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Fairy Prince and Other Stories
Eleanor Hallowell Abbott
In my father's house were many fancies. Always, for instance, on every Thanksgiving Day it was the custom in our family to bud the Christmas tree.
Young Derry Willard came from Cuba. His father and our father had been chums together at college. None of us had ever seen him before. We were very much excited to have a strange young man invited for Thanksgiving dinner. My sister Rosalee was seventeen. My brother Carol was eleven. I myself was only nine, but with very tall legs.
Young Derry Willard was certainly excited when he saw the Christmas tree. Excited enough, I mean, to shift his eyes for at least three minutes from my sister Rosalee's face. Lovely as my sister Rosalee was, it had never yet occurred to any of us, I think,[Pg 4] until just that moment that she was old enough to have perfectly strange young men stare at her so hard. It made my father rather nervous. He cut his hand on the carving-knife. Nothing ever made my mother nervous.
Except for father cutting his hand it seemed to be a very nourishing dinner. The tomato soup was pink with cream. The roast turkey didn't look a single sad bit like any one you'd seen before. There was plenty of hard-boiled egg with the spinach. The baked potatoes were frosted with red pepper. There was mince pie. There was apple pie. There was pumpkin pie. There were nuts and raisins. There were gay gold-paper bonbons. And everywhere all through the house the funny blunt smell of black coffee.
It was my brother Carol's duty always to bring in the Christmas tree. By some strange mix-up of what is and what isn't my brother Carol was dumb—stark dumb, I mean, and[Pg 5] from birth. But tho he had never found his voice he had at least never lost his shining face. Even now at eleven in the twilightly end of a rainy Sunday, or most any day when he had an earache, he still let mother call him "Shining Face." But if any children called him "Shining Face" he kicked them. Even when he kicked people, tho, he couldn't stop his face shining. It was very cheerful. Everything about Carol was very cheerful. No matter, indeed, how much we might play and whisper about gifts and tinsels and jolly-colored candles, Christmas never, I think, seemed really probable to any of us until that one jumpy moment, just at the end of the Thanksgiving dinner, when, heralded by a slam in the wood-shed, a hoppytyskip in the hall, the dining-room door flung widely open on Carol's eyes twinkling like a whole skyful of stars through the shaggy, dark branches of a young spruce-tree. It made young Derry Willard laugh right out loud.[Pg 6]
"Why, of all funny things!" he said. "On Thanksgiving Day! Why, it looks like a Christmas tree!"
"It is a Christmas tree," explained my sister Rosalee very patiently. My sister Rosalee was almost always very patient. But I had never seen her patient with a young man before. It made her cheeks very pink. "It is a Christmas tree," she explained. "That is, it's going to be a Christmas tree! Just the very first second we get it 'budded' it'll start right in to be a Christmas tree!"
"Budded?" puzzled young Derry Willard. Really for a person who looked so much like the picture of the Fairy Prince in my best story-book, he seemed just a little bit slow.
"Why, of course, it's got to be budded!" I cried. "That's what it's for! That's——"
Instead of just being pink patient my sister Rosalee started in suddenly to be dimply patient too.[Pg 7]
"It's from mother's Christmas-tree garden, you know," she went right on explaining. "Mother's got a Winter garden—a Christmas-tree garden!"
"Father's got a garden, too!" I maintained stoutly. "Father's is a Spring garden! Reds, blues, yellows, greens, whites! From France! And Holland! And California! And Asia Minor! Tulips, you know. Buster's!Oh, father's garden is a glory!" I boasted.
"And mother's garden," said my mother very softly, "is only a story."
"It's an awfully nice story," said Rosalee.
Young Derry Willard seemed to like stories.
"Tell it!" he begged.
It was Rosalee who told it. "Why, it was when Carol was born," she said. "It was on a Christmas eve, you know. That's why mother named him Carol!"
"We didn't know then, you see"—interrupted my mother very softly—"that Carol[Pg 8] had been given the gift of silence rather than the gift of speech."
"And father was so happy to have a boy," dimpled Rosalee, "that he said to mother, 'Well, now, I guess you've got everything in the world that you want!' And mother said, 'Everything—except a spruce forest!' So father bought her a spruce forest," said Rosalee. "That's the story!"
