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


The hush of Christmas Eve lay upon the tumble-down cottage, and on the soft fresh snow outside, and the lamps were burning quietly in the workshop, where father and son were sitting before the finished Motor.

The little City was there too, but not between them now, though Newton had taken off its brown paper cover in honour of the great event which was about to take place.

In order to be doubly sure of the result, and dreading even the possibility of a little disappointment, Overholt had decided that he would subject the only chemical substance which the machine consumed to a final form of refinement by heat, melting, boiling and cooling it, all of which would require an hour or more before it was quite ready.  He felt like a man who is going to risk his life over a precipice, trusting to a single rope for safety; that one rope must not be even a little chafed; if possible each strand must be perfect in itself, and all the strands must be laid up without a fault.  Of the rest, of the machine itself, Overholt felt absolutely sure; yet although a slight impurity in the chemical could certainly not hinder the whole from working, it might interfere with the precision of the revolutions, or even cause the engine to stop after a few hours instead of going on indefinitely, as long as the supply of the substance produced the alternate disturbance of equilibrium which was the main principle on which the machine depended.

That sweetly prophetic evening silence, before the great feast of Good Will, does not come over everything each year, even in a lonely cottage in an abandoned farm in Connecticut, than which you cannot possibly imagine anything more silent or more remote from the noise of the world.  Sometimes it rains in torrents just on that night, sometimes it blows a raging gale that twists the leafless birches and elms and hickory trees like dry grass and bends the dark firs and spruces as if they were feathers, and you can hardly be heard unless you shout, for the howling and screaming and whistling of the blast.

But now and then, once in four or five years perhaps, the feathery snow lies a foot deep, fresh-fallen, on the still country-side and in the woods; and the waxing moon sheds her large light on all, and Nature holds her breath to wait for the happy day, and tries to sleep but cannot, from sheer happiness and peace.  Indoors the fire is glowing on the wide hearth, a great bed of coals that will last all night, because it is not bitter weather, but only clear and cold and still, as it should be; or if there is only a poor stove, like Overholt’s, the wide door is open, and a comfortable and cheery red light shines out from within upon the battered iron plate and the wooden floor beyond; and the older people sit round it, not saying much, but thinking with their hearts rather than with their heads; but small boys and girls know that interesting things have been happening in the kitchen all the afternoon, and are rather glad that the supper was not very good, because there will be the more room for good things to-morrow; and the grown-ups and the children have made up any little differences of opinion they may have had before supper-time, because Good Will must reign, and reign alone, like Alexander; so that there is nothing at all to regret, and nothing hurts anybody any more, and they are all happy in just wishing for King Christmas to open the door softly and make them all great people in his kingdom.  But if it is the right sort of house, he is already looking in through the window, to be sure that every one is all ready for him, and that nothing has been forgotten.

Now, although Overholt’s cottage was a miserable place for a professor who had lived very comfortably and well in a College town, and although the thirteen-year-old boy could remember several pretty trees, lighted up with coloured candles and gleaming with tinsel and gilt apples, they both felt that this was going to be the greatest Christmas in their lives, because the motionless Motor was going to move, and that would mean everything ­most of all to both of them, the end of the mother’s exile, and her speedy home-coming.  Therefore neither said anything for a long time while the chemical stuff was slowly warming itself and getting ready, inside a big iron pot, of which the cover was screwed on with a high-temperature thermometer sealed in it, and which stood on the top of the stove where Overholt could watch the scale.

He would really have preferred to be alone for the first trial, but it was utterly impossible to think of sending the boy to bed.  He was sure of success, it is true, yet he would far rather have been left to himself till that success was no longer in the future, but present; then at last, even if Newton had been asleep, he would have waked him and brought him downstairs again to see his triumph.  The lad’s presence made him nervous, and suggested a failure which was all but impossible.  More than once he was on the point of trying to explain this to Newton, but when he glanced at the young face he could not find it in his heart to speak.  If he only asked the boy, as a kindness, to go into the next room for five minutes while the machine was being started, he knew what would happen.  Newton would go quietly, without a word, and wait till he was called; but half his Christmas would be spoilt by the disappointment he would try hard to hide.  Had they not suffered together, and had not the boy sacrificed the best of his small possessions, dearly treasured, to help in their joint distress?  It would be nothing short of brutal to deprive him of the first moment of triumphant surprise, that was going to mean so much hereafter.  Yet the inventor would have given anything to be alone.  He was overwrought by the long strain that had so often seemed unbearable, and when the liquid that was heating had reached the right temperature and the iron pot had to be taken off the stove, his hands shook so that he nearly dropped it; but Newton did not see that.

