The Ultimate Christmas Collection: 150+ authors & 400+ Christmas Novels, Stories, Poems, Carols & Legends
149 pages

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149 pages

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If you were looking for the definitive Christmas anthology, consider yourself lucky, because you just found it!
This book is everything you want Christmas to be — loving, warm and celebratory. Timeless and adorable, beautifully designed, "The Big Book of Christmas" is a great big stocky book — stuffed with novels, novellas, short stories, poems, carols and songs.
Inside you'll find:

· Novels, novellas and short stories from Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, O. Henry, Lucy Maud Montgomery, E. T. A. Hoffmann, L. Frank Baum, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Van Dyke, Oscar Wilde, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anton Chekhov and many more!
· Poems, carols and songs from John Milton, Clement Clarke Moore, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, H. P. Lovecraft, George MacDonald, Emily Dickinson and many more!



Publié par
Date de parution 14 juillet 2020
Nombre de lectures 10
EAN13 9789897787287
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0050€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.



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Table of Contents
The Set of Poe
The Set of Poe
First published : 1903
Mr. Waterby remarked to his wife: “I’m still tempted by that set of Poe. I saw it in the window today, marked down to fifteen dollars.”
“Yes?” said Mrs. Waterby, with a sudden gasp of emotion, it seemed to him.
“Yes — I believe I’ll have to get it.”
“I wouldn’t if I were you, Alfred,” she said. “You have so many books now.”
“I know I have, my dear, but I haven’t any set of Poe, and that’s what I’ve been wanting for a long time. This edition I was telling you about is beautifully gotten up.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t buy it, Alfred,” she repeated, and there was a note of pleading earnestness in her voice. “It’s so much money to spend for a few books.”
“Well, I know, but —” and then he paused, for the lack of words to express his mortified surprise.
Mr. Waterby had tried to be an indulgent husband. He took a selfish pleasure in giving, and found it more blessed than receiving. Every salary day he turned over to Mrs. Waterby a fixed sum for household expenses. He added to this an allowance for her spending money. He set aside a small amount for his personal expenses and deposited the remainder in the bank.
He flattered himself that he approximated the model husband.
Mr. Waterby had no costly habits and no prevailing appetite for anything expensive. Like every other man, he had one or two hobbies, and one of his particular hobbies was Edgar Allan Poe. He believed that Poe, of all American writers, was the one unmistakable “genius.”
The word “genius” has been bandied around the country until it has come to be applied to a longhaired man out of work or a stout lady who writes poetry for the rural press. In the case of Poe, Mr. Waterby maintained that “genius” meant one who was not governed by the common mental processes, but “who spoke from inspiration, his mind involuntarily taking superhuman flight into the realm of pure imagination,” or something of that sort. At any rate, Mr. Waterby liked Poe and he wanted a set of Poe. He allowed himself not more than one luxury a year, and he determined that this year the luxury should be a set of Poe.
Therefore, imagine the hurt to his feelings when his wife objected to his expending fifteen dollars for that which he coveted above anything else in the world.
As he went to his work that day he reflected on Mrs. Waterby’s conduct. Did she not have her allowance of spending money? Did he ever find fault with her extravagance? Was he an unreasonable husband in asking that he be allowed to spend this small sum for that which would give him many hours of pleasure, and which would belong to Mrs. Waterby as much as to him?
He told himself that many a husband would have bought the books without consulting his wife. But he (Waterby) had deferred to his wife in all matters touching family finances, and he said to himself, with a tincture of bitterness in his thoughts, that probably he had put himself into the attitude of a mere dependent.
For had she not forbidden him to buy a few books for himself? Well, no, she had not forbidden him, but it amounted to the same thing. She had declared that she was firmly opposed to the purchase of Poe.
Mr. Waterby wondered if it were possible that he was just beginning to know his wife. Was she a selfish woman at heart? Was she complacent and good-natured and kind only while she was having her own way? Wouldn’t she prove to be an entirely different sort of woman if he should do as many husbands do — spend his income on clubs and cigars and private amusement, and gave her the pickings of small change?
Nothing in Mr. Waterby’s whole experience as a married man had so wrenched his sensibilities and disturbed his faith as Mrs. Waterby’s objection to the purchase of the set of Poe. There was but one way to account for it. She wanted all the money for herself, or else she wanted him to put it into the bank so that she could come into it after he — but this was too monstrous.
However, Mrs. Waterby’s conduct helped to give strength to Mr. Waterby’s meanest suspicions.
Two or three days after the first conversation she asked: “You didn’t buy that set of Poe, did you, Alfred?”
“No, I didn’t buy it,” he answered, as coldly and with as much hauteur as possible.
He hoped to hear her say: “Well, why don’t you go and get it? I’m sure that you want it, and I’d like to see you buy something for yourself once in a while.”
That would have shown the spirit of a loving and unselfish wife.
But she merely said, “That’s right; don’t buy it,” and he was utterly unhappy, for he realized that he had married a woman who did not love him and who simply desired to use him as a pack-horse for all household burdens.
As soon as Mr. Waterby had learned the horrible truth about his wife he began to recall little episodes dating back years, and now he pieced them together to convince himself that he was a deeply wronged person.
Small at the time and almost unnoticed, they now accumulated to prove that Mrs. Waterby had no real anxiety for her husband’s happiness. Also, Mr. Waterby began to observe her more closely, and he believed that he found new evidences of her unworthiness. For one thing, while he was in gloom over his discovery and harassed by doubts of what the future might reveal to him, she was content and even-tempered.
The holiday season approached and Mr. Waterby made a resolution. He decided that if she would not permit him to spend a little money on himself he would not buy the customary Christmas present for her.
“Selfishness is a game at which two can play,” he said.
Furthermore, he determined that if she asked him for any extra money for Christmas he would say: “I’m sorry, my dear, but I can’t spare any. I am so hard up that I can’t even afford to buy a few books I’ve been wanting a long time. Don’t you remember that you told me that I couldn’t afford to buy that set of Poe?”
Could anything be more biting as to sarcasm or more crushing as to logic?
He rehearsed this speech and had it all ready for her, and he pictured to himself her humiliation and surprise at discovering that he had some spirit after all and a considerable say-so whenever money was involved.
Unfortunately for his plan, she did not ask for any extra spending money, and so he had to rely on the other mode of punishment. He would withhold the expected Christmas present. In order that she might fully understand his purpose, he would give presents to both of the children.
It was a harsh measure, he admitted, but perhaps it would teach her to have some consideration for the wishes of others.
It must be said that Mr. Waterby was not wholly proud of his revenge when he arose on Christmas morning. He felt that he had accomplished his purpose, and he told himself that his motives had been good and pure, but still he was not satisfied with himself.
He went to the dining-room, and there on the table in front of his plate was a long paper box, containing ten books, each marked “Poe.” It was the edition he had coveted.
“What’s this?” he asked, winking slowly, for his mind could not grasp in one moment the fact of his awful shame.
“I should think you ought to know, Alfred,” said Mrs. Waterby, flushed, and giggling like a schoolgirl.
“Oh, it was you.”
“My goodness, you’ve had me so frightened! That first day, when you spoke of buying them and I told you not to, I was just sure that you suspected something. I bought them a week before that.”
“Yes — yes,” said Mr. Waterby, feeling the saltwater in his eyes. At that moment he had the soul of a wretch being whipped at the stake.
“I was determined not to ask you for any money to pay for your own presents,” Mrs. Waterby continued. “Do you know I had to save for you and the children out of my regular allowance. Why, last week I nearly starved you, and you never noticed it at all. I was afraid you would.”
“No, I — didn’t notice it,” said Mr. Waterby, brokenly, for he was confused and giddy.
This self-sacrificing angel — and he had bought no Christmas present for her!
It was a fearful situation, and he lied his way out of it.
“How did you like your present?” he asked.
“Why, I haven’t seen it yet,” she said, looking across at him in surprise.
“You haven’t? I told them to send it up yesterday.”
The children were shouting and laughing over their gifts in the next room, and he felt it his duty to lie for their sake.
“Well, don’t tell me what it is,” interrupted Mrs. Waterby. “Wait until it comes.”
“I’ll go after it.”
He did go after it, although he had to drag a jeweler away from his home on Christmas-day and have him open his great safe. The ring which he selected was beyond his means, it is true, but when a man has to buy back his self-respect, the price is never too high.
A Merry Christmas
A Country Christmas
Cousin Tribulation’s Story
What the Bells Saw and Said
Tilly’s Christmas
Tessa’s Surprises
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Kate’s Choice
The Boys’ Joke, and Who Got the Best of It
A Quiet Little Woman
Chapter 1 — How She Found It
Chapter 2 — How She Filled It
Rosa’s Tale
My Little School-Girl
What Love Can Do
Daisy’s Jewel-Box, and How She Filled It
A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True
Sunshine, and Her Brothers and Sisters
A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came
The Little Red Purse
Sophie’s Secret
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Becky’s Christmas Dream
A Merry Christmas
First published : 1868 (from ‘Little Women’)
Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey. She woke Meg with a “Merry Christmas,” and bade her see what was under her pillow. A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes. Presently Beth and Amy woke to rummage and find their little books also, one dove-colored, the other blue, and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the east grew rosy with the coming day.
In spite of her small vanities, Margaret had a sweet and pious nature, which unconsciously influenced her sisters, especially Jo, who loved her very tenderly, and obeyed her because her advice was so gently given.
“Girls,” said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little night-capped ones in the room beyond, “Mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it, but since Father went away and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things. You can do as you please, but I shall keep my book on the table here and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do me good and help me through the day.”
Then she opened her new book and began to read. Jo put her arm round her and, leaning cheek to cheek, read also, with the quiet expression so seldom seen on her restless face.
“How good Meg is! Come, Amy, let’s do as they do. I’ll help you with the hard words, and they’ll explain things if we don’t understand,” whispered Beth, very much impressed by the pretty books and her sisters’ example.
“I’m glad mine is blue,” said Amy. and then the rooms were very still while the pages were softly turned, and the winter sunshine crept in to touch the bright heads and serious faces with a Christmas greeting.
“Where is Mother?” asked Meg, as she and Jo ran down to thank her for their gifts, half an hour later.
“Goodness only knows. Some poor creeter came a-beggin’, and your ma went straight off to see what was needed. There never was such a woman for givin’ away vittles and drink, clothes and firin’,” replied Hannah, who had lived with the family since Meg was born, and was considered by them all more as a friend than a servant.
“She will be back soon, I think, so fry your cakes, and have everything ready,” said Meg, looking over the presents which were collected in a basket and kept under the sofa, ready to be produced at the proper time. “Why, where is Amy’s bottle of cologne?” she added, as the little flask did not appear.
“She took it out a minute ago, and went off with it to put a ribbon on it, or some such notion,” replied Jo, dancing about the room to take the first stiffness off the new army slippers.
“How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they? Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself,” said Beth, looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her such labor.
“Bless the child! She’s gone and put ‘Mother’ on them instead of ‘M. March’. How funny!” cried Jo, taking one up.
“Isn’t that right? I thought it was better to do it so, because Meg’s initials are M.M., and I don’t want anyone to use these but Marmee,” said Beth, looking troubled.
“It’s all right, dear, and a very pretty idea, quite sensible too, for no one can ever mistake now. It will please her very much, I know,” said Meg, with a frown for Jo and a smile for Beth.
“There’s Mother. Hide the basket, quick!” cried Jo, as a door slammed and steps sounded in the hall.
Amy came in hastily, and looked rather abashed when she saw her sisters all waiting for her.
“Where have you been, and what are you hiding behind you?” asked Meg, surprised to see, by her hood and cloak, that lazy Amy had been out so early.
“Don’t laugh at me, Jo! I didn’t mean anyone should know till the time came. I only meant to change the little bottle for a big one, and I gave all my money to get it, and I’m truly trying not to be selfish anymore.”
As she spoke, Amy showed the handsome flask which replaced the cheap one, and looked so earnest and humble in her little effort to forget herself that Meg hugged her on the spot, and Jo pronounced her ‘a trump’, while Beth ran to the window, and picked her finest rose to ornament the stately bottle.
“You see I felt ashamed of my present, after reading and talking about being good this morning, so I ran round the corner and changed it the minute I was up, and I’m so glad, for mine is the handsomest now.”
Another bang of the street door sent the basket under the sofa, and the girls to the table, eager for breakfast.
“Merry Christmas, Marmee! Many of them! Thank you for our books. We read some, and mean to every day,” they all cried in chorus.
“Merry Christmas, little daughters! I’m glad you began at once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?”
They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for a minute no one spoke, only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously, “I’m so glad you came before we began!”
“May I go and help carry the things to the poor little children?” asked Beth eagerly.
“I shall take the cream and the muffings,” added Amy, heroically giving up the article she most liked.
Meg was already covering the buckwheats, and piling the bread into one big plate.
“I thought you’d do it,” said Mrs. March, smiling as if satisfied. “You shall all go and help me, and when we come back we will have bread and milk for breakfast, and make it up at dinnertime.”
They were soon ready, and the procession set out. Fortunately it was early, and they went through back streets, so few people saw them, and no one laughed at the queer party.
A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm.
How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went in.
“Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us!” said the poor woman, crying for joy.
“Funny angels in hoods and mittens,” said Jo, and set them to laughing.
In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been at work there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and stopped up the broken panes with old hats and her own cloak. Mrs. March gave the mother tea and gruel, and comforted her with promises of help, while she dressed the little baby as tenderly as if it had been her own. The girls meantime spread the table, set the children round the fire, and fed them like so many hungry birds, laughing, talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English.
“ Das ist gut! ” “ Die Engel-kinder! ” cried the poor things as they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze. The girls had never been called angel children before, and thought it very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered a ‘Sancho’ ever since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
“That’s loving our neighbor better than ourselves, and I like it,” said Meg, as they set out their presents while their mother was upstairs collecting clothes for the poor Hummels.
Not a very splendid show, but there was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles, and the tall vase of red roses, white chrysanthemums, and trailing vines, which stood in the middle, gave quite an elegant air to the table.
“She’s coming! Strike up, Beth! Open the door, Amy! Three cheers for Marmee!” cried Jo, prancing about while Meg went to conduct Mother to the seat of honor.
Beth played her gayest march, Amy threw open the door, and Meg enacted escort with great dignity. Mrs. March was both surprised and touched, and smiled with her eyes full as she examined her presents and read the little notes which accompanied them. The slippers went on at once, a new handkerchief was slipped into her pocket, well scented with Amy’s cologne, the rose was fastened in her bosom, and the nice gloves were pronounced a perfect fit.
There was a good deal of laughing and kissing and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and then all fell to work.
The morning charities and ceremonies took so much time that the rest of the day was devoted to preparations for the evening festivities. Being still too young to go often to the theater, and not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private performances, the girls put their wits to work, and necessity being the mother of invention, made whatever they needed. Very clever were some of their productions, pasteboard guitars, antique lamps made of old-fashioned butter boats covered with silver paper, gorgeous robes of old cotton, glittering with tin spangles from a pickle factory, and armor covered with the same useful diamond shaped bits left in sheets when the lids of preserve pots were cut out. The big chamber was the scene of many innocent revels.
No gentleman were admitted, so Jo played male parts to her heart’s content and took immense satisfaction in a pair of russet leather boots given her by a friend, who knew a lady who knew an actor. These boots, an old foil, and a slashed doublet once used by an artist for some picture, were Jo’s chief treasures and appeared on all occasions. The smallness of the company made it necessary for the two principal actors to take several parts apiece, and they certainly deserved some credit for the hard work they did in learning three or four different parts, whisking in and out of various costumes, and managing the stage besides. It was excellent drill for their memories, a harmless amusement, and employed many hours which otherwise would have been idle, lonely, or spent in less profitable society.
On Christmas night, a dozen girls piled onto the bed which was the dress circle, and sat before the blue and yellow chintz curtains in a most flattering state of expectancy. There was a good deal of rustling and whispering behind the curtain, a trifle of lamp smoke, and an occasional giggle from Amy, who was apt to get hysterical in the excitement of the moment. Presently a bell sounded, the curtains flew apart, and the operatic tragedy began.
“A gloomy wood,” according to the one playbill, was represented by a few shrubs in pots, green baize on the floor, and a cave in the distance. This cave was made with a clothes horse for a roof, bureaus for walls, and in it was a small furnace in full blast, with a black pot on it and an old witch bending over it. The stage was dark and the glow of the furnace had a fine effect, especially as real steam issued from the kettle when the witch took off the cover. A moment was allowed for the first thrill to subside, then Hugo, the villain, stalked in with a clanking sword at his side, a slouching hat, black beard, mysterious cloak, and the boots. After pacing to and fro in much agitation, he struck his forehead, and burst out in a wild strain, singing of his hatred for Roderigo, his love for Zara, and his pleasing resolution to kill the one and win the other. The gruff tones of Hugo’s voice, with an occasional shout when his feelings overcame him, were very impressive, and the audience applauded the moment he paused for breath. Bowing with the air of one accustomed to public praise, he stole to the cavern and ordered Hagar to come forth with a commanding, “What ho, minion! I need thee!”
Out came Meg, with gray horsehair hanging about her face, a red and black robe, a staff, and cabalistic signs upon her cloak. Hugo demanded a potion to make Zara adore him, and one to destroy Roderigo. Hagar, in a fine dramatic melody, promised both, and proceeded to call up the spirit who would bring the love philter.
Hither, hither, from thy home,
Airy sprite, I bid thee come!
Born of roses, fed on dew,
Charms and potions canst thou brew?
Bring me here, with elfin speed,
The fragrant philter which I need.
Make it sweet and swift and strong,
Spirit, answer now my song!
A soft strain of music sounded, and then at the back of the cave appeared a little figure in cloudy white, with glittering wings, golden hair, and a garland of roses on its head. Waving a wand, it sang ...
Hither I come,
From my airy home,
Afar in the silver moon.
Take the magic spell,
And use it well,
Or its power will vanish soon!
And dropping a small, gilded bottle at the witch’s feet, the spirit vanished. Another chant from Hagar produced another apparition, not a lovely one, for with a bang an ugly black imp appeared and, having croaked a reply, tossed a dark bottle at Hugo and disappeared with a mocking laugh. Having warbled his thanks and put the potions in his boots, Hugo departed, and Hagar informed the audience that as he had killed a few of her friends in times past, she had cursed him, and intends to thwart his plans, and be revenged on him. Then the curtain fell, and the audience reposed and ate candy while discussing the merits of the play.
A good deal of hammering went on before the curtain rose again, but when it became evident what a masterpiece of stage carpentery had been got up, no one murmured at the delay. It was truly superb. A tower rose to the ceiling, halfway up appeared a window with a lamp burning in it, and behind the white curtain appeared Zara in a lovely blue and silver dress, waiting for Roderigo. He came in gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut lovelocks, a guitar, and the boots, of course. Kneeling at the foot of the tower, he sang a serenade in melting tones. Zara replied and, after a musical dialogue, consented to fly. Then came the grand effect of the play. Roderigo produced a rope ladder, with five steps to it, threw up one end, and invited Zara to descend. Timidly she crept from her lattice, put her hand on Roderigo’s shoulder, and was about to leap gracefully down when “Alas! Alas for Zara!” she forgot her train. It caught in the window, the tower tottered, leaned forward, fell with a crash, and buried the unhappy lovers in the ruins.
A universal shriek arose as the russet boots waved wildly from the wreck and a golden head emerged, exclaiming, “I told you so! I told you so!” With wonderful presence of mind, Don Pedro, the cruel sire, rushed in, dragged out his daughter, with a hasty aside ...
“Don’t laugh! Act as if it was all right!” and, ordering Roderigo up, banished him from the kingdom with wrath and scorn. Though decidedly shaken by the fall from the tower upon him, Roderigo defied the old gentleman and refused to stir. This dauntless example fired Zara. She also defied her sire, and he ordered them both to the deepest dungeons of the castle. A stout little retainer came in with chains and led them away, looking very much frightened and evidently forgetting the speech he ought to have made.
Act third was the castle hall, and here Hagar appeared, having come to free the lovers and finish Hugo. She hears him coming and hides, sees him put the potions into two cups of wine and bid the timid little servant, “Bear them to the captives in their cells, and tell them I shall come anon.” The servant takes Hugo aside to tell him something, and Hagar changes the cups for two others which are harmless. Ferdinando, the ‘minion’, carries them away, and Hagar puts back the cup which holds the poison meant for Roderigo. Hugo, getting thirsty after a long warble, drinks it, loses his wits, and after a good deal of clutching and stamping, falls flat and dies, while Hagar informs him what she has done in a song of exquisite power and melody.
This was a truly thrilling scene, though some persons might have thought that the sudden tumbling down of a quantity of long red hair rather marred the effect of the villain’s death. He was called before the curtain, and with great propriety appeared, leading Hagar, whose singing was considered more wonderful than all the rest of the performance put together.
Act fourth displayed the despairing Roderigo on the point of stabbing himself because he has been told that Zara has deserted him. Just as the dagger is at his heart, a lovely song is sung under his window, informing him that Zara is true but in danger, and he can save her if he will. A key is thrown in, which unlocks the door, and in a spasm of rapture he tears off his chains and rushes away to find and rescue his lady love.
Act fifth opened with a stormy scene between Zara and Don Pedro. He wishes her to go into a convent, but she won’t hear of it, and after a touching appeal, is about to faint when Roderigo dashes in and demands her hand. Don Pedro refuses, because he is not rich. They shout and gesticulate tremendously but cannot agree, and Rodrigo is about to bear away the exhausted Zara, when the timid servant enters with a letter and a bag from Hagar, who has mysteriously disappeared. The latter informs the party that she bequeaths untold wealth to the young pair and an awful doom to Don Pedro, if he doesn’t make them happy. The bag is opened, and several quarts of tin money shower down upon the stage till it is quite glorified with the glitter. This entirely softens the stern sire. He consents without a murmur, all join in a joyful chorus, and the curtain falls upon the lovers kneeling to receive Don Pedro’s blessing in attitudes of the most romantic grace.
Tumultuous applause followed but received an unexpected check, for the cot bed, on which the dress circle was built, suddenly shut up and extinguished the enthusiastic audience. Roderigo and Don Pedro flew to the rescue, and all were taken out unhurt, though many were speechless with laughter. The excitement had hardly subsided when Hannah appeared, with “Mrs. March’s compliments, and would the ladies walk down to supper.”
This was a surprise even to the actors, and when they saw the table, they looked at one another in rapturous amazement. It was like Marmee to get up a little treat for them, but anything so fine as this was unheard of since the departed days of plenty. There was ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons and, in the middle of the table, four great bouquets of hot house flowers.
It quite took their breath away, and they stared first at the table and then at their mother, who looked as if she enjoyed it immensely.
“Is it fairies?” asked Amy.
“Santa Claus,” said Beth.
“Mother did it.” And Meg smiled her sweetest, in spite of her gray beard and white eyebrows.
“Aunt March had a good fit and sent the supper,” cried Jo, with a sudden inspiration.
“All wrong. Old Mr. Laurence sent it,” replied Mrs. March.
“The Laurence boy’s grandfather! What in the world put such a thing into his head? We don’t know him!” exclaimed Meg.
“Hannah told one of his servants about your breakfast party. He is an odd old gentleman, but that pleased him. He knew my father years ago, and he sent me a polite note this afternoon, saying he hoped I would allow him to express his friendly feeling toward my children by sending them a few trifles in honor of the day. I could not refuse, and so you have a little feast at night to make up for the bread-and-milk breakfast.”
“That boy put it into his head, I know he did! He’s a capital fellow, and I wish we could get acquainted. He looks as if he’d like to know us but he’s bashful, and Meg is so prim she won’t let me speak to him when we pass,” said Jo, as the plates went round, and the ice began to melt out of sight, with ohs and ahs of satisfaction.
“You mean the people who live in the big house next door, don’t you?” asked one of the girls. “My mother knows old Mr. Laurence, but says he’s very proud and doesn’t like to mix with his neighbors. He keeps his grandson shut up, when he isn’t riding or walking with his tutor, and makes him study very hard. We invited him to our party, but he didn’t come. Mother says he’s very nice, though he never speaks to us girls.”
“Our cat ran away once, and he brought her back, and we talked over the fence, and were getting on capitally, all about cricket, and so on, when he saw Meg coming, and walked off. I mean to know him some day, for he needs fun, I’m sure he does,” said Jo decidedly.
“I like his manners, and he looks like a little gentleman, so I’ve no objection to your knowing him, if a proper opportunity comes. He brought the flowers himself, and I should have asked him in, if I had been sure what was going on upstairs. He looked so wistful as he went away, hearing the frolic and evidently having none of his own.”
“It’s a mercy you didn’t, Mother!” laughed Jo, looking at her boots. “But we’ll have another play sometime that he can see. Perhaps he’ll help act. Wouldn’t that be jolly?”
“I never had such a fine bouquet before! How pretty it is!” And Meg examined her flowers with great interest.
“They are lovely. But Beth’s roses are sweeter to me,” said Mrs. March, smelling the half-dead posy in her belt.
Beth nestled up to her, and whispered softly, “I wish I could send my bunch to Father. I’m afraid he isn’t having such a merry Christmas as we are.”
A Country Christmas
First published : 1868
Dear Emily, —
I have a brilliant idea, and at once hasten to share it with you. Three weeks ago I came up here to the wilds of Vermont to visit my old aunt, also to get a little quiet and distance in which to survey certain new prospects which have opened before me, and to decide whether I will marry a millionaire and become a queen of society, or remain ‘the charming Miss Vaughan’ and wait till the conquering hero comes.
Aunt Plumy begs me to stay over Christmas, and I have consented, as I always dread the formal dinner with which my guardian celebrates the day.
My brilliant idea is this. I’m going to make it a real old-fashioned frolic, and won’t you come and help me? You will enjoy it immensely I am sure, for Aunt is a character. Cousin Saul worth seeing, and Ruth a far prettier girl than any of the city rose-buds coming out this season. Bring Leonard Randal along with you to take notes for his new books; then it will be fresher and truer than the last, clever as it was.
The air is delicious up here, society amusing, this old farmhouse full of treasures, and your bosom friend pining to embrace you. Just telegraph yes or no, and we will expect you on Tuesday.
Ever yours,
Sophie Vaughan.
“They will both come, for they are as tired of city life and as fond of change as I am,” said the writer of the above, as she folded her letter and went to get it posted without delay.
Aunt Plumy was in the great kitchen making pies; a jolly old soul, with a face as ruddy as a winter apple, a cheery voice, and the kindest heart that ever beat under a gingham gown. Pretty Ruth was chopping the mince, and singing so gaily as she worked that the four-and-twenty immortal blackbirds could not have put more music into a pie than she did. Saul was piling wood into the big oven, and Sophie paused a moment on the threshold to look at him, for she always enjoyed the sight of this stalwart cousin, whom she likened to a Norse viking, with his fair hair and beard, keen blue eyes, and six feet of manly height, with shoulders that looked broad and strong enough to bear any burden.
His back was toward her, but he saw her first, and turned his flushed face to meet her, with the sudden lighting up it always showed when she approached.
“I’ve done it, Aunt; and now I want Saul to post the letter, so we can get a speedy answer.”
“Just as soon as I can hitch up, cousin;” and Saul pitched in his last log, looking ready to put a girdle round the earth in less than forty minutes.
“Well, dear, I ain’t the least mite of objection, as long as it pleases you. I guess we can stan’ it ef your city folks can. I presume to say things will look kind of sing’lar to ‘em, but I s’pose that’s what they come for. Idle folks do dreadful queer things to amuse ‘em;” and Aunt Plumy leaned on the rolling-pin to smile and nod with a shrewd twinkle of her eye, as if she enjoyed the prospect as much as Sophie did.
“I shall be afraid of ‘em, but I’ll try not to make you ashamed of me,” said Ruth, who loved her charming cousin even more than she admired her.
“No fear of that, dear. They will be the awkward ones, and you must set them at ease by just being your simple selves, and treating them as if they were every-day people. Nell is very nice and jolly when she drops her city ways, as she must here. She will enter into the spirit of the fun at once, and I know you’ll all like her. Mr. Randal is rather the worse for too much praise and petting, as successful people are apt to be, so a little plain talk and rough work will do him good. He is a true gentleman in spite of his airs and elegance, and he will take it all in good part, if you treat him like a man and not a lion.”
“I’ll see to him,” said Saul, who had listened with great interest to the latter part of Sophie’s speech, evidently suspecting a lover, and enjoying the idea of supplying him with a liberal amount of “plain talk and rough work.”
“I’ll keep ‘em busy if that’s what they need, for there will be a sight to do, and we can’t get help easy up here. Our darters don’t hire out much. Work to home till they marry, and don’t go gaddin’ ‘round gettin’ their heads full of foolish notions, and forgettin’ all the useful things their mothers taught ‘em.”
Aunt Plumy glanced at Ruth as she spoke, and a sudden color in the girl’s cheeks proved that the words hit certain ambitious fancies of this pretty daughter of the house of Basset.
“They shall do their parts and not be a trouble; I’ll see to that, for you certainly are the dearest aunt in the world to let me take possession of you and yours in this way,” cried Sophie, embracing the old lady with warmth.
Saul wished the embrace could be returned by proxy, as his mother’s hands were too floury to do more than hover affectionately round the delicate face that looked so fresh and young beside her wrinkled one. As it could not be done, he fled temptation and “hitched up” without delay.
The three women laid their heads together in his absence, and Sophie’s plan grew apace, for Ruth longed to see a real novelist and a fine lady, and Aunt Plumy, having plans of her own to further, said “Yes, dear,” to every suggestion.
Great was the arranging and adorning that went on that day in the old farmhouse, for Sophie wanted her friends to enjoy this taste of country pleasures, and knew just what additions would be indispensable to their comfort; what simple ornaments would be in keeping with the rustic stage on which she meant to play the part of prima donna.
Next day a telegram arrived accepting the invitation, for both the lady and the lion. They would arrive that afternoon, as little preparation was needed for this impromptu journey, the novelty of which was its chief charm to these blasé people.
Saul wanted to get out the double sleigh and span, for he prided himself on his horses, and a fall of snow came most opportunely to beautify the landscape and add a new pleasure to Christmas festivities.
But Sophie declared that the old yellow sleigh, with Punch, the farm-horse, must be used, as she wished everything to be in keeping; and Saul obeyed, thinking he had never seen anything prettier than his cousin when she appeared in his mother’s old-fashioned camlet cloak and blue silk pumpkin hood. He looked remarkably well himself in his fur coat, with hair and beard brushed till they shone like spun gold, a fresh color in his cheek, and the sparkle of amusement in his eyes, while excitement gave his usually grave face the animation it needed to be handsome.
Away they jogged in the creaking old sleigh, leaving Ruth to make herself pretty, with a fluttering heart, and Aunt Plumy to dish up a late dinner fit to tempt the most fastidious appetite.
“She has not come for us, and there is not even a stage to take us up. There must be some mistake,” said Emily Herrick, as she looked about the shabby little station where they were set down.
“That is the never-to-be-forgotten face of our fair friend, but the bonnet of her grandmother, if my eyes do not deceive me,” answered Randal, turning to survey the couple approaching in the rear.
“Sophie Vaughan, what do you mean by making such a guy of yourself?” exclaimed Emily, as she kissed the smiling face in the hood and stared at the quaint cloak.
“I’m dressed for my part, and I intend to keep it up. This is our host, my cousin, Saul Basset. Come to the sleigh at once, he will see to your luggage,” said Sophie, painfully conscious of the antiquity of her array as her eyes rested on Emily’s pretty hat and mantle, and the masculine elegance of Randal’s wraps.
They were hardly tucked in when Saul appeared with a valise in one hand and a large trunk on his shoulder, swinging both on to a wood-sled that stood nearby as easily as if they had been hand-bags.
“That is your hero, is it? Well, he looks it, calm and comely, taciturn and tall,” said Emily, in a tone of approbation.
“He should have been named Samson or Goliath; though I believe it was the small man who slung things about and turned out the hero in the end,” added Randal, surveying the performance with interest and a touch of envy, for much pen work had made his own hands as delicate as a woman’s.
“Saul doesn’t live in a glass house, so stones won’t hurt him. Remember sarcasm is forbidden and sincerity the order of the day. You are country folks now, and it will do you good to try their simple, honest ways for a few days.”
Sophie had no time to say more, for Saul came up and drove off with the brief remark that the baggage would “be along right away.”
Being hungry, cold and tired, the guests were rather silent during the short drive, but Aunt Plumy’s hospitable welcome, and the savory fumes of the dinner awaiting them, thawed the ice and won their hearts at once.
“Isn’t it nice? Aren’t you glad you came?” asked Sophie, as she led her friends into the parlor, which she had redeemed from its primness by putting bright chintz curtains to the windows, hemlock boughs over the old portraits, a china bowl of flowers on the table, and a splendid fire on the wide hearth.
“It is perfectly jolly, and this is the way I begin to enjoy myself,” answered Emily, sitting down upon the home-made rug, whose red flannel roses bloomed in a blue list basket.
“If I may add a little smoke to your glorious fire, it will be quite perfect. Won’t Samson join me?” asked Randal, waiting for permission, cigar-case in hand.
“He has no small vices, but you may indulge yours,” answered Sophie, from the depths of a grandmotherly chair.
Emily glanced up at her friend as if she caught a new tone in her voice, then turned to the fire again with a wise little nod, as if confiding some secret to the reflection of herself in the bright brass andiron.
“His Delilah does not take this form. I wait with interest to discover if he has one. What a daisy the sister is. Does she ever speak?” asked Randal, trying to lounge on the haircloth sofa, where he was slipping uncomfortably about.
“Oh yes, and sings like a bird. You shall hear her when she gets over her shyness. But no trifling, mind you, for it is a jealously guarded daisy and not to be picked by any idle hand,” said Sophie warningly, as she recalled Ruth’s blushes and Randal’s compliments at dinner.
“I should expect to be annihilated by the big brother if I attempted any but the ‘sincerest’ admiration and respect. Have no fears on that score, but tell us what is to follow this superb dinner. An apple bee, spinning match, husking party, or primitive pastime of some sort, I have no doubt.”
“As you are new to our ways I am going to let you rest this evening. We will sit about the fire and tell stories. Aunt is a master hand at that, and Saul has reminiscences of the war that are well worth hearing if we can only get him to tell them.”
“Ah, he was there, was he?”
“Yes, all through it, and is Major Basset, though he likes his plain name best. He fought splendidly and had several wounds, though only a mere boy when he earned his scars and bars. I’m very proud of him for that,” and Sophie looked so as she glanced at the photograph of a stripling in uniform set in the place of honor on the high mantel-piece.
“We must stir him up and hear these martial memories. I want some new incidents, and shall book all I can get, if I may.”
Here Randal was interrupted by Saul himself, who came in with an armful of wood for the fire.
“Anything more I can do for you, cousin?” he asked, surveying the scene with a rather wistful look.
“Only come and sit with us and talk over war times with Mr. Randal.”
“When I’ve foddered the cattle and done my chores I’d be pleased to. What regiment were you in?” asked Saul, looking down from his lofty height upon the slender gentleman, who answered briefly, —
“In none. I was abroad at the time.”
“No, busy with a novel.”
“Took four years to write it?”
“I was obliged to travel and study before I could finish it. These things take more time to work up than outsiders would believe.”
“Seems to me our war was a finer story than any you could find in Europe, and the best way to study it would be to fight it out. If you want heroes and heroines you’d have found plenty of ‘em there.”
“I have no doubt of it, and shall be glad to atone for my seeming neglect of them by hearing about your own exploits. Major.”
Randal hoped to turn the conversation gracefully, but Saul was not to be caught, and left the room, saying, with a gleam of fun in his eye, —
“I can’t stop now; heroes can wait, pigs can’t.”
The girls laughed at this sudden descent from the sublime to the ridiculous, and Randal joined them, feeling his condescension had not been unobserved.
As if drawn by the merry sound Aunt Plumy appeared, and being established in the rocking-chair fell to talking as easily as if she had known her guests for years.
“Laugh away, young folks, that’s better for digestion than any of the messes people use. Are you troubled with dyspepsy, dear? You didn’t seem to take your vittles very hearty, so I mistrusted you was delicate,” she said, looking at Emily, whose pale cheeks and weary eyes told the story of late hours and a gay life.
“I haven’t eaten so much for years, I assure you, Mrs. Basset; but it was impossible to taste all your good things. I am not dyspeptic, thank you, but a little seedy and tired, for I’ve been working rather hard lately.”
“Be you a teacher? or have you a ‘perfessun,’ as they call a trade nowadays?” asked the old lady in a tone of kindly interest, which prevented a laugh at the idea of Emily’s being anything but a beauty and a belle. The others kept their countenances with difficulty, and she answered demurely, —
“I have no trade as yet, but I dare say I should be happier if I had.”
“Not a doubt on’t, my dear.”
“What would you recommend, ma’am?”
“I should say dressmakin’ was rather in your line, ain’t it? Your clothes is dreadful tasty, and do you credit if you made ‘em yourself.” and Aunt Plumy surveyed with feminine interest the simple elegance of the travelling dress which was the masterpiece of a French modiste.
“No, ma’am, I don’t make my own things, I’m too lazy. It takes so much time and trouble to select them that I have only strength left to wear them.”
“Housekeepin’ used to be the favorite perfessun in my day. It ain’t fashionable now, but it needs a sight of trainin’ to be perfect in all that’s required, and I’ve an idee it would be a sight healthier and usefuller than the paintin’ and music and fancy work young women do nowadays.”
“But everyone wants some beauty in their lives, and each one has a different sphere to fill, if one can only find it.”
“‘Pears to me there’s no call for so much art when nater is full of beauty for them that can see and love it. As for ‘spears’ and so on, I’ve a notion if each of us did up our own little chores smart and thorough we needn’t go wanderin’ round to set the world to rights. That’s the Lord’s job, and I presume to say He can do it without any advice of ourn.”
Something in the homely but true words seemed to rebuke the three listeners for wasted lives, and for a moment there was no sound but the crackle of the fire, the brisk click of the old lady’s knitting needles, and Ruth’s voice singing overhead as she made ready to join the party below.
“To judge by that sweet sound you have done one of your ‘chores’ very beautifully, Mrs. Basset, and in spite of the follies of our day, succeeded in keeping one girl healthy, happy and unspoiled,” said Emily, looking up into the peaceful old face with her own lovely one full of respect and envy.
“I do hope so, for she’s my ewe lamb, the last of four dear little girls; all the rest are in the burying ground ‘side of father. I don’t expect to keep her long, and don’t ought to regret when I lose her, for Saul is the best of sons; but daughters is more to mothers somehow, and I always yearn over girls that is left without a broodin’ wing to keep ‘em safe and warm in this world of tribulation.”
Aunt Plumy laid her hand on Sophie’s head as she spoke, with such a motherly look that both girls drew nearer, and Randal resolved to put her in a book without delay.
Presently Saul returned with little Ruth hanging on his arm and shyly nestling near him as he took the three-cornered leathern chair in the chimney nook, while she sat on a stool close by.
“Now the circle is complete and the picture perfect. Don’t light the lamps yet, please, but talk away and let me make a mental study of you. I seldom find so charming a scene to paint,” said Randal, beginning to enjoy himself immensely, with a true artist’s taste for novelty and effect.
“Tell us about your book, for we have been reading it as it comes out in the magazine, and are much exercised about how it’s going to end,” began Saul, gallantly throwing himself into the breach, for a momentary embarrassment fell upon the women at the idea of sitting for their portraits before they were ready.
“Do you really read my poor serial up here, and do me the honor to like it?” asked the novelist, both flattered and amused, for his work was of the aesthetic sort, microscopic studies of character, and careful pictures of modern life.
“Sakes alive, why shouldn’t we?” cried Aunt Plumy. “We have some eddication, though we ain’t very genteel. We’ve got a town libry, kep up by the women mostly, with fairs and tea parties and so on. We have all the magazines reg’lar, and Saul reads out the pieces while Ruth sews and I knit, my eyes bein’ poor. Our winter is long and evenins would be kinder lonesome if we didn’t have novils and newspapers to cheer ‘em up.”
“I am very glad I can help to beguile them for you. Now tell me what you honestly think of my work? Criticism is always valuable, and I should really like yours, Mrs. Basset,” said Randal, wondering what the good woman would make of the delicate analysis and worldly wisdom on which he prided himself.
Short work, as Aunt Plumy soon showed him, for she rather enjoyed freeing her mind at all times, and decidedly resented the insinuation that country folk could not appreciate light literature as well as city people.
“I ain’t no great of a jedge about anything but nat’ralness of books, and it really does seem as if some of your men and women was dreadful uncomfortable creaters. ‘Pears to me it ain’t wise to be always pickin’ ourselves to pieces and pryin’ into things that ought to come gradual by way of experience and the visitations of Providence. Flowers won’t blow worth a cent ef you pull ‘em open. Better wait and see what they can do alone. I do relish the smart sayins, the odd ways of furrin parts, and the sarcastic slaps at folkses weak spots. But massy knows, we can’t live on spice-cake and Charlotte Ruche, and I do feel as if books was more sustainin’ ef they was full of every-day people and things, like good bread and butter. Them that goes to the heart and ain’t soon forgotten is the kind I hanker for. Mis Terry’s books now, and Mis Stowe’s, and Dickens’s Christmas pieces, — them is real sweet and cheerin’, to my mind.”
As the blunt old lady paused it was evident she had produced a sensation, for Saul smiled at the fire, Ruth looked dismayed at this assault upon one of her idols, and the young ladies were both astonished and amused at the keenness of the new critic who dared express what they had often felt. Randal, however, was quite composed and laughed good-naturedly, though secretly feeling as if a pail of cold water had been poured over him.
“Many thanks, madam; you have discovered my weak point with surprising accuracy. But you see I cannot help ‘picking folks to pieces,’ as you have expressed it; that is my gift, and it has its attractions, as the sale of my books will testify. People like the ‘spice-bread,’ and as that is the only sort my oven will bake, I must keep on in order to make my living.”
“So rumsellers say, but it ain’t a good trade to foller, and I’d chop wood ‘fore I’d earn my livin’ harmin’ my feller man. ‘Pears to me I’d let my oven cool a spell, and hunt up some homely, happy folks to write about; folks that don’t borrer trouble and go lookin’ for holes in their neighbors’ coats, but take their lives brave and cheerful; and rememberin’ we are all human, have pity on the weak, and try to be as full of mercy, patience and lovin’ kindness as Him who made us. That sort of a book would do a heap of good; be real warmin’ and strengthening and make them that read it love the man that wrote it, and remember him when he was dead and gone.”
“I wish I could!” and Randal meant what he said, for he was as tired of his own style as a watch-maker might be of the magnifying glass through which he strains his eyes all day. He knew that the heart was left out of his work, and that both mind and soul were growing morbid with dwelling on the faulty, absurd and metaphysical phases of life and character. He often threw down his pen and vowed he would write no more; but he loved ease and the books brought money readily; he was accustomed to the stimulant of praise and missed it as the toper misses his wine, so that which had once been a pleasure to himself and others was fast becoming a burden and a disappointment.
The brief pause which followed his involuntary betrayal of discontent was broken by Ruth, who exclaimed, with a girlish enthusiasm that overpowered girlish bashfulness, —
“ I think all the novels are splendid! I hope you will write hundreds more, and I shall live to read ‘em.”
“Bravo, my gentle champion! I promise that I will write one more at least, and have a heroine in it whom your mother will both admire and love,” answered Randal, surprised to find how grateful he was for the girl’s approval, and how rapidly his trained fancy began to paint the background on which he hoped to copy this fresh, human daisy.
Abashed by her involuntary outburst, Ruth tried to efface herself behind Saul’s broad shoulder, and he brought the conversation back to its starting-point by saying in a tone of the most sincere interest, —
“Speaking of the serial, I am very anxious to know how your hero comes out. He is a fine fellow, and I can’t decide whether he is going to spoil his life marrying that silly woman, or do something grand and generous, and not be made a fool of.”
“Upon my soul, I don’t know myself. It is very hard to find new finales. Can’t you suggest something, Major? then I shall not be obliged to leave my story without an end, as people complain I am rather fond of doing.”
“Well, no, I don’t think I’ve anything to offer. Seems to me it isn’t the sensational exploits that show the hero best, but some great sacrifice quietly made by a common sort of man who is noble without knowing it. I saw a good many such during the war, and often wish I could write them down, for it is surprising how much courage, goodness and real piety is stowed away in common folks ready to show when the right time comes.”
“Tell us one of them, and I’ll bless you for a hint. No one knows the anguish of an author’s spirit when he can’t ring down the curtain on an effective tableau,” said Randal, with a glance at his friends to ask their aid in eliciting an anecdote or reminiscence.
“Tell about the splendid fellow who held the bridge, like Horatius, till help came up. That was a thrilling story, I assure you,” answered Sophie, with an inviting smile.
But Saul would not be his own hero, and said briefly:
“Any man can be brave when the battle-fever is on him, and it only takes a little physical courage to dash ahead.” He paused a moment, with his eyes on the snowy landscape without, where twilight was deepening; then, as if constrained by the memory that winter scene evoked, he slowly continued, —
“One of the bravest things I ever knew was done by a poor fellow who has been a hero to me ever since, though I only met him that night. It was after one of the big battles of that last winter, and I was knocked over with a broken leg and two or three bullets here and there. Night was coming on, snow falling, and a sharp wind blew over the field where a lot of us lay, dead and alive, waiting for the ambulance to come and pick us up. There was skirmishing going on not far off, and our prospects were rather poor between frost and fire. I was calculating how I’d manage, when I found two poor chaps close by who were worse off, so I braced up and did what I could for them. One had an arm blown away, and kept up a dreadful groaning. The other was shot bad, and bleeding to death for want of help, but never complained. He was nearest, and I liked his pluck, for he spoke cheerful and made me ashamed to growl. Such times make dreadful brutes of men if they haven’t something to hold on to, and all three of us were most wild with pain and cold and hunger, for we’d fought all day fasting, when we heard a rumble in the road below, and saw lanterns bobbing round. That meant life to us, and we all tried to holler; two of us were pretty faint, but I managed a good yell, and they heard it.
“‘Room for one more. Hard luck, old boys, but we are full and must save the worst wounded first. Take a drink, and hold on till we come back,’ says one of them with the stretcher.
“‘Here’s the one to go,’ I says, pointin’ out my man, for I saw by the light that he was hard hit.
“‘No, that one. He’s got more chances than I, or this one; he’s young and got a mother; I’ll wait,’ said the good feller, touchin’ my arm, for he ‘d heard me mutterin’ to myself about this dear old lady. We always want mother when we are down, you know.”
Saul’s eyes turned to the beloved face with a glance of tenderest affection, and Aunt Plumy answered with a dismal groan at the recollection of his need that night, and her absence.
“Well, to be short, the groaning chap was taken, and my man left. I was mad, but there was no time for talk, and the selfish one went off and left that poor feller to run his one chance. I had my rifle, and guessed I could hobble up to use it if need be; so we settled back to wait without much hope of help, everything being in a muddle. And wait we did till morning, for that ambulance did not come back till next day, when most of us were past needing it.
“I’ll never forget that night. I dream it all over again as plain as if it was real. Snow, cold, darkness, hunger, thirst, pain, and all round us cries and cursing growing less and less, till at last only the wind went moaning over that meadow. It was awful! so lonesome, helpless, and seemingly God-forsaken. Hour after hour we lay there side by side under one coat, waiting to be saved or die, for the wind grew strong and we grew weak.”
Saul drew a long breath, and held his hands to the fire as if he felt again the sharp suffering of that night.
“And the man?” asked Emily, softly, as if reluctant to break the silence.
“He was a man! In times like that men talk like brothers and show what they are. Lying there, slowly freezing, Joe Cummings told me about his wife and babies, his old folks waiting for him, all depending on him, yet all ready to give him up when he was needed. A plain man, but honest and true, and loving as a woman; I soon saw that as he went on talking, half to me and half to himself, for sometimes he wandered a little toward the end. I’ve read books, heard sermons, and seen good folks, but nothing ever came so close or did me so much good as seeing this man die. He had one chance and gave it cheerfully. He longed for those he loved, and let ‘em go with a good-by they couldn’t hear. He suffered all the pains we most shrink from without a murmur, and kept my heart warm while his own was growing cold. It’s no use trying to tell that part of it; but I heard prayers that night that meant something, and I saw how faith could hold a soul up when everything was gone but God.”
Saul stopped there with a sudden huskiness in his deep voice, and when he went on it was in the tone of one who speaks of a dear friend.
“Joe grew still by and by, and I thought he was asleep, for I felt his breath when I tucked him up, and his hand held on to mine. The cold sort of numbed me, and I dropped off, too weak and stupid to think or feel. I never should have waked up if it hadn’t been for Joe. When I came to, it was morning, and I thought I was dead, for all I could see was that great field of white mounds, like graves, and a splendid sky above. Then I looked for Joe, remembering; but he had put my coat back over me, and lay stiff and still under the snow that covered him like a shroud, all except his face. A bit of my cape had blown over it, and when I took it off and the sun shone on his dead face, I declare to you it was so full of heavenly peace I felt as if that common man had been glorified by God’s light, and rewarded by God’s ‘Well done.’ That’s all.”
No one spoke for a moment, while the women wiped their eyes, and Saul dropped his as if to hide something softer than tears.
“It was very noble, very touching. And you? how did you get off at last?” asked Randal, with real admiration and respect in his usually languid face.
“Crawled off,” answered Saul, relapsing into his former brevity of speech.
“Why not before, and save yourself all that misery?”
“Couldn’t leave Joe.”
“Ah, I see; there were two heroes that night.”
“Dozens, I’ve no doubt. Those were times that made heroes of men, and women, too.”
“Tell us more;” begged Emily, looking up with an expression none of her admirers ever brought to her face by their softest compliments or wiliest gossip.
“I’ve done my part. It’s Mr. Randal’s turn now;” and Saul drew himself out of the ruddy circle of firelight, as if ashamed of the prominent part he was playing.
Sophie and her friend had often heard Randal talk, for he was an accomplished raconteur , but that night he exerted himself, and was unusually brilliant and entertaining, as if upon his mettle. The Bassets were charmed. They sat late and were very merry, for Aunt Plumy got up a little supper for them, and her cider was as exhilarating as champagne. When they parted for the night and Sophie kissed her aunt, Emily did the same, saying heartily, —
“It seems as if I’d known you all my life, and this is certainly the most enchanting old place that ever was.”
“Glad you like it, dear. But it ain’t all fun, as you’ll find out to-morrow when you go to work, for Sophie says you must,” answered Mrs. Basset, as her guests trooped away, rashly promising to like everything.
They found it difficult to keep their word when they were called at half past six next morning. Their rooms were warm, however, and they managed to scramble down in time for breakfast, guided by the fragrance of coffee and Aunt Plumy’s shrill voice singing the good old hymn—
Lord, in the morning Thou shalt hear
My voice ascending high.
An open fire blazed on the hearth, for the cooking was done in the lean-to, and the spacious, sunny kitchen was kept in all its old-fashioned perfection, with the wooden settle in a warm nook, the tall clock behind the door, copper and pewter utensils shining on the dresser, old china in the corner closet and a little spinning wheel rescued from the garret by Sophie to adorn the deep window, full of scarlet geraniums, Christmas roses, and white chrysanthemums.
The young lady, in a checked apron and mob-cap, greeted her friends with a dish of buckwheats in one hand, and a pair of cheeks that proved she had been learning to fry these delectable cakes.
“You do ‘keep it up’ in earnest, upon my word; and very becoming it is, dear. But won’t you ruin your complexion and roughen your hands if you do so much of this new fancy-work?” asked Emily, much amazed at this novel freak.
“I like it, and really believe I’ve found my proper sphere at last. Domestic life seems so pleasant to me that I feel as if I’d better keep it up for the rest of my life,” answered Sophie, making a pretty picture of herself as she cut great slices of brown bread, with the early sunshine touching her happy face.
“The charming Miss Vaughan in the role of a farmer’s wife. I find it difficult to imagine, and shrink from the thought of the wide-spread dismay such a fate will produce among her adorers,” added Randal, as he basked in the glow of the hospitable fire.
“She might do worse; but come to breakfast and do honor to my handiwork,” said Sophie, thinking of her worn-out millionaire, and rather nettled by the satiric smile on Randal’s lips.
“What an appetite early rising gives one. I feel equal to almost anything, so let me help wash cups,” said Emily, with unusual energy, when the hearty meal was over and Sophie began to pick up the dishes as if it was her usual work.
Ruth went to the window to water the flowers, and Randal followed to make himself agreeable, remembering her defense of him last night. He was used to admiration from feminine eyes, and flattery from soft lips, but found something new and charming in the innocent delight which showed itself at his approach in blushes more eloquent than words, and shy glances from eyes full of hero-worship.
“I hope you are going to spare me a posy for to-morrow night, since I can be fine in no other way to do honor to the dance Miss Sophie proposes for us,” he said, leaning in the bay window to look down on the little girl, with the devoted air he usually wore for pretty women.
“Anything you like! I should be so glad to have you wear my flowers. There will be enough for all, and I’ve nothing else to give to people who have made me as happy as cousin Sophie and you,” answered Ruth, half drowning her great calla as she spoke with grateful warmth.
“You must make her happy by accepting the invitation to go home with her which I heard given last night. A peep at the world would do you good, and be a pleasant change, I think.”
“Oh, very pleasant! but would it do me good?” and Ruth looked up with sudden seriousness in her blue eyes, as a child questions an elder, eager, yet wistful.
“Why not?” asked Randal, wondering at the hesitation.
“I might grow discontented with things here if I saw splendid houses and fine people. I am very happy now, and it would break my heart to lose that happiness, or ever learn to be ashamed of home.”
“But don’t you long for more pleasure, new scenes and other friends than these?” asked the man, touched by the little creature’s loyalty to the things she knew and loved.
“Very often, but mother says when I’m ready they will come, so I wait and try not to be impatient.” But Ruth’s eyes looked out over the green leaves as if the longing was very strong within her to see more of the unknown world lying beyond the mountains that hemmed her in.
“It is natural for birds to hop out of the nest, so I shall expect to see you over there before long, and ask you how you enjoy your first flight,” said Randal, in a paternal tone that had a curious effect on Ruth.
To his surprise, she laughed, then blushed like one of her own roses, and answered with a demure dignity that was very pretty to see.
“I intend to hop soon, but it won’t be a very long flight or very far from mother. She can’t spare me, and nobody in the world can fill her place to me.”
“Bless the child, does she think I’m going to make love to her,” thought Randal, much amused, but quite mistaken. Wiser women had thought so when he assumed the caressing air with which he beguiled them into the little revelations of character he liked to use, as the south wind makes flowers open their hearts to give up their odor, then leaves them to carry it elsewhere, the more welcome for the stolen sweetness.
“Perhaps you are right. The maternal wing is a safe shelter for confiding little souls like you, Miss Ruth. You will be as comfortable here as your flowers in this sunny window,” he said, carelessly pinching geranium leaves, and ruffling the roses till the pink petals of the largest fluttered to the floor.
As if she instinctively felt and resented something in the man which his act symbolized, the girl answered quietly, as she went on with her work, “Yes, if the frost does not touch me, or careless people spoil me too soon.”
Before Randal could reply Aunt Plumy approached like a maternal hen who sees her chicken in danger.
“Saul is goin’ to haul wood after he’s done his chores, mebbe you’d like to go along? The view is good, the roads well broke, and the day uncommon fine.”
“Thanks; it will be delightful, I dare say,” politely responded the lion, with a secret shudder at the idea of a rural promenade at 8 A.M. in the winter.
“Come on, then; we’ll feed the stock, and then I’ll show you how to yoke oxen,” said Saul, with a twinkle in his eye as he led the way, when his new aide had muffled himself up as if for a polar voyage.
“Now, that’s too bad of Saul! He did it on purpose, just to please you, Sophie,” cried Ruth presently, and the girls ran to the window to behold Randal bravely following his host with a pail of pigs’ food in each hand, and an expression of resigned disgust upon his aristocratic face.
“To what base uses may we come,” quoted Emily, as they all nodded and smiled upon the victim as he looked back from the barn-yard, where he was clamorously welcomed by his new charges.
“It is rather a shock at first, but it will do him good, and Saul won’t be too hard upon him, I’m sure,” said Sophie, going back to her work, while Ruth turned her best buds to the sun that they might be ready for a peace-offering to-morrow.
There was a merry clatter in the big kitchen for an hour; then Aunt Plumy and her daughter shut themselves up in the pantry to perform some culinary rites, and the young ladies went to inspect certain antique costumes laid forth in Sophie’s room.
“You see, Em, I thought it would be appropriate to the house and season to have an old-fashioned dance. Aunt has quantities of ancient finery stowed away, for great-grandfather Basset was a fine old gentleman and his family lived in state. Take your choice of the crimson, blue or silver-gray damask. Ruth is to wear the worked muslin and quilted white satin skirt, with that coquettish hat.”
“Being dark, I’ll take the red and trim it up with this fine lace. You must wear the blue and primrose, with the distracting high-heeled shoes. Have you any suits for the men?” asked Emily, throwing herself at once into the all-absorbing matter of costume.
“A claret velvet coat and vest, silk stockings, cocked hat and snuff-box for Randal. Nothing large enough for Saul, so he must wear his uniform. Won’t Aunt Plumy be superb in this plum-colored satin and immense cap?”
A delightful morning was spent in adapting the faded finery of the past to the blooming beauty of the present, and time and tongues flew till the toot of a horn called them down to dinner.
The girls were amazed to see Randal come whistling up the road with his trousers tucked into his boots, blue mittens on his hands, and an unusual amount of energy in his whole figure, as he drove the oxen, while Saul laughed at his vain attempts to guide the bewildered beasts.
“It’s immense! The view from the hill is well worth seeing, for the snow glorifies the landscape and reminds one of Switzerland. I’m going to make a sketch of it this afternoon; better come and enjoy the delicious freshness, young ladies.”
Randal was eating with such an appetite that he did not see the glances the girls exchanged as they promised to go.
“Bring home some more winter-green, I want things to be real nice, and we haven’t enough for the kitchen,” said Ruth, dimpling with girlish delight as she imagined herself dancing under the green garlands in her grandmother’s wedding gown.
It was very lovely on the hill, for far as the eye could reach lay the wintry landscape sparkling with the brief beauty of sunshine on virgin snow. Pines sighed overhead, hardy birds flitted to and fro, and in all the trodden spots rose the little spires of evergreen ready for its Christmas duty. Deeper in the wood sounded the measured ring of axes, the crash of falling trees, while the red shirts of the men added color to the scene, and a fresh wind brought the aromatic breath of newly cloven hemlock and pine.
“How beautiful it is! I never knew before what winter woods were like. Did you, Sophie?” asked Emily, sitting on a stump to enjoy the novel pleasure at her ease.
“I’ve found out lately; Saul lets me come as often as I like, and this fine air seems to make a new creature of me,” answered Sophie, looking about her with sparkling eyes, as if this was a kingdom where she reigned supreme.
“Something is making a new creature of you, that is very evident. I haven’t yet discovered whether it is the air or some magic herb among that green stuff you are gathering so diligently;” and Emily laughed to see the color deepen beautifully in her friend’s half-averted face.
“Scarlet is the only wear just now, I find. If we are lost like babes in the woods there are plenty of redbreasts to cover us with leaves,” and Randal joined Emily’s laugh, with a glance at Saul, who had just pulled his coat off.
“You wanted to see this tree go down, so stand from under and I’ll show you how it’s done,” said the farmer, taking up his axe, not unwilling to gratify his guests and display his manly accomplishments at the same time.
It was a fine sight, the stalwart man swinging his axe with magnificent strength and skill, each blow sending a thrill through the stately tree, till its heart was reached and it tottered to its fall. Never pausing for breath Saul shook his yellow mane out of his eyes, and hewed away, while the drops stood on his forehead and his arm ached, as bent on distinguishing himself as if he had been a knight tilting against his rival for his lady’s favor.
“I don’t know which to admire most, the man or his muscle. One doesn’t often see such vigor, size and comeliness in these degenerate days,” said Randal, mentally booking the fine figure in the red shirt.
“I think we have discovered a rough diamond. I only wonder if Sophie is going to try and polish it,” answered Emily, glancing at her friend, who stood a little apart, watching the rise and fall of the axe as intently as if her fate depended on it.
Down rushed the tree at last, and, leaving them to examine a crow’s nest in its branches, Saul went off to his men, as if he found the praises of his prowess rather too much for him.
Randal fell to sketching, the girls to their garland-making, and for a little while the sunny woodland nook was full of lively chat and pleasant laughter, for the air exhilarated them all like wine. Suddenly a man came running from the wood, pale and anxious, saying, as he hastened by for help, “Blasted tree fell on him! Bleed to death before the doctor comes!”
“Who? who?” cried the startled trio.
But the man ran on, with some breathless reply, in which only a name was audible — “Basset.”
“The deuce it is!” and Randal dropped his pencil, while the girls sprang up in dismay. Then, with one impulse, they hastened to the distant group, half visible behind the fallen trees and corded wood.
Sophie was there first, and forcing her way through the little crowd of men, saw a red-shirted figure on the ground, crushed and bleeding, and threw herself down beside it with a cry that pierced the hearts of those who heard it.
In the act she saw it was not Saul, and covered her bewildered face as if to hide its joy. A strong arm lifted her, and the familiar voice said cheeringly, —
“I’m all right, dear. Poor Bruce is hurt, but we’ve sent for help. Better go right home and forget all about it.”
“Yes, I will, if I can do nothing;” and Sophie meekly returned to her friends who stood outside the circle over which Saul’s head towered, assuring them of his safety.
Hoping they had not seen her agitation, she led Emily away, leaving Randal to give what aid he could and bring them news of the poor wood-chopper’s state.
Aunt Plumy produced the “camphire” the moment she saw Sophie’s pale face, and made her lie down, while the brave old lady trudged briskly off with bandages and brandy to the scene of action. On her return she brought comfortable news of the man, so the little flurry blew over and was forgotten by all but Sophie, who remained pale and quiet all the evening, tying evergreen as if her life depended on it.
“A good night’s sleep will set her up. She ain’t used to such things, dear child, and needs cossetin’,” said Aunt Plumy, purring over her until she was in her bed, with a hot stone at her feet and a bowl of herb tea to quiet her nerves.
An hour later when Emily went up, she peeped in to see if Sophie was sleeping nicely, and was surprised to find the invalid wrapped in a dressing-gown writing busily.
“Last will and testament, or sudden inspiration, dear? How are you? faint or feverish, delirious or in the dumps! Saul looks so anxious, and Mrs. Basset hushes us all up so, I came to bed, leaving Randal to entertain Ruth.”
As she spoke Emily saw the papers disappear in a portfolio, and Sophie rose with a yawn.
“I was writing letters, but I’m sleepy now. Quite over my foolish fright, thank you. Go and get your beauty sleep that you may dazzle the natives to-morrow.”
“So glad, good night;” and Emily went away, saying to herself, “Something is going on, and I must find out what it is before I leave. Sophie can’t blind me .”
But Sophie did all the next day, being delightfully gay at the dinner, and devoting herself to the young minister who was invited to meet the distinguished novelist, and evidently being afraid of him, gladly basked in the smiles of his charming neighbor. A dashing sleigh-ride occupied the afternoon, and then great was the fun and excitement over the costumes.
Aunt Plumy laughed till the tears rolled down her cheeks as the girls compressed her into the plum-colored gown with its short waist, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and narrow skirt. But a worked scarf hid all deficiencies, and the towering cap struck awe into the soul of the most frivolous observer.
“Keep an eye on me, girls, for I shall certainly split somewheres or lose my head-piece off when I’m trottin’ round. What would my blessed mother say if she could see me rigged out in her best things?” and with a smile and a sigh the old lady departed to look after “the boys,” and see that the supper was all right.
Three prettier damsels never tripped down the wide staircase than the brilliant brunette in crimson brocade, the pensive blonde in blue, or the rosy little bride in old muslin and white satin.
A gallant court gentleman met them in the hall with a superb bow, and escorted them to the parlor, where Grandma Basset’s ghost was discovered dancing with a modern major in full uniform.
Mutual admiration and many compliments followed, till other ancient ladies and gentlemen arrived in all manner of queer costumes, and the old house seemed to wake from its humdrum quietude to sudden music and merriment, as if a past generation had returned to keep its Christmas there.
The village fiddler soon struck up the good old tunes, and then the strangers saw dancing that filled them with mingled mirth and envy; it was so droll, yet so hearty. The young men, unusually awkward in their grandfathers’ knee-breeches, flapping vests, and swallow-tail coats, footed it bravely with the buxom girls who were the prettier for their quaintness, and danced with such vigor that their high combs stood awry, their furbelows waved wildly, and their cheeks were as red as their breast-knots, or hose.
It was impossible to stand still, and one after the other the city folk yielded to the spell, Randal leading off with Ruth, Sophie swept away by Saul, and Emily being taken possession of by a young giant of eighteen, who spun her around with a boyish impetuosity that took her breath away. Even Aunt Plumy was discovered jigging it alone in the pantry, as if the music was too much for her, and the plates and glasses jingled gaily on the shelves in time to Money Musk and Fishers’ Hornpipe.
A pause came at last, however, and fans fluttered, heated brows were wiped, jokes were made, lovers exchanged confidences, and every nook and corner held a man and maid carrying on the sweet game which is never out of fashion. There was a glitter of gold lace in the back entry, and a train of blue and primrose shone in the dim light. There was a richer crimson than that of the geraniums in the deep window, and a dainty shoe tapped the bare floor impatiently as the brilliant black eyes looked everywhere for the court gentleman, while their owner listened to the gruff prattle of an enamored boy. But in the upper hall walked a little white ghost as if waiting for some shadowy companion, and when a dark form appeared ran to take its arm, saying, in a tone of soft satisfaction, —
“I was so afraid you wouldn’t come!”
“Why did you leave me, Ruth?” answered a manly voice in a tone of surprise, though the small hand slipping from the velvet coat-sleeve was replaced as if it was pleasant to feel it there.
A pause, and then the other voice answered demurely, —
“Because I was afraid my head would be turned by the fine things you were saying.”
“It is impossible to help saying what one feels to such an artless little creature as you are. It does me good to admire anything so fresh and sweet, and won’t harm you.”
“It might if—”
“If what, my daisy?”
“I believed it,” and a laugh seemed to finish the broken sentence better than the words.
“You may, Ruth, for I do sincerely admire the most genuine girl I have seen for a long time. And walking here with you in your bridal white I was just asking myself if I should not be a happier man with a home of my own and a little wife hanging on my arm than drifting about the world as I do now with only myself to care for.”
“I know you would!” and Ruth spoke so earnestly that Randal was both touched and startled, fearing he had ventured too far in a mood of unwonted sentiment, born of the romance of the hour and the sweet frankness of his companion.
“Then you don’t think it would be rash for some sweet woman to take me in hand and make me happy, since fame is a failure?”
“Oh, no; it would be easy work if she loved you. I know someone — if I only dared to tell her name.”
“Upon my soul, this is cool,” and Randal looked down, wondering if the audacious lady on his arm could be shy Ruth.
If he had seen the malicious merriment in her eyes he would have been more humiliated still, but they were modestly averted, and the face under the little hat was full of a soft agitation rather dangerous even to a man of the world.
“She is a captivating little creature, but it is too soon for anything but a mild flirtation. I must delay further innocent revelations or I shall do something rash.”
While making this excellent resolution Randal had been pressing the hand upon his arm and gently pacing down the dimly lighted hall with the sound of music in his ears, Ruth’s sweetest roses in his button-hole, and a loving little girl beside him, as he thought.
“You shall tell me by and by when we are in town. I am sure you will come, and meanwhile don’t forget me.”
“I am going in the spring, but I shall not be with Sophie,” answered Ruth, in a whisper.
“With whom then? I shall long to see you.”
“With my husband. I am to be married in May.”
“The deuce you are!” escaped Randal, as he stopped short to stare at his companion, sure she was not in earnest.
But she was, for as he looked the sound of steps coming up the back stairs made her whole face flush and brighten with the unmistakable glow of happy love, and she completed Randal’s astonishment by running into the arms of the young minister, saying with an irrepressible laugh, “Oh, John, why didn’t you come before?”
The court gentleman was all right in a moment, and the coolest of the three as he offered his congratulations and gracefully retired, leaving the lovers to enjoy the tryst he had delayed. But as he went down stairs his brows were knit, and he slapped the broad railing smartly with his cocked hat as if some irritation must find vent in a more energetic way than merely saying, “Confound the little baggage!” under his breath.
Such an amazing supper came from Aunt Plumy’s big pantry that the city guests could not eat for laughing at the queer dishes circulating through the rooms, and copiously partaken of by the hearty young folks.
Doughnuts and cheese, pie and pickles, cider and tea, baked beans and custards, cake and cold turkey, bread and butter, plum pudding and French bonbons, Sophie’s contribution.
“May I offer you the native delicacies, and share your plate? Both are very good, but the china has run short, and after such vigorous exercise as you have had you must need refreshment. I’m sure I do!” said Randal, bowing before Emily with a great blue platter laden with two doughnuts, two wedges of pumpkin pie and two spoons.
The smile with which she welcomed him, the alacrity with which she made room beside her and seemed to enjoy the supper he brought, was so soothing to his ruffled spirit that he soon began to feel that there is no friend like an old friend, that it would not be difficult to name a sweet woman who would take him in hand and would make him happy if he cared to ask her, and he began to think he would by and by, it was so pleasant to sit in that green corner with waves of crimson brocade flowing over his feet, and a fine face softening beautifully under his eyes.
The supper was not romantic, but the situation was, and Emily found that pie ambrosial food eaten with the man she loved, whose eyes talked more eloquently than the tongue just then busy with a doughnut. Ruth kept away, but glanced at them as she served her company, and her own happy experience helped her to see that all was going well in that quarter. Saul and Sophie emerged from the back entry with shining countenances, but carefully avoided each other for the rest of the evening. No one observed this but Aunt Plumy from the recesses of her pantry, and she folded her hands as if well content, as she murmured fervently over a pan full of crullers, “Bless the dears! Now I can die happy.”
Everyone thought Sophie’s old-fashioned dress immensely becoming, and several of his former men said to Saul with blunt admiration, “Major, you look to-night as you used to after we’d gained a big battle.”
“I feel as if I had,” answered the splendid Major, with eyes much brighter than his buttons, and a heart under them infinitely prouder than when he was promoted on the field of honor, for his Waterloo was won.
There was more dancing, followed by games, in which Aunt Plumy shone pre-eminent, for the supper was off her mind and she could enjoy herself. There were shouts of merriment as the blithe old lady twirled the platter, hunted the squirrel, and went to Jerusalem like a girl of sixteen; her cap in a ruinous condition, and every seam of the purple dress straining like sails in a gale. It was great fun, but at midnight it came to an end, and the young folks, still bubbling over with innocent jollity, went jingling away along the snowy hills, unanimously pronouncing Mrs. Basset’s party the best of the season.
“Never had such a good time in my life!” exclaimed Sophie, as the family stood together in the kitchen where the candles among the wreaths were going out, and the floor was strewn with wrecks of past joy.
“I’m proper glad, dear. Now you all go to bed and lay as late as you like to-morrow. I’m so kinder worked up I couldn’t sleep, so Saul and me will put things to rights without a mite of noise to disturb you;” and Aunt Plumy sent them off with a smile that was a benediction, Sophie thought.
“The dear old soul speaks as if midnight was an unheard-of hour for Christians to be up. What would she say if she knew how we seldom go to bed till dawn in the ball season? I’m so wide awake I’ve half a mind to pack a little. Randal must go at two, he says, and we shall want his escort,” said Emily, as the girls laid away their brocades in the press in Sophie’s room.
“I’m not going. Aunt can’t spare me, and there is nothing to go for yet,” answered Sophie, beginning to take the white chrysanthemums out of her pretty hair.
“My dear child, you will die of ennui up here. Very nice for a week or so, but frightful for a winter. We are going to be very gay, and cannot get on without you,” cried Emily dismayed at the suggestion.
“You will have to, for I’m not coming. I am very happy here, and so tired of the frivolous life I lead in town, that I have decided to try a better one,” and Sophie’s mirror reflected a face full of the sweetest content.
“Have you lost your mind? experienced religion? or any other dreadful thing? You always were odd, but this last freak is the strangest of all. What will your guardian say, and the world?” added Emily in the awe-stricken tone of one who stood in fear of the omnipotent Mrs. Grundy.
“Guardy will be glad to be rid of me, and I don’t care that for the world,” cried Sophie, snapping her fingers with a joyful sort of recklessness which completed Emily’s bewilderment.
“But Mr. Hammond? Are you going to throw away millions, lose your chance of making the best match in the city, and driving the girls of our set out of their wits with envy?”
Sophie laughed at her friend’s despairing cry, and turning round said quietly, —
“I wrote to Mr. Hammond last night, and this evening received my reward for being an honest girl. Saul and I are to be married in the spring when Ruth is.”
Emily fell prone upon the bed as if the announcement was too much for her, but was up again in an instant to declare with prophetic solemnity, —
“I knew something was going on, but hoped to get you away before you were lost. Sophie, you will repent. Be warned, and forget this sad delusion.”
“Too late for that. The pang I suffered yesterday when I thought Saul was dead showed me how well I loved him. To-night he asked me to stay, and no power in the world can part us. Oh! Emily, it is all so sweet, so beautiful, that everything is possible, and I know I shall be happy in this dear old home, full of love and peace and honest hearts. I only hope you may find as true and tender a man to live for as my Saul.”
Sophie’s face was more eloquent than her fervent words, and Emily beautifully illustrated the inconsistency of her sex by suddenly embracing her friend, with the incoherent exclamation, “I think I have, dear! Your brave Saul is worth a dozen old Hammonds, and I do believe you are right.”
It is unnecessary to tell how, as if drawn by the irresistible magic of sympathy, Ruth and her mother crept in one by one to join the midnight conference and add their smiles and tears, tender hopes and proud delight to the joys of that memorable hour. Nor how Saul, unable to sleep, mounted guard below, and meeting Randal prowling down to soothe his nerves with a surreptitious cigar found it impossible to help confiding to his attentive ear the happiness that would break bounds and overflow in unusual eloquence.
Peace fell upon the old house at last, and all slept as if some magic herb had touched their eyelids, bringing blissful dreams and a glad awakening.
“Can’t we persuade you to come with us, Miss Sophie?” asked Randal next day, as they made their adieux.
“I’m under orders now, and dare not disobey my superior officer,” answered Sophie, handing her Major his driving gloves, with a look which plainly showed that she had joined the great army of devoted women who enlist for life and ask no pay but love.
“I shall depend on being invited to your wedding, then, and yours, too, Miss Ruth,” added Randal, shaking hands with “the little baggage,” as if he had quite forgiven her mockery and forgotten his own brief lapse into sentiment.
Before she could reply Aunt Plumy said, in a tone of calm conviction, that made them all laugh, and some of them look conscious, —
“Spring is a good time for weddin’s, and I shouldn’t wonder ef there was quite a number.”
“Nor I;” and Saul and Sophie smiled at one another as they saw how carefully Randal arranged Emily’s wraps.
Then with kisses, thanks and all the good wishes that happy hearts could imagine, the guests drove away, to remember long and gratefully that pleasant country Christmas.
Cousin Tribulation’s Story
First published : 1868
Dear Merrys: — As a subject appropriate to the season, I want to tell you about a New Year’s breakfast which I had when I was a little girl. What do you think it was? A slice of dry bread and an apple. This is how it happened, and it is a true story, every word.
As we came down to breakfast that morning, with very shiny faces and spandy clean aprons, we found father alone in the dining-room.
