FICTION

IF CHRISTMAS COMES

Elizabeth's gift to Price couldn't be hung on any Christmas tree, but it was what he wanted most

ELEANOR COATES December 15 1945
FICTION

IF CHRISTMAS COMES

Elizabeth's gift to Price couldn't be hung on any Christmas tree, but it was what he wanted most

ELEANOR COATES December 15 1945

IF CHRISTMAS COMES

ELEANOR COATES

SCATTERED snowflakes fell softly, slowly, as though they recollected their errand to earth but. regretted leaving their cool, cloudy detachment. They paused curiously upon the window sill, and left hurriedly for the anonymity of the street. They explored open collars, tagged women’s veils and eyelashes, dared to settle on park benches and nestle into the big tree the men were setting up in the centre of the square. A half-hearted attempt to freshen up the ground, Elizabeth thought, as though the snow itself was aware that itcouldn’t be Christmas.

She heard the front door open, and Billy dropped his skates on the floor and burst into the living room. There was silence as lie looked at the tree that had just been delivered. She heard him say, “Jirnminy!” Now he was coming into the dining room, but she did not turn from the window.

"Here you are,” he said, coming to stand beside her*, sensing her preoccupation with the tree in the park and casting his own thoughts out, as though at that apex they would merge with hers. "They’ve got a big sign for the top of the tree. Says ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”

"Have they?”

"And say, did you see our tree in the living room? It’s a nice one — nicer than last year. Shall 1 decorate it?”

She hesitated. But she couldn’t talk all afternoon as though nothing had happened or was going to happen. She could not be enthusiastic over silver foil stars or icy cobwebs.

“Suppose you do the playroom,” she suggested, “and hang up the festoons. You’ll have to use the stepladder and it will take quite a while. I’ll do the tree.”

He was only a little disappointed. “All right. I’ll get started. 1 have some new houses for the dwarfs’ village, and when 1 get it all set up I’ll call you and you come look

She nodded. Involuntarily she reached out to touch his brown-Hwestered shoulder before she remembered. It was a relief when he turned away and clattered down the cellar steps. She had to remember to treat him gravely, with dignity, and without affection— like a storybook stepmother, she thought painfully. Brice had said, "I've always thought Billy seemed more your son than mine. Certainly he’s more yours than he ever was Ardith’s child.”

At any other time those words would have pleased her, but not now. Now they knew the thing they had avoided knowing for a whole year. Actually since last New Year’s Eve.

PETIZA BETH had wanted the JLj tree taken down. “Let’s start the New Year with a tidy living room. We’ll put the gifts away, and take the tret* down, and Effie can put the vacuum cleaner on the rug.”

“You’d better pick out your new dress soon,” suggested Brice. He. had given her $50 to buy a new dress.

“Oh, Brice. I can’t spend all that on one dress!” But she knew she would. In fact she knew the exact dress.

On the coffee table, between the sterling silver spoons, and the perfume bottle, lying on the blackand-silver scarf, was the envelope.

It contained a silly card with a Scot in kilts, saying, “Hoot, lass, l can afford to wish you Merry Christmas.” Inside Price had written,

“Get yourself a new tucker, with your husband's best wishes and love.” And in the same envelope he’d folded the crackling $50 bill.

She picked it up with a smile, and slid the card from the envelope.

And then she noticed that the bill was gone. She shook the envelope and glanced around the floor. It had been there that morning, for she had looked at it when she listed her Christmas cards.

Billy was winding a ball of red “Cellophane” rope, and Price turned around with his arms full of shirts and ties and violently striped pyjamas. “What’s the matter,

darling? You look rather startled,” he remarked.

"I can’t find my bib and tucker money.” She said it ruefully, as though someone had played a trick she couldn’t understand. “I must have mislaid it.” Together the three of them began looking through the gifts.

“It must be here,” said Brice cheerfully, but his brows were drawn together.

“It’s here. Nothing has been carried out of the room. No papers or wrappings.” But it wasn’t in the branches of the tree, nor on the floor, nor,in the pile of paper folded for the paper salvage, nor in the folds of the scarf. It wasn’t under the tablecloth, or even under the edge of the rug.

“Was anyone in here?” Brice asked at last.

