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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter I. THE TOY SHOP
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The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter I. THE TOY SHOP Post by :efsinter Category :Long Stories Author :Temple Bailey Date :April 2012 Read :3465

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The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter I. THE TOY SHOP

BOOK ONE ON THE SHELF - CHAPTER I. THE TOY SHOP

"I cannot bear it," the Tin Soldier said, standing on the shelf, "I cannot bear it. It is so melancholy here. Let me rather go to the wars and lose my arms and legs."

HANS ANDERSEN: The Old House.

 

THE TOY SHOP

The lights shining through the rain on the smooth street made of it a golden river.

The shabby old gentleman navigated unsteadily until he came to a corner. A lamp-post offered safe harbor. He steered for it and took his bearings. On each side of the glimmering stream loomed dark houses. A shadowy blot on the triangle he knew to be a church. Beyond the church was the intersecting avenue. Down the avenue were the small exclusive shops which were gradually encroaching on the residence section.

The shabby old gentleman took out his watch. It was a fine old watch, not at all in accord with the rest of him. It was almost six. The darkness of the November afternoon had come at five. The shabby old gentleman swung away from the lamppost and around the corner, then bolted triumphantly into the Toy Shop.

"Here I am," he said, with an attempt at buoyancy, and sat down.

"Oh," said the girl behind the counter, "you are wet."

"Well, I said I'd come, didn't I? Rain or shine? In five minutes I should have been too late--shop closed--" He lurched a little towards her.

She backed away from him. "You--you are--wet--won't you take cold--?"

"Never take cold--glad to get here--" He smiled and shut his eyes, opened them and smiled again, nodded and recovered, nodded and came to rest with his head on the counter.

The girl made a sudden rush for the rear door of the shop. "Look here, Emily. Poor old duck!"

Emily, standing in the doorway, surveyed the sleeping derelict scornfully. "You'd better put him out. It is six o'clock, Jean--"

"He was here yesterday--and he was furious because I wouldn't sell him any soldiers. He said he wanted to make a bonfire of the Prussian ones--and to buy the French and English ones for his son," she laughed.

"Of course you told him they were not for sale."

"Yes. But he insisted. And when he went away he told me he'd come again and bring a lot of money--"

The shabby old gentleman, rousing at the psychological moment, threw on the counter a roll of bills and murmured brokenly:

"'Ten little soldiers fighting on the line,
One was blown to glory, and, then there were nine--!'"


His head fell forward and again he slept.

"Disgusting," said Emily Bridges; "of course we've got to get him out."

Getting him out, however, offered difficulties. He was a very big old gentleman, and they were little women.

"We might call the police--"

"Oh, Emily--"

"Well, if you can suggest anything better. We must close the shop."

"We might put him in a taxi--and send him home."

"He probably hasn't any home."

"Don't be so pessimistic--he certainly has money."

"You don't know where he got it. You can't be too careful, Jean--"

The girl, touching the old man's shoulder, asked, "Where do you live?"

He murmured indistinctly.

"Where?" she bent her ear down to him.

Waking, he sang:

"Two little soldiers, blowing up a Hun--
The darned thing--exploded--
And then there was--One--"

"Oh, Emily, did you ever hear anything so funny?"

Emily couldn't see the funny side of it. It was tragic and it was disconcerting. "I don't know what to do. Perhaps you'd better call a taxi."

"He's shivering, Emily. I believe I'll make him a cup of chocolate."

"Dear child, it will be a lot of trouble--"

"I'd like to do it--really."

"Very well." Emily was not unsympathetic, but she had had a rather wearing life. Her love of toys and of little children had kept her human, otherwise she had a feeling that she might have hardened into chill spinsterhood.

As Jean disappeared through the door, the elder woman moved about the shop, setting it in order for the night. It was a labor of love to put the dolls to bed, to lock the glass doors safely on the puffy rabbits and woolly dogs and round-eyed cats, to close the drawers on the tea-sets and Lilliputian kitchens, to shut into boxes the tin soldiers that their queer old customer had craved.

