Fiction

Salt-Water Christmas

Christmas, like love, is where you find it. The Frasers never thought of looking for it on the beach

Gordon Malherbe Hillman December 15 1947
Fiction

Salt-Water Christmas

Christmas, like love, is where you find it. The Frasers never thought of looking for it on the beach

Gordon Malherbe Hillman December 15 1947

Salt-Water Christmas

Christmas, like love, is where you find it. The Frasers never thought of looking for it on the beach

Gordon Malherbe Hillman

MRS. FRASER sat in the parlor of her square, yellow suburban house and told herself that. Christmas was wonderful. She told herself quite severely and still it wasn’t any good. The fact was that she wasn’t looking forward to the annual celebration of the Frasers and the Pillsburys a single bit.

The two families had eaten Christmas dinner together ever since they became neighbors on Elm Street and they kept up the practice even though the Pillsburys had long since moved away.

R. was the Frasers’ turn to entertain this year and Mrs. Fraser knew she should feel more cheerful about it. But she didn’t. As she looked over her list of tilings to get in these last three days, she had the faint wish that Christmas had never been invented.

She was ashamed at once, because, of course, her family would be looking forward to it.

There was a sudden gust of cold, sharp air, the front door slammed and her ten-year-old son Roger stamped in.

He looked at his mother’s list. “Oh, my gosh, have we gol. to have those darned old Pillsburys again?”

“Why, Roger, the Pillsburysare very nice people.” “They make me sick to my stomach,” Roger said simply.

Mrs. Fraser, being a fair-minded woman, realized that she harbored something the same sentiment herself.

But she couldn’t admit that to her son. “Why, it wouldn’t be Christmas without the Pillsburys. And you know your father and Janet are looking forward to it.”

“Nuts,” replied Roger and apparently vanished into thin air, a trick he had at limes of parental disapproval.

Mrs. Fraser sighed and stared out into grey bleak December with little threads of snow already drifting down on the dull suburban street.

It had been a trying sort of year, she thought. The trouble had seemed to start the minute they’d bought the summerhouse at East Harbor.

This was ironic because they had looked forward for years to owning their own seaside cottage. When (hey attained it they were going to be very, very happy. Only it hadn’t worked out that way.

it was a splendid house on a high

cliff overlooking the sea.

ll had an oil-heating system but Mr. Nickerson, who supplied oil, coal, ice and wood, had failed to deliver any of those articles, particularly when they were most needed. After dealing with him all summer, Mrs. Fraser knew no one she disliked more than W. L. Nickerson, Oil, Coal, Ice and Wood.

Mr. Cahoon, who ran the village store, had been almost as uncooperative, especially about such scarce items as soap flakes and butter. In fact, the natives of East Harbor were among the most unpleasant people Mrs. Fraser had ever known.

Not that she knew them very well, for they were elusive, particularly when any painting, plumbing, carpentering or gardening was needed at the summerhouse.

True, Roger had taken up with the very worst one, a thin, towheaded boy named Lonny Snow, who was an orphan, and whose possessions seemed to be a single pair of overalls.

Mrs. Fraser had been firm there. She had shooed Lonny off the property and pointed out to Roger the advantages of playing with the nice Bigelow children next door.

She tapped her pencil slowly now for the Bigelow children had looked rather like freckled fat little pigs and they had seemed somewhat stupid and she re-

membered with a small twinge of guilt that this sulkiness of Roger’s had started about then.

She shrugged her shoulders and wrote in large letters at the top of her list, “ONLY THREE DAYS TO CHRISTMAS.”

She tried hard to concentrate on what she must buy and found herself wondering what sort of Christmas an orphan boy in East Harbor would be having—or if he’d have any. She began to wish she’d been a trifle nicer to Lonny Snow.

There was a commotion outside the house and the worst-looking motorcar Mrs. Fraser had ever seen came to a grinding stop. It was an open and dilapidated roadster, painted and chalked over with what she supposed were to be considered witticisms. One of them said, “Fowl Crate” and Mrs. Fraser shuddered.

From this car her daughter, Janet, descended with the negligent aid of a large, noisy and untidy blond young man wearing a red cap and mackinaw.

The young man and Janet appeared to be shouting to each other at the top of their lungs. Mi's. Fraser wished her daughter would stop being boy crazy.

