Dick Spindler's Family Christmas
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by Bret Harte
Category: Classic Literature
Description: In Rough and Ready, a mining camp in California, Dick Spindler has found gold. He builds himself an impressive house and, decides to invite his family, who always thought he was a loser, to spend Christmas with him. Several surprises turn up, including a pair of orphans and an uninvited grass widow.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: December 2005
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [32 KB]
Reading time: 17-24 min.
Rough and Ready
A California Mining Camp
There was surprise and sometimes disappointment in Rough and Ready, when it was known that Dick Spindler intended to give a "family" Christmas party at his own house. That he should take an early opportunity to celebrate his good fortune and show hospitality was only expected from the man who had just made a handsome "strike" on his claim; but that it should assume so conservative, old-fashioned, and respectable a form was quite unlooked-for by Rough and Ready, and was thought by some a trifle pretentious.
There were not half-a-dozen families in Rough and Ready; nobody ever knew before that Spindler had any relations, and this "ringing in" of strangers to the settlement seemed to indicate at least a lack of public spirit. "He might," urged one of his critics, "hev given the boys--that had worked alongside o' him in the ditches by day, and slung lies with him around the camp-fire by night--he might hev given them a square 'blow out,' and kep' the leavin's for his old Spindler crew, just as other families do. Why, when old man Scudder had his house-raisin' last year, his family lived for a week on what was left over, arter the boys had waltzed through the house that night--and the Scudders warn't strangers, either."
It was also evident that there was an uneasy feeling that Spindler's action indicated an unhallowed leaning towards the minority of respectability and exclusiveness, and a desertion--without the excuse of matrimony--of the convivial and independent bachelor majority of Rough and Ready.
"Ef he was stuck after some gal and was kinder looking ahead, I'd hev understood it," argued another critic.
"Don't ye be too sure he ain't," said Uncle Jim Starbuck gloomily. "Ye'll find that some blamed woman is at the bottom of this yer 'family' gathering. That and trouble ez almost all they're made for!"
There happened to be some truth in this dark prophecy, but none of the kind that the misogynist supposed. In fact, Spindler had called a few evenings before at the house of the Rev. Mr. Saltover, and Mrs. Saltover, having one of her "Saleratus headaches," had turned him over to her widow sister, Mrs. Huldy Price, who obediently bestowed upon him that practical and critical attention which she divided with the stocking she was darning. She was a woman of thirty-five, of singular nerve and practical wisdom, who had once smuggled her wounded husband home from a border affray, calmly made coffee for his deceived pursuers while he lay hidden in the loft, walked four miles for that medical assistance which arrived too late to save him, buried him secretly in his own "quarter section," with only one other witness and mourner, and so saved her position and property in that wild community, who believed he had fled. There was very little of this experience to be traced in her round, fresh-colored brunette cheek, her calm black eyes, set in a prickly hedge of stiff lashes, her plump figure, or her frank, courageous laugh. The latter appeared as a smile when she welcomed Mr. Spindler. "She hadn't seen him for a coon's age," but "reckoned he was busy fixin' up his new house."
"Well, yes," said Spindler, with a slight hesitation, "ye see, I'm reckonin' to hev a kinder Christmas gatherin' of my"--he was about to say "folks," but dismissed it for "relations," and finally settled upon "relatives" as being more correct in a preacher's house.
Mrs. Price thought it a very good idea.
Christmas was the natural season for the family to gather to "see who's here and who's there, who's gettin' on and who isn't, and who's dead and buried. It was lucky for them who were so placed that they could do so and be joyful." Her invincible philosophy probably carried her past any dangerous recollections of the lonely grave in Kansas, and holding up the stocking to the light, she glanced cheerfully along its level to Mr. Spindler's embarrassed face by the fire.
"Well, I can't say much ez to that," responded Spindler, still awkwardly, "for you see I don't know much about it anyway."
"How long since you've seen 'em?" asked Mrs. Price, apparently addressing herself to the stocking.
Spindler gave a weak laugh. "Well, you see, ef it comes to that, I've never seen 'em!"
Mrs. Price put the stocking in her lap and opened her direct eyes on Spindler. "Never seen 'em?" she repeated. "Then, they're not near relations?
"There are three cousins," said Spindler, checking them off on his fingers, "a half-uncle, a kind of brother-in-law--that is, the brother of my sister-in-law's second husband--and a niece. That's six."
"But if you've not seen them, I suppose they've corresponded with you?" said Mrs. Price.
"They've nearly all of 'em written to me for money, seeing my name in the paper ez hevin' made a strike," returned Spindler simply; "and hevin' sent it, I jest know their addresses."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Price, returning to the stocking.
