A Matter of System

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2616735A Matter of SystemEleanor H. Porter

A Matter of System

At the office of Hawkins & Hawkins, system was everything. Even the trotter-boy was reduced to an orbit that ignored craps and marbles, and the stenographer went about her work like a well-oiled bit of machinery. It is not strange, then, that Jasper Hawkins, senior member of the firm, was particularly incensed at the confusion that Christmas always brought to his home.

For years he bore—with such patience as he could muster—the attack of nervous prostration that regularly, on the 26th day of December, laid his wife upon a bed of invalidism; then, in the face of the unmistakable evidence that the malady would this year precede the holy day of peace and good-will, he burst his bonds of self-control and spoke his mind.

It was upon the morning of the 21st.

"Edith," he began, in what his young daughter called his "now mind" voice, "this thing has got to stop."

"What thing?"


"Jas-per!"—it was as if she thought he had the power to sweep good-will itself from the earth. "Christmas—stop!"

"Yes. My dear, how did you spend yesterday?"

"I was—shopping."

"Exactly. And the day before?—and the day before that?—and before that? You need n't answer, for I know. And you were shopping for—" he paused expectantly.

"Presents." Something quite outside of herself had forced the answer.

"Exactly. Now, Edith, surely it need not take all your time for a month before Christmas to buy a few paltry presents, and all of it for two months afterward to get over buying them!"

"But, Jasper, they are n't few, and they're anything but paltry. Imagine giving Uncle Harold a paltry present!" retorted Edith, with some spirit.

The man waved an impatient hand.

"Very well, we will call them magnificent, then," he conceded. "But even in that case, surely the countless stores full of beautiful and useful articles, and with a list properly tabulated, and a sufficiency of money—" An expressive gesture finished his sentence.

The woman shook her head.

"I know; it sounds easy," she sighed, "but it is n't. It's so hard to think up what to give, and after I've thought it up and bought it, I'm just sure I ought to have got the other thing."

"But you should have some system about it."

"Oh, I had—a list," she replied dispiritedly. "But I'm so—tired."

Jasper Hawkins suddenly squared his shoulders.

"How many names have you left now to buy presents for?" he demanded briskly.

"Three—Aunt Harriet, and Jimmy, and Uncle Harold. They always get left till the last. They're so—impossible."

"Impossible? Nonsense!—and I'll prove it to you, too. Give yourself no further concern, Edith, about Christmas, if that is all there is left to do—just consider it done."

"Do you mean—you'll get the presents for them?"

"Most certainly."

"But, Jasper, you know—"

An imperative gesture silenced her.

"My dear, I'm doing this to relieve you, and that means that you are not even to think of it again."

"Very well; er—thank you," sighed the woman; but her eyes were troubled.

Not so Jasper's; his eyes quite sparkled with anticipation as he left the house some minutes later.

On the way downtown he made his plans and arranged his list. He wished it were longer—that list. Three names were hardly sufficient to demonstrate his theories and display his ability. As for Aunt Harriet, Jimmy, and Uncle Harold being "impossible"—that was all nonsense, as he had said; and before his eyes rose a vision of the three: Aunt Harriet, a middle-aged spinster, poor, half-sick, and chronically discontented with the world; Jimmy, a white-faced lad who was always reading a book; and Uncle Harold, red-faced, red-headed, and—red-tempered. (Jasper smiled all to himself at this last thought.) "Red-tempered"—that was good. He would tell Edith—but he would not tell others. Witticisms at the expense of a rich old bachelor uncle whose heir was a matter of his own choosing were best kept pretty much to one's self. Edith was right, however, in one thing, Jasper decided: Uncle Harold surely could not be given a "paltry" present. He must be given something fine, expensive, and desirable—something that one would like one's self. And immediately there popped into Jasper's mind the thought of a certain exquisitely carved meerschaum which he had seen in a window and which he had greatly coveted. As for Aunt Harriet and Jimmy—their case was too simple for even a second thought: to one he would give a pair of bed-slippers; to the other, a book.

Some minutes later Jasper Hawkins tucked into his pocketbook an oblong bit of paper on which had been neatly written:—

Presents to be bought for Christmas, 1908:

Aunt Harriet, spinster, 58(?) years old—Bed-slippers.

Uncle Harold, bachelor, 65 years old—Pipe.

