HOW SANTA CLAUS FOUND THE POOR-HOUSE
By Sophie Swett
HELIOGABALUS was shoveling snow. The snow was very deep, and the path from the front door to the road was a long one, and the shovel was almost as big as Heliogabalus.
But Gobaly—as everybody called him, for short—didn’t give up easily. You might have known that he wouldn’t give up easily by one glance at his sturdy little figure, at his bright, wide-open eyes, his firm mouth, and his square, prominent chin; even the little, turned-up end of his nose looked resolute.
Besides, Mrs. Pynchum had told him to shovel out the path; and she had a switch behind the wood-shed door, to say nothing of her slipper.
Mrs. Pynchum kept the poor-farm, and Gobaly was “town’s poor.” The boys sometimes called him that, when he went to coast on Three-Pine Hill or to see the skating on the mill-pound; and sometimes, too, they made fun of his clothes. But it was only the boys who were a great deal bigger than he who
dared to make fun of Gobaly, and some of them even ran when he doubled up his fists. But Methuselah! I don’t know what would have become of Methuselah if he had not had Gobaly to defend him. For he was a delicate little fellow; “spindlin’ and good for nothin’,” Mrs. Pynchum called him; and he had come to her in a basket—in other words, Methuselah was a foundling.
Mrs. Pynchum “didn’t think much of children who came in a basket from no body knew where. It didn’t seem to be long to Poplarville to support him, since he didn’t belong to anybody that ever lived there, and his keep and his medicine cost more than he would ever be worth to anybody.”
Gobaly’s mother died in the poor-house, and left him there, a baby; she had always lived in the town, and so had his father, so of course Gobaly had a perfect right there; and old Dr. Barnacle, who was very learned, had said of him that he was an uncommonly fine baby, and had named him Heliogabalus.
Besides, he was strong and willing, and did a great deal of work. Mrs. Pynchum “could put up with Gobaly.” But. Methuselah, she said, was “a thorn in her side.” And now, after being a trial all his life, he had a hip disease, which the doctor feared was incurable, and which made him more troublesome still!
But, after all, Mrs. Pynchum wasn’t quite so bad as one would have thought from her talk. She must have had a soft spot somewhere in her heart, for she put plums in Methuselah’s porridge, now that he was ill, and once she had let Gobaly leave his wood-chopping to draw him out on his sled.
I suppose there is a soft spot in everybody’s heart, only sometimes it isn’t very easy to find it; and Mrs. Pynchum might not have been so cross if she had led an easier life. There were a good many queer people in the poor-house, “flighty in their heads and wearin’ in their ways,” she said, and sometimes they must have been trying to the patience.
Once in a great while, indeed, Mrs. Pynchum was good-natured, and then, sometimes for a whole evening, the poor-house would seem like home. All those who lived there would then sit around the fire and roast apples; and Mrs. Pynchum would even unlock the closet under the back stairs, where there was a great bag full of nuts that Sandy Gooding and Gobaly had gathered; and Uncle Sim Perkins would tell stories.
But it happened very unfortunately that Mrs. Pynchum never had one of her good-natured days on Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or any holiday. She was sure to say on those days that she was “all tried to pieces.” And everybody was frightened and unhappy when Mrs. Pynchum was “all tried to pieces,” and so that was the reason why Gobaly’s heart sank as he remembered, while he was shoveling the path through the snow, that the next day was Christmas.
Some people from the village went by with a Christmas-tree, which they had cut down in the woods just beyond the poorhouse; there were children in the party, and they called to Gobaly and wished him a merry Christmas, and asked him if they were going to have a Christmas-tree at his house, and expressed
great surprise that he wasn’t going to hang up his stocking. Then one of the children suddenly exclaimed:
“Why, that’s the poor-house! It’s never Christmas there!”
Poor Gobaly’s heart sank still more as he caught these words, and somehow he felt very tired, and minded the cold, as he had not thought of minding it a moment before, and the snow-bank looked as if he never could shovel through it. For though Gobaly was stout-hearted, he didn’t like to be reminded that he was “town’s poor,” and that Christmas was nothing to him.
Just then he caught sight of Methuselah’s little pinched face pressed against the window-pane. Methuselah always had, even when he was a baby, a worn and pallid face, like a little old man, and that was why they called him Methuselah. It was cold in the front room but Methuselah had wrapped himself in a piece of an old quilt and stolen into the back room and to the window, where he could see Gobaly shoveling the snow.
Methuselah never was quite happy when Gobaly was out of his sight.
Gobaly went up to the window.
“To-morrow’s Christmas, “Thusely!” he said.
“Is it? Do you s’pose she knows it? She’ll be ‘all tried to pieces,’ won’t she?”
