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Lucy Maud Montgomery
THE COMPLETE CHRISTMAS STORIES
2017 © Book House Publishing
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the publisher.
Table of Contents
The Red Room
A Christmas Mistake
A Christmas Inspiration
The Josephs’ Christmas
Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket
The Osbornes’ Christmas
Bertie’s New Year
Ida’s New Year Cake
The Christmas Surprise at Enderly Road
The Falsoms’ Christmas Dinner
The Unforgotten One
Christmas at Red Butte
Uncle Richard’s New Year’s Dinner
First published: 1898
You would have me tell you the story, Grandchild? ‘Tis a sad one and best forgotten — few remember it now. There are always sad and dark stories in old families such as ours.
Yet I have promised and must keep my word. So sit down here at my feet and rest your bright head on my lap, that I may not see in your young eyes the shadows my story will bring across their bonny blue.
I was a mere child when it all happened, yet I remember it but too well, and I can recall how pleased I was when my father’s stepmother, Mrs. Montressor — she not liking to be called grandmother, seeing she was but turned of fifty and a handsome woman still — wrote to my mother that she must send little Beatrice up to Montressor Place for the Christmas holidays. So I went joyfully though my mother grieved to part with me; she had little to love save me, my father, Conrad Montressor, having been lost at sea when but three months wed.
My aunts were wont to tell me how much I resembled him, being, so they said, a Montressor to the backbone; and this I took to mean commendation, for the Montressors were a well-descended and well-thought-of family, and the women were noted for their beauty. This I could well believe, since of all my aunts there was not one but was counted a pretty woman. Therefore I took heart of grace when I thought of my dark face and spindling shape, hoping that when I should be grown up I might be counted not unworthy of my race.
The Place was an old-fashioned, mysterious house, such as I delighted in, and Mrs. Montressor was ever kind to me, albeit a little stern, for she was a proud woman and cared but little for children, having none of her own.
But there were books there to pore over without let or hindrance — for nobody questioned of my whereabouts if I but kept out of the way — and strange, dim family portraits on the walls to gaze upon, until I knew each proud old face well, and had visioned a history for it in my own mind — for I was given to dreaming and was older and wiser than my years, having no childish companions to keep me still a child.
There were always some of my aunts at the Place to kiss and make much of me for my father’s sake — for he had been their favourite brother. My aunts — there were eight of them — had all married well, so said people who knew, and lived not far away, coming home often to take tea with Mrs. Montressor, who had always gotten on well with her step-daughters, or to help prepare for some festivity or other — for they were notable housekeepers, every one.
They were all at Montressor Place for Christmas, and I got more petting than I deserved, albeit they looked after me somewhat more strictly than did Mrs. Montressor, and saw to it that I did not read too many fairy tales or sit up later at nights than became my years.
But it was not for fairy tales and sugarplums nor yet for petting that I rejoiced to be at the Place at that time. Though I spoke not of it to anyone, I had a great longing to see my Uncle Hugh’s wife, concerning whom I had heard much, both good and bad.
My Uncle Hugh, albeit the oldest of the family, had never married until now, and all the countryside rang with talk of his young wife. I did not hear as much as I wished, for the gossips took heed to my presence when I drew anear and turned to other matters. Yet, being somewhat keener of comprehension than they knew, I heard and understood not a little of their talk.
And so I came to know that neither proud Mrs. Montressor nor my good aunts, nor even my gentle mother, looked with overmuch favour on what my Uncle Hugh had done. And I did hear that Mrs. Montressor had chosen a wife for her stepson, of good family and some beauty, but that my Uncle Hugh would have none of her — a thing Mrs. Montressor found hard to pardon, yet might so have done had not my uncle, on his last voyage to the Indies — for he went often in his own vessels — married and brought home a foreign bride, of whom no one knew aught save that her beauty was a thing to dazzle the day and that she was of some strange alien blood such as ran not in the blue veins of the Montressors.
Some had much to say of her pride and insolence, and wondered if Mrs. Montressor would tamely yield her mistress-ship to the stranger. But others, who were taken with her loveliness and grace, said that the tales told were born of envy and malice, and that Alicia Montressor was well worthy of her name and station.
