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HULBERT FOOTNER

THE SILVER-BACKED BRUSH

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A CHRISTMAS STORY



Published under syndication, e.g., in
The San Francisco Sunday Call, 17 December 1911

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version date: 2017-12-17

Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

Only the original raw text of this book is in the public domain.
All content added by RGL is proprietary and protected by copyright.

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LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS



IT appeared on Christmas Eve in the window of one of the pawnshops on south James Street, a notable object amidst the surrounding trash. It was a woman's hair-brush of a graceful oval shape, a little old fashioned, with an unadorned silver back. There was something first class in the look of it, in its simplicity and fineness; there could be no doubt it had originally been chosen for her own by a woman of gentle tastes. Only a slight effort of the imagination was required to picture slender fingers inclosing the handle and drawing the brush through soft, long hair.


John Dawbarn, sullenly glancing in the shop windows while he waited for an eastbound car, was struck by the look of it and faced about. He could not have told why he stopped—certainly women's hair brushes were not in his line, but the fact remained that this one moved him oddly, and in the end, with a covert glance about him to make sure his weakness was not observed, he went inside the shop and inquired the price. It was sold, the pawnbroker told him with many apologies, but if he would come around at half past eight, if the other person had not called he could have it. Dawbarn paused for an instant; the pawnbroker glanced at him shrewdly, and remarked tentatively that the brush was sold for $10.

"I'll give you $12," said Dawbarn instantly.

Without comment the pawnbroker took the brush out of the window and wrapped it in a piece of newspaper. Dawbarn placed the money on the counter and, thrusting the parcel in the inner pocket of his coat, hastened out of the shop hot and confused, suspecting the pawnbroker and the indifferent people outside alike of jeering at him.

The 7:45 Bartonville car waited at the city line with four passengers. This suburban railway, which consists of three miles of track and a single car, is Bartonville's own institution, its patronizing concession to modernity. The car is naturally the meeting place, the news exchange, the lyceum of the inhabitants, and the motorman and conductor needs must be thoroughly en rapport with village affairs; the conductor especially might be termed the herald of Bartonville. The present incumbent of the rear platform, Archy Biggar, had a due sense of the weight of his position; he was a young man, very untidy about the extremities and inclining to premature fat, but both receptive and of a freely conversational turn.

Mr. Tableporter, a small man laden with gifts for his offspring, consulted his watch and said with the furtive assurance of a much-wived man:

"Let 'er go, Archy."

But the conductor made no move to pull the bell.

"John Dawbarn said he'd be going back this trip," he said, uneasily. "I hardly like to start without him."

Mrs. Tableporter, generalissimo of the village social forces, snorted.

"Humph! One would think John Dawbarn was the Great Mogul!" she said. "I'm not afraid of him!"

Mrs. Tableporter was a woman who sits on the extreme edge of a trolley car seat. After her arduous shopping her plumage, a work of the local modiste's art, was somewhat awry, though, indeed, at all times Mrs. Tableporter had the appearance of emerging from a struggle. She seemed never quite to get her breath.

A tall young man sitting opposite, chiefly remarkable for the bulk and shine of his patent leathers, dazzling to the eyes as one picked one's way around them, remarked that this Dawbarn seemed to be something of a tartar.

"A bear!" said Mrs. Tableporter. "Has the village terrorized with his broad shoulders and his black looks and his shut mouth. Tries to act the wronged husband, indeed, thinks it's very fine to keep to himself and pass his lifelong neighbors with a scowl. It's a pity he didn't have a woman of spirit to put him down, instead of getting a timid little creature who shook when he looked at her."

"He's rich, isn't he?" queried the young man, whose name was Jake Perrin and who was suitor to a maiden of Bartonville.

"More acres than religion," said Mrs. Tableporter, sententiously. "His peaches are better than his deeds. The way he goes on at this time of year is disgraceful; sneers and jeers at folks for laying out money on Christmas gifts!"

"Maybe Christmas hurts him more than other times," suggested the fourth passenger, little Miss Whybrow, the seamstress.

"I'm sure I hope it does," said Mrs. Tableporter, piously. "If ever a man deserved it, he does. To treat his wife the way he did! She was from way up Bruce county way, as pretty spoken a little woman as you could find, and Dawbarn, from a boy dumb and surly, the kind that thinks it a shame to let any natural feeling show; he resented her innocent spirits; they didn't get on—but to accuse her of wrongdoing—the man was beside himself! Afterwards he was too stubborn and wrong headed to allow he could have been mistaken. None of us blamed her for running away. It's lucky she had no children! And do you know, he never turned a hand to look for her!"

