“I WISH I had asked papa to let me stay at school during the holidays,” Ethel Moore said to herself one gloomy winter afternoon, as she leaned against the sash of her little bedroom window at the rear of the boarding-house on the corner, and looked out disconsolately. “It would at least have been better than this!” and her eye wandered to the litter of broken packing boxes and scattered straw that ornamented the neighboring back yard.
It was in truth turning out to be a most disappointing vacation, and not even the golden opportunities for spending her unusual allowance of Christmas money could compensate Ethel for the loss of her holiday in her country home at Overbrooke, or lighten the tedium of the long winter evenings during which her father and Mr. Cadwallader, the lawyer, discussed the troublesome business which had brought them to the city.
“Papa is always being executor or guardian or something for other people,” she muttered, gloomily. “And he never tells me anything about it. If mamma had only lived it would have been very different.”
Just then, down the untidy path of the yard which a moment before had gained her disapproval, a tiny boy came running, as fast as his legs could carry him, and, stopping at the back gate, leaned against it, looking up into the sky. Ethel could see the charming outline of his little face with its mop of yellow hair, and caught the gleam of a delightful smile that won her heart from that moment.
“Now if I had a little brother like that!” she murmured, leaning out to see him more clearly.
“Jack’s on land!” cried the child, looking up at her gleefully, but the next instant his expression changed.
A small, dark woman darted toward him, and seizing him by the arm, began to drag him out of sight, scolding as she did so.
“All I ask you,” she shouted, in loud, terrifying tones, “is that you do what I say. You are to mind me! And keep in the house. Little boys who don’t mind me are eaten up by large, fierce bears!”
Ethel could hear her through the half-open window of the inner side of the room, and, crossing to it, found herself looking down upon the kitchen door of the adjoining house, toward which the frightened little creature, gazing up at his captor with a fascination of terror, was being dragged with relentless roughness. Her heart gave a painful throb at the sight.
“Why, he’s only a baby! Only a little, little baby!” she cried. “He looked as if he didn’t believe anyone could speak to him that way.”
Her bedroom opened into a small parlor, which also had windows on the inner side, and hurrying into it Ethel looked down across the narrow bricked court which, with a high fence along the middle, separated the two houses. She could see the child sitting on a stiff chair in what was apparently the dining-room. It was so dark that the room was lighted, even at four in the afternoon, and as she watched from behind her lace curtains, she noted how every once in a while the baby’s little hand would go to his cheek and furtively wipe away a tear.
“He can’t be four years old,” she murmured, “and he is so good! Oh, the poor darling!”
For the woman had returned, and, jerking the child from his seat, was pulling him and the chair top to the table, where she had set a plate of bread and a glass of milk. She then left the room. The little fellow turned his head, as if unaccustomed to being left alone, and Ethel watched him as he steered the awkward goblet to his lips and drank greedily. The bread he did not seem to care for, and when he had done drinking he laid his arm on the table and rested his head upon it as if wearied out.
“Poor pet!” murmured Ethel; “he must have come this afternoon. I wonder if that woman is any relation to him. I wish—but it isn’t any business of mine!” she broke off abruptly.
There were but two days more before Christmas, and Ethel busied herself all that evening making packages of gifts to send away in the morning. In spite of assuring herself that it was none of her business, the recollection of the child next door haunted her dreams throughout the night. In the morning, on looking out of the side window of her parlor, she saw him in the corresponding room of the other house.
He had lifted the sash eight or ten inches and was trying to push his head through the opening.
“Be careful, darling!” cried Ethel, throwing up her own window. “You might fall out.”
He craned his little neck to look at her. “Jack can’t fall out,” he said, with one of his delightful smiles. “Jack’s leg’s tied to the bu-ral. Auntie did it.”
“Mamma is died,” he added. “Is you going to have any Christmas tree?”
“No,” answered Ethel. “Are you?”
He looked at her thoughtfully a moment. “Jack hasn’t any mamma—any more,” he said.
A sudden resolution came to Ethel.
“Dear,” she called, “go back and be a good boy all of this day, and to-morrow day Ethel will make you a little Christmas tree, right here in this window; and perhaps Jack’s aunt will let him come over to Ethel’s and see it himself.”
“My dear lady,” said a suave voice, “let me beg that you will not arouse hopes impossible to be fulfilled.”
Ethel started and glanced up. “Auntie” was standing at a window on the third floor, looking down at her.
“Ah!” she went on, “I see that you are only a little girl; but quite the same you must understand that it is altogether unwise to encourage a child of four to stand by an open window in December. He is a very troublesome child, and the less notice you take of him the less arduous I shall find the task of attending to him.”