So I halted between two opinions and thought to judge for myself, but when I went to the Place my Uncle Hugh and his bride were gone for a time, and I had even to swallow my disappointment and bide their return with all my small patience.
But my aunts and their stepmother talked much of Alicia, and they spoke slightingly of her, saying that she was but a light woman and that no good would come of my Uncle Hugh’s having wed her, with other things of a like nature. Also they spoke of the company she gathered around her, thinking her to have strange and unbecoming companions for a Montressor. All this I heard and pondered much over, although my good aunts supposed that such a chit as I would take no heed to their whisperings.
When I was not with them, helping to whip eggs and stone raisins, and being watched to see that I ate not more than one out of five, I was surely to be found in the wing hall, poring over my book and grieving that I was no more allowed to go into the Red Room.
The wing hall was a narrow one and dim, connecting the main rooms of the Place with an older wing, built in a curious way. The hall was lighted by small, square-paned windows, and at its end a little flight of steps led up to the Red Room.
Whenever I had been at the Place before — and this was often — I had passed much of my time in this same Red Room. It was Mrs. Montressor’s sitting-room then, where she wrote her letters and examined household accounts, and sometimes had an old gossip in to tea. The room was low-ceilinged and dim, hung with red damask, and with odd, square windows high up under the eaves and a dark wainscoting all around it. And there I loved to sit quietly on the red sofa and read my fairy tales, or talk dreamily to the swallows fluttering crazily against the tiny panes.
When I had gone this Christmas to the Place I soon bethought myself of the Red Room — for I had a great love for it. But I had got no further than the steps when Mrs. Montressor came sweeping down the hall in haste and, catching me by the arm, pulled me back as roughly as if it had been Bluebeard’s chamber itself into which I was venturing.
Then, seeing my face, which I doubt not was startled enough, she seemed to repent of her haste and patted me gently on the head.
“There, there, little Beatrice! Did I frighten you, child? Forgive an old woman’s thoughtlessness. But be not too ready to go where you are not bidden, and never venture foot in the Red Room now, for it belongs to your Uncle Hugh’s wife, and let me tell you she is not over fond of intruders.”
I felt sorry overmuch to hear this, nor could I see why my new aunt should care if I went in once in a while, as had been my habit, to talk to the swallows and misplace nothing. But Mrs. Montressor saw to it that I obeyed her, and I went no more to the Red Room, but busied myself with other matters.
For there were great doings at the Place and much coming and going. My aunts were never idle; there was to be much festivity Christmas week and a ball on Christmas Eve. And my aunts had promised me — though not till I had wearied them of my coaxing — that I should stay up that night and see as much of the gaiety as was good for me. So I did their errands and went early to bed every night without complaint — though I did this the more readily for that, when they thought me safely asleep, they would come in and talk around my bedroom fire, saying that of Alicia which I should not have heard.
At last came the day when my Uncle Hugh and his wife were expected home — though not until my scanty patience was well nigh wearied out — and we were all assembled to meet them in the great hall, where a ruddy firelight was gleaming.
My Aunt Frances had dressed me in my best white frock and my crimson sash, with much lamenting over my skinny neck and arms, and bade me behave prettily, as became my bringing up. So I slipped in a corner, my hands and feet cold with excitement, for I think every drop of blood in my body had gone to my head, and my heart beat so hardly that it even pained me.
Then the door opened and Alicia — for so I was used to hearing her called, nor did I ever think of her as my aunt in my own mind — came in, and a little in the rear my tall, dark uncle.
She came proudly forward to the fire and stood there superbly while she loosened her cloak, nor did she see me at all at first, but nodded, a little disdainfully, it seemed, to Mrs. Montressor and my aunts, who were grouped about the drawing-room door, very ladylike and quiet.
But I neither saw nor heard aught at the time save her only, for her beauty, when she came forth from her crimson cloak and hood, was something so wonderful that I forgot my manners and stared at her as one fascinated — as indeed I was, for never had I seen such loveliness and hardly dreamed it.
