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Major Works of Zona GaleChristmasFriendship VillageMiss Lulu BettRomance Island
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The Best Collection of Zona Gale
Miss Lulu Bett
Christmas, by Zona Gale
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY NEW YORK · BOSTON · CHICAGO DALLAS · SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., LIMITED LONDON · BOMBAY · CALCUTTA MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD. TORONTO
[Illustration: "MARY FILLED HER ARMS WITH HAY AND TURNED TO THE MANGER"]
BY ZONA GALE AUTHOR OF "THE LOVES OF PELLEAS AND ETARRE" "FRIENDSHIP VILLAGE," ETC.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY LEON V. SOLON
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1912 All rights reserved
COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY THE McCLURE PUBLICATIONS, INCORPORATED.
COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up and electrotyped. Published October, 1912.
J. S. Cushing Co.--Berwick & Smith Co. Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
"Mary filled her arms with hay, and turned to the manger" Frontispiece
"He stood looking at it from part way across the road" 76
"Across the still fields came flashing the point of flame" 110
"The children began to sing, 'Go bury Saint Nicklis'" 150
"Their way led east between high banks of snow" 200
"The three men stepped into the lamplight" 240
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'tno 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'tnothing 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'texpect 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."
Mis' Abby Winslow, mother of seven under fifteen, looked up from her rocking-chair--Mis' Winslow always sat limp in chairs as if they were reaching out to rest her and, indeed, this occasional yielding to the force of gravity was almost her only luxury.
"You ain't thinking of the children, Mis' Bates," she said, "nor you either, Jane Moran, or you couldn't talk that way. We can't have no real Christmas, of course. But I'd planned some little things made out of what I had in the house: things that wouldn't be anything, and yet would seem a little something."
Mis' Mortimer Bates swept round at her.
"Children," she said, "ought to be showed how to do without things. Bennet and Gussie ain't expecting a sliver of nothing for Christmas--not a sliver."
Mis' Winslow unexpectedly flared up.
"Whether it shows through on the outside or not," she said, "I'll bet you they are."
"My three," Mis' Emerson Morse put in pacifically, "have been kept from popping corn and cracking nuts all Fall so's they could do both Christmas night, and it would seem like something that was something."
"That ain't the idea," Mis' Bates insisted; "I want them learnt to do without--" ("They'll learn that," Mis' Abby Winslow said; "they'll learn....") "Happening as it does to most every one of us not to have no Christmas, they won't be no distinctions drawn. None of the children can brag--and children is limbs of Satan for bragging," she added. (She was remembering a brief conversation overheard that day between Gussie and Pep, the minister's son:--
"I've got a doll," said Gussie.
"I've got a dollar," said Pep.
"My mamma went to a tea party," said Gussie.
"My mamma give one," said Pep.
Gussie mustered her forces. "My papa goes to work every morning," she topped it.
"My papa don't have to," said Pep, and closed the incident.)
"I can't help who's a limb of Satan," Mis' Winslow replied doggedly, "I can't seem to sense Christmas time without Christmas."
"It won't be Christmas time if you don't have any Christmas," Mis' Bates persisted.
"Oh, yes it will," Mis' Winslow said. "Oh, yes, it will. You can't stop that."
It was Mis' Bates, who, from the high-backed plush rocker, rapped with the blue glass paperweight on the red glass lamp and, in the absence of Mr. Bates, called the meeting to order. The Old Trail Town Society was organized on a platform of "membership unlimited, dues nothing but taking turns with the entertaining, officers to consist of: President, the host of the evening (or wife, if any), and no minutes to bother with." And it was to a meeting so disposed on the subject of Christmas that Simeon Buck rose to present his argument.
"Mr. President," he addressed the chair.
"It's Madam President, you ninny geese," corrected Buff Miles, sotto voce.
"It had ought to be Madam Chairman," objected Mis' Moran; "she ain't the continuous president."
"Well, for the land sakes, call me Mis' Bates, formal, and go ahead," said the lady under discussion. "Only I bet you've forgot now what you was going to say."
