Each upper room was like some one unconscious in stupor or death, and still as distinct in personality as if in some ancient activity. There was the shelf he had put up in their room, the burned place on the floor where he had tipped over a lamp, tattered shreds of the paper she had hung to surprise him, the little storeroom which they had cleared out for Malcolm when he was old enough, and whose door had had to be kept closed because innumerable uncaged birds lived there....
When he had gone through the piles of account books in a closet and those he sought were not found among them, he remembered the trunkful up in the tiny loft. He let down from the passage ceiling the ladder he had once hung there, and climbed up to the little roof recess.
Light entered through four broken panes of skylight. It fell in a faint rug on the dusty floor. The roof sloped sharply, and the trunks and boxes had been pressed back to the rim of the place. Ebenezer put his hands out, groping. They touched an edge of something that swayed. He laid hold of it and drew it out and set down on the faint rug of light a small wooden hobbyhorse.
He stood staring at it, remembering it as clearly as if some one had set before him the old white gate which he bestrode in his own boyhood. It was Malcolm's hobbyhorse, dappled gray, the tail and the mane missing and the paint worn off—and tenderly licked off—his nose. When they had moved to the other house, he had bought the boy a pony, and this horse had been left behind. Something else stirred in his memory, the name by which Malcolm had used to call his hobbyhorse, some ringing name ... but he had forgotten. He thrust the thing back where it had been and went on with his search for the account books.
By the time he had found them and had got down again in the office, the bookkeeper was there, keeping up the fire and uttering, with some acumen, comments on the obvious aspects of the weather, of the climate, of the visible universe. The bookkeeper was a young man, very ready to agree with Ebenezer for the sake of future favour, but with the wistfulness of all industrial machines constructed by men from human potentialities. Also, he had a cough and thin hands and a little family and no job.
"Get to work on this book," Ebenezer bade him; "it's the one that began the business."
The man opened the book, put it to his nearsighted eyes, frowned, and glanced up at Ebenezer.
"I don't think it seems...." he began doubtfully.
"Well, don't think," said Ebenezer, sharply; "that's not needful. Read the first entries."
The bookkeeper read:—
Picking hops (4 days) . . . . $1.00 Sewing (Mrs. Shackell). . . . .60 Egg money (3-1/4 dozen) . . . .75 Winning puzzle. . . . . . . . 2.50 ——- $4.86
Kitchen roller. . . . . . . . $ .10 Coffee mill . . . . . . . . . .50 Shoes for M. . . . . . . . . 1.25 Water colors for M. . . . . . .25 Suit for M. . . . . . . . . . 2.00 Gloves—me. . . . . . . . . . .50 ——- $4.75
Cash on hand: 11 cents.
The bookkeeper paused again. Ebenezer, frowning, reached for the book. In his wife's fine faded writing were her accounts—after the eleven cents was a funny little face with which she had been wont to illustrate her letters. Ebenezer stared, grunted, turned to the last page of the book. There, in bold figures, the other way of the leaf, was his own accounting. He remembered now—he had kept his first books in the back of the account book that she had used for the house.
Ebenezer glanced sharply at his bookkeeper. To his annoyance, the man was smiling with perfect comprehension and sympathy. Ebenezer averted his eyes, and the bookkeeper felt dimly that he had been guilty of an indelicacy toward his employer, and hastened to cover it.
"Family life does cling to a man, sir," he said.
"Do you find it so?" said Ebenezer, dryly. "Read, please."
At noon Ebenezer walked home alone through the melting snow. And the Thought that he did not think, but that spoke to him without his knowing, said:—
"Winning a puzzle—Two Dollars and a half. She never told me she tried to earn a little something that way."
"If we took the day before Christmas an' had it for Christmas," observed Tab Winslow, "would that hurt?"
"Eat your oatmeal," said Mis' Winslow, in the immemorial manner of adults.
"Would it, would it, would it?" persisted Tab, in the immemorial manner of youth.
"And have Theophilus Thistledown for dinner that day instead?" Mis' Winslow suggested with diplomacy.
On which Tab ate his oatmeal in silence.
But, like adults immemorially, Mis' Winslow bore far more the adult manner than its heart. After breakfast she stood staring out the pantry window at the sparrows on the bird box.
"It looks like Mary Chavah was going to be the only one in Trail Town to have any Christmas after all," she thought, "that little boy coming to her, so."
He was coming week after next, Mary had said, and Mis' Winslow had heard no word about it from anybody else. When "the biggest of the work" of the forenoon was finished, Mis' Winslow ran down the road to Ellen Bourne's. In Old Trail Town they always speak of it as running down, or in, or over, in the morning, with an unconscious suiting of terms to informalities.
Ellen was cleaning her silver. She had "six of each"—six knives, six forks, six spoons, all plated and seldom used, pewter with black handles serving for every day. The silver was cleaned often, though it was never on the table, save for company, and there never had been any company since Ellen had lost her little boy from fever. Having no articulateness and having no other outlet for emotion, she fed her grief by small abstentions: no guests, no diversions, no snatches of song about her work. Yet she was sane enough, and normal, only in dearth of sane and normal outlets for emotion, for energy, for personality, she had taken these strange directions for yet unharnessed forces.
"Mercy," observed Mis' Winslow, warming her hands at the cooking stove, "you got more energy."
"... than family, I guess you mean," Ellen Bourne finished. Ellen was little and fair, with slightly drooping head, and eyebrows curved to a childlike reflectiveness.
"Well, I got consider'ble more family than I got energy," said Mis' Winslow, "so I guess we even it up. Seven-under-fifteen eats up energy like so much air."
"Hey, king and country," said Ellen's old father, whittling by the fire, "you got family enough, Ellen. You got your hands full of us." He rubbed his hands through his thin upstanding silver hair on his little pink head, and his fine, pink face took on the look of father which rarely intruded, now, on his settled look of old man.
