A TICKET TO SPAIN
Isabella had Castilian blood in her veins, and that may have given her the idea which led to a most extraordinary Christmas experience. If you can imagine anything more remarkable than her Christmas
BUSINESS & INVESTMENTS
JULIET WILBOR TOMPKINS
THERE was no form of Christmas graft that Isabella had not sampled and found good. Even before she could spell out Christmas stories she knew enough to press her engaging little nose against a toyshop window, and many a benevolent sucker was sent home rejoicing in the joy he had given. At six she had written her first letter to Santa Claus, explaining what would be most acceptable to herself and “my pore mama who sows all day and is very tired,” and though letters sent to Santa Claus per U.S. mail had not yet become an organized infant industry, she did so well by it that she helped to put the business on its feet. Before she was ten no religious denomination, however vigilant, was safe from her presence at its Sunday School Christmas tree.
“Everybody admires my Isabella and wishes to give her presents,” her mother explained it, the shadowy eyes of old Spain caressing her child. Isabella’s eyes and her straight hair were sandy and she gave a general effect of coming from the state of Maine. Behind her alert gaze squatted a cheerfully democratic spirit, on the look-out for possible openings. Openings for anyone. Her native gift was at the service of her world.
Her fourteenth Christmas did not promise well. Her pore mama had sowed till her eyes were becoming perilously tired and by a crooked collar here and a twisting sleeve there she was losing what customers her racial pride had left her. Isabella had long ago dropped Santa Claus and gone in for Christmas baskets, with a turkey and a bunch of celery sticking out and a piece of holly tied to the handle, but one basket would not take them very far this year. She had thoughts of trying to figure as patient little Isabella B. in the Hundred Neediest Cases, but that involved being investigated, and Mrs. Briggs had a Spanish obstinacy about putting her best foot forward. The investigators would have found a self-supporting widow in a spotless room, gay with red on the bed and bureau, and they would never have discovered from her that a room in the East 40’s went for almost nothing because of the smell from the packing houses. When the wind came that way, she met the stink with the proud patience of kings in exile. Isabella met it by frying onions.
pARLY in November, having plenty of time on her _ hands, Mrs. Briggs took her aching eyes to a free clinic and sat awaiting her turn as though the other patients were so much rather polluted air. That separation of herself from her surroundings was a passion, a religion; it gave her almost her only high moments. Her child’s blue blood was tempered, for there was no denying that Camilla Peralta had eloped from her Spanish home with an American sailor; but the Peralta inheritance, joined to the tales of past grandeur, ought to have wiped out any intrusion from the side of a mere Bill Briggs. Bill had vanished early in the story, possibly drowned at sea, possibly not. When he had been gone the necessary
number of years, Mrs. Briggs had privately achieved her legal freedom; and yet, every time she told the story of his glorious death at sea— standing by his ship to the last— genuine tears streamed down her cheeks. Bom in the right environment, she would have been a Best Seller» Mrs. Briggs left the clinic with a Peralta courage that was still in force when Isabella came hoppity-skip from school. The wind was east «hat day and the packing houses were strongly represented. Isabella had salvaged an onion on her way home—one could be very sure that she had not stolen it, and even more sure that she had not paid for it. She would have started her back fire at once, but her mother motioned the onion out of the scene.
“My poor child, I have bad news for you,” she said. “I have been to the clinic.”
“Whadesay?” It came in one breathless word.
What the oculist actually had said was, “Six months of absolute rest or you’ll go blind. Use this as directed and come to see me in ten days. Next!” Mrs. Briggs had to embroider: “Lose the sight of those beautiful eyes— for I see, Madam, that you are of a different class from my usual clinic patients, even though you may have the misfortune to be poor.” Tears in the oculist’s voice.
Isabella, as usual, had fastened tightly on the essential facts.
“Absolute rest,” she repeated blankly, and then, “Blind!”
Mrs. Briggs put out comforting arms. “I am not afraid, my little one,” she said beautifully.
“Well, you’d better be,” said Isabella, ignoring the gesture. “Six months—gee whiz!”
“I can die,” Mrs. Briggs pointed out.