"Not much I did not," Simeon Buck continued composedly, and, ignoring the interruptions, let his own vocative stand. Then he presented a memorandum of a sum of money. It was not a large sum. But when he quoted it, everybody looked at everybody else, stricken. For it was a sum large enough to have required, in the earning, months of work on the part of an appalling proportion of Old Trail Town.
"From the day after Thanksgiving to the night before Christmas last year," said Simeon, "that is the amount that the three hundred souls--no, I guess it must have been bodies--in our town spent in the local stores. Now, bare living expenses aside,--which ain't very much for us all, these days,--this amount may be assumed to have been spent by the lot of us for Christmas. Of course there was those," continued Mr. Buck, looking intelligently about him, "who bought most of their Christmas stuff in the City. But these--these economic traitors only make the point of what I say the more so. Without them, the town spent this truly amazing sum in keeping the holidays. Now, I ask you, frank, could the town afford that, or anything like that?"
Buff Miles spoke out of the extremity of his reflections.
"That's a funny crack," he said, "for a merchant to make. Why not leave 'em spend and leave 'em pay?"
"Oh, I'll leave 'empay all right," rejoined Simeon, significantly, and stood silent and smiling until there were those in the room who uncomfortably shifted.
Then he told them the word he bore from Ebenezer Rule that as they had feared and half expected, the factory was not to open that Winter at all. Hardly a family represented in the rooms was not also representative of a factory employee, now idle these seven months, as they were periodically idle at the times of "enforced" suspension of the work.
"What I'm getting at is this," Simeon summed it up, "and Abel Ames, here, backs me up--don't you, Abel?--that hadn't we all ought to come to some joint conclusion about our Christmas this year, and roust the town up to it, like a town, and not go it blind and either get in up to our necks in debt, same as City folks, or else quit off Christmas, individual, and mebbe hurt folks's feelings? Why not move intelligent, like a town, and all agree out-and-out to leave Christmas go by this year? And have it understood, thorough?"
It was very still in the little rooms when he had finished. There seems to be no established etiquette of revolutions. But something of the unconsciousness of the enthusiast was upon Mis' Mortimer Bates, and she spoke before she knew:--
"So's we can be sure everybody else'll know it and not give something either and be disappointed too," she assented. "Well, I bet everybody'd be real relieved."
"The churches has sanctioned us doing away with Christmas this year by doing away with it themselves," observed Mis' Jane Moran. "That'd ought to be enough to go by."
"It don't seem to me Christmas is a thing for the churches to decide about," said Simeon, thoughtfully. "It seems to me the matter is up to the merchants and the grocers and the family providers. We're the ones most concerned. Us providers have got to scratch gravel to get together any Christmas at all, if any. And speaking for us merchants, I may say, we'll lay in the stock if folks'll buy it. But if they can't afford to pay for it, we don't want the stock personally."
"I guess we've all had the experience," observed Mis' Jane Moran, "of announcing we wasn't going to give any gifts this year, and then had somebody send something embroidered by hand, with a solid month's work on it. But if we all agree to secede from Christmas, we can lay down the law to folks so's it'll be understood: No Christmas for nobody."
"Not to children?" said Mis' Abby Winslow, doubtfully.
"My idea is to teach 'em to do entirely without Christmas," harped Mis' Bates. "We can't afford one. Why not let the children share in the family privation without trying to fool 'em with make-shift presents and boiled sugar?"
Over in a corner near the window plants, whose dead leaves she had been picking off, sat Ellen Bourne--Mis' Matthew Bourne she was, but nearly everybody called her Ellen Bourne. There is some law about these things: why instinctively we call some folk by the whole name, some by their first names, some by the last, some by shortening the name, some by a name not their own. Perhaps there is a name for each of us, if only we knew where to look, and folk intuitively select the one most like that. Perhaps some of us, by the sort of miracle that is growing every day, got the name that is meant for us. Perhaps some of us struggle along with consonants that spell somebody else. And how did some names get themselves so terrifically overused unless by some strange might, say, a kind of astrological irregularity.... Ellen Bourne sat by the window and suddenly looked over her shoulder at the room.
"If we've got the things made," she said, "can't we give 'em? If it's to children?"
