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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907)

A Christmas Fantasy, with a Moral

From “Two Bites at a Cherry”

HER name was Mildred Wentworth, and she lived on the slope of Beacon Hill, in one of those old-fashioned swell-front houses which have the inestimable privilege of looking upon Boston Common. It was Christmas afternoon, and she had gone up to the blue room, on the fourth floor, in order to make a careful inspection in solitude of the various gifts that had been left in her slender stocking and at her bedside the previous night.

Mildred was in some respects a very old child for her age, which she described as being “half past seven,” and had a habit of spending hours alone in the large front chamber occupied by herself and the governess. This day the governess had gone to keep Christmas with her own family in South Boston, and so it chanced that Mildred had been left to dispose of her time as she pleased during the entire afternoon. She was well content to have the opportunity, for fortune had treated her magnificently, and it was deep satisfaction, after the excitement of the morning, to sit in the middle of that spacious room, with its three windows overlooking the pearl-crusted trees in the Common, and examine her treasures without any chance of interruption.

The looms of Cashmere and the workshops of Germany, the patient Chinaman and the irresponsible polar bear, had alike contributed to those treasures. Among other articles was a small square box covered with mottled paper and having an outlandish, mysterious aspect, as if it belonged to a magician. When you loosened the catch of this box, possibly supposing it to contain bonbons of a superior quality, there sprang forth a terrible little monster, with a drifting white beard like a snowstorm, round emerald-green eyes, and a pessimistic expression of countenance generally, as though he had been reading Tolstoi or Schopenhauer.

This abrupt personage, whose family name was Heliogabalus, was known for simplicity’s sake as Jumping Jack; and though the explanation of the matter is beset with difficulties, it is not to be concealed that he held a higher place in the esteem of Miss Wentworth than any of her other possessions, not excluding a tall wax doll fin de siècle, with a pallid complexion and a profusion of blond hair. Titania was not more in love with Nick Bottom the weaver than Mildred with Jumping Jack. It was surely not his personal beauty that won her, for he had none; it was not his intellect, for intellect does not take up its abode in a forehead of such singular construction as that of Jumping Jack. But whatever the secret charm was, it worked. On a more realistic stage than this we see analogous cases every day. Perhaps Oberon still exercises his fairy craft in our material world, and scatters at will upon the eyelids of mortals the magic distillation of that “little Western flower” which

  • Will make or man or woman madly dote
  • Upon the next live creature that it sees.”
  • For an hour or so Mildred amused herself sufficiently by shutting Heliogabalus up in the chest and letting him spring out again; then she grew weary of the diversion, and finally began to lose patience with her elastic companion because he was unable to crowd himself into the box and undo the latch with his own fingers. This was extremely unreasonable, but so was Mildred made.

    “How tedious you are!” she cried, at last. “You dull little old man, I don’t see how I ever came to like you. I don’t like you any more, with your glass eyes and your silly pink mouth always open and never saying the least thing. What do you mean, sir, by standing and staring at me in that tiresome way? You look enough like Dobbs the butcher to be his brother, or to be Dobbs himself. I wonder you don’t up and say, ‘Steaks or chops, mum?’ Dear me! I wish you really had some life in you, and could move about, and talk with me, and make yourself agreeable. Do be alive!”

    Mildred gave a little laugh at her own absurdity, and then, being an imaginative creature, came presently to regard the idea as not altogether absurd, and, finally, as not absurd at all. If a bough that has been frozen to death all winter can put forth blossoms in the spring, why might not an inanimate object, which already possessed many of the surface attributes of humanity, and possibly some of the internal mechanism, add to itself the crowning gift of speech? In view of the daily phenomena of existence, would that be so very astonishing? Of course the problem took a simpler shape than this in Mildred’s unsophisticated thought.

    She folded her hands in her lap, and, rocking to and fro, reflected how pleasant it would be if Jumping Jack or her doll could come to life, like the marble lady in the play, and do some of the talking. What wonderful stories Jumping Jack would have to tell, for example! He must have had no end of remarkable adventures before he lost his mind. Probably the very latest intelligence from Lilliput was in his possession, and perhaps he was even now vainly trying to deliver himself of it. His fixed, open mouth hinted as much. The Land of the Pygmies, in the heart of Darkest Africa—just then widely discussed in the newspapers—was, of course, familiar ground to him. How interesting it would be to learn, at first hand, of the manners and customs of those little folk. Doubtless he had been a great traveler in foreign parts; the label, in German text, on the bottom of his trunk showed that he had recently come from Munich. Munich! What magic there was in the very word! As Mildred rocked to and fro, her active little brain weaving the most grotesque fancies, a drowsiness stole over her. She was crooning to herself fainter and fainter, and every instant drifting nearer to the shadowy reefs on the western coast of Nowhere, when she heard a soft, inexplicable rustling sound close at her side. Mildred lifted her head quickly, just in time to behold Heliogabalus describe a graceful curve in the air and land lightly in the midst of her best Dresden china tea-set.

