Old Christmas Stuff
A tale of a Yuletide reunion and a woman who taught her husband that it is blessed to forget
BASIL G. PARTRIDGE
OUTSIDE on Ste. Catherine Street East, it was snowing; large, soft flakes which blanketed everything; people hurrying to and fro; motors; streetcars; taxi cabs; and the sleighs about the Square, each with its forlorn blanketed horse, waiting for someone who wished to ride around Mount Royal and look down upon Greater Montreal in Christmas Eve dress. The night manager of Gelder’s Restaurant stood near the wide expanse of plate-glass window and gazed thoughtfully out upon the street. He was himself almost a match for the snow, in white duck and white oxfords. He was immaculate. Extremely good-looking in a mannish way. Well built. Blessed with an aristocratic head and pleasing features. A man to be looked at twice anywhere. He spoke now without turning his head, and in French, to the trig little brunette who was busy at the electric grill preparing toast. “Good Christmas weather, Yvette.” “But yes, M’sieur Chris,” replied Yvette agreeably, though Christmas meant comparatively little to her. New Year’s was the big event. Then there would be gaiety aplenty. The thought of it stirred her blood. She gave the toast a dexterous flip. Chris Burgess, the manager, saw it out of the corner of his eye. He turned and smiled. “Yvette, you are an artist. I don’t know what I should do without you.” “M’sieur is pleased to joke,” replied Yvette, flushing
charmingly with pleasure.
He was always making these speeches, was M'sieur Chris. He had the gift of making orders seem like requests, of making people feel they were doing him a favor by working for him. He was popular with the
clientèle of the restaurant, especially gay young Montreal which flocked in the wee small hours to the glasstopped tables, paper napkins, and well-cooked food at Gelder’s. It was the thing to do. And Chris Burgess had played no small part in making it so.
A less capable man might have wished for the day rather than the night managership of Gelder’s; but Chris thoroughly enjoyed it. / He had the knack of handling youngsters—and oldsters—who had done themselves a bit too well. He was young enough to understand their mental workings. He had dignity. And he had his smile.
Now he turned away from the window and strolled back to the night cashier, the widow of an English Infantry captain who had been killed in 1918. She was a square built, middle-aged woman, with a well-developed sense of humor. He had hired her himself, four years ago, and thought a good deal of her.
“Well, Mary, I suppose you’ve done all your shopping.”
“It’s not so easy as it used to be,” replied the cashier. “My two kiddies are not grasping but they’ve got the modern craze—mad about building things, airplanes for instance. A bit hard on the furniture when they stage flights.”
Chris Burgess laughed. “It’s living, Mary.”
“Oh, quite,” agreed the cashier, emphatically. “I wouldn’t change a minute of it. I suppose you’re all set for great doings at your house?”
HRIS BURGESS' eyes lit up.
“The baby’s too tiny, but young Arthur is full of it. We had to shut the radio off while he was awake. They start Christmas much too early in the stores, Mary. We’ll get Christmas cheer with a vengeance in here from ten-thirty on.”
He left her and went behind the viands counter. Everything was spotless. The mixed odors of fowl and spiced beef blended pleasantly.
The Head Waitress came across toward him. She was a married woman who had found life hard and was suspicious of it. She was always looking for something to go wrong. This irritated Burgess, who had no patience with stupid negatives. What the deuce did she want? Might as well get it over. He walked toward her.
When he was close she said in a hushed voice:
“Is there any truth in the rumor that Mr. Gelder is coming up here on a tour of inspection?”
“If he does, he does,” Chris Burgess replied.
“I’ve heard that he’s terribly straight-laced; that he closed down one of his Detroit restaurants because there was a disturbance in there early one Sunday morning; that he’s death on liquor.”
“If he came up here on Sunday morning,” went on the Head Waitress nervously, “the young people’s noise—” She stopped.
“We’re not responsible for the morals of young Montreal, Mrs. Hudson,” said Chris Burgess. “It’s better for the young crowd to come here after the dances and blow off their bit of steam and go home to bed, than for them to be running out to roadhouses. I wouldn’t worry about Mr. Gelder. This place is too profitable to be shut up. He has an eye to his dividends.”
