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The peddler came adriving.

Christmas was only a week off, and old Jake was in fine fettle. He talked to the electric wires, of course; that dent in his head where he got kicked years ago pressed on his brain, but he was a harmless soul, and the wires were friendly now and weren't bothering him as they sometimes did. Jake was a come-along, goalong blacksmith who dropped in unannounced and stayed on as Pop's helper, sleeping in the shop, and then some morning Jake would be gone as unexpectedly as he'd arrived, because every so often he had to "look around the corner," as he said, and before he knew it he'd be in Norristown or Reading or some other place, and once he got as far as Harrisburg before the wires let up on him.

This spell, however, he seemed settled as a house dog with a full belly; his broom paused occasionally while he leaned on the handle as a soldier leans on his musket, chuckling at the wires. He swept the floor 20 times a day, and Pop swore the planks were getting thinner from Jake's incessant brooming. He'd forsaken his favorite tune, "Nellie and Me and the Baby," and hummed instead "There Came Two Dukes Ariding," a children's sidewalk ditty that went like this:

What are you riding here for, here for, here for? What are you riding here for, a hansom, tansom, tiddee-bo-tee? With the holidays now in the offing, Jake' s mutterings at the wires were interspersed with snatches of Latin, sometimes ending up aloud with "tissey-mo!" What "tissey-mo" meant, we never learned, and when the long-bearded peddler stopped by to get a loose shoe tacked on, Jake said, aside to me, it was a good sign, because that morning he'd dropped a breakfast fork, and here was a visitor already. It didn't make sense to me, but Jake smiled up at the wires, and when the horse was shod, the peddler talked to Pop about this and that, then came to the point, saying his horse was tuckered out for fair, what with the back roads rutted so hard with frost, and though Pop made no comment, nor did Jake, the peddler added he was tuckered out, too, and shy on hard money, and he wound up by asking if Pop'd mind his laying over a spell, stabling his horse in the stall in the back of our shop.

"What with all the farmers in town this week, livery stables is awful high, blacksmith, awful high," he said, and he kept looking at Pop and fingering his beard, and Pop brushed the anvil top with his palm, considering, then looked the old man over closely.

He must've been satisfied, for he glanced at Jake, they both sized up the droopy horse, and Pop spoke. "Very well, old man. Back in your wagon, but be mighty careful about smokin'. Guess Jake here can make you comfortable."

"That I can, Frank," Jake said, and the peddler's eyes spoke his thanks.

Everybody wanted a white Christmas, but we didn't, for slippery streets meant Pop sharpening horses all that day and the holiday'd simply be ruined, so we all hoped for clear weather.

The one time of year Jake liked to linger longest was the week before Christmas, and he got his wish, for to me it dragged endlessly. Then the warning on the newspaper's front page said only three more shopping days. The atmosphere was getting stronger, and Mother was close to going down in the rush, as she usually did every year, and she kept warning me away from all the closets, especially the one in her room. So far, I had found everything--the rocking horse, the sleds and the Irish Mail, the shaving mug with a picture of "Maud S" and "Frank" in gilt letters, and even the pen-and-pencil sets deep in mother's bureau. Lou's corner saloon had ropes of laurel leaves festooned around the doors and windows, turkeys and geese hung across the front for the raffles. Spruce trees were stacked along his curb and around the horse fountain, and I liked to walk between the rows of trees to smell the smell and get the Christmasy feeling.

Under the corner grocery shed, boxes of popcorn, nuts, and cranberries sided a barrel of white grapes, in cork, that made my mouth water. Our big fruitcake was aging fairly well, Mother admitted, and, next door, Mrs. Tibbetts was thinking in terms of Yorkshire pudding for when the Shackamaxon weavers came on from Phifly and from Holmesburg and Conshohocken, for the party that would last a whole week. Big Rance Halliday would be there, singing above the others about John Peel, the Low-Backed Car, and Father Mahar, and the longer the talking and singing went, the thicker would become the Yorkshire dialect, and Mother'd marvel at the beef and pudding, potted meat, lamb and lamb drip, mint sauce, and treacle those Huddersfield folk could take aboard and still navigate. Four meals every day, with the pot always warm and handy under the tea cozy.