"Nobody but the three of us,” Elizabeth said positively.

“Even Effie wasn’t in here today,” said Billy, although one could never suspect Effie, who had been with them for 10 years, and before that with the Nortons. Effie would as soon cut off her right hand as steal a dollar.

In the end they were turning things over mechanically, searching the same places over and over as though the money couldn’t be really gone until someone said the word. No one would say it. Price went to the office and Billy went coasting, while Elizabeth slowly combed the room once more, the upholstery in the chairs, the empty copper vase, the book lying on the piano.

"It will turn up,” she said to Price that evening. "It has to. I’ll find it somewhere.”

“Strange,” Price said. "Very strange.”

• But it was months later, after they lost the gold piece, that* Price said, “About that $50 at Christmastime— Billy was in and out all morning, wasn’t he?” “Price!” she stopped him quickly. “Don’t ever say such a thing. Don’t even think it. If he ever heard you—”

THE cardboard box was filled with ornaments and tinsel and an angel for the top of the tree. Elizabeth smoothed the angel’s skirt and laid her aside. She could go on last. Billy or Price could put her up if they felt like it. Somehow it was sheer mockery to put up the silver-winged symbol of peace and love. Tonight she would tell Price how she felt, not about Billy, but abou^him. His words rang in her ears. “You’ve made Billy more your own son than mine—more than he ever was Ardith’s.” That had been Price’s reaction to his conviction that Billy had been stealing for at least a year.

And it was true that Billy was her own in a very special way, perhaps more than if he had been her own flesh. She had been his mother and his friend since he was two years old. None of her friends had envied her when she married Price, a widower with a child. But she herself was grateful for Billy, however spoiled he seemed those first few months, for Elizabeth could never have a child. And she was plain. Not exactly homely, for her features were regular enough. Just plain. Whatever beauty she now possessed had developed under the warmth and nourishment of assurance and contentment and domesticity. Ardith, on the other hand, had been a sparkling beauty.

Once Effie had said, “I always think a man marries a second wife partly to get a housekeeper, so he doesn’t care whether she’s pretty or not.” Effie hadn’t intended to hurt her. She was simply accepting the facts and being reassuring about them. She was a good servant, thorough and loyal, devastatingly honest. But now Effie’s words returned. Perhaps Price had never forgotten Ardith, and so he resented Elizabeth’s affection for Ardith’s son, and Billy’s affection for Elizabeth.

She tested a bulb in a string of lights. It gave her something to do with her hands, though her mind went stubbornly back across months.

There was the morning Price came down to breakfast with the $10 gold piece in his hand. He showed it to Billy.

“Ever see one of these before, son?”

Billy took it casually, then his eyes lit up when he saw that it wasn’t a bright penny but a piece of gold. “Jeepers—real gold! Where’d you get it, dad?”

"I’ve had it in a box upstairs for a long time. It was given me as a swimming class prize when I wasn’t much older than you.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Turn it in at the bank,” said Price, putting it down on the table before him. "So don’t forget what it looks like. You may not see too many around in future.”

Billy put one knee on a chair and bent over the table again. “Worth $10 and no bigger’n that!” he marvelled.

That evening Price said, "Did you put the gold piece somewhere, Elizabeth? I forgot to take it when I went out.”

She promised to look for it. She did look for it. She asked Effie, who was very definite in her reply. “No, Mrs. Macdonald. I waxed that floor all fresh and there was no money. Not even in the corners.”

"Keep your eyes open for it,” said Elizabeth casually. “It may have rolled away.”

She and Price didn’t talk about it. They talked around it.

Elizabeth's gift to Price couldn't be hung on any Christmas tree, but it was what he wanted most

“Once when I was small I ran across the street and took a doll’s stove that belonged to a neighbor’s child,” she told Price. “I remember mother sending me back with it. I was so ashamed. I think most children take things once or twice in their lives.”

“Maybe,” he agreed, but he did not look less worried.

“And I think it’s better for the children to believe their parents trust them,” continued Elizabeth. “They get over it themselves more quickly—”

“Perhaps.”