Something in the tone of her ejaculation increased Spindler's embarrassment, but it also made him desperate. "You see, Mrs. Price," he blurted out, "I oughter tell ye that I reckon they are the folks that 'hevn't got on,' don't you see, and so it seemed only the square thing for me, ez had 'got on,' to give them a sort o' Christmas festival. Suthin', don't ye know, like what your brother-in-law was sayin' last Sunday in the pulpit about this yer peace and goodwill 'twixt man and man."
Mrs. Price looked again at the man before her. His sallow, perplexed face exhibited some doubt, yet a certain determination, regarding the prospect the quotation had opened to him. "A very good idea, Mr. Spindler, and one that does you great credit," she said gravely.
"I'm mighty glad to hear you say so, Mrs. Price," he said, with an accent of great relief, "for I reckoned to ask you a great favor! You see," he fell into his former hesitation, "that is--the fact is--that this sort o' thing is rather suddent to me,--a little outer my line, don't you see, and I was goin' to ask ye ef you'd mind takin' the hull thing in hand and runnin it for me."
"Running it for you," said Mrs. Price, with a quick eye-shot from under the edge of her lashes. "Man alive! What are you thinking of?"
"Bossin' the whole job for me," hurried on Spindler, with nervous desperation. "Gettin' together all the things and makin' ready for 'em,--orderin' in everythin' that's wanted, and fixin' up the rooms,--I kin step out while you're doin' it,--and then helpin' me receivin' 'em, and sittin' at the head o' the table, you know,--like ez ef you was the mistress."
"But," said Mrs. Price, with her frank laugh, "that's the duty of one of your relations,--your niece, for instance,--or cousin, if one of them is a woman."
"But," persisted Spindler, "you see, they're strangers to me; I don't know 'em, and I do you. You'd make it easy for 'em,--and for me,--don't you see? Kinder introduce 'em,--don't you know? A woman of your gin'ral experience would smooth down all them little difficulties," continued Spindler, with a vague recollection of the Kansas story, "and put everybody on velvet. Don't say 'No,' Mrs. Price! I'm just kalkilatin' on you."
Sincerity and persistency in a man goes a great way with even the best of women. Mrs. Price, who had at first received Spindler's request as an amusing originality, now began to incline secretly towards it. And, of course, began to suggest objections.
"I'm afraid it won't do," she said thoughtfully, awakening to the fact that it would do and could be done. "You see, I've promised to spend Christmas at Sacramento with my nieces from Baltimore. And then there's Mrs. Saltover and my sister to consult."
But here Spindler's simple face showed such signs of distress that the widow declared she would "think it over,"--a process which the sanguine Spindler seemed to consider so nearly akin to talking it over that Mrs. Price began to believe it herself, as he hopefully departed.
She "thought it over" sufficiently to go to Sacramento and excuse herself to her nieces. But here she permitted herself to "talk it over," to the infinite delight of those Baltimore girls, who thought this extravaganza of Spindler's "so Californian and eccentric!" So that it was not strange that presently the news came back to Rough and Ready, and his old associates learned for the first time that he had never seen his relatives, and that they would be doubly strangers. This did not increase his popularity; neither, I grieve to say, did the intelligence that his relatives were probably poor, and that the Reverend Mr. Saltover had approved of his course, and had likened it to the rich man's feast, to which the halt and blind were invited. Indeed, the allusion was supposed to add hypocrisy and a bid for popularity to Spindler's defection, for it was argued that he might have feasted "Wall-eyed Joe" or "Tangle-foot Billy,"--who had once been "chawed" by a bear while prospecting,--if he had been sincere. Howbeit, Spindler's faith was oblivious to these criticisms, in his joy at Mr. Saltover's adhesion to his plans and the loan of Mrs. Price as a hostess. In fact, he proposed to her that the invitation should also convey that information in the expression, "by the kind permission of the Rev. Mr. Saltover," as a guarantee of good faith, but the widow would have none of it. The invitations were duly written and dispatched.
"Suppose," suggested Spindler, with a sudden lugubrious apprehension,--"suppose they shouldn't come?"
"Have no fear of that," said Mrs. Price, with a frank laugh.
"Or ef they was dead," continued Spindler.
"They couldn't all be dead," said the widow cheerfully.
"I've written to another cousin by marriage," said Spindler dubiously, "in case of accident; I didn't think of him before, because he was rich."
"And have you ever seen him either, Mr. Spindler?" asked the widow, with a slight mischievousness.
"Lordy! No!" he responded, with unaffected concern.
Only one mistake was made by Mrs. Price in her arrangements for the party. She had noticed what the simple-minded Spindler could never have conceived,--the feeling towards him held by his old associates, and had tactfully suggested that a general invitation should be extended to them in the evening.