Ethel drew herself up to every inch of her five-feet-eight, and tried to remember that she was nearly sixteen years old, but before she could collect her wits to reply the woman had hurried downstairs, and, after closing the baby’s window with a bang, had locked it and drawn the shade.
The only retaliation that occurred to Ethel was to pull down her own shade with a great deal of unnecessary emphasis, and, boiling with wrath, she sallied out to finish her Christmas shopping.
It was so late when she came home that she hurried upstairs to dress for dinner. It had been snowing heavily all day, and the wind, which had risen to almost a gale since sunset, was slamming one of the shutters of her bedroom in a manner that promised soon to break the glass. Ethel opened the window and, bringing the shutters together, was trying to fasten them, when the door of the kitchen in the house opposite opened and “auntie” slipped out stealthily with a satchel in her hand. Ethel, who could see her through the slats of the shutters, was glad that there was no light in the room behind to betray her presence, for the woman looked up and down in every direction, in evident fear of being watched. Finally she locked the door, and, stooping, hid the key under a rough mat that lay in front of it. It seemed such a primitive fashion that Ethel smiled to see it in a big city. “I suppose she expects to be home again in a little while, and is leaving the key for some servant,” she said to herself. “Yes, she left it for the furnaceman,” she concluded; for just them an old negro came in at the back gate. His mistress spoke a word or two to him before she hurried on; and Ethel, after closing her window, returned to her belated toilet.
The next morning before breakfast the whole city seemed banked in drifts of snow. The windows of the adjoining house were piled thick with it, and as Ethel glanced downward the depths of the tracks in the yard below indicated that the old furnace-man had found his office no sinecure, on that day at least. The dining-room shades were up, and from the remains of food on the table Ethel concluded that auntie’s habits were earlier than her own. But there was no sign of the baby.
The storm made it impossible to leave the house, but, prompted by a spirit of opposition, Ethel had on the day before bought everything necessary for a little Christmas tree, and, wishing to set it up in the evening, watched anxiously for the child. But as the hours wore on and no little yellow head appeared at any of the windows, she began to fear that the boy was ill and that her plans were doomed to failure. From time to time all through the day a pitiful, wailing cry sounded from the upper room, and toward evening it grew louder and more frequent. Ethel found herself becoming more and more nervous about it. She had spent nearly the whole day alone, as her father had gone out with Mr. Cadwallader early in the morning and had not returned. Something was evidently wrong, for they had both seemed extremely troubled and annoyed. By nightfall the baby’s cries had grown to screams, and Ethel, wrought up to a frenzy of anxiety, listened, wringing her hands.
“I know she is whipping him!” she cried, walking up and down the room. “I am quite sure she does not know how to take care of a baby! Oh, if he were only my little brother!”
Ethel was a very strong girl and it was an unusual thing for her to give way in this matter; but only the cessation of the child’s crying saved her from a fit of hysterics. She went down to dinner alone, and the landlady must have noted her reddened eyelids, for when she went back to her room she found a fire blazing on the hearth, and a pile of illustrated papers and magazines provided for her entertainment. Her father, too, had remembered her with a box of candy, and as she read and ate the bonbons, her perturbed spirits recovered tone, until toward nine o’clock her interest in the baby’s Christmas tree began to revive.
“I’ll put all the things on the tree tonight, and then to-morrow I’ll go over and make that woman let him see it,” she declared, valiantly. “It will be Christmas Day and she can’t refuse.”
She set the little tree in front of the window, as she had promised, and began the work of decoration. It took her longer than she had expected, and it was quite late when she hung the last ornaments on the branches and covered the whole with tinsel. It looked so pretty and glistening, that a sudden impulse came over her to light the candles and try the effect. Over at the other house she noted that the mistress was nowhere in sight A dim gas-jet was flickering in the dining-room, and the woman must have been there lately, Ethel thought, for lying on the floor was a heap of soiled white clothes that she had not seen before.
“She’s untidy as well as horrid,” Ethel said to herself, as she struck a match, and held it to one candle after another. The lights twinkled out, making so much of an illumination against the opposite wall that in fear of unfriendly observation Ethel stretched out her hand to draw the shade, but before doing so she took a last glance at the dreary dining-room below.
The bundle of soiled clothes was crawling slowly along the floor toward the window!
With a horrified exclamation, Ethel put her hands on either side of her face to shade her eyes and gazed down.
It was the baby! He raised himself a moment by the sill to see the lights of the tree, stretched up his arms, and then sank back upon the floor.