Jimmy, boy, 12 years old—Book.

In the office of Hawkins & Hawkins that morning, the senior member of the firm found a man waiting for him. This man was the emissary of his mighty chief, and upon this chief rested the whole structure of a "deal" which was just then looming large on the horizon of Hawkins & Hawkins—and in which the oblong bit of paper in Jasper's pocketbook had no part.

Mrs. Jasper Hawkins greeted her husband with palpitating interest that evening.

"Well—what did you get?" she asked.

The man of business lifted his chin triumphantly.

"Not everything we asked for, to be sure," he began, "but we got more than we expected to, and—" He stopped abruptly. The expression on his wife's face had suddenly reminded him that by no possible chance could she know what he was talking about. "Er—what do you mean?" he demanded.

"Why, Jasper, there's only one thing I could mean—the presents, you know!"

A curious something clutched at Jasper's breath and held it for a moment suspended. Then Jasper throttled the something, and raised his chin even higher.

"Time enough for that to-morrow," he retorted lightly. "I did n't promise to get them to-day, you know."

"But, Jasper, to-morrow's the 22d!"

"And three whole days before Christmas."

"Yes, but they must be sent the 24th."

"And they'll be sent, my dear," declared Jasper, in a tone of voice that was a cold dismissal of the subject.

On the morning of the 22d, Jasper Hawkins told himself that he would not forget the presents this time. He decided, however, that there was no need for him to take the whole day to select a pipe, a book, and a pair of slippers. There would be quite time enough after luncheon. And he smiled to himself in a superior way as he thought of the dizzying rush and the early start that always marked his wife's shopping excursions. He was still smiling happily when he sallied forth at two o'clock that afternoon, leaving word at the office that he would return in an hour.

He decided to buy the meerschaum first, and with unhesitating steps he sought the tobacco-store in whose window he had seen it. The pipe was gone, however, and there really was no other in the place that just suited him, though he spent fully half an hour trying to find one. He decided then to look elsewhere. He would try the department store in which he intended to buy the book and the slippers. It was better, anyway, that he should do all his shopping under one roof—it was more systematic.

The great clock in the department-store tower had just struck three when Jasper stalked through the swinging doors on the street floor. He had been detained. Window displays had allured him, and dawdling throngs of Christmas shoppers had forced his feet into a snail's pace. He drew now a sigh of relief. He had reached his destination; he would make short work of his purchases. And with a dignified stride he turned toward the nearest counter.

At once, however, he found himself caught in a swirl of humanity that swept him along like a useless chip and flung him against a counter much farther down the aisle. With what dignity he could summon to his aid he righted himself and addressed the smiling girl behind it.

"I'm looking for pipes," he announced, severely. "Perhaps you can tell me where they are."

She shook her head.

"Ask him," she suggested, with a nod and a jerk of her thumb.

And Jasper, looking in the direction indicated, saw a frock-coated man standing like a rock where the streams of humanity broke and surged to the right and to the left. By some maneuvering, Jasper managed in time to confront this man.

"Pipes," he panted anxiously—he was reduced now to the single word.

"Annex; second floor. Elevator to your right."

"Thanks!" fervently breathed the senior member of the firm of Hawkins & Hawkins, muttering as he turned away, "Then they have got some system in this infernal bedlam!"

The crisp directions had sounded simple, but they proved to be anything but simple to follow. Like a shuttlecock, Jasper was tossed from clerk to clerk, until by the time he reached his destination he was confused, breathless, and cross.

The pipes, however, were numerous and beautiful, and the girl behind the counter was both pretty and attentive; moreover, pipes did not happen to be popular that day, and the corner was a little paradise of quietness and rest. The man drew a long breath of relief and bent to his task.

In his mind was the one thought uppermost—he must select just such a pipe as he himself would like; and for long minutes he pondered whether this, that, or another would best please him. So absorbed was he, indeed, in this phase of the question, that he had made his selection and taken out his money, when the sickening truth came to him—Uncle Harold did not smoke.

To Jasper it seemed incredible that he had not thought of this before. But not until he pictured his purchase in his uncle's hand had he realized that the thing was not for himself, after all, but for a man who not only did not smoke, but who abhorred the habit in others.

With a muttered something that the righteously indignant pretty girl could not hear, Jasper Hawkins thrust his money into his pocket and rushed blindly away from the pipe counter. Long minutes later in the street, he adjusted his tie, jerked his coat into place, straightened his hat, and looked at his watch.