"How he must have suffered to be in the wrong all these years," said Miss Whybrow sentimentally, "and too proud to admit it."

"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Tableporter. "Just naturally cross grained!"

Further discussion was cut short by the arrival of Dawbarn himself on the next car from the city. True to the character Mrs. Tableporter had given him, he passed through the car without recognizing his neighbors and, sitting by the front door, buried his head in a newspaper.

As they got under way for Bartonville a sixth passenger joined the company in the person of a small boy, who, appearing unexpectedly out of the darkness beside the track, swung himself on the rear platform. He came inside and sat down by the door. He was a thin boy and had the look of being small for his age. His clothes were shabby but well looked after. The noticeable thing about him was his extreme pallor, taken with the distended, fixed look of his eyes. They were the eyes of a child who lived in a world of his own creation, where the actualities of existence that grown people make such a fuss about, drift by heeded no more than clouds. Just now it would appear from his expression this world of his was a frightful place; a sort of dark valley where one struggled against overwhelming odds without a hope of succor.

They all, except Dawbarn, stared at him curiously. It was a point of pride in Bartonville to know everyone's visitors and especially important to Archy Biggar to be able to give an account of all who traveled on the line.

"Do you know him?" asked Mrs. Tableporter by becks and nods of Miss Whybrow sitting opposite.

Miss Whybrow shook her head.

Mrs. Tableporter's imperious forefinger called Archy Biggar to her side. The conductor reluctantly was forced to confess he had never seen him before.

"He looks hungry," Miss Whybrow whispered.

Mrs. Tableporter waved the suggestion aside. She was not interested in [such trivialities until she had identi]fied who he was, going down the Bartonville on Christmas Eve."*

[* Part of this sentence is missing in the copy of The San Francisco Sunday Call used to make this e-book. The text in brackets is a tentative reconstruction. —RG.]

"He isn't delivering anything," remarked Archy, acutely.

"He might be one of Frank Tandy's sons, now," said Mrs. Tableporter, thoughtfully, "that married Luella Stringer and took her to Montana 12 years ago. There's a sort of Bartonville look about him. That's what puzzles me! Will!" she said, nudging her husband, "ask him who his folks are."

Mr. Tableporter balked. There is no doubt Mrs. Tableporter would have asked him herself, had not the boy created a diversion. He got up and went out on the back platform where he appeared to be examining the catch which is outside the doors of all trolley cars.

"And no overcoat!" grumbled Mrs. Tableporter. "He'll catch his death!"

The boy returned and stood for a moment leaning against the door frame. The meagerness of his body was accentuated by the tight, outgrown jacket he wore. He kept one hand in a side pocket. From his point of vantage he favored each of the passengers in turn with a look at once so wild and far away that even Mrs. Tableporter was made uncomfortable.

"Mercy on us! What ails the child!" she exclaimed.

Apparently he did not hear her. He seemed to gather resolution presently and made his way quickly to the front of the car, brushing indifferently past the conductor who stood in his way. He went out on the front platform, leaving the door open behind him.

"Well, I never!" exclaimed Mrs. Tableporter. She was bankrupt of astonishment for what immediately followed. The car was brought to a stop with a jerk and Dean, the motorman, came tumbling backward through the open door, with his hands over his head. They had a fleeting glimpse of a revolver; then the door was slammed to and caught on the outside.

Mrs. Tableporter screamed. Dawbarn and Dean made a simultaneous move for the rear platform, but the boy reached it from the outside before they got under way. He threw open the rear door and faced them, revolver in hand.

Dean, who had been in the west and knew the potency of the argument in the boy's hand, carelessly dropped in the seat by the front door, and peering through the window, drummed on the pane, and softly whistled between his teeth. Dawbarn, forgetting his terrible air, greeted the appearance of the diminutive highwayman with a broad smile, but thinking better of it he sat down opposite Dean. It was clear to him that this was not the ordinary youthful desperado to be turned over and spanked; the boy's mystical and desperate look was more effective than his revolver. As for the other four, they were frankly panic stricken, though at the same time there was an undertone of blustering indignation at the size of their antagonist, which made Dawbarn smile again.


Illustration

This was not the ordinary desperado.