“Happy New Year, papa! Where is mother?” we cried.
“A little boy came begging and said they were starving at home, so your mother went to see and — ah, here she is.”
As papa spoke, in came mamma, looking very cold, rather sad, and very much excited.
“Children, don’t begin till you hear what I have to say,” she cried; and we sat staring at her, with the breakfast untouched before us.
“Not far away from here, lies a poor woman with a little new-born baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there; and the oldest boy came here to tell me they were starving this bitter cold day. My little girls, will you give them your breakfast, as a New Year’s gift?”
We sat silent a minute, and looked at the nice, hot porridge, creamy milk, and good bread and butter; for we were brought up like English children, and never drank tea or coffee, or ate anything but porridge for our breakfast.
“I wish we’d eaten it up,” thought I, for I was rather a selfish child, and very hungry.
“I’m so glad you come before we began,” said Nan, cheerfully.
“May I go and help carry it to the poor, little children?” asked Beth, who had the tenderest heart that ever beat under a pinafore.
“I can carry the lassy pot,” said little May, proudly giving the thing she loved best.
“And I shall take all the porridge,” I burst in, heartily ashamed of my first feeling.
“You shall put on your things and help me, and when we come back, we’ll get something to eat,” said mother, beginning to pile the bread and butter into a big basket.
We were soon ready, and the procession set out. First, papa, with a basket of wood on one arm and coal on the other; mamma next, with a bundle of warm things and the teapot; Nan and I carried a pail of hot porridge between us, and each a pitcher of milk; Beth brought some cold meat, May the “lassy pot,” and her old hood and boots; and Betsey, the girl, brought up the rear with a bag of potatoes and some meal.
Fortunately it was early, and we went along back streets, so few people saw us, and no one laughed at the funny party.
What a poor, bare, miserable place it was, to be sure, — broken windows, no fire, ragged clothes, wailing baby, sick mother, and a pile of pale, hungry children cuddled under one quilt, trying to keep warm. How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as we came in!
“ Ah, mein Gott! it is the good angels that come to us!” cried the poor woman, with tears of joy.
“Funny angels, in woolen hoods and red mittens,” said I; and they all laughed.
Then we fell to work, and in fifteen minutes, it really did seem as if fairies had been at work there. Papa made a splendid fire in the old fireplace and stopped up the broken window with his own hat and coat. Mamma set the shivering children round the fire, and wrapped the poor woman in warm things. Betsey and the rest of us spread the table, and fed the starving little ones.
“ Das ist gute! ” “Oh, nice!” “ Der angel — Kinder! ” cried the poor things as they ate and smiled and basked in the warm blaze. We had never been called “angel-children” before, and we thought it very charming, especially I who had often been told I was “a regular Sancho.” What fun it was! Papa, with a towel for an apron, fed the smallest child; mamma dressed the poor little new-born baby as tenderly as if it had been her own. Betsey gave the mother gruel and tea, and comforted her with assurance of better days for all. Nan, Lu, Beth, and May flew about among the seven children, talking and laughing and trying to understand their funny, broken English. It was a very happy breakfast, though we didn’t get any of it; and when we came away, leaving them all so comfortable, and promising to bring clothes and food by and by, I think there were not in all the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfast, and contented themselves with a bit of bread and an apple of New Year’s Day.
What the Bells Saw and Said
First published : 1868
No one saw the spirits of the bells up there in the old steeple at midnight on Christmas Eve. Six quaint figures, each wrapped in a shadowy cloak and wearing a bell-shaped cap. All were gray-headed, for they were among the oldest bell-spirits of the city, and “the light of other days” shone in their thoughtful eyes. Silently they sat, looking down on the snow-covered roofs glittering in the moonlight, and the quiet streets deserted by all but the watchmen on their chilly rounds, and such poor souls as wandered shelterless in the winter night. Presently one of the spirits said, in a tone, which, low as it was, filled the belfry with reverberating echoes, —
“Well, brothers, are your reports ready of the year that now lies dying?”
All bowed their heads, and one of the oldest answered in a sonorous voice: —
“My report isn’t all I could wish. You know I look down on the commercial part of our city and have fine opportunities for seeing what goes on there. It’s my business to watch the business men, and upon my word I’m heartily ashamed of them sometimes. During the war they did nobly, giving their time and money, their sons and selves to the good cause, and I was proud of them. But now too many of them have fallen back into the old ways, and their motto seems to be, ‘Every one for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.’ Cheating, lying and stealing are hard words, and I don’t mean to apply them to all who swarm about below there like ants on an ant-hill— they have other names for these things, but I’m old-fashioned and use plain words. There’s a deal too much dishonesty in the world, and business seems to have become a game of hazard in which luck, not labor, wins the prize. When I was young, men were years making moderate fortunes, and were satisfied with them. They built them on sure foundations, knew how to enjoy them while they lived, and to leave a good name behind them when they died.
“Now it’s anything for money; health, happiness, honor, life itself, are flung down on that great gaming-table, and they forget everything else in the excitement of success or the desperation of defeat. Nobody seems satisfied either, for those who win have little time or taste to enjoy their prosperity, and those who lose have little courage or patience to support them in adversity. They don’t even fail as they used to. In my day when a merchant found himself embarrassed he didn’t ruin others in order to save himself, but honestly confessed the truth, gave up everything, and began again. But now-a-days after all manner of dishonorable shifts there comes a grand crash; many suffer, but by some hocus-pocus the merchant saves enough to retire upon and live comfortably here or abroad. It’s very evident that honor and honesty don’t mean now what they used to mean in the days of old May, Higginson and Lawrence.
“They preach below here, and very well too sometimes, for I often slide down the rope to peep and listen during service. But, bless you! they don’t seem to lay either sermon, psalm or prayer to heart, for while the minister is doing his best, the congregation, tired with the breathless hurry of the week, sleep peacefully, calculate their chances for the morrow, or wonder which of their neighbors will lose or win in the great game. Don’t tell me! I’ve seen them do it, and if I dared I’d have startled every soul of them with a rousing peal. Ah, they don’t dream whose eye is on them, they never guess what secrets the telegraph wires tell as the messages fly by, and little know what a report I give to the winds of heaven as I ring out above them morning, noon, and night.” And the old spirit shook his head till the tassel on his cap jangled like a little bell.
“There are some, however, whom I love and honor,” he said, in a benignant tone, “who honestly earn their bread, who deserve all the success that comes to them, and always keep a warm corner in their noble hearts for those less blest than they. These are the men who serve the city in times of peace, save it in times of war, deserve the highest honors in its gift, and leave behind them a record that keeps their memories green. For such an one we lately tolled a knell, my brothers; and as our united voices pealed over the city, in all grateful hearts, sweeter and more solemn than any chime, rung the words that made him so beloved, —
“‘Treat our dead boys tenderly, and send them home to me.’”
He ceased, and all the spirits reverently uncovered their gray heads as a strain of music floated up from the sleeping city and died among the stars.
“Like yours, my report is not satisfactory in all respects,” began the second spirit, who wore a very pointed cap and a finely ornamented cloak. But, though his dress was fresh and youthful, his face was old, and he had nodded several times during his brother’s speech. “My greatest affliction during the past year has been the terrible extravagance which prevails. My post, as you know, is at the court end of the city, and I see all the fashionable vices and follies. It is a marvel to me how so many of these immortal creatures, with such opportunities for usefulness, self-improvement and genuine happiness can be content to go round and round in one narrow circle of unprofitable and unsatisfactory pursuits. I do my best to warn them; Sunday after Sunday I chime in their ears the beautiful old hymns that sweetly chide or cheer the hearts that truly listen and believe; Sunday after Sunday I look down on them as they pass in, hoping to see that my words have not fallen upon deaf ears; and Sunday after Sunday they listen to words that should teach them much, yet seem to go by them like the wind. They are told to love their neighbor, yet too many hate him because he possesses more of this world’s goods or honors than they: they are told that a rich man cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, yet they go on laying up perishable wealth, and though often warned that moth and rust will corrupt, they fail to believe it till the worm that destroys enters and mars their own chapel of ease. Being a spirit, I see below external splendor and find much poverty of heart and soul under the velvet and the ermine which should cover rich and royal natures. Our city saints walk abroad in threadbare suits, and under quiet bonnets shine the eyes that make sunshine in the shady places. Often as I watch the glittering procession passing to and fro below me. I wonder if, with all our progress, there is to-day as much real piety as in the times when our fathers, poorly clad, with weapon in one hand and Bible in the other, came weary distances to worship in the wilderness with fervent faith unquenched by danger, suffering and solitude.
“Yet in spite of my fault-finding I love my children, as I call them, for all are not butterflies. Many find wealth no temptation to forgetfulness of duty or hardness of heart. Many give freely of their abundance, pity the poor, comfort the afflicted, and make our city loved and honored in other lands as in our own. They have their cares, losses, and heartaches as well as the poor; it isn’t all sunshine with them, and they learn, poor souls, that
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
But I’ve hopes of them, and lately they have had a teacher so genial, so gifted, so well-beloved that all who listen to him must be better for the lessons of charity, good-will and cheerfulness which he brings home to them by the magic of tears and smiles. We know him, we love him, we always remember him as the year comes round, and the blithest song our brazen tongues utter is a Christmas carol to the Father of ‘The Chimes!’”
As the spirit spoke his voice grew cheery, his old face shone, and in a burst of hearty enthusiasm he flung up his cap and cheered like a boy. So did the others, and as the fairy shout echoed through the belfry a troop of shadowy figures, with faces lovely or grotesque, tragical or gay, sailed by on the wings of the wintry wind and waved their hands to the spirits of the bells.
As the excitement subsided and the spirits reseated themselves, looking ten years younger for that burst, another spoke. A venerable brother in a dingy mantle, with a tuneful voice, and eyes that seemed to have grown sad with looking on much misery.
“He loves the poor, the man we’ve just hurrahed for, and he makes others love and remember them, bless him!” said the spirit. “I hope he’ll touch the hearts of those who listen to him here and beguile them to open their hands to my unhappy children over yonder. If I could set some of the forlorn souls in my parish beside the happier creatures who weep over imaginary woes as they are painted by his eloquent lips, that brilliant scene would be better than any sermon. Day and night I look down on lives as full of sin, self-sacrifice and suffering as any in those famous books. Day and night I try to comfort the poor by my cheery voice, and to make their wants known by proclaiming them with all my might. But people seem to be so intent on business, pleasure or home duties that they have no time to hear and answer my appeal. There’s a deal of charity in this good city, and when the people do wake up they work with a will; but I can’t help thinking that if some of the money lavished on luxuries was spent on necessaries for the poor, there would be fewer tragedies like that which ended yesterday. It’s a short story, easy to tell, though long and hard to live; listen to it.
“Down yonder in the garret of one of the squalid houses at the foot of my tower, a little girl has lived for a year, fighting silently and single-handed a good fight against poverty and sin. I saw her when she first came, a hopeful, cheerful, brave-hearted little soul, alone, yet not afraid. She used to sit all day sewing at her window, and her lamp burnt far into the night, for she was very poor, and all she earned would barely give her food and shelter. I watched her feed the doves, who seemed to be her only friends; she never forgot them, and daily gave them the few crumbs that fell from her meagre table. But there was no kind hand to feed and foster the little human dove, and so she starved.
“For a while she worked bravely, but the poor three dollars a week would not clothe and feed and warm her, though the things her busy fingers made sold for enough to keep her comfortably if she had received it. I saw the pretty color fade from her cheeks; her eyes grew hollow, her voice lost its cheery ring, her step its elasticity, and her face began to wear the haggard, anxious look that made its youth doubly pathetic. Her poor little gowns grew shabby, her shawl so thin she shivered when the pitiless wind smote her, and her feet were almost bare. Rain and snow beat on the patient little figure going to and fro, each morning with hope and courage faintly shining, each evening with the shadow of despair gathering darker round her. It was a hard time for all, desperately hard for her, and in her poverty, sin and pleasure tempted her. She resisted, but as another bitter winter came she feared that in her misery she might yield, for body and soul were weakened now by the long struggle. She knew not where to turn for help; there seemed to be no place for her at any safe and happy fireside; life’s hard aspect daunted her, and she turned to death, saying confidingly, ‘Take me while I’m innocent and not afraid to go.’
“I saw it all! I saw how she sold everything that would bring money and paid her little debts to the utmost penny; how she set her poor room in order for the last time; how she tenderly bade the doves good-by, and lay down on her bed to die. At nine o’clock last night as my bell rang over the city, I tried to tell what was going on in the garret where the light was dying out so fast. I cried to them with all my strength. —
“‘Kind souls, below there! a fellow-creature is perishing for lack of charity! Oh, help her before it is too late! Mothers, with little daughters on your knees, stretch out your hands and take her in! Happy women, in the safe shelter of home, think of her desolation! Rich men, who grind the faces of the poor, remember that this soul will one day be required of you! Dear Lord, let not this little sparrow fall to the ground! Help, Christian men and women, in the name of Him whose birthday blessed the world!’
“Ah me! I rang, and clashed, and cried in vain. The passers-by only said, as they hurried home, laden with Christmas cheer: ‘The old bell is merry to-night, as it should be at this blithe season, bless it!’
“As the clocks struck ten, the poor child lay down, saying, as she drank the last bitter draught life could give her, ‘It’s very cold, but soon I shall not feel it;’ and with her quiet eyes fixed on the cross that glimmered in the moonlight above me, she lay waiting for the sleep that needs no lullaby.
“As the clock struck eleven, pain and poverty for her were over. It was bitter cold, but she no longer felt it. She lay serenely sleeping, with tired heart and hands, at rest forever. As the clocks struck twelve, the dear Lord remembered her, and with fatherly hand led her into the home where there is room for all. To-day I rung her knell, and though my heart was heavy, yet my soul was glad; for in spite of all her human woe and weakness, I am sure that little girl will keep a joyful Christmas up in heaven.”
In the silence which the spirits for a moment kept, a breath of softer air than any from the snowy world below swept through the steeple and seemed to whisper, “Yes!”
“Avast there! fond as I am of salt water, I don’t like this kind,” cried the breezy voice of the fourth spirit, who had a tiny ship instead of a tassel on his cap, and who wiped his wet eyes with the sleeve of his rough blue cloak. “It won’t take me long to spin my yarn; for things are pretty taut and ship-shape aboard our craft. Captain Taylor is an experienced sailor, and has brought many a ship safely into port in spite of wind and tide, and the devil’s own whirlpools and hurricanes. If you want to see earnestness come aboard some Sunday when the Captain’s on the quarter-deck, and take an observation. No danger of falling asleep there, no more than there is up aloft, ‘when the stormy winds do blow.’ Consciences get raked fore and aft, sins are blown clean out of the water, false colors are hauled down and true ones run up to the masthead, and many an immortal soul is warned to steer off in time from the pirates, rocks and quicksands of temptation. He’s a regular revolving light, is the Captain, — a beacon always burning and saying plainly, ‘Here are life-boats, ready to put off in all weathers and bring the shipwrecked into quiet waters.’ He comes but seldom now, being laid up in the home dock, tranquilly waiting till his turn comes to go out with the tide and safely ride at anchor in the great harbor of the Lord. Our crew varies a good deal. Some of ‘em have rather rough voyages, and come into port pretty well battered; land-sharks fall foul of a good many, and do a deal of damage; but most of ‘em carry brave and tender hearts under the blue jackets, for their rough nurse, the sea, manages to keep something of the child alive in the grayest old tar that makes the world his picture-book. We try to supply ‘em with life-preservers while at sea, and make ‘em feel sure of a hearty welcome when ashore, and I believe the year ‘67 will sail away into eternity with a satisfactory cargo. Brother North-End made me pipe my eye; so I’ll make him laugh to pay for it, by telling a clerical joke I heard the other day. Bellows didn’t make it, though he might have done so, as he’s a connection of ours, and knows how to use his tongue as well as any of us. Speaking of the bells of a certain town, a reverend gentleman affirmed that each bell uttered an appropriate remark so plainly, that the words were audible to all. The Baptist bell cried, briskly, ‘Come up and be dipped! come up and be dipped!’ The Episcopal bell slowly said, ‘Apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion! apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion!’ The Orthodox bell solemnly pronounced, ‘Eternal damnation! eternal damnation!’ and the Methodist shouted, invitingly, ‘Room for all! room for all!’”
As the spirit imitated the various calls, as only a jovial bell-sprite could, the others gave him a chime of laughter, and vowed they would each adopt some tuneful summons, which should reach human ears and draw human feet more willingly to church.
“Faith, brother, you’ve kept your word and got the laugh out of us,” cried a stout, sleek spirit, with a kindly face, and a row of little saints round his cap and a rosary at his side. “It’s very well we are doing this year; the cathedral is full, the flock increasing, and the true faith holding its own entirely. Ye may shake your heads if you will and fear there’ll be trouble, but I doubt it. We’ve warm hearts of our own, and the best of us don’t forget that when we were starving, America—the saints bless the jewel! — sent us bread; when we were dying for lack of work, America opened her arms and took us in, and now helps us to build churches, homes and schools by giving us a share of the riches all men work for and win. It’s a generous nation ye are, and a brave one, and we showed our gratitude by fighting for ye in the day of trouble and giving ye our Phil, and many another broth of a boy. The land is wide enough for us both, and while we work and fight and grow together, each may learn something from the other. I’m free to confess that your religion looks a bit cold and hard to me, even here in the good city where each man may ride his own hobby to death, and hoot at his neighbors as much as he will. You seem to keep your piety shut up all the week in your bare, white churches, and only let it out on Sundays, just a trifle musty with disuse. You set your rich, warm and soft to the fore, and leave the poor shivering at the door. You give your people bare walls to look upon, common-place music to listen to, dull sermons to put them asleep, and then wonder why they stay away, or take no interest when they come.
“We leave our doors open day and night; our lamps are always burning, and we may come into our Father’s house at any hour. We let rich and poor kneel together, all being equal there. With us abroad you’ll see prince and peasant side by side, school-boy and bishop, market-woman and noble lady, saint and sinner, praying to the Holy Mary, whose motherly arms are open to high and low. We make our churches inviting with immortal music, pictures by the world’s great masters, and rites that are splendid symbols of the faith we hold. Call it mummery if ye like, but let me ask you why so many of your sheep stray into our fold? It’s because they miss the warmth, the hearty, the maternal tenderness which all souls love and long for, and fail to find in your stern. Puritanical belief. By Saint Peter! I’ve seen many a lukewarm worshipper, who for years has nodded in your cushioned pews, wake and glow with something akin to genuine piety while kneeling on the stone pavement of one of our cathedrals, with Raphael’s angels before his eyes, with strains of magnificent music in his ears, and all about him, in shapes of power or beauty, the saints and martyrs who have saved the world, and whose presence inspires him to follow their divine example. It’s not complaining of ye I am, but just reminding ye that men are but children after all, and need more tempting to virtue than they do to vice, which last comes easy to ‘em since the Fall. Do your best in your own ways to get the poor souls into bliss, and good luck to ye. But remember, there’s room in the Holy Mother Church for all, and when your own priests send ye to the divil, come straight to us and we’ll take ye in.”
“A truly Catholic welcome, bull and all,” said the sixth spirit, who, in spite of his old-fashioned garments, had a youthful face, earnest, fearless eyes, and an energetic voice that woke the echoes with its vigorous tones. “I’ve a hopeful report, brothers, for the reforms of the day are wheeling into rank and marching on. The war isn’t over nor rebeldom conquered yet, but the Old Guard has been ‘up and at ‘em’ through the year. There has been some hard fighting, rivers of ink have flowed, and the Washington dawdlers have signalized themselves by a ‘masterly inactivity.’ The political campaign has been an anxious one; some of the leaders have deserted; some been mustered out; some have fallen gallantly, and as yet have received no monuments. But at the Grand Review the Cross of the Legion of Honor will surely shine on many a brave breast that won no decoration but its virtue here; for the world’s fanatics make heaven’s heroes, poets say.
“The flock of Nightingales that flew South during the ‘winter of our discontent’ are all at home again, some here and some in Heaven. But the music of their womanly heroism still lingers in the nation’s memory, and makes a tender minor-chord in the battle-hymn of freedom.
“The reform in literature isn’t as vigorous as I could wish; but a sharp attack of mental and moral dyspepsia will soon teach our people that French confectionery and the bad pastry of Wood, Bracdon, Yates & Co. is not the best diet for the rising generation.
“Speaking of the rising generation reminds me of the schools. They are doing well; they always are, and we are justly proud of them. There may be a slight tendency toward placing too much value upon book-learning; too little upon home culture. Our girls are acknowledged to be uncommonly pretty, witty and wise, but some of us wish they had more health and less excitement, more domestic accomplishments and fewer ologies and isms, and were contented with simple pleasures and the old-fashioned virtues, and not quite so fond of the fast, frivolous life that makes them old so soon. I am fond of our girls and boys. I love to ring for their christenings and marriages, to toll proudly for the brave lads in blue, and tenderly for the innocent creatures whose seats are empty under my old roof. I want to see them anxious to make Young America a model of virtue, strength and beauty, and I believe they will in time.
“There have been some important revivals in religion; for the world won’t stand still, and we must keep pace or be left behind to fossilize. A free nation must have a religion broad enough to embrace all mankind, deep enough to fathom and fill the human soul, high enough to reach the source of all love and wisdom, and pure enough to satisfy the wisest and the best. Alarm bells have been rung, anathemas pronounced, and Christians, forgetful of their creed, have abused one another heartily. But the truth always triumphs in the end, and whoever sincerely believes, works and waits for it, by whatever name he calls it, will surely find his own faith blessed to him in proportion to his charity for the faith of others.
“But look! — the first red streaks of dawn are in the East. Our vigil is over, and we must fly home to welcome in the holidays. Before we part, join with me, brothers, in resolving that through the coming year we will with all our hearts and tongues, —
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring out the false, ring in the true;
Ring in the valiant man and free,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.”
Then hand in hand the spirits of the bells floated away, singing in the hush of dawn the sweet song the stars sung over Bethlehem, — “Peace on earth, good will to men.”
Tilly’s Christmas
First published : 1871
‘I’m so glad to-morrow is Christmas, because I’m going to have lots of presents.’
‘So am I glad, though I don’t expect any presents but a pair of mittens.’
‘And so am I; but I shan’t have any presents at all.’
As the three little girls trudged home from school they said these things, and as Tilly spoke, both the others looked at her with pity and some surprise, for she spoke cheerfully, and they wondered how she could be happy when she was so poor she could have no presents on Christmas.
‘Don’t you wish you could find a purse full of money right here in the path?’ said Kate, the child who was going to have ‘lots of presents.’
‘Oh, don’t I, if I could keep it honestly!’ and Tilly’s eyes shone at the very thought.
‘What would you buy?’ asked Bessy, rubbing her cold hands, and longing for her mittens.
‘I’d buy a pair of large, warm blankets, a load of wood, a shawl for mother, and a pair of shoes for me; and if there was enough left, I’d give Bessy a new hat, and then she needn’t wear Ben’s old felt one,’ answered Tilly.
The girls laughed at that; but Bessy pulled the funny hat over her ears, and said she was much obliged but she’d rather have candy.
‘Let’s look, and maybe we can find a purse. People are always going about with money at Christmas time, and someone may lose it here,’ said Kate.
So, as they went along the snowy road, they looked about them, half in earnest, half in fun. Suddenly Tilly sprang forward, exclaiming, —
‘I see it! I’ve found it!’
The others followed, but all stopped disappointed; for it wasn’t a purse, it was only a little bird. It lay upon the snow with its wings spread and feebly fluttering, as if too weak to fly. Its little feet were benumbed with cold; its once bright eyes were dull with pain, and instead of a blithe song, it could only utter a faint chirp, now and then, as if crying for help.
‘Nothing but a stupid old robin; how provoking!’ cried Kate, sitting down to rest.
‘I shan’t touch it. I found one once, and took care of it, and the ungrateful thing flew away the minute it was well,’ said Bessy, creeping under Kate’s shawl, and putting her hands under her chin to warm them.
‘Poor little birdie! How pitiful he looks, and how glad he must be to see someone coming to help him! I’ll take him up gently, and carry him home to mother. Don’t be frightened, dear, I’m your friend;’ and Tilly knelt down in the snow, stretching her hand to the bird, with the tenderest pity in her face.
Kate and Bessy laughed.
‘Don’t stop for that thing; it’s getting late and cold: let’s go on and look for the purse,’ they said moving away.
‘You wouldn’t leave it to die!’ cried Tilly. ‘I’d rather have the bird than the money, so I shan’t look any more. The purse wouldn’t be mine, and I should only be tempted to keep it; but this poor thing will thank and love me, and I’m so glad I came in time.’
Gently lifting the bird, Tilly felt its tiny cold claws cling to her hand, and saw its dim eyes brighten as it nestled down with a grateful chirp.
‘Now I’ve got a Christmas present after all,’ she said, smiling, as they walked on. ‘I always wanted a bird, and this one will be such a pretty pet for me.’
‘He’ll fly away the first chance he gets, and die anyhow; so you’d better not waste your time over him,’ said Bessy.
‘He can’t pay you for taking care of him, and my mother says it isn’t worthwhile to help folks that can’t help us,’ added Kate.
‘My mother says, “Do as you’d be done by;” and I’m sure I’d like any one to help me if I was dying of cold and hunger. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is another of her sayings. This bird is my little neighbor, and I’ll love him and care for him, as I often wish our rich neighbor would love and care for us,’ answered Tilly, breathing her warm breath over the benumbed bird, who looked up at her with confiding eyes, quick to feel and know a friend.
‘What a funny girl you are,’ said Kate; ‘caring for that silly bird, and talking about loving your neighbor in that sober way. Mr. King don’t care a bit for you, and never will, though he knows how poor you are; so I don’t think your plan amounts to much.’
‘I believe it, though; and shall do my part, anyway. Good-night. I hope you’ll have a merry Christmas, and lots of pretty things,’ answered Tilly, as they parted.
Her eyes were full, and she felt so poor as she went on alone toward the little old house where she lived. It would have been so pleasant to know that she was going to have some of the pretty things all children love to find in their full stockings on Christmas morning. And pleasanter still to have been able to give her mother something nice. So many comforts were needed, and there was no hope of getting them; for they could barely get food and fire.
‘Never mind, birdie, we’ll make the best of what we have, and be merry in spite of everything. You shall have a happy Christmas, anyway; and I know God won’t forget us if everyone else does.’
She stopped a minute to wipe her eyes, and lean her cheek against the bird’s soft breast, finding great comfort in the little creature, though it could only love her, nothing more.
‘See, mother, what a nice present I’ve found,’ she cried, going in with a cheery face that was like sunshine in the dark room.
‘I’m glad of that, dearie; for I haven’t been able to get my little girl anything but a rosy apple. Poor bird! Give it some of your warm bread and milk.’
‘Why, mother, what a big bowlful! I’m afraid you gave me all the milk,’ said Tilly, smiling over the nice, steaming supper that stood ready for her.
‘I’ve had plenty, dear. Sit down and dry your wet feet, and put the bird in my basket on this warm flannel.’
Tilly peeped into the closet and saw nothing there but dry bread.
‘Mother’s given me all the milk, and is going without her tea, ‘cause she knows I’m hungry. Now I’ll surprise her, and she shall have a good supper too. She is going to split wood, and I’ll fix it while she’s gone.’
So Tilly put down the old tea-pot, carefully poured out a part of the milk, and from her pocket produced a great, plummy bun, that one of the school-children had given her, and she had saved for her mother. A slice of the dry bread was nicely toasted, and the bit of butter set by for her put on it. When her mother came in there was the table drawn up in a warm place, a hot cup of tea ready, and Tilly and birdie waiting for her.
Such a poor little supper, and yet such a happy one; for love, charity, and contentment were guests there, and that Christmas eve was a blither one than that up at the great house, where lights shone, fires blazed, a great tree glittered, and music sounded, as the children danced and played.
‘We must go to bed early, for we’ve only wood enough to last over to-morrow. I shall be paid for my work the day after, and then we can get some,’ said Tilly’s mother, as they sat by the fire.
‘If my bird was only a fairy bird, and would give us three wishes, how nice it would be! Poor dear, he can’t give me anything; but it’s no matter,’ answered Tilly, looking at the robin, who lay in the basket with his head under his wing, a mere little feathery bunch.
‘He can give you one thing, Tilly, — the pleasure of doing good. That is one of the sweetest things in life; and the poor can enjoy it as well as the rich.’
As her mother spoke, with her tired hand softly stroking her little daughter’s hair, Tilly suddenly started and pointed to the window, saying, in a frightened whisper, —
‘I saw a face, — a man’s face, looking in! It’s gone now; but I truly saw it.’
‘Some traveler attracted by the light perhaps. I’ll go and see.’ And Tilly’s mother went to the door.
No one was there. The wind blew cold, the stars shone, the snow lay white on field and wood, and the Christmas moon was glittering in the sky.
‘What sort of a face was it?’ asked Tilly’s mother, coming back.
‘A pleasant sort of face, I think; but I was so startled I don’t quite know what it was like. I wish we had a curtain there,’ said Tilly.
‘I like to have our light shine out in the evening, for the road is dark and lonely just here, and the twinkle of our lamp is pleasant to people’s eyes as they go by. We can do so little for our neighbors, I am glad to cheer the way for them. Now put these poor old shoes to dry, and go to bed, dearie; I’ll come soon.’
Tilly went, taking her bird with her to sleep in his basket nearby, lest he should be lonely in the night.
Soon the little house was dark and still, and no one saw the Christmas spirits at their work that night.
When Tilly opened the door next morning, she gave a loud cry, clapped her hands, and then stood still; quite speechless with wonder and delight. There, before the door, lay a great pile of wood, all ready to burn, a big bundle and a basket, with a lovely nosegay of winter roses, holly, and evergreen tied to the handle.
‘Oh, mother! did the fairies do it?’ cried Tilly, pale with her happiness, as she seized the basket, while her mother took in the bundle.
‘Yes, dear, the best and dearest fairy in the world, called “Charity.” She walks abroad at Christmas time, does beautiful deeds like this, and does not stay to be thanked,’ answered her mother with full eyes, as she undid the parcel.
There they were, — the warm, thick blankets, the comfortable shawls, the new shoes, and, best of all, a pretty winter hat for Bessy. The basket was full of good things to eat, and on the flowers lay a paper, saying, —
‘For the little girl who loves her neighbor as herself.’
‘Mother, I really think my bird is a fairy bird, and all these splendid things come from him,’ said Tilly, laughing and crying with joy.
It really did seem so, for as she spoke, the robin flew to the table, hopped to the nosegay, and perching among the roses, began to chirp with all his little might. The sun streamed in on flowers, bird, and happy child, and no one saw a shadow glide away from the window; no one ever knew that Mr. King had seen and heard the little girls the night before, or dreamed that the rich neighbor had learned a lesson from the poor neighbor.
And Tilly’s bird was a fairy bird; for by her love and tenderness to the helpless thing, she brought good gifts to herself, happiness to the unknown giver of them, and a faithful little friend who did not fly away, but stayed with her till the snow was gone, making summer for her in the winter-time.
Tessa’s Surprises
First published : 1871
Chapter 1
Little Tessa sat alone by the fire, waiting for her father to come home from work. The children were fast asleep, all four in the big bed behind the curtain; the wind blew hard outside, and the snow beat on the window-panes; the room was large, and the fire so small and feeble that it didn’t half warm the little bare toes peeping out of the old shoes on the hearth.
Tessa’s father was an Italian plaster-worker, very poor, but kind and honest. The mother had died not long ago, and left twelve-year old Tessa to take care of the little children. She tried to be very wise and motherly, and worked for them like any little woman; but it was so hard to keep the small bodies warm and fed, and the small souls good and happy, that poor Tessa was often at her wits’ end. She always waited for her father, no matter how tired she was, so that he might find his supper warm, a bit of fire, and a loving little face to welcome him. Tessa thought over her troubles at these quiet times, and made her plans; for her father left things to her a good deal, and she had no friends but Tommo, the harp-boy upstairs, and the lively cricket who lived in the chimney. To-night her face was very sober, and her pretty brown eyes very thoughtful as she stared at the fire and knit her brows, as if perplexed. She was not thinking of her old shoes, nor the empty closet, nor the boys’ ragged clothes just then. No; she had a fine plan in her good little head, and was trying to discover how she could carry it out.
You see, Christmas was coming in a week; and she had set her heart on putting something in the children’s stockings, as the mother used to do, for while she lived things were comfortable. Now Tessa had not a penny in the world, and didn’t know how to get one, for all the father’s earnings had to go for food, fire, and rent.
‘If there were only fairies, ah! how heavenly that would be; for then I should tell them all I wish, and, pop! behold the fine things in my lap!’ said Tessa to herself. ‘I must earn the money; there is no one to give it to me, and I cannot beg. But what can I do, so small and stupid and shy as I am? I must find some way to give the little ones a nice Christmas. I must ! I must !’ and Tessa pulled her long hair, as if that would help her think.
But it didn’t, and her heart got heavier and heavier; for it did seem hard that in a great city full of fine things, there should be none for poor Nono, Sep, and little Speranza. Just as Tessa’s tears began to tumble off her eyelashes on to her brown cheeks, the cricket began to chirp. Of course, he didn’t say a word; but it really did seem as if he had answered her question almost as well as a fairy; for, before he had piped a dozen shrill notes, an idea popped into Tessa’s head — such a truly splendid idea that she clapped her hands and burst out laughing. ‘I’ll do it! I’ll do it! if father will let me,’ she said to herself, smiling and nodding at the fire. ‘Tommo will like to have me go with him and sing, while he plays his harp in the streets. I know many songs, and may get money if I am not frightened; for people throw pennies to other little girls who only play the tambourine. Yes, I will try; and then, if I do well, the little ones shall have a Merry Christmas.’
So full of her plan was Tessa that she ran upstairs at once, and asked Tommo if he would take her with him on the morrow. Her friend was delighted, for he thought Tessa’s songs very sweet, and was sure she would get money if she tried.
‘But see, then, it is cold in the streets; the wind bites, and the snow freezes one’s fingers. The day is very long, people are cross, and at night one is ready to die with weariness. Thou art so small, Tessa, I am afraid it will go badly with thee,’ said Tommo, who was a merry, black-eyed boy of fourteen, with the kindest heart in the world under his old jacket.
‘I do not mind cold and wet, and cross people, if I can get the pennies,’ answered Tessa, feeling very brave with such a friend to help her. She thanked Tommo, and ran away to get ready, for she felt sure her father would not refuse her anything. She sewed up the holes in her shoes as well as she could, for she had much of that sort of cobbling to do; she mended her only gown, and laid ready the old hood and shawl which had been her mother’s. Then she washed out little Ranza’s frock and put it to dry, because she would not be able to do it the next day. She set the table and got things ready for breakfast, for Tommo went out early, and must not be kept waiting for her. She longed to make the beds and dress the children over night, she was in such a hurry to have all in order; but, as that could not be, she sat down again, and tried over all the songs she knew. Six pretty ones were chosen; and she sang away with all her heart in a fresh little voice so sweetly that the children smiled in their sleep, and her father’s tired face brightened as he entered, for Tessa was his cheery cricket on the hearth. When she had told her plan, Peter Benari shook his head, and thought it would never do; but Tessa begged so hard, he consented at last that she should try it for one week, and sent her to bed the happiest little girl in New York.
Next morning the sun shone, but the cold wind blew, and the snow lay thick in the streets. As soon as her father was gone, Tessa flew about and put everything in nice order, telling the children she was going out for the day, and they were to mind Tommo’s mother, who would see about the fire and the dinner; for the good woman loved Tessa, and entered into her little plans with all her heart. Nono and Giuseppe, or Sep, as they called him, wondered what she was going away for, and little Ranza cried at being left; but Tessa told them they would know all about it in a week, and have a fine time if they were good; so they kissed her all round and let her go.
Poor Tessa’s heart beat fast as she trudged away with Tommo, who slung his harp over his shoulder, and gave her his hand. It was rather a dirty hand, but so kind that Tessa clung to it, and kept looking up at the friendly brown face for encouragement.
‘We go first to the café , where many French and Italians eat the breakfast. They like my music, and often give me sips of hot coffee, which I like much. You too shall have the sips, and perhaps the pennies, for these people are greatly kind,’ said Tommo, leading her into a large smoky place where many people sat at little tables, eating and drinking. ‘See, now, have no fear; give them “Bella Monica;” that is merry and will make the laugh,’ whispered Tommo, tuning his harp.
For a moment Tessa felt so frightened that she wanted to run away; but she remembered the empty stockings at home, and the fine plan, and she resolved not to give it up. One fat old Frenchman nodded to her, and it seemed to help her very much; for she began to sing before she thought, and that was the hardest part of it. Her voice trembled, and her cheeks grew redder and redder as she went on; but she kept her eyes fixed on her old shoes, and so got through without breaking down, which was very nice. The people laughed, for the song was merry; and the fat man smiled and nodded again. This gave her courage to try another, and she sung better and better each time; for Tommo played his best, and kept whispering to her, ‘Yes; we go well; this is fine. They will give the money and the blessed coffee.’
So they did; for, when the little concert was over, several men put pennies in the cap Tessa offered, and the fat man took her on his knee, and ordered a mug of coffee, and some bread and butter for them both. This quite won her heart; and when they left the café , she kissed her hand to the old Frenchman, and said to her friend, ‘How kind they are! I like this very much; and now it is not hard.’
But Tommo shook his curly head, and answered, soberly, ‘Yes, I took you there first, for they love music, and are of our country; but up among the great houses we shall not always do well. The people there are busy or hard or idle, and care nothing for harps and songs. Do not skip and laugh too soon; for the day is long, and we have but twelve pennies yet.’
Tessa walked more quietly, and rubbed her cold hands, feeling that the world was a very big place, and wondering how the children got on at home without the little mother. Till noon they did not earn much, for everyone seemed in a hurry, and the noise of many sleigh-bells drowned the music. Slowly they made their way up to the great squares where the big houses were, with fine ladies and pretty children at the windows. Here Tessa sung all her best songs, and Tommo played as fast as his fingers could fly; but it was too cold to have the windows open, so the pretty children could not listen long, and the ladies tossed out a little money, and soon went back to their own affairs.
All the afternoon the two friends wandered about, singing and playing, and gathering up their small harvest. At dusk they went home, Tessa so hoarse she could hardly speak, and so tired she fell asleep over her supper. But she had made half a dollar, for Tommo divided the money fairly, and she felt rich with her share. The other days were very much like this; sometimes they made more, sometimes less, but Tommo always ‘went halves;’ and Tessa kept on, in spite of cold and weariness, for her plans grew as her earnings increased, and now she hoped to get useful things, instead of candy and toys alone.
On the day before Christmas she made herself as tidy as she could, for she hoped to earn a good deal. She tied a bright scarlet handkerchief over the old hood, and the brilliant color set off her brown cheeks and bright eyes, as well as the pretty black braids of her hair. Tommo’s mother lent her a pair of boots so big that they turned up at the toes, but there were no holes in them, and Tessa felt quite elegant in whole boots. Her hands were covered with chilblains, for she had no mittens; but she put them under her shawl, and scuffled merrily away in her big boots, feeling so glad that the week was over, and nearly three dollars safe in her pocket. How gay the streets were that day! how brisk everyone was, and how bright the faces looked, as people trotted about with big baskets, holly-wreaths, and young evergreens going to blossom into splendid Christmas trees!
‘If I could have a tree for the children, I’d never want anything again. But I can’t; so I’ll fill the socks all full, and be happy,’ said Tessa, as she looked wistfully into the gay stores, and saw the heavy baskets go by.
‘Who knows what may happen if we do well?’ returned Tommo, nodding wisely, for he had a plan as well as Tessa, and kept chuckling over it as he trudged through the mud. They did not do well somehow, for everyone seemed so full of their own affairs they could not stop to listen, even to ‘Bella Monica,’ but bustled away to spend their money in turkeys, toys, and trees. In the afternoon it began to rain, and poor Tessa’s heart to fail her; for the big boots tired her feet, the cold wind made her hands ache, and the rain spoilt the fine red handkerchief. Even Tommo looked sober, and didn’t whistle as he walked, for he also was disappointed, and his plan looked rather doubtful, the pennies came in so slowly.
‘We’ll try one more street, and then go home, thou art so tired, little one. Come; let me wipe thy face, and give me thy hand here in my jacket pocket; there it will be as warm as any kitten;’ and kind Tommo brushed away the drops which were not all rain from Tessa’s cheeks, tucked the poor hand into his ragged pocket, and led her carefully along the slippery streets, for the boots nearly tripped her up.
Chapter 2
At the first house, a cross old gentleman flapped his newspaper at them; at the second, a young gentleman and lady were so busy talking that they never turned their heads, and at the third, a servant came out and told them to go away, because someone was sick. At the fourth, some people let them sing all their songs and gave nothing. The next three houses were empty; and the last of all showed not a single face as they looked up anxiously. It was so cold, so dark and discouraging, that Tessa couldn’t help one sob; and, as he glanced down at the little red nose and wet figure beside him, Tommo gave his harp an angry thump, and said something very fierce in Italian. They were just going to turn away; but they didn’t, for that angry thump happened to be the best thing they could have done. All of a sudden a little head appeared at the window, as if the sound had brought it; then another and another, till there were five, of all heights and colors, and five eager faces peeped out, smiling and nodding to the two below.
‘Sing, Tessa; sing! Quick! quick!’ cried Tommo, twanging away with all his might, and showing his white teeth, as he smiled back at the little gentle-folk.
Bless us! How Tessa did tune up at that! She chirped away like a real bird, forgetting all about the tears on her cheeks, the ache in her hands, and the heaviness at her heart. The children laughed, and clapped their hands, and cried ‘More! more! Sing another, little girl! Please do!’ And away they went again, piping and playing, till Tessa’s breath was gone, and Tommo’s stout fingers tingled well.
‘Mamma says, come to the door; it’s too muddy to throw the money into the street!’ cried out a kindly child’s voice as Tessa held up the old cap, with beseeching eyes.
Up the wide stone steps went the street musicians, and the whole flock came running down to give a handful of silver, and ask all sorts of questions. Tessa felt so grateful that, without waiting for Tommo, she sang her sweetest little song all alone. It was about a lost lamb, and her heart was in the song; therefore she sang it well, so well that a pretty young lady came down to listen, and stood watching the bright-eyed girl, who looked about her as she sang, evidently enjoying the light and warmth of the fine hall, and the sight of the lovely children with their gay dresses, shining hair, and dainty little shoes.
‘You have a charming voice, child. Who taught you to sing?’ asked the young lady kindly.
‘My mother. She is dead now; but I do not forget,’ answered Tessa, in her pretty broken English.
‘I wish she could sing at our tree, since Bella is ill,’ cried one of the children peeping through the banisters.
‘She is not fair enough for the angel, and too large to go up in the tree. But she sings sweetly, and looks as if she would like to see a tree,’ said the young lady.
‘Oh, so much!’ exclaimed Tessa; adding eagerly, ‘my sister Ranza is small and pretty as a baby-angel. She could sit up in the fine tree, and I could sing for her from under the table.’
‘Sit down and warm yourself, and tell me about Ranza,’ said the kind elder sister, who liked the confiding little girl, in spite of her shabby clothes.
So Tessa sat down and dried the big boots over the furnace, and told her story, while Tommo stood modestly in the background, and the children listened with faces full of interest.
‘O Rose! let us see the little girl; and if she will do, let us have her, and Tessa can learn our song, and it will be splendid!’ cried the biggest boy, who sat astride of a chair, and stared at the harp with round eyes.
‘I’ll ask mamma,’ said Rose; and away she went into the dining-room close by. As the door opened, Tessa saw what looked to her like a fairy feast, — all silver mugs and flowery plates and oranges and nuts and rosy wine in tall glass pitchers, and smoking dishes that smelt so deliciously she could not restrain a little sniff of satisfaction.
‘Are you hungry?’ asked the boy, in a grand tone.
‘Yes, sir,’ meekly answered Tessa.
‘I say, mamma; she wants something to eat. Can I give her an orange?’ called the boy, prancing away into the splendid room, quite like a fairy prince, Tessa thought.
A plump motherly lady came out and looked at Tessa, asked a few questions, and then told her to come to-morrow with Ranza, and they would see what could be done. Tessa clapped her hands for joy, — she didn’t mind the chilblains now, — and Tommo played a lively march, he was so pleased.
‘Will you come, too, and bring your harp? You shall be paid, and shall have something from the tree, likewise,’ said the motherly lady, who liked what Tessa gratefully told about his kindness to her.
‘Ah, yes; I shall come with much gladness, and play as never in my life before,’ cried Tommo, with a flourish of the old cap that made the children laugh.
‘Give these to your brothers,’ said the fairy prince, stuffing nuts and oranges into Tessa’s hands.
‘And these to the little girl,’ added one of the young princesses, flying out of the dining-room with cakes and rosy apples for Ranza.
Tessa didn’t know what to say; but her eyes were full, and she just took the mother’s white hand in both her little grimy ones, and kissed it many times in her pretty Italian fashion. The lady understood her, and stroked her cheek softly, saying to her elder daughter, ‘We must take care of this good little creature. Freddy, bring me your mittens; these poor hands must be covered. Alice, get your play-hood; this handkerchief is all wet; and, Maud, bring the old chinchilla tippet.’
The children ran, and in a minute there were lovely blue mittens on the red hands, a warm hood over the black braids, and a soft ‘pussy’ round the sore throat.
‘Ah! so kind, so very kind! I have no way to say “thank you;” but Ranza shall be for you a heavenly angel, and I will sing my heart out for your tree!’ cried Tessa, folding the mittens as if she would say a prayer of thankfulness if she knew how.
Then they went away, and the pretty children called after them, ‘Come again, Tessa! come again, Tommo!’ Now the rain didn’t seem dismal, the wind cold, nor the way long, as they bought their gifts and hurried home, for kind words and the sweet magic of charity had changed all the world to them.
I think the good spirits who fly about on Christmas Eve, to help the loving fillers of little stockings, smiled very kindly on Tessa as she brooded joyfully over the small store of presents that seemed so magnificent to her. All the goodies were divided evenly into three parts and stowed away in father’s three big socks, which hung against the curtain. With her three dollars, she had got a pair of shoes for Nono, a knit cap for Sep, and a pair of white stockings for Ranza; to her she also gave the new hood; to Nono the mittens; and to Sep the tippet.
‘Now the dear boys can go out, and my Ranza will be ready for the lady to see, in her nice new things,’ said Tessa, quite sighing with pleasure to see how well the gifts looked pinned up beside the bulging socks, which wouldn’t hold them all. The little mother kept nothing for herself but the pleasure of giving everything away; yet, I think, she was both richer and happier than if she had kept them all. Her father laughed as he had not done since the mother died, when he saw how comically the old curtain had broken out into boots and hoods, stockings and tippets.
‘I wish I had a gold gown and a silver hat for thee, my Tessa, thou art so good. May the saints bless and keep thee always!’ said Peter Benari tenderly, as he held his little daughter close, and gave her the good-night kiss.
Tessa felt very rich as she crept under the faded counterpane, feeling as if she had received a lovely gift, and fell happily asleep with chubby Ranza in her arms, and the two rough black heads peeping out at the foot of the bed. She dreamed wonderful dreams that night, and woke in the morning to find real wonders before her eyes. She got up early, to see if the socks were all right, and there she found the most astonishing sight. Four socks, instead of three; and by the fourth, pinned out quite elegantly was a little dress, evidently meant for her — a warm, woolen dress, all made, and actually with bright buttons on it. It nearly took her breath away; so did the new boots on the floor, and the funny long stocking like a grey sausage, with a wooden doll staring out at the top, as if she said, politely, ‘A Merry Christmas, ma’am!’ Tessa screamed and danced in her delight, and up tumbled all the children to scream and dance with her, making a regular carnival on a small scale. Everybody hugged and kissed everybody else, offered sucks of orange, bites of cake, and exchanges of candy; every one tried on the new things, and pranced about in them like a flock of peacocks. Ranza skipped to and fro airily, dressed in her white socks and the red hood; the boys promenaded in their little shirts, one with his creaking new shoes and mittens, the other in his gay cap and fine tippet; and Tessa put her dress straight on, feeling that her father’s ‘gold gown’ was not all a joke. In her long stocking she found all sorts of treasures; for Tommo had stuffed it full of queer things, and his mother had made gingerbread into every imaginable shape, from fat pigs to full omnibuses.
Dear me! What happy little souls they were that morning; and when they were quiet again, how like a fairy tale did Tessa’s story sound to them. Ranza was quite ready to be an angel; and the boys promised to be marvelously good, if they were only allowed to see the tree at the ‘palace,’ as they called the great house.
Little Ranza was accepted with delight by the kind lady and her children, and Tessa learned the song quite easily. The boys were asked; and, after a happy day, the young Italians all returned, to play their parts at the fine Christmas party. Mamma and Miss Rose drilled them all; and when the folding-doors flew open, one rapturous ‘Oh!’ arose from the crowd of children gathered to the festival. I assure you, it was splendid; the great tree glittering with lights and gifts; and, on her invisible perch, up among the green boughs, sat the little golden-haired angel, all in white, with downy wings, a shining crown on her head, and the most serene satisfaction in her blue eyes, as she stretched her chubby arms to those below, and smiled her baby smile at them. Before anyone could speak, a voice, as fresh and sweet as a lark’s, sang the Christmas Carol so blithely that everyone stood still to hear, and then clapped till the little angel shook on her perch, and cried out, ‘Be ‘till, or me’ll fall!’ How they laughed at that; and what fun they had talking to Ranza, while Miss Rose stripped the tree, for the angel could not resist temptation, and amused herself by eating all the bonbons she could reach, till she was taken down, to dance about like a fairy in a white frock and red shoes. Tessa and her friends had many presents; the boys were perfect lambs, Tommo played for the little folks to dance, and every one said something friendly to the strangers, so that they did not feel shy, in spite of shabby clothes. It was a happy night: and all their lives they remembered it as something too beautiful and bright to be quite true. Before they went home, the kind mamma told Tessa she should be her friend, and gave her a motherly kiss, which warmed the child’s heart and seemed to set a seal upon that promise. It was faithfully kept, for the rich lady had been touched by Tessa’s patient struggles and sacrifices; and for many years, thanks to her benevolence, there was no end to Tessa’s Surprises.
Kate’s Choice
First published : 1874
“Well, what do you think of her?”
“I think she’s a perfect dear, and not a bit stuck up with all her money.”
“A real little lady, and ever so pretty.”
“She kissed me lots, and don’t tell me to run away, so I love her.”
The group of brothers and sisters standing round the fire laughed as little May finished the chorus of praise with these crowning virtues.
Tall Alf asked the question, and seemed satisfied with the general approval of the new cousin just come from England to live with them. They had often heard of Kate, and rather prided them« selves on the fact that she lived in a fine house, was very rich, and sent them charming presents. Now pity was added to the pride, for Kate was an orphan, and all her money could not buy back the parents she had lost. They had watched impatiently for her arrival, baa welcomed her cordially, and after a day spent in trying to make her feel at home they were comparing notes in the twilight, while Kate was having a quiet talk with mamma.
“I hope she will choose to live with us. You know she can go to any of the uncles she likes best,” said Alf.
“We are nearer her age than any of the other cousins, and papa is the oldest uncle, so I guess she will,” added Milly, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the house.
“She said she liked America,” said quiet Frank.
“Wonder if she will give us a lot of her money?” put in practical Fred, who was always in debt.
“Stop that!” commanded Alf. “Mind now, if you ever ask her for a penny I’ll shake you out of your jacket.”
“Hush ! she’s coming,” cried Milly, and a dead silence followed the lively chatter.
A fresh-faced bright-eyed girl of fifteen came quietly in, glanced at the group on the rug, and paused as if doubtful whether she was wanted.
“Come on!” said Fred, encouragingly.
“Shall I be in the way?”
“Oh! dear, no, we were only talking,” answered Milly, drawing her cousin nearer with an arm about her waist.
“It sounded like something pleasant,” said Kate, not exactly knowing what to say.
“We were talking about you,” began little May, when a poke from Frank made her stop to ask, “What’s that for? We were talking about Kate, and we all said we liked her, so it’s no matter if I do tell.”
“You are very kind,” and Kate looked so pleased that the children forgave May’s awkward frankness.
“Yes, and we hoped you’d like us and stay with us,” said Alf, in the lofty and polite manner which he thought became the young lord of the house.
“I am going to try all the uncles in turn, and then decide; papa wished it,” answered Kate, with a sudden tremble of the lips, for her father was the only parent she could remember, and had been unusually dear for that reason.
“Can you play billiards?” asked Fred, who had a horror of seeing girls cry.
“Yes, and I’ll teach yon.”
“You had a pony-carriage at your house, didn’t you?” added Frank, eager to help on the good work.
“At grandma’s, — I had no other home, you know,” answered Kate.
“What shall you buy first with your money?” asked May, who would ask improper questions.
“I’d buy a grandma if I could,” and Kate both smiled and sighed.
“How funny! We’ve got one somewhere, but we don’t care much about her,” continued May, with the inconvenient candor of a child.
“Have you? Where is she?” and Kate turned quickly, looking full of interest.
“Papa’s mother is very old, and lives ever so far away in the country, so of course we don’t see much of her,” explained Alf.
“But papa writes sometimes, and mamma sends her things every Christmas. We don’t remember her much, because we never saw her but once, ever so long ago; but we do care for her, and May mustn’t say such rude things,” said Milly.
“I shall go and see her. I can’t get on without a grandmother,” and Kate smiled so brightly that the lads thought her prettier than ever. “Tell me more about her. Is she a dear old lady?”
“Don’t know. She is lame, and lives in the old house, and has a maid named Dolly, and — that’s all I can tell you about her,” and Milly looked a little vexed that she could say no more on the subject that seemed to interest her cousin so much.
Kate looked surprised, but said nothing, and stood looking at the fire as if turning the matter over in her mind, and trying to answer the question she was too polite to ask, — how could they live without a grandmother? Here the tea-bell rang, and the flock ran laughing downstairs; but, though she said no more, Kate remembered that conversation, and laid a plan in her resolute little mind which she carried out when the time came.
According to her father’s wish she lived for a while in the family of each of the four uncles before she decided with which she would make her home. All were anxious to have her, one because of her money, another because her great-grandfather had been a lord, a third hoped to secure her for his son, while the fourth and best family loved her for herself alone. They were worthy people, as the world goes, — busy, ambitious, and prosperous; and every one, old and young, was fond of bright, pretty, generous Kate. Each family was anxious to keep her, a little jealous of the rest, and very eager to know which she would choose.
But Kate surprised them all by saying decidedly when the time came, —
“I must see grandma before I choose. Perhaps I ought to have visited her first, as she is the oldest. I think papa would wish me to do it. At any rate, I want to pay my duty to her before I settle anywhere, so please let me go.”
Some of the young cousins laughed at the idea, and her old-fashioned, respectful way of putting it, which contrasted strongly with their free-and-easy American speech. The uncles were surprised, but agreed to humor her whim, and Uncle George, the eldest, said softly, —
“I ought to have remembered that poor Anna was mother’s only daughter, and the old lady would naturally love to see the girl. But, my dear, it will be desperately dull. Only two old women and a quiet country town. No fun, no company, you won’t stay long.”
“I shall not mind the dullness if grandma likes to have me there. I lived very quietly in England, and was never tired of it. Nursey can take care of me, and I think the sight of me will do the dear old lady good, because they tell me I am like mamma.” Something in the earnest young face reminded Uncle George of the sister he had almost forgotten, and recalled his own youth so pleasantly that he said, with a caress of the curly head beside him, —
“So it would, I’m sure of it, and I’ve a great mind to go with you and ‘pay my duty’ to mother, as you prettily express it.”
“Oh, no, please don’t, sir; I want to surprise hex; and have her all to myself for a little while. Would you mind if I went quite alone with Nursey? You can come later.”
“Not a bit; you shall do as you like, and make sunshine for the old lady as you have for us. I haven’t seen her for a year, but I know she is well and comfortable, and Dolly guards her like a dragon. Give her my love, Kitty, and tell her I send her something she will value a hundred times more than the very best tea, the finest cap, or the handsomest tabby that ever purred.”
So, in spite of the lamentations of her cousins, Kate went gayly away to find the grandma whom no one else seemed to value as she did.
You see, grandpa had been a farmer, and lived contentedly on the old place until he died; but his four sons wanted to be something better, so they went away one after the other to make their way in the world. All worked hard, got rich, lived splendidly, and forgot as far as possible the old life and the dull old place they came from. They were good sons in their way, and had each offered his mother a home with him if she cared to come. But grandma clung to the old home, the simple ways, and quiet life, and, thanking them gratefully, she had remained in the big farm-house, empty, lonely, and plain though it was, compared to the fine homes of her sons.
Little by little the busy men forgot the quiet, uncomplaining old mother, who spent her years thinking of them, longing to see and know their children, hoping they would one day remember how she loved them all, and how solitary her life must be.
Now and then they wrote or paid her a hasty visit, and all sent gifts of far less value to her than one loving look, one hour of dutiful, affectionate companionship.
“If you ever want me, send and I’ll come. Or, if you ever need a home, remember the old place is here always open, and you are always welcome,” the good old lady said. But they never seemed to need her, and so seldom came that the old place evidently had no charm for them.
It was hard, but the sweet old woman bore it patiently, and lived her lonely life quietly and usefully, with her faithful maid Dolly to serve and love and support her.
Kate’s mother, her one daughter, had married young, gone to England, and, dying early, had left the child to its father and his family. Among them little Kate had grown up, knowing scarcely any thing of her American relations until she was left an orphan and went back to her mother’s people. She had been the pet of her English grandmother, and, finding all the aunts busy, fashionable women, had longed for the tender fostering she had known, and now felt as if only grandmothers could give.
With a flutter of hope and expectation, she approached the old house after the long journey was over. Leaving the luggage at the inn, and accompanied by faithful Nurse, Kate went up the village street, and, pausing at the gate, looked at the homo where her mother had been born.
A large, old-fashioned farm-house, with a hospitable porch and tall trees in front, an orchard behind, and a capital hill for blackberries in summer, and coasting in winter, close by. All the upper windows were curtained, and made the house look as if it was half-asleep. At one of the lower windows sac a portly puss, blinking in the sun, and at the other appeared a cap, a regular grandmotherly old cap, with a little black bow perked up behind. Something in the lonely look of the house and the pensive droop of that cap made Katy hurry up the walk and tap eagerly at the antique knocker. A brisk little old woman peered out, as if startled at the sound, and Kate asked, smiling, “Does Madam Coverley live here?”
“She does, dear. Walk right in,” and throwing wide the door, the maid trotted down a long, wide hall, and announced in a low tone to her mistress, —
“A nice, pretty little girl wants to see you, mum.”
“I shall love to see a young face. Who is it, Dolly?” asked a pleasant voice.
“Don’t know, mum.”
“Grandma must guess,” and Kate went straight up to the old lady with both hands out, for the first sight of that sweet old face won her heart.
Lifting her spectacles, grandma looked silently a minute, then opened her arms without a word, and in the long embrace that followed Kate felt assured that she was welcome to the home she wanted.
“So like my Anna! And this is her little girl? God bless you, my darling! So good to come and see me!” said the old lady when she could speak.
“Why, grandma, I couldn’t get on without you, and as soon as I knew where to find you I was in a fidget to be off; but had to do my other visits first, because the uncles had planned it so. This is Dolly, I am sure, and that is my good nurse. Go and get my things, please, Nursey. I shall stay here until grandma sends me away.”
“That will never be, deary. Now tell me everything. It is like an angel coming to see me all of a sudden. Sit close, and let me feel sure it isn’t one of the dreams I make to cheer myself when I’m lonesome.”
Kate sat on a little stool at grandma’s feet, and, leaning on her knee, told all her little story, while the old lady fed her hungry eyes with the sight of the fresh young face, listened to the music of a loving voice, and felt the happy certainty that someone had remembered her, as she longed to be remembered.
Such a happy day as Kate spent talking and listening, looking at her new home, which she found delightful, and being petted by the two old women, who would hardly let Nursey do anything for her. Kate’s quick eyes read the truth of grandma’s lonely life very soon; her warm heart was full of tender pity, and she resolved to devote herself to making the happiness of the dear old lady’s few remaining years, for at eighty-one should have the prop of loving children, if ever.
To Dolly and madam it really did seem as if an angel had come, a singing, smiling, chattering sprite, who danced all over the old house, making blithe echoes in the silent room, and brightening every corner she entered.
Kate opened all the shutters and let in the sun, saying she must see which room she liked best before she settled. She played on the old piano, that wheezed and jangled, all out of tune; but no one minded, for the girlish voice was as sweet as a lark’s. She invaded Dolly’s sacred kitchen, and messed to her heart’s content, delighting the old soul by praises of her skill, and petitions to be taught all she knew. She pranced to and fro in the long hall, and got acquainted with the lives of painted ancestors hanging there in big wigs or short-waisted gowns. She took possession of grandma’s little parlor, and made it so cosey the old lady felt as if she was bewitched, for cushioned arm-chairs, fur foot-stools, soft rugs, and delicate warm shawls appeared like magic. Flowers bloomed in the deep, sunny window-seats, pictures of lovely places seemed to break out on the oaken walls, a dainty work-basket took its place near grandma’s quaint one, and, best of all, the little chair beside her own was seldom empty now.
The first thing in the morning a kiss waked her, and the beloved voice gave her a gay “Good-morning, grandma dear!” All day Anna’s child hovered about her with willing hands and feet to serve her, loving heart to return her love, and the tender reverence which is the beautiful tribute the young should pay the old. In the twilight, the bright head always was at her knees; and, in either listening to the stories of the past or making lively plans for the future, Kate whiled away the time that used to be so sad.
Kate never found it lonely, seldom wished for other society, and grew every day more certain that here she could find the cherishing she needed, and do the good she hoped.
Dolly and Nurse got on capitally; each tried which could sing “Little Missy’s” praises loudest, and spoil her quickest by unquestioning obedience to every whim or wish. A happy family, and the dull November days went by so fast that Christmas was at hand before they knew it.
All the uncles had written to ask Kate to pass the holidays with them, feeling sure she must be longing for a change. But she had refused them all, saying she should stay with grandma, who could not go anywhere to join other people’s merry-makings, and must have one of her own at home. The uncles urged, the aunts advised, and the cousins teased; but Kate denied them all, yet offended no one, for she was inspired by a grand idea, and carried it out with help from Dolly and Nurse, unsuspected by grandma.
“We are going to have a little Christmas fun up here among ourselves, and you mustn’t know about it until we are ready. So just sit all cosey in your corner, and let me riot about as I like. I know you won’t mind, and I think you’ll say it is splendid when I’ve carried out my plan,” said Kate, when the old lady wondered what she was thinking about so deeply, with her brows knit and her lips smiling.
“Very well, dear, do anything you like, and I shall enjoy it, only don’t get tired, or try to do too much,” and with that grandma became deaf and blind to the mysteries that went on about her.
She was lame, and seldom left her own rooms; so Kate, with her devoted helpers, turned the house topsy-turvy, trimmed up hall and parlors and great dining-room with shining holly and evergreen, laid fires ready for kindling on the hearths that had been cold for years, and had beds made up all over the house.
What went on in the kitchen, only Dolly could tell; but such delicious odors as stole out made grandma sniff the air, and think of merry Christmas revels long ago. Up m her own room Kate wrote lots of letters, and sent orders to the city that made Nursey hold up her hands. More letters came in reply, and Kate had a rapture over every one. Big bundles were left by the express, who came so often that the gates were opened and the lawn soon full of sleigh-tracks. The shops in the village were ravaged by Mistress Kate, who laid in stores of gay ribbon, toys, nuts, and all manner of queer things.
“I really think she’s lost her mind,” said the postmaster as she flew out of the office one day with a handful of letters.
“Pretty creter! I wouldn’t say a word against her, not for a mint of money. She’s so good to old Mrs. Coverley,” answered his fat wife, smiling as she watched Kate ride up the village street on an ox-sled.
If grandma had thought the girl out of her wits, no one could have blamed her, for on Christmas day she really did behave in the most singular manner.
“You are going to church with me this morning, grandma. It’s all arranged. A close carriage is coming for us, the sleighing is lovely, the church all trimmed up, and I must have you see it. I shall wrap you in fur, and we will go and say our prayers together, like good girls, won’t we?” said Kate, who was in a queer flutter, while her eyes shone, her lips were all smiles, and her feet kept dancing in spite of her.
“Anywhere you like, my darling. I’d start for Australia to-morrow, if you wanted me to go with you,” answered grandma, who obeyed Kate in all things, and seemed to think she could do no wrong.
So they went to church, and grandma did enjoy it; for she had many blessings to thank God for, chief among them the treasure of a dutiful, loving child. Kate tried to keep herself quiet, but the odd little flutter would not subside, and seemed to get worse and worse as time went on. It increased rapidly as they drove home, and, when grandma was safe in her little parlor again, Kate’s hands trembled so she could hardly tie the strings of the old lady’s state and festival cap.
“We must take a look at the big parlor. It is all trimmed up, and I’ve got my presents in there. Is it ready, Doll?” asked Kate, as the old servant appeared, looking so excited that grandma said, laughing, —
“We have been quiet so long, poor Dolly don’t know what to make of a little gayety.”
“Lord bless us, my dear mum! It’s all so beautiful and kinder surprisin,’ I feel as ef merrycles had come to pass agin,” answered Dolly, actually wiping away tears with her best white apron.
“Come, grandma,” and Kate offered her arm. “Don’t she look sweet and dear?” she added, smoothing the soft, silken shawl about the old lady’s shoulders, and kissing the placid old face that beamed at her from under the new cap.
“I always said madam was the finest old lady a-goin’, ef folks only knew it. Now, Missy, ef you don’t make haste, that parlor-door will bust open, and spoil the surprise; for they are just bilin’ over in there,” with which mysterious remark Dolly vanished, giggling.
Across the hall they went, but at the door Kate paused, and said with a look grandma never forgot, —
“I hope I have done right. I hope you’ll like my present, and not find it too much for you. At any rate, remember I meant to please you and give you the thing you need and long for most, my dear old grandma.”
“My good child, don’t be afraid. I shall like anything you do, and thank you for your thought of me. What a curious noise! I hope the fire hasn’t fallen down.”
Without another word, Kate threw open the door and led grandma in. Only a step or two — for the old lady stopped short and stared about her, as if she didn’t know her own best parlor. No wonder she didn’t, for it was full of people, and such people! All her sons, their wives and children, rose as she came in, and turned to greet her with smiling faces. Uncle George went up and kissed her, saying, with a choke in his voice, “A merry Christmas, mother!” and everybody echoed the words in a chorus of good-will that went straight to the heart.
Poor grandma could not bear it, and sat down in her big chair, trembling, and sobbing like a little child. Kate hung over her, fearing the surprise had been too much; but joy seldom kills, and presently the old lady was calm enough to look up and we come them all by stretching out her feeble hands and saying, brokenly yet heartily, —
“God bless you, my children! This is a merry Christmas, indeed! Now tell me all about it, and who everybody is; for I don’t know half the little ones.”
Then Uncle George explained that it was Kate’s plan, and told how she had made everyone agree to it, pleading so eloquently for grandma that all other plans were given up. They had arrived while she was at church, and had been with difficulty kept from bursting out before the time.
“Do you like your present?” whispered Kate, quite calm and happy now that the grand surprise was safely over.
Grandma answered with a silent kiss that said more than the warmest words, and then Kate put everyone at ease by leading up the children, one by one, and introducing each with some lively speech. Everybody enjoyed this and got acquainted quickly; for grandma thought the children the most remarkable she had ever seen, and the little people soon made up their minds that an old lady who had such a very nice, big house, and such a dinner waiting for them (of course they had peeped everywhere), was a most desirable and charming grandma.
By the time the first raptures were over Dolly and Nurse and Betsey Jane (a girl hired for the occasion) had got dinner on the table; and the procession, headed by Madam proudly escorted by her eldest son, filed into the dining-room where such a party had not met for years.
It would be quite impossible to do justice to that dinner: pen and ink are not equal to it. I can only say that everyone partook copiously of everything; that they laughed and talked, told stories, and sang songs; and when no one could do any more, Uncle George proposed grandma’s health, which was drunk standing, and followed by three cheers. Then up got the old lady, quite rosy and young, excited and gay, and said in a clear strong voice, —
“I give you in return the best of grandchildren, little Kate.”
I give you my word the cheer they gave grandma was nothing to the shout that followed these words; for the old lady led off with amazing vigor, and the boys roared so tremendously that the sedate tabby in the kitchen flew off her cushion, nearly frightened into a fit.
After that, the elders sat with grandma in the parlor, while the younger part of the flock trooped after Kate all over the house. Fires burned everywhere, and the long unused toys of their fathers were brought out for their amusement. The big nursery was full of games, and here Nursey collected the little ones when the larger boys and girls were invited by Kate to go out and coast. Sleds had been provided, and until dusk they kept it up, the city girls getting as gay and rosy as Kate herself in this healthy sport, while the lads frolicked to their hearts’ content, building snow forts, pelting one another, and carousing generally without any policeman to interfere or any stupid old ladies to get upset, as at home in the park.
A cosey tea and a dance in the long hall followed, and they were just thinking what they would do next when Kate’s second surprise came.
There were two great fireplaces in the hall: up the chimney of one roared a jolly fire, but the other was closed by a tall fire-board. As they sat about, resting after a brisk contra dance, a queer rustling and tapping was heard behind this fire-board.
“Rats!” suggested the girls, jumping up into the chaws.
“Let’s have ‘em out!” added the boys, making straight for the spot, intent on fun.
But before they got there, a muffled voice cried, “Stand from under!” and down went the board with a crash, out bounced Santa Claus, startling the lads as much as the rumor of rats had the girls.
A jolly old saint he was, all in fur, with sleigh bells jingling from his waist and the point of his high cap, big boots, a white beard, and a nose as red as if Jack Frost had had a good tweak at it. Giving himself a shake that set all the bells ringing, he stepped out upon the hearth, saying in a half-gruff, half-merry tone, —
“I call this a most inhospitable way to receive me! What do you mean by stopping up my favorite chimney? Never mind, I’ll forgive you, for this is an unusual occasion. Here, some of you fellows, lend a hand and help me out with my sack.”
A dozen pair of hands had the great bag out in a minute, and, lugging it to the middle of the hall, left it beside St. Nick, while the boys fell back into the eager, laughing crowd that surrounded the newcomer.
“Where’s my girl? I want my Kate,” said the saint, and when she went to him he took a base advantage of his years, and kissed her in spite of the beard.
“That’s not fair,” whispered Kate, as rosy as the holly-berries in her hair.
“Can’t help it, — must have some reward for sticking in that horrid chimney so long,” answered Santa Claus, looking as roguish as any boy. Then he added aloud, “I’ve got something for everybody, so make a big ring, and the good fairy will hand round the gifts.”
With that he dived into his bag and brought out treasure after treasure, some fine, some funny, many useful, and all appropriate, for the good fairy seemed to have guessed what each one wanted. Shouts of laughter greeted the droll remarks of the jolly saint, for he had a joke about everything, and people were quite exhausted by the time the bottom of the sack was reached.
“Now, then, a rousing good game of blind man’s buff, and then this little family must go to bed, for it’s past eleven.”
As he spoke, the saint cast off his cap and beard, fur coat, and big boots, and proceeded to dance a double shuffle with great vigor and skill; while the little ones, who had been thoroughly mystified, shouted, “Why, it’s Alf!” and fell upon him en masse as the best way of expressing their delight at his successful performance of that immortal part.
The game of blind man’s buff that followed was a “rouser” in every sense of the word, for the gentlemen joined, and the children flew about like a flock of chickens when hawks are abroad. Such peals of laughter, such shouts of fan, and such racing and scrambling that old hall had never seen before. Kate was so hunted that she finally took refuge behind grandma’s chair, and stood there looking at the lively scene, her “face full of happiness as she remembered that it was her work.
The going to bed that night was the best joke of all; for, though Kate’s arrangements were peculiar, everyone voted that they were capital. There were many rooms, but not enough for all to have one apiece. So the uncles and aunts had the four big chambers, all the boys were ordered into the great play-room, where beds were made on the floor, and a great fire blazing that the damping out might be as comfortable as possible. The nursery was devoted to the girls, and the little ones were sprinkled round wherever a snug corner was found.
How the riotous flock were ever got into their heels no one knows. The lads caroused until long past midnight, and no knocking on the walls of paternal boots, or whispered entreaties of maternal voices through key-holes, had any effect, for it was impossible to resist the present advantages for a grand Christmas rampage.
The girls giggled and gossiped, told secrets, and laid plans more quietly; while the small things tumbled into bed, and went to sleep at once, quite used up with the festivities of this remarkable day.
Grandma, down in her own cosey room, sat listening to the blithe noises with a smile on her face, for the past seemed to have come back again, and her own boys and girls to be frolicking above there, as they used to do forty years ago.
“It’s all so beautiful I can’t go to bed, Dolly, and lose any of it. They’ll go away to-morrow, and I may never see them anymore,” she said, as Dolly tied on her night-cap and brought her slippers.
“Yes, you will, mum. That dear child has made it so pleasant they can’t keep away. You’ll see plenty of ‘em, if they carry out half the plans they have made. Mrs. George wants to come up and pass the summer here; Mr. Tom says he shall send his boys to school here, and every girl among them has promised Kate to make her a long visit. The thing is done, mum, and you’ll never be lonely anymore.”
“Thank God for that!” and grandma bent her head as if she had received a great blessing. “Dolly, I want to go and look at those children. It seems so like a dream to have them here, I must be sure of it” said grandma, folding her wrapper about her, and getting up with great decision.
“Massy on us, mum, you haven’t been up them stairs for months. The dears are all right, warm as toasts, and sleepin’ like dormice, I’ll warrant,” answered Dolly, taken aback at this new whim of old madam’s.
But grandma would go, so Dolly gave her an arm, and together the two old friends hobbled up the wide stairs, and peeped in at the precious children. The lads looked like a camp of weary warriors reposing after a victory, and grandma went laughing away when she had taken a proud survey of this promising portion of the rising generation. The nursery was like a little convent full of rosy nuns sleeping peacefully; while a pictured Saint Agnes, with her lamb, smiled on them from the wall, and the firelight flickered over the white figures and sweet faces, as if the sight were too fair to be lost in darkness. The little ones lay about promiscuously, looking like dissipated Cupids with sugar hearts and faded roses still clutched in their chubby hands.
“My darlings!” whispered grandma, lingering fondly over them to cover a pair of rosy feet, put back a pile of tumbled curls, or kiss a little mouth still smiling in its sleep.
But when she came to the coldest corner of the room, where Kate lay on the hardest mattress, under the thinnest quilt, the old lady’s eyes were full of tender tears; and, forgetting the stiff joints that bent so painfully, she knelt slowly down, and, putting her arms about the girl, blessed her in silence for the happiness she had given one old heart.
Kate woke at once, and started up, exclaiming with a smile, —
“Why, grandma, I was dreaming about an angel, and you look like one with your white gown and silvery hair!”
“No, dear, you are the angel in this house. How can I ever give you up?” answered madam, holding fast the treasure that came to her so late.
“You never need to, grandma, for I have made my choice.”
First published : 1874
Coming home late one night, my eye was caught by the sight of a spotted dog sitting under a lamp all alone, and, as I passed, I said to him, —
“Go home, little doggie! It is too late for you to be out, and you’ll get rheumatism if you stay there.”
Alas for the poor fellow! he had no home to go to; and, evidently feeling that I had invited him to share mine by a friendly remark, he came pattering after us down the street, and when we reached our door stood wagging his tail, as if to say, —
“Thank you; yes, I should be most grateful if you’d allow me to lie on your door-mat till morning.”