It was four o'clock, and he must go back to the office before starting for home. There was still another whole day before him, he remembered, and, after all, it was a very simple matter to buy the book and the slippers, and then look around a little for something for Uncle Harold. In the morning he would doubtless light upon the very thing. And with this comforting thought he dismissed the subject and went back to the office.

Mrs. Hawkins did not question her husband that night about what he had bought. Something in his face stayed the words on her lips.

Jasper Hawkins went early to the office the next morning, but it was fully eleven o'clock before he could begin his shopping. He told himself, however, that there was quite time enough for the little he had to do, and he stepped off very briskly in the direction of the department store he had left the night before. He had decided that he preferred this one to the intricacies of a new one; besides, he was very sure that there would not now be so many people in it.

Just here, however, Jasper met with a disappointment. Not only was every one there who had been there the day before, but most of them had brought friends, and in dismay Jasper clung to the post near the door while he tried to rally his courage for the plunge. In the distance the frock-coated man was still the rock where the stream foamed and broke; and after a long wait and a longer struggle Jasper stood once more before him.

"I want slippers—bed-slippers for women," he muttered.

"Fourth floor, front. Elevator to your left," declaimed the man. And Jasper quite glowed with awe at the thought of a brain so stupendous that it could ticket and tell each shelf and counter in that vast domain of confusion.

Jasper himself had been swept to the right on the crest of a particularly aggressive wave formed by the determined shoulders of a huge fat woman who wished to go in that direction; so it was some time before he could stem the current and make an effort to reach the elevator on the other side of the store. It was then that he suddenly decided to grasp this opportunity for "looking about a little to find something for Uncle Harold"—and it was then that he was lost, for no longer had he compass, captain, or a port in view; but oarless and rudderless he drifted.

Then, indeed, did the department store, in all its allurements of glitter and show and competing attractions, burst on Jasper's eyes, benumbing his senses and overthrowing his judgment. For long minutes he hung entranced above a tray of jeweled side combs, and for other long minutes he critically weighed the charms of a spangled fan against those of one that was merely painted—before he suddenly awoke to the realization that he was looking for something for Uncle Harold, and that Uncle Harold did not wear side combs, nor disport himself with gauze fans.

"Where do you keep things for men?" he demanded then, aggrievedly, of the demure-faced girl behind the counter; and it was while he was on the ensuing frantic search for "things for men" that he stumbled upon the book department.

"To be sure—a book for Jimmy," he muttered, and confidently approached a girl who already was trying to wait on three customers at once.

"I want a book for a boy," he observed; and was surprised that no one answered.

"I want a book for a boy," he urged, in a louder tone.

Still no one answered.

"I want a book—for—a—boy," he reiterated distinctly; and this time the girl flicked her ear as at the singing of an annoying insect.

"Juveniles three aisles over to your left," she snapped glibly; and after a puzzled pondering on her words, Jasper concluded that they were meant for him.

In the juvenile department, Jasper wondered why every one in the store had chosen that particular minute to come there and buy a book for a child. Everywhere were haste and confusion. Nowhere was there any one who paid the least attention to himself. At his right a pretty girl chatted fluently of this, that, and another "series"; and at his left a severe-faced woman with glasses discoursed on the great responsibility of selecting reading for the young, and uttered fearsome prophecies of the dire evil that was sure to result from indiscriminate buying.

Her words were not meant for Jasper's ears, but they reached them, nevertheless. The man shuddered and grew pale. With soft steps he slunk out of the book department. ... To think that he—he, who knew nothing whatever about books for boys—had nearly bought one of the risky things for Jimmy! And to Jasper's perverted imagination it almost seemed that Jimmy, white-faced and sad-eyed, had already gone wrong—and through him.

Jasper looked at his watch then, and decided it was time for luncheon. After that he could look around for something else for Jimmy.

It was six o'clock when Jasper, flushed, tired, and anxious, looked at his watch again, and took account of stock.

He had a string of beads and a pair of skates.

The skates, of course, were for Jimmy. He was pleased with those. It was a girl who had helped him in that decision—a very obliging girl who had found him in the toy department confusedly eyeing an array of flaxen-haired dolls, and who had gently asked him the age of the boy for whom he desired a present. He thought of that girl now with gratitude.