"I donno what she'd do," said Ellen's mother, "with any more around here to pick up after. We're cluttered up enough, as it is." She was an old lady of whose outlines you took notice before your attention lay further upon her—angled waist, chin, lips, forehead, put on her a succession of zigzags. But her eyes were awake, and it was to be seen that she did not mean what she said and that she was looking anxiously at Ellen in the hope of having deceived her daughter. Ellen smiled at her brightly, and was not deceived.
"I keep pretty busy," she said.
Mis' Abby Winslow, who was not deceived either, hastened to the subject of Mary.
"I should think Mary Chavah had enough to do, too," she said, "but she's going to take Lily's little boy. Had you heard?"
"No," Ellen said, and stopped shaving silver polish.
"He's coming in two weeks," Mis' Winslow imparted; "she told me so herself. She's got his room fixed up with owls on the wall paper. She's bought him a washbasin with a rim of puppies, and a red stocking cap. I saw her."
"How old is he?" Ellen asked, and worked again.
"I never thought to ask her," Mis' Winslow confessed; "he must be quite a little fellow. But he's coming alone from some place out West."
"Hey, king and country," Ellen's father said; "I'd hate to have a boy come here, with my head the way it is."
"And keeping the house all upset," Ellen's mother said, and asked Mis' Winslow some question about Mary; and when she turned to Ellen again, "Why, Ellen Bourne," she said, "you've shaved up every bit of that cleaning polish and we're most done cleaning."
Ellen was looking at Mis' Winslow: "If you see her," Ellen said, "you ask her if I can't do anything to help."
Later in the day, happening in at Mis' Mortimer Bates's, Mis' Winslow found Mis' Moran there before her, and asked what they had heard "about Mary Chavah." Something in that word "about" pricks curiosity its sharpest. "Have you heard about Mary Chavah?" "It's too bad about Mary Chavah." "Isn't it queer about Mary Chavah?"—each of these is like setting flame to an edge of tissue. Omit "about" from the language, and you abate most gossip. At Mis' Winslow's phrase, both women's eyebrows curved to another arc.
Mis' Winslow told them.
"Ain't that nice?" said Mis' Moran, wholeheartedly; "I couldn't bring up another, not with my back. But I'm glad Mary's going to know what it is...."
Mis' Mortimer Bates was glad, too, but being by nature a nonconformist, she took exception.
"It's an awful undertaking for a single-handed woman," she observed.
But this sort of thing she said almost unconsciously, and the other two women regarded it with no more alarm than any other reflex.
"It's no worse starting single-handed than being left single-handed," offered Mis' Winslow somewhat ambiguously. "Lots does that's thrifty."
"Seems as if we could do a little something to help her get ready, seem's though," Mis' Moran suggested; "I donno what."
"I thought I'd slip over after supper and ask her," Mis' Winslow said; "maybe I'd best go now—and come back and tell you what she says."
Mis' Winslow found Mary Chavah sitting by her pattern bookcase, cutting out a pattern. Mary's face was flushed and her eyes were bright, and she went on with her pattern, thrilled by it as by any other creating.
"I just thought of this," Mary explained, looking vaguely at her visitor. "It come to me like a flash when I was working on Mis' Bates's basque. Will you wait just a minute, and then I'll explain it out to you."
Without invitation, Mis' Winslow laid aside her coat and waited, watching Mary curiously. She was cutting and folding and pinning her tissue paper, oblivious of any presence. Alarm, suspense, doubt, solution, triumph, came and went, and neither woman was conscious that the flame of creation burned and breathed in the room as truly as if the product were to be acknowledged.
"There!" Mary cried at last. "See it—can't you see it?—in gray wool?"
It was the pattern for a boy's topcoat, cunningly cut in new lines of seam and revers, with a pocket, a bit of braid, a line of buttons laid in as delicately as the factors in any other good composition. Mis' Winslow inevitably recognized its utility, exclaimed, and wondered.
"Mary Chavah! How did you know how to do things for children?"
"How did you know how?" Mary inquired coolly.
"Why, I've had 'em," Mis' Winslow offered simply.
"Do you honestly think that makes any difference?" Mary asked.
Mis' Winslow gasped, in the immemorial belief that the physical basis of motherhood is the guarantee of both spiritual and physical equipment.
"Could you have cut out that coat?" Mary asked.
Mis' Winslow shook her head. She was of those whose genius is for cutting over.
"Well," said Mary, "I could. It ain't having 'em that teaches you to do for 'em. You either know how, or you don't know how. That's all."
Mis' Winslow reflected that she could never make Mary understand—though any mother, she thought complacently, would know in a minute. The cutting of the coat did give her pause; but then, she summed it up, coat included, "Mary was queer"—and let it go at that.
"I didn't know," Mis' Winslow said then, "but what I could help you some about the little boy's coming. Seven-under-fifteen does teach you something, you've got to allow. Mebbe I could tell you something, now and then. Or if we could do anything to help you get ready for him...."
"Oh," said Mary, in swift penitence, "thank you, Mis' Winslow. After he comes, maybe. But these things now I don't mind doing. The real nuisance'll come afterwards, I s'pose."
Mis' Winslow smiled in soft triumph.
"Nuisance!" she said. "That's what I meant comes to you by having 'em. You don't think so much of the nuisance part as you did before."
"Then you don't look the thing in the face," said Mary, calmly. "That's all about that."
"Well," Mis' Winslow said pacifically, "when's he coming?"
"A week from Tuesday. A week from to-morrow," Mary told her.
Mis' Winslow looked at her intently, with the light of calculation in her narrowed eyes.
"A week from Tuesday," she said. "A week from Tuesday," she repeated. "A week from Tuesday!" she exclaimed. "Why, Mary Chavah. That's Christmas Eve."
