THE MACMILLAN COMPANY NEW YORK . BOSTON . CHICAGO DALLAS . SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., LIMITED LONDON . BOMBAY . CALCUTTA MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD. TORONTO
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't no patent adjustable Christmas tree."
"Me neither," Simeon said. "Last year it was me give a silk cloak and a Five Dollar umbrella and a fur bore and a bushel of knick-knicks to the folks in this town. My name wa'n't on the cards, but it's me that's paid for 'em—up to now. I'm sick of it. The storekeepers of this town may make a good thing out of Christmas, but they'd ought to get some of the credit instead of giving it all, by Josh."
"What you going to do?" inquired Ebenezer, dryly.
"Well, of course last year was an exceptional year," said Abel, "owing—"
He hesitated to say "owing to the failure of the Ebenezer Rule Factory Company," and so stammered with the utmost delicacy, and skipped a measure.
"And we thought," Simeon finished, "that if the factory wasn't going to open up this Winter, we'd work things so's to have little or no Christmas in town this year—being so much of the present giving falls on us to carry on our books."
"It ain't only the factory wages, of course," Abel interposed, "it's the folks's savings being et up in—"
"—the failure," he would have added, but skipped a mere beat instead.
"—and we want to try to give 'em a chance to pay us up for last Christmas before they come on to themselves with another celebration," he added reasonably.
Ebenezer Rule laughed—a descending scale of laughter that seemed to have no organs wherewith to function in the open, and so never got beyond the gutturals.
"How you going to fix it?" he inquired again.
"Why," said Simeon, "everybody in town's talking that they ain't going to give anybody anything for Christmas. Some means it and some don't. Some'll do it and some'll back out. But the churches has decided to omit Christmas exercises altogether this year. Some thought to have speaking pieces, but everybody concluded if they had exercises without oranges and candy the children'd go home disappointed, so they've left the whole thing slide—"
"It don't seem just right for 'em not to celebrate the birth of our Lord just because they can't afford the candy," Abel Ames observed mildly, but Simeon hurried on:—
"—slide, and my idea and Abel's is to get the town meeting to vote a petition to the same effect asking the town not to try to do anything with their Christmas this year. We heard the factory wasn't going to open, and we thought if we could tell 'em that for sure, it would settle it—and save him and me and all the rest of 'em. Would—would you be willing for us to tell the town meeting that? It's to-night—we're on the way there."
"Sure," said Ebenezer Rule, "tell 'em. And you might point out to 'em," he added, with his spasm of gutturals, "that failures is often salutary measures. Public benefactions. Fixes folks so's they can't spend their money fool."
He walked with them across the lawn, going between them and guiding them among the empty aster beds.
"They think I et up their savings in the failure," he went on, "when all I done is to bring 'em face to face with the fact that for years they've been overspending themselves. It takes Christmas to show that up. This whole Christmas business is about wore out, anyhow. Ain't it?"
"That's what," Simeon said, "it's a spendin' sham, from edge to edge."
Abel Ames was silent. The three skirted the flower beds and came out on the level sweep of turf before the house that was no house in the darkness, save that they remembered how it looked: a square, smoked thing, with a beard of dead creepers and white shades lidded over its never-lighted windows—a fit home for this man least-liked of the three hundred neighbours who made Old Trail Town. He touched the elbows of the other two men as they walked in the dark, but he rarely touched any human being. And now Abel Ames suddenly put his hand down on that of Ebenezer, where it lay in the crook of Abel's elbow.
"What you got there?" he asked.
"Nothing much," Ebenezer answered, irritably again. "It's an old glass. I was looking over some rubbish, and I found it—over back. It's a field glass."
"What you got a field glass out in the dark for?" Abel demanded.
"I used to fool with it some when I was a little shaver," Ebenezer said. He put the glass in Abel's hand. "On the sky," he added.
Abel lifted the glass and turned it on the heavens. There, above the little side lawn, the firmament had unclothed itself of branches and lay in a glorious nakedness to three horizons.
"Thunder," Abel said, "look at 'em look."
Sweeping the field with the lens, Abel spoke meanwhile.
"Seems as if I'd kind of miss all the fuss in the store around Christmas," he said,—"the extra rush and the trimming up and all."
"Abel'll miss lavishin' his store with cut paper, I guess," said Simeon; "he dotes on tassels."
