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- Mr. Bingle - 2/49 -
pretty girl. There was no reason in the world why she shouldn't have gone to the ball and had a good time instead of thinking of them in their hours of trouble. But here she was, actually going out of her way to be kind to her employers: supplying a complete family for Christmas Eve purposes and never uttering a word of complaint!
The more he thought of it, the prettier she became. He mentioned it to his wife and she agreed with him. Melissa was much too pretty, said Mrs. Bingle, entirely without animus. And she was really quite a stylish sort of girl, too, when she dressed up to go out of a Sunday. Much more so, indeed, than Mrs. Bingle herself, who had to scrimp and pinch as all good housewives do if they want to succeed to a new dress once a year.
Melissa had something of an advantage over her mistress in that she received wages and was entitled to an afternoon off every fortnight. Mrs. Bingle did quite as much work about the house, ate practically the same food, slept not half so soundly, had all the worry of making both ends meet, practised a rigid and necessary economy, took no afternoons off, and all without pecuniary compensation--wherein rests support for the contention that Melissa had the better of her mistress when all is said and done. Obviously, therefore, Mrs. Bingle was not as well off as her servant. True, she sat in the parlour while Melissa sat in the kitchen, but to offset this distinction, Melissa could sing over her pans and dishes.
Mr. Bingle, good soul, insisted on keeping a servant, despite the strain on his purse, for no other reason than that he couldn't bear the thought of leaving Mrs. Bingle alone all day while he was at the bank. (Lest there should be some apprehension, it should be explained that he was a bookkeeper at a salary of one hundred dollars a month, arrived at after long and faithful service, and that Melissa had but fifteen dollars a month, food and bed.) Melissa was company for Mrs. Bingle, and her unfailing good humour extended to Mr. Bingle when he came home to dinner, tired as a dog and in need of cheer. She joined in the table-talk with unresented freedom and she never failed to laugh heartily over Mr. Bingle's inspired jokes. Altogether, Melissa was well worth her wage. She was sunshine and air to the stifled bookkeeper and his wife.
And now, for the third time, she was bringing the five rollicking Sykeses to the little flat beyond Washington Square, and for the thousandth time Mr. and Mrs. Bingle wondered how such a treasure as Melissa had managed to keep out of heaven all these years.
Mr. Bingle opened the front door with a great deal of ceremony the instant the rickety elevator came to a stop at the seventh floor, and gave greeting to the five Sykeses on the dark, narrow landing. He mentioned each by name and very gravely shook their red-mittened paws as they sidled past him with eager, bulging eyes that saw only the Christmas trappings in the room beyond.
"Merry Christmas," said the five, not quite in one voice but with well-rehearsed vehemence, albeit two tiny ones, in rapt contemplation of things beyond, quite neglected their duty until severely nudged by Melissa, whereupon they said it in a shrill treble at least six times without stopping.
"I am very pleased to see you all," said Mr. Bingle, beaming. "Won't you take off your things and stay awhile?"
It was what he always said to them, and they always said, "Yes, thank you," following out instructions received on the way down town, and then, in some desperation, added, "Mr. Bingle," after a sententious whisper from their aunt.
They were a rosy, clean-scrubbed lot, these little Sykeses. Their mother may not have fared overly well herself, but she had contrived to put flesh and fat on the bones of her progeny, and you would go a long way before you would find a plumper, merrier group of children than those who came to the Bingle flat on Christmas Eve in their very best garments and with their very best appetites. The eldest was ten, the youngest four, and it so happened that the beginning and the end of the string were boys, the three in between being Mary, Maud, and Kate.
Mrs. Bingle helped them off with their coats and caps and mufflers, then hugged them and lugged them up to the fire, while Melissa removed her skunk tippet, her poney coat and a hat that would have created envy in the soul of a less charitable creature than the mistress of the house.
"And now," said Mr. Bingle, confronting the group, "who made you?"
"God, Mr. Bingle," said the five Sykeses, very much after the habit of a dog that is ordered to "speak."
"And who was it that said, 'Suffer little children to come unto me?'"
"Jesus, Mr. Bingle," said the five Sykeses, eyeing the pile on the table.
"And where do you expect to go when you die?" demanded Mr. Bingle, with great severity.
"Heaven!" shouted the perfectly healthy Sykeses.
"How is your mother, Mary?" asked Mrs. Bingle, always a rational woman.
Mary bobbed. "She's working, ma'am," said she, and that was all she knew about her mother's state of health.