It was some matter of recipes that was absorbing Mis' Bates and Mis' Moran when Mis' Winslow breathlessly returned to them. They were deep in tradition, and in method, its buttonhole relation. During the weary period when nutrition has been one of the two great problems the tremendous impulse that has nourished the world was alive in the faces of the two women, a kind of creative fire, such as had burned in Mary at the cutting of her pattern. Asparagus escalloped with toast crumbs and butter was for the moment symbol of all humanity's will to keep alive.
"Ladies," said Mis' Winslow, with no other preface, "what do you think? Mary Chavah's little boy is coming from Idaho with a tag on, and when do you s'pose he's going to get here? Christmas Eve."
"Christmas Eve," repeated Mis' Bates, whose mind never lightly forsook old ways or embraced a contretemps; "what a funny time to travel."
"Likely catch the croup and be down sick on Mary's hands the first thing," said Mis' Moran. "It's a pity it ain't the Spring of the year."
Mis' Winslow looked at them searchingly to see if her thought too far outdistanced theirs.
"What struck me all of a heap," she said, "is his getting here then. That night. Christmas Eve."
The three woman looked at one another.
"That's so," Mis' Moran said.
"Him—that child," Mis' Winslow put it, "getting here Christmas Eve, used to Christmas all his life, ten to one knowing in his head what he hopes he'll get. And no Christmas. And him with no mother. And her only a month or so dead."
"Well," said Mis' Mortimer Bates, "it's too bad it's happened so. But it has happened so. You have to say that to your life quite often, I notice. I don't know anything to do but to say it now."
Mis' Winslow had not taken off her cloak. She sat on the edge of her chair, with her hands deep in its pockets, her black knit "fascinator" fallen back from her hair. She was looking down at her cloth overshoes, and she went on speaking as if she had hardly heard what Mis' Bates had interposed.
"He'll get in on the express," she said; "Mary said so. She don't have to go to the City to meet him. The man he travels with is going to put him on the train in the City. The little fellow'll get here after dark. After dark on Christmas Eve."
"And no time for anybody to warn him that there won't be any Christmas waiting for him," Mis' Moran observed thoughtfully.
"And like enough he'll bring a little something for Mary for a present," Mis' Winslow went on. "How'll she feel then?"
"Ain't it too bad it ain't last year?" Mis' Moran mourned. "Everything comes too late or too soon or not at all or else too much so, 'seems though."
Mis' Bates's impulse to nonconformity had not prevented her forehead from being drawn in their common sympathy; but it was a sympathy that saw no practical way out and existed tamely as a high window and not as a wide door.
"Well," she said, "Mary ain't exactly the one to see it so. You'll never get her to feel bad about anybody not having a Christmas. I donno, if it was any other year, as she'd be planning any different."
"No," said Mis' Winslow, thoughtfully, "Mary won't do anything. But we could."
Mis' Bates's forehead took alarm—the alarm of the sympathetic hearer who is challenged to be doer.
"Do?" she repeated. "You can't go back on the paper at this late day. And you can't give him a Christmas and every other of our children not have any just because we're their parents and still living. There ain't a thing to do."
Mis' Winslow's eyes were still on her overshoes. "I don't believe there's never 'not a thing' to do," she said, "I don't believe it."
Mis' Bates looked scandalized. "That's nonsense," she said sharply, "and it's sacrilegious besides. When God means a thing to happen, there's not a thing to do. What about earthquakes and—and cancers?"
"I don't believe he ever means earthquakes and cancers," said Mis' Winslow, to her overshoes.
"Prevent 'em, then!" challenged Mis' Bates, triumphantly.
Mis' Winslow looked up. Her eyes were shining as they had shone sometimes when one of her seven-under-fifteen had given its first sign of consciousness of more than self.
"I believe we'll do it some day," she said. "I believe there's more to us than we've got any idea of. I believe there's so much to us that one of us that found out about it and told the rest would get hounded out of town. But even now, I bet there's enough to us to do something every time—something every time, no matter what. And I believe there's something we can do about this little orphaned boy's Christmas, if we nip our brains on to it in the right place."
"Oh, dear," said Mis' Moran, "sometimes when I think about Christmas I almost wish we almost hadn't done the way we're going to do."
Mis' Bates stiffened.
"Jane Moran," she said, "do you think it's right to go head over heels in debt to celebrate the birth of our Lord?"
"No," said Mis' Moran, "I don't. But—"
"And you know nobody in Old Trail Town could afford any extravagance this year?"
"Yes," said Mis' Moran, "I do. Still—"
"And if part could and part couldn't, that makes it all the worse, don't it?"
"I know," said Mis' Moran, "I know."
"Well, then," said Mis' Bates triumphantly, "we've done the only way there is to do. Land knows, I wish there was another way. But there ain't."
Mis' Winslow looked up from her overshoes.
"I don't believe there's never 'no other way,'" she said. "There's always another way...."
"Not without money," said Mis' Bates.
"Money," Mis' Winslow said, "money. That's like setting up one day of peace on earth, good will to men, and asking admission to it."
"Mis' Winslow," said Mis' Moran, sadly, "what's the use of saying anything? You know as well as I do that Christmas is abused all up and down the land, and made a day of expense and extravagance and folks overspending themselves. And we've stopped all that in Old Trail Town. And now you're trying to make us feel bad."
"I ain't," said Mis' Winslow, "we felt bad about it already, and you know it. I'm glad we've stopped all that. But I wish't we had something to put in its place. I wish't we had."
"What in time are them children doing?" said Mis' Moran, abruptly.
The three women looked. On the side lawn, where a spreading balsam had been left untrimmed to the ground, stood little Emily Moran and Gussie and Bennet and Tab and Pep. And the four boys had their caps in their hands, and Gussie, having untied her own hood, turned to take off little Emily's. The wind, sweeping sharply round the corner of the house, blew their hair wildly and caught at muffler ends. Mis' Bates and Mis' Moran, with one impulse, ran to the side door, and Mis' Winslow followed.
"Emily," said Mis' Moran, "put on your hood this minute."
"Gussie," said Mis' Bates, "put on your cap this instant second. What you got it off for? And little Emily doing as you do—I'm su'prised at you."
