A CHRISTMAS GHOST I HAVE MET
It was the usual kind of a Christmas Eve. The snow was falling with its customary noiselessness, and the world was gradually taking on a mantle of white which made it look like a very attractive wedding-cake. It was upon this occasion that Old Bills materialized in my down-town study and got me out of a very unpleasant hole. The year had not been a very profitable one for me. My last book had been a comparative failure, having sold only 118,000 copies in the first six months, so that instead of receiving $60,000 in royalties on the first of November, as I had expected, I had fallen down to something like $47,000. There was a fraction of seven or eight hundred dollars—just what it was I cannot recall. Then my securities had, for one reason or another, failed to yield the customary revenue; some thirty or forty of my houses had not rented; taxes had increased—in short, I found myself at Christmas-time, with my wife and eight children expecting to be remembered, with less than $80,000 that I could spare in the bank.
To be sure, we had all agreed that this year we should avoid extravagance, and the little madame had informed me that she would be very unhappy if I expended more than $40,000 upon her present from myself. My daughter, too, like the sweet girl that she is, said, with a considerable degree of firmness, that she would rather have a check for $10,000 than the diamond necklace I had contemplated giving her; and my eldest son had sent word from college, in definite terms, that he didn’t think, in view of the hard times, he would ask for anything more than a new pair of wheelers for his drag, three hunters, a T cart, a silver chafing-dish set, and a Corot for his smoking-room.
This spirit, as I say, permeated the household—even the baby babbled of economy, and thought he could get along with ruby jackstones and a bag of cats’ eyes to play marbles with. But even thus, as the reader can see for himself, $80,000 would not go far, and I was in despair. There is no greater trial in the world than that confronting a generously disposed father who suddenly finds himself at Christmas time without the means to carry out his wishes and to provide his little ones with the gifts which their training has justified them in expecting.
I was seated alone in my office, not having the courage to go home and tell my family of the horrid state of affairs, or, rather, putting off the evil hour, for ultimately the truth would have to be told. It was growing dark. Outside I could hear the joyous hum of the busy streets; the clanging of the crowded cable-cars, going to and fro, bearing their holiday burden of bundle-laden shoppers, seemed to sound musically and to tell of peace and goodwill. Even the cold, godless world of commerce seemed to warm up with the spirit of the hour. I alone was in misery, at a moment when peace and happiness and good-will were the watchwords of humanity. My distress increased every moment as I conjured up before my mind’s eye the picture of the coming morn, when my children and their mother, in serene confidence that I would do the right thing by them, should find the tree bare of presents, and discover, instead of the usual array of bonds and jewels, and silver services, and horses and carriages, and rich furs, and priceless books (the baby had cut his teeth the year before on the cover of the Grolier edition of Omar Khayyam, which, at a cost of $600, I had given him, bound in ivory and gold, with carbuncles adorning the back and the title set in brilliants)—discover, instead of these, I say, mere commonplace presents possessing no intrinsic worth—why, it was appalling to think of their disappointment! To be sure, I had purchased a suit of Russian sables for madam, and had concealed a certified check for $25,000 in the pocket of the dolman, but what was that in such times, hard as they were!
And you may imagine it was all exquisitely painful to me. Then, on a sudden, I seemed not to be alone. Something appeared to materialize off in the darker corner of the study. At first I thought it was merely the filming over of my eyes with the moisture of an incipient and unshed tear, but I was soon undeceived, for the thing speedily took shape, and a rather unpleasant shape at that, although there was a radiant kindliness in its green eyes.
“Who are you?” I demanded, jumping up and staring intently at the apparition, my hair meanwhile rising slightly.
“I’m Dr. Bills,” was the response, in a deep, malarial voice, as the phantom, for that is all it was, approached me. “I’ve come to help you out of your troubles,” it added, rather genially.
“Ah? Indeed!” said I. “And may I ask how you know I am in trouble?”
“Certainly you may,” said the old fellow. “We ghosts know everything.”
“Then you are a ghost, eh?” I queried, although I knew mighty well at the moment I first saw him that he was nothing more, he was so transparent and misty.