Pretty women I had seen in plenty, for my aunts and my mother were counted fair, but my uncle’s wife was as little like to them as a sunset glow to pale moonshine or a crimson rose to white day-lilies.
Nor can I paint her to you in words as I saw her then, with the long tongues of firelight licking her white neck and wavering over the rich masses of her red-gold hair.
She was tall — so tall that my aunts looked but insignificant beside her, and they were of no mean height, as became their race; yet no queen could have carried herself more royally, and all the passion and fire of her foreign nature burned in her splendid eyes, that might have been dark or light for aught that I could ever tell, but which seemed always like pools of warm flame, now tender, now fierce.
Her skin was like a delicate white rose leaf, and when she spoke I told my foolish self that never had I heard music before; nor do I ever again think to hear a voice so sweet, so liquid, as that which rippled over her ripe lips.
I had often in my own mind pictured this, my first meeting with Alicia, now in one way, now in another, but never had I dreamed of her speaking to me at all, so that it came to me as a great surprise when she turned and, holding out her lovely hands, said very graciously:
“And is this the little Beatrice? I have heard much of you — come, kiss me, child.”
And I went, despite my Aunt Elizabeth’s black frown, for the glamour of her loveliness was upon me, and I no longer wondered that my Uncle Hugh should have loved her.
Very proud of her was he too; yet I felt, rather than saw — for I was sensitive and quick of perception, as old-young children ever are — that there was something other than pride and love in his face when he looked on her, and more in his manner than the fond lover — as it were, a sort of lurking mistrust.
Nor could I think, though to me the thought seemed as treason, that she loved her husband overmuch, for she seemed half condescending and half disdainful to him; yet one thought not of this in her presence, but only remembered it when she had gone.
When she went out it seemed to me that nothing was left, so I crept lonesomely away to the wing hall and sat down by a window to dream of her; and she filled my thoughts so fully that it was no surprise when I raised my eyes and saw her coming down the hall alone, her bright head shining against the dark old walls.
When she paused by me and asked me lightly of what I was dreaming, since I had such a sober face, I answered her truly that it was of her — whereat she laughed, as one not ill pleased, and said half mockingly:
“Waste not your thoughts so, little Beatrice. But come with me, child, if you will, for I have taken a strange fancy to your solemn eyes. Perchance the warmth of your young life may thaw out the ice that has frozen around my heart ever since I came among these cold Montressors.”
And, though I understood not her meaning, I went, glad to see the Red Room once more. So she made me sit down and talk to her, which I did, for shyness was no failing of mine; and she asked me many questions, and some that I thought she should not have asked, but I could not answer them, so ‘twere little harm.
After that I spent a part of every day with her in the Red Room. And my Uncle Hugh was there often, and he would kiss her and praise her loveliness, not heeding my presence — for I was but a child.
Yet it ever seemed to me that she endured rather than welcomed his caresses, and at times the ever-burning flame in her eyes glowed so luridly that a chill dread would creep over me, and I would remember what my Aunt Elizabeth had said, she being a bitter-tongued woman, though kind at heart — that this strange creature would bring on us all some evil fortune yet.
Then would I strive to banish such thoughts and chide myself for doubting one so kind to me.
When Christmas Eve drew nigh my silly head was full of the ball day and night. But a grievous disappointment befell me, for I awakened that day very ill with a most severe cold; and though I bore me bravely, my aunts discovered it soon, when, despite my piteous pleadings, I was put to bed, where I cried bitterly and would not be comforted. For I thought I should not see the fine folk and, more than all, Alicia.
But that disappointment, at least, was spared me, for at night she came into my room, knowing of my longing — she was ever indulgent to my little wishes. And when I saw her I forgot my aching limbs and burning brow, and even the ball I was not to see, for never was mortal creature so lovely as she, standing there by my bed.
Her gown was of white, and there was nothing I could liken the stuff to save moonshine falling athwart a frosted pane, and out from it swelled her gleaming breast and arms, so bare that it seemed to me a shame to look upon them. Yet it could not be denied they were of wondrous beauty, white as polished marble.