Such things do happen to girls of seventeen, Mrs. F raser realized, but Janet seemed to have the knack of acquiring the most strident, graceless, badmannered youths in town.

Each one was worse than the last, and Mrs. Fraser wished that if Janet were going to fall in love with such frequency she would choose crooners or movie heroes instead. At least they would be at a safe distance and would not actively annoy her parents.

Even Mr. Fraser, a normally mild man, had suggested to Janet that she get a boy friend who was housebrokeh.

Janet now screamed a few more farewells, the front door crashed behind her and she came pounding into the parlor like a heavy-footed pony.

“Hi ya, mother! What you up to?”

Janet’s manners were fast getting worse, which was a pity because, with her bright golden-red hair, her big blue eyes and her clear complexion, she could have been a charming girl.

“I’m making my last-minute list for Christmas,” said Mrs. Fraser mildly.

Janet flung off her short brown fur coat and sat down in a flurry of long legs and red rubber boots. “Ma! Have we got to have those awful Pillsburys again?”

Mrs. Fraser became a little bewildered because there seemed to be so much of her daughter and all of it was so very vivid and vigorous. “Your father would be most disappointed if we didn’t. And, besides, I thought you liked them.”

“That Trudy Pillsbury and that Walter Pillsbury are the two most simply abysmal specimens anyone has ever seen. And if Mr. Pillsbury tells any of those sour old stories of his, I shall scream,” said Janet.

Mrs. Fraser was sorry to say that she agreed with the latter indictment. For Stephen Pillsbury’s idea of recounting a joke was to string it out to such length that the point got entirely lost and you always laughed in the wrong place from sheer hysteria.

She stared at her daughter and wished that something would civilize her.

“Nevertheless, my dear,” she said, “we are going to have them to dinner so you can prepare to spend Christmas with the Pillsburys.”

Janet walked from the

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Salt-water Christmas

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room, dejection in her shuffling exit. Mrs. Fraser heard her husband taking his rubbers off in the hall.

He came in with a sheaf of papers in his hand and Mrs. Fraser sighed because, in addition to being a lawyer, Ted had become one of the board of trustees of a small school for boys and took his duties very seriously. He would now work at them all evening.

She put down her pencil. “You look cold, Ted.”

Her husband also looked cross, which did not go well with his slightly olive skin and his thin, studious face with its horn-rimmed glasses.

“Beastly night. It’s beginning to blow.” He snatched Janet’s fur coat from the chair. “Doesn’t your daughter ever learn to put anything away?”

Mrs. Fraser recognized the signs. Janet was Ted’s daughter when she behaved herself; when she didn’t he blamed her entirely on his wife. And he had grown more and more acid lately. It had begun, Mrs. Fraser thought, when they bought that house at East Harbor.

Ted caught sight of her list. “Ugh!” he said. “Only three days to Christmas and those frightful Pillsburys again. Why do you keep on having them,

Bess?”

Mrs. Fraser, who had been bearing the thought of the Pillsburys only because she was sure her family wanted them, now felt very bleak.

fT^HE NEXT morning being Sunday, X the Frasers slept late though Mrs. Fraser was conscious that a good deal of snow had fallen and that the sun was bathing it in a blinding light.

She was also conscious of an unpleasant noise which slowly resolved itself into the ringing of the telephone.

“Oh dear,” she thought, “even that dratted thing’s started snarling at me now.”

She was sleepily conscious of her

husband going downstairs to answer the telephone.

“Hello? Who? Who? Oh, it’s you. What? What? The wind did what? The tree’s where? Well, get somebody to do something about it. I’ll be down as soon as I can,” he said.

“Ted, what’s happened?” she asked when her husband returned.

Ted was having trouble getting his head into his shirt. “Storm. Damaged the summer house. Elm tree blew down and of course the fool thing would smash into the upper story. That was that half-wit, Clem, we hired as a caretaker.”

“Going to drive down,” Ted announced and got into his trousers. “Got to see that something’s done.”

Mrs. Fraser began dressing. “I’ll go with you,” she said.

The door opened and Janet and Roger stood there, wide-eyed.

“The storm smashed up the East Harbor house. We’ve got to go down,” Mrs. Fraser told them.

Janet and Roger jumped with delight. “Can we go too?” they asked.

Ted looked up from the hopeless task of trying to jam his left foot into a right shoe. “No.”

