A Little Book of Christmas

John Kendrick Bangs

Preview: Issue 1 of 8

A TOAST TO SANTA CLAUS

Whene'er I find a man who don't Believe in Santa Claus, And spite of all remonstrance won't Yield up to logic's laws, And see in things that lie about The proof by no means dim, I straightway cut that fellow out, And don't believe in him.

The good old Saint is everywhere Along life's busy way. We find him in the very air We breathe day after day-- Where courtesy and kindliness And love are joined together, To give to sorrow and distress A touch of sunny weather.

We find him in the maiden's eyes Beneath the mistletoe, A-sparkling as the star-lit skies All golden in their glow. We find him in the pressure of The hand of sympathy, And where there's any thought of love He's mighty sure to be.

So here's to good old Kindliheart! The best bet of them all, Who never fails to do his part In life's high festival; The worthy bearer of the crown With which we top the Saint. A bumper to his health, and down With them that say he ain't!

THE CONVERSION OF HETHERINGTON

I

Hetherington wasn't half a bad sort of a fellow, but he had his peculiarities, most of which were the natural defects of a lack of imagination. He didn't believe in ghosts, or Santa Claus, or any of the thousands of other things that he hadn't seen with his own eyes, and as he walked home that rather chilly afternoon just before Christmas and found nearly every corner of the highway decorated with bogus Saints, wearing the shoddy regalia of Kris-Kringle, the sight made him a trifle irritable. He had had a fairly good luncheon that day, one indeed that ought to have mellowed his disposition materially, but which somehow or other had not so resulted. In fact, Hetherington was in a state of raspy petulance that boded ill for his digestion, and when he had reached the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, the constant iteration and reiteration of these shivering figures of the god of the Yule had got on his nerves to such an extent as to make him aggressively quarrelsome. He had controlled the asperities of his soul tolerably well on the way uptown, but the remark of a small child on the highway, made to a hurrying mother, as they passed a stalwart-looking replica of the idol of his Christmas dreams, banging away on a tambourine to attract attention to the iron pot before him, placed there to catch the pennies of the charitably inclined wayfarer--"Oh, mar, there's Sandy Claus now!"--was too much for him.

"Tush! Nonsense!" ejaculated Hetherington, glowering at the shivering figure in the turkey-red robe. "The idea of filling children's minds up with such balderdash! Santa Claus, indeed! There isn't a genuine Santa Claus in the whole bogus bunch."

The Saint on the corner banged his tambourine just under Hetherington's ear with just enough force to jar loose the accumulated irascibility of the well-fed gentleman.

"This is a fine job for an able-bodied man like you!" said Hetherington with a sneer. "Why don't you go to work instead of helping to perpetuate this annual fake?"

The Saint looked at him for a moment before replying.

"Speakin' to me?" he said.

"Yes. I'm speaking to you," said Hetherington. "Here's the whole country perishing for the lack of labor, and in spite of that fact this town has broken out into a veritable rash of fake Santa Clauses--"

"That'll do for you!" retorted Santa Claus. "It's easy enough for a feller with a stomach full o' victuals and plenty of warm clothes on his back to jump on a hard-workin' feller like me--"

"Hard-working?" echoed Hetherington. "I like that! You don't call loafing on a street corner this way all day long hard work, do you?"

He rather liked the man's spirit, despite his objection to his occupation.

"Suppose you try it once and find out," retorted Santa Claus, blowing on his bluish fingers in an effort to restore their clogged-up circulation. "I guess if you tried a job like this just once, standin' out in the cold from eight in the mornin' to ten at night, with nothin' but a cup o' coffee and a ham-sandwich inside o' you--"

"What's that?" cried Hetherington, aghast. "Is that all you've had to eat to-day?"

"That's all," said the Saint, as he turned to his work with the tambourine. "Try it once, mister, and maybe you won't feel so cock-sure about its not bein' work. If you're half the sport you think you are just take my place for a couple of hours."

An appeal to his sporting instinct was never lost on Hetherington.

"By George!" he cried. "I'll go you. I'll swap coats with you, and while you're filling your stomach up I'll take your place, all right."

"What'll I fill me stomach up with?" demanded the man. "I don't look like a feller with a meal-ticket in his pocket, do I?"

"I'll take care of that," said Hetherington, taking out a roll of bills and peeling off a two-dollar note from the outside. "There--you take that and blow yourself, and I'll take care of the kitty here till you come back."

The exchange of externals was not long in accomplishment. The gathering of the shadows of night made it a comparatively easy matter to arrange behind a conveniently stalled and heavily laden express wagon hard by, and in a few moments the irascible but still "sporty" Hetherington, who from childhood up to the present had never been able to take a dare, found himself banging away on a tambourine and incidentally shivering in the poor red habiliments of a fraudulent Saint. For a half-hour the novelty of his position gave him a certain thrill, and no Santa Claus in town that night fulfilled his duties more vociferously than did Hetherington; but as time passed on, and the chill of a windy corner began to penetrate his bones, to say nothing of the frosty condition of his ears, which his false cotton whiskers but indifferently protected, he began to tire of his bargain.

"Gosh!" he muttered to himself, as it began to snow, and certain passing truckmen hurled the same kind of guying comments at him as had been more or less in his mind whenever he had passed a fellow-Santa-Claus on his way up-town, "if General Sherman were here he'd find a twin-brother to War! I wish that cuss would come back."

He gazed eagerly up and down the street in the hope that the departed original would heave in sight, but in vain. A two-dollar meal evidently possessed attractions that he wished to linger over.