“So can anybody,” was the impatient answer. “We’ve got to show some gumption and live." She was unsatisfactory if one’s ideal was a scene of clinging tenderness, and yet the very way she sat, squeezing thin arms, thin legs thrust out with the toes touching, gave a sense of a stout plank in heaving waters. Mrs. Briggs sighingly gave up her drama and waited.
“And all this time,” said Isabella suddenly, “there’s our family living in a castle in Spain—”
“Not a castle,” her mother interrupted. “A palatial residence in the finest quarter of the city. Luis Ignace Peralta was a merchant prince and a distinguished chemist. We had fifty rooms, all with polished floors and real lace curtains, and ten servants, and my mother never had to lift her finger—” It would have gone on for an hour, glory piled on glory, but Isabella, knowing it by heart and backwards, broke in:
“Mightn’t Luis Ignace be living yet?”
Mrs. Briggs thought not, but Isabella added up the years and proved him not much more than sixty. His wife had died soon after the infatuated Camilla had slipped out and the outraged father had refused equally forgiveness to his daughter and cash to Bill Briggs.
“But if his long-lost child came to his door on Christmas Day, with her little girl,” Isabella worked it out in practical business tones, “he’d fall for it. You can put over almost anything on Christmas. And if he should be dead, all those other children would be your brothers and sisters. Mama, it’s a cinch!”
MRS. BRIGGS seemed depressed by the idea, and the more Isabella talked it, the deeper her depression grew. Tickets to Spain were impossible, and a Spanish parent never forgave. Isabella’s bright lexicon contained neither impossible nor never. She talked it until the wind changed and the smell went away unnoticed. They ate bread and raw onion for supper, and when they went to bed she was still talking it—against a blank wall of refusal. The next day she went by herself and talked it to the Spanish consul, who advised her to write and see if the visit would be welcome. Which showed all he knew about landing things. After that she pressed her nose against the windows of all the transatlantic steamship companies she could find, offering to compromise on one ticket, even going to the length of promising payment later from the rich and powerful merchant parent, but they invariably wanted cash down. One of them offered Isabella a job in the advertising department, but possibly he was being funny.
Next she tried a general wandering about the wharves, on the chance of what might turn up, and made hosts of acquaintances. It was a friendly longshoreman who directed her to Bill’s place. Bill might know some sailing ship’s captain who would take a lady as supercargo. So she hunted up Bill’s place, and found it the dirtiest, darkest little shop in the world, its one window piled high with what it called Ship Supplies. Binoculars were there, and sou’westers, and coils of tarred rope, and compasses, and canvas, and every sort of flotsam that could be salvaged from the sea.
The door, opening, rang a bell, and a Yankee voice called, “Coming!” from another dark hole in the rear. Some moments passed before its owner appeared.
“Had to put my leg on,” he explained cheerfully, stumping toward her. “Well, little lady—like a nice anchor to-day?” And his hand caressed an enormous black iron flange.
That was Isabella’s own kind of joke. She was not much given to smiling, but she had a dry little grimace that could mean liking or amusement and that meant both as she looked up into the lean and leathery face. There was something in her blood that warmed to long, narrow men, humorous and big-jointed and deliberate.
“I want to ge1-, a ticket to Spain, cheap,” she began! “I’d rather have «wo tickets for nothing, but I could do with one, and I’d work after school to pay for it.”
The man considered her, his big knuckles pressed on the counter.
“Well, I guess that’s about the one sea-going article I ain’t got,” he said at last. “You couldn’t make a ship’s log do?”
“Not unless you can ride on it,” Isabella said, settling on a capstan for a good visit.
He also sat down and filled a pipe.
“Tell us about it,” he suggested.
ISABELLA began with the eyes, drawing from him grunts of sympathy, but when she went on to the Peraltas and their fabled glory, she produced a surprising effect. She had often dazed her school-fellows with that tale, but never had its impact been so tremendous. Bill sat spell-bound, his pipe held six inches from his open mouth, his little reddish eyes boring into hers. At last the pipe so burned his hand that he jumped and dropped it, scattering hot coals in the rubbish behind the counter. He was down there several moments, seeing that all was safe, and when he came up he did not look at all well.
“That’s the queerest!” he muttered. “Well, I’ll be dinged!” This went on for some time in a hushed undertone.
“Come up and see my mother if you don’t believe me,” Isabella offered.
