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


A fortnight earlier Mrs. Overholt had been much disturbed in her mind, for she read each of her husband’s letters over at least three times, and Newton’s fortnightly scrawls even oftener, because it was less easy to make them out; but she had understood one thing very well, and that was that there was no more money for the invention, and very little cash for the man and the boy to live on.  If she had known what a dreadful mistake John Henry had made about debit and credit, the little woman would have been terribly anxious; but as it was, she was quite unhappy enough.

Overholt had written repeatedly of his attempts to raise just a little more money with which to finish the invention, and he had explained very clearly what there was to do, and somehow she had always believed in the idea, because he had invented that beautiful scientific instrument with which his name was connected, but she was almost sure that in working out his theory he was quite on the wrong track.  She did not really understand the engine at all, but she was quite certain that when a thing was going to succeed, it succeeded from the first, without many hitches or drawbacks.  Most women are like that.

She had never written this to her husband, because she would do anything rather than discourage him; but she had almost made, up her mind to write him a letter of good advice at last, begging him to go back to teaching for the present, and only to work at the invention in his spare time.  Just then, however, she came across a paragraph in a German newspaper in Munich which said that a great scientific man in Berlin had completed an air-motor at last, after years of study, and that it worked tolerably, enough to demonstrate the principle, but could never be of any practical use because the chemical product on which it ultimately depended was so enormously expensive.

Now Mrs. Overholt knew one thing certainly about her husband’s engine, namely, that the chemical he meant to use cost next to nothing, so that if the principle were sound, the Motor would turn out to be the cheapest in existence; and she was a practical person, like her boy Newton.

Moreover, she loved John Henry with all her heart and soul, and thought him one of the greatest geniuses in the world, and she simply could not bear the idea that he should not have a fair chance to finish the machine and try it.

Lastly, Christmas was coming; the girls she was educating talked of nothing else, and counted the days, and sat up half the night on the edges of each other’s beds discussing the beautiful presents they were sure to receive; and a great deal might be written about what they said, but it has nothing to do with this story, except that their chatter helped to fill the air with the Christmas spirit, and with thoughts of giving as well as of receiving.  Though they were rather spoiled children, they were generous too, and they laid all sorts of little traps in order to find out what their governess would like best from each of them, for they were fond of her in their way.

Also, Munich is one of the castles which King Christmas still holds in absolute sway and calls his own, and long before he is really awake after his long rest he begins to stir and laugh in his sleep, and the jolly colour creeps up and spreads over his old cheeks before he thinks of opening his eyes, much less of getting up and putting on his crown.  And now that he was waking, Helen Overholt felt the old loving longing for her dear ones rising to her womanly heart, and she planned little plans for another and a happier year to come, and meanwhile she bought two or three little gifts to send to the cottage in far Connecticut.

But when she had read about the Berlin professor and his motor and thought of her own John Henry making bricks without straw and bearing up bravely against disappointment, and still writing so cheerfully and hopefully in spite of everything, she simply could not stand it another day.  As I have said, King Christmas turned over just before waking, and he put out a big generous hand in his sleep and laid it on her heart.  Whenever he does that to anybody, man, woman, or child, a splendid longing seizes them to give all they have to the one child, or woman, or man that each loves best, or to the being of all others that is most in need, or to help the work which seems to each of them the noblest and the best, if they are grown up and are lonely.

This is what happened to Helen Overholt, in spite of her good sense and all her practical resolutions.  As long as she had anything to give, John Henry should have it and be happy, and succeed, if success were possible.  She had saved most of her salary for a long time past, spending as little as she well could on herself.  He should have it all, for love’s sake, and because she believed in him, and because Christmas was waking up, and had laid his great affectionate old hand on her.

So it came to pass that when Overholt was pottering over the beautiful motionless Motor, late at night, sure that it would work if he had a little more money, but still more sure that it must be sold for old metal the next morning, to buy bread for the boy, even at that hour help was near, and from the hand he loved best in the world, which would make it ten thousand times sweeter when it reached him.

It was going to be an awful wrench to give up the invention, for now, at the moment of abandoning it, he saw, or thought he saw, that he was right at last, and that it could not fail.  It was useless to try it as it was, yet he would, just once more.  He adjusted the tangent-balance and the valves; he put in the supply of the chemical with the long name and screwed down the hermetic plug.  With the small hand air-pump he produced the first vacuum which was necessary; all was ready, every joint and stuffing-box was lubricated, the spring of the balance was adjusted to a nicety.  But the engine would not start, though he turned the fly-wheel with his hand again and again, as if to encourage it.  Of course it would not turn alone!  He understood perfectly that the one piece on which all depended must be made over again, exactly the other way.  That was all!

There was the wooden model of it, all ready for the foundry that would not cast it for nothing.  If only the wooden piece would serve for a moment’s trial!  But he knew that this was folly; it would not stand the enormous strain an instant, and the joints could not possibly be made air-tight.

He was utterly worn out by all he had been through during the long day, and he fell asleep in his chair towards morning, his head on his breast, his feet struck out straight before him, one arm hanging down beside him and his other hand thrust into his pocket.  He looked more like a shabby lay figure stuffed with sawdust than like a living man.  If Newton had come down and found him lying there under the lamplight he would have started back and shuddered, and waited a while before he could find courage to come nearer.

