Ten Little Toes.
IT was the twenty-third of December, a cold mist had been fall, ing, freezing as it fell, the sky was grey, and the short winter afternoon was fast growing into night. Up the straggling village street a little urchin was trudging along, not cheerily and with boyish whistling, but slowly and painfully, stopping every now and then to give a pull to the ragged woolen socks, which were all the covering his little feet possessed. The cobble-stone walk was slippery wiih the frozen sleet, and often the poor little chilled feet stumbled and hurt themselves cruelly ; but their owner was one of those pitiful examples of how even suffering can become expected, and he endured his bruises with a pathetic patience. After the row of cottages on each side of the inn-above the door of which swung the sign of the “ Half Moon ”-came the church, with its iron gates, open to-day, for busy hands were bringing holly and ivy, and laurel, to “ make beautiful the home of the Lord,” for the “ white day ” of the year. Beyond the church stretched the grass fields, and then the ivy-topped low stone wall of the village garden. Away and beyond that were rolling fields, and then at half a mile distance the great stone pillars and gates of “ The Cedars,” the residence of Mr. Fairbanks, the owner of the great mills in the hollow, where heavy machinery clattered and boomed from morning till night.
As the child passed the church he heard voices, and stopping a minute he looked throngh the grating, wondering dimly if the “ gentlefolks ever, ever starved in the cold.”
Mrs. Ellsmore, the Vicar’s wile, was coming out, her hands full of gleaming berries and shining leaves; she was talking pleasantly to the old sexton who was locking up the church.
“ Be sure and have a good fire in the vestry to-morrow, for we will be down early,” she was saying as they came through the gates ; “ and Andrew, take care of your rheumatism ; it is cold to-
“ Aye, madam, it do lie bitter cold, it’s loike snow,” and pulling his hair to the lady, Andrew shuffled off,
Turning quickly, Mrs. Ellsmore nearly stumbled over the crouching figure of the child, who had sat down to rest on the stone ledge outside the iron fence. “ Well, little boy, and who are you ?” she said, stopping a moment.
” ‘Oime Bobby, he answered, gazing into her face with the wistful look of some dumb animal.
Mrs. Ellsmore smiled.
“ Where do you live ?”
” Down there,” jerking his head towards the hollow.
“Oh, your father works in the mill ?”
” Na, he’s turned off; w’en the maister turned off the hands, father’s name was drawed.”
A shadow crept into the kind eyes watching him. it was the same old, pitiful story; how often she had heard it that winter. Trade was dull, and just as winter was coming on Mr. Fairbanks had closed a part of his mills and turned ofl half of his hands. They said when the news was told them a great cry went up from the men ; in an instant they saw what would follow-starvation for the wives and the little ones. Other mill owners had done the same, but others still had kept on their hands for the winter, only shortening the hours. Mr. Fairbanks was a just master but a hard one, and now many a brawny fist was shaken stealthily after him as his carriage rolled past the cottage windows. Mrs. Ellsmore thought of all this as she looked down into the little pinched face.
” Where are you going, child?” she asked, gently.
“ ’Oime come fur granny, the baby’s crying himself into fits, an’ mother doan’t know what ails it.”
“ Where does your granny live?”
” Down t’ lane. ’Oime getting stiff.” and he dragged himsclt up feebly.
” I should think you would get stiff sitting there, come home with me and get warm, and I’ll give you something for the baby, come-” and Mrs. Ellsmore held out her hand. ” Have you hurt yourself? ” she asked, as the child gave a sort of moan.
” ’Oime thinkin’ ’oime fast,” he said ruefully. ” 1 doan’t see as I can move on,” pointing to his feet. True enough, the poor little bare toes, damp with the misty fallen sleet, had frozen fast to the stone pavement.
Tears sprang to Mrs. Ellsmore’s eyes.
“ My poor child ! what are we to do ? ”
The child looked wonderingly at her-that this pretty lady, with her white hands, and soft warm furs and shining dress, should really cry for him, was something too extraordinary to be believed.
