The Christmas Spirit
The story of a Bachelor's Christmas, and of how the Spirit that he scorned, yet touched his life
I AM a bachelor of a certain age. Misguided friends call mine an advanced age, but that is not their affair. My point of view is that every man is, or should be, complete in himself, and can get along best without the meddling or interference of others. Some of my friends, or, more accurately, acquaintances, have applied to me the term “crusty” and actually in my own hearing. This again is evidence of how little about one is known by others.
I am of independent means, which is due entirely to my own efforts, and live in rooms on the Edgeware Road. To anyone who knows anything at all, this is the only way to live. No bother, no fuss, good service, compact accommodation, and everything parcelled, tied up and labelled so that one can see it. Most of the trouble in the world is due to nonsensical diffusion, whether it be of one’s person, property, knowledge or ideas.
I do a good deal of reading, and all on one subject, paleontology. One solid subject should be enough, without any of the modern trash of which one cannot avoid hearing. But it doesn’t get inside my head. Also I read one paper only, the Morning Post, because I find in it what one may call a desirable rigidity of opinion, political and otherwise. It is a comfort to subscribe to a dignified journal and read views which are not modified from day to day by what happens in this maundering universe.
I belong to one club, of course on Pall Mall—have belonged for thirty years, and, am proud to say, know personally only five members, so it will be evident that this club functions perfectly. To illustrate the absolute privacy of the place, it is only necessary to state that four years ago a member died (quietly of course) in one of the smoking rooms, and when he was thus found it was discovered from the date of the Morning Post still held in his lifeless grasp that he had expired three days previously.
But however conscientiously a man may endeavour to keep to himself, it is impossible to avoid continuously the idiotic intrusions of the outer world. It is of one of these that I now desire to speak, but thought it best to say in the first place just enough about myself to make the course I took appear, as indeed it was, perfectly rational.
MY SITTING room window looks directly across the Edgeware Road, a few corners above the Marble Arch. Opposite me are a lot of shops, jewellers of the cheaper sort, haberdashers and the like. The upper parts of these buildings are occupied by a variety of tenants, in whom I take no interest. Through the day, practically no men are visible, but in the evenings, when these happen to be fine, there is a regular procession into Hyde Park. By half-past ten the flats are occupied again, and most of the lights are out. What I have now to relate concerns primarily myself, then the tenants of a room which faced mine. It had been empty for some weeks, when one afternoon I perceived that it had been taken by a young, a very young couple. I notioed this,
then forgot all about it. My reputation is not that of a peeping Tom.
The girl was fair, and I used to notice her head and shoulders above the window sill. The two had a silly habit of leaving their blinds drawn, and if one knows that one can have a bird’s-eye view of another establishment, no matter how uninteresting, it is hard to avoid an occasional glance. Thus I gradually became aware that these youngsters seemed to be in trouble.
It will be quite clear from what I have already said that trouble is something I have studiously avoided all my life, whether my own or others. It is neither pretty nor attractive, and comes from that weakness of diffusion which has already been mentioned. In the case of my neighbours, there was no attempt to advertise it, save that their blind was left carelessly open as though they did not care who knew what went on inside. Anyway the girl used to wait often at the Edgeware Road entrance till her husband got home, then a few moments later I would see them embracing each other. And I must admit that she was a very personable young woman. The husband, whom I took occasion to pass on the street, could not have been more than twenty-five, with a thin cadaverous face and large anxious eyes. Not in any way the picture of a successful man.
That autumn and early winter the weather was very mild, and the opposite window was left open a good deal. Thus when my man served my dinner, I could easily look across to where the others were having their meal, if meal it could be called. It did not take long, and there were pauses when neither of them seemed to want to eat at all, but put down their things and simply gazed at each other. If anything is calculated to upset the digestion it is any approach to emotion while at table, and I assume that the young idiots suffered accordingly. After the girl had cleared away (there did not seem to be any servant) they developed a disgraceful habit of occupying the same chair. When not thus wasting time, she was constantly sewing at some white garments.
Now it may appear ridiculous, and indeed it was ridiculous, that my own mental comfort should have been allowed to be affected by any situation of this trivial nature, but the fact is that after a few weeks the thing began to get on my nerves. It was not sympathy, for I hold that sympathy is one of the most misleading of human frailties. I have no use for it.. The real effect was that these youngsters had found a joint in my armour of independence, and it vexed me to realise that anything they represented or suggested could reach me in any way whatever. I don’t say that I was annoyed with them as individuals. That would have been absurd, since their rights of living were as unquestioned as my own, but I
had deemed myself immune from either curiosity or vexatious disturbance, and both were beginning to be evident, on my part.