The children consulted briefly, then Pep turned to the two women, by now coming down the path, Mis' Bates with her apron over her head, Mis' Moran in her shawl.
"Please," said Pep, "it's a funeral. An' we thought we'd ought to take our caps off till it gets under."
"A funeral," said Mis' Bates. "Who you burying?"
"It's just a rehearsal funeral," Pep explained; "the real one's going to be Christmas."
By now the two women were restoring hood and stocking cap to the little girls, and it was Mis' Winslow, who had followed, who spoke to Pep.
"Who's dead, Pep?" she asked.
Between the belief of "Who's dead?" and the skepticism of "Who you burying?" the child was swift to distinguish.
"Sandy Claus," he answered readily.
Mis' Winslow stood looking down at him. Pep stepped nearer.
"We're doing it for little Emily," he said confidentially. "She couldn't get it straight about where Sandy Claus would be this Christmas. The rest of us—knew. But Emily's little—so we thought we'd play bury him on her 'count."
Mis' Bates, who had not heard, turned from Gussie.
"Going to do what on Christmas?" she exclaimed. "You ain't to do a thing on Christmas. Or ain't you grown up, after all?"
"Well, we thought a Christmas funeral wouldn't hurt," interposed Bennet, defensively. "Can't we even have a funeral for fun on Christmas?" he ended, aggrieved.
"It's Sandy Claus's funeral," observed little Emily putting a curl from her face.
"We're goin' dress up a Sandy Claus, you know," Pep added, sotto voce. "It's going to be right after breakfast, Christmas."
"Come on, come ahead, fellows," said Bennet; "I'll be corpse. Keep your lids on. I don't mind. Go ahead, sing."
Already Mis' Winslow was walking back to the house; the other two women overtook her; and from the porch they heard the children begin to sing:—
"Go bury Saint Nicklis...."
The rest was lost in the closing of the door.
Back in the sitting room the women stood looking at one another. Mis' Bates was frowning and all Mis' Moran's expressions were on the verge of dissolving; but in Mis' Winslow's face it was as though she had found some new way of consciousness.
"Ladies," Mis' Winslow said, "them children are out there pretending to bury Santa Claus—and so are we. And I bet we can't any of us do it."
In the room, there was a moment of silence in which familiar things seemed to join with their way of saying, "We've been keeping still all the while!" Then Mis' Winslow pushed her hair, regardless of its parting, straight back from her forehead,—a gesture with which she characterized any moment of stress.
"Ladies," she said, "I don't want we should go back on our paper, either. But mebbe there's more to Christmas than it knows about—or than we know about. Mebbe we can do something that won't interfere with the paper we've all signed, and yet that'll be something that is something. Mebbe they's things to use that ain't never been used yet.... Oh, I donno. Nor I guess you donno. But let's us find out!"
Christmas Week came.
Cities by thousands made preparation. Great shops took on vast cargoes of silk and precious things and seemed ready to sail about, distributing gifts to the town, and thought better of it, and let folk come in numbers to them to pay toll for what they took. Banks opened their doors and poured out, now a little trickling stream of pay envelopes, now a torrent of green and gold. Flower stalls drew tribute from a million pots of earth where miracles had been done. Pastry counters, those mock commissariats, delicately masking as servants to necessity, made ready their pretty pretences to nutrition. The woods came moving in—acres of living green, taken in their sleep, their roots left faithful to a tryst with the sap, their tops summoned to bear an hybrid fruitage. From cathedrals rose the voices of children now singing little carols and hymns in praise of the Christ-child, now speaking little verses in praise of the saint, Nicholas, now clamouring for little new possessions. And afar from the fields that lay empty about the clustered roofs of towns came a chorus of voices of the live things, beast and fowl, being offered up in the gorgeous pagan rites of the day.
Hither and yonder in every city the grown townsfolk ran. The most had lists of names,—Grace, Margaret, Laura, Alice, Miriam, John, Philip, Father, Mother,—beautiful names and of rich portent, so that, remembering the time, one would have said that these were entered there with some import of special comradeship, of being face to face, of having realized in little what will some day be true in large. But on looking closer, the lists were found to have quite other connotations: as, Grace, bracelet; Margaret, spangled scarf; Laura, chafing-dish; Philip, smoking set; Father (Memo: Ask mother what she thinks he'd like). And every name, it seemed, stood for some bestowal of new property, mostly of luxuries, and chiefly of luxuries of decoration. And the minds of the buying adults were like lakes played upon by clouds and storm birds and lightning, and, to be sure, many stars—but all in unutterable confusion.
Also from the cargo-laden shops there came other voices in thousands, but these were mostly answers. And when one, understanding Christmas, listened to hear what part in it these behind the counter played, he heard from them no voice of sharing in the theory of peace, or even of truce, but instead:—
"Two a yard and double width. Jewelry is in the Annex. Did you want three pairs of each? Veils and neckwear three aisles over. Leather, glassware, baskets, ribbons, down the store beyond the notions. Toys and dolls are in the basement—toys and dolls are in the basement. Jewelry is in the Annex...."
So that a great part of the town seemed some strong chorus of invocation to new possessions.
But there were other voices. Whole areas of every town lay, perforce, within the days of Christmas Week—it must have been so, for there is only one calendar to embrace humanity, as there is only one way of birth and breath and death, one source of tears, one functioning for laughter. But to these reaches of the town the calendar was like another thing, for though it was upon them in name, its very presence was withdrawn. In those ill-smelling stairways and lofts there was little to divulge the imminence of anything other than themselves. And wherever some echo of Christmas Week had crept, the wistfulness or the lust was for possession also; but here one could understand its insistence. So here the voices said only, "I wish—I wish," and "I choose this—and this," at windows; or, "If I had back my nickel...." "Don't you go expecting nothink!" And over these went the whirr of machinery, beat of treadles, throb of engines, or the silence of forced idleness, or of the disease of dereliction. It was a time of many pagan observances, as when some were decked in precious stuffs and some were thrown to lions.
