GEORGE BARR MCCUTCHEON
THE FIVE LITTLE SYKESES
A coal fire crackled cheerily in the little open grate that supplied
warmth to the steam-heated living-room in the modest apartment of Mr.
Thomas S. Bingle lower New York somewhere to the west of Fifth
Avenue and not far removed from Washington Square--in the wrong
direction however if one must be precise in the matter of
emphasizing the social independence of the Bingle family--and be it
here recorded that without the genial aid of that grate of coals the
living-room would have been a cheerless place indeed. Mr. Bingle had
spent most of the evening in trying to coax heat from the lower
regions into the pipes of the seventh heaven wherein he dwelt and
without the slightest sign of success. The frigid coils in the corner
of the room remained obdurate. If they indicated the slightest symptom
of warmth during the evening it was due entirely to the expansive
generosity of the humble grate and not because they were moved by
inward remorse. They were able however to supply the odour of far-
off steam as of an abandoned laundry; and sometimes they chortled
meanly revealing signs of an energy that in anything but a steam pipe
might have been mistaken for a promise to do better.
Mr. Bingle poked the fire and looked at his watch. Then he crossed to
the window drew the curtains and shade aside and tried to peer
through the frosty panes into the street seven stories below. A holly
wreath hung suspended in the window completely obscured from view on
one side by hoar frost on the other by a lemon-coloured window shade
that had to be handled with patience out of respect for a lapsed
spring at the top. He scraped a peep-hole in the frosty surface and
after drying his fingers on his smoking jacket looked downward with
"Do sit down Tom" said his wife from her chair by the fireplace. "A
watched pot never boils. You can't see them from the window in any
"I can see the car when it stops at the corner my dear" said Mr.
Bingle enlarging the peep-hole with a vigour that appeared to be
aggravated by advice. "Melissa said seven o'clock and it is four
minutes after now."
"You forget that Melissa didn't start until after she had cleared away
the dinner things. She--"
"I know I know" he interrupted still peering. "But that was an hour
ago Mary. I think a car is stopping at the corner now. No! It didn't
stop so there must have been some one waiting to get on instead of
"Do come and sit down. You are as fidgety as a child."
"Dear me" said Mr. Bingle turning away from the window with a
shiver "how I pity the poor unfortunates who haven't a warm fire to
sit beside tonight. It is going to be the coldest night in twenty
years according to the--there! Did you hear that?" He stepped to the
window once more. The double ring of a street-car bell had reached his
ears and he knew that a car had stopped at the corner below.
"According to the weather report this afternoon" he concluded re-
crossing the room to sit down beside the fire very erect and
expectant a smile on his pinched eager face. He was watching the
It was Christmas Eve. There were signs of the season in every corner
of the plain but cosy little sitting-room. Mistletoe hung from the
chandelier; gay bunting and strands of gold and silver tinsel draped
the bookcase and the writing desk; holly and myrtle covered the wall
brackets and red tissue paper shaded all of the electric light
globes; big candles and little candles flickered on the mantelpiece
and some were red and some were white and yet others were green and
blue with the paint that Mr. Bingle had applied with earnest though
artless disregard for subsequent odours; packages done up in white and
tied with red ribbon neatly double-bowed formed a significant
centrepiece for the ornate mahogany library table--and one who did not
know the Bingles would have looked about in quest of small fry with
popping covetous eyes and sleekly brushed hair. The alluring scent of
gaudily painted toys pervaded the Christmas atmosphere quite
offsetting the hint of steam from more fortunate depths and one could
sniff the odour of freshly buttered pop-corn. All these signs spoke of
children and the proximity of Kris Kringle and yet there were no
little Bingles nor had there ever been so much as one!
Mr. and Mrs. Bingle were childless. The tragedy of life for them lay
not in the loss of a first-born but in the fact that no babe had ever
come to fill their hungry hearts with the food they most desired and
craved. Nor was there any promise of subsequent concessions in their
behalf. For fifteen years they had longed for the boon that was denied
them and to the end of their simple kindly days they probably would
go on longing. Poor as they were neither would have complained if
fate had given them half-a-dozen healthy mouths to feed as many
wriggling bodies to clothe and all the splendid worries that go with
colic croup measles mumps broken arms and all the other ailments
peculiar not so much to childhood as they are paramount to
Lonely incomplete lives they led with no bitterness in their souls
loving each other the more as they tried to fill the void with songs
of resignation. Away back in the early days Mr. Bingle had said that
Christmas was a bleak thing without children to lift the pall--or
something of the sort.