Mrs. Fraser shrugged into a plaid jacket. “How silly. Of course they can go. They might be some help.”

An hour later they were all in their old car crunching through the crisp new snow. Ted announced, “There’s no hotel open anywhere near there. We’ll have to stay in the cottage and that’s going to be rough.”

That seemed very likely as they drove up to Clem’s sad yellow home that afternoon. Even the house looked dreary and so did the rest of the landscape.

They discovered Clem in his kitchen.

“Yeh,” said he, unemotionally. “Pretty bad. Wust storm I ever see almost.”

Ted was not pleased. “Well, who’s doing anything about it?”

Clem spat at the stove. “Reckon Nick’s a seein’ to things.”

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“CANADIANS ARE A MODERATE PEOPLE”

(3)

MACLEAN’S

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“Who?”

Clem fumbled in his pocket for a tobacco plug, abandoned the search as too much effort. “Nickerson.”

Mrs. Fraser restrained herself from shaking her caretaker. “Nickerson? You don’t mean W. L. Nickerson, Oil, Coal, Ice and Wood?”

“Same,” said Clem and closed his eyes.

THEIR OWN house looked very dejected indeed. A white wooden seaside cottage, deep in snow, is bleak enough. When half its porch is a tangled wreck, three windows are out, a great many shingles are gone, and a large uprooted tree is leaning against its top story, its bleakness becomes cosmic.

Mrs. Fraser noticed that someone had hacked away part of the tree and that an effort had been made to set cardboard in the shattered windows.

When Ted opened the front door the smell of a shut-up, winter-bound house came flooding out. It was a sour, cold smell.

“Gee,” said Roger, “just like a desert island.”

“More like Marooned in the Rockies in Sheepherder’s Hut,” Janet announced, drawing on a private literary experience. “Isn’t it simply swell?” Mrs. Fraser did not think so. Neither did Ted, who could be heard struggling with the oil burner in the cellar. He reappeared, grimy and with cobwebs across his face.

“I started the thing,” said he, “but the tank’s terribly low. We’re sure to freeze to death.”

That was a dismal certainty, concluded Mrs. Fraser and sat down

defeated.

Soon Janet and Roger appeared laden with logs and kindling.

“Sit down, Mother. We’ll fix an open fire for you.”

Ted said gloomily that he supposed they’d better see about getting a

carpenter but he wasn’t sure how he was going to do it.

Mrs. Fraser did not listen very attentively. She was watching a large yellow truck churning up the driveway. On its side in large black letters, was printed, “W. L. NICKERSON, OIL, COAL, ICE AND WOOD.”

The front door swung open and

W. bNickerson stepped in, tall, thin, grey-headed and very dry-looking.

“Thought maybe you folks might be needin’ some oil,” he said mildly.

Mrs. Fraser’s mouth fell open with surprise. Behind W. L. Nickerson came a lean, handsome, black-haired young man and the small figure of last summer’s orphan, Lonny Snow', now wrapped in a sheepskin coat several sizes too large for him.

“How do, Miz’ Fraser?” said Lonny bobbing a welcome nod. He helped Roger and Janet to lay the fire.

Mr. Nickerson nodded his head amiably. “This’s my son, Young Nick; Christian name of Paul. Co start up the kitchen stove, Young Nick.”

Mrs. Fraser was aware that Janet was brushing off her plaid slacks, that she was smoothing her hair, that she was disappearing in the direction of the kitchen with the dark-haired young man. He seemed a nice, quiet young man.

“Gosh, Lonny,” Roger said in great admiration. “You sure know how to build a fire. Lookit, Mother, he’s got it going already.”

Mrs. Fraser felt perhaps she’d been all wrong about Lonny; she was almost ready to admit she’d been wrong about W. L. Nickerson, Oil, Coal, Ice and Wood, only she was too stunned.

So was Ted who was still saying something about carpenters.

Mr. Nickerson took off his gloves and slapped them together. “Don’t see it’s hardly necessary,” he said in his slow drawl. “Reckon Young Nick an’ me can do all that’s needed.”

The front door slammed open again and Mrs. Fraser received another shock. There, topped by an ancient fur cap, stood the storekeeper, Mr. Cahoon, a gaunt, grey, ice-faced man who looked as if his principal pleasure was foreclosing mortgages.

Mr. Cahoon was carrying a large wooden box. “Heard you folks was cornin’ down ’n I guessed you can use some supplies.”

