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

HOW THE CITY WAS BESIEGED AND THE LID OF PANDORA’S BOX CAME OFF

Almost the worst part of it was that he had to tell his boy about his dreadful mistake, and that it was all over with the Motor and with everything, and that until he could get something to do they were practically starving; and that he could not possibly see how there was ever to be ice-cream for Christmas, let alone such an expensive joy as, a turkey.

He knew that Newton would not pucker up his mouth and screw his eyes to keep the tears in, like a girl; and he was quite sure that the boy would not reproach him for having been so careless.  He might not seem to care very much, but he would be terribly disappointed; that was the worst of it all, next to owing money that he had no hope of paying.  Indeed, he hardly knew which hurt him more than the other, for the disgrace of debt, as he called it, was all his own, but the bitter disappointment was on Newton too.

The latter listened in silence till his father had finished, and his boyish face was preternaturally thoughtful.

“I’ve seen boys make just such mistakes at the blackboard,” he observed in a tone of melancholy reflection.  “And they generally catch it afterwards too,” he added.  “It’s natural.”

“I’ve ‘caught it,’” Overholt answered.  “You have too, my dear boy, though you didn’t make the mistake ­that’s not just.”

“Well, father, I don’t know what we’re going to do, but something has got to be done right away, and we’ve got to find out what it is.”

“Thank goodness you’re not a girl!” cried Overholt fervently.

“I’m glad too; only, if I were one, I should most likely die young and go to heaven, and you’d have me off your mind all right.  The girls always do in storybooks.”

He made this startling and general observation quite naturally.  Of course girls died and went to heaven when there was nothing to eat; he secretly thought it would be better if more of them did, even without starvation.

“Let’s work, anyhow,” he added, as his father said nothing.  “Maybe we’ll think of something while we’re building that railroad depot.  Don’t you suppose that now you’ve got so far the Motor would keep while you taught, and you could go at it again in the vacations?  That’s an idea, father, come now!”

He was already in his place before the board on which the little City was built, and his eyes were fixed on the lines his father had drawn as a plan for the station and the diverging tracks.  But Overholt did not sit down.  His usual place was opposite the Motor, where he could see it, but he did not want to look at it now.

“Change seats with me, boy,” he said.  “I cannot stand the sight of it.  I suppose I’m imaginative.  All this has upset me a good deal.”

He wished he had the lad’s nerves, the solid nerves of hungry and sleepy thirteen.  Newton got up at once and changed places, and for a few minutes Overholt tried to concentrate his mind on the little City, but it was of no use.  If he did not think of the Motor, he thought of what was much worse, for the little streets and models of the familiar places brought back the cruel memory of happier things so vividly that it was torment.  All his faculties of sensation were tense and vibrating; he could hear his wife’s gentle and happy voice, her young girl’s voice, when he looked at the little bench in the lane where he had asked her to marry him, and an awful certainty came upon him that he was never to hear her speak again on this side of the grave; there was the house they had lived in; from that window he had looked out on a May morning at the budding trees half an hour after his boy had been born; there, in the pretty garden, the young mother had sat with her baby in the lovely June days ­it was full of her.  Or if he looked at the College, he knew every one of the steps, and the entrance, and the tall windows of the lecture-rooms, where he had taught so contentedly, year after year, till the terrible Motor had taken possession of him, the thing that was driving him mad; and, strangely enough, what hurt him most and brought drops of perspiration to his forehead was the National Bank in Main Street; it made him remember his debt, and that he had no money at all ­nothing whatsoever but the few dollars in his pocket left after paying the bills on the first of the month.

“It’s of no use!” he cried, suddenly rising and turning away.  “I cannot stand it.  I’m sorry, but it’s too awful!”

Never before had he felt so thoroughly ashamed of himself.  He was breaking down before his son, to whom he knew he ought to be setting an example of fortitude and common sense.  He had forgotten the very names of such qualities; the mere thought of Hope, whenever it crossed his mind, mocked him maddeningly, and he hated the little City for the name he had given it.  Hope was his enemy since she had left him, and he was hers; he could have found it in his heart to crush the poor little paper town to pieces, and then to split up the very board itself for firewood.

The years that had been so full of belief were all at once empty, and the memory of them rang hollow and false, because Hope had cheated him, luring him on, only to forsake him at the great moment.  Every hour he had spent on the work had been misspent; he saw it all now, and the most perfect of his faultless calculations only proved that science was a blatant fraud and a snare that had cost him all he had, his wife, his boy’s future, and his own self-respect.  How could he ever look at his wretched failure again?  How could he sit down opposite the son he had cheated, and who was going to starve with him, and play with a little City of Hope, when Hope herself was the lying enemy that had coaxed him to the destruction of his family and to his own disgrace?  As for teaching again, who ever got back a good place after he had voluntarily given it up for a wild dream!  Men who had such dreams were not fit to teach young men in any case!  That was the answer he would get by post in a day or two.