The suggestion galvanized him into a more normal mood. “No, no—I believe you—that’s all right,” he said heartily. “Why, sure, we must get your mother that ticket. The sooner the better. Get her off to-morrow! Now let’s see how we can work that.” He went into a deep study, and Isabella, thinking it a good chance to prove her powers of being useful, took a survey of the chaos in the window, then fell to rearranging it. For nearly an hour neither spoke, though his eyes were often on her.
“Now come and look,” she said, at last.
He started and obeyed. She had produced a surprising effect of order and seemliness; the stock had risen from junk to merchandise. So much for her efficiency!
“Only your window’s so dirty, they can’t see in from the street,” she pointed out. “If you’ll give me the things to wash it—”
He jumped again. He seemed to be full of nervous starts. “Oh, never mind—I’ll do that later,” he said, then sent out a loud hail after a man who was passing: “Hi, Mr.
ANEAT and official-looking person turned on his heel and came back.“Well?” he asked, obligingly enough but with no time to waste.
“Mr. Purser, this young lady’s mother wants to get back to her folks in Spain before Christmas,” Bill explained. “It’s a real hard-luck story: eyes given out, folks there—” He stopped and choked.
“Rich but estranged,” Isabella put in. “She’s so pretty, my mother—she’s a Spanish lady; they’ll fall for her when she gets there, and then she can send back for me.”
The Purser considered.
“Would she ship as a stewardess? I’m one short. Sailing in three days and she’d have to have references.”
Isabella promised everything, rapturously, and agreed to bring her mother down for an interview the next day.
When the Purser had gone on his brisk way, she placed her two palms on the counter and kicked up gloriously.
“I’ll come down here every day after school and work for you,” she promised. “After mama’s seen the Purser she’ll come here herself to thank you,
Mr.—-What is your name?”
“Why, it’s—Williams,” was the uneasy answer. “No; she needn’t come and thank me— that’s all right—I don’t want
no thanks. You just hustle her off as fast as you can! Keep her out of here!” He was so alarmed that Isabel had to promise.
“Though I’d like you to see how pretty she is,” she said disappointedly.
“I’ll take it for granted,” was the grim answer. “Now you better go tell her.”
“I’ll be back, every day,” Isabella chanted as she skipped off.
Mr. Williams watched her going until the street swallowed her up. Then he took a knife and some turpentine and carefully scraped off a name that had long been submerged in the grime of the window.
Mrs. Briggs received the good news with an inexplicable distress. Isabella had to labor half the night before she would even go to see the Purser. She looked very lovely and mournful as they set out, all the sorrows of a proud race darkening her beautiful eyes, and the Purser was most kind.
“You won’t find it hard; we haven’t a big list this trip,” he told her. “We’ll land you at Gibraltar and you’ll have money enough to take you anywhere you want to go.”
Mrs. Briggs’s voice was rich with secret tears. “My people are very proud and grand,” she said. “I do not want to take this trip. My daughter is driving me. They will never consent to receive me—■”
“Then we’ll pick you up on the return trip,” was the hearty reassurance. “And the voyage will do you no end of good. Daughter’s right; you try it. I’ll see that you aren’t put upon.” He was so kind and sincere that Mrs. Briggs was presently quite cheered and added her distinguished name to the sailing list with a willing hand. She longed to thank Mr. Williams in a beautiful speech, but Isabella would only let her walk slowly past Bill’s place, that he might come out if he had changed his mind. But he was incurably shy. Glancing through the door, she distinctly saw him duck behind the counter.
“Well you’re off, anyway,” she consoled herself. “You’ll get there too early, but you can lie low till Christmas Day. That’s the time to strike!”
SO MRS. BRIGGS, newly courageous, sailed for the ancestral home of the Peraltas in the finest quarter of the city, and Isabella went faithfully every day to Bill’s Place. The name, Bill Williams, stood out boldly in new letters on a clean window. The stock was sorted and arranged until a canvas bucket or a rope ladder could be produced on demand instead of after a half hour’s search, and business was responding. Mr. Williams ought to have been very happy, but he was given to fits of solemn staring, and when Isabella talked of her mother and of the glories awaiting her, he squirmed and sighed.
