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THE snow blew in gusts across the village street; and in the pauses of the wind one could hear the sea beating against the worm-eaten old piers. The inhabitants of Posett came to the windows and looked out into the darkness, and knowingly observed that it would be "worse afore it was done with." So they drew the curtains and shut in the cheerful radiance of their own warm firesides.
One cheerful square of light, however, came from the windows of the village store. A little senate of villagers was assembled within, as usual. The storm might have kept some of them at home had they been other than sturdy Posett people used to the dangers of storm and darkness on the terrible sea. To gather at the store and listen to and discuss the news was their one mental relaxation; and they valued it accordingly. In summer these veterans of many a cruise assembled on the long piazza; in winter the genial warmth of a round stove enticed them to the back part of the store, where the typical three-legged stools and empty packing-boxes, with one or two dilapidated easy-chairs, provided accommodations which were comfortable if not luxurious.
Toward this square of light, on the evening in question, a child's figure was struggling manfully through the blinding snow. The child was not any too warmly dressed to battle alone against such heavy odds: an old fur cap and a bright red scarf, over a short round-jacket; hands without mittens, that he kept in his pockets as well as he could. The boy made slow progress, being beaten back by sudden gusts of wind and snow; slowly gaining after each rebuff of this sort, he at last reached the store. His hands were by this time so benumbed that he could not turn the doorknob; so he stood outside and looked through the glass into the warm room, rapping once or twice to draw the attention of its inmates. No one paid the slightest attention to his signals: perhaps they were not heard, for he was a little fellow, a mere baby to be out at such a time. Besides, everybody in the store was looking the other way, apparently listening to Captain Peregrine Batt, who, to judge from his gestures, was narrating a story of breathless interest Nahum Metcalf, the storekeeper, had forgotten his only customer in the interest of the recital, and leaned over the counter as far as his long, thin form would allow; and the customer himself, resting against a barrel, forgot about Indian meal and sugar, and looked at the speaker. Presently, Captain Peregrine ended, and the customer was duly served; and then it was that this same customer, opening the outer door, stumbled over the waiting child.
"Hi! Hurt ye?" he queried, surprised at the suddenness of the encounter.
The youngster was dazed with cold and weariness, and made no reply. He took advantage of the open door to enter and, chafing and blowing upon his red hands, walked up to the counter. But Mr. Nahum Metcalf had deserted his post to join the group around the stove.
"Thet wuz a sly trick on the ole man."
"Yaas," continued Captain Batt slowly. "He never knew nuthin' about it till few days arter. An' then - 'Why, confound the feller, he's gumm'd me out o' my money ter no puppos,' was all ole Jake said."
"Suthin' wuss'n 'confound,' I'll go bail," drily observed Captain Jonas Batt. It was a deculiarity of Posett people that they were all more or less nearly related.
"Yaas, mebbe. Still, 'z long 'z I'm a perfesser, I kinder feel sorter del'kit - "
"Jake 's a reg'lar pirick, but thet blamed pedlar did rake him daown well," admitted Metcalf complacently. "I declar' to 't, I wish the Widder Hannam could ekil it. Some folks thinks their own flesh 'n blood ain't no better 'n" - (casting about for an original comparison) - "better 'n - dirt."
A man dressed in a long ulster, who looked as if he had travelled a good way through the cold, started a little at the last name, and turned observantly to the speaker.
"Yaas," began Captain Peregrine again, with his inevitable introductory monosyllable, "I s'pose the Widder Hannam 'z havin' a pooty hard time on 't. An' there's Jake, her own husban's brother, one o' the richest men in taown. I vum 't is a shame!"
"Bless me!" cried the stranger, so suddenly that every one turned in his direction. "Is the woman as poor as all that?"
This diversion distracted Nahum Metcalf's attention from his own meditations to such a degree that he caught sight of the waiting child.
"Hullo, Bub?" he said interrogatively.
"I want - " Then the boy produced a little written slip of paper and handed it to Mr. Metcalf.
"She's summut kinky, I'll admit," put in a new voice, that of old Batt Belcher - a dry and wizened specimen of the retired fisherman species. "She jes' tells him up an' down wut she thinks, an' - wal, ole Jake ain't none too pious, an' he jes' socks it to her agin. An' so it goes."
"Yaas," said Captain Peregrine, giving this statement his own judicial assent, "the widder 'z but poorly, an' hanged ef I see how she ken weather the winter. In my opinion, suthin' orter be done for her, an' would, if she war n't prouder 'n - all persessed!"
"Pooty strong, for a perfesser!" put in Captain Jonas, with true brotherly irony.
"No, no, sonny, I do' want nuthin'," Mr. Metcalf was saying. "Tell yer ma it's a Chris'mas present from me. Thet's all right, sonny," he added encouragingly, seeing that the boy hesitated.