“You know him?”
“I’ve met him.”
“What does he look like?” asked the Head Waitress.
Chris Burgess regarded the ceiling meditatively and a twinkle crept into his eyes.
“Well,” he drawled, “he’s medium in height. Bulldog jaw. Very thin, and walks with a limp. Wears blue spectacles. His eyes are weak.”
“Forewarned is forearmed,” said the Head Waitress, solemnly. “I’ll tell the girls to watch out.”
“Do that,” Chris suggested.
He took a turn around the kitchen at the rear and came back to the cashier’s corner.
“The army rumors are out again, Mary. Mrs. Hudson was iust telling me with bated breath that she’d heard Mr. Gelder was arriving soon to dispatch everyone at dawn.”
“Is he really as hard-boiled as he’s reported to be?” the cashier asked “I’ve heard he’s a bit fond of changing managers over night.”
“Rot,” said Chris Burgess. “He’s too fond of his shekels to play ducks and drakes with his staff. Besides, he has common sense. He is, as a matter of fact, a very shrewd man.”
“You know him?”
“I knew his son well,” Chris Burgess replied.
“I didn’t even know he had one.”
“His son hasn’t lived with him for some years,” Chris said. “The son, who had a will of his own, married his father’s secretary. There was the deuce to pay. Gelder threw the son out, bag and baggage. Disinherited him, and hounded him nearly to death. The boy got a job. His father soon saw that he lost it. He got another. Same thing happened.”
“What a beast!” cried the cashier indignantly.
“Not exactly nice,” Chris agreed. “The son got pretty desperate. He and his wife had to eat. The old man sent him word that if he gave the girl up, divorced her, all would be forgiven and forgotten. Young Gelder told him where he could go—but he nearly went there himself. Maybe he would have if a very good friend hadn’t stepped into the game. Old Gelder had detectives. The friend disposed of them for an entire evening and got the young Gelders out of Chicago. Better than that, he managed to set the irate papa on a false scent. He’s still on it, I believe.”
There was silence for a moment. The cashier stabbed at the cash register viciously with her pencil and broke the point.
“He ought to be dead!”
Chris Burgess said dryly: “Let’s talk of more pleasant things, Mary.”
The cashier silently gazed toward the window. Outside, the snow was still falling.
‘‘Did it ever occur to you how little time there is to enjoy Christmas, Mr. Chris?
Beforehand is all one great rush to buy this, that, and the other thing.
Everyone gets dead tired by the time the day comes. You manage to stagger through it, eating too much, conscious of mess all over the place; paper, ribbons, needles from the tree; and then — why, then it’s all over. Somehow the peace that ought to come with the day never really has a chance to make itself felt.”
Chris looked at her, but before he could speak the cashier went on:
“Christmas ought to be like that snow, Mr.
Chris—soft and gently companionable, soothing. I love to see it snow on Christmas Eve. I’d like to go out and roll in it; to look up and let it settle on my face.”
“I didn’t know you had a poetical streak in you, Mary,” Chris Burgess observed. “You’ve expressed it very neatly.”
The cashier blew her nose suddenly.
“I wish someone would come in. When you’ve got time to think, it’s the deuce.”
“Hello,” said Chris, “you’ve got your wish.”
'"THROUGH the swinging doors came a man of medium height, enormous in a big ’coon coat. The girl at the checking stand stepped forward to take it. Instead, the man gave her his eyeglasses and proceeded to get out of his coat himself.
He stood there for a moment, hatless and coatless, polishing his glasses. When he had wiped the damp from his face, his carefully waxed mustache and Van Dyke, he put the glasses back upon his highbridged nose and went forward to a table.
Chris stared; then he laughed softly.
“Take a good look, Mary,” he said sotto voce to the cashier. “We have the great Gelder himself in our midst.”
“No!” exclaimed the cashier.
“Yes,” said Chris.
They heard the great Gelder say to the waitress, “You Canadians certainly know how to pick your Christmas weather.”
“He sounds pleasant enough,” the cashier remarked.
Chris chuckled. “Did you expect him to come in spewing out tire and brimstone, Mary? If the whole place were upside down he wouldn’t say a word—until afterward, when he had me to himself. I’ll just stroll over.”