From then on she and Price were both watching Billy, keeping tabs on the money he earned and the amounts he spent. It was difficult, because Billy was a trader by nature. He would take a piece of junk to school and trade it, coming home with something less worthless or at least different. He took care of a small girl’s pony, mowed lawns and shovelled snow. He collected stamps, traded and sold them, and was always deep in the mazes of some money-making enterprise. Perhaps he wanted money too much. She began pointing out to him, without being too obvious, that money wasn’t everything.

“No, ’tisn’t everything,” he agreed reasonably, “but if you have it you can enjoy all the other things more.”

Ah, Billy! She could hear him hammering. Soon he would be up to invite her to look at his decorating. Christmas, Merry Christmas isn’t going to come to you, Billy, or to any of us. It’s just going to be Dec. 25. She was getting to the bottom of the box of decorations. There were a few more red and blue balls and a couple of cards of inch-wide tinsel.

If only it could have waited until after Christmas. But now, on Christmas Eve, it had happened again.

“I wish,” Billy’d said at breakfast, “that Mrs. Deen would pay me for her posthole.” Mrs. Deen’s clothes post, and the hole Billy had dug for it, was a standing joke in the family. Mrs. Deen, with her clothesline safely up, had conveniently forgotten the transaction.

“Are you broke, Bill?” asked Price.

“Not exactly,” Billy admitted, “but I have too many plans.”

“Haven’t we all?” concurred Elizabeth.

“Santa Claus will tuck a few dimes and nickels in your purse,” Price promised her, and he handed Billy a couple of dollars. Elizabeth wondered if it was enough. Perhaps she could spare a few dollars herself.

She sat in the sunny dining room after Price got up from the table. It was a pleasant hour before the business of the day Continued on next page

began—like the stolen five minutes after the alarm clock rings. The clock on her desk seemed to understand, and though it chattered loudly in the morning silence it moved its hand lazily. She went, to the kitchen and spoke to Effie, not to instruct but to ensure her co-operation.

“I’m going downtown to pick up a few things. Have we enough butter? Did you find the nutcrackers?”

Back in the dining room she thought, “Price has gone and forgotten my money.” She opened the drawer of her desk and took out her purse, raised the flap and glanced inside. That was just fine, because, although she liked to drop in at the office and Price liked to see her, she never went unless she had an excuse.

The sunlight flamed on the snowdrifts so brightly that it hurt the eyes. Everyone seemed to be smiling, enjoying this last-minute shopping frenzy, the unwieldy parcels and the snow which chirruped and slid beneath their hurrying feet.

Price was alone in his office. He jumped up from his desk as she came in, his eyes approving her pink cheeks and fur-trimmed hat.

“Surprise!” she said. “It’s Mrs. Santo Claus.”

“You have soot on the end of your nose.” He shook out a fresh handkerchief and wiped it off. “Here, hold steady. Am I to help carry the bundles home?”

She rubbed her fingers on her thumb playfully, “Give—and say you’re sorry you forgot.”

“What did 1 forget?”

“You know dimes and nickels in my purse. Confess you forgot.” She felt a momentary confusion as the humor was wiped from his face.

Price sat down heavily in his swivel chair. “I put $20 in your purse. Two $10 bills.”

“But - ” She’d had some sort of preconceived idea that he’d forgotten; just why, she couldn’t have explained. She hadn’t really searched through her purse, but now she did so, hastily but thoroughly.

“Not there?”

She shook her head. Price got up and strode to the window, his back to her, his knuckles hard moving lumps under the stretched fabric of his pockets. “Now,” he said grimly, his voice sounding strained and unnatural, “this is really the limit. We’ve got to face it.”

She came and stood beside him, drawing back a little when she saw th ? rage which seemed to swell his features.

“This can’t go on. I'm going to thrash that young man within an inch of his life.” The knuckles moved convulsively. “I’ll break him of this if it’s the last thing I do.”

She said timidly, “Couldn’t you leave it until after Christmas?”

He looked at her as though across a great distance. “I can’t keep up this bluff any longer. Tonight I’m going to have a talk with Billy. I’ll drag the truth out of him. And for Christmas -no gifts.”

“But, Price,” she reminded him. her voice almost a whisper, “1 ordered the ski sled, and the fishing rod, and ”

“I’ll call the store and cancel the order.”

