How Sweetie's Ship Came In,

A Christmas Story by Margaret Field

IT will be a real honest story—of how Christmas came to a poor cold home, and made it bright, and warm, and glad. A very poor home it was, up three flights of worm-eaten, dirt-stained stairs, in the old gray house that stood far up a narrow, crooked alley, where the sun never shone except just a while in the middle of the day. He tried hard to brighten up the place a little, but the tall houses all about prevented him. Still he slanted a few golden beams even into that wretched home away up under the eaves; for though the few small panes of glass in the narrow windows had been mostly broken out, and their places filled with boards nailed tight to keep out the wintry winds, and rain, and snow, still there were some left through which a feeble ray did sometimes creep and make glad the hearts of the children. Five fatherless children lived with their mother in that old garret. Night and day the mother sewed, taking scarcely any rest, and yet found it hard to keep all the little toes and knees covered, and could get only the poorest food for the five hungry mouths. The thought that, work never so hard, she could not earn enough to give them one hearty, satisfying meal, made her heart ache.

Three boys and two girls, in one old naked room, with only their mother to care for them, and she so poor, that for years she had not had a new gown, or a new bonnet! Yet she liked pretty new clothes, as well as any one ever did, I know.

Of these five little folks, the oldest was Harry, the newsboy; then came Katie, and Willie, and Fred, and, last of all, wee Jennie.

Though Harry was the oldest, yet he was not very old. Just twelve—a thin, white little fellow, with eyes that always looked as if they wanted more. More what? Well, more sunshine; more warm clothes, and bright, hot fires, and, O, very much more to eat! Sometimes he would make fifty cents in a day, selling newspapers, and then he would hurry joyfully home, thinking of the hungry little mouths it would help to fill. But some days he would hardly earn ten cents the whole long day. Then he would go slowly and sadly along, wishing all sorts of things—that he could take home as much meat as he could carry to the little ones who had not eaten meat for so long they had almost forgotten how it tasted; or that the gentlemen, who owned the clothing stores which he was passing, would say to him, “Come in, my little fellow, and help yourself to as many warm clothes as you want for yourself and your little brothers at home;” or that he could find a heap of money—and his mouth would water, thinking of the good things which he could buy and take home with some of it.

The other children always knew whether it had been a good or bad day with Harry, by the way he came up the stairs. If he came with a hop, skip, and a jump, they knew it meant a good day; and a good day for Harry was a good evening for them all.

Though Katie was really the name of the second child, she hardly ever was called so; for her mother, and the children, and all the neighbors, called her Sweetie, she was so good and so thoughtful for others, so sweet-tempered and kind. She did everything so gently that  none of them could ever love her half as much as she deserved. Though only ten years old, and very small and pale, she did every bit of the housework, and kept the ugly old room and its faded furniture so neat, that it seemed almost home-like and pretty to them all. It was happiness enough for the little ones to get her first kiss when she came back from an errand, to sit by her at table, and, above all, to lie closest to her at night. Willie, and Fred, and Jennie, all slept with her on a straw bed in the corner; and they used to try to stretch her little arms over them all, so that even the one farthest off might feel the tips of her fingers, so dearly did they love her.

They had once owned more than one bedstead, and many other comfortable things besides; but when their father was killed at the great factory where he worked, their mother was obliged to sell almost everything to get enough money to pay for his funeral, and to help support her little family; so that now she had only a narrow wooden settee for her bed, while Harry stretched himself on a couple of chairs, and the rest slept all together in the bed on the floor. Poor as they were, they were not very unhappy. Almost every night, when their mother took the one dim candle all to herself, so that she could see to sew neatly, Sweetie would amuse the other children by telling them beautiful stories about the little flower people, and the good fairies, and about Kriss Kringle—though how she knew about him I can’t tell, for he never came down their chimney at Christmas.

“And, when my ship comes in,” Sweetie used to say, “I’ll have the tallest and handsomest Christmas tree, filled to the top with candies and toys, and lighted all over with different-colored candles, and we’ll sing and dance round it. Let’s begin now, and get our voices in tune.” Then they would all pipe up as loud as they could, and were as happy as if they half believed Sweetie’s ship was ready to land.