Out of that well-worn conclusion--oft expressed by rich and poor
alike--grew the Bingle Foundation so to speak. No Christmas Eve was
allowed to go by without the presence of alien offspring about their
fire-lit hearth and no strange little kiddie ever left for his own
bed without treasuring in his soul the belief that he had seen Santa
Claus at last--had been kissed by him too--albeit the plain-faced
wistful little man with the funny bald-spot was in no sense up to the
preconceived opinions of what the roly--poly white-whiskered red-
cheeked annual visitor from Lapland ought to be in order to make
dreams come true.
The Bingles were singularly nephewless nieceless cousinless. There
was no kindly-disposed relative to whom they could look for the loan
of a few children on Christmas Eve nor would their own sensitiveness
permit them to approach neighbours or friends in the building with a
well-meant request that might have met with a chilly rebuff. One
really cannot go about borrowing children from people on the floor
below and the floor above especially on Christmas Eve when children
are so much in demand even in the most fortunate of families. It is
quite a different matter at any other time of the year. One can always
borrow a whole family of children when the mother happens to feel the
call of the matinee or the woman's club and it is not an uncommon
thing to secure them for a whole day in mid-December. But on Christmas
Eve never! And so Mr. and Mrs. Bingle being without the natural
comforts of home were obliged to go out into the world searching for
children who had an even greater grudge against circumstances. They
frequently found their guests of honour in places where dishonour had
left them and they gave them a merry Christmas with no questions
The past two Christmas Eves had found them rather providentially
supplied with children about whom no questions had ever been asked:
the progeny of a Mr. and Mrs. Sykes. Mr. Sykes being dead the care
and support of five lusty youngsters fell upon the devoted but far
from rugged shoulders of a mother who worked as a saleswoman in one of
the big Sixth Avenue shops and who toiled far into the night before
Christmas in order that forgetful people might be able to remember
without fail on the morning thereafter. She was only too glad to lend
her family to Mr. and Mrs. Bingle. More than that she was ineffably
glad on her own account that it was Christmas Eve; it signified the
close of a diabolical season of torture at the hands of a public that
believes firmly in "peace on earth" but hasn't the faintest conception
of what "good will toward men" means when it comes to shopping at
Mrs. Sykes' sister Melissa had been maid-of-all-work in the modest
establishment of Mr. and Mrs. Bingle for a matter of three years and a
half. It was she who suggested the Sykes family as a happy solution to
the annual problem and Mr. Bingle almost hugged her for being so
thoroughly competent and considerate!
It isn't every servant said he who thinks of the comfort of her
employers. Most of 'em said he insist on going to a chauffeurs' ball
or something of the sort on Christmas Eve but here was a jewel-like
daughter of Martha who actually put the interests of her master and
mistress above her own and complained not! And what made it all the
more incomprehensible to him was the fact that Melissa was quite a
pretty girl. There was no reason in the world why she shouldn't have
gone to the ball and had a good time instead of thinking of them in
their hours of trouble. But here she was actually going out of her
way to be kind to her employers: supplying a complete family for
Christmas Eve purposes and never uttering a word of complaint!
The more he thought of it the prettier she became. He mentioned it to
his wife and she agreed with him. Melissa was much too pretty said
Mrs. Bingle entirely without animus. And she was really quite a
stylish sort of girl too when she dressed up to go out of a Sunday.
Much more so indeed than Mrs. Bingle herself who had to scrimp and
pinch as all good housewives do if they want to succeed to a new dress
once a year.
Melissa had something of an advantage over her mistress in that she
received wages and was entitled to an afternoon off every fortnight.
Mrs. Bingle did quite as much work about the house ate practically
the same food slept not half so soundly had all the worry of making
both ends meet practised a rigid and necessary economy took no
afternoons off and all without pecuniary compensation--wherein rests
support for the contention that Melissa had the better of her mistress
when all is said and done. Obviously therefore Mrs. Bingle was not
as well off as her servant. True she sat in the parlour while Melissa
sat in the kitchen but to offset this distinction Melissa could sing
over her pans and dishes.
Mr. Bingle good soul insisted on keeping a servant despite the
strain on his purse for no other reason than that he couldn't bear
the thought of leaving Mrs. Bingle alone all day while he was at the
bank. (Lest there should be some apprehension it should be explained
that he was a bookkeeper at a salary of one hundred dollars a month
arrived at after long and faithful service and that Melissa had but
fifteen dollars a month food and bed.) Melissa was company for Mrs.
Bingle and her unfailing good humour extended to Mr. Bingle when he
came home to dinner tired as a dog and in need of cheer. She joined
in the table-talk with unresented freedom and she never failed to
laugh heartily over Mr. Bingle's inspired jokes. Altogether Melissa
was well worth her wage. She was sunshine and air to the stifled
bookkeeper and his wife.