"Oh, my dear!" laughed my mother. "That isn't a 'story' at all! All you've told is the facts! It's the feeling of the facts that makes a story, you know! It was on my birthday," glowed mother, "that the presentation was to be made! My birthday was in March! I was very much excited and came down to breakfast with my hat and coat on! 'Where are you going?' said my husband."
"Oh—Mother!" protested Rosalee. "'Whither away?' was what you've always told us he said!"
"'Whither away?' of course was what he[Pg 9] said!" laughed my mother. "'Why, I'm going to find my spruce forest!' I told him. 'And I can't wait a moment longer! Is it the big one over beyond the mountain?' I implored him. 'Or the little grove that the deacon tried to sell you last year?'"
"And they never budged an inch from the house!" interrupted Rosalee. "It was the funniest——"
Over in the corner of the room my father laughed out suddenly. My father had left the table. He and Carol were trying very hard to make the spruce-tree stand upright in a huge pot of wet earth. The spruce-tree didn't want to stand upright. My father laughed all over again. But it wasn't at the spruce-tree. "Well, now, wouldn't it have been a pity," he said, "to have made a perfectly good lady fare forth on a cold March morning to find her own birthday present?"
My mother began to clap her hands. It was a very little noise. But jolly.[Pg 10]
"It came by mail!" she cried. "My whole spruce forest! In a package no bigger than my head!"
"Than your rather fluffy head!" corrected my father.
"Three hundred spruce seedlings!" cried my mother. "Each one no bigger than a wisp of grass! Like little green ferns they were! So tender! So fluffing! So helpless!"
"Heigh-O!" said young Derry Willard. "Well, I guess you laughed—then!"
When grown-up people are trying to remember things outside themselves I've noticed they always open their eyes very wide. But when they are remembering things inside themselves they shut their eyes very tight. My mother shut her eyes very tight.
"No—I didn't exactly laugh," said my mother. "And I didn't exactly cry."
"You wouldn't eat!" cried Rosalee. "Not all day, I mean! Father had to feed you with a spoon! It was in the wing-chair! You held[Pg 11] the box on your knees! You just shone—and shone—and shone!"
"It would have been pretty hard," said my mother, "not to have shone a—little! To brood a baby forest in one's arms—if only for a single day—? Think of the experience!" Even at the very thought of it she began to shine all over again! "Funny little fluff o' green," she laughed, "no fatter than a fern!" Her voice went suddenly all wabbly like a preacher's. "But, oh, the glory of it!" she said. "The potential majesty! Great sweeping branches—! Nests for birds, shade for lovers, masts for ships to plow the great world's waters—timbers perhaps for cathedrals! O—h," shivered my mother. "It certainly gave one a very queer feeling! No woman surely in the whole wide world—except the Mother of the Little Christ—ever felt so astonished to think what she had in her lap!"[Pg 12]
Young Derry Willard looked just a little bit nervous.
"Oh, but of course mother couldn't begin all at once to raise cathedrals!" I hastened to explain. "So she started in raising Christmas presents instead. We raise all our own Christmas presents! And just as soon as Rosalee and I are married we're going to begin right away to raise our children's Christmas presents too! Heaps for everybody, even if there is a hundred! Carol, of course, won't marry because he can't propose! Ladies don't like written proposals, father says! Ladies——"
Young Derry Willard asked if he might smoke. He smoked cigarets. He took them from a gold-looking case. They smelled very romantic. Everything about him smelled very romantic. His hair was black. His eyes were black. He looked as tho he could cut your throat without flinching if you were faithless to him. It was beautiful.[Pg 13]
I left the table as soon as I could. I went and got my best story-book. I was perfectly right. He looked exactly like the picture of the Fairy Prince on the front page of the book. There were heaps of other pictures, of course. But only one picture of a Fairy Prince. I looked in the glass. I looked just exactly the way I did before dinner. It made me feel queer. Rosalee didn't look at all the way she looked before dinner. It made me feel very queer.
When I got back to the dining-room everybody was looking at the little spruce-tree—except young Derry Willard and Rosalee. Young Derry Willard was still looking at Rosalee. Rosalee was looking at the toes of her slippers. The fringe of her eyelashes seemed to be an inch long. Her cheeks were so pink I thought she had a fever. No one else came to bud the Christmas tree except Carol's tame coon and the tame crow. Carol is very unselfish. He always buds one wish for the[Pg 14] coon. And one for the crow. The tame coon looked rather jolly and gold-powdered in the firelight. The crow never looked jolly. I have heard of white crows. But Carol's crow was a very dark black. Wherever you put him he looked like a sorrow. He sat on the arm of Rosalee's chair and nibbed at her pink sleeve. Young Derry Willard pushed him away. Young Derry Willard and Rosalee tried to whisper. I heard them.
