, it seemed so incongruous with that stiff figure on the bed—”an airgun?”
“I guess yes,” said Bill, happily.
“And a train of cars,” broke in the impatient Jimmy, “that goes like sixty when you wind her?”
“Hi!” said Bill.
The philanthropist solemnly made notes of this.
“How about,” he remarked, inquiringly, “a tree?”
“Honest?” said Bill.
“I think it can be managed,” said Santa Claus. He advanced to the bedside.
“I’m glad to have seen you, Bill. You know how busy I am, but I hope—I hope to see you again.”
“Not till next year, of course,” warned Jimmy.
“Not till then, of course,” assented Santa Claus. “And now, good-bye.”
“You forgot to ask him if he’d been a good boy,” suggested Jimmy.
“I have,” said Bill. “I’ve been fine. You ask mother.”
“She gives you—she gives you both a high character,” said Santa Claus. “Good-bye again,” and so saying he withdrew. Skiddles followed him out. The philanthropist closed the door of the bedroom, and then turned to Mrs. Bailey.
She was regarding him with awestruck eyes.
“Oh, sir,” she said, “I know now who you are—the Mr. Carter that gives so much away to people!”
The philanthropist nodded, deprecatingly.
“Just so, Mrs. Bailey,” he said. “And there is one gift—or loan rather—which I should like to make to you. I should like to leave the little dog with you till after the holidays. I’m afraid I’ll have to claim him then; but if you’ll keep him till after Christmas—and let me find, perhaps, another dog for Billy—I shall be much obliged.”
Again the door of the bedroom opened, and Jimmy emerged quietly.
“Bill wants the pup,” he explained.
“Pete! Pete!” came the piping but happy voice from the inner room.
Skiddles hesitated. Mr. Carter made no sign.
“Pete! Pete!” shrilled the voice again.
Slowly, very slowly, Skiddles turned and went back into the bedroom.
“You see,” said Mr. Carter, smiling, “he won’t be too unhappy away from me, Mrs. Bailey.”
On his way home the philanthropist saw even more evidences of Christmas gaiety along the streets than before. He stepped out briskly, in spite of his sixty-eight years; he even hummed a little tune.
When he reached the house on the avenue he found his secretary still at work.
“Oh, by the way, Mr. Mathews,” he said, “did you send that letter to the woman, saying I never paid attention to personal appeals? No? Then write her, please, enclosing my check for two hundred dollars, and wish her a very Merry Christmas in my name, will you? And hereafter will you always let me see such letters as that one—of course after careful investigation? I fancy perhaps I may have been too rigid in the past.”
“Certainly, sir,” answered the bewildered secretary. He began fumbling excitedly for his note-book.
“I found the little dog,” continued the philanthropist. “You will be glad to know that.”
“You have found him?” cried the secretary. “Have you got him back, Mr. Carter? Where was he?”
“He was—detained—on Oak Street, I believe,” said the philanthropist. “No, I have not got him back yet. I have left him with a young boy till after the holidays.”
He settled himself to his papers, for philanthropists must toil even on the twenty-fourth of December, but the secretary shook his head in a daze. “I wonder what’s happened?” he said to himself.
The Philanthropist’s Christmas by James Weber Linn in The Children’s Book of Christmas Stories