But there came a hard year for poor needle-women: it was the year I am writing about, and Sweetie’s mother found it almost impossible to get even the necessaries of life. Her children’s lips were bluer, their faces more pinched, and thin, threadbare clothes more patched than ever. Sweetie used to take the two boys, and hunt in the streets for bits of coal and wood; but often, the very coldest days, they would have no fire. It was very hard to bear, and especially for the poor mother, who still had to toil on, though she was so chilled, and her hands so numbed, she could hardly draw her needle through her work; and for Harry, who trudged through the streets from daylight until the street lamps were lighted.

The day before Christmas came. People were so busy cooking Christmas dainties that they did not stop to sift their cinders very carefully, and Sweetie and the boys had picked up quite a large bag full of half-burnt coal in the alleys, and were carrying it home as carefully as if it were a great treasure—as, indeed, it was to them. Being very tired, they sat down to rest on the curbstone in front of an elegant mansion. One of the long windows was open.

“Let’s get close up under the window,” said Sweetie. “I guess it’s too warm inside, and may be we shall get some of the heat. O! O! don’t it smell good?” she cried, as the savory odors of the Christmas cooking stole out upon the air.

“What is it, Sweetie?” whispered Willie.

“Coffee,” said Sweetie, “and turkeys, and jelly, perhaps.”

“I wish I had some,” sighed Freddy, “I’m so cold and hungry!”

“Poor little man! he must come and  sit in Sweetie’s lap; that will make him warmer,” said his sister, wrapping her shawl around him.

“Yes; that’s nice,” said the little fellow, hugging her tight.

Mr. Rogers, the owner of this fine house, had lost his wife and two dear children within the year. He lived here alone, with his servants, and was very desolate. When the children stopped under his window, he was lying on a velvet sofa near it, and, lifting himself up, he peeped out from behind the curtains just as Fred crept into his sister’s arms; and he heard all they said.

“When your ship comes in, Sweetie, will it have turkeys and jellies in it?” said Willie, leaning against her.

“Yes, indeed,” said Sweetie. “There will be turkeys almost as big as Jennie, and a great deal fatter.”

“But it’s so long coming, Sweetie; you tell us every time it will come, and it never comes at all.”

“O, no, Freddy. I don’t ever say it will come, but it’s nice to think what we would do if it should come—isn’t it?”

“We’d buy a great white house, like this—wouldn’t we, Sweetie?”

“No, Willie. I’d rather buy that nice little store over by the church, that’s been shut up so long, and has FOR SALE on the door. I’d furnish it all nice, and fill the shelves with beautiful goods, and trimmings for ladies’ dresses, and lovely toys. It shows so far that everybody would be sure to buy their Christmas things there. It’s just the dearest little place, with two cosy rooms back of the shop, and three overhead; and I’d put flour and sugar, and tea and coffee, and all sorts of goodies, in the kitchen cupboard, and new clothes for all of us in the closets up stairs. Then I’d kindle a fire, and light the lamps, and lock the door, and go back to the dreary old garret once more—poor mother would be sitting there, sad and sober, as she always is now, and I would say to her, ‘Come, mother, before you light the candle, Jennie and I want you to go with us, and look at the lovely Christmas gifts in the shop windows.’ Then she’d say, sorrowfully, ‘I don’t want to see them, dear; I can’t buy any of them for you, and I don’t want to look at them.’ But I’d tease her till I made her go; and I’d leave Harry, who would know all about it beforehand, to lock up the dismal old room, and bring all the rest of you over to the new house. You’d get there long before we did, and the light would be streaming out from the little shop windows—O, so bright! ‘Mother,’ I’d say, ‘let’s go in here, and buy the cotton you wanted;’ and when I got her in, I’d shut the door quick, and dance up and down, and say, ‘Dear mother. Sweetie’s ship’s come in, and brought you this new home, and everything comfortable; and Sweetie will tend the shop, and you needn’t sew any more day and night, for it’s going to be—’ ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for us—every one!’ Harry and all of you would shout, and our dear mother would cry for joy.”