And now for the third time she was bringing the five rollicking
Sykeses to the little flat beyond Washington Square and for the
thousandth time Mr. and Mrs. Bingle wondered how such a treasure as
Melissa had managed to keep out of heaven all these years.
Mr. Bingle opened the front door with a great deal of ceremony the
instant the rickety elevator came to a stop at the seventh floor and
gave greeting to the five Sykeses on the dark narrow landing. He
mentioned each by name and very gravely shook their red-mittened paws
as they sidled past him with eager bulging eyes that saw only the
Christmas trappings in the room beyond.
"Merry Christmas" said the five not quite in one voice but with
well-rehearsed vehemence albeit two tiny ones in rapt contemplation
of things beyond quite neglected their duty until severely nudged by
Melissa whereupon they said it in a shrill treble at least six times
"I am very pleased to see you all" said Mr. Bingle beaming. "Won't
you take off your things and stay awhile?"
It was what he always said to them and they always said "Yes thank
you" following out instructions received on the way down town and
then in some desperation added "Mr. Bingle" after a sententious
whisper from their aunt.
They were a rosy clean-scrubbed lot these little Sykeses. Their
mother may not have fared overly well herself but she had contrived
to put flesh and fat on the bones of her progeny and you would go a
long way before you would find a plumper merrier group of children
than those who came to the Bingle flat on Christmas Eve in their very
best garments and with their very best appetites. The eldest was ten
the youngest four and it so happened that the beginning and the end
of the string were boys the three in between being Mary Maud and
Mrs. Bingle helped them off with their coats and caps and mufflers
then hugged them and lugged them up to the fire while Melissa removed
her skunk tippet her poney coat and a hat that would have created
envy in the soul of a less charitable creature than the mistress of
"And now" said Mr. Bingle confronting the group "who made you?"
"God Mr. Bingle" said the five Sykeses very much after the habit of
a dog that is ordered to "speak."
"And who was it that said 'Suffer little children to come unto me?'"
"Jesus Mr. Bingle" said the five Sykeses eyeing the pile on the
"And where do you expect to go when you die?" demanded Mr. Bingle
with great severity.
"Heaven!" shouted the perfectly healthy Sykeses.
"How is your mother Mary?" asked Mrs. Bingle always a rational
Mary bobbed. "She's working ma'am" said she and that was all she
knew about her mother's state of health.
"Are you cold?" inquired Mr. Bingle herding them a little closer to
"Yes" said two of the Sykeses.
"Sir" admonished Melissa.
"Sir!" said all of the Sykeses.
"Now draw up the chairs" said Mr. Bingle clearing his throat.
"Mary you'd better take Kate and Georgie on your lap and suppose you
hold Maud Melissa. It will be more cosy." This was his way of
overcoming the shortage in chairs.
Now it was Mr. Bingle's custom to read "The Christmas Carol" on
Christmas Eve. It was his creed almost his religion this heart-
breaking tale by Dickens. Not once but a thousand times he had
proclaimed that if all men lived up to the teachings of "The Christmas
Carol" the world would be sweeter happier nobler and the churches
could be put to a better use than at present considering (as he said)
that they now represent assembling places for people who read neither
Dickens nor the Scripture but sing with considerable intelligence. It
was his contention that "The Christmas Carol" teaches a good many
things that the Church overlooks in its study of Christ and that the
surest way to make good men out of ALL boys is to get at their hearts
while their souls are fresh and simple. Put the New Testament and "The
Christmas Carol" in every boy's hand said he and they will create a
religion that has something besides faith for a foundation. One
sometimes forgets that Christ was crucified but no one ever forgets
what happened to Old Scrooge and as Mr. Bingle read his Bible quite
assiduously it is only fair to assume that he appreciated the
relativeness of "The Christmas Carol" to the greatest Book in all the
For twenty years or more he had not once failed to read "The Carol"
on Christmas Eve. He knew the book by heart. Is it any wonder then
that he was a gentle sweet-natured man in whom not the faintest
symptom of guile existed? And on the other hand is it any wonder
that he remained a bookkeeper in a bank while other men of his
acquaintance went into business and became rich and arrogant? Of
course it is necessary to look at the question from both directions
and for that reason I mention the fact that he remained a bookkeeper
while those who scorned "The Christmas Carol" became drivers of men.
Experience--and some sage conclusions on the part of his wife--had
taught him after years of unsatisfactory practice that it was best
to read the story BEFORE giving out presents to the immature guests.