And all about her snowy throat and rounded arms, and in the masses of her splendid hair, were sparkling, gleaming stones, with hearts of pure light, which I know now to have been diamonds, but knew not then, for never had I seen aught of their like.
And I gazed at her, drinking in her beauty until my soul was filled, as she stood like some goddess before her worshipper. I think she read my thought in my face and liked it — for she was a vain woman, and to such even the admiration of a child is sweet.
Then she leaned down to me until her splendid eyes looked straight into my dazzled ones.
“Tell me, little Beatrice — for they say the word of a child is to be believed — tell me, do you think me beautiful?”
I found my voice and told her truly that I thought her beautiful beyond my dreams of angels — as indeed she was. Whereat she smiled as one well pleased.
Then my Uncle Hugh came in, and though I thought that his face darkened as he looked on the naked splendour of her breast and arms, as if he liked not that the eyes of other men should gloat on it, yet he kissed her with all a lover’s fond pride, while she looked at him half mockingly.
Then said he, “Sweet, will you grant me a favour?”
And she answered, “It may be that I will.”
And he said, “Do not dance with that man tonight, Alicia. I mistrust him much.”
His voice had more of a husband’s command than a lover’s entreaty. She looked at him with some scorn, but when she saw his face grow black — for the Montressors brooked scant disregard of their authority, as I had good reason to know — she seemed to change, and a smile came to her lips, though her eyes glowed balefully.
Then she laid her arms about his neck and — though it seemed to me that she had as soon strangled as embraced him — her voice was wondrous sweet and caressing as she murmured in his ear.
He laughed and his brow cleared, though he said still sternly, “Do not try me too far, Alicia.”
Then they went out, she a little in advance and very stately.
After that my aunts also came in, very beautifully and modestly dressed, but they seemed to me as nothing after Alicia. For I was caught in the snare of her beauty, and the longing to see her again so grew upon me that after a time I did an undutiful and disobedient thing.
I had been straitly charged to stay in bed, which I did not, but got up and put on a gown. For it was in my mind to go quietly down, if by chance I might again see Alicia, myself unseen.
But when I reached the great hall I heard steps approaching and, having a guilty conscience, I slipped aside into the blue parlour and hid me behind the curtains lest my aunts should see me.
Then Alicia came in, and with her a man whom I had never before seen. Yet I instantly bethought myself of a lean black snake, with a glittering and evil eye, which I had seen in Mrs. Montressor’s garden two summers agone, and which was like to have bitten me. John, the gardener, had killed it, and I verily thought that if it had a soul, it must have gotten into this man.
Alicia sat down and he beside her, and when he had put his arms about her, he kissed her face and lips. Nor did she shrink from his embrace, but even smiled and leaned nearer to him with a little smooth motion, as they talked to each other in some strange, foreign tongue.
I was but a child and innocent, nor knew I aught of honour and dishonour. Yet it seemed to me that no man should kiss her save only my Uncle Hugh, and from that hour I mistrusted Alicia, though I understood not then what I afterwards did.
And as I watched them — not thinking of playing the spy — I saw her face grow suddenly cold, and she straightened herself up and pushed away her lover’s arms.
Then I followed her guilty eyes to the door, where stood my Uncle Hugh, and all the pride and passion of the Montressors sat on his lowering brow. Yet he came forward quietly as Alicia and the snake drew apart and stood up.
At first he looked not at his guilty wife but at her lover, and smote him heavily in the face. Whereat he, being a coward at heart, as are all villains, turned white and slunk from the room with a muttered oath, nor was he stayed.
My uncle turned to Alicia, and very calmly and terribly he said, “From this hour you are no longer wife of mine!”
And there was that in his tone which told that his forgiveness and love should be hers nevermore.
Then he motioned her out and she went, like a proud queen, with her glorious head erect and no shame on her brow.
As for me, when they were gone I crept away, dazed and bewildered enough, and went back to my bed, having seen and heard more than I had a mind for, as disobedient people and eavesdroppers ever do.