The Making of a Christmas Story
(as carried out in the best end of Fleet Street)
The first half of chapter 4, "Two Short Stories," excerpted from The Holiday Round, a book of short stories (which are mostly not about Christmas) by A. A. Milne, 1912. This tale of an author trying to write a short story with interruptions from his editor has a kind of deadpan humor that's reminiscent of his Winnie the Pooh stories.
London at Yuletide!
A mantle of white lay upon the Embankment, where our story opens, gleaming and glistening as it caught the rays of the cold December sun; an embroidery of white fringed the trees; and under a canopy of white the proud palaces of Savoy and Cecil reared their silent heads. The mighty river in front was motionless, for the finger of Death had laid its icy hand upon it. Above -- the hard blue sky stretching to eternity; below -- the white purity of innocence. London in the grip of winter!
[Editor. Come, I like this. This is going to be good. A cold day, was it not?
All at once the quiet of the morning was disturbed. In the distance a bell rang out, sending a joyous paean to the heavens. Another took up the word, and then another, and another. Westminster caught the message from Bartholomew the son of Thunder, and flung it to Giles Without, who gave it gently to Andrew by the Wardrobe. Suddenly the air was filled with bells, all chanting together of peace and happiness, mirth and jollity -- a frenzy of bells.
The Duke, father of four fine children, waking in his Highland castle, heard and smiled as he thought of his little ones . . .
The Merchant Prince, turning over in his Streatham residence, heard, and turned again to sleep, with love for all mankind in his heart . . .
The Pauper in his workhouse, up betimes, heard, and chuckled at the prospect of his Christmas dinner . . .
And, on the Embankment, Robert Hardrow, with a cynical smile on his lips, listened to the splendid irony of it.
[Editor. We really are getting to the story now, are we not?
Author. That was all local colour. I want to make it quite clear that it was Christmas.
Editor. Yes, yes, quite so. This is certainly a Christmas story. I think I shall like Robert, do you know?]
It was Christmas day, so much at least was clear to him. With that same cynical smile on his lips, he pulled his shivering rags about him, and half unconsciously felt at the growth of beard about his chin. Nobody would recognize him now. His friends (as he had thought them) would pass by without a glance for the poor outcast near them. The women that he had known would draw their skirts away from him in horror. Even Lady Alice --
Lady Alice! The cause of it all!
His thoughts flew back to that last scene, but twenty-four hours ago, when they had parted for ever. As he had entered the hall he had half wondered to himself if there could be anybody in the world that day happier than himself. Tall, well-connected, a vice-president of the Tariff Reform League, and engaged to the sweetest girl in England, he had been the envy of all. Little did he think that that very night he was to receive his conge! What mattered it now how or why they had quarrelled? A few hasty words, a bitter taunt, tears, and then the end.
A last cry from her -- "Go, and let me never see your face again!"
A last sneer from him -- "I will go, but first give me back the presents I have promised you!"
Then a slammed door and -- silence.
What use, without her guidance, to try to keep straight any more? Bereft of her love, Robert had sunk steadily. Gambling, drink, morphia, billiards and cigars -- he had taken to them all; until now in the wretched figure of the outcast on the Embankment you would never have recognized the once spruce figure of Handsome Hardrow.
[Editor. It all seems to have happened rather rapidly, does it not? Twenty-four hours ago he had been --
Author. You forget that this is a SHORT story.]
Handsome Hardow! How absurd it sounded now! He had let his beard grow, his clothes were in rags, a scar over one eye testified --
[Editor. Yes, yes. Of course, I quite admit that a man might go to the bad in twenty-four hours, but would his beard grow as --
Author. Look here, you've heard of a man going grey with trouble in a single night, haven't you?
Author. Well, it's the same idea as that.
Editor. Ah, quite so, quite so.
Author. Where was I?
Editor. A scar over one eye was just testifying -- I suppose he had two eyes in the ordinary way?]
-- testified to a drunken frolic of an hour or two ago. Never before, thought the policeman, as he passed upon his beat, had such a pitiful figure cowered upon the Embankment, and prayed for the night to cover him.
He was --
Er - - the --
Author. To tell the truth I am rather stuck for the moment.
Editor. What is the trouble?
Author. I don't quite know what to do with Robert for ten hours or so.
Editor. Couldn't he go somewhere by a local line?
Author. This is not a humorous story. The point is that I want him to be outside a certain house some twenty miles from town at eight o'clock that evening.
Editor. If I were Robert I should certainly start at once.
Author. No, I have it.]
As he sat there, his thoughts flew over the bridge of years, and he was wafted on the wings of memory to other and happier Yuletides. That Christmas when he had received his first bicycle . . .