"I think if we're going to omit, we'd ought to omit," Mis Bates held her own; "it can't matter to you, Ellen, with no children, so...." She caught herself sharply up. Ellen's little boy had died a Christmas or two ago.
"No," Ellen said, "I ain't any children, of course. But--"
"Well, I think," said Mis' Jane Moran, "that we've hit on the only way we could have hit on to chirk each other up over a hard time."
"And get off delicate ourselves same time," said Buff Miles. From the first Buff had been advocating what he called "an open Christmas," and there were those near him at the meeting to whom he had confided some plan about "church choir Christmas carol serenades," which he was loath to see set at naught.
Not much afterward Simeon Buck put the motion:--
"Mis' Chairman," he said, "I move you--and all of us--that the Old Trail Town meeting do and hereby does declare itself in favour of striking Christmas celebrations from its calendar this year. And that we circulate a petition through the town to this effect, headed by our names. And that we all own up that it's for the simple and regretful reason that not a mother's son of us can afford to buy Christmas presents this year, and what's the use of scratching to keep up appearances?"
For a breath Abel Ames hesitated; then he spoke voluntarily for the first time that evening.
"Mr. President, I second the hull of that," said he, slowly, and without looking at anybody; and then sighed his vast, triple sigh.
There was apparently nobody to vote against the motion. Mis' Winslow did not vote at all. Ellen Bourne said "No," but she said it so faintly that nobody heard save those nearest her, and they felt a bit embarrassed for her because she had spoken alone, and they tried to cover up the minute.
"Carried," said the Chair, and slipped out in the kitchen to put on the coffee.
At the meeting there was almost nobody who, in the course of the evening, did not make or reply to some form of observation on one theme. It was:--
"Well, I wish Mary Chavah'd been to the meeting. She'd have enjoyed herself."
Or, "Well, won't Mary Chavah be glad of this plan they've got? She's wanted it a good while."
Or, "We all seem to have come to Mary Chavah's way of thinking, don't we? You know, she ain't kept any Christmas for years."
Unless it was Abel Ames. He, in fact, made or replied to almost no observations that evening. He drank his coffee without cream, sugar, or spoon,--they are always overlooking somebody's essentials in this way, and such is Old Trail Town's shy courtesy that the omission is never mentioned or repaired by the victim,--and sighed his triple sigh at intervals, and went home.
"Hetty," he said to his wife, who had not gone to the meeting, "they put it through. We won't have no Christmas creditors this year. We don't have to furnish charged Christmas presents for nobody."
She looked up from the towel she was featherstitching--she was a little woman who carried her head back and had large eyes and the long, curved lashes of a child.
"I s'pose you're real relieved, ain't you, Abel?" she answered.
"My, yes," said Abel, without expression. "My, yes."
* * * * *
They all took the news home in different wise.
"Matthew," said Ellen Bourne, "the town meeting voted not to have any Christmas this year. That is, to ask the folks not to have any--'count of expense."
"Sensible move," said Matthew, sharpening his ax by the kitchen stove.
"It'll be a relief for most folks not to have the muss and the clutter," said Ellen's mother.
"Hey, king and country!" said Ellen's old father, whittling a stick, "I ain't done no more'n look on at a Christmas for ten years and more--with no children around so."
"I know," said Ellen Bourne, "I know...."
The announcement was greeted by Mortimer Bates with a slap of the knee.
"Good-by, folderol!" he said. "We need a sane Christmas in the world a good sight more'n we need a sane Fourth, most places. Good work."
But Bennet and Gussie Bates burst into wails.
"Hush!" said Mis' Bates, peremptorily. "You ain't the only ones, remember. It's no Christmas for nobody!"
"I thought the rest of 'em would have one an' we could go over to theirs...." sobbed Gussie.
"I'd rather p'etend it's Christmas in other houses even if we ain't it!" mourned Bennet.
"Be my little man and woman," admonished Mis' Mortimer Bates.
At the Morans, little Emily Moran made an unexpected deduction:--
"I won't stay in bed all day Christmas!" she gave out.