Her husband was suddenly a man she did not know. “I’ll handle this, Elizabeth,” he said. “This is none of your business. He’s my son, not yours, and I shall handle him.” He hunched his shoulders slightly. “I’ve given him over to you too much. I should have token a hand long ago. I’ll give him some money for Christmas, enough to repay what we know he has stolen, and he will use it for that."

Elizabeth stood silently, her heart

racing, her limbs without strength to carry her to the door. His voice was harsh and frigid, and the words cut through her quivering nerves. “I have always thought that he was more your son than mine. More yours than he ever was Ardith’s. I’ve watched you making him your son all these years. Now, this

If he had hit her with a whip she could not have been more surprised. Billy’s stealing was a problem she’d expected to face with Price. He had not only shut her out. He actually blamed her. Hilly is a thief. You have made him more your son than Ardith’s. More your son than mine.

She went out. I n the corridor she met Price’s secretary and hurried past without a word.

AS SHE thought of it now it seemed . that a chemical change had token place in her body. Turning from the tree she glimpsed her face in the mirror. It looked haggard and loosened in every muscle, like a wax mask that has melted. She took the last roll of tinsel from the box, and standing on a chair began to unroll it and hang it on the top branches of the tree. The whole thing had a dishevelled look, as though

the decorations had been thrown on, but she didn’t care. The card fell from her hand and spiralled jerkily to the floor as the tinsel unrolled. She glanced down, with a sudden, incredulous start, not daring to take her eyes from the floor, as though the vision before her might vanish.

She picked up the card last year's Christmas card, which she’d listed and discarded and then used as a winding base. Inside it was a crisp $50 bank note. The one place she hadn’t looked — inside the card! She held it in her hands and was conscious only of sounds: of Billy topping with a hammer in the cellar, of the back door banging

as Effie brought the dish towels from the line, and in the living room the clock’s aggressive ticking.

And now she ran into the hall and feverishly dialed the store. “This is Mrs. Macdonald —about the ski sled and the other things I ordered. Will you please send them up this evening after all. Yes, I know my husband cancelled them, but please send them after all.”

There was a stalagmite of hardness in her heart when she thought of Price; but with the $50 note she would at least save Billy’s Christmas. She ran to the window, expecting to see Price striding down the street at any moment. But he was at the door in a taxi. He got out and paid the driver. He was wishing him “Merry Christmas,” and the driver was saying, “Same to yourself, sir.”

He looked weary, but in her momentary softening the stalagmite stabbed her again. This was the husband she really didn’t know, who could go into another world of rage and distrust at Billy, and turn on those he loved.

The hammering in the cellar ceased and she thought that Billy, too, was watching his father come up the steps. She opened the door and drew Price

quickly into the living room. “Look!” She showed him the bill and the card with a fragment of tinsel. “The money I lost last Christmas. It was inside the card, at the bottom of the box of Christmas ornaments. You see, we were wrong about Billy. You won’t —you won’t say anything to him about the other things until after Christmas —please, Price?”

“You found the bill?”

“It was the first thing we missed, you remember. We may find the others, too. It was the biggest amount.”

“But—”

Billy was clattering up the steps from the cellar. He called out, “Hi, dad!”

and went upstairs to his room. Watching his heavy shoes disappear around the bend in the stairs, Price seemed a little less grey, a little less strained.

Elizabeth said again, urgently, “You won’t—”

“No, I won’t.”

Billy was coming downstairs again, two bundles in his arms. It was Christmas Eve and he wanted to get things started. “I brought your presents,” he cried. “No fair peeking.”

They were bulky parcels. Billy always gave them big things, sizeable packages wrapped in red tissue paper with innumerable tags and strings. It was evident that he had bought Price new fishing waders, and equally obvious was her own gift, a huge tray.

“Billy,” she said, and could have bitten her tongue out, “however did you afford such presents?”

He was putting them under the tree now. “I didn’t really,” his grin was wide and cheerful, “it was dad. I guess he found another one of those gold pieces. It was good you showed it to me that time, dad, because I would have thought it was a penny when I broke open my pig bank.”

“When you—broke open your pig bank?” She and Effie were always putting odd pennies into the pig bank. Once there must have been a very shiny one.