"Last year," Abel went on, not lowering the glass, "I had a little kid come in the store Christmas Eve, that I'd never see before. He ask' me if he could get warm—and he set down on the edge of a chair by the stove, and he took in everything in the place. I ask' him his name, and he just smiled. I ask' him if he was glad it was Christmas, and he says, Was I. I was goin' to give him some cough drops, but when I come back from waiting on somebody he was gone. I never could find out who he was, nor see anybody that saw him. I thought mebbe this Christmas he'd come back. Lord, don't it look like a pasture of buttercups up there? Here, Simeon."
Simeon, talking, took the glass and lifted it to the stars.
"Cut paper doin's is all very well," he said, "but the worst nightmare of the year to the stores is Christmas. I always think it's come to be 'Peace on earth, good will to men and extravagance of women.' Quite a nice little till of gold pieces up there in the sky, ain't there? I'd kind o' like to stake a claim out up there—eh? Lay it out along about around that bright one down there—by Josh," he broke off, "look at that bright one."
Simeon kept looking through the glass, and he leaned a little forward to try to see the better.
"What is it?" he repeated, "what's that one? It's the biggest star I ever see—"
The other two looked where he was looking, low in the east. But they saw nothing save boughs indeterminately moving and a spatter of sparkling points not more bright than those of the upper field.
"You look," Simeon bade the vague presence that was his host; but through the glass, Ebenezer still saw nothing that challenged his sight.
"I don't know the name of a star in the sky, except the dipper," he grumbled, "but I don't see anything out of the ordinary, anyhow."
"It is," Simeon protested; "I tell you, it's the biggest star I ever saw. It's blue and purple and green and yellow—"
Abel had the glass now, and he had looked hardly sooner than he had recognized.
"Sure," he said, "I've got it. It is blue and purple and green and yellow, and it's as big as most stars put together. It twinkles—yes, sir, and it swings...." he broke off, laughing at the mystification of the others, and laughed so that he could not go on.
"Is it a comet, do you s'pose?" said Simeon.
"No," said Abel, "no. It's come to stay. It's our individual private star. It's the arc light in front of the Town Hall you two are looking at."
They moved to where Abel stood, and from there, up the rise of ground to the east, they could see Simeon's star, shining softly and throwing long rays, it seemed, almost to where they stood: the lamp that marked the heart of the village.
"Shucks," said Simeon.
"Sold," said Ebenezer.
"Why, I don't know," said Abel, "I kind of like to see it through the glass. It looks like it was a bigger light than we give it credit for."
"It's a big enough light," said Ebenezer, testily. It was his own plant at the factory that made possible the town's three arc lights, and these had been continued by him at the factory's closing.
"No use making fun of your friends' eyesight because you're all of twenty minutes younger than them," Simeon grumbled. "Come on, Abel. It must be gettin' round the clock."
"A man owns the hull thing with a glass o' this stamp," he said. "How much does one like that cost?" he inquired.
"I'll sell you this one—" began Ebenezer; "wait a week or two and I may sell you this one," he said. "I ain't really looked through it myself yet."
Not much after this, the two went away and left Ebenezer in the dark yard.
He stood in the middle of his little grass plot and looked through his glass again. That night there was, so to say, nothing remote about the sky, save its distance. It had none of the reticence of clouds. It made you think of a bed of golden bells, each invisible stalk trying on its own account to help forward some Spring. As he had said, he did not know one star from another, nor a planet for a planet with a name. It had been years since he had seen the heavens so near. He moved about, looking, and passed the wall of leafless lilacs and mulberries. Stars hung in his boughs like fruit for the plucking. They patterned patches of sky. He looked away and back, and it was as if the stars repeated themselves, like the chorus of everything.
"You beggars," Ebenezer said, "awful dressed up, ain't you? It must be for something up there—it ain't for anything down here, let me tell you."
He went up to his dark back door. From without there he could hear Kate Kerr, his general servant, who had sufficient personality to compel the term "housekeeper," setting sponge for bread, with a slapping, hollow sound and a force that implied a frown for every down stroke of the iron spoon. He knew how she would turn toward the door as he entered, with her way of arching eyebrows, in the manner of one about to recite the symptoms of a change for the worse—or at best to say "about the same" to everything in the universe. And when Kate Kerr spoke, she always whispered on the faintest provocation.
A sudden distaste for the entire inside of his house seized Ebenezer. He turned and wandered back down the little dark yard, looking up at the high field of the stars, with only his dim eyes.
"There must be quite a little to know about them," he thought, "if anybody was enough interested."
Then he remembered Simeon and Abel, and laughed again in his way.
"I done the town a good turn for once, didn't I?" he thought; "I've fixed folks so's they can't spend their money fool!"