That Christmas abroad . . .
The merry house-party at the place of his Cambridge friend . . .
Yuletide at The Towers, where he had first met Alice!
Ten hours passed rapidly thus . . .
[Author. I put dots to denote the flight of years.
Editor. Besides, it will give the reader time for a sandwich.]
Robert got up and shook himself.
[Editor. One moment. This is a Christmas story. When are you coming to the robin?
Author. I really can't be bothered about robins just now. I assure you all the best Christmas stories begin like this nowadays. We may get to a robin later; I cannot say.
Editor. We must. My readers expect a robin, and they shall have it. And a wassail-bowl, and a turkey, and a Christmas-tree, and a --
Author. Yes, yes; but wait. We shall come to little Elsie soon, and then perhaps it will be all right.
Editor. Little Elsie. Good!]
Robert got up and shook himself. Then he shivered miserably, as the cold wind cut through him like a knife. For a moment he stood motionless, gazing over the stone parapet into the dark river beyond, and as he gazed a thought came into his mind. Why not end it all -- here and now? He had nothing to live for. One swift plunge, and --
[Editor. You forget. The river was frozen.
Author. Dash it, I was just going to say that.]
But no! Even in this Fate was against him. The river was frozen over! He turned away with a curse . . .
What happened afterwards Robert never quite understood. Almost unconsciously he must have crossed one of the numerous bridges which span the river and join North London to South. Once on the other side, he seems to have set his face steadily before him, and to have dragged his weary limbs on and on, regardless of time and place. He walked like one in a dream, his mind drugged by the dull narcotic of physical pain. Suddenly he realized that he had left London behind him, and was in the more open spaces of the country. The houses were more scattered; the recurring villa of the clerk had given place to the isolated mansion of the stock broker. Each residence stood in its own splendid grounds, surrounded by fine old forest trees and approached by a long carriage sweep. Electric --
[Editor Quite so. The whole forming a magnificent estate for a retired gentleman. Never mind that.]
Robert stood at the entrance to one of these houses, and the iron entered into his soul. How different was this man's position from his own! What right had this man -- a perfect stranger -- to be happy and contented in the heart of his family, while he, Robert, stood, a homeless wanderer, alone in the cold?
Almost unconsciously he wandered down the drive, hardly realizing what he was doing until he was brought up by the gay lights of the windows. Still without thinking, he stooped down and peered into the brilliantly lit room above him. Within all was jollity; beautiful women moved to and fro, and the happy laughter of children came to him. "Elsie," he heard someone call, and a childish treble responded.
[Editor. Now for the robin.
Author. I am very sorry. I have just remembered something rather sad. The fact is that, two days before, Elsie had forgotten to feed the robin, and in consequence it had died before this story opens.
Editor. That is really very awkward. I have already arranged with an artist to do some pictures, and *I* remember *I* particularly ordered a robin and a wassail. What about the wassail?
Author. Elsie always had her porridge upstairs.]
A terrible thought had come into Robert's head. It was nearly twelve o'clock. The house-party was retiring to bed. He heard the "Good-nights" wafted through the open window; the lights went out, to reappear upstairs. Presently they too went out, and Robert was alone with the darkened house.
The temptation was too much for a conscience already sodden with billiards, drink and cigars. He flung a leg over the sill and drew himself gently into the room. At least he would have one good meal, he too would have his Christmas dinner before the end came. He switched the light on and turned eagerly to the table. His eyes ravenously scanned the contents. Turkey, mince-pies, plum-pudding -- all was there as in the days of his youth.
[Editor. This is better. I ordered a turkey, I remember. What about the mistletoe and holly? I rather think I asked for some of them.
Author. We must let the readers take something for granted
Editor. I am not so sure. Couldn't you say something like this: "Holly and mistletoe hung in festoons upon the wall?"]
Indeed, even holly and mistletoe hung in festoons upon the wall.
[Editor. Thank you.]
With a sigh of content Hardrow flung himself into a chair, and seized a knife and fork. Soon a plate liberally heaped with good things was before him. Greedily he set to work, with the appetite of a man who had not tasted food for several hours . . .
"Dood-evening," said a voice. "Are you Father Kwistmas?"
Robert turned suddenly, and gazed in amazement at the white-robed figure in the doorway.
"Elsie," he murmured huskily.
[Editor. How did he know? And why "Huskily"?
Author. He didn't know, he guessed. And his mouth was full.]
"Are you Father Kwistmas?" repeated Elsie.
Robert felt at his chin, and thanked Heaven again that he had let his beard grow. Almost mechanically he decided to wear the mask -- in short, to dissemble.
