"Behind the White Brick" by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1888)
10-31-2011 11:46 AM
Sort of an Alice in Wonderland story from 1888. Jem (short for Jemima) drifts up the chimney to see what's behind a mysterious white brick---and meets a jolly old fellow whose initials are S.C.
Click here for a printable version.
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"Behind the White Brick" by Frances Hodgson Burnett
From Little Saint Elizabeth and Other Stories by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1888)
It began with Aunt Hetty's being out of temper, which, it must be confessed, was nothing new. At its best, Aunt Hetty's temper was none of the most charming, and this morning it was at its worst. She had awakened to the consciousness of having a hard day's work before her, and she had awakened late, and so everything had gone wrong from the first. There was a sharp ring in her voice when she came to Jem's bedroom door and called out, "Jemima, get up this minute!"
Jem knew what to expect when Aunt Hetty began a day by calling her "Jemima." It was one of the poor child's grievances that she had been given such an ugly name. In all the books she had read, and she had read a great many, Jem never had met a heroine who was called Jemima. But it had been her mother's favorite sister's name, and so it had fallen to her lot. Her mother always called her "Jem," or "Mimi," which was much prettier, and even Aunt Hetty only reserved Jemima for unpleasant state occasions.
It was a dreadful day to Jem. Her mother was not at home, and would not be until night. She had been called away unexpectedly, and had been obliged to leave Jem and the baby to Aunt Hetty's mercies.
So Jem found herself busy enough. Scarcely had she finished doing one thing, when Aunt Hetty told her to begin another. She wiped dishes and picked fruit and attended to the baby; and when baby had gone to sleep, and everything else seemed disposed of, for a time, at least, she was so tired that she was glad to sit down.
And then she thought of the book she had been reading the night before—a certain delightful story book, about a little girl whose name was Flora, and who was so happy and rich and pretty and good that Jem had likened her to the little princesses one reads about, to whose christening feast every fairy brings a gift.
"I shall have time to finish my chapter before dinner-time comes," said Jem, and she sat down snugly in one corner of the wide, old fashioned fireplace.
But she had not read more than two pages before something dreadful happened. Aunt Hetty came into the room in a great hurry—in such a hurry, indeed, that she caught her foot in the matting and fell, striking her elbow sharply against a chair, which so upset her temper that the moment she found herself on her feet she flew at Jem.
"What!" she said, snatching the book from her, "reading again, when I am running all over the house for you?" And she flung the pretty little blue covered volume into the fire.
Jem sprang to rescue it with a cry, but it was impossible to reach it; it had fallen into a great hollow of red coal, and the blaze caught it at once.
"You are a wicked woman!" cried Jem, in a dreadful passion, to Aunt Hetty. "You are a wicked woman."
Then matters reached a climax. Aunt Hetty boxed her ears, pushed her back on her little footstool, and walked out of the room.
Jem hid her face on her arms and cried as if her heart would break. She cried until her eyes were heavy, and she thought she would be obliged to go to sleep. But just as she was thinking of going to sleep, something fell down the chimney and made her look up. It was a piece of mortar, and it brought a good deal of soot with it. She bent forward and looked up to see where it had come from. The chimney was so very wide that this was easy enough. She could see where the mortar had fallen from the side and left a white patch.
"How white it looks against the black!" said Jem; "it is like a white brick among the black ones. What a queer place a chimney is! I can see a bit of the blue sky, I think."
And then a funny thought came into her fanciful little head. What a many things were burned in the big fireplace and vanished in smoke or tinder up the chimney! Where did everything go? There was Flora, for instance—Flora who was represented on the frontispiece—with lovely, soft, flowing hair, and a little fringe on her pretty round forehead, crowned with a circlet of daisies, and a laugh in her wide-awake round eyes. Where was she by this time? Certainly there was nothing left of her in the fire. Jem almost began to cry again at the thought.
"It was too bad," she said. "She was so pretty and funny, and I did like her so."
I daresay it scarcely will be credited by unbelieving people when I tell them what happened next, it was such a very singular thing, indeed.
Jem felt herself gradually lifted off her little footstool.
"Oh!" she said, timidly, "I feel very light." She did feel light, indeed. She felt so light that she was sure she was rising gently in the air.
"Oh," she said again, "how—how very light I feel! Oh, dear, I'm going up the chimney!"
It was rather strange that she never thought of calling for help, but she did not. She was not easily frightened; and now she was only wonderfully astonished, as she remembered afterwards. She shut her eyes tight and gave a little gasp.