"Can't stand this much longer!" he muttered to himself, and then his eye caught sight of a group that filled his soul with dismay: two policemen and the struggling figure of one who appeared to have looked not wisely but too well upon the cup that cheers, the latter wearing Hetherington's overcoat and Hetherington's hat, but whose knees worked upon hinges of their own, double-back-action hinges that made his legs of no use whatsoever, either to himself or to anybody else.

"Hi there!" Hetherington cried out, as the group passed up the street on the way to the station-house. "That fellow's got my overcoat--"

But the only reply Hetherington got was a sturdy poke in the ribs from the night-stick of the passing officer.

"Well, I'll be jiggered!" growled Hetherington.

II

Ten minutes later a passing taxi was hailed by a shivering gentleman carrying an iron pot full of pennies and nickels and an occasional quarter in one hand, and a turkey-red coat, trimmed with white cotton cloth, thrown over his arm. Strange to say, considering the inclemency of the night, he wore neither a hat nor an overcoat.

"Where to, sir?" queried the chauffeur.

"The police-station," said Hetherington. "I don't know where it is, but the one in this precinct is the one I want."

"Ye'll have to pay by the hour to-night, sir," said the chauffeur. "The station ain't a half-mile away, sir, but Heaven knows how long it'll take us to get there."

"Charge what you please," retorted Hetherington. "I'll buy your darned old machine if it's necessary, only get a move on."

The chauffeur, with some misgivings as to the mental integrity of his fare, started on their perilous journey, and three-quarters of an hour later drew up in front of the police-station, where Hetherington, having been compelled in self-defense to resume the habiliments of Santa Claus under penalty of freezing, alighted.

"Just wait, will you?" he said, as he alighted from the cab.

"I'll go in with you," said the chauffeur, acting with due caution. He had begun to fear that there was a fair chance of his having trouble getting his fare out of a very evident lunatic.

Utterly forgetful of his appearance in his festal array, Hetherington bustled into the station, and shortly found himself standing before the sergeant behind the desk.

"Well, Santa Claus," said the official, with an amused glance at the intruder, "what can I do for you to-night? There ain't many rooms with a bath left."

Hetherington flushed. He had intended to greet the sergeant with his most imposing manner, but this turkey-red abomination on his back had thrust dignity out in the cold.

"I have come, officer," he said, as impressively as he could under the circumstances, "to make some inquiries concerning a man who was brought here about an hour ago--I fear in a state of intoxication."

"We have known such things to happen here, Santa," said the officer, suavely. "In fact, this blotter here seems to indicate that one George W. Hetherington, of 561 Fifth Avenue--"

"Who?" roared Hetherington.

"George W. Hetherington is the name on the blotter," said the sergeant; "entered first as a D. D., but on investigation found to be suffering from--"

"But that's my name!" cried Hetherington. "You don't mean to tell me he claimed to be George W. Hetherington?"

"No," said the sergeant. "The poor devil didn't make any claims for himself at all. We found that name on a card in his hat, and a letter addressed to the same name in his overcoat pocket. Puttin' the two together we thought it was a good enough identification."

"Well, I'll have you to understand, sergeant--" bristled Hetherington, cockily.

"None o' that, Santa Claus--none o' that!" growled the sergeant, leaning over the desk and eying him coldly. "I don't know what game you're up to, but just one more peep in that tone and there'll be two George W. Hetheringtons in the cooler this night."

Hetherington almost tore the Santa Claus garb from his shoulders, and revealed himself as a personage of fine raiment underneath, whatever he might have appeared at a superficial glance. As he did so a crumpled piece of paper fell to the floor from the pocket of the turkey-red coat.

"I don't mean to do anything but what is right, sergeant," he said, controlling his wrath, "but what I do want is to impress it upon your mind that I am George W. Hetherington, and that having my name spread on the blotter of a police court isn't going to do me any good. I loaned that fellow my hat and coat to get a square meal, while I took his place--"

The officer grinned broadly, but with no assurance in his smile that he believed.

"Oh, you may not believe it," said Hetherington, "but it's true, and if this thing gets into the papers to-morrow morning--"

"Say, Larry," said the sergeant, addressing an officer off duty, "did the reporters copy that letter we found in Hetherington's pocket?"

"Reporters?" gasped Hetherington. "Good Lord, man--yuh-you don't mum-mean to say yuh-you let the reporters--"

"No, chief," replied Larry. "They ain't been in yet--I t'ink ye shoved it inter yer desk."

"So I did, so I did," grinned the sergeant. Here he opened the drawer in front of him and extracted a pretty little blue envelope which Hetherington immediately recognized as a particularly private and confidential communication from--well, somebody. This is not a cherchez la femme story, so we will leave the lady's name out of it altogether. It must be noted, however, that a sight of that dainty missive in the great red fist of the sergeant gave Hetherington a heart action that fifty packages of cigarettes a day could hardly inflict upon a less healthy man.

"That's the proof--" cried Hetherington, excitedly. "If that don't prove it's my overcoat nothing will."

"Right you are, Santa Claus," said the sergeant, opening the envelope and taking out the delicately scented sheet of paper within. "I'll give you two guesses at the name signed to this, and if you get it right once I'll give you the coat, and Mr. Hetherington Number One in our evening's consignment of Hetheringtons gets re-christened."

"'Anita'!" growled Hetherington.

"You win!" said the sergeant, handing over the letter.

Hetherington drew a long sigh of relief.

"I guess this is worth cigars for the house, sergeant," he said. "I'll send 'em round to-morrow--meanwhile, how about--how about the other?"

"He's gone to the hospital," said the sergeant, grimly. "The doctor says he wasn't drunk--just another case of freezing starvation."

"Starvation? And I guyed him! Great God!" muttered Hetherington to himself.

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