Two steps from Ebenezer's front gate, Simeon and Abel overtook a woman. She had a long shawl over her head, and she was humming some faint air of her own making.
"Coming to the meeting, Mary?" Simeon asked as they passed her.
"No," said Mary Chavah, "I started for it. But it's such a nice night I'm going to walk around."
"Things are going to go your way to that meeting, I guess," said Simeon; "ain't you always found fault with Christmas?"
"They's a lot o' nonsense about it," Mary assented; "I don't ever bother myself much with it. Why?"
"I donno but we'll all come round to your way of thinking to-night," said Simeon.
"For just this year!" Abel Ames called back, as they went on.
"You can't do much else, I guess," said Mary. "Everybody dips Christmas up out of their pocketbooks, and if there ain't nothing there, they can't dip."
The men laughed with her, and went on down the long street toward the town. Mary followed slowly, under the yellowing elms that made great golden shades for the dim post lamps. And high at the far end of the street down which they went, hung the blue arc light before the Town Hall, center to the constellation of the home lights and the shop lights and the street lights, all near neighbours to the stream and sweep of the stars hanging a little higher and shining as by one sun.
It was interesting to see how they took the proposal to drop that Christmas from the calendar there in Old Trail Town. It was so eminently a sensible thing to do, and they all knew it. Oh, every way they looked at it, it was sensible, and they admitted it. Yet, besides Mary Chavah and Ebenezer Rule, probably the only person in the town whose satisfaction in the project could be counted on to be unfeigned was little Tab Winslow. For Tab, as all the town knew, had a turkey brought up by his own hand to be the Winslows' Christmas dinner, but such had become Tab's intimacy with and fondness for the turkey that he was prepared to forego his Christmas if only that dinner were foregone, too.
"Theophilus Thistledown is such a human turkey," Tab had been heard explaining patiently; "he knows me—and he knows his name. He don't expect us to eat him ... why, you can't eat anything that knows its name."
But every one else was just merely sensible. And they had been discussing Christmas in this sensible strain at the town meeting that night, before Simeon and Abel broached their plan for standardizing their sensible leanings.
Somebody had said that Jenny Wing, and Bruce Rule, who was Ebenezer's nephew, were expected home for Christmas, and had added that it "didn't look as if there would be much of any Christmas down to the station to meet them." On which Mis' Mortimer Bates had spoken out, philosophical to the point of brutality. Mis' Bates was little and brown and quick, and her clothes seemed always to curtain her off, so that her figure was no part of her presence.
"I ain't going to do a thing for Christmas this year," she declared, as nearly everybody in the village had intermittently declared, "not a living, breathing thing. I can't, and folks might just as well know it, flat foot. What's the use of buying tinsel and flim-flam when you're eating milk gravy to save butter and using salt sacks for handkerchiefs? I ain't educated up to see it."
Mis' Jane Moran, who had changed her chair three times to avoid a draught, sat down carefully in her fourth chair, her face twitching a little as if its muscles were connected with her joints.
"Christmas won't be no different from any other day to our house this year," she said. "We'll get up and eat our three meals and sit down and look at each other. We can't even spare a hen—she might lay if we didn't eat her."
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 'em pay 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't no 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 naive, 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.
"Oh...." Jenny said. "Mary! How wonderful for you! Why, it's almost next as wonderful as mine!"
Mary hesitated for a breath. But she was profoundly stirred by what Jenny had told her—the first time, so far as she could recall, that news like this had ever come to her directly, as a secret and a marvel. News of the village births usually came in gossip, in commiseration, in suspicion. Falling as did this confidence in a time when she was re-living her old hope, when Adam's boy stood outside her threshold, the moment quite suddenly put on its real significance.
"We can plan together," Jenny was saying. "Ain't it wonderful?"
"Ain't it?" Mary said then, simply, and kissed Jenny, when Jenny came and kissed her. Then Jenny went away.
Mary went on to the barn, and opened the door, and listened. She had brought no lantern, but the soft stillness within needed no vigilance. The hay smell from the loft and the mangers, the even breath of the cows, the quiet safety of the place, met her. She was wondering at herself, but she was struggling not at all. It was as if concerning the little boy, something had decided for her, in a soft, fierce rush of feeling not her own. She had committed herself to Jenny almost without will. But Mary felt no exultation, and the weight within her did not lift.
"I really couldn't do anything else but take him, I s'pose," she thought. "I wonder what'll come on me next?"
All the while, she was conscious of the raw smell of the clover in the hay of the mangers, as if something of Summer were there in the cold.
