Star on the Balsam
Do you remember the Christmases of childhood, the girl who promised all? What does this Christmas mean to her — and to you?
H. GORDON GREEN
Do you remember, Dorothy, that first Christmas Eve we went carolling? We were only seven then and our village was the whole world and it was all magic. Do you remember how utterly happy we were as we trudged hand in hand down to Mr. Mercer's school to get ready? I-low the flickering candles of the Christmas trees winked at us from every window? The holly, the colored paper chains, the red popcorn balls and the tissue bells that never got tired of twirling? I-low someone cried "Merry Christmas!" every time a door opened?
Do you remember how the snow lay thick a~ cotton on the balsam in front of old man Ritchie'~ place, and away up at the top there was a big stai we thought might be the Bethlehem star, but we
couldn't be sure, because there were so many stars that night? I was dressed in a green velvet tail coat and a stovepipe hat made of an oatmeal box covered with satin. Mother had sewed all week to get my costume ready, and I felt a little mean about it, because I knew your mother could afford neither the money for velvet nor the time for sewing. Your outfit was a feathered hat from the attic and the tasselled old red runner from the organ, made into a cape. But you were very pretty, Dorothy. "Your costume is cuter than mine," I told you. I knew it was a lie, but it was the kind of lies my dad liked to tell and I didn't feel guilty. And when we got to the school Rossie Arnett was there ahead of us, all dressed up like a little lord. His outfit was even better than mine. "Sissy!" I hissed in your ear. and you out your hand beside
your mouth and said,
Continued on page 29
Continued from page 12
“Not near as nice as yours, Eddie.”
But just then Rossie came up, his face shining like a pale little moon. It was for you he shone, of course—he didn’t even see me.
“I’ve got a present for you, Dorothy,” he chirped. “It’s very very nice, and it just suits you. It’s a little violin you can really play. I’m going to give it to you when we go up on our street to sing.”
You had nothing to say behind your hand this time. You said, “Oh, thank you, Rossie! You shouldn’t have done that. Oh, that will be wonderful!” And I was so mad I could have blown my nose in the little pink handkerchief that dangled from his coat pocket. Then I thought, I’ve got a present too, and just wait till she sees it! But I didn’t go around blabbing about it ahead of time.
Before long we were following Mr. Mercer down the street and stopping at each corner to sing a carol. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Noel,” “Joy to the World.”
The houses sleeping behind the hedges suddenly stirred, with old people shoving back the window curtains and middle-aged ones peering through opened doors, and the very young ones tumbling down the porch steps to follow. It was when we got to the park that Mr. Mercer announced that you, Dorothy Ainsley, would now sing a solo. He blew on his little pitch pipe, beat the air with his wand. You sang “Holy Night, Silent Night, All is calm ...”
And all at once the people around the square stopped their shuffling and whispering. Across the street the late shoppers forgot their rush and stood motionless on the curb. Store doors opened quietly and stayed open. Your voice rang out so firm and clear that we could hear the echoes floating way out over the valley beyond the park. Mr. Mercer stopped waving his stick.
And when you were through old man Malarkey came wobbling across, the street from the hotel. He went up to Mr. Mercer and pressed a half dollar, probably his last, into his hand.
“The little girl who sings like an angel,” he stuttered, “will you have her sing again?”
A couple of men came across from the livery stable to lead him away. He was drunk, they said. Making a disturbance. The old man started to cry. He once had a little girl of his own, he said. I began to shiver like I always did when something grated me inside. When we moved on they had the old man back in front of the hotel again, and he just stood there in the doorway, wiping his eyes, and saying over and over again, “My God, but that kid can sing!”
THEN we went up Rossie’s street and he ran in to get your present, the violin. I was almost afraid then to give you my present. When we came in front of your house you went in to leave your violin under the Christmas tree and I went with you to wait.