"Stay in bed!" echoed Mis' Moran. "Why on this earth should you stay in bed?"
"Well, if we get up, then it's Christmas and you can't stop it!" little Emily triumphed.
When they told Pep, the minister's son, after a long preparation by story and other gradual approach, and a Socratic questioning cleverly winning damning admissions from Pep, he looked up in his father's face thoughtfully:--
"If they ain'tno Christ's birthday this year, is it a lie that Christ was born?" he demanded.
And secretly the children took counsel with one another: Would Buff Miles, the church choir tenor, take them out after dark on Christmas Eve, to sing church choir serenades at folks' gates, or would he not? And when they thought that he might not, because this would be considered Christmas celebration and would only make the absence of present-giving the more conspicuous, as in the case of the Sunday schools themselves, they faced still another theological quandary: For if it was true that Christ was born, then Christmas was his birthday; and if Christmas was his birthday, wasn't it wicked not to pay any attention?
Alone of them all, little Tab Winslow rejoiced. His brothers and sisters made the time tearful with questionings as to the effect on Santa Claus, and how would they get word to him, and would it be Christmas in the City, and why couldn't they move there, and other matters denoting the reversal of this their earth. But Tab slipped out the kitchen door, to the corner of the barn, where the great turkey gobbler who had been named held his empire trustingly.
"Oh, Theophilus Thistledown," said Tab to him, "you're the only one in this town that's goin' to have a Christmas. You ain't got to be et."
The placard was tacked to the Old Trail Town post-office wall, between a summons to join the Army and the Navy of the United States, and the reward offered for an escaped convict--all three manifestoes registering something of the stage of society's development.
Owing to the local business depression and to the current private decisions to get up very few home Christmas celebrations this year, and also to the vote of the various lodges, churches, Sunday schools, etc., etc., etc., to forego the usual Christmas tree observances, the merchants of this town have one and all united with most of the folks to petition the rest to omit all Christmas presents, believing that the Christmas spirit will be kept up best by all agreeing to act alike. All that's willing may announce it by signing below and notifying others.
There were only three hundred folk living in Old Trail Town. Already two thirds of their signatures were scrawled on the sheets of foolscap tacked beneath the notice.
On the day after her return home, Jenny Wing stood and stared at the notice. Her mother had written to her of the town's talk, but the placard made it seem worse.
"I'll go in on the way home and see what Mary says," she thought, and asked for the letter that lay in Mary Chavah's box, next her own. They gave her the letter without question. All Old Trail Town asks for its neighbour's mail and reads its neighbour's postmarks and gets to know the different Writings and to inquire after them, like persons. ("He ain't got so much of a curl to his M to-day," one will say of a superscription. "Better write right back and chirk 'im up." Or, "Here's Her that don't seal her letters good. Tell her about that, why don't you?" Or, "This Writing's a stranger to me. I'll just wait a minute to see if birth or death gets out of the envelope.")
As she closed Mary's gate and hurried up the walk, in a keen wind flowing with little pricking flakes, Jenny was startled to see both parlour windows open. The white muslin curtains were blowing idly as if June were in the air. Turning as a matter of course to the path that led to the kitchen, she was hailed by Mary, who came out the front door with a rug in her hands.
"Step right in this way," said Mary; "this door's unfastened."
"Forevermore!" Jenny said, "Mary Chavah! What you got your house all open for? You ain't moving?"
A gust of wind took Mary's answer. She tossed the rug across the icy railing of the porch and beckoned Jenny into the house, and into the parlour. And when she had greeted Jenny after the months of her absence:--
"See," Mary said exultantly, "don't it look grand and empty? Look at it first, and then come on in and I'll tell you about it."
The white-papered walls of the two rooms were bare of pictures; the floor had been sparingly laid with rugs. The walnut sofa and chairs, the table for the lamp, and the long shelves of her grandfather's books--these were all that the room held. A white arch divided the two chambers, like a benign brow whose face had long been dimmed away. It was all exquisitely clean and icy cold. A little snow drifted in through the muslin curtains. The breath of the two women showed.
"What on earth you done that for?" Jenny demanded.
