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Chapter 1

MR. AND MRS. CLARENCE FOUNTAIN


Mrs. Clarence Fountain, backing into the room, and closing the door noiselessly before looking round: "Oh, you poor thing! I can see that you are dead, at the first glance. I'm dead myself, for that matter." She is speaking to her husband, who clings with one hand to the chimney-piece, and supports his back with the other; from this hand a little girl's long stocking lumpily dangles; Mrs. Fountain, turning round, observes it. "Not finished yet? But I don't wonder! I wonder you've even begun. Well, now, I will take hold with you." In token of the aid she is going to give, Mrs. Fountain sinks into a chair and rolls a distracted eye over the littered and tumbled room. "It's worse than I thought it would be. You ought to have smoothed the papers out and laid them in a pile as fast as you unwrapped the things; that is the way I always do; and wound the strings up and put them one side. Then you wouldn't have had to wade round in them. I suppose I oughtn't to have left it to you, but if I had let you put the children to bed you know you'd have told them stories and kept them all night over their prayers. And as it was each of them wanted to put in a special Christmas clause; I know what kind of Christmas clause I should have put in if I'd been frank! I'm not sure it's right to keep up the deception. One comfort, the oldest ones don't believe in it any more than we do. Dear! I did think at one time this afternoon I should have to be brought home in an ambulance; it would have been a convenience, with all the packages. I simply marvel at their delivery wagons getting them here."

Fountain, coming to the table, where she sits, and taking up one of the toys with which it is strewn: "They haven't all of them."

Mrs. Fountain: "What do you mean by all of them?"

Fountain: "I mean half." He takes up a mechanical locomotive and stuffs it into the stocking he holds.

Mrs. Fountain, staying his hand: "What are you doing? Putting Jimmy's engine into Susy's stocking! She'll be perfectly insulted when she finds it, for she'll know you weren't paying the least attention, and you can't blame Santa Claus for it with her. If that's what you've been doing with the other stockings— But there aren't any others. Don't tell me you've just begun! Well, I could simply cry."

Fountain, dropping into the chair on the other side of the table, under the shelter of a tall Christmas tree standing on it: "Do you call unwrapping a whole car-load of truck and getting it sorted, just beginning? I've been slaving here from the dawn of time, and I had to have some leisure for the ghosts of my own Christmases when I was little. I didn't have to wade round in the wrappings of my presents in those days. But it isn't the sad memories that take it out of you; it's the happy ones. I've never had a ghastlier half-hour than I've just spent in the humiliating multiplicity of these gifts. All the old birthdays and wedding-days and Fourth of Julys and home-comings and children's christenings I've ever had came trooping back. There oughtn't to be any gay anniversaries; they should be forbidden by law. If I could only have recalled a few dangerous fevers and funerals!"

Mrs. Fountain: "Clarence! Don't say such a thing; you'll be punished for it. I know how you suffer from those gloomy feelings, and I pity you. You ought to bear up against them. If I gave way! You must think about something cheerful in the future when the happiness of the past afflicts you, and set one against the other; life isn't all a vale of tears. You must keep your mind fixed on the work before you. I don't believe it's the number of the packages here that's broken you down. It's the shopping that's worn you out; I'm sure I'm a mere thread. And I had been at it from immediately after breakfast; and I lunched in one of the stores with ten thousand suburbans who had come pouring in with the first of their unnatural trains: I did hope I should have some of the places to myself; but they were every one jammed. And you came up from your office about four, perfectly fresh."

Fountain: "Fresh! Yes, quite dewy from a day's fight with the beasts at Ephesus on the eve of Christmas week."

Mrs. Fountain: "Well, don't be cynical, Clarence, on this, of all nights of the year. You know how sorry I always am for what you have to go through down there, and I suppose it's worse, as you say, at this season than any other time of year. It's the terrible concentration of everything just before Christmas that makes it so killing. I really don't know which of the places was the worst; the big department stores or the separate places for jewelry and toys and books and stationery and antiques; they were all alike, and all maddening. And the rain outside, and everybody coming in reeking; though I don't believe that sunshine would have been any better; there'd have been more of them. I declare, it made my heart ache for those poor creatures behind the counters, and I don't know whether I suffered most for them when they kept up a ghastly cheerfulness in their attention or were simply insulting in their indifference. I know they must be all dead by this time. 'Going up?' 'Going down?' 'Ca-ish!' 'Here, boy!' I believe it will ring in my ears as long as I live. And the whiz of those overhead wire things, and having to wait ages for your change, and then drag your tatters out of the stores into the streets! If I hadn't had you with me at the last I should certainly have dropped."

Fountain: "Yes, and what had become of your good resolutions about doing all your Christmas shopping in July?"

Mrs. Fountain: "My good resolutions? Really, Clarence, sometimes if it were not cruelty to animals I should like to hit you. My good— You know that you suggested that plan, and it wasn't even original with you. The papers have been talking about it for years; but when you brought it up as such a new idea, I fell in with it to please you—"

Fountain: "Now, look out, Lucy!"

Mrs. Fountain: "Yes, to please you, and to help you forget the Christmas worry, just as I've been doing to-night. You never spare me."

Fountain: "Stick to the record. Why didn't you do your Christmas shopping in July?"

Mrs. Fountain: "Why didn't I? Did you expect me to do my Christmas shopping down at Sculpin Beach, where I spent the whole time from the middle of June till the middle of September? Why didn't you do the Christmas shopping in July? You had the stores under your nose here from the beginning till the end of summer, with nothing in the world to hinder you, and not a chick or a child to look after."

Fountain: "Oh, I like that. You think I was leading a life of complete leisure here, with the thermometer among the nineties nine-tenths of the time?"

Mrs. Fountain: "I only know you were bragging in all your letters about your bath and your club, and the folly of any one going away from the cool, comfortable town in the summer. I suppose you'll say that was to keep me from feeling badly at leaving you. When it was only for the children's sake! I will let you take them the next time."

Fountain: "While you look after my office? And you think the stores are full of Christmas things in July, I suppose."

Mrs. Fountain: "I never thought so; and now I hope you see the folly of that idea. No, Clarence. We must be logical in everything. You can't get rid of Christmas shopping at Christmas-time."

Fountain, shouting wrathfully: "Then I say get rid of Christmas!"

William Dean Howells

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