Mary Chavah sent her letter of blunt directions concerning her sister's headstone and the few belongings which her sister had wished her to have. The last lines of the letter were about the boy.
"Send the little one along. I am not the one, but I don't know what else to tell you to do with him. Let me know when to expect him, and put his name in with his things—I can't remember his right name."
When the answer came from John Blood, a fortnight later, it said that a young fellow of those parts was starting back home shortly to spend Christmas, and would take charge of the child as far as the City, and there put him on his train for Old Trail Town. She would be notified just what day to expect him, and John knew how glad his mother would have been and his father too, and he was her grateful Nephew. P. S. He would send some money every month "toward him."
The night after she received this letter, Mary lay long awake, facing what it was going to mean to have him there: to have a child there.
She recalled what she had heard other women say about it,—stray utterances, made with the burdened look that hid a secret complacency, a kind of pleased freemasonry in a universal lot.
"The children bring so much sand into the house. You'd think it was horses."
"... the center table looks loaded and ready to start half the time ... but I can't help it, with the children's books and truck."
"... never would have another house built without a coat closet. The children's cloaks and caps and rubbers litter up everything."
"... every one of their knees out, and their underclothes outgrown, and their waists soiled, the whole time. And I do try so hard...."
Now with all these bewilderments she was to have to do. She wondered if she would know how to dress him. Once she had watched Mis' Winslow dress a child, and she remembered what unexpected places Mis' Winslow had buttoned—buttonholes that went up and down in the skirt bands, and so on. Armholes might be too small and garters too tight, and how was one ever to know? If it were a little girl now ... but a little boy.... What would she talk to him about while they ate together?
She lay in the dark and planned—with no pleasure, but merely because she always planned everything, her dress, her baking, what she would say to this one and that. She would put up a stove in the back parlour, and give him the room "off." She was glad that the parlour was empty and clean—"no knick-knacks for a boy to knock around," she found herself thinking. And a child would like the bedroom wallpaper, with the owl border. When Summer came he could have the room over the dining room, with the kitchen roof sloping away from it where he could dry his hazelnuts—she had thought of the pasture hazelnuts, first thing. There were a good many things a boy would like about the place: the bird house where the martins always built, the hens, the big hollow tree, the pasture ant hill.... She would have to find out the things he liked to eat. She would have to help him with his lessons—she could do that for only a little while, until he would be too old to need her. Then maybe there would come the time when he would ask her things that she would not know....
She fell asleep wondering how he would look. Already, not from any impatience to have this done, but because that was the way in which she worked, she had his room in order; and her picture of his father was by the mirror, the young face of his father. Something faded had been written below the picture, and this she had painstakingly rubbed away before she set the picture in its place. Next day, while she was working on Mis' Jane Moran's bead basque that was to be cut over and turned, she laid it aside and cut out a jacket pattern, and a plaited waist pattern—just to see if she could. These she rolled up impatiently and stuffed away in her pattern bookcase.
"I knew how to do them all the while, and I never knew I knew," she thought with annoyed surprise. "I s'pose I'll waste a lot of time pottering over him."
It was so that she spent the weeks until the letter came telling her what day the child would start. On the afternoon of the day the letter came, she went down town to the Amos Ames Emporium to buy a washbasin and pitcher for the room she meant the little boy to have. She stood looking at a basin with a row of brown dogs around the rim, when over her shoulder Mis' Abby Winslow spoke.
"You ain't buying a Christmas present for anybody, are you?" she asked warningly.
Mary started guiltily and denied it.
"Well, what in time do you want with dogs on the basin?" Mis' Winslow demanded.
Almost against her own wish, Mary told her. Mis' Winslow was one of those whose faces are invariable forerunners of the sort of thing they are going to say. With eyebrows, eyes, forehead, head, and voice she took the news.
"He is! Forever and ever more. When's he going to get here?"
"Week after next," Mary said listlessly. "It's an awful responsibility, ain't it—taking a child so?"
Mis' Winslow's face abruptly rejected its own anxious lines and let the eyes speak for it.
"I always think children is like air," she said; "you never realize how hard they're pressing down on you—but you do know you can't live without them."
Mary looked at her, her own face not lighting.
"I'd rather go along like I am," she said; "I'm used to myself the way I am."
"Mary Chavah!" said Mis' Winslow, sharply, "a vegetable sprouts. Can't you? Is these stocking caps made so's they won't ravel?" she inquired capably of Abel Ames. "These are real good value, Mary," she added kindly. "Better su'prise the little thing with one of these. A red one."