To all these in the towns Christmas Week came. And of them all not many stood silent and looked Christmas Week in the face. Yet it is a human experience that none is meant to die without sharing. For the season is the symbol of what happens to folk if they claim it.
Christmas is the time of withdrawal of most material life. It is the time when nature subtracts the externals, hides from man the phenomena of even her evident processes. Left alone, his thought turns inward and outward—which is to say, it lays hold upon the flowing force so slightly externalized in himself. If he finds in his own being a thousand obstructions, a thousand persons,—dogs, sorcerers, whoremongers,—he will try to escape from them all, back to the externals. But if he finds there a channel which the substance of being is using, he will be no stranger, but a familiar, with himself. Only when the channel has been long cleared, when there has left it all consciousness of striving, of self in any form, only when he finds himself empty, ready, immaculate, will he have the divine adventure. For it is then that in him the spirit of God will have its birth, then that he will first understand his own nature ... the nature of being.
Then the turn of the year comes in, the year begins to mount. Birth is in it, growth is in it, Spring is in it. Sometime, away back in beginnings, they knew this. They knew that the time of the Winter solstice is in some strange fashion the high moment of the year, as the beginning of new activity in nature and in the gods. They solemnized the return of the fiery sun wheel; they traced in those solstice days the operations on earth of Odin and Berchta. They knew in themselves a thing they could not name. And when the supreme experience took place in Christ, they made the one experience typify the other, and became conscious of the divine nature of this nativity. So, by the illuminati, the prophets, the adepts, the time that followed was yearly set aside—forty days of dwelling within the temple of self, forty days of reverence for being, of consciousness of new birth. Then the emergence, then the apotheosis of expression typifying and typified by Spring—the time when bursting, pressing life almost breaks bounds, when birth and the impulse to birth are in every form of life, without and within. These festivals are not arbitrary in date. They grow out of the universal experience.
Is it not then cause for stupefaction that this time of "divine bestowal" should have become so physical a thing? From the ancient perception, to have slipped into a sense of annual social comradeship and good will and peace was natural and fine—to live in the little what will some day be true in the large. But from this to have plunged down into a time of frantic physical bestowals, of "present trading," of lists of Grace and Margaret and Philip, of teeming shops with hunting and hunted creatures within, of sacrificial trees and beasts, of a sovereign sense of good for me and mine and a shameless show of Lord and Lady Bountiful ... how can that have come about, how can the great festival have been so dishonoured?
Not all dishonoured, for within it is its own vitality which nothing can dishonour. Through all the curious variations which it receives at our hands, something shines and sings: self-giving, joy giving, a vast, dim upflickering on humanity of what this thing really is that it seeks to observe, this thing that grips men so that no matter what they are about, they will drop it at the touch of the gong and turn to some expression, however crooked and thwarted, of the real spirit of the time. If in war, then bayonets are stacked and holly-wreathed, and candles stuck on each point! If at sea, some sailor climbs out on the bowsprit with a wreath of green. If on the western plains, a turkey wishbone for target will make the sport, at fifty paces; if at home, some great extravagance or some humble gift or some poignant wish will point the day; if at church, then mass and carol; in certain hearts, reverence,—everywhere the time takes hold of folk and receives whatever of greatness or grotesqueness they choose to give it.... So, too, the actual and vital experience which it brings to humanity is universal, is offered with cosmic regularity, cannot be escaped. Through all the tumult of the time, Christmas Week and the time that lies near to it is always waiting to claim its own, to take to itself those who will not be deceived, who see in the stupendous yearly pageant only the usual spectacle of humanity trying to say divine things in terms of things physical, because the time for the universal expression is not yet come.
When that time comes ... when the time of the worship of things shall be past; when the tribal sense of holiday shall have given place to the family sense, and that family shall be mankind; when shall never be seen the anomaly of celebrating in a glorification of little family tables—whose crumbs fall to those without—the birth of him who preached brotherhood; and the mockery of observing with wanton spending the birth of him who had not where to lay his head; when the rudiments of divine perception, of self-perception, of social perception, shall have grown to their next estate; when the area of consciousness shall be extended yet farther toward the outermost; when that new knowledge with which the air is charged shall let man begin to know what he is ... when that time comes, they will look back with utmost wonder at our uncouth gropings to note and honour something whose import we so obscurely discern; but perhaps, too, with wonder that so much of human love and divining should shine for us through the mists we make.
Two days before Christmas Ellen Bourne went through the new-fallen snow of their wood lot. Her feet left scuffled tracks clouded about by the brushing of her gown's wet hem and by a dragging corner of shawl. She came to a little evergreen tree, not four feet tall, with low-growing boughs, and she stood looking at it until her husband, who was also following the snow-filled path, overtook her.
"Matthew," she said then, "will you cut me that?"
Matthew Bourne stood with his ax on his shoulder and looked a question in slow preparation to ask one.
"I just want it," she said; "I've—took a notion."
He said that she had a good many notions, it seemed to him. But he cut the little tree, with casual ease and no compunctions, and they dragged it to their home, the soft branches patterning the snow and obscuring their footprints.
"It's like real Christmas weather," Ellen said. "They can't stop that coming, anyhow."
In the kitchen Ellen's father sat before the open oven door of the cooking stove, letting the snow melt from his heavy boots.
"Hey," he said, "I was beginning to think you'd forgot about supper. What was in the trap?"
At once Ellen began talking rapidly. "Oh," she said, "we'll have some muffins to-night, father. The kind you like, with—"
"Well, what was in the trap?" the old man demanded peevishly. "Why don't you answer back? What was, Mat?"
Matthew, drying his ax blade, looked at it with one eye closed.
"Rabbit," he said.
"Where is it?" her father demanded.
"It was a young one—not as big as your fist," Ellen said. "I let it out before he got there. Where's mother?"