“Them big Spanish families, they got a way of running down hill,” he warned her. “Maybe she’ll find old Ignace ain’t got nothing but a corner drug store and some dirty rooms up over it. I’ve seen ’em like tha„.” “Not the Peraltas,” said Isabella proudly. “Now if you’ll get me some brass polish, I bet we sell that binnacle in a week.”
Mr. Williams produced the brass polish in troubled silence, and though they sold the binnacle the next day, he could not seem to enjoy anything. But he liked having her there, liked it so much that he gave her a dollar a week, and he was always watching in the doorway when she came swinging down the street. Every night at six he took her round the corner to a rough little eating joint that would have made her mother faint with horror and ordered her to “fill herself to the gunn’ls—expense no object.” Isabella ate philosophically, without comment, and lured him into tales of his sailor days and of his experiences in the war, where he had lost his leg. Something warm and steady, like friendship, only nicer, was growing up between them. She often commented on this.
“We get the same kind of a good time, you and I,” she told him, seated on the capstan, scraping the grease of ages off a lantern. “Now when that man came in for a rope and we sold him the slop-chest —that was more fun than a goat for you and me; but mama’d have been so mad at him for not taking off his hat or something that he’d have gone off without even buying the rope. I guess I take after my father.”
Bill sighed fearfully. “What was your father?” he asked presently. His head dropped on his hand.
“I don’t remember him.” Isabella was not much interested. “He was captain of a big ship that went down in a hurricane. That’s all mama has ever told me.”
Mr. Williams whistled through his teeth, a shrill sound that made her look up.
“Cap’n, was he!” he muttered. “My gosh—cap’n!”
“I guess his people weren’t so grand as mama’s,” Isabella observed.
“No. Most likely they washed in a tin basin at the kitchen door and smoked a good pipe in their socks after supper,” he spoke bitterly.
“No Spanish grandees in the Briggs family, I bet!”
“J’ever know’m?” Isabella demanded.
“I knew my folks and they were like that,” Bill explained, rising. “And durn good folks they were. I got a sister living up on the old farm now—her husband bought it. I’d like to take you up there.”
Isabella seized on the suggestion, but he had made it impulsively and hastened to back down. He hadn’t seen his sister for years. She wrote him every Christmas and he sent some junk to the kids, but that was all there was to it.
“I could work her to ask us up over Christmas,” Isabella offered.
“Not this year—not this year,” Bill said, with a decision that closed the topic, or at least deferred it. Isabella privately decided that they would spend
decided that they would spend Continued on page 76
Continued from page 23
A Ticket to Spain
next Christmas at the farm—then remembered the palatial residence in Spain with a pang that was very like dismay.
SOMETHING had to be done about Christmas—the Christmas Day that was to land her little mother in the bosom of a proud race!—and Isabella conceived a plan that might have sounded ambitious for a youngster living in one room with a two-hole gas stove under the bed and practically no money, but that was almost boringly easy for her. She had dishes and cutlery, all the foundation she needed for a Christmas feast with an invited guest.
The first step was mere technique— landing a Christmas basket, turkey, celery and all. The second was equally simple; a neighbor was happy to cook the dinner for a fifty per cent, share. The only real difficulty was getting the guest to come. Mr. Williams seemed to have a physical fear of that room in the East 40’s. Isabella had to go down and get him. and even then he would have backed out if she had not dwelt on the trouble she had gone to and the loneliness of one girl sitting down to fifty per cent, of a turkey. She already knew well how to work Bill Williams. He sighed a good deal but went off to change his collar, and Isabella perched on the capstan in great content, casting a housekeeper’s eye over the neat shop. A torn envelope was on the floor and she swooped on it, having put á ban on rubbish. When Bill carre back, much polished as to face and hair, she shouted at him:
“Look here—this letter was addressed to Mr. William Briggs! That was my father’s name.”
“Common enough name;” Mr. Williams sounded crusty. “Come, now—let’s be off.”
“But how did it get here?” she persisted. “Customer might of dropped it.”
“But the shop’s been closed to-day and it wasn’t there—”
“Isabella, do we go to this feed or do we not?” Bill shouted. She had never seen him so near wrath.