    “Ho, ho!” he cried, in a voice preternaturally gruff for an individual not above five inches in height. “Ho, ho!” And he immediately began to throw Mildred’s cups and saucers and plates all about the apartment.

    “Oh, you horrid, wicked little man!” cried Mildred, starting to her feet. “Stop it!”

    “Oh, you cross little girl!” returned the dwarf, with his familiar leer. “You surprise me!” And another plate crashed against the blue-flowered wall-paper.

    “Stop it!” she repeated; and then to herself, “It’s a mercy I waked up just when I did!”

    “Patience, my child; I’m coming there shortly, to smooth your hair and kiss you.”

    “Do!” screamed Mildred, stooping to pick up a large Japanese crystal which lay absorbing the wintry sunlight at her feet.

    When Heliogabalus saw that, he retired to the farther side of his tenement, peeping cautiously over the top and around the corner, and disappearing altogether whenever Mildred threatened to throw the crystal at him. Now Miss Wentworth was naturally a courageous girl, and when she perceived that the pygmy was afraid of her she resolved to make an example of him. He was such a small affair that it really did not seem worth while to treat him with much ceremony. He had startled her at first, his manners had been so very violent; but now that her pulse had gone down she regarded him with calm curiosity, and wondered what he would do next.

    “Listen,” he said presently, in a queer, deferential way, as he partly emerged from his hiding-place; “I came to request the hand of mademoiselle yonder,” and, nodding his head in the direction of Blondella, the doll, he retreated bashfully.

    “Her?” cried Mildred, aghast.

    “You are very nice, but I can’t marry out of my own set, you know,” observed Heliogabalus, invisible behind his breastwork. This shyness was mere dissimulation, as his subsequent behavior proved.

    “Who would have thought it!” murmured Mildred to herself; and as she glanced suspiciously at Blondella, sitting bolt upright between the windows, with her back against the mop-board, Mildred fancied that she could almost detect a faint roseate hue stealing into the waxen cheek. “Who would have thought it!” And then, addressing Jumping Jack, she cried, “Come here directly, you audacious person!” and she stamped her foot in a manner that would have discouraged most suitors.

    But Heliogabalus, who had now seated himself on the lid of his trunk and showed no trace of his late diffidence, smiled superciliously as he twisted off a bit of wire that protruded from the heel of one of his boots.

    This effrontery increased Miss Wentworth’s indignation, and likewise rather embarrassed her. Perhaps he was not afraid of her after all. In which case he was worth nothing as an example.

    “I will brush you off and tread on you,” she observed tentatively, as if she were addressing an insect.

    “Oh, indeed!” he rejoined derisively, crossing his legs.

    “I will!” cried Mildred, making an impulsive dash at him.

    Though taken at a disadvantage the manikin eluded her with surprising ease. His agility was such as to render it impossible to determine whether he was an old young man or a very young old man. Mildred eyed him doubtfully for a moment, and then gave chase. Away went the quaint little figure, now darting under the brass bedstead, now dodging around the legs of the table, and now slipping between the feet of his pursuer at the instant she was on the point of laying hand on him. Owing, doubtless, to some peculiarity of his articulation, each movement of his limbs was accompanied by a rustling, wiry sound like the faint reverberation of a banjo-string somewhere in the distance.

    Heliogabalus may have been a person with no great conversational gift, but his gymnastic acquirements were of the first order. Mildred not only could not catch him, but she could not restrain the manikin from meanwhile doing all kinds of desultory mischief; for in the midst of his course he would pause to overturn her tin kitchen, or shy a plate across the room, or give a vicious twitch to the lovely golden hair of Blondella, in spite of—perhaps in consequence of—his recent tender advances. It was plain that in eluding Mildred he was prompted by caprice rather than by fear.

    “If things go on in this way,” she reflected, “I sha’n’t have anything left. If I could only get the dreadful little creature into a corner! There goes my tureen! What shall I do?”

    To quit the room, even for a moment, in order to call for assistance at the head of the staircase, where, moreover, her voice was not likely to reach any one, was to leave everything at the mercy of that small demon. Mildred was out of breath with running, and ready to burst into tears with exasperation, when a different mode of procedure suggested itself to her. She would make believe that she was no longer angry, and perhaps she could accomplish by cunning what she had failed to compass by violence. She would consent—at least seem to consent—to let him marry Blondella, though he had lately given no signs of a very fervid attachment. Beyond this Mildred had no definite scheme, when the story of the Fisherman and the Evil Afrite flashed upon her memory from the pages of “The Arabian Nights.” Her dilemma was exactly that of the unlucky fisherman, and her line of action should be the same, with such modification as the exigencies might demand. As in his case, too, there was no time to be lost. An expression of ineffable benevolence and serenity instantly overspread the features of Miss Wentworth. She leaned against the wardrobe, and regarded Jumping Jack with a look of gentle reproach.

    “I thought you were going to be interesting,” she remarked softly.