Mary counted over her money, and bought the red stocking cap and the basin with the puppies. Then she went into the street. The sense of oppression, of striving, that had seldom left her since that night in the stable, made the day a thing to be borne, to be breasted. The air was thick with snow, and in the whiteness the dreary familiarity of the drug store, the meat market, the post office, the Simeon Buck Dry Goods Exchange, smote her with a passion to escape from them all, to breed new familiars, to get free of the thing that she had said she would do.
"And I could," she thought; "I could telegraph to John not to send him. But Jenny—she can't. I don't see how she stands it...."
The thought may have been why, instead of going home, she went to see Jenny. A neighbor was in the sitting room with Mrs. Wing. Jenny met Mary at the kitchen door and stood against a background of clothes drying on lines stretched indoors.
"Don't you want to come upstairs?" Jenny said. "There ain't a fire up there—but I can show you the things."
She had put them all in the bottom drawer, as women always do; and, as women always do, had laid them so that all the lace and embroidery and pink ribbons possible showed in a flutter when the drawer was opened. Jenny took the things out, one at a time, unfolded, discussed, compared, with all the tireless zeal of a robin with a straw in its mouth or of a tree, blossoming. "Smell of them," Jenny bade her. "Honestly, wouldn't you know by the smell who they are for?" "I donno but you would," Mary admitted awkwardly, and marveled dumbly at the newness Jenny was feeling in that which, after all, was not new!
When these things were all out, a little tissue-paper parcel was left lying in the drawer.
"There's one more," Mary said.
Jenny flushed, hesitated, lifted it.
"That's nothing," she said; "before I came I made some little things for its Christmas. I thought maybe it would come first, and we'd have the Christmas in my room, and I made some little things—just for fun, you know. But it won't be fair to do it now, with the whole town so set against our having any Christmas. Mary, it just seems as though I had to have a Christmas this year!"
"Oh, well," said Mary, "the baby'll be your Christmas. The town can't help that, I guess."
"I know," Jenny flashed back brightly, "you and I have got the best of them, haven't we? We've each got one present coming, anyway."
"I s'pose we have...." Mary said.
She looked at Jenny's Christmas things—a ribbon rattle, a crocheted cap, a first picture book, a cascade of colored rings—and then in grim humour at Jenny.
"It'll never miss its Christmas," she said dryly.
"Don't you think so?" said Jenny, soberly. "I donno. It seems as if it'd be kind o' lonesome to get born around Christmas and not find any going on."
She put the things away, and closed the drawer. For no appreciable reason, she kept it locked, and the key under the bureau cover.
"Do you know yet when yours is coming?" Jenny asked, as she rose.
"Week after next," Mary repeated,—"two weeks from last night," she confessed, "if he comes straight through."
"I think," said Jenny, "I think mine will be here—before then."
When they reached the foot of the stair, Mary unexpectedly refused to go in the sitting room.
"No," she said, "I must be getting home. I just come out for a minute, anyway. I'm—I'm much obliged for what you showed me," she added, and hesitated. "I've got his room fixed up real nice. There's owls on the wall paper and puppies on the washbasin," she said. "Come in when you can and see it."
It was almost dusk when Mary reached home. While she was passing the billboard at the corner—a flare of yellow letters, as if Colour and the Alphabet had united to breed a monster—she heard children shouting. A block away, and across the street, coming home from Rolleston's hill where they had been coasting, were Bennet and Gussie Bates, little Emily, Tab Winslow, and Pep. Nearly every day of snow they passed her house. She always heard them talking, and usually she heard, across at the corner, the click of the penny-in-the-slot machine, which no child seemed able to pass without pulling. To-night, as she heard them coming, Mary fumbled in her purse. Three, four, five pennies she found and ran across the street and dropped them in the slot machine, and gained her own door before the children came. She stood at her dark threshold, and listened. She had not reckoned in vain. One of the children pushed down on the rod, in the child's eternal hope of magic, and when magic came and three, four, five chocolates dropped obediently in their hands, Mary listened to what they said. It was not much, and it was not very coherent, but it was wholly intelligible.
"Look at!" shrieked Bennet, who had made the magic.
"Did it?" cried Gussie, and repeated the operation.
"It—it—it never!" said Tab Winslow, at the third.
"Make it again—make it again!" cried little Emily, and they did.
"Gorry," observed Pep, in ecstasy.
When it would give no more, they divided with the other children and ran on, their red mittens and mufflers flaming in the snow. Mary stood staring after them for a moment, then she closed her door.
"I wonder what made me do that," she thought.