For more than a decade Emily Bridges had kept the shop. Originally it had been a Thread and Needle Shop, supplying people who did not care to go downtown for such wares.

Then one Christmas she had put in a few things to attract the children. The children had come, and gradually there had been more toys--until at last she had found herself the owner of a Toy Shop, with the thread and needle and other staid articles stuck negligently in the background.

Yet in the last three years it had been hard to keep up the standard which she had set for herself. Toys were made in Germany, and the men who had made them were in the trenches, the women who had helped were in the fields--the days when the bisque babies had smiled on happy working-households were over. There was death and darkness where once the rollicking clowns and dancing dolls had been set to mechanical music.

Jean, coming back with the chocolate, found Emily with a great white plush elephant in her arms. His trappings were of red velvet and there was much gold; he was the last of a line of assorted sizes.

There had always been a white elephant in Miss Emily's window. Painfully she had seen her supply dwindle. For this last of the herd, she had a feeling far in excess of his value, such as a collector might have for a rare coin of a certain minting, or a bit of pottery of a pre-historic period.

She had not had the heart to sell him. "I may never get another. And there are none made like him in America."

"After the war--" Jean had hinted.

Miss Emily had flared, "Do you think I shall buy toys of Germany after this war?"

"Good for you, Emily. I was afraid you might."

But tonight a little pensively Miss Emily wrapped the old mastodon up in a white cloth. "I believe I'll take him home with me. People are always asking to buy him, and it's hard to explain."

"I should say it is. I had an awful time with him," she indicated the old gentleman, "yesterday."

She set the tray down on the counter. There was a slim silver pot on it, and a thin green cup. She poked the sleeping man with a tentative finger. "Won't you please wake up and have some chocolate."

Rousing, he came slowly to the fact of her hospitality. "My dear young lady," he said, with a trace of courtliness, "you shouldn't have troubled--" and reached out a trembling hand for the cup. There was a ring on the hand, a seal ring with a coat of arms. As he drank the chocolate eagerly, he spilled some of it on his shabby old coat.

He was facing the door. Suddenly it opened, and his cup fell with a crash.

A young man came in. He too, was shabby, but not as shabby as the old gentleman. He had on a dilapidated rain-coat, and a soft hat. He took off his hat, showing hair that was of an almost silvery fairness. His eyebrows made a dark pencilled line--his eyes were gray. It was a striking face, given a slightly foreign air by a small mustache.

He walked straight up to the old man, laid his hand on his shoulder, "Hello, Dad." Then, anxiously, to the two women, "I hope he hasn't troubled you. He isn't quite--himself."

Jean nodded. "I am so glad you came. We didn't know what to do."

"I've been looking for him--" He bent to pick up the broken cup. "I'm dreadfully sorry. You must let me pay for it."

"Oh, no."

"Please." He was looking at it. "It was valuable?"

"Yes," Jean admitted, "it was one of Emily's precious pets."

"Please don't think any more about it," Emily begged. "You had better get your father home at once, and put him to bed with a hot water bottle."

Now that the shabby youth was looking at her with troubled eyes, Emily found herself softening towards the old gentleman. Simply as a derelict she had not cared what became of him. But as the father of this son, she cared.

"Thank you, I will. We must be going, Dad."

The old gentleman stood up. "Wait a minute--I came for tin soldiers--Derry--"

"They are not for sale," Miss Emily stated. "They are made in Germany. I can't get any more. I have withdrawn everything of the kind from my selling stock."

The shabby old gentleman murmured, disconsolately.

"Oh, Emily," said the girl behind the counter, "don't you think we might--?"

Derry Drake glanced at her with sudden interest. She had an unusual voice, quick and thrilling. It matched her beauty, which was of a rare quality--white skin, blue eyes, crinkled hair like beaten copper.

"I don't see," he said, smiling for the first time, "what Dad wants of tin soldiers."

"To make 'em fight," said the shabby old man, "we've got to have some fighting blood in the family."