Mary Chavah stood in the empty archway, the satisfaction on her face not veiling its pure austerity. She was not much past thirty-three, but she looked older, for she was gaunt. Her flesh had lost its firmness, her dressmaking had stooped her, her strong frame moved as if it habitually shouldered its way. In her broad forehead and deep eyes and somewhat in her silent mouth, you read the woman--the rest of her was obscured in her gentle reticence. She had a gray shawl, blue-bordered, folded tightly about her head and pinned under her chin, and it wrapped her to her feet.
"I feel like a thing in a new shell," she said. "Come on in where it's warm."
Instead of moving her dining-room table to her kitchen, as most of Old Trail Town did in Winter, Mary had moved her cooking stove into the dining room, had improvised a calico-curtained cupboard for the utensils, and there she lived and sewed. The windows were bare.
"I'll let the parlour have curtains if it wants to," she had said, "but in the room I live in I want every strip of the sun I can get."
There were no plants, though every house in Old Trail Town had a window of green, and slips without number were offered....
"... You can have flowers all you want," she said once; "I like 'em too well to box 'em up in the house."
And there were no books.
"I don't read," she admitted; "I ain't ever read a book in my life but "Pilgrim's Progress" and the first four chapters of "Ben Hur." What's the use of pretending, when books is such a nuisance to dust? Grandfather's books in the parlour--oh, they ain't books. They're furniture."
But she had a little bookcase whose shelves were filled with her patterns--in her dressmaking she never used a fashion plate.
"I like to make 'em up and cut 'em out," she sometimes told her friends. "I don't care nothing whatever about the dresses when they get done--more fool the women for ornamenting themselves up like lamp shades, I always think. But I just do love to fuss with the paper and make it do like I say. Land, I've got my cupboard full of more patterns than I'd ever get orders for if I lived to be born again."
She sat down before the cooking stove and drew off her woolen mittens. She folded a hand on her cheek, forcing the cheek out of drawing by her hand's pressure. There was always about her gestures a curious nakedness--indeed, about her face and hands. They were naïve, perfectly likely to reveal themselves in their current awkwardness and ugliness of momentary expression which, by its very frankness, made a new law as it broke an old one.
"Don't you tell folks I've been house cleaning," she warned Jenny. "The town would think I was crazy, with the thermometer acting up zero so. Anyway, I ain't been house cleaning. I just simply got so sick to death of all the truck piled up in this house that I had to get away from it. And this morning it looked so clean and white and smooth outdoors that I felt so cluttered up I couldn't sew. I begun on this room--and then I kept on with the parlour. I've took out the lambrequins and 'leven pictures and the what-not and four moth-catching rugs and four sofa pillows, and I've packed the whole lot of 'em into the attic. I've done the same to my bedroom. I've emptied my house out of all the stuff the folks' and the folks' folks and their folks--clear back to Grandmother Hackett had in here--I mean the truck part. Not the good. And I guess now I've got some room to live in."
Jenny looked at her admiringly, and asked: "How did you ever do it? I can't bear to throw things away. I can't bear to move things from where they've been."
"I didn't use to want to," said Mary, "but lately--I do. The Winter's so clean, you kind of have to, to keep up. What's the news?"
"Here's a letter," Jenny said, and handed it. "I didn't look to see who it's from. I guess it's a strange Writing, anyway."
Mary glanced indifferently at it. "It's from Lily's boy, out West," she said, and laid the letter on the shelf. "I meant, what's the news about you?"
Jenny's eyes widened swiftly. "News about me?" she said. "Who said there was any news about me?"
"Nobody," Mary said evenly; "but you've been gone most a year, ain't you?"
"Oh," Jenny said, "yes...."
For really, when Old Trail Town stopped to think of it, Jenny Wing was Mrs. Bruce Rule, and had been so for a year. But no one thought of calling her that. It always takes Old Trail Town several years to adopt its marriages. They would graduate first to "Jenny Wing that was," and then to "Jenny Wing What's-name," and then to "Mis' Rule that was Jenny Wing...."
"... You tell me some news," Jenny added. "Mother don't ever write much but the necessaries."