But the man was only very sound asleep, and he did not wake till the December dawn gleamed through the clear winter’s sky and made the artificial light look dim and smoky; and when he opened his eyes it was he himself who started to find himself there in the cold before his great failure, in broad daylight.

Nevertheless, he had slept soundly, and felt better able to face all the trouble that was in store for him.  He stirred the embers in the stove, put in some kindling and a supply of coal, and warmed himself, still heavy with sleep, and glad to waken consciously, by degrees, and to feel that his resolution was not going to break down.

When he felt quite himself he left the room and went upstairs cautiously, lest he should wake the boy, though it was really time to get up, and Newton was already dressing.

“I’ll walk into town with you,” said Overholt when they were at breakfast in the parlour.  “It will do me good to get some air, and I must see about selling those things.  There’s no time to be lost.”

Newton swallowed his hominy and bread and butter and milk, and reflected on the futility of the sacrifice he had made, since his father insisted on selling everything for old metal; but he said nothing, because he was dreadfully disappointed.

Near the town they met the postman.  As a rule Barbara got the mail when she went to market, and Overholt was not even going to ask the man if there were any letters for him.  But the postman stopped him.  There was one from his wife, and it was registered.  He signed the little receipt for it, the man passed them on his rounds, and they slackened their pace as Overholt broke the seal.

He uttered a loud exclamation when he had glanced at the contents, and he stood still in the road.  Newton stared at him in surprise.

“A thousand dollars!” he cried, overcome with amazement.  “A thousand dollars!  Oh, Helen, Helen ­you’ve saved my life!”

He got to the side of the road and leaned against the fence, clutching the letter and the draft in his hand, and gazing into his son’s face, half crazy with delight.

“She’s saved it all for me, boy.  Do you understand?  Your mother has saved all her salary for the Motor, and here it is!  Look at it, look at it!  It’s success, it’s fame, it’s fortune for us all!  Oh, if she were only here!”

Newton understood and rejoiced.  He forgot his poor little attempt to help, and his own disappointment, and everything except the present glorious truth ­not unadorned by the pleasant vision of the Christmas turkey, vast now, and smoking, and flanked by perfect towers of stiff cranberry jelly, ever so much better than mere liquid cranberry sauce; in the middle distance, behind the noble dish, a noble pyramid of ice-cream raised its height, and yellow cream-cakes rose beyond, like many little suns on the far horizon.  In that first moment of delight there was almost a Christmas tree, and the mother’s face beside it; but that was too much; they faded, and the rest remained, no mean forecast of a jolly time.

“That’s perfectly grand!” Newton cried when he got his breath after his surprise at the announcement.  “Besides, I told you so.  What did I say?  She wouldn’t let you give up the Motor!  I knew she wouldn’t!  Who’s right now, father?  That’s something like what I call a mother!  But then she always was!”

He was slightly incoherent, but that did not matter at all.  Nothing mattered.  In his young beatific vision he saw the bright wheel going round and round in a perfect storm of turkeys, and it was all his mother’s doing.

Overholt only half heard, for he had been reading the letter; the letter of a loving wife who believes in her husband and gives him all she has for his work, with every hope, every encouragement, and every blessing and Christmas wish.

“There’s no time to be lost!” Overholt said, repeating the words he had spoken in a very different mood and tone half an hour earlier.  “I won’t walk on with you, my boy, for I must go back and get the wooden model for the foundry.  They’ll do it for me now, fast enough!  And I can pay what I owe at the bank, and there will be plenty left over for your Christmas too!”

“Oh, bother my Christmas, father!” answered Newton with a fine indifference which he did not feel.  “The Motor’s the thing!  I want to see that wheel go round for a Christmas present!”

“It will!  It shall!  It must!  I promise you that!” The man was almost beside himself with joy.

No misgiving disturbed him.  He had the faith that tosses mountains aside like pebbles, now that the means were in his hand.  He had the little fulcrum for his lever, which was all Archimedes required to move the world.  He had in him the certainty of being right that has sent millions of men to glory or destruction.

That day was one of the happiest in all his life, either before or, afterwards.  He could have believed that he had fallen asleep at the moment when he had quite broken down, and that a hundred years of change had glided by, like a watch in the night, when he opened his wife’s letter and wakened in a blaze of joy and hope and glorious activity.  Nothing he could remember of that kind could compare with his pride and honourable satisfaction when he walked into the bank two hours afterwards, with his head high, and said he should be glad to take up the note he had signed yesterday and have the balance of the cheque placed to his credit; and few surprises which the partner who had obliged him could recollect, had equalled that worthy gentleman’s amazement when the debt was paid so soon.

“If you had only told me that you would be in funds so soon, Mr. Overholt,” he said, “I should not have thought of troubling you.  Here is your note.  Will you kindly look at it and tear it up?”

“I did not know,” answered Overholt, doing as he was told.

