Christmas, by Zona Gale, is a tender little study of the intricacies of human nature, done with that clear-eyed understanding that made the Friendship Village stories memorable. This new story has its scene laid in Old Trail Town, a town which is undergoing a temporary period of financial depression, because the Ebenezer Rule Factory Company has been obliged to shut clown for the time being, and Abel Ames's Granger Company Merchandise Emporium is in straitened circumstances, owing to the failure of about half the towns-folk to settle their bills for last year's Christmas presents. So the church committees and the town meeting and other official bodies get together and vote that this year, for the good of the community at large, no one shall give presents,—and despite a few feeble protests from mothers who foresee heart-aches and tears for the little ones, the measure is carried with general approval. But it happens that a certain maiden lady, Mary Chavah, receives word that her sister has died, leaving a little orphaned boy, who is to be sent on to her, and will arrive just before Christmas. And it is the Christmas spirit brought by the advent of this little child into the house of Mary Chavah that sets at nought all the wise economical forethought of the worldly minded Abels and Simeons and Ebenezers. There is a good deal of symbolism lurking behind the simple surface narrative, making an effective little parable, embodying much indulgent criticism of human frailty and shortsightedness.
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Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
It was in October that Mary Chavah burned over the grass of her lawn, and the flame ran free across the place where in Spring her wild flower bed was made. Two weeks later she had there a great patch of purple violets. And all Old Trail Town, which takes account of its neighbours' flowers, of the migratory birds, of eclipses, and the like, came to see the wonder.
"Mary Chavah!" said most of the village, "you're the luckiest woman alive. If a miracle was bound to happen, it'd get itself happened to you."
"I don't believe in miracles, though," Mary wrote to Jenny Wing. "These come just natural--only we don't know how."
"That _is_ miracles," Jenny wrote back. "They do come natural--we don't know how."
"At this rate," said Ellen Bourne, one of Mary's neighbours, "you'll be having roses bloom in your yard about Christmas time. For a Christmas present."
"I don't believe in Christmas," Mary said. "I thought you knew that. But I'll take the roses, though, if they come in the Winter," she added, with her queer flash of smile.
When it was dusk, or early in the morning, Mary Chavah, with her long shawl over her head, stooped beside the violets and loosened the earth about them with her whole hand, and as if she reverenced violets more than finger tips. And she thought:--
"Ain't it just as if Spring was right over back of the air all the time--and it could come if we knew how to call it? But we don't know."
But whatever she thought about it, Mary kept in her heart. For it was as if not only Spring, but new life, or some other holy thing were nearer than one thought and had spoken to her, there on the edge of Winter.
And Old Trail Town asked itself:--
"Ain't Mary Chavah the funniest? Look how nice she is about everything--and yet you know she won't never keep Christmas at all. No, sir. She ain't kept a single Christmas in years. I donno why...."
Moving about on his little lawn in the dark, Ebenezer Rule was aware of two deeper shadows before him. They were between him and the leafless lilacs and mulberries that lined the street wall. A moment before he had been looking at that darkness and remembering how, once, as a little boy, he had slept there under the wall and had dreamed that he had a kingdom.
"Who is't?" he asked sharply.
"Hello, Ebenezer," said Simeon Buck, "it's only me and Abel. We're all."
Ebenezer Rule came toward them. It was so dark that they could barely distinguish each other. Their voices had to do it all.
"What you doing out here?" one of the deeper shadows demanded.
"Oh, nothing," said Ebenezer, irritably, "not a thing."
He did not ask them to go in the house, and the three stood there awkwardly, handling the time like a blunt instrument. Then Simeon Buck, proprietor of the Simeon Buck North American Dry Goods Exchange, plunged into what they had come to say.
"Ebenezer," he said, with those variations of intonation which mean an effort to be delicate, "is--is there any likelihood that the factory will open up this Fall?"
"No, there ain't," Ebenezer said, like something shutting.
"Nor--nor this Winter?" Simeon pursued.
"No, sir," said Ebenezer, like something opening again to shut with a bang.
"Well, if you're sure--" said Simeon.
Ebenezer cut him short. "I'm dead sure," he said. "I've turned over my orders to my brother's house in the City. He can handle 'em all and not have to pay his men a cent more wages." And this was as if something had been locked.