In her dining room she mended the fire without taking off her hat. It was curious, she reflected; here was this room looking the way it looked, and away off there was the little fellow who had never seen the room; and in a little while he would be calling this room home, and looking for his books and his mittens, and knowing it better than any other place in the world. And there was Jenny, with that bottom drawerful, and pretty soon somebody that now was not, would be, and would be wearing the drawerful and calling Jenny "mother," and would know her better than any one else in the world. Mary could not imagine that little boy of Lily's getting used to her—Mary—and calling her—well, what would he call her? She hadn't thought of that....
"Bother," thought Mary Chavah, "there's going to be forty nuisances about it that I s'pose I haven't even thought of yet."
She stood by the window. She had not lighted the lamp, so the world showed white, not black. Snow makes outdoors look big, she thought. But it was big—what a long journey it was to Idaho. Suppose ... something happened to the man he was to travel with. John Blood was only a boy; he would probably put the child's name and her address in the little traveler's pocket, and these would be lost. The child was hardly old enough to remember what to do. He would go astray, and none of them would ever know what had become of him ... and what would become of him? She saw him and his bundle of clothes alone in the station in the City....
She turned from the window and mechanically mended the fire again. She drew down the window shade and went to the coat closet to hang away her wraps. Then abruptly she took up her purse, counted out the money in the firelight, and went out the door and down the street in the dusk, and into the post office, which was also the telegraph office,—one which the little town owed to Ebenezer Rule, and it a rival to the other telegraph office at the station.
"How much does it cost to send a telegram?" she demanded. "Idaho," she answered the man's question, flushing at her omission.
While the man, Affer by name, laboriously looked it up,—covering incredible little dirty figures with an incredibly big dirty forefinger,—Mary stood staring at the list of names tacked below the dog-eared Christmas Notice. She remembered that she had not yet signed it herself. She asked for a pencil—causing confusion to the little figures and delay to the big finger—and, while she waited, wrote her name. "A good, sensible move," she thought, as she signed.
When Affer gave her the rate, thrusting finger and figures jointly beneath the bars,—solicitous of his own accuracy,—Mary filed her message. It was to John Blood, and it read:——
"Be sure you tie his tag on him good."
Ebenezer Rule had meant to go to the City before cold weather came. He had there a small and decent steam-warmed flat where he boiled his own eggs and made his own coffee, read his newspapers and kept his counsel, descending nightly to the ground-floor cafe to dine on ambiguous dishes at tables of other bank swallows who nested in the same cliff. But as the days went by, he found himself staying on in Old Trail Town, with this excuse and that, offered by himself to himself. As, for example, that in the factory there were old account books that he must go through. And having put off this task from day to day and finding at last nothing more to dally with, he set out one morning for the ancient building down in that part of the village which was older than the rest and was where his business was conducted when it was conducted.
It had snowed in the night, and Buff Miles, who drove the village snowplow, was also driver of "the 'bus." So on the morning after a snowfall, the streets always lay buried thick until after the 8.10 Express came in; and since on the morning following a snowfall the 8.10 Express was always late, Old Trail Town lay locked in a kind of circular argument, and everybody stayed indoors or stepped high through drifts. The direct way to the factory was virtually untrodden, and Ebenezer made a detour through the business street in search of some semblance of a "track."
The light of a Winter morning is not kind, only just. It is just to the sky and discovers it to be dominant; to trees, and their lines are seen to be alive, like leaves; to folk, and no disguise avails. Summer gives complements and accessories to the good things in a human face. Winter affords nothing save disclosure. In the uncompromising cleanness of that wash of Winter light, Ebenezer Rule was himself, for anybody to see. Looking like countless other men, lean, alert, preoccupied, his tall figure stooped, his smooth, pale face like a photograph too much retouched, this commonplace man took his place in the day almost as one of its externals. With that glorious pioneer trio, mineral, vegetable and animal; and with intellect, that worthy tool, he did his day's work. His face was one that had never asked itself, say, of a Winter morning: What else? And the Winter light searched him pitilessly to find that question somewhere in him.
Before the Simeon Buck North American Dry Goods Exchange, Simeon Buck himself had just finished shoveling his walk, and stood wiping his snow shovel with an end of his muffler. When he saw Ebenezer, he shook the muffler at him, and then, over his left shoulder, jabbed the air with his thumb.
"Look at here," he said, his head reenforcing his gesture toward his show window, "look what I done this morning. Nice little touch—eh?"