His handsome, wistful eyes, and the insinuating wag of his thin tail, expressed this as plainly as any words could have done, and it grieved me much to see that I had awakened hopes which I could not fulfil.
I explained to him how it was; that this was not my house, and I really could not take him into my room; that there were five cats downstairs, and several old ladies upstairs; one snarly, fat poodle on the first floor; and half-a-dozen young men about the house, ready for mischief at all hours of the day or night. Such being the case, it was evidently no home for a strange doggie, so like a huckleberry pudding in appearance that I named him Huckleberry on the spot.
He seemed to understand it, for he stopped wagging and retired from the steps; but he was bitterly disappointed; and when I had gently closed the door, apologizing as I did so, he gave one disconsolate howl, and went to sit under the lamp again, as if that little circle of light made the dull November night less cold and lonely.
A day or two afterward, as I stood looking at the ruins of the great fire, a spotted dog lying on the edge of a smoking cellar attracted my attention.
“Faithful fellow! he is still watching his master’s property, I dare say, though everything is ashes. How beautiful that is!” I thought to myself, and went a little nearer to enjoy the touching spectacle.
As I approached, doggie looked up, and I knew him at once by the queer black patch on his left eye, and he knew me, for he sat up and began to beat the ground with his tail by way of welcome.
“Why, Huckleberry, is it you? Was your master burned out? and don’t you know” where he is gone?” I asked.
Now, I am very stupid about learning languages, and nearly died of German; but the language of animals I understand without any grammar or dictionary; and I defy anyone to read it better than myself. So, when Huckleberry gave a bark, I knew it meant, “Yes, ma’am;” and when he came fawning about my very muddy boots, he added this touching remark as plainly as if he had said it in the most elegant English: —
“Dear woman, I’m homeless, friendless, and forlorn; pity me, and I will be a faithful servant to you, on the word of an honest, grateful dog!”
It was very hard to say no, but I tried to soften my refusal by offering him some nice little cakes which I was intending to give my boys that evening; for when they come home from college Saturday night, we always have a jubilee in honor of the class of ‘76, to which I belong.
Doggie evidently needed them more than the lads, and gobbled up the whole dozen with a rapidity that made me wish I had a beefsteak or two in my pocket. While he was finishing the last one, I slipped away, and devoutly hoped I should see the poor, dear thing no more, for it rent my heart to leave him out in the cold; yet what could I do with him in my one room?
A week or two passed, and I forgot my spotted friend in the absorbing task of getting Christmas presents ready. Everyone else seemed to have forgotten him, too; for, late one snowy afternoon, as I hurried home, quite worn out with trying to shop among a mob of other women as busy and as impatient as myself, I saw a sight that made the tears come to my eyes in spite of the snow-flakes roosting on my lashes.
On the upper step of a church, close to the door, is if waiting for it to open to him, lay poor Huckleberry, dirty, thin, and evidently worn out with the hardships of his lot. Tired of asking for admittance at men’s doors, he had gone to God’s house, and no one had turned him away. If he had lain there all that stormy night, I think by morning he would have been safe in the little lower heaven which I am sure awaits the faithful, brave, and good among animals, when their long and often unacknowledged service is over in this world.
That mute reproach went to my heart, for now it seemed as if this small charity had been sent to me especially, and that I had neglected it till it was nearly too late. Huckleberry seemed to feel as if it was no use to appeal to human kindness any more, for he made no sign of recognition, and lay quite still, as if waiting till his dumb prayer for help was heard and answered by Him who sees the sparrow’s fall.
Up the steps I went, and, putting down my parcels, patted the head that seemed almost too tired to be lifted up, and with remorseful tenderness I said, —
“My poor dear, come home with me. I truly mean it now. Forgive me, and let me show you that in charitable Boston not even a dog need starve!”
He didn’t believe me. He was tired of false hopes, worn out with following people home to find the doors shut in his face, and seemed to have made up his mind to stay in the only refuge left him.
I wondered as I watched him if he had ever seen that door open, and, remembering the light, the warmth, the music, and the quiet figures moving in and out, had thought it was a better world, and so, when every other hope failed, came back to wait for a chance to creep in and lie humbly in some corner, feeling safe and happy.
I shall never know, for I had not time to ask about it, and he was too tired to talk. Feeling that my duty was very plainly to give poor doggie a lift, I coaxed him home with great difficulty, and he slowly followed, looking so incredulous and amazed that I felt bound to redeem the character of the human race in his eyes.
Once in my room, with a plate of cold meat before him and a warm rug placed at his disposal, Huckleberry gave in, believed, rejoiced, and was so grateful that he stopped now and then, even when bolting lumps of cold steak, to look at me and wag his tail with a whine of thanks.
Dear thing! how dirty, lean, and ugly he was! with one lame foot, a torn ear, and a bit of old rope round his neck where the collar should have been. Never mind; I loved him, and went on petting him with a reckless disregard of consequences and fleas. I had no more idea what I should do with him than if he had been an elephant; but remembering the blessed society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, I felt that I could fall back on them when all other hopes failed.
So, while Huckleberry lay on the rug, roasting first one side and then the other, with his nose on a bone, just to make him feel sure it wasn’t all a dream, I sat staring at him and planning a future for him such as few dogs enjoy. He seemed to feel this, for he gurgled and grunted in his sleep, woke up now and then with a start, and stared back at me with eyes full of doggish loyalty as he whacked the floor with his grateful tail.
“One of our fellows shall take him!” I decided; and, having picked out the most tender-hearted boy among my large and choice collection, I wrote to this victim an alluring epistle, offering him a lovely carriage-dog whom I had been so fortunate as to find. Would he like to have the first look at him and become his owner free of cost?
This being finished and sent to the post, I ordered a big tub of hot water to be ready early m the morning for my dog’s bath, and heartily wished I could fatten him up overnight, as at present he was not an inviting animal.
Then I retired to my bed, leaving Huckleberry asleep on the rug. Bless my heart, how he did snore! and when a very loud one woke him up, he seemed to feel that it was necessary for him to come and put his cold nose on my face, or paw at the pillow, till I flew up, thinking it was robbers. Then he would apologize in the most contrite manner, and explain that he only came to see if I was all right, and to express his thanks all over again.
After which he returned to his rug with a sigh of satisfaction, and fell asleep much quicker than I could.
In the morning he was escorted to the shed for his bath, to the great amusement of the servants and the fierce indignation of the cats. All five spit and glared from the various elevated refuges to which they had flown on his entrance; and one black kit made darts at him, looking like a little demon in her wrath.
Huckleberry behaved like a dog of good manners and temper, and, after vainly trying to appease the irate pussies, took no notice of them, being absorbed in his own afflictions.
He did not like the bath, but bore it like a hero, and let me scrub him till he was as clean as a very spotted bow-wow could be. He even submitted to the indignity of a little blanket pinned about his neck like an old woman, and trotted meekly upstairs after me, leaving the men and maids in fits of laughter, and the cats curling their whiskers with scorn at the whole proceeding.
Leaving my wash to dry, I flew out and bought a fine red collar for him; then I devoted the rest of my day to fussing over him, that he might be as presentable as possible.
Charley did not come till the next day, and the agonies I went through, meantime, with that blessed dog, “no mortal creeter knows,” as Mrs. Gamp would say.
I’m afraid I gave him too much meat, or else joy flew to his head and made him wild, for he developed such a flow of spirits that I felt as if I had an unchained whirlwind in my room. He bounced to the window every time a cart went by; growled at every dog he saw; barked at every one who entered the room; drank out of my pitcher; worried the rosettes off my slippers; upset my work-basket, the fire-irons, and two bottles in his artless play; scratched the paint off the door trying to get out, and, when he got to the yard, chased all the cats till they fled over the walls in every direction.
When exhausted with these little amusements, he would come and try to lick my face, put his paws in my lap, and languish at me with his fine eyes; and when I told him I couldn’t have it, he cast himself at my feet and squirmed rapturously.
He was a great plague, but I was fond of him, and when Charley came was sorry that he must leave me. But he had been on the rampage all that second night, for I put him in the hall to sleep, and he had scratched and howled at every door till I let him in to save him from the shower of boots hurled at him by the young gentlemen whose slumbers he had disturbed; so it was high time he went.
Charley laughed at him, but, when I had told the story, the good lad took pity on him and led him away after I had kissed and bade him be a good dog. He didn’t seem satisfied, but consented to go to please me, and trotted round the corner, looking so neat and respectable it did my heart good to see him.
“Now he is settled, and what a comfort that is!” I said to myself as I restored my devastated home to order.
But he wasn’t: oh, dear, no; for in two days back he came, all his own naughty self, and I found him boldly erect upon the steps waiting for me. He had run away and come home to his first friend, sure of a welcome.
It was very flattering, but also inconvenient; so he was restored to his master after a scolding and a patting which probably spoilt the effect of the lecture.
Three times did that dear deluded dog come back, and three times was he bundled home again. Then Charley shut him up in an old shed, and kept him there except when he led him out by a chain for an airing.
But Huckleberry’s grateful passion could not be restrained, and cost him his life in the end. He amused his leisure hours scratching and burrowing at the foundation stones of the shed wall, and, being loosely built, a big one fell on him in some way, hurting him so badly that there was no cure for his broken bones.
A note from Charley came to me, saying, “If you want to say good-by to poor old Huckleberry, come out and do it, for I’ve got to kill him, he is so hurt.”
Of course I went, and there I found him lying on a soft bed of hay, with his wounds bound up, and tender-hearted Charley watching over him. How glad he was to see his “missis!” How hard he tried to come and meet me! and how satisfied he looked when I bent down to stroke him, and let him feebly lick my hand as much as he liked!
He could hardly breathe for pain, and his eyes were already dim, but his dear old tail wagged to the last; and when I had said the tenderest good-by I knew, he laid down his head with a sigh that seemed to say, —
“Now I’m content, and can die in peace. I’ve thanked her, and she is sorry for me, so it’s all right. You may put me out of pain as soon as you like. Master Charley; I’m ready.”
It was soon done. I heard a shot, saw my lad go into the garden with a pick-axe and a spade, and then I knew that doggie was ready for his grave. We wrapped him in a bit of cheerful red carpet, and when a bed had been delved out for him, we laid the little bundle in, covered it up, and left the winter snow to spread a soft white pall over pool Huckleberry’s last home.
The Boys’ Joke, and Who Got the Best of It
First published : 1878
It was the day before Christmas, and grandpa’s big house was swarming with friends and relations, all brimful of spirits and bent on haying a particularly good time. Dinner was over and a brief lull ensued, during which the old folks took naps, the younger ones sat chatting quietly, while the children enlivened the day by a quarrel.
It had been brewing for some time, and during that half hour the storm broke. You see, the boys felt injured because for a week at least the girls had been too busy to pay the slightest attention to them and their affairs, — and what’s the good of having sisters and cousins if they don’t make themselves useful and agreeable to a fellow? What made it particularly hard to bear was the fact that there was a secret about it, and all they could discover was that they were to have no part in the fun. This added to their wrath, for they could have borne the temporary neglect, if the girls had been making something nice for them; but they were not, and the irate lads were coolly informed that they would never know the secret, or benefit by it in the least.
Now this sort of thing was not to be borne, you know, and after affecting to scorn the whole concern, the boys were finally goaded to confess to one another that they were dying to learn what was going on, though no power on earth would make them own as much to the girls. It certainly was very tantalizing to the poor fellows penned up in the breakfast-room (to keep the house quiet for an hour) to see the girls prance in and out of the library with the most aggravating air of importance and delight; to watch mysterious parcels borne along; to hear cries of rapture, admiration, or alarm from the next room, and to know that fun of some sort was going on, and they not in it.
It snowed so they could not go out; all had played their parts manfully at dinner, and were just in the lazy mood when a man likes to be amused by the gentler half of the race (which they believe was created for that express purpose), and there, on the other side of the folding doors, were half-a-dozen sprightly damsels, laughing and chatting, without a thought or care for the brothers and cousins gaping and growling close by.
The arrival of a sleigh-load of girlish neighbors added to the excitement, and made the boys feel that something must be done to redress their wrongs.
“Let’s burst in on them and take a look, no matter if they do scold,” proposed Tom, the scapegrace, ready for a raid.
“No, that won’t do; grandma said we were to let the girls alone, and we shall lose our presents if we don’t behave. You just lean up against the door, Joe, and if it flies open, why it is an accident, you know,” said Alf the wise.
So Joe, the fat cousin, backed up to the door like a young elephant, and leaned hard; but it was locked, and nothing came of it but a creak from the door, and a groan from Joe.
“I’ll look through the keyhole, and tell what I see,” cried little Neddy; and no one forbade him, though, at any other time, big brother Frank would have cuffed his ears for daring to suggest such a prank.
“There’s something bright, and the girls are fussing round it. Kitty’s got a lot of red and blue ribbons in her hand, and Grace is up in a chair, and Nell — oh, it’s cake; a great dish full of the jolliest kinds, and bon-bons, and sugared fruit, just the sort I like. I say, knock the door down, some of you big fellows, and let’s have one grab!” cried Neddy, maddened by the sight of the forbidden sweeties.
“Be quiet, and take another peep; it’s rather interesting to hear what’s going on,” said Frank, reposing upon the sofa like the Great Mogul, as the boys called him.
Poor little Tantalus obediently applied his eye to the keyhole, but fell back with a blank face, saying in a despairing tone:
“They’ve plugged it up, and I can’t see a thing!”
“Serves you right; if you’d held your tongue they never would have known what you were about,” was Frank’s ungrateful answer.
A stifled giggle from the other side of the door caused a dead silence to pervade the breakfast-room for several minutes, while Neddy wriggled out of sight under the sofa as if to escape from the finger of scorn.
Suddenly Tom cried in a shrill whisper, “I’ve got it!” and pointed to a ventilator over the door.
A simultaneous rush of boys and chairs took place; but Tom claimed the rights of a discoverer, and, softly mounting an improvised ladder of tables and stools, he peered eagerly through the glass, while impatient hands plucked at his legs, and the pressure of the mob caused his perch to totter perilously.
The spectacle which he beheld would have touched the heart of any little girl, but to an unappreciative boy it possessed no charm, for it was only a doll’s Christmas tree. For weeks, the young mammas had been making pretty things for their wooden, wax, or porcelain darlings, and it was excellent practice, since many a pair of hands that scorned patchwork and towels, labored patiently over small gowns, trimmed gay hats, and wrought wonders in worsted, without a sigh.
It really was a most delightful little tree, set in an Indian jar, snowed over with flour, garlanded with alternate festoons of cranberries and pop-corn, and every bough laden with such treasures that if dolls could stare any harder than they do, they certainly would have opened their painted eyes with amazement and joy. Such “darling” hats, and caps; such “sweet” gowns and cloaks; such “cunning” muffs and tippets! Dressing cases as perfect as grown-up ones, I assure you; mittens that must have been knit on darning-needles; shoes of colored kid fit for a doll’s Cinderella, and sets of brass and bead jewelry that glittered splendidly. Wee bottles of perfume for waxen noses; tiny horns of comfits; travelling bags, and shawl straps, evidently worked by the fairies; and underclothes which I modestly forbear to describe, merely saying that very few of the seams were puckered, and the trimmings “perfectly lovely.”
At the moment when Peeping Tom’s profane eye beheld the innocent revel, the dolls were seated in a circle, their mammas standing behind them, while the happy little hostesses bestowed the gifts with appropriate remarks. It is needless to say that the dolls behaved beautifully, their cheeks glowing with pleasure as they returned thanks in voices so like those of their mothers that one couldn’t tell the difference.
The tree was soon stripped, and then the chatter began again, for everything must be tried on at once, and more than one doll who came in shabby clothes bloomed out in gorgeous array, or was made tidy for the winter.
“I’m so glad to get a worked flannel petticoat for my Jemima. Mamma was saying only yesterday that she didn’t approve of show at the expense of comfort, and I knew she meant Jemmy, who hadn’t a thing on but her pink silk dress and earrings,” observed Mrs. Kitty, in a moral tone.
“Clementina has been suffering for shoes, though her feet don’t show with a train. I meant to have saved enough to buy her some, but what with limes and candy, and pencils, and fines for saying ‘awful,’ I do believe the poor thing would have gone barefooted all winter, if Kell hadn’t given her these beauties,” replied Mrs. Alice, proudly surveying her daughter’s feet in red kid boots of a somewhat triangular shape.
“I couldn’t make them fit very well, because the cotton is all coming out of her toes, and it was hard to measure,” explained Mrs. Kell, conscious that shoemaking was not her mission.
“They are just the thing; for I’m afraid my poor Clem is going to have the gout, young as she is. It is in our family, so it is well to be prepared,” answered Mrs. Alice, with the beautiful forethought of a maternal heart.
“These muffs are made out of our Tabby’s skin. I thought you’d like them as keepsakes, for we all loved her,” said Grace, with a pensive sigh, as she smoothed the white fur of a dear departed cat, feeling that black and violet bows would have been more suitable than red and blue for the decoration of these touching memorials.
“I wonder if there isn’t a nice place somewhere for good cats when they die? I hope so: for I’m sure they have souls, though they may be little bits of ones,” observed Kitty, who felt as if her name was a tie between herself and the pets she most adored.
“I wonder if they have ghosts,” said Kell, as if she feared that Tabby’s might appear.
A faint “Meou” seemed to float down to the startled girls from some upper region, and for an instant they stood staring about them. Then they laughed like a chime of bells, and accused little Lotty of pinching the kitten in her arms.
“I didn’t; it was Tom up dere,” protested the child, pointing to the ventilator, from which a round red face was staring at them, like a full moon.
Shrieks of indignation greeted the discovery, and a rain of small articles pelted the countenance of the foe, as it grinned derisively, while a jeering voice called out:
“I don’t think much of your old secret. It wasn’t worth the fuss you made about it, and I wouldn’t have any if I couldn’t do better than that.”
“I’d like to see you get up anything half as nice. You couldn’t do it. Boys never invent new games, but girls do. Papa says so, and he knows,” answered Nell.
“Pooh! We fellows could beat you as easy as not, if we cared to; so you needn’t brag, miss. Men invent everything in the world, ‘specially ventilators, and you see how useful they are,” returned Tom, glad that he had kept his place in spite of the maltreatment his extremities were undergoing.
“Boys are more curious than girls, anyway. We should never have done such a mean thing as to peek at you,” cried Kitty, coming to the rescue, and hitting the enemy in his weakest spot.
“Oh, we only did it for fun. Give us a taste of your spread, and we’ll never say a word about it,” returned the barefaced boy, with a wheedlesome air, and a tender glance toward the dainty tea-table set forth so temptingly just under his nose.
“Not a bit, unless you’ll say our tree is lovely and own that we are the cleverest at getting up new and nice things,” said Kitty, sternly.
“Never!” roared Tom; “we can beat you any day if we choose.”
“Then do it, and we will own up; yes, and we will go halves in all the goodies we get off our big tree to-night,” added Kitty, bound to stand by her sex and ready to wager a year’s bon-bons in the defense of her position.
“By George, I’ll do it if the fellows will agree! Honor bright now, and no dodging,” said Tom, recklessly pledging himself and friends to anything and everything.
“Honor bright,” chorused the girls in high glee.
“Only don’t be a month about it; you boys are so slow,” added Grace, in a superior tone, that ruffled the gentleman at the ventilator.
“We’ll do it to-morrow; see if we don’t,” he cried out, rashly heaping difficulties upon his party.
“Then you’d better set about it at once, and leave us in peace,” said Kell, tartly.
“I shall go, ma’am, when I please, and not one minute sooner” — began Tom, with immense dignity; but he did not keep his word; for the sudden withdrawal of his head, followed by a crash and howls of mingled merriment, wrath, and pain, plainly proved that circumstances over which he had no control hastened his departure.
The ladies sat down to their afternoon tea, which was much enlivened by guessing what those “stupid boys” would do. The gentlemen, warned by Tom’s downfall, contented themselves with racking their mighty minds to invent some new, striking, and appropriate entertainment which should cover their names with glory and demolish their opponents for ever more.
Perhaps it was too soon after dinner; perhaps the brightest wits of the party had been shaken by the fall, or the cold affected the inventive powers; for, rack as they would, those mighty minds refused to work.
“You ought to have given us more time; of course we can’t get up anything clever in one day and a half,” grumbled Frank, much annoyed because all the rest looked to him and he had not an idea to offer.
“I wasn’t going to have a parcel of girls crow over me. I’d blow myself up for a show before I’d let them do that,” answered Tom, rubbing his bruised elbows with a grim and defiant glance toward the fatal ventilator, for he felt that he had got not only himself but his mates into a scrape.
“Don’t worry, old fellows; time enough; sleep on it, and something capital will pop into somebody’s noddle, see if it doesn’t,” counselled Alf, with a sage nod, as he went to discover who was sobbing in the hall.
Little Lotty sat on the fuzzy red mat, with a tortoise-shell kitten in her arms, her white pinafore full of candies, and her chubby face bedewed with tears.
“What’s the matter, Toddlekins?” asked Alf, in such a sympathetic tone that the afflicted infant poured forth her woes in one breath, with the brown eyes flashing through their tears and a dramatic gesture of the small hands that told the tale better than her broken words.
“De naughty, naughty girls turned out my Torty ‘cause she hopped on de table and drinked de tea, and I corned too, and we is doing to have a kitmouse tee all ourselfs up in de nursery, so now!”
Alf laughed at her indignation, but dried her tears, and sent her away happy with a sprig of hemlock from the decorations of the hall. “Virtue is its own reward” proved true in this case; for as Alf went back to his mates he had an idea — such a superb one that it nearly took his breath away and caused him to break into a wild sort of jig, as he cried aloud — “I’ve found it, boys; I’ve found it!”
“Where? What? How?” asked the others, clinging to him as if they were shipwrecked mariners, and he a rope thrown out to them.
The idea was evidently a good one, for it was received with great applause, and everybody was interested at once in helping Alf elaborate his plan.
“Won’t it be heaping coals of fire on their heads after the shabby way they have treated us?” said Tom, chuckling at the thought of the girls’ remorse when the touching surprise in store for them should be revealed.
“But how the dickens shall we get enough m——?” began Frank, rather inclined to throw cold water on the affair because he was not the originator of it.
“Hush!” shouted Alf; then added in a melodramatic whisper, “If the girls hear that word we are lost. I’ve planned how to manage that, but it will take time, and we’d better begin at once, or there won’t be enough you-know-whats to go round. Come upstairs; we can talk safely there without a pack of girls listening at the keyhole, as I know they are this identical minute.”
Alf raised his voice at the last words, and the boys trooped off with derisive hoots; for a guilty rustle and a sudden outburst of conversation in the other room told them that their shot had hit somebody.
“I wish we hadn’t dared them to do it; for they will be sure to get up some dreadful surprise. I shall be expecting it every minute, and that will make me so nervous I shall not enjoy myself a bit.”
“I’m not afraid; they won’t invent anything tonight, so we may as well clear up and be ready for our tree,” answered Kitty to Kell as they packed the dolls on the sofa to sleep while their mammas enjoyed themselves.
No need to tell about that evening, for every child knows what a Christmas tree is better than we can describe it, so we will skip into the next morning when the boys’ joke came off.
The young folks usually slept late after their unwonted revelry by night, but, strange to relate, the lads were early astir. In fact, Mary, the cook, saw several small ghosts whisking up the back-stairs when she went down to kindle her fire, and curious sounds were heard in attic and cellar, store-room and closets.
Something very exciting was going on, and the elders were evidently in it, for, though several mammas were heard to cry out when certain mysterious things were shown them, they never said a word, but looked up bits of gay ribbon without a murmur; while the papas enjoyed the fun and lent a hand in the most delightful manner.
When the girls came down to the late breakfast they found notes under their napkins, inviting them to a surprise party in the drying room at eleven A.M.
“I didn’t think they’d be so quick. Shall you dare to go?” whispered Nell to Kitty as they compared notes and tried to make out the device on the seal, which was evidently intended for an animal of some sort.
“We must go, for we promised. Of course it won’t amount to anything, and we can keep our sweeties,” answered Kitty, lovingly eying the pretty box of French bon-bons which she had so rashly staked.
“You’ll be sorry if you don’t for it is the completest thing you ever saw, and no end of fun in it,” began Tom, assuming an ecstatic expression and smacking his lips.
“Hold your tongue and go to work, or we shall not be ready in time. We’ve got to trim all the jigamarees , hang the thingummies while they are fresh, and see that the basket of treasures arrives safely,” said Alf, with such mysterious nods and smiles that the girls were instantly consumed by an intense curiosity to know what “thingummies” and “jigamarees” were, while “treasures” had such a rich sound that they began to hope the boys were really going to atone for the past by some splendid piece of generosity.
“Come punctually at eleven and bring your boxes with you; they will be a good deal lighter when you come down again;” with which cheering remark Frank led off his men, leaving the girls to watch the clock with anxious, yet eager eyes.
Their wonder and suspense was much increased by the fact that Lotty was sent for and carried off by an escort of two. Listening at the foot of the backstairs they heard her little voice exclaim approvingly:
“Oh how funny! how berry nice!” then the door closed, and the girls heard no more.
As the clock struck, up marched seven young ladies, each with a bon-bon box under her arm and an eager sparkle in her eyes. As they paused at the door Tom’s voice was heard saying, “I wish they’d hurry up, for I’m tired of this business and have had scratching enough.”
“They are coming! Now mind, no scrambling till I give the word. Each fellow stand in his place, keep the bows right side up and hold tight, or there will be a dreadful piece of work,” answered Alf, evidently giving last touches to the spectacle.
“They have borrowed Fred’s monkey and are going to scare us; I know they are by what Tom said: and I hear a queer noise — don’t you?” whispered Nell, clutching Grace’s skirts.
“It cannot be anything very bad or Lotty would cry. Steady, girls; I’m going to knock,” and Kitty gave a bold “rat-tat-tat,” which caused a sensation within.
The door opened, and Frank made his best bow as he said, with a flourish:
“Enter, ladies, and join us in the interesting festival which we have prepared at your desire. Take a look first, and. then I will explain this charming scene if it is not clear to you.”
No need to tell the girls to take a look; they had done that already; but it was evident that an explanation would be necessary, for they were quite mystified by the “charming scene;” and well they might be, for it was a curious one.
The middle of the room was adorned by a large tub, in which stood a small spruce tree hung with the oddest things that ever swung from a bough. Mice by their tails, bits of cheese, milk in small bottles, gay balls, loops of string, squares of red and blue flannel like little blankets, bundles of herbs tied with bright ribbons, and near the top hung a cage with several small white animals dancing about in it.
But funniest of all was the circle of boys around this remarkable tree, at the foot of which Lotty sat; for each held a cat or kitten in his arms decorated with a gorgeous bow; both boys and cats so absurdly solemn and ill at ease that after one look the girls burst into a gale of merriment.
“Glad you like it, ladies; we have done our best, and I flatter myself it is a pretty neat thing,” began showman Frank, with a gratified air, while the other boys with difficulty restrained their charges from escaping to their mistresses.
“It’s very funny, but what does it all mean?” asked Grace, wiping her eyes, and nodding to her own fat Jerry, whose yellow eyes appealed to her for aid.
“It is a Kitmouse tree, the first one ever known, prepared at great expense for this occasion, to prove that we can invent superior amusements, and entirely outdo other folks who shall be nameless.”
“It isn’t half so pretty as our tree was,” said Kitty, as Frank paused for breath.
“But think how much more pleasure it will give; for cats can enjoy and dolls can’t. These presents are useful and instructive; for we have not only food and drink, but catnip and cataplasms for the poor darlings, if they have catarrh or any other catastrophe of that sort; but here is a little catechism for the kits, and string for cats’ cradles when they have learned their lessons. Cataracts of milk will flow from these bottles for their refreshment, and a catalogue of delicacies will be furnished free to any lady wishing to repeat this performance at a future time.”
“Hurry up, and give Jerry a bite of something, or he’ll eat me,” cried Tom, who had been silently struggling with his puss while Frank delivered the speech, which he considered a masterpiece of wit.
“If the ladies will sit upon the window-seats I will give out the presents at once;” and Frank proceeded to do so, amid much merriment; for the kittens began at once to play with the balls, the cats to eat and drink, while the boys surveyed the scene with great satisfaction, and the girls applauded as the mice were handed round, one to each cat, as a delicate attention, though few were eaten.
The pussies behaved remarkably well, for the lads had wisely selected the most amiable ones they could find, and the six belonging to the house received them hospitably. Mother Bunch and her three kits did the honors, while Torty and Jerry tried to be polite, though aristocratic Torty arched her back at the half-starved little cat Neddy found in the street, and stout old Jerry growled to himself when Nell’s pretty white Snowball took his mouse away.
Such a frolic as they had, boys and girls, cats and kittens, altogether, one would have thought the house was coming down about their ears. The elders took a peep at them, but a very little of that sort of fun satisfied them and they soon left the youngsters to themselves.
“It’s almost one, and we are going coasting before dinner, so own up girls, and hand over the goodies,” said Alf at last, when a lull came and every one stopped for breath after a lively game of tag, which caused the cats to seek refuge in every available nook and corner.
“I suppose we must; for it certainly was a bright idea, and we have had a capital time,” confessed honest Nell, sitting down in the clothes-basket, where Mother Bunch had collected her family when the romp began, and beginning to divide her candies.
“Stop a minute!” cried Kitty, with a twinkle in her black eyes; “was not the agreement that you should invent something newer and nicer than our dolls’ affair?”
“Yes; and isn’t this ever so much better fun in every way than all that fuss for rag babies that don’t know or care anything about it?” cried Alf, as proud as a peacock of his success.
“Of course it is,” admitted sly Kitty.
“Wasn’t it clever of us to get it up, and haven’t we pleased you by treating your cats well?”
“I’m sure you have, and it was dear of you to do it.”
“Well, then, what’s the trouble?”
“Only that you did not invent the thing all yourselves,” coolly answered Kitty.
“I should like to know who did!” cried the boys with one breath.
“Lotty. She put the idea into your heads with her funny word ‘kitmouse.’ You never would have thought of it but for that. A girl helped you; and a very little one too; you had to call her in to make the cats mind, I’m sure, so you have lost your wager and we will keep our bon-bons, thank you.”
Kitty made a low courtesy and stood crunching a delicious strawberry drop as she triumphantly surveyed the astounded boys, who looked as much taken aback as Antonio and his friends when Portia outwits Shylock in the famous court scene.
“She’s got us there,” murmured Frank, with an approving nod to his clever young sister.
“Oh, come; that’s not fair; we had a right to take just a word that meant nothing till we made it. I don’t care for the sweet stuff, but I’m not going to own that we are beaten!” cried Alf, in high dudgeon; for he had taken much credit to himself for this bright idea.
“You must own that a girl helped you. Do that fairly and I’ll go halves, as we promised; for you have made a good joke out of Lotty’s word,” said Kitty, who was generous as well as just, and felt that the poor lads deserved some reward for their labor.
“All right, if the other fellows agree,” returned Tom, helping himself to a handful of candy as he spoke; which cool performance had such a good effect upon the other boys that they all cried out, “We do! we do!” while Alf, swinging Lotty to his shoulder, marched away, singing at the top of his voice,
Now cheer, boys, cheer,
With three times three,
Our little Lot,
And her kitmouse tree!
A Quiet Little Woman
First published : 1878
Chapter 1 — How She Found It
Patty stood at one of the windows of the Asylum, looking thoughtfully down into the yard, where twenty girls were playing.
All had cropped heads, all wore brown gowns and blue aprons, and all were orphans like herself. Some were pretty and some plain, some rosy and gay, some pale and feeble, but all seemed happy and having a good time in spite of many drawbacks.
More than once one of them nodded and beckoned to Patty, but she shook her head decidedly, and still stood, listlessly watching them, and thinking to herself with a child’s impatient spirit, —
“Oh, if someone would only come and take me away! I’m so tired of living here I don’t think I can bear it much longer.”
Poor Patty might well wish for a change; for she had been in the Asylum ever since she could remember; but though everyone was kind to her, she was heartily tired of the place, and longed to find a home as many of the girls did.
The children were nursed and taught until old enough to help themselves, then were adopted by people or went out to service. Now and then some forlorn child was claimed by relatives who had discovered it, and once the relatives of a little girl proved to be rich and generous people, who came for Katy in a fine carriage, treated all the other girls in honor of the happy day, and from time to time let Katy visit them with hands full of gifts for her former playmates and friends.
This event had made a great stir in the Asylum, and the children were never tired of talking it over and telling it to new comers as a modern sort of fairy tale. For a time, each hoped to be claimed in the same way, and stories of what they would do when their turn came was one of the favorite amusements of the house.
By and by Katy ceased to come, and gradually new girls took the place of those that left, and her good fortune was forgotten by all but Patty. To her it always remained a splendid possibility, and she comforted her loneliness by visions of the day when her “folks” would come for her, and bear her away to a future of luxury and pleasure, rest and love.
But no one came, and year after year Patty worked and waited, saw others chosen and herself left to the many duties and few pleasures of her dull life. The reason why she was not taken was because of her pale face, her short figure, with one shoulder higher than the other, and her shy ways. She was not ill now, but looked so, and was a sober, quiet little woman at thirteen.
People who came for pets chose the pretty little ones; and those who wanted servants took the tall, strong, merry-faced girls, who spoke up brightly and promised to learn and do anything required of them.
The good matron often recommended Patty as a neat, capable, gentle little person, but no one seemed to want her, and after every failure her heart grew heavier and her face sadder, for the thought of spending her life there was unbearable.
Nobody guessed what a world of hopes and thoughts and feelings was hidden under that blue pinafore, what dreams the solitary child enjoyed, or what a hungry, aspiring young soul lived in that crooked little body.
But God knew; and when the time came He remembered Patty and sent her the help best fitted for her needs. Sometimes, when we least expect it, a small cross proves a lovely crown, a seemingly unimportant event becomes a life-long experience, or a stranger changes into a friend.
It happened so now; for as Patty said aloud with a great sigh, “I don’t think I can bear it any longer!” a hand touched her shoulder, and a voice said, gently, —
“Bear what, my child?”
The touch was so light and the voice so kind that Patty answered before she had time to feel shy.
“Living here, ma’am, and never being chosen out like the other girls are.”
“Tell me all about it, dear. I’m waiting for a friend, and I’d like to hear your troubles,” sitting down in the window-seat and drawing Patty beside her.
She was not young, nor pretty, nor finely dressed, only a gray-haired woman in plain black; but her face was so motherly, her eyes so cheerful, and her voice so soothing, that Patty felt at ease in a minute, and nestled up to her as she told her little woes in a few simple words.
“You don’t know anything about your parents?” asked the lady.
“No, ma’am; I was left here a baby without even a name pinned to me, and no one has come to find me. But I shouldn’t wonder if they did yet, so I keep ready all the time and learn as hard as I can, so they won’t be ashamed of me, for I guess my folks is respectable,” and Patty lifted her head with an air of pride that made the lady ask, with a smile, —
“What makes you think so?”
“Well, I heard the matron tell a lady who chose Nelly Brian that she always thought I came of high folks because I was so different from the others, and my ways was nice, and my feet so small, — see if they ain’t,” — and, slipping them out of the rough shoes she wore, Patty held up two slender little feet with the arched insteps that tell of good birth.
Miss Murry laughed right out at the innocent vanity of the poor child, and said, heartily, “They are small, and so are your hands in spite of work, and your hair is fine, and your eyes are soft and clear, and you are a good child I’m sure, which is best of all.”
Pleased and touched by the praise that is so pleasant to us all, yet half ashamed of herself, Patty blushed and smiled, put on her shoes, and said, with unusual animation, —
“I’m pretty good, I believe, and I know I’d be much better if I only could get out. I do so long to see trees and grass, and sit in the sun and hear birds. I’d work real hard and be happy if I could live in the country.”
“What can you do?” asked Miss Murry, stroking the smooth head and looking down into the wistful eyes fixed upon her.
Modestly, but with a flutter of hope at her heart, Patty told over her domestic accomplishments, a good list for a thirteen-year-older, but Patty had been drilling so long she was unusually clever at all sorts of house-work as well as needle-work.
As she ended, she asked, timidly, —
“Did you come for a girl, ma’am?”
“My sister did; but she has found one she likes, and is going to take her on trial,” was the answer that made the light fade out of Patty’s eyes and the hope die in her heart.
“Who is it, please?”
“Lizzie Brown, a tall, nice-looking girl of fourteen.”
“You won’t like her I know, for Lizzie is a real ——; there Patty stopped short, turned red, and looked down, as if ashamed to meet the keen, kind eyes fixed on her.
“A real what?”
“Please, ma’am, don’t ask; it was mean of me to say that, and I mustn’t go on. Lizzie can’t help being good with you, and I am glad she’s got a chance to go away.”
Miss Murry asked no more questions; but she liked the little glimpse of character, and tried to brighten Patty’s face again by talking of something she liked.
“Suppose your ‘folks,’ as you say, never come for you, and you never find your fortune, as some girls do, can’t you make friends and fortune for yourself?”
“How can I?” questioned Patty, wonderingly.
“By taking cheerfully whatever comes, by being helpful and affectionate to all, and wasting no time in dreaming about what may happen, but bravely making each day a comfort and a pleasure to yourself and others. Can you do that?”
“I can try, ma’am,” answered Patty, meekly.
“I wish you would; and when I come again you can tell me how you get on. I think you will succeed; and when you do, you will have found a fine fortune, and be sure of friends. Now I must go; cheer up, deary, your turn must come someday.”
With a kiss that won Patty’s heart, Miss Murry went away, casting more than one look of pity at the little figure in the window-seat, sobbing, with a blue pinafore over its face.
This disappointment was doubly hard to Patty; because Lizzie was not a good girl, and deserved nothing, and Patty had taken a great fancy to the lady who spoke so kindly to her.
For a week after this she went about her work with a sad face, and all her day-dreams were of living with Miss Murry in the country.
Monday afternoon, as she stood sprinkling clothes, one of the girls burst in, saying, all in a breath, —
“Somebody’s come for you, and you are to go right up to the parlor. It’s Mrs. Murry, and she’s brought Liz back, ‘cause she told fibs, and was lazy, and Liz is as mad as hops, for it is a real nice place, with cows, and pigs, and children; and the work ain’t hard and she wanted to stay. Do hurry, and don’t stand staring at me that way.”
“It can’t be me — no one ever wants me — it’s some mistake” — stammered Patty, so startled and excited, she did not know what to say or do.
“No, it isn’t. Mrs. Marry won’t have any one but you, and the matron says you are to come right up. Go along; I’ll finish here. I’m so glad you have got a chance at last;” and with a good-natured hug, the girl pushed Patty out of the kitchen.
In a few minutes Patty came flying back, all in a twitter of delight, to report that she was going at once, and must say good-by all round. Everyone was pleased, and when the flurry was over, the carriage drove away with the happiest little girl ever seen inside, for at last someone did want her, and Patty had found a place.
Chapter 2 — How She Filled It
For a year Patty lived with the Murrys, industrious, docile, and faithful, but not yet happy, because she had not found all she expected. They were kind to her, as far as plenty of food and not too much work went. They clothed her comfortably, let her go to church, and did not scold her very often. But no one showed that they loved her, no one praised her efforts, no one seemed to think that she had any hope or wish beyond her daily work, and no one saw in the shy, quiet little maid-servant, a lonely, tender-hearted girl longing for a crumb of the love so freely given to the children of the house.
The Murrys were busy people; the farm was large, and the master and his eldest son were hard at it all summer. Mrs. Murry was a brisk, smart housewife, who “flew round” herself, and expected others to do likewise. Pretty Ella, the daughter, was about Patty’s age, and busy with her school, her little pleasures, and all the bright plans young girls love and live in. Two or three small lads rioted about the house, making much work, and doing very little.
One of these boys was lame, and this fact seemed to establish a sort of friendly understanding between him and Patty, for he was the only one who ever expressed any regard for her. She was very good to him, always ready to help him, always patient with his fretfulness, and always quick to understand his sensitive nature.
“She’s only a servant, a charity girl who works for her board, and wears my old duds. She’s good enough in her place, but of course she can’t expect to be like one of us,” Ella said to a young friend once, and Patty heard her.
“Only a servant” — that was the hard part, and it never occurred to anyone to make it softer; so Patty plodded on, still hoping and dreaming about friends and fortune.
If it had not been for Miss Murry I fear the child would not have got on at all. But Aunt Jane never forgot her, though she lived twenty miles away, and seldom came to the farm. She wrote once a month, and always put in a little note to Patty, which she expected to have answered.
So Patty wrote a neat reply, very stiff and short at first; but after a time she quite poured out her heart to this one friend who sent her encouraging words, cheered her with praise now and then, and made her anxious to be all Miss Jane seemed to expect. No one took much notice of this correspondence, for Aunt Jane was odd, and Patty used to post her replies herself, being kindly provided with stamps by her friend.
This was Patty’s anchor in her little sea of troubles, and she clung to it, hoping that some time, when she had earned such a beautiful reward, she would go and live with Miss Murry.
Christmas was coming, and great fun was expected; for the family were to pass the day before at Aunt Jane’s, and bring her home for the dinner and dance next day. For a week beforehand, Mrs. Murry flew round with more than her accustomed speed, and Patty trotted from morning till night, lending a hand at all the least agreeable jobs. Ella did the light, pretty work, and spent much time over her new dress, and the gifts she was making for the boys.
Everything was done at last, and Mrs. Murry declared that she should drop if she had another thing to do but go to Jane’s and rest.
Patty had lived on the hope of going with them; but nothing was said about it, and they all trooped gayly away to the station, leaving her to take care of the house, and see that the cat did not touch one of the dozen pies stored away in the pantry.
Patty kept up bravely till they were gone; then she sat down like Cinderella, and cried, and cried until she couldn’t cry any more, for it did seem as if she never was to have any fun, and no fairy godmother came to help her. The shower did her good, and she went about her work with a meek, patient face that would have touched a heart of stone.
All the morning she finished np the odd jobs left her to do, and in the afternoon, as the only approach to a holiday she dared venture, she sat at the parlor window and watched other people go to and fro, intent on merry-makings in which she had no part.
One pleasant little task she had, and that was arranging gifts for the small boys. Miss Jane had given her a bit of money now and then, and out of her meagre store the affectionate child had made presents for the lads; poor ones, but full of good-will and the desire to win some in return.
The evening was very long, for the family did not return as early as they expected to do, so Patty got out her treasure-box, and, sitting on the warm kitchen hearth, tried to amuse herself, while the wind howled outside and snow fell fast.
There we must leave her for a little while, quite unconscious of the happy surprise that was being prepared for her.
When Aunt Jane welcomed the family, her first word, as she emerged from a chaos of small boys’ arms and legs, was “Why, where is Patty?”
“At home, of course; where should she be?” answered Mrs. Murry.
“Here with you. I said ‘ all come ’ in my letter; didn’t you understand it?”
“Goodness, Jane, you didn’t mean bring her too, I hope.”
“Yes, I did, and I’m so disappointed I’d go and get her if I had time.”
Miss Jane knit her brows and looked vexed, as Ella laughed at the idea of a servant’s going pleasuring with the family.
“It can’t be helped now, so we’ll say no more, and make it up to Patty to-morrow, if we can.” And Aunt Jane smiled her own pleasant smile, and kissed the little lads all round, as if to sweeten her temper as soon as possible.
They had a capital time, and no one observed that Aunty now and then led the talk to Patty, asked a question about her, caught up every little hint dropped by the boys concerning her patience and kindness, and when Mrs. Murry said, as she sat resting, with a cushion at her back, a stool at her feet, and a cup of tea steaming deliciously under her nose, —
“Afraid to leave her there in charge? Oh, dear no! I’ve entire confidence in her, and she is equal to taking care of the house for a week if need be. On the whole, Jane, I consider her a pretty promising girl. She isn’t very quick, but she is faithful, steady, and honest as daylight.”
“High praise from you, Maria; I hope she knows your good opinion of her.”
“No, indeed; it don’t do to pamper up a girl’s pride by praising her. I say, ‘Very well, Patty,’ when I’m satisfied, and that’s enough.”
“Ah, but you wouldn’t be satisfied if George only said, ‘Very well, Maria,’ when you had done your very best to please him in some way.”
“That’s a different thing,” began Mrs. Murry, but Miss Jane shook her head, and Ella said, laughing, —
It’s no use to try and convince Aunty on that point, she has taken a fancy to Pat, and won’t see any fault in her. She’s a good child enough; but I can’t get anything out of her, she is so odd and shy.”
“I can; she’s first rate, and takes care of me better than anyone else,” said Harry, the lame boy, with sudden warmth, for Patty had quite won his selfish little heart by many services.
“She’ll make mother a nice helper as she grows up, and I consider it a good speculation. In four years she’ll be eighteen, and if she goes on doing so well, I shan’t begrudge her wages,” added Mr. Murry, who sat nearby, with a small son on each knee.
“She’d be quite pretty if she was straight, and plump, and jolly. But she is as sober as a deacon, and when her work is done, sits in a corner, watching us with her big eyes, as shy and mute as a mouse,” said Ned, the big brother, lounging on the sofa.
“A dull, steady-going girl, just fitted for a servant, and no more,” concluded Mrs. Murry, setting down her cup as if the subject was ended.
“You are quite mistaken, and I’ll prove it!” and up jumped Aunt Jane so energetically, that the boys laughed and the elders looked annoyed. Pulling out a portfolio, Aunt Jane untied a little bundle of letters, saying impressively, —
“Now listen, all of you, and see what has been going on under Patty’s blue pinafore this year.”
Then Miss Jane read the little letters one by one, and it was curious to see how the faces of the listeners woke up, grew attentive first, then touched, then self-reproachful, and finally how full of interest, and respect, and something very like affection for little Patty.
These letters were pathetic to read, as Aunty read them to listeners who could supply much that the writer generously left unsaid, and the involuntary comments of the hearers proved the truth of Patty’s words.
“ Does she envy me because I’m ‘pretty and gay, and have a good time?’ I never thought how hard it must be for her to see me have all the fun, and she. all the work. She’s a girl like me, though, she does grub; and I might have done more for her than give her my old clothes, and let her help dress me when I go to a party,” said Ella, hastily, as Aunt Jane laid down one letter in which poor Patty told of many “good times and she not in ‘em.”
“Sakes alive, if I’d known the child wanted me to kiss her now and then, as I do the rest, I’d have done it in a minute,” said Mrs. Murry, with sudden softness in her sharp eyes, as Aunt Jane read this little bit, —
“I am grateful, but, oh! I’m so lonely, and it’s so hard not to have any mother like the children. If Mrs. Murry would only kiss me good-night sometimes, it would do me more good than pretty clothes or nice victuals.”
“I’ve been thinking I’d let her go to school a spell, ever since I heard her showing Bob how to do his lessons. But mother didn’t think she could spare her,” broke in Mr. Murry, apologetically.
“If Ella would help a little, I guess I could, Anyway, we might try a while, since she is so eager to learn,” added his wife, anxious not to seem unjust to sister Jane.
“Well, Joe laughed at her as well as me, when the boys hunched up their shoulders the way she does,” cried conscience-stricken Bob, as he heard a sad little paragraph about her crooked figure, and learned that it came from lugging heavy babies at the Asylum.
“I cuffed ‘em both for it, and I have always liked Patty,” said Harry, in a moral tone, which moved Ned to say, —
“You’d be a selfish little rascal if you didn’t, when she slaves so for you and gets no thanks for it. Now that I know how if tires her poor little back to carry wood and water, I shall do it of course. If she’d only told me, I’d have done it all the time.”
And so it went on till the letters were done, and they knew Patty as she was, and each felt sorry that he or she had not found her out before. Aunt Jane freed her mind upon the subject, and they talked it over till quite an enthusiastic state of feeling set in, and Patty was in danger of being killed with kindness.
It is astonishing how generous and kind people are when once waked up to a duty, a charity, or a wrong. Now, everyone was eager to repair past neglect, and if Aunt Jane had not wisely restrained them, the young folks would have done something absurd.
They laid many nice little plans to surprise Patty, and each privately resolved not only to give her a Christmas gift, but, what was better, to turn over a new leaf for the new year.
All the way home they talked over their various projects, and the boys kept bouncing into Aunt Jane’s seat, to ask advice about their funny ideas.
“It must have been rather lonesome for the poor little soul all day. I declare I wish we’d taken her along,” said Mrs. Murry, as they approached the house, through the softly-falling snow.
“She’s got a jolly good fire all ready for us, and that’s a mercy, for I’m half frozen,” said Harry, hopping up the step.
“Don’t you think if I touch up my blue merino it would fit Patty, and make a nice dress for tomorrow, with one of my white aprons?” whispered Ella, as she helped Aunt Jane out of the sleigh.
“Hope the child isn’t sick or scared; it’s two hours later than I expected to be at home,” added Mr. Murry, stepping up to peep in at the kitchen window, for no one came to open the door, and no light but the blaze of the fire shone out.
“Come softly and look in; it’s a pretty little sight, if it is in a kitchen,” he whispered, beckoning to the rest.
Quietly creeping to the two low windows, they all looked in, and no one said a word, for the lonely little figure was both pretty and pathetic, when they remembered the letters lately read. Flat on the old rug lay Patty fast asleep; one arm pillowed her head, and in the other lay Puss in a cozy bunch, as if she had crept there to be sociable, since there was no one else to share Patty’s long vigil. A row of slippers, large and small, stood warming on the hearth, two little nightgowns hung over a chair, the tea-pot stood in a warm nook, and through the open door they could see the lamp burning brightly in the sitting-room, the table ready, and all things in order.
“Faithful little creature! She’s thought of every blessed thing, and I’ll go right in and wake her up with a good kiss!” cried Mrs. Murry, making a dart at the door.
But Aunt Jane drew her back, begging her not to frighten the child by any sudden demonstrations. So they all went softly in, so softly that tired Patty did not wake, even though Puss pricked up her ears and opened her moony eyes with a lazy purr.
“Look here,” whispered Bob, pointing to the poor little gifts half tumbling out of Patty’s apron. She had been pinning names on them when she fell asleep, and so her secret was known too soon.
No one laughed at the presents, and Ella covered them up with a look of tender pity at the few humble treasures in Patty’s box, remembering as she laid back what she had once called “rubbish,” how full her own boxes were of the pretty things girls love, and how easy it would have been to add to Patty’s store.
No one exactly knew how to wake up the sleeper, for she was something more than a servant in their 6yes now. Aunt Jane settled the matter by stooping down and taking Patty in her arms. The big eyes opened at once and stared up at the face above them for a moment, then a smile so bright, so glad, shone all over the child’s face that it was transfigured, as Patty clung to Aunt Jane, crying joyously, —
“Is it really you? I was so afraid you wouldn’t come that I cried myself to sleep about it.”
Never had any of them seen such love and happiness in Patty’s face before, heard such a glad, tender sound in her voice, or guessed what an ardent soul lay in her quiet body.
She was herself again in a minute, and, jumping up, slipped away to see that everything was ready, should anyone want supper after the cold drive.
They all went to bed so soon that there was no time to let out the secret, and though Patty was surprised at the kind good-nights all said to her, she thought it was because Miss Jane brought a warmer atmosphere with her.
Patty’s surprises began early next day, for the first thing she saw on opening her eyes was a pair of new stockings hanging at the foot of her bed, crammed full of gifts, and several parcels lying on the table.
Didn’t she have a good time opening the delightful bundles? Didn’t she laugh and cry at the droll things the boys gave, the comfortable and pretty things the elders sent? And wasn’t she a happy child when she tried to say her prayers and couldn’t find words beautiful enough to express her gratitude for so much kindness?
A new Patty went down stairs that morning, — a bright-faced girl with smiles on the mouth that used to be so sad and silent, confidence in the timid eyes, and the magic of the heartiest good-will to make her step light, her hand skillful, her labor a joy, and service no burden.
“They do care for me, after all, and I never will complain again,” she thought, with a glad flutter at her heart, and sudden color in her cheeks, as everyone welcomed her with a friendly “Merry Christmas, Patty!”
It was a merry Christmas, and when the bountiful dinner was spread and Patty stood ready to wait, you can imagine her feelings as Mr. Murry pointed to a seat near Miss Jane and said, in a fatherly tone that made his bluff voice sweet, —
“Sit down and enjoy it with us, my girl; nobody has more right to it, and we are all one family today.”
Patty could not eat much, her heart was so full; but it was a splendid feast to her, and when healths were drank she was overwhelmed by the honor Harry did her, for he bounced up and exclaimed, —
“How we must drink ‘Our Patty, long life and good luck to her!’”
That really was too much, and she fairly ran away to hide her blushes in the kitchen roller, and work off her excitement washing dishes.
More surprises came that evening; when she went to put on her clean calico she found the pretty blue dress and white apron laid ready on her bed “with Ella’s love.”
“It’s like a fairy story, and keeps getting nicer and nicer since the godmother came,” whispered Patty, as she shyly looked up at Aunt Jane, when passing ice-cream at the party several hours later.
“Christmas is the time for all sorts of pleasant miracles, for the good fairies fly about just then, and give good-luck pennies to the faithful workers who have earned them,” answered Miss Jane, smiling back at her little handmaid, who looked so neat and blithe in her new suit and happy face.
Patty thought nothing farther in the way of bliss could happen to her that night, but it did when Ned, anxious to atone for his past neglect, pranced up to her, as a final contra-dance was forming, and said heartily, —
“Come, Patty, everyone is to dance this, even Harry and the cat,” and before she could collect her wits enough to say “No,” she was leading off and flying down the middle with the young master in great style.
That was the crowning honor; for she was a girl with all a girl’s innocent hopes, fears, desires and delights, and it had been rather hard to stand by while all the young neighbors were frolicking together.
When everyone was gone, the tired children asleep, and the elders on their way up to bed, Mrs. Murry suddenly remembered she had not covered the kitchen fire. Aunt Jane said she would do it, and went down so softly that she did not disturb faithful Patty, who had gone to see that all was safe.
Aunt Jane stopped to watch the little figure standing on the hearth alone, looking into the embers with thoughtful eyes. If Patty could have keen her future there, she would have found a long life spent in glad service to those she loved and who loved her. Not a splendid future, but a useful, happy one; “only a servant,” yet a good and faithful woman, blessed with the confidence, respect and affection of those who knew her genuine worth.
As a smile broke over Patty’s face, Miss Jane said, with an arm round the little blue-gowned figure, —
“What are you dreaming and smiling about, deary? The friends that are to come for you some day, with a fine fortune in their pockets?”
“No, ma’am, I feel as if I’d found my folks, and I don’t want any finer fortune than the love they’ve given me to-day. I’m trying to think howl can deserve it, and smiling because it’s so beautiful and I’m so happy,” answered Patty, looking up at her first friend with full eyes and a glad, grateful glance that made her lovely.
Rosa’s Tale
First published : 1879
“Now, I believe everyone has had a Christmas present and a good time. Nobody has been forgotten, not even the cat,” said Mrs. Ward to her daughter, as she looked at Pobbylinda, purring on the rug, with a new ribbon round her neck and the remains of a chicken bone between her paws.
It was very late, for the Christmas-tree was stripped, the little folks abed, the baskets and bundles left at poor neighbors’ doors, and everything ready for the happy day which would begin as the clock struck twelve. They were resting after their labors, while the yule log burned down; but the mother’s words reminded Belinda of one good friend who had received no gift that night.
“We’ve forgotten Rosa! Her mistress is away, but she shall have a present nevertheless. Late as it is, she will like some apples and cake and a Merry Christmas from the family.”
Belinda jumped up as she spoke, and, having collected such remnants of the feast as a horse would relish, she put on her hood, lighted a lantern, and trotted off to the barn.
As she opened the door of the loose box in which Rosa was kept, she saw her eyes shining in the dark as she lifted her head with a startled air. Then, recognizing a friend, she rose and came rustling through the straw to greet her late visitor. She was evidently much pleased with the attention, and rubbed her nose against Miss Belinda gratefully, but seemed rather dainty, and poked over the contents of the basket, as if a little suspicious, though apples were her favorite treat.
Knowing that she would enjoy the little feast more if she had company while she ate it, for Rosa was a very social beast, Miss Belinda hung up the lantern, and, sitting down on an inverted bucket, watched her as she munched contentedly.
“Now really,” said Miss Belinda, when telling her story afterwards, “I am not sure whether I took a nap and dreamed what follows, or whether it actually happened, for strange things do occur at Christmas time, as everyone knows.
“As I sat there the town clock struck twelve, and the sound reminded me of the legend which affirms that all dumb animals are endowed with speech for one hour after midnight on Christmas eve, in memory of the animals about the manger when the blessed Child was born.
“‘I wish the pretty fancy was a fact, and our Rosa could speak, if only for an hour, because I am sure she has an interesting history, and I long to know it.’
“I said this aloud, and to my utter amazement the bay mare stopped eating, fixed her intelligent eyes upon my face, and answered in a language I understood perfectly well, —
“‘You shall know it, for whether the legend is true or not I feel as if I could confide in you and tell you all I feel. I was lying awake listening to the fun in the house, thinking of my dear mistress over the sea and feeling very sad, for I heard you say I was to be sold. That nearly broke my heart, for no one has ever been so kind to me as Miss Merry, and nowhere shall I be taken care of, nursed, and loved as I have been since she bought me. I know I am getting old, and stiff in the knees, and my forefoot is lame, and sometimes I’m cross when my shoulder aches; but I do try to be a patient, grateful beast. I’ve got fat with good living, my work is not hard, I dearly love to carry those who have done so much for me, and I’ll tug for them till I die in harness, if they will only keep me.’
“I was so astonished at this address that I tumbled off the pail, and sat among the straw staring up at Rosa, as dumb as if I had lost the power she had gained. She seemed to enjoy my surprise, and added to it by letting me hear a genuine horse laugh , hearty, shrill, and clear, as she shook her pretty head, and went on talking rapidly in the language which I now perceived to be a mixture of English and the peculiar dialect of the horse-country Gulliver visited.
“‘Thank you for remembering me to-night, and in return for the goodies you bring I’ll tell my story as fast as I can, for I have often longed to recount the trials and triumphs of my life. Miss Merry came last Christmas eve to bring me sugar, and I wanted to speak, but it was too early and I could not say a word, though my heart was full.’
“Rosa paused an instant, and her fine eyes dimmed as if with tender tears at the recollection of the happy year which had followed the day she was bought from the drudgery of a livery-stable to be a lady’s pet. I stroked her neck as she stooped to sniff affectionately at my hood, and said eagerly, —
“‘Tell away, dear, I’m full of interest, and understand every word you say.’
“Thus encouraged, Rosa threw up her head, and began with an air of pride which plainly proved, what we had always suspected, that she belonged to a good family.
“‘My father was a famous racer, and I am very like him; the same color, spirit, and grace, and but for the cruelty of man I might have been as renowned as he. I was a very happy colt, petted by my master, tamed by love, and never struck a blow while he lived. I gained one race for him, and promised so well that when he died I brought a great price. I mourned for him, but was glad to be sent to my new owner’s racing-stable and made much of, for people predicted that I should be another Goldsmith Maid or Flora Temple. Ah, how ambitious and proud I was in those days! Vain of my good blood, my speed, and my beauty; for indeed I was handsome then, though you may find it hard to believe now.’ And Rosa sighed regretfully as she stole a look at me, and took the attitude which showed to advantage the fine lines about her head and neck.
“‘I do not find it hard, for we have always said you had splendid points about you. Miss Merry saw them, though you were a skeleton, when she bought you; so did the skillful Cornish blacksmith when he shod you. And it is easy to see that you belong to a good family by the way you hold your head without a check-rein and carry your tail like a plume,’ I said, with a look of admiration which comforted her as much as if she had been a passée belle.
“‘I must hurry over this part of my story, because, though brilliant, it was very brief, and ended in a way which made it the bitterest portion of my life,’ continued Rosa. ‘I won several races, and great fame was predicted for me. You may guess how high my reputation was when I tell you that before my last fatal trial thousands were bet on me, and my rival trembled in his shoes. I was full of spirit, eager to show my speed and sure of success. Alas, how little I knew of the wickedness of human nature then, how dearly I bought the knowledge, and how it has changed my whole life! You do not know much about such matters, of course, and I won’t digress to tell you all the tricks of the trade; only beware of jockeys and never bet.
“‘I was kept carefully out of every one’s way for weeks, and only taken out for exercise by my trainer. Poor Bill! I was fond of him, and he was so good to me that I never have forgotten him, though he broke his neck years ago. A few nights before the great race, as I was getting a good sleep, carefully tucked away in my roomy stall, someone stole in and gave me a warm mash. It was dark, I was half awake, and I ate it like a fool, though I knew by instinct that it was not Bill who fed it to me. I was a confiding creature then, and as all sorts of queer things had been done to prepare me I thought it was all right. But it was not, and that deceit has caused me to be suspicious about my food ever since, for the mash was dosed in some way; it made me very ill, and my enemies nearly triumphed, thanks to this cowardly trick.
“‘Bill worked over me day and night, that I might be fit to run. I did my best to seem well and gay, but there was not time for me to regain my lost strength and spirit, and pride alone kept me up. “I’ll win for my master if I die in doing it,” I said to myself, and when the hour came pranced to my place trying to look as well as ever, though my heart was very heavy and I trembled with excitement. “Courage, my lass, and we’ll beat in spite of their black tricks,” whispered Bill, as he sprung to his place.
“‘I lost the first heat, but won the second, and the sound of the cheering gave me strength to walk away without staggering, though my legs shook under me. What a splendid minute that was when, encouraged and refreshed by my faithful Bill, I came on the track again! I knew my enemies began to fear, for I had borne myself so bravely they fancied I was quite well, and now, excited by that first success, I was mad with impatience to be off and cover myself with glory.’
“Rosa looked as if the ‘splendid minute’ had come again, for she arched her neck, opened wide her red nostrils, and pawed the straw with one little foot, while her eyes shone with sudden fire, and her ears were pricked up as if to catch again the shouts she heard that day.
“‘I wish I had been there to see you!’ I exclaimed, quite carried away by her ardor.
“‘I wish you had, for I won, I won! The big black horse did his best, but I had vowed to win or die, and I kept my word, for I beat him by a head, and then dropped as if dead. I might as well have died then, people thought, for the poison, the exertion, and the fall ruined me for a racer. My master cared no more for me, and would have had me shot if Bill had not saved my life. I was pronounced good for nothing, and he bought me cheap. I was lame and useless for a long time, but his patient care did wonders, and just as I was able to be of use to him he was killed.
“‘A gentleman in want of a saddle-horse purchased me because my easy gait and quiet temper suited him; for I was meek enough now, and my size fitted me to carry his delicate daughter.
“‘For more than a year I served little Miss Alice, rejoicing to see how rosy her pale cheeks became, how upright her feeble figure grew, thanks to the hours spent with me; for my canter rocked her as gently as if she were in a cradle, and fresh air was the medicine she needed. She often said she owed her life to me, and I liked to think so, for she made my life a very easy one.
“‘But somehow my good times never lasted long, and when Miss Alice went West I was sold. I had been so well treated that I looked as handsome and gay as ever, though my shoulder never was strong again, and I often had despondent moods, longing for the excitement of the race-course with the instinct of my kind; so I was glad when, attracted by my spirit and beauty, a young army officer bought me and I went to the war. Ah! you never guessed that, did you? Yes, I did my part gallantly and saved my master’s life more than once. You have observed how martial music delights me, but you don’t know that it is because it reminds me of the proudest hour of my life. I’ve told you about the saddest; let me relate this also, and give me a pat for the brave action which won my master his promotion, though I got no praise for my part of the achievement.
“‘In one of the hottest battles my captain was ordered to lead his men to a most perilous exploit. They hesitated, so did he; for it must cost many lives, and, brave as they were, they paused an instant. But I settled the point, for I was wild with the sound of drums, the smell of powder, the excitement of the hour, and, finding myself sharply reined in, I rebelled, took the bit between my teeth, and dashed straight away into the midst of the fight, spite of all my rider could do. The men thought their captain led them on, and with a cheer they followed, carrying all before them.
“‘What happened just after that I never could remember, except that I got a wound here in my neck and a cut on my flank; the scar is there still, and I’m proud of it, though buyers always consider it a blemish. But when the battle was won my master was promoted on the field, and I carried him up to the general as he sat among his officers under the torn flags.
“‘Both of us were weary and wounded, both were full of pride at what we had done; but he got all the praise and the honor, I only a careless word and a better supper than usual.
“‘I thought no one knew what I had done, and resented the ingratitude of your race; for it was the horse, not the man, who led that forlorn hope, and I did think I should have a rosette at least, when others got stars and bars for far less dangerous deeds. Never mind, my master knew the truth, and thanked me for my help by keeping me always with him till the sad day when he was shot in a skirmish, and lay for hours with none to watch and mourn over him but his faithful horse.
“‘Then I knew how much he loved and thanked me, for his hand stroked me while it had the strength, his eye turned to me till it grew too dim for seeing, and when help came, among the last words he whispered to a comrade were these, “Be kind to Rosa and send her safely home; she has earned her rest.”
“‘I had earned it, but I did not get it, for when I was sent home the old mother’s heart was broken at the loss of her son, and she did not live long to cherish me. Then my hard times began, for my next owner was a fast-young man, who ill-used me in many ways, till the spirit of my father rose within me, and I gave my brutal master a grand runaway and smash-up.
“‘To tame me down, I was sold for a car horse; and that almost killed me, for it was dreadful drudgery to tug, day after day, over the hard pavement with heavy loads behind me, uncongenial companions beside me, and no affection to cheer my life.
“‘I have often longed to ask why Mr. Bergh does not try to prevent such crowds from piling into those cars; and now I beg you to do what you can to stop such an unmerciful abuse.
“‘In snow-storms it was awful, and more than one of my mates dropped dead with overwork and discouragement. I used to wish I could do the same, for my poor feet, badly shod, became so lame I could hardly walk at times, and the constant strain on the upgrades brought back the old trouble in my shoulder worse than ever.
“‘Why they did not kill me I don’t know, for I was a miserable creature then; but there must be something attractive about me, I fancy, for people always seem to think me worth saving. What can it be, ma’am?’
“‘Now, Rosa, don’t be affected; you know you are a very engaging little animal, and if you live to be forty will still have certain pretty ways about you, that win the hearts of women, if not of men. They see your weak points, and take a money view of the case; but we sympathize with your afflictions, are amused with your coquettish airs, and like your affectionate nature. Now hurry up and finish, for I find it a trifle cold out here.’
“I laughed as I spoke, for Rosa eyed me with a sidelong glance and gently waved the docked tail, which was her delight; for the sly thing liked to be flattered and was as fond of compliments as a girl.
“‘Many thanks. I will come now to the most interesting portion of my narrative. As I was saying, instead of knocking me on the head I was packed off to New Hampshire, and had a fine rest among the green hills, with a dozen or so of weary friends. It was during this holiday that I acquired the love of nature which Miss Merry detected and liked in me, when she found me ready to study sunsets with her, to admire new landscapes, and enjoy bright summer weather.
“‘In the autumn a livery-stable keeper bought me, and through the winter fed me up till I was quite presentable in the spring. It was a small town, but through the summer many city people visited there, so I was kept on the trot while the season lasted, because ladies could drive me. You, Miss Belinda, were one of the ladies, and I never shall forget, though I have long ago forgiven it, how you laughed at my queer gait the day you hired me.
“‘My tender feet and stiff knees made me tread very gingerly, and amble along with short mincing steps, which contrasted oddly, I know, with my proudly waving tail and high-carried head. You liked me nevertheless, because I didn’t rattle you down the steep hills, was not afraid of locomotives, and stood patiently while you gathered flowers and enjoyed the lovely prospects.
“‘I have always felt a regard for you since you did not whip me, and admired my eyes, which, I may say without vanity, have always been considered unusually fine. But no one ever won my whole heart like Miss Merry, and I never shall forget the happy day when she came to the stable to order a saddle-horse. Her cheery voice made me prick up my ears, and when she said, after looking at several showy beasts, “No, they don’t suit me. This one now has the right air; can I ride her?” my heart danced within me and I looked round with a whinny of delight. She understood my welcome, and came right up to me, patted me, peered into my face, rubbed my nose, and looked at my feet with an air of interest and sympathy, that made me feel as if I’d like to carry her round the world.
“‘Ah, what rides we had after that! What happy hours trotting gayly through the green woods, galloping over the breezy hills, or pacing slowly along quiet lanes, where I often lunched luxuriously on clover-tops, while Miss Merry took a sketch of some picturesque bit with me in the foreground.
“‘I liked that, and we had long chats at such times, for she seemed to understand me perfectly. She was never frightened when I danced for pleasure on the soft turf, never chid me when I snatched a bite from the young trees as we passed through sylvan ways, never thought it a trouble to let me wet my tired feet in babbling brooks, or to dismount and take out the stones that plagued me.
“‘Then how well she rode! So firm yet light a seat, so steady a hand, so agile a foot to spring on and off, and such infectious spirits, that no matter how despondent or cross I might be, in five minutes I felt gay and young again when dear Miss Merry was on my back.’
“Here Rosa gave a frisk that sent the straw flying, and made me shrink into a corner, while she pranced about the box with a neigh which waked the big brown colt next door, and set poor Buttercup to lowing for her calf, the loss of which she had forgotten for a little while in sleep.
“‘Ah, Miss Merry never ran away from me! She knew my heels were to be trusted, and she let me caper as I would, glad to see me lively. Never mind, Miss Belinda, come out and I’ll be sober, as befits my years,’ laughed Rosa, composing herself, and adding, so like a woman that I could not help smiling in the dark, —
“‘When I say “years” I beg you to understand that I am not as old as that base man declared, but just in the prime of life for a horse. Hard usage has made me seem old before my time, and I am good for years of service yet.’
“‘Few people have been through as much as you have, Rosa, and you certainly have earned the right to rest,’ I said consolingly, for her little whims and vanities amused me much.
“‘You know what happened next,’ she continued; ‘but I must seize this opportunity to express my thanks for all the kindness I’ve received since Miss Merry bought me, in spite of the ridicule and dissuasion of all her friends.
“‘I know I didn’t look like a good bargain, for I was very thin and lame and shabby; but she saw and loved the willing spirit in me, pitied my hard lot, and felt that it would be a good deed to buy me even if she never got much work out of me.
“‘I shall always remember that, and whatever happens to me hereafter, I never shall be as proud again as I was the day she put my new saddle and bridle on, and I was led out, sleek, plump, and handsome, with blue rosettes at my ears, my tail cut in the English style, and on my back Miss Merry in her London hat and habit, all ready to head a cavalcade of eighteen horsemen and horsewomen. We were the most perfect pair of all, and when the troop caracoled down the wide street six abreast, my head was the highest, my rider the straightest, and our two hearts the friendliest in all the goodly company.
“‘Nor is it pride and love alone that binds me to her, it is gratitude as well, for did not she often bathe my feet herself, rub me down, water me, blanket me, and daily come to see me when I was here alone for weeks in the winter time? Didn’t she study horses’ feet and shoes, that I might be cured if possible? Didn’t she write to the famous friend of my race for advice, and drive me seven miles to get a good smith to shoe me well? Have not my poor contracted feet grown much better, thanks to the weeks of rest without shoes which she gave me? Am I not fat and handsome, and, barring the stiff knees, a very presentable horse? If I am, it is all owing to her; and for that reason I want to live and die in her service.
“‘ She doesn’t want to sell me, and only bade you do it because you didn’t want the care of me while she is gone. Dear Miss Belinda, please keep me! I’ll eat as little as I can. I won’t ask for a new blanket, though your old army one is very thin and shabby. I’ll trot for you all winter, and try not to show it if I am lame. I’ll do anything a horse can, no matter how humble, to earn my living, only don’t, pray don’t send me away among strangers who have neither interest nor pity for me!’
“Rosa had spoken rapidly, feeling that her plea must be made now or never, for before another Christmas she might be far away and speech of no use to win her wish. I was much touched, though she was only a horse; for she was looking earnestly at me as she spoke, and made the last words very eloquent by preparing to bend her stiff knees and lie down at my feet. I stopped her, and answered, with an arm about her neck and her soft nose in my hand, —
“‘You shall not be sold, Rosa! you shall go and board at Mr. Town’s great stable, where you will have pleasant society among the eighty horses who usually pass the winter there. Your shoes shall be taken off, and you shall rest till March at least. The best care will be taken of you, dear, and I will come and see you; and in the spring you shall return to us, even if Miss Merry is not here to welcome you.’
“‘Thanks, many, many thanks! But I wish I could do something to earn my board. I hate to be idle, though rest is delicious. Is there nothing I can do to repay you, Miss Belinda? Please answer quickly, for I know the hour is almost over,’ cried Rosa, stamping with anxiety; for, like all her sex, she wanted the last word.
“‘Yes, you can,’ I cried, as a sudden idea popped into my head. ‘I’ll write down what you have told me, and send the little story to a certain paper I know of, and the money I get for it will pay your board. So rest in peace, my dear; you will have earned your living, and may feel that your debt is paid.’
“Before she could reply the clock struck one, and a long sigh of satisfaction was all the response in her power. But we understood each other now, and, cutting a lock from her mane for Miss Merry, I gave Rosa a farewell caress and went away, wondering if I had made it all up, or if she had really broken a year’s silence and freed her mind.
“However that may be, here is the tale, and the sequel to it is, that the bay mare has really gone to board at a first-class stable,” concluded Miss Belinda. “I call occasionally and leave my card in the shape of an apple, finding Madam Rosa living like an independent lady, with her large box and private yard on the sunny side of the barn, a kind ostler to wait upon her, and much genteel society from the city when she is inclined for company.
“What more could any reasonable horse desire?”
My Little School-Girl
First published : 1879
The first time that I saw her was one autumn morning as I rode to town in a horse-car. It was early, and my only fellow-passenger was a crusty old gentleman, who sat in a corner, reading his paper; so when the car stopped, I glanced out to see who came next, hoping it would be a pleasanter person. No one appeared for a minute, and the car stood still, while both driver and conductor looked in the same direction without a sign of impatience. I looked also, but all I could see was a little girl running across the park, as girls of twelve or thirteen seldom run nowadays, if anyone can see them.
“Are you waiting for her?” I asked of the pleasant-faced conductor, who stood with his hand on the bell, and a good-natured smile in his eyes.
“Yes, ma’am, we always stop for little missy,” he answered; and just then up she came, all rosy and breathless with her run.
“Thank you very much. I’m late to-day, and was afraid I should miss my car,” she said, as he helped her in with a fatherly air that was pleasant to see.
Taking a corner seat, she smoothed the curly locks, disturbed by the wind, put on her gloves, and settled her books in her lap, then modestly glanced from the old gentleman in the opposite corner to the lady nearby. Such a bright little face as I saw under the brown hat-rim, happy blue eyes, dimples in the ruddy cheeks, and the innocent expression which makes a young girl so sweet an object to old eyes.
The crusty gentleman evidently agreed with me, for he peeped over the top of the paper at his pleasant little neighbor as she sat studying a lesson, and cheering herself with occasional sniffs at a posy of mignonette in her button-hole.
When the old gentleman caught my eye, he dived out of sight with a loud “Hem!” but he was peeping again directly, for there was something irresistibly attractive about the unconscious lassie opposite; and one could no more help looking at her than at a lovely flower or a playful kitten.
Presently she shut her book with a decided pat, and an air of relief that amused me. She saw the half-smile I could not repress, seemed to understand my sympathy, and said with a laugh, —
“It was a hard lesson, but I’ve got it!”
So we began to talk about school and lessons, and I soon discovered that the girl was a clever scholar, whose only drawback was, as she confided to me, a “love of fun.”