Price looked at his son, and Billy, a little embarrassed by the silence, said formally, “Thank you, sir.”

She thought irrelevantly, “I am closer to him than Price is. In moments like this he calls his father ‘sir.’ He has never called me anything but ‘Elizabeth.’ ”

She began to laugh. You couldn’t cry on Christmas Eve, especially with Billy there, looking at them both appraisingly, a little curiously.

It was a time for kissing under the mistletoe, but there was no ignoring the barrier between herself and Price. She hugged Billy, regardless of his embarrassment. “Merry Christmas!” she said softly.

It was very quiet in the room after Billy went upstairs. Relief mingled curiously with anxiety in her mind. She was not thinking of the unsolved mystery of that very morning. For Billy was not a thief. She and Price both knew it now.

On the spur of that thought she went to her desk and opened the drawer in which she kept her purse. There, among unopened letters that had arrived in the morning mail, were two $10 bills. Her hands shook as she took them out, showed them to Price and where they had lain.

He winced; then shook his head.

But I have seen a strange, cruel side of him, she thought, and Price sensed her alienation. Silence, like a dark shape, hung around them and the Christmas tree. Deliberately he moved his face into the shadows, and his voice was full of strain.

“Elizabeth, there’s something I should have told you years ago. You have a right to know. About my first wife, and about Billy and me. You must have wondered why I seemed to be almost insane today—”

She waited, perfectly still, and he drew a deep breath. “She was a very beautiful girl,” he said slowly.

“I know.”

“And at first we were happy. But from time to time strange things happened. One day, when we’d been married over a year, a department store manager phoned and asked me to come over. I went, and he took me into his office, where I found Ardith and several other people, a floorwalker, and a couple of clerks. They told me they’d caught her stealing. Not big

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! things, just small articles, but a number of them. She denied it, and I listened to them both, unable to believe it even after the store employees said they’d watched her for a long time, j They hadn’t said anything because we were good customers and the things she took were such trifles.”

“Oh, Price!” Elizabeth could scarcely let him go on, but he did, his voice strained and low.

“I was going to make a fuss. I thought someone in the store had it in I for Ardith for some reason. But I fortunately, before I made us both I more conspicuous, one of her old school ! friends told me she’d been stealing all I her life. So much so that whenever they missed things at school her friends used to walk down to her room and take them back again without saying a word about it. You see no one ever had the heart to prosecute her—she was so beautiful and so very lovable.”

“Whatever made her do it?” Elizabeth said incredulously.

“She couldn’t help it. It was something that happened—some turn her mind took. If she had a trivial disappointment or we had a spat at breakfast, or any little unpleasantness came up, she’d go downtown and take something off a counter. She’d started as a kid. Perhaps it was a compensation for the rigid upbringing she’d had. If things went badly she’d go childlike and steal some little object. It was like some people taking pills or liquor.” “You don’t have to think of it any

more—I understand perfectly, Price.” i “You can imagine,” he went on, I “how I have felt all these years, watch3 ing you bringing up Billy, watching 1 him take on your ideals and your very nature. You can imagine how I have j told myself over and over that he is

î more your child than hers, at least in

every fibre of his mind. You can r imagine how I felt when we thought—” } “Don’t say it. We should never have thought it. Those things aren’t [ inherited. It is, as you say, like taking i pills.”

t “But for you I never could have i restrained myself all these months. I

1 would really have lost Billy. We almost

1 lost him this Christmas Day—but now : you’ve given me back my son.”

5 The icicle had melted, and welling ; up within her was contrition and 1 tenderness. They had both been guilty i of the same fault. They had allowed > mistrust to crowd out love. For years she had struggled against a secondwife complex and in a moment of strain it had almost defeated her. There was apology in her voice, and in her : words a pretext for it: “Oh, Price—I

forgot your Christmas present. It’s at Bard’s being engraved—-and now it’s ; too late to get it.”

He drew her to him with the impai tience of a demanding lover and kissed her. “What does it matter? It’s f Christmas—and we’re ready for it.”

: Tinsel blurred in her eyelashes as she

: agreed. “All we have to do,” she

breathed, “is put the angel on top of r our tree.”