The afternoon of Christmas Eve, Pop knocked off early to make his dash uptown for Mother's present, another picture every year, and when the supper things were cleared away, the house changed completely. Up till now there'd been a vortex of fastmoving excitement whirling onward toward today, comings and goings, lists and conferences, exchanges and last-minute trips and more last-minute trips, and Mother saying she'd never be ready. But now the tempo was entirely different; all arrangements were now complete, and there remained only the quiet expectancy.

Pop came downstairs, wearing his stiff-bosom shirt, studs, and fancy black vest; he was pulling on his arm bands, and I thought how strange it was that a man who gets real dirty at his work always looks cleaner than anybody else when he's washed up; and when Pop combed his hair, flipping the heavy front lock up and across the grain of the other hair, and put the comb in the holder under the mirror, he certainly made a fine figure of a man, as Mother often remarked. He sent me up to Turner's for six good cigars--those four-for-aquarter specials, he said, 'long as it was Christmas Eve. He settled in his rocker by the kitchen stove and said he guessed he'd just let things roll on.

There was a ritual in our house, the Eve of Christmas. The parlor and middle room portieres were opened, for the parlor stove was lit, and Mother and Aunt Louise made a hundred stealthy trips up and down the carpeted stairs. The hall door was shut against the upstairs cold, but Grandmom admitted that downstairs was right toasty, and the lamps shone with a thick glow, yellow as butterscotch, so thick I felt I could scoop some up in my cupped palms, like catching a dozen lightning bugs.

My younger brothers were in bed early, and at nine Pop enthroned himself in the parlor, we presented our gifts, and he made a fuss over each, dropping the paper wrappings around his chair. Then Mother handed him a package, saying, "This is from you to Grandmom." Another package. "This is from you to Louise .... And this is from you to this young fellow .... And this's from you to me--besides the picture, I mean." And Pop laughed and exclaimed admiringly at each, and there was no faking his surprise, for he never knew what Mother got for him to give to us, and then everybody was saying, "Just what I wanted."...

"Oh, boy!"... "I certainly can use this."... "Isn't that sweet?" and we all got our gifts mixed up in the wrong piles, and Pop's cigar smoke sucked under the globes, up along the lamp chimneys, and floated lazily, as though it hated to leave. Mother's thick hair was piled extra high tonight; she wore a present from herself to herself, rhinestone back and side combs; her face was flushed with contentment, and the shopping rush was forgotten.

My younger brothers weren't asleep, so Pop slipped upstairs and whispered huskily, "Kids, guess what! I just came down the hill, and up at Lou's corner whatta you suppose I saw? Kriss Kringle and his reindeers swinging down Green Street! He's got wheels under the sleigh and he turned into Arch Street, so he oughta reach these diggin's anytime now. Get them covers up tight and drift off, or you'll find hoof shavings in your stockin's sure as water runs downhill."

Jake was holding a Christmas Eve party in honor of the peddler, and Pop made two trips out to the shop, but shadows were flitting all over the place, and I couldn't see much through the sooty window. The Pattersons and Millers paid a visit, and while the women compared presents, Pop took the men out to the kitchen to see the hen he had setting under the sink. They all had a brandy, and getting a quick drink of water, they made faces at the spigot. Pop passed around cigars, and he tried out his new meerschaum, and about 11 he called across the alley to Jake. Jake hollered something I couldn't catch, and the men trooped out the back way to the shop. Three stable bosses were there, and the peddler, too, of course. Only one gas jet was lit, and the back of the shop was in deep shadow.

Jake said, "Tarry a minute, people; tarry a minute," and he disappeared behind a blanket stretched across one corner, and straightway a bright star shone high in the corner, a star hanging on a rung of the climb-up to the pigeon loft; and when Jake pulled the blanket aside, we saw he had a candle rigged in front of a mirror to reflect the light against the star, which was cut from the inside of a new tobacco tin.

