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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Little City Of Hope: A Christmas Story - Chapter 4. How There Was A Famine In The City
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The Little City Of Hope: A Christmas Story - Chapter 4. How There Was A Famine In The City Post by :johnnyk Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2012 Read :2922

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The Little City Of Hope: A Christmas Story - Chapter 4. How There Was A Famine In The City

CHAPTER IV. HOW THERE WAS A FAMINE IN THE CITY

It rained in New York and it "snowed slush" in Connecticut, after its manner, and the world was a very dreary place, especially all around the dilapidated cottage where everything was going to pieces, including John Henry Overholt's last hopes.

If he had been alone in the world he would have taken his small cash balance and his model to the foundry, quite careless as to whether he ever got a meal again until the Motor worked. But there was the boy to be thought of, and desperate as the unhappy inventor was, he would not starve his son as well as himself. He was quite sure of his little balance, though he had never had any head for figures of that sort. It was an easy affair in his eyes to handle the differential calculus, which will do anything, metaphorically speaking, from smashing a rock as flat and thin as a postage stamp, to regulating an astronomical clock; but to understand the complication of a pass-book and a bank account was a matter of the greatest possible difficulty. Newton would have done it much better, though he could not get to the head of his class in arithmetic. That is the difference between being an inventor and having a practical mind. As for Mrs. Overholt, she was perfectly wonderful at keeping accounts; but then she had been taught a great many things, from music and drawing to compound interest and double entry, and she had been taught them all just so far as to be able to do them nicely without understanding at all what she did; which is sound modern education, and no mistake. The object of music is to make a cheerful noise, which can be done very well without pencil and paper and the rules of harmony.

But Overholt could neither make a cheerful noise, nor draw a holly leaf, nor speak French, nor even understand a pass-book, though he had invented an Air-Motor which would not work, but was a clear evidence of genius. The only business idea he had was to make his little balance last as long as possible, in spite of the terrible temptation to take it and offer it to the founder as a cash advance, if only he might have his piece of casting done. Where the rest of the money would come from he did not know; probably out of the Motor. It looked so easy; but there was the boy, and it might happen that there would be no dinner for several days.

On the first of December he cashed a cheque in the town, as usual; and he paid Barbara's wages and the coal merchant, and the month's bill for kerosene, and the butcher and the grocer, and the baker, and that was practically all; and he went to bed that night feeling that whatever happened there was a whole month before another first came round, and he owed no one anything more for the present, and Newton would not starve, and could have his Christmas turkey, if it was to be the last he ever ate, poor boy.

On the morning of December third it was still snowing slush, though it was more like real snow now, and the air was much colder; and by and by, when Overholt had read a letter that Barbara brought him, he felt so terribly cold all at once that his teeth chattered, and then he was so hot that the perspiration ran down his forehead, and he steadied himself against the heavy glass case of the Motor a moment and then almost tumbled into a sitting posture on the stool before his work-table, and his head fell forward on his hands, as if he were fainting.

The letter said that his account was overdrawn to the extent of three hundred and fifty-two dollars and thirteen cents, including the cheque he had drawn on the thirty-first, and would he please make a deposit at his earliest convenience?

It had been just a little mistake in arithmetic, that was all. He had started with the wrong balance in his note-book, and what he thought was credit was debit, but the bank where he had kept all the money that had been put up for the Motor, had wished to be friendly and good-natured to the great inventor and had not returned his cheques with N.G. on them; and if his attention had already been called to his deficit, he must have forgotten to open the letter. Like all men who are much talked of in the newspapers, though they may be as poor as Job's turkey, he received a great many circulars addressed by typewriter, and the only letters he really cared for were from his wife, so that when he was very hard at work or much preoccupied the others accumulated somewhere in the workshop, and were often forgotten.

What was perfectly clear this morning was that starvation was sitting on the doorstep and that he had no moral right whatever to the dinner Barbara was already beginning to cook, nor to another to-morrow, nor to any more; for he was a proud man, and ashamed of debt, though he mixed up debit and credit so disgracefully.

He sat there half an hour, as he had let himself fall forward, only moving a little, so that his forehead rested on his arm instead of his hands, because that was a little more comfortable, and just then he did not want to see anything, least of all the Motor. When he rose at last the sleeve of his coat was all wet with the perspiration from his forehead. He left the workshop, half shutting his eyes in order not to see the Motor; he was sure the thing was grinning at him behind the plate glass. It had two round brass valves near the top that looked like yellow eyeballs, and a lever at the bottom with double arms and a cross-bar, which made him think of an iron jaw when he was in one of his fits of nervous depression.

But John Henry Overholt was a man, and an honest one. He went straight to the writing-table in the next room and sat down, and though his hand shook, he wrote a clear and manly letter to the President of the College where he had taught so well, stating his exact position, acknowledging the failure of his invention, and asking help to find immediate employment as a teacher, even in the humblest capacity which would afford bread for his boy and himself. Presidents and principals of colleges are in constant communication with other similar institutions, and generally know of vacant positions.

When he had written his letter and read it over carefully, Overholt looked at his timetable, got his hat, coat, and umbrella, and trudged off through the slushy snow to the station, on his way to New York.