We were just getting quite friendly, when several young men got in, one of whom stared at the pretty child till even she observed it, and showed that she did by the color that came and went in her cheeks. It annoyed me as much as if she had been my own little daughter, for I like modesty, and have often been troubled by the forward manners of schoolgirls, who seem to enjoy being looked at. So I helped this one out of her little trouble by making room between the old gentleman and myself, and motioning her to come and sit there.
She understood at once, thanked me with a look, and nestled into the safe place so gratefully, that the old gentleman glared over his spectacles at the rude person who had disturbed the serenity of the child.
Then we rumbled along again, the car getting fuller and fuller as we got down town. Presently an Irishwoman, with a baby, got in, and before I could offer my seat, my little school-girl was out of hers, with a polite—
“Please take it, ma’am; I can stand perfectly well.”
It was prettily done, and I valued the small courtesy all the more, because it evidently cost the bashful creature an effort to stand up alone in a car full of strangers; especially as she could not reach the strap to steady herself, and found it difficult to stand comfortably.
Then it was that the crusty man showed how he appreciated my girl’s good manners, for he hooked his cane in the strap, and gave it to her, saying, with a smile that lighted up his rough face like sunshine, —
“Hold on to that, my dear.”
“Ah,” thought I, “how little we can judge from appearances! This grim old soul is a gentleman, after all.”
Turning her face towards us, the girl held on to the stout cane, and swayed easily to and fro as we bumped over the rails. The Irishwoman’s baby, a sickly little thing, was attracted by the flowers, and put out a small hand to touch them, with a wistful look at the bright face above.
“Will baby have some?” said my girl, and made the little creature happy with some gay red leaves.
“Bless your heart, honey, it’s fond he is of the like o’ them, and seldom he gets any,” said the mother, gratefully, as she settled baby’s dirty hood, and wrapped the old shawl round his feet.
Baby stared hard at the giver of posies, but his honest blue eyes gave no offence, and soon the two were so friendly that baby boldly clutched at the bright buttons on her sack, and crowed with delight when he got one, while we all smiled at the pretty play, and were sorry when the little lady, with a bow and a smile to us, got out at the church corner.
“Now, I shall probably never see that child again, yet what a pleasant picture she leaves in my memory!” I thought to myself, as I caught a last glimpse of the brown hat going round the corner.
But I did see her again many times that winter; for not long after, as I passed down a certain street near my winter quarters, I came upon a flock of girls, eating their luncheon as they walked to and fro on the sunny side, — pretty, merry creatures, all laughing and chattering at once, as they tossed apples from hand to hand, munched candy, or compared cookies. I went slowly, to enjoy the sight, as I do when I meet a party of sparrows on the Common, and was wondering what would become of so many budding women, when, all of a sudden, I saw my little school-girl.
Yes, I knew her in a minute, for she wore the same brown hat, and the rosy face was sparkling with fun, as she told secrets with a chosen friend, while eating a wholesome slice of bread-and-butter as only a hungry school-girl could.
She did not recognize me, but I took a good look at her as I went by, longing to know what the particular secret was that ended in such a gale of laughter.
After that, I often saw my girl as I took my walks abroad, and one day could not resist speaking to her when I met her alone; for usually her mates clustered round her like bees about their queen, which pleased me, since it showed how much they loved the sunshiny child.
I had a paper of grapes in my hand, and when I saw her coming, whisked out a handsome bunch, all ready to offer, for I had made up my mind to speak this time. She was reading a paper, but looked up to give me the inside of the walk.
Before her eyes could fall again, I held out the grapes and said, just as I had heard her say more than once to a schoolmate at lunch-time, “Let’s go halves.”
She understood at once, laughed, and took the bunch, saying with twinkling eyes, —
“Oh, thank you! they are beauties!”
Then, as we went on to the corner together, I told her why I did it, and recalled the car-ride.
“I’d forgotten all about that, but my conductor is very kind, and always waits for me,” she said, evidently surprised that a stranger should take an interest in her small self.
I did not have half time enough with her, for a bell rang, and away she skipped, looking back to nod and smile at the queer lady who had taken a fancy to her.
A few days afterward a fine nosegay of flowers was left at the door for me, and when I asked the servant who sent them he answered, —
“A little girl asked if a lame lady didn’t live here, and when I said yes, she told me to give you these, and say the grapes were very nice.”
I knew at once who it was, and enjoyed the funny message immensely; for when one leads a quiet life, little things interest and amuse.
Christmas was close by, and I planned a return for the flowers, of a sort, that I fancied my young friend would appreciate.
I knew that Christmas week would be a holiday, so, the day before it began, I went to the school just before recess, and left a frosted plum cake, directed to “Miss Goldilocks, from she knows who.”
At first I did not know how to address my nice white parcel, for I never had heard the child’s name. But after thinking over the matter, I remembered that she was the only girl there with yellow curls hanging down her back, so I decided to risk the cake with the above direction.
The maid who took it in (for my girl went to a private school) smiled, and said at once she knew who I meant. I left my cake, and strolled round the corner to the house of a friend, there to wait and watch for the success of my joke, for the girls always went that way at recess.
Presently the little hats began to go bobbing by, the silent street to echo with laughter, and the sidewalk to bloom with gay gowns, for the girls were all out in winter colors now.
From behind a curtain I peeped at them, and saw, with great satisfaction, that nearly all had bits of my cake in their hands, and were talking it over with the most flattering interest. My particular little girl, with a friend on each arm, passed so near me that I could see the happy look in her eyes, and hear her say, with a toss of the bright hair, —
“Mother will plan it for me, and I can get it done by New Year. Won’t it be fun to hang it on the door someday, and then run?”
I fancied that she meant to make something for me, and waited with patience, wondering how this odd frolic with my little school-girl would end.
New Year’s Day came and passed, but no gift hung on my door; so I made up my mind it was all a mistake, and, being pretty busy about that time, thought no more of the matter till some weeks later, as I came into town one day after a visit in the country.
I am fond of observing faces, and seldom forget one if anything has particularly attracted my attention to it. So this morning, as I rode along, I looked at the conductor, as there was no one else to observe, and he had a pleasant sort of face. Somehow, it looked familiar, and after thinking idly about it for a minute, I remembered where I had seen it before.
He was the man who waited for “little missy,” and I at once began to hope that she would come again, for I wanted to ask about the holidays, remembering how “fond of fun” she was.
When we came to the South End Square, where I met her first, I looked out, expecting to see the little figure running down the wide path again, and quite willing to wait for it a long time if necessary. But no one was to be seen but two boys and a dog. The car did not stop, and though the conductor looked out that way, his hand was not on the strap, and no smile on his face.
“Don’t you wait for the little girl now?” I asked, feeling disappointed at not seeing my pretty friend again.
“I wish I could, ma’am,” answered the man, understanding at once, though of course he did not remember me.
“New rules, perhaps?” I added, as he did not explain, but stood fingering his punch, and never minding an old lady, wildly waving her bag at him from the sidewalk.
“No, ma’am; but it’s no use waiting for little missy anymore, because” — here he leaned in and said, very low, — “she is dead;” then turned sharply round, rung the bell, put the old lady in and shut the door.
How grieved I was to have that pleasant friendship end so sadly, for I had planned many small surprises for my girl, and now I could do no more, could never know all about her, never see the sunny face again, or win another word from lips that seemed made for smiling.
Only a little school-girl, yet how many friends she seemed to have, making them unconsciously by her gentle manners, generous actions, and innocent light-heartedness. I could not bear to think what home must be without her, for I am sure I was right in believing her a good, sweet child, because real character shows itself in little things, and the heart that always keeps in tune makes its music heard everywhere.
The busy man of the horse-car found time to miss her, the schoolmates evidently mourned their queen, for when I met them they walked quietly, talked low, and several wore black bows upon the sleeve; while I, although I never knew her name, or learned a single fact about her, felt the sweetness of her happy nature, and have not yet forgotten my little school-girl.
What Love Can Do
First published : 1882
It was a small room, with nothing in it but a bed, two chairs, and a big chest. A few little gowns hung on the wall, and the only picture was the wintry sky, sparkling with stars, framed by the uncontained window. But the moon, pausing to peep, saw something pretty and heard something pleasant. Two heads in little round nightcaps lay on one pillow, two pairs of wide-awake blue eyes stared up at the light, and two tongues were going like mill clappers.
“I’m so glad we got our shirts done in time! It seemed as if we never should, and I don’t think six cents is half enough for a great red flannel thing with four button-holes—do you?” said one little voice, rather wearily.
“No; but then we each made four, and fifty cents is a good deal of money. Are you sorry we didn’t keep our quarters for ourselves?” asked the other voice, with an under-tone of regret in it.
“Yes, I am, till I think how pleased the children will be with our tree, for they don’t expect anything, and will be so surprised. I wish we had more toys to put on it, for it looks so small and mean with only three or four things.”
“It won’t hold any more, so I wouldn’t worry about it. The toys are very red and yellow, and I guess the babies won’t know how cheap they are, but like them as much as if they cost heaps of money.”
This was a cheery voice, and as it spoke the four blue eyes turned toward the chest under the window, and the kind moon did her best to light up the tiny tree standing there. A very pitiful little tree it was—only a branch of hemlock in an old flower-pot, propped up with bits of coal, and hung with a few penny toys earned by the patient fingers of the elder sisters, that the little ones should not be disappointed.
But in spite of the magical moonlight the broken branch, with its scanty supply of fruit, looked pathetically poor, and one pair of eyes filled slowly with tears, while the other pair lost their happy look, as if a cloud had come over the sunshine.
“Are you crying, Dolly?”
“Not much, Polly.”
“What makes you, dear?”
“I didn’t know how poor we were till I saw the tree, and then I couldn’t help it,” sobbed the elder sister, for at twelve she already knew something of the cares of poverty, and missed the happiness that seemed to vanish out of all their lives when father died.
“It’s dreadful! I never thought we’d have to earn our tree, and only be able to get a broken branch, after all, with nothing on it but three sticks of candy, two squeaking dogs, a red cow, and an ugly bird with one feather in its tail;” and overcome by a sudden sense of destitution, Polly sobbed even more despairingly than Dolly.
“Hush, dear; we must cry softly, or mother will hear, and come up, and then we shall have to tell. You know we said we wouldn’t seem to mind not having any Christmas, she felt so sorry about it.”
“I must cry, but I’ll be quiet.”
So the two heads went under the pillow for a few minutes, and not a sound betrayed them as the little sisters cried softly in one another’s arms, lest mother should discover that they were no longer careless children, but brave young creatures trying to bear their share of the burden cheerfully.
When the shower was over, the faces came out shining like roses after rain, and the voices went on again as before.
“Don’t you wish there really was a Santa Claus, who knew what we wanted, and would come and put two silver half-dollars in our stockings, so we could go and see Puss in Boots at the Museum to-morrow afternoon?”
“Yes, indeed; but we didn’t hang up any stockings, you know, because mother had nothing to put in them. It does seem as if rich people might think of poor people now and then. Such little bits of things would make us happy, and it couldn’t be much trouble to take two small girls to the play, and give them candy now and then.”
“ I shall when I’m rich, like Mr. Chrome and Miss Kent. I shall go round every Christmas with a big basket of goodies, and give all the poor children some.”
“P’r’aps if we sew ever so many flannel shirts we may be rich by-and-by. I should give mother a new bonnet first of all, for I heard Miss Kent say no lady would wear such a shabby one. Mrs. Smith said fine bonnets didn’t make real ladies. I like her best, but I do want a locket like Miss Kent’s.”
“I should give mother some new rubbers, and then I should buy a white apron, with frills like Miss Kent’s, and bring home nice bunches of grapes and good things to eat, as Mr. Chrome does. I often smell them, but he never gives me any; he only says, ‘Hullo, chick!’ and I’d rather have oranges any time.”
“It will take us a long while to get rich, I’m afraid. It makes me tired to think of it. I guess we’d better go to sleep now, dear.”
“Good-night, Dolly.”
“Good-night, Polly.”
Two soft kisses were heard, a nestling sound followed, and presently the little sisters lay fast asleep cheek against cheek, on the pillow wet with their tears, never dreaming what was going to happen to them to-morrow.
Now Miss Kent’s room was next to theirs, and as she sat sewing she could hear the children’s talk, for they soon forgot to whisper. At first she smiled, then she looked sober, and when the prattle ceased she said to herself, as she glanced about her pleasant chamber:
“Poor little things! they think I’m rich, and envy me, when I’m only a milliner earning my living. I ought to have taken more notice of them, for their mother has a hard time, I fancy, but never complains. I’m sorry they heard what I said, and if I knew how to do it without offending her, I’d trim a nice bonnet for a Christmas gift, for she is a lady, in spite of her old clothes. I can give the children some of the things they want anyhow, and I will. The idea of those mites making a fortune out of shirts at six cents apiece!”
Miss Kent laughed at the innocent delusion, but sympathized with her little neighbors, for she knew all about hard times. She had good wages now, but spent them on herself, and liked to be fine rather than neat. Still, she was a good-hearted girl, and what she had overheard set her to thinking soberly, then to acting kindly, as we shall see.
“If I hadn’t spent all my money on my dress for the party to-morrow night, I’d give each of them a half-dollar. As I cannot, I’ll hunt up the other things they wanted, for it’s a shame they shouldn’t have a bit of Christmas, when they tried so hard to please the little ones.”
As she spoke she stirred about her room, and soon had a white apron, an old carnelian heart on a fresh blue ribbon, and two papers of bonbons ready. As no stockings were hung up, she laid a clean towel on the floor before the door, and spread forth the small gifts to look their best.
Miss Kent was so busy that she did not hear a step come quietly upstairs, and Mr. Chrome, the artist, peeped at her through the balusters, wondering what she was about. He soon saw, and watched her with pleasure, thinking that she never looked prettier than now.
Presently she caught him at it, and hastened to explain, telling what she had heard, and how she was trying to atone for her past neglect of these young neighbors. Then she said good-night, and both went into their rooms, she to sleep happily, and he to smoke as usual.
But his eye kept turning to some of the “nice little bundles” that lay on his table, as if the story he had heard suggested how he might follow Miss Kent’s example. I rather think he would not have disturbed himself if he had not heard the story told in such a soft voice, with a pair of bright eyes full of pity looking into his, for little girls were not particularly interesting to him, and he was usually too tired to notice the industrious creatures toiling up and down stairs on various errands, or sewing at the long red seams.
Now that he knew something of their small troubles, he felt as if it would please Miss Kent, and be a good joke, to do his share of the pretty work she had begun.
So presently he jumped up, and, opening his parcels, took out two oranges and two bunches of grapes, then he looked up two silver half-dollars, and stealing into the hall, laid the fruit upon the towel, and the money atop of the oranges. This addition improved the display very much, and Mr. Chrome was stealing back, well pleased, when his eye fell on Miss Kent’s door, and he said to himself, “She too shall have a little surprise, for she is a dear, kind-hearted soul.”
In his room was a prettily painted plate, and this he filled with green and purple grapes, tucked a sentimental note underneath, and leaving it on her threshold, crept away as stealthily as a burglar.
The house was very quiet when Mrs. Smith, the landlady, came up to turn off the gas. “Well, upon my word, here’s fine doings, to be sure!” she said, when she saw the state of the upper hall. “Now I wouldn’t have thought it of Miss Kent, she is such a giddy girl, nor of Mr. Chrome, he is so busy with his own affairs. I meant to give those children each a cake to-morrow, they are such good little things. I’ll run down and get them now, as my contribution to this fine set out.”
Away trotted Mrs. Smith to her pantry, and picked out a couple of tempting cakes, shaped like hearts and full of plums. There was a goodly array of pies on the shelves, and she took two of them, saying, as she climbed the stairs again, “They remembered the children, so I’ll remember them, and have my share of the fun.”
So up went the pies, for Mrs. Smith had not much to give, and her spirit was generous, though her pastry was not of the best. It looked very droll to see pies sitting about on the thresholds of closed doors, but the cakes were quite elegant, and filled up the corners of the towel handsomely, for the apron lay in the middle, with the oranges right and left, like two sentinels in yellow uniforms.
It was very late when the flicker of a candle came up stairs, and a pale lady, with a sweet sad face, appeared, bringing a pair of red and a pair of blue mittens for her Dolly and Polly. Poor Mrs. Blake did have a hard time, for she stood all day in a great store that she might earn bread for the poor children who staid at home and took care of one another. Her heart was very heavy that night, because it was the first Christmas she had ever known without gifts and festivity of some sort. But Petkin, the youngest child, had been ill, times were very hard, the little mouths gaped for food like the bills of hungry birds, and there was no tender mate to help fill them.
If any elves had been hovering about the dingy hall just then, they would have seen the mother’s tired face brighten beautifully when she discovered the gifts, and found that her little girls had been so kindly remembered. Something more brilliant than the mock diamonds in Miss Kent’s best earrings fell and glittered on the dusty floor as Mrs. Blake added the mittens to the other things, and went to her lonely room again, smiling as she thought how she could thank them all in a sweet and simple way.
Her windows were full of flowers, for the delicate tastes of the poor lady found great comfort in their beauty. “I have nothing else to give, and these will show how grateful I am,” she said, as she rejoiced that the scarlet geraniums were so full of gay clusters, the white chrysanthemum stars were all out, and the pink roses at their loveliest.
They slept now, dreaming of a sunny morrow as they sat safely sheltered from the bitter cold. But that night was their last, for a gentle hand cut them all, and soon three pretty nosegays stood in a glass, waiting for dawn, to be laid at three doors, with a few grateful words which would surprise and delight the receivers, for flowers were rare in those hard-working lives, and kind deeds often come back to the givers in fairer shapes than they go.
Now one would think that there had been gifts enough, and no more could possibly arrive, since all had added his or her mite except Betsey, the maid, who was off on a holiday, and the babies fast asleep in their trundle-bed, with nothing to give but love and kisses. Nobody dreamed that the old cat would take it into her head that her kittens were in danger, because Mrs. Smith had said she thought they were nearly old enough to be given away. But she must have understood, for when all was dark and still, the anxious mother went patting upstairs to the children’s door, meaning to hide her babies under their bed, sure they would save them from destruction. Mrs. Blake had shut the door, however, so poor Puss was disappointed; but finding a soft, clean spot among a variety of curious articles, she laid her kits there, and kept them warm all night, with her head pillowed on the blue mittens.
In the cold morning Dolly and Polly got up and scrambled into their clothes, not with joyful haste to see what their stockings held, for they had none, but because they had the little ones to dress while mother got the breakfast.
Dolly opened the door, and started back with a cry of astonishment at the lovely spectacle before her. The other people had taken in their gifts, so nothing destroyed the magnificent effect of the treasures so curiously collected in the night. Puss had left her kits asleep, and gone down to get her own breakfast, and there, in the middle of the ruffled apron, as if in a dainty cradle, lay the two Maltese darlings, with white bibs and boots on, and white tips to the tiny tails curled round their little noses in the sweetest way.
Polly and Dolly could only clasp their hands and look in rapturous silence for a minute; then they went down on their knees and reveled in the unexpected richness before them.
“I do believe there is a Santa Claus, and that he heard us, for here is everything we wanted,” said Dolly, holding the carnelian heart in one hand and the plummy one in the other.
“It must have been some kind of a fairy, for we didn’t mention kittens, but we wanted one, and here are two darlings,” cried Polly, almost purring with delight as the downy bunches unrolled and gaped till their bits of pink tongues were visible.
“Mrs. Smith was one fairy, I guess, and Miss Kent was another, for that is her apron. I shouldn’t wonder if Mr. Chrome gave us the oranges and the money: men always have lots, and his name is on this bit of paper,” said Dolly.
“Oh, I’m so glad! Now we shall have a Christmas like other people, and I’ll never say again that rich folks don’t remember poor folks. Come and show all our treasures to mother and the babies; they must have some,” answered Polly, feeling that the world was all right, and life not half as hard as she thought it last night.
Shrieks of delight greeted the sisters, and all that morning there was joy and feasting in Mrs. Blake’s room, and in the afternoon Dolly and Polly went to the Museum, and actually saw Puss in Boots ; for their mother insisted on their going, having discovered how the hard-earned quarters had been spent. This was such unhoped-for bliss that they could hardly believe it, and kept smiling at one another so brightly that people wondered who the happy little girls in shabby cloaks could be who clapped their new mittens so heartily, and laughed till it was better than music to hear them.
This was a very remarkable Christmas-day, and they long remembered it; for while they were absorbed in the fortunes of the Marquis of Carabas and the funny cat, who tucked his tail in his belt, washed his face so awkwardly, and didn’t know how to purr, strange things were happening at home, and more surprises were in store for our little friends. You see, when people once begin to do kindnesses, it is so easy and pleasant they find it hard to leave off; and sometimes it beautifies them so that they find they love one another very much—as Mr. Chrome and Miss Kent did, though we have nothing to do with that except to tell how they made the poor little tree grow and blossom.
They were very jolly at dinner, and talked a good deal about the Blakes, who ate in their own rooms. Miss Kent told what the children said, and it touched the soft spot in all their hearts to hear about the red shirts, though they laughed at Polly’s lament over the bird with only one feather in its tail.
“I’d give them a better tree if I had any place to put it, and knew how to trim it up,” said Mr. Chrome, with a sudden burst of generosity, which so pleased Miss Kent that her eyes shone like Christmas candles.
“Put it in the back parlor. All the Browns are away for a week, and we’ll help you trim it—won’t we, my dear?” cried Mrs. Smith, warmly; for she saw that he was in a sociable mood, and thought it a pity that the Blakes should not profit by it.
“Yes, indeed; I should like it of all things, and it needn’t cost much, for I have some skill in trimmings, as you know.” And Miss Kent looked so gay and pretty as she spoke that Mr. Chrome made up his mind that millinery must be a delightful occupation.
“Come on then, ladies, and we’ll have a little frolic. I’m a lonely old bachelor, with nowhere to go to-day, and I’d like some fun.”
They had it, I assure you; for they all fell to work as busy as bees, flying and buzzing about with much laughter as they worked their pleasant miracle. Mr. Chrome acted more like the father of a large family than a crusty bachelor, Miss Kent’s skillful fingers flew as they never did before, and Mrs. Smith trotted up and down as briskly as if she were sixteen instead of being a stout old woman of sixty.
The children were so full of the play, and telling all about it, that they forgot their tree till after supper; but when they went to look for it they found it gone, and in its place a great paper hand with one finger pointing down stairs, and on it these mysterious words in red ink:
“Look in the Browns’ back parlor!”
At the door of that interesting apartment they found their mother with Will and Petkin, for another hand had suddenly appeared to them pointing up. The door flew open quite as if it were a fairy play, and they went in to find a pretty tree planted in a red box on the center table, lighted with candles, hung with gilded nuts, red apples, gay bonbons, and a gift for each.
Mr. Chrome was hidden behind one folding-door, and fat Mrs. Smith squeezed behind the other, and they both thought it a great improvement upon the old-fashioned Santa Claus to have Miss Kent, in the white dress she made for the party, with Mrs. Blake’s roses in her hair, step forward as the children gazed in silent rapture, and with a few sweet words welcome them to the little surprise their friends had made.
There were many Christmas trees in the city that night, but none which gave such hearty pleasure as the one which so magically took the place of the broken branch and its few poor toys. They were all there, however, and Dolly and Polly were immensely pleased to see that of all her gifts Petkin chose the forlorn bird to carry to bed with her, the one yellow feather being just to her taste.
Mrs. Blake put on her neat bonnet, and was so gratified that Miss Kent thought it the most successful one she ever trimmed. She was well paid for it by the thanks of one neighbor and the admiration of another; for when she went to her party Mr. Chrome went with her, and said something on the way which made her heart dance more lightly than her feet that night.
Good Mrs. Smith felt that her house had covered itself with glory by this event, and Dolly and Polly declared that it was the most perfect and delightful surprise party ever seen.
It was all over by nine o’clock, and with good-night kisses for everyone the little girls climbed up to bed laden with treasures and too happy for many words. But as they tied their round caps Dolly said, thoughtfully:
“On the whole, I think it’s rather nice to be poor when people are kind to you.”
“Well, I’d rather be rich; but if I can’t be, it is very good fun to have Christmas trees like this one,” answered truthful Polly, never guessing that they had planted the seed from which the little pine-tree grew so quickly and beautifully.
When the moon came to look in at the window on her nightly round, two smiling faces lay on the pillow, which was no longer wet with tears, but rather knobby with the mine of riches hidden underneath, — first fruits of the neighborly friendship which flourished in that house until another and a merrier Christmas came.
Daisy’s Jewel-Box, and How She Filled It
First published : 1884
“Plenty of time for another. Let the little folks go to bed, now they’ve had their story, and please go on, auntie,” cried Min, when all had listened with more interest than they would confess to the children’s tale.
So the small people trotted off, much against their will, and this most obliging of aunts drew forth another manuscript, saying, as she glanced at several of her elder nieces, brave in the new trinkets Santa Claus had sent them: —
“This is a story with a moral to it, which the girls will understand; the boys can take naps while I read, for it won’t interest them.”
“If it shows up the girls we shall like it,” answered Geoff, and composed himself to hear and enjoy
Daisy’s Jewel-Box, and How She Filled It.
“It would be perfectly splendid, and just what I long for, but I don’t see how I can go with nothing fit to wear,” said Daisy, looking up from the letter in her hand, with a face full of girlish eagerness and anxiety.
Mrs. Field set every fear at rest with a reassuring smile, as she quietly made one of the sacrifices mothers think so small, when made for the dear creatures for whom they live.
“You shall go, dear; I have a little sum put by for an emergency. Twenty-five dollars will do a good deal, when tastes are simple and we do our own dressmaking.”
“But mother, that was for your cloak. You need it so much I can’t bear to have you give it up,” said sober little Jane, the home-girl, who never cared for visiting like her gay elder sister.
“Hush, dear; I can do very well with a shawl over my old sack. Don’t say a word to spoil Daisy’s pleasure. She needs a change after this dull autumn, and must be neat and nice.”
Janey said no more, and fell to thinking what she had to offer Daisy; for both took great pride in the pretty girl, who was the queen among her young friends.
Daisy heard, but was so busy re-reading the letter that she took no notice then, though she recalled the words later.
“Come and pass the holidays with us. We all want to see you, and Laura begs you will not disappoint her.”
This was the invitation that came from Laura’s mother; for the two girls had struck up a great friendship during the summer the city family passed in the little country town where Daisy lived. She had ardently hoped that Laura would not forget the charming plan, and now the cordial message came, just when the season would be gayest in town.
“I suppose I must have the everlasting white muslin for a party dress, as that is the cheapest thing a girl can wear. A nun’s-veiling is what I long for, but I’m afraid we can’t afford it,” she said with a sigh, coming back from visions of city delights to the all-important question of dress.
“Yes, you can, and new ribbons, gloves, and slippers as well. You are so small it doesn’t take much, and we can make it right up ourselves. So run and collect all your little finery, while I go and do the shopping at once.”
“You dearest of mothers! how you always manage to give me what I want, and smooth all my worries away. I’ll be as good as gold, and bring you the best present I can find.”
Daisy’s grateful kiss warmed the dear woman’s heart, and made her forget how shabby the old sack was, as she trudged away to spend the money carefully hoarded for the much-needed cloak.
Needles and fingers flew, and two days before Christmas, Daisy set out for the enchanted city, feeling very rich with the pretty new dress in her trunk, and five dollars for pocket money. It seemed a large sum to the country girl, and she planned to spend it all in gifts for mother and Janey, whose tired faces rather haunted her after she had caught the last glimpse of them.
Her reception was a warm one, for all the Vaughns were interested in the blooming little creature they had found among the hills, and did their best to make her visit a pleasant one. The first day she was in a delightful sort of maze, things were so splendid, gay and new; the second she felt awkward and countrified, and wished she had not come. A letter from her mother on Christmas morning did her good, and gave her courage to bear the little trials that afflicted her.
“My clothes do look dowdy beside Laura’s elegant costumes, though they did seem very nice at home; but my hair isn’t red, and that’s a comfort,” she said to herself, as she dressed for the party that evening.
She could not help smiling at the bonny figure she saw in the long mirror, and wishing mother and Janey could see the work of their hands in all its glory; for the simple white dress was most becoming, and her kind host had supplied her with lovely flowers for bosom and bouquet.
But the smile died as she took up her one ornament, an antique necklace, given her by an old aunt. At home it was considered a very rare and beautiful thing, and Daisy had been rather proud of her rococo chain till she saw Laura’s collection of trinkets, the variety and brilliancy of which dazzled her eyes, and woke a burning desire to possess treasures of the same sort. It was some consolation to find that the most striking were not very expensive, and after poring over them with deep interest, Daisy privately resolved to buy as many as her five dollars would compass. These new ornaments could be worn during her visit, and serve as gifts when she went home; so the extravagance would not be so great as it seemed.
This purpose comforted her, as she put on the old necklace, which looked very dingy beside the Rhinestones that flashed, the silver bangles that clashed, and the gilded butterflies, spiders, arrows, flowers, and daggers that shone on the young girls whom she met that evening. Their fine dresses she could not hope to imitate, but a pin and a pair of bracelets were possible, and she resolved to have them, if she had to borrow money to get home with.
Her head was quite turned by this desire for the cheap trinkets which attract all feminine eyes now-a-days, and when, among the pretty things that came to her from the Christmas tree that night, she received a blue plush jewel-box, she felt that it was almost a duty to fill it as soon as possible.
“Isn’t it a beauty? I never had one, and it is just what I wanted,” said Daisy, delightedly lifting the tray full of satin beds for pretty things, and pulling out the little drawer underneath, where the giver’s card lay.
“I told papa a work-box or a fan would be better; but he liked this and would buy it,” explained Laura, who knew how useless it was to her friend.
“It was very kind of him, and I prefer it to either of those. I’ve nothing but my old chain and a shabby little pin to put in it now, but I’ll fill it in time,” answered Daisy, whose eyes seemed to behold the unbought treasures already reposing on the dainty cushion.
“Real jewels are the best, my dear, for their worth and beauty are never lost. The tinsel girls wear now is poor stuff, and money is thrown away in buying it,” said Mrs. Vaughn, who overheard them and guessed the temptation which beset the little country girl.
Daisy looked conscious, but answered, with a smile, and a hand on her necklace, “This old thing wouldn’t look well in my pretty box, so I’ll leave it empty till I can afford something better.”
“But that antique chain is worth many mock diamonds; for it is genuine, and its age adds to its value. Lovers of such things would pay a good price for that and keep it carefully. So don’t be ashamed of it, my dear, — though this pretty throat needs no ornament,” added Mrs. Vaughn, hoping the girl would not forget the little lesson she was trying to give her.
Daisy did not, but when she went to bed, set the jewel-box on the table where it would meet her eyes the first thing in the morning, and then fell asleep trying to decide that she would buy no baubles, since there were better things to spend her money on.
Nothing more was said; but as the two girls went about the gay street on various pleasant errands, Daisy never could pass the jewelers’ windows without stopping to gloat over the trays full of enchanting ornaments. More than once, when alone, she went in to inquire the prices of these much-coveted trifles, and their cheapness made the temptation harder to resist. Certain things had a sort of fascination for her, and seemed to haunt her in an uncanny way, giving her no peace till she would decide to buy them. A golden rose with a diamond drop of dew on its leaves got into her very dreams; an enameled butterfly flew before her as she walked, and a pair of silver bangles rattled in her ear like goblin castanets.
“I shall not be safe till I spend that money, so I might as well decide on something and be at peace,” said poor Daisy, after some days of this girlish struggle; “I needn’t buy anything for mother and Janey, for I can share my nice and useful presents with them; but I should like to be able to show the girls my lovely jewel-box with something pretty in it, and I will! Laura needn’t know anything about it, for I’m sure she’d think it silly, and so would her mother. I’ll slip in now and buy that rose; it’s only three dollars, and the other two will get one porte-bonheur, or the dear butterfly.”
Making her way through the crowd that always stood before the brilliant window, Daisy went in and demanded the rose; then, rather scared by this reckless act she paused, and decided to look farther before buying anything else. With a pleasant little flutter of the heart as the pretty trinket was done up, she put her hand into her pocket to pay for it, and all the color died out of her cheeks when she found no purse there. In vain she pulled out handkerchief, keys, and pincushion; no sign of money was found but a ten-cent piece which had fallen out at some time. She looked so pale and dismayed that the shopman guessed her misfortune before she told it, but all the comfort he offered was the useless information that the crowded corner was a great place for pick-pockets.
There was nothing to be done but to return the rose and go sadly home, feeling that fate was very cruel to snatch away this long-coveted happiness when so nearly won. Like the milk-maid who upset her pail while planning which ribbons would become her best, poor Daisy’s dreams of splendor came to a sudden end; for instead of a golden rose, she was left with only ten cents, — and not even a purse to put it in.
She went home angry, disappointed, and ashamed, but too proud to complain, though not able to keep the loss to herself; for it was a sad affair, and her face betrayed her in spite of her efforts to be gay.
“I know you were staring at the French diamonds in that corner store. I never can get you by there without a regular tug,” cried Laura, when the tale was very briefly told.
“I can’t help it; I’m perfectly fascinated by those foolish things, and I know I should have bought some; so it is well that I’ve lost my money, perhaps,” answered Daisy, looking so innocently penitent and so frankly disappointed that Mr. Vaughn said kindly: —
“So it is, for now I have a chance to complete my Christmas present. I was not sure it would suit so I gave it empty. Please use this in buying some of the ‘fascinating things’ you like so well.”
A bright ten-dollar gold piece was slipped into Daisy’s hand, and she was obliged to keep it, in spite of all her protestations that she could live without trinkets, and did not need it as her ticket home was already bought. Mrs. Vaughn added a nice little purse, and Laura advised her to keep the lone ten-cent piece for a good-luck penny.
“Now I can do it with a free mind, and fill my box as Mr. Vaughn wishes me to. Won’t it be fun?” thought Daisy, as she skipped up-stairs after dinner, with a load of care lifted from her spirits.
Laura was taking a music lesson, so her guest went to the sewing-room to mend the facing of her dress, which someone had stepped on while she stood in that fatal crowd. A seamstress was there, sewing as if for a wager, and while Daisy stitched her braid she wondered if there was any need of such haste; for the young woman’s fingers flew, a feverish color was in her cheeks, and now and then she sighed as if tired or worried.
“Let me help, if you are in a hurry, Miss White. I can sew fast, and know something of dressmaking. Please let me. I’d love to do anything for Mrs. Vaughn, she is so kind to me,” said Daisy, when her small job was done, lingering to make the offer, though an interesting book was waiting in her room.
“Thank you, I guess I can get through by dark. I do want to finish, for my mother is sick, and needs me as well as the money,” answered the needle-woman, pausing to give the girl a grateful smile, then stitching away faster than ever.
“Then I must help. Give me that sleeve to sew up, and rest a little. You look dreadfully tired, and you’ve been working all day,” insisted Daisy.
“That’s real kind, and it would be a great help, if you really like it,” answered Miss White, with a sigh of relief as she handed over the sleeve, and saw how heartily and helpfully Daisy fell to work.
Of course they talked, for the friendly act opened both hearts, and did both girls good. As the younger listened to the little story of love and labor, the gold piece burned in her pocket, and tinsel trinkets looked very poor beside the sacrifices so sweetly made by this good daughter for the feeble mother whose comfort and support she was.
“Our landlord has raised the rent, but I can’t move now, for the cold and the worry would kill ma; so I’m tugging away to pay the extra money, else he will turn us out, I’m afraid.”
“Why don’t you tell Mrs. Vaughn? She helps everyone, and loves to do it.”
“So she does, bless her! She has done a deal for us, and that’s why I can’t ask for more. I won’t beg while I can work, but worry wears on me, and if I break down what will become of mother?”
Poor Mary shook the tears out of her eyes, for daylight was going, and she had no time to cry; but Daisy stopped to wonder how it would seem to be in her place, “tugging away” day after day to keep a roof over mother. It made her heart ache to think of it, and sent her hand to her pocket with a joyful sense of power; for alms-giving was a new pleasure, and Daisy felt very rich.
“I’ve had a present to-day, and I’d love dearly to share it with you if you wouldn’t mind. I shall only waste it, so do let me send it to your mother in any shape you like,” she said in a timid, but very earnest way.
“Oh, Miss Field! I couldn’t do it! you are too kind; I never thought of hinting” —began Mary, quite overcome by this unexpected proposal.
Daisy settled the matter by running away to the study, where Mr. Vaughn was napping, to ask him if he would give her two fives for the gold piece.
“Ah! the fascination is at work, I see; and we can’t wait till Monday to buy the pretty things. Girls will be girls, and must sow their innocent wild oats I suppose. Here, my dear, beware of pick-pockets, and good luck to the shopping,” said the old gentleman, as he put two crisp bills into her hands, with a laugh.
“Pick-pockets wont get this, and I know my shopping will prosper now,” answered Daisy, in such a happy tone that Mr. Vaughn wondered what plan was in the girl’s head to make her look so sweet and glad.
She went slowly up-stairs looking at the two bills, which did not seem half so precious as when in the shape of gold.
“I wonder if it would be very extravagant to give her all of it. I shall do some silly thing if I keep it. Her boots were very thin, and she coughs, and if she is sick it will be dreadful. Suppose I give her five for herself, and five for her mother. I’d love to feel rich and generous for once in my life, and give real help.”
The house was very still, and Daisy paused at the head of the stairs to settle the point, little dreaming that Mrs. Vaughn had heard the talk in the sewing-room, and saw her as she stood thoughtfully staring at the two bits of paper in her hand.
“I shouldn’t feel ashamed if Mrs. Vaughn found me out in this, but I should never dare to let her see my bangles and pins, if I got them. I know she thinks them silly, especially so for me. She said she hoped I’d set a good example to Laura, in the way of simplicity and industry. I liked that, and so will mother. But then, my jewel-box! All empty, and such a pretty thing. Oh dear, I wish I could be wise and silly at the same time.”
Daisy sighed, and took a few more steps, then smiled, pulled out her purse, and taking the ten-cent piece tossed it up, saying, “Heads, Mary; tails, myself.”
Up flew the bright little coin, and down it came with the goddess of liberty uppermost.
“That settles it; she shall have the ten, and I’ll be content with the old chain for all my jewelry,” said Daisy aloud; and looking much relieved she skipped away, leaving the unsuspected observer to smile at her girlish mode of deciding the question, and to rejoice over the generous nature unspoiled as yet.
She watched her young guest with new interest during the next few days; for certain fine plans were in her mind, and every trifle helped the decision for or against.
Mary White went smiling home that night to rejoice with her feeble mother over the help that came so opportunely and so kindly.
Daisy looked as if her shopping had prospered wonderfully though the old necklace was the only ornament she wore; and those who saw her happy face at the merry-making thought that she needed no other. She danced as if her feet were as light as her heart, and enjoyed that party more than the first; for no envy spoiled her pleasure, and a secret content brightened all the world to her.
But the next day she discovered that temptation still had power over her, and she nearly spoiled her first self-conquest by the fall which is very apt to come after a triumph, to show us how hard it is to stand fast, even when small Apollyons get in our way.
She broke the clasp of the necklace, and Mrs. Vaughn directed her to a person who mended such things. The man examined it with interest, and asked its history. Daisy very willingly told all she knew, inquiring if it was really valuable.
“I’d give twenty-five dollars for it any time. I’ve been trying to get one to go with a pair of earrings I picked up, and this is just what I want. Of course you don’t care to sell it, miss?” he asked, glancing at Daisy’s simple dress and rather excited face, for his offer almost took her breath away.
She was not sufficiently worldly-wise to see that the jeweler wanted it enough to give more for it, and to make a good bargain for herself. Twenty-five dollars seemed a vast sum, and she only paused to collect her wits, before she answered eagerly: —
“Yes, I should like to sell it; I’ve had it so long I’m tired of it, and it’s all out of fashion. Mrs. Vaughn told me some people would be glad to get it, because it is genuine. Do you really think it is worth twenty-five dollars?”
“It’s old, and I shall have to tinker it up; but it matches the earrings so well I am willing to pay a good price for it. Will you take the money now, miss, or think it over and call again?” asked the man, more respectfully, after hearing Mrs. Vaughn’s name.
“I’ll take it now, if you please, sir. I shall leave town in a day or two, and may not have time to call again,” said Daisy, taking a half-regretful look at the chain, as the man counted out the money.
Holding it fast, she went away feeling that this unexpected fortune was a reward for the good use she had made of her gold piece.
“Now I can buy some really valuable ornament, and wear it without being ashamed. What shall it be? No tinsel for me this time;” and she walked by the attractive shop window with an air of lofty indifference, for she really was getting over her first craze for that sort of thing.
Feeling as if she possessed the power to buy real diamonds, Daisy turned toward the great jewelers, pausing now and then to look for some pretty gift for Janey, bought with her own money.
“What can I get for mother? She never will own that she needs anything, and goes shabby so I can be nice. I could get some of those fine, thick stockings, hers are all darns, — but they might not fit. Flannel is useful, but it isn’t a pretty present. What does she need most?”
As Daisy stopped before a great window, full of all manner of comfortable garments, her eye fell on a fur-lined cloak marked “$25.” It seemed to answer her question like a voice, and as she looked at it she heard again the words, —
“But, mother, that money was for your cloak, and you need it very much.”
“Hush, dear, don’t say a word to spoil Daisy’s pleasure. I can do very well with a shawl over the old sack.”
“How could I forget that! What a selfish girl I am, to be thinking of jewelry, when that dear, good mother hasn’t a cloak to her back. Daisy Field, I’m ashamed of you! Go in and buy that nice, warm one at once, and don’t let me hear of that ridiculous box again.”
After this little burst of remorse and self-reproach, Daisy took another look; and prudence suggested asking the advice of some more experienced shopper than herself, before making so important a purchase. As if the fates were interested in settling the matter at once, while she stood undecided, Mary White came down the street with a parcel of work in her hands.
“Just the person! The Vaughns needn’t know anything about it; and Mary is a good judge.”
It was pleasant to see the two faces brighten as the girls met; rather comical to watch the deep interest with which one listened and the other explained; and beautiful to hear the grateful eagerness in Mary’s voice, as she answered cordially: —
“Indeed I will! You’ve been so kind to my mother, there’s nothing I wouldn’t be glad to do for yours.”
So in they went, and after due consideration, the cloak was bought and ordered home, — both girls feeling that it was a little ceremony full of love and good will; for Mary’s time was money, yet she gave it gladly, and Daisy’s purse was left empty of all but the good-luck penny, which was to bring still greater happiness in unsuspected ways.
Another secret was put away in the empty jewel-box, and the cloak hidden in Daisy’s trunk; for she felt shy of telling her little business transactions, lest the Vaughns should consider her extravagant. But the thought of mother’s surprise and pleasure warmed her heart, and made the last days of her visit the happiest. Being a mortal girl she did give a sigh as she tied a bit of black velvet round her white throat, instead of the necklace, which seemed really a treasure, now it was gone; and she looked with great disfavor at the shabby little pin, worn where she had fondly hoped to see the golden rose. She put a real one in its place, and never knew that her own fresh, happy face was as lovely; for the thought of the two mothers made comfortable by her was better than all the pearls and diamonds that fell from the lips of the good girl in the fairy tale.
“Let me help you pack your trunk; I love to cram things in, and dance on the lid when it won’t shut,” said Laura, joining her friend next day, just as she had got the cloak-box well hidden under a layer of clothes.
“Thank you, I’m almost done, and rather like to fuss over my own things in my own way. You won’t mind if I give this pretty box of handkerchiefs to mother, will you, dear? I have so many things, I must go halves with someone. The muslin apron and box of bonbons are for Janey, because she can’t wear the gloves, and this lovely jabot is too old for her,” said Daisy, surveying her new possessions with girlish satisfaction.
“Do what you like with your own. Mamma has a box of presents for your people. She is packing it now, but I don’t believe you can get it in; your trunk is so much fuller than when you came. This must go in a safe place, or your heart will break,” and Laura took up the jewel-box, adding with a laugh, as she opened it, “you haven’t filled it, after all! What did you do with papa’s gold piece?”
“That’s a secret. I’ll tell someday, but not yet,” said Daisy, diving into her trunk to hide the color in her cheeks.
“Sly thing! I know you’ve got silver spiders and filagree racquets, and Rhine-stone moons and stars stowed away somewhere and won’t confess it. I wanted to fill this box, but mamma said you’d do it better yourself, so I let it alone; but I was afraid you’d think I was a selfish pig, to have a pin for every day in the month and never give you one,” said Laura, as she looked at the single tarnished brooch reposing on the satin cushion. “Where’s your chain?” she added, before Daisy could speak.
“It is safe enough. I’m tired of it, and don’t care if I never see it again.” And Daisy packed away, and laughed as she smoothed the white dress in its tray, remembering that it was paid for by the sale of the old necklace.
“Give it to me, then. I like it immensely; it’s so odd. I’ll exchange for anything of mine you choose. Will you?” asked Laura, who seemed bent on asking inconvenient questions.
“I shall have to tell, or she will think me very ungrateful,” —and Daisy felt a pang of regret even then, for Laura’s offer was a generous one.
“Like G. W., ‘I cannot tell a lie;’ so I must ‘fess’ that I sold the old thing, and spent the money for something I wanted very much, — not jewelry, but something to give away.”
Daisy was spared further confessions by the entrance of Mrs. Vaughn, with a box in her hand.
“I have room for something more. Give me that, Laura, it will just fit in;” and taking the little casket, she added, “Mary White wants to try on your dress, dear. Go at once; I will help Daisy.”
Laura went, and her mother stood looking down at the kneeling girl with an expression of affectionate satisfaction which would have puzzled Daisy, had she seen it.
“Has the visit been a pleasant one, my dear?”
“Oh, very! I can’t thank you enough for the good it has done me. I hope I can pay a little of the debt next summer, if you come our way again,” cried Daisy, looking up with a face full of gratitude.
“We shall probably go to Europe for the summer. Laura is a good age for it now, and we shall all enjoy it.”
“How splendid! We shall miss you dreadfully, but I’m glad you are going, and I hope Laura will find time to write me now and then. I shall want to know how she likes the ‘foreign parts’ we’ve talked about so much.”
“You shall know. We won’t forget you, my dear,” and with a caressing touch on the smiling yet wistful face upturned to hers, Mrs. Vaughn went away to pack the empty jewel-box, leaving Daisy to drop a few irrepressible tears on the new gown, over the downfall of her summer hopes, and the longings all girls feel for that enchanted world that lies beyond the sea.
“We shall see you before we go, so we won’t gush now,” said Laura, as she bade her friend good-by, adding in a whisper, “Some folks can have secrets as well as other folks, and be as sly. So don’t think you have all the fun to yourself, you dear, good, generous darling.”
Daisy looked bewildered, and Mrs. Vaughn added to her surprise by kissing her very warmly as she said:
“I wanted to find a good friend for my spoiled girl, and I think I have succeeded.”
There was no time for explanation, and all the way home Daisy kept wondering what they meant. But she forgot everything when she saw the dear faces beaming at the door, and ran straight into her mother’s arms, while Janey hugged the trunk till her turn came for something better.
When the first raptures were over, out came the cloak; and Daisy was well repaid for her little trials and sacrifices when she was folded in it as her mother held her close, and thanked her as mothers only can. Sitting in its soft shelter, she told all about it, and coming to the end said, as she took up the jewel-box, unpacked with the other generous gifts: —
“I haven’t a thing to put in it, but I shall value it because it taught me a lesson which I hope I never shall forget. See what a pretty thing it is;” and opening it, Daisy gave a cry of surprise and joy, for there lay the golden rose, with Laura’s name and “Sub rosa” on a slip of paper.
“The dear thing! she knew I wanted it, and that is what she meant by ‘secrets.’ I’ll write and tell her mine to-morrow.”
“Here is something more,” said Janey, who had been lifting the tray while her sister examined the long-desired flower.
A pair of real gold bangles shone before her delighted eyes, and a card in Mr. Vaughn’s handwriting bore these words: “Handcuffs for the thief who stole the pocketbook.”
Daisy hardly had time to laugh gayly at the old gentleman’s joke, when Janey cried out, as she opened the little drawer, “Here’s another!”
It was a note from Mrs. Vaughn, but all thought it the greatest treasure of the three, for it said briefly, —
Dear Daisy, —
Mary told me some of your secrets, and I found out the others. Forgive me and go to Europe with Laura, in May. Your visit was a little test. You stood it well, and we want to know more of you. The little box is not quite empty, but the best jewels are the self-denial, sweet charity, and good sense you put in yourself.
Your friend,
A. V.
Daisy could not speak, and her mother looked into the box with eyes full of tender tears, while Janey danced about them, clashing the bangles like a happy little bayadere, till her sister found her voice again.
Pointing to a great, bright tear that shone on the blue velvet, she said, with her cheek against her mother’s: “I always wanted a real diamond, and there’s a more precious one than any I could buy. Now I’m sure my jewel-box is full.”
A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True
First published : 1886
“I’m so tired of Christmas I wish there never would be another one!” exclaimed a discontented-looking little girl, as she sat idly watching her mother arrange a pile of gifts two days before they were to be given.
“Why, Effie, what a dreadful thing to say! You are as bad as old Scrooge; and I ‘m afraid something will happen to you, as it did to him, if you don’t care for dear Christmas,” answered mamma, almost dropping the silver horn she was filling with delicious candies.
“Who was Scrooge? What happened to him?” asked Effie, with a glimmer of interest in her listless face, as she picked out the sourest lemon-drop she could find; for nothing sweet suited her just then.
“He was one of Dickens’s best people, and you can read the charming story someday. He hated Christmas until a strange dream showed him how dear and beautiful it was, and made a better man of him.”
“I shall read it; for I like dreams, and have a great many curious ones myself. But they don’t keep me from being tired of Christmas,” said Effie, poking discontentedly among the sweeties for something worth eating.
“Why are you tired of what should be the happiest time of all the year?” asked mamma, anxiously.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t be if I had something new. But it is always the same, and there isn’t any more surprise about it. I always find heaps of goodies in my stocking. Don’t like some of them, and soon get tired of those I do like. We always have a great dinner, and I eat too much, and feel ill next day. Then there is a Christmas tree somewhere, with a doll on top, or a stupid old Santa Claus, and children dancing and screaming over bonbons and toys that break, and shiny things that are of no use. Really, mamma, I ‘ve had so many Christmases all alike that I don’t think I can bear another one.” And Effie laid herself flat on the sofa, as if the mere idea was too much for her.
Her mother laughed at her despair, but was sorry to see her little girl so discontented, when she had everything to make her happy, and had known but ten Christmas days.
“Suppose we don’t give you any presents at all, — how would that suit you?” asked mamma, anxious to please her spoiled child.
“I should like one large and splendid one, and one dear little one, to remember some very nice person by,” said Effie, who was a fanciful little body, full of odd whims and notions, which her friends loved to gratify, regardless of time, trouble, or money; for she was the last of three little girls, and very dear to all the family.
“Well, my darling, I will see what I can do to please you, and not say a word until all is ready. If I could only get a new idea to start with!” And mamma went on tying up her pretty bundles with a thoughtful face, while Effie strolled to the window to watch the rain that kept her in-doors and made her dismal.
“Seems to me poor children have better times than rich ones. I can’t go out, and there is a girl about my age splashing along, without any maid to fuss about rubbers and cloaks and umbrellas and colds. I wish I was a beggar-girl.”
“Would you like to be hungry, cold, and ragged, to beg all day, and sleep on an ash-heap at night?” asked mamma, wondering what would come next.
“Cinderella did, and had a nice time in the end. This girl out here has a basket of scraps on her arm, and a big old shawl all round her, and doesn’t seem to care a bit, though the water runs out of the toes of her boots. She goes paddling along, laughing at the rain, and eating a cold potato as if it tasted nicer than the chicken and ice-cream I had for dinner. Yes, I do think poor children are happier than rich ones.”
“So do I, sometimes. At the Orphan Asylum to-day I saw two dozen merry little souls who have no parents, no home, and no hope of Christmas beyond a stick of candy or a cake. I wish you had been there to see how happy they were, playing with the old toys some richer children had sent them.”
“You may give them all mine; I ‘m so tired of them I never want to see them again,” said Effie, turning from the window to the pretty baby-house full of everything a child’s heart could desire.
“I will, and let you begin again with something you will not tire of, if I can only find it.” And mamma knit her brows trying to discover some grand surprise for this child who didn’t care for Christmas.
Nothing more was said then; and wandering off to the library, Effie found “A Christmas Carol,” and curling herself up in the sofa corner, it all before tea. Some of it she did not understand; but she laughed and cried over many parts of the charming story, and felt better without knowing why.
All the evening she thought of poor Tiny Tim, Mrs. Cratchit with the pudding, and the stout old gentleman who danced so gayly that “his legs twinkled in the air.” Presently bed-time arrived.
“Come, now, and toast your feet,” said Effie’s nurse, “while I do your pretty hair and tell stories.”
“I ‘ll have a fairy tale to-night, a very interesting one,” commanded Effie, as she put on her blue silk wrapper and little fur-lined slippers to sit before the fire and have her long curls brushed.
So Nursey told her best tales; and when at last the child lay down under her lace curtains, her head was full of a curious jumble of Christmas elves, poor children, snow-storms, sugar-plums, and surprises. So it is no wonder that she dreamed all night; and this was the dream, which she never quite forgot.
She found herself sitting on a stone, in the middle of a great field, all alone. The snow was falling fast, a bitter wind whistled by, and night was coming on. She felt hungry, cold, and tired, and did not know where to go nor what to do.
“I wanted to be a beggar-girl, and now I am one; but I don’t like it, and wish somebody would come and take care of me. I don’t know who I am, and I think I must be lost,” thought Effie, with the curious interest one takes in one’s self in dreams.
But the more she thought about it, the more bewildered she felt. Faster fell the snow, colder blew the wind, darker grew the night; and poor Effie made up her mind that she was quite forgotten and left to freeze alone. The tears were chilled on her cheeks, her feet felt like icicles, and her heart died within her, so hungry, frightened, and forlorn was she. Laying her head on her knees, she gave herself up for lost, and sat there with the great flakes fast turning her to a little white mound, when suddenly the sound of music reached her, and starting up, she looked and listened with all her eyes and ears.
Far away a dim light shone, and a voice was heard singing. She tried to run toward the welcome glimmer, but could not stir, and stood like a small statue of expectation while the light drew nearer, and the sweet words of the song grew clearer.
From our happy home
Through the world we roam
One week in all the year,
Making winter spring
With the joy we bring,
For Christmas-tide is here.

Now the eastern star
Shines from afar
To light the poorest home;
Hearts warmer grow,
Gifts freely flow,
For Christmas-tide has come.

Now gay trees rise
Before young eyes,
Abloom with tempting cheer;
Blithe voices sing,
And blithe bells ring,
For Christmas-tide is here.

Oh, happy chime,
Oh, blessed time,
That draws us all so near!
“Welcome, dear day,”
All creatures say,
For Christmas-tide is here.

A child’s voice sang, a child’s hand carried the little candle; and in the circle of soft light it shed, Effie saw a pretty child coming to her through the night and snow. A rosy, smiling creature, wrapped in white fur, with a wreath of green and scarlet holly on its shining hair, the magic candle in one hand, and the other outstretched as if to shower gifts and warmly press all other hands.
Effie forgot to speak as this bright vision came nearer, leaving no trace of footsteps in the snow, only lighting the way with its little candle, and filling the air with the music of its song.
“Dear child, you are lost, and I have come to find you,” said the stranger, taking Effie’s cold hands in his, with a smile like sunshine, while every holly berry glowed like a little fire.
“Do you know me?” asked Effie, feeling no fear, but a great gladness, at his coming.
“I know all children, and go to find them; for this is my holiday, and I gather them from all parts of the world to be merry with me once a year.”
“Are you an angel?” asked Effie, looking for the wings.
“No; I am a Christmas spirit, and live with my mates in a pleasant place, getting ready for our holiday, when we are let out to roam about the world, helping make this a happy time for all who will let us in. Will you come and see how we work?”
“I will go anywhere with you. Don’t leave me again,” cried Effie, gladly.
“First I will make you comfortable. That is what we love to do. You are cold, and you shall be warm; hungry, and I will feed you; sorrowful, and I will make you gay.”
With a wave of his candle all three miracles were wrought, — for the snow-flakes turned to a white fur cloak and hood on Effie’s head and shoulders; a bowl of hot soup came sailing to her lips, and vanished when she had eagerly drunk the last drop; and suddenly the dismal field changed to a new world so full of wonders that all her troubles were forgotten in a minute.
Bells were ringing so merrily that it was hard to keep from dancing. Green garlands hung on the walls, and every tree was a Christmas tree full of toys, and blazing with candles that never went out.
In one place many little spirits sewed like mad on warm clothes, turning off work faster than any sewing-machine ever invented, and great piles were made ready to be sent to poor people. Other busy creatures packed money into purses, and wrote checks which they sent flying away on the wind, — a lovely kind of snow-storm to fall into a world below full of poverty.
Older and graver spirits were looking over piles of little books, in which the records of the past year were kept, telling how different people had spent it, and what sort of gifts they deserved. Some got peace, some disappointment, some remorse and sorrow, some great joy and hope. The rich had generous thoughts sent them; the poor, gratitude and contentment. Children had more love and duty to parents; and parents renewed patience, wisdom, and satisfaction for and in their children. No one was forgotten.
“Please tell me what splendid place this is?” asked Effie, as soon as she could collect her wits after the first look at all these astonishing things.
“This is the Christmas world; and here we work all the year round, never tired of getting ready for the happy day. See, these are the saints just setting off; for some have far to go, and the children must not be disappointed.”
As he spoke the spirit pointed to four gates, out of which four great sleighs were just driving, laden with toys, while a jolly old Santa Claus sat in the middle of each, drawing on his mittens and tucking up his wraps for a long cold drive.
“Why, I thought there was only one Santa Claus, and even he was a humbug,” cried Effie, astonished at the sight.
“Never give up your faith in the sweet old stories, even after you come to see that they are only the pleasant shadow of a lovely truth.”
Just then the sleighs went off with a great jingling of bells and pattering of reindeer hoofs, while all the spirits gave a cheer that was heard in the lower world, where people said, “Hear the stars sing.”
“I never will say there isn’t any Santa Claus again. Now, show me more.”
“You will like to see this place, I think, and may learn something here perhaps.”
The spirit smiled as he led the way to a little door, through which Effie peeped into a world of dolls. Baby-houses were in full blast, with dolls of all sorts going on like live people. Waxen ladies sat in their parlors elegantly dressed; black dolls cooked in the kitchens; nurses walked out with the bits of dollies; and the streets were full of tin soldiers marching, wooden horses prancing, express wagons rumbling, and little men hurrying to and fro. Shops were there, and tiny people buying legs of mutton, pounds of tea, mites of clothes, and everything dolls use or wear or want.
But presently she saw that in some ways the dolls improved upon the manners and customs of human beings, and she watched eagerly to learn why they did these things. A fine Paris doll driving in her carriage took up a black worsted Dinah who was hobbling along with a basket of clean clothes, and carried her to her journey’s end, as if it were the proper thing to do. Another interesting china lady took off her comfortable red cloak and put it round a poor wooden creature done up in a paper shift, and so badly painted that its face would have sent some babies into fits.
“Seems to me I once knew a rich girl who didn’t give her things to poor girls. I wish I could remember who she was, and tell her to be as kind as that china doll,” said Effie, much touched at the sweet way the pretty creature wrapped up the poor fright, and then ran off in her little gray gown to buy a shiny fowl stuck on a wooden platter for her invalid mother’s dinner.
“We recall these things to people’s minds by dreams. I think the girl you speak of won’t forget this one.” And the spirit smiled, as if he enjoyed some joke which she did not see.
A little bell rang as she looked, and away scampered the children into the red-and-green school-house with the roof that lifted up, so one could see how nicely they sat at their desks with mites of books, or drew on the inch-square blackboards with crumbs of chalk.
“They know their lessons very well, and are as still as mice. We make a great racket at our school, and get bad marks every day. I shall tell the girls they had better mind what they do, or their dolls will be better scholars than they are,” said Effie, much impressed, as she peeped in and saw no rod in the hand of the little mistress, who looked up and shook her head at the intruder, as if begging her to go away before the order of the school was disturbed.
Effie retired at once, but could not resist one look in at the window of a fine mansion, where the family were at dinner, the children behaved so well at table, and never grumbled a bit when their mamma said they could not have any more fruit.
“Now, show me something else,” she said, as they came again to the low door that led out of Doll-land.
“You have seen how we prepare for Christmas; let me show you where we love best to send our good and happy gifts,” answered the spirit, giving her his hand again.
“I know. I’ve seen ever so many,” began Effie, thinking of her own Christmases.
“No, you have never seen what I will show you. Come away, and remember what you see to-night.”
Like a flash that bright world vanished, and Effie found herself in a part of the city she had never seen before. It was far away from the gayer places, where every store was brilliant with lights and full of pretty things, and every house wore a festival air, while people hurried to and fro with merry greetings. It was down among the dingy streets where the poor lived, and where there was no making ready for Christmas.
Hungry women looked in at the shabby shops, longing to buy meat and bread, but empty pockets forbade. Tipsy men drank up their wages in the bar-rooms; and in many cold dark chambers little children huddled under the thin blankets, trying to forget their misery in sleep.
No nice dinners filled the air with savory smells, no gay trees dropped toys and bonbons into eager hands, no little stockings hung in rows beside the chimney-piece ready to be filled, no happy sounds of music, gay voices, and dancing feet were heard; and there were no signs of Christmas anywhere.
“Don’t they have any in this place?” asked Effie, shivering, as she held fast the spirit’s hand, following where he led her.
“We come to bring it. Let me show you our best workers.” And the spirit pointed to some sweet-faced men and women who came stealing into the poor houses, working such beautiful miracles that Effie could only stand and watch.
Some slipped money into the empty pockets, and sent the happy mothers to buy all the comforts they needed; others led the drunken men out of temptation, and took them home to find safer pleasures there. Fires were kindled on cold hearths, tables spread as if by magic, and warm clothes wrapped round shivering limbs. Flowers suddenly bloomed in the chambers of the sick; old people found themselves remembered; sad hearts were consoled by a tender word, and wicked ones softened by the story of Him who forgave all sin.
But the sweetest work was for the children; and Effie held her breath to watch these human fairies hang up and fill the little stockings without which a child’s Christmas is not perfect, putting in things that once she would have thought very humble presents, but which now seemed beautiful and precious because these poor babies had nothing.
“That is so beautiful! I wish I could make merry Christmases as these good people do, and be loved and thanked as they are,” said Effie, softly, as she watched the busy men and women do their work and steal away without thinking of any reward but their own satisfaction.
“You can if you will. I have shown you the way. Try it, and see how happy your own holiday will be hereafter.”
As he spoke, the spirit seemed to put his arms about her, and vanished with a kiss.
“Oh, stay and show me more!” cried Effie, trying to hold him fast.
“Darling, wake up, and tell me why you are smiling in your sleep,” said a voice in her ear; and opening her eyes, there was mamma bending over her, and morning sunshine streaming into the room.
“Are they all gone? Did you hear the bells? Wasn’t it splendid?” she asked, rubbing her eyes, and looking about her for the pretty child who was so real and sweet.
“You have been dreaming at a great rate, — talking in your sleep, laughing, and clapping your hands as if you were cheering someone. Tell me what was so splendid,” said mamma, smoothing the tumbled hair and lifting up the sleepy head.
Then, while she was being dressed, Effie told her dream, and Nursey thought it very wonderful; but mamma smiled to see how curiously things the child had thought, read, heard, and seen through the day were mixed up in her sleep.
“The spirit said I could work lovely miracles if I tried; but I don’t know how to begin, for I have no magic candle to make feasts appear, and light up groves of Christmas trees, as he did,” said Effie, sorrowfully.
“Yes, you have. We will do it! we will do it!” And clapping her hands, mamma suddenly began to dance all over the room as if she had lost her wits.
“How? how? You must tell me, mamma,” cried Effie, dancing after her, and ready to believe anything possible when she remembered the adventures of the past night.
“I ‘ve got it! I ‘ve got it! — the new idea. A splendid one, if I can only carry it out!” And mamma waltzed the little girl round till her curls flew wildly in the air, while Nursey laughed as if she would die.
“Tell me! tell me!” shrieked Effie.
“No, no; it is a surprise, — a grand surprise for Christmas day!” sung mamma, evidently charmed with her happy thought. “Now, come to breakfast; for we must work like bees if we want to play spirits to-morrow. You and Nursey will go out shopping, and get heaps of things, while I arrange matters behind the scenes.”
They were running downstairs as mamma spoke, and Effie called out breathlessly, —
“It won’t be a surprise; for I know you are going to ask some poor children here, and have a tree or something. It won’t be like my dream; for they had ever so many trees, and more children than we can find anywhere.”
“There will be no tree, no party, no dinner, in this house at all, and no presents for you. Won’t that be a surprise?” And mamma laughed at Effie’s bewildered face.
“Do it. I shall like it, I think; and I won’t ask any questions, so it will all burst upon me when the time comes,” she said; and she ate her breakfast thoughtfully, for this really would be a new sort of Christmas.
All that morning Effie trotted after Nursey in and out of shops, buying dozens of barking dogs, woolly lambs, and squeaking birds; tiny tea-sets, gay picture-books, mittens and hoods, dolls and candy. Parcel after parcel was sent home; but when Effie returned she saw no trace of them, though she peeped everywhere. Nursey chuckled, but wouldn’t give a hint, and went out again in the afternoon with a long list of more things to buy; while Effie wandered forlornly about the house, missing the usual merry stir that went before the Christmas dinner and the evening fun.
As for mamma, she was quite invisible all day, and came in at night so tired that she could only lie on the sofa to rest, smiling as if some very pleasant thought made her happy in spite of weariness.
“Is the surprise going on all right?” asked Effie, anxiously; for it seemed an immense time to wait till another evening came.
“Beautifully! better than I expected; for several of my good friends are helping, or I couldn’t have done it as I wish. I know you will like it, dear, and long remember this new way of making Christmas merry.”
Mamma gave her a very tender kiss, and Effie went to bed.
The next day was a very strange one; for when she woke there was no stocking to examine, no pile of gifts under her napkin, no one said “Merry Christmas!” to her, and the dinner was just as usual to her. Mamma vanished again, and Nursey kept wiping her eyes and saying: “The dear things! It’s the prettiest idea I ever heard of. No one but your blessed ma could have done it.”
“Do stop, Nursey, or I shall go crazy because I don’t know the secret!” cried Effie, more than once; and she kept her eye on the clock, for at seven in the evening the surprise was to come off.
The longed-for hour arrived at last, and the child was too excited to ask questions when Nurse put on her cloak and hood, led her to the carriage, and they drove away, leaving their house the one dark and silent one in the row.
“I feel like the girls in the fairy tales who are led off to strange places and see fine things,” said Effie, in a whisper, as they jingled through the gay streets.
“Ah, my deary, it is like a fairy tale, I do assure you, and you will see finer things than most children will to-night. Steady, now, and do just as I tell you, and don’t say one word whatever you see,” answered Nursey, quite quivering with excitement as she patted a large box in her lap, and nodded and laughed with twinkling eyes.
They drove into a dark yard, and Effie was led through a back door to a little room, where Nurse coolly proceeded to take off not only her cloak and hood, but her dress and shoes also. Effie stared and bit her lips, but kept still until out of the box came a little white fur coat and boots, a wreath of holly leaves and berries, and a candle with a frill of gold paper round it. A long “Oh!” escaped her then; and when she was dressed and saw herself in the glass, she started back, exclaiming, “Why, Nursey, I look like the spirit in my dream!”
“So you do; and that’s the part you are to play, my pretty! Now whist, while I blind your eyes and put you in your place.”
“Shall I be afraid?” whispered Effie, full of wonder; for as they went out she heard the sound of many voices, the tramp of many feet, and, in spite of the bandage, was sure a great light shone upon her when she stopped.
“You needn’t be; I shall stand close by, and your ma will be there.”
After the handkerchief was tied about her eyes, Nurse led Effie up some steps, and placed her on a high platform, where something like leaves touched her head, and the soft snap of lamps seemed to fill the air.
Music began as soon as Nurse clapped her hands, the voices outside sounded nearer, and the tramp was evidently coming up the stairs.
“Now, my precious, look and see how you and your dear ma have made a merry Christmas for them that needed it!”
Off went the bandage; and for a minute Effie really did think she was asleep again, for she actually stood in “a grove of Christmas trees,” all gay and shining as in her vision. Twelve on a side, in two rows down the room, stood the little pines, each on its low table; and behind Effie a taller one rose to the roof, hung with wreaths of popcorn, apples, oranges, horns of candy, and cakes of all sorts, from sugary hearts to gingerbread Jumbos. On the smaller trees she saw many of her own discarded toys and those Nursey bought, as well as heaps that seemed to have rained down straight from that delightful Christmas country where she felt as if she was again.
“How splendid! Who is it for? What is that noise? Where is mamma?” cried Effie, pale with pleasure and surprise, as she stood looking down the brilliant little street from her high place.
Before Nurse could answer, the doors at the lower end flew open, and in marched twenty-four little blue-gowned orphan girls, singing sweetly, until amazement changed the song to cries of joy and wonder as the shining spectacle appeared. While they stood staring with round eyes at the wilderness of pretty things about them, mamma stepped up beside Effie, and holding her hand fast to give her courage, told the story of the dream in a few simple words, ending in this way: —
“So my little girl wanted to be a Christmas spirit too, and make this a happy day for those who had not as many pleasures and comforts as she has. She likes surprises, and we planned this for you all. She shall play the good fairy, and give each of you something from this tree, after which everyone will find her own name on a small tree, and can go to enjoy it in her own way. March by, my dears, and let us fill your hands.”
Nobody told them to do it, but all the hands were clapped heartily before a single child stirred; then one by one they came to look up wonderingly at the pretty giver of the feast as she leaned down to offer them great yellow oranges, red apples, bunches of grapes, bonbons, and cakes, till all were gone, and a double row of smiling faces turned toward her as the children filed back to their places in the orderly way they had been taught.
Then each was led to her own tree by the good ladies who had helped mamma with all their hearts; and the happy hubbub that arose would have satisfied even Santa Claus himself, — shrieks of joy, dances of delight, laughter and tears (for some tender little things could not bear so much pleasure at once, and sobbed with mouths full of candy and hands full of toys). How they ran to show one another the new treasures! how they peeped and tasted, pulled and pinched, until the air was full of queer noises, the floor covered with papers, and the little trees left bare of all but candles!
“I don’t think heaven can be any gooder than this,” sighed one small girl, as she looked about her in a blissful maze, holding her full apron with one hand, while she luxuriously carried sugar-plums to her mouth with the other.
“Is that a truly angel up there?” asked another, fascinated by the little white figure with the wreath on its shining hair, who in some mysterious way had been the cause of all this merry-making.
“I wish I dared to go and kiss her for this splendid party,” said a lame child, leaning on her crutch, as she stood near the steps, wondering how it seemed to sit in a mother’s lap, as Effie was doing, while she watched the happy scene before her.
Effie heard her, and remembering Tiny Tim, ran down and put her arms about the pale child, kissing the wistful face, as she said sweetly, “You may; but mamma deserves the thanks. She did it all; I only dreamed about it.”
Lame Katy felt as if “a truly angel” was embracing her, and could only stammer out her thanks, while the other children ran to see the pretty spirit, and touch her soft dress, until she stood in a crowd of blue gowns laughing as they held up their gifts for her to see and admire.
Mamma leaned down and whispered one word to the older girls; and suddenly they all took hands to dance round Effie, singing as they skipped.
It was a pretty sight, and the ladies found it hard to break up the happy revel; but it was late for small people, and too much fun is a mistake. So the girls fell into line, and marched before Effie and mamma again, to say good-night with such grateful little faces that the eyes of those who looked grew dim with tears. Mamma kissed everyone; and many a hungry childish heart felt as if the touch of those tender lips was their best gift. Effie shook so many small hands that her own tingled; and when Katy came she pressed a small doll into Effie’s hand, whispering, “You didn’t have a single present, and we had lots. Do keep that; it’s the prettiest thing I got.”
“I will,” answered Effie, and held it fast until the last smiling face was gone, the surprise all over, and she safe in her own bed, too tired and happy for anything but sleep.
“Mamma, it was a beautiful surprise, and I thank you so much! I don’t see how you did it; but I like it best of all the Christmases I ever had, and mean to make one every year. I had my splendid big present, and here is the dear little one to keep for love of poor Katy; so even that part of my wish came true.”
And Effie fell asleep with a happy smile on her lips, her one humble gift still in her hand, and a new love for Christmas in her heart that never changed through a long life spent in doing good.
Sunshine, and Her Brothers and Sisters
First published : 1887
Once upon a time there was a very wise old spirit called Mother Nature, who lived in a beautiful place, and had a large family of children, whom she found it rather hard to manage. When they obeyed her, all went well; but when they played pranks or quarreled, everything was in confusion, and all sorts of trouble came.
Sunshine, the eldest girl, was a sweet creature, always good, and a great comfort to her mother at all seasons. So were South and West Winds nice little girls; but Lightning, Thunder’s twin sister, was very naughty, and liked to do mischief. Snow, the fourth daughter, was a cold, quiet spirit, fond of covering up the world with the nice white sheets she kept folded away in the sky. Rain was always crying, East Wind sulking, Thunder and Hail scolding and growling, and North Wind, the biggest of the boys, went roaring and blustering about so fiercely that everyone ran before him, though his wholesome breath freshened the world, and blew away much rubbish, which his gentle sisters could not manage as they kept house.
“Now, my dears, I’m very tired and going to take a nap, so be good children; do your tasks nicely, and wake me in March,” said Mother Nature, one November day, when her summer work was over, and her time for rest had come.
“Yes, mamma,” said Sunshine, as she tucked her up with a kiss. “I will do my best to keep the girls busy and the boys in order. Have a good sleep, and I’ll call you in time for the spring work.”
Then the old lady tied her night-cap over her ears, and dozed off quite comfortably, while her good daughter, after a last smile at the frosty world, went to her spinning, that there might be plenty of sunshine for the next summer.
“It’s my turn now, and I’ll cry as much as I like, for mother isn’t here to stop me, and Sunny can’t,” said Rain; and down came floods of tears, while his brother, East Wind, began to blow till everyone shivered, and coughs and colds and fog and mud made the world a dismal place. Sunny begged them to stop and give her a chance now and then, but they would not; and everybody said what a dreadful month November was that year.
Fortunately it was soon time for North Wind and his favorite sister Snow to come back from Iceland; and the moment the older brother’s loud voice was heard, Rain and East ran and hid, for they were rather afraid of him.
“Ha, what a mess those rascals have made! Never mind, we’ll soon have it all nice and tidy for Christmas,” said North, as he dried up the mud, blew away the fog, and got the world ready for Snow to cover with her beautiful down quilt. In a day or two it looked like a fairy world, and Sunshine peeped out to do her part, making the ice on the trees glitter like diamonds, the snowy drifts shine like silver, and fill the blue sky full of light.
Then everyone rejoiced, bells jingled merrily, children coasted and snow-balled; Christmas trees began to grow, and all faces to glow as they never do at any other time.
“The holydays shall be pleasant if I can only keep those bad boys in a good humor,” said Sunny; and to make sure of them she fed Rain and East Wind on plum-cake with poppy-seeds in it, so they slept like dormice till the New Year was born.
Snow had her frolics, and no one minded, because she was so pretty; and North was so amiable just then that the white storms only made fine sleighing, and the fresh air kept cheeks rosy, eyes sparkling, lips laughing, and hearts happy as they should be at that blessed season.
Sunshine was so pleased that she came out to see the fun, and smiled so warmly that a January thaw set in.