"Well," said Simeon, "then, Abel, I move we go ahead."
Abel Ames, proprietor of the Granger County Merchandise Emporium ("The A. T. Stewart's of the Middle West," he advertised it), sighed heavily--a vast, triple sigh, that seemed to sigh both in and out, as a schoolboy whistles.
"Well," he said, "I hate to do it. But I'll be billblowed if I want to think of paying for a third or so of this town's Christmas presents and carrying 'em right through the Winter. I done that last year, and Fourth of July I had all I could do to keep from wishing most of the crowd Merry Christmas, 'count of their still owing me. I'm a merchant and a citizen, but I ain't no patent adjustable Christmas tree."
"Me neither," Simeon said. "Last year it was _me_ give a silk cloak and a Five Dollar umbrella and a fur bore and a bushel of knick-knicks to the folks in this town. My name wa'n't on the cards, but it's me that's paid for 'em--_up_ to now. I'm sick of it. The storekeepers of this town may make a good thing out of Christmas, but they'd ought to get some of the credit instead of giving it all, by Josh."
"What you going to do?" inquired Ebenezer, dryly.
"Well, of course last year was an exceptional year," said Abel, "owing--"
He hesitated to say "owing to the failure of the Ebenezer Rule Factory Company," and so stammered with the utmost delicacy, and skipped a measure.
"And we thought," Simeon finished, "that if the factory wasn't going to open up this Winter, we'd work things so's to have little or no Christmas in town this year--being so much of the present giving falls on us to carry on our books."
"It ain't only the factory wages, of course," Abel interposed, "it's the folks's savings being et up in--"
"--the failure," he would have added, but skipped a mere beat instead.
"--and we want to try to give 'em a chance to pay us up for last Christmas before they come on to themselves with another celebration," he added reasonably.
Ebenezer Rule laughed--a descending scale of laughter that seemed to have no organs wherewith to function in the open, and so never got beyond the gutturals.
"How you going to fix it?" he inquired again.
"Why," said Simeon, "everybody in town's talking that they ain't going to give anybody anything for Christmas. Some means it and some don't. Some'll do it and some'll back out. But the churches has decided to omit Christmas exercises altogether this year. Some thought to have speaking pieces, but everybody concluded if they had exercises without oranges and candy the children'd go home disappointed, so they've left the whole thing slide--"
"It don't seem just right for 'em not to celebrate the birth of our Lord just because they can't afford the candy," Abel Ames observed mildly, but Simeon hurried on:--
"--slide, and my idea and Abel's is to get the town meeting to vote a petition to the same effect asking the town not to try to do anything with their Christmas this year. We heard the factory wasn't going to open, and we thought if we could tell 'em that for sure, it would settle it--and save him and me and all the rest of 'em. Would--would you be willing for us to tell the town meeting that? It's to-night--we're on the way there."
"Sure," said Ebenezer Rule, "tell 'em. And you might point out to 'em," he added, with his spasm of gutturals, "that failures is often salutary measures. Public benefactions. Fixes folks so's they can't spend their money fool."
He walked with them across the lawn, going between them and guiding them among the empty aster beds.
"They think I et up their savings in the failure," he went on, "when all I done is to bring 'em face to face with the fact that for years they've been overspending themselves. It takes Christmas to show that up. This whole Christmas business is about wore out, anyhow. Ain't it?"
"That's what," Simeon said, "it's a spendin' sham, from edge to edge."
Abel Ames was silent. The three skirted the flower beds and came out on the level sweep of turf before the house that was no house in the darkness, save that they remembered how it looked: a square, smoked thing, with a beard of dead creepers and white shades lidded over its never-lighted windows--a fit home for this man least-liked of the three hundred neighbours who made Old Trail Town. He touched the elbows of the other two men as they walked in the dark, but he rarely touched any human being. And now Abel Ames suddenly put his hand down on that of Ebenezer, where it lay in the crook of Abel's elbow.
"What you got there?" he asked.
"Nothing much," Ebenezer answered, irritably again. "It's an old glass. I was looking over some rubbish, and I found it--over back. It's a field glass."
"What you got a field glass out in the dark for?" Abel demanded.
