Mr. Bixby's Christmas Visitor

by Charles S. Gage

At the head of the first flight of stairs, and on opposite sides of the landing, were the respective rooms of Mr. Bixby and Mr. Bangs. The house in which they lived stood in a quiet and retired street on the lower and western side of New York, a locality which was once inhabited by fashionable families, afterward by old-fashioned families, and at the time of our story by the keepers of boarding-houses for single men.

Mr. Henry Bixby and Mr. Alfred Bangs were single men—Mr. Bangs, the wine-merchant, because he liked wine and song so well that he never had leisure to think of women, because he was fat, because he was red in the face, and, if more reasons are necessary, because his fingers were chubby and short. For twenty years, day by day, Mr. Bangs had been absorbed in business. For twenty years, night after night, it had been his custom to entertain his friends at his apartment in not a very quiet way. He was so happy, and bulbous, and jolly, that he had never thought of marriage. Yet he might easily have been mistaken by the casual observer for a family man. He wore a white vest when it wasn’t too cold; his linen was painfully plain. There was not a sign of jewelry about him. He wore low shoes, which he tied with a ribbon. This was Mr. Bangs.

Not quite so old in years as the opposite lodger was Mr. Bixby, known to his few friends as a genial philosopher and poet, to the public as the literary critic of one of the great daily papers. He might have been thirty-five years of age, but, as he had lived more for others than for himself, as he had made a study and not a pleasure of life, his gray eyes and the other features of his face suggested to whoever met him a longer past. There was something about him that caused men to wonder, not what he was, but what he had been.

For ten years Mr. Bangs and Mr. Bixby had been inmates of the house together. Mr. Bangs had been there longer. The present landlady had received as a legacy from her predecessor, who did not care to take him away, Mr. Bangs. As she said, she made a present of Bangs.

Long as they had known each other, the two lodgers were only acquaintances. Sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, they would walk out in company, stroll down to the Battery, and there smoke their cigars and watch the ships, but beyond this point of sociability, which neither enjoyed, there was nothing more. Never had Bixby read Bangs any poem he had made, nor did ever Bangs invite Bixby to meet his convivial friends of an evening to play whist or to partake of his mulled ale. In fact, Mr. Bixby had been often and with great enthusiasm voted an unsocial fellow by the cronies of Mr. Bangs, but he rose somewhat in their estimation when they were informed that he had consented to exchange rooms with their host.

“He isn’t such a grouty fellow, after all,” said Bangs. “I told him that we were too near the street, and that some one had been complaining to the landlady of our singing. He didn’t even stop to think, but agreed to do it at once. He thought the light would be better here. Now, fellows, I call that doing the fair thing.”

And the speech of Mr. Bangs was applauded.

It was the morning of the day before Christmas that the change was effected. In the closet where had been the bottles, the decanters, glasses, and pickle-jars of the late occupant, Mr. Bixby had arranged shelves, and filled them with his books. Over the mantel, from which Mr. Bangs had taken away a colored print of a bull-dog in an overcoat, Mr. Bixby hung a fine engraving of the Madonna, and on the mantel itself he had placed his clock. It was a small French clock under a crystal, so that its rapidly-swinging pendulum could be easily seen. All bachelors, however negligent of their surroundings, have some one hobby among articles of furniture. It may be an easy-chair, or a book-case, or a chandelier—there is one thing that must be the best of its kind. There could be no doubt, from the care with which Mr. Bixby placed his clock in its position, and from time to time compared it with his watch, that this was his hobby. It had the three requisites which he demanded in a clock. It kept correct time without failing, its pendulum swung rapidly, and was plainly visible. Time past was the happiness of Mr. Bixby, and this clock told him continually that all was being done that could be done to induce the hours of every day to go over to the majority. He depended upon this clock. He was surer of its mechanism than of that of his own heart.

What with hanging his pictures and arranging his furniture, and with many other little things which had to be done, Mr. Bixby was busily employed all day. But the task was not an unpleasant one. His heart was in the work, for there was hardly an object in the room not nearly associated with some event in his past life. After carefully brushing the dust from an old writing-desk, which had evidently once belonged to a lady, he placed it upon the rug in front of the fire. Only on Christmas-eves was this desk opened.

“It is curious,” thought Mr. Bixby, “that I should have moved this day, of all days in the year!”

Often in his work he thought of stopping to take from the desk an old packet of letters, and reading them once more. But it was not yet time, and, moreover, he was continually interrupted. First, there came some one to his door with “Two dozen Congress-water for Mr. Bangs;” then one with “Mr. Bangs’s boots,” and another to tell Mr. Bangs that “the pup was big enough to take away.” Finally, came Bangs himself, to complain of like interruptions, and to bid him good-by.

“Here is some manuscript a boy left for you. You will have to attend both doors now. I am off to spend Christmas. We are going to have a Tom-and-Jerry party in Jersey. You know—

“‘The Tom-and-Jerry days have come, the happiest in the year!’