“At your service,” was the reply, as my unexpected visitor handed me a gelatinouslooking card, upon which was engraved the following legend:
* U. P. BILLS, M.D., *
“The Spook Philanthropist.” *
* Troubles Cured While You Wait. *
“Ah!” said I, as I read it. “You’ll find me a troublesome patient, I am afraid. Do you know what my trouble is?”
“Certainly I do,” said Bills. “You’re a little short and your wife and children have expectations.”
“Precisely,” said I. “And here is Christmas on top of us and nothing for the tree except a few trifling gems and other things.”
“Well, my dear fellow,” said the kindly visitant, “if you’ll intrust yourself to my care I’ll cure you in a jiffy. There never was a case of immediate woe that I couldn’t cure, but you’ve got to have confidence in me.”
“Sort of faith cure, eh?” I smiled.
“Exactly,” he replied. “If you don’t believe in Old Bills, Old Bills cannot relieve your distress.”
“But what do you propose to do, Doctor?” I asked. “What is your course of treatment?”
“That’s my business,” he retorted. “You don’t ask your family physician to outline his general plan to you when you summon him to treat you for gout, do you?”
“Well, I generally like to know more of him than I know of you,” said I, apologetically, for I had no wish to offend him. “For instance, are you allopath, or a homoeopath, or some hitherto untrodden path?”
“Something of a homoeopath,” he admitted.
“Then you cure trouble with trouble?” I asked, rather more pertinently, as the event showed, than I imagined.
“I cure trouble with ease,” he replied glibly. “You may accept or reject my services. It’s immaterial to me.”
“I don’t wish to seem ungrateful, Doctor,” said I, seeing that the old spook was growing a trifle irritated. “I certainly most gratefully accept. What do you want me to do?”
“Go home,” he said, laconically.
“But the empty tree?” I demanded.
“Will not be empty to-morrow morning,” said he, and he vanished.
I locked my study door and started to walk home, first stopping at the cafe down-stairs and cashing a check for $60,000. I had confidence in Old Bills, but I thought I would provide against possible failure; and I had an idea that on the way up-town I might perhaps find certain little things to please, if not satisfy, the children, which could be purchased for that sum. My surmise was correct, for, while Old Bills did his work, as will soon be shown, most admirably, I had no difficulty in expending the $60,000 on simple little things really worth having, between Pine Street and Forty-second. For instance, as I passed along Union Square I discovered a superb pair of pearl hat-pins which I knew would please my second daughter, Jenny, because they were just suited to the immediate needs of the talking doll she had received from her aunt on her birthday. They were cheap little pins, but as I paid down the $1,800 they cost in crisp hundred dollar bills they looked so stunningly beautiful that I wondered if, after all, they mightn’t prove sufficient for little Jenny’s whole Christmas, if Bills should fail. Then I met poor old Hobson, who has recently met reverses. He had an opera-box for sale for $2,500, and I bought it for Martha, my third daughter, who, though only seven years old, frequently entertains her little school friends with all the manner of a woman of fashion. I felt that the opera-box would please the child, although it was not on the grand tier. I also killed two birds with one stone by taking a mortgage for $10,000 on Hobson’s house, by which I not only relieved poor old Hobson’s immediate necessities, but, by putting the mortgage in my son Jimmy’s stocking, enriched the boy as well. So it went. By the time I reached home the $60,000 was spent, but I felt that, brought up as they had been, the children would accept the simple little things I had brought home to them in the proper spirit. They were, of course, cheap, but my little ones do not look at the material value of their presents. It is the spirit which prompts the gift that appeals to them—Heaven bless ’em! I may add here, too, that my little ones did not even by their manner seem to grudge that portion of the $60,000 spent which their daddy squandered on his immediate impulses, consisting of a nickel extra to a lad who blacked his boots, thirty cents for a cocktail at the club, and a dime to a beggar who insisted on walking up Fifth Avenue with him until he was bought off with the coin mentioned—a species of blackmail which is as intolerable as it is inevitable on all fashionable thoroughfares.