I discovered a little later by a chance question to the postman that the name was Sibley, which meant nothing to me. I had never met anyone so called, and it did not matter whether this member of that family (Sussex, I think) was a commercial traveller or a forger, though it is true that he did not look like either, lacking the requisite confident manner. The postman very seldom stopped at that door, though the girl was often there to meet him, though why she should think that this would hasten the arrival of any communication I am at a loss to conclude. Letters, in any case, are an infernal nuisance.
'T'HIS sort of thing went on till well into December, and still the weather held mild. It was the year in which there was practically no winter whatever. And as the weeks passed I found myself more and more unable to shake off that weak feeling of annoyance. I would most willingly have got them better rooms elsewhere—anywhere out of sight—but that was naturally out of the question. I could not, and would not make myself known to them in order to explain my futile resentment. Griffith’s monumental work on the paleontology of Assyria, (I was just halfway through the second volume,) began to lose its fascination. My meals, to which I ordinarily devote a good deal of thought, commenced to lack interest. Ifound myself standing well back in my sitting-room and staring across the street for no reason whatever. Sometimes I went to the Marble Aren corner with a senseless idea of seeing if young Sibley was going to get back on time. And it even came to the point of my waking up at night, growling at the thought of those youngsters sleeping with their arms round each other, which is an unsanitary and reprehensible habit. Pah!
Matters had reached this impossible stage, when one day I went into my club for a quiet smoke. I had practically decided to move, but was loath to do it for countless reasons. I might indeed find myself faced with the same sort of thing again, and after all it was grotesque that middle age should surrender to youth. But the fact was something in the boy’s attitude and wistful face, and in the girl’s slight figure and a habit she had of putting her hand on her yellow hair had fastened on my brain and would not let go. I was turning it all over for the thousandth time when the hall porter came in to the room and said something to a fellow member whom I had noticed for the last thirty years, but whom I did not know. And I thought I heard the porter mention the name of Sibley.
NOW I have never tried to meet a man in all my life, the object having rather been to avoid meeting. Nor was there any reason why this Sibley should be at all interested in any other. Friends—a few of them-i-are invariably preferable to relatives. What is more, Sibley's
face, which now I regarded seriously for the first time, struck me as being that of a man who would naturally hlod this view. But nevertheless I felt that I must meet him. Ill considered you will say, and I agree with you.
That meeting took several days to arrange, and my natural pride went overboard in the process, and when it came about Sibley was just as surprised as I expected. He had been looking at me off and on for thirty years without the faintest throb of interest. Of course he would be surprised. In conversation, which lagged a bit, I found that my views were his, but if he had had the faintest idea of the plan I had worked out, and the experiment I proposed to try, he would no doubt have at once cut me dead and lodged a complaint with the committee. What was moving in my mind was to give him a sight of those namesakes of his, and hope that he would voluntariy take some steps which would remove this disturbing factor. But nothing of this kind was attempted till the following week.
Meantime the young couple wedged themselves more firmly than ever into my consciousness. I r«member that one afternoon, it was the eighteenth of December, that boy husband got back at about three o’clock. He walked uncertainly to his door, and it was some time before I got sight of him upstairs. Then instead of falling on each others’ necks in the usual silly fashion, he just stood still and must have said something. I have no idea what it was, but the girl stood still also for a full moment, staring at him, and presently dropped into a chair and put her face between her hands. And at that he went slowly over, and bent down with his face close to hers.
I think I said that I hate sympathy. It is weakening and demoralising. Also I object to scenes of any kind. If you ask why I did not get away from my window, or at least pull down the blind, I can’t tell you. It seemed that this was something I was fated to endure. It was not mere curiosity on my part. As a matter of fact the situation had a queer fascination because it demonstrated so clearly how fatal it is to be dependent on others. These young idiots were no doubt involved in some way that was evidently serious. They were not the common type, either of them, and, I should say, rather weakling, and
what had happened, or was about to happen, was no doubt a valuable lesson of experience by which they would both ultimately benefit. After a while the girl got up and collected the white things she had been sewing at, whereupon the boy put his arms around her and they moved out of sight. I could not help wondering if all this would make the other Sibley's visit to my rooms unnecessary, and they were about to change their quarters. But thinking it over, I decided to go ahead with my plan.
NEXT day I had a longer talk with my fellow member, and found that we had more in common even than I expected. The club, we agreed, might be greatly improved. Also we were of one mind about some of the newer members who had only been in for twenty years or so. The standard was being steadily lowered, but that, it will be admitted, applies in the present day to more than clubs. It is, I assume, the deterioration of the general breed. Sibley, I noted, was just a little like his namesake, with a narrow head and a certain slope of shoulder that was suggestive. He had made a hobby of geology, and conducted a profound investigation for many years into the resistance of paving stones to traffic of a varying kind. But he knew nothing of paleontology.