“It’s wonderful how everything has come out just right!” the boy exclaimed as he looked at the machine.  “Out of your three wishes you’ll get two, father, for the wheel will go round and I’m going to have a regular old patent, double-barrelled Christmas with a gilt edge!” His similes were mixed, but effective in their way.  “And you’ll probably get the other wish in half a shake now, for mother’ll come right home, won’t she?”

“If the trial succeeds,” Overholt said, still instinctively seeking to forestall a disappointment he did not expect.  “Nothing is a fact until it has happened, you know!”

“Well,” said Newton, “if I had anything to bet with, and somebody to bet against, I’d bet, that’s all.  But I haven’t.  It’s a pity too, now that everything’s coming out right.  Do you remember how we were trying to make bricks without straw less than a month ago, father?  It didn’t look just then as if we were going to have a roaring old Christmas this year, did it?”

He chattered on happily, looking at the Motor all the time, and Overholt tried to smile and answered him with a word or two now and then, though he was becoming more and more nervous as the minutes passed and the supreme moment came nearer.  In his own mind he was going over the simple operations he had to perform to start the engine; yet easy as they were he was afraid that he might make some fatal mistake.  He did not let himself think of failure; he did not dare to wonder how he should tell his wife if anything went wrong and all her hard-saved earnings were lost in the general ruin that must follow if the thing would not move.  There was next to nothing left of what she had sent, now that everything was paid for; it would support him and the boy for a month, if so long, but certainly no more.

He was ready at last, but, strange to say, he would gladly have put off the great moment for half an hour now that there was no reason for waiting another moment.  He sat down again in his chair and folded his hands.

“Aren’t you going to begin, father?” asked Newton.  “What are you waiting for?”

Overholt pulled himself together, rose with a pale face, and laid his shaking hands on the heavy plate-glass case.  It moved upwards by its chain and counterpoise, almost at a touch, till it was near the low ceiling, quite clear of the machine.

He was very slow in doing what was still necessary, and the boy watched him in breathless suspense, for he had seen other trials that had failed ­more than two or three, perhaps half a dozen.  Every one who has lived with an inventor, even a boy, has learned to expect disappointment as inevitable; only the seeker himself is confident up to a certain point, and then his own hand trembles, when the moment of trial is come.

Overholt poured the chemical into the chamber at the base, screwed down the air-tight plug, and opened the communication between the reservoir and the machine.  Then he took out his watch and waited four minutes, that being twice the time he had ascertained to be necessary for a sufficient quantity of the liquid to penetrate into the distributors beyond.  He next worked the hand air-pump, keeping his eye on the vacuum gauge, and lastly, as soon as the needle marked the greatest exhaustion he knew to be obtainable, he moved the starting lever to the proper position, and then stepped back to watch the result.

For a moment, in the joy of anticipation, a strange light illuminated his face, his lips parted as in a foretasted wonder, and he forgot even to drop the hand he had just withdrawn.  The boy held his breath unconsciously till he was nearly dizzy.

Then a despairing cry burst from the wretched man’s lips, he threw up his hands as if he had been shot through the heart, and stumbled backwards.

The Motor stood still, motionless as ever, and gleaming under the brightly shining lamps.

“Oh, Helen!  God forgive me!”

With the words he fell heavily to the floor, and lay there, a nerveless, breathless heap.  Newton was kneeling beside him in an instant.

“Father!” cried the boy in agony, bending over the still white face.  “Father!  Speak to me!  You can’t be dead ­you can’t ­”

In his mortal terror the lad held each breath till it seemed as if his head must burst, then breathed once and shut his lips again with all his strength.  Some instinct made him lay his ear to the man’s chest to listen for the beatings of his heart, but he could hear nothing.

Half-suffocated with sudden mingled grief and fright, he straightened himself on his knees and looked up at the cursed machine that had wrought such awful destruction.

Then he in turn uttered a cry, but it was low and full of wonder, long drawn out and trembling as the call of a frightened young wild animal.

The thing was moving, steadily, noiselessly moving in the bright light; the double levers worked like iron jaws opening and shutting regularly, the little valve-rods rose and sank, and the heavy wheel whirled round and round.  The boy was paralysed with amazement, and for ten seconds he forgot that he was kneeling beside his father’s fallen body on the floor; then he felt it against him and it was no longer quite still.

Overholt groaned and turned upon his side as his senses slowly came back and his agony tortured him to life again.  Instantly the boy bent over him.

“Father!  It’s going!  Wake up, father!  The wheel’s going round at last!”