But their delight as well as my own on the following morning, when the doctor’s fine work made itself manifest, was glorious to look upon. I frankly never in my life saw so magnificent a display of gifts, and I have been to a number of recent millionaire weddings, too. To begin with, the most conspicuous thing in the room was the model of a steam yacht which Old Bills had provided as the family gift to myself. It was manifest that the yacht could not be got into the house, so Bills had had the model sent, and with it the information that the yacht itself was ready at Cramp’s yard to go into commission whenever I might wish to have it. It fairly took my breath away. Then for my wife was a rope of pearls as thick as a cable, and long enough to accommodate the entire week’s wash should the laundress venture to borrow it for any such purpose. All the children were fitted out in furs; there were four gold watches for the boys, diamond tiaras and necklaces of pearls and brilliant rings for the girls. My eldest son received not only the horses and carriages and the Corot he wanted, but a superb gold-mounted toilet set, and a complete set of golf clubs, the irons being made of solid silver, the shafts of ebony, with a great glittering diamond set in the handle of each; these all in a caddy bag of sealskin, the fur shaved off. There was a charming little naphtha launch and a horseless carriage for Jimmy, and, as for the baby, it was very evident that Old Bills had a peculiarly tender spot in his ghostly makeup for children. I doubt if the finest toyshops of Paris ever held toys in greater variety or more ingenious in design. There were two armies of soldiers made of aluminum which marched and fought like real little men, a band of music at the head of each that discoursed the most stirring music, cannons that fired real shot—indeed, all the glorious panoply of war was there in miniature, lacking only blood, and I have since discovered that even this was possible, since every one of the little soldiers was so made that his head could be pulled off and his body filled with red ink. Then there was a miniature office building of superb architectural design, with little steam elevators running up and down, and throngs of busy little creatures, manipulated by some ingenious automatic arrangement, rushing hither and thither like mad, one and all seemingly engaged upon some errand of prodigious commercial import. Another delightful gift for the baby was a small opera-house, and a complete troupe of little wax prime donne, and zinc tenors, and brass barytones, with patent removable chests, within which small phonographs worked so that the little things sang like so many music-boxes, while in the chairs and boxes and galleries were matinee girls and their escorts and their bonnets and their enthusiastic applause—truly I never dreamed of such magnificent things as Old Bills provided for the occasion. He had indeed got me out of my immediate difficulty, and when I went to bed that night, after the happiest Christmas I had ever known, I called down the richest blessings upon his head; and why, indeed, should I not? We had between $400,000 and $500,000 worth of presents in the house, and they had not cost me a penny, outside of the $60,000 I had spent on the way up-town, and what could be more conducive to one’s happiness than such a Yuletide Klondike as that?
This was many years ago, dear reader, before the extravagant methods of the present day crept into and somewhat poisoned the Christmas spirit, but from that day to this Old Bills has never ceased to haunt me. He has been my constant companion from that glorious morning until to-day, when I find myself telling you of him, and, save at the beginning of every recurring month, when I am always very busy and somewhat anxious about making ends meet, his society is never irksome. Once you get used to Bills he becomes a passion, and were it not for his singular name I think I should find him a constant source of joy.
It rather dampened my ardor, I must confess, when I found that the initials of the good old doctor, U. P., stood for Un Paid, but if you can escape the chill and irksomeness of that there is no reason why the poorest of us all may not derive much real joy in life from the good things we can get through Bills.
In justice to the readers of this little tale, I should perhaps say, in conclusion, that I read it to my wife before sending it out, and she asserts that it was all a dream, because she says she never received that rope of pearls. To which I retorted that she deserved to, anyhow—but, dream or otherwise, the visitation has truly been with me for many years, and I fear the criticism of my spouse is somewhat prompted by jealousy, for she has stated in plain terms that she would rather go without Christmas than see me constantly haunted by Bills; but, after all, it is a common condition, and it does help one at Christmas time in an era when the simple observance of the season, so characteristic of the olden time, has been superseded by a lavish expenditure which would bring ruin to the richest of us were it not for the benign influence of Bills, M.D.
Over the Plum-Pudding, John Kendrick Bangs, 1901
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Another holiday amusement from John Kendrick Bangs, author of that Christmas ghost story classic, “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall.”