The great Gelder had given his order; roast chicken, rice, spinach, whole wheat toast, and black coffee. He sat, one leg crossed over the other, one elbow on the table, hand supporting his chin—seeing everything. Presently he turned his head and looked directly toward Chris Burgess and the cashier.
As if the look had been a signal, Chris came out from behind the glass counter and sauntered across the room. The cashier, fascinated, watched Chris’s back. Chris did not seem in the least perturbed by the presence of the great Gelder. Mary found herself listening for his opening words. She gave a little gasp of surprise when they came.
Chris said quietly:
“Good evening, father. This is a surprise.”
The great Gelder replied:
“I judged it w'ould be. Not altogether a pleasant one, I suppose, Chris.”
And then the waitress came with the great Gelder’s order.
“Lucienne,” said Chris, “ask Baptiste to do me the favor of opening a tin of the South African pineapple. Mr. Gelder would like it for his dessert. Also bring some of the Gruyere and plenty of saltines.”
“You have a long memory, boy,” said the great Gelder.
“The least we can do for you is to give you what you like when you pass up the Windsor for us, sir.”
“Harumph !” ejaculated the great Gelder. He applied himself to his chicken. Presently he said: “You have a good chef.”
“I couldn’t make much money for you if I had a poor one,” Chris replied.
“Good ones don’t grow on bushes. Be sure you pay him enough.”
“If I paid him less than I do, he’d still work for me,” Chris said.
The great Gelder laid down his fork and stared.
“You’re a damned egotist.”
“Come by it naturally, I guess,” Chris replied.
“Touche,” said the great Gelder.
He took off his nose glasses, holding them in one hand at his lapel, and regarded his son silently for a minute; then he went on eating.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll sit down,” Chris remarked and suited action to words. “Care for a Canadian cigarette?”
“Thank you, I’ll smoke my own,” answered the other, “after the pineapple. I’m cutting dow'n a bit on smoking. Find it agrees better with my stomach.”
Chris waited while the waitress hovered near.
“Mr. Gelder is not ready yet. I’ll call you.”
When the girl had gone, Chris said:
“I’ll admit I’m curious. When did you discover I was up here?”
'YESTERDAY,” replied the great Gelder. “Gad, to i think of you, right in my own business for over four years, actually managing one of my restaurants, and I never suspected. The nerve of you, just dropping the Gelder and deliberately flaunting your other two names.” “I consider it a very creditable bit of work on my part,” Chris declared with the flicker of a smile. “You shouldn’t complain. I’ve done fairly by you.”
“I’ve had all I want of the chicken,” announced the great Gelder.
Chris signalled the waitress. She deftly whipped off the used plates and brought the pineapple and cheese.
The great Gelder tasted the pineapple.
“Urn; excellent. Serving it regularly?”
“When I can get it,” Chris said. “Seems to run in cycles. I’m hoping to lay hands on it for steady diet. People like it.” “They should.” The great Gelder proceeded to play havoc w'ith the fruit and cheese. Finally he lighted a cigarette. He exhaled a stream of smoke and said: “I want you to take over Eastern Canada.”
"Yes,” said Chris. "And what becomes of Cottingham?”
“What the devil does it matter?” ‘‘It. matters a great deal to me,” Chris replied point blank. “Cottingham is a good fellow. I won’t have him pushed out to make a Roman holiday.”
“You’re devilish independent,” snapped the great Gelder.
“I’ve got money in the bank, plenty of friends, and a standing offer of two jobs, either of which w'ould pay more than you pay me without night work,” Chris informed him frankly.
The great Gelder pursed up his mouth. After a moment he said:
“You hate me, don’t you?”
“No,” replied Chris instantly. ou’re not important
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enough to me to hate. Besides I don’t believe in it. When I dislike people intensely I simply keep out of their way.” “Then you—dislike me intensely?” “N-o-o,” Chris drawled. “Not that. You’re like a dream to me; something that drifts back into a hazy nothingness in the light of day.” He looked across the table straight into his father’s eyes. “Did you really come up here to offer me Cottingham’s job?”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” countered the great Gelder. “Cottingham is taking over all Canada. I suppose that will satisfy you?”