“All right, come ahead,” she said, and tried all the way home to cheer him, but he was in a bad state of nerves. Crossing her threshold he sweated visibly, and his leg gave him so much trouble that she urged him to slip it off. When she brought the half turkey smoking on a tray and the vegetables sending up savory odors—the wind happily was west—she found him staring at her mother’s old red shawl, spread for its color on the bed, as though it might conceal a snake. He was full of sighs at dinner.
“Isabella,” he said, suddenly, “I guess I’ve been a bad lot, but there’s things a man can’t stand up against. He’s just got to get out. I ain’t run away very often, but there was one time I ran like hell.” “Tell me about it,” she begged.
HE WOULD say no more, but having said so much cheered and relieved him. He became companionable, marvelled that food and drink could be like that.
“Ho! I could have done it better myself,” Isabella boasted. “Give me a real stove and you’d see.”
“I bet you could,” said Mr. Williams. “Your mother’s no cook—didn’t you say?” he added, hastily.
“She’s too swell,” Isabella admitted. “You see, she’s like a princess in her own country. Think of her, over there, waited on by fifty servants—no, it’s fifty rooms. Gee, I bet she’s having some dinner!”
Mr. Williams again sank into gloom. “I don’t know that we’d ought to let her go off like that,” he said. “It kind of ha’nts me. You say she didn’t want to go.”
“She kicked and cried at first, but the Purser fixed her,” Isabella said comfortably. “And it’s all right now. They couldn’t hold out against mama, no matter how grand they were.”
Mr. Williams took a long breath, let it out, tried again and suddenly spoke: “I
was in Spain once knew some Peraltas.” “You did!”
“II’m. But they weren’t any grander’n I was.” He speared a potato with a vicious jab. “My mother’s suller was kept cleaner than their parlor. Old woman sloppin’ around in a greasy Mother
Hubbard—and then they putting on airs, finding me a low feller—Gosh!”
“I guess they weren’t any relation to my Peraltas,” Isabella said.
He spoke from behind his coffee cup: “Well, if they should turn out to be cousins or something, you mustn’t be too disappointed.”
“Mama wouldn’t associate with’m,” Isabella declared.
“She might have to. Say—” He
pondered what was coming so long that she prodded him with a “Well?” “Say— suppose your mama stayed there and you kind of changed your mind about going —how about it?”
Isabella considered. “I’m not so crazy about Spanish lords and dukes,” she admitted. “If they sat on me, I’d be likely to hand’m. something back. And yet I’d like to be rich.”
“You’d get rich all right if I took you in for a partner.”
“Partner! In Bill’s Place?” Isabella’s whole being responded as it never had to the vision of the palatial residence. Here was a field for all her native powers— putting over, putting through, landing customers! Her hands literally tingled for the job, and her desire burst from, her in a tense, “Oh!” Then her joy collapsed. “There’s no one for me to live with,” she lamented. “I don’t need anyone, but mam.a’d never see it.”
Bill started to say something, then gave it up and nodded dejectedly. “I kind of forgot that,” he apologized.
“Yes, I’ll have to go,” Isabella sighed, too. “But I’d like to see that farm first. Where is it?”
“Why, that was the postmark on the William Briggs envelope!” She was thrilled at the coincidence. “Isn’t that too—” “Hullo!” It was an arresting shout. “I’m forgetting your Christmas present!” He felt in various pockets, and when he had worked up a fine suspense, brought out a necklace of polished red seeds such as sailors bring from far-off islands. Isabella was enchanted. She put it on before the mirror, handled it, sucked it and finally gave him a hearty whack on the shoulder.
“You’re one peach, Mr. Williams,” she declared.
He smiled up at her. “Like me a little, hey?”
“Well, I’ve been an irresponsible sort of cuss, but I’ll be good to you, Isabella,” he promised. “How about a movie?”
“Fine,” said Isabella. “You smoke while I wash up.”
He took out his pipe, then glanced uneasily at the red shawl.
“Guess you don’t want the smell in here,” he said. “I’ll just step outside.”
“I like the smell, but mama’d have a fit,” she admitted. “Go up on the roof; it’s only one flight.” She stood in the doorway to watch him stump his patient way up.
“That leg don’t fit him right,” she mused, and fell into happy plans of landing him a new one. Legs were a little off her beat, but she knew by experience that almost anything could be put through if you went after it with brains. She was so full of it that when the door opened she spoke without looking up from her dishes.