A dreadful conviction came to Ethel: the woman had left him alone in the house! She ran to the door of the parlor and opened it, but every gaslight was turned out and the hall of the boardinghouse was black. In her short stay she had made no acquaintances, and she did not even know where the landlady’s room was. Despairing of help in that direction, she shut the door. Out on the street there was loud talking and shouting, and blowing of horns, as rowdy boys paraded in celebration of Christmas. Even if there were any use in doing it she dared not venture alone to the front door. But the child! If she meant to save him she must do it quickly. She ran into her bedroom with scarcely any definite plans, but as she looked out of her window she saw that the porch just under it sloped directly over the dividing fence. “I’m glad I’m strong,” she said, and, without a second thought, climbed into the snow, let herself down to the fence, and from thence dropped to the other side. Stooping at the mat on the porch she found the key, admitted herself into the kitchen, and was soon in the dining-room.
The child was lying on the floor, moaning. She gathered him into her arms, and rushed out again; but strong as she was, she knew at a glance that while she might with a little difficulty climb the fence, she could not possibly get from it to the roof of the porch below her window. The baby shivered in her arms, and as she turned up the thick skirt of her dress around him to keep him warm, she looked about her helplessly.
All at once a cry of joy escaped her. Her father had come to the window of her room. Clasping the baby closer to her, after a hard effort she reached the top of the fence. Mr. Moore had climbed out along the slippery roof to meet her.
“Cadwallader!” he called, taking the child from her arms, “she has got him!”
“Give him to me,” answered Mr. Cadwallader, who was standing at the window. “Is he alive?”
Ethel felt a moment’s surprise, but the next instant her father had returned, and was helping her to scramble back in safety.
“How did you know about him?” she asked, wonderingly, as she followed him into the parlor, where Mr. Cadwallader was sitting in front of the fire with the little one in his arms.
“It’s little Farrington,” said Mr. Moore, anxiously bending over the child, who was lying back against Mr. Cadwallader’s shoulder, with his eyes closed, trembling violently.
“He must have something to eat!” said Mr. Cadwallader. “There is an ice-chest down by the dining-room, Moore. See if there isn’t some milk there. And, Ethel, go into the kitchen and get a sauce-pan to warm it.”
Ethel sped away, full of wonder: it was on “the Farrington business” that her father had come to town, and this little fellow was the “Farrington heir”! She had always thought of him as a young man.
It seemed incredible that the larder could be rifled and the kitchen despoiled with so little disturbance, but in less time than it takes to tell of it the marauders were back in the room and Ethel was kneeling in front of the fire, warming a pan of milk.
Suddenly the child opened his eyes.
“Jack’s hungry,” he said, serenely, but the next instant he had caught sight of the Christmas tree, twinkling in the background. “Oh!” he cried, holding out his hands rapturously, “Jack’s tree!” And then his head fell back helplessly on Mr. Cadwallader’s shoulder.
“Quick!” said Mr. Moore. “Give him the milk.”
Ethel began to feed him at once, and he ate heartily, but not ravenously.
“Jack’s had only crackers all day,” he said. “There was crackers and milk by Jack’s beddie. Bad milk!”
“Oh!” cried Ethel, “who is she, to leave him that way? Did she mean to kill him?”
“No,” said her father: “she is his father’s half-sister, and she left the child alone in the house last evening, thinking she would be back in the morning, but the storm delayed her, and all the telegraph wires were down until late this evening. She got a message through to me only a little while ago.”
“To you?” said Ethel, looking at him in surprise.
“I am his guardian, you know,” said Mr. Moore. “His mother died only about a month ago, and they sent him on to me, but his aunt, who wants to have him in her own hands, deceived us about the steamer, and carried him away. She has been well frightened to pay for it.”
“I cannot forget,” said Mr. Cadwallader, severely, “that in case of his death the woman would come in for the whole property, instead of only half of it; although, to tell the truth, I don’t believe she really meant to kill him. It was simply the outcome of her insane stinginess.”
“The only question in my mind now,” said Mr. Moore, “is what to do with him. There is a good school at Overbrooke, if it were not so lonely for Ethel.”
“Oh, papa!” cried Ethel; “I have been watching him day after day and wishing that he belonged to us. Can’t we take him? Baby, baby!” stretching out her arms to him, “don’t you want to come and be Ethel’s little brother?”
He looked at her a moment, and then, throwing himself forward, hid his face on her shoulder, and Ethel heard him whisper softly:
“Ethel’s Christmas Brother” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in
The Churchman v. 81, no. 3 (whole no. 2870), January 20, 1900.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is
©2011 by Brian Kunde.