I was glad, oddly enough, to meet him for another reason. It was that time of the year when the population, en masse, throws discretion to the winds, and becomes infected with what is called the Christmas Spirit. My observation of this phenomenon is that its chief use is to allow manufacturers and merchants to put up prices and increase their already preposterous profits by selling vast quantities of things which a fatuous public only thinks it wants—and must have at any cost. It can be nothing but a false gaiety which will induce—nay, force—an otherwise sensible man to rush out at ten o’clock on the night of December the twenty-fourth, and invest in hastily selected and expensive articles, spurred to desperation because forsooth his family have received some they did not expect and clo not want from some person who hitherto has not been expected to give anything. I know nothing of the reactions that must ensue from this hectic season, but imagine them to be formidable. For
my own part I dine quietly at the club at my corner table and there is no reaction. Anyway I got it into my head that this Christmas Spirit had a good deal to do with what was going on in the flat opposite my own, or perhaps with the way the youngsters were going on.
And here again Sibley was of my mind. He loathed Christmas—and said so. I wondered if he had had any wife or family, but naturally there was no way of finding out. Not that it really mattered, And of course questions like that are not in place in any club. We had two games of double dummy, which I find the most satisfactory form of whist as it needs but one other person, when 1 asked him if he would care to dine with me in my rooms on the night of the twenty-fourth.
He hesitated, looking at me rather suspiciously. “It isn’t a Christmas party?” he asked.
“No,” I said promptly, then prompted by a little malice, “But it can be, if you like.”
He shook his head with much determination. “I hate Christmas parties. Haven’t been to one for years. In fact,” —he added grimly—“it was a Christmas party that broke up my home.”
It struck me that this was a good deal for him to volunteer, but evidently the spirit of the season was workuncomfortably in his blood, just as it was in mine. However I thought it better not to appear interested.
“We will have a quiet and peaceable time,” I went on, “with no infernal nonsense about it. I’d like to hear more about your paving stone researches.”
He cheered up at that. “Alright, I’ll come. And you’ll provide the geological element. We’ll have a cheery evening, and really I’m quite looking forward to it. I say, are you going home yet?”
I was afraid he was going to invite me to dine with him, so said that I was, whereupon he pulled up short, and a queer little light that I had noticed in his eyes went out suddenly. On the way back I reflected that I had done right. No one wants to jump down another man’s throat simply because he has asked him to dine.
It may have been because my mind was on it more than usual, but whatever the reason I never noticed the Continued on page 71
The Christmas Spirit
Continued from page 17
Christmas frenzy take hold of the populace more fiercely than it did that year. I don't think it had much to do with the war being over. No, it simply meant that the germ, for it can be nothing else, had developed an extreme virulency. When I say that man and women (I don’t count, children) looked crazy, I understate the fact. Their eyes were glistening with a sort of wild and^ careless sparkle. They were burdened with shapeless parcels that constantly came undone. They gave absurd fares to the taxi drivers. They talked in high pitched ragged voices about this and that for their aunts and uncles. And what struck me as being most grotesque of all was that everyone seemed to be bent on giving rather than getting. Dignified citizens steered enormous families into second-class tea shops and fed them on stale buns when a much better meal could have been had at half the cost at home. And yet they seemed to enjoy it.
I had been astonished to read in the Morning Post that day something about the “brotherly” spirit engendered by the Christmas season, but all I have to say is that if a total lack of dignity means brotherliness, that attitude was certainly abroad. One youth, who had run into me, and to whom I of course made an apology, actually laughed in my face and said “Cheer up, Father Gloom.” And this was fairly representative of what was going on everywhere. I reached home shaken and disturbed, and wondering whether the traditional and conservative element in the country, which after all is our most valuable asset, had gone forever.
That night, it was the twenty-first of the month, the youngsters in the opposite flat had a long talk across the table which was lit by a single candle. They seemed to prefer this to gas, and their profiles stood out very clearly as they conversed. While I happened to be looking the girl took a chain from round her neck and gave it to the boy, who evidently was loth to receive it. She used her handkerchief frequently, having apparently taken cold. Presently there followed more of these preposterous embraces, to which by this time I was getting fairly well accustomed, and the young man went out. He came back half an hour later with several small parcels and, to my amazement, quite a large wreath of holly. Then they kissed again several times, and hung the holly from a gas bracket which I bad never seen lit. After that they went at the parcels like a pair of children. I went to bed.