"Are you cold?" inquired Mr. Bingle, herding them a little closer to the grate.
"Yes," said two of the Sykeses.
"Sir," admonished Melissa.
"Sir!" said all of the Sykeses.
"Now, draw up the chairs," said Mr. Bingle, clearing his throat. "Mary, you'd better take Kate and Georgie on your lap, and suppose you hold Maud, Melissa. It will be more cosy." This was his way of overcoming the shortage in chairs.
Now, it was Mr. Bingle's custom to read "The Christmas Carol" on Christmas Eve. It was his creed, almost his religion, this heart- breaking tale by Dickens. Not once, but a thousand times, he had proclaimed that if all men lived up to the teachings of "The Christmas Carol" the world would be sweeter, happier, nobler, and the churches could be put to a better use than at present, considering (as he said) that they now represent assembling places for people who read neither Dickens nor the Scripture but sing with considerable intelligence. It was his contention that "The Christmas Carol" teaches a good many things that the Church overlooks in its study of Christ, and that the surest way to make good men out of ALL boys is to get at their hearts while their souls are fresh and simple. Put the New Testament and "The Christmas Carol" in every boy's hand, said he, and they will create a religion that has something besides faith for a foundation. One sometimes forgets that Christ was crucified, but no one ever forgets what happened to Old Scrooge, and as Mr. Bingle read his Bible quite assiduously it is only fair to assume that he appreciated the relativeness of "The Christmas Carol" to the greatest Book in all the world.
For twenty years or more, he had not once failed to read "The Carol" on Christmas Eve. He knew the book by heart. Is it any wonder, then, that he was a gentle, sweet-natured man in whom not the faintest symptom of guile existed? And, on the other hand, is it any wonder that he remained a bookkeeper in a bank while other men of his acquaintance went into business and became rich and arrogant? Of course, it is necessary to look at the question from both directions, and for that reason I mention the fact that he remained a bookkeeper while those who scorned "The Christmas Carol" became drivers of men.
Experience--and some sage conclusions on the part of his wife--had taught him, after years of unsatisfactory practice, that it was best to read the story BEFORE giving out presents to the immature guests. On a great many occasions, the youngsters--in those early days they were waifs--either went sound asleep before he was half way through or became so restless and voracious that he couldn't keep his place in the book, what with watching to see that they didn't choke on the candy, break the windows or mirrors with their footballs, or put some one's eye out with a pop-gun.
[Illustration with caption: The "kiddies" kept their eyes and ears open and sat very still while he read to them of Tiny Tim and his friends]
Of late he had been reading the story first and distributing the "goodies" and toys afterward. It was a splendid arrangement. The "kiddies" kept their eyes and ears open and sat very still while he read to them of Tiny Tim and his friends. And when Mr. Bingle himself grinned shamefacedly through his tears and choked up so that the words would not come without being resolutely forced through a tightened throat, the sympathetic audience, including Mrs. Bingle and Melissa-- and on one occasion an ancient maiden from the floor above--wept copiously and with the most flattering clamour.
A small reading-lamp stood on the broad arm of his chair, which faced the expectant group. Mr. Bingle cleared his throat, wiped his spectacles, and then peered over the rims to see that all were attending. Five rosy faces glistened with the sheen of health and soap lately applied with great force by the proud but relentless Melissa.
"Take off your ear-muffs, James," said Mr. Bingle to the eldest Sykes, who immediately turned a fiery red and shrank down in his chair bitterly to hate his brothers and sisters for snickering at him. "There! That's much better."
"They're new, Mr. Bingle," explained Melissa. "He hasn't had 'em off since yesterday, he likes 'em so much. Put 'em in your pocket, Jimmy. And now listen to Mr. Bingle. Are you sure they ain't too heavy for you, ma'am? Georgie's getting pretty big--oh, excuse me, sir."
Mr. Bingle took up the well-worn, cherished book and turned to the first page of the text. He cleared his throat again--and again. Hesitation at a time like this was unusual; he was clearly, suddenly irresolute. His gaze lingered for a moment on the white knob of a door at the upper end of the room, and then shifted to his wife's face.
"I wonder, my dear, if Uncle Joe couldn't be persuaded to come in and listen to the reading," he ventured, a wistful gleam in his eyes. "He's been feeling better the last few days. It might cheer him--"
"Cheer your granny," said Mrs. Bingle scornfully. "It's no use. I asked him just before dinner and he said he didn't believe in happiness, or something to that effect."
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