The smile was struck from the young man's face. Out of a dead silence, he said at last, "You were very good to look after him. Come, Dad." His voice was steady, but the flush that had flamed in his cheeks was still there, as he put his arm about the shaky old man and led him to the door.

"Thank you both again," he said from the threshold. Then, with his head high, he steered his unsteady parent out into the rain.

It was late when the two women left the shop. Miss Emily, struggling down the block with her white elephant, found, in a few minutes, harbor in her boarding house. But Jean lived in the more fashionable section beyond Dupont Circle. Her father was a doctor with a practice among the older district people, who, in spite of changing administrations and fluctuating populations, had managed, to preserve their family traditions and social identity.

Dr. McKenzie did not always dine at home. But tonight when Jean came down he was at the head of the table. He was a big, handsome man with crinkled hair like his daughter's, copper-colored and cut close to his rather classic head.

Hilda Merritt was also at the table. She was a trained nurse, who, having begun life as the Doctor's office-girl, had, gradually, after his wife's death, assumed the management of his household. Jean was not fond of her. She had repeatedly begged that her dear Emily might take Miss Merritt's place.

"But Hilda is much younger," her father had contended, "and much more of a companion for you."

"She isn't a companion at all, Daddy. We haven't the same thoughts."

But Hilda had stayed on, and Jean had sought her dear Emily's company in the little shop. Sometimes she waited on customers. Sometimes she worked in the rear room. It was always a great joke to feel that she was really helping. In all her life her father had never let her do a useful thing.

The table was lighted with candles, and there was a silver dish of fruit in the center. The dinner was well-served by a trim maid.

Jean ate very little. Her father noticed her lack of appetite, "Why don't you eat your dinner, dear?"

"I had chocolate at Emily's."

"I don't think she ought to go there so often," Miss Merritt complained.

"Why not?" Jean's voice was like the crack of a whip.

"It is so late when you get home. It isn't safe."

"I can always send the car for you, Jean," her father said. "I don't care to have you out alone."

"Having the car isn't like walking. You know it isn't, Daddy, with the rain against your cheeks and the wind--"

Dr. McKenzie's quick imagination was fired. His eyes were like Jean's, lighted from within.

"I suppose it is all right if she comes straight up Connecticut Avenue, Hilda?"

Miss Merritt had long white hands which lay rather limply on the table. Her arms were bare. She was handsome in a red-cheeked, blond fashion.

"Of course if you think it is all right, Doctor--"

"It is up to Jean. If she isn't afraid, we needn't worry."

"I'm not afraid of anything."

He smiled at her. She was so pretty and slim and feminine in her white gown, with a string of pearls on her white neck. He liked pretty things and he liked her fearlessness. He had never been afraid. It pleased him that his daughter should share his courage.

"Perhaps, if I am not too busy, I will come for you the next time you go to the shop. Would walking with me break the spell of the wind and wet?"

"You know it wouldn't. It would be quite--heavenly--Daddy."

After dinner, Doctor McKenzie read the evening paper. Jean sat on the rug in front of the fire and knitted for the soldiers. She had made sweaters until it seemed sometimes as if she saw life through a haze of olive-drab.

"I am going to knit socks next," she told her father.

He looked up from his paper. "Did you ever stop to think what it means to a man over there when a woman says 'I'm going to knit socks'?"

Jean nodded. That was one of the charms which her father had for her. He saw things. It was tired soldiers at this moment, marching in the cold and needing--socks.

Hilda, having no vision, remarked from the corner where she sat with her book, "There's no sense in all this killing--I wish we'd kept out of it."

"Wasn't there any sense," said little Jean from the hearth rug, "in Bunker Hill and Valley Forge?"

Hilda evaded that. "Anyhow, I'm glad they've stopped playing the 'Star-Spangled Banner' at the movies. I'm tired of standing up."

Jean voiced her scorn. "I'd stand until I dropped, rather than miss a note of it."

