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A Christmas Carol
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How Christmas Came To The Santa Maria Flats






ELIA W. PEATTIE


THERE were twenty-six flat children, and none of them had ever been flat
children until that year. Previously they had all been home children and
as such had, of course, had beautiful Christmases, in which their
relations with Santa Claus had been of the most intimate and personal
nature.

Now, owing to their residence in the Santa Maria flats, and the Lease,
all was changed. The Lease was a strange forbiddance, a ukase issued by
a tyrant, which took from children their natural liberties and rights.

Though, to be sure--as every one of the flat children knew--they were in
the greatest kind of luck to be allowed to live at all, and especially
were they fortunate past the lot of children to be permitted to live in
a flat. There were many flats in the great city, so polished and carved
and burnished and be-lackeyed that children were not allowed to enter
within the portals, save on visits of ceremony in charge of parents or
governesses. And in one flat, where Cecil de Koven le Baron was
born--just by accident and without intending any harm--he was evicted,
along with his parents, by the time he reached the age where he seemed
likely to be graduated from the go-cart. And yet that flat had not
nearly so imposing a name as the Santa Maria.

The twenty-six children of the Santa Maria flats belonged to twenty
families. All of these twenty families were peculiar, as you might learn
any day by interviewing the families concerning one another. But they
bore with each other's peculiarities quite cheerfully and spoke in the
hall when they met. Sometimes this tolerance would even extend to
conversation about the janitor, a thin creature who did the work of five
men. The ladies complained that he never smiled.

"I wouldn't so much mind the hot water pipes leaking now and then," the
ladies would remark in the vestibule, rustling their skirts to show that
they wore silk petticoats, "if only the janitor would smile. But he
looks like a cemetery."

"I know it," would be the response. "I told Mr. Wilberforce last night
that if he would only get a cheerful janitor I wouldn't mind our having
rubber instead of Axminster on the stairs."

"You know we were promised Axminster when we moved in," would be the
plaintive response. The ladies would stand together for a moment wrapped
in gloomy reflection, and then part.

The kitchen and nurse maids felt on the subject, too.

"If Carl Carlsen would only smile," they used to exclaim in sibilant
whispers, as they passed on the way to the laundry. "If he'd come in an'
joke while we wus washin'!"

Only Kara Johnson never said anything on the subject because she knew
why Carlsen didn't smile, and was sorry for it, and would have made it
all right--if it hadn't been for Lars Larsen.

Dear, dear, but this is a digression from the subject of the Lease. That
terrible document was held over the heads of the children as the
Herodian pronunciamento concerning small boys was over the heads of the
Israelites.

It was in the Lease not to run--not to jump--not to yell. It was in the
Lease not to sing in the halls, not to call from story to story, not to
slide down the banisters. And there were blocks of banisters so smooth
and wide and beautiful that the attraction between them and the seats of
the little boy's trousers was like the attraction of a magnet for a
nail. Yet not a leg, crooked or straight, fat or thin, was ever to be
thrown over these polished surfaces!

It was in the Lease, too, that no peddler or agent, or suspicious
stranger was to enter the Santa Maria, neither by the front door nor the
back. The janitor stood in his uniform at the rear, and the lackey in
his uniform at the front, to prevent any such intrusion upon the privacy
of the aristocratic Santa Marias. The lackey, who politely directed
people, and summoned elevators, and whistled up tubes and rang bells,
thus conducting the complex social life of those favoured apartments,
was not one to make a mistake, and admit any person not calculated to
ornament the front parlours of the flatters.

It was this that worried the children.

For how could such a dear, disorderly, democratic rascal as the
children's saint ever hope to gain a pass to that exclusive entrance and
get up to the rooms of the flat children?

"You can see for yourself," said Ernest, who lived on the first floor,
to Roderick who lived on the fourth, "that if Santa Claus can't get up
the front stairs, and can't get up the back stairs, that all he can do
is to come down the chimney. And he can't come down the chimney--at
least, he can't get out of the fireplace."

"Why not?" asked Roderick, who was busy with an "all-day sucker" and not
inclined to take a gloomy view of anything.

"Goosey!" cried Ernest, in great disdain. "I'll show you!" and he led
Roderick, with his sucker, right into the best parlour, where the
fireplace was, and showed him an awful thing.

Of course, to the ordinary observer, there was nothing awful about the
fireplace. Everything in the way of bric-a-brac possessed by the Santa
Maria flatters was artistic. It may have been in the Lease that only
people with aesthetic tastes were to be admitted to the apartments.
However that may be, the fireplace, with its vases and pictures and
trinkets, was something quite wonderful. Indian incense burned in a
mysterious little dish, pictures of purple ladies were hung in odd
corners, calendars in letters nobody could read, served to decorate, if
not to educate, and glass vases of strange colours and extraordinary
shapes stood about filled with roses. None of these things were awful.
At least no one would have dared say they were. But what was awful was
the formation of the grate.

