There was a very animated discussion going on, on the lower floor of the house Number Ten “D” Street. House Number Ten was the middle one of a row of more frames, which formed what was put down on the real estate agent’s list as a coloured neighbourhood. The inhabitants of the little cottages were people so poor that they were constantly staggering on the verge of the abyss, which they had been taught to dread and scorn, and why, clearly. Life with them was no dream, but a hard, terrible reality, which meant increasing struggle, and little wonder then that the children of such parents should see the day before Christmas come without hope of any holiday cheer.
Christmas; what did it mean to them? The pitiful little dark rag-muffins, save that the happy, well-dressed people who passed the shanties seemed further away from their life, save that mother toiled later in the evening at her work, if there was work, and that father drank more gin and prayed louder in consequence; save that, perhaps–and there was always a donation–that there might be a little increase in the amount of cold victuals that big sister brought home, and there might be turkey-dressing in it.
But there was a warm discussion in Number Ten, and that is the principal thing. The next in importance is that Miss Arabella Coe, reporter, who had been down that way looking mainly for a Christmas story, heard the sound of voices raised in debate, and paused to listen. It was not a very polite thing for Miss Coe to do, but then Miss Coe was a reporter and reporters are not scrupulous about being polite when there is anything to hear. Besides, the pitch to which the lusty young voices within were raised argued that the owners did not care if the outside world shared in the conversation. So Arabella listened, and after a while she passed through the gate and peeped into the room between the broken slats of a shutter.
It was a mean little place, quite what might be expected from its exterior. A cook stove sat in the middle of the floor with a smoky fire in it, and about it were clustered four or five black children ranging from a toddler of two to a boy of ten. They all showed differing degrees of dirt and raggedness, but all were far and beyond the point of respectability.
One of the group, the older boy, sat upon the bed and was holding forth to his brothers and sisters not without many murmurs of doubt and disbelief.
“No,” he was saying, “I tell you dey hain’t no such thing as a Santy Claus. Dat’s somep’n dat yo’ folks jes’ git up to make you be good long ’bout Christmas time. I know.”
“But, Tom, you know what mammy said,” said a dreamy-eyed little chap, who sat on a broken stool with his chin on his hands.
“Aw, mammy,” said the orator, “she’s jes’ a-stuffin’ you. She don’ believe in no Santy Claus hersel’, less’n why’nt he bring huh de dress she prayed fu’ last Christmas.” He was very wise, this old man of ten years, and he had sold papers on the avenue where many things are learned, both good and bad.
“But what you got to say about pappy?” pursued the believer. “He say dey’s a Santy Claus, and dat he comes down de chimbly; and—-“
“Whut’s de mattah wid you; look at dat stove pipe; how you s’pose anybody go’n’ to git in hyeah th’oo de chimbly?”
They all looked up at the narrow, rusty stove pipe and the sigh of hopelessness brought the tears to Arabella’s eyes. The children seemed utterly nonplussed, and Tom was swelling at his triumph. “How’s any Santy Claus go’n’ to come down th’oo that, I want to know,” he repeated.
But the faith of childhood is stronger than reason. Tom’s little sister piped up, “I don’t know how, but he comes th’roo’ that away anyhow. He brung Mamie Davith a doll and it had thoot on it out o’ the chimbly.”