Doctor McKenzie interposed:

"'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things,
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--'"

"Oh, Daddy," Jean reproached him, "I should think you might be serious."

"I am not just twenty--and I have learned to bank my fires. And you mustn't take Hilda too literally. She doesn't mean all that she says, do you, Hilda?"

He patted Miss Merritt on the shoulder as he went out. Jean hated that. And Hilda's blush.

With the Doctor gone, Hilda shut herself up in the office to balance her books.

Jean went on with her knitting, Hilda did not knit. When she was not helping in the office or in the house, her hands lay idle in her lap.

Jean's mind, as she worked, was on those long white hands of Hilda's. Her own hands had short fingers like her father's. Her mother's hands had been slender and transparent. Hilda's hands were not slender, they had breadth as well as length, and the skin was thick. Even the whiteness was like the flesh of a fish, pale and flabby. No, there was no beauty at all in Hilda's hands.

Once Jean had criticised them to her father. "I think they are ugly."

"They are useful hands, and they have often helped me."

"I like Emily's hands much better."

"Oh, you and your Emily," he had teased.

Yet Jean's words came back to the Doctor the next night, as he sat in the Toy Shop waiting to escort his daughter home.

Miss Emily was serving a customer, a small boy in a red coat and baggy trousers. A nurse stood behind the small boy, and played, as it were, Chorus. She wore a blue cape and a long blue bow on the back of her hat.

The small boy was having the mechanical toys wound up for him. He expressed a preference for the clowns, but didn't like the colors.

"I want him boo'," he informed Miss Emily, "he's for a girl, and she yikes boo'."

"Blue," said the nurse austerely, "you know your mother doesn't like baby talk, Teddy."

"Ble-yew--" said the small boy, carefully.

"Blue clowns," Miss Emily stated, sympathetically, "are hard to get. Most of them are red. I have the nicest thing that I haven't shown you. But it costs a lot--"

"It's a birfday present," said the small boy.

"Birthday," from the Chorus.

"Be-yirthday," was the amended version, "and I want it nice."

Miss Emily brought forth from behind the glass doors of a case a small green silk head of lettuce. She set it on the counter, and her fingers found the key, then clickety-click, clickety-click, she wound it up. It played a faint tune, the leaves opened--a rabbit with a wide-frilled collar rose in the center. He turned from side to side, he waggled his ears, and nodded his head, he winked an eye; then he disappeared, the leaves closed, the music stopped.

The small boy was entranced. "It's boo-ful--"

"Beautiful--" from the background.

"Be-yewtiful--. I'll take it, please."

It was while Miss Emily was winding the toy that Dr. McKenzie noticed her bands. They were young hands, quick and delightful hands. They hovered over the toy, caressingly, beat time to the music, rested for a moment on the shoulders of the little boy as he stood finally with upturned face and tied-up parcel.

"I'm coming adain," he told her.

"Again--."

"Ag-yain--," patiently.

"I hope you will." Miss Emily held out her hand. She did not kiss him. He was a boy, and she knew better.

When he had gone, importantly, Emily saw the Doctor's eyes upon her. "I hated to sell it," she said, with a sigh; "goodness knows when I shall get another. But I can't resist the children--"

He laughed. "You are a miser, Emily."

He had known her for many years. She was his wife's distant cousin, and had been her dearest friend. She had taught in a private school before she opened her shop, and Jean had been one of her pupils. Since Mrs. McKenzie's death it had been Emily who had mothered Jean.

The Doctor had always liked her, but without enthusiasm. His admiration of women depended largely on their looks. His wife had meant more to him than that, but it had been her beauty which had first held him.

Emily Bridges had been a slender and diffident girl. She had kept her slenderness, but she had lost her diffidence, and she had gained an air of distinction. She dressed well, her really pretty feet were always carefully shod and her hair carefully waved. Yet she was one of the women who occupy the background rather than the foreground of men's lives--the kind of woman for whom a man must be a Columbus, discovering new worlds for himself.

"Yon are a miser," the Doctor repeated.