Archy Biggar, in particular, fairly palpitated with fright. He sank on a seat near the door and proceeded to hand over the company's change without so much as waiting to be asked for it.

The boy moistened his lips.

"How much is it?" he asked huskily.

"I—I don't know," stammered Archy.

"Count it," said the boy. "I only want a certain amount."

Archy set about obeying and the boy looked at him of the patent leather shoes who came next on that side.

"Haven't a sou!" said Jake, with an air of candor.

But even as he spoke, at a fancied move on the part of the boy, a small wad of bills appeared as if by magic from Jake's trousers-pocket and was extended toward the boy.

The boy looked surprised. "One will do," he said, modestly.

Jake handed it over, and returned the balance thankfully, if sheepishly, to his pocket.

Little Miss Whybrow, who came next, did not wait to be asked, but got up extending a worn pocketbook in a hand trembling within an old black glove.

The boy looked at it, and seeing the pennies and few pieces of silver, shook his head.

Mr. Tableporter across the car peeled off a dollar bill and jogged the boy's elbow. His roll was larger than young Jake's.

"Two from you," said the boy, tentatively.

He got it.

Mrs. Tableporter puffed out her cheeks in the excess of her indignation. She was afraid to say anything, for she had a pocketbook, too. But the boy, satisfied apparently with his levy on her husband, paid no further attention to the Tableporters.

By this time Archy had completed his count of the company's money. It amounted to three dollars and twenty cents. The boy dropped it in his pocketbook; they saw him make a little mental calculation; then he turned to Dean at the front of the car.

"Busted," said the motorman, slapping his pockets.

The boy chose to believe him.

Dawbarn came next.

"I've got to have a dollar eighty from you," he said, in the same husky, dull tones.

Dawbarn arose.

"Particular about the exact change?" he asked, with a grin.

"Yes, said the boy, oblivious to any joke, "to make up the eight dollars."

Dawbarn, still smiling mockingly, thrust a hand in his pocket and approached the boy.

In the course of his few steps he discovered what had escaped the others. The four visible chambers of the revolver were empty. It was a pretty safe chance. He drew his hand out of his pocket—but not to produce money. Instead he coolly grasped the barrel of the revolver and twitched it aside.

Miss Whybrow threatened to faint, but the weapon dropped harmlessly from the boy's hand.

He half turned, as if to run, but Dawbarn threw his other arm about him and, sitting, pulled him down beside him. The overwrought child instantly collapsed. Straining away from his captor he hid his face in his arm and burst into tears. Dawbarn looked at the antique weapon he had seized, empty chambered and immovable with rust, and grimly laughed.

Once the boy was secured, the uncanny silence which had prevailed in the car during the last few minutes was rudely broken. Miss Whybrow dissolved in sympathetic tears. Archy Biggar, Jake Perrin and Mrs. Tableporter joined in vociferating their losses, and made a simultaneous descent on the boy. It is true the last named had not lost anything, but her husband's pocketbook was as dear to her as her own. Dawbarn fended them off with his free arm.

They retired.

Mrs. Tableporter puffed, clucking, and wagging her forefinger at the boy.

"Pasty-faced little jailbird!" she cried. "If you were mine I'd teach you!"

Dean having made his way back to the front platform, the interrupted journey to Bartonville was resumed. Dawbarn propped his small captive in the corner of the seat. The boy extended his arm on the window sill, dropping his face on it, sobbed as if his heart would break. He was incapable of hearing or speaking, and Dawbarn took the money from the pocket he had thrust it in and distributed it among the late possessors.

Miss Whybrow expressed a timid desire to sit beside the boy and hold his hand.

"Just like a woman!" growled Dawbarn, masking his own secret sympathy for the wrong-doer under a formidable scowl. "Encourage the little son-of-a-gun to go and do it again!"

Miss Whybrow hastily subsided.

"What are you going to do with him?" demanded Mrs. Tableporter.

"Take him back to town and turn him over to the police," said Dawbarn, coolly.

Mr. Tableporter squirmed uneasily on his seat.

"Aw, say, Dawbarn, we got our money back," he muttered. "Spank the kid and turn him loose!"

"Christmas Eve, I suppose, et cetera," sneered the other. "No, sir! Sugar and water don't go down with John Dawbarn! The lockup for thieves, let them be big or little."

"Exactly right," said Mrs. Tableporter, "and give the police our names."

They reached Bartonville directly, and the passengers dropped off at their several destinations, great with the tale it was theirs to spread.