SIBLEY turned up as arranged on the evening of the twenty-fourth, and seemed quite at home after he saw the kind of a dinner to which he had come.
I must confess that halfway through I began to find his paving stone theory rather deadly, and not in it with archaeology. He did not seem interested in that at ail, and, being my guest, 1 had to give him his head. But he did appreciate my Chateau Lafitte of '78. After dinner we played double dummy. I did not draw the blinds, and from where he sat he could see straight across the road and into the opposite flat. But he did not look that wav till later on. .
Developing my plan of campaign, 1 began to tell him about those infernal youngsters, and without indicating where they lived. It must have sounded like a confession of weakness, but I was desperate, and did not care. I explained how they exploited their troubles, the weakness they displayed for each other, the young man’s seeming inability to keep a job, and the senseless extravagance of a few nights past. Sibley, who was playing a weak game, nodded understandingly. But he did not appear to be as much disgusted as I anticipated.
“Matter of fact,” he said presently, 1 once had a family of my own very much like that. It was a good many years ago. There was a hoy and a girl The boy ran to art, which you’ll admit is a thin thing compared to my business, which is glue, and very profitable. I practically control the glue market in this country. My wife died soon after the children were born. 1 he girl ran away, and contracted a silly marriage arui I have not heard of her since. The boy started off soon after that and married a woman in Chelsea. She was also in art. 1 kept in touch with him for a year or two, tried to coax him bark
into the glue business, offered him a part nership and all that. But would you believe it, he refused to come. Then we stopped writing.”
Sibley broke off with an extraordinary expression, almost as though he wished he had gone on writing. I had begun to fee! a bit queer at all this unfolding of himself to a comparative stranger, even though I had seen him for the last thirty years; then it occurred to me that perhaps some fraction of the absurd Christmas spirit had got hold of him. He Hesitated a moment, then continued:
“The next thing I knew was that he had died. This happened when I was in America, organizing the glue combine there, in which, by the way, I am stijl interested. On my return I tried to get m touch with his wife, but she had moved, and left no address. There was, I believe, one son by this unfortunate marriage.
I GOT a little excited at this. If that, son was just across the Edgeware Road, the chances were that Sibley might for the sake of a fellow club member interest himself enough to persuade the son to move on. So it seemed that the best thing I could do was to encourage that Christmas spirit so far as I could.
“I suppose,” I ventured, “that in a time like this it is only human to be a bit weak?”
“What do you mean by weak? he asked rather quickly.
I sent a glance over his shoulder across the road. The youngsters were at it again, locked in a shameless embrace beneath the bunch of holly. It could not have been more opportune if I had asked them to arrange it.
“By weak,” I said to Sibley, “I mean this. You did what was right, and for your son’s good. He did not and would not avail himself of it. But there is, and one can’t deny the evidence of one’s eyes, , something about this season that affects most people in a curious way and leads them to throw prudence overboard.”
“Go on,” he said in an odd voice.
“Well, what I mean by weak is that now, if you had the chance, and your son's son w ere to turn up at your door with one of his father’s pictures for sale, would you buy it?—supposing it were a poor painting, which it probably would be.”
Then a most extraordinary thing happened. Sibley, who had been looking at me in the strangest fashion, began to twist his face into a new shape. I cannot describe it except by saying that all of a sudden he grew extremely old. His eyes went back into his head, and new wnnkles appeared on his cheeks. He breathed quite hard once or twice, his lips began to tremble and he leaned forward as though some one had struck him hard on the head. Finally he flung his arms out on the table, and put his face between them. This was in the middle of a same that I would easily have won. Of course I assumed first that he had had some kind of a stroke. Then the t ruth came over me in a flash, and I knew that I was going to succeed. I put my hand on his shoulder, “Sibley,” I said, “just look across the road, will you. That amorous young man
is called by your name.”
Sibley looked, and Ins eyes bulged, He stood there, without saying anything, till after a moment he breathed very hard and whispered "My God.” Then he went crazy and leaning out of the window began to shout and wave his hands like one possessed. Of course no one heard him except the people in the street, and they were too full of the Christmas spirit of frenzy to pay any attention to an elderly man who had apparently dined a shade too well. The next thing that happened was that he turned like a hound, and tore down stairs without a word to me. I saw him dash across the street, narrowly missing three taxis and two vans, then hammer at the opposite door. One minute later he was in that room. I saw the entrance, and bow he stood on the threshold for an instant. They evidently did not know who he was. And the next tiling, he came straight across the room and pulled down the hlind.
I don’t know when they all left, but there was no one there in the morning. I kepi Sibley's hat and coat and stick for about a week, then sent them to the club The hall porter told me that Im had heard nothing of Mr. Sibley either