Read CHAPTER II of The Little City Of Hope A Christmas Story, free online book, by F. Marion Crawford, on


Overholt’s boy came home from school at the usual hour with his books buckled together in an old skate strap, which had never been very good because the leather was too soft and tore from one hole to the next; but it served very well for the books, as no great strain was caused by an arithmetic thumbed to mushiness, a history in the same state, and a geography of which the binding gave in and doubled up from sheer weariness, while the edges were so worn that the eastern coast of China and Siberia had quite disappeared.

He was a good-looking lad, not tall for his age, but as tough as a street cat in hard training.  He had short and thick brown hair, a clear complexion, his father’s energetically intellectual features, though only half developed yet, a boldly-set mouth, and his mother’s kindly, practical blue eyes.  For surely the eyes of practical people are always quite different from those of all others; and not many people are practical, though I never knew anybody who did not think he or she was, except pinchbeck artists, writers, and players, who are sure that since they must be geniuses, it is necessary to be Bohemians in order to show it.  The really big ones are always trying to be practical, like Sir Isaac Newton when he ordered a good-sized hole to be cut in his barn door for the cat, and a little one next it for the kitten.

But Newton Overholt did not at all resemble his great namesake.  He was a practical young soul, and had not yet developed the American disease which consists in thinking of two things at the same time.  John Henry had it badly, for he had been thinking of the tangent-balance, his wife, his boy, and the coming Christmas, all together, since he had got home, and the three problems had got mixed and had made his head ache.

Nevertheless he looked up from his work-table and smiled when his son came in.

“Everything all right?” he asked, with an attempt to be cheerful.

“Oh yes, fine,” answered the boy, looking at the motionless model for the five-hundredth time, and sticking his hands into his pockets.  “I’m only third in mathematics yet, but I’m head in everything else.  I wish I had your brains, father!  I’d be at the head of the arithmetic class in half a shake of a lamb’s tail if I had your brains.”

So far as mathematics were concerned this sounded probable to John Henry, who would have considered the speed of the tail to be a variable function of lamb, depending on the value of mother, plus or minus milk.

“Well,” he said in an encouraging tone, “I never could remember geography, so it makes us even.”

“I’d like to know how!” cried the boy in a tone of protest.  “You could do sums, and you grew up to be a great mathematician and inventor.  But what is the good of a geographician, anyway?  They can only make school-books.  They never invent anything, do they?  You can’t invent geography, can you?  At least you can, and some boys do, but they go to the bottom of the class like lead.  It’s safer to invent history than geography, isn’t it, father?”

Overholt’s clever mouth twitched.

“It’s much safer, my boy.  Almost all historians have found it so.”

“There!  I said so to-day, and now you say just the same thing.  I don’t believe one word of ancient history.  Not ­one ­word!  They wrote it about their own nations, didn’t they?  All right.  Then you might just as well expect them to tell what really happened, as think that I’d tell on another boy in my own school.  I must say it would be as mean as dog pie of them if they did, but all the same that does not make history true, does it?”

Newton had a practical mind.  His father, who had not, meditated with unnecessary gravity on the boy’s point of view and said nothing.

“For instance,” continued the lad, sitting down on the high stool before the lathe Overholt was not using, “the charge of Balaclava’s a true story, because it’s been told by both sides; but they all say that it did no good, anyway, except to make poetry of.  But Marathon!  Nobody had a chance to say a word about it except the Greeks themselves, and they weren’t going to allow that the Persians wiped up the floor with them, were they?  Why should they?  And if Balaclava had happened then, those Greek fellows would have told us that the Light Brigade carried the Russian guns back with them across their saddles, wouldn’t they?  I say, father!”

“What is it?” asked Overholt, looking up, for he had gone back to his work and was absorbed in it.

“The boys are all beginning to talk about Christmas down at the school.  Now what are we going to do at Christmas?  I’ve been wondering.”

“So have I!” responded the man, laying down the screw-plate with which he was about to cut a fine thread on the end of a small brass rod for the tangent-balance.  “I’ve been thinking about it a good deal to-day, and I haven’t decided on anything.”

“Let’s have turkey and cranberry sauce, anyway,” said Newton thoughtfully, for he had a practical mind.  “And I suppose we can have ice-cream if it freezes and we can get some ice.  Snow does pretty well if you pack it down tight enough with salt, and go on putting in more when it melts.  Barbara doesn’t make ice-cream as well as they do in New York.  She puts in a lot of winter-green and too little cocoanut.  But it’s not so bad.  We can have it, can’t we, father?”

“Oh yes.  Turkey, cranberry sauce, and ice-cream.  But that isn’t a whole Christmas!”