"Wouldn't you be, under the same circumstances? If it were, for example, surgical instruments--anaesthetics--? And you knew that when they were gone you wouldn't get any more?"

He did not like logic in a woman. He wanted to laugh and tease. "Jean told me about the white elephant."

"Well, what of it? I have him at home--safe. In a big box--with moth-balls--" Her lips twitched. "Oh, it must seem funny to anyone who doesn't feel as I do."

The door of the rear room opened, and Jean came in, carrying in her arms an assortment of strange creatures which she set in a row on the floor in front of her father.

"There?" she asked, "what do you think of them?"

They were silhouettes of birds and beasts, made of wood, painted and varnished. But such ducks had never quacked, such geese had never waddled, such dogs had never barked--fantastic as a nightmare--too long--too broad--exaggerated out of all reality, they might have marched with Alice from Wonderland or from behind the Looking Glass.

"I made them, Daddy."

"You--."

"Yes, do you like them?"

"Aren't they a bit--uncanny?"

"We've sold dozens; the children adore them."

"And you haven't told me you were doing it. Why?"

"I wanted you to see them first--a surprise. We call them the Lovely Dreams, and we made the ducks green and the pussy cats pink because that's the way the children see them in their own little minds--"

She was radiant. "And I am making money, Daddy. Emily had such a hard time getting toys after the war began, so we thought we'd try. And we worked out these. I get a percentage on all sales."

He frowned. "I am not sure that I like that."

"Why not?"

"Don't I give you money enough?"

"Of course. But this is different."

"How different?"

"It is my own. Don't you see?"

Being a man he did not see, but Miss Emily did. "Any work that is worth doing at all is worth being paid for. You know that, Doctor."

He did know it, but he didn't like to have a woman tell him. "She doesn't need the money."

"I do. I am giving it to the Red Cross. Please don't be stuffy about it, Daddy."

"Am I stuffy?"

"Yes."

He tried to redeem himself by a rather tardy enthusiasm and succeeded. Jean brought out more Lovely Dreams, until a grotesque procession stretched across the room.

"Tomorrow," she announced, triumphantly, "we'll put them in the window, and you'll see the children coming."

As she carried them away, Doctor McKenzie said to Emily, "It seems strange that she should want to do it."

"Not at all. She needs an outlet for her energies."

"Oh, does she?"

"If she weren't your daughter, you'd know it."

On the way home he said, "I am very proud of you, my dear."

Jean had tucked her arm through his. It was not raining, but the sky was full of ragged clouds, and the wind blew strongly. They felt the push of it as they walked against it.

"Oh," she said, with her cheek against his rough coat, "are you proud of me because of my green ducks and my pink pussy cats?"

But she knew it was more than that, although he laughed, and she laughed with him, as if his pride in her was a thing which they took lightly. But they both walked a little faster to keep pace with their quickened blood.

Thus their walk became a sort of triumphant progress. They passed the British Embassy with the Lion and the Unicorn watching over it in the night; they rounded the Circle and came suddenly upon a line of motor cars.

"The Secretary is dining a rather important commission," the Doctor said; "it was in the paper. They are to have a war feast--three courses, no wine, and limited meats and sweets."

They stopped for a moment as the guests descended from their cars and swept across the sidewalk. The lantern which swung low from the arched entrance showed a spot of rosy color--the velvet wrap of a girl whose knot of dark curls shone above the ermine collar. A Spanish comb, encrusted with diamonds, was stuck at right angles to the knot.

Beside the young woman in the rosy wrap walked a young man in a fur coat who topped her by a head. He had gray eyes and a small upturned mustache--Jean uttered an exclamation.

"What's the matter?" her father asked.

"Oh, nothing--" she watched the two ascend the stairs. "I thought for a moment that I knew him."

The great door opened and closed, the rosy wrap and the fur coat were swallowed up.

"Of course it couldn't be," Jean decided as she and her father continued on their wonderful way.

"Couldn't be what, my dear?"

"The same man, Daddy," Jean said, and changed the subject.

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