"Just because a thing's young, it ain't holy water," the old man complained. "Last time it was a squirrel you let go because it was young—it's like being spendthrift with manna...." he went on.
Ellen's mother appeared, gave over to Ellen the supper preparations, contented herself with auxiliary offices of china and butter getting, and talked the while, pleased that she had something to disclose.
"Ben Helders stopped in," she told. "He's going to the City to-morrow. What do you s'pose after? A boy. He's going to take him to bring up and work on the farm."
"Where's he going to get the boy?" Ellen asked.
Her mother did not know, but Mrs. Helders was going to have a new diagonal and she wanted the number of Ellen's pattern. Ben would stop for it that night.
Evenings their kitchen was a sitting room, and when the supper had been cleared away and the red cotton spread covered the table, Ellen asked her husband to bring in the little tree. She found a cracker box, handily cut a hole with a cooking knife, and set up the little tree by the kitchen window.
"What under the canopy—" said her mother, her voice cracking.
"Oh, something to do in the evening," Ellen answered. "Father's going to pop me some corn to trim it with; aren't you, father? Mother, why don't you get you a good big darning needle and string what he pops?"
"It'll make a lot of litter," said her mother, but she brought the needle, for something to do.
"Hey, king and country," said her father; "I'd ought to have somebody here to shell it for me."
"Who you trimming up a tree for?" her mother demanded; "I thought they wasn't to be any in town this year."
"It ain't Christmas yet," Ellen said only. "I guess it won't do any hurt two days before."
While the two worked, Ellen went to the cupboard drawer, and from behind her pile of kitchen towels she drew out certain things: walnuts, wrapped in shining yeast tinsel and dangling from red yarn; wishbones tied with strips of bright cloth; a tiny box, made like a house, with rudely cut doors and windows; eggshells penciled as faces; a handful of peanut owls; a glass-stoppered bottle; a long necklace of buttonhole twist spools. A certain blue paper soldier doll that she had made was upstairs, but the other things she brought and fastened to the tree.
Her husband smoked and uneasily watched her. He saw somewhat within her plan, but he was not at home there. "If the boy had lived and had been up-chamber asleep now," he thought once, "it'd be something like, to go trimming up a tree. But this way—"
"What you leaving the whole front of the tree bare for?" her mother asked.
"The blue paper soldier goes there. I want it should see the blue paper soldier first thing...." Ellen said, and stopped abruptly.
"You talk like you was trimming the tree for somebody," her mother observed, aggrieved.
"Maybe something might look in the window—going by," Ellen said.
"Get in there! Get your heads in there, ye beggars!" said the old man to the popcorn. "I'd ought to have somebody here to pick up them shooting kernels," he complained.
In a little while, with flat-footed stamping, Ben Helders came in. When he had the pattern number, by laborious copying against the wall under the bracket lamp, Matthew said to him:—
"Going to get a boy to work out, are you?"
Helders laughed and shifted.
"He's going to work by and by," he said. "We allow to have him to ourselves a spell first."
"Keep him around the house till Spring?"
"More," said Helders. "You see," he added, "it's like this with us ... family all gone, all married, and got their own. We figured to get hold of a little shaver and have some comfort with him before he goes to work, for life."
"Adopt him?" said Matthew, curiously.
"That's pretty near it," Helders admitted. "We've got one spoke for at the City Orphand Asylum."
Ellen Bourne turned. "How old?" she asked.
"Around five—six, we figure." Helders said it almost sheepishly.
Ellen stood facing the men, with the white festoons of popcorn in her hands.
"Matthew," she said, "let him bring us one."
Matthew stared. "You mean bring us a boy?" he asked.
"I don't care which—girl or boy. Anything young," Ellen said.
"Good Lord, Ellen," Matthew said, with high eyebrows, "ain't you got your hands full enough now?"
Ellen Bourne lifted her hands slightly and let them fall. "No," she answered.
The older woman looked at her daughter, and now first she was solicitous, as a mother.
"Ellen," she said, "you have, too, got your hands full. You're wore out all the time."
"That's it," Ellen said, "and I'm not wore out with the things I want to do."
"Hey, king and country!" the old man cried, upsetting the popper. "Don't get a child around here underfoot. I'm too old. I deserve grown folks. My head hurts me—"
"Matthew," said Ellen to her husband, "let Helders bring us one. To-morrow—for Christmas, Mat!"
Matthew looked slowly from side to side. It seemed incredible that so large a decision should lie with a man so ineffectual.
"'Seems like we'd ought to think about it a while first," he said weakly.
"Think about it!" said Ellen. "When haven't I thought about it? When have I thought about anything else but him we haven't got any more?"
"Ellen!" the mother mourned, "you don't know what you're taking on yourself—"
"Hush, mother," Ellen said gently; "you don't know what it is. You had me."
She faced Helders. "Will you bring two when you come back to-morrow night?" she said; "and one of them for us?"
Helders looked sidewise at Matthew, who was fumbling at his pipe.
"Wouldn't you want to see it first, now?" Helders temporized. "And a girl or a boy, now?"
"No—I wouldn't want to see it first—I couldn't bear to choose. One healthy—from healthy parents—and either girl or boy," Ellen said, and stopped. "The nicest tree thing I've made is for a boy," she owned. "It's a paper soldier.... I made these things for fun," she added to Helders.
For the first time Helders observed the tree. Then he looked in the woman's face. "I'll fetch out a boy for you if you say so," he said.
"Then do," she bade.
When the four were alone again, Mat sat looking at the floor. "Every headlong thing I've ever done I've gone headlong over," he said gloomily.
Ellen took a coin from the clock shelf. "When Ben goes past to-morrow," she merely said, "you'll likely see him. Have him get some little candles for the tree."
"My head hurts me," the old man gave out; "this ain't the place for a great noisy boy."
Ellen put her hand on his shoulder almost maternally.
"See, dear," she said, "then you'd be grandfather."