“I don’t see what else you want, I’m sure,” answered the boy thoughtfully.  “I mean if it’s a big turkey and there’s enough ice-cream ­cream-cakes, maybe.  You get good cream-cakes at Bangs’s, two for five cents.  They’re not very big, but they’re all right inside ­all gooey, you know.  Can you think of anything else?”

“Not to eat!”

“Oh, well then, what’s the matter with our Christmas?  I can’t see.  No school and heaps of good gobbles.”

“Good what?” Overholt looked at the boy with an inquiring glance, and then understood.  “I see!  Is that the proper word?”

“When there’s lots, it is,” answered Newton with conviction.  “Of course, there are all sorts of things I’d like to have, but it’s no good wishing you could lay Columbus’s egg and hatch the American eagle, is it? What would you like, father, if you could choose?”

“Three things,” answered Overholt promptly.  “I should like to see that wheel going round, softly and steadily, all Christmas Day.  I should like to see that door open and your mother coming in.”

“You bet I would too!” cried Newton, dropping from bold metaphor to vulgar vernacular.  “Well, what’s the third thing?  You said there were three.”

“I should like you to have a real, old-fashioned, glorious Christmas, my boy, such as you had when you were smaller, before we left the house where you were born.”

“Oh well, you mustn’t worry about me, father; if there’s plenty of turkey and ice-cream and the cream-cakes, I can stand it.  Mother can’t come, anyhow, so that’s settled, and it’s no use to think about it.  But the motor ­that’s different.  There’s hope, anyway.  The wheel may go round.  If you didn’t hope so, you wouldn’t go on fussing over it, would you?  You’d go and do something else.  They always say hope’s better than nothing.”

“It’s about all we shall have left for Christmas, so we may as well build as much on it as we can.”

“I love building,” said Newton.  “I like to stand and watch a bricklayer just putting one brick on another and making the wall grow.”

“Perhaps you’ll turn out an architect.”

“I’d like to.  I never showed you my city, did I?” He knew very well that he had not, and his father looked at him inquiringly.  “No.  Oh well, you won’t care to see it.”

“Yes, I should!  But I don’t understand.  What sort of a city do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” answered the boy, affecting carelessness.  “It’s only a little paper city on a board.  I don’t believe you’d care to see it, father.  Let’s talk about Christmas.”

“No.  I want to see what you have made.  Where is it?  I’ll go with you.”

Newton laughed.

“I’ll bring it, if you really want me to.  It’s easy enough to carry.  The whole thing’s only paper!”

He left the workshop and returned before Overholt had finished cutting the thread of the screw he was making.  The man turned as the boy pushed the door open with his foot, and came in carrying what had evidently once been the top of a deal table.

On the board he had built an ingenious model of a town, or part of one, but it was not finished.  It was entirely made of bits of cardboard, chips of wood, the sides of match-boxes, and odds and ends of all sorts, which he picked up wherever he saw them and brought home in his pocket for his purpose.  He had an immense supply of such stuff stored away, much more than he could ever use.

Overholt looked at it with admiration, but said nothing.  It was the college town where he had lived so happily and hoped to live again.  It was distinctly recognisable, and many of the buildings were not only cleverly made, but were coloured very like the originals.  He was so much interested that he forgot to say anything.

“It’s a silly thing, anyway,” said Newton, disappointed by his silence.  “It’s like toys!”

Overholt looked up, and the boy saw his pleased face.

“It’s very far from silly,” he said.  “I believe you’re born to be a builder, boy!  It’s not only not silly, but it’s very well done indeed!”

“I’ll bet you can’t tell what the place is,” observed Newton, a secret joy stealing through him at his father’s words.

“Know it?  I should think I did, and I wish we were there now!  Here’s the College, and there’s our house in the street on the other side of the common.  The church is first-rate, it’s really like it ­and there’s the Roman Catholic Chapel and the Public Library in Main Street.”

“Why, you really do recognise the places!” cried Newton in delight.  “I didn’t think anybody’d know them!”

“One would have to be blind not to, if one knew the town,” said Overholt.  “And there’s the dear old lane!” He was absorbed in the model.  “And the three hickory trees, and even the little bench!”

“Why, do you remember that bench, father?”

Overholt looked up again, quickly and rather dreamily.

“Yes.  It was there that I asked your mother to marry me,” he said.

“Not really?  Then I’m glad I put it in!”

“So am I, for the dear old time’s sake and for her sake, and for yours, my boy.  Tell me when you made this, and how you can remember it all so well.”