“I’m relieved at least to know that you’re not trying to pull the old Christmas stuff,” Chris said softly. “Coming up here on a would-be sentimental Yule journey to try the peace and goodwill guff on Nora. It wouldn’t go down wort^ a cent. I don’t think you are a hazy, dreamlike figure to her—though she has never dwelt on you. In fact your name hasn't been mentioned in our house for a long, long time.”
“I don’t suppose she is very keen about me,” said the great Gelder meditatively.
“You wouldn’t expect her to be, would you?” retorted Chris relentlessly. “I think you insinuated in a very crude and rotten way that she didn’t know who her parents were; that she was a graspinglittle street runner.”
“I understand that you are very happy; and that there are four of you,” went on the great Gelder. “You will have a big time tomorrow.”
“Do you wish to inspect this place?” Chris asked pointedly. “Everything is in A-l condition. And, of course, you know our sales curve. I never see the place in the daytime, but Cottingham keeps it up to snuff beyond doubt.”
“Oh, yes, yes,” said the great Gelder. “Good man, Cottingham. Do you mind getting jjrie my coat?”
Chris went over and procured the big coonskin coat.
“Right kind of coat for up here, father. You’ll be taking the flyer tonight, I suppose?”
“I presume so,” said the great Gelder soberly. “You haven’t given me your answer on the other matter—taking over Eastern Canada.”
“I suppose it’s the thing to do,” Chris replied. “I dislike the idea of pulling up stakes here in Montreal, though I’ve nothing against Toronto. It’s a good city to live in. In some ways, better than this.” “I shouldn’t have the audacity to change your living habits,” observed the great Gelder dryly. “I don’t care where you live. Stay here if you feel it is policy.” He busied himself putting on his gloves, taking a bit more time than was necessary. Then he said: “I’m glad you agree with my proposal, Chris. After all, I built this business with my own energy and brains, and I still hold eighty per cent of the stock. It wouldn’t be very pleasant to know that outsiders stood in a position to profit from it. Leaving sentiment out of the proposition, you should step in when I
leave off. And to run a business like this you have to know all its ups-and-downs. Eastern Canada is just a start.
“We’ll have to have a meeting soon, of course, either in New York or here. No need to worry about that now, however . . . Well, I’ll be on my way.”
The great Gelder looked up into his son’s face.
“Even if there is not affection, at least let there be peace between us, boy,” he said, and held out his hand.
Chris took it without hesitation.
“By all means, father,” he replied evenly. “Goodnight.”
“Good night,” said the great Gelder, and went out into the night as swiftly as he had come from it.
"pOR a long time Chris Gelder stood ■*looking out on Ste. Catherine Street. Finally he turned and went back to his own small private office and took down the telephone.
“Hello, sweetheart. Have any trouble getting the young-un to bed?”
“Plenty,” laughed his wife. “He wanted to sit up in your big chair so ‘santykwaus’ would be sure to see him and Teddy. However, I finally managed to get him quieted down. He’s sound asleep now with that disreputable rag doll and the faithful teddy-bear. Isn’t it a wonderful night? I love to see snow on Christmas Eve—covers up all the ugliness and hard spots. If I can get hold of Molly,
I think I’ll trot out to midnight service at the cathedral.”
“Good idea,” Chris approved. He paused a moment, then: “Who d’you suppose called on me here tonight?”
“I haven’t the foggiest notion,” replied Nora. “Tell me.”
“The great Gelder himself.”
“Himself and in person,” Chris said. “Came up to offer me the managership for Eastern Canada, headquarters here. Cottingham’s being given all Canada.”
“Great Scott!” exclaimed Nora. “How did he act?”
“We were extremely polite to each other,” Chris replied in a dry tone. “Very businesslike. He’d only found out where I was yesterday. No sentiment connected with the offer. Said he didn’t want the business to go outside the family. He’d built it and he didn’t think it was common sense to let outsiders reap the harvest.” “Can you trust him?” asked Ñora anxiously.
“You needn’t worry. The last thing he said was, ‘Even if there is not affection, at least let there be peace between us.’ He was very much in earnest.”
