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We have seen the light of Judah
For we heard a voice that called us,
We have heard the mystic music From the grand march of the ages, And have read the testimony
Of the years upon its pages.
And we know the signs and seasons
We have come as came the wise men
CHRISTMAS EVE AT THE CORNER GROCERY.
HE boss had not returned; in truth, the probability was the boss would not return that night, inasmuch as he had generously offered the bookkeeper, who was clerk as well, permission to go to his supper first. True, the subordinate had declined the honor: it being Christmas eve, Saturday night, close upon the heels of the new year, and the books of the establishment sadly in need of posting. The subordinate did not relish the prospect of a lonely Christmas, Sunday at that, on the tall stool behind the big desk among the cobwebs, mackerel and onion scents, sardine boxes, nail kegs, coils of barbed wire, soap-smelling cotton stuffs, molasses and coal oil. So he gave up his sup
per, and the half hour with the cripple, (he sighed for the half hour more than for the supper,) contented himself with a bite of cheese and a cracker, which he forthwith entered upon the book, as he had been ordered to do, in a clear, clerical hand: "To S. Riley, cheese and crackers, .07." He wrote it in his best hand, to cover up: the smallness of it, perhaps, for it was a very small entry. The subordinate's face wore something very like a sneer as he made it, although he had the consolation of knowing the smallness of the transaction was upon the side of the creditor.
It was a general kind of a store, was the grocery on the corner; a little out of the way, beyond the regular beat
of the city folk, but convenient to the people of the suburbs. It wasn't a mammoth concern, although its stock was varied. The boss, the real owner of the establishment, and Riley, the bookkeeper, ran it, without other help than that of black Ben, the porter.
Riley was both bookkeeper, clerk, and, he sometimes suspected, general scapegoat to the proprietor. To-night he was left to attend to everything, for he knew the boss would not leave his warm hearth to trudge back through the snow to the little corner grocery that night. His daughter had come for him in a sleigh, and had carried him off, amid warm furs and the jingle of sleigh bells, to a cheery Christmas eve with his family.
The bookkeeper sighed as he munched his cheese. There was a little lame girl away up in the attic on Water Street that Riley called home. She would hear the sleigh bells go by and peep down from her dingy little window, and clap her hands, and wish "daddy would come home for Christmas too." There wasn't any mother up there in the attic; for out in the cemetery, in the portion allotted to the common people, the snow was falling softly on the little mother's
The clerk ate his cheese in silence. Suddenly he dropped his fist upon the desk heavily. "Sometimes I wish she was out there with her mother," he said. "Sometimes I wish it, 'specially at Christmas times. Let me see: she is ten years old to-night; we called her our Christmas gift,' and never a step have the little feet taken. Poor Julia! poor little Christmas snowbird! poor little Christmas sparrow! I always think of her somehow when the boys go by in the holidays with a string of dead birds they've shot.
Poor little daughter!"
He sighed, and took up his pen: it was a busy season. A step caused him to look up; then he arose and went to wait upon a customer. It was a woman, and Riley saw that she had been weeping.
"Howdy do. Mrs. Elkins," he said. "What can I do for you?"
"I want to know the price of potatoes, Mr. Riley," she replied.
"Gimme them many," she "there's four more lef' to feed besides the dead one, though," she added quickly, "I aint begrudgin' of 'em victuals."
Riley measured a peck of the potatoes, and emptied them into her basket. Four mouths besides her own, and one little starveling left that day, "that blessed Christmas eve," in the graveyard. He found himself hoping, as he went back to the ledger, that they had buried the baby near his own dead. The big graveyard wouldn't feel so desolate, so weirdly lonesome, as he thought it must, to the dead baby. if the little childmother, his young wife, could find it out there among all that array of the common dead. "To S. Riley, 1-3 of peck of potatoes, .05," the blue blotter had copied, or absorbed the entry, made it double, as if the debt had already begun to draw interest. The clerk, however, had not noticed the blotter: other customers came in and claimed his attention. They were impatient too. It was a very busy night, and the books, he feared, would not be balanced after all. It was shabby, downright mean, of the boss not to come back at a time like this.