“Will it come to pass soon, Sweetie?” asked both the boys at once.

“Not very, I’m afraid,” answered Sweetie, in a subdued tone; but, when she saw their look of disappointment, she brightened up in a moment, and added, “It’ll be all the better, when it does come, for waiting so long—but look here! To-night is Christmas Eve, and we’ve got coal enough here to make a splendid fire. We won’t light it till dark, and then it will last us all the evening. And I’ve got a great secret to tell you: Harry made a whole dollar yesterday, and mother is going to give us each three big slices of fried mush, and bread besides, for supper; and, after supper, I’ll tell you the prettiest story you ever heard, and we’ll sing  every song we know, and I guess we’ll have a merry Christmas if nobody else does.”

Sweetie and two of the boys outside in the cold

HOW SWEETIE’S SHIP CAME IN.

“I wish it was Christmas all the time,” said Freddy, faintly.

“Christ was born that day,” said Sweetie, softly, “and that makes it best of all.”

“Yes,” said Willie; “the dear Lord who came from Heaven and, for our sakes, became poor, and had not where to lay his head, not even a garret as good as ours—”

“I know,” said Freddy; “he was born in a manger, and a beautiful star shined right over it. I can sing a hymn about it.”

Then they picked up their bag, and started for home, gay as larks over the prospect of the treat they were to have that night—fried mush and a fire! that was all, you know.

Mr. Rogers, concealed by the heavy silk curtains, had heard every word they said, and his eyes were full of tears. He rang for his servant.

“Harris,” said he, when the man came in, “follow those children, find out where they live, and what their neighbors say of the family.”

When he was left alone again, he began to think,—

“Rich as I am, I have never yet done any great good to anybody. Who knows but God may have sent those children under my window to teach me that, instead of my own lost darlings, he means me to care for these and other suffering little ones who live in the lanes and alleys of this great city!”

Harris soon came back, and told his master what he had learned about the circumstances of the family; and he added,—

“Everybody calls the oldest girl Sweetie, and they do say she’s as good as gold.”

Mr. Rogers went out, and, before night, had bought the little corner store, for which Sweetie had longed. Then, calling his servants together, he related what he had overheard the children say, and told them how anxious he was to grant Sweetie’s wish, and let her take her mother to her new home on Christmas Day.

“But I cannot do it,” said Mr. Rogers, “unless you are willing to help me work on Christmas Eve, for there is a great deal to be done.”

No one could refuse to aid in so good a cause; and besides, Mr. Rogers was always so considerate of his servants that they were glad to oblige him. They all went to work with a will, and soon the little house and store were put in perfect order.

There were ribbons, laces, buttons, needles, pins, tapes, and, indeed, all sorts of useful things in the store. In the cellar were coal and wood, two whole hams, a pair of chickens, and a turkey. The kitchen pantry was stocked with sugar and flour. There was one barrel of potatoes, and another of the reddest apples. Up stairs the closets and bureaus were bursting with nice things to wear, not quite made into garments, but ready to be made, as soon as Sweetie and her mother got time.

So rapidly and so completely was everything arranged, that it seemed as if one of those good fairies, of whom Sweetie had so often told the children, had been at work.

“The money this has cost me,” thought Mr. Rogers, “will make a family of six happy, and do them good all the rest of their lives. I am glad the thought has come to my heart to celebrate Christ’s birthday in so pleasant a way.”

Late in the afternoon he picked his way through the dull, dirty alley to the old gray house where Sweetie lived. As he went up the worn and dusty stairway, he heard the children singing their Christmas songs.

 “Poor little things!” said he; and the tears stood in his eyes. “Happy even in this miserable place, while I know so many surfeited with luxuries, and yet pining and discontented!”

Harry jumped to open the door as he knocked; and Mr. Rogers, entering, apologized to the children’s mother for his intrusion by saying he had come to ask a favor.

“It is but little we can do for any one, sir,” replied Mrs. Lawson; “but anything in our power will be cheerfully done.”

“Even if I propose to carry off this little girl of yours for a while?” he asked; but, seeing the troubled look in the other children’s faces, he hastened to explain.