    “Ain’t I interesting?” asked the goblin, with a touch of pardonable sensitiveness.

    “No,” said Mildred candidly; “you are not. Perhaps you try to be. That’s something, to be sure, though it’s not everything. Oh, I don’t want to touch you!” she went on, with an indifferent toss of her curls. “How old are you?”

    “Ever so old and ever so young.”

    “Truly? How very odd to be both at once! Can you read?”

    “Never tried.”

    “I’m afraid your parents didn’t bring you up very well,” reflected Mildred.

    “I speak all languages. The little folk of every age and every country understand me.”

    “You’re a great traveler, then.”

    “I should say so!”

    “You don’t seem to carry much baggage about with you. I suppose you belong somewhere, and keep your clothes there. I really should like to know where you came from, if it’s all the same to you.”

    “Out of that box, my dove,” replied Jumping Jack, having become affable in his turn.

    “Never!” exclaimed Mildred, with a delightful air of incredulity.

    “I hope I may die,” declared Heliogabalus, laying one hand on the left breast of his mainspring.

    “I don’t believe it,” said Mildred, confidently.

    “Ho, ho!”

    “You are too tall, and too wide, and too—fluffy. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but you are fluffy. And I just want you to stop that ho-hoing. No; I don’t believe it.”

    “You don’t, don’t you? Behold!” And placing both hands on the floor, Heliogabalus described a circle in the air, and neatly landed himself in the box.

    He was no sooner in than Mildred clapped down the lid, and seated herself upon it victoriously. In the suddenness of her movement she had necessarily neglected to fasten the catch; but that was a detail that could be attended to later. Meanwhile she was mistress of the situation and could dictate terms. One thing was resolved: Jumping Jack was never to jump again. To-morrow he should be thrown into the Charles at the foot of Mount Vernon Street, in order that the tide might carry him out to sea. What would she not have given if she could have sealed him up with that talismanic seal of Solomon which held the cruel marid so securely in his brazen casket? Of course it was not in Mildred’s blood to resist the temptation to tease her captive a little.

    “Now, Mr. Jack, I guess I’ve got you where you belong. If you are not an old man this very minute, you will be when you get out. You wanted to carry off my Blondella, did you? The idea! I hope you’re quite comfortable.”

    “Let me out!” growled Heliogabalus in his deepest bass.

    “I couldn’t think of it, dear. You are one of those little boys that shouldn’t be either seen or heard; and I don’t want you to speak again, for I’m sitting on your head, and your voice goes right through me. So you will please remember not to speak unless you are spoken to.” And Mildred broke into the merriest laugh imaginable, recollecting how many times she herself had been extinguished by the same instructions.

    But Mildred’s triumph was premature, for the little man in the box was as strong as a giant in a dime museum; and now that he had fully recovered his breath, he began pushing in a most systematic manner with his head and shoulders, and Mildred, to her great consternation, found herself being slowly lifted up on the lid of the chest, do what she might. In a minute or two more she must inevitably fall off, and Jumping Jack would have her. And what mercy could she expect at his hands, after her treatment of him! She was lost! Mildred stretched out her arms in despair, gave a shriek, and opened her eyes, which had been all the while as tightly shut as a couple of morning-glories at sundown.

    She was sitting on a rug in the middle of the room. Though the window-panes were still flushed with the memory of the winter sunset, the iridescent lights had faded out in the Japanese crystal at her feet. She was not anywhere near the little imp. There he was over by the fireplace, staring at nothing in his usual senseless fashion. Not a piece of crockery had been broken, not a chair upset, and Blondella, the too fascinating Blondella, had not had a single tress disarranged.

    Mildred drew a long breath of relief. What had happened? Had she been dreaming? She was unable to answer the question; but as she abstractedly shook out the creases in the folds of her skirt, she remarked to herself that she did not care, on the whole, to have any of her things come to life, certainly not Jumping Jack. Just then the splintering of an icicle on the window-ledge outside sent a faint whiteness into her cheek, and caused her to throw a quick, apprehensive glance toward the fireplace. After an instant’s hesitation, Mildred, unconsciously dragging Blondella by the hair, stole softly from the room, where the specters of the twilight were beginning to gather rather menacingly, and went down-stairs to join the family and relate her strange adventure.

    The analysis of Miss Wentworth’s dream—if it were a dream, for later on she declared it was not, and hurriedly gave Heliogabalus to an unpleasant small boy who lived next door—the analysis of her dream, I repeat, shows strong traces of a moral. Indeed, the residuum is purely of that stringent quality. Heliogabalus must be accepted as the symbol of an ill-considered desire realized. The earnestness with which Miss Wentworth invoked the phantasm and the misery that came of it are a common experience. Painfully to attain possession of what we do not want, and then painfully to waste our days in attempting to rid ourselves of it, seems to be a part of our discipline here below. I know a great many excellent persons who are spending the latter moiety of life in the endeavor to get their particular Jumping Jack snugly back into its box again.