"How old are you?" whispered Rosalee.
"I'm twenty-two," whispered young Derry Willard.
"O—h," said Rosalee.
"How young are you?" whispered Derry Willard.
"I'm seventeen," whispered Rosalee.
"O—h," said Derry Willard.
My mother started in very suddenly to explain about the Christmas tree. There were lots of little pencils on the table. And blocks of paper. And nice cold, shining sheets of[Pg 15] tin-foil. There was violet-colored tin-foil, and red-colored tin-foil—and green and blue and silver and gold.
"Why, it's just a little family custom of ours, Mr. Willard," explained my mother. "After the Thanksgiving dinner is over and we're all, I trust, feeling reasonably plump and contented, and there's nothing special to do except just to dream and think—why, we just list out the various things that we'd like for Christmas and——"
"Most people end Thanksgiving, of course," explained my father, "by trying to feel thankful for the things they've already had. But this seems to be more like a scheme for expressing thanks for the things that we'd like to have!"
"The violet tin-foil is Rosalee's!" I explained. "The green is mine! The red is mother's! The blue is father's! The silver is Carol's! Mother takes each separate wish just as soon as it's written, and twists it all up[Pg 16] in a bud of tin-foil! And takes wire! And wires the bud on the tree! Gold buds! Silver buds! Red! Green! Everything! All bursty! And shining! Like Spring! It looks as tho rainbows had rained on it! It looks as tho sun and moon had warmed it at the same time! And then we all go and get our little iron banks—all the Christmas money, I mean, that we've been saving and saving for a whole year! And dump it all out round the base of the tree! Nickels! Dimes! Quarters! Pennies! Everything! And——"
"Dump them all out—round the base of the tree?" puzzled young Derry Willard.
Carol did something suddenly that I never saw him do before with a stranger. He wrote a conversation on a sheet of paper and waved it at young Derry Willard. It was a short conversation. But it was written very tall.
"Phertalizer!" explained Carol.
My father made a little laugh. "In all my experience with horticulture," he said, "I[Pg 17] know of no fertilizer for a Christmas tree that equals a judicious application of nickels, dimes, and quarters—well stirred in."
"Our uncle Charlie was here once for Thanksgiving," I cried. "He stirred in a twenty-dollar gold piece. Our Christmas tree bloomed everything that year! It bloomed tinsel pompons on every branch! And gold-ribbon bow-knots! It bloomed a blackboard for Carol! And an ice-cream freezer for mother! And——"
"And then we take the tree," explained my mother, "and carry it into the parlor. And shut the door."
"And lock the door," said my father.
"And no one ever sees," puzzled young Derry Willard, "what was written in the wishes?"
"No one," I said.
"Some one—must see," said Rosalee. "'Cause just about a week before Christmas[Pg 18] father and mother always go up to town and——"
"Oh, of course mother has to see!" I admitted. "Mother is such friends with Christmas!"
"And father," laughed Rosalee, "is such friends with mother!"
"Usually," I said.
"Eh?" said father.
"And then," explained mother, "on Christmas morning we all go to the parlor!"
"And there's a fire in the parlor!" I explained. "A great hollow Yule log all stuffed full of crackly pine-cones and sputtering sparkers and funny-colored blazes that father buys at a fireworks shop! And the candles are lighted! And—and——"
"And all the tin-foil buds have bloomed into presents!" laughed Derry Willard.
"Oh, no, of course—not all of them," said mother.[Pg 19]
"No tree ever fulfills every bud," said my father.
"There's Carol's camel, of course," laughed Rosalee. "Ever since Carol was big enough to wish, he's always wished for a camel!"
"But mostly, of course," I insisted, "he wishes for kites! He got nine kites last Christmas."
"Kites?" murmured young Derry Willard.
"Kites!" I said. "I have to talk a good deal. Once always for myself. And all over again for Carol." It seemed a good time to talk for Carol. Perhaps a person who came all the way from Cuba could tell us the thing we wanted to know. "Oh, Carol's very much interested in kites!" I confided. "And in relationships! In Christmas relationships especially! When he grows up he's going to be some sort of a jenny something—I think it's an ologist! Or else keep a kite-shop!"