On a great many occasions the youngsters--in those early days they
were waifs--either went sound asleep before he was half way through or
became so restless and voracious that he couldn't keep his place in
the book what with watching to see that they didn't choke on the
candy break the windows or mirrors with their footballs or put some
one's eye out with a pop-gun.
[Illustration with caption: The "kiddies" kept their eyes and ears
open and sat very still while he read to them of Tiny Tim and his
Of late he had been reading the story first and distributing the
"goodies" and toys afterward. It was a splendid arrangement. The
"kiddies" kept their eyes and ears open and sat very still while he
read to them of Tiny Tim and his friends. And when Mr. Bingle himself
grinned shamefacedly through his tears and choked up so that the words
would not come without being resolutely forced through a tightened
throat the sympathetic audience including Mrs. Bingle and Melissa--
and on one occasion an ancient maiden from the floor above--wept
copiously and with the most flattering clamour.
A small reading-lamp stood on the broad arm of his chair which faced
the expectant group. Mr. Bingle cleared his throat wiped his
spectacles and then peered over the rims to see that all were
attending. Five rosy faces glistened with the sheen of health and soap
lately applied with great force by the proud but relentless Melissa.
"Take off your ear-muffs James" said Mr. Bingle to the eldest Sykes
who immediately turned a fiery red and shrank down in his chair
bitterly to hate his brothers and sisters for snickering at him.
"There! That's much better."
"They're new Mr. Bingle" explained Melissa. "He hasn't had 'em off
since yesterday he likes 'em so much. Put 'em in your pocket Jimmy.
And now listen to Mr. Bingle. Are you sure they ain't too heavy for
you ma'am? Georgie's getting pretty big--oh excuse me sir."
Mr. Bingle took up the well-worn cherished book and turned to the
first page of the text. He cleared his throat again--and again.
Hesitation at a time like this was unusual; he was clearly suddenly
irresolute. His gaze lingered for a moment on the white knob of a door
at the upper end of the room and then shifted to his wife's face.
"I wonder my dear if Uncle Joe couldn't be persuaded to come in and
listen to the reading" he ventured a wistful gleam in his eyes.
"He's been feeling better the last few days. It might cheer him--"
"Cheer your granny" said Mrs. Bingle scornfully. "It's no use. I
asked him just before dinner and he said he didn't believe in
happiness or something to that effect."
"He is the limit" said Melissa flatly. "The worst grouch I've ever
seen Mr. Bingle even if he is your own flesh and blood uncle. He's
almost as bad as Old Scrooge."
"He is a sick man" explained Mr. Bingle lowering his voice; "and he
hasn't known very much happiness in his lifetime so I suppose we
ought to overlook--er ahem! Let me see where was I?" He favoured
young Mary Sykes with a genial grin. "Where was I Mary?"
Mary saw her chance. Without a trace of shame or compunction she said
page seventy-eight and then the three grown people coughed in great
"You sha'n't come next Christmas" whispered Melissa very fiercely
into Mary's ear so ominously in fact that Mary's lip began to
"Page one" she amended in a very small voice. James moved uneasily
in his chair and Mary avoided his gaze.
"I believe I'll step in and ask Uncle Joe if he won't change his
mind" said Mr. Bingle. "I--I don't believe he has ever read the
Christmas Carol. And he is so lonely so--er--so at odds with the
"Don't bother him Tom" said his wife. "Get on with the reading. The
children are impatient." She completed the sentence in a yawn.
Mr. Bingle began. He read very slowly and very impressively at first
but gradually warmed up to the two-hour task. In a very few minutes he
was going along rapidly almost monotonously with scant regard for
effect save at the end of sentences the ultimate word being
pronounced with distinct emphasis. Page after page was turned; the
droning sound of his voice went on and on with its clock-like
inflections at the end of sentences; the revived crackle of coals lent
spirit to an otherwise dreary solo and always it was Melissa who
poked the grate and at the same time rubbed her leg to renew the
circulation that had been checked by the limp weight of Katie Sykes;
the deep sighs of Mrs. Bingle and the loud yawns of the older children
relieved the monotony of sound from time to time; and the cold wind
whistled shrilly round the corners of the building causing the
youngsters to wonder how Santa was enduring the frost during his
tedious wait at the top of the chimney pot. Mrs. Bingle shifted the
occupants of her lap more and more often as the tale ran on and with
little attempt to do so noiselessly; Mary's feet went to sleep and
James fidgeted so violently that twice Mr. Bingle had to look at him.
But eventually he came to the acutely tearful place in the story and
then he was at his best. Indeed he quite thrilled his hearers who
became all attention and blissfully lachrymose. Mrs. Bingle sobbed
Melissa rubbed her eyes violently Mr. Bingle choked up and could
scarcely read for the tightening in his throat and the children