"You can have refreshments, you know, too, after the dinner, and games and music."
"But," said the unsophisticated host, "won't the boys think I'm playing it rather low down on them, so to speak, givin' 'em a kind o' second table, as ef it was the tailings after a strike?"
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Price, with decision. "It's quite fashionable in San Francisco, and just the thing to do."
To this decision Spindler, in his blind faith in the widow's management, weakly yielded. * * * *
An announcement in the "Weekly Banner" that, "On Christmas evening Richard Spindler, Esq., proposed to entertain his friends and fellow citizens at an 'at home,' in his own residence," not only widened the breach between him and the "boys," but awakened an active resentment that only waited for an outlet. It was understood that they were all coming; but that they should have "some fun out of it" which might not coincide with Spindler's nor his relatives' sense of humor seemed a foregone conclusion.
Unfortunately, too, subsequent events lent themselves to this irony of the situation.
He was so obviously sincere in his intent, and, above all, seemed to place such a pathetic reliance on her judgment, that she hesitated to let him know the shock his revelation had given her. And what might his other relations prove to be? Good Lord! Yet, oddly enough, she was so prepossessed by him, and so fascinated by his very Quixotism, that it was perhaps for these complex reasons that she said a little stiffly:--
"One of these cousins, I see, is a lady, and then there is your niece. Do you know anything about them, Mr. Spindler?"
His face grew serious. "No more than I know of the others," he said apologetically. After a moment's hesitation he went on: "Now you speak of it, it seems to me I've heard that my niece was di-vorced. But," he added, brightening up, "I've heard that she was popular."
Mrs. Price gave a short laugh, and was silent for a few minutes. Then this sublime little woman looked up at him. What he might have seen in her eyes was more than he expected, or, I fear, deserved. "Cheer up, Mr. Spindler," she said manfully. "I'll see you through this thing, don't you mind! But don't you say anything about--about--this Vigilance Committee business to anybody. Nor about your niece--it was your niece, wasn't it?--being divorced. Charley (the late Mr. Price) had a queer sort of sister, who--but that's neither here nor there! And your niece mayn't come, you know; or if she does, you ain't bound to bring her out to the general company."
At parting, Spindler, in sheer gratefulness, pressed her hand, and lingered so long over it that a little color sprang into the widow's brown cheek. Perhaps a fresh courage sprang into her heart, too, for she went to Sacramento the next day, previously enjoining Spindler on no account to show any answers he might receive. At Sacramento her nieces flew to her with confidences.
"We so wanted to see you, Aunt Huldy, for we've heard something so delightful about your funny Christmas Party!" Mrs. Price's heart sank, but her eyes snapped. "Only think of it! One of Mr. Spindler's long-lost relatives--a Mr. Wragg--lives in this hotel, and papa knows him. He's a sort of half-uncle, I believe, and he's just furious that Spindler should have invited him. He showed papa the letter; said it was the greatest piece of insolence in the world; that Spindler was an ostentatious fool, who had made a little money and wanted to use him to get into society; and the fun of the whole thing was that this half-uncle and whole brute is himself a parvenu,--a vulgar, ostentatious creature, who was only a"--
"Never mind what he was, Kate," interrupted Mrs. Price hastily. "I call his conduct a shame."
"So do we," said both girls eagerly. After a pause Kate clasped her knees with her locked fingers, and rocking backwards and forwards, said, "Milly and I have got an idea, and don't you say 'No' to it. We've had it ever since that brute talked in that way. Now, through him, we know more about this Mr. Spindler's family connections than you do; and we know all the trouble you and he'll have in getting up this party. You understand? Now, we first want to know what Spindler's like. Is he a savage, bearded creature, like the miners we saw on the boat?"
Mrs. Price said that, on the contrary, he was very gentle, soft-spoken, and rather good-looking.
"Young or old?"
"Young,--in fact, a mere boy, as you may judge from his actions," returned Mrs. Price, with a suggestive matronly air.
Kate here put up a long-handled eyeglass to her fine gray eyes, fitted it ostentatiously over her aquiline nose, and then said, in a voice of simulated horror, "Aunt Huldy,--this revelation is shocking!"
Mrs. Price laughed her usual frank laugh, albeit her brown cheek took upon it a faint tint of Indian red. "If that's the wonderful idea you girls have got, I don't see how it's going to help matters," she said dryly.
"No, that's not it? We really have an idea. Now look here."
Mrs. Price "looked here." This process seemed to the superficial observer to be merely submitting her waist and shoulders to the arms of her nieces, and her ears to their confidential and coaxing voices.
Twice she said "it couldn't be thought of," and "it was impossible;" once addressed Kate as "You limb!" and finally said that she "wouldn't promise, but might write!"