In the show window of the Exchange—Dry Goods Exchange was just the name of it for the store carried everything—a hodgepodge of canned goods, lace curtains, kitchen utensils, wax figures, and bird cages had been ranged round a center table of golden oak. On the table stood a figure that was as familiar to Old Trail Town as was its fire engine and its sprinkling cart. Like these, appearing intermittently, the figure had seized on the imagination of the children and grown in association until it belonged to everybody, by sheer use and wont. It was a papier-mache Santa Claus, three feet high, white-bearded, gray-gowned, with tall pointed cap—rather the more sober Saint Nicholas of earlier days than the rollicking, red-garbed Saint Nick of now. Only, whereas for years he had graced the window of the Exchange, bearing over his shoulder a little bough of green for a Christmas tree, this season he stood treeless, and instead bore on his shoulder a United States flag. On a placard below him Simeon had laboriously lettered:—
High Cost of Living and too much fuss Makes Folks want a Sane Christmas Me Too. S. C.
"Ain't that neat?" said Simeon.
Ebenezer looked. "What's the flag for?" he inquired dryly.
"Well," said Simeon, "he had to carry something. I thought of a toy gun—but that didn't seem real appropriate. A Japanese umbrella wasn't exactly in season, seems though. A flag was about the only thing I could think of to have him hold. A flag is always kind of tasty, don't you think?"
"Oh, it's harmless," Ebenezer said, "harmless."
"No hustling business," Simeon pursued, "can be contented with just not doing something. It ain't enough not to have no Christmas. You've got to find something that'll express nothing, and express it forcible. In business, a minus sign," said Simeon, "is as good as a plus, if you can keep it whirling round and round."
This Ebenezer mulled and chuckled over as he went on down the street. He wondered what the Emporium would do to keep up with the Exchange. But in the Emporium window there was nothing save the usual mill-end display for the winter white goods sale.
Ebenezer opened the store door and put his head in.
"Hey," he shouted at Abel, back at the desk, "can't you keep up with Simeon's window?"
Abel came down the aisle between the lengths of white stuff plaited into folds at either side. The fire had just been kindled in the stove, and the air in the store was still frosty. Abel, in his overcoat, was blowing on his fingers.
"I ain't much of any heart to," said he, "but the night before Christmas I guess'll do about right for mine."
"What'll you put up?" Ebenezer asked, closing the door behind him.
"Well, sir," said Abel, "I ain't made up my mind full yet. But I'll be billblowed if I'm going to let Christmas go by without saying something about it in the window."
"Night before Christmas'll be too late to advertise anything," said Ebenezer. "If I was in trade," he said, half closing his eyes, "I'd fill my window up with useful articles—caps and mittens and stockings and warm underwear and dishes and toothbrushes. And I'd say: 'Might as well afford these on what you saved out of Christmas.' You'd ought to get all the advertising you can out of any situation."
Abel shook his head.
"I ain't much on such," he said lightly—and then looked intently at Ebenezer. "Jenny's been buying quite a lot here for her Christmas," he said.
Ebenezer was blank. "Jenny?" he said. "Jenny Wing? I heard she was here. I ain't seen her. Is she bound to keep Christmas anyhow?"
"Just white goods, it was," said Abel, briefly.
Ebenezer frowned his lack of understanding.
"I shouldn't think her and Bruce had much of anything to buy anything with," he said. "I s'pose you know," he added, "that Bruce, the young beggar, quit working for me in the City after the—the failure? Threw up his job with me, and took God knows what to do."
Abel nodded gravely. All Old Trail Town knew that, and honoured Bruce for it.
"Headstrong couple," Ebenezer added. "So Jenny's bent on having Christmas, no matter what the town decides, is she?" he added, "it's like her, the minx."
"I don't think it was planned that way," Abel said simply; "she's only buying white goods," he repeated. And, Ebenezer still staring, "Surely you know what Jenny's come home for?" Abel said.
A moment or two later Ebenezer was out on the street again, his face turned toward the factory. He was aware that Abel caught open the door behind him and called after him, "Whenever you get ready to sell me that there star glass, you know...." Ebenezer answered something, but his responses were so often guttural and indistinguishable that his will to reply was regarded as nominal, anyway. He also knew that now, just before him, Buff Miles was proceeding with the snowplow, cutting a firm, white way, smooth and sparkling for soft treading, momentarily bordered by a feathery flux, that tumbled and heaped and then lay quiet in a glitter of crystals. But his thought went on without these things and without his will.