The lad sat down on the high stool again before the lathe and looked through the dingy window at the scraggy trees outside, beyond the forlorn yard.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said.  “I kind of remember it, I suppose, because I liked it better than this.  And when I first had the idea I was sitting out there in the yard looking at this board.  It belongs to a broken table that had been thrown out there.  And I carried it up to my room when you were out.  I thought you wouldn’t mind my taking it.  And I picked up scraps that might be useful, and got some gum, and old Barbara made me some flour paste.  It’s got green now, and it smells like thunder, but it’s good still.  That’s about all, I suppose.  Now I’ll take it away again.  I keep it in the dark closet behind my room, because that doesn’t leak when it rains.”

“Don’t take it away,” said Overholt suddenly.  “I’ll make room for it here, and you can work at it while I’m busy, and in the evenings I’ll try and help you, and we’ll finish it together.”

Newton was amazed.

“Why, father, it’s playing!  How can you go to work at play?  It would be so funny!  But, of course, if you really would help me a little ­you’ve got such lots of nice things!”

He wistfully eyed a little coil of some very fine steel wire which would make a beautiful telegraph.  Newton even dreamt of making the trolley, too, in the Main Street, but that would be a very troublesome job; and as for the railway station, it was easy enough to build a shed and a platform, but what is a railway station without a train?

Overholt did not answer the boy at once, and when he spoke there was a queer little quaver in his voice.

“We’ll call it our little City of Hope,” he said, “and perhaps we can ‘go to work to play,’ as you call it, so hard that Hope will really come and live in the City.”

“Well,” said Newton, “I never thought you’d ever care to see it!  Shall I go up and get my stuff, and the gum and the flour paste, and bring them down here, father?  But the flour paste smells pretty bad ­it might give you a headache.”

“Bring it down, my boy.  My headaches don’t come from such things.”

“Don’t they?  It’s true that stuff you use here’s about as bad as anything, till you get used to it.  What is it, anyway?”

Overholt gave him the almost unpronounceable name of some recently discovered substance, and smiled at his expression as he listened.

“If that’s its name,” said the boy gravely, “it sounds like the way it smells.  I wonder what a skunk’s name is in science.  But the flour paste’s pretty bad too.  You’ll see!”

He went off, and his father finished cutting the little screw while he was gone, and then turned to look at the model again, and became absorbed in tracing the well-known streets and trying to recall the shops and houses in each, and the places where his friends had lived, and no doubt lived still, for college towns do not change as fast as others.  He was amazed at the memory the boy had shown for details; if the lad had not yet developed any special talent, he had at least proved that he possessed one of those natural gifts which are sometimes alone enough to make success.  The born builder’s eye is like an ear for music, a facility for languages, or the power of drawing from nature; all the application in the world will not do in years what any one of these does instantly, spontaneously, instinctively, without the smallest effort.  You cannot make talent out of a combination of taste and industry.  You cannot train a cart-horse to trot a mile in a little over a minute.

Newton returned, bringing his materials, to describe which would be profitless, if it were possible.  He had everything littered together in two battered deal candle-boxes, including the broken soup-plate containing the flour paste, a loathely, mouldering little mess that diffused a nauseous odour, distinctly perceptible through that of the unpronounceable chemical on which the Air-Motor was to depend for its existence.

The light outside was failing in the murky November air, and Overholt lit the big reflecting lamp that hung over the work-table.  There was another above the lathe, for no gas or electricity was to be had so far from the town, and one of old Barbara’s standing causes of complaint against Overholt was his reckless use of kerosene ­she thought it would be better if he had more fat turkeys and rump-steaks and less light.

So the man and the boy “went to work to play” at building the City of Hope, for at least an hour before supper and half an hour after it, almost every day; and with the boy’s marvellous memory and the father’s skill, and the delicious profusion of fresh material which Newton kept finding in every corner of the workshop, it grew steadily, till it was a little work of art in its way.  There were the ups and downs, the crooked old roads and lanes and the straight new streets, the little wooden cottages and the big brick houses, and there was the grassy common with its trees and its tiny iron railing; and John Henry easily made posts to carry the trolley wires, which had seemed an impossible dream to the boy, beyond all realisation; and one day, when the inventor seemed farther from the tangent-balance than ever, he spent a whole afternoon in making a dozen little trolley-cars that ran on real wheels, made by sawing off little sections from a lead pencil, which is the best thing in the world for that, because the lead comes out and leaves nice round holes for the axles.  When the first car was painted red and yellow and ran up and down Main Street, guided by the wire above and only needing one little artificial push to send it either way, it looked so real that the boy was in ecstasies of delight.

“It’s worth while to be a great inventor to be able to make things like that!” he cried, and Overholt was as much pleased by the praise as an opera singer is who is called out three times before the curtain after the first act.

So the little City of Hope grew, and they both felt that Hope herself was soon coming to dwell therein, if she had not come already.