"I've heard Aunt Hetty talk about the draught drawing things up the chimney, but I never knew it was as strong as this," she said.
She went up, up, up, quietly and steadily, and without any uncomfortable feeling at all; and then all at once she stopped, feeling that her feet rested against something solid. She opened her eyes and looked about her, and there she was, standing right opposite the white brick, her feet on a tiny ledge.
"Well," she said, "this is funny."
But the next thing that happened was funnier still. She found that, without thinking what she was doing, she was knocking on the white brick with her knuckles, as if it was a door and she expected somebody to open it. The next minute she heard footsteps, and then a sound, as if some one was drawing back a little bolt.
"It is a door," said Jem, "and somebody is going to open it."
The white brick moved a little, and some more mortar and soot fell; then the brick moved a little more, and then it slid aside and left an open space.
"It's a room!" cried Jem, "There's a room behind it!"
And so there was, and before the open space stood a pretty little girl, with long lovely hair and a fringe on her forehead. Jem clasped her hands in amazement. It was Flora herself, as she looked in the picture, and Flora stood laughing and nodding.
"Come in," she said. "I thought it was you."
"But how can I come in through such a little place?" asked Jem.
"Oh, that is easy enough," said Flora. "Here, give me your hand."
Jem did as she told her, and found that it was easy enough. In an instant she had passed through the opening, the white brick had gone back to its place, and she was standing by Flora's side in a large room—the nicest room she had ever seen. It was big and lofty and light, and there were all kinds of delightful things in it—books and flowers and playthings and pictures, and in one corner a great cage full of lovebirds.
"Have I ever seen it before?" asked Jem, glancing slowly round.
"Yes," said Flora; "you saw it last night—in your mind. Don't you remember it?"
Jem shook her head.
"I feel as if I did, but—"
"Why," said Flora, laughing, "it's my room, the one you read about last night."
"So it is," said Jem. "But how did you come here?"
"I can't tell you that; I myself don't know. But I am here, and so"—rather mysteriously—"are a great many other things."
"Are they?" said Jem, very much interested. "What things? Burned things? I was just wondering—"
"Not only burned things," said Flora, nodding. "Just come with me and I'll show you something."
She led the way out of the room and down a little passage with several doors in each side of it, and she opened one door and showed Jem what was on the other side of it. That was a room, too, and this time it was funny as well as pretty. Both floor and walls were padded with rose color, and the floor was strewn with toys. There were big soft balls, rattles, horses, woolly dogs, and a doll or so; there was one low cushioned chair and a low table.
"You can come in," said a shrill little voice behind the door, "only mind you don't tread on things."
"What a funny little voice!" said Jem, but she had no sooner said it than she jumped back.
The owner of the voice, who had just come forward, was no other than Baby.
"Why," exclaimed Jem, beginning to feel frightened, "I left you fast asleep in your crib."
"Did you?" said Baby, somewhat scornfully. "That's just the way with you grown-up people. You think you know everything, and yet you haven't discretion enough to know when a pin is sticking into one. You'd know soon enough if you had one sticking into your own back."
"But I'm not grown up," stammered Jem; "and when you are at home you can neither walk nor talk. You're not six months old."
"Well, miss," retorted Baby, whose wrongs seemed to have soured her disposition somewhat, "you have no need to throw that in my teeth; you were not six months old, either, when you were my age."
Jem could not help laughing.
"You haven't got any teeth," she said.
"Haven't I?" said Baby, and she displayed two beautiful rows with some haughtiness of manner. "When I am up here," she said, "I am supplied with the modern conveniences, and that's why I never complain. Do I ever cry when I am asleep? It's not falling asleep I object to, it's falling awake."
"Wait a minute," said Jem. "Are you asleep now?"
"I'm what you call asleep. I can only come here when I'm what you call asleep. Asleep, indeed! It's no wonder we always cry when we have to fall awake."
"But we don't mean to be unkind to you," protested Jem, meekly.
She could not help thinking Baby was very severe.
"Don't mean!" said Baby. "Well, why don't you think more, then? How would you like to have all the nice things snatched away from you, and all the old rubbish packed off on you, as if you hadn't any sense? How would you like to have to sit and stare at things you wanted, and not to be able to reach them, or, if you did reach them, have them fall out of your hand, and roll away in the most unfeeling manner? And then be scolded and called 'cross!' It's no wonder we are bald. You'd be bald yourself. It's trouble and worry that keep us bald until we can begin to take care of ourselves; I had more hair than this at first, but it fell off, as well it might. No philosopher ever thought of that, I suppose!"