"Yes, my dear," he said. "I just looked in to know what you would like me to bring you."
"You're late, aren't oo? Oughtn't oo to have come this morning?"
[Editor. This is splendid. This quite reconciles me to the absence of Robin, But what was Elsie doing downstairs?
Author. I am making Robert ask her that question directly.
Editor. Yes, but just tell me now -- between friends.
Author. She had left her golliwog in the room, and couldn't sleep without her.
Editor. I knew that was it.]
"If I'm late, dear," said Robert, with a smile, "why, so are you."
The good food and wine in his veins were doing their work, and a pleasant warmth was stealing over Hardrow. He found to his surprise that airy banter still came easy to him.
"To what," he continued lightly, "do I owe the honour of this meeting?"
"I came downstairs for my dolly," said Elsie. "The one you sent me this morning, do you remember?"
"Of course I do, my dear."
"And what have you bwought me now, Father Kwistmas?"
Robert started. If he was to play the role successfully he must find something to give her now. The remains of the turkey, a pair of finger-bowls, his old hat -- all these came hastily into his mind, and were dismissed. He had nothing of value on him. All had been pawned long ago.
Stay! The gold locket studded with diamonds and rubies, which contained Alice's photograph. The one memento of her that he had kept, even when the pangs of starvation were upon him. He brought it from its resting-place next his heart.
"A little something to wear round your neck, child," he said. "See!"
"Thank oo," said Elsie. "Why, it opens!"
"Yes, it opens," said Robert moodily.
"Why, it's Alith! Sister Alith!"
Author. I thought you'd like that.]
Robert leapt to his feet as if he had been shot.
"Who?" he cried.
"My sister Alith. Does oo know her too?"
Alice's sister! Heavens! He covered his face with his hands.
The door opened.
[Editor. Ha again!]
"What are you doing here, Elsie?" said a voice. "Go to bed, child. Why, who is this?"
"Father Kwithmath, thithter."
[Editor. How exactly do you work the lisping?
Author. What do you mean? Don't children of Elsie's tender years lisp sometimes?
Editor. Yes, but just now she said "Kwistmas" quite correctly --
Author. I am glad you noticed that. That was an effect which was intended to produce. Lisping is brought about by placing the tongue upon the hard surface of the palate and in cases where the subject in unduly excited or influenced by emotion the lisp becomes more pronounced. In this case --
Editor. Yeth, I thee.]
"Send her away," cried Robert, without raising his head.
The door opened, and closed again.
"Well," said Alice calmly, "and who are you? You may have lied to this poor child, but you cannot deceive me. You are NOT Father Christmas."
The miserable man raised his shamefaced head and looked haggardly at her.
"Alice!" he muttered, "don't you remember me?"
She gazed at him earnestly.
"Robert! But how changed!"
"Since we parted, Alice, much has happened."
"Yet it seems only yesterday that I saw you!"
[Editor. It *was* only yesterday.
Author. Yes, yes. Don't interrupt now, please.]
"To me it has seemed years."
"But what are you doing here?" said Alice.
"Rather, what are YOU doing here?" answered Robert.
[Editor. I think Alice's question was the more reasonable one.]
"My uncle Joseph lives here."
Robert gave a sudden cry.
"Your uncle Joseph! Then I have broken into your uncle Joseph's house! Alice, send me away! Put me in prison! Do what you will to me! I can never hold up my head again."
Lady Alice looked gently at the wretched figure in front of her.
"I am glad to see you again," she said. "Because I wanted to say that it was MY fault!"
"Can you forgive me?"
"Forgive you? If you knew what my life has been since I left you! If you knew into what paths of wickedness I have sunk! How only this evening, unnerved by excess, I have deliberately broken into this house -- your uncle Joseph's house -- in order to obtain food. Already I have eaten more than half a turkey and the best part of a plum-pudding. If you knew, I -- "
With a gesture of infinite compassion she stopped him.
"Then let us forgive each other," she said with a smile. "A new year is beginning, Robert!"
He took her in his arms.
"Listen," he said.
In the distance the bells began to ring in the New Year. A message of hope to all weary travellers on life's highway. It was New Year's Day!
[Editor. I thought Christmas Day had started on the embankment. This would be Boxing Day.
Author. *I'm* sorry, but it must end like that. *I* must have my bells. You can explain somehow.
Editor. That's all very well. *I* have a good deal to explain as it is. Some of your story doesn't fit the pictures at all, and it is too late now to get new ones done.
Author. *I* am afraid *I* cannot work to order.
Editor. Yes, *I* know. The artist said the same thing. Well, *I* must manage somehow, *I* suppose. Good-bye. Rotten weather for August, isn't it?]