“I can get ’em off,” he said presently, ” but,” with a sudden thoughtfulness, “you mought turn yer head, mum, it’ll be some bloody ’oime thinkin’.”
Seeing he realty wished it, Mrs. Ellsmore turned away her head, waiting till the boy’s voice .1 little unsteady-said, ” Now mum.” Then.she knelt down quickly to bind up the little thin feet in her handkerchief, hastily torn in two.
A dog-cart rattled up quickly behind her, stopped, and a pleasant voice said:
What is the matter, Mrs. Ellsmore, can l help you? “
She raised her eyes gravely.
” See, Mr. Fairbanks, the child’s feet have frozen to the stones.”
“Oh, shocking ! ” and Mr. Fairbanks came to her side. ” He an’ walk in that state. Where does he live ? “
” He lives in ‘ the Hollow ’-his father worked in the mills,’ she said slowly. ” 1 was going to take him to the vicarage, and send a basket of food home with him, but now-“
Mr. Fairbanks beckoned to his groom :
” Here James, lift this boy up to the back seat, and hold on to him, ” don’t let him fall. Come, Mrs. Ellsmore, let me drive you and your protey/ to the vicarage. You say this boy’s father works in my mills ? ” he asked, as the horse trotted oil briskly.
” Did work there,” said Mrs. Ellsmore. ” He was one of the hands turned off this fall. Hunger and cold will keep Christmas in many a home this year,” she added sadly. She spoke half to herself, but Mr. Fairbanks heard, and frowned slightly.
‘• Good night, and thank you,” said Mrs. Ellsmore, holding out her hand at the door of the vicarage.
“James will take your patient home if you desire; I will send him right back from ” The Cedars.’ “
Mrs. Ellsmore shook her head, “No, thank you; I like to see lor my sell. Mr. Ellsmore will drive me over in the phar’on after. Good-night, again. Come Bob,” and she drew the boy gently into the warm, lighted hall.
Mr. Fairbanks was very grave and silent all that evening. His wife looked at him wonderingly from her end of the table, as he sent away dish after dish untasted. He seemed not even to hear the merry chatter of his children, who were eagerly discussing a ball to which they had just received invitations. He was very fond and proud of his handsome son and his pretty daughters, but tonight their laughter jarred upon him. Across the gleaming silver and glass, he saw the wan, pinched (ace of a child, the sparkling lights and beautiful hot-house flowers faded away, and he stood again under the cold grey sky in the village street, watching Mrs. Ellsmore as she bound up his little frozen feet. He had noticed a spot of blood on each of the ten little toes, he had counted them, he remembered, as he waited, smiling at himself for doing so. Now wherever he went, they seemed to follow him,
” Hunger and cold will keep Christmas in many a home,” Mrs. Ellsmore had said ; and whose work was this ? //is. For fear of losing a little, a very little of his great wealth, he was taking the bread from these starving children.
With the dessert came little Philip, the youngest, and his father’s pet; but that night even his prattle failed to rouse Mr. Fairbanks. He smoothed die boy’s curls absently; then the scene changed, and he fancied he saw Philip’s little white feet bare upon the stones. He brushed his hands across his eyes, where the slow tears had gathered.
When dinner was over, Mr. Fairbanks shut himself up in his ” office,” as he called the cosy little room where he read or wrote his letters. He took Philip with him. The flaxen-haired child was a strange counsellor for the wealthy mill owner to have; but when he had told him, in a few short sentences, all of little Bob’s story, as far as he knew it, the tearful blue eyes were raised to his, and the ehildish voice he loved so well, said, softly :
•’ Papa, dear, you have plenty ; give them some, and”-a little tower-” Saturday is Jesus’ birthday, you know’, papa.”
Mr. Fairbanks bowed his head, and touched the bright cuds with his lips. ” A little child shall lead them,” he said, softly.
Saturday being Christmas Day. the mill hands were to be paid on Friday night; and when the great bell clanged out the hour for closing, they all filed into the foreman’s room, where, behind the mass of shining coin, he sat waiting for them.