"Wal, ef ye go to her, she'li jest say, 'I do' want for anything',' kinder stuck-up like an' - an' wut's th' use?" demanded old Mr. Belcher.
"Terrible, terrible!" ejaculated the stranger. But his words were scarcely noticed. The sages were, one and all, looking after the child, slowly departing and gazing in perplexity at the handful of rejected coppers.
"She'll only throw the money in yer face, depend upon 't, Metcalf."
"She? Who? Whose boy is that?" demanded the stranger.
At these abrupt questions everybody turned upon him with silent scrutiny. It was several minutes before Captain Peregrine could bring himself to vouchsafe a reply.
"Yaas, he orter n't ter be out alone, sech a night ez this. But the widder's laid up with rheumatiz, I reckon. That's the Widder Hannam's child, sir." And he eyed the man somewhat curiously, evidently awaiting some confidence in return.
"Well, I should say he ought n't! Eliza Hannam's child out in this storm!" He rose hastily to his feet, stumbling over two or three boxes in his excitement. "Here, grocer, just send up to her place the biggest box of Christmas goods you can find. Oh! I'll pay you straight enough. Here's a ten-dollar bill for security! Hurry 'em along and I'll pay you double!" And, creating quite a little whirlwind among the open-mouthed veterans, he blustered forth after the child.
"Gosh all Jerus'lem!" piped out old Batt Belcher, more excited than any of his townsmen remembered ever seeing him before. "He seems kinder stirred up about suthin' er nuther."
An ominous pause, the veterans one and all wagging their heads for very emotion.
"Wal, ther's suthin' in't, for he left me this here money, an' I mus' send raound the goods," observed Nahum Metcalf, disposed to view the stranger in a favorable light.
"Yaas, ther's suthin' in't," assented Captain Peregrine. And he smoked on in silence.
Meanwhile the child, who was so small that even Mr. Metcalf's modest bundles were more than he could conveniently carry, was trudging laboriously through the snow, wishing himself at home, and thinking that his mother would worry over his absence. She had long hesitated about sending him forth; but, being in absolute need of food, she had suffered the child to go. And now he was thoughtful enough to remember her anxiety.
So through the blowing snow and the piling drifts he manfully trudged. But it was hard work for the little fellow, and after a short time he could make no headway at all. His hands were numb and stiff, and several times he fell headlong, spilling his bundles and their contents. Then, wearied out with his fruitless endeavors, he resigned all hope and began to cry. It was this that attracted the notice of the stranger, floundering about in the drifts a hundred feet away. Then the child felt himself lifted from the ground by a strong arm and heard a cheerful voice saying, "It's all right; we'll soon be at home. Oh, never mind the bundles!"
The boy looked in wonderment.
"Now you just show me the way to your mother's, and I'll be legs for you."
Taking confidence, the boy directed his new-found friend, and, after a fifteen-minutes fight with the storm, they came to the battered and shabby little cottage. The boy was for running right in, but the stranger held him back. "No, let's take a look first," said he.
So they crept up to the window, and looked in. A gray-haired woman was sitting alone before the fire in an easy-chair. That she was far from comfortable, bodily or mentally, was evident from her nervous glances about the room, in particular at the face of a slow and respectable old-fashioned tall clock in the corner. The room was plainly, indeed barely, furnished. A single kerosene lamp burned dimly on the table.
"God help the poor woman, how she has suffered! Jacob Hannam, there's an indictment against you! Come, child!"
Then the two broke in through the door, all covered with snow from head to foot, quite startling the widow, who gazed in blank wonderment at the stranger and his load. Finally she found breath to ask, -
"Where are the things, Jamie?"
His brow clouded. "I had an orful time - I - I -"
"Eliza Hannam!" said a voice.
There was a moment's pause. And then Jamie was very much surprised to see this strange man embracing the poor widow, she crying and laughing upon his shoulder.
"To think how you must have suffered all these years!" he kept exclaiming. "And, Jamie, won't you speak a word of greeting to your Uncle John?"
It was a long time before quiet was restored; not till after Mr. Nahum Metcalf's boy had come with a whole cart-load of good things. "And there is my last pair of chickens all ready dressed for the morrow's dinner!" declared the widow with a laugh that was half a sob.
A commonplace story enough, this Posett episode turns out to be, no doubt; that on Christmas Eve the long-absent John Bond returned to his sister, to find her poor, to make her comfortable and happy, despite wretched old Jacob Hannam. Posett people despised the latter more than ever, after this.
Some people may think that "peace on earth, good-will to men" ought to come to the poorest, on one sacred night, even if a little child wander through the darkness and the storm to find it.
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