“Dear me, I forgot that I must not be too generous at this season, or it makes trouble; for, though people enjoy my pleasant days, they leave off their furs and get cold. I’ll go back to my spinning and only smile through the window; then no harm will be done.”
Thunder and Lightning had been in Italy all this time, and they too got into mischief. Their mother had shut the twins up in a volcano to keep them out of the way till summer, when they were useful. Down there they found playmates to suit them, and had fine times rumbling and boiling, and sending out hot lava and showers of ashes to scare the people who lived nearby. Growing tired of this, they at last planned to get up an earthquake and escape. So they kicked and shook the world like children tumbling about under the bed-clothes; and the fire roared, and Thunder growled, and Lightning flew about trying to get the lid of the volcano off. At last she did, and out they all burst with such a dreadful noise that the poor people thought the end of the world had come. Towns fell down, hills moved, the sea came up on the shore, ashes and stones covered up a whole city, and destruction and despair were everywhere.
“There! wasn’t that a fine frolic? Mother won’t dare to shut us up again, I fancy, when she sees what a piece of work we make for her,” said naughty Lightning, dashing about to peep through the smoke at the sad scene below.
“Grand fun! but if Sunshine wakes mother we shall wish we had not done it. Let’s run away to Africa and hide till this is all forgotten,” answered Thunder, rather ashamed of such a dreadful prank.
So they flew off, leaving great sorrow behind them; but Sunshine did not wake mamma, though West Wind came home from Italy to tell her all about it. There was trouble here also, for Rain and East Wind had waked up, and were very angry to find they had been dosed with poppy-seeds.
“Now we’ll pay Sunny for that, and turn everything topsy-turvy,” they said; and calling Hail, they went to work.
Rain emptied all his water-buckets till the rivers rose and flooded the towns; the snow on the hills melted and covered the fields, washed away the railroads, carried off houses, and drowned many poor animals; Hail pelted with his stones, and East Wind blew cold and shrill till there was no comfort anywhere.
Poor Sunny was at her wits’ end with all these troubles; but she would not wake her mother, and tried to manage her unruly brothers alone. West helped her, for while Sunny shone, and shone so sweetly that Rain had to stop crying, West tugged at the weather-cocks till she made East give way, and let her blow for a while. He was out of breath and had to yield; so the “bad spell of weather” was over, and the poor, half-drowned people could get dry and fish their furniture out of the flood, and moor their floating houses at last. Sunny kept on smiling till she dried up the ground. West sent fresh gales to help her, and by March things looked much better.
“Now do be good children, and let us get ready for the spring-cleaning before mother wakes. I don’t know what she will say to the boys, but I’ve done my best, and I hope she will be pleased with me,” said Sunshine, when at last she sat down to rest a moment, tired out.
All the brothers and sisters except the naughty twins, gathered about her, and promised to be very good, for they loved her and were sorry for their pranks. Each tried to help her, and March was a very busy month, for all the winds blew in turn; even gentle South from far away came home to do her part. Snow folded up her down quilts and packed them away; Rain dropped a few quiet showers to swell the buds and green the grass, and Sunny began to shake out the golden webs of light she had been spinning all winter. Everyone worked so well that April found that part of the world in fine order; and when South Wind blew open the first hyacinths, Mother Nature smelt them, began to rub her eyes and wake up.
“Bless me, how I’ve slept. Why didn’t you rouse me sooner, dear? Ah, my good child, I see you’ve tried to do my work and get all ready for me,” said the old lady, throwing away her night-cap, and peeping out of window at the spring world budding everywhere.
Then sitting in her mother’s lap, Sunny told her trials and tribulations. At some Mamma Nature laughed, at others she frowned; and when it came to the earthquake and the flood, she looked very sober, saying, as she stroked her daughter’s bright hair, —
“My darling, I can’t explain these things to you, and I don’t always understand why they happen; but you know we have only to obey the King’s orders and leave the rest to him. He will punish my naughty children if he sees fit, and reward my good ones; so I shall leave them to him, and go cheerfully on with my own work. That is the only way to keep our lovely world in order and be happy. Now, call your brothers and sisters and we will have our spring frolic together.”
They all came, and had a merry time; for as everyone knows, April has every kind of weather; so each had a turn to show what he or she could do, and by May-day things were in fine trim, though East would nip the May queen’s little nose, and all Sunny’s efforts could only coax out a few hardy dandelions for the eager hands to pick.
But the children were happy, for spring had come; Mother Nature was awake again, and now all would be well with the world.
A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came
First published : 1889
“I know we couldn’t do it.”
“I say we could, if we all helped.”
“How can we?”
“I’ve planned lots of ways; only you mustn’t laugh at them, and you mustn’t say a word to mother. I want it to be all a surprise.”
“She ‘ll find us out.”
“No, she won’t, if we tell her we won’t get into mischief.”
“Fire away, then, and let’s hear your fine plans.”
“We must talk softly, or we shall wake father. He’s got a headache.”
A curious change came over the faces of the two boys as their sister lowered her voice, with a nod toward a half-opened door. They looked sad and ashamed, and Kitty sighed as she spoke, for all knew that father’s headaches always began by his coming home stupid or cross, with only a part of his wages; and mother always cried when she thought they did not see her, and after the long sleep father looked as if he didn’t like to meet their eyes, but went off early.
They knew what it meant, but never spoke of it, — only pondered over it, and mourned with mother at the change which was slowly altering their kind industrious father into a moody man, and mother into an anxious over-worked woman.
Kitty was thirteen, and a very capable girl, who helped with the housekeeping, took care of the two little ones, and went to school. Tommy and Sammy looked up to her and thought her a remarkably good sister. Now, as they sat round the stove having “a go-to-bed warm,” the three heads were close together; and the boys listened eagerly to Kitty’s plans, while the rattle of the sewing-machine in another room went on as tirelessly as it had done all day, for mother’s work was more and more needed every month.
“Well!” began Kitty, in an impressive tone, “we all know that there won’t be a bit of Christmas in this family if we don’t make it. Mother’s too busy, and father don’t care, so we must see what we can do; for I should be mortified to death to go to school and say I hadn’t had any turkey or plum-pudding. Don’t expect presents; but we must have some kind of a decent dinner.”
“So I say; I’m tired of fish and potatoes,” said Sammy, the younger.
“But where’s the dinner coming from?” asked Tommy, who had already taken some of the cares of life on his young shoulders, and knew that Christmas dinners did not walk into people’s houses without money.
“We ‘ll earn it;” and Kitty looked like a small Napoleon planning the passage of the Alps. “You, Tom, must go early to-morrow to Mr. Brisket and offer to carry baskets. He will be dreadfully busy, and want you, I know; and you are so strong you can lug as much as some of the big fellows. He pays well, and if he won’t give much money, you can take your wages in things to eat. We want everything.”
“What shall I do?” cried Sammy, while Tom sat turning this plan over in his mind.
“Take the old shovel and clear sidewalks. The snow came on purpose to help you.”
“It’s awful hard work, and the shovel’s half gone,” began Sammy, who preferred to spend his holiday coasting on an old tea-tray.
“Don’t growl, or you won’t get any dinner,” said Tom, making up his mind to lug baskets for the good of the family, like a manly lad as he was.
“I,” continued Kitty, “have taken the hardest part of all; for after my work is done, and the babies safely settled, I ‘m going to beg for the leavings of the holly and pine swept out of the church down below, and make some wreaths and sell them.”
“If you can,” put in Tommy, who had tried pencils, and failed to make a fortune.
“Not in the street?” cried Sam, looking alarmed.
“Yes, at the corner of the Park. I ‘m bound to make some money, and don’t see any other way. I shall put on an old hood and shawl, and no one will know me. Don’t care if they do.” And Kitty tried to mean what she said, but in her heart she felt that it would be a trial to her pride if any of her schoolmates should happen to recognize her.
“Don’t believe you ‘ll do it.”
“See if I don’t; for I will have a good dinner one day in the year.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem right for us to do it. Father ought to take care of us, and we only buy some presents with the little bit we earn. He never gives us anything now.” And Tommy scowled at the bedroom door, with a strong sense of injury struggling with affection in his boyish heart.
“Hush!” cried Kitty. “Don’t blame him. Mother says we never must forget he’s our father. I try not to; but when she cries, it’s hard to feel as I ought.” And a sob made the little girl stop short as she poked the fire to hide the trouble in the face that should have been all smiles.
For a moment the room was very still, as the snow beat on the window, and the fire-light flickered over the six shabby little boots put up on the stove hearth to dry.
Tommy’s cheerful voice broke the silence, saying stoutly, “Well, if I ‘ve got to work all day, I guess I ‘ll go to bed early. Don’t fret, Kit. We ‘ll help all we can, and have a good time; see if we don’t.”
“I ‘ll go out real early, and shovel like fury. Maybe I ‘ll get a dollar. Would that buy a turkey?” asked Sammy, with the air of a millionaire.
“No, dear; one big enough for us would cost two, I ‘m afraid. Perhaps we ‘ll have one sent us. We belong to the church, though folks don’t know how poor we are now, and we can’t beg.” And Kitty bustled about, clearing up, rather exercised in her mind about going and asking for the much-desired fowl.
Soon all three were fast asleep, and nothing but the whir of the machine broke the quiet that fell upon the house. Then from the inner room a man came and sat over the fire with his head in his hands and his eyes fixed on the ragged little boots left to dry. He had heard the children’s talk; and his heart was very heavy as he looked about the shabby room that used to be so neat and pleasant. What he thought no one knows, what he did we shall see by-and-by; but the sorrow and shame and tender silence of his children worked a miracle that night more lasting and lovely than the white beauty which the snow wrought upon the sleeping city.
Bright and early the boys were away to their work; while Kitty sang as she dressed the little sisters, put the house in order, and made her mother smile at the mysterious hints she gave of something splendid which was going to happen. Father was gone, and though all rather dreaded evening, nothing was said; but each worked with a will, feeling that Christmas should be merry in spite of poverty and care.
All day Tommy lugged fat turkeys, roasts of beef, and every sort of vegetable for other people’s good dinners on the morrow, wondering meanwhile where his own was coming from. Mr. Brisket had an army of boys trudging here and there, and was too busy to notice any particular lad till the hurry was over, and only a few belated buyers remained to be served. It was late; but the stores kept open, and though so tired he could hardly stand, brave Tommy held on when the other boys left, hoping to earn a trifle more by extra work. He sat down on a barrel to rest during a leisure moment, and presently his weary head nodded sideways into a basket of cranberries, where he slept quietly till the sound of gruff voices roused him.
It was Mr. Brisket scolding because one dinner had been forgotten.
“I told that rascal Beals to be sure and carry it, for the old gentleman will be in a rage if it doesn’t come, and take away his custom. Every boy gone, and I can’t leave the store, nor you either, Pat, with all the clearing up to do.”
“Here’s a by, sir, slapin illigant forninst the cranberries, bad luck to him!” answered Pat, with a shake that set poor Tom on his legs, wide awake at once.
“ Good luck to him, you mean. Here, What’s-your-name, you take this basket to that number, and I ‘ll make it worth your while,” said Mr. Brisket, much relieved by this unexpected help.
“All right, sir;” and Tommy trudged off as briskly as his tired legs would let him, cheering the long cold walk with visions of the turkey with which his employer might reward him, for there were piles of them, and Pat was to have one for his family.
His brilliant dreams were disappointed, however, for Mr. Brisket naturally supposed Tom’s father would attend to that part of the dinner, and generously heaped a basket with vegetables, rosy apples, and a quart of cranberries.
“There, if you ain’t too tired, you can take one more load to that number, and a merry Christmas to you!” said the stout man, handing over his gift with the promised dollar.
“Thank you, sir; good-night,” answered Tom, shouldering his last load with a grateful smile, and trying not to look longingly at the poultry; for he had set his heart on at least a skinny bird as a surprise to Kit.
Sammy’s adventures that day had been more varied and his efforts more successful, as we shall see, in the end, for Sammy was a most engaging little fellow, and no one could look into his blue eyes without wanting to pat his curly yellow head with one hand while the other gave him something. The cares of life had not lessened his confidence in people; and only the most abandoned ruffians had the heart to deceive or disappoint him. His very tribulations usually led to something pleasant, and whatever happened, sunshiny Sam came right side up, lucky and laughing.
Undaunted by the drifts or the cold wind, he marched off with the remains of the old shovel to seek his fortune, and found it at the third house where he called. The first two sidewalks were easy jobs; and he pocketed his ninepences with a growing conviction that this was his chosen work. The third sidewalk was a fine long one, for the house stood on the corner, and two pavements must be cleared.
“It ought to be fifty cents; but perhaps they won’t give me so much, I’m such a young one. I’ll show ‘em I can work, though, like a man;” and Sammy rang the bell with the energy of a telegraph boy.
Before the bell could be answered, a big boy rushed up, exclaiming roughly, “Get out of this! I’m going to have the job. You can’t do it. Start, now, or I’ll chuck you into a snow-bank.”
“I won’t!” answered Sammy, indignant at the brutal tone and unjust claim. “I got here first, and it’s my job. You let me alone. I ain’t afraid of you or your snow-banks either.”
The big boy wasted no time in words, for steps were heard inside, but after a brief scuffle hauled Sammy, fighting bravely all the way, down the steps, and tumbled him into a deep drift. Then he ran up the steps, and respectfully asked for the job when a neat maid opened the door. He would have got it if Sam had not roared out, as he floundered in the drift, “I came first. He knocked me down ‘cause I ‘m the smallest. Please let me do it; please!”
Before another word could be said, a little old lady appeared in the hall, trying to look stern, and failing entirely, because she was the picture of a dear fat, cosey grandma.
“Send that bad big boy away, Maria, and call in the poor little fellow. I saw the whole thing, and he shall have the job if he can do it.”
The bully slunk away, and Sammy came panting up the steps, white with snow, a great bruise on his forehead, and a beaming smile on his face, looking so like a jolly little Santa Claus who had taken a “header” out of his sleigh that the maid laughed, and the old lady exclaimed, “Bless the boy! he’s dreadfully hurt, and doesn’t know it. Come in and be brushed and get your breath, child, and tell me how that scamp came to treat you so.”
Nothing loath to be comforted, Sammy told his little tale while Maria dusted him off on the mat, and the old lady hovered in the doorway of the dining-room, where a nice breakfast smoked and smelled so deliciously that the boy sniffed the odor of coffee and buckwheats like a hungry hound.
“He ‘ll get his death if he goes to work till he’s dried a bit. Put him over the register, Maria, and I ‘ll give him a hot drink, for it’s bitter cold, poor dear!”
Away trotted the kind old lady, and in a minute came back with coffee and cakes, on which Sammy feasted as he warmed his toes and told Kitty’s plans for Christmas, led on by the old lady’s questions, and quite unconscious that he was letting all sorts of cats out of the bag.
Mrs. Bryant understood the little story, and made her plans also, for the rosy-faced boy was very like a little grandson who died last year, and her sad old heart was very tender to all other small boys. So she found out where Sammy lived, and nodded and smiled at him most cheerily as he tugged stoutly away at the snow on the long pavements till all was done, and the little workman came for his wages.
A bright silver dollar and a pocketful of gingerbread sent him off a rich and happy boy to shovel and sweep till noon, when he proudly showed his earnings at home, and feasted the babies on the carefully hoarded cake, for Dilly and Dot were the idols of the household.
“Now, Sammy dear, I want you to take my place here this afternoon, for mother will have to take her work home by-and-by, and I must sell my wreaths. I only got enough green for six, and two bunches of holly; but if I can sell them for ten or twelve cents apiece, I shall be glad. Girls never can earn as much money as boys somehow,” sighed Kitty, surveying the thin wreaths tied up with carpet raveling’s, and vainly puzzling her young wits over a sad problem.
“I ‘ll give you some of my money if you don’t get a dollar; then we’ll be even. Men always take care of women, you know, and ought to,” cried Sammy, setting a fine example to his father, if he had only been there to profit by it.
With thanks Kitty left him to rest on the old sofa, while the happy babies swarmed over him; and putting on the shabby hood and shawl, she slipped away to stand at the Park gate, modestly offering her little wares to the passers-by. A nice old gentleman bought two, and his wife scolded him for getting such bad ones; but the money gave more happiness than any other he spent that day. A child took a ten-cent bunch of holly with its red berries, and there Kitty’s market ended. It was very cold, people were in a hurry, bolder hucksters pressed before the timid little girl, and the balloon man told her to “clear out.”
Hoping for better luck, she tried several other places; but the short afternoon was soon over, the streets began to thin, the keen wind chilled her to the bone, and her heart was very heavy to think that in all the rich, merry city, where Christmas gifts passed her in every hand, there were none for the dear babies and boys at home, and the Christmas dinner was a failure.
“I must go and get supper anyway; and I ‘ll hang these up in our own rooms, as I can’t sell them,” said Kitty, wiping a very big tear from her cold cheek, and turning to go away.
A smaller, shabbier girl than herself stood near, looking at the bunch of holly with wistful eyes; and glad to do to others as she wished someone would do to her, Kitty offered the only thing she had to give, saying kindly, “You may have it; merry Christmas!” and ran away before the delighted child could thank her.
I am very sure that one of the spirits who fly about at this season of the year saw the little act, made a note of it, and in about fifteen minutes rewarded Kitty for her sweet remembrance of the golden rule.
As she went sadly homeward she looked up at some of the big houses where every window shone with the festivities of Christmas Eve, and more than one tear fell, for the little girl found life pretty hard just then.
“There don’t seem to be any wreaths at these windows; perhaps they ‘d buy mine. I can’t bear to go home with so little for my share,” she said, stopping before one of the biggest and brightest of these fairy palaces, where the sound of music was heard, and many little heads peeped from behind the curtains as if watching for someone.
Kitty was just going up the steps to make another trial, when two small boys came racing round the corner, slipped on the icy pavement, and both went down with a crash that would have broken older bones. One was up in a minute, laughing; the other lay squirming and howling, “Oh, my knee! my knee!” till Kitty ran and picked him up with the motherly consolations she had learned to give.
“It’s broken; I know it is,” wailed the small sufferer as Kitty carried him up the steps, while his friend wildly rang the doorbell.
It was like going into fairy-land, for the house was all astir with a children’s Christmas party. Servants flew about with smiling faces; open doors gave ravishing glimpses of a feast in one room and a splendid tree in another; while a crowd of little faces peered over the balusters in the hall above, eager to come down and enjoy the glories prepared for them.
A pretty young girl came to meet Kitty, and listened to her story of the accident, which proved to be less severe than it at first appeared; for Bertie, the injured party, forgot his anguish at sight of the tree, and hopped upstairs so nimbly that everyone laughed.
“He said his leg was broken, but I guess he’s all right,” said Kitty, reluctantly turning from this happy scene to go out into the night again.
“Would you like to see our tree before the children come down?” asked the pretty girl, seeing the wistful look in the child’s eyes, and the shine of half-dried tears on her cheek.
“Oh, yes; I never saw anything so lovely. I ‘d like to tell the babies all about it;” and Kitty’s face beamed at the prospect, as if the kind words had melted all the frost away.
“How many babies are there?” asked the pretty girl, as she led the way into the brilliant room. Kitty told her, adding several other facts, for the friendly atmosphere seemed to make them friends at once.
“I will buy the wreaths, for we haven’t any,” said the girl in silk, as Kitty told how she was just coming to offer them when the boys fell.
It was pretty to see how carefully the little hostess laid away the shabby garlands and slipped a half-dollar into Kitty’s hand; prettier still, to watch the sly way in which she tucked some bonbons, a red ball, a blue whip, two china dolls, two pairs of little mittens, and some gilded nuts into an empty box for “the babies;” and prettiest of all, to see the smiles and tears make April in Kitty’s face as she tried to tell her thanks for this beautiful surprise.
The world was all right when she got into the street again and ran home with the precious box hugged close, feeling that at last she had something to make a merry Christmas of.
Shrieks of joy greeted her, for Sammy’s nice old lady had sent a basket full of pies, nuts and raisins, oranges and cake, and — oh, happy Sammy! — a sled, all for love of the blue eyes that twinkled so merrily when he told her about the tea-tray. Piled upon this red car of triumph, Dilly and Dot were being dragged about, while the other treasures were set forth on the table.
“I must show mine,” cried Kitty; “we ‘ll look at them to-night, and have them to-morrow;” and amid more cries of rapture her box was unpacked, her money added to the pile in the middle of the table, where Sammy had laid his handsome contribution toward the turkey.
Before the story of the splendid tree was over, in came Tommy with his substantial offering and his hard-earned dollar.
“I ‘m afraid I ought to keep my money for shoes. I ‘ve walked the soles off these to-day, and can’t go to school barefooted,” he said, bravely trying to put the temptation of skates behind him.
“We ‘ve got a good dinner without a turkey, and perhaps we ‘d better not get it,” added Kitty, with a sigh, as she surveyed the table, and remembered the blue knit hood marked seventy-five cents that she saw in a shop-window.
“Oh, we must have a turkey! we worked so hard for it, and it’s so Christmassy,” cried Sam, who always felt that pleasant things ought to happen.
“Must have turty,” echoed the babies, as they eyed the dolls tenderly.
“You shall have a turkey, and there he is,” said an unexpected voice, as a noble bird fell upon the table, and lay there kicking up his legs as if enjoying the surprise immensely.
It was father’s voice, and there stood father, neither cross nor stupid, but looking as he used to look, kind and happy, and beside him was mother, smiling as they had not seen her smile for months. It was not because the work was well paid for, and more promised, but because she had received a gift that made the world bright, a home happy again, — father’s promise to drink no more.
“I ‘ve been working to-day as well as you, and you may keep your money for yourselves. There are shoes for all; and never again, please God, shall my children be ashamed of me, or want a dinner Christmas Day.”
As father said this with a choke in his voice, and mother’s head went down on his shoulder to hide the happy tears that wet her cheeks, the children didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, till Kitty, with the instinct of a loving heart, settled the question by saying, as she held out her hands, “We haven’t any tree, so let’s dance around our goodies and be merry.”
Then the tired feet in the old shoes forgot their weariness, and five happy little souls skipped gayly round the table, where, in the midst of all the treasures earned and given, father’s Christmas turkey proudly lay in state.
The Little Red Purse
First published : 1889
Among the presents which Lu found on her tenth birthday was a pretty red plush purse with a steel clasp and chain, just like mamma’s, only much smaller. In it were ten bright new cents, that being the sum Lu received each week to spend as she liked. She enjoyed all her gifts very much; but this one seemed to please her even more than the French doll in blue silk, the pearl ring, or “Alice in Wonderland,” —three things which she had wanted for a long time.
“It is so cunning, and the snap makes such a loud noise, and the chain is so nice on my arm, and the plush so red and soft, I can’t help loving my dear little purse. I shall spend all the money for candy, and eat it every bit myself, because it is my birthday, and I must celebrate it,” said Lu, as she hovered like a bee round a honey-pot about the table where the gifts were spread.
Now she was in a great hurry to go out shopping, with the new purse proudly carried in her small fat hand. Aunty was soon ready, and away they went across the pleasant Park, where the pretty babies were enjoying the last warm days of autumn as they played among the fallen leaves.
“You will be ill if you eat ten cents’ worth of candy to-day,” said aunty.
“I ‘ll sprinkle it along through the day, and eat each kind seppyrut; then they won’t intersturb me, I am sure,” answered Lu, who still used funny words, and always got interrupt and disturb rather mixed.
Just then a poor man who had lost his legs came creeping along with a tray of little flower-pots to sell.
“Only five cents, miss. Help an unfortnit man, please, mum.”
“Let me buy one for my baby-house. It would be sweet. Cora Pinky May would love to have that darling little rose in her best parlor,” cried Lu, thinking of the fine new doll.
Aunty much preferred to help the poor man than to buy candy, so the flower-pot was soon bought, though the “red, red rose” was unlike any ever seen in a garden.
“Now I ‘ll have five cents for my treat, and no danger of being ill,” said Lu, as they went on again.
But in a few moments a new beggar appeared, and Lu’s tender heart would not let her pass the old woman without dropping two of her bright cents in the tin cup.
“Do come to the candy-place at once, or I never shall get any,” begged Lu, as the red purse grew lighter and lighter every minute.
Three sticks of candy were all she could buy, but she felt that she could celebrate the birthday on that, and was ready to go home and begin at once.
As they went on to get some flowers to dress the cake at tea-time, Lu suddenly stopped short, lifted both hands, and cried out in a tone of despair, —
“My purse! my purse! I ‘ve lost it. Oh, I ‘ve lost it!”
“Left it in the store probably. Come and look for it,” said aunty; and back they turned, just in time to meet a shabby little girl running after them with the precious thing in her hand.
“Ain’t this yours? I thought you dropped it, and would hate to lose it,” she said, smiling pleasantly.
“Oh, I should. It’s spandy new, and I love it dearly. I ‘ve got no more money to pay you, only this candy; do take a stick,” and Lu presented the red barley sugar.
The little girl took it gladly, and ran off.
“Well, two sticks will do. I ‘d rather lose every bit of it than my darling purse,” said Lu, putting it carefully in her pocket.
“I love to give things away and make people happy,” began Lu, but stopped to watch a dog who came up to her, wagging his tail as if he knew what a kind little girl she was, and wanted to be made happy. She put out her hand to pat him, quite forgetting the small parcel in it; but the dog snapped it up before she could save it.
“Oh, my last stick! I didn’t mean to give it to him. You naughty dog, drop it this minute!” cried poor Lu.
But the beautiful pink cream candy was forever lost, and the ungrateful thief ran off, after a vain attempt to eat the flower-pot also. It was so funny that aunty laughed, and Lu joined her, after shaking her finger at the dog, who barked and frisked as if he felt that he had done a clever thing.
“Now I am quite satisfied, and you will have a pleasanter birthday for having made four people and a dog happy, instead of yourself sick with too many goodies. Charity is a nice sort of sweetie; and I hope you will buy that kind with your pocket-money now and then, my dear,” said aunty, as they walked on again.
“Could I do much with ten cents a week?” asked Lu.
“Yes, indeed; you could buy a little book for lame Sammy, who loves to read, or a few flowers for my sick girl at the hospital, or a loaf of bread for some hungry person, or milk for a poor baby, or you could save up your money till Christmas, and get presents for children who otherwise would have none.”
“Could I do all those things? I’d like to get presents best, and I will—I will!” cried Lu, charmed with the idea of playing Santa Claus. “I didn’t think ten cents would be so useful. How long to Christmas, aunty?”
“About ten weeks. If you save all your pocket-money till then, you will have a dollar to spend.”
“A truly dollar! How fine! But all that time I shouldn’t have any candy. I don’t think I could get along without some . Perhaps if I was very good someone would give me a bit now and then;” and Lu looked up with her most engaging smile and a twinkle in her eye.
“We will see about that. Perhaps ‘someone’ will give extra cents for work you may do, and leave you to decide which kind of sweeties you would buy.”
“What can I do to earn money?” asked Lu.
“Well, you can dry and fold the paper every morning for grandpa. I will pay you a cent for that, because nurse is apt to forget it, and he likes to have it nicely ready for him after breakfast. Then you might run up and down for mamma, and hem some towels for me, and take care of Jip and the parrot. You will earn a good deal if you do your work regularly and well.”
“I shall have dreadful trials going by the candy-shops and never buying any. I do long so to go in that I have to look away when you say No. I want to be good and help poor people, but I ‘m afraid it will be too hard for me,” sighed Lu, foreseeing the temptations before her.
“We might begin to-day, and try the new plan for a while. If it is too hard, you can give it up; but I think you will soon like my way best, and have the merriest Christmas you ever knew with the money you save.”
Lu walked thoughtfully home, and put the empty purse away, resolved to see how long she could hold out, and how much she could earn. Mamma smiled when she heard the plan, but at once engaged the little girl to do errands about the house at a cent a job, privately quite sure that her pretty express would soon stop running. Grandpapa was pleased to find his paper ready, and nodded and patted Lu’s curly head when she told him about her Christmas plans. Mary, the maid, was glad to get rid of combing Jip and feeding Polly, and aunty made towel hemming pleasant by telling stories as the little needle-woman did two hems a day.
Every cent went into the red purse, which Lu hung on one of the gilt pegs of the easel in the parlor, for she thought it very ornamental, and hoped contributions might drop in occasionally. None did; but as everyone paid her in bright cents, there was soon a fine display, and the little bag grew heavy with delightful rapidity.
Only once did Lu yield to temptation, and that was when two weeks of self-denial made her trials so great that she felt as if she really must reward herself, as no one else seemed to remember how much little girls loved candy.
One day she looked pale, and did not want any dinner, saying she felt sick. Mamma was away, so aunty put her on the bed and sat by her, feeling very anxious, as scarlet-fever was about. By and by Lu took her handkerchief out, and there, sticking to it, was a large brown cough-drop. Lu turned red, and hid her face, saying with a penitent sob, “I don’t deserve to be cuddled. I ‘ve been selfish and silly, and spent some of my money for candy. I had a little cold, and I thought cough-drops would do me good. I ate a good many, and they were bitter and made me sick, and I ‘m glad of it.”
Aunty wanted to laugh at the dear little sinner and her funny idea of choosing bitter candy as a sort of self-denial; but she comforted her kindly, and soon the invalid was skipping about again, declaring that she never would do so any more.
Next day something happened which helped her very much, and made it easier to like the new kind of sweeties better than the old. She was in the dining-room getting an apple for her lunch, when she saw a little girl come to the lower door to ask for cold food. The cook was busy, and sent her away, telling her begging was forbidden. Lu, peeping out, saw the little girl sit down on the steps to eat a cold potato as if she was very hungry, and while she ate she was trying to tie on a pair of very old boots someone had given her. It was a rainy day, and she had only a shawl over her head; her hands were red with cold; her gown was a faded cotton one; and her big basket seemed to have very few scraps in it. So poor, so sad, and tired did she look, that Lu could not bear to see it, and she called out in her pitiful child’s voice, —
“Come in and get warm, little girl. Don’t mind old Sarah. I ‘ll give you something to eat, and lend you my rubber boots and waterproof to go home in.”
The poor child gladly went to sit by the comfortable fire, while Lu with hospitable haste got crackers and cheese and cake and apples, and her own silver mug of milk, for her guest, forgetting, in her zeal, to ask leave. Fortunately aunty came down for her own lunch in time to see what was going on, and found Lu busily buttoning the waterproof, while the little girl surveyed her rubber boots and small umbrella with pride.
“I ‘m only lending my things, and she will return them to-morrow, aunty. They are too small for me, and the umbrella is broken; and I ‘d love to give them all to Lucy if I could. She has to go out in the rain to get food for her family, like a bird, and I don’t.”
“Birds don’t need waterproofs and umbrellas,” began aunty; and both children laughed at the idea of sparrows with such things, but looked a little anxious till aunty went on to say that Lucy could have these comforts, and to fill the basket with something better than cold potatoes, while she asked questions and heard the sad little story: how father was dead, and the baby sick, so mother could not work, and the boys had to pick up chips and cinders to burn, and Lucy begged food to eat. Lu listened with tears in her blue eyes, and a great deal of pity as well as admiration for poor little Lucy, who was only nine, yet had so many cares and troubles in her life. While aunty went to get some flannel for baby, Lu flew to her red purse and counted out ten cents from her store, feeling so rich, so glad to have it instead of an empty bonbon box, and a headache after a candy feast.
“Buy some nice fresh milk for little Totty, and tell her I sent it—all myself—with my love. Come again to-morrow, and I will tell mamma all about you, and you shall be my poor people, and I ‘ll help you if I can,” she said, full of interest and good-will, for the sight of this child made her feel what poverty really was, and long to lighten it if she could.
Lucy was smiling when she went away, snug and dry in her comfortable clothes, with the full basket on her arm; and all that day Lu talked and thought about her “own poor people,” and what she hoped to do for them. Mamma inquired, and finding them worthy of help, let her little girl send many comforts to the children, and learn how to be wisely charitable.
“I shall give all my money to my ‘Lucy children’ on Christmas,” announced Lu, as that pleasant time drew near. “I know what they want, and though I can’t save money enough to give them half the things they need, maybe I can help a good deal, and really have a nice bundle to s’prise them with.”
This idea took possession of little Lu, and she worked like a beaver in all sorts of funny ways to fill her purse by Christmas-time. One thing she did which amused her family very much, though they were obliged to stop it. Lu danced very prettily, and often had what she called ballets before she went to bed, when she tripped about the parlor like a fairy in the gay costumes aunty made for her. As the purse did not fill as fast as she hoped, Lu took it into her head one fine day to go round the square where she lived, with her tambourine, and dance as some of the girls with the hand-organ men did. So she dressed herself in her red skirt and black velvet jacket, and with a fur cap on her head and a blue cloak over her shoulders, slipped out into the quiet square, and going to the farther corner, began to dance and beat her tambourine on the sidewalk before a house where some little children lived.
As she expected, they soon came running to the window, and were charmed to see the pretty dancer whirling to and fro, with her ribbons flying and her tambourine bells ringing, till her breath was gone. Then she held up the instrument and nodded smilingly at them; and they threw down cents wrapped in paper, thinking her music much better than any the organ men made. Much encouraged, Lu went on from house to house, and was doing finely, when one of the ladies who looked out recognized the child, and asked her if her mother knew where she was. Lu had to say “No;” and the lady sent a maid to take her home at once.
That spoiled all the fun; and poor Lu did not hear the last of her prank for a long time. But she had made forty-two cents, and felt comforted when she added that handsome sum to her store. As if to console her for this disappointment, after that day several bright ten-cent pieces got into the red purse in a most mysterious manner. Lu asked everyone in the house, and all declared that they did not do it. Grandpa could not get out of his chair without help, and nurse said she never took the purse to him; so of course it could not be he who slipped in those welcome bits of silver. Lu asked him; but he was very deaf that day, and did not seem to understand her at all.
“It must be fairies,” she said, pondering over the puzzle, as she counted her treasure and packed it away, for now the little red purse was full. “Aunty says there are no fairies; but I like to think so. Perhaps angels fly around at Christmas-time as they did long ago, and love to help poor people, and put those beautiful bright things here to show that they are pleased with me.” She liked that fancy, and aunty agreed that some good spirit must have done it, and was sure they would find out the secret some time.
Lucy came regularly; and Lu always tried to see her, and so learned what she and Totty and Joe and Jimmy wanted, but never dreamed of receiving Christmas morning. It did both little girls much good, for poor Lucy was comforted by the kindness of these friends, and Lu learned about far harder trials than the want of sugarplums. The day before Christmas she went on a grand shopping expedition with aunty, for the purse now held three dollars and seven cents. She had spent some of it for trifles for her “Lucy children,” and had not earned as much as she once hoped, various fits of idleness and other more amusing but less profitable work having lessened her wages. But she had enough, thanks to the good spirit, to get toys and books and candy for her family, and went joyfully away Christmas Eve to carry her little basket of gifts, accompanied by aunty with a larger store of comforts for the grateful mother.
When they got back, Lu entertained her mother with an account of the delight of the children, who never had such a Christmas before.
“They couldn’t wait till morning, and I couldn’t either, and we opened the bundles right away; and they screamed , mamma, and jumped for joy and ate everything and hugged me. And the mother cried, she was so pleased; and the boys can go to school all neat now, and so could Lucy, only she has to take care of Totty while her mother goes to work. Oh, it was lovely! I felt just like Santa Claus, only he doesn’t stay to see people enjoy their things, and I did.”
Here Lu stopped for breath, and when she got it, had a fine ballet as the only way to work off her excitement at the success of her “s’prise.” It was a trial to go to bed, but she went at last, and dreamed that her “Lucy children” all had wings, and were flying round her bed with tambourines full of heavenly bonbons, which they showered down upon her; while aunty in an immense nightcap stood by clapping her hands and saying, “Eat all you like, dear; this sort won’t hurt you.”
Morning came very soon; and she popped up her head to see a long knobby stocking hanging from the mantel-piece. Out of bed skipped the little white figure, and back again, while cries of joy were heard as the treasures appeared one by one. There was a tableful beside the stocking, and Lu was so busy looking at them that she was late to breakfast. But aunty waited for her, and they went down together some time after the bell rang.
“Let me peep and see if grandpa has found the silk handkerchief and spectacle-case I made for him,” whispered Lu, as they passed the parlor door, which stood half open, leaving a wide crack for the blue eyes to spy through.
The old gentleman sat in his easy-chair as usual, waiting while nurse got his breakfast; but what was he doing with his long staff? Lu watched eagerly, and to her great surprise saw him lean forward, and with the hook at the end take the little red purse off the easel, open it, and slip in a small white parcel, then hang it on the gilt peg again, put away the cane, and sit rubbing his hands and laughing to himself at the success of his little trick, quite sure that this was a safe time to play it. Lu was about to cry out, and rush in, but aunty whispered, “Don’t spoil his fun yet. Go and see what is in the purse, then thank him in the way he likes best.”
So Lu skipped into the parlor, trying to look very innocent, and ran to open the dear red purse, as she often did, eager to see if the good fairy had added to the charity fund.
“Why, here ‘s a great gold medal, and some queer, shaky writing on the paper. Please see what it is,” said Lu, very loud, hoping grandpa would hear her this time, for his face was hidden behind the newspaper he pretended to read.
“For Lu’s poor’s purse, from Santa Claus,” read aunty, glad that at last the kind old fairy was discovered and ready for his reward.
Lu had never seen a twenty-dollar gold-piece before; but she could not stop to find out whether the shining medal was money or a locket, and ran to grandpa, crying as she pulled away the paper and threw her arms about his neck, —
“I ‘ve found you out, I ‘ve found you out, my dear old Santa Claus! Merry Christmas, grandpa, and lots of thanks and kisses!”
It was pretty to see the rosy cheek against the wrinkled one, the golden and the silver heads close together, as the old man and the little girl kissed and laughed, and both talked at once for a few minutes.
“Tell me all about it, you sly grandpa. What made you think of doing it that way, and not let anyone know?” cried Lu, as the old gentleman stopped to rest after a kindly “cuddle,” as Lu called these caresses.
“Well, dear, I liked to see you trying to do good with your little pennies, and I wanted to help. I ‘m a feeble old man, tied to my chair and of no use now; but I like a bit of fun, and love to feel that it is not quite too late to make someone happy.”
“Why, grandpa, you do heaps of good, and make many, many people happy,” said Lu, with another hug. “Mamma told me all about the hospital for little children you built, and the money you gave to the poor soldiers in the war, and ever so many more good things you ‘ve done. I won’t have you say you are of no use now. We want you to love and take care of; and we couldn’t do without you, could we, aunty?”
Aunty sat on the arm of the chair with her arm round the old man’s shoulder, and her only answer was a kiss. But it was enough, and grandpa went on quite cheerfully, as he held two plump hands in his own, and watched the blooming face that looked up at him so eagerly:
“When I was younger, I loved money, and wanted a great deal. I cared for nothing else, and worked hard to get it, and did get it after years of worry. But it cost me my health, and then I saw how foolish I had been, for all my money could not buy me any strength or pleasure and very little comfort. I could not take it with me when I died, and did not know what to do with it, because there was so much. So I tried to see if giving it away would not amuse me, and make me feel better about having wasted my life instead of using it wisely. The more I gave away the better I felt; and now I’m quite jolly, though I’m only a helpless old baby just fit to play jokes and love little girls. You have begun early at this pretty game of give-away, my dear, and aunty will see that you keep it up; so that when you are old you will have much treasure in the other world where the blessings of the poor are more precious than gold and silver.”
Nobody spoke for a minute as the feeble old voice stopped; and the sunshine fell on the white head like a blessing. Then Lu said very soberly, as she turned the great coin in her hand, and saw the letters that told its worth, —
“What shall I do with all this money? I never had so much, and I ‘d like to spend it in some very good and pleasant way. Can you think of something, aunty, so I can begin at once to be like grandpa?”
“How would you like to pay two dollars a month, so that Totty can go to the Sunnyside Nursery, and be taken care of every day while Lucy goes to school? Then she will be safe and happy, and Lucy be learning, as she longs to do, and the mother free to work,” said aunty, glad to have this dear child early learn to help those less blessed than herself.
“Could I? How splendid it would be to pay for a real live baby all myself! How long would my money do it?” said Lu, charmed with the idea of a living dolly to care for.
“All winter, and provide clothes besides. You can make them yourself, and go and see Totty, and call her your baby. This will be a sweet charity for you; and to-day is a good day to begin it, for this is the birthday of the Divine Child, who was born in a poorer place even than Lucy’s sister. In His name pity and help this baby, and be sure He will bless you for it.”
Lu looked up at the fine picture of the Good Shepherd hanging over the sofa with holly-leaves glistening round it, and felt as if she too in her humble way was about to take a helpless little lamb in her arms and comfort it. Her childish face was very sweet and sober as she said softly, —
“Yes, I will spend my Christmas money so; for, aunty, I do think your sort of sweetie is better than mine, and making people happy a much wiser way to spend my pennies than in buying the nicest candy in the world.”
Little Lu remembered that morning long after the dear old grandfather was gone, and kept her Christmas promise so well that very soon a larger purse was needed for charity money, which she used so wisely and so happily. But all her life in one corner of her desk lay carefully folded up, with the bit of paper inside, the little red purse.
Sophie’s Secret
First published : 1889
Chapter 1
A party of young girls, in their gay bathing-dresses, were sitting on the beach waiting for the tide to rise a little higher before they enjoyed the daily frolic which they called “mermaiding.”
“I wish we could have a clam-bake; but we haven’t any clams, and don’t know how to cook them if we had. It’s such a pity all the boys have gone off on that stupid fishing excursion,” said one girl, in a yellow-and-black striped suit which made her look like a wasp.
“What is a clam-bake? I do not know that kind of fête,” asked a pretty brown-eyed girl, with an accent that betrayed the foreigner.
The girls laughed at such sad ignorance, and Sophie colored, wishing she had not spoken.
“Poor thing! she has never tasted a clam. What should we do if we went to Switzerland?” said the wasp, who loved to tease.
“We should give you the best we had, and not laugh at your ignorance, if you did not know all our dishes. In my country, we have politeness, though not the clam-bake,” answered Sophie, with a flash of the brown eyes which warned naughty Di to desist.
“We might row to the light-house, and have a picnic supper. Our mammas will let us do that alone,” suggested Dora from the roof of the bath-house, where she perched like a flamingo.
“That’s a good idea,” cried Fanny, a slender brown girl who sat dabbling her feet in the water, with her hair streaming in the wind. “Sophie should see that, and get some of the shells she likes so much.”
“You are kind to think of me. I shall be glad to have a necklace of the pretty things, as a souvenir of this so charming place and my good friend,” answered Sophie, with a grateful look at Fanny, whose many attentions had won the stranger’s heart.
“Those boys haven’t left us a single boat, so we must dive off the rocks, and that isn’t half so nice,” said Di, to change the subject, being ashamed of her rudeness.
“A boat is just coming round the Point; perhaps we can hire that, and have some fun,” cried Dora, from her perch. “There is only a girl in it; I ‘ll hail her when she is near enough.”
Sophie looked about her to see where the hail was coming from; but the sky was clear, and she waited to see what new meaning this word might have, not daring to ask for fear of another laugh.
While the girls watched the boat float around the farther horn of the crescent-shaped beach, we shall have time to say a few words about our little heroine.
She was a sixteen-year-old Swiss girl, on a visit to some American friends, and had come to the seaside for a month with one of them who was an invalid. This left Sophie to the tender mercies of the young people; and they gladly welcomed the pretty creature, with her fine manners, foreign ways, and many accomplishments. But she had a quick temper, a funny little accent, and dressed so very plainly that the girls could not resist criticizing and teasing her in a way that seemed very ill-bred and unkind to the new-comer.
Their free and easy ways astonished her, their curious language bewildered her; and their ignorance of many things she had been taught made her wonder at the American education she had heard so much praised. All had studied French and German; yet few read or spoke either tongue correctly, or understood her easily when she tried to talk to them. Their music did not amount to much, and in the games they played, their want of useful information amazed Sophie. One did not know the signs of the zodiac; another could only say of cotton that “it was stuff that grew down South;” and a third was not sure whether a frog was an animal or a reptile, while the handwriting and spelling displayed on these occasions left much to be desired. Yet all were fifteen or sixteen, and would soon leave school “finished,” as they expressed it, but not furnished , as they should have been, with a solid, sensible education. Dress was an all-absorbing topic, sweetmeats their delight; and in confidential moments sweethearts were discussed with great freedom. Fathers were conveniences, mothers comforters, brothers plagues, and sisters ornaments or playthings according to their ages. They were not hard-hearted girls, only frivolous, idle, and fond of fun; and poor little Sophie amused them immensely till they learned to admire, love, and respect her.
Coming straight from Paris, they expected to find that her trunks contained the latest fashions for demoiselles, and begged to see her dresses with girlish interest. But when Sophie obligingly showed a few simple, but pretty and appropriate gowns and hats, they exclaimed with one voice, —
“Why, you dress like a little girl! Don’t you have ruffles and lace on your dresses; and silks and high-heeled boots and long gloves and bustles and corsets, and things like ours?”
“I am a little girl,” laughed Sophie, hardly understanding their dismay. “What should I do with fine toilets at school? My sisters go to balls in silk and lace; but I—not yet.”
“How queer! Is your father poor?” asked Di, with Yankee bluntness.
“We have enough,” answered Sophie, slightly knitting her dark brows.
“How many servants do you keep?”
“But five, now that the little ones are grown up.”
“Have you a piano?” continued undaunted Di, while the others affected to be looking at the books and pictures strewn about by the hasty unpacking.
“We have two pianos, four violins, three flutes, and an organ. We love music, and all play, from papa to little Franz.”
“My gracious, how swell! You must live in a big house to hold all that and eight brothers and sisters.”
“We are not peasants; we do not live in a hut. Voilà , this is my home.” And Sophie laid before them a fine photograph of a large and elegant house on lovely Lake Geneva.
It was droll to see the change in the faces of the girls as they looked, admired, and slyly nudged one another, enjoying saucy Di’s astonishment, for she had stoutly insisted that the Swiss girl was a poor relation.
Sophie meanwhile was folding up her plain piqué and muslin frocks, with a glimmer of mirthful satisfaction in her eyes, and a tender pride in the work of loving hands now far away.
Kind Fanny saw a little quiver of the lips as she smoothed the blue corn-flowers in the best hat, and put her arm around Sophie, whispering, —
“Never mind, dear, they don’t mean to be rude; it’s only our Yankee way of asking questions. I like all your things, and that hat is perfectly lovely.”
“Indeed, yes! Dear mamma arranged it for me. I was thinking of her and longing for my morning kiss.”
“Do you do that every day?” asked Fanny, forgetting herself in her sympathetic interest.
“Surely, yes. Papa and mamma sit always on the sofa, and we all have the hand-shake and the embrace each day before our morning coffee. I do not see that here,” answered Sophie, who sorely missed the affectionate respect foreign children give their parents.
“Haven’t time,” said Fanny, smiling too, at the idea of American parents sitting still for five minutes in the busiest part of the busy day to kiss their sons and daughters.
“It is what you call old-fashioned, but a sweet fashion to me; and since I have not the dear warm cheeks to kiss, I embrace my pictures often. See, I have them all.” And Sophie unfolded a Russia-leather case, displaying with pride a long row of handsome brothers and sisters with the parents in the midst.
More exclamations from the girls, and increased interest in “Wilhelmina Tell,” as they christened the loyal Swiss maiden, who was now accepted as a companion, and soon became a favorite with old and young.
They could not resist teasing her, however, — her mistakes were so amusing, her little flashes of temper so dramatic, and her tongue so quick to give a sharp or witty answer when the new language did not perplex her. But Fanny always took her part, and helped her in many ways. Now they sat together on the rock, a pretty pair of mermaids with wind-tossed hair, wave-washed feet, and eyes fixed on the approaching boat.
The girl who sat in it was a great contrast to the gay creatures grouped so picturesquely on the shore, for the old straw hat shaded a very anxious face, the brown calico gown covered a heart full of hopes and fears, and the boat that drifted so slowly with the incoming tide carried Tilly Reed like a young Columbus toward the new world she longed for, believed in, and was resolved to discover.
It was a weather-beaten little boat, yet very pretty; for a pile of nets lay at one end, a creel of red lobsters at the other, and all between stood baskets of berries and water-lilies, purple marsh rosemary and orange butterfly-weed, shells and great smooth stones such as artists like to paint little sea-views on. A tame gull perched on the prow; and the morning sunshine glittered from the blue water to the bluer sky.
“Oh, how pretty! Come on, please, and sell us some lilies,” cried Dora, and roused Tilly from her waking dream.
Pushing back her hat, she saw the girls beckoning, felt that the critical moment had come, and catching up her oars, rowed bravely on, though her cheeks reddened and her heart beat, for this venture was her last hope, and on its success depended the desire of her life. As the boat approached, the watchers forgot its cargo to look with surprise and pleasure at its rower, for she was not the rough country lass they expected to see, but a really splendid girl of fifteen, tall, broad-shouldered, bright-eyed, and blooming, with a certain shy dignity of her own and a very sweet smile, as she nodded and pulled in with strong, steady strokes. Before they could offer help, she had risen, planted an oar in the water, and leaping to the shore, pulled her boat high up on the beach, offering her wares with wistful eyes and a very expressive wave of both brown hands.
“Everything is for sale, if you ‘ll buy,” said she.
Charmed with the novelty of this little adventure, the girls, after scampering to the bathing-houses for purses and porte-monnaies, crowded around the boat like butterflies about a thistle, all eager to buy, and to discover who this bonny fisher-maiden might be.
“Oh, see these beauties!” “A dozen lilies for me!” “All the yellow flowers for me, they’ll be so becoming at the dance to-night!” “Ow! that lob bites awfully!” “Where do you come from?” “Why have we never seen you before?”
These were some of the exclamations and questions showered upon Tilly, as she filled little birch-bark panniers with berries, dealt out flowers, or dispensed handfuls of shells. Her eyes shone, her cheeks glowed, and her heart danced in her bosom; for this was a better beginning than she had dared to hope for, and as the dimes tinkled into the tin pail she used for her till, it was the sweetest music she had ever heard. This hearty welcome banished her shyness; and in these eager, girlish customers she found it easy to confide.
“I ‘m from the light-house. You have never seen me because I never came before, except with fish for the hotel. But I mean to come every day, if folks will buy my things, for I want to make some money, and this is the only way in which I can do it.”
Sophie glanced at the old hat and worn shoes of the speaker, and dropping a bright half-dollar into the pail, said in her pretty way:
“For me all these lovely shells. I will make necklaces of them for my people at home as souvenirs of this charming place. If you will bring me more, I shall be much grateful to you.”
“Oh, thank you! I ‘ll bring heaps; I know where to find beauties in places where other folks can’t go. Please take these; you paid too much for the shells;” and quick to feel the kindness of the stranger, Tilly put into her hands a little bark canoe heaped with red raspberries.
Not to be outdone by the foreigner, the other girls emptied their purses and Tilly’s boat also of all but the lobsters, which were ordered for the hotel.
“Is that jolly bird for sale?” asked Di, as the last berry vanished, pointing to the gull who was swimming near them while the chatter went on.
“If you can catch him,” laughed Tilly, whose spirits were now the gayest of the party.
The girls dashed into the water, and with shrieks of merriment swam away to capture the gull, who paddled off as if he enjoyed the fun as much as they.
Leaving them to splash vainly to and fro, Tilly swung the creel to her shoulder and went off to leave her lobsters, longing to dance and sing to the music of the silver clinking in her pocket.
When she came back, the bird was far out of reach and the girls diving from her boat, which they had launched without leave. Too happy to care what happened now, Tilly threw herself down on the warm sand to plan a new and still finer cargo for next day.
Sophie came and sat beside her while she dried her curly hair, and in five minutes her sympathetic face and sweet ways had won Tilly to tell all her hopes and cares and dreams.
“I want schooling, and I mean to have it. I ‘ve got no folks of my own; and uncle has married again, so he doesn’t need me now. If I only had a little money, I could go to school somewhere, and take care of myself. Last summer I worked at the hotel, but I didn’t make much, and had to have good clothes, and that took my wages pretty much. Sewing is slow work, and baby-tending leaves me no time to study; so I ‘ve kept on at home picking berries and doing what I could to pick up enough to buy books. Aunt thinks I ‘m a fool; but uncle, he says, ‘Go ahead, girl, and see what you can do.’ And I mean to show him!”
Tilly’s brown hand came down on the sand with a resolute thump; and her clear young eyes looked bravely out across the wide sea, as if far away in the blue distance she saw her hope happily fulfilled.
Sophie’s eyes shone approval, for she understood this love of independence, and had come to America because she longed for new scenes and greater freedom than her native land could give her. Education is a large word, and both girls felt that desire for self-improvement that comes to all energetic natures. Sophie had laid a good foundation, but still desired more; while Tilly was just climbing up the first steep slope which rises to the heights few attain, yet all may strive for.
“That is beautiful! You will do it! I am glad to help you if I may. See, I have many books; will you take some of them? Come to my room to-morrow and take what will best please you. We will say nothing of it, and it will make me a truly great pleasure.”
As Sophie spoke, her little white hand touched the strong, sunburned one that turned to meet and grasp hers with grateful warmth, while Tilly’s face betrayed the hunger that possessed her, for it looked as a starving girl’s would look when offered a generous meal.
“I will come. Thank you so much! I don’t know anything, but just blunder along and do the best I can. I got so discouraged I was real desperate, and thought I ‘d have one try, and see if I couldn’t earn enough to get books to study this winter. Folks buy berries at the cottages; so I just added flowers and shells, and I ‘m going to bring my boxes of butterflies, birds’ eggs, and seaweeds. I ‘ve got lots of such things; and people seem to like spending money down here. I often wish I had a little of what they throw away.”
Tilly paused with a sigh, then laughed as an impatient movement caused a silver clink; and slapping her pocket, she added gayly, —
“I won’t blame ‘em if they ‘ll only throw their money in here.”
Sophie’s hand went involuntarily toward her own pocket, where lay a plump purse, for papa was generous, and simple Sophie had few wants. But something in the intelligent face opposite made her hesitate to offer as a gift what she felt sure Tilly would refuse, preferring to earn her education if she could.
“Come often, then, and let me exchange these stupid bills for the lovely things you bring. We will come this afternoon to see you if we may, and I shall like the butterflies. I try to catch them; but people tell me I am too old to run, so I have not many.”
Proposed in this way, Tilly fell into the little trap, and presently rowed away with all her might to set her possessions in order, and put her precious earnings in a safe place. The mermaids clung about the boat as long as they dared, making a pretty tableau for the artists on the rocks, then swam to shore, more than ever eager for the picnic on Light-house Island.
They went, and had a merry time; while Tilly did the honors and showed them a room full of treasures gathered from earth, air, and water, for she led a lonely life, and found friends among the fishes, made playmates of the birds, and studied rocks and flowers, clouds and waves, when books were wanting.
The girls bought gulls’ wings for their hats, queer and lovely shells, eggs and insects, seaweeds and carved wood, and for their small brothers, birch baskets and toy ships, made by Uncle Hiram, who had been a sailor.
When Tilly had sold nearly everything she possessed (for Fanny and Sophie bought whatever the others declined), she made a fire of drift-wood on the rocks, cooked fish for supper, and kept them till moonrise, telling sea stories or singing old songs, as if she could not do enough for these good fairies who had come to her when life looked hardest and the future very dark. Then she rowed them home, and promising to bring loads of fruit and flowers every day, went back along a shining road, to find a great bundle of books in her dismantled room, and to fall asleep with wet eyelashes and a happy heart.
Chapter 2
For a month Tilly went daily to the Point with a cargo of pretty merchandise, for her patrons increased; and soon the ladies engaged her berries, the boys ordered boats enough to supply a navy, the children clamored for shells, and the girls depended on her for bouquets and garlands for the dances that ended every summer day. Uncle Hiram’s fish was in demand when such a comely saleswoman offered it; so he let Tilly have her way, glad to see the old tobacco-pouch in which she kept her cash fill fast with well-earned money.
She really began to feel that her dream was coming true, and she would be able to go to the town and study in some great school, eking out her little fund with light work. The other girls soon lost their interest in her, but Sophie never did; and many a book went to the island in the empty baskets, many a helpful word was said over the lilies or wild honeysuckle Sophie loved to wear, and many a lesson was given in the bare room in the light-house tower which no one knew about but the gulls and the sea-winds sweeping by the little window where the two heads leaned together over one page.
“You will do it, Tilly, I am very sure. Such a will and such a memory will make a way for you; and one day I shall see you teaching as you wish. Keep the brave heart, and all will be well with you,” said Sophie, when the grand breaking-up came in September, and the girls were parting down behind the deserted bathhouses.
“Oh, Miss Sophie, what should I have done without you? Don’t think I haven’t seen and known all the kind things you have said and done for me. I ‘ll never forget ‘em; and I do hope I ‘ll be able to thank you some day,” cried grateful Tilly, with tears in her clear eyes that seldom wept over her own troubles.
“I am thanked if you do well. Adieu; write to me, and remember always that I am your friend.”
Then they kissed with girlish warmth, and Tilly rowed away to the lonely island; while Sophie lingered on the shore, her handkerchief fluttering in the wind, till the boat vanished and the waves had washed away their footprints on the sand.
Chapter 3
December snow was falling fast, and the wintry wind whistled through the streets; but it was warm and cosey in the luxurious parlor where Di and Do were sitting making Christmas presents, and planning what they would wear at the party Fanny was to give on Christmas Eve.
“If I can get mamma to buy me a new dress, I shall have something yellow. It is always becoming to brunettes, and I ‘m so tired of red,” said Di, giving a last touch to the lace that trimmed a blue satin sachet for Fanny.
“That will be lovely. I shall have pink, with roses of the same color. Under muslin it is perfectly sweet.” And Dora eyed the sunflower she was embroidering as if she already saw the new toilet before her.
“Fan always wears blue, so we shall make a nice contrast. She is coming over to show me about finishing off my banner-screen; and I asked Sophie to come with her. I want to know what she is going to wear,” said Di, taking a little sniff at the violet-scented bag.
“That old white cashmere. Just think! I asked her why she didn’t get a new one, and she laughed and said she couldn’t afford it. Fan told me Sophie’s father sent her a hundred dollars not long ago, yet she hasn’t got a thing that we know of. I do think she’s mean.”
“She bought a great bundle of books. I was there when the parcel came, and I peeped while she was out of the room, because she put it away in a great hurry. I ‘m afraid she is mean, for she never buys a bit of candy, and she wears shabby boots and gloves, and she has made over her old hat instead of having that lovely one with the pheasant’s breast in it.”
“She’s very queer; but I can’t help liking her, she’s so pretty and bright and obliging. I ‘d give anything if I could speak three languages and play as she does.”
“So would I. It seems so elegant to be able to talk to foreigners. Papa had some Frenchmen to dinner the other day, and they were so pleased to find they needn’t speak English to Sophie. I couldn’t get on at all; and I was so mortified when papa said all the money he had spent on my languages was thrown away.”
“I wouldn’t mind. It’s so much easier to learn those things abroad, she would be a goose if she didn’t speak French better than we do. There’s Fan! she looks as if something had happened. I hope no one is ill and the party spoiled.”
As Dora spoke, both girls looked out to see Fanny shaking the snow from her seal-skin sack on the doorstep; then Do hastened to meet her, while Di hid the sachet , and was hard at work on an old-gold sofa cushion when the new-comer entered.
“What’s the matter? Where’s Sophie?” exclaimed the girls together, as Fan threw off her wraps and sat down with a tragic sigh.
“She will be along in a few minutes. I ‘m disappointed in her! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen them. Promise not to breathe a word to a living soul, and I ‘ll tell you something dreadful,” began Fanny, in a tone that caused her friends to drop their work and draw their chairs nearer, as they solemnly vowed eternal silence.
“I ‘ve seen Sophie’s Christmas presents, — all but mine; and they are just nothing at all! She hasn’t bought a thing, not even ribbons, lace, or silk, to make up prettily as we do. Only a painted shell for one, an acorn emery for another, her ivory fan with a new tassel for a third, and I suspect one of those nice handkerchiefs embroidered by the nuns for me, or her silver filigree necklace. I saw the box in the drawer with the other things. She’s knit woolen cuffs and tippets for the children, and got some eight-cent calico gowns for the servants. I don’t know how people do things in Switzerland, but I do know that if I had a hundred dollars in my pocket, I would be more generous than that!”
As Fanny paused, out of breath, Di and Do groaned in sympathy, for this was indeed a sad state of things; because the girls had a code that Christmas being the season for gifts, extravagance would be forgiven then as at no other time.
“I have a lovely smelling-bottle for her; but I ‘ve a great mind not to give it now,” cried Di, feeling defrauded of the bracelet she had plainly hinted she would like.
“I shall heap coals of fire on her head by giving her that ;” and Dora displayed a very useless but very pretty apron of muslin, lace, and carnation ribbon.
“It isn’t the worth of the things. I don’t care for that so much as I do for being disappointed in her; and I have been lately in more ways than one,” said Fanny, listlessly taking up the screen she was to finish. “She used to tell me everything, and now she doesn’t. I ‘m sure she has some sort of a secret; and I do think I ought to know it. I found her smiling over a letter one day; and she whisked it into her pocket and never said a word about it. I always stood by her, and I do feel hurt.”
“I should think you might! It’s real naughty of her, and I shall tell her so! Perhaps she ‘ll confide in you then, and you can just give me a hint; I always liked Sophie, and never thought of not giving my present,” said Dora, persuasively, for both girls were now dying with curiosity to know the secret.
“I ‘ll have it out of her, without any dodging or bribing. I ‘m not afraid of any one, and I shall ask her straight out, no matter how much she scowls at me,” said dauntless Di, with a threatening nod.
“There she is! Let us see you do it now!” cried Fanny, as the bell rang, and a clear voice was heard a moment later asking if Mademoiselle was in.
“You shall!” and Di looked ready for any audacity.
“I ‘ll wager a box of candy that you don’t find out a thing,” whispered Do.
“Done!” answered Di, and then turned to meet Sophie, who came in looking as fresh as an Alpine rose with the wintry wind.
“You dear thing! we were just talking of you. Sit here and get warm, and let us show you our gifts. We are almost done, but it seems as if it got to be a harder job each Christmas. Don’t you find it so?”
“But no; I think it the most charming work of all the year,” answered Sophie, greeting her friend, and putting her well-worn boots toward the fire to dry.
“Perhaps you don’t make as much of Christmas as we do, or give such expensive presents. That would make a great difference, you know,” said Di, as she lifted a cloth from the table where her own generous store of gifts was set forth.
“I had a piano last year, a set of jewels, and many pretty trifles from all at home. Here is one;” and pulling the fine gold chain hidden under her frills, Sophie showed a locket set thick with pearls, containing a picture of her mother.
“It must be so nice to be rich, and able to make such fine presents. I ‘ve got something for you; but I shall be ashamed of it after I see your gift to me, I ‘m afraid.”
Fan and Dora were working as if their bread depended on it, while Di, with a naughty twinkle in her eye, affected to be rearranging her pretty table as she talked.
“Do not fear that; my gifts this year are very simple ones. I did not know your custom, and now it is too late. My comfort is that you need nothing, and having so much, you will not care for my—what you call—coming short.”
Was it the fire that made Sophie’s face look so hot, and a cold that gave a husky sort of tone to her usually clear voice? A curious expression came into her face as her eyes roved from the table to the gay trifles in her friend’s hands; and she opened her lips as if to add something impulsively. But nothing came, and for a moment she looked straight out at the storm as if she had forgotten where she was.
“‘Shortcoming’ is the proper way to speak it. But never mind that, and tell me why you say ‘too late’?” asked Di, bent on winning her wager.
“Christmas comes in three days, and I have no time,” began Sophie.
“But with money one can buy plenty of lovely things in one day,” said Di.
“No, it is better to put a little love and hard work into what we give to friends, I have done that with my trifles, and another year I shall be more ready.”
There was an uncomfortable pause, for Sophie did not speak with her usual frankness, but looked both proud and ashamed, and seemed anxious to change the subject, as she began to admire Dora’s work, which had made very little progress during the last fifteen minutes.
Fanny glanced at Di with a smile that made the other toss her head and return to the charge with renewed vigor.
“Sophie, will you do me a favor?”
“With much pleasure.”
“Do has promised me a whole box of French bonbons, and if you will answer three questions, you shall have it.”
“ Allons ,” said Sophie, smiling.
“Haven’t you a secret?” asked Di, gravely.
“Will you tell us?”
Di paused before she asked her last question, and Fan and Dora waited breathlessly, while Sophie knit her brows and looked uneasy.
“Why not?”
“Because I do not wish to tell it.”
“Will you tell if we guess?”
“You are engaged.”
At this absurd suggestion Sophie laughed gayly, and shook her curly head.
“Do you think we are betrothed at sixteen in my country?”
“I know that is an engagement ring, — you made such a time about it when you lost it in the water, and cried for joy when Tilly dived and found it.”
“Ah, yes, I was truly glad. Dear Tilly, never do I forget that kindness!” and Sophie kissed the little pearl ring in her impulsive way, while her eyes sparkled and the frown vanished.
“I know a sweetheart gave it,” insisted Di, sure now she had found a clew to the secret.
“He did,” and Sophie hung her head in a sentimental way that made the three girls crowd nearer with faces full of interest.
“Do tell us all about it, dear. It’s so interesting to hear love-stories. What is his name?” cried Dora.
“Hermann,” simpered Sophie, drooping still more, while her lips trembled with suppressed emotion of some sort.
“How lovely!” sighed Fanny, who was very romantic.
“Tell on, do! Is he handsome?”
“To me the finest man in all the world,” confessed Sophie, as she hid her face.
“And you love him?”
“I adore him!” and Sophie clasped her hands so dramatically that the girls were a little startled, yet charmed at this discovery.
“Have you his picture?” asked Di, feeling that she had won her wager now.
“Yes,” and pulling out the locket again, Sophie showed in the other side the face of a fine old gentleman who looked very like herself.
“It’s your father!” exclaimed Fanny, rolling her blue eyes excitedly. “You are a humbug!” cried Dora. “Then you fibbed about the ring,” said Di, crossly.
“Never! It is mamma’s betrothal ring; but her finger grew too plump, and when I left home she gave the ring to me as a charm to keep me safe. Ah, ha! I have my little joke as well as you, and the laugh is for me this time.” And falling back among the sofa cushions, Sophie enjoyed it as only a gay girl could. Do and Fanny joined her; but Di was much disgusted, and vowed she would discover the secret and keep all the bonbons to herself.
“You are most welcome; but I will not tell until I like, and then to Fanny first. She will not have ridicule for what I do, but say it is well, and be glad with me. Come now and work. I will plait these ribbons, or paint a wild rose on this pretty fan. It is too plain now. Will you that I do it, dear Di?”
The kind tone and the prospect of such an ornament to her gift appeased Di somewhat; but the mirthful malice in Sophie’s eyes made the other more than ever determined to be even with her by and by.
Christmas Eve came, and found Di still in the dark, which fact nettled her sadly, for Sophie tormented her and amused the other girls by pretended confidences and dark hints at the mystery which might never, never be disclosed.
Fan had determined to have an unusually jolly party; so she invited only her chosen friends, and opened the festivities with a Christmas tree, as the prettiest way of exchanging gifts and providing jokes for the evening in the shape of delusive bottles, animals full of candy, and every sort of musical instrument to be used in an impromptu concert afterward. The presents to one another were done up in secure parcels, so that they might burst upon the public eye in all their freshness. Di was very curious to know what Fan was going to give her, — for Fanny was a generous creature and loved to give. Di was a little jealous of her love for Sophie, and couldn’t rest till she discovered which was to get the finer gift.
So she went early and slipped into the room where the tree stood, to peep and pick a bit, as well as to hang up a few trifles of her own. She guessed several things by feeling the parcels; but one excited her curiosity intensely, and she could not resist turning it about and pulling up one corner of the lid. It was a flat box, prettily ornamented with sea-weeds like red lace, and tied with scarlet ribbons. A tantalizing glimpse of jeweler’s cotton, gold clasps, and something rose-colored conquered Di’s last scruples; and she was just about to untie the ribbons when she heard Fanny’s voice, and had only time to replace the box, pick up a paper that had fallen out of it, and fly up the back stairs to the dressing-room, where she found Sophie and Dora surveying each other as girls always do before they go down.
“You look like a daisy,” cried Di, admiring Dora with great interest, because she felt ashamed of her prying, and the stolen note in her pocket.
“And you like a dandelion,” returned Do, falling back a step to get a good view of Di’s gold-colored dress and black velvet bows.
“Sophie is a lily of the valley, all in green and white,” added Fanny, coming in with her own blue skirts waving in the breeze.
“It does me very well. Little girls do not need grand toilets, and I am fine enough for a ‘peasant,’” laughed Sophie, as she settled the fresh ribbons on her simple white cashmere and the holly wreath in her brown hair, but secretly longing for the fine dress she might have had.
“Why didn’t you wear your silver necklace? It would be lovely on your pretty neck,” said Di, longing to know if she had given the trinket away.
But Sophie was not to be caught, and said with a contented smile, “I do not care for ornaments unless someone I love gives me them. I had red roses for my bouquet de corsage ; but the poor Madame Page was so triste , I left them on her table to remember her of me. It seemed so heartless to go and dance while she had only pain; but she wished it.”
“Dear little Sophie, how good you are!” and warm-hearted Fan kissed the blooming face that needed no roses to make it sweet and gay.
Half an hour later, twenty girls and boys were dancing round the brilliant tree. Then its boughs were stripped. Everyone seemed contented; even Sophie’s little gifts gave pleasure, because with each went a merry or affectionate verse, which made great fun on being read aloud. She was quite loaded with pretty things, and had no words to express her gratitude and pleasure.
“Ah, you are all so good to me! and I have nothing beautiful for you. I receive much and give little, but I cannot help it! Wait a little and I will redeem myself,” she said to Fanny, with eyes full of tears, and a lap heaped with gay and useful things.
“Never mind that now; but look at this, for here’s still another offering of friendship, and a very charming one, to judge by the outside,” answered Fan, bringing the white box with the sea-weed ornaments.
Sophie opened it, and cries of admiration followed, for lying on the soft cotton was a lovely set of coral. Rosy pink branches, highly polished and fastened with gold clasps, formed necklace, bracelets, and a spray for the bosom. No note or card appeared, and the girls crowded round to admire and wonder who could have sent so valuable a gift.
“Can’t you guess, Sophie?” cried Dora, longing to own the pretty things.
“I should believe I knew, but it is too costly. How came the parcel, Fan? I think you must know all,” and Sophie turned the box about, searching vainly for a name.
“An expressman left it, and Jane took off the wet paper and put it on my table with the other things. Here’s the wrapper; do you know that writing?” and Fan offered the brown paper which she had kept.
“No; and the label is all mud, so I cannot see the place. Ah, well, I shall discover someday, but I should like to thank this generous friend at once. See now, how fine I am! I do myself the honor to wear them at once.”
Smiling with girlish delight at her pretty ornaments, Sophie clasped the bracelets on her round arms, the necklace about her white throat, and set the rosy spray in the lace on her bosom. Then she took a little dance down the room and found herself before Di, who was looking at her with an expression of naughty satisfaction on her face.
“Don’t you wish you knew who sent them?”
“Indeed, yes;” and Sophie paused abruptly.
“Well, I know, and I won’t tell till I like. It’s my turn to have a secret; and I mean to keep it.”
“But it is not right,” began Sophie, with indignation.
“Tell me yours, and I ‘ll tell mine,” said Di, teasingly.
“I will not! You have no right to touch my gifts, and I am sure you have done it, else how know you who sends this fine cadeau ?” cried Sophie, with the flash Di liked to see.
Here Fanny interposed, “If you have any note or card belonging to Sophie, give it up at once. She shall not be tormented. Out with it, Di. I see your hand in your pocket, and I ‘m sure you have been in mischief.”
“Take your old letter, then. I know what’s in it; and if I can’t keep my secret for fun, Sophie shall not have hers. That Tilly sent the coral, and Sophie spent her hundred dollars in books and clothes for that queer girl, who’d better stay among her lobsters than try to be a lady,” cried Di, bent on telling all she knew, while Sophie was reading her letter eagerly.
“Is it true?” asked Dora, for the four girls were in a corner together, and the rest of the company busy pulling crackers.
“Just like her! I thought it was that; but she wouldn’t tell. Tell us now, Sophie, for I think it was truly sweet and beautiful to help that poor girl, and let us say hard things of you,” cried Fanny, as her friend looked up with a face and a heart too full of happiness to help overflowing into words.
“Yes; I will tell you now. It was foolish, perhaps; but I did not want to be praised, and I loved to help that good Tilly. You know she worked all summer and made a little sum. So glad, so proud she was, and planned to study that she might go to school this winter. Well, in October the uncle fell very ill, and Tilly gave all her money for the doctors. The uncle had been kind to her, she did not forget; she was glad to help, and told no one but me. Then I said, ‘What better can I do with my father’s gift than give it to the dear creature, and let her lose no time?’ I do it; she will not at first, but I write and say, ‘It must be,’ and she submits. She is made neat with some little dresses, and she goes at last, to be so happy and do so well that I am proud of her. Is not that better than fine toilets and rich gifts to those who need nothing? Truly, yes! yet I confess it cost me pain to give up my plans for Christmas, and to seem selfish or ungrateful. Forgive me that.”
“Yes, indeed, you dear generous thing!” cried Fan and Dora, touched by the truth.
“But how came Tilly to send you such a splendid present?” asked Di. “Shouldn’t think you ‘d like her to spend your money in such things.”
“She did not. A sea-captain, a friend of the uncle, gave her these lovely ornaments, and she sends them to me with a letter that is more precious than all the coral in the sea. I cannot read it; but of all my gifts this is the dearest and the best!”
Sophie had spoken eagerly, and her face, her voice, her gestures, made the little story eloquent; but with the last words she clasped the letter to her bosom as if it well repaid her for all the sacrifices she had made. They might seem small to others, but she was sensitive and proud, anxious to be loved in the strange country, and fond of giving, so it cost her many tears to seem mean and thoughtless, to go poorly dressed, and be thought hardly of by those she wished to please. She did not like to tell of her own generosity, because it seemed like boasting; and she was not sure that it had been wise to give so much. Therefore, she waited to see if Tilly was worthy of the trust reposed in her; and she now found a balm for many wounds in the loving letter that came with the beautiful and unexpected gift.
Di listened with hot cheeks, and when Sophie paused, she whispered regretfully, —
“Forgive me, I was wrong! I ‘ll keep your gift all my life to remember you by, for you are the best and dearest girl I know.”
Then with a hasty kiss she ran away, carrying with great care the white shell on which Sophie had painted a dainty little picture of the mermaids waiting for the pretty boat that brought good fortune to poor Tilly, and this lesson to those who were hereafter her faithful friends.
Becky’s Christmas Dream
First published : 1895
All alone by the kitchen fire, sat little Becky, for everyone else had gone away to keep Christmas and left her to take care of the house. Nobody had thought to give her any presents, or take her to any merrymaking, or remembered that Christmas should be made a happy time to every child, whether poor or rich.
She was only twelve years old, — this little girl from the poorhouse, who was bound to work for the farmer’s wife till she was eighteen. She had no father or mother, no friends or home but this, and as she sat alone by the fire her little heart ached for someone to love and cherish her.
Becky was a shy, quiet child, with a thin face and wistful eyes that always seemed trying to find something that she wanted very much. She worked away, day after day, so patiently and silently that no one ever guessed what curious thoughts filled the little cropped head, or what a tender child’s heart was hidden under the blue checked pinafore.