"Hey?" he said; "not if it was adopted, I wouldn't."
"Why, of course. That would make it ours—and yours. See," she cried, "you've been stringing popcorn for it already, and you didn't know!"
"Be grandfather, would I?" said the old man. "Would I? Hey, king and country! Grandfather again."
Ellen was moving about the kitchen lightly, with that manner, which eager interest brings, of leaving only half footprints.
"Come on, mother," she said, "we must get the popcorn strung for sure, now!"
The mother looked up at the tree. "Seems as if," she said, wrinkling her forehead, "I used to make pink tarleton stockings for your trees and fill 'em with the corn. I donno but I've got a little piece of pink tarleton somewheres in my bottom drawer...."
... Next night they had the bracket lamp and the lamp on the shelf and the table hand lamp all burning. The little tree was gay with the white corn and the coloured trifles. The kitchen seemed to be centering in the tree, as if the room had been concerned long enough with the doings of these grown folk and now were looking ahead to see who should come next. It was the high moment of immemorial expectancy, when those who are alive turn the head to see who shall come after.
"What you been making all day, daddy?" Ellen asked, tense at every sound from without.
Her father, neat in his best clothes, blew away a last plume of shaved wood and held out something.
"I just whittled out a kind of a clothespin man," he explained. "I made one for you, once, and you liked it like everything. Mebbe a boy won't?" he added doubtfully.
"Oh, but a boy will!" Ellen cried, and tied the doll above the blue paper soldier.
"Hadn't they ought to be here pretty soon?" Matthew asked nervously. "Where's mother?"
"She's watching from the front room window," Ellen answered.
Once more Helders came stamping on the kitchen porch, but this time there was a patter of other steps, and Ellen caught open the door before he summoned. Helders stepped into the room, and with him was a little boy.
"This one?" Ellen asked, her eyes alive with her eagerness.
But Helders shook his head.
"Mis' Bourne," he said, "I'm real dead sorry. They wa'n't but the one. Just the one we'd spoke for."
"One!" Ellen said; "you said Orphan Asylum."
"There's only the one," Helders repeated. "The others is little bits of babies, or else spoke for like ours—long ago. It seems they do that way. But I want you should do something: I want you and Matthew should take this one. Mother and I—are older ... we ain't set store so much...."
Ellen shook her head, and made him know, with what words she could find, that it could not be so. Then she knelt and touched at the coat of the child, a small frightened thing, with cap too large for him and one mitten lost. But he looked up brightly, and his eyes stayed on the Christmas tree. Ellen said little things to him, and went to take down for him some trifle from the tree.
"I'm just as much obliged," she said quietly to Helders. "I never thought of there not being enough. We'll wait."
Helders was fumbling for something.
"Here's your candles, I thought you might want them for somethin' else," he said, and turned to Matthew: "And here's your quarter. I didn't get the toy you mentioned. I thought you wouldn't want it, without the little kid."
Matthew looked swiftly at Ellen. He had not told her that he had sent by Helders for a toy. And at that Ellen crossed abruptly to her husband, and she was standing there as they let Helders out, with the little boy.
Ellen's father pounded his knee.
"But how long'll we have to wait? How long'll we have to wait?" he demanded shrilly. "King and country, why didn't somebody ask him that?"
Matthew tore open the door.
"Helders!" he shouted, "how long did they say we'd have to wait?"
"Mebbe only a week or two—mebbe longer," Helders' voice came out of the dark. "They couldn't tell me."
Ellen's mother stood fastening up a fallen tinsel walnut.
"Let's us leave the tree right where it is," she said. "Even with it here, we won't have enough Christmas to hurt anything."
On that morning of the day before Christmas, Mary Chavah woke early, while it was yet dark. With closed eyes she lay, in the grip of a dream that was undissipated by her waking. In the dream she had seen a little town lying in a hollow, lighted and peopled, but without foundation.
"It isn't born yet," they told her, who looked with her, "and the people are not yet born."
"Who is the mother?" she had asked, as if everything must be born of woman.
"You," they had answered.
On which the town had swelled and rounded and swung in a hollow of cloud, globed and shining, like the world.
"You," they had kept on saying.
The sense that she must bear and mother the thing had grasped her with all the sickening force of dream fear. And when the dream slipped into the remembrance of what the day would bring her, the grotesque terror hardly lessened, and she woke to a sense of oppression and coming calamity such as not even her night of decision to take the child had brought to her, a weight as of physical faintness and sickness.
"I feel as if something was going to happen," she said, over and over.
She was wholly ignorant that in that week just passed the word had been liberated and had run round Old Trail Town in the happiest open secrecy:—
"... coming way from Idaho, with a tag on, Christmas Eve. We thought if everybody could call that night—just run into Mary's, you know, like it was any other night, and take in a little something to eat—no presents, you know ... oh, of course, no presents! Just supper, in a basket. We'd all have to eat some-where. It won't be any Christmas celebration, of course—oh, no, not with the paper signed and all. But just for us to kind of meet and be there, when he gets off the train from Idaho."
"Just ... like it was any other night." That was the part that abated suspicion. Indeed, that had been the very theory on which the nonobservance of Christmas had been based: the day was to be treated like any other day. And, obviously, on any other day such a simple plan as this for the welcoming of a little stranger from Idaho would have gone forward as a matter of course. Why deny him this, merely because the night of his arrival chanced to be Christmas Eve? When Christmas was to be treated exactly as any other day?
If, in the heart of Mis' Abby Winslow, where the plan had originated, it had originated side by side with the thought that the point of the plan was the incidence of Christmas Eve, she kept her belief secret. The open argument was unassailable, and she contented herself with that. Even Simeon Buck, confronted with it, was silent.
"Goin' back on the paper, are you?" he had at first said, "and hev a celebration?"
"Celebration of what?" Mis' Winslow demanded; "celebration of that little boy getting here all alone, 'way from Idaho. And we'd celebrate that any other night, wouldn't we? Of course we would. Our paper signing don't call for us to give everybody the cold shoulder as I know of, just because it's Christmas or Christmas Eve, either."