"Well," said Jem, in despair, "I hope you enjoy yourself when you are here?"
"Yes, I do," answered Baby. "That's one comfort. There is nothing to knock my head against, and things have patent stoppers on them, so that they can't roll away, and everything is soft and easy to pick up."
There was a slight pause after this, and Baby seemed to cool down.
"I suppose you would like me to show you round?" she said.
"Not if you have any objection," replied Jem, who was rather subdued.
"I would as soon do it as not," said Baby. "You are not as bad as some people, though you do get my clothes twisted when you hold me."
Upon the whole, she seemed rather proud of her position. It was evident she quite regarded herself as hostess. She held her small bald head very high indeed, as she trotted on before them. She stopped at the first door she came to, and knocked three times. She was obliged to stand upon tiptoe to reach the knocker.
"He's sure to be at home at this time of year," she remarked. "This is the busy season."
"Who's 'he'?" inquired Jem.
But Flora only laughed at Miss Baby's consequential air.
"S.C., to be sure," was the answer, as the young lady pointed to the door-plate, upon which Jem noticed, for the first time, "S.C." in very large letters.
The door opened, apparently without assistance, and they entered the apartment.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Jem, the next minute. "Goodness gracious!"
She might well be astonished. It was such a long room that she could not see to the end of it, and it was piled up from floor to ceiling with toys of every description, and there was such bustle and buzzing in it that it was quite confusing. The bustle and buzzing arose from a very curious cause, too,—it was the bustle and buzz of hundreds of tiny men and women who were working at little tables no higher than mushrooms,—the pretty tiny women cutting out and sewing, the pretty tiny men sawing and hammering and all talking at once. The principal person in the place escaped Jem's notice at first; but it was not long before she saw him,—a little old gentleman, with a rosy face and sparkling eyes, sitting at a desk, and writing in a book almost as big as himself. He was so busy that he was quite excited, and had been obliged to throw his white fur coat and cap aside, and he was at work in his red waistcoat.
"Look here, if you please," piped Baby, "I have brought some one to see you."
When he turned round, Jem recognized him at once.
"Eh! Eh!" he said. "What! What! Who's this, Tootsicums?"
Baby's manner became very acid indeed.
"I shouldn't have thought you would have said that, Mr. Claus," she remarked. "I can't help myself down below, but I generally have my rights respected up here. I should like to know what sane godfather or godmother would give one the name of 'Tootsicums' in one's baptism. They are bad enough, I must say; but I never heard of any of them calling a person 'Tootsicums.'"
"Come, come!" said S.C., chuckling comfortably and rubbing his hands. "Don't be too dignified,—it's a bad thing. And don't be too fond of flourishing your rights in people's faces,—that's the worst of all, Miss Midget. Folks who make such a fuss about their rights turn them into wrongs sometimes."
Then he turned suddenly to Jem.
"You are the little girl from down below," he said.
"Yes, sir," answered Jem. "I'm Jem, and this is my friend Flora,—out of the blue book."
"I'm happy to make her acquaintance," said S.C., "and I'm happy to make yours. You are a nice child, though a trifle peppery. I'm very glad to see you."
"I'm very glad indeed to see you, sir," said Jem. "I wasn't quite sure—"
But there she stopped, feeling that it would be scarcely polite to tell him that she had begun of late years to lose faith in him.
But S.C. only chuckled more comfortably than ever and rubbed his hands again.
"Ho, ho!" he said. "You know who I am, then?"
Jem hesitated a moment, wondering whether it would not be taking a liberty to mention his name without putting "Mr." before it: then she remembered what Baby had called him.
"Baby called you 'Mr. Claus,' sir," she replied; "and I have seen pictures of you."
"To be sure," said S.C. "S. Claus, Esquire, of Chimneyland. How do you like me?"
"Very much," answered Jem; "very much, indeed, sir."
"Glad of it! Glad of it! But what was it you were going to say you were not quite sure of?"
Jem blushed a little.
"I was not quite sure that—that you were true, sir. At least I have not been quite sure since I have been older."
S.C. rubbed the bald part of his head and gave a little sigh.
"I hope I have not hurt your feelings, sir," faltered Jem, who was a very kind hearted little soul.