“Good rendering, eh? That isn’t all:

“‘I only wish to live till the juleps come again!’”

And Mr. Bangs laughed uproariously, even after he had said, “Good-by,” and shut the door behind him.

“What a personification of Bacchus!” thought Mr. Bixby—

“‘Ever laughing, ever young.’

“He will be young as long as he lives, but I am afraid that won’t be long. If ever there was a man in immediate danger of apoplexy, Bangs is that man.”

It was after dinner when Mr. Bixby lighted his drop-light and sat down before the fire. He pushed an ottoman in front of him, on which to rest his feet, which he had comfortably encased in his slippers. But the shadows in his new room did not please him. He could hardly see the clock on the mantel. The Madonna above was completely in the shade. So he lighted the chandelier above and sat down again, hoping that no friend, either of his own or of Mr. Bangs, would interrupt him. The desk was open at his feet. The package of letters lay near him on the table. He placed his hand upon them, but let it rest there. The hour had not quite arrived when he would read them. He fell again into the reveries of the day. He lingered over the thoughts of his better life ere he opened the packet which told of its end. For the last ten years he had labored without ambition, and had been successful. His name was well known as a journalist, and his salary was ample. Before that time he had striven ambitiously, but fruitlessly, patiently, but as in a quicksand, until, on a day, he had none to strive for but himself, and then success had come. Since noon, seven hours and twenty-nine minutes, said the clock before him. His anniversary was near. Mr. Bixby drew the letters near him, and untied the package. Just then there came a knock at his door, and, before he had determined whether or not he should say, “Come in,” the door opened, and an elderly gentleman stepped into the apartment. Quietly he came in. There was no sound attending his entrance except the knock. Mr. Bixby, looking up, saw a man of more than ordinary height, with countenance rigid and puritanical in expression, as though the mind which had formed it was one influenced more by justice than mercy. His eyes were concealed by a pair of colored spectacles, but these, as they caught and reflected the light, were brighter and more startling than any eyes could have been. He was dressed in a long surtout, which he wore closely buttoned, high dickey, and high black-silk stock, which covered his throat to his chin. His iron-gray hair was brushed somewhat pompously backward over his forehead, and his whole effect was that of a gentleman of the generation which wore bell-crowned hats and carried enormous canes with tassels. But what attracted Mr. Bixby’s particular attention were the wrinkles of his face. These were in all places where wrinkles should not be. One ran straight through the centre of his forehead, continuing the line of the nose upward to the hair. Two others, starting from the bridge of the nose, ran diagonally down to the nostrils. He was close-shaven, and his lips were straight and thin. These peculiarities of his visitor Mr. Bixby had barely time to mark when the gentleman said:

“Ah, Mr. Bangs, I am glad to find you in!”

Mr. Bixby never in his life more desired to be alone, and yet there was something in this old man which so attracted him that he could not correct his mistake. He felt a sudden fascination and desire to know more of him. Bangs was away and could not be seen. The gentleman could not be very well acquainted with Bangs, very probably never had seen him, or he would not have made such an error. But nothing but the influence which seemed to proceed from his visitor could have induced Mr. Bixby to answer as he did.

“Thank you, sir. Pray, take this chair.”

As he said this, he arose and wheeled an easy-chair to the other side of the table.

The elderly gentleman sat down.

“You have a very cheerful apartment here, Mr. Bangs.”

“Yes. I always like to be comfortable.”

“Of course,” said the elderly gentleman.

“Will you remove your overcoat, sir?” asked Mr. Bixby, and immediately repented it.

“Oh, no, I shall stop but a moment.”

There was an interval of silence. A block of coal broke open in the grate and fell apart. A jet of gas burst forth and burned, then sputtered and went out. Mr. Bixby wondered on what business he had come, and why he did not open the subject at once, if he was only intending to stop a moment.

“It is very disagreeable weather out,” said the man with the pompous forelock, interrupting his reflections.

“Snowing?” asked Bixby.

“No—sleet.”

“Very unpleasant to have far to go such a night,” suggested Bixby, who could think of nothing better to say.

“Not at all,” responded the old gentleman, authoritatively.

Bixby was silent again.

The old gentleman, leaning with his elbow on the table, began again.

“You like to live well, Mr. Bangs?”

“I try to,” answered Mr. Bixby.

“Yes.”

“This must be some relative of Bangs come to deliver him a lecture on his course of life. Why don’t he broach his advice at once?” thought Mr. Bixby. The visitor here pulled a glove from his right hand, ran his fingers through his hair, and then, in a more business-like tone, spoke again:

“Although a stranger to you personally, Mr. Bangs, I have always taken a great interest in your family. Mr. Bangs, I knew your father.”