It is a curious fact that the little note lay in a locked drawer of the partner’s magnificent table, instead of being put away in the safe with other and larger notes, where it belonged.  It may seem still stranger that, on the books, Overholt’s account showed that it had been balanced by a deposit exactly equal to the deficit, made by the partner himself, instead of by crediting the amount of the note.  But Overholt never knew this, for a pass-book had always been a mystery to him, and made his head ache.  The banker had thought of his face some time after he had gone out with his battered umbrella and his shabby shoulders rounded as under a burden, and somehow the Christmas spirit must have come in quietly and touched the rich man too, though even the stenographer did not see what happened.  For he had once been in terrible straits himself, a quarter of a century ago, and some one had helped him just in time, and he knew what it meant to slink out of a big bank, in shabby clothes, his back bowed under the heavy weight of debt and failure.

Overholt never knew; but he expressed his warm thanks for what now seemed a small favour, and with his wooden model of the casting, done up in brown paper, under his arm, he went off to the foundry in Long Island.

Much careful work had been done for him there, and the people were willing to oblige him, and promised that the piece should certainly be ready before Christmas Day, and as much earlier as possible, and should be made with the greatest exactness which the most precise machinery and the most careful work could ensure.

This being settled, Overholt returned to New York and went to two or three places in the Bowery, well known to him, where he bought certain fine tools and pieces of the most perfectly turned steel spring, and several other small objects, which he needed for the construction of the new tangent-balance he had to make for the reversed curve.  Finally, he bought a silver watch like the one Newton had sold, and a new pair of skates, presents which the boy certainly deserved, and which would make a very good show at Christmas, when they were to be produced.  He felt as if he had come into a large fortune.

Moreover, when he got out of the train at his own station he went into the town, and ordered beforehand the good things for the feast, though there were three weeks still, and he wanted to pay for them in advance, because he felt inside of himself that no one could be quite sure of what might happen in twenty-one days; but the dealers flatly refused to take his money, though they told him what the things would cost.  Then Overholt did almost the only prudent thing he had done in his life, for he took the necessary money and five dollars more and sealed it up in an envelope, which he put away in a safe place.  The only difficulty would lie in remembering where the place was, so he told Newton about it, and the boy wrote it down on a piece of paper which he pinned up in his own room, where he could see it.  There was nothing like making sure of that turkey, he thought.  And I may as well say at once that in this matter, at least, no untoward accident occurred, and the money was actually there at the appointed time.  What happened was something quite different, and much more unexpected, not to say extraordinary and even amazing; and in spite of all that, it will not take very long to tell.

Meanwhile, before it happened, Overholt and the boy were perfectly happy.  All day long the inventor worked at the tangent-balance, till he had brought it to such perfection that it would be affected by a variation of one-tenth of one second in the aggregate speed of ten revolutions, and an increase or decrease of a tenth of a grain in the weight of the volume of the compressed air.  It was so sensitive that John Henry and Newton trod cautiously on the floor of the workshop so as not to set it vibrating under the glass clock-shade, where it was kept safe from dust and dampness.

After it had been placed there to wait for the casting, the inventor took the engine to pieces and made the small changes that would be necessary before finally putting it together again, which would probably occupy two days.

Meanwhile the little City of Hope grew rapidly, and was becoming an important centre of civilisation and commerce, though it was only made of paper and chips, and bits of matchboxes and odds and ends cleverly put together with glue and painted; except the people in the street.  For it was inhabited now, and though the men and women did not move about, they looked as if they might, if they were only bigger.  Overholt had seen the population in the window of a German toy-shop one day when he was in New York to get a new crocusing wheel for polishing some of the small parts of the engine.  They were the smallest doll-people he had ever seen, and were packed by dozens and dozens in Nuremberg toy-boxes, and cost very little, so he bought a quantity of them.  At first Newton rather resented them, just because they were only toys, but his father explained to him that models of human figures were almost necessary to models of buildings, to give an idea of the population, and that when architects make coloured sketches of projected houses, they generally draw in one or two people for that reason; and this was perfectly satisfactory to the boy, and saved his dignity from the slight it would have suffered if he had been actually seen amusing himself with mere playthings.

Overholt was divinely happy in anticipation of the final success that was so near, and in the daily work that was making it more and more a certainty, as he thought; and then, when the day was over, he was just as happy with the little City, which was being decorated for Christmas, with wreaths in the windows of the houses, and a great many more holly-trees than had at first been thought of, and numberless little Christmas booths round the common, like those in Avenue A, south of Tompkins Square, in New York, which make you fancy you are in Munich or Prague if you go and see them at the right hour on Christmas Eve.

Before long Overholt received a short note from the President of his old College, simply saying that the latter knew of no opening at present, but would bear him in mind.  But that did not matter now.

So the two spent their time very pleasantly during the next weeks; but though Overholt was so hopeful and delighted with his work, he knew that he was becoming nervous and overwrought by the great anticipation, and that he could not stand such a strain very long.

Then, two days before Christmas, he received a note saying that the new piece was finished and had been sent to him by express.  That was almost too much happiness to bear, and when he found the heavy case at the station the next morning, and got it put on a cart, his heart was doing queer things, and he was as white as a sheet.