I never liked waiting at your house. Your mother was always so busy. The wallpaper was shaggy and the carpets had bald spots, and the baby clothes which were always drying on the line behind the stove smelled. And in the downstairs bedroom where your father sat in a wheel chair, reading or just sitting, it always smelled of the doctor. Somehow it all made me afraid to breathe in, and when I finally got outside that night I shivered again just like I had when the old man had cried. When the carolling was over I took
you into our place to give you my present. I’ll never forget the look that came into your face when you saw what it was. It was a doll. The best doll my father had been able to find in the city. He said it had cost $3 but I knew it had cost seven. The sticker was still on the neck. He had said $3 because I was paying for it out of my allowance.
It had deep blue eyes like your own and long brown lashes and cheeks like a china cup. It had brown curls like your own and a little dress much better than anything of yours. It cried. It went to sleep.
“Oh, Eddie!” you said. “Oh, Eddie! I’ve never seen anything so beautiful! Oh, thank you!” And you hugged the doll till I thought you would crush it.
Then you stopped, suddenly. “But, Eddie, I haven’t a thing for you. Not a thing. I . . .”
Father had warned me what to say. “Girls aren’t supposed to give presents to the boys, Dorothy. My father says that’s always the man’s job.”
But you weren’t quite satisfied. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you my red diamond—the one I found on the beach,” you said. “It isn’t much, but it’s pretty and it’s something.”
I told you I loved red.
You looked down at the doll again. Your eyes began to shine. When you looked up your words were almost a sob. “Oh, Eddie! You know what? Someday I’m going to marry you!”
After you went home that night I went into the den, where my father sat in front of the fireplace, his sock feet resting on the beagle’s belly. I stood there in front of him, looking at the new angelfish in the aquarium and the funny label on the Irish pipe tobacco he saved for Sundays and holidays. I waited. He was reading Rod and Gun, on the page which told about raising foxes. Presently he put a mark on the page, slid the magazine under the aquarium and said, “Well, young man, you have something on your mind, no doubt?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, clearing my throat. “I ... I wonder if you could grind me a ring next time you’re down at the shop.”
“Yes, sir. I ... I got engaged tonight. To Dorothy. I’ll be needing a ring.”
Father took the pipe out of his mouth and slid it under the aquarium too. He was very very serious about it. “Congratulations,” he said. He shook my hand. “But you know a ring for an occasion like that demands considerable care. What size would you be wanting, now?”
“Same size as my own, sir,” I told him.
He took a micrometer from the little drawer beside him, slipped it over my finger, took a long time reading it, scribbled some figures in his notebook and said, “If you want the best quality metal, a ring like that will cost you—” he figured again to make sure—“17 cents. And you’re owing me already 85 cents on the doll.”
“You’ll have to trust me, sir,” I said.
He looked at me for a moment, very doubtfully I thought, then said, “Okay, son, seeing it’s Christmas and you’re my son and this is such an important matter, I’ll trust you.” Then he put his feet back on the beagle, lighted his pipe and began reading again about the foxes he intended to raise some day when he had made a little more money grinding bearings at the shop.
DO YOU remember that Christmas Eve when we were 12, Dorothy? That was the year we carollers ended our tour with an open-air concert in the park. We had a new reeve that year
I and the village was doing things in a big way.
A platform had been built and hung with electric bulbs. The band was ! there and a piano. We had our first look at a public address system. It whined and sizzled, and the man running it could never quite figure out how to regulate it, but to us it was a wonderful piece of science; and when the speeches j of the preachers and the reeve and the member of Parliament boomed through the speakers, the kids plowed their way up to the microphone to see what made it work, and the older men on the edge of the crowd shook their heads with wonderment and said, “Now doesn’t that beat all? . . . What next?”
You sang your solo, “Holy Night, Silent Night, All is calm . . .” And once again the whirring of the crowd j was stilled and the late shoppers paused with their bundles. When you had finished I heard people whispering on all sides of me. You were more wonderful than ever, they said. You had a fortune in your voice. If you could just get the proper chance . . .
But I wasn’t listening much. I was angry. Ross Arnett was playing the piano for you, and it was Ross who held your jacket and led you off the platform. I went over quickly to take you away from him, but when I got there someone else was ahead of me. He was a tall man with grey hair. I had never seen him before. He was talking to you.