"That's all there's been," Mary Chavah told her; "we ain't had no luxuries for news in forever."
"But there's that notice in the post office," cried Jenny. "I come home to spend Christmas, and there's that notice in the post office. Mother wrote nobody was going to do anything for Christmas, but she never wrote me that. I've brought home some little things I made----"
"Oh--Christmas!" Mary said. "Yes, they all got together and concluded best not have any. You know, since the failure--"
Mary hesitated--Ebenezer Rule was Bruce Rule's uncle.
"I know," said Jenny, "it's Uncle Ebenezer. I don't know how I'm going to tell Bruce when he comes. To think it's in our family, the reason they can't have any Christmas...."
"Nonsense," said Mary, briskly; "no Christmas presents is real sensible, my way of thinking. It's been 'leven years since I've given a Christmas present to anybody. The first Christmas after mother died, I couldn't--I just couldn't. That kind of got me out of the idea, and then I see all the nonsense of it."
"The nonsense?" Jenny repeated.
"If you don't like folks, you don't want to give nothing to them or take nothing from them. And if you do like 'em you don't want to have to wait to Christmas to give 'em things. Ain't that so?" Mary Chavah put it.
"No," said Jenny; "it ain't. Not a bit so." And when Mary laughed, questioned her, pressed her, "It seems perfectly awful to me not to have a Christmas," Jenny could say only, "I feel like the Winter didn't have no backbone to it."
"It's a dead time, Winter," Mary assented. "What's the use of tricking it up with gewgaws and pretending it's a live time? Besides, if you ain't got the money, you ain't got the money. And nobody has, this year. Unless they go ahead and buy things anyway, like the City."
Jenny shook her head. "I got seven Christmas-present relatives and ten Christmas-present friends, and I've only spent Two Dollars and Eighty cents on 'em all," she said, "for material. But I've made little things for every one of 'em. It don't seem as if that much had ought to hurt any one."
Jenny looked past her out the window, somewhere beyond the snow.
"They's something else," she added, "it ain't all present giving...."
"Nonsense," said Mary Chavah, "take the present trading away from Christmas and see how long it'd last. I was in the City once for Christmas. I'll never forget it--never. I never see folks work like the folks worked there. The streets was Bedlam. The stores was worse. 'What'll I get him?...' 'I've just got to get something for her....' 'It don't seem as if this is nice enough after what she give me last year....' I can hear 'em yet. They spent money wicked. And I said to myself that I was glad from my head to my feet that I was done with Christmas. And I been preaching it ever since. And I'm pleased this town has had to come to it."
"It ain't the way I feel," said Jenny. She got up and wandered to the window and hardly heard while Mary went on with more of the sort. "It seems kind of like going back on the ways things are," Jenny said, as she turned. Then, as she made ready to go, she broke off and smote her hands together.
"Oh," she said, "it don't seem as if I could bear it not to have Christmas--not this year."
"You mean your and Bruce's first Christmas," said Mary. "Mark my words, he'll be glad to be rid of the fuss. Men always are. Come on out the front door if you're going," said Mary. "You might as well use it when it's open."
As Jenny passed the open parlour door, she looked in again at the bare room.
"Don't you like pictures?" she asked abruptly.
"I like 'em when I like 'em," Mary answered. "I didn't like them I had up here--I had a shot stag and a fruit piece and an eagle with a child in its claws. I've loathed 'em for years, but I ain't ever had the heart to throw 'em out till now. They're over behind the coal bin."
Jenny thought. "They's a picture over to mother's," she said, "that she ain't put up because she ain't had the money to frame it. I guess I'll bring it over after supper and see if you don't want it up here--frame or no frame." She looked at Mary and laughed. "If I bring it to you to-night," she said, "it ain't a Christmas present--legal. But if I want to call it a Christmas present inside me, the town can't help that."
"What's the picture?" Mary asked.
"I don't know who it represents," said Jenny, "but it's nice."
When Jenny had gone, Mary Chavah stood in the snow shaking the rug she had left outside, and looking at the clean, white town.
"It looks like it was waiting for something," she thought.
