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


But then something happened; for Overholt was tormented by the vague consciousness of a coming idea, so that he had headaches and could not sleep at night.  It flashed upon him at last one evening when Newton was in bed and he was sitting before his motor, wishing he had the thousand dollars which would surely complete it, even if he used the most expensive materials in the market.

The idea which developed suddenly in all its clearness was that he had made one of the most important parts of the machine exactly the converse of what it should be; what was on the right should have been on the left, and what was down should certainly have been up.  Then the engine would work, even if the tangent-balance were a very poor affair indeed.

The particular piece of brass casting which was the foundation of that part had been made in New York, and, owing to the necessity for its being finished very accurately and machine planed and turned, it had cost a great deal of money.  Already it had been made and spoilt three times over, and now it was perfectly clear that it must be cast over again in a reversed form.  It was quite useless to make the balance yet, for it would be of no use till the right casting was finished; it would have to be reversed too, and the tangent would apply to a reversed curve.

He had no money for the casting, but even before trying to raise the cash it was necessary to make the wooden model.  He could do that, and he set to work to sketch the drawing within five minutes after the idea had once flashed upon him.  As his eye followed the lines made by his pencil, he became more and more convinced that he was right.  When the rough sketch was done he looked up at the engine.  Its familiar features seemed to be drawn into a diabolical grimace of contempt at his stupidity, and it looked as if it were conscious and wanted to throw the wrongly-made piece at his head.  But he was overwrought just then and could have fancied any folly.

He rose, shook himself, and then took a long pull at a black bottle that always stood on a shelf.  When a man puts a black bottle to his lips, tips it up, and takes down several good pulls almost without drawing breath, most people suppose that he is a person of vicious habits.  In Overholt’s case most people would have been wrong.  The black bottle contained cold tea; it was strong, but it was only tea, and that is the finest drink in the world for an inventor or an author to work on.  When I say an author I mean a poor writer of prose, for I have always been told that all poets are either mad, or bad, or both.  Many of them must be bad, or they could not write such atrocious poems; but madness is different; perhaps they read their own verses.

When Overholt had swallowed his cold tea, he got out his drawing materials, stretched a fresh sheet of thick draughtsman’s paper on the board, and sat down between the motor that would not move and the little city in which Hope had taken lodgings for a while, and he went to work with ruler, scale and dividers, and the hard wood template for drawing the curves he had constructed for the tangent-balance by a very abstruse mathematical calculation.  That was right, at all events, only, as it was to be reversed, he laid it on the paper with the under-side up.

He worked nearly all night to finish the drawing, slept two hours in a battered Shaker rocking-chair by the fire, woke in broad daylight, drank more cold tea, and went at once to his lathe, for the new piece was in the nature of a cylinder, and a good deal of the work could be done by turning.

The chisel and the lathe seemed to be talking to each other over the block of wood, and what they said rang like a tune in John Henry’s head.

“Bricks without straw, bricks without straw, bricks without straw,” repeated the lathe regularly, at each revolution, and when it said “bricks” the treadle was up, and when it said “straw” the treadle was down, for of course it was only a foot lathe, though a good one.  “Sh ­sh ­sh ­ever so much better than no bricks at all ­sh ­sh ­sh,” answered the sharp chisel as it pressed and bit the wood, and made a little irregular clattering when it was drawn away, and then came forward against the block again with a long hushing sound; and Overholt was inclined to accept its opinion, and worked on as if an obliging brassfounder were waiting outside to take the model away at once and cast it for nothing, or at least on credit.

But no such worthy and confiding manufacturer appeared, even on the evening of the second day, when the wooden model was beautifully finished and ready for the foundry.  While the inventor was busy, Newton had worked alone in a corner when he had time to spare from his lessons, but he understood what was going on, and he did not accomplish much beyond painting the front of the National Bank in the City of Hope and planning a possible Wild West Show to be set up on the outskirts; the tents would be easy to make, but the horses were beyond his skill, or his father’s; it would not be enough that they should have a leg at each corner and a head and a tail.