“My name is Valliant,” he said. “I’m just visiting here for the day. I teach music in the city. I wish you could arrange to come down to Toronto for the musical festival we’re holding the first week of January. If you could manage to come, I’d be very glad to arrange your entry.”
You thanked him and said you’d let him know, but I knew what was in your mind. It was a long way to Toronto. Your mother was working harder than ! ever. The laundry of other families I hung on the line with her own now. She ¡ h id more time to wash with your J father gone.
AS WE walked home together we v were much too quiet for a Christmas Eve ... I was thinking of that musical festival and how much it might mean to you if you could only get there.
Oh, Dorothy, had I only known what it was going to mean!
Then we exchanged presents. I gave you a little watch. You had knitted me a pair of socks. “They’re red,” I said. “You always know what I like.”
We stood around a while in front of your place and you toed a little trough ; through the snow diamonds under the street light. When you looked up at me the diamonds seemed to be in your eyes, too. “Oh, Eddie,” you said, “you’re so awful good to me. Someday ! I’m going to pay you back. Someday . . .”
I asked if you still had the ring. It I wasn’t on your finger.
“It’s too small,” you told me, “but I always keep it with me.” You took it from a string on your neck and handed it over. I promised to give it back.
That night when I went into the den, father was there with his feet on the beagle again, reading Rod and Gun. After a while he marked the place in the magazine and shoved it under the aquarium.
“Well, young man? You have something on your mind, no doubt?”
I told him about Mr. Valliant and the musical festival you should attend. He took his feet off the beagle and lighted a new dip of his Sunday tobacco. He watched the blue smoke ‘ curl up through the horns on the ; stuffed deer head.
j “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I’ve ; just been considering going somewhere
to buy myself a new lathe. I guess Toronto would be as good a place as any. And this is as good a time as any.”
It was a lie, of course. He hadn’t mentioned a lathe for a year. He was saving every cent he could for the foxes we were going to raise next year. He might look the lathes over when he got there, but he would never buy one. I never knew anyone who could lie so magnificently as my father.
I felt like turning a handspring. I said, “I’ll pay for half the gas if you’ll take us down there, father.”
He looked up in his notebook. “You’re owing me already $4.52,” he said.
“And I’d like to be owing a small bit more,” I answered. I took the ring from my pocket. “This is the one you made five years ago, sir. It’s shrunk. What would it cost to make it larger?”
“Always be precise, my boy. How much larger?” He looked at me for what seemed a long time. He took the pipe out of his mouth and slid it under the aquarium. He reached for the micrometer. “A little bit smaller than your own, I suppose.” He took the measurements and jotted down the figures. “Two-bits,” he said.
DO YOU remember that Christmas Eve when we were 18, Dorothy? How after the carolling we went down to the big new shell in the park and listened to the electric organ? How you raved about it, and I said it sounded like the night wind whistling around a tombstone, because it was Ross Arnett who played it? Do you remember how furious I was when Ross took your hand after your solo to tell you how wonderful you had sung?
But that wasn’t a really happy Christmas, anyway, for you were to go to the city to study music after the New Year. The last festival had given you a scholarship, and that, along with the job the Arnett’s had found for you in their uncle’s office, would be enough. I should have been glad for your good fortune, perhaps. Maybe I would have been if Ross hadn’t been going to the city at the same time to study in the same place.
I saw no lights winking at me from the village Christmas trees that night as we walked down our street and up to your front porch.
We sat on the steps. You tried to make me happy. You said, “Don’t worry, Eddie, it’s you I love. Ross will never be anything more than he is right now—just a friend.”
“But I wish you didn’t have to work for his uncle. Ross will have too many strings on you,” I said sourly.
You told me there was no other way. You would like to put all of your time on music, but it just couldn’t be done. The scholarship alone was not enough for that.
“Please don’t worry,” you begged. You came into my arms then and pillowed your head on my shoulder. I found your lips in the dark and you clung to me so tightly I thought of the doll you had hugged that Christmas long ago. Then you pointed suddenly to the star over Ritchie’s balsam—our star.