"I used to fool with it some when I was a little shaver," Ebenezer said. He put the glass in Abel's hand. "On the sky," he added.
Abel lifted the glass and turned it on the heavens. There, above the little side lawn, the firmament had unclothed itself of branches and lay in a glorious nakedness to three horizons.
"Thunder," Abel said, "look at 'em look."
Sweeping the field with the lens, Abel spoke meanwhile.
"Seems as if I'd kind of miss all the fuss in the store around Christmas," he said,--"the extra rush and the trimming up and all."
"Abel'll miss lavishin' his store with cut paper, I guess," said Simeon; "he dotes on tassels."
"Last year," Abel went on, not lowering the glass, "I had a little kid come in the store Christmas Eve, that I'd never see before. He ask' me if he could get warm--and he set down on the edge of a chair by the stove, and he took in everything in the place. I ask' him his name, and he just smiled. I ask' him if he was glad it was Christmas, and he says, Was I. I was goin' to give him some cough drops, but when I come back from waiting on somebody he was gone. I never could find out who he was, nor see anybody that saw him. I thought mebbe this Christmas he'd come back. Lord, don't it look like a pasture of buttercups up there? Here, Simeon."
Simeon, talking, took the glass and lifted it to the stars.
"Cut paper doin's is all very well," he said, "but the worst nightmare of the year to the stores is Christmas. I always think it's come to be 'Peace on earth, good will to men and extravagance of women.' Quite a nice little till of gold pieces up there in the sky, ain't there? I'd kind o' like to stake a claim out up there--eh? Lay it out along about around that bright one down there--by Josh," he broke off, "look at that bright one."
Simeon kept looking through the glass, and he leaned a little forward to try to see the better.
"What is it?" he repeated, "what's that one? It's the biggest star I ever see--"
The other two looked where he was looking, low in the east. But they saw nothing save boughs indeterminately moving and a spatter of sparkling points not more bright than those of the upper field.
"You look," Simeon bade the vague presence that was his host; but through the glass, Ebenezer still saw nothing that challenged his sight.
"I don't know the name of a star in the sky, except the dipper," he grumbled, "but I don't see anything out of the ordinary, anyhow."
"It is," Simeon protested; "I tell you, it's the biggest star I ever saw. It's blue and purple and green and yellow--"
Abel had the glass now, and he had looked hardly sooner than he had recognized.
"Sure," he said, "I've got it. It _is_ blue and purple and green and yellow, and it's as big as most stars put together. It twinkles--yes, sir, and it swings...." he broke off, laughing at the mystification of the others, and laughed so that he could not go on.
"Is it a comet, do you s'pose?" said Simeon.
"No," said Abel, "no. It's come to stay. It's our individual private star. It's the arc light in front of the Town Hall you two are looking at."
They moved to where Abel stood, and from there, up the rise of ground to the east, they could see Simeon's star, shining softly and throwing long rays, it seemed, almost to where they stood: the lamp that marked the heart of the village.
"Shucks," said Simeon.
"Sold," said Ebenezer.
"Why, I don't know," said Abel, "I kind of like to see it through the glass. It looks like it was a bigger light than we give it credit for."
"It's a big enough light," said Ebenezer, testily. It was his own plant at the factory that made possible the town's three arc lights, and these had been continued by him at the factory's closing.
"No use making fun of your friends' eyesight because you're all of twenty minutes younger than them," Simeon grumbled. "Come on, Abel. It must be gettin' round the clock."
"A man owns the hull thing with a glass o' this stamp," he said. "How much does one like that cost?" he inquired.
"I'll sell you this one--" began Ebenezer; "wait a week or two and I may sell you this one," he said. "I ain't really looked through it myself yet."
Not much after this, the two went away and left Ebenezer in the dark yard.
He stood in the middle of his little grass plot and looked through his glass again. That night there was, so to say, nothing remote about the sky, save its distance. It had none of the reticence of clouds. It made you think of a bed of golden bells, each invisible stalk trying on its own account to help forward some Spring. As he had said, he did not know one star from another, nor a planet for a planet with a name. It had been years since he had seen the heavens so near. He moved about, looking, and passed the wall of leafless lilacs and mulberries. Stars hung in his boughs like fruit for the plucking. They patterned patches of sky. He looked away and back, and it was as if the stars repeated themselves, like the chorus of everything.