“The truth is,” said he, “having no little folks of my own, I thought I’d try and make other people’s happy to-day; so I set out to get up a Christmas tree; but I find I don’t know how to go to work exactly, and I want Sweetie to help me.”

He spoke so sadly when he said he had no children of his own, that Sweetie could not refuse to go.

“O, yes, sir,” said she; “I’ll go; that is, if I may come back this evening—for I couldn’t disappoint Freddy and all of them, you know!”

“They shan’t be disappointed, I promise you,” said Mr. Rogers, as he took her down stairs.

“Why, I never was in a carriage in all my life,” said Sweetie, as he lifted her into his beautiful clarence, and sat down beside her.

“I shouldn’t wonder if you should ride in a carriage pretty often now,” said Mr. Rogers, “for your ship’s coming in.”

Sweetie couldn’t tell whether she was in a dream or not. Half crying, half laughing, her face flushed with surprise, she asked,—

“How did you know?”

“Know what?” said her friend, enjoying her bewilderment.

“Why,” she answered, “about the way I keep up the children’s spirits, and make them forget they are hungry and cold, while I tell them about my ship coming in?”

“A little bird told me,” said he, and then was quiet.

Sweetie did not like to ask any more; so she sat quite still, leaning back in one corner of the carriage, among the soft, crimson cushions, and watched the people in the street, thinking how happy she was, and how strange it was that little Katie Lawson should be riding with a grand gentleman in a splendid carriage!

Suddenly, with a whirl and a turn, they stopped before a house. Mr. Rogers lifted her out, and led her up the broad steps; and she found he was taking her into the beautiful white house, under the windows of which she had sat with Willie and Fred the day before.

“Now,” said Mr. Rogers, rolling a comfortable arm-chair for Sweetie in front of a glowing fire, “while you are getting warm, and eating your dinner, I am going to tell you about my Christmas tree, and how your ship came in.”

A little table was brought in, and set between them, filled with so many delicacies, that Sweetie’s head grew dizzy at the sight. She thought of her little hungry brothers and sister, and would rather not have eaten, but Mr. Rogers made her.

“My little girl,” said he, finally, “never forget this: God always rewards a faithful heart. If he seems to be a long time without caring for his children, he never forgets or forsakes them.”

Then he told her that he had overheard her conversation with her brothers under his window, and that God had suddenly put it into his heart to take care of some of the poor and fatherless in that great city. “And I am going to begin with  Sweetie,” said he, very tenderly; “and this is the way her ship shall come in. She shall have a new home to give to her mother for a Christmas present, and the boys shall sing their Christmas hymns to-night in the bright little parlor of the corner store, instead of the dingy old garret; and here are the deeds made out in Katie Lawson’s own name, and nobody can take it away from her. But come, little woman,” he added,—for Sweetie was sobbing for joy, and could not thank him,—“go and wash your face, for the horses are tired of standing in the cold, and we must go and fetch the boys, or I shall never get my Christmas tree set up.”

An old lady, with a face beaming with kindness,—it was Mr. Rogers’s housekeeper,—then took Sweetie, and not only washed her tear-stained cheeks, but curled her soft brown hair, and put on her the loveliest blue dress, with boots to match. All the time she was dressing her, Sweetie, who could not believe her senses, kept murmuring,—

“It’s only a dream; it’s too good to be true; the boys won’t believe it, I know; it’s just like a fairy story, and, of course, it’s only pretending.”

“No, indeed,” said the old lady; “it’s really true, my dear, and I hope you’ll be so grateful and kind to Mr. Rogers that he won’t be so lonely as he has been without his own dear little children.”

Sweetie could hardly realize her own good fortune; and, when she went down into the parlor, she burst into tears again, saying,—

“O, sir, I can’t believe it. I am so happy!”

“So am I, Sweetie,” said Mr. Rogers; and really it was hard to tell which was the happier—it is always so much more blessed to give than to receive. Together they rode to the new home, and laughed and cried together as they went all over it. After they had been up stairs, and down stairs, and in my lady’s chamber, as Mr. Rogers said, he put her into the carriage again.

