The playground of the Brick Lane Board School was white and black with snow and slides, and the wind was blowing Christmas. 'A fortnight's holiday, my lads,' the schoolmaster had said. 'Tell me what you will do with it!'
Sixty first standard boys sat unresponsive; sixty first standard faces looked blank and old. The few grimy hands that shyly wavered up slunk back again to pockets even grimier.
'Christmas trees, hey? Mince pies and oranges, hey? Christmas boxes?' smiled the scholmaster.
‘Foney Black'll have nuts, he will; an' minch pies,' said at stout Billy Bower. ' Feney says he'll gimme a bite, p'raps.'
'Very kind of Alphonso,' said the schoolmaster, looking towards a frail little fellow in a huge clean collar, the only clean collar of the class. ' But who means to hang up his stockings for Santa Clans?’
Silence declared that St. Nicholas was no saint in the Brick Lane calendar. And yet one hand went jerking up, and ‘Pleezir, not me,' said the owner of that particular grouty fist. 'Pleez'r, 'taint worth'while.'
'Why not, Lanty?' pityingly asked the schoolmaster.
‘Hung'd 'em up last Charismas, sir. An' Senty Clothes come, too."
'Well, and what did he put in your stocking, Lanty?’
‘Pleesir, a tatie an' a coke.
Mournfully the words were uttered, yet a pitiless shrill, elderly laughter echoed round the class.
'Silence, there! thundered the schoolmaster. A mental vision of ugly little Lanty fumbling with feverish fingers in holey stockings, and clutching out a cinder and a rolling potatoe, brought dew to the dominie's physical eyes; and (despite the cane on the desk) no father's voice was ever tenderer than that which said: 'Hang them up again this once, my poor Lanty. Santa Claus was only joking with you last year.'
‘I shall, mother, so now then. Teacher tell'd me to, now then,' insisted Lanty that Christmas Eve at bedtime.
‘Taint no manner o' use, poor boy,' said mother, sadly fingering the lonely shilling in her pocket. 'Taint no manner o’ use. Senty Clothes don't come to sich as us.'
'But teacher tell'd me to,' was the answer again, as Lanty wriggled his shirtless self between ragged shawl and a layer of straw. And the last thing seen by the small cute eyes before they closed in dreams of ' sammat to eat,' was one highly ventilated stocking dependent from the handle of the long old fashioned mangle--the other had fallen on the all but fireless hearth. An hour or so later came Santa Claus, in the person of the schoolmaster. A patch of smutty snow on the tail of Santa Claus's overcoat showed where the Saint had taken a summary seat on the elaborate slide that bisected Fiddler's Court; and a tall-hatted monkey, reposing in the dorsal pocket, had suffered divorce from its stick. Nevertheless, the basket was intact-the basket that, in spite of social conventions, the schoolmaster had carried through the streets--the well-filled basket which he set down on the mangle as he said: ‘I’m come to fill those, madam.' He pointed to the absurdly large bat fragmentary hose. 'I see the boy's safe asleep, and won't detect me. Now, how did he get to know about a Santa Claus?' ‘His father tell'd him, sir," said the mother. 'His father's a man what reads a bit when he's not so very drunk. His father tell'd him last Chris'mas an' then shoved a pratee an' coke in his stockins', an' he kicked me brutal, sir, 'cos I wanted to fetch 'em out.'
‘Ah, then, you are plagued with a drunken husband, madam, said the dominie, speaking to the manglewoman as courteously as if to the lady member of the School Board herself.
'That I be, sir, drunk an' lazy, too. Never a shillln' have he brought me this many a week, an' he takes pretty near all I can earn to th' pub. Two shillin' o' mine have he took; there this very Chris'mas Eve as never was. What with manglin' an ironin' an’ odd jobs charin', I could keep Lanty an' me pretty cumf'table, sir; but it's none so easy keepin a fourtin stunner idle as well. The popshop's got th' beddia' and th' few sticks o'furniture, an' th' drunken devil wanted to pawn th' mangle to. Well, sir, he is a devil’ continued the mother, in response to the schoolmaster's protest against that nonscholastic word. ' Sithee here, sir,' and the dress stripped down betrayed a blackened shoulder, 'I wish he were dead, I do. Missis Johnson's man, he took th' fever and was entered, quick, but there no such luck for me.'
'Well, never mind it just now, my poor woman,' said the schoolmaster, softly, as he mended the monkey. 'Here's half-a crown for the lad's dinner to-morrow. Give him some mince pies. And now, I'll fill those-those-articles of clothing yonder.'
An orange, an apple, a Brazil nut, a walnut, and a double handful of attendant Barcelonas laid a bulging foundation in one stocking; upon these danced the monkey, groom to a fluffy horse. Then (while Lanty snored his loudest, not to seem to see,) a whip, a whistle, a peg-top, a pair of socks, a packet of chocolate, and a bright penny were pushed into the other piece of hosiery; and rubbing his fingers on the lining of his overcoat the schoolmaster turned to the door. 'A decent Christmas to you both,' he was saying, with his hand on the latch ; but a stumbling, scuffling, swearing noise from the staircase stopped him in the middle of the wish.
'Now, lad,' said a thick, beery voice, 'up with th' old beggar, smart-like,' and the next minute a heavy, lolling, human mass was lifted into the room.
'Lay him on th' mangle, lads,' went on the spokesman. ' Here's th' mesier, missus.’ he added, stolidly, looking at the purple faced, big-eared head that hung, with a horrible mockery of knowing coyness, loosely aside.
'Is he-you don't mean to say he's dead?' whispered the schoolmaster.
'Ay, dead enough, owd chap; broke his blessed neck on a slide.'
With pitying look the Schoolmaster turned to the widow. But mother was down by the mangle, making sure.
'Dead! Dead! Thank the Lord!’ she screamed. 'Hey Lanty, lad, wake up. Good news, Lanty, your father's dead!'
'Hooray, mother answered Lanty rushing to his stockings. And the last thing schoolmaster saw in the room, as he gave place to the parish surgeon, was mother hysterical with her joy, and Lanty ecstatic over his monkey.