It was not a hospitable place with andirons, where noble logs of wood
could be laid for the burning, nor did it have a generous iron basket
where honest anthracite could glow away into the nights. Not a bit of
it. It held a vertical plate of stuff that looked like dirty cotton
wool, on which a tiny blue flame leaped when the gas was turned on and
ignited.

"You can see for yourself!" said Ernest tragically.

Roderick could see for himself. There was an inch-wide opening down
which the Friend of the Children could squeeze himself, and, as
everybody knows, he needs a good deal of room now, for he has grown
portly with age, and his pack every year becomes bigger, owing to the
ever-increasing number of girls and boys he has to supply.

"Gimini!" said Roderick, and dropped his all-day sucker on the old
Bokara rug that Ernest's mamma had bought the week before at a
fashionable furnishing shop, and which had given the sore throat to all
the family, owing to some cunning little germs that had come over with
the rug to see what American throats were like.

Oh, me, yes! but Roderick could see! Anybody could see! And a boy could
see better than anybody.

"Let's go see the Telephone Boy," said Roderick. This seemed the wisest
thing to do. When in doubt, all the children went to the Telephone Boy,
who was the most fascinating person, with knowledge of the most
wonderful kind and of a nature to throw that of Mrs. Scheherazade quite,
quite in the shade--which, considering how long that loquacious lady had
been a Shade, is perhaps not surprising.

The Telephone Boy knew the answers to all the conundrums in the world,
and a way out of nearly all troubles such as are likely to overtake boys
and girls. But now he had no suggestions to offer and could speak no
comfortable words.

"He can't git inter de frunt, an' he can't git inter de back, an' he
can't come down no chimney in dis here house, an' I tell yer dose," he
said, and shut his mouth grimly, while cold apprehension crept around
Ernest's heart and took the sweetness out of Roderick's sucker.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, and the boys each and individually
asked their fathers--tremendously wise and good men--if they thought
there was any hope that Santa Claus would get into the Santa Maria
flats, and each of the fathers looked up from his paper and said he'd be
blessed if he did!

And the words sunk deep and deep and drew the tears when the doors were
closed and the soft black was all about and nobody could laugh because a
boy was found crying! The girls cried too--for the awful news was
whistled up tubes and whistled down tubes, till all the twenty-six flat
children knew about it. The next day it was talked over in the brick
court, where the children used to go to shout and race. But on this day
there was neither shouting nor racing. There was, instead, a shaking of
heads, a surreptitious dropping of tears, a guessing and protesting and
lamenting. All the flat mothers congratulated themselves on the fact
that their children were becoming so quiet and orderly, and wondered
what could have come over them when they noted that they neglected to
run after the patrol wagon as it whizzed round the block.

It was decided, after a solemn talk, that every child should go to its
own fireplace and investigate. In the event of any fireplace being found
with an opening big enough to admit Santa Claus, a note could be left
directing him along the halls to the other apartments. A spirit of
universal brotherhood had taken possession of the Santa Maria flatters.
Misery bound them together. But the investigation proved to be
disheartening. The cruel asbestos grates were everywhere. Hope lay
strangled!

As time went on, melancholy settled upon the flat children. The parents
noted it, and wondered if there could be sewer gas in the apartments.
One over-anxious mother called in a physician, who gave the poor little
child some medicine which made it quite ill. No one suspected the truth,
though the children were often heard to say that it was evident that
there was to be no Christmas for them! But then, what more natural for a
child to say, thus hoping to win protestations--so the mothers reasoned,
and let the remark pass.

The day before Christmas was gray and dismal. There was no wind--indeed,
there was a sort of tightness in the air, as if the supply of freshness
had given out. People had headaches--even the Telephone Boy was
cross--and none of the spirit of the time appeared to enliven the flat
children. There appeared to be no stir--no mystery. No whisperings went
on in the corners--or at least, so it seemed to the sad babies of the
Santa Maria.

"It's as plain as a monkey on a hand-organ," said the Telephone Boy to
the attendants at his salon in the basement, "that there ain't to be no
Christmas for we--no, not for we!"

Had not Dorothy produced, at this junction, from the folds of her fluffy
silken skirts several substantial sticks of gum, there is no saying to
what depths of discouragement the flat children would have fallen!