To-night she was wishing that there were fairies in the world, who would whisk down the chimney and give her quantities of pretty things, as they did in the delightful fairy tales.
“I’m sure I am as poor and lonely as Cinderella, and need a kind godmother to help me as much as ever she did,” said Becky to herself. She sat on her little stool staring at the fire, which didn’t burn very well, for she felt too much out of sorts to care whether things looked cheerful or not.
There is an old belief that all dumb things can speak for one hour on Christmas Eve. Now, Becky knew nothing of this story and no one can say whether what happened was true or whether she fell asleep and dreamed it. But certain it is when Becky compared herself to Cinderella, she was amazed to hear a small voice: reply, — “Well, my dear, if you want advice, I shall be very glad to give you some, for I’ve had much experience in this trying world.
Becky stared about her, but all she saw was the old gray cat, blinking at the fire.
“Did you speak, Tabby?” said the child, at last.
“Of course I did. If you wish a godmother, here l am.”
Becky laughed at the idea; but Puss, with her silver-gray suit, white handkerchief crossed on her bosom, kind, motherly old face, and cozy purr, did make a very good Quakerish little godmother after all.
“Well, ma’am, I’m ready to listen,” said Becky respectfully.
“First, my child, what do you want most?” asked the godmother, quite in the fairy-book style.
“To be loved by everybody,” answered Becky.
“Good!” said the cat. “I’m pleased with that answer, it’s sensible, and I’ll tell you how to get your wish. Learn to make people love you by loving them.”
“I don’t know how,” sighed Becky.
“No more did I in the beginning,” returned Puss. “When I first came here, a shy young kitten, I thought only of keeping out of everybody’s way, for I was afraid of everyone. I hid under the barn and only came out when no one was near. I wasn’t happy, for I wanted to be petted, but didn’t know how to begin. One day I heard Aunt Sally say to the master, ‘James, that wild kitten isn’t any use at all, you had better drown her and get a nice tame one to amuse the children and clear the house of mice.’ ‘The poor thing has been abused, I guess, so we will give her another trial and maybe she will come to trust us after a while,’ said the good master. I thought over these things as I lay under the barn and resolved to do my best, for I did not want to be drowned. It was hard at first, but I began by coming out when little Jane called me and letting her play with me. Then I ventured into the house, and finding a welcome at my first visit, I went again and took a mouse with me to show that I wasn’t idle. No one hurt or frightened me and soon I was the household pet. For several years I have led a happy life here.”
Becky listened eagerly and when Puss had ended, she said timidly, “Do you think if I try not to be afraid, but to show that I want to be affectionate, the people will let me and will like it?”
“Very sure. I heard the mistress say you were a good, handy little thing. Do as I did, my dear, and you will find that there is plenty of love in the world.”
“I will. Thank y u, dear old Puss, for your advice.”
Puss came to rub her soft cheek against Becky’s hand, and then settled herself in a cozy hunch in Becky’s lap. Presently another voice spoke, a queer, monotonous voice, high above her.
“Tick, tick; wish again, little Becky, and I’ll tell you how to find your wish.”
It was the old moon-faced clock behind the door, which had struck twelve just before Tabby first spoke.
“Dear me,” said Becky, “how queerly things do act to-night!” She thought a moment then said soberly, “I wish I liked my work better. Washing dishes, picking chips and hemming towels is such tiresome work, I don’t see how I can go on doing it for six more years.”
“Just what I used to feel,” said the clock. “I couldn’t bear to think that I had got to stand here and do nothing but tick year after year. I flatly said I wouldn’t, and I stopped a dozen times a day. Bless me, what a fuss I made until I was put in this corner to stand idle for several months. At first I rejoiced, then I got tired of doing nothing and began to reflect that as I was born a clock, it would be wiser to do my duty and get some satisfaction out of it if I could.”
“And so you went to going again? Please teach me to be faithful and to love my duty,” cried Becky.
“I will;” and the old clock grandly struck the half hour, with a smile on its round face, as it steadily ticked on.
Here the fire blazed up and the tea-kettle hanging on the crane began to sing.
“How cheerful that is!” said Becky, as the whole kitchen brightened with the ruddy glow. “If I could have a third wish, I’d wish to be as cheerful as the fire.”
“Have your wish if you choose, but you must work for it, as I do,” cried the fire, as its flames embraced the old kettle till it gurgled with pleasure.
Becky thought she heard a queer voice humming these words
I’m an old black kettle,
With a very crooked nose.
But I can’t help being gay
When the jolly fire glows.
“I shouldn’t wonder a mite if that child had been up to mischief to-night, rummaged all over the house, eaten herself sick, or stolen something and run away with it,” fretted Aunt Sally, as the family went jingling home in the big sleigh about one o’clock from the Christmas party.
“Tut, tut, Aunty, I wouldn’t think evil of the poor little thing. If I’d had my way she would have gone with us and had a good time. She doesn’t look as if she had seen many, and I have a notion it is what she needs,” said the farmer kindly.
“The thought of her alone at home has worried me all the evening, but she didn’t seem to mind, and I haven’t had time to get a respectable dress ready for her to wear, so I let it go,” added the farmer’s wife, as she cuddled little Jane under the cloaks and shawls, with a regretful memory of Becky knocking at her heart.
“I’ve got some popcorn and a bouncing big apple for her,” said Billy, the red-faced lad perched up by his father playing drive.
“And I’ll give her one of my dolls. She said she never had one, wasn’t that dreadful?” put in little Jane, popping out her head like a bird from its nest.
“Better see what she has been doing first, advised Aunt Sally. “If she hasn’t done any mischief and has remembered to have the kettle boiling so I can have a cup of hot tea after my ride, and if she has kept the fire up and warmed my slippers, I don’t know but I’ll give her the red mittens I knit.”
They found poor Becky lying on the bare floor, her head pillowed on the stool, and old Tabby in her arms, with a corner of the blue pinafore spread over her. The fire was burning splendidly, the kettle simmering, and in a row upon the hearth stood, not only Aunt Sally’s old slippers, but those of master and mistress also, and over a chair hung two little nightgowns warming for the children.
‘Well now, who could have been more thoughtful than that!” said Aunt Sally. “Becky shall have those mittens, and I’ll knit her two pairs of stockings, that I will.”
So Aunt Sally laid the gay mittens close to the little rough hand that had worked so busily all day. Billy set his big red apple and bag of popcorn just where she would see them when she woke. Jane laid the doll in Becky’s arms, and Tabby smelt of it approvingly, to the children’s delight. The farmer had no present ready, but he stroked the little cropped head with a fatherly touch that made Becky smile in her sleep, as he said within himself, “I will do by this forlorn child as I would wish anyone to do by my Janey if she were left alone.” But the mother gave the best gift of all, for she stooped down and kissed Becky as only mothers can kiss. The good woman’s heart reproached her for neglect of the child who had no mother.
That unusual touch wakened Becky at once, and looking about her with astonished eyes, she saw such a wonderful change in all the faces, that she clapped her hands and cried with a happy laugh, “My dream’s come true! Oh, my dream’s come true!”
In the Great Walled Country
Why the Chimes Rang
In the Great Walled Country
First published : 1906
Away at the northern end of the world, farther than men have ever gone with their ships or their sleds, and where most people suppose that there is nothing but ice and snow, is a land full of children, called The Great Walled Country. This name is given because all around the country is a great wall, hundreds of feet thick and hundreds of feet high. It is made of ice, and never melts, winter or summer; and of course it is for this reason that more people have not discovered the place.
The land, as I said, is filled with children, for nobody who lives there ever grows up. The king and the queen, the princes and the courtiers, may be as old as you please, but they are children for all that. They play a great deal of the time with dolls and tin soldiers, and every night at seven o’clock have a bowl of bread and milk and go to bed. But they make excellent rulers, and the other children are well pleased with the government.
There are all sorts of curious things about the way they live in The Great Walled Country, but this story is only of their Christmas season. One can imagine what a fine thing their Christmas must be, so near the North Pole, with ice and snow everywhere; but this is not all. Grandfather Christmas lives just on the north side of the country, so that his house leans against the great wall and would tip over if it were not for its support. Grandfather Christmas is his name in The Great Walled Country; no doubt we should call him Santa Claus here. At any rate, he is the same person, and, best of all the children in the world, he loves the children behind the great wall of ice.
One very pleasant thing about having Grandfather Christmas for a neighbor is that in The Great Walled Country they never have to buy their Christmas presents. Every year, on the day before Christmas, before he makes up his bundles for the rest of the world, Grandfather Christmas goes into a great forest of Christmas trees, that grows just back of the palace of the king of The Great Walled Country, and fills the trees with candy and books and toys and all sorts of good things. So when night comes, all the children wrap up snugly, while the children in all other lands are waiting in their beds, and go to the forest to gather gifts for their friends. Each one goes by himself, so that none of his friends can see what he has gathered; and no one ever thinks of such a thing as taking a present for himself. The forest is so big that there is room for everyone to wander about without meeting the people from whom he has secrets, and there are always enough nice things to go around.
So Christmas time is a great holiday in that land, as it is in all the best places in the world. They have been celebrating it in this way for hundreds of years, and since Grandfather Christmas does not seem to grow old any faster than the children, they will probably do so for hundreds of years to come.
But there was once a time, so many years ago that they would have forgotten all about it if the story were not written in their Big Book and read to them every year, when the children in The Great Walled Country had a very strange Christmas. There came a visitor to the land. He was an old man, and was the first stranger for very many years that had succeeded in getting over the wall. He looked so wise, and was so much interested in what he saw and heard, that the king invited him to the palace, and he was treated with every possible honor.
When this old man had inquired about their Christmas celebration, and was told how they carried it on every year, he listened gravely, and then, looking wiser than ever, he said to the king:
“That is all very well, but I should think that children who have Grandfather Christmas for a neighbor could find a better and easier way. You tell me that you all go out on Christmas Eve to gather presents to give to one another the next morning. Why take so much trouble, and act in such a round-about way? Why not go out together, and every one get his own presents? That would save the trouble of dividing them again, and every one would be better satisfied, for he could pick out just what he wanted for himself. No one can tell what you want as well as you can.
This seemed to the king a very wise saying, and he called all his courtiers and counselors about him to hear it. The wise stranger talked further about his plan, and when he had finished they all agreed that they had been very foolish never to have thought of this simple way of getting their Christmas gifts.
“If we do this,” they said, “no one can ever complain of what he has, or wish that someone had taken more pains to find what he wanted. We will make a proclamation, and always after this follow the new plan.”
So the proclamation was made, and the plan seemed as wise to the children of the country as it had to the king and the counselors. Everyone had at some time been a little disappointed with his Christmas gifts; now there would be no danger of that.
On Christmas Eve they always had a meeting at the palace, and sang carols until the time for going to the forest. When the clock struck ten every one said, “I wish you a Merry Christmas!” to the person nearest him, and then they separated to go their ways to the forest. On this particular night it seemed to the king that the music was not quite so merry as usual, and that when the children spoke to one another their eyes did not shine as gladly as he had noticed them in other years; but there could be no good reason for this, since everyone was expecting a better time than usual. So he thought no more of it.
There was only one person at the palace that night who was not pleased with the new proclamation about the Christmas gifts. This was a little boy named Inge, who lived not far from the palace with his sister. Now his sister was a cripple, and had to sit all day looking out of the window from her chair; and Inge took care of her, and tried to make her life happy from morning till night. He had always gone to the forest on Christmas Eve and returned with his arms and pockets loaded with pretty things for his sister, which would keep her amused all the coming year. And although she was not able to go after presents for her brother, he did not mind that at all, especially as he had other friends who never forgot to divide their good things with him.
But now, said Inge to himself, what would his sister do? For the king had ordered that no one should gather any presents except for himself, or any more than he could carry away at once. All of Inge’s friends were busy planning what they would pick for themselves, but the poor crippled child could not go a step toward the forest. After thinking about it a long time, Inge decided that it would not be wrong if, instead of taking gifts for himself, he took them altogether for his sister. This he would be very glad to do; for what did a boy who could run about and play in the snow care for presents, compared with a little girl who could only sit still and watch others having a good time? Inge did not ask the advice of any one, for he was a little afraid others would tell him he must not do it; but he silently made up his mind not to obey the proclamation.
And now the chimes had struck ten, and the children were making their way toward the forest, in starlight that was so bright that it almost showed their shadows on the sparkling snow. As soon as they came to the edge of the forest, they separated, each one going by himself in the old way, though now there was really no reason why they should have secrets from one another.
Ten minutes later, if you had been in the forest, you might have seen the children standing in dismay with tears on their faces, and exclaiming that there had never been such a Christmas Eve before. For as they looked eagerly about them to the low-bending branches of the evergreen trees, they saw nothing hanging from them that could not be seen every day in the year. High and low they searched, wandering farther into the forest than ever before, lest Grandfather Christmas might have chosen a new place this year for hanging his presents; but still no presents appeared. The king called his counselors about him, and asked them if they knew whether anything of this kind had happened before, but they could tell him nothing. So no one could guess whether Grandfather Christmas had forgotten them, or whether some dreadful accident had kept him away.
As the children were trooping out of the forest, after hours of weary searching, some of them came upon little Inge, who carried over his shoulder a bag that seemed to be full to overflowing. When he saw them looking at him, he cried:
“Are they not beautiful things? I think Grandfather Christmas was never so good to us before.”
“Why, what do you mean?” cried the children. “There are no presents in the forest.”
“No presents!” said Inge. “I have my bag full of them.” But he did not offer to show them, because he did not want the children to see that they were all for his little sister instead of for himself.
Then the children begged him to tell them in what part of the forest he had found his presents, and he turned back and pointed them to the place where he had been. “I left many more behind than I brought away,” he said. “There they are! I can see some of the things shining on the trees even from here.”
But when the children followed his footprints in the snow to the place where he had been, they still saw nothing on the trees, and thought that Inge must be walking in his sleep, and dreaming that he had found presents. Perhaps he had filled his bag with the cones from the evergreen trees.
On Christmas Day there was sadness all through The Great Walled Country. But those who came to the house of Inge and his sister saw plenty of books and dolls and beautiful toys piled up about the little cripple’s chair; and when they asked where these things came from, they were told, “Why, from the Christmas-tree forest.” And they shook their heads, not knowing what it could mean.
The king held a council in the palace, and appointed a committee of his most faithful courtiers to visit Grandfather Christmas, and see if they could find what was the matter. In a day or two more the committee set out on their journey. They had very hard work to climb the great wall of ice that lay between their country and the place where Grandfather Christmas lived, but at last they reached the top. And when they came to the other side of the wall, they were looking down into the top of his chimney. It was not hard to go down this chimney into the house, and when they reached the bottom of it they found themselves in the very room where Grandfather Christmas lay sound asleep.
It was hard enough to waken him, for he always slept one hundred days after his Christmas work was over, and it was only by turning the hands of the clock around two hundred times that the committee could do anything. When the clock had struck twelve times two hundred hours, Grandfather Christmas thought it was time for his nap to be over, and he sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes.
“Oh, sir!” cried the prince who was in charge of the committee, “we have come from the king of The Great Walled Country, who has sent us to ask why you forgot us this Christmas, and left no presents in the forest.”
“No presents!” said Grandfather Christmas. “I never forget anything. The presents were there. You did not see them, that’s all.”
But the children told him that they had searched long and carefully, and in the whole forest there had not been found a thing that could be called a Christmas gift.
“Indeed!” said Grandfather Christmas. “And did little Inge, the boy with the crippled sister, find none?”
Then the committee was silent, for they had heard of the gifts at Inge’s house, and did not know what to say about them.
“You had better go home,” said Grandfather Christmas, who now began to realize that he had been awakened too soon, “and let me finish my nap. The presents were there, but they were never intended for children who were looking only for themselves. I am not surprised that you could not see them. Remember that not everything that wise travelers tell you is wise.” And he turned over and went to sleep again.
The committee returned silently to The Great Walled Country, and told the king what they had heard. The king did not tell all the children of the land what Grandfather Christmas had said, but, when the next December came, he made another proclamation, bidding everyone to seek gifts for others, in the old way, in the Christmas-tree forest. So that is what they have been doing ever since; and in order that they may not forget what happened, in case anyone should ever ask for another change, they have read to them every year from their Big Book the story of the time when they had no Christmas gifts.
Why the Chimes Rang
First published : 1906
There was once in a faraway country where few people have ever travelled, a wonderful church. It stood on a high hill in the midst of a great city; and every Sunday, as well as on sacred days like Christmas, thousands of people climbed the hill to its great archways, looking like lines of ants all moving in the same direction.
When you came to the building itself, you found stone columns and dark passages, and a grand entrance leading to the main room of the church. This room was so long that one standing at the doorway could scarcely see to the other end, where the choir stood by the marble altar. In the farthest corner was the organ; and this organ was so loud, that sometimes when it played, the people for miles around would close their shutters and prepare for a great thunderstorm. Altogether, no such church as this was ever seen before, especially when it was lighted up for some festival, and crowded with people, young and old. But the strangest thing about the whole building was the wonderful chime of bells.
At one corner of the church was a great gray tower, with ivy growing over it as far up as one could see. I say as far as one could see, because the tower was quite great enough to fit the great church, and it rose so far into the sky that it was only in very fair weather that any one claimed to be able to see the top. Even then one could not be certain that it was in sight. Up, and up, and up climbed the stones and the ivy; and as the men who built the church had been dead for hundreds of years, everyone had forgotten how high the tower was supposed to be.
Now all the people knew that at the top of the tower was a chime of Christmas bells. They had hung there ever since the church had been built, and were the most beautiful bells in the world. Some thought it was because a great musician had cast them and arranged them in their place; others said it was because of the great height, which reached up where the air was clearest and purest; however that might be no one who had ever heard the chimes denied that they were the sweetest in the world. Some described them as sounding like angels far up in the sky; others as sounding like strange winds singing through the trees.
But the fact was that no one had heard them for years and years. There was an old man living not far from the church who said that his mother had spoken of hearing them when she was a little girl, and he was the only one who was sure of as much as that. They were Christmas chimes, you see, and were not meant to be played by men or on common days. It was the custom on Christmas Eve for all the people to bring to the church their offerings to the Christ-Child; and when the greatest and best offering was laid on the altar there used to come sounding through the music of the choir the Christmas chimes far up in the tower. Some said that the wind rang them, and others, that they were so high that the angels could set them swinging. But for many long years they had never been heard. It was said that people had been growing less careful of their gifts for the Christ-Child, and that no offering was brought great enough to deserve the music of the chimes.
Every Christmas Eve the rich people still crowded to the altar, each one trying to bring some better gift than any other, without giving anything that he wanted for himself, and the church was crowded with those who thought that perhaps the wonderful bells might be heard again. But although the service was splendid, and the offerings plenty, only the roar of the wind could be heard, far up in the stone tower.
Now, a number of miles from the city, in a little country village, where nothing could be seen of the great church but glimpses of the tower when the weather was fine, lived a boy named Pedro, and his little brother. They knew very little about the Christmas chimes, but they had heard of the service in the church on Christmas Eve, and had a secret plan which they had often talked over when by themselves, to go to see the beautiful celebration.
“Nobody can guess, Little Brother,” Pedro would say; “all the fine things there are to see and hear; and I have even heard it said that the Christ-Child sometimes comes down to bless the service. What if we could see Him?”
The day before Christmas was bitterly cold, with a few lonely snowflakes flying in the air, and a hard-white crust on the ground. Sure enough Pedro and Little Brother were able to slip quietly away early in the afternoon; and although the walking was hard in the frosty air, before nightfall they had trudged so far, hand in hand, that they saw the lights of the big city just ahead of them. Indeed they were about to enter one of the great gates in the wall that surrounded it, when they saw something dark on the snow near their path, and stepped aside to look at it.
It was a poor woman, who had fallen just outside the city, too sick and tired to get in where she might have found shelter. The soft snow made of a drift a sort of pillow for her, and she would soon be so sound asleep, in the wintry air, that no one could ever waken her again. All this Pedro saw in a moment and he knelt down beside her and tried to rouse her, even tugging at her arm a little, as though he would have tried to carry her away. He turned her face toward him, so that he could rub some of the snow on it, and when he had looked at her silently a moment he stood up again, and said:
“It’s no use, Little Brother. You will have to go on alone.”
“Alone?” cried Little Brother. “And you not see the Christmas festival?”
“No,” said Pedro, and he could not keep back a bit of a choking sound in his throat. “See this poor woman. Her face looks like the Madonna in the chapel window, and she will freeze to death if nobody cares for her. Everyone has gone to the church now, but when you come back you can bring someone to help her. I will rub her to keep her from freezing, and perhaps get her to eat the bun that is left in my pocket.”
“But I cannot bear to leave you, and go on alone,” said Little Brother.
“Both of us need not miss the service,” said Pedro, “and it had better be I than you. You can easily find your way to church; and you must see and hear everything twice, Little Brother — once for you and once for me. I am sure the Christ-Child must know how I should love to come with you and worship Him; and oh! if you get a chance, Little Brother, to slip up to the altar without getting in any one’s way, take this little silver piece of mine, and lay it down for my offering, when no one is looking. Do not forget where you have left me, and forgive me for not going with you.”
In this way he hurried Little Brother off to the city and winked hard to keep back the tears, as he heard the crunching footsteps sounding farther and farther away in the twilight. It was pretty hard to lose the music and splendor of the Christmas celebration that he had been planning for so long, and spend the time instead in that lonely place in the snow.
The great church was a wonderful place that night. Everyone said that it had never looked so bright and beautiful before. When the organ played and the thousands of people sang, the walls shook with the sound, and little Pedro, away outside the city wall, felt the earth tremble around them.
At the close of the service came the procession with the offerings to be laid on the altar. Rich men and great men marched proudly up to lay down their gifts to the Christ-Child. Some brought wonderful jewels, some baskets of gold so heavy that they could scarcely carry them down the aisle. A great writer laid down a book that he had been making for years and years. And last of all walked the king of the country, hoping with all the rest to win for himself the chime of the Christmas bells. There went a great murmur through the church as the people saw the king take from his head the royal crown, all set with precious stones, and lay it gleaming on the altar, as his offering to the Holy Child. “Surely,” everyone said, “we shall hear the bells now, for nothing like this has ever happened before.”
But still only the cold old wind was heard in the tower and the people shook their heads; and some of them said, as they had before, that they never really believed the story of the chimes, and doubted if they ever rang at all.
The procession was over, and the choir began the closing hymn. Suddenly the organist stopped playing; and everyone looked at the old minister, who was standing by the altar, holding up his hand for silence. Not a sound could be heard from anyone in the church, but as all the people strained their ears to listen, there came softly, but distinctly, swinging through the air, the sound of the chimes in the tower. So far away, and yet so clear the music seemed — so much sweeter were the notes than anything that had been heard before, rising and falling away up there in the sky, that the people in the church sat for a moment as still as though something held each of them by the shoulders. Then they all stood up together and stared straight at the altar, to see what great gift had awakened the long silent bells.
But all that the nearest of them saw was the childish figure of Little Brother, who had crept softly down the aisle when no one was looking, and had laid Pedro’s little piece of silver on the altar.
The Adoration of the Wise Men
The Adoration of the Wise Men
First published : 1853
Saw you never in the twilight,
When the sun had left the skies,
Up in heaven the clear stars shining,
Through the gloom like silver eyes?
So of old the wise men watching,
Saw a little stranger star,
And they knew the King was given,
And they follow’d it from far.
Heard you never of the story,
How they cross’d the desert wild,
Journey’d on by plain and mountain,
Till they found the Holy Child?
How they open’d all their treasure,
Kneeling to that Infant King,
Gave the gold and fragrant incense,
Gave the myrrh in offering?
Know ye not that lowly Baby
Was the bright and morning star,
He who came to light the Gentiles,
And the darken’d isles afar?
And we too may seek his cradle,
There our heart’s best treasures bring,
Love, and Faith, and true devotion,
For our Savior, God, and King.
The Bride of the Mistletoe
Chapter 1 — The Man and the Secret
Chapter 2 — The Tree and the Sunset
Chapter 3 — The Lighting of the Candles
Chapter 4 — The Wandering Tale
Chapter 5 — The Room of the Silences
Chapter 6 — The White Dawn
The Doctor’s Christmas Eve
Chapter 1 — The Children of Desire
Chapter 2 — When a Boy Finds Out About His Father
Chapter 3 — The Books of the Year
Chapter 4 — The Book of the Years
Chapter 5 — Evergreen and Thorn Tree
Chapter 6 — Two Other Winter Snowbirds at a Window
Chapter 7 — Four in a Cage
Chapter 8 — The Realm of Midnight
Chapter 9 — Time-Spirit and Eternal Spirit
Chapter 10 — When a Father Finds Out About a Son
Chapter 11 — Living Out the Years
The Last Christmas Tree
The Bride of the Mistletoe
First published : 1909
Chapter 1 — The Man and the Secret
A man sat writing near a window of an old house out in the country a few years ago; it was afternoon of the twenty-third of December.
One of the volumes of a work on American Forestry lay open on the desk near his right hand; and as he sometimes stopped in his writing and turned the leaves, the illustrations showed that the long road of his mental travels — for such he followed — was now passing through the evergreens.
Many notes were printed at the bottoms of the pages. They burned there like short tapers in dim places, often lighting up obscure faiths and customs of our puzzled human race. His eyes roved from taper to taper, as gathering knowledge ray by ray. A small book lay near the large one. It dealt with primitive nature-worship; and it belonged in the class of those that are kept under lock and key by the libraries which possess them as unsafe reading for unsafe minds.
Sheets of paper covered with the man’s clear, deliberate handwriting lay thickly on the desk. A table in the center of the room was strewn with volumes, some of a secret character, opened for reference. On the tops of two bookcases and on the mantelpiece were prints representing scenes from the oldest known art of the East. These and other prints hanging about the walls, however remote from each other in the times and places where they had been gathered, brought together in this room of a quiet Kentucky farmhouse evidence bearing upon the same object: the subject related in general to trees and in especial evergreens.
While the man was immersed in his work, he appeared not to be submerged. His left hand was always going out to one or the other of three picture-frames on the desk and his fingers bent caressingly.
Two of these frames held photographs of four young children — a boy and a girl comprising each group. The children had the air of being well enough bred to be well behaved before the camera, but of being unruly and disorderly out of sheer health and a wild naturalness. All of them looked straight at you; all had eyes wide open with American frankness and good humor; all had mouths shut tight with American energy and determination. Apparently they already believed that the New World was behind them, that the nation backed them up. In a way you believed it. You accepted them on the spot as embodying that marvelous precocity in American children, through which they early in life become conscious of the country and claim it their country and believe that it claims them. Thus they took on the distinction of being a squad detached only photographically from the rank and file of the white armies of the young in the New World, millions and millions strong, as they march, clear-eyed, clear-headed, joyous, magnificent, toward new times and new destinies for the nation and for humanity — a kinder knowledge of man and a kinder ignorance of God.
The third frame held the picture of a woman probably thirty years of age. Her features were without noticeable American characteristics. What human traits you saw depended upon what human traits you saw with.
The hair was dark and abundant, the brows dark and strong. And the lashes were dark and strong; and the eyes themselves, so thornily hedged about, somehow brought up before you a picture of autumn thistles — thistles that look out from the shadow of a rock. They had a veritable thistle quality and suggestiveness: gray and of the fields, sure of their experience in nature, freighted with silence.
Despite grayness and thorniness, however, you saw that they were in the summer of their life-bloom; and singularly above even their beauty of blooming they held what is rare in the eyes of either men or women — they held a look of being just.
The whole face was an oval, long, regular, high-bred. If the lower part had been hidden behind a white veil of the Orient (by that little bank of snow which is guardedly built in front of the overflowing desires of the mouth), the upper part would have given the impression of reserve, coldness, possibly of severity; yet ruled by that one look — the garnered wisdom, the tempering justice, of the eyes. The whole face being seen, the lower features altered the impression made by the upper ones; reserve became bettered into strength, coldness bettered into dignity, severity of intellect transfused into glowing nobleness of character. The look of virgin justice in her was perhaps what had survived from that white light of life which falls upon young children as from a receding sun and touches lingeringly their smiles and glances; but her mouth had gathered its shadowy tenderness as she walked the furrows of the years, watching their changeful harvests, eating their passing bread.
A handful of some of the green things of winter lay before her picture: holly boughs with their bold, upright red berries; a spray of the cedar of the Kentucky yards with its rosary of piteous blue. When he had come in from out of doors to go on with his work, he had put them there — perhaps as some tribute. After all his years with her, many and strong, he must have acquired various tributes and interpretations; but to-day, during his walk in the woods, it had befallen him to think of her as holly which ripens amid snows and retains its brave freshness on a landscape of departed things. As cedar also which everywhere on the Shield is the best loved of forest-growths to be the companion of household walls; so that even the poorest of the people, if it does not grow near the spot they build in, hunt for it and bring it home: everywhere wife and cedar, wife and cedar, wife and cedar.
The photographs of the children grouped on each side of hers with heads a little lower down called up memories of Old World pictures in which cherubs smile about the cloud-borne feet of the heavenly Hebrew maid. Glowing young American mother with four healthy children as her gifts to the nation — this was the practical thought of her that riveted and held.
As has been said, they were in two groups, the children; a boy and girl in each. The four were of nearly the same age; but the faces of two were on a dimmer card in an older frame. You glanced at her again and persuaded yourself that the expression of motherhood which characterized her separated into two expressions (as behind a thin white cloud it is possible to watch another cloud of darker hue). Nearer in time was the countenance of a mother happy with happy offspring; further away the same countenance withdrawn a little into shadow — the face of the mother bereaved — mute and changeless.
The man, the worker, whom this little flock of wife and two surviving children now followed through the world as their leader, sat with his face toward his desk In a corner of the room; solidly squared before his undertaking, liking it, mastering it; seldom changing his position as the minutes passed, never nervously; with a quietude in him that was oftener in Southern gentlemen in quieter, more gentlemanly times. A low powerful figure with a pair of thick shoulders and tremendous limbs; filling the room with his vitality as a heavy passionate animal lying in a corner of a cage fills the space of the cage, so that you wait for it to roll over or get up on its feet and walk about that you may study its markings and get an inkling of its conquering nature.
Meantime there were hints of him. When he had come in, he had thrown his overcoat on a chair that stood near the table in the center of the room and had dropped his hat upon his coat. It had slipped to the floor and now lay there — a low, soft black hat of a kind formerly much worn by young Southerners of the countryside, — especially on occasions when there was a spur of heat in their mood and going, — much the same kind that one sees on the heads of students in Rome in winter; light, warm, shaping itself readily to breezes from any quarter, to be doffed or donned as comfortable and negligible. It suggested that he had been a country boy in the land, still belonged to the land, and as a man kept to its out-of-door habits and fashions. His shoes, one of which you saw at each side of his chair, were especially well made for rough-going feet to tramp in during all weathers.
A sack suit of dark blue serge somehow helped to withdraw your interpretation of him from farm life to the arts or the professions. The scrupulous air of his shirt collar, showing against the clear-hued flesh at the back of his neck, and the Van Dyck-like edge of the shirt cuff, defining his powerful wrist and hand, strengthened the notion that he belonged to the arts or to the professions. He might have been sitting before a canvas instead of a desk and holding a brush instead of a pen: the picture would have been true to life. Or truer yet, he might have taken his place with the grave group of students in the Lesson in Anatomy left by Rembrandt.
Once he put down his pen, wheeled his chair about, and began to read the page he had just finished: then you saw him. He had a big, masculine, solid-cut, self-respecting, normal-looking, executive head — covered with thick yellowish hair clipped short; so that while everything else in his appearance indicated that he was in the prime of manhood, the clipped hair caused him to appear still more youthful; and it invested him with a rustic atmosphere which went along very naturally with the sentimental country hat and the all-weather shoes. He seemed at first impression a magnificent animal frankly loved of the sun — perhaps too warmly. The sun itself seemed to have colored for him his beard and mustache — a characteristic hue of men’s hair and beard in this land peopled from Old English stock. The beard, like the hair, was cut short, as though his idea might have been to get both hair and beard out of life’s daily way; but his mustache curled thickly down over his mouth, hiding it. In the whole effect there was a suggestion of the Continent, perhaps of a former student career in Germany, memories of which may still have lasted with him and the marks of which may have purposely been kept up in his appearance.
But such a fashion of beard, while covering a man’s face, does much to uncover the man. As he sat amid his papers and books, your thought surely led again to old pictures where earnest heads bend together over some point on the human road, at which knowledge widens and suffering begins to be made more bearable and death more kind. Perforce now you interpreted him and fixed his general working category: that he was absorbed in work meant to be serviceable to humanity. His house, the members of his family, the people of his neighborhood, were meantime forgotten: he was not a mere dweller on his farm; he was a discoverer on the wide commons where the race forever camps at large with its problems, joys, and sorrows.
He read his page, his hand dropped to his knee, his mind dropped its responsibility; one of those intervals followed when the brain rests. The look of the student left his face; over it began to play the soft lights of the domestic affections. He had forgotten the world for his own place in the world; the student had become the husband and house-father. A few moments only; then he wheeled gravely to his work again, his right hand took up the pen, his left hand went back to the pictures.
The silence of the room seemed a guarded silence, as though he were being watched over by a love which would not let him be disturbed. (He had the reposeful self-assurance of a man who is conscious that he is idolized.)
Matching the silence within was the stillness out of doors. An immense oak tree stood just outside the windows. It was a perpetual reminder of vanished woods; and when a windstorm tossed and twisted it, the straining and grinding of the fibers were like struggles and outcries for the wild life of old. This afternoon it brooded motionless, an image of forest reflection. Once a small black-and-white sapsucker, circling the trunk and peering into the crevices of the bark on a level with the windows, uttered minute notes which penetrated into the room like steel darts of sound. A snowbird alighted on the window-sill, glanced familiarly in at the man, and shot up its crest; but disappointed perhaps that it was not noticed, quoted its resigned gray phrase — a phrase it had made for itself to accompany the score of gray whiter — and flitted on billowy wings to a juniper at the corner of the house, its turret against the long javelins of the North.
Amid the stillness of Nature outside and the house-silence of a love guarding him within, the man worked on.
A little clock ticked independently on the old-fashioned Parian marble mantelpiece. Prints were propped against its sides and face, illustrating the use of trees about ancient tombs and temples. Out of this photographic grove of dead things the uncaring clock threw out upon the air a living three — the fateful three that had been measured for each tomb and temple in its own land and time.
A knock, regretful but positive, was heard, and the door opening into the hall was quietly pushed open. A glow lit up the student’s face though he did not stop writing; and his voice, while it gave a welcome, unconsciously expressed regret at being disturbed:
“Come in.”
“I am in!”
He lifted his heavy figure with instant courtesy — rather obsolete now — and bowing to one side, sat down again.
“So I see,” he said, dipping his pen into his ink.
“Since you did not turn around, you would better have said ‘So I hear.’ It is three o’clock.”
“So I hear.”
“You said you would be ready.”
“I am ready.”
“You said you would be done.”
“I am done — nearly done.”
“How nearly?”
“By to-morrow — to-morrow afternoon before dark. I have reached the end, but now it is hard to stop, hard to let go.”
His tone gave first place, primary consideration, to his work. The silence in the room suddenly became charged. When the voice was heard again, there was constraint in it:
“There is something to be done this afternoon before dark, something I have a share in. Having a share, I am interested. Being interested, I am prompt. Being prompt, I am here.”
He waved his hand over the written sheets before him — those cold Alps of learning; and asked reproachfully:
“Are you not interested in all this, O you of little faith?”
“How can I say, O me of little knowledge!”
As the words impulsively escaped, he heard a quick movement behind him. He widened out his heavy arms upon his manuscript and looked back over his shoulder at her and laughed. And still smiling and holding his pen between his fingers, he turned and faced her. She had advanced into the middle of the room and had stopped at the chair on which he had thrown his overcoat and hat. She had picked up the hat and stood turning it and pushing its soft material back into shape for his head — without looking at him.
The northern light of the winter afternoon, entering through the looped crimson-damask curtains, fell sidewise upon the woman of the picture.
Years had passed since the picture had been made. There were changes in her; she looked younger. She had effaced the ravages of a sadder period of her life as human voyagers upon reaching quiet port repair the damages of wandering and storm. Even the look of motherhood, of the two motherhoods, which so characterized her in the photograph, had disappeared for the present. Seeing her now for the first time, one would have said that her whole mood and bearing made a single declaration: she was neither wife nor mother; she was a woman in love with life’s youth — with youth — youth; in love with the things that youth alone could ever secure to her.
The carriage of her beautiful head, brave and buoyant, brought before you a vision of growing things in nature as they move towards their summer yet far away. There still was youth in the round white throat above the collar of green velvet — woodland green — darker than the green of the cloth she wore. You were glad she had chosen that color because she was going for a walk with him; and green would enchain the eye out on the sere ground and under the stripped trees. The flecklessness of her long gloves drew your thoughts to winter rather — to its one beauteous gift dropped from soiled clouds. A slender toque brought out the keenness in the oval of her face. From it rose one backward-sweeping feather of green shaded to coral at the tip; and there your fancy may have cared to see lingering the last radiance of whiter-sunset skies.
He kept his seat with his back to the manuscript from which he had repulsed her; and his eyes swept loyally over her as she waited. Though she could scarcely trust herself to speak, still less could she endure the silence. With her face turned toward the windows opening on the lawn, she stretched out her arm toward him and softly shook his hat at him.
“The sun sets — you remember how many minutes after four,” she said, with no other tone than that of quiet warning. “I marked the minutes in the almanac for you the other night after the children had gone to bed, so that you would not forget. You know how short the twilights are even when the day is clear. It is cloudy to-day and there will not be any twilight. The children said they would not be at home until after dark, but they may come sooner; it may be a trick. They have threatened to catch us this year in one way or another, and you know they must not do that — not this year! There must be one more Christmas with all its old ways — even if it must be without its old mysteries.”
He did not reply at once and then not relevantly:
“I heard you playing.”
He had dropped his head forward and was scowling at her from under his brows with a big Beethoven brooding scowl. She did not see, for she held her face averted.
The silence in the room again seemed charged, and there was greater constraint in her voice when it was next heard:
“I had to play; you need not have listened.”
“I had to listen; you played loud —”
“I did not know I was playing loud. I may have been trying to drown other sounds,” she admitted.
“What other sounds?” His voice unexpectedly became inquisitorial: it was a frank thrust into the unknown.
“Discords — possibly.”
“What discords?” His thrust became deeper.
She turned her head quickly and looked at him; a quiver passed across her lips and in her eyes there was noble anguish.
But nothing so arrests our speech when we are tempted to betray hidden trouble as to find ourselves face to face with a kind of burnished, radiant happiness. Sensitive eyes not more quickly close before a blaze of sunlight than the shadowy soul shuts her gates upon the advancing Figure of Joy.
It was the whole familiar picture of him now — triumphantly painted in the harmonies of life, masterfully toned to subdue its discords — that drove her back into herself. When she spoke next, she had regained the self-control which under his unexpected attack she had come near losing; and her words issued from behind the closed gates — as through a crevice of the closed gates:
“I was reading one of the new books that came the other day, the deep grave ones you sent for. It is written by a deep grave German, and it is worked out in the deep grave German way. The whole purpose of it is to show that any woman in the life of any man is merely — an Incident. She may be this to him, she may be that to him; for a briefer time, for a greater time; but all along and in the end, at bottom, she is to him — an Incident.”
He did not take his eyes from hers and his smile slowly broadened.
“Were those the discords?” he asked gently.
She did not reply.
He turned in his chair and looking over his shoulder at her, he raised his arm and drew the point of his pen across the backs of a stack of magazines on top of his desk.
“Here is a work,” he said, “not written by a German or by any other man, but by a woman whose race I do not know: here is a work the sole purpose of which is to prove that any man is merely an Incident in the life of any woman. He may be this to her, he may be that to her; for a briefer time, for a greater time; but all along and in the end, beneath everything else, he is to her — an Incident.”
He turned and confronted her, not without a gleam of humor in his eyes.
“That did not trouble me,” he said tenderly. “Those were not discords to me.”
Her eyes rested on his face with inscrutable searching. She made no comment.
His own face grew grave. After a moment of debate with himself as to whether he should be forced to do a thing he would rather not do, he turned in his chair and laid down his pen as though separating himself from his work. Then he said, in a tone that ended playfulness:
“Do I not understand? Have I not understood all the time? For a year now I have been shutting myself up at spare hours in this room and at this work — without any explanation to you. Such a thing never occurred before in our lives. You have shared everything. I have relied upon you and I have needed you, and you have never failed me. And this apparently has been your reward — to be rudely shut out at last. Now you come in and I tell you that the work is done — quite finished — without a word to you about it. Do I not understand?” he repeated. “Have I not understood all along? It is true; outwardly as regards this work you have been — the Incident.”
As he paused, she made a slight gesture with one hand as though she did not care for what he was saying and brushed away the fragile web of his words from before her eyes — eyes fixed on larger things lying clear before her in life’s distance.
He went quickly on with deepening emphasis:
“But, comrade of all these years, battler with me for life’s victories, did you think you were never to know? Did you believe I was never to explain? You had only one more day to wait! If patience, if faith, could only have lasted another twenty-four hours — until Christmas Eve!”
It was the first time for nearly a year that the sound of those words had been heard in that house. He bent earnestly over toward her; he leaned heavily forward with his hands on his knees and searched her features with loyal chiding.
“Has not Christmas Eve its mysteries?” he asked, “its secrets for you and me? Think of Christmas Eve for you and me! Remember!”
Slowly as in a windless woods on a winter day a smoke from a woodchopper’s smoldering fire will wander off and wind itself about the hidden life-buds of a young tree, muffling it while the atmosphere nearby is clear, there now floated into the room to her the tender haze of old pledges and vows and of things unutterably sacred.
He noted the effect of his words and did not wait. He turned to his desk and, gathering up the sprigs of holly and cedar, began softly to cover her picture with them.
“Stay blinded and bewildered there,” he said, “until the hour comes when holly and cedar will speak: on Christmas Eve you will understand; you will then see whether in this work you have been — the Incident.”
Even while they had been talking the light of the short winter afternoon had perceptibly waned in the room.
She glanced through the windows at the darkening lawn; her eyes were tear-dimmed; to her it looked darker than it was. She held his hat up between her arms, making an arch for him to come and stand under.
“It is getting late,” she said in nearly the same tone of quiet warning with which she had spoken before. “There is no time to lose.”
He sprang up, without glancing behind him at his desk with its interrupted work, and came over and placed himself under the arch of her arms, looking at her reverently.
But his hands did not take hold, his arms hung down at his sides — the hands that were life, the arms that were love.
She let her eyes wander over his clipped tawny hair and pass downward over his features to the well-remembered mouth under its mustache. Then, closing her quivering lips quickly, she dropped the hat softly on his head and walked toward the door. When she reached it, she put out one of her hands delicately against a panel and turned her profile over her shoulder to him:
“Do you know what is the trouble with both of those books?” she asked, with a struggling sweetness in her voice.
He had caught up his overcoat and as he put one arm through the sleeve with a vigorous thrust, he laughed out with his mouth behind the collar:
“I think I know what is the trouble with the authors of the books.”
“The trouble is,” she replied, “the trouble is that the authors are right and the books are right: men and women are only Incidents to each other in life,” and she passed out into the hall.
“Human life itself for that matter is only an incident in the universe,” he replied, “if we cared to look at it in that way; but we’d better not!”
He was standing near the table in the middle of the room; he suddenly stopped buttoning his overcoat. His eyes began to wander over the books, the prints, the pictures, embracing in a final survey everything that he had brought together from such distances of place and time. His work was in effect done. A sense of regret, a rush of loneliness, came over him as it comes upon all of us who reach the happy ending of toil that we have put our heart and strength in.
“Are you coming?” she called faintly from the hall.
“I am coming,” he replied, and moved toward the door; but there he stopped again and looked back.
Once more there came into his face the devotion of the student; he was on the commons where the race encamps; he was brother to all brothers who join work to work for common good. He was feeling for the moment that through his hands ran the long rope of the world at which men — like a crew of sailors — tug at the Ship of Life, trying to tow her into some divine haven.
His task was ended. Would it be of service? Would it carry any message? Would it kindle in American homes some new light of truth, with the eyes of mothers and fathers fixed upon it, and innumerable children of the future the better for its shining?
“Are you coming?” she called more quiveringly.
“I am coming,” he called back, breaking away from his reverie, and raising his voice so it would surely reach her.
Chapter 2 — The Tree and the Sunset
She had quitted the house and, having taken a few steps across the short-frozen grass of the yard as one walks lingeringly when expecting to be joined by a companion, she turned and stood with her eyes fixed on the doorway for his emerging figure.
“To-morrow night,” he had said, smiling at her with one meaning in his words, “to-morrow night you will understand.”
“Yes,” she now said to herself, with another meaning in hers, “to-morrow night I must understand. Until to-morrow night, then, blinded and bewildered with holly and cedar let me be! Kind ignorance, enfold me and spare me! All happiness that I can control or conjecture, come to me and console me!”
And over herself she dropped a vesture of joy to greet him when he should step forth.
It was a pleasant afternoon to be out of doors and to go about what they had planned; the ground was scarcely frozen, there was no wind, and the whole sky was overcast with thin gray cloud that betrayed no movement. Under this still dome of silvery-violet light stretched the winter land; it seemed ready and waiting for its great festival.
The lawn sloped away from the house to a brook at the bottom, and beyond the brook the ground rose to a woodland hilltop. Across the distance you distinguished there the familiar trees of blue-grass pastures: white ash and black ash; white oak and red oak; white walnut and black walnut; and the scaly-bark hickory in his roughness and the sycamore with her soft leoparded limbs. The black walnut and the hickory brought to mind autumn days when children were abroad, ploughing the myriad leaves with booted feet and gathering their harvest of nuts — primitive food-storing instinct of the human animal still rampant in modern childhood: these nuts to be put away in garret and cellar and but scantily eaten until Christmas came.
Out of this woods on the afternoon air sounded the muffled strokes of an axe cutting down a black walnut partly dead; and when this fell, it would bring down with it bunches of mistletoe, those white pearls of the forest mounted on branching jade. To-morrow eager fingers would be gathering the mistletoe to decorate the house. Nearby was a thicket of bramble and cane where, out of reach of cattle, bushes of holly thrived: the same fingers would be gathering that.
Bordering this woods on one side lay a cornfield. The corn had just been shucked, and beside each shock of fodder lay its heap of ears ready for the gathering wagon. The sight of the corn brought freshly to remembrance the red-ambered home-brew of the land which runs in a genial torrent through all days and nights of the year — many a full-throated rill — but never with so inundating a movement as at this season. And the same grain suggested also the smokehouses of all farms, in which larded porkers, fattened by it, had taken on posthumous honors as home-cured hams; and in which up under the black rafters home-made sausages were being smoked to their needed flavor over well-chosen chips.
Around one heap of ears a flock of home-grown turkeys, red-mottled, rainbow-necked, were feeding for their fate.
On the other side of the woods stretched a wheat-field, in the stubble of which coveys of bob-whites were giving themselves final plumpness for the table by picking up grains of wheat which had dropped into the drills at harvest time or other seeds which had ripened in the autumn aftermath.
Farther away on the landscape there was a hemp-field where hemp-breakers were making a rattling reedy music; during these weeks wagons loaded with the gold-bearing fiber begin to move creaking to the towns, helping to fill the farmer’s pockets with holiday largess.
Thus everything needed for Christmas was there in sight: the mistletoe — the holly — the liquor of the land for the cups of hearty men — the hams and the sausages of fastidious housewives — the turkey and the quail — and crops transmutable into coin. They were in sight there — the fair maturings of the sun now ready to be turned into offerings to the dark solstice, the low activities of the soil uplifted to human joyance.
One last thing completed the picture of the scene.
The brook that wound across the lawn at its bottom was frozen to-day and lay like a band of jeweled samite trailed through the olive verdure. Along its margin evergreens grew. No pine nor spruce nor larch nor fir is native to these portions of the Shield; only the wild cedar, the shapeless and the shapely, belongs there. This assemblage of evergreens was not, then, one of the bounties of Nature; they had been planted.
It was the slender tapering spires of these evergreens with their note of deathless spring that mainly caught the eye on the whole landscape this dead winter day. Under the silvery-violet light of the sky they waited in beauty and in peace: the pale green of larch and spruce which seems always to go with the freshness of dripping Aprils; the dim blue-gray of pines which rather belongs to far-vaulted summer skies; and the dark green of firs — true comfortable winter coat when snows sift mournfully and icicles are spearing earthward.
These evergreens likewise had their Christmas meaning and finished the picture of the giving earth. Unlike the other things, they satisfied no appetite, they were ministers to no passions; but with them the Christmas of the intellect began: the human heart was to drape their boughs with its gentle poetry; and from their ever living spires the spiritual hope of humanity would take its flight toward the eternal.
Thus then the winter land waited for the oncoming of that strange travelling festival of the world which has roved into it and encamped gypsy-like from old lost countries: the festival that takes toll of field and wood, of hoof and wing, of cup and loaf; but that, best of all, wrings from the nature of man its reluctant tenderness for his fellows and builds out of his lonely doubts regarding this life his faith in a better one.
And central on this whole silent scene — the highest element in it — its one winter-red passion flower — the motionless woman waiting outside the house.
At last he came out upon the step.
He cast a quick glance toward the sky as though his first thought were of what the weather was going to be. Then as he buttoned the top button of his overcoat and pressed his bearded chin down over it to make it more comfortable under his short neck, with his other hand he gave a little pull at his hat — the romantic country hat; and he peeped out from under the rustic brim at her, smiling with old gayeties and old fondnesses. He bulked so rotund inside his overcoat and looked so short under the flat headgear that her first thought was how slight a disguise every year turned him into a good family Santa Claus; and she smiled back at him with the same gayeties and fondnesses of days gone by. But such a deeper pang pierced her that she turned away and walked hurriedly down the hill toward the evergreens.
He was quickly at her side. She could feel how animal youth in him released itself the moment he had come into the open air. There was brutal vitality in the way his shoes crushed the frozen ground; and as his overcoat sleeve rubbed against her arm, there was the same leaping out of life, like the rubbing of tinder against tinder. Halfway down the lawn he halted and laid his hand heavily on her wrist.
“Listen to that!” he said. His voice was eager, excited, like a boy’s.
On the opposite side of the house, several hundred yards away, the country turnpike ran; and from this there now reached them the rumbling of many vehicles, hurrying in close procession out of the nearest town and moving toward smaller villages scattered over the country; to its hamlets and cross-roads and hundreds of homes richer or poorer — every vehicle Christmas-laden: sign and foretoken of the Southern Yule-tide. There were matters and usages in those American carriages and buggies and wagons and carts the history of which went back to the England of the Georges and the Stuarts and the Henrys; to the England of Elizabeth, to the England of Chaucer; back through robuster Saxon times to the gaunt England of Alfred, and on beyond this till they were lost under the forest glooms of Druidical Britain.
They stood looking into each other’s eyes and gathering into their ears the festal uproar of the turnpike. How well they knew what it all meant — this far-flowing tide of bounteousness! How perfectly they saw the whole picture of the town out of which the vehicles had come: the atmosphere of it already darkened by the smoke of soft coal pouring from its chimneys, so that twilight in it had already begun to fall ahead of twilight out in the country, and lamp-posts to glimmer along the little streets, and shops to be illuminated to the delight of window-gazing, mystery-loving children — wild with their holiday excitements and secrecies. Somewhere in the throng their own two children were busy unless they had already started home.
For years he had held a professorship in the college in this town, driving in and out from his home; but with the close of this academic year he was to join the slender file of Southern men who have been called to Northern universities: this change would mean the end of life here. Both thought of this now — of the last Christmas in the house; and with the same impulse they turned their gaze back to it.
More than half a century ago the one starved genius of the Shield, a writer of songs, looked out upon the summer picture of this land, its meadows and ripening corn tops; and as one presses out the spirit of an entire vineyard when he bursts a solitary grape upon his tongue, he, the song writer, drained drop by drop the wine of that scene into the notes of a single melody. The nation now knows his song, the world knows it — the only music that has ever captured the joy and peace of American home life — embodying the very soul of it in the clear amber of sound.
This house was one of such homesteads as the genius sang of: a low, old-fashioned, brown-walled, gray-shingled house; with chimneys generous, with green window-shutters less than green and white window-sills less than white; with feudal vines giving to its walls their summery allegiance; not young, not old, but standing in the middle years of its strength and its honors; not needy, not wealthy, but answering Agar’s prayer for neither poverty nor riches.
The two stood on the darkening lawn, looking back at it.
It had been the house of his fathers. He had brought her to it as his own on the afternoon of their wedding several miles away across the country. They had arrived at dark; and as she had sat beside him in the carriage, one of his arms around her and his other hand enfolding both of hers, she had first caught sight of it through the forest trees — waiting for her with its lights just lit, its warmth, its privacies: and that had been Christmas Eve!
For her wedding day had been Christmas Eve. When she had announced her choice of a day, they had chidden her. But with girlish willfulness she had clung to it the more positively.
“It is the most beautiful night of the year!” she had replied, brushing their objection aside with that reason alone. “And it is the happiest! I will be married on that night, when I am happiest!”
Alone and thinking it over, she had uttered other words to herself — yet scarce uttered them, rather felt them:
“Of old it was written how on Christmas Night the Love that cannot fail us became human. My love for him, which is the divine thing in my life and which is never to fail him, shall become human to him on that night.”
When the carriage had stopped at the front porch, he had led her into the house between the proud smiling servants of his establishment ranged at a respectful distance on each side; and without surrendering her even to her maid — a new spirit of silence on him — he had led her to her bedroom, to a place on the carpet under the chandelier.
Leaving her there, he had stepped backward and surveyed her waiting in her youth and loveliness — for him; come into his house, into his arms — his ; no other’s — never while life lasted to be another’s even in thought or in desire.
Then as if the marriage ceremony of the afternoon in the presence of many had meant nothing and this were the first moment when he could gather her home to him, he had come forward and taken her in his arms and set upon her the kiss of his house and his ardor and his duty. As his warm breath broke close against her face, his lips under their mustache, almost boyish then, had thoughtlessly formed one little phrase — one little but most lasting and fateful phrase:
“ Bride of the Mistletoe !”
Looking up with a smile, she saw that she stood under a bunch of mistletoe swung from the chandelier.
Straightway he had forgotten his own words, nor did he ever afterwards know that he had used them. But she, out of their very sacredness as the first words he had spoken to her in his home, had remembered them most clingingly. More than remembered them: she had set them to grow down into the fibers of her heart as the mistletoe roots itself upon the life-sap of the tree. And in all the later years they had been the green spot of verdure under life’s dark skies — the undying bough into which the spirit of the whole tree retreats from the ice of the world:
“ Bride of the Mistletoe! ”
Through the first problem of learning to weld her nature to his wisely; through the perils of bearing children and the agony of seeing some of them pass away; through the ambition of having him rise in his profession and through the ideal of making his home an earthly paradise; through loneliness when he was away and joy whenever he came back, — upon her whole life had rested the wintry benediction of that mystical phrase:
“ Bride of the Mistletoe! ”
She turned away now, starting once more downward toward the evergreens. He was quickly at her side.
“What do you suppose Harold and Elizabeth are up to about this time?” he asked, with a good-humored jerk of his head toward the distant town.
“At least to something mischievous, whatever it is,” she replied. “They begged to be allowed to stay until the shop windows were lighted; they have seen the shop windows two or three times already this week: there is no great marvel for them now in shop windows. Permission to stay late may be a blind to come home early. They are determined, from what I have overheard, to put an end this year to the parental house mysteries of Christmas. They are crossing the boundary between the first childhood and the second. But if it be possible, I wish everything to be kept once more just as it has always been; let it be so for my sake!”
“And I wish it for your sake,” he replied heartily; “and for my purposes.”
After a moment of silence he asked: “How large a Tree must it be this year?”
“It will have to be large,” she replied; and she began to count those for whom the Tree this year was meant.
First she called the names of the two children they had lost. Gifts for these were every year hung on the boughs. She mentioned their names now, and then she continued counting:
“Harold and Elizabeth are four. You and I make six. After the family come Herbert and Elsie, your best friend the doctor’s children. Then the servants — long strong bottom branches for the servants! Allow for the other children who are to make up the Christmas party: ten children have been invited, ten children have accepted, ten children will arrive. The ten will bring with them some unimportant parents; you can judge.”
“That will do for size,” he said, laughing. “Now the kind: spruce — larch — hemlock — pine — which shall it be?”
“It shall be none of them!” she answered, after a little waiting. “It shall be the Christmas Tree of the uttermost North where the reindeer are harnessed and the Great White Sleigh starts — fir. The old Christmas stories like fir best. Old faiths seem to lodge in it longest. And deepest mystery darkens the heart of it,” she added.
“Fir it shall be!” he said. “Choose the tree.”
“I have chosen.”
She stopped and delicately touched his wrist with the fingertips of one white-gloved hand, bidding him stand beside her.
“That one,” she said, pointing down.
The brook, watering the roots of the evergreens in summer gratefully, but now lying like a band of samite, jewel-crusted, made a loop near the middle point of the lawn, creating a tiny island; and on this island, aloof from its fellows and with space for the growth of its boughs, stood a perfect fir tree: strong-based, thick-set, tapering faultlessly, star-pointed, gathering more youth as it gathered more years — a tame dweller on the lawn but descended from forests blurred with wildness and lapped by low washings of the planet’s primeval ocean.
At each Christmas for several years they had been tempted to cut this tree, but had spared it for its conspicuous beauty at the edge of the thicket.
“That one,” she now said, pointing down. “This is the last time. Let us have the best of things while we may! Is it not always the perfect that is demanded for sacrifice?”
His glance had already gone forward eagerly to the tree, and he started toward it.
Descending, they stepped across the brook to the island and went up close to the fir. With a movement not unobserved by her he held out his hand and clasped three green fingers of a low bough which the fir seemed to stretch out to him recognizingly. (She had always realized the existence of some intimate bond between him and the forest.) His face now filled with meanings she did not share; the spell of the secret work had followed him out of the house down to the trees; incommunicable silence shut him in. A moment later his fingers parted with the green fingers of the fir and he moved away from her side, starting around the tree and studying it as though in delight of fresh knowledge. So she watched him pass around to the other side.
When he came back where he had started, she was not there. He looked around searchingly; her figure was nowhere in sight.
He stood — waiting.
The valley had memories, what memories! The years came close together here; they clustered as thickly as the trees themselves. Vacant spots among them marked where the Christmas Trees of former years had been cut down. Some of the Trees had been for the two children they had lost. This wandering trail led hither and thither back to the first Tree for the first child: he had stooped down and cut that close to the ground with his mere penknife. When it had been lighted, it had held only two or three candles; and the candle on the top of it had flared level into the infant’s hand-shaded eyes.
He knew that she was making through the evergreens a Pilgrimage of the Years, walking there softly and alone with the feet of life’s Pities and a mother’s Constancies.
He waited for her — motionless.
The stillness of the twilight rested on the valley now. Only from the trees came the plaintive twittering of birds which had come in from frozen weeds and fence-rows and at the thresholds of the boughs were calling to one another. It was not their song, but their speech; there was no love in it, but there was what for them perhaps corresponds to our sense of ties. It most resembled in human life the brief things that two people, having long lived together, utter to each other when together in a room they prepare for the night: there is no anticipation; it is a confession of the unconfessed. About him now sounded this low winter music from the far boundary of other lives.
He did not hear it.
The light on the landscape had changed. The sun was setting and a splendor began to spread along the sky and across the land. It laid a glory on the roof of the house on the hill; it smote the edge of the woodland pasture, burnishing with copper the gray domes; it shone faintly on distant corn shocks, on the weather-dark tents of the hemp at bivouac soldierly and grim. At his feet it sparkled in rose gleams on the samite of the brook and threw burning shafts into the gloom of the fir beside him.
He did not see it.
He did not hear the calling of the birds about his ears, he did not see the sunset before his eyes, he did not feel the fir tree the boughs of which stuck against his side.
He stood there as still as a rock — with his secret. Not the secret of the year’s work, which was to be divulged to his wife and through her to the world; but the secret which for some years had been growing in his life and which would, he hoped, never grow into the open — to be seen of her and of all men.
The sentimental country hat now looked as though it might have been worn purposely to help out a disguise, as the more troubled man behind the scenes makes up to be the happier clown. It became an absurdity, a mockery, above his face grave, stern, set of jaw and eye. He was no longer the student buried among his books nor human brother to toiling brothers. He had not the slightest thought of service to mankind left in him, he was but a man himself with enough to think of in the battle between his own will and blood.
And behind him among the dark evergreens went on that Pilgrimage of the Years — with the feet of the Pities and the Constancies.
Moments passed; he did not stir. Then there was a slight noise on the other side of the tree, and his nature instantly stepped back into his outward place. He looked through the boughs. She had returned and was standing with her face also turned toward the sunset; it was very pale, very still.
Such darkness had settled on the valley now that the green she wore blent with the green of the fir. He saw only her white face and her white hands so close to the branches that they appeared to rest upon them, to grow out of them: he sadly thought of one of his prints of Egypt of old and of the Lady of the Sacred Tree. Her long backward-sweeping plume of green also blent with the green of the fir — shade to shade — and only the coral tip of it remained strongly visible. This matched the last coral in the sunset; and it seemed to rest ominously above her head as a finger-point of the fading light of Nature.
He went quickly around to her. He locked his arms around her and drew her close and held her close; and thus for a while the two stood, watching the flame on the altar of the world as it sank lower, leaving emptiness and ashes.
Once she put out a hand and with a gesture full of majesty and nobleness waved farewell to the dying fire.
Still without a word he took his arms from around her and turned energetically to the tree.
He pressed the lowest boughs aside and made his way in close to the trunk and struck it with a keen stroke.
The fir as he drew the axe out made at its gashed throat a sound like that of a butchered, blood-strangled creature trying to cry out too late against a treachery. A horror ran through the boughs; the thousands of leaves were jarred by the death-strokes; and the top of it rocked like a splendid plume too rudely treated in a storm. Then it fell over on its side, bridging blackly the white ice of the brook.
Stooping, he lifted it triumphantly. He set the butt-end on one of his shoulders and, stretching his arms up, grasped the trunk and held the tree straight in the air, so that it seemed to be growing out of his big shoulder as out of a ledge of rock. Then he turned to her and laughed out in his strength and youth. She laughed joyously back at him, glorying as he did.
With a robust re-shouldering of the tree to make it more comfortable to carry, he turned and started up the hill toward the house. As she followed behind, the old mystery of the woods seemed at last to have taken bodily possession of him. The fir was riding on his shoulder, its arms met fondly around his neck, its fingers were caressing his hair. And it whispered back jeeringly to her through the twilight:
“Say farewell to him! He was once yours; he is yours no longer. He dandles the child of the forest on his shoulder instead of his children by you in the house. He belongs to Nature; and as Nature calls, he will always follow — though it should lead over the precipice or into the flood. Once Nature called him to you: remember how he broke down barriers until he won you. Now he is yours no longer — say good-by to him!”
With an imbued terror and desolation, she caught up with him. By a movement so soft that he should not be aware, she plucked him by the coat sleeve on the other side from the fir and held on to him as he strode on in careless joy.
Halfway up the hill lights began to flash from the windows of the house: a servant was bringing in the lamps. It was at this hour, in just this way, that she had first caught sight of them on that Christmas Eve when he had brought her home after the wedding.
She hurried around in front of him, wishing to read the expression of his eyes by the distant gleams from the windows. Would they have nothing to say to her about those winter twilight lamps? Did he, too, not remember?
His head and face were hidden; a thousand small spears of Nature bristled between him and her; but he laughed out to her from behind the rampart of the green spears.
At that moment a low sound in the distance drew her attention, and instantly alert she paused to listen. Then, forgetting everything else, she called to him with a rush of laughter like that of her mischief-loving girlhood:
“Quick! There they are! I heard the gate shut at the turnpike! They must not catch us! Quick! Quick!”
“Hurry, then!” he cried, as he ran forward, joining his laughter to hers. “Open the door for me!”
After this the night fell fast. The only sounds to be heard in the valley were the minute readjustments of the ice of the brook as it froze tighter and the distressed cries of the birds that had roosted in the fir.
So the Tree entered the house.
Chapter 3 — The Lighting of the Candles
During the night it turned bitter cold. When morning came the sky was a turquoise and the wind a gale. The sun seemed to give out light but not heat — to lavish its splendor but withhold its charity. Moist flesh if it chanced to touch iron froze to it momentarily. So in whiter land the tongue of the ermine freezes to the piece of greased metal used as a trap and is caught and held there until the trapper returns or until it starves — starves with food on its tongue.
The ground, wherever the stiff boots of a farmhand struck it, resisted as rock. In the fetlocks of farm horses, as they moved shivering, balls of ice rattled like shaken tacks. The little roughnesses of woodland paths snapped off beneath the slow-searching hoofs of fodder-seeking cattle like points of glass.
Within their wool the sheep were comforted.
On higher fields which had given back their moisture to the atmosphere and now were dry, the swooping wind lifted the dust at intervals and dragged it away in flaunting yellow veils. The picture it made, being so ill-seasoned, led you to think of August drought when the grasshopper stills itself in the weeds and the smell of grass is hot in the nostrils and every bird holds its beak open and its wings lifted like cooling lattices alongside its breast. In these veils of dust swarms of frost crystals sported — dead midgets of the dead North. Except crystal and dust and wind, naught moved out there; no field mouse, no hare nor lark nor little shielded dove. In the naked trees of the pasture the crow kept his beak as unseen as the owl’s; about the cedars of the yard no scarlet feather warmed the day.
The house on the hill — one of the houses whose spirit had been blown into the amber of the poet’s song — sent festal smoke out of its chimneys all day long. At intervals the radiant faces of children appeared at the windows, hanging wreaths of evergreens; or their figures flitted to and fro within as they wove garlands on the walls for the Christmas party. At intervals some servant with head and shoulders muffled in a bright-colored shawl darted trippingly from the house to the cabins in the yard and from the cabins back to the house — the tropical African’s polar dance between fire and fire. By every sign it gave the house showed that it was marshalling its whole happiness.
One thing only seemed to make a signal of distress from afar. The oak tree beside the house, whose roots coiled warmly under the hearth-stones and whose boughs were outstretched across the roof, seemed to writhe and rock in its winter sleep with murmurings and tossings like a human dreamer trying to get rid of an unhappy dream. Imagination might have said that some darkest tragedy of forests long since gone still lived in this lone survivor — that it struggled to give up the grief and guilt of an ancient forest shame.
The weather moderated in the afternoon. A warm current swept across the upper atmosphere, developing everywhere behind it a cloud; and toward sundown out of this cloud down upon the Shield snow began to fall. Not the large wet flakes which sometimes descend too late in spring upon the buds of apple orchards; nor those mournfuller ones which drop too soon on dim wild violets in November woods, but winter snow, stern sculptor of Arctic solitudes.
It was Christmas Eve. It was snowing all over the Shield.
Softly the snow fell upon the year’s footprints and pathways of children and upon schoolhouses now closed and riotously deserted. More softly upon too crowded asylums for them: houses of noonday darkness where eyes eagerly look out at the windows but do not see; houses of soundlessness where ears listen and do not hear any noise; houses of silence where lips try to speak but utter no word.
The snow of Christmas Eve was falling softly on the old: whose eyes are always seeing vanished faces, whose ears hear voices gentler than any the earth now knows, whose hands forever try to reach other hands vainly held out to them. Sad, sad to those who remember loved ones gone with their kindnesses the snow of Christmas Eve!
But sadder yet for those who live on together after kindnesses have ceased, or whose love went like a summer wind. Sad is Christmas Eve to them! Dark its snow and blinding!
It was late that night.
She came into the parlor, clasping the bowl of a shaded lamp — the only light in the room. Her face, always calm in life’s wisdom, but agitated now by the tide of deep things coming swiftly in toward her, rested clear-cut upon the darkness.
She placed the lamp on a table near the door and seated herself beside it. But she pushed the lamp away unconsciously as though the light of the house were no longer her light; and she sat in the chair as though it were no longer her chair; and she looked about the room as though it were no longer hers nor the house itself nor anything else that she cared for most.
Earlier in the evening they had finished hanging the presents on the Tree; but then an interruption had followed: the children had broken profanely in upon them, rending the veil of the house mysteries; and for more than an hour the night had been given up to them. Now the children were asleep upstairs, already dreaming of Christmas Morn and the rush for the stockings. The servants had finished their work and were gone to their quarters out in the yard. The doors of the house were locked. There would be no more intrusion now, no possible interruption; all the years were to meet him and her — alone. For Life is the master dramatist: when its hidden tragedies are ready to utter themselves, everything superfluous quits the stage; it is the essential two who fill it! And how little the rest of the world ever hears of what takes place between the two!
A little while before he had left the room with the step-ladder; when he came back, he was to bring with him the manuscript — the silent snowfall of knowledge which had been deepening about him for a year. The time had already passed for him to return, but he did not come. Was there anything in the forecast of the night that made him falter? Was he shrinking — him shrink? She put away the thought as a strange outbreak of injustice.
How still it was outside the house with the snow falling! How still within! She began to hear the ticking of the tranquil old clock under the stairway out in the hall — always tranquil, always tranquil. And then she began to listen to the disordered strokes of her own heart — that red Clock in the body’s Tower whose beats are sent outward along the streets and alleys of the blood; whose law it is to be alternately wound too fast by the fingers of Joy, too slow by the fingers of Sorrow; and whose fate, if it once run down, never afterwards either by Joy or Sorrow to be made to run again.
At last she could hear the distant door of his study open and close and his steps advance along the hall. With what a splendid swing and tramp he brought himself toward her! — with what self-unconsciousness and virile strength in his feet! His steps entered and crossed his bedroom, entered and crossed her bedroom; and then he stood there before her in the parlor doorway, a few yards off — stopped and regarded her intently, smiling.
In a moment she realized what had delayed him. When he had gone away with the step-ladder, he had on a well-worn suit in which, behind locked doors, he had been working all the afternoon at the decorations of the Tree. Now he came back ceremoniously dressed; the rest of the night was to be in her honor.
It had always been so on this anniversary of their bridal night. They had always dressed for it; the children now in their graves had been dressed for it; the children in bed upstairs were regularly dressed for it; the house was dressed for it; the servants were dressed for it; the whole life of that establishment had always been made to feel by honors and tendernesses and gayeties that this was the night on which he had married her and brought her home.
As her eyes swept over him she noted quite as never before how these anniversaries had not taken his youth away, but had added youth to him; he had grown like the evergreen in the middle of the room — with increase of trunk and limbs and with larger tides of strength surging through him toward the master sun. There were no ravages of married life in him. Time had merely made the tree more of a tree and made his youth more youth.
She took in momentary details of his appearance: a moisture like summer heat along the edge of his yellow hair, started by the bath into which he had plunged; the freshness of the enormous hands holding the manuscript; the muscle of the forearm bulging within the dress-coat sleeve. Many a time she had wondered how so perfect an animal as he had ever climbed to such an elevation of work; and then had wondered again whether any but such an animal ever in life does so climb — shouldering along with him the poise and breadth of health and causing the hot sun of the valley to shine on the mountain tops.
Finally she looked to see whether he, thus dressed in her honor, thus but the larger youth after all their years together, would return her greeting with a light in his eyes that had always made them so beautiful to her — a light burning as at a portal opening inward for her only.
His eyes rested on his manuscript.
He brought it wrapped and tied in the true holiday spirit — sprigs of cedar and holly caught in the ribands; and he now lifted and held it out to her as a jeweler might elevate a casket of gems. Then he stepped forward and put it on the table at her elbow.
“For you!” he said reverently, stepping back.
There had been years when, returning from a tramp across the country, he would bring her perhaps nothing but a marvelous thistle, or a brilliant autumn leaf for her throat.
“For you!” he would say; and then, before he could give it to her, he would throw it away and take her in his arms. Afterwards she would pick up the trifle and treasure it.
“For you!” he now said, offering her the treasure of his year’s toil and stepping back.
So the weight of the gift fell on her heart like a stone. She did not look at it or touch it but glanced up at him. He raised his finger, signaling for silence; and going to the chimney corner, brought back a long taper and held it over the lamp until it ignited. Then with a look which invited her to follow, he walked to the Tree and began to light the candles.
He began at the lowest boughs and, passing around, touched them one by one. Around and around he went, and higher and higher twinkled the lights as they mounted the tapering sides of the fir. At the top he kindled one highest red star, shining down on everything below. Then he blew out the taper, turned out the lamp; and returning to the tree, set the heavy end of the taper on the floor and grasped it midway, as one might lightly hold a stout staff.
The room, lighted now by the common glow of the candles, revealed itself to be the parlor of the house elaborately decorated for the winter festival. Holly wreaths hung in the windows; the walls were garlanded; evergreen boughs were massed above the window cornices; on the white lace of window curtains many-colored autumn leaves, pressed and kept for this night, looked as though they had been blown there scatteringly by October winds. The air of the room was heavy with odors; there was summer warmth in it.
In the middle of the room stood the fir tree itself, with its top close to the ceiling and its boughs stretched toward the four walls of the room impartially — as symbolically to the four corners of the earth. It would be the only witness of all that was to take place between them: what better could there be than this messenger of silence and wild secrecy? From the mountains and valleys of the planet its race had looked out upon a million generations of men and women; and the calmness of its lot stretched across the turbulence of human passion as an ancient bridge spans a modern river.
At the apex of the Tree a star shone. Just beneath at the first forking of the boughs a candle burned. A little lower down a cross gleamed. Under the cross a white dove hung poised, its pinions outstretched as though descending out of the infinite upon some earthly object below. From many of the branches tiny bells swung. There were little horns and little trumpets. Other boughs sagged under the weight of silvery cornucopias. Native and tropical fruits were tied on here and there; and dolls were tied on also with cords around their necks, their feet dangling. There were smiling masks, like men beheaded and smiling in their death. Near the base of the Tree there was a drum. And all over the Tree from pinnacle to base glittered a tinsel like golden fleece — looking as the moss of old Southern trees seen at yellow sunset.
He stood for a while absorbed in contemplation of it. This year at his own request the decorations had been left wholly to him; now he seemed satisfied.
He turned to her eagerly.
“Do you remember what took place on Christmas Eve last year?” he asked, with a reminiscent smile. “You sat where you are sitting and I stood where I am standing. After I had finished lighting the Tree, do you remember what you said?”
After a moment she stirred and passed her fingers across her brows.
“Recall it to me,” she answered. “I must have said many things. I did not know that I had said anything that would be remembered a year. Recall it to me.”
“You looked at the Tree and said what a mystery it is. When and where did it begin, how and why? — this Tree that is now nourished in the affections of the human family round the world.”
“Yes; I remember that.”
“I resolved to find out for you. I determined to prepare during what hours I could spare from my regular college work the gratification of your wish for you as a gift from me. If I could myself find the way back through the labyrinth of ages, then I would return for you and lead you back through the story of the Christmas Tree as that story has never been seen by anyone else. All this year’s work, then, has been the threading of the labyrinth. Now Christmas Eve has come again, my work is finished, my gift to you is ready.”
He made this announcement and stopped, leaving it to clear the air of mystery — the mystery of the secret work.
Then he resumed: “Have you, then, been the Incident in this toil as yesterday you intimated that you were? Do you now see that you have been the whole reason of it? You were excluded from any share in the work only because you could not help to prepare your own gift! That is all. What has looked like a secret in this house has been no secret. You are blinded and bewildered no longer; the hour has come when holly and cedar can speak for themselves.”
Sunlight broke out all over his face.