“Well,” said Nora, “you know him. And, of course, it will be wonderful for you to get off night work. Perhaps it’s providential.”
“How’s the baby?” Chris switched the conversation.
Nora’s voice took on warmth.
“Sleeping like the little lamb he is. I’m just waiting to see his eyes widen when he
spots all the tiny electric lights on the tree.”
“You’re a child yourself,” Chris accused laughingly. “I must get to work. ’Bye.”
He hung up and went out into the restaurant.
“Is it just my imagination or are things really quieter than usual tonight, Mary?” he said to the cashier.
“No, Mr. Chris. It’s just that it’s Christmas Eve.”
Chris sighed. There was a hint of weariness in the sigh. For something to do, he went the rounds again, landing back at the cashier’s corner.
“I wish my father had picked some other night to show up.”
“He doesn’t look so fierce, Mr. Chris.” “No,” said Chris. “And I can remember when Christmas was a big adventure; for him as well as for me. I can remember my mother, just dimly, Mary. I was seven when she died. I suppose he wouldn’t have got so madly tyrannical if she’d been alive.”
Chris looked at the cashier drearily. “It’s not so hot saying, ‘Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry,’ to your own father on Christmas Eve. He looked old, I thought. But you know, Mary, his persecution nearly killed Nora, and we lost our first baby. Even if I shut my eyes to what he did in his madness, she’d never forgive him. I could never ask her to try.” “Let’s talk of present things,” said the cashier. There was a note of desperation in her voice.
Chris looked at her sharply.
“I’m sorry,” he said contritely. “We’ll stay off memories the rest of the evening. Did you ever read that bit out of Stevenson’s Lodging for the Night where he describes all the gargoyles with the snow on them? What a time that man would have had tonight wandering around Montreal. He’d have spotted the quaint places and the interesting people.” “Wouldn’t he, though,” Mary agreed enthusiastically.
Chris moved away as the girl turned to greet a customer. Things were beginning to move. Soon people were flocking in from everywhere, covered with snow and in good humor. Laughter and cheerful noise arose. Not until around two was there any lull.
“You scoot along home now, Mary,” said Chris. “I’ll take care of the cash. You need your beauty sleep. I don’t want to see you back here until nine tonight.” The cashier’s eyes lighted up.
“By the way,” Chris added, “I’m going to take you off this night work soon. The great Gelder has promoted me, so I guess it’s up to me to promote you. Merry Christmas, Mary. Don’t forget to take away the square package underneath the counter—just a trifle for the boys.”
“I’m so glad for you, Mr. Chris,” cried the cashier. “Thank you so much. You think of everything; of everyone except yourself,”
“Nonsense,” said Chris. “Do what I tell you; get out of here.”
He shooed her away to the cloakroom, and began cleaning up the important odds and ends before he turned over to the skeleton staff, which carried on until the day staff came on.
A queer feeling of reluctance to go home made him dawdle unduly. When he finally went out into the street the snow had ceased and the stars were out. He got rid of the night’s “take” into the night deposit box of a bank near by, and decided to walk up to Sherbrooke Street and thence home.
Something of the depression he had felt when his father left returned now. It was still with him when he reached his apartment. He went in with the utmost care. Got off his duds. Sat down in a big chair in the front room.
HTHE air was fragrant with the spicy aroma of spruce. Nora had chosen a shapely little tree. It was set up in a
corner, gay with colored balls, sparkling silver streamers, stars, tiny electric bulbs cast as animals, Santa Claus, fish and flowers.
Chris sat and looked at the tree, Somehow it hurt him. He rose and switched off the tree’s lights. The only light left in the room was a standing lamp by the chair in which he sat.
“That you, honey?” Nora appeared. “Yes, darling,” Chris answered. “I thought you’d be asleep.”
Nora sat on the edge of his chair and ran a hand gently through his hait. “You’re late, even for you.”
Chris stirred restlessly.
“D’you think you could get me a glass of hot milk, sweetheart?”
“Of course I could,” said Nora. She went out to the kitchen and heated the milk in a saucepan. “Want anything to eat, dear?”
“No, thanks, just the milk,” Chris replied.
Presently she brought it, dropped a cushion on the floor beside his chair and sat down on it.