A door opened and shut. A child shouted. In the north east a shining body had come sparkling above the trees--Capella of the brightness of one hundred of our suns, being born into the twilight like a little star....
Mary closed the parlour windows and stood for a moment immersed in the quiet and emptiness of the clean rooms.
"This looks like it was waiting for something, too," she thought. "But it ought to know it won't get it," she added whimsically.
Then she went back to the warm room and saw the letter on the shelf. She meant to go in a moment to the stable to make it safe there for the night; so, with the gray shawl still binding her head and falling to her feet, she sat by the stove and read the letter.
"... because she wasn't sick but two days and we never thought of her dying till she was dead. Otherwise we'd have telegraphed. She was buried yesterday, right here, and we'll get some kind of stone. You say how you think it'd ought to be marked. That's about all there is to tell except about Yes. He's six years old now and Aunt Mary this ain't a place for him. He's a nice little fellow and I hate for him to get rough and he will if he stays here. I'll do the best I can and earn money to help keep him but I want he should come and live with you...."
"I won't have him!" said Mary Chavah, aloud.
"... he could come alone with a tag all right and I could send his things by freight. He ain't got much. You couldn't help but like him and I hate for him to get rough. Please answer and oblige your loving Nephew, "JOHN BLOOD."
Mary kept reading the letter and staring out into the snow. Her sister Lily's boy--they wanted to send him to her. Lily's boy and Adam Blood's--the man whose son she had thought would be her son. It was twenty years ago that he had been coming to the house--this same house--and she had thought that he was coming to see her, had never thought of Lily at all till Lily had told her of her own betrothal to him. It hurt yet. It had hurt freshly when he had died, seven years ago. Now Lily was dead, and Adam's eldest son, John, wanted to send this little brother to her, to have.
"I won't take him," she said a great many times, and kept reading the letter and staring out into the snow.
For Lily she had no tears--she seldom had tears at all. But after a little while she was conscious of a weight through her and in her, aching in her throat, her breast, her body. She rose and went near to the warmth of the fire, then to the freedom of the window against which the snow lay piled, then she sat down in the place where she worked, beside her patterns. The gray shawl still bound her head, and it was still in her mind that she must go to the barn and lock it. But she did not go--she sat in the darkening room with all her past crowding it....
... That first day with Adam at the Blood's picnic, given at his home-coming. They had met with all that perilous, ready-made intimacy which a school friendship of years before had allowed. As she had walked beside him she had known well what he was going to mean to her. She remembered the moment when he had contrived to ask her to wait until the others went, so that he might walk home with her. And when they had reached home, there on the porch--where she had just shaken the rugs in the snow--Lily had been sitting, a stool--one of the stools now at length banished to the shed--holding the hurt ankle that had kept her from the picnic. Adam had stayed an hour, and they had sat beside Lily. He had come again and again, and they had always sat beside Lily. Mary remembered that those were the days when she was happy in things--in the house and the look of the rooms and of the little garden from the porch, and of the old red-cushioned rocking-chairs on the tiny "stoop." She had loved her clothes and her little routines, and all these things had seemed desirable and ultimate because they two were sharing them. Then one day Mary had joined Lily and Adam there on the porch, and Lily had been looking up with new eyes, and Mary had searched her face, and then Adam's face; and they had all seemed in a sudden nakedness; and Mary had known that a great place was closed against her.
Since then house and porch and garden and routines had become like those of other places. She had always been shut outside something, and always she had borne burdens. The death of her parents, gadflys of need, worst of all a curious feeling that the place closed against her was somehow herself--that, so to say, she and herself had never once met. She used to say that to herself sometimes, "There's two of me, and we don't meet--we don't meet."
"And now he wants me to take her boy and Adam's," she kept saying; "I'll never do such a thing--never."
She thought that the news of Lily's death was what gave her the strange, bodily hurt that had seized her--the news that what she was used to was gone; that she had no sister; that the days of their being together and all the tasks of their upbringing were finished. Then she thought that the remembering of those days of her happiness and her pain, and the ache of what might have been and of what never was, had come to torture her again. But the feeling was rather the weight of some imminent thing, the ravage of something that grew with what it fed on, the grasp upon her of something that would not let her go....