He had brought bacon and ham and bread and canned goods. Mr. Cahoon suddenly became, in Mrs. Fraser’s eyes, a lean, seashore sort of angel and she reached for her purse.

“Why, thank you, Mr. Cahoon. You’re very kind.”

Mr. Cahoon glared as if he were about to put a widow and six small children out into the snow. “No need to pay now, Miz’ Fraser.” He stared at the ceiling. “Most summer folks wouldn’t have bothered to come down to look after their house. They’d have let someone else do it. That’s true, ain’t it, Nick?”

The tall young man came in from the kitchen and smiled at her. “Around here,” he said, “we’re sort of slow at making friends.”

Close behind him was Janet, her face glowing. The Nickersons might make friends slowly, but not Janet.

The whole house seemed^ pleasant— and almost warm.

By rights, the family should have been bad-tempered next morning. But it was not.

All day long Mrs. Fraser saw her daughter trot about, quiet and content, at the heels of tall Paul Nickerson. And Paul was one of the best-mannered young men she had seen in a long time, as well as one ol the hardest-working. With the aid of his father, and the more dubious assistance of Ted, the tree was cleared away, the windows were boarded up and everything, in the words of Mr. Nickerson, made “Bout’s snug and shipshape as three clumsy fellas can do.”

The next day broke bright and fair. They began closing up the house with a curious reluctance as if they were leaving something valuable behind, something they couldn’t take with them.

The yellow truck came into the yard with a rush. “Got some bad news,” shouted Mr. Nickerson. “Freighter rammed the bridge and put it out of commission. You can’t get ’cross the canal so I guess you’re stuck for a spell.”

No holiday party at home. No Pillsburys. No celebration. Mrs. Fraser looked at her family. They were all wearing wide grins.

“So,” said Mr. Nickerson quite shyly. “Mrs. Nick would be obliged if you’d come to us for Christmas.”

AFIRE blazing with driftwood tints burned in Mr. Nickerson’s front parlor, which had rows of books on wide shelves, comfortable old chairs and a black horsehair sofa with a carved rosewood frame. And a tree—a fat, jolly tree, lit and decorated, and under it a mound of parcels done up in white paper and red ribbon.

Mr. Nickerson stepped foward wearing a shiny blue suit and a stiff collar. “Well nowq” he said, “this is going to be a real Christmas. I want you to meet Mrs. Nick.”

Mrs. Nick was merry and ruddy and rosy-faced, a round little dumpling of a woman with dancing black eyes. “And,” Mr. Nickerson waved his

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hand, “Mrs. Bearse. Aunt, here’s the Frasers.”

Mrs. Fraser blinked. Aunt was thin and ancient and wiry. Aunt’s grey hair was smartly bobbed, her cheeks were rouged. She wore a good deal of lipstick and a dazzling blue dress.

Aunt’s voice snapped. “Nice to see some civilized folks for a change. Paul, you take that pretty girl in the plaid pants and go fix the table. Set down, Mis’ Fraser.”

Paul approached Janet who was standing by the tree examining the ornaments with almost genuine interest. She turned to face him as he ap proached. The two smiled at each other and went into the dining room together.

Mrs. Fraser sank on the horsehair sofa. Lonny appeared and gravely shook her hand. His face still held that stricken, tragic look: no look for a small boy to have on Christmas Day.

Aunt levelled a finger at him. “You, Lonny, take Roger upstairs and show him those model airplanes you make. Miz’ Fraser and I are going to have a good, cosy talk.”

Mrs. Nick departed to the kitchen, murmuring domestic excuses. Mrs. Fraser found herself a little daunted for Aunt had the airs of an empress.

“I’ll have to apologize for our clothes, Mrs. Bearse,” she said feebly. “This is an old suit I found at the cottage.”

Aunt’s eyes appeared to go through it like gimlets. “H’m. Must have bought it when you felt low in your mind. Call me ‘Aunt.’ Everybody does.”

Aunt snapped her thumb toward the kitchen and the invisible Mrs. Nick. “That girl,” she proclaimed, “can’t cook for shucks. Have to humor her, though.”

Aunt’s sharp gaze rested on Ted, who was admiring the tree with Mr. Nickerson. “Your husband’s a mite spindly, ain’t he? I had three husbands. They didn’t wear well.”