The corner was decorated with strung popcorn, old tree ornaments, and spruce branches, and the stable bosses crowded around Jake's Christmas scene, fenced low with planks; he beckoned us closer and we looked in. And there was the reason Pop and Mother'd been so mystifying all week, for they had known what I hadn't, because lying in deep straw in the center of Jake's Christmas scene was a motionless black colt. The peddler's horse had had a colt. A colt so black his outlines were almost lost in that dark corner, and on his forehead was a white patch just like his mother's. Pop was smiling, looking sidewise at me, and I knew this was the surprise I hadn't found in all the closets or down in the cellar or in the kitchen shed.

Behind the colt were the gifts the stable bosses had brought, just to please Jake--a miniature nose bag, a halter of colored cord, and a diminutive blanket, complete with breast buckle and belly strap, and tacked on the wall, from Jake, were four shoes small enough to fit a nanny goat. The colt blinked, twitched his ears, and wagged a ridiculous stump of a tail. We all walked and talked softly, for fear we'd alarm the little horse, and maybe because of other reasons, too, which we couldn't explain. Pop and the others kept to the shadows, but the peddler and stable bosses grouped within the brighter circle cast by four candles Jake propped in the shoeing box, and in the wavering light, two wisps of breath came from the colt's nostrils as he lay in his first straw bed, aloof from all the world, wrapped in his tiny, brand-new thoughts. Jake and the bosses and the peddler were so intent, staring at the colt, they'd forgotten us completely, and the mare's restless stamping punched ripples of sound in the stillness.

The bearded Jake, leaning on his broom, and the longer-bearded peddler, grasping his own chin, stood entranced, eyes shining in the candlelight that reflected glistening pools from the eyes of the newborn horse, staring back, and for a few moments none of them stirred a whisker, the tableaued moments focused and held fast by Jake's star high in the corner and the intent silent attitudes of the old bearded men.

Our shop had first been a stable, and near the ceiling was a window that once had lighted a stall. One cold star shone through the dusty pane and the cobwebs and bits of straw swinging in the webs, and when the spell broke, Jake bent down and said softly, "Hello, little feller," and he rubbed the velvet nose and white-patched forehead, but the colt was too young even to sniff the old fingers that gave him his first fondling.

It was a half hour to midnight; there wasn't any snow, but a bright moon rode south of the shop and silvered the streets, tin roofs, and fences, and as we waited outside for the women, our breaths came out in frosty plumes, and then the bells started. First, St. Andrew's, uptown and far away, clear-ringing, fast and merry; next, the carillon of Trinity Church chiming in; then, from its dome on the hill, gleaming in the moonlight, the big bell of St. John's, slow-measured and sonorous, its strong beat like a great heart freighted with things long revered and remembered. The women came out, stepping carefully in their long skirts down the porch steps, and no one spoke, somehow, as we went up the street toward midnight, and when we got to the corner another ringing followed us--a sharp, melodious ringing; then hollow, muffled and low. Jake had the shop door open and was ringing out Christmas Eve in his own way, for he had Pop's ball-peen hammer playing on the anvil, switching from the ringing face to the mellow horn.

He played a little tune with the hammer ball and heel dancing on the anvil, and Pop laughed, pleased to no end, for to him that old anvil's clanging was pleasant as any bell, and even now, with the anvil silent a quarter century, Pop smiles and says he can still hear it, sometimes, especially from that long-ago time when Jake rang us off to midnight, particularly the way Jake ended his chiming, for he struck the booming horn with a measured beat--l2 steady strokes.

And we heard the sliding door close on Jake and his little world--the stable bosses and the peddler, the mare and the little black colt with the white-blazed face, the star shining brightly down upon him.

Christmas Eve, the year of our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Seven.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:O'Brien, Edward W.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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