It was raining there, but it was not dismal; hurry, confusion, and noise can never be that. He had not been in the city since the day when he made his last attempt to raise money, and in his present state the contrast was overwhelming. The shopkeepers would have told him that it was a dull day for business, and that the rain was costing them hundreds of dollars every hour, because there are a vast number of people who buy things within the month before Christmas, if it is convenient and the weather is fine, but will not take the trouble if the weather is bad; and afterwards they are so glad to have saved their money that they buy nothing of that sort till the following year. For Christmas shopping is largely a matter of temptation on the one side and of weakness on the other, and you cannot tempt a man to buy your wares if he will not even go out and look at your shop window. At Christmas time every shopkeeper turns into a Serpent, with a big S and a supply of apples varying, with his capital, from a paper-bagful to a whole orchard, and though the ladies are the more easily tempted, nine generous men out of ten show no more sense just at that time than Eve herself did. The very air has temptation in it when they see the windows full of pretty things and think of their wives and their children and their old friends. Even misers relax a little then, and a famous statesman, who was somewhat close-fisted in his day, is reported to have given his young coloured servant twenty-five cents on Christmas Eve, telling him to go out to Mount Auburn Cemetery and see where the great men of New England lie buried. And the man, I believe, went there; but he was an African, and the spirit of Christmas was not in his race, for if it had moved him he would have wasted that money on cream-cakes and cookies, reflecting that the buried worthies of Massachusetts could not tell tales on him.

Overholt went down town to the bank where he kept his account and explained his little mistake very humbly, and asked for time to pay up. The teller looked at him as if he were an escaped lunatic, but on account of his great reputation as an inventor he was shown to the desk of one of the partners, which stood in a corner of the vast place, where one could converse confidentially if one did not speak above a whisper; but the stenographer girl could hear even whispering distinctly, and perhaps she sometimes took down what she heard, if the partner made a signal to her by carelessly rolling his pencil across his table.

The partner whom Overholt saw was not ill-natured, and besides, it was near Christmas, and he had been poor himself when he was young. If Overholt would kindly sign a note at sixty days for the overdraft it would be all right. The banker was sorry he could not authorise him to overdraw any further, but it was strictly against the rules, an exception had been made because Mr. Overholt was such a well-known man, and so forth. But the inventor explained that he had not meant to ask any favour, and had come to explain how he had made such a strange mistake. The banker, like the teller, thought that a man who could not count money must be mad, but was too civil, or too good-natured, to say so.

Overholt signed the note, thanked him warmly, and went away. He and his old umbrella looked very dejected as he left the building and dived into the stream of men in the street, but if he had paid any attention to his fellow-beings he would have seen here and there a number who looked quite as unhappy as he did. He had come all the way from the country expressly to explain his error, and had been in the greatest haste to get down town and have the interview over. To go home with the prospect of trying to eat a dinner that would be cold, and of sitting in his workshop all the afternoon just to stare at his failure until Newton came home, was quite another matter. If the weather had been less disagreeable he would have gone to the Central Park, to sit in a quiet corner and think matters over.

As that seemed out of the question, he walked from the bank to Forty-Second Street, taking an hour and a half over it. It was better to go on foot than to sit in a car facing a dozen or twenty strangers, who would wonder why he looked so miserable. Sensitive people always fancy that everybody is looking at them and criticising them, when in fact no one cares a straw how they look or what they do.

Then, too, he was in such a morbid state of mind about his debt that it looked positively wrong to spend five cents on a car-fare; even the small change in his pocket was not his own, and that, and hundreds of dollars besides, must be paid back in sixty days. Otherwise he supposed he would be bankrupt, which, to his simple mind, meant disgrace as well as ruin.

It had stopped raining before he reached Grace Church, and as he crossed Madison Square the sun shone out, the wind had veered to the west, and the sky was clearing all round. The streets had seemed full before, but they were positively choking with people now. The shops drew them in and blew them out again with much less cash about them, as a Pacific whale swallows water and spouts it out, catching the little fish by thousands with his internal whalebone fishing-net. But, unlike the fishes, the people were not a whit less pleased. On the contrary, there was something in the faces of almost all that is only seen once a year in New York, and then only for certain hours; and that is real good-will. For whatever the most home-loving New Yorker may say of his own great city, good-will to men is not its dominant characteristic, nor peace its most remarkable feature.

Even poor Overholt, half crazy with disappointment and trouble, could not help noticing the difference between the expressions of the men he had seen down town and of those who were thronging the shops and the sidewalks in Fifth Avenue. In Wall Street and adjacent Broadway a great many looked like more or less discontented birds of prey looking out for the next meal, and a few might have been compared to replete vultures; but here all those who were not alone were talking with their companions, and many were smiling, and now and then a low laugh was heard, which is a very rare thing in Fifth Avenue, though you may often hear children laughing in the Park and sometimes in the cross streets up-town.

Then there was another eagerness in the faces, that was not for money, but was the anticipation of giving pleasure before long, and of being pleased too; and that is a great part of the Christmas spirit, if it is not the spirit itself. It is doubtless more blessed to give than to receive, but the receiving is very delightful, and it is cruel to teach children that they must not look forward to having pretty presents. What is Christmas Day to a happy child but a first glimpse of heaven on earth?

Overholt glanced at the faces of the passers-by with a sort of vague surprise, wondering why they looked so happy; and then he remembered what they were doing, and all at once his heart sank like lead. What was to become of the turkey and the ice-cream on which Newton had built his hopes for Christmas? Would there be any dinner at all? Or any one to cook it? How could he go and get things which he would not be able to pay for on the first of next month, exactly a week after the feast? His imagination could glide lightly over three weeks of starvation, but at the thought of his boy's disappointment everything went to pieces, the present, the future, everything. He would have walked all the way down town again to beg for a loan of only a few dollars, enough for that one Christmas dinner; but he knew from the banker's face that such a request would be refused, as such, and he dreaded in his misery lest the money should be offered him as a charity.

He got home at last, weary and wretched, and then for the first time he remembered the letter he had written asking for employment as a teacher. He had been a very good one, and the College had been sorry to lose him; in two days he might get an answer; all hope was not gone yet, at least not quite all, and his spirits revived a little. Besides, the weather was fine now, even in Connecticut; there would be a sharp frost in the night, and Newton would soon get some skating.

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