“Indeed! I never heard him speak—”

“No, I dare say; it was near the end of his life. I was near by, and rendered him some assistance, when he died suddenly of apoplexy. He was not so much of a man as your grandfather.”

“Was he not?” asked Mr. Bixby, musingly. He was thinking how old the grandfather of his friend Bangs must have been.

“No,” continued the elderly gentleman; “but even his judgment I never considered equal to that of your great-grandfather.”

“Here is, indeed, a friend—a friend of the family. Why is Mr. Bangs away?” thought Mr. Bixby, and he bent his head a little, and looked under the drop-light, to get a view of his visitor. He saw only the reflection on his spectacles, and drew back suddenly, for fear of being detected.

“You like a good song, I have heard, Mr. Bangs,” came from the other side of the table. “Have you any favorite?”

Mr. Bixby did not understand this at all. The question puzzled him. Should he as Bangs fall in the estimation of some relative if he admitted the fact? Or did his visitor intend to sing? However, he felt compelled to be frank, so he said:

“Oh, yes; I like a good song. Some of the Scotch ballads please me most. There is ‘The Land o’ the Leal.’”

“A very fine song, sir. A very fine song. It is a credit to any man to like that song.”

The old gentleman was excited. Mr. Bixby was just congratulating himself on having given Bangs a lift, when his thoughts were turned into an altogether new channel by the following remark:

“It was my impression, however, that your taste ran rather in the way of drinking-songs. I should have thought now you would have said, ‘The Coal-Black Wine.’”

There was something in the tone with which this was uttered that made Mr. Bixby shudder. It ran through his mind that this man was some enemy of Bangs—that he was dangerous. Startled by this sudden suspicion, tremblingly he again peered under the shade. The wrinkle in the line of the frontal suture was more deeply indented. The light on the spectacles was brighter than ever.

“Mr. Bangs, I called on your opposite neighbor, Mr. Bixby, to-night. I knocked on the door, but he was away.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Bixby, somewhat confused. He wished that Bangs had stayed at home, and determined to end the interview as soon as possible.

“Yes. I am sorry. I had a positive appointment with him. I am a great friend of his.”

“Does he know you?”

“Oh, no; we have never met personally that he remembers. I am an old friend of the family. He suffers from the heart-disease, and has been expecting me.”

“Oh, you are a physician?”

“Yes, sir. I attended his father at his last illness.”

Mr. Bixby’s heart began to beat rapidly. His mind became equally active, and, although he had no experience to be guided by, he began to suspect the nature of this man’s business with Bangs. He almost determined to discover himself, but the letters were yet unread. If that were only done, he would do anything his visitor might request. Recalling the old gentleman’s last words, he said, at last, calmly:

“And his mother?”

“Yes, and his mother.”

The old man’s voice assumed almost a kindly tone.

“He is, indeed, a friend of my family,” thought Mr. Bixby; and then he started, for fear he might have spoken aloud.

His eyes fell upon the packet of letters. He must read them. He must end the interview. The old doctor must have noticed Mr. Bixby’s eyes, with the tears rising in them, as he tenderly touched the letters one by one, for it was with a voice very gentle and low that he spoke again.

“I attended once a very dear friend of his. It must be quite ten years ago now. Her name was Margaret. I think she loved him, for I remember—yes—it was one Christmas-eve, she said, and after that she said no more, ‘Has Harry come?’”

Mr. Bixby could bear no more. His sobs were striving for utterance. His fingers grasped the strong oak arms of his chair. It was only the thought of the letters which gave him strength to say:

“I am sorry, sir. You mistake me. I must ask you to leave me. You may come again. I shall be here, but I have something I would do to-night. I have given you much of my time. It is already late.”

“It is you who mistake, Mr. Bangs. But I am going now. I said I would stop but a moment. I have kept my promise, as you will see by your clock.”

Before his hands fell listless from the arms of the chair—before his lips parted, but not for speech—ay, just before that quick, strong pain in his heart, Mr. Bixby saw on the white dial the black hands yet pointing to the seven hours and the twenty-nine minutes, the pendulum moveless, still, half-way on the upward journey of the arc.

The elderly gentleman arose, walked round the table, and smiled, himself, as he saw a smile of perfected happiness on the face of the dead, when so lately sorrow itself had been pictured on the face of the living.

“It was hard to deceive him, but he will thank me now,” said he of the gray locks and wrinkled visage. “And here are the letters which he does not need.”

Had the old man no more appointments to keep? For he took up one of the letters and opened it. A lock of golden hair fell unnoticed to the floor. Then he read silently, and, after a while, aloud:

“I hope you will come and see me on Christmas-eve, for I am not well. I long for you more than I can say. You must be tired with your struggle in the great city, and need rest. O Harry! come and comfort her that loves you, as you well know.

Margaret.

The bells of Trinity commenced ringing.

“He was tired, and he needed rest,” said Death.