(“She” always meant Mrs. Pynchum in the poor-house; nobody there ever spoke of her in any other way.)
Gobaly was sadly afraid that she would, but he said, cheerfully:
“May be she won’t. May be she’ll let me take you out on my sled; and oneChristmas there was turkey and plum-pudding.”
“Must have been a good many Christmases ago; I can’t remember itl” said Methuselah. “Some folks have ‘em every Christmas, Uncle Sim says, but perhaps it isn’t true. Gobaly, do you believe there really is any Santa Claus, such as Uncle Sim tells about, or did he make it all up? To be sure, he showed me a
picture of him.”
“I know there is,” said Gobaly firmly, “because I’ve seen presents that he brought to boys and girls in the village.”
“Then why don’t he ever come here and bring us some?” said Methuselah, as if a new idea had suddenly struck him. “Do you s’pose it’s because we’re worse than any other boys in the world? She says we are, sometimes. Or may be he’s too proud to stop at the poor-house.”
“Perhaps he can’t find the way,” said Gobaly. “ ‘Cause it’s a pretty crooked road, you know. Or may be he wouldn’t think it was worth the while to come so far out of the village just for us; he wouldn’t be going to Squire Thorndike’s, because there aren’t any children there, and there aren’t any other houses on this road.”
“I wish we lived where there was a truly Christmas, like places where Uncle Sim has been; don’t you, Gobaly? May be he makes them all up, though; it seems if they must be too good to be true.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if you got lots of plums in your porridge to-morrow and perhaps a piece of mince-pie. And I’ll ask her to let me take you up to ThreePine Hill on the sled.”
Gobaly always showed the bright side of things to Methuselah and he had become so accustomed to looking for a bright side that he could find one when you wouldn’t have thought there was any there.
And whenever he found a very big lump in his throat he swallowed it for Methuselah’s sake, and pretended that he didn’t see anything in the world to cry about.
He had to go back to his shoveling then, but after he had started he turned back to say:
“When I’m a man, you shall have Christmases, ‘Thusely ! “
It was in that way that Gobaly often comforted Methuselah. It never seemed to occur to either of them that ‘Thusely might possibly grow to be a man too.
Gobaly went to work at the snow again as if it were not a bit bigger than he was, and he soon had a rampart piled up on each side of the path so high that he thought it must look like the Chinese Wall which Uncle Sim was always telling of.
As he was digging the very last shovelful of snow out of the path, he heard the jingle of sleighbells, and saw the butcher’s wagon, set upon runners and drawn by a very frisky horse, going in the direction of the village. The butcher’s boy and three of his comrades occupied the seat, and as many more boys were wedged in among the joints of meat and heaps of poultry in the back of the wagon. They were evidently combining pleasure with business in the liveliest manner.
Coming in the other direction, from the village, was a large Newfoundland dog with a basket in his mouth. Gobaly liked dogs, and he was sure that he was acquainted with everyone in the village. As he was on intimate terms with every big one, he knew that this must be a stranger.
The butcher’s boy was driving recklessly, and seemed to think it would be fun to make a sudden turn into the drifts through which the dog was bounding. The horse, taken by surprise and somewhat frightened, made a sudden plunge; and though Gobaly could not quite see how it happened, it seemed that before’ the dog had time to get out of the way, the sled had gone over him, and he lay
helpless and howling upon the snow!
The boys either found it impossible to stop their horse, or were too frightened to investigate the extent of the mischief they had done, for they went careering on, and left the poor dog to his fate.
Gobaly was at his side in a moment, patting his shaggy black head, calling him “poor doggie” and “good doggie,” and trying to discover how badly he was hurt. He came to the conclusion, after a thorough examination, that his leg was either broken or badly sprained,—and Gobaly was a judge of such things.
He had once doctored a rooster’s lame leg, and though the rooster was never again able to mount a fence, and crowed with diminished energy, he was still able to cheer his heart by fighting the three other roosters all at once, and was likely to escape the dinner-pot for a long time to come, though his gait was no longer lordly. Gobaly had also successfully treated a kitten with a sprained
ankle—to say nothing of one whose tail the gobbler had nipped off. And he had seen the doctor in the village set a puppy’s leg, and had carefully watched the operation.
He helped the dog along toward the house—and it was well that he was a strong and sturdy little fellow or he could not have done it—and managed at last to get the poor creature, unobserved, into the wood-shed. He was very much afraid that Mrs. Pynchum, if she should see him, would order him to leave the dog in the road, and he knew it would not do to carry him in beside the kitchen fire, as he wanted to, for Mrs. Pynchum never wanted “a dirty dog in her clean house.”
Go to Part 2 here.