He understood well enough what was the matter, for he had seen similar things happen before.  A pessimist is defined to be a person who has lived with an optimist, and every inventor is that.  Poor Newton had seen that particular part of the engine spoiled and made over three times, and he understood perfectly that it was all wrong again and must be cast once more.  But he kept his reflections to himself and tried to think about the City of Hope.

“I wish,” said John Henry, sitting down opposite the boy at last, and looking at what he had done, “that the National Bank in Main Street were real!”

He eyed it wistfully.

“Oh well,” answered the boy, “we couldn’t rob it, because that’s stealing, so I don’t see what particular good it would do!”

“Perhaps the business people in the City of Hope would be different from the bankers in New York,” observed Overholt, thoughtfully.

“I don’t believe it, father,” Newton answered in a sceptical tone.  “If they were bankers they’d be rich, and you remember the sermon Sunday before last, about it’s being easier for the camel to get through the rich man ­no, which is it?  I forget.  It doesn’t matter, anyway, because we can imagine any kind of people we choose in our city, can’t we?  Say, father, what’s the matter?  Are you going to cast that piece over again?  That’ll be the fourth time, won’t it?”

“It would be, my boy, but it won’t be.  They won’t cast it for nothing, and I cannot raise the money.  You cannot make bricks without straw.”

He looked steadily down at the tiny front of the Bank in Main Street, and a hungry look came into his eyes.

But Newton had a practical mind, even at thirteen.

“I was thinking,” he said presently.  “It looks as if we were going to get stuck some day.  What are we going to do then, father?  I was thinking about it just now.  How are we going to get anything to eat if we have no money?”

“I shall have to go back to teaching mathematics for a living, I suppose.”

“And give up the Motor?” Newton had never yet heard him suggest such a thing.

“Yes,” Overholt answered in a low tone; and that was all he said.

“Oh, that’s ridiculous.  You’d just die, that’s all!”

Newton stared at the engine that was a failure.  It looked as if it ought to work, he thought, with its neat cylinders, its polished levers, its beautifully designed gear.  It stood under a big case made of thick glass plates set in an iron frame with a solid top; a chain ran through two cast-iron wheels overhead to a counterpoise in the corner, by which device it was easily raised and lowered.  The Motor was a very expensive affair, and had to be carefully protected from dust and all injury, though it was worth nothing at present except for old brass and iron, unless the new part could be made.

“Come, my boy, let’s think of something more cheerful!” Overholt said, making an effort to rouse himself and concentrated his attention on the paper model.  “Christmas is coming in three weeks, you know, and it will come just the same in the little City.  I’m sure the people will decorate their houses and the church.  Of course we cannot see the insides of the houses, but in Boston they put wreaths in the windows.  And we’ll have a snowstorm, just as we used to have, and we can clear it away afterwards!  Wasn’t there a holly tree somewhere near the College?  You haven’t put that in yet.  You have no idea how cheerful it will look!  To-morrow we’ll find a very small sprig with berries on it, and plant it just in the right place.  I’m sure you remember where it stood.”

“Real leaves would be too big,” observed the boy.  “They wouldn’t look right.  Of course, one could cut the branches out of tin and paint ’em green with red spots, and stick them into a twig for the trunk.  But it’s rather hard to do.”

“Let’s try,” said Overholt.  “I’ve got some fine chisels and some very thin brass, but I don’t think I could draw the branches as well as you could.”

“Oh, I can draw them something like, if you’ll only cut ’em out,” the boy answered cheerfully.  “Come on, father!  Who says we can’t make bricks without straw?  I’ll bet anything we can!”