The string of beads did not so well please him. He was a little doubtful, anyway, how he happened to buy them. He had a dim recollection that they looked wonderfully pretty with the light bringing out sparkles of green and gold, and that the girl who tended them did not happen to have anything to do but to wait on him. So he had bought them. They were handsome beads, and not at all cheap. They would do for some one, he assured himself. And not until he had dropped them in his pocket did it occur to him that he was buying presents for only a boy, a bachelor, and a middle-aged spinster. Manifestly a string of beads would not do for Jimmy or Uncle Harold, so they must do for Aunt Harriet. He had meant to buy bed-slippers for her, but, perhaps, after all, she would prefer beads. At all events, he had bought them, and they would have to go. And with that he dismissed the beads.

As yet he had nothing for Uncle Harold. There seemed to be nothing, really, that he could make up his mind to give. The more he searched, the more undecided he grew. The affair of the pipe had frightened him, and had sown distrust in his heart. He would have to buy something this evening, of course, for it must be sent to-morrow. He would telephone Edith that he could not be home for dinner—that business detained him; then he would eat a hasty luncheon and buy Uncle Harold's present. And with this decision Jasper wearily turned his steps toward a telephone booth.

Jasper Hawkins went home at ten o'clock. He still had nothing for Uncle Harold. The stores had closed before he could find anything. But there was yet until noon the next day.

Mrs. Hawkins did not question her husband. In the morning she only reminded him timidly.

"You know those things must get off by twelve o'clock, Jasper."

"Oh, yes, they'll go all right," her husband had replied, in a particularly cheery voice. Jasper was not cheery, however, within. He was nervous and anxious. A terrible fear had clutched his heart: what if he could not—but then, he must find something, he enjoined himself. And with that he started downtown at once.

He did not go to the office this time, but sought the stores immediately. He found conditions now even worse than before. Every one seemed to have an Uncle Harold for whom was frenziedly being sought the unattainable. If at nine o'clock Jasper had been nervous, at ten he was terrified, and at eleven he was nearly frantic. All power of decision seemed to have left him, and he stumbled vaguely on and on, scarcely knowing what he was doing. It was then that his eye fell on a huge sign:

"Just the thing for Christmas! When in doubt, buy me!"

There was a crowd before the sign, but Jasper knew now how to use his elbows. Once at his goal he stared in amazement. Then the tension snapped, and he laughed outright—before him were half a dozen cages of waltzing mice.

For a long time the curious whirls and antics of the odd little creatures in their black-and-white coats held Jasper's gaze in a fascinated stare. Then the man, obeying an impulse that he scarcely understood himself, made his purchase, gave explicit directions where and when it was to be sent, and left the store. Then, and not until then, did Jasper Hawkins fully realize that to his Uncle Harold—the rich old man who must be petted and pampered, and never by any chance offended—he had sent as a Christmas present a cage of dancing mice!

That night Mrs. Hawkins fearlessly asked her questions, and as fearlessly her husband answered them. He had determined to assume a bold front. However grave might be his own doubts and fears, he had resolved that she should not know of them.

"Presents? Of course! They went to-day with our love," he answered gayly.

"And what—did you send?"

"The simplest things in the world; a string of handsome beads to Aunt Harriet, a pair of skates to Jimmy, and a cage of the funniest little waltzing mice you ever saw, to Uncle Harold. You see it all resolves itself down to a mere matter of system," he went on; but at the real agony in his wife's face he stopped in dismay. "Why, Edith!"

"Jasper, you didn't—you did n't send skates to Jimmy!"

"But I did. Why not?"

"But, Jasper, he's—lame!"

Jasper fell back limply. All the bravado fled from his face.

"Edith, how could I—how could I—forget—a thing like that!" he groaned.

"And beads for Aunt Harriet! Why, Jasper, I never saw a bead on her neck! You know how poor she is, and how plain she dresses. I always give her useful, practical things!"

Jasper said nothing. He was still with Jimmy and the skates. He wished he had bought a book—a wicked book, if need be; anything would be better than those skates.

"And mice—mice for Uncle Harold!" wept Edith. "Why, Jasper, how could you?—dirty little beasts that Uncle Harold can only feed to his cat! And I had hoped so much from Uncle Harold. Oh, Jasper, Jasper, how could you!"

