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This book contains 50 of the most beautiful Christmas stories ever written. It is a treasury of fiction by great writers of the past two centuries: Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Willa Cather, Beatrix Potter, Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Hans Christian Andersen, E.T.A. Hoffmann, O. Henry, Mark Twain and many more!
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50 BEAUTIFUL CLASSIC CHRISTMAS STORIES
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Table of Contents
Alcott, Louisa May: “A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True”
Alcott, Louisa May: “A Country Christmas”
Alcott, Louisa May: “Kate’s Choice”
Alcott, Louisa May: “A Merry Christmas”
Alcott, Louisa May: “A Quiet Little Woman”
Alcott, Louisa May: “Tilly’s Christmas”
Alcott, Louisa May: “What the Bells Saw and Said”
Andersen, Hans Christian: “The Fir Tree”
Andersen, Hans Christian: “The Goblin and the Huckster”
Andersen, Hans Christian: “The Little Match Girl”
Andersen, Hans Christian: “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”
Andersen, Hans Christian: “The Story of the Year”
Baum, L. Frank: “A Kidnapped Santa Claus”
Browne, Frances: “The Christmas Cuckoo”
Cather, Willa: “The Burglar’s Christmas”
Chekhov, Anton: “At Christmas Time”
Deas, Lizzie: “The Christmas Rose”
Dickens, Charles: “The Battle of Life”
Dickens, Charles: “The Chimes”
Dickens, Charles: “A Christmas Carol”
Dickens, Charles: “A Christmas Tree”
Dickens, Charles: “The Cricket on the Hearth”
Dickens, Charles: “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain”
Dickens, Charles: “The Holly-Tree”
Dickens, Charles: “No Thoroughfare”
Dickens, Christmas: “What Christmas is as We Grow Older”
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree”
Grimm, The Brothers: “The Elves and the Shoemaker”
Harrison, Elizabeth: “Little Gretchen and the Wooden Shoe”
Henry, O.: “The Gift of the Magi”
Hoffmann, E. T. A.: “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”
Lagerlöf, Selma: “The Holy Night”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “Christmas at Red Butte”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “A Christmas Inspiration”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “A Christmas Mistake”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “The Christmas Surprise at Enderly Road”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “The Josephs’ Christmas”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “The Osbornes’ Christmas”
Montgomery, Lucy Maud: “Uncle Richard’s New Year’s Dinner”
Potter, Beatrix: “The Tailor of Gloucester”
Runyon, Damon: “Dancing Dan’s Christmas”
Saki: “Reginald’s Christmas Revel”
Thomas, Dylan: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”
Tolstoy, Leo: “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas”
Twain, Mark: “A Letter from Santa Claus”
Van Voorhis, Mary Griggs: “The Boy with the Box”
Wheelock, Lucy: “The Legend of the Christmas Tree”
Wilde, Oscar: “The Selfish Giant”
Van Dike, Henry: “The Other Wise Man”
“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 some day. 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 some one. 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 every one 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 every one; 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.
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 millionnaire 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.
“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 near by 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 every one 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.”
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