“As long as it shines for us, I’ll always love you, Eddie,” you murmured. “Will you believe that, always?”
’ And suddenly the world was magic again, just like it had been in that long ago. The Christmas trees winked at us from the hedges again, people shouted greetings through the yellow of open doors and the tireless tissue bells twirled on their strings. It was just the same as it had always been, really— if a fellow wanted to see it that way. It would always be the same.
I said, “I believe you, Dorothy. You’re coming back to me.” And when I kissed you again the stars went out of your eyes because you closed them tight, and the doubt went out of my heart because faith had come in, and so had Christmas. I asked for the lend of the ring again.
YET I wasn’t quite satisfied. I couldn’t keep my thoughts from Ross and that job at his uncle’s. That night when I finally went home father was sleeping in his chair. Rod and Gun had fallen to the floor. I woke him gently.
“Father,” I said, “I’ve got 14 pairs of first-rate foxes now. Next fall they’re going to make me a mint of money.” Father opened his little drawer and took out his notebook.
“How much is it you’re wanting this time, son, and for how long?”
“If Dorothy could have the lend of some extra money, dad, she could put all of her time on her music.”
Father smiled, just a trace. “And she wouldn’t have to work with an Arnett . . . How much do you figure she should have, son?”
“I was thinking maybe $300 . . .” He looked at his notebook. You’re owing me already $117, son. Can’t throw money around, you know . . . You think $300 would be enough? Better double it to be sure ...”
I felt so happy I almost forgot about the ring. “Father, when you grind you use diamonds, don’t you?” I produced the ring.
Father protested. “But not with the kind that would look right in a ring!” But I didn’t care how it would look. It would be a diamond and it would mean that you were mine. Someday when I had more money, perhaps, I would buy you a real one, but not now. This had always been our ring.
Father finally gave in. “Couldn’t stick a diamond in there for a whit less than—” he figured all down one side of the Rod and Gun—“not one whit less than five bucks. Five and a half.”
DO YOU remember the year we were 22, Dorothy? Were you lonely in Montreal, your first Christmas Eve away from the village? Or did the glory of bright lights and flattery make you forget that your whole world was once our village street? That you and the boy next door owned the star above old Ritchie’s balsam? That you had sworn to love him as long as that star burned on?
I went with the carollers as usual that night, but I found it hard to sing. On all sides of me I heard them talking about you. “One of the best in the country now,” they said. “She’s come a long way from the time we knew her . . .”
Yes, you had come a long way. On graduation day a young orchestra leader had offered you his microphone. Your voice made him famous. Then you had sung your way upward from one name band to another. And now you had signed a contract with a big commercial program. Folks boasted of knowing you, cut your pictures from the papers.
We were to hear you that night after we had made our rounds and were gathered at the shell. The preachers and the reeve and the member of Parliament were all there to speechify your praise. I wondered if with all your training you still had the power to make a drunkard weep.
Then my ear caught a voice I wasn’t supposed to hear . . . “They say Ross Arnett is in Montreal now too. Playing in an orchestra . . . They say they’re going to be married . . .”
I went home. I went to my room and bolted the door. Mother knocked. I
wouldn’t let her in. I must have stayed there an hour in the darkness, but when your voice began to float through the rooms from the broadcast, I rushed downstairs and slapped the radio into silence. Mother was frightened. After a while I wandered into the den. Father told me to sit down. I didn’t hear. He bellowed at me. “Sit down!”
1 sat down then. He asked no questions. He said, “You didn’t want her anyhow if she was that fickle, son. Now forget it. There’ll be another one someday.”
My throat choked with a bitter lump and I couldn’t speak, but I remember looking at the old beagle under father’s feet and wondering why a dog for no reason at all could be so eternally faithful and why a woman for no reason at all could be just the opposite.
YOU FLEW up from Mont nal next day. The plane landed in Stevie Farrell’s field and all the village went to gawk at it. Ross Arnett I came too, and you had a late Christmas dinner at his place. When you came in to see us a little later, Ross was still with you. I struggled to keep calm. You were more beautiful than ever.