There was a little movement of surprise when they saw. waiting at a farther table, Mr. Fairbanks and his little son, Philip. The boy was looking, with bright, eager eyes, into the iaces of the men, leaning his head against his father’s shoulder the while.
The foreman said a word or two to each man as he paused before the desk; and, instead of passing out as usual, they all ranged themselves along the wall, with looks of doubtful expectancy.
The last man was paid, and there was a little hush. Then the doors at the end of the room slid back, and there, crowded together, gaunt and hungry-eyed, stood their former companions, the ” turned-off hands.”
Mr. Fairbanks rose.
” 1 have a word to say to you, my men,” he began. “ You have called me a hard master, because when trade was dull I turned off half of my hands. I had heard threats used, and some hard words said, and I was determined not to take any of you back ; but last night, on my way home from the station, I saw a little lad, not bigger than my boy here”-drawing Philip closer to him-” whose little feet, thrust through the torn socks that partly covered them, had frozen fast to the stones by the church gates. A lady was down on her knees binding them up with her handkerchief. No need to tell you who that was, my lads !”
” Na, na ! ‘Twor Parson’s missus,” said two or three together.
” Right; it was Mrs. Ellsmore-God bless her ! Well, my men, somehow I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and everywhere I went these little feet seemed to follow me; and at last those ten I little frozen toes walked straight into my heart, and wouldn’t let me shut the door again. I have only a few more words to say, my men. To-morrow, as you know, is Christmas Day ; I wish you would all go to church and hear what Mr. Ellsmore has to tell us about it. Then, at one o’clock, in the big room at the mill here, there will be long tables set, with plenty of roast beef and plumpudding for you and your wives and bairns, and if any of you have fathers and mothers, bring them with you, too. Now, lads, pass around here; my boy has chosen his Christmas present, and that is a crown-piece to give to each of you; but don’t spend it at the public.’ You, too,” and Mr. Fairbanks motioned to the men in the outer room. “ But first, Mr. Simpson,” turning to the | foreman, who was mending his quill unconcernedly-“ make your announcement, please.”
Mr. Simpson said, shrilly, ” I have only this to say: Mr. Fairbanks has ordered all the mills to be opened on Monday next, and as many of the old hands as wish to come back will be taken on full time.”
Little Philip lifting his blue eyes shyly to the bearded faces bent above him, gave a whispered “Merry Christmas!” with each silver coin, and many an answering voice was husky, and many a hard, rough hand gave the little white fingers a lingering, kindly pressure.
The courtyard was full of eager knots of men as Mr. Fairbanks came out, with little Philip clinging to his hand.
“This means bread for the little ‘uns!” said one, holding up Philip’s gift.
” ‘There’s neither bite nor sup at whoam,” said another.
“Aye, lads! but this is sure good news for Christmas,” said a third.
As Mr. Fairbanks put his foot upon the carriage step, a voice in the crowd cried out, “ A merry Christmas to Master, an’ God bless ’em, he’s a rare good un after a’.”
Mr. Fairbanks turned instantly- “ And a merry Christmas to you all, my men. Please God we’ll work and do our best to-
Such a cheer went up as the carriage rolled through the gates ! Mr. Fairbanks drew Philip closer to his heart. The ten little toes had ceased to haunt him now. They were clad in bright, warm clothing of Philip’s own, and little Bob’s father was carrying home good news to-night.
A happy evening was spent at “The Cedars,” but by-and-bye the house grew still. Twelve o’clock struck and Mr. Fairbanks left the letter he was writing, to go and open his window. How joyfully rang out the blessed Christmas belts! In the distance i he heard the voices of the ” Waits ”-” Christ was born in Bethlehem.”
The ground was white with newly fallen snow, a few flakes fell on his forehead like a benediction.
Nearer and nearer came the chanting voices, “ Peace on earth to men of good-will.”
He closed the window softly. ” Thank God for Christmas day,” he said.-[From the Christmas Xumber of The Daily Graphic