Mrs. Fraser wondered what had become of them and decided not to ask.

Mrs. Nick came briskly back into the room and Aunt chose the occasion to proclaim, loud and clear, “Sorry I didn’t get my hair dyed before Christmas come. I’m goin’ to do it though.”

“Now Aunt!” said Mrs. Nick.

Aunt’s voice roiled out like a sea captain’s. “That girl’s got no sense. Never did have. I’m goin’ to dye my hair red—shrieking, shouting, screaming red! And Mis’ Fraser here’s goin’ to help me do it.”

Aunt gave her an approving glance and Mrs. Nick fled again. “You’ll be right handy to help,” Aunt announced, “Because you folks are cornin’ over here to stay with us till they get that bridge fixed.”

Before Aunt, Mrs. Fraser felt like a little girl. “That’s awfully kind but it would be a fearful bother for you and Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson. Besides, we’re having great fun camping out in our house.”

Aunt’s eyebrows rose. “What’s fun one day ain’t any fun the next,” she proclaimed. “Nick’ll move your stuff tonight.”

Mrs. Fraser looked around the room. She could hear Janet and that nice Paul Nickerson laughing as they set the table in the dining room. Lonny and Roger were upstairs engaged in the mysterious and important plans of small boys. Ted was chatting with Mr. Nickerson and he seemed to be enjoying himself in a fine relaxed way. Her family was happy again, she felt.

It was going to be a good Christmas —certainly different from what she had planned, hut a good one. And yet in this room, alive with the vivid personality of the eccentric Aunt there was an undercurrent of sadness, a

feeling that did not belong to Christmas or this unusual and happy family.

Aun’t expression changed suddenly. Aunt put a thin hand over Mrs. Fraser’s. “It’s lucky for us you folks could come. What with the trouble about Lonny and all, ’t’ wouldn’t have been a happy. Christmas otherwise.” Now that uncomfortable undercurrent was coming to the top, Mrs. Fraser thought: now they’d find out what it was.

But Ted was far quicker than she. “What’s wrong with Lonny?”

Mr. Nickerson looked old and a little helpless. “Didn’t mean to have you know nothin’ about it. You see, when Lonny’s Pa and Ma died we sort of took him in.”

Yes, the Nickersons would, Mrs. Fraser thought. “He’s an awfully nice boy,” she said aloud.

“Sure is,” Mr. Nickerson’s voice was troubled. “Smart as a whip and he’s got a keen mind. Sort of boy that ought to be sent away to a good school. But now it seems some relative out west wants him . . .”

Mr. Nickerson looked at the shining tree and the white wrapped bundles beneath as if he weren’t actually seeing them at all.

Ted’s eyes gleamed behind his glasses. He looked more interested and alive than he had for months. “Look, Mr. Nickerson, if Lonny could get a> scholarship in a boys’ school, d’you suppose those relatives would let him go?”

Mr. Nickerson seemed puzzled. “Guess they would. Guess they could be made to. But where’d Lonny get a scholarship?”

Ted rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment as he always did when he was going to do something for someone. “I could get him one quite easily. You see, I’m a member of the hoard of trustees of a small but good school. As a matter of fact, I’m going to send Roger there next year.”

The room was very quiet and Ted’s voice was going on with just a trace ot hesitant embarrassment in it. “I happen to know there’s a scholarship open right now. I’ll recommend Lonny and the rest’s a formality. He could start in after the holidays.”

Mrs. Fraser stared at Aunt and Mr. Nickerson. Their faces were shining. “Well now—” said Mr. Nickerson, “—well now, Mr. Fraser, I guess you’ve given us just about the best Christmas present we ever had.”

He shouted up the stairs. “Lonny! Come down quick, Lonny! I guess you haven’t got to go out west after all.” Mrs. Fraser had a glimpse of Lonny’s face as he came clattering down—a radiant face, a face so happy that she had to turn away.

“No, sir,” said Mr. Nickerson in triumph, “you’re goin’ to school—to a good school—all on account of Mr. Fraser, here.”

The door to the dining room opened and Mrs. Nick stood there, plump and merry as a holiday cherub.

“Dinner’s on the table,” said she. “My land, what’s happened?”

Aunt swept to her feet in majesty. “Time enough to tell you later. I never knew a Christmas dinner to improve itself by settin’ around. Come on, folks. What you waitin’ for?” ★

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