About six o'clock it seemed as if the children would smother for lack of
air! It was very peculiar. Even the janitor noticed it. He spoke about
it to Kara at the head of the back stairs, and she held her hand so as
to let him see the new silver ring on her fourth finger, and he let go
of the rope on the elevator on which he was standing and dropped to the
bottom of the shaft, so that Kara sent up a wild hallo of alarm. But the
janitor emerged as melancholy and unruffled as ever, only looking at his
watch to see if it had been stopped by the concussion.

The Telephone Boy, who usually got a bit of something hot sent down to
him from one of the tables, owing to the fact that he never ate any meal
save breakfast at home, was quite forgotten on this day, and dined off
two russet apples, and drew up his belt to stop the ache--for the
Telephone Boy was growing very fast indeed, in spite of his poverty, and
couldn't seem to stop growing somehow, although he said to himself every
day that it was perfectly brutal of him to keep on that way when his
mother had so many mouths to feed.

Well, well, the tightness of the air got worse. Every one was cross at
dinner and complained of feeling tired afterward, and of wanting to go
to bed. For all of that it was not to get to sleep, and the children
tossed and tumbled for a long time before they put their little hands in
the big, soft shadowy clasp of the Sandman, and trooped away after him
to the happy town of sleep.

It seemed to the flat children that they had been asleep but a few
moments when there came a terrible burst of wind that shook even that
great house to its foundations. Actually, as they sat up in bed and
called to their parents or their nurses, their voices seemed smothered
with roar. Could it be that the wind was a great wild beast with a
hundred tongues which licked at the roof of the building? And how many
voices must it have to bellow as it did?

Sounds of falling glass, of breaking shutters, of crashing chimneys
greeted their ears--not that they knew what all these sounds meant. They
only knew that it seemed as if the end of the world had come. Ernest,
miserable as he was, wondered if the Telephone Boy had gotten safely
home, or if he were alone in the draughty room in the basement; and
Roderick hugged his big brother, who slept with him and said, "Now I lay
me," three times running, as fast as ever his tongue would say it.

After a terrible time the wind settled down into a steady howl like a
hungry wolf, and the children went to sleep, worn out with fright and
conscious that the bedclothes could not keep out the cold.

Dawn came. The children awoke, shivering. They sat up in bed and looked
about them--yes, they did, the whole twenty-six of them in their
different apartments and their different homes.

And what do you suppose they saw--what do you suppose the twenty-six
flat children saw as they looked about them?

Why, stockings, stuffed full, and trees hung full, and boxes packed
full! Yes, they did! It was Christmas morning, and the bells were
ringing, and all the little flat children were laughing, for Santa Claus
had come! He had really come! In the wind and wild weather, while the
tongues of the wind licked hungrily at the roof, while the wind howled
like a hungry wolf, he had crept in somehow and laughing, no doubt, and
chuckling, without question, he had filled the stockings and the trees
and the boxes! Dear me, dear me, but it was a happy time! It makes me
out of breath to think what a happy time it was, and how surprised the
flat children were, and how they wondered how it could ever have
happened.

But they found out, of course! It happened in the simplest way! Every
skylight in the place was blown off and away, and that was how the wind
howled so, and how the bedclothes would not keep the children warm, and
how Santa Claus got in. The wind corkscrewed down into these holes, and
the reckless children with their drums and dolls, their guns and toy
dishes, danced around in the maelstrom and sang:

"Here's where Santa Claus came!
This is how he got in--
We should count it a sin
Yes, count it a shame,
If it hurt when he fell on the floor."

Roderick's sister, who was clever for a child of her age, and who had
read Monte Cristo ten times, though she was only eleven, wrote this
poem, which every one thought very fine.

And of course all the parents thought and said that Santa Claus must
have jumped down the skylights. By noon there were other skylights put
in, and not a sign left of the way he made his entrance--not that the
way mattered a bit, no, not a bit.

Perhaps you think the Telephone Boy didn't get anything! Maybe you
imagine that Santa Claus didn't get down that far. But you are mistaken.
The shaft below one of the skylights went away to the bottom of the
building, and it stands to reason that the old fellow must have fallen
way through. At any rate there was a copy of "Tom Sawyer," and a whole
plum pudding, and a number of other things, more useful but not so
interesting, found down in the chilly basement room. There were, indeed.

In closing it is only proper to mention that Kara Johnson crocheted a
white silk four-in-hand necktie for Carl Carlsen, the janitor--and the
janitor smiled!

FOOTNOTE:

[N] From "Ickery Ann and Other Girls and Boys," by Ella W. Peattie
Copyright, 1898, by Herbert S. Stone & Co., Duffield & Co., successors.





Next: The Legend Of Babouscka

Previous: A Christmas Carol



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