“To death,” Chris admitted, “without any special reason.”
“Who do you suppose called on me tonight?” Nora said.
Chris took a sip of the milk.
“Who?” he asked indifferently.
“What?” Chris set the glass down and sat up. “D’you mean to say he came here—and bothered you?”
“He asked if he might see the babies,” Nora went on. “There was something; something about the way he asked. I hadn’t the heart to refuse him.”
“Umph!” grunted Chris.
“It gave me a terrible shock,” Nora went on, “when I saw them together. We’ve never mentioned your father’3 name. We’ve done everything to keep even the thought of him out of our lives. And all the time he’s been here in spite of us. Arthur is the image of him, Chris; the very image.”
“Your dad looked at Arthur, then at baby, and said, ‘They are two lovely children.’ ”
Nora paused. Chris looked down at her expectantly.
“Something rose up in me,” Nora proceeded. “I said quick as a flash, ‘There would be three here except for you,’ and I told him why.”
“What had he to say?” Chris asked, his eyes averted.
“He said, ‘Good lord, Nora, was I as bad as that? No wonder Chris has ruled me out,’ and he told me what you had said to him. His face was positively grey; old.
“He stood there looking at the children. Finally he said, ‘Chris has the true Gelder shrewdness. He half accused me of coming up here to take advantage of the season; to work on your feelings.’ ”
“I said to your father, ‘And did you?’ He answered straight as a shot, ‘Yes, Nora, I did. I was crazy to see the children, and desperately afraid you wouldn’t let me near them. The big house is a bit lonely. Of course I have the dogs; a collie and a wire-haired terrier. The terrier’s just a puppy and the collie is too dignified to take the pup too seriously, but he doesn’t exactly like it when the puppy swarms all over me. Jealous.’ And then your dad laughed, a funny little laugh. I knew without looking at him that his eyes were full of tears.”
“Crocodile tears,” said Chris gruffly. He buried his nose in his glass.
Nora went on:
“Then he said, ‘You always worked well for me, Nora. You were the best secretary I ever had. You were loyal to rite, you were thoughtful and considerate. I had really no reason to be such a beast to you, child. Only I wanted Chris to marry Madeline Randolph. I had set my heart on it. And she’s been divorced twice in three years.’
“After that your dad pretended to wit« his glasses and stood looking at tie children. Finally he said, ‘They ire lovely children. I am very glad Chris and you are so happy.’ ”
Nora stifled a small yawn. Chris said: “And then?” “Your dad came out and picked up liis
“Well, that’s that,” remarked Chris. He rose and stretched. ‘Tm for bed. I think you did right to let him see the children. He’ll be well on his way by now.”
“He’s asleep in the spare room,” said Nora.
WHAT?” cried Chris. He stared at her for a moment, turned on his heel abruptly and walked to the window, stood there looking out into the darkness. Nora came and stood beside him. “Hon,” Chris said softly, “are you letting this Christmas bunkum drown out your common sense? Tomorrow’ll be the day after Christmas. The exhilaration will die. The snow will melt and the ugliness and dirt underneath will show again. You may come out of the clouds with an awful bump.”
“If he had pleaded with me, or wanted
to do things for me, or mentioned your promotion and what it would mean to the children—if he had tried to be the great Gelder,” Nora replied, “I’d have let him put on his coat. But he was so humble, so humble. Something inside me told me to call it quits.”
“Peace on earth—snow—stars, murmured Chris.
“Christmas had nothing to do wi h it, Nora said firmly. “I think Christnas is overdone. I’d sooner have the most trifling gift in May or August o any month but December, than a ton o; stuff at Christmas just because it is the thing to do. I loathe this notion of being nealymouthed one day of the year.^Ugh I’m almost angry with you, Chris.”
Chris put his arm about her.
“Come along to bed, precious,” hcsaid.
Nora was almost asleep when sh felt him stir. She was too drowsy, too varm and comfortable to rouse herself. She wondered from a great distance /hat he was up to.
Chris went quietly into the front rom. Once more he stood at the window locing out at the peaceful night.
Then he turned, crossed the room,and switched on the lights of the Chrismas tree.