“James,” said he to the coachman, “you are under this young lady’s orders to-night, and must drive carefully.”

Then, kissing Sweetie, he put the key of her new home into her hand, and, telling her he should want her help to-morrow about his Christmas tree, he bade her good night.

James drove Sweetie home, for the last time, to the dilapidated old house. She ran up stairs, Freddy said afterwards, “just as Harry always did when he’d had a good day.” “Mother and children,” said she, “Mr. Rogers, the kind gentleman who was here, has sent me back in his carriage to take you all to see something beautiful he has been showing me. Harry, you be the gentleman of the house, and hand mother and Jennie to the carriage, and I’ll come right along.” She stopped long enough—this good child, who, even in her own good fortune, did not forget the misfortunes of others—to run into the next room, where an old woman lived, who was a cripple, and whose daughter supported her by sewing.

“Mrs. Jones,” said she, hurriedly, “a kind gentleman has given us a new home, and we are going to it to-night, never to come back here to live any more. Our old room, with the rent paid for a year, and all there is in it, I want you to take as a Christmas present from Sweetie; and I wish you a Happy, happy New Year, and please give this to Milly;” and, slipping a five-dollar bill, which Mr. Rogers had given her, into the old woman’s hand, she ran out, and jumped into the carriage. The street lamps blinked at them, like so many stars, as they rolled along, and the boys and Jennie screamed with delight; but Sweetie sat quite still.

 James knew where to stop. Sweetie got out first, and ran and unlocked the door of the little corner store. When they were all inside, and before any one had time to ask a question, Sweetie threw her arms about her mother’s neck.

“Mother,” she cried, “Sweetie’s ship’s come in; but it never would have come if it had not been for Mr. Rogers; and it’s brought you this pretty house and shop for your own, and, please God, we’ll all have—”

“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” shouted Willie, ending her sentence just as she had ended the story the day before.

“And all the better,” said Fred, who remembered too, “because Christ was born that day.”

Mrs. Lawson, overwhelmed with joy, fainted. She soon recovered, however, though Sweetie insisted on her lying on the soft lounge before the fire, while she set the table. How pretty it looked, with its six purple and white plates, and cups and everything to match! How they did eat! How happy they were!

“Now,” said Mrs. Lawson, when the dishes were washed, and they all sat round the fire, “my little Sweetie, whose patience, and courage, and cheerfulness have kept up the hearts of the rest of us, and proved the ship that has brought us this cargo of comforts, you must tell us your Christmas story before we go to bed.”

So Sweetie told them all Mr. Rogers had said and done for her. They were so excited they sat up very late, and happiness made them sleep so soundly, that they did not wake till the sun was shining brightly into the little shop. People began to come in very early, to make little purchases. One lady bought a whole dollar’s worth of toys, which made them feel as if they were full of business already.

Later in the forenoon, Mr. Rogers sent for Harry and Sweetie to come and help dress his Christmas tree; and Christmas night his parlor was filled with poor children, for each of whom some useful gift hung on the tree. Milly was there by Sweetie’s invitation, and Mr. Rogers sent her home in his carriage, with the easiest chair that money could buy for her old lame mother. The tears filled his eyes as Milly thanked him again and again for all his kindness; and, as he shut the door after the last one, he said,—

“Hereafter I will make it always a Merry Christmas for God’s needy ones.”

I am sure he did, for he had Sweetie always near him. He used to call her his “Christmas Sweeting;” and then she would laugh, and say he was her “Golden Sweeting.”

What is better than gold he gave the family: he found patrons for Mrs. Lawson, and customers for the shop, and placed Harry in a mercantile house, where he soon rose to be head clerk. The other children he put at school. Sweetie he never would let go very far out of his sight. He had her thoroughly and usefully educated, and no less than her mother, and brothers, and sister, did he bless the day when “Sweetie’s ship came in”—

A ship which brought for every day
A welcome hope, an added joy,
A something sweet to do or say,
And hosts of pleasures unalloyed,
Its cargo, made of pleasant cares,
Of daily duties to be done,
Of smiles and laughter, songs and prayers,
The glad, bright life of Happy Ones.