I thought. And you were finally dressed in clothes which matched your beauty. I noticed the triple-mink scarf the moment you came in. I made a comment about it, thinking to relieve the tension.
Ross spoke up. “Glad you like it. That was my present for Christmas.”
I don’t know what would have happened if father hadn’t coaxed Ross outside to see the foxes. When we were alone you said, “I want to pay back the money you lent me four years ago.” You counted it out on the table. You thanked me with the finest words your tongue could find—you owed me so much—-you would never forget, and a lot of other things I can’t remember now. But I do remember looking into your eyes and thinking how different they were now. No diamonds. No little stars.
Then you gave me a present. It was a photo of yourself with “Dorothy” written in the corner. It was a beautiful thing, yet it angered me. Why couldn’t you have written something but your name in the corner? One little word would have meant so much. But the word wasn’t there.
I thanked you. I said it was lovely. Then I said, “But it isn’t the same any more, is it, Dorothy?”
You looked at the floor. You reached for my arm but I backed away.
“You love Ross Arnett, don’t you?”
You didn’t get angry. “Ross and 1 are together a lot, Eddie, but it’s only because we’ve known each other for so long and because we’re both doing the same sort of work . . .”
You took my arm again, but I shoved you away. I knew it had happened. It was all over. You were a great singer, famous. I was a grinder in the steel mill, with a few foxes in my back yard and nothing else. I’d never be famous. Ross was your kind.
I said, “Please don’t pretend something you can’t feel, Dorothy. I understand.” And I didn’t want to talk about it any more.
You talked anyhow. “But, Eddie, it isn't Ross! It isn’t anyone. Right now it’s music and nothing else.
“Oh, Eddie, is it so wrong for a girl to follow a career for a little while? Until now, I’ve never had a thing. You know that . . . and it won’t always be like this, Eddie. Someday I’ll be glad to trade it all for a home and a husband . . .”
I looked at you, silently reading your mind. You didn’t want to hurt me,
I thought. It wouldn’t be so hard
on me if you used music, rather than Ross, as your excuse for breaking us up. And then, when I had finally forgotten you for someone else, ypu would be free to go back to Ross. How cleverly you had thought it all out!
I said, “You’re trying to be like father, Dorothy. You think it will help to say things you know aren’t true. Why don’t you be honest and tell me the truth? I’m a man.”
You looked as though you might cry. You tried to deny, explain. But Ross came in then and I went to my room till you went away. And thatnight when I went down to the den, father sat there for a long time, Rod and Gun unheeded on his knee. “I wish I could help you, son,’’lie said, shaking his head sadly, “but I guess this is one time there’s nothing I can do. Money won’t help . . . No ring to fix . . . Nothing ... If we could only understand, son . . .”
YES, DOROTHY, if we could only understand!
If only I might have understood how it really was that day, how much pain I might have spared myself! Had I only let myself believe, as I had promised I would, I would have let you explain. I would have learned about how you had promised not to marry until your contract expired. I would have known then that Ross, in spite of his efforts, had nothing to
do with the things which had come between us. I would have known then that you were holding back the love you felt only to make the little wait a little easier.
How different it might have been!
It’s Christmas again, Dorothy. All through the village the trees are winking from the windows at the children going to the carolling. The popcorn balls and the tissue bells are twirling on their strings again. Doors are opening yellow to the shout of “Merry Christmas!” And here at home father sits in his den, still with Rod and Gun, his Irish Sunday tobacco and a sock foot on each of the two pups the beagle left to carry on her race.
The presents are piled by the Christmas tree all ready for morning—all of them but the ring dad plated gold last night and the fox coat I had made up for you from my own foxes. As soon as I finish this note to put with the ring and the coat, I’ll wrap them up, and all will be ready.
All I really wanted to say, Dorothy, is that I love you. I’ve always loved you, and as long as our star burns bright over old Ritchie’s balsam, I’ll never doubt again. Never.
The carollers will be coming down our street, Dorothy, and they’ll stop here for you to sing to them. Won’t you please wake up now? Dorothy, why must you always go to sleep when you put the baby to bed? -fa