Bruce's baby! It would be a Rule, too.... the third generation, the third generation. And accustomed as he was to relate every experience to himself, measure it, value it by its own value to him, the effect of his reflection was at first single: The third generation of Rules. Was he as old as that?
It seemed only yesterday that Bruce had been a boy, in a blue necktie to match his eyes, and shoes which for some reason he always put on wrong, so that the buttons were on the inside. Bruce's baby. Good heavens! It had been a shock when Bruce graduated from the high school, a shock when he had married, but his baby ... it was incredible that he himself should be so old as that.
... This meant, then, that if Malcolm had lived, Malcolm might have had a child now....
Ebenezer had not meant to think that. It was as if the Thought came and spoke to him. He never allowed himself to think of that other life of his, when his wife, Letty, and his son Malcolm had been living. Nobody in Old Trail Town ever heard him speak of them or had ever been answered when Ebenezer had been spoken to concerning them. A high white shaft in the cemetery marked the two graves. All about them doors had been closed. But with the thought of this third generation, the doors all opened. He looked along ways that he had forgotten.
As he went he was unconscious, as he was always unconscious, of the little street. He saw the market square, not as the heart of the town, but as a place for buying and selling, and the little shops were to him not ways of providing the town with life, but ways of providing their keepers with a livelihood. Beyond these was a familiar setting, arranged that day with white background and heaped roofs and laden boughs, the houses standing side by side, like human beings. There they were, like the chorus to the thing he was thinking about. They were all thinking about it, too. Every one of them knew what he knew. Yet he never saw the bond, but he thought they were only the places where men lived who had been his factory hands and would be so yet if he had not cut them away: Ben Torrey, shoveling off his front walk with his boy sweeping behind him; August Muir, giving his little girl a ride on the snow shovel; Nettie Hatch, clearing the ice out of her mail box, while her sister—the lame one—watched from her chair by the window, interested as in a real event. Ebenezer spoke to them from some outpost of consciousness which his thought did not pass. The little street was not there, as it was never there for him, as an entity. It was merely a street. And the little town was not an entity. It was merely where he lived. He went behind Buff Miles and the snowplow—as he always went—as if space had been created for folk to live in one at a time, and as if this were his own turn.
When he reached the bend from the Old Trail to the road where the factory was, he understood at last that he had been hearing a song sung over a great many times.
"... One for the way it all begun, Two for the way it all has run, What three'll be for I do forget, But what's to be has not been yet.... So holly and mistletoe, So holly and mistletoe, So holly and mistletoe, Over and over and over, oh."
Buff, who was singing it, looked over his shoulder, and nodded.
"They said you can't have no Christmas on Christmas Day," he observed, grinning, "but I ain't heard nothing to prevent singing Christmas carols right up to the day that is the day."
"How old are you?" he abruptly demanded of Buff—whom he had known from Buff's boyhood.
"Thirty-three," said Buff, "dum it."
"You and Bruce about the same age, ain't you?" said Ebenezer.
"Well," said Ebenezer, "well...." and stood looking at him. Malcolm would have been his age, too.
"Going down to the factory, are you?" Buff said. "Wait a bit. I'll hike on down ahead of you."
He turned the snowplow down the factory road, as if he were making a triumphal progress, fashioning his snow borders with all the freedom of some sculpturing wind on summer clouds.
"One for the way it all begun, Two for the way it all has run...."
he sang to the soft push and thud and clank of his going. He swept a circle in front of the little house that was the factory office, as if he had prepared the setting for a great event; and Ebenezer, following in the long, bright path, stepped into the hall of the house.
For thirty years he had been accustomed to enter the little house with his mind ready to receive its interior of desks and shelves and safes and files. To-day, quite unexpectedly, as he opened the door, the thing that was in his mind was a hall stair with a red carpet, and a parlour adjoining with figured stuff at the windows and a coal fire in the stove.... And thirty-five years ago it had been that way, when he and his wife and child had lived in the little house where his business was then just starting at a machine set up in the woodshed. As his project had grown and his factory had arisen in the neighbouring lots, the family had moved farther up in the town. Remembrance had been divorced from this place for decades. To-day, without warning, it waited for him on the threshold.
He had asked his bookkeeper to meet him there, but the man had not yet arrived. So Ebenezer himself kindled a fire in the rusty office stove, in the room where the figured curtains had been. The old account books that he wanted were not here on the shelves, nor in the cupboards of the cold adjoining rooms. They dated so far back that they had been filed away upstairs. He had not been upstairs in years, and his first impulse was to send his bookkeeper, when he should appear. But this, after all, was not Ebenezer's way; and he went up the stairs himself.