"Yes?" murmured young Derry Willard.
There are two ways I've noticed to make one[Pg 20] listen to you. One is to shout. The other is to whisper. I decided to whisper.
"You don't seem to understand," I whispered. "It's Christmas relationships that are worrying Carol and me so! It worries us dreadfully! Oh, of course we understand all about the Little Baby Christ! And the camels! And the wise men! And the frankincense! That's easy! But who is Santa Claus? Unless—unless—?" It was Carol himself who signaled me to go on. "Unless—he's the Baby Christ's grandfather?" I thought Derry Willard looked a little bit startled. Carol's ears turned bright red. "Oh, of course—we meant on his mother's side!" I hastened to assure him.
"It is, I admit, a new idea to me," said young Derry Willard. "But I seem to have gotten several new ideas to-day."
He looked at mother. Mother's mouth looked very funny. He looked at father. Father seemed to be sneezing. He looked at Rosalee. They laughed together. His whole[Pg 21] face suddenly was very laughing. "And what becomes," he asked, "of all the Christmas-tree buds that don't bloom?" It was a funny question. It didn't have a thing in the world to do with Santa Claus being a grandfather.
"Oh, mother never throws away any of the buds," laughed Rosalee. "She just keeps them year after year and wires them on all over again."
"All unfulfilled wishes," said my mother. "Still waiting—still wishing! Maybe they'll bloom some time! Even Carol's—camel," she laughed out suddenly. "Who knows, sonny-boy—but what if you keep on wishing you'll actually travel some day to the Land-Where-Camels-Live? Maybe—maybe you'll own a—a dozen camels?"
"With purple velvet blankets?" I cried. "All trimmed with scarlet silk tassels? And smelling of sandalwood?"
"I have never understood," said my father, "that camels smelt of sandalwood."[Pg 22]
Young Derry Willard didn't seem exactly nervous any more. But he jumped up very suddenly. And went and stood by the fire.
"It's the finest Christmas idea I ever heard of!" he said. "And if nobody has any objections I'd like to take a little turn myself at budding the Christmas tree!"
"Oh, but you won't be here for Christmas!" cried everybody all at once.
"No, I certainly sha'n't be," admitted Derry Willard, "unless I am invited!"
"Why, of course, you're invited!" cried everybody. Father seemed to have swallowed something. So mother invited him twice. Father kept right on choking. Everybody was frightened but mother.
Young Derry Willard had to run like everything to catch his train. It was lucky that he knew what he wanted. With only one wish to make and only half a minute to make it in, it was wonderful that he could decide so quickly! He snatched a pencil! He scribbled[Pg 23] something on a piece of paper! He crumpled the "something" all up tight and tossed it to mother! Carol and mother wadded it into a tin-foil bud! They took the gold-colored tin-foil! Rosalee and I wired it to a branch! We chose the highest branch we could reach! Father held his overcoat for him! Father handed him his bag! Father opened the door for him! He ran as fast as he could! He waved his hand to everybody! His laugh was all sparkly with white teeth!
The room seemed a little bit dark after he had gone. The firelight flickered on the tame coon's collar. Sometimes it flickered on the single gold bud. We cracked more nuts and munched more raisins. It made a pleasant noise. The tame crow climbed up on the window-sill and tapped and tapped against the glass. It was not a pleasant noise. The tame coon prowled about under the table looking for crumbs. He walked very flat and swaying and slow, as tho he were stuffed[Pg 24] with wet sand. It gave him a very captive look. His eyes were very bright.
Father got his violin and played some quivery tunes to us. Mother sang a little. It was nice. Carol put fifteen "wishes" on the tree. Seven of them, of course, were old ones about the camel. But all the rest were new. He wished a salt mackerel for his coon. And a gold anklet for his crow. He wouldn't tell what his other wishes were. They looked very pretty! Fifteen silver buds as big as cones scattered all through the green branches! Rosalee made seven violet-colored wishes! I made seven! Mine were green! Father made three! His were blue! Mother's were red! She made three, too! The tree looked more and more as tho rainbows had rained on it! It was beautiful! We thanked mother very much for having a Christmas-tree garden! We felt very thankful toward everybody! We got sleepier and sleepier! We went to bed![Pg 25]
I woke in the night. It was very lonely. I crept down-stairs to get my best story-book. There was a light in the parlor. There were voices. I peeped in. It was my father and my mother. They were looking at the Christmas tree. I got an awful shock. They were having what books call "words" with each other. Only it was "sentences!"