“You know, about your leg—” she began.
“My child—” breathed a tremulous voice.
ISABELLA jumped and dropped a plate. In the doorway stood her pretty little mother, smiling, tender, wrapped in new furs, and just behind her, proudly possessive, stood the Purser.
“Mama!” Isabella cried. She returned the long embrace with the brief peck that was her idea of a kiss—a mere bump of the lips—but her hands made a hearty clap on the soft shoulders. Then she looked frank question at the official presence behind her.
“My Isabella,” her mother announced, “this is your dear new father.”
“Hope you don’t mind, Isabella,” said the purser, and gave her a brisk handshake.
“Gee!” breathed Isabella. “Then you didn’t go home!” she added dazedly.
“It was better this way.” Her mother sank into a chair and the Purser stood as closely as possible behind it. “The bitter
pride of a great Spanish family—I know it so well! The nearer we came to Spain, the more did I suffer!”
“The poor little lady was all in,” the Purser said, reaching for her hand. “So I said, ‘Let’s get the Captain to marry us, and you stay with me.’ Time enough to look up her family when I get a ship of my own.”
“Oh, yes. Perhaps we will never look them up,” said his wife with fervor. “They cast me off—I too have my pride! Beloved one, mama is now Mrs. Clark.” “I’ll do the square thing by you, Isabella,” the Purser offered. “I want the little lady to keep on traveling—good for her eyes; but I’ll stand anything you’d like to do. How about boarding school?”
THE palatial home in Spain had gone up in smoke, and suddenly Isabella knew that she was glad. She was glad, too, that there was someone to pet the little mother, and give her soft furs. She straightened up with a sense of being set free, stripped for action.
“Oh, I’ll be all right,” she was beginning when a thump swung the door back and a Yankee voice called:
“Ahoy there, matey? Ready?”
“It’s my Mr. Williams and I’d clean forgotten him,” she exclaimed, and ran to draw him into the room. It was fortunate she did, for Bill gave a mighty tug under her hand, as though he would have bolted.
“It’s only mama and her new husband.” She scolded him. “Come on in— don’t be such a perfect goat! She’s always wanted to thank you.”
Bill, under her pulling, advanced a shaky step while Isabella chattered explanations and introductions. Mrs. Clark had risen and stood clinging to the table for a long minute; then she melted into a heap on the floor.
Mr. Clark had her on the bed in an instant, with cold water on her forehead.
“It has all been too much for the little lady,” he said.
Isabella, as white as her mother, stood staring into Bill’s face until he jerked his arm free and fled. When her mother’s eyes struggled open, their first look was a rolling fright.
“He’s gone,” said Isabella.
Mrs. Clark, slowly pulling herself together, spoke with the proud impassivity of all the Peraltas:
“I am sorry. I wished to thank him.” “I’m grateful to Bill, you bet,” Mr. Clark said, sitting beside her and patting the camellia-petal cheek. Mrs. Clark put out a tender arm to her child, but Isabella sat remotely on a hard chair, scowling.
“My little one is unhappy?” her mother pleaded.
“No; I’m thinking,” she muttered.
BILL’S Place, was dark that evening, but for a red spark that glowed and dimmed, and that shot downward like a falling star when Isabella opened the door.
“It’s a lot safer dropping your pipe than it used to be,” she commented, and took her usual place on the capstan.
Bill came up from behind the counter in silence.
“We missed our movie,” Isabella went on. “Well, we can go all we like if I come down here to live.”
The spark shot sidewise and hung suspended.
“You’ll burn your hand,” she warned him.. “Mr. Williams, you said you wanted me for a partner—how would you like to sort of adopt me? We get along pretty well. What do you say?” His voice croaked and creaked. “I’d like it all right, Isabella.”
The spark went slowly to the counter, where it was knocked into tiny stars on a saucer.
“Sure.” The voice steadied. “I’d do for you—as if you’d been my own. I’d see you had school regular. I’d be careful of you, like a father. You can tell your mother that. It’s all yours, here, if you’ll come.”
In the darkness she felt rather than saw his outstretched hand. She put her own into it with a brisk whack that tried to deny the tears on her cheeks.
“Gee, some Christmas!” she said shakily. “I got two fathers!”