"Well, no," said S.C. "Not exactly. And it is not your fault either. It is natural, I suppose; at any rate, it is the way of the world. People lose their belief in a great many things as they grow older; but that does not make the things not true, thank goodness! and their faith often comes back after a while. But, bless me!" he added, briskly, "I'm moralizing, and who thanks a man for doing that? Suppose—"
"Black eyes or blue, sir?" said a tiny voice close to them.
Jem and Flora turned round, and saw it was one of the small workers who was asking the question.
"Whom for?" inquired S.C.
"Little girl in the red brick house at the corner," said the workwoman; "name of Birdie."
"Excuse me a moment," said S.C. to the children, and he turned to the big book and began to run his fingers down the pages in a business-like manner. "Ah! here she is!" he exclaimed at last. "Blue eyes, if you please, Thistle, and golden hair. And let it be a big one. She takes good care of them."
"Yes, sir," said Thistle; "I am personally acquainted with several dolls in her family. I go to parties in her dolls' house sometimes when she is fast asleep at night, and they all speak very highly of her. She is most attentive to them when they are ill. In fact, her pet doll is a cripple, with a stiff leg."
She ran back to her work and S.C. finished his sentence.
"Suppose I show you my establishment," he said. "Come with me."
It really would be quite impossible to describe the wonderful things he showed them. Jem's head was quite in a whirl before she had seen one-half of them, and even Baby condescended to become excited.
"There must be a great many children in the world, Mr. Claus," ventured Jem.
"Yes, yes, millions of 'em; bless 'em," said S.C., growing rosier with delight at the very thought. "We never run out of them, that's one comfort. There's a large and varied assortment always on hand. Fresh ones every year, too, so that when one grows too old there is a new one ready. I have a place like this in every twelfth chimney. Now it's boys, now it's girls, always one or t'other; and there's no end of playthings for them, too, I'm glad to say. For girls, the great thing seems to be dolls. Blitzen! what comfort they do take in dolls! but the boys are for horses and racket."
They were standing near a table where a worker was just putting the finishing touch to the dress of a large wax doll, and just at that moment, to Jem's surprise, she set it on the floor, upon its feet, quite coolly.
"Thank you," said the doll, politely.
Jem quite jumped.
"You can join the rest now and introduce yourself," said the worker.
The doll looked over her shoulder at her train.
"It hangs very nicely," she said. "I hope it's the latest fashion."
"Mine never talked like that," said Flora. "My best one could only say 'Mamma,' and it said it very badly, too."
"She was foolish for saying it at all," remarked the doll, haughtily. "We don't talk and walk before ordinary people; we keep our accomplishments for our own amusement, and for the amusement of our friends. If you should chance to get up in the middle of the night, some time, or should run into the room suddenly some day, after you have left it, you might hear—but what is the use of talking to human beings?"
"You know a great deal, considering you are only just finished," snapped Baby, who really was a Tartar.
"I was FINISHED," retorted the doll "I did not begin life as a baby!" very scornfully.
"Pooh!" said Baby. "We improve as we get older."
"I hope so, indeed," answered the doll. "There is plenty of room for improvement." And she walked away in great state.
S.C. looked at Baby and then shook his head. "I shall not have to take very much care of you," he said, absent-mindedly. "You are able to take pretty good care of yourself."
"I hope I am," said Baby, tossing her head.
S.C. gave his head another shake.
"Don't take too good care of yourself," he said. "That's a bad thing, too."
He showed them the rest of his wonders, and then went with them to the door to bid them good-bye.
"I am sure we are very much obliged to you, Mr. Claus," said Jem, gratefully. "I shall never again think you are not true, sir."
S.C. patted her shoulder quite affectionately.
"That's right," he said. "Believe in things just as long as you can, my dear. Good-bye until Christmas Eve. I shall see you then, if you don't see me."
He must have taken quite a fancy to Jem, for he stood looking at her, and seemed very reluctant to close the door, and even after he had closed it, and they had turned away, he opened it a little again to call to her.
"Believe in things as long as you can, my dear."
"How kind he is!" exclaimed Jem full of pleasure.
Baby shrugged her shoulders.
"Well enough in his way," she said, "but rather inclined to prose and be old-fashioned."
Jem looked at her, feeling rather frightened, but she said nothing.
Baby showed very little interest in the next room she took them to.
"I don't care about this place," she said, as she threw open the door. "It has nothing but old things in it. It is the Nobody-knows-where room."
She had scarcely finished speaking before Jem made a little spring and picked something up.
"Here's my old strawberry pincushion!" she cried out. And then, with another jump and another dash at two or three other things, "And here's my old fairy-book! And here's my little locket I lost last summer! How did they come here?"