"I don't know," said Jasper dully, as he got up to leave the room.

To Jasper it was not a happy Christmas. There were those three letters of thanks to come; and he did not want to read them.

As it chanced they all came the same day, the 28th. They were addressed to Mrs. Hawkins, and naturally she read them first. When Jasper came home that night they lay waiting for him on his desk. He saw them, but he decided not to read them until after dinner. He felt that he needed all the fortification he could obtain. He hoped that his wife would not mention them, and yet he was conscious of a vague disappointment when, as time passed, she did not mention them.

Dinner over, further delay was impossible; and very slowly he picked up the letters. He singled out Aunt Harriet's first. Dimly he felt that this might be a sort of preparation for the wrath to follow.

Dear Niece and Nephew [he read—and he sat suddenly erect]. How ever in the world did you guess that it was beads that I wanted more than anything else in the world? And these are such handsome ones! Ever since beads and chains have been worn so much I have longed for one all my own; but I have tried to crush the feeling and hide it, for I feared it might be silly—and me so old and faded, and out-of-date! But I know now that it is n't, and that I need n't be ashamed of it any more, for, of course, you and Jasper would never give me anything silly! And thank you ever and ever so much!

With a slightly dazed expression Jasper Hawkins laid down Aunt Harriet's letter when he had finished it, and picked up the one from Uncle Harold. As he did so he glanced at his wife; but she was sewing and did not appear to be noticing him.

Well, well, children, you have done it this time! [read Jasper, with fearful eyes]. The little beasts came on Christmas morning, and never have I [Jasper turned the page and relaxed suddenly] stopped laughing since, I believe! How in the world did you happen to think of a present so original, so cute, and so everlastingly entertaining? The whole house, and I might say the whole town, is in a fever over them, and there is already a constant stream of children past my window—you see, I've got the little devils where they can best be seen and appreciated!

There was more, much more, and all in the same strain; and again, as Jasper laid the letter down he glanced at his wife, only to find a demure, downcast gaze.

But one letter now remained, and in spite of what had gone before, Jasper picked up this with dread. Surely, nothing—nothing could reconcile Jimmy and those awful skates! He winced as he opened the letter and saw that Jimmy's mother had written—poor Jimmy's mother! how her heart must have ached!—and then he stared in unbelieving wonder at the words, and read them over and over, lest he had in some way misconstrued their meaning.

My dear sister and brother [Jimmy's mother had written], I wish you could have seen Jimmy when your beautiful skates arrived. He will write you himself and thank you, but I know he can't half make you understand just what that present means to him, so I am going to write you myself and tell you what he said; then maybe you can realize a little what a great joy you have brought into his life.

And let me say right here that I myself have been blind all these years. I have n't understood. And what I want to know is, how did you find it out—what Jimmy wanted? How did you know? When I, his own mother, never guessed! Why, even when the skates came on Christmas Day, I was frightened and angry, because you had been so "thoughtless" as to send my poor lame boy skates! And then—I could hardly believe my own eyes and ears, for Jimmy, his face one flame of joy, was waving a skate in each hand. "Mother, mother!" he was shouting. "See, I've got a boy present, a real boy present—just as if I was—like other boys. I've always had books and puzzles and girl presents! Everybody's thought of them when they thought of me!" he cried, thumping the crutches at his side. "But this is a real present— Now I've got something to show, and to lend—something that is something!" And on and on he chattered, with me staring at him as if I thought he was out of his head.

But he was n't out of his head. He was happy—happier than I've ever seen him since he was hurt. And it still lasts. He shows those skates to every one, and talks and talks about them, and has already made plans to let his dearest friends try them. Best of all, they have given him a new interest in life, and he is actually better. The doctor says at this rate he'll be using the skates himself some day!

And now, how can I thank you—you who have done this thing, who have been so wise beyond his mother? I can only thank and thank you, and send you my dearest love.

Your affectionate sister,


The senior member of the firm of Hawkins & Hawkins folded the letter very hurriedly and tucked it into its envelope. There was a mist in his eyes, and a lump in his throat—two most uncalled-for, unwelcome phenomena. With a determined effort he cleared his throat and began to speak.

"You see, Edith," he observed pompously, "your fears were quite groundless, after all. This Christmas shopping, if reduced to a system—" He paused suddenly. His wife had stopped her sewing and was looking straight into his eyes.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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