"Impudent young cub!" said my father. "How dared he stuff a hundred-dollar bill into our Christmas tree?"
"Oh, I'm sure he didn't mean to be impudent," said my mother. Her voice was very soft. "He heard the children telling about Uncle Charlie's gold piece. He—he wanted to do something—I suppose. It was too much, of course. He oughtn't to have done it. But——"
"A hundred-dollar bill!" said my father. Every time he said it he seemed madder.
"And yet," said my mother, "if what you say about his father's sugar plantations is correct,[Pg 26] a hundred-dollar bill probably didn't look any larger to him than a—than a two-dollar bill looks to us—this year. We'll simply return it to him very politely—as soon as we know his address. He was going West somewhere, wasn't he? We shall hear, I suppose."
"Hear nothing!" said my father. "I won't have it! Did you see how he stared at Rosalee? It was outrageous! Absolutely outrageous! And Rosalee? I was ashamed of Rosalee! Positively ashamed!"
"But you see—it was really the first young man that Rosalee has ever had a chance to observe," said my mother. "If you had ever been willing to let boys come to the house—maybe she wouldn't have considered this one such a—such a thrilling curiosity."
"Stuff and nonsense!" said my father. "She's only a child! There'll be no boys come to this house for years and years!"
"She's seventeen," said my mother. "You and I were married when I was seventeen."[Pg 27]
"That's different!" said my father. He tried to smile. He couldn't. Mother smiled quite a good deal. He jumped up and began to pace the room. He demanded things. "Do you mean to say," he demanded, "that you want your daughter to marry this strange young man?"
"Not at all," said mother.
Father turned at the edge of the rug and looked back. His face was all frowned. "And I don't like him anyway," he said. "He's too dark!"
"His father roomed with you at college, you say?" asked my mother very softly. "Do you remember him—specially?"
"Do I remember him?" cried my father. He looked astonished. "Do I remember him? Why, he was the best friend I ever had in the world! Do I remember him?"
"And he was—very fair?" asked my mother.[Pg 28]
"Fair?" cried my father. "He was as dark as a Spaniard!"
"And yet—reasonably—respectable?" asked my mother.
"Respectable?" cried my father. "Why, he was the highest-minded man I ever knew in my life!"
"And so—dark?" said my mother. She began to laugh. It was what we call her cut-finger laugh, her bandage laugh. It rolled all around father's angriness and made it feel better almost at once.
"Well, I can't help it," said father. He shook his head just the way Carol does sometimes when he's planning to be pleasant as soon as it's convenient. "Well, I can't help it! Exceptions, of course, are exceptions! But Cuba? A climate all mushy with warmth and sunshine! What possible stamina can a young man have who's grown up on sugar-cane sirup and—and bananas?"[Pg 29]
"He seemed to have teeth," said my mother. "He ate two helpings of turkey!"
"He had a gold cigaret-case!" said my father. "Gold!"
My mother began to laugh all over again.
"Maybe his Sunday-school class gave it to him," she said. It seemed to be a joke. Once father's Sunday-school class gave him a high silk hat. Father laughed a little.
Mother looked very beautiful. She ruffled her hair a little on father's shoulder. She pinked her cheeks from the inside some way. She glanced up at the topmost branch of the Christmas tree. The gold bud showed quite plainly.
"I—I wonder—what he wished," she said. "We'll have to look—some time."
I made a little creak in my bones. I didn't mean to. My father and mother both turned round. They started to explore!
I ran like everything!
I think it was very kind of God to make[Pg 30] December have the very shortest days in the year!
Summer, of course, is nice! The long, sunny light! Lying awake till 'most nine o'clock every night to hear the blackness come rustling! Such a lot of early mornings everywhere and birds singing! Sizzling-hot noons with cool milk to drink! The pleasant nap before it's time to play again!
But if December should feel long, what would children do? About Christmas, I mean! Even the best way you look at it, Christmas is always the furthest-off day that I ever heard about!
My mother was always very kind about making Christmas come just as soon as it could. There wasn't much daylight. Not in December. Not in the North. Not where we lived. Except for the snow, each day was like a little jet-black jewel-box with a single gold coin in the center. The gold coin in the center was noon. It was very bright. It was[Pg 31]