"They went Nobody-knows-where," said Baby.
"And this is it."
"But cannot I have them again?" asked Jem.
"No," answered Baby. "Things that go to Nobody-knows-where stay there."
"Oh!" sighed Jem, "I am so sorry."
"They are only old things," said Baby.
"But I like my old things," said Jem. "I love them. And there is mother's needle case. I wish I might take that. Her dead little sister gave it to her, and she was so sorry when she lost it."
"People ought to take better care of their things," remarked Baby.
Jem would have liked to stay in this room and wander about among her old favorites for a long time, but Baby was in a hurry.
"You'd better come away," she said. "Suppose I was to have to fall awake and leave you?"
The next place they went into was the most wonderful of all.
"This is the Wish room," said Baby. "Your wishes come here—yours and mother's, and Aunt Hetty's and father's and mine. When did you wish that?"
Each article was placed under a glass shade, and labelled with the words and name of the wishers. Some of them were beautiful, indeed; but the tall shade Baby nodded at when she asked her question was truly alarming, and caused Jem a dreadful pang of remorse. Underneath it sat Aunt Hetty, with her mouth stitched up so that she could not speak a word, and beneath the stand was a label bearing these words, in large black letters—
"I wish Aunt Hetty's mouth was sewed up. Jem."
"Oh, dear!" cried Jem, in great distress. "How it must have hurt her! How unkind of me to say it! I wish I hadn't wished it. I wish it would come undone."
She had no sooner said it than her wish was gratified. The old label disappeared and a new one showed itself, and there sat Aunt Hetty, looking herself again, and even smiling.
Jem was grateful beyond measure, but Baby seemed to consider her weak minded.
"It served her right," she said.
"But when, after looking at the wishes at that end of the room, they went to the other end, her turn came. In one corner stood a shade with a baby under it, and the baby was Miss Baby herself, but looking as she very rarely looked; in fact, it was the brightest, best tempered baby one could imagine."
"I wish I had a better tempered baby. Mother," was written on the label.
Baby became quite red in the face with anger and confusion.
"That wasn't here the last time I came," she said. "And it is right down mean in mother!"
This was more than Jem could bear.
"It wasn't mean," she said. "She couldn't help it. You know you are a cross baby—everybody says so."
Baby turned two shades redder.
"Mind your own business," she retorted. "It was mean; and as to that silly little thing being better than I am," turning up her small nose, which was quite turned up enough by Nature—"I must say I don't see anything so very grand about her. So, there!"
She scarcely condescended to speak to them while they remained in the Wish room, and when they left it, and went to the last door in the passage, she quite scowled at it.
"I don't know whether I shall open it at all," she said.
"Why not?" asked Flora. "You might as well."
"It is the Lost Pin room," she said. "I hate pins."
She threw the door open with a bang, and then stood and shook her little fist viciously. The room was full of pins, stacked solidly together. There were hundreds of them—thousands—millions, it seemed.
"I'm glad they are lost!" she said. "I wish there were more of them there."
"I didn't know there were so many pins in the world," said Jem.
"Pooh!" said Baby. "Those are only the lost ones that have belonged to our family."
After this they went back to Flora's room and sat down, while Flora told Jem the rest of her story.
"Oh!" sighed Jem, when she came to the end. "How delightful it is to be here! Can I never come again?"
"In one way you can," said Flora. "When you want to come, just sit down and be as quiet as possible, and shut your eyes and think very hard about it. You can see everything you have seen to-day, if you try."
"Then I shall be sure to try," Jem answered. She was going to ask some other question, but Baby stopped her.
"Oh! I'm falling awake," she whimpered, crossly, rubbing her eyes. "I'm falling awake again."
And then, suddenly, a very strange feeling came over Jem. Flora and the pretty room seemed to fade away, and, without being able to account for it at all, she found herself sitting on her little stool again, with a beautiful scarlet and gold book on her knee, and her mother standing by laughing at her amazed face. As to Miss Baby, she was crying as hard as she could in her crib.
"Mother!" Jem cried out, "have you really come home so early as this, and—and," rubbing her eyes in great amazement, "how did I come down?"
"Don't I look as if I was real?" said her mother, laughing and kissing her. "And doesn't your present look real? I don't know how you came down, I'm sure. Where have you been?"
Jem shook her head very mysteriously. She saw that her mother fancied she had been asleep, but she herself knew better.
"I know you wouldn't believe it was true if I told you," she said; "I have been BEHIND THE WHITE BRICK."
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