She had never seen them after their marriage, and so she had never seen either of the children. Lily had once sent her a picture of John, but she had never sent one of this other little boy. Mary tried to recall what they had ever said of him. She could not even remember his baptismal name, but she knew that they had called him "Yes" because it was the first word he had learned to say, and because he had said it to everything. "The baby can say 'Yes,'" Lily had written once; "I guess it's all he'll ever be able to say. He says it all day long. He won't try to say anything else." And once later: "We've taken to calling the baby 'Yes,' and now he calls himself that. 'Yes wants it,' he says, and 'Take Yes,' and 'Yes is going off now.' His father likes it. He says yes is everything and no is nothing. I don't think that means much, but we call him that for fun...." But Mary could not remember what the child's real name was. What difference did it make? As if she could have a child meddling round the house while she was sewing. But of course this was not the real reason. The real reason was that she could not bring up a child--did she not know that?
"... He's six years old now and Aunt Mary this ain't a place for him. He's a nice little fellow and I hate for him to get rough and he will if he stays here...."
She tried to think who else could take him. They had no one. Adam, she knew, had no one. Some of the neighbours there by the ranch ... it was absurd to send him that long journey ... so she went through it all, denying with all the old denials. And all the while the weight in her body grew and filled her, and she was strangely conscious of her breath.
"What ails me?" she said aloud, and got up to kindle a light. She was amazed to see that it was seven o'clock, and long past her supper hour. As she took from the clock shelf the key to the barn, some one rapped at the back door and came through the cold kitchen with friendly familiarity. It was Jenny, a shawl over her head, her face glowing with the cold, and in her mittened hands a flat parcel.
"My hand's most froze," Jenny admitted. "I didn't want to roll this thing, so I carried it flat out, and it blew consider'ble. It's the picture."
"Get yourself warm," Mary bade her. "I'll undo it. Who is it of?" she added, as the papers came away.
"That's what I don't know," said Jenny, "but I've always liked it around. I thought maybe you'd know."
It was a picture which, in those days, had not before come to Old Trail Town. The figure was that of a youth, done by a master of the times--the head and shoulders of a youth who seemed to be looking passionately at something outside the picture.
"There it is, anyhow," Jenny added. "If you like it enough to hang it up, hang it up. It's a Christmas present!" Jenny laughed elfishly.
Mary Chavah held the picture out before her.
"I do," she said; "I could take a real fancy to it. I'll have it up on the wall. Much obliged, I'm sure. Set down a minute."
But Jenny could not do this, and Mary, the key to the barn still in her hands, followed her out. They went through the cold kitchen where the refrigerator and the ironing board and the clothes bars and all the familiar things stood in the dark. To Mary these were sunk in a great obscurity and insignificance, and even Jenny being there was unimportant beside the thing that her letter had brought to think about. They stepped out into the clear, glittering night, with its clean, white world, and its clean, dark sky on which some story was written in stars. Capella was shining almost overhead--and another star was hanging bright in the east, as if the east were always a dawning place for some new star.
"Mary!" said Jenny, there in the dark.
"Yes," Mary answered.
"You know I said I just couldn't bear not to have any Christmas--this Christmas?"
"Yes," Mary said.
"Did you know why?"
"I thought because it's your and Bruce's first--"
"No," Jenny said, "that isn't all why. It's something else."
She slipped her arm within Mary's and stood silent. And, Mary still not understanding,--
"It's somebody else," Jenny said faintly.
Mary stirred, turned to her in the dimness.
"Why, Jenny!" she said.
"Soon," said Jenny.
The two women stood for a moment, Jenny saying a little, Mary quiet.
"It'll be late in December," Jenny finished. "That seems so wonderful to me--so wonderful. Late in December, like--"
The cold came pricking about them, and Jenny moved to go. Mary, the shawled figure on the upper step, looked down on the shawled figure below her, and abruptly spoke.
"It's funny," Mary said, "that you should tell me that--now. I haven't told you what's in my letter."
"What was?" asked Jenny.
Mary told her. "They want I should have the little boy," she ended it.
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