She made no reply but said within herself:
“Ah, no! That is not the trouble. That has nothing to do with the trouble. The secret of the house is not a misunderstanding; it is life. It is not the doing of a year; it is the undoing of the years. It is not a gift to enrich me with new happiness; it is a lesson that leaves me poorer.”
He went on without pausing:
“It is already late. The children interrupted us and took up part of your evening. But it is not too late for me to present to you some little part of your gift. I am going to arrange for you a short story out of the long one. The whole long story is there,” he added, directing his eyes toward the manuscript at her elbow; and his voice showed how he felt a scholar’s pride in it. “From you it can pass out to the world that celebrates Christmas and that often perhaps asks the same question: What is the history of the Christmas Tree? But now my story for you!”
“Wait a moment,” she said, rising. She left the package where it was; and with feet that trembled against the soft carpet crossed the room and seated herself at one end of a deep sofa.
Gathering her dignity about her, she took there the posture of a listener — listening at her ease.
The sofa was of richly carved mahogany. Each end curved into a scroll like a landward wave of the sea. One of her foam-white arms rested on one of the scrolls. Her elbow, reaching beyond, touched a small table on which stood a vase of white frosted glass; over the rim of it profuse crimson carnations hung their heads. They were one of her favorite winter flowers, and he had had these sent out to her this afternoon from a hothouse of the distant town by a half-frozen messenger. Near her head curtains of crimson brocade swept down the wall to the floor from the golden-lustered window cornices. At her back were cushions of crimson silk. At the other end of the sofa her piano stood and on it lay the music she played of evenings to him, or played with thoughts of him when she was alone. And other music also which she many a time read; as Beethoven’s Great Nine.
Now, along this wall of the parlor from window curtain to window curtain there stretched a festoon of evergreens and ribands put there by the children for their Christmas-Night party; and into this festoon they had fastened bunches of mistletoe, plucked from the walnut tree felled the day before — they knowing nothing, happy children!
There she reclined.
The lower outlines of her figure were lost in a rich blackness over which points of jet flashed like swarms of silvery fireflies in some too warm a night of the warm South. The blackness of her hair and the blackness of her brows contrasted with the whiteness of her bare arms and shoulders and faultless neck and faultless throat bared also. Not far away was hid the warm foam-white thigh, curved like Venus’s of old out of the sea’s inaccessible purity. About her wrists garlands of old family corals were clasped — the ocean’s roses; and on her breast, between the night of her gown and the dawn of the flesh, coral buds flowered in beauty that could never be opened, never be rifled.
When she had crossed the room to the sofa, two aged house-dogs — setters with gentle eyes and gentle ears and gentle breeding — had followed her and lain down at her feet; and one with a thrust of his nose pushed her skirts back from the toe of her slipper and rested his chin on it.
“I will listen,” she said, shrinking as yet from other speech. “I wish simply to listen. There will be time enough afterwards for what I have to say.”
“Then I shall go straight through,” he replied. “One minute now while I put together the story for you: it is hard to make a good short story out of so vast a one.”
During these moments of waiting she saw a new picture of him. Under stress of suffering and excitement discoveries denied to calmer hours often arrive. It is as though consciousness receives a shock that causes it to yawn and open its abysses: at the bottom we see new things: sometimes creating new happiness; sometimes old happiness is taken away.
As he stood there — the man beside the Tree — into the picture entered three other men, looking down upon him from their portraits on the walls.
One portrait represented the first man of his family to scale the mountains of the Shield where its eastern rim is turned away from the reddening daybreak. Thence he had forced his way to its central portions where the skin of ever living verdure is drawn over the rocks: Anglo-Saxon, backwoodsman, borderer, great forest chief, hewing and fighting a path toward the sunset for Anglo-Saxon women and children. With his passion for the wilderness — its game, enemies, campfire and cabin, deep-lunged freedom. This ancestor had a lonely, stern, gaunt face, no modern expression in it whatsoever — the timeless face of the woods.
Near his portrait hung that of a second representative of the family. This man had looked out upon his vast parklike estates hi the central counties; and wherever his power had reached, he had used it on a great scale for the destruction of his forests. Woods-slayer, field-maker; working to bring in the period on the Shield when the hand of a man began to grasp the plough instead of the rifle, when the stallion had replaced the stag, and bellowing cattle wound fatly down into the pastures of the bison. This man had the face of his caste — the countenance of the Southern slave-holding feudal lord. Not the American face, but the Southern face of a definite era — less than national, less than modern; a face not looking far in any direction but at things close around.
From a third portrait the latest ancestor looked down. He with his contemporaries had finished the thinning of the central forest of the Shield, leaving the land as it is to-day, a rolling prairie with remnants of woodland like that crowning the hilltop near this house. This immediate forefather bore the countenance that began to develop in the Northerner and in the Southerner after the Civil War: not the Northern look nor the Southern look, but the American look — a new thing in the American face, indefinable but unmistakable.
These three men now focused their attention upon him, the fourth of the line, standing beside the tree brought into the house. Each of them in his own way had wrought out a work for civilization, using the woods as an implement. In his own case, the woods around him having disappeared, the ancestral passion had made him a student of forestry.
The thesis upon which he took his degree was the relation of modern forestry to modern life. A few years later in an adjunct professorship his original researches in this field began to attract attention. These had to do with the South Appalachian forest in its relation to South Appalachian civilization and thus to that of the continent.
This work had brought its reward; he was now to be drawn away from his own college and country to a Northern university.
Curiously in him there had gone on a corresponding development of an ancestral face. As the look of the wilderness hunter had changed into that of the Southern slave-holding baron, as this had changed into the modern American face unlike any other; now finally in him the national American look had broadened into something more modern still — the look of mere humanity: he did not look like an American — he looked like a man in the service of mankind.
This, which it takes thus long to recapitulate, presented itself to her as one wide vision of the truth. It left a realization of how the past had swept him along with its current; and of how the future now caught him up and bore him on, part in its problems. The old passion living on in him — forest life; a new passion born in him — human life. And by inexorable logic these two now blending themselves to-night in a story of the Christmas Tree.
But womanlike she sought to pluck out of these forces something intensely personal to which she could cling; and she did it in this wise.
In the Spring following their marriage, often after supper they would go out on the lawn in the twilight, strolling among her flowers; she leading him this way and that way and laying upon him beautiful exactions and tyrannies: how he must do this and do that; and not do this and not do that; he receiving his orders like a grateful slave.
Then sometimes he would silently imprison her hand and lead her down the lawn and up the opposite hill to the edge of the early summer evening woods; and there on the roots of some old tree — the shadows of the forest behind them and the light of the western sky in their faces — they would stay until darkness fell, hiding their eyes from each other.
The burning horizon became a cathedral interior — the meeting of love’s holiness and the Most High; the crescent dropped a silver veil upon the low green hills; wild violets were at their feet; the mosses and turf of the Shield under them. The warmth of his body was as the day’s sunlight stored in the trunk of the tree; his hair was to her like its tawny bloom, native to the sun.
Life with him was enchanted madness.
He had begun. He stretched out his arm and slowly began to write on the air of the room. Sometimes in earlier years she had sat in his classroom when he was beginning a lecture; and it was thus, standing at the blackboard, that he sometimes put down the subject of his lecture for the students. Slowly now he shaped each letter and as he finished each word, he read it aloud to her:
A Story of the Christmas Tree, For Josephine, Wife of Frederick
Chapter 4 — The Wandering Tale
He uttered her name with beautiful reverence, letting the sound of it float over the Christmas Tree and die away on the garlanded walls of the room: it was his last tribute to her, a dedication.
Then he began:
“Josephine, sometimes while looking out of the study window a spring morning, I have watched you strolling among the flowers of the lawn. I have seen you linger near a honeysuckle in full bloom and question the blossoms in your questioning way — you who are always wishing to probe the heart of things, to drain out of them the red drop of their significance. But, gray-eyed querist of actuality, those fragrant trumpets could blow to your ear no message about their origin. It was where the filaments of the roots drank deepest from the mold of a dead past that you would have had to seek the true mouthpieces of their philosophy.
“So the instincts which blossom out thickly over the nature of modern man to themselves are mute. The flower exhibits itself at the tip of the vine; the instinct develops itself at the farthest outreach of life; and the point where it clamors for satisfaction is at the greatest possible distance from its birthplace. For all these instincts send their roots down through the mold of the uncivilized, down through the mold of the primitive, down into the mold of the underhuman — that ancient playhouse dedicated to low tragedies.
“While this may seem to you to be going far for a commencement of the story, it is coming near to us. The kind of man and woman we are to ourselves; the kind of husband and wife we are to each other; the kind of father and mother we are to our children; the kind of human beings we are to our fellow beings — the passions which swell as with sap the buds of those relations until they burst into their final shapes of conduct are fed from the bottom of the world’s mold. You and I to-night are building the structures of our moral characters upon life-piles that sink into fathomless ooze. All we human beings dip our drinking cups into a vast delta sweeping majestically towards the sea and catch drops trickling from the springs of creation.
“It is in a vast ancestral country, a Fatherland of Old Desire, that my story lies for you and for me: drawn from the forest and from human nature as the two have worked in the destiny of the earth. I have wrested it from this Tree come out of the ancient woods into the house on this Night of the Nativity.”
He made the scholar’s pause and resumed, falling into the tone of easy narrative. It had already become evident that this method of telling the story would be to find what Alpine flowers he could for her amid Alpine snows.
He told her then that the oldest traceable influence in the life of the human race is the sea. It is true that man in some ancestral form was rocked in the cradle of the deep; he rose from the waves as the islanded Greeks said of near Venus. Traces of this origin he still bears both in his body and his emotions; and together they make up his first set of memories — Sea Memories.
He deliberated a moment and then put the truth before her in a single picturesque phrase:
“Man himself is a closed living sea-shell in the chambers of which the hues of the first ocean are still fresh and its tempests still are sounding.”
Next he told her how man’s last marine ancestor quit one day the sea never again to return to the deep, crossed the sands of the beach and entered the forest; and how upon him, this living sea-shell, soft to impressions, the Spirit of the Forest fell to work, beginning to shape it over from sea uses to forest uses.
A thousand thousand ages the Spirit of the Forest worked at the sea-shell.
It remodeled the shell as so much clay; stood it up and twisted and branched it as young pliant oak; hammered it as forge-glowing iron; tempered it as steel; cast it as bronze; chiseled it as marble; painted it as a cloud; strung and tuned it as an instrument; lit it up as a life tower — the world’s one beacon: steadily sending it onward through one trial form after another until at last had been perfected for it that angelic shape in which as man it was ever afterwards to sob and to smile.
And thus as one day a wandering sea-shell had quit the sea and entered the forest, now on another day of that infinite time there reappeared at the edge of the forest the creature it had made. On every wall of its being internal and external forest-written; and completely forest-minded: having nothing but forest knowledge, forest feeling, forest dreams, forest fancies, forest faith; so that in all it could do or know or feel or dream or imagine or believe it was forest-tethered.
At the edge of the forest then this creature uncontrollably impelled to emerge from the waving green sea of leaves as of old it had been driven to quit the rolling blue ocean of waters: Man at the dawn of our history of him.
And if the first set of race memories — Sea Memories — still endure within him, how much more powerful are the second set — the Forest Memories!
So powerful that since the dawn of history millions have perished as forest creatures only; so powerful that there are still remnant races on the globe which have never yet snapped the primitive tether and will become extinct as mere forest creatures to the last; so powerful that those highest races which have been longest out in the open — as our own Aryan race — have never ceased to be reached by the influence of the woods behind them; by the shadows of those tall morning trees falling across the mortal clearings toward the sunset.
These Master Memories, he said, filtering through the sandlike generations of our race, survive to-day as those pale attenuated affections which we call in ourselves the Love of Nature; these affections are inherited: new feelings for nature we have none. The writers of our day who speak of civilized man’s love of nature as a developing sense err wholly. They are like explorers who should mistake a boundary for the interior of a continent. Man’s knowledge of nature is modern, but it no more endows him with new feeling than modern knowledge of anatomy supplies him with a new bone or his latest knowledge about his blood furnishes him with an additional artery.
Old are our instincts and passions about Nature: all are Forest Memories.
But among the many-twisted mass of them there is one, he said, that contains the separate buried root of the story: Man’s Forest Faith.
When the Spirit of the Forest had finished with the sea-shell, it had planted in him — there to grow forever — the root of faith that he was a forest child. His origin in the sea he had not yet discovered; the science of ages far distant in the future was to give him that. To himself forest-tethered he was also forest-born: he believed it to be his immediate ancestor, the creative father of mankind. Thus the Greeks in their oldest faith were tethered to the idea that they were descended from the plane tree; in the Sagas and Eddas the human race is tethered to the world-ash. Among every people of antiquity this forest faith sprang up and flourished: every race was tethered to some ancestral tree. In the Orient each succeeding Buddha of Indian mythology was tethered to a different tree; each god of the later classical Pantheon was similarly tethered: Jupiter to the oak, Apollo to the laurel, Bacchus to the vine, Minerva to the olive, Juno to the apple, on and on. Forest worship was universal — the most impressive and bewildering to modern science that the human spirit has ever built up. At the dawn of history began The Adoration of the Trees.
Then as man, the wanderer, walked away from his dawn across the ages toward the sunset bearing within him this root of faith, it grew with his growth. The successive growths were cut down by the successive scythes of time; but always new sprouts were put forth.
Thus to man during the earliest ages the divine dwelt as a bodily presence within the forest; but one final day the forest lost the Immortal as its indwelling creator.
Next the old forest worshipper peopled the trees with an intermediate race of sylvan deities less than divine, more than human; and long he beguiled himself with the exquisite reign and proximity of these; but the lesser could not maintain themselves in temples from which the greater had already been expelled, and they too passed out of sight down the roadway of the world.
Still the old forest faith would not let the wanderer rest; and during yet later ages he sent into the trees his own nature so that the woods became freshly endeared to him by many a story of how individuals of his own race had succeeded as tenants to the erstwhile habitations of the gods. Then this last panorama of illusion faded also, and civilized man stood face to face with the modern woods — inhabitated only by its sap and cells. The trees had drawn their bark close around them, wearing an inviolate tapestry across those portals through which so many a stranger to them had passed in and passed out; and henceforth the dubious oracle of the forest — its one reply to all man’s questionings — became the Voice of its own Mystery.
After this the forest worshipper could worship the woods no more. But we must not forget that civilization as compared with the duration of human life on the planet began but yesterday: even our own Indo-European race dwells as it were on the forest edge. And the forest still reaches out and twines itself around our deepest spiritual truths: home — birth — love — prayer — death: it tries to overrun them all, to reclaim them. Thus when we build our houses, instinctively we attempt by some clump of trees to hide them and to shelter ourselves once more inside the forest; in some countries whenever a child is born, a tree is planted as its guardian in nature; in our marriage customs the forest still riots as master of ceremonies with garlands and fruits; our prayers strike against the forest shaped hi cathedral stone — memory of the grove, God’s first temple; and when we die, it is the tree that is planted beside us as the sentinel of our rest. Even to this day the sight of a treeless grave arouses some obscure instinct in us that it is God-forsaken.
Yes, he said, whatsoever modern temple man has anywhere reared for his spirit, over the walls of it have been found growing the same leaf and tendril: he has introduced the tree into the ritual of every later world-worship; and thus he has introduced the evergreen into the ritual of Christianity.
This then is the meaning of the Christmas Tree and of its presence at the Nativity. At the dawn of history we behold man worshipping the tree as the Creator literally present on the earth; in our time we see him using that tree in the worship of the creative Father’s Son come to earth in the Father’s stead.
“On this evergreen in the room falls the radiance of these brief tapers of the night; but on it rests also the long light of that spiritual dawn when man began his Adoration of the Trees. It is the forest taking its place once more beside the long-lost Immortal.”
Here he finished the first part of his story. That he should address her thus and that she thus should listen had in it nothing unusual for them. For years it had been his wont to traverse with her the ground of his lectures, and she shared his thought before it reached others. It was their high and equal comradeship. Wherever his mind could go hers went — a brilliant torch, a warming sympathy.
But to-night his words had fallen on her as withered leaves on a motionless figure of stone. If he was sensible of this change in her, he gave no sign. And after a moment he passed to the remaining part of the story.
“Thus far I have been speaking to you of the bare tree in wild nature: here it is loaded with decorations; and now I want to show you that they too are Forest Memories — that since the evergreen moved over into the service of Christianity, one by one like a flock of birds these Forest Memories have followed it and have alighted amid its branches. Everything here has its story. I am going to tell you in each case what that story is; I am going to interpret everything on the Christmas Tree and the other Christmas decorations in the room.”
It was at this point that her keen attention became fixed on him and never afterwards wavered. If everything had its story, the mistletoe would have its; he must interpret that: and thus he himself unexpectedly had brought about the situation she wished. She would meet him at that symbolic bough: there be rendered the Judgment of the Years! And now as one sits down at some point of a road where a traveler must arrive, she waited for him there.
He turned to the Tree and explained briefly that as soon as the forest worshipper began the worship of the tree, he began to bring to it his offerings and to hang these on the boughs; for religion consists in offering something: to worship is to give. In after ages when man had learned to build shrines and temples, he still kept up his primitive custom of bringing to the altar his gifts and sacrifices; but during that immeasurable time before he had learned to carve wood or to set one stone on another, he was bringing his offerings to the grove — the only cathedral he had. And this to him was not decoration; it was prayer. So that in our age of the world when we playfully decorate the Christmas Tree it is a survival of grave rites in the worship of primitive man and is as ancient as forest worship itself.
And now he began.
With the pointer in his hand he touched the star at the apex of the fir. This, he said, was commonly understood to represent the Star of Bethlehem which guided the wise men of the East to the manger on the Night of the Nativity — the Star of the New Born. But modern discoveries show that the records of ancient Chaldea go back four or five thousand years before the Christian era; and as far back as they have been traced, we find the wise men of the East worshipping this same star and being guided by it in their spiritual wanderings as they searched for the incarnation of the Divine. They worshipped it as the star of peace and goodness and purity. Many a pious Wolfram in those dim centuries no doubt sang his evening hymn to the same star, for love of some Chaldean Elizabeth — both he and she blown about the desert how many centuries now as dust. Moreover on these records the star and the Tree are brought together as here side by side. And the story of the star leads backward to one of the first things that man ever worshipped as he looked beyond the forest: the light of the heavens floating in the depth of space — light that he wanted but could not grasp.
He touched the next object on the Tree — the candle under the star — and went on:
Imagine, he said, the forest worshipper as at the end of ages having caught this light — having brought it down in the language of his myth from heaven to earth: that is, imagine the star in space as having become a star in his hand — the candle: the star worshipper had now become also the fire worshipper. Thus the candle leads us back to the fire worshippers of ancient Persia — those highlands of the spirit seeking light. We think of the Christmas candle on the Tree as merely borrowed from the candle of the altar for the purpose of illumination; but the use of it goes back to a time when the forest worshipper, now also the fire worshipper, hung his lights on the trees, having no other altar. Far down toward modern times the temples of the old Prussians, for example, were oak groves, and among them a hierarchy of priests was ordained to keep the sacred fire perpetually burning at the root of the sacred oak.
He touched the third object on the tree — the cross under the candle — and went on:
“To the Christian believer the cross signifies one supreme event: Calvary and the tragedy of the Crucifixion. It was what the Marys saw and the apostles that morning in Gethsemane. But no one in that age thought of the cross as a Christian symbol. John and Peter and Paul and the rest went down into their graves without so regarding it. The Magdalene never clung to it with life-tired arms, nor poured out at the foot of it the benison of her tears. Not until the third century after Christ did the Bishops assembled at Nice announce it a Christian symbol. But it was a sacred emblem in the dateless antiquity of Egypt. To primitive man it stood for that sacred light and fire of life which was himself. For he himself is a cross — the first cross he has ever known. The faithful may truly think of the Son of Man as crucified as the image of humanity. And thus ages before Christ, cross worship and forest worship were brought together: for instance, among the Druids who hunted for an oak, two boughs of which made with the trunk of the tree the figure of the cross; and on these three they cut the names of three of their gods and this was holy-cross wood.”
He moved the pointer down until he touched the fourth object on the tree — the dove under the cross, and went on:
“In the mind of the Christian believer this represents the white dove of the New Testament which descended on the Son of Man when the heavens were opened. So in Parsifal the white dove descends, overshadowing the Grail. But ages before Christ the prolific white dove of Syria was worshipped throughout the Orient as the symbol of reproductive Nature: and to this day the Almighty is there believed to manifest himself under this form. In ancient Mesopotamia the divine mother of nature is often represented with this dove as having actually alighted on her shoulder or in her open hand. And here again forest worship early became associated with the worship of the dove; for, sixteen hundred years before Christ, we find the dove nurtured in the oak grove at Dodona where its presence was an augury and its wings an omen.”
On he went, touching one thing after another, tracing the story of each backward till it was lost in antiquity and showing how each was entwined with forest worship.
He touched the musical instruments; the bell, the drum. The bell, he said, was used in Greece by the Priests of Bacchus in the worship of the vine. And vine worship was forest worship. Moreover, in the same oak grove at Dodona bells were tied to the oak boughs and their tinklings also were sacred auguries. The drum, which the modern boy beats on Christmas Day, was beaten ages before Christ in the worship of Confucius: the story of it dies away toward what was man’s first written music in forgotten China. In the first century of the Christian era, on one of the most splendid of the old Buddhist sculptures, boys are represented as beating the drum in the worship of the sacred tree — once more showing how music passed into the service of forest faith.
He touched the cornucopia; and he traced its story back to the ram’s horn — the primitive cup of libation, used for a drinking cup and used also to pour out the last product of the vine in honor of the vine itself — the forest’s first goblet.
He touched the fruits and the flowers on the Tree: these were oldest of all, perhaps, he said; for before the forest worshipper had learned to shape or fabricate any offerings of his own skill, he could at least bring to the divine tree and hang on it the flower of spring, the wild fruit of autumn.
He kept on until only three things on the Tree were left uninterpreted; the tinsel, the masks, and the dolls. He told her that he had left these to the last for a reason: seemingly they were the most trivial but really the most grave; for by means of them most clearly could be traced the presence of great law running through the progress of humanity.
He drew her attention to the tinsel that covered the tree, draping it like a yellow moss. It was of no value, he said, but in the course of ages it had taken the place of the offering of actual gold in forest worship: a once universal custom of adorning the tree with everything most precious to the giver in token of his sacrifice and self-sacrifice. Even in Jeremiah is an account of the lading of the sacred tree with gold and ornaments. Herodotus relates that when Xerxes was invading Lydia, on the march he saw a divine tree and had it honored with golden robes and gifts. Livy narrates that when Romulus slew his enemy on the site of the Eternal City, he hung rich spoils on the oak of the Capitoline Hill. And this custom of decorating the tree with actual gold goes back in history until we can meet it coming down to us in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece and in that of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Now the custom has dwindled to this tinsel flung over the Christmas Tree — the mock sacrifice for the real.
He touched the masks and unfolded the grim story that lay behind their mockery. It led back to the common custom in antiquity of sacrificing prisoners of war or condemned criminals or innocent victims in forest worship and of hanging their heads on the branches: we know this to have been the practice among Gallic and Teuton tribes. In the course of time, when such barbarity could be tolerated no longer, the mock countenance replaced the real.
He touched the dolls and revealed their sad story. Like the others, its long path led to antiquity and to the custom of sacrificing children in forest worship. How common this custom was the early literature of the human race too abundantly testifies. We encounter the trace of it in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac — arrested by the command of Jehovah. But Abraham would never have thought of slaying his son to propitiate his God, had not the custom been well established. In the case of Jephthah’s daughter the sacrifice was actually allowed. We come upon the same custom in the fate of Iphigenia — at a critical turning point in the world’s mercy; in her stead the life of a lesser animal, as in Isaac’s case, was accepted. When the protective charity of mankind turned against the inhumanity of the old faiths, then the substitution of the mock for the real sacrifice became complete. And now on the boughs of the Christmas Tree where richly we come upon vestiges of primitive rites only these playful toys are left to suggest the massacre of the innocent.
He had covered the ground; everything had yielded its story. All the little stories, like pathways running backward into the distance and ever converging, met somewhere in lost ages; they met in forest worship and they met in some sacrifice by the human heart.
And thus he drew his conclusion as the lesson of the night:
“Thus, Josephine, my story ends for you and for me. The Christmas Tree is all that is left of a forest memory. The forest worshipper could not worship without giving, because to worship is to give: therefore he brought his gifts to the forest — his first altar. These gifts, remember, were never, as with us, decorations. They were his sacrifices and self-sacrifices. In all the religions he has had since, the same law lives. In his lower religions he has sacrificed the better to the worse; in the higher ones he has sacrificed the worst to the best. If the race should ever outgrow all religion whatsoever, it would still have to worship what is highest in human nature and so worshipping, it would still be ruled by the ancient law of sacrifice become the law of self-sacrifice: it would still be necessary to offer up what is low in us to what is higher. Only one portion of mankind has ever believed in Jerusalem; but every religion has known its own Calvary.”
He turned away from the Tree toward her and awaited her appreciation. She had sat watching him without a movement and without a word. But when at last she asked him a question, she spoke as a listener who wakens from a long reverie.
“Have you finished the story for me?” she inquired.
“I have finished the story for you,” he replied without betraying disappointment at her icy reception of it.
Keeping her posture, she raised one of her white arms above her head, turning her face up also until the swanlike curve of the white throat showed; and with quivering finger tips she touched some sprays of mistletoe pendent from the garland on the wall:
“You have not interpreted this,” she said, her mind fixed on that sole omission.
“I have not explained that,” he admitted.
She sat up, and for the first time looked with intense interest toward the manuscript on the table across the room.
“Have you explained it there?”
“I have not explained it there.”
“But why?” she said with disappointment.
“I did not wish you to read that story, Josephine.”
“But why, Frederick?” she inquired, startled into wonderment.
He smiled: “If I told you why, I might as well tell you the story.”
“But why do you not wish to tell me the story?”
He answered with warning frankness: “If you once saw it as a picture, the picture would be coming back to you at times the rest of your life darkly.”
She protested: “If it is dark to you, why should I not share the darkness of it? Have we not always looked at life’s shadows together? And thus seeing life, have not bright things been doubly bright to us and dark things but half as dark?”
He merely repeated his warning: “It is a story of a crueler age than ours. It goes back to the forest worship of the Druids.”
She answered: “So long as our own age is cruel, what room is left to take seriously the mere stories of crueler ones? Am I to shrink from the forest worship of the Druids? Is there any story of theirs not printed in books? Are not the books in libraries? Are they not put in libraries to be read? If others read them, may not I? And since when must I begin to dread anything in books? Or anything in life? And since when did we begin to look at life apart, we who have always looked at it with four eyes?”
“I have always told you there are things to see with four eyes, things to see with two, and things to see with none.”
With sudden intensity her white arm went up again and touched the mistletoe.
“Tell me the story of this!” she pleaded as though she demanded a right. As she spoke, her thumb and forefinger meeting on a spray, they closed and went through it like a pair of shears; and a bunch of the white pearls of the forest dropped on the ridge of her shoulder and were broken apart and rolled across her breast into her lap.
He looked grave; silence or speech — which were better for her? Either, he now saw, would give her pain.
“Happily the story is far away from us,” he said, as though he were half inclined to grant her request.
“If it is far away, bring it near! Bring it into the room as you brought the stories of the star and the candle and the cross and the dove and the others! Make it live before my eyes! Enact it before me! Steep me in it as you have steeped yourself!”
He held back a long time: “You who are so safe in good, why know evil?”
“Frederick,” she cried, “I shall have to insist upon your telling me this story. And if you should keep any part of it back, I would know. Then tell it all: if it is dark, let each shadow have its shade; give each heavy part its heaviness; let cruelty be cruelty — and truth be truth!”
He stood gazing across the centuries, and when he began, there was a change in him; something personal was beginning to intrude itself into the narrative of the historian:
“Imagine the world of our human nature in the last centuries before Palestine became Holy Land. Athens stood with her marbles glistening by the blue Aegean, and Greek girls with fillets and sandals — the living images of those pale sculptured shapes that are the mournful eternity of Art — Greek girls were being chosen for the secret rites in the temple at Ephesus. The sun of Italy had not yet browned the little children who were to become the brown fathers and mothers of the brown soldiers of Cesar’s legions; and twenty miles south of Rome, in the sacred grove of Dodona, — where the motions of oak boughs were auguries, and the flappings of the wings of white doves were divine messages, and the tinkling of bells in the foliage had divine meanings, — in this grove the virgins of Latium, as the Greek girls of Ephesus, were once a year appointed to undergo similar rites. To the south Pompeii, with its night laughter and song sounding far out toward the softly lapping Mediterranean and up the slopes of its dread volcano, drained its goblet and did not care, emptied it as often as filled and asked for nothing more. A little distance off Herculaneum, with its tender dreams of Greece but with its arms around the breathing image of Italy, slept — uncovered.
“Beyond Italy to the north, on the other side of the eternal snowcaps, lay unknown Gaul, not yet dreaming of the Cesar who was to conquer it; and across the wild sea opposite Gaul lay the wooded isle of Britain. All over that island one forest; in that forest one worship; in that worship one tree — the oak of England; and on that oak one bough — the mistletoe.”
He spoke to her awhile about the oak, describing the place it had in the early civilizations of the human race. In the Old Testament it was the tree of the Hebrew idols and of Jehovah. In Greece it was the tree of Zeus, the most august and the most human of the gods. In Italy it was the tree of Jove, great father of immortals and of mankind. After the gods passed, it became the tree of the imperial Cesars. After the Cesars had passed, it was the oak that Michael Angelo in the Middle Ages scattered over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel near the creation of man and his expulsion from Paradise — there as always the chosen tree of human desire. In Britain it was the sacred tree of Druidism: there the Arch Druid and his fellow-priests performed none of their rites without using its leaves and branches: never anywhere in the world was the oak worshipped with such ceremonies and sacrifices as there.
Imagine then a scene — the chief Nature Festival of that forest worship: the New Year’s Day of the Druids.
A vast concourse of people, men and women and children, are on their way to the forest; they are moving toward an oak tree that has been found with mistletoe growing on it — growing there so seldom. As the excited throng come in sight of it, they hail it with loud cries of reverence and delight. Under it they gather; there a banquet is spread. In the midst of the assemblage one figure towers — the Arch Druid. Every eye is fixed fearfully on him, for on whomsoever his own eye may fall with wrath, he may be doomed to become one of the victims annually sacrificed to the oak.
A gold chain is around his neck; gold bands are around his arms. He is clad in robes of spotless white. He ascends the tree to a low bough, and making a hollow in the folds of his robes, he crops with a golden pruning hook the mistletoe and so catches it as it falls. Then it is blessed and scattered among the throng, and the priest prays that each one so receiving it may receive also the divine favor and blessing of which it is Nature’s emblem. Two white bulls, the horns of which have never hitherto been touched, are now adorned with fillets and are slaughtered in sacrifice.
Then at last it is over, the people are gone, the forest is left to itself, and the New Year’s ceremony of cutting the mistletoe from the oak is at an end.
Here he ended the story.
She had sat leaning far forward, her fingers interlocked and her brows knitted. When he stopped, she sat up and studied him a moment in bewilderment:
“But why did you call that a dark story?” she asked. “Where is the cruelty? It is beautiful, and I shall never forget it and it will never throw a dark image on my mind: New Year’s day — the winter woods — the journeying throng — the oak — the bough — the banquet beneath — the white bulls with fillets on their horns — the white-robed priest — the golden sickle in his hand — the stroke that severs the mistletoe — the prayer that each soul receiving any smallest piece will be blessed in life’s sorrows! If I were a great painter, I should like to paint that scene. In the center should be some young girl, pressing to her heart what she believed to be heaven’s covenant with her under the guise of a blossom. How could you have wished to withhold such a story from me?”
He smiled at her a little sadly.
“I have not yet told you all,” he said, “but I have told you enough.”
Instantly she bent far over toward him with intuitive scrutiny. Under her breath one word escaped:
It was the breath of a discovery — a discovery of something unknown to her.
“I am sparing you, Josephine!”
She stretched each arm along the back of the sofa and pinioned the wood in her clutch.
“Are you sparing me?” she asked in a tone of torture. “Or are you sparing yourself?”
The heavy staff on which he stood leaning dropped from his relaxed grasp to the floor. He looked down at it a moment and then calmly picked it up.
“I am going to tell you the story,” he said with a new quietness.
She was aroused by some change in him.
“I will not listen! I do not wish to hear it!”
“You will have to listen,” he said. “It is better for you to know. Better for any human being to know any truth than suffer the bane of wrong thinking. When you are free to judge, it will be impossible for you to misjudge.”
“I have not misjudged you! I have not judged you! In some way that I do not understand you are judging yourself!”
He stepped back a pace — farther away from her — and he drew himself up. In the movement there was instinctive resentment. And the right not to be pried into — not even by the nearest.
The step which had removed him farther from her had brought him nearer to the Christmas Tree at his back. A long, three-fingered bough being thus pressed against was forced upward and reappeared on one of his shoulders. The movement seemed human: it was like the conscious hand of the tree. The fir, standing there decked out in the artificial tawdriness of a double-dealing race, laid its wild sincere touch on him — as sincere as the touch of dying human fingers — and let its passing youth flow into him. It attracted his attention, and he turned his head toward it as with recognition. Other boughs near the floor likewise thrust themselves forward, hiding his feet so that he stood ankle-deep in forestry.
This reunion did not escape her. Her overwrought imagination made of it a sinister omen: the bough on his shoulder rested there as the old forest claim; the boughs about his feet were the ancestral forest tether. As he had stepped backward from her, Nature had asserted the earlier right to him. In strange sickness and desolation of heart she waited.
He stood facing her but looking past her at centuries long gone; the first sound of his voice registered upon her ear some message of doom:
“Listen, Josephine!”
She buried her face in her hands.
“I cannot! I will not!”
“You will have to listen. You know that for some years, apart from my other work, I have been gathering together the woodland customs of our people and trying to trace them back to their origin and first meaning. In our age of the world we come upon many playful forest survivals of what were once grave things. Often in our play and pastimes and lingering superstitions about the forest we cross faint traces of what were once vital realities.
“Among these there has always been one that until recently I have never understood. Among country people oftenest, but heard of everywhere, is the saying that if a girl is caught standing under the mistletoe, she may be kissed by the man who thus finds her. I have always thought that this ceremony and playful sacrifice led back to some ancient rite — I could not discover what. Now I know.”
In a voice full of a new delicacy and scarcely audible, he told her.
It is another scene in the forest of Britain. This time it is not the first day of the year — the New Year’s Day of the Druids when they celebrated the national festival of the oak. But it is early summer, perhaps the middle of May — May in England — with the young beauty of the woods. It is some hushed evening at twilight. The new moon is just silvering the tender leaves and creating a faint shadow under the trees. The hawthorn is in bloom — red and white — and not far from the spot, hidden in some fragrant tuft of this, a nightingale is singing, singing, singing.
Lifting itself above the smaller growths stands the young manhood of the woods — a splendid oak past its thirtieth year, representing its youth and its prime conjoined. In its trunk is the summer heat of the all-day sun. Around its roots is velvet turf, and there are wild violet beds. Its huge arms are stretched toward the ground as though reaching for some object they would clasp; and on one of these arms as its badge of divine authority, worn there as a knight might wear the colors of his Sovereign, grows the mistletoe. There he stands — the Forest Lover.
The woods wait, the shadows deepen, the hush is more intense, the moon’s rays begin to be golden, the song of the nightingale grows more passionate, the beds of moss and violets wait.
Then the shrubbery is tremblingly parted at some place and upon the scene a young girl enters — her hair hanging down — her limbs most lightly clad — the flush of red hawthorn on the white hawthorn of her skin — in her eyes love’s great need and mystery. Step by step she comes forward, her fingers trailing against whatsoever budding wayside thing may stay her strength. She draws nearer to the oak, searching amid its boughs for that emblem which she so dreads to find and yet more dreads not to find: the emblem of a woman’s fruitfulness which the young oak — the Forest Lover — reaches down toward her. Finding it, beneath it with one deep breath of surrender she takes her place — the virgin’s tryst with the tree — there to be tested.
Such is the command of the Arch Druid: it is obedience — submission to that test — or death for her as a sacrifice to the oak which she has rejected.
Again the shrubbery is parted, rudely pushed aside, and a man enters — a tried and seasoned man — a human oak — counterpart of the Forest Lover — to officiate at the test.
He was standing there in the parlor of his house and in the presence of his wife. But in fealty he was gone: he was in the summer woods of ancestral wandering, the fatherland of Old Desire.
He was the man treading down the shrubbery; it was his feet that started toward the oak; his eye that searched for the figure half fainting under the bough; for him the bed of moss and violets — the hair falling over the eyes — the loosened girdle — the breasts of hawthorn white and pink — the listening song of the nightingale — the silence of the summer woods — the seclusion — the full surrender of the two under that bough of the divine command, to escape the penalty of their own death.
The blaze of uncontrollable desire was all over him; the fire of his own story had treacherously licked him like a wind-bent flame. The light that she had not seen in his eyes for so long rose in them — the old, unfathomable, infolding tenderness. A quiver ran around his tense nostrils.
And now one little phrase which he had uttered so sacredly years before and had long since forgotten rose a second time to his lips — tossed there by a second tide of feeling. On the silence of the room fell his words:
“ Bride of the Mistletoe! ”
The storm that had broken over him died away. He shut his eyes on the vanishing scene: he opened them upon her.
He had told her the truth about the story; he may have been aware or he may not have been aware that he had revealed to her the truth about himself.
“This is what I would have kept from you, Josephine,” he said quietly.
She was sitting there before him — the mother of his children, of the sleeping ones, of the buried ones — the butterfly broken on the wheel of years: lusterless and useless now in its summer.
She sat there with the whiteness of death.
Chapter 5 — The Room of the Silences
The Christmas candles looked at her flickeringly; the little white candles of purity, the little red candles of love. The holly in the room concealed its bold gay berries behind its thorns, and the cedar from the faithful tree beside the house wall had need now of its bitter rosary.
Her first act was to pay what is the first debt of a fine spirit — the debt of courtesy and gratitude.
“It is a wonderful story, Frederick,” she said in a manner which showed him that she referred to the beginning of his story and not to the end.
“As usual you have gone your own way about it, opening your own path into the unknown, seeing what no one else has seen, and bringing back what no one else ever brought. It is a great revelation of things that I never dreamed of and could never have imagined. I appreciate your having done this for me; it has taken time and work, but it is too much for me to-night. It is too new and too vast. I must hereafter try to understand it. And there will be leisure enough. Nor can it lose by waiting. But now there is something that cannot wait, and I wish to speak to you about that; Frederick, I am going to ask you some questions about the last part of the story. I have been wanting to ask you a long time: the story gives me the chance and — the right.”
He advanced a step toward her, disengaging himself from the evergreen.
“I will answer them,” he said. “If they can be answered.”
And thus she sat and thus he stood as the questions and answers passed to and fro. They were solemn questions and solemn replies, drawn out of the deeps of life and sinking back into them.
“Frederick,” she said, “for many years we have been happy together, so happy! Every tragedy of nature has stood at a distance from us except the loss of our children. We have lived on a sunny pinnacle of our years, lifted above life’s storms. But of course I have realized that sooner or later our lot must become the common one: if we did not go down to Sorrow, Sorrow would climb to us; and I knew that on the heights it dwells best. That is why I wish to say to you to-night what I shall: I think fate’s hour has struck for me; I am ready to hear it. Its arrow has already left the bow and is on its way; I open my heart to receive it. This is as I have always wished; I have said that if life had any greatest tragedy, for me, I hoped it would come when I was happiest; thus I should confront it all. I have never drunk half of my cup of happiness, as you know, and let the other half waste; I must go equally to the depth of any suffering. Worse than the suffering, I think, would be the feeling that I had shirked some of it, had stepped aside, or shut my eyes, or in any manner shown myself a cowardly soul.”
After a pause she went over this subject as though she were not satisfied that she had made it clear.
“I have always said that the real pathos of things is the grief that comes to us in life when life is at its best — when no one is to blame — when no one has committed a fault — when suffering is meted out to us as the reward of our perfect obedience to the laws of nature. In earlier years when we used to read Keats together, who most of all of the world’s poets felt the things that pass, even then I was wondering at the way in which he brings this out: that to understand Sorrow it must be separated from sorrows: they would be like shadows darkening the bright disk of life’s clear tragedy, thus rendering it less bravely seen.
“And so he is always telling us not to summon sad pictures nor play with mournful emblems; not to feign ourselves as standing on the banks of Lethe, gloomiest of rivers; nor to gather wolf’s bane and twist the poison out of its tight roots; nor set before us the cup of hemlock; nor bind about our temples the ruby grape of nightshade; nor count over the berries of the yew tree which guards sad places; nor think of the beetle ticking in the bed post, nor watch the wings of the death moth, nor listen to the elegy of the owl — the voice of ruins. Not these! they are the emblems of our sorrows. But the emblems of Sorrow are beautiful things at their perfect moment; a red peony just opening, a rainbow seen for an instant on the white foam, youth not yet faded but already fading, joy with its finger on his lips, bidding adieu.
“And so with all my happiness about me, I wish to know life’s tragedy. And to know it, Frederick, not to infer it: I want to be told .”
“If you can be told, you shall be told,” he said.
She changed her position as though seeking physical relief and composure. Then she began:
“Years ago when you were a student in Germany, you had a college friend. You went home with him two or three years at Christmas and celebrated the German Christmas. It was in this way that we came to have the Christmas Tree in our house — through memory of him and of those years. You have often described to me how you and he in summer went Alpine climbing, and far up in some green valley girdled with glaciers lay of afternoons under some fir tree, reading and drowsing in the crystalline air. You told me of your nights of wandering down the Rhine together when the heart turns so intimately to the heart beside it. He was German youth and song and dream and happiness to you. Tell me this: before you lost him that last summer over the crevasse, had you begun to tire of him? Was there anything in you that began to draw back from anything in him? As you now look back at the friendship of your youth, have the years lessened your regret for him?”
He answered out of the ideals of his youth:
“The longer I knew him, the more I loved him. I never tired of being with him. Nothing in me ever drew back from anything in him. When he was lost, the whole world lost some of its strength and nobility. After all the years, if he could come back, he would find me unchanged — that friend of my youth!”
With a peculiar change of voice she asked next:
“The doctor, Herbert and Elsie’s father, our nearest neighbor, your closest friend now in middle life. You see a great deal of the doctor; he is often here, and you and he often sit up late at night, talking with one another about many things: do you ever tire of the doctor and wish him away? Have you any feeling toward him that you try to keep secret from me? Can you be a perfectly frank man with this friend of your middle life?”
“The longer I know him the more I like him, honor him, trust him. I never tire of his companionship or his conversation; I have no disguises with him and need none.”
“The children! As the children grow older do you care less for them? Do they begin to wear on you? Are they a clog, an interference? Have Harold and Elizabeth ceased forming new growths of affection in you? Do you ever unconsciously seek pretexts for avoiding them?”
“The older they grow, the more I love them. The more they interest me and tempt away from work and duties. I am more drawn to be with them and I live more and more in the thought of what they are becoming.”
“Your work! Does your work attract you less than formerly? Does it develop in you the purpose to be something more or stifle in you the regret to be something less? Is it a snare to idleness or a goad to toil?”
“As the mariner steers for the lighthouse, as the hound runs down the stag, as the soldier wakes to the bugle, as the miner digs for fortune, as the drunkard drains the cup, as the saint watches the cross, I follow my work, I follow my work.”
“Life, life itself, does it increase in value or lessen? Is the world still morning to you with your work ahead or afternoon when you begin to tire and to think of rest?”
“The world to me is as early morning to a man going forth to his work. Where the human race is from and whither it is hurrying and why it exists at all; why a human being loves what it loves and hates what it hates; why it is faithful when it could be unfaithful and faithless when it should be true; how civilized man can fight single handed against the ages that were his lower past — how he can develop self-renunciation out of selfishness and his own wisdom out of surrounding folly, — all these are questions that mean more and more. My work is but beginning and the world is morning.”
“This house! Are you tired of it now that it is older? Would you rather move into a new one?”
“I love this house more and more. No other dwelling could take its place. Any other could be but a shelter; this is home. And I care more for it now that the signs of age begin to settle on it. If it were a ruin, I should love it best!”
She leaned over and looked down at the two setters lying at her feet.
“Do you care less for the dogs of the house as they grow older?”
“I think more of them and take better care of them now that their hunting days are over.”
“The friend of your youth — the friend of your middle age — the children — your profession — the world of human life — this house — the dogs of the house — you care more for them all as time passes?”
“I care more for them all as time passes.”
Then there came a great stillness in the room — the stillness of all listening years.
“Am I the only thing that you care less for as time passes?”
There was no reply.
“Am I in the way?”
There was no reply.
“Would you like to go over it all again with another?”
There was no reply.
She had hidden her face in her hands and pressed her head against the end of the sofa. Her whole figure shrank lower, as though to escape being touched by him — to escape the blow of his words. No words came. There was no touch.
A moment later she felt that he must be standing over her, looking down at her. She would respond to his hand on the back of her neck. He must be kneeling beside her; his arms would infold her. Then with a kind of incredible terror she realized that he was not there. At first she could so little believe it, that with her face still buried in one hand she searched the air for him with the other, expecting to touch him.
Then she cried out to him:
“Isn’t there anything you can say to me?”
Silence lasted.
“ Oh, Fred! Fred! Fred! Fred !”
In the stillness she began to hear something — the sound of his footsteps moving on the carpet. She sat up.
The room was getting darker; he was putting out the candles. It was too dark already to see his face. With fascination she began to watch his hand. How steady it was as it moved among the boughs, extinguishing the lights. Out they went one by one and back into their darkness returned the emblems of darker ages — the Forest Memories.
A solitary taper was left burning at the pinnacle of the Tree under the cross: that highest torch of love shining on everything that had disappeared.
He quietly put it out.
Yet the light seemed not put out, but instantly to have travelled through the open parlor door into the adjoining room, her bedroom; for out of that there now streamed a suffused red light; it came from the lamp near the great bed in the shadowy corner.
This lamp poured its light through a lampshade having the semblance of a bursting crimson peony as some morning in June the flower with the weight of its own splendor falls face downward on the grass. And in that room this soft lamp-light fell here and there on crimson winter draperies. He had been living alone as a bachelor before he married her. After they became engaged he, having watched for some favorite color of hers, had had this room redecorated in that shade. Every winter since she had renewed in this way or that way these hangings, and now the bridal draperies remained unchanged — after the changing years.
He replaced the taper against the wall and came over and stood before her, holding out his hands to help her rise.
She arose without his aid and passed around him, moving toward her bedroom. With arms outstretched guarding her but not touching her, he followed close, for she was unsteady. She entered her bedroom and crossed to the door of his bedroom; she pushed this open, and keeping her face bent aside waited for him to go in. He went in and she closed the door on him and turned the key. Then with a low note, with which the soul tears out of itself something that has been its life, she made a circlet of her white arms against the door and laid her profile within this circlet and stood — the figure of Memory.
Thus sometimes a stranger sees a marble figure standing outside a tomb where some story of love and youth ended: some stranger in a far land, — walking some afternoon in those quieter grounds where all human stories end; an autumn bird in the bare branches fluting of its mortality and his heart singing with the bird of one lost to him — lost to him in his own country.
On the other side of the door the silence was that of a tomb. She had felt confident — so far as she had expected anything — that he would speak to her through the door, try to open it, plead with her to open it. Nothing of the kind occurred.
Why did he not come back? What bolt could have separated her from him?
The silence began to weigh upon her.
Then in the tense stillness she heard him moving quietly about, getting ready for bed. There were the same movements, familiar to her for years. She would not open the door, she could not leave it, she could not stand, no support was near, and she sank to the floor and sat there, leaning her brow against the lintel.
On the other side the quiet preparations went on.
She heard him take off his coat and vest and hang them on the back of a chair. The buttons made a little scraping sound against the wood. Then he went to his dresser and took off his collar and tie, and he opened a drawer and laid out a night-shirt. She heard the creaking of a chair under him as he threw one foot and then the other up across his knee and took off his shoes and socks. Then there reached her the soft movements of his bare feet on the carpet (despite her agony the old impulse started in her to caution him about his slippers). Then followed the brushing of his teeth and the deliberate bathing of his hands. Then was audible the puff of breath with which he blew out his lamp after he had turned it low; and then, — on the other side of the door, — just above her ear his knock sounded.
The same knock waited for and responded to throughout the years; so often with his little variations of playfulness. Many a time in early summer when out-of-doors she would be reminded of it by hearing some bird sounding its love signal on a piece of dry wood — that tap of heart-beat. Now it crashed close to her ear.
Such strength came back to her that she rose as lightly as though her flesh were but will and spirit. When he knocked again, she was across the room, sitting on the edge of her bed with her palms pressed together and thrust between her knees: the instinctive act of a human animal suddenly chilled to the bone.
The knocking sounded again.
“Was there anything you needed?” she asked fearfully.
There was no response but another knock.
She hurriedly raised her voice to make sure that it would reach him.
“Was there anything you wanted?”
As no response came, the protective maternal instinct took greater alarm, and she crossed to the door of his room and she repeated her one question:
“Did you forget anything?”
Her mind refused to release itself from the iteration of that idea: it was somet hing — not herself — that he wanted.
He knocked.
Her imagination, long oppressed by his silence, now made of his knock some signal of distress. It took on the authority of an appeal not to be denied. She unlocked the door and opened it a little way, and once more she asked her one poor question.
His answer to it came in the form of a gentle pressure against the door, breaking down her resistance. As she applied more strength, this was as gently overcome; and when the opening was sufficient, he walked past her into the room.
How hushed the house! How still the world outside as the cloud wove in darkness its mantle of light!
Chapter 6 — The White Dawn
Day was breaking.
The crimson curtains of the bedroom were drawn close, but from behind their outer edges faint flanges of light began to advance along the wall. It was a clear light reflected from snow which had sifted in against the window-panes, was banked on the sills outside, ridged the yard fence, peaked the little gate-posts, and buried the shrubbery. There was no need to look out in order to know that it had stopped snowing, that the air was windless, and that the stars were flashing silver-pale except one — great golden-croziered shepherd of the thick, soft-footed, moving host.
It was Christmas morning on the effulgent Shield.
Already there was sufficient light in the room to reveal — less as actual things than as brown shadows of the memory — a gay company of socks and stockings hanging from the mantelpiece; sufficient to give outline to the bulk of a man asleep on the edge of the bed; and it exposed to view in a corner of the room farthest from the rays a woman sitting in a straight-backed chair, a shawl thrown about her shoulders over her night-dress.
He always slept till he was awakened; the children, having stayed up past their usual bedtime, would sleep late also; she had the white dawn to herself in quietness.
She needed it.
Sleep could not have come to her had she wished. She had not slept and she had not lain down, and the sole endeavor during those shattered hours had been to prepare herself for his awakening. She was not yet ready — she felt that during the rest of her life she should never be quite ready to meet him again. Scant time remained now.
Soon all over the Shield indoor merriment and outdoor noises would begin. Wherever in the lowlands any many-chimneyed city, proud of its size, rose by the sweep of watercourses, or any little inland town was proud of its smallness and of streets that terminated in the fields; wherever any hamlet marked the point at which two country roads this morning made the sign of the white cross, or homesteads stood proudly castled on woody hilltops, or warmed the heart of the beholder from amid their olive-dark winter pastures; or far away on the shaggy uplift of the Shield wherever any cabin clung like a swallow’s nest against the gray Appalachian wall — everywhere soon would begin the healthy outbreak of joy among men and women and children — glad about themselves, glad in one another, glad of human life in a happy world. The many-voiced roar and din of this warm carnival lay not far away from her across the cold bar of silence.
Soon within the house likewise the rush of the children’s feet would startle her ear; they would be tugging at the door, tugging at her heart. And as she thought of this, the recollection of old simple things came pealing back to her from behind life’s hills. The years parted like naked frozen reeds, and she, sorely stricken in her womanhood, fled backward till she herself was a child again — safe in her father’s and mother’s protection. It was Christmas morning, and she in bare feet was tipping over the cold floors toward their bedroom — toward her stockings.
Her father and mother! How she needed them at this moment: they had been sweethearts all their lives. One picture of them rose with distinctness before her — for the wounding picture always comes to the wounded moment. She saw them sitting in their pew far down toward the chancel. Through a stained-glass window (where there was a ladder of angels) the light fell softly on them — both silver-haired; and as with the voices of children they were singing out of one book. She remembered how as she sat between them she had observed her father slip his hand into her mother’s lap and clasp hers with a steadfastness that wedded her for eternity; and thus over their linked hands, with the love of their youth within them and the snows of the years upon them, they sang together:
Gently, Lord, O gently lead us
Through the changes Thou’st decreed us.

Her father and mother had not been led gently. They had known more than common share of life’s shocks and violence, its wrongs and meannesses and ills and griefs. But their faith had never wavered that they were being led gently; so long as they were led together, to them it was gentle leading: the richer each in each for aught whereby nature or man could leave them poorer; the calmer for the shocks; the sweeter for the sour; the finer with one another because of life’s rudenesses. In after years she often thought of them as faithful in their dust; and the flowers she planted over them and watered many a bright day with happy tears brought up to her in another form the freshness of their unwearied union.
That was what she had not doubted her own life would be — with him — when she had married him.
From the moment of the night before when he had forced the door open and entered her room, they had not exchanged any words nor a glance. He had lain down and soon fallen asleep; apparently he had offered that to her as for the moment at least his solution of the matter — that he should leave her to herself and absent himself in slumber.
The instant she knew him to be asleep she set about her preparations.
Before he awoke she must be gone — out of the house — anywhere — to save herself from living any longer with him. His indifference in the presence of her suffering; his pitiless withdrawal from her of touch and glance and speech as she had gone down into that darkest of life’s valleys; his will of iron that since she had insisted upon knowing the whole truth, know it she should: all this left her wounded and stunned as by an incredible blow, and she was acting first from the instinct of removing herself beyond the reach of further humiliation and brutality.
Instinctively she took off her wedding ring and laid it on his dresser beside his watch: he would find it there in the morning and he could dispose of it. Then she changed her dress for the plainest heavy one and put on heavy walking shoes. She packed into a handbag a few necessary things with some heirlooms of her own. Among the latter was a case of family jewels; and as she opened it, her eyes fell upon her mother’s thin wedding ring and with quick reverence she slipped that on and kissed it bitterly. She lifted out also her mother’s locket containing a miniature daguerreotype of her father and dutifully fed her eyes on that. Her father was not silver-haired then, but raven-locked; with eyes that men feared at times but no woman ever.
His eyes were on her now as so often in girlhood when he had curbed her exuberance and guided her waywardness. He was watching as she, coarsely wrapped and carrying some bundle of things of her own, opened her front door, left her footprints in the snow on the porch, and passed out — wading away. Those eyes of his saw what took place the next day: the happiness of Christmas morning turned into horror; the children wild with distress and crying — the servants dumb — the inquiry at neighbors’ houses — the news spreading to the town — the papers — the black ruin. And from him two restraining words issued for her ear:
“My daughter!”
Passionately she bore the picture to her lips and her pride answered him. And so answering, it applied a torch to her blood and her blood took fire and a flame of rage spread through and swept her. She stopped her preparations: she had begun to think as well as to feel.
She unpacked her travelling bag, putting each article back into its place with exaggerated pains. Having done this, she stood in the middle of the floor, looking about her irresolute: then responding to that power of low suggestion which is one of anger’s weapons, she began to devise malice. She went to a wardrobe and stooping down took from a bottom drawer — where long ago it had been stored away under everything else — a shawl that had been her grandmother’s; a brindled crewel shawl, — sometimes worn by superannuated women of a former generation; a garment of hideousness. Once, when a little girl, she had loyally jerked it off her grandmother because it added to her ugliness and decrepitude.
She shook this out with mocking eyes and threw it decoratively around her shoulders. She strode to the gorgeous peony lampshade and lifting it off, gibbeted it and scattered the fragments on the floor. She turned the lamp up as high as it would safely burn so that the huge lidless eye of it would throw its full glare on him and her. She drew a rocking chair to the foot of the bed and seating herself put her forefinger up to each temple and drew out from their hiding places under the mass of her black hair two long gray locks and let these hang down haglike across her bosom. She banished the carefully nourished look of youth from her face — dropped the will to look young — and allowed the forced-back years to rush into it — into the wastage, the wreckage, which he and Nature, assisting each other so ably, had wrought in her.
She sat there half-crazed, rocking noisily; waiting for the glare of the lamp to cause him to open his eyes; and she smiled upon him in exultation of vengeance that she was to live on there in his house — his house.
After a while a darker mood came over her.
With noiseless steps lest she awake him, she began to move about the room. She put out the lamp and lighted her candle and set it where it would be screened from his face; and where the shadow of the chamber was heaviest, into that shadow she retired and in it she sat — with furtive look to see whether he observed her.
A pall-like stillness deepened about the bed where he lay.
Running in her veins a well-nigh pure stream across the generations was Anglo-Saxon blood of the world’s fiercest; floating in the tide of it passions of old family life which had dyed history for all time in tragedies of false friendship, false love, and false battle; but fiercest ever about the marriage bed and the betrayal of its vow. A thousand years from this night some wronged mother of hers, sitting beside some sleeping father of hers in their forest-beleaguered castle — the moonlight streaming in upon him through the javelined casement and putting before her the manly beauty of him — the blond hair matted thick on his forehead as his helmet had left it, his mouth reddening in his slumber under its curling gold — some mother of hers whom he had carried off from other men by might of his sword, thus sitting beside him and knowing him to be colder to her now than the moon’s dead rays, might have watched those rays as they travelled away from his figure and put a gleam on his sword hanging near: a thousand years ago: some mother of hers.
It is when the best fails our human nature that the worst volunteers so often to take its place. The best and the worst — these are the sole alternatives which many a soul seems to be capable of making: hence life’s spectacle of swift overthrow, of amazing collapse, ever present about us. Only the heroic among both men and women, losing the best as their first choice, fight their way through defeat to the standard of the second best and fight on there. And whatever one may think of the legend otherwise, abundant experience justifies the story that it was the Archangel who fell to the pit. The low never fall far: how can they? They already dwell on the bottom of things, and many a time they are to be seen there with vanity that they should inhabit such a privileged highland.
During the first of these hours which stretched for her into the tragic duration of a lifetime, it was a successive falling from a height of moral splendor; her nature went down through swift stages to the lowest she harbored either in the long channel of inheritance or as the stirred sediment of her own imperfections. And as is unfortunately true, this descent into moral darkness possessed the grateful illusion that it was an ascent into new light. All evil prompting became good suggestion; every injustice made its claim to be justification. She enjoyed the elation of feeling that she was dragging herself out of life’s quicksands upward to some rock, where there might be loneliness for her, but where there would be cleanness. The love which consumed her for him raged in her as hatred; and hatred is born into perfect mastery of its weapons. However young, it needs not to wait for training in order to know how to destroy.
He presented himself to her as a character at last revealed in its faithlessness and low carnal propensities. What rankled most poignantly in this spectacle of his final self-exposure was the fact that the cloven hoof should have been found on noble mountain tops — that he should have attempted to better his disguise by dwelling near regions of sublimity. Of all hypocrisy the kind most detestable to her was that which dares live within spiritual fortresses; and now his whole story of the Christmas Tree, the solemn marshalling of words about the growth of the world’s spirit — about the sacrifice of the lower in ourselves to the higher — this cant now became to her the invocation and homage of the practiced impostor: he had indeed carried the Christmas Tree on his shoulder into the manger. Not the Manger of Immortal Purity for mankind but the manger of his own bestiality.
Thus scorn and satire became her speech; she soared above him with spurning; a frenzy of poisoned joy racked her that at the moment when he had let her know that he wanted to be free — at that moment she might tell him he had won his freedom at the cheap price of his unworthiness.
And thus as she descended, she enjoyed the triumph of rising; so the devil in us never lacks argument that he is the celestial guide.
Moreover, hatred never dwells solitary; it readily finds boon companions. And at one period of the night she began to look back upon her experience with a curious sense of prior familiarity — to see it as a story already known to her at second hand. She viewed it as the first stage of one of those tragedies that later find their way into the care of family physicians, into the briefs of lawyers, into the confidence of clergymen, into the papers and divorce courts, and that receive their final flaying or canonization on the stage and in novels of the time. Sitting at a distance, she had within recent years studied in a kind of altruistic absorption how the nation’s press, the nation’s science of medicine, the nation’s science of law, the nation’s practice of religion, and the nation’s imaginative literature were all at work with the same national omen — the decay of the American family and the downfall of the home.
Now this new pestilence raging in other regions of the country had incredibly reached her, she thought, on the sheltered lowlands where the older traditions of American home life still lay like foundation rock. The corruption of it had attacked him; the ruin of it awaited her; and thus to-night she took her place among those women whom the world first hears of as in hospitals and sanitariums and places of refuge and in their graves — and more sadly elsewhere; whose misfortunes interested the press and whose types attracted the novelists.
She was one of them.
They swarmed about her; one by one she recognized them: the woman who unable to bear up under her tragedy soon sinks into eternity — or walks into it; the woman who disappears from the scene and somewhere under another name or with another lot lives on — devoting herself to memory or to forgetfulness; the woman who stays on in the house, giving to the world no sign for the sake of everything else that still remains to her but living apart — on the other side of the locked door; the woman who stays on without locking the door, half-hating, half-loving — the accepted and rejected compromise; the woman who welcomes the end of the love-drama as the beginning of peace and the cessation of annoyances; the woman who begins to act her tragedy to servants and children and acquaintances — reaping sympathy for herself and sowing ruin and torture — for him; the woman who drops the care of house, ends his comforts, thus forcing the sharp reminder of her value as at least an investment toward his general well-being; the woman who endeavors to rekindle dying coals by fanning them with fresh fascinations; the woman who plays upon jealousy and touches the male instinct to keep one’s own though little prized lest another acquire it and prize it more; the woman who sets a watch to discover the other woman: they swarmed about her, she identified each.
And she dismissed them. They brought her no aid; she shrank from their companionship; a strange dread moved her lest they should discover her . One only she detached from the throng and for a while withdrew with her into a kind of dual solitude: the woman who when so rejected turns to another man — the man who is waiting somewhere near.
The man she turned to, who for years had hovered near, was the country doctor, her husband’s tried and closest friend, whose children were asleep upstairs with her children. During all these years her secret had been — the doctor. When she had come as a bride into that neighborhood, he, her husband’s senior by several years, was already well established in his practice. He had attended her at the birth of her first child; never afterwards. As time passed, she had discovered that he loved her; she could never have him again. This had dealt his professional reputation a wound, but he understood, and he welcomed the wound.
Many a night, lying awake near her window, through which noises from the turnpike plainly reached her, all earthly happiness asleep alongside her, she could hear the doctor’s buggy passing on its way to some patient, or on its return from the town where he had patients also. Many a time she had heard it stop at the front gate: the road of his life there turned in to her. There were nights of pitch darkness and beating rain; and sometimes on these she had to know that he was out there.
Long she sat in the shadow of her room, looking towards the bed where her husband slept, but sending the dallying vision toward the doctor. He would be at the Christmas party; she would be dancing with him.
Clouds and darkness descended upon the plain of life and enveloped it. She groped her way, torn and wounded, downward along the old lost human paths.
The endless night scarcely moved on.
She was wearied out, she was exhausted. There is anger of such intensity that it scorches and shrivels away the very temptations that are its fuel; nothing can long survive the blast of that white flame, and being unfed, it dies out. Moreover, it is the destiny of a portion of mankind that they are enjoined by their very nobility from winning low battles; these always go against them: the only victories for them are won when they are leading the higher forces of human nature in life’s upward conflicts.
She was weary, she was exhausted; there was in her for a while neither moral light nor moral darkness. Her consciousness lay like a boundless plain on which nothing is visible. She had passed into a great calm; and slowly there was borne across her spirit a clearness that is like the radiance of the storm-winged sky.
And now in this calm, in this clearness, two small white figures appeared — her children. Hitherto the energies of her mind had grappled with the problem of her future; now memories began — memories that decide more perhaps than anything else for us. And memories began with her children.
She arose without making any noise, took her candle, and screening it with the palm of her hand, started upstairs.
There were two ways by either of which she could go; a narrow rear stairway leading from the parlor straight to their bedrooms, and the broad stairway in the front hall. From the old maternal night-habit she started to take the shorter way but thought of the parlor and drew back. This room had become too truly the Judgment Seat of the Years. She shrank from it as one who has been arraigned may shrink from a tribunal where sentence has been pronounced which changes the rest of life. Its flowers, its fruits, its toys, its ribbons, but deepened the derision and the bitterness. And the evergreen there in the middle of the room — it became to her as that tree of the knowledge of good and evil which at Creation’s morning had driven Woman from Paradise.
She chose the other way and started toward the main hall of the house, but paused in the doorway and looked back at the bed; what if he should awake in the dark, alone, with no knowledge of where she was? Would he call out to her — with what voice? Would he come to seek her — with what emotions? (The tide of memories was setting in now — the drift back to the old mooring.)
Hunt for her! How those words fell like iron strokes on the ear of remembrance. They registered the beginning of the whole trouble. Up to the last two years his first act upon reaching home had been to seek her. It had even been her playfulness at times to slip from room to room for the delight of proving how persistently he would prolong his search. But one day some two years before this, when she had entered his study about the usual hour of his return, bringing flowers for his writing desk, she saw him sitting there, hat on, driving gloves on, making some notes. The sight had struck the flowers from her hands; she swiftly gathered them up, and going to her room, shut herself in; she knew it was the beginning of the end.
The Shadow which lurks in every bridal lamp had become the Specter of the bedchamber.
When they met later that day, he was not even aware of what he had done or failed to do, the change in him was so natural to himself. Everything else had followed: the old look dying out of the eyes; the old touch abandoning the hands; less time for her in the house, more for work; constraint beginning between them, the awkwardness of reserve; she seeing Nature’s movement yet refusing to believe it; then at last resolving to know to the uttermost and choosing her bridal night as the hour of the ordeal.
If he awoke, would he come to seek her — with what feelings?
She went on upstairs, holding the candle to one side with her right hand and supporting herself by the banisters with her left. There was a turn in the stairway at the second floor, and here the candle rays fell on the face of the tall clock in the hallway. She sat down on a step, putting the candle beside her; and there she remained, her elbows on her knees, her face resting on her palms; and into the abyss of the night dropped the tranquil strokes. More memories!
She was by nature not only alive to all life but alive to surrounding lifeless things. Much alone in the house, she had sent her happiness overflowing its dumb environs — humanizing these — drawing them toward her by a gracious responsive symbolism — extending speech over realms which nature has not yet awakened to it or which she may have struck into speechlessness long aeons past.
She had symbolized the clock; it was the wooden God of Hours; she had often feigned that it might be propitiated; and opening the door of it she would pin inside the walls little clusters of blossoms as votive offerings: if it would only move faster and bring him home! The usual hour of his return from college was three in the afternoon. She had symbolized that hour; one stroke for him, one for her, one for the children — the three in one — the trinity of the household.
She sat there on the step with the candle burning beside her.
The clock struck three! The sound went through the house: down to him, up to the children, into her. It was like a cry of a night watch: all is well!
It was the first sound that had reached her from any source during this agony, and now it did not come from humanity, but from outside humanity; from Time itself which brings us together and holds us together as long as possible and then separates us and goes on its way — indifferent whether we are together or apart; Time which welds the sands into the rock and then wears the rock away to its separate sands and sends the level tide softly over them.
Once for him, once for her, once for the children! She took up the candle and went upstairs to them.
For a while she stood beside the bed in one room where the two little girls were asleep clasping each other, cheek against cheek; and in another room at the bedside of the two little boys, their backs turned on one another and each with a hand doubled into a promising fist outside the cover. In a few years how differently the four would be divided and paired; each boy a young husband, each girl a young wife; and out of the lives of the two of them who were hers she would then drop into some second place. If to-night she were realizing what befalls a wife when she becomes the Incident to her husband, she would then realize what befalls a woman when the mother becomes the Incident to her children: Woman, twice the Incident in Nature’s impartial economy! Her son would playfully confide it to his bride that she must bear with his mother’s whims and ways. Her daughter would caution her husband that he must overlook peculiarities and weaknesses. The very study of perfection which she herself had kindled and fanned in them as the illumination of their lives they would now turn upon her as a searchlight of her failings.
He downstairs would never do that! She could not conceive of his discussing her with any human being. Even though he should someday desert her, he would never discuss her.
She had lived so secure in the sense of him thus standing with her against the world, that it was the sheer withdrawal of his strength from her to-night that had dealt her the cruelest blow. But now she began to ask herself whether his protection had failed her. Could he have recognized the situation without rendering it worse? Had he put his arms around her, might she not have — struck at him? Had he laid a finger-weight of sympathy on her, would it not have left a scar for life? Any words of his, would they not have rung in her ears unceasingly? To pass it over was as though it had never been — was not that his protection?
She suddenly felt a desire to go down into the parlor. She kissed her child in each room and she returned and kissed the doctor’s children — with memory of their mother; and then she descended by the rear stairway.
She set her candle on the table, where earlier in the night she had placed the lamp — near the manuscript — and she sat down and looked at that remorsefully: she had ignored it when he placed it there.
He had made her the gift of his work — dedicated to her the triumphs of his toil. It was his deep cry to her to share with him his widening career and enter with him into the world’s service. She crossed her hands over it awhile, and then she left it.
The low-burnt candle did not penetrate far into the darkness of the immense parlor. There was an easy chair near her piano and her music. After playing when alone, she would often sit there and listen to the echoes of those influences that come into the soul from music only, — the rhythmic hauntings of some heaven of diviner beauty. She sat there now quite in darkness and closed her eyes; and upon her ear began faintly to beat the sad sublime tones of his story.
One of her delights in growing things on the farm had been to watch the youth of the hemp — a field of it, tall and wandlike and tufted. If the north wind blew upon it, the myriad stalks as by a common impulse swayed southward; if a zephyr from the south crossed it, all heads were instantly bowed before the north. West wind sent it east and east wind sent it west.
And so, it had seemed to her, is that ever living world which we sometimes call the field of human life in its perpetual summer. It is run through by many different laws; governed by many distinct forces, each of which strives to control it wholly — but never does. Selfishness blows on it like a parching sirocco, and all things seem to bow to the might of selfishness. Generosity moves across the expanse, and all things are seen responsive to what is generous. Place yourself where life is lowest and everything like an avalanche is rushing to the bottom. Place yourself where character is highest, and lo! the whole world is but one struggle upward to what is high. You see what you care to see, and find what you wish to find.
In his story of the Forest and the Heart he had wanted to trace but one law, and he had traced it; he had drawn all things together and bent them before its majesty: the ancient law of Sacrifice. Of old the high sacrificed to the low; afterwards the low to the high: once the sacrifice of others; now the sacrifice of ourselves; but always in ourselves of the lower to the higher in order that, dying, we may live.
With this law he had made his story a story of the world.
The star on the Tree bore it back to Chaldea; the candle bore it to ancient Persia; the cross bore it to the Nile and Isis and Osiris; the dove bore it to Syria; the bell bore it to Confucius; the drum bore it to Buddha; the drinking horn to Greece; the tinsel to Romulus and Rome; the doll to Abraham and Isaac; the masks to Gaul; the mistletoe to Britain, — and all brought it to Christ, — Christ the latest world-ideal of sacrifice that is self-sacrifice and of the giving of all for all.
The story was for herself, he had said, and for himself.
Himself! Here at last all her pain and wandering of this night ended: at the bottom of her wound where rankled his problem .
From this problem she had most shrunk and into this she now entered: She sacrificed herself in him! She laid upon herself his temptation and his struggle.
Taking her candle, she passed back into her bedroom and screened it where she had screened it before; then went into his bedroom.
She put her wedding ring on again with blanched lips. She went to his bedside, and drawing to the pillow the chair on which his clothes were piled, sat down and laid her face over on it; and there in that shrine of feeling where speech is formed, but whence it never issues, she made her last communion with him:
“You, to whom I gave my youth and all that youth could mean to me; whose children I have borne and nurtured at my breast — all of whose eyes I have seen open and the eyes of some of whom I have closed; husband of my girlhood, loved as no woman ever loved the man who took her home; strength and laughter of his house; helper of what is best in me; my defender against things in myself that I cannot govern; pathfinder of my future; rock of the ebbing years! Though my hair turn white as driven snow and flesh wither to the bone, I shall never cease to be the flame that you yourself have kindled.
“But never again to you! Let the stillness of nature fall where there must be stillness! Peace come with its peace! And the room which heard our whisperings of the night, let it be the Room of the Silences — the Long Silences! Adieu, cross of living fire that I have so clung to! — Adieu! — Adieu! — Adieu! — Adieu!”
She remained as motionless as though she had fallen asleep or would not lift her head until there had ebbed out of her life upon his pillow the last drop of things that must go.
She there — her whitening head buried on his pillow: it was Life’s Calvary of the Snows.
The dawn found her sitting in the darkest corner of the room, and there it brightened about her desolately. The moment drew near when she must awaken him; the ordeal of their meeting must be over before the children rushed downstairs or the servants knocked.
She had plaited her hair in two heavy braids, and down each braid the gray told its story through the black. And she had brushed it frankly away from brow and temples so that the contour of her head — one of nature’s noblest — was seen in its simplicity. It is thus that the women of her land sometimes prepare themselves at the ceremony of their baptism into a new life.
She had put on a plain night-dress, and her face and shoulders rising out of this had the austerity of marble — exempt not from ruin, but exempt from lesser mutation. She looked down at her wrists once and made a little instinctive movement with her fingers as if to hide them under the sleeves.
Then she approached the bed. As she did so, she turned back midway and quickly stretched her arms toward the wall as though to flee to it. Then she drew nearer, a new pitiful fear of him in her eyes — the look of the rejected.
So she stood an instant and then she reclined on the edge of the bed, resting on one elbow and looking down at him.
For years her first words to him on this day had been the world’s best greeting:
“A Merry Christmas!”
She tried to summon the words to her lips and have them ready.
At the pressure of her body on the bed he opened his eyes and instantly looked to see what the whole truth was: how she had come out of it all, what their life was to be henceforth, what their future would be worth. But at the sight of her so changed — something so gone out of her forever — with a quick cry he reached his arms for her. She struggled to get away from him; but he, winding his arms shelteringly about the youth-shorn head, drew her face close down against his face. She caught at one of the braids of her hair and threw it across her eyes, and then silent convulsive sobs rent and tore her, tore her. The torrent of her tears raining down into his tears.
Tears not for Life’s faults but for Life when there are no faults. They locked in each other’s arms — trying to save each other on Nature’s vast lonely, tossing, uncaring sea.
The rush of children’s feet was heard in the hall and there was smothered laughter at the door and the soft turning of the knob.
It was Christmas Morning.
The sun rose golden and gathering up its gold threw it forward over the gladness of the Shield. The farmhouse — such as the poet had sung of when he could not help singing of American home life — looked out from under its winter roof with the cheeriness of a human traveler who laughs at the snow on his hat and shoulders. Smoke poured out of its chimneys, bespeaking brisk fires for festive purposes. The oak tree beside it stood quieted of its moaning and tossing. Soon after sunrise a soul of passion on scarlet wings, rising out of the snow-bowed shrubbery, flew up to a topmost twig of the oak; and sitting there with its breast to the gorgeous sun scanned for a little while that landscape of ice. It was beyond its intelligence to understand how nature could create it for Summer and then take Summer away. Its wisdom could only have ended in wonderment that a sun so true could shine on a world so false.