As she was alighting, Mrs. Tableporter recollected there was an important hiatus.

"Boy, what is your name?" she called back.

There was no response.

"Find it out for me, and let me know next trip," she commanded Archy, as the car moved on.


There were no passengers on the return trip, all those spending the evening in town having gone up earlier; and Archy, very ill at ease in the presence of the terrible Dawbarn, preferring to remain on the platform, the man and the boy had the car to themselves. The boy, having worn himself out with grieving, had fallen into an uneasy sleep. His head was continually slipping off his arm and falling against the man. In order to keep him upright, Dawbarn passed an arm around the slender frame, and the heavy head dropped naturally against his chest. Now that the passengers had all got off, there was the same necessity for keeping up appearances, though he was still uneasy about Archy Biggar seeing him in this compromising attitude.

Strange new forces were at work in the breast of the misanthrope of Bartonville. Dawbarn was thoroughly perplexed at himself, and very uneasy. The warmth of the little frame pressing against his side seemed to be stealing into his breast and melting all his carefully reared defenses. The thin shoulder had slipped snugly under his arm; was he thinking of another shoulder that had nestled there years before? The boy's cap had dropped off, and Dawbarn was conscious of a preposterous desire to run his hand through the thick brown hair. Finally he could stand it no longer. Not knowing to what lengths of folly these inexplicable feelings might carry him, he shook the boy to wake him.


Illustration

The warmth of the little frame seemed to be stealing into his breast.

The boy slowly opened his eyes, and for a moment they were calm and sleepy; he half smiled. Then, as recollection returned with the old fear, his slender body shuddered in the curve of the man's arm.

"Don't take on," said Dawbarn, gruffly. "I'm not going to touch you!"

"The police!" murmured the boy.

Dawbarn looked at him frowning. This pale, great eyed, soft voiced child was anything but Dawbarn's idea of what a boy should be; but there was this insistent tugging in his breast.

"I won't turn you over," he said, suddenly. "Buck up, sonny."

The boy's frame relaxed.

Dawbarn had not meant to go so far. It was surprised out of him. He felt it due to his manhood to add, in his most terrible voice:

"But I didn't say I wouldn't skin you, you little train robber!"

Children are not to be deceived by any such transparent bluff of hardihood. The boy looked in Dawbarn's face a moment, then let his weary head sink back on the man's breast, murmuring his gratitude.

Dawbarn actually trembled with pleasure. He was delighted to be seen through. It was a terrible temptation to let this delicious softness have way with him and carry him where it would. After all, he thought, the only witness to his weakness would be Archy Biggar, and he could scare him silent with a look at any time.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Jack," said the boy sleepily.

"That's my name, too," said the man, surprised at how easy it was, after all, to loosen up. "But I haven't been called it lately."

"I was called after my father," said the boy.

"Sure, there are plenty of us Jacks, said Dawbarn. "Say, Jack, where did you get the gun?"

"I bought it for my mother," said the boy.

Dawbarn stared.

"For a Christmas present. She wanted it more than anything."

"Well, that's a queer one!" ejaculated the man.

"We live at Crown Point," the boy explained. "It's lonesome, and there are tramps. She's afraid of them. She's very pretty."

"But this piece of scrap wouldn't do any execution," said Dawbarn, scornfully.

The boy flushed painfully. "I only had 50 cents, and that was the best I could get," he said. "It's just as good," he added, more hopefully. "She only wanted to scare them. She'd be afraid to shoot."

"What started you off on the holdup game, Jack?" Dawbarn inquired, curiously.

The boy stiffened. The question recalled all his terrors.

"What time is it?" he asked, breathlessly.

Dawbarn could make nothing of this.

"Twenty minutes past 8," he said, wonderingly.

The boy was plunged back in despair.

"It's too late!" he wailed.

"What is?" he asked.

Dawbarn could not help but be moved by the sight; it was so terribly genuine.

"I had to take the money back by half-past eight."

"What for?"

"To get my mother's brush—her silver brush!"

There was a pause.

"At the pawnshop, Jack?" asked Dawbarn, very quietly.

"Yes," said the boy, scarcely heeding. "And now some one else will get it. We will never see it again!"

He turned away from Dawbarn and, hiding his face in his arm as before, abandoned himself to grief. Dawbarn gazed at him with an expression as near to awe as his stubborn features could shape. His hand slowly stole inside his coat and felt of the package there.