The new customer was old man Murdock from across the river, the suburbs. He had been rich once, owned a house up town, and belonged to the aristocracy. He had possessed the appurtenances to wealth, such as influence, leisure, at one time. still was a gentleman, since nature, not circumstance, had had the care of that. Every movement, every word, the very set of the threadbare broad
cloth, spoke the proud, the "well raised" gentleman of the Old South time. "Good evening," Mr. Riley, he said, when the clerk stumbled down from his perch. The male customers - they learned it from the boss, doubtless-called him "Riley." They generally said, "Hello, Riley." But the old Southerner was neither so rude nor so familiar. He said, "Good evening, Mr. Riley," much the same as he would have said to the president, "Good evening. Mr.--"; and he touched his long, white, scholarly looking finger to the brim of his hat, though the hat was not lifted. Riley said. "Good evening" back again, and wanted to know "what Mr. Murdock would look at." He would have put the question in the same way had Mr. Murdock still possessed his thousands; and he would have put it no less respectfully had the gentleman of fallen fortunes come a begging. There is that about a gentleman commands respect; great Nature willed it so.
The customer was not hurried; he remarked upon the weather, and thawed himself before the big stove (he never once broached the object of Christmas, nor became at all familiar), pitied the homeless such a night, hoped it would freeze out the tariff upon wool; then he asked, carelessly, as men of leisure might. "What is the price of bacon, Mr. Riley?-by the hundred."
Eight dollars a hundred, Mr. Murdock," said Riley.
The ex-millionaire slipped his white forefinger into his vest pocket. After a moment's silence. during which Riley knew the proud old heart was breaking, though the calm face gave no sign of the struggle. "Put me up a dime's worth of the bacon, if you please."
Riley obeyed silently; he would no more have presumed to cover up the pathos of the proceeding by talk than he would have thought of offering a penny, in charity, to the mayor in the city. He put the transaction as purely upon a business footing as if the customer had ordered a round ton of something. He wrapped the meat in a sheet of brown paper, and received the stately "Good evening, sir," saw
the white finger touch the hat brim as the customer passed out into the snow, then climbed back to his perch, thinking, as he did so, that of all poverty the poverty that follows fallen fortunes must be the very hardest to endure. There is the battle against old longings, long-indulged luxuries, past pleasures, faded grandeurs, dead dreams, living sneers, and pride, that indomitable blessing, or curse, that never, never dies. God pity those poor who have once seen better days!
"To S. Riley, 2 lbs. bacon, at 12 1-2 cts.. .25." The book bore another entry. Riley put the blotter over it very quickly; he had a fancy the late customer was looking over his shoulder. He shouldn't like the old gentleman to see that entry, not by any
'Chris'mus gif', marster."
Another customer had entered. Riley closed the big ledger, and thrust it into the safe. The daybook would take up the balance of the evening.
"What can I do for you. Aunt Angie?" he said, going behind the counter to wait upon the old colored woman, who had passed the compliments of the season after the old slave custom.
She laughed, albeit her clothing was in rags, and the thin shawl gathered about her shoulders bore patches in blue and yellow and white.
"I kotched yer Chris'mus gif', good marster; yer knows I did."
"But you're a little early, Aunt Angie," said the clerk; "this is only Christmas eve."
"Aw, git out, marster. nigger got ter cook all day ter-morrer - big Chris'mus dinner fur de whi folks. No res' fur de old nigger, not even et Chris'mus. Bress de Lord, it ain' come but onc't a year."
She laughed again, but under the strange merriment Riley detected the weariness that was thankful; aye, that thanked God that Christmas, the holiday of the Christ child, came "but once a year."
Christmas! Christmas! old season of mirth and misery! Who really enjoys it, after all? Lazarus in the gutter or D'ves among his coffers?