"You beggars," Ebenezer said, "awful dressed up, ain't you? It must be for something up there--it ain't for anything down here, let me tell you."
He went up to his dark back door. From without there he could hear Kate Kerr, his general servant, who had sufficient personality to compel the term "housekeeper," setting sponge for bread, with a slapping, hollow sound and a force that implied a frown for every down stroke of the iron spoon. He knew how she would turn toward the door as he entered, with her way of arching eyebrows, in the manner of one about to recite the symptoms of a change for the worse--or at best to say "about the same" to everything in the universe. And when Kate Kerr spoke, she always whispered on the faintest provocation.
A sudden distaste for the entire inside of his house seized Ebenezer. He turned and wandered back down the little dark yard, looking up at the high field of the stars, with only his dim eyes.
"There must be quite a little to know about them," he thought, "if anybody was enough interested."
Then he remembered Simeon and Abel, and laughed again in his way.
"I done the town a good turn for once, didn't I?" he thought; "I've fixed folks so's they can't spend their money fool!"
Two steps from Ebenezer's front gate, Simeon and Abel overtook a woman. She had a long shawl over her head, and she was humming some faint air of her own making.
"Coming to the meeting, Mary?" Simeon asked as they passed her.
"No," said Mary Chavah, "I started for it. But it's such a nice night I'm going to walk around."
"Things are going to go your way to that meeting, I guess," said Simeon; "ain't you always found fault with Christmas?"
"They's a lot o' nonsense about it," Mary assented; "I don't ever bother myself much with it. Why?"
"I donno but we'll all come round to your way of thinking to-night," said Simeon.
"For just this year!" Abel Ames called back, as they went on.
"You can't do much else, I guess," said Mary. "Everybody dips Christmas up out of their pocketbooks, and if there ain't nothing there, they can't dip."
The men laughed with her, and went on down the long street toward the town. Mary followed slowly, under the yellowing elms that made great golden shades for the dim post lamps. And high at the far end of the street down which they went, hung the blue arc light before the Town Hall, center to the constellation of the home lights and the shop lights and the street lights, all near neighbours to the stream and sweep of the stars hanging a little higher and shining as by one sun.
It was interesting to see how they took the proposal to drop that Christmas from the calendar there in Old Trail Town. It was so eminently a sensible thing to do, and they all knew it. Oh, every way they looked at it, it was sensible, and they admitted it. Yet, besides Mary Chavah and Ebenezer Rule, probably the only person in the town whose satisfaction in the project could be counted on to be unfeigned was little Tab Winslow. For Tab, as all the town knew, had a turkey brought up by his own hand to be the Winslows' Christmas dinner, but such had become Tab's intimacy with and fondness for the turkey that he was prepared to forego his Christmas if only that dinner were foregone, too.
"Theophilus Thistledown is such a human turkey," Tab had been heard explaining patiently; "he knows me--and he knows his name. He don't _expect_ us to eat him ... why, you _can't_ eat anything that knows its name."
But every one else was just merely sensible. And they had been discussing Christmas in this sensible strain at the town meeting that night, before Simeon and Abel broached their plan for standardizing their sensible leanings.
Somebody had said that Jenny Wing, and Bruce Rule, who was Ebenezer's nephew, were expected home for Christmas, and had added that it "didn't look as if there would be much of any Christmas down to the station to meet them." On which Mis' Mortimer Bates had spoken out, philosophical to the point of brutality. Mis' Bates was little and brown and quick, and her clothes seemed always to curtain her off, so that her figure was no part of her presence.
"I ain't going to do a thing for Christmas this year," she declared, as nearly everybody in the village had intermittently declared, "not a living, breathing thing. I can't, and folks might just as well know it, flat foot. What's the use of buying tinsel and flim-flam when you're eating milk gravy to save butter and using salt sacks for handkerchiefs? I ain't educated up to see it."
Mis' Jane Moran, who had changed her chair three times to avoid a draught, sat down carefully in her fourth chair, her face twitching a little as if its muscles were connected with her joints.
"Christmas won't be no different from any other day to our house this year," she said. "We'll get up and eat our three meals and sit down and look at each other. We can't even spare a hen--she might lay if we didn't eat her."
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