"She set great store by this brush, eh, Jack?" he asked, in a muffled voice.

"Yes," said the boy; "it's the only thing she had—that my father gave her."

Dawbarn drew his breath through set teeth.

"He that was called Jack?" he said.

"Yes," said the boy.

Dawbarn was silent for a while.

"How did it get in the pawnshop, Jack?" he asked at last.

"She sold it without my knowing—to buy me a Christmas present—an overcoat," stammered the boy. I saw it there after I bought the pistol."

Dawbarn slowly drew his purchase out of his pocket; the crumpled piece of newspaper fluttered to the floor. He turned it over in his great hands gingerly, staring at it with mixed reverence and discomfort, as a man regards his first baby.

"See here, Jack," he said, with an attempt to recover his gruffness.

The boy turned a stricken face. Beholding the brush, his eyes widened and he hung suspended, doubting the evidence of his sight.

"Is this it?" asked Dawbarn.

The boy put out his hand slowly and fearfully and took the brush. Feeling it real to the touch, he drew close to Dawbarn's side with a sigh and turned it over on his knees. Twin beams of happiness gathered in his eyes, and a beautiful smile overspread his face. It was clear this brush was a fetish to the child, he fingered it reverently. He was too happy to speak. Not till long afterwards did he think to ask Dawbarn how he came by it.

Dawbarn was staring fixedly at the boy.

"You said her man gave it to her, Jack?" he said.

The boy nodded.

"Did you ever see him?"

"No. I came a little while after we lost him."

"Is he—dead?" asked Dawbarn.

The boy looked uncomfortable. "I—I don't know," he said. "Dead to us, my mother says. I don't like to ask her about it."

"He must have been an out-and-out bad one!" said the man.

"My mother says he was a fine man," the boy quickly contradicted. "She says she hopes I will be as fine—and please God, not so unhappy."

"She said that!" murmured Dawbarn.

Color had returned to the boy's face, and, as he held the beloved object safe in his hands, his tongue was loosed.

"Of all the nice things she used to have she kept this till the last," he said. "We always said, no matter if we had to walk the streets, we'd never sell it. It was the best brush money could buy, and my father used to like to sit and watch her brush her hair. Just like I do, and then he was always quiet and kind. And so my mother liked this better than anything, except me. You ought to see my mother's hair—mine is the same color—but hers is softer and hangs down to her waist. And the silver back shines through it! I could watch it all day! My mother's hair is like satin. Ever since I was a baby, I liked better than anything to watch her brush her hair with this. She hangs her hair over her shoulder and pulls the brush through slowly, and it rustles like satin."

"Or, like she was whispering in your ear," said Dawbarn.

"Yes, how did you know?" asked the boy.

He went on without waiting for an answer.

"She thought I would not notice when it went, but I did. Why, we had always had it. And she cried all the time after she sold it; I made believe not to see her, but I did. I didn't know what to do! And then, after I bought her the pistol, I saw it lying there in the dirty show-window—our own silver brush!—where anybody could buy it and take it away for theirs. I felt bad! I had to do something. It was $10. The man said he would keep it for me till half-past eight. So I went to a man who I know who has money and I told him, but he laughed and gave me $2, and said, buy your mother a sensible present, sonny, then I didn't know what to do. I walked everywhere, thinking and thinking about it. I was nearly crazy.

"Then I saw the car just leaving, and I thought if I got on and sung like the watchnighters the people would give me money. But my voice wouldn't come, and anyway eight dollars was too much to get just for singing, and it was getting late. I had to have it, and there was such a little time! And then I put my hand in my pocket and felt for the pistol—I—I—I don't remember after that—"

He closed his eyes and shuddered.

Dawbarn gave him a reassuring hug.

"Buck up, Jack!" he cried. "You'll never get yourself in another mess like that—please God!—as your mother says."

The boy looked at Dawbarn shyly.

"It's lucky you were there," he said.

"You're right. It's lucky," said Dawbarn grimly.

"How glad she'll be to see me," said the boy blissfully. "And the silver brush!"

Dawbarn scowled oddly at the boy. He leaned over and took the brush out of his hands.

"Look here, Jack," he said, humbly enough. "I paid for it. God knows I paid for it, one way and another! This Jack has learned his lesson; I think I have a right to take it back to Eva myself."

"Eva?" repeated the astonished boy. "How did you know her name?"


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.