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
“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.
“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.
“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,
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
The bells of Trinity commenced ringing.
“He was tired, and he needed rest,” said Death.