So they worked together steadily, and for an hour or two the inventor was so busy in cutting out tiny branches of imaginary holly with a very small chisel that he did not look once at the plate glass from which his engine seemed to be grinning at him, in fiendish delight over his misfortunes.  There were times when he was angry with it, outright, as if it knew what he was doing and did not mean to give in to him and let itself be invented.

But now the tune of the lathe and the chisel still ran on in his head, for he had heard it through two whole days and could not get rid of it.

“Bricks without straw, bricks without straw!” repeated the lathe viciously.  “Ever so much better than no bricks at all, sh ­sh ­sh!” answered the chisel, gibbering and hissing like an idiot.

“You will certainly be lying on straw before long, and then I suppose you’ll wish you had something else!” squeaked the little chisel with which he was cutting out holly leaves, as it went through the thin plates into the wood of the bench under each push of his hand.

The things in the workshop all seemed to be talking to him together, and made his head ache.

“I had a letter from your mother to-day,” he said, because it was better to hear his own voice say anything than to listen to such depressing imaginary conversations.  “I’m sorry to say she sees no chance of getting home before the spring.”

“I don’t know where you’d put her if she came here,” answered the practical Newton.  “Your room leaks when it rains, and so does mine.  You two would have to sleep in the parlour.  I guess it’ll be better if she doesn’t come now.”

“Oh, for her, far better,” assented Overholt.  “They’ve got a beautiful flat in Munich, and everything they can possibly think of.  Your mother’s only complaint, so far as that goes, is that those girls are completely spoilt by too much luxury!”

“What is luxury, exactly, father?” asked Newton, who always wanted to know things.

“I shall never know myself, and perhaps you never will either!” The wretched inventor tried to laugh.  “But that’s no answer to your question, is it?  I suppose luxury means always having twice as much of everything as you can possibly use, and having it about ten times as fine and expensive as other people can afford.”

“I don’t see any use in that,” said the boy.  “Now I know just how much turkey and cranberry sauce and ice-cream I really need, and if I get just a little more than that, it’s Christmas.  I don’t mean much more, but about half a helping.  I know all about proverbs.  Haven’t I copied millions of ’em in learning to write.  One reason why it’s so slow to learn is that the things you have to write are perfect nonsense.  ’Enough is as good as a feast!’ All I can say is, the man who made that proverb never had a feast, or he’d have known better!  This green paint doesn’t dry very quick, father.  We’ll have to wait till to-morrow before we put in the red spots for the berries.  I wish I had some little red beads.  They’d stick on the wet paint now, like one o’clock.”

There were no red beads, so he rose to go to bed.  When he had said good-night and had reached the door, he stopped and looked back again.

“Say, father, haven’t you anything you can sell to get some more money for the Motor?”

John Henry shook his weary head and smiled sadly.

“Nothing that would bring nearly enough to pay for the casting,” he answered.  “Don’t worry about it, boy.  Leave that to me ­I’m used to it.  Go to bed and sleep, and you’ll feel like an Air-Motor yourself in the morning!”

“That’s the worst of it,” returned the boy.  “Just to sit there under a glass case and have you take care of me and do nothing, like a girl.  That’s the way I feel sometimes.”

He shook his young head quite as gravely as the inventor had shaken his own, and went quietly to bed without saying anything more.

“I don’t know what to do, I’m sure,” he said to himself as he got into bed, “but I’m sure there’s something.  Maybe I’ll dream it, and then I’ll do just the contrary and it’ll come all right.”

But boys of practical minds and sound bodies do not dream at all, unless it be after a feast, and most of them can stand even that without having nightmare, unless two feasts come near together, like Christmas and a birthday within the week.

A great-uncle of mine was once taken for a clergyman at a public dinner nearly a hundred years ago, and he was asked to say grace; he was a good man, and also practical, and had a splendid appetite, but he was not eloquent, and this is what he said: ­

“The Lord give us appetites to enjoy, and strength to digest all the good things set before us.  Amen!”

And everybody said “Amen” very cheerfully and fell to.