Frolicking servants fell to work, sweeping porches and shoveling paths. After breakfast a heavy-set, middle-aged man, his face red with fireside warmth and laughter, without hat or gloves or overcoat, rushed out of the front door pursued by a little soldier sternly booted and capped and gloved; and the two snowballed each other, going at it furiously. Watching them through a window a little girl, dancing a dreamy measure of her own, ever turned inward and beckoned to someone to come and look — beckoned in vain.
All day the little boy beat the drum of Confucius; all day the little girl played with the doll — hugged to her breast the symbol of ancient sacrifice, the emblem of the world’s new mercy. Along the turnpike sleigh-bells were borne hither and thither by rushing horses; and the shouts of young men on fire to their marrow went echoing across the shining valleys.
Christmas Day! Christmas Day! Christmas Day!
One thing about the house stood in tragic aloofness from its surroundings; just outside the bedroom window grew a cedar, low, thick, covered with snow except where a bough had been broken off for decorating the house; here owing to the steepness the snow slid off. The spot looked like a wound in the side of the Divine purity, and across this open wound the tree had hung its rosary-beads never to be told by Sorrow’s fingers.
The sunset golden and gathering up its last gold threw it backward across the sadness of the Shield. One by one the stars came back to their faithful places above the silence and the whiteness. A swinging lamp was lighted on the front porch and its rays fell on little round mats of snow stamped off by entering boot heels. On each gatepost a low Christmas star was set to guide and welcome good neighbors; and between those beacons soon they came hurrying, fathers and mothers and children assembling for the party.
Late into the night the party lasted.
The logs blazed in deep fireplaces and their Forest Memories went to ashes. Bodily comfort there was and good-will and good wishes and the robust sensible making the best of what is best on the surface of our life. And hale eating and drinking as old England itself once ate and drank at Yuletide. And fast music and dancing that ever wanted to go faster than the music.
The chief feature of the revelry was the distribution of gifts on the Christmas Tree — the handing over to this person and to that person of those unread lessons of the ages — little mummied packages of the lord of time. One thing no one noted. Fresh candles had replaced those burnt out on the Tree the night before: all the candles were white now.
Revelers! Revelers! A crowded canvas! A brilliantly painted scene! Controlling everything, controlling herself, the lady of the house: hunting out her guests with some grace that befitted each; laughing and talking with the doctor; secretly giving most attention to the doctor’s wife — faded little sufferer; with strength in her to be the American wife and mother in the home of the poet’s dream: the spiritual majesty of her bridal veil still about her amid life’s snow as it never lifts itself from the face of the Jungfrau amid the sad most lovely mountains: the American wife and mother! — herself the Jungfrau among the world’s women!
The last thing before the company broke up took place what often takes place there in happy gatherings: the singing of the song of the State which is also a song of the Nation — its melody of the unfallen home: with sadness enough in it, God knows, but with sanctity: she seated at the piano — the others upholding her like a living bulwark.
There was another company thronging the rooms that no one wot of: those Bodiless Ones that often are much more real than the embodied — the Guests of the Imagination.
The Memories were there, strolling back and forth through the chambers arm and arm with the Years: bestowing no cognizance upon that present scene nor aware that they were not alone. About the Christmas Tree the Wraiths of earlier children returned to gambol; and these knew naught of those later ones who had strangely come out of the unknown to fill their places. Around the walls stood other majestical Veiled Shapes that bent undivided attention upon the actual pageant: these were Life’s Pities. Ever and anon they would lift their noble veils and look out upon that brief flicker of our mortal joy, and drop them and relapse into their compassionate vigil.
But of the Bodiless Ones there gathered a solitary young Shape filled the entire house with her presence. As the Memories walked through the rooms with the Years, they paused ever before her and mutely beckoned her to a place in their Sisterhood. The children who had wandered back peeped shyly at her but then with some sure instinct of recognition ran to her and threw down their gifts, to put their arms around her. And the Pities before they left the house that night walked past her one by one and each lifted its veil and dropped it more softly.
This was the Shape:
In the great bedroom on a spot of the carpet under the chandelier — which had no decoration whatsoever — stood an exquisite Spirit of Youth, more insubstantial than Spring morning mist, yet most alive; her lips scarce parted — her skin like white hawthorn shadowed by pink — in her eyes the modesty of withdrawal from Love — in her heart the surrender to it. During those distracting hours never did she move nor did her look once change: she waiting there — waiting for someone to come — waiting.
The Doctor’s Christmas Eve
First published : 1910
Chapter 1 — The Children of Desire
The morning of the twenty-fourth of December a quarter of a century ago opened upon the vast plateau of central Kentucky as a brilliant but bitter day — with a wind like the gales of March.
Out in a neighborhood of one of the wealthiest and most thickly settled counties, toward the middle of the forenoon, two stumpy figures with movements full of health and glee appeared on a hilltop of the treeless landscape. They were the children of the neighborhood physician, a man of the highest consequence in his part of the world; and they had come from their home, a white and lemon-colored eighteenth-century manor house a mile in their rear. Through the crystalline air the chimneys of this low structure, rising out of a green girdle of cedar trees, could be seen emptying unusual smoke which the wind in its gamboling pounced upon and jerked away level with the chimney-tops.
But if you had stood on the hill where the two children climbed into view and if your eye could have swept round the horizon with adequate radius of vision, it would everywhere have been greeted by the same wondrous harmonious spectacle: out of the chimneys of all dwellings scattered in comfort and permanence over that rich domestic land — a land of Anglo-Saxon American homes — more than daily winter smoke was pouring: one spirit of preparation, one mood of good will, warmed houses and hearts. The whole visible heaven was receiving the incense of Kentucky Christmas fires; the whole visible earth was a panorama of the common peace.
The two dauntless, frost-defying wayfarers — what Emerson, meeting them in the depths of a New England winter, might have called two scraps of valor — were following across fields and meadows and pastures one of the footpaths which children who are friendly neighbors naturally make in order to get to each other, as the young of wild creatures trace for themselves upon the earth some new map of old hereditary traits and cravings. For the goal of their journey they were hurrying toward a house not yet in sight but hardly more than a mile ahead, where they were to spend Christmas Day and share in an old people’s and children’s Christmas-Tree party on Christmas Night — and where also they were to put into execution a plot of their own: about which a good deal is to be narrated.
They were thus transferring the nation’s yearly festival of the home from their own roof-tree to that of another family as the place where it could be enacted and enjoyed. The tragical meaning of this arrangement was but too well understood by their parents. To them the abandonment of their own fireside at the season when its bonds should have been freshened and deepened scarcely seemed an unnatural occurrence. The other house had always been to them as a secondary home. It was the residence of their father’s friend, a professor in the State University situated some miles off across fine country. His two surviving children, a boy and a girl of about their own ages, had always been their intimate associates. And the woman of that household — the wife, the mother — all their lives they had been mysteriously impelled toward this gentlewoman by a power of which they were unconscious but by which they had been swayed.
The little girl wore a crimson hood and a brown cloak and the boy a crimson skull cap and a brown overcoat; and both wore crimson mittens; and both were red-legged and red-footed; for stockings had been drawn over their boots to insure warmth and to provide safeguard against slipping when they should cross the frozen Elkhorn or venture too friskily on silvery pools in the valley bottoms.
The chestnut braids of the girl falling heavily from under her hood met in a loop in the middle of her broad fat back and were tied there with a snip of ribbon that looked like a feather out of the wing of a bluejay. Her bulging hips overreached the borders of the narrow path, so that the boy was crowded out upon the rough ground as he struggled forward close beside her. She would not allow him to walk in front of her and he disdained to walk behind.
“Then walk beside me or go back!” she had said to him, laughing carelessly.
She looked so tight inside her wrappings, so like a jolly ambulatory small barrel well hooped and mischievously daubed here and there with vermilion, that you might have had misgivings as to the fate of the barrel, were it to receive a violent jolt and be rolled over. No thought of such mishap troubled her as she trotted forward, balancing herself as lightly on her cushioned feet as though she were wind-carried thistledown. Nor was she disturbed by her selfishness in monopolizing the path and forcing her brother to encounter whatsoever the winter earth obtruded — stumps of forest trees, brambles of blackberry, sprouts of cane, or stalks of burdock and of Spanish needle. His footing was especially troublesome when he tried to straddle wide corn-rows with his short legs; or when they crossed a hemp-field where the butt-ends of the stalks serried the frost-gray soil like bayonet points. Altogether his exertions put him out of breath somewhat, for his companion was fleet and she made no allowance for his delays and difficulties.
Her hands, deep in the fleece-lined mittens, were comfortably warm; but she moreover kept them thrust into a muff of white fur, which also looked overfed and seemed of a gay harmony with its owner. This muff she now and then struck against her flexed knees in a vixenish playfulness as one beats a tambourine on a bent elbow; and at a certain point of the journey, having glanced sidewise at him and remarked his breath on the icy air, she lifted it to her mouth and spoke guardedly from behind it: —
“Remember the last thing Papa told us at the window, Herbert: we were to keep our mouths closed and to breathe through our noses. And remember also, my child, that we were to rely upon — especially to rely upon — the ribs and the diaphragm! I wonder why he thought it necessary to tell us that! Did he suppose that as soon as we got by ourselves or arrived at the Ousleys’, we’d begin to rely upon something else, and perhaps try to breathe with our spines and elbows?”
Her eyes sparkled with mischief, and her laughter had the audacity of a child’s satire, often more terrible in its small world than a sage’s in his larger one. The instant she spoke, you recognized the pertness and precocity of an American child — which, when seen at its best or at its worst, is without precedent or parallel among the world’s children. She was the image of a hard-bold crisp newness. Her speech was new, her ideas were new, her impertinence was new — except in this country. She appeared to have gathered newness during her short life, to be newer than the day she was born. The air was full of frost spangles that zigzagged about her as she danced along; they rather seemed like particles of salt especially provided to escort her character. If it had been granted Lot’s wife with tears of repentance to dissolve away the crystals of her curiosity and resume the duties of motherhood, — though possibly permeated by a mild saline solution as a warning, — that salt-cured matron might admirably have adapted herself to the decrees of Providence by producing Elsie.
The boy as she administered her caution stopped; and shutting his own red mouth, which was like hers though more generous, he drew a long breath through his nostrils; then, throwing back his head, he blew this out with an open-mouthed puff, and a column of white steam shot up into the blue ether and was whirled away by the wind. He stood studying it awhile as it disappeared, for he was a close observer always — a perpetual watcher of the thing that is — sometimes an observer fearful to confront. Then he sprang forward to catch up with his sharp-tongued monitress, who had hurried on. As he came alongside, he turned his face toward her and made his reply, which was certainly deliberate enough in arriving: —
“We have to be taught the best way to breathe, Elsie; as anything else!”
The defense only brought on a fresh attack: —
“I wonder who teaches the young of other animals how to breathe! I should like to know who teaches kittens and puppies and calves and lambs how to breathe! How do they ever manage to get along without country doctors among them! Imagine a middle-aged sheep — old Dr. Buck — assembling a flock of lambs and trying to show them how to breathe!” Judging from Elsie’s expression, the lambs in the case could not have thought very highly of this queer and genial Dr. Buck.
“But they are all four-legged creatures, Elsie; and they breathe backward and forward; if you are a two-legged animal and stand up straight, you breathe up and down: it’s quite different! It’s easier!”
“Then I suppose the fewer legs a thing has, the harder it is to get its breath. And I suppose if we ventured to stand on one leg, we’d all soon suffocate! Dear me! why don’t all one-legged people die at once!”
The lad looked over the field of war on which it would seem that he was being mowed down by small-gun fire before he could get his father’s heavy artillery into action. He decided to terminate the wordy engagement, a prudential maneuver of the wiser head but slower tongue.
“Father is right,” he declared. His manner of speaking was sturdy and decisive: it was meant to remind her first that he had enough gallantry as a male to permit her to crowd him out of the path; but that the moment a struggle for mental footing arose between them, he reserved the whole road: the female could take to the weeds! He notified her also that he stood with his father not only in this puzzling question of legs and parlous types of respiration, but that the men in the family were regularly combined against the women — like good organized against evil!
But now something further had transpired. Had there been present on the winter fields that morning an ear trained to separate our complex human tones into simple ones — to disengage one from another the different fibers of meaning which always make up even the slenderest tendril of sound (as there is a cluster of grapes to a solitary stem), it might, as it noted one thing, have discovered another. While the boy asserted his father to be right in the matter they were debating, there escaped from him an accent of admission that his father was wrong — wrong in some far graver affair which was his discovery and his present trouble.
Therefore his voice, which should have been buoyant, for the instant was depressed; and his face, which should have been a healthy boy’s happy face, was overcast as by a foreign interference. You might have likened it to a small luminary upon the shining disk of which a larger body, traversing its darkened orbit, has just begun to project a wavering shadow. And thus some patient astronomer of our inter-orbited lives, sweeping the spiritual heavens for signs of its pendent mysteries, here might have arrested his telescope to watch the portent of a celestial event: was there to take place the eclipse of a son by a father?
Certainly at least this weight of responsibility on the voice must have caused it to strike only the more winningly upon any hearer. It was such a devoted, loyal voice when he thus spoke of his father, with a curious quavering huskiness of its own, as though the bass note of his distant manhood were already beginning to clamor to be heard.
The voice of the little girl contrariwise was a shrill treble. Had you first become aware of it at your back, you must instantly have wheeled to investigate the small creature it came from, as a wild animal quickly turns to face any sound that startles its instincts. Voltaire might have had such a voice if he had been a little girl. Yet to look at her, you would never have imagined that anything but the honey of speech could have dripped from so perfect a little rose. (Many surprises await mankind behind round amiable female faces: shrews are not all thin.)
Instead of being silenced by her brother’s ultimatum, she did not deign to notice it, but continued to direct her voluble satire at her father — quite with the air of saying that a girl who can satirize a parent is not to be silenced by a son.
“...forever telling us that American children must have the newest and best way of doing everything... My, my, my! The working of our jaws! And the drinking and the breathing; and the stretching and the bending: developing everything we have — and everything we haven’t! I am even trying now to find an original American way to go to sleep at night and to wake up in the morning! Dear me, but old people can be silly without knowing it!” She laughed with much self-approval.
For Elsie had already entered into one of mankind’s most dependable recreations — the joy of listening to our own words: into that economic arrangement of nature whereby whatsoever a human being might lose through the vocal cords is returned to the owner along the auditory nerve! So that a woman can eat her colloquial cake times over: and each time, having devoured it, can return it to the storeroom and have it brought out as whole and fresh as ever — sometimes actually increased in size. And a man can send his vocal Niagara through his whirlpool rapids and catch it again above the falls! The more gold the delver unearths, the more he can empty back into the thinking mine. One can sit in his own cranial theatre and produce his own play: he can be stage and orchestra, audience and critic; and he can see that the claque does not get drowsy and slack: it never does — in this case!
The child now threw back her round winter-rose of a face and started along the path with a fresh outburst of speed and pride. Access of impertinence seemed to have released in her access of vitality. Perhaps it had. Perhaps it always does. Perhaps life itself at the full is sheer audacity.
The lad scrambled roughly along, and merely repeated the words that sufficed for him: —
“Father knows.”
Suddenly he gave a laughing outcry, and stood still.
“Look!” he called out, with amusement at his plight.
He had run into some burdock, and the nettles had stuck to his yarn stockings like stinging bees — a cluster of them about his knees and calves. He drew off his gloves, showing the strong, overgrown hands of boyhood: they, like his voice, seemed impatiently reaching out for maturity.
When he overtook his companion, who had not stopped, he had transferred a few of the burrs to his skull cap. He had done this with crude artistry — from some faint surviving impulse of primitive man to decorate his body with things around him in nature: especially his head (possibly he foresaw that his head would be most struck at). The lad was pleased with his caper; and, smiling, thrust his head across her path, expecting her to take sympathetic notice. He had reason to expect this, because on dull rainy days at home he often amused her with the things he did and the things he made: for he was a natural carpenter and toy-maker. But now she took only the contemptuous notice of disapproval. This morning her mind was intent on playthings of positive value: she was a little travelling ten-toed pagoda of holiday greed. Every Christmas she prepared for its celebration with a balancing eye to what it would cost her and what it would bring in: she always calculated to receive more than she gave: for Elsie, the Nativity must be made to pay !
He resented her refusal to approve his playfulness by so much as a smile, and he came back at her by doing worse: —
“Why didn’t I think to bring all the burrs along and make a Christmas basket for Elizabeth? Now what will I give her?”
This drew out a caustic comment quickly enough: —
“Poor Elizabeth!”
A child resents injustice with a blow or rage or tears: the old have learned to endure without a sign — waiting for God’s day of judgment (or their first good opportunity!).
He was furious at the way she said “Poor Elizabeth” — as though Elizabeth’s hands would be empty of gifts from him.
“You know I have bought my presents for Elizabeth, Elsie!” he exclaimed. “But Elizabeth thinks more of what I make than of what I buy ,” he continued hotly. “And the less it is worth, the more she values it. But you can’t understand that , Elsie! And you needn’t try!”
The little minx laughed with triumph that she had incensed him.
“I don’t expect to try!” she retorted blithely. “I don’t see that I’d gain anything, if I did understand. You and Elizabeth are a great deal too —”
He interrupted overbearingly: —
“Leave Elizabeth out! Confine your remarks to me!”
“My remarks will be wholly unconfined,” said Elsie, as she trotted forward.
He scrambled alongside in silent rage. Perhaps he was thinking of his inability to reach protected female license. He may obscurely have felt that life’s department of justice was being balked at the moment by its department of natural history — a not uncommon interference in this too crowded world. At least he put himself on record about it: —
“If you were a boy, Elsie, you’d get taken down a buttonhole!”
“Don’t you worry about my buttonholes!” chirped Elsie. “My buttonholes are where they ought to be!”
It was not the first time that he had made something of this sort for Elizabeth. One morning of the May preceding he had pulled apart the boughs of a blooming lilac bush in the yard, and had seen a nest with four pale-green eggs. That autumn during a ramble in the woods and fields he had taken burrs and made a nest and deposited in it four pale-green half-ripe horse chestnuts.
Elizabeth, who did not amount to much in this world but breath and a soft cloud of hair and sentiment, had loyally carried it off to her cabinet of nests. These were duly arranged on shelves, and labelled according to species and life and love: “The Meadow Lark’s” — “The Blue-bird’s” — “The Orchard Oriole’s” — “The Brown Thrasher’s”; on and on along the shelves. At the end of a row she placed this treasured curiosity, and inscribed it, “An Imitation by a Young Animal.”
Elizabeth’s humor was a mild beam.
Do country children in that part of the world make such playthings now? Do they still look to wild life and not wholly to the shops of cities for the satisfying of their instincts for toys and games and fancies?
Do alder stalks still race down dusty country lanes as thoroughbred colts, afterwards to be tied in their stalls in fence corners with halters of green hemp? Does any little rustic instrument-maker now draw melodies from a homegrown corn-stalk? Across rattling window-panes of old farm-houses — between withered sashes — during long winter nights does there sound the aeolian harp made with a hair from a horse-tail? Do boys still squeeze the red juice of poke-berries on the plumage of white barnyard roosters, thus whenever they wish bringing on a cock-fight between old far-squandered Cochins, who long previously had entered into a treaty as to their spheres of influence in a Manchuria of hens? Do the older boys some wet night lead the youngest around the corner of the house in the darkness and show him, there! rising out of the ground! the long expected Devil come at last (as a pumpkin carved and candle-lighted) for his own particular urchin? When in autumn the great annual ceremony of the slaughter of the swine takes place on the farms at the approach of the winter solstice, — a festival running back to aboriginal German tribes before the beginnings of agriculture, when the stock that had been fattened on the mast and pasturage of the mountains was driven down into the villages and perforce killed to keep it from starving, — when this carnival of flesh recurs on Kentucky farms, do boys with turkey-quills or goose-quills blow the bladders up, tie the necks and hang them in smoke-houses or garrets to dry; and then at daybreak of Christmas morning, having warmed and expanded them before the fire, do they jump on them and explode them — a primitive folk-rite for making a magnificent noise ages older than the use of crackers and cannon?
Do children contrive their picture-frames by glueing October acorns and pine-cones to ovals of boards and giving the mass a thick coat of varnish? On winter nights do little girls count the seeds of the apples they are eating and pronounce over them the incantation of their destinies — thus in another guise going through the same charm of words that Marguerite used as she scattered earthward the petals of trust and ruin? Do they, sitting face to face bareheaded on sun-hued meadows, pluck the dandelion when its seed are clustered at the top like a ball of gauze, and with one breath try to blow these off: for the number of seed that remain will tell the too many years before they shall be asked in marriage? Do they slit the stems and cast them into the near brook and watch them form into ringlets and floating hair — as of a water spirit? Do they hold buttercups under each other’s chins to see who likes butter — that is, mind you, good butter! Romping little Juliets of Nature’s proud courtyards — with young Montagues watching from afar! Sane little Ophelias of the garland at the water’s brink — secure for many years yet from all sad Hamlets! Do country children do such things and have such notions now?
Perhaps once in a lifetime, on some summer day when the sky was filled with effulgence and white clouds, you may have seen a large low-flying bird cross the landscape straight away from you, so exactly poised under the edge of a cloud, that one of the wings beat in shadow while the other waved in light. Thus these two children, following their path over the fields that morning, ran along the dividing-line between the darkness and the light of their world.
On one side of them lay the thinning shadow of man’s ancient romance with Nature which is everywhere most rapidly dying out in this civilization — the shadow of that romance which for ages was the earliest ray of his religion: in later centuries became the splendor of his art; then loomed as the historic background of his titanic myths and fables; and now only in obscure valleys is found lingering in the play of superstitious children at twilights before darkness engulfs them — the latest of the infants in the dusk of the oldest gods.
On the other side blazed the hard clear light of that realism of human life which is the unfolding brightness of the New World; that light of reason and of reasonableness which seems to take from man both his mornings and his evenings, with all their half-lights and their mysteries; and to leave him only a perpetual noonday of the actual in which everything loses its shadow. So the two ran that morning. But so children ever run — between the fresh light and the old darkness of ever-advancing humanity — between the world’s new birth and a forgetting.
On the brother and sister skipped and bounded, wild with health and Christmas joy. Their quarrel was in a moment forgotten — happy children! The nature of the little girl was not deep enough to remember a quarrel; the boy’s nature was too deep to remember one. Crimson-tipped, madcap, winter spirits! The blue dome vaulting infinitely above them with all its clouds pushed aside; the wind throwing itself upon them at every step like some huge young animal force unchained for exercise and rude in its good-natured play. As they crossed a woodland pasture the hoary trees rocked and roared, strewing in their path bits of bark and rotten twigs and shattered sprigs of mistletoe. In an open meadow a yellow-breasted lark sprang reluctantly from its cuddling-place and drifted far behind them on the rushing air. In a corn-field out of a dried bunch of partridge grass a rabbit started softly and went bobbing away over the corn-rows — with its white flag run up at the rear end of the fortifications as a notice “Please not to shoot or otherwise trespass!” Alas, that so palpable and polite a request should be treated as so plain a target!
Once the little girl changed her trotting gait to a walk nearly as fast, so that her skirts swished from side to side of her plump hips with wren-like energy and briskness. Her mind was still harping on her father; and having satirized him, and adoring him, she now would fain approve him.
“My! but it’s cold, Herbert! Papa says it is not sickness that plays havoc with you: it’s not being ready for sickness; and being ready depends upon how you have lived: it depends upon what you are; and that’s where your virtue comes in, my child, if you have any virtue. We have been taught to stay out of doors when it is cold; and now we can come out when it is colder. We were ready for the crisis!” and Elsie pushed her nose into the air with smallish amusement.
The boy gravely pondered her words about crisis, and pondered his own before replying: —
“I wonder what kind of children we’d have been if we’d had some other father. Or some other mother ,” he added with a change of tone as he uttered that last word; and he looked askance at his sister to see whether she would glance at him.
She kept her face set straight forward; but she impatiently exclaimed: —
“Others, others, others! You are always thinking of others , Herbert!”
“I am one of them myself! I am one of the others myself!” cried the boy, relieved that his secret was his own; and bounding suddenly on the earth also as if with a sense of his kinship to its unseen host.
The question he had asked marked him: for he was one of the children who from the outset begin to ask of life what it means and who are surprised when there is no one to tell them. For him there was no rest until he solved some mystery or had at least found out where some mystery stood abandoned on the road — a mystery still. Her intelligence stopped short at what she perfectly knew. She saw with amazing clearness, but she beheld very little. Hers was that order of intelligence which is gifted with vision of almost terrifying accuracy — at short range: life is a thin painted curtain, and its depths are the painted curtain’s depths.
Once they came to a pair of bars which led into a meadow. The bars were of green timber and were very heavy. As he strained and tugged at them, she waited close behind him, dancing to the right and to the left so that there was a sound of mud-crystals being crushed under her tyrannical little fat feet.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” she exclaimed with impatience. “We may run in the cold, but we must not stand still in the cold;” and she kicked him on the heels and pummeled him between the shoulders with her muff.
“I am doing my best,” he said, laughing heartily.
“Your best is not good enough,” she urged, laughing heartily likewise.
“This bar is wedged tight. It’s the sap that’s frozen to the post. Look out there behind!”
He stepped back, and, with a short run, lifted his leg and kicked the bar with his full strength. The recoil threw him backward to the ground, but he was quickly on his feet again; and as the bar was now loosened, he let it down for her. She stepped serenely through and without looking back or waiting trotted on. He put the bars up and with a spurt soon overtook her, for the meadow they were now crossing had been closely grazed in the autumn and there was better walking. They went up rising ground and reached one of those dome-like elevations which are a feature of the blue-grass country.
Straight ahead of them half a mile away stood the house toward which they were hastening; a two-story brick house, lifted a little above its surroundings of yard and gardens and shrubbery and vines: an oak-tree over its roof, cedar-trees near its windows, ivy covering one of its walls, a lawn sloping from it to a thicket of evergreens where its Christmas Tree each year was cut.
The children greeted with fresh enthusiasm the sight of this charming, this ideal place to which they were transferring their Christmas plans and pleasures — abandoning their own hearthstone. There lived their father’s friend; there lived Harold and Elizabeth, their friends; and there lived the wife and mother of the household — the woman toward whom from their infancy they had been herded as by a driving hand.
The tell-tale Christmas smoke of the land was pouring from its chimneys, showing that it was being warmed through and through for coming guests and coming festivities. At one end of the building, in an ell, was the kitchen; it sent forth a volume of smoke, the hospitable invitations of which there was no misunderstanding. At the opposite end was the parlor: it stood for the Spirit, as the kitchen for the honest Flesh: the wee travelers on the distant hilltop thought of the flesh first.
They had no idea of the origin of the American Christmas. They did not know that this vast rolling festival has migrated to the New World, drawing with it things gathered from many lands and centuries; that the cooking and the feasting crossed from pagan England; that the evergreen with its lights and gifts came from pagan Germany; that the mystical fireside with its stockings was introduced from Holland; that the evergreen now awaiting them in the shut and darkened parlor of this Kentucky farm-house represented the sacred Tree which has been found in nearly every ancient land and is older than the Tree of Life in the literature of Eden.
As far as they thought of the antiquity of the Christmas festival at all, it had descended straight from the Holy Land and the Manger of Bethlehem; this error now led to complications.
The boy’s crimson skull-cap had a peak which curled forward; and attached to this peak by several inches of crewel hung a round crimson ball about the size of the seed-ball of a sycamore. The shifting wind blew it hither and thither so that it buffeted him in the face and eyes. On this exposed height, especially, the wind raced free; and he ducked his head and turned his face sidewise toward her — an imp of winter joy — as he shouted across the gale: —
“If people are still baking such quantities of cake in memory of Christmas after all these hundreds of years, don’t you suppose, Elsie, that the Apostles must have been fearful cake-eaters? To have left such an impression on the world! Cake is a kind of sacred thing at home even yet, isn’t it? A fine cake looks still as if it was baked for an Apostle! Doesn’t it? Now doesn’t it?”
Elsie did not reply at once. Her younger brother was growing into the habit of saying unexpected things. Once after he had left the breakfast table, she had heard her father say to her mother that he had genius. Elsie was not positive as to all that genius comprised; but she at once decided that if she did not possess genius she did not wish genius. However she packed herself off to her room and thought further about this unpleasant parental discrimination.
“If he has genius,” she said finally, “at least he did not get it from them ,” and there was a triumph in her eye. “I see not the slightest sign of genius in either of them: he must have gotten it from our grandparents — never from them !”
From that moment she had begun to oppose her mind to his mind as a superior working instrument in a practical world. Whenever he put forth a fancy, she put forth a fact; and the fact was meant to extinguish the fancy as a muffler puts out a candle. After a moment she now replied — with a mind that had repudiated genius: —
“Nothing is said in the New Testament, my child, about cake. The only thing mentioned is loaves and fishes. But they do seem to have done an unconscionable amount of dining on bread and fish!” and Elsie had her own satirical laugh at the table customs of ancient Palestine as viewed from the Kentucky standard of the nineteenth century.
The boy before replying deliberated as always.
“They may not have had cake, but they had meat: because they said he sat with sinners at meat. I wonder why it was always the sinners who got the meat !”
Elsie could offer no personal objection to this: Providence had ordained her to dwell in the tents of flesh herself.
“How could they feed five thousand people on five loaves and two fishes? How could they? At one of those fish dinners!”
“They did it!” said Elsie flatly. She saw the whole transaction with brilliant clearness — saw to the depths of the painted curtain. It was as naturally fact as the family four of them at breakfast that morning, fed on home-smoked sausages and perfectly digestible buckwheat cakes.
“And twelve baskets of crumbs! That makes it worse! With bread for thousands everywhere, why pick up crumbs?”
“Nothing is said about crumbs; they were fragments.”
“But if I’ve got to believe it, I’ve got to think how they did it! I’ve got to! If I can’t think of it as it is, I must think of it as it isn’t! But I can’t do anything with the loaves; I give up the bread. However, I think those two fish might have been leviathans. That would be only two thousand five hundred people to each leviathan. Many of them might not have liked leviathan. I wouldn’t have wanted any! They could have skipped me! They could have had my slice! And the babies — they didn’t want much ! Anyhow, that’s the best I can do for the fish”; and he had his laugh also — not an incessant ripple like hers, but a music issuing from the depths of him through joy in the things he saw.
Elsie made the reply which of late was becoming habitual in her talks with him.
“Don’t begin to be peculiar , Herbert. You are too young to be peculiar . Leave that to old people!” and Elsie’s mind glided off from the loaves and the fishes of Galilee to certain old people of her neighborhood from whose eccentricities she extracted acrid amusement.
The boy’s words were not irreverent; irreverence had never been taught him; he did not know what irreverence was. They merely expressed the primary action of his mind in dealing with what to him was a wonder-story of Nature. And yet with this same mind which asked of wonder that it be reasonable, he was on his way to the celebration of Christmas Eve and to the story of the Nativity — the most joyous, the most sad, the most sublime Nature-story of mankind.
His unconscious requirement was that this also must be reasonable; if it were not, he would accept the portions that were reasonable and reject the others as now too childish for his fore-handed American brain.
They were nearing the end of their bitter walk. The little girl as she hurried forward now and then strained her eyes toward the opposite ends of the house ahead; at the kitchen smoke which promised such gifts to the flesh; at the window-shutters of the darkened parlor where the Christmas Tree stood, soon to be decorated with presents: some for her — the little fat mercenary now approaching who was positive that during these days of preparation she had struck a shrewd bargain with the Immortal.
The boy, too, looked at these windows; but especially he looked at another between them, from which perhaps Elizabeth was watching for him.
Once he turned, and, walking backward, directed his gaze from this high point far across the country. Somewhere back there his father might now be stopping at a farm-house. A malignant disease was raging among the children of the neighborhood, some of whom were his schoolmates and friends; the holidays would bring no merry Christmas for them.
Wherever his father might be, there an influence started and came rushing across the landscape like the shadow of a cloud. It fell upon him, and travelled on toward the house he was approaching; it disappeared within the house and fell upon the woman who so wonderfully moved about in it: a chilling mysterious shadow that bound the three of them — his father and himself and this gentle woman — together in a band of darkness.
Then he faced about and ran on, longing the more ardently for Elizabeth: the path between him and Elizabeth lay before his nimble feet like a band of light.
Chapter 2 — When a Boy Finds Out About His Father
On the day preceding that twenty-fourth of December when his two weather-proof untrammeled children were rioting over the frozen earth, Dr. Birney met with an event which may here be set down as casting the first direct light upon him. Some reflected radiance may already have gone glancing in his direction from the luminous prattle of his offspring; some obscure glimpses must therein have bodied him forth: and the portraits that children unconsciously paint of people — what trained hand ever drew such living lines?
A short stretch across the country from his comfortable manor house there towered in stateliness one of the finest homesteads of this region; and in the great bedroom of this house, in the mother’s bed, there had lain for days one of his patients critically ill, the only child of an intense mother who was herself no longer young.
Early that morning upon setting out he had driven rapidly to this house, gotten quickly out, and been quickly received through the front door thrown open to admit him. After examining the child, he had turned to the mother and spoken the words that are probably the happiest ever to fall from any tongue upon any ear: —
“He is out of danger. He is getting well.”
At this intelligence the mother forgot the presence of another mother older than herself who had come to be with her during these vigils and anxieties. As the doctor, having spoken a few words to the nurse, passed out into the hall toward the hat-rack, she led him into the parlors; she pulled him down into a chair beside the one she took; she caught his hand in hers and drew it into her lap. She forgot that after all she was a woman and he was a man; she remembered only that she was a mother and he a physician; and unnerved by the relief from days and nights of tension, she poured out her quivering gratitude.
The doctor with a warm light in his eyes listened; and he was flushed with pleasure also at his skill in bringing his case through; but she had scarcely begun before his expression showed embarrassment. Gratitude rendered him ill at ease: who can thank Science? Who can thank a man for doing his duty and his best? With a smile of deprecation he interrupted: —
“A great surgeon of France centuries ago was accustomed to say of a convalescent patient: ‘God cured him; I dressed him.’ I do not know whether, if I dared speak for the science of medicine near the close of the nineteenth century, I could say that. That is not the language of science now. If science thanks anything, it thanks other sciences and respects itself. But I will say that I might not have been able to save the life of your son if he had not been a healthy child — and a happy one; for happiness in a child is of course one of its signs of health. In his case I did not have to treat a patient with a disease; I had merely to treat a disease in a patient: and there is a great difference. The patient kept out of the case altogether, or in so far as he entered it, he entered it as my assistant. But if he had not been healthy and happy, the result might have been — well, different.”
The mother’s face became more radiant.
“If his health and happiness helped him through,” she exclaimed, “then his mother enters into the case; for his health was his birthright from his parents; and his happiness — on account of the absence of his father during most of his life when he has been awake — has been a gift from his mother. He has lived with Happiness; Happiness has been before his eyes; Happiness has filled his ears; Happiness has held him in its arms; Happiness has danced for his feet; Happiness has rocked him to sleep; Happiness has smiled over him when he awoke. He has not known anything but Happiness because Happiness has been his mother. And so, if he owes the preservation of his life to Happiness, he owes it to the instinct of maternal imitation.”
The doctor had heard this caroling of maternity with full approval — this heaven-rising skylark song of motherhood; but at the last sentence he pricked up his ears with disfavor and stopped smiling: with him these were marks that he had withdrawn his intellectual fellowship. The trouble was that he esteemed her a charming and irreproachable woman and wife and mother; but that he could accord her no rank as a scientist, no standing whatsoever; and therefore he must part company with her when she spoke for instincts. The instinct of maternal imitation — the vanity of it! That her sex could believe a child to be sent into this world by the great Mother of all wisdom and given so poor a start as to be placed under the tyranny of an instinct to imitate any other imperfect human being — man or woman.
Perhaps it was one of his weaknesses, when he came upon a case of folly, to wish to perform an operation in mental surgery at once — and without anesthetics, in order that the wide-awake intelligence of the sufferer might be enlisted against the recurrence of such a necessity.
In a tone of affectionate forbearance he now said: —
“If only there were any such thing in Nature as the instinct of maternal imitation! Children have enough instincts to battle with and fight their way through, as it is. Let me beg of you not to teach your child anything as criminally wrong as that; and don’t you be so criminally wrong as to believe it!”
The mother’s countenance fell. She released the doctor’s hand and pushed her chair back; and she brushed out her lap with both hands as though his words might somehow have fallen into it, and she did not wish them to remain there. She spoke caustically: —
“No intimate sacred bond between mother and child which guides it to imitate her?”
She felt as though he had attacked the very citadel of motherhood; as though he had overthrown the tested and adopted standards of universal thinking, the very basic idea of existence; and she recoiled from this as a taint of eccentricity in him — that early death-knell of a physician’s usefulness.
But the doctor swept her words away with gay warmth: —
“Oh, there is the intimate sacred bond, of course! No doubt the most intimate, the most sacred in this world. Believe in that all you can: the more the better! But we are not speaking of that: that has nothing to do with this imagined instinct of maternal imitation. Don’t you know that a foundling in a foundling asylum as instinctively imitates its nurse? Don’t you know that a child as instinctively imitates its stepmother — if it loves her? Don’t you know that a child as instinctively imitates its grandmother?”
The mother lay back in her chair and looked at him without a word. But then, Doctor Birney could be rude, curt, brutal. In proof of which he now leaned over toward her and continued with more gentleness: —
“Do you not know that every child in this world begins its advance into life by one path only — the path of least resistance? and its path of least resistance is paved and lined with what it likes! As soon as it can do anything for itself, it tries to do what it likes, and it never tries to do anything else. When, later on, a time comes when it can be persuaded to do a thing that it has already desired not to do, then its will comes into the case; it ceases to be simply a little animal and becomes a little human animal; it begins to be moral and heroic instead of unmoral and unheroic. But we are not talking about that. The best we can do is to call those earliest movements of its life the reaching out of its instincts and its taking hold of things that are like its own leading traits. The parallel is in Nature where the tendril of a vine takes hold of the matured branch of the same vine and pulls itself up by this. Thus one generation knits itself to another through the binding of like to like; and that is the whole bond between mother and child or father and child: it is like attaching itself to like under the influence of love. In this world every subject has two doors: you open one, and the good things come out. You open the other, and the evil things come out. This subject has its two doors: and I open first the door of Mother of Pearl — for you two pearls of mothers! Out of it come all the exquisite radiant traits that bind mothers and children. How many great men in history have begun their growth by attaching themselves to the great traits of their mothers? Then there is the other door. I am sorry to open it, but whether I open it or not, opened it will be: the Door of Ebony behind which are imprisoned all the dark things that bind parents and children. I am afraid I shall have to illustrate: if a child is born mendacious and its mother has mendacity as one of her leading traits, its little mendacity will flourish on her large mendacity. If it is born deceitful, and hypocrisy is one of her traits, hypocrisy in it will pull itself up by taking hold of hypocrisy in her. If it is born quick-tempered, and if ungovernable temper is one of her failings, every exhibition of this in her will foster its impatience and lack of self-control. These are some few of the dreadful things that come out: and if it is dreadful even to speak of them, think how much more dreadful to see them alive and to set them at work! Now let’s shut the dark Door! And let us hope that someday Nature herself may not be able to open it ever again!”
Hitherto the older of the two mothers, the mother of many children, had remained silent with that peculiar expression of patience and sweetness which lies like a halo on the faces of good women who have brought many children into the world. She now spoke as if to release many thoughts weighing heavily upon her.
“It has always been my trouble — not that my children would not imitate me, but that they would imitate me! I have my faults, for I am human; and I can endure them as long as they remain mine. They have ceased to give me much concern. I suppose in a way I have grown attached to them, just as I like people whom I do not entirely approve. But as soon as I see the children reproducing my faults, these become responsibilities. They keep me awake at night; sometimes they distress me almost beyond endurance. I know I have spent many anxious years with this problem. And I know also that the only times when their father has been overanxious about his failings has been when the boys have imitated him . He is always ready to lead a splendid attack on his faults, and they march at him from the direction of the boys!”
“And so,” said the doctor, laughing, “this instinct of parental imitation is an instrument safe to take by the handle, and dangerous to grasp by the blade!”
He knew fathers in the neighborhood who were dreading the time when their sons might begin to imitate them — too far. And other fathers dreading the hour when their sons might cease to imitate their sires, and wander away preferably to imitate persons outside the family connection, — possibly an instinct of non-parental imitation!
He rose to go in a mood of great good nature, and looked from one to the other of the two mothers: —
“Perhaps Nature protected children from the danger of imitating by not making it their duty to imitate. And perhaps, as all parents are imperfect human beings, she may have thought it simple justice to children to confer upon them the right to be disobedient. At least, if there is an instinct to obey, it is backed up with an equal instinct not to obey; and the two seem to have been left to fight it out between themselves; and that perhaps is the great battle-field where incessant fighting goes on between parents and children. And at least disobedience has been of equal value with obedience in the making of human history, in the development of the race. For if children had simply obeyed their parents, if the young had been born merely to ape the old, there never would have been any human young and old. We should all still be apes, even if we had developed as far as that. You two ladies — of course with greatly modified features — might be throwing cocoanuts at each other on the tops of two rival palm-trees. Or — as the dutiful daughters of dutiful mothers — you might be taking afternoon naps in an oasis of dates — all because of that instinct of maternal imitation!”
He hurried out to the hat-rack, making his retreat at the top of his own high spirits, they following; and with one glove on he held out his hand to the mother of the sick boy: —
“I’ll come in the morning to see how he is — and to see how his mother is. Now shake hands and say I have been a good doctor to you both.”
The mother’s reply showed that bitterness rankled in her, as she yielded her hand coldly: —
“Even if you have tried to destroy for me the intimate sacred bond between a mother and her child, I don’t think you will be able to deny that my boy is a healthy and happy child because he is a child of a perfect marriage!” And she looked with secret and shaded import at the other mother.
As the doctor drove out of the yard her last words lingered — the healthy children of a perfect marriage . And the look the two mothers had exchanged! It was as though each had a sword in her eye and touched him with the point of it — hinting that he merited being run through. How often during these years he had encountered that same look from other mothers of the neighborhood!
“But if a wound like that could have been fatal,” he reflected, “if a wound like that could have finished me, I should not have been here to save the life of her boy; he would have been dead this morning.”
Then his mind under the rigor of long training passed to happier subjects. His success in the case of this child was one more triumph in his long list; it renewed his grip on power within him.
But for the necessity to provide for a people the services of general practitioner, Dr. Birney would have made a specialty of children’s diseases. The happiest moment he experienced in his profession was a day such as this when he could announce the triumph of his skill and the saving of a young life. There was no sadder one than any day on which he walked out of the sick chamber and at the threshold met the gaunt ancient Presence, waiting to stalk in and take the final charge of the case given up by the vanquished physician. And when a few days later he sat in his buggy on the turnpike at the end of a procession — his healthy little patient stretched prostrate at the other end — he driving there as the public representative of a science that was ages old and that had gathered from all lands the wisdom of the best minds but was still impotent — on such a day he went down to his lowest defeat.
He had such faith in the future of his science that he looked forward to the time when there would be no such monstrous tragedy on this planet as infant mortality. No healthy child would ever be allowed to die of disease; disease would never be permitted to reach it, or reaching it, would be arrested as it arrived. The vast multitude of physicians and surgeons now camped around the morning of life, waiting to receive the incoming generations on the rosy mountain-tops of its dawn — nearly all these would be withdrawn; they would move across the landscape of the world and pitch their tents on the plains of waning daylight; there to receive the ragged and broken army that came staggering from the battle-field, every soldier more or less wounded, every soldier more or less weary; there to give them a twilight of least suffering, their sundown of peace; and there to arrange that the great dark Gates closed on them softly.
The conversation that morning disclosed among other facts the secret dread of Dr. Birney’s life: that the time would come when his children, especially his boy, might begin to imitate him more than he desired. For a long time now he had kept under closest observation the working out in each of them of the law of like attaching itself to like; for already this had borne fruit for both on the vine of his own profession.
A physician in a city may practice his profession with complete segregation from the members of his family; his office may be miles away; if he sees his patients in his house, his children are kept in another part of it. But out in the country the whole house is open; the children rove everywhere; if their father is a physician, they know when he starts and when he returns; and there is displayed in full view the entire drama of his life. And this life is twofold: for the physician must demonstrate as no member of any other profession is required to do — that whoever would best serve mankind must first best serve himself. In this service he must reach a solution of the selfish and the unselfish; he must reconcile the world’s two warring philosophies of egoism and altruism. The outside world has its attention fixed solely upon the drama of the physician’s public service to it; for the members of his own family is reserved acquaintance with the drama of his devotion to himself. Well for him and well for them if they do not misunderstand!
Each of Dr. Birney’s children responded to the attraction of a phase of his life — the phase that appealed to a leading trait in each.
From the time of the little girl’s beginning to observe her father she was influenced by what looked to her like his self-love: his care about what he ate and drank; his changing of his clothes whenever he came home, whether they were drenched or were dry; his constant washing of his hands; all this pageant of self-adulation mirrored itself in her consciousness. When he was away from home, she could still follow him by her mother’s solicitude for his comfort and safety. To Elsie’s mother the ill were not so much a source of anxiety as a husband who was perfectly well; and thus there had been built up in Elsie herself the domineering idea that her father was the all-important personage in the neighborhood as a consequence of thinking chiefly of himself. Selfishness in her reached out and twined itself like a tendril about selfishness in him; and she proceeded to lift herself up and grow by this vital bond.
Too young to transmit this resemblance, she did what she could to pass it on to the next generation: she handed it down and disseminated it in her doll-house. There was something terrifying and grim and awful in the fatalistic accuracy with which Elsie reproduced her father’s selfishness among her dolls, because it was on a mimic scale what is going on all over the world: the weaving by children’s fingers of parental designs long perpetuated in the tapestry of Nature; the same old looms, the same old threads, the same old designs — but new fingers.
One of the dolls was known as “the doctor”; the others were the members of his family and his domestics. This puppet was a perfect child-image of the god of self-idolatry, as set up in the person of a certain Dr. Downs Birney, and as observed by his very loyal and most affectionate and highly amused daughter Elsie.
One day the doctor, quietly passing the opened door of the nursery, saw Elsie on the floor with her back turned to him faithfully copying and dramatizing some of the daily scenes of his professional life. His eyes shone with humor as he looked on; but there was sadness in them as he turned silently away.
With the boy it was otherwise. The earliest notion of his father the boy had grasped was that of always travelling toward the sick — to a world that needed him. All the roads of the neighborhood — turnpikes, lanes, carriage-tracks, wagon-tracks, foot-paths — met at his father’s house; if you followed any one of them long enough, sooner or later you would reach someone who was sick.
When he was quite young his father began to take him in his buggy on his circuits; and at every house where they stopped, he witnessed this never-ending drama of need and aid. Such countenances people had as they followed his father out to the buggy where he was holding the reins! Such happy faces — or so sad, so sad! Souls hanging on his father’s word as though life went on with it or went to pieces with it. Actually his father had no business of his own: he merely drove about and enabled other people to attend to their business! He one day asked him why he did not sometimes do something for himself and the family!
Thus a leading trait in him gripped that branch of his father’s life where hung his service to others; and by this vital bond it lifted itself up and began to flourish in its long travel toward maturity. He literally took hold of his father, as a social implement, by the well-worn handle of common use.
His presence in the buggy with his father was not incidental; it was the doctor’s design. He wished to have the boy along during these formative years in order that he might get the right start toward the great things of life as these one by one begin to break in upon the attention of a growing boy. The doctor wanted to be the first to talk with him — the first to sow the right suggestions: it was one of his sayings that the earliest suggestions rooted in the mind of the child will be the final things to drop from the dying man’s brain: what goes in first comes out last.
And so there began to be many conversations; incredible questions; answers not always forthcoming. And a series of revelations ensued; the boy revealing his growth to a watchful father, and a father revealing his life to a very watchful son! These revelations began to look like mile-stones on life’s road, marked with further understandings.
Thus, one day when the boy was a good deal younger than now, his father had come home and had gotten ready to go away again and was sitting before the fire, looking gravely into it and taking solitary counsel about some desperate case, as the country doctor must often do. Being a very little fellow then, he had straddled one of his father’s mighty legs and had balanced himself by resting his hands on his father’s mighty shoulders.
“Is somebody very sick?”
The head under the weather-roughened hat nodded silently.
“I wonder how it happens that all the sick are in our neighborhood.”
A smile flitted across the doctor’s mouth.
“The sick are in all neighborhoods, little wonderer.”
He said this cheerfully. It was his idea — and he tried to enforce it at home — that young children must never, if possible, make the acquaintance of the words bad and sad — nor of the realities that are masked behind them. He especially believed that what the old are familiar with as life’s tragic laws ought never to be told to children as tragic: what is inevitable should never be presented to them as misfortunes.
Therefore he now declared that the sick are in all neighborhoods as he might have stated that there are wings on all birds, or leaves on all growing apple trees.
“Not all over the world?” asked the boy, enlarging his vision in space.
“All over the world,” admitted the doctor with entire cheerfulness; the fact was a matter of no consequence.
“Not all the time?” asked the boy, enlarging his outlook in time.
“All the time! All over the world and all the time!” conceded the doctor, as though this made not the slightest difference to a human being.
“Isn’t there a single minute when everybody is well everywhere?”
“Not a single, solitary minute.”
“Then somebody must always be suffering.”
The doctor nodded again; the matter was not worth speaking of.
“Then somebody else must always be sorry.”
The doctor bowed encouragingly.
“ Then I am sorry, too! ”
This time the doctor did not move his head, and he did not open his lips. He saw that a new moment had arrived in the boy’s growth — a consciousness of the universal tragedy and personal share and sorrow in it. He knew that many people never feel this; some feel it late; a few feel it early; he had always said that children should never feel it. He knew also that when once it has begun, it never ends. Nothing ever banishes it or stills it — that perception of the human tragedy and one’s share and sorrow in it.
He did not welcome its appearance now, in his son least of all. For an instant he charged himself with having made a mistake in taking the child along on his visits to the sick, thus making known too early the dark side of happy neighborhood life. Then he went further back and traced this premature seriousness to its home and its beginning: in prenatal depression — in a mother’s anguish and a wife’s despair. It was a bitter retrospect: it kept him brooding.
The chatter was persistent. A hand was stretched up, and it took hold of his chin and shook it: —
“There ought to be a country where nobody suffers and there ought to be a time; a large country and a long time.”
“There is such a country and there is such a time, Herbert,” said the doctor, now with some sadness.
“Then I’ll warrant you it’s part of the United States,” cried the boy, getting his idea of mortality slightly mixed with his early Americanism. “Texas would hold them, wouldn’t it? Don’t you think Texas could contain them all and contain them forever?”
The doctor laughed and seemed to think enough had been said on the subject of large enough graveyards for the race.
“Why don’t you doctors send your patients to that country?”
“Perhaps we do sometimes!” The doctor laughed again.
“Do you ever send yours?”
“And how many do you send?”
“I don’t know!” exclaimed the doctor, laughing this time without being wholly amused. “I don’t know, and I never intend to try to find out.”
“When I grow up we’ll practice together and send twice as many,” the boy said, looking into his father’s eyes with the flattery of professional imitation.
“So we will! There’ll be no trouble about that! Twice as many, perhaps three times! No trouble whatever!”
He took the hands from his shoulders and laid them in the palm of his and studied them — those masculine boyish hands that had never touched any of the world’s suffering. And then he looked at his own hands which had handled so much of the world’s suffering, but had never reached happiness; happiness which for years had dwelt just at his finger-tips but beyond arm’s reach.
Not very long afterwards another conversation lettered another mile-stone in the progress of mutual understanding.
It was a beautiful drowsy May morning near noon, and the two were driving slowly homeward along the turnpike. When the lazily trotting horse reached the front gate of a certain homestead, he stopped and threw one ear backward as a living interrogation point. As his answer, he got an unexpected cut in the flank with the tip of the lash that was like the sting of a hornet: a reminder that the driver was not alone in the buggy; that the horse should have known he was not alone; and that what he did when alone was a matter of confidence between master and beast.
The boy, who had been thrown backward, heels high, laughed as he settled himself again on his cushion: —
“He thought you wanted to turn in.”
“He thinks too much — sometimes.”
“Don’t they ever get sick there?”
“I suppose they do.”
“ Then you turn in!”
“Then I don’t turn in.”
“Aren’t you their doctor?”
“I was the doctor once.”
“Where was I?”
“I don’t know where you were; you were not born.”
“So many things happened before I was born; I wish they hadn’t!”
“It is a pity; I had the same experience.”
The buggy rolled slowly along homeward. On one side of the road were fields of young Indian corn, the swordlike blades flashing in the sun; on the other side fields of red clover blooming; the fragrance was wafted over the fence to the buggy. Further, in a soft grassy lawn, on a little knoll shaded by a white ash, a group of sleek cattle stood content in their blameless world. Over the prostrate cows one lordly head, its incurved horns deep hidden by its curls, kept guard. The scene was a living Kentucky replica of Paul Potter’s Bull .
“Drive!” murmured the doctor, handing over the reins; and he drew his hat low over his eyes and set his shoulder against his corner of the buggy; he often caught up with sleep while on the road. And he often tried to catch up with thinking.
The horse always knew when the reins changed hands. He disregarded the proxy, kept his own gait, picked the best of the road, and turned out for passing vehicles. The boy now grasped the lines with unexpected positiveness; and he leaned over and looked up under the rim of his father’s hat: —
“I hope the doctor they employ will give them the wrong medicines,” he confided. “I hope the last one of them will have many a rattling good bellyache for their meanness to you!”
Then more years for father and son, each finding the other out.
And now finally on the morning of that twenty-fourth day of December, the father was to witness a scene in the drama of his life as amazingly performed by his son — illustrating what a little actor can do when he undertakes to imitate an old actor to whom he is most loyal.
That morning after breakfast the apt pupil in Life’s School had been sent for, and when he had entered the library, his father was sitting before the fire, idle. The buggy was not waiting outside; the hat and overcoat and gloves were nowhere in sight; and he had not gotten ready his satchel which took the place of the saddlebags of earlier generations when the country doctor travelled around on horseback and carried the honey of physic packed at his thighs — like a wingless, befattened bumblebee. This morning it looked as though all the sick were well at last; it was a sound if wicked world; and nothing was left for a physician but to be happy in it — without a profession — and without wickedness.
He threw himself into his father’s impulsively opened arms, and was heaved high into his lap. Though he was growing rather mature for laps now; he was beginning to speculate about having something of a lap of his own; quite a good deal of a lap.
“How is the children’s epidemic to-day?”
“Never you mind about the children’s epidemic! I’ll take care of the children’s epidemic,” repeated the doctor, pulling the long-faced, autumn-faced prodigy of all questions between his knees and looking him over with secret solicitude. “We’ll not talk about sick children, but about two well children — thanked be the Father of all children! So you and Elsie are going away to help celebrate a Christmas Tree.”
“Yes; but when are you going to have a Christmas Tree of our own?”
Now, that subject had two prongs, and the doctor seized the prong that did not pierce family affairs — did not pierce him . He settled down to the subject with splendid warmth and heartiness: —
“Well, let me see! You may have your first Christmas Tree as soon as you are old enough to commence to do things for other people; as soon as you can receive into your head the smallest hard pill of an idea about your duty to millions and millions and millions of your fellow medicine takers. Can you understand that?”
“Gracious! That would be a big pill — larger than my head! I don’t see what it has to do with one miserable little dead pine tree!”
The doctor roared.
“It has this to do with one miserable dead pine tree: don’t you know yet that Christmas Trees are in memory of a boy who was once exactly your age and height — and perhaps with your appetite — and with just as many eyes and possibly even more questions? The boy grew up to be a man. The man became a teacher. The teacher became a neighborhood doctor. The neighborhood doctor became the greatest physician of the world — and he never took a fee!”
“Ah, yes! But he wasn’t a better doctor than you are, was he? If he’d come into this neighborhood and tried to practice, you’d soon have ousted him, wouldn’t you, with your doses and soups and jellies?”
“Humph!” grunted the doctor with a wry twist of the mouth; “I suppose I would! Yes; undoubtedly I’d have ousted him! He could never have competed with me in my practice; never! But we won’t try that hard little pill of an idea any more. We’ll drop the subject of Christmas Trees for one more year. Perhaps by that time you can take the pill as a powder! So! I hear you are going to attend a dancing party; we’ll talk about the party. And you are going over there to stay all night. I wish I were going. I wish I were going over there to stay all night,” reiterated the man, with an outrush of solemn tenderness that reached back through vain years, through so many parched, unfilled years.
“I wish so, too,” cried the boy, instantly burying his face on his father’s coat-sleeve, then lifting it again and looking at him with a guilty flush which the doctor did not observe.
“Oh, do you! We won’t say anything more about that, though I’m glad you’d like to have me along. Now then; go and have a good time! And take long steps and large mouthfuls! And you might do well to remember that a boy’s stomach is not a birdnest to be lined with candy eggs.”
“I think candy eggs would make a very good lining, better than real eggs; and about half the time you’re trying to line me with them, aren’t you? With all the sulphur in them! And I do hate sulphur, and I have always hated it since the boy at my desk in school wore a bag of it around his neck under his shirt to keep off diseases. My! how he smelt — worse than contagion! Candy eggs would make a very good lining; even the regular soldiers get candy in their rations now. And they don’t have to eat new-laid eggs of mornings! Think of an army having to win a hard-fought battle on soft-boiled eggs! They don’t have to do that , do they?”
“They do not!” said the doctor. “They positively do not! But we won’t say anything more about eggs — saccharine or sulphurous. What are you going to do at the party?”
“I am going to dance.”
“Alone? O dear! All alone? You’d better go skate on the ice! Not all alone?”
“I should say not! With my girl, of course.”
“That’s better, much better. And then what?”
“I am going to promenade, with my girl on my arm.”
“On both arms, did you say?”
“No; on one arm.”
“That sounds natural! (Heart action regular; brain unclouded; temperature normal.) And then? What next?”
“I’m going to take the darling in to supper.”
“Hold on! Not so fast! Suppose there isn’t any supper — for the darling.”
“Don’t say that! It would nearly kill me! Don’t you suppose there’ll be any supper?”
“I’m afraid there will be. Well, after the darling has had her fatal supper? (Of course you won’t want any!) What then?”
“What else is there to do?”
“You don’t look as innocent as you imagine!”
“You don’t have to confess what you’d like to do, do you? Would you have told your father?”
“I don’t think I would.”
“Then I won’t tell you.”
“Then you needn’t! I don’t wish to know — only it must not be on the cheek! Remember, you are no son of mine if it’s on the cheek!”
“I thought I heard you say that got people into trouble.”
“Maybe I did. I ought to have said it if I didn’t; and it seems to be the kind of trouble that you are trying to get into. (Temperature rising but still normal. Respiration deeper. All symptoms favorable. No further bulletins deemed necessary.) Well, then? Where were we?”
“Anyhow, I’ve never thought of cheeks when I’ve thought of that ; I thought cheeks were for chewing.”
“Guardian Powers of our erring reason! Where did you get that idea — if sanity can call it an idea?”
“Watching our cows.”
The doctor laughed till tears ran down his face.
“You can’t learn much about kissing by watching anybody’s cows , Governor,” he said, wiping the tears away. “Not about human kissing. You must begin to direct your attention to an animal not so meek and drivable. You must learn to consider, my son, that hornless wonder and terror of the world who forever grazes but never ruminates!”
For years, in talking with a mind too young wholly to understand, he had enjoyed the play of his own mind. He knew only too well that there are few or none with whom a physician may dare have his sportive fling at his fellow-creatures, at life in general. From a listener who never sat in harsh judgment and who would never miscarry his random words, he had upon occasion derived incalculable relief.
“Anyhow, I have learned that cows have the new American way of chewing; so they never get indigestion, do they?”
“If they do, they cannot voice their symptoms in my mummied ears,” said the doctor, who often seemed to himself to have been listening to hue and cry for medicine since the days of Thotmes. “However, we won’t say anything further about that ! What else are you going to do over there? This can’t possibly be all!”
“To-night we children are going to sit up until midnight, to see whether the animals bellow and roar and make all kinds of noise on Christmas Eve. We know they don’t, but we’re going to prove they don’t!”
“Where did you pick up that notion?”
“Where did you pick it up when you were a boy?”
“I fail to remember,” admitted the doctor with mock dignity, damaged in his logic but recalling the child legend that on the Night of the Nativity universal nature was in sympathy with the miracle. All sentient creatures were wakeful and stirring, and sent forth the chorus of their cries in stables and barns — paying their tribute to the Divine in the Manger and proclaiming their brotherhood with Him who was to bring into the world a new gospel for them also.
“I don’t know where I got that,” he repeated. “Well, after the animals bellow and roar and make all kinds of noise, then what?”
“There isn’t but one thing more; but that is best of all!”
“You don’t say! Out with it!”
“That is our secret.”
The new decision of tone demonstrated that another stage had been reached in their intercourse. The boy had withdrawn his confidence; he had entered the ranks of his own generation and had taken his confidence with him. Personally, also, he had shut the gate of his mind and the gate was guarded by a will; henceforth it was to be opened by permission of the guard. Something in their lives was abruptly ended; the father felt like ending the talk.
“Very well, then; we won’t say anything more about the secret. And now you had better run along.”
“But I don’t want to run along just yet. It will be a long time before I see you again; have you thought of that?”
He reversed his position so as to face the fire; and he crossed his feet out beyond the promontory of the doctor’s knees and folded his arms on the rampart of those enfolding arms.
For a few moments there was intimate silence. Then he inquired: —
“How old must a boy be to ask a girl?”
A flame more tender and humorous burned in the doctor’s eyes.
“Ask her what ?”
“Ask her nothing! Ask her !”
“You mean tell her, don’t you? Not ask her, my friend and relative; tell her!”
“Well, ask her and tell her, too; they go together!”
“Is it possible! I’m always glad to learn!”
“Then, how old must he be?”
“Well, if you stand in need of the opinion of an experienced physician, as soon as he learns to speak would be about the right period! That would be the safest age! The patient would then have leisure to consider his case before being affected by the disease. You could have time to get singed and step away gradually instead of being roasted alive all at once. Does that sound hard?”
“Not very! Do you love a girl longer if you tell her or if you don’t tell her?”
“I’m afraid nobody has ever tried both ways! Suppose you try both, and let us have the benefit of your experience.”
“Well, then, if you love, do you love forever?”
The doctor laughed nervously and tightened his arms around the innocent.
“Nobody has lived forever yet — nobody knows!”
“But forever while you live — do you love as long as that?”
“You wouldn’t know until you were dead and then it would be too late to report. But aren’t you doing a good deal of hard fighting this morning, — on soft-boiled eggs, — though I think the victory is yours, General, the victory is truly and honestly yours!”
“I can’t stop thinking, can I? You don’t expect me to stop thinking, do you, when I’m just beginning really to think?”
“Very well, then, we won’t say anything more about thinking.”
“Then do you or don’t you?”
“Now, what are you trying to talk about?” demanded the doctor angrily, and as if on instant guard. A new hatred seemed coming to life in him; there was a burning flash of it in his eyes.
“Just between ourselves — suppose that when I am a man and after I have been married to Elizabeth awhile, I get tired of her and want a little change. And I fell in love with another man’s wife and dared not tell her, because if I did I might get a bullet through me; would I love the other man’s wife more because I could not tell her, or would I love her more because I told her and risked the bullet?”
Pall-like silence draped the room, thick, awful silence. The father lifted his son from his lap to the floor, and turned him squarely around and looked him in the eyes imperiously. Many a time with some such screened but piercing power he, as a doctor, had scrutinized the faces of children to see whether they were aware that some vast tragedy of life was in the room with them. To keep them from knowing had often been his main care; seeing them know had been life’s last pity; young children finding out the tragedies of their parents with one another — so many kinds of tragedies.
“You had better go now,” he urged gently. Then an idea clamped his brain in its vise.
“And remember: while you are over there, you must try to behave with your best manners because you are going to stay in the house of a great lady. All the questions that you want to ask, ask me when you come back. Ask me !”
The boy standing before his father said with a strange quietness and stubbornness, probing him deeply through the eyes: —
“You haven’t answered my last question yet, have you?”
“Not yet,” said the doctor, with strange quietness also.
The boy had never before heard that tone from his father.
“It’s sad being a doctor, isn’t it?” he suggested, studying his father’s expression.
“What do you know about sad? Who told you anything about sad?” muttered the doctor with new sadness now added to old sadness.
“Nobody had to tell me! I knew without being told.”
“Run along now.”
“Now I’ll walk along, but I won’t run along. I’ll walk away from you, but I won’t run away from you.”
He wandered across the room, and stood with his hand reluctantly turning the knob. Then with a long, silent look at his father — he closed the door between them.
Chapter 3 — The Books of the Year
Dr. Birney stood motionless in the middle of the room with his gaze riveted on the door through which his son had lingeringly disappeared.
Some one of the world’s greatest painters, chancing to enter, might worthily have desired to paint him — putting no questions as to who the man was or what he was; or what darkening or brightening history stretched behind him; or what entanglement of right and wrong lay around and within: painting only the unmistakable human signs he witnessed, and leaving his portrait for thousands of people to look at afterwards and make out of it what they could — through kinship with the good and evil in themselves: Velasquez, with his brush moving upon those areas of lonely struggle which sometimes lie with their wrecks at the bottom of the sea of human eyes; Franz Hals, fixing the cares which hover too long around our mouths; Vandyck, sitting in the shadow of the mystery that slants across all mortal shoulders; Rembrandt, drawn apart into the dignity that invests colossal disappointment. Any merciless, masterful limner of them all in a mood to portray those secret passions which drive men, especially men of middle age, towards safer deeps upon the rocks.
He had a well-set soldierly figure and the swarthy roughened face that results from years of exposure to weather — a face looking as if inwardly scarred by the tempests of his character but unwrinkled by the outer years. Both face and figure breathed the silent impassiveness of the regular who has been through campaigns enough already but is enlisted for life and for whatsoever duty may bring; he standing there in some wise palpably draped in the ideals of his profession as the soldier keeps his standard waving high somewhere near his tent, to remind him of the greatness that he guards and of the greatness that guards him.
Not a tall man as men grow on that Kentucky plateau; and looking less than his stature by reason of being so strongly built, square-standing, ponderous; his muscles here and there perceivable under his loosely fitting sack-suit of dark-gray tweeds; so that out of respect for strength which is both manhood and manliness, your eye travelled approvingly over his proportions: measuring the heavy legs down to the boots; the heavy arms out to the wrists; the heavy square thick muscular warm hands; and the heavy torso up to the short neck rising full out of a low turned-down collar.
In this neck an animal wildness and virile ferocity — not subdued, not stamped out, partly tamed by a will. Overtopping this neck a tremendous head covered with short glossy black hair, curling blue-black hair. In this head a powerful blunt nose, set like the muzzle of a big gun pointed to fire a heavy projectile at a distant target — the nose of a never-releasing tenacity. Above this nose, right and left, thick black brows, the bars of nature’s iron purpose. Under these brows wonderful grayish eyes with glints of Scotch blue in them or of Irish blue or of Saxon blue; for the blood of three races ran thick in his veins and mingled in the confusions of his character: blue that was in the eyes of earlier Scottish men, exulting in heather and highland stag; or the blue of other eyes that had looked meltingly on golden-haired minstrel and gold-framed harp — eyes that might have poured their love into Isolde’s or have faded out in the death of Tristan; or the blue of still other eyes — archers who had shot their last arrows and, dying, drew themselves to the feet of Harold, their blue-eyed king fighting for Saxon England’s right and might.
They were eyes that could look you to the core with intelligence and then rest upon you from the outside with sympathy for all that he had seen to be human in you whether of strength or of weakness — but never of meanness. Under the blunt nose a thick stubby mustache trimmed short, leaving exposed the whole red mouth — the mouth of great passions — no paltry passions — none despicable or contemptible.
On the whole a man who advances upon you with all there is in him and without waiting for you to advance upon him; no stepping aside for people in this world by this man, nor stepping timidly over things. Even as he stood there a motionless figure, he diffused an influence most warm and human, gay and tragic, irresistible. A man loved secretly or openly by many women. A man that men were glad to come to confide in, when they crossed the frontiers of what Balzac, speaking of the soldiers of Napoleon, called their miserable joys and joyous miseries.
But assuredly not a man to be put together by piecemeal description such as this: the very secret of his immense influence being some charm of mystery, as there is mystery in all the people that win us and rule us and hold us; as though we pressed our ear against this mystery and caught there the sound of a meaning vaster than ourselves — not meant for us but flowing away from us along the unbroken channels of the universe: still to be flowing there long after we ourselves are stilled.
Thus he stood in his library that morning when his son left him, brought to a stop in the road of life as by a straw fallen at his feet borne on a rising wind — another harbinger of a coming storm.
By and by not far away a door on that side of the house was slammed. The sound of muffled feet was heard on the porch and then the laughter of children as they bounded across the yard. As his ear caught the noises, he hurried to the window and looked out; and then he threw up the sash and hailed them loudly: —
“Ho, there! you winter snow-birds without wings!”
As the children wheeled and paused, he smiled and shook his forefinger: —
“Remember to keep those two red mouths closed and to breathe through those two red noses!” and then as he recalled some exercises which he had lately been putting them through, he added with ironic emphasis, laughing the while: —
“And when you breathe, remember to bring into play those two invaluable little American diaphragms and those two priceless pairs of American ribs!”
The little girl nodded repeatedly to indicate that she could understand if she would and would obey if she cared; and putting her red-mittened finger-tips to her lips, she threw him a good-by with a wide sweeping gesture of the arms to right and left. And the boy made a soldierly salute, touching a hand to his skull-cap with the uncouth rigor of a veteran in the raw: then they bounded off again.
The doctor drew down the sash and watched them.
A hundred yards from the house the ground sloped to a limestone spring at the foot of the hill — a characteristic Kentucky formation. From this spring issued a brook, on the banks of which stood a clump of forest trees, bathing their roots in the moisture. Upon reaching the brow of this hill, the boy lagged behind his sister as though to elude her observation; then turning looked back at his father — looked but made no sign: a little upright pillar of life on the brow of that declivity: then he dropped out of sight.
A few moments later up over the hill where he was last seen a little cloud of autumn leaves came scurrying. As they neared the wall of the house where the wind by pressure veered skyward to clear the roof, some of the leaves were caught up and dashed against the windowpanes behind which the doctor was standing. Had the sash been raised, they would have thrown themselves into his arms and have clung to his neck and breast.
He did not know why, but they caused him a pang: those little brown parchments torn from the finished volume of the year: they caused him a subtle pang.
He turned from the window, goaded by more than resolution, and crossed to his writing-desk on the opposite side: there lay the work mapped out for the morning. No interruptions were to be expected from his patients, though of course there might be new patients since accidents and illnesses befall unheralded. There would be no visitors — not to-day. In a country of the warmest social customs and of family ties so widely interknit that whole communities are bound together as with vine-like closeness, no one visits on the day before Christmas. In every little town the world of people crowd the streets and shops or busy themselves in preparations at home: out in the country those who have not flocked to the towns are as joyously occupied. No visitors, then. And the children were gone — no disturbances from their romping. The servants had put his rooms in order, and were too discreetly trained to return upon their paths.
After breakfast, at the stable, he had given orders to his man for the day while he was having a look at his horses — well-stalled, well-groomed, docile, intelligent: at his gaited saddle-horse, at the nag for his buggy, at the perfectly matched pair for his carriage. As he appeared in the doorway of the stalls, each beast, turning his head, had sent to him its affectionate greeting out of eyes that looked like wells of soft blue smoke: each said, “Take me to-day.”
He was a little vain of being weatherwise, as is apt to be the case with country-bred folk: and at the last stable door, having studied the wind and the sky and the temperature, he had said to his man that the weather was changing: it would be snowing by afternoon. Usually in that latitude the first flurry of snow gladdens the eye near Thanksgiving, but sleighs are not often flying until late in December. There had been no snow as yet; it was due, and the weather showed signs of its multitudinous onset.
He felt so sure in his forecast that he had instructed his man to put the sleigh in readiness. He himself went into the saddle-house and from a peg amid the gear and harness he took down the sleighbells. As he shook them roughly, he smiled as above that cascade of mellow winter sounds there settled a little cloud of summer dust. He observed that the leather needed mending — what he called “a few surgical stitches”; and he had brought the bells with him to the house and they now lay on the floor of his office in the adjoining room.
He thought that if it should snow heavily enough he would use the sleigh when he started out in the afternoon. There were several sick children to visit on opposite horizons of his neighborhood. The sound of the bells as he drove in at their front gates might have value: it would not only mean the coming of his sleigh, but it would suggest to them the approach of that mysterious Sleigh of the World which that night they were expecting. Afterwards he was to go to a distant county seat for a consultation. His road home was a straight turnpike: it would be late when he returned, perhaps far in the night; and he would have the sound of the bells to himself — the bells and his thoughts and Christmas Eve.
This plan of Dr. Birney’s regarding the children laid bare one of his ideas as a physician. For years he had employed increasingly in his practice the power of suggestion. For years life as he sometimes surmised had employed the power of suggestion on him. He felt assured that in treating the sick there are cases where every suggestion of happiness that can reach a patient draws him back toward life: every suggestion of unhappiness lowers his vitality and helps to roll him over the precipice: the final push need be a very slight one. The melody of sleighbells falling on the ears of the sick children that afternoon might have the weight of a sunbeam on delicate scales and tip the balances as he wished: he believed that many a time the weight of a mental sunbeam was all that was needed to decide the issue.
He looked at his watch. It was ten o’clock, and dinner was served at one, and he had a tranquil outlook for three hours of work. The only remaining source from which an interruption could have reached him was his wife. His wife! — his wife never — intruded.
Not three hours, but two hours and a half, to be exact; for the dining-room adjoined his library, and every day at half past twelve o’clock his wife entered the dining-room to superintend final preparations for dinner: from the instant of her entrance concentration of mind ended for him: he occupied himself with things less important and with odds and ends for mind and body.
She would draw the shades of the windows delicately to temper the light according as the day was cloudy or cloudless; she would bring fresh flowers for the table; she would inspect the clearness of the cut glass, the brightness of the silver, the snowiness of the napkins; she would prepare at the sideboard a salad, a sauce; she would give a final push to the chairs — last of all a straightening push to his. All the lower drudgery of the servants and all the higher domestic triumphs of her skill led to his chair — as to a kind of throne where the function of feeding reigned. With that final adjustment of the piece of furniture in which his body was to be at ease while it gorged itself, with that act of grade, the doors were opened; dinner was announced; he walked in, and faced his wife, and dined — with Nemesis.
This pride of hers in housekeeping was part of her inheritance, of the civilization of her land and people: it was a little separate dynasty of itself. Often as the years had gone by he had been thankful that she could thus far find compensation for larger disappointment; it helped to keep her a healthy woman if it could not render her a happy wife. Near the sugar and the flour she could perhaps three times a day realize small perfections; she could mold little ideals and turn them out on the shelf and verify them with a silver spoon: an ideal life in the pantry for a woman who had expected an ideal life with him in library and parlor and bedroom and out in the world. It was all as if she sat at the base of Love’s ruined Pyramids and tried to divert her desolation by configuring ant hills.
And he was well aware that this pride of housekeeping was the least of all the prides that grouped themselves around that central humiliation of wifehood. He had sometimes thought that if, after her death, over her were planted a weeping willow, mere nutritive pride in her dust would force the boughs to reverse their natural direction and shoot upward as stiff as a spruce.
The dining-room, in the old-fashioned Kentucky way, was richly carpeted; but the moment she set her foot within it, he could trace her steps as unerringly as though she had been shod with explosives. Likewise she sang to herself a good deal: (he had long ago diagnosed that symp