Newton watched his father anxiously, for he had heard that people sometimes went mad from disappointment and anxiety.  The pale intellectual face wore a look of horror, as if the dark eyes saw some dreadful sight; the thin figure moved nervously, the colourless lips twitched, the lean fingers opened and shut spasmodically on nothing.  It was enough to scare the boy, who had always known his father gentle, sweet-tempered, and hopeful even under failure; but Overholt was quite changed now, and looked as if he were either very ill or very crazy.

It is doubtful whether boys ever love their fathers as most of them love their mothers at one time, or all their lives.  The sort of attachment there often is between father and son is very different from that, and both feel that it is; there is more of alliance and friendship in it than of anything like affection, even when it is at its best, with a strong instinct to help one another and to stand by each other in a fight.

Newton Overholt did not feel any sympathetic thrill of pain for his father’s sufferings; not in the least; he would perhaps have said that he was “sorry for him” without quite knowing what that meant.  But he was very strongly moved to help him in some way, seeing that he was evidently getting the worst of it in a big fight.  Newton soon became entirely possessed by the idea that “something ought to be done,” but what it was he did not know.

The lid of Pandora’s box had flown open and had come off suddenly after smashing the hinges, and Hope had flown out of the window.  The boy thought it was clearly his duty to catch her and get her into prison again, and then to nail down the lid.  He had not the smallest doubt that this was what he ought to do, but the trouble lay in finding out how to do it, a little difficulty that humanity has faced for a good many thousand years.  On the other hand, if he failed, as seemed probable, he was almost sure that his father would fall ill and die, or go quite mad in a few hours.  He wished his mother were there; she would have known how to cheer the desperate man, and could probably have made him smile in a few minutes without really doing anything at all.  Those were the things women could do very well, the boy thought, and they ought always to be at hand to do them when wanted.  He himself could only sit there and pretend to be busy, as children mostly do when they see their elders in trouble.  But that made him wild.

“I say, father,” he broke out suddenly, “can’t I do anything?  Try and think!”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” answered Overholt, sitting down at last on the stool before the work-bench and staring at the wall, with his back turned to his son.  “But I can’t!  There’s something wrong with my head.”

“You want to see a doctor,” said the boy.  “I’ll go and see if I can get one of them to come out here.”  He rose as if to go at once.

“No!  Don’t!” cried Overholt, much distressed by the mere suggestion.  “He could only tell me to rest, and take exercise and sleep at night and not worry!” He laughed rather wildly.  “He would tell me not to worry!  They always say that!  A doctor would tell a man ‘not to worry’ if he was to be hanged the next morning!”

“Well,” said Newton philosophically, “I suppose a man who’s going to be hung needn’t worry much, anyway.  He’s got the front seat at the show and nothing particular to do!”

This was sound, so far as it went, but insufficient as consolation.  Overholt either did not hear, or paid no heed to the boy.  He left the room a moment later without shutting the door, and threw himself down on the old black horsehair sofa in the parlour.  Presently the lad rose again and covered up the City of Hope with the big brown paper case he had made to fit down over the board and keep the dust off.

“This isn’t your day,” he observed as he did so, and the remark was certainly addressed to the model of the town.

He went into the other room and stood beside his father, looking down at his drawn face and damp forehead.

“Say, father, really, isn’t there anything I can do to help?”

Overholt answered with an effort.  “No, my boy, there’s nothing, thank you.  You cannot find money to pay my debts, can you?”

“Have you got no money at all?” asked Newton, very gravely.

“Four or five dollars!  That’s all!  That’s all you and I have got left in the world to live on, and even that’s not mine!”

His voice shook with agony, and he raised one hand to his forehead, not dramatically, as many foreigners would do, but quietly and firmly, and he pressed and kneaded the surface as if he were trying to push his brains back into the right place, so that they would work, or at least keep quiet.  After that answer Newton was too sensible to ask any more questions, and perhaps he was also a little afraid to, because questions might make his father worse.

“Well,” he said vaguely, “if I can’t work at the City I suppose I may as well go out before it’s dark and take a look at the pond.  It’s going to freeze hard to-night, and maybe there’ll be black ice that’ll bear by to-morrow.”

Overholt was glad to be left alone, for he could not help being ashamed of having broken down so completely before the boy, and he felt that he could not recover his self-control unless he were left to himself.

He heard Newton go up the rickety stairs to his own room, where he seemed to be rummaging about for some time, judging from the noises overhead; then the strong shoes clattered on the staircase again, the house door was opened and shut, and the boy was off.