"No," Simeon owned, "of course it don't. Of course it don't."
As for Abel Ames, he accepted the proposal with an alacrity which he was put to it to conceal.
"So do," he said heartily, "so do. I guess we can go ahead just like it was a plain day o' the week, can't we?"
"Hetty," he said to his wife, whom that noon he went through the house to the kitchen expressly to tell, "can you bake up a basket of stuff to take over to Mary Chavah's next Tuesday night?"
She looked up from the loaf she was cutting, the habitual wonder of her childish curved lashes accented by her sudden curving of eyebrows.
"Next Tuesday?" she said, "Why, that's Christmas eve!"
Abel explained, saying, "What of that?" and trying to speak indifferently but, in spite of himself, shining through.
"Well, that's kind of nice to do, ain't it?" she answered.
"My, yes," Abel said, emphatically, "It's a thing to do—that's the thing to do."
It was Mis' Mortimer Bates, the nonconformist by nature, in whom doubts came nearest to expression.
"I don't know," she said, "it kind of does seem like hedging."
"They ain't anybody for it to seem to," Mis' Winslow contended reasonably, "but us. And we understand."
"We was going to do entirely without a Christmas this year. Entirely without," Mis' Bates rehearsed.
"Was we going to do entirely without everyday, week-day, year-in-and-year-out milk of human kindness?" Mis' Winslow demanded. "Well, then, let's us use a little of it, same as we would on a Monday wash day."
No voice was raised in real protest. None who had signed the paper and none who had not done so could take exception to this simple way of hospitality to the little stranger with a tag on. And it was the glory of the little town being a little town that they somehow let it be known that every one was expected to look in at Mary's that night. No one was uninvited. And this was like a part of the midwinter mystery expressing itself unbidden.
Mary alone was not told. She had consistently objected to the Christmas observances for so long that they feared the tyranny of her custom. "She might not let us do it," they said, "but if we all get there, she can't help liking it. She would on any other day...."
... So she alone in Old Trail Town woke that morning before Christmas with no knowledge of this that was afoot. And yet the day was not like any other day, because she lay there dreading it more.
She had cleared out her little sleeping room, as she had cleared the lower floor. The chamber, with its white-plastered walls, and boards nearly bare, and narrow white bed, had the look of a cell, in the first light struggling through the single snow-framed window. Here, since her childhood she had lain nightly; here she had brought her thought of Adam Blood, and had seen the thought die and had watched with it; here she had lain on the nights after her parents had died; here she had rested, body-sick with fatigue, in the years that she had toiled to keep her home. In all that time there had gone on within her many kinds of death. She had arrived somehow at a dumb feeling that these dyings were gradually uncovering her self from somewhere within; rather, uncovering some self whose existence she only dimly guessed. "They's two of me," she had thought more often of late "and we don't meet—we don't meet." She lived among her neighbors without hate, without malice; for years she had "meant nothing but love"—and this not negatively. The rebellion against Christmas was against only the falsity of its meaningless observance. The rebellion against taking the child, though somewhat grounded in her distrust of her own fitness, was really the last vestige of a self that had clung to her, in bitterness not toward Adam, but toward Lily. Ever since she had known that the child was coming she had felt a kind of spiritual exhaustion, sharpened by the strange sense of oppression that hung upon her like an illness.
"I feel as if something was going to happen," she kept saying.
In a little while she leaned toward the window at her bed's head, and looked down the hill toward Jenny's. Her heart throbbed when she saw a light there. Of late, when she had waked in the night, she had always looked, but always until now the little house had been wrapped in the darkness. Because of that light, she could not sleep again, and so presently she rose, and in the sharp chill of the room, bathed and dressed, though what had once been her savage satisfaction in braving the cold had long since become mere undramatic ability to endure it without thinking. With Mary, life and all its constructive rites had won what the sacrificial has never been able to achieve—the soul of the casual, of, so to say, second nature, which is last nature, and nature triumphant.
While she was at breakfast Mis' Abby Winslow came in.
"Mercy," Mis' Winslow said, "is it breakfast—early? I've been up hours, frosting the cakes."
"What cakes?" Mary asked idly.
Mis' Winslow flushed dully. "I ain't baked anything much in weeks before," she answered ambiguously, and hurried from the subject.
"The little fellow's coming in on the Local, is he?" she said. "You ain't heard anything different?"
"Nothing different," Mary replied. "Yes, of course he's coming. They left there Saturday, or I'd have heard. The man he's with is going to get home to-night for Christmas with his folks in the City."
"Going down to meet him of course, ain't you," Mis' Winslow pursued easily.
"Why, yes," said Mary.
"Well," Mis' Winslow mounted her preparation, "I was thinking it would be kind of dark for you to bring him in here all alone. Don't you want I should come over and keep up the lights and be here when you get here?"
She watched Mary in open anxiety. If she were to refuse, it would go rather awkwardly. To her delight Mary welcomed with real relief the suggestion.
"I'd be ever so much obliged," she said; "I thought of asking somebody. I'll have a little supper set out for him before I leave."
"Yes, of course," Mis' Winslow said, eyes down. "I'll be over about seven," she added. "If the train's on time, you'll be back here around half past. The children want to go down with you—they can be at Mis' Moran's when you go by. You'll walk up from the depot, won't you? You do," she said persuasively; "the little fellow'll be glad to stretch his legs. And it'll give the children a chance to get acquainted."
"I might as well," Mary assented listlessly. "There's no need to hurry home, as I know of, except keeping you waiting."
"Oh, I don't mind," Mis' Winslow told her. "Better come around through town, too. It's some farther, but he'll like the lights. What's the little chap's name?" she asked; "I donno's I've heard you say."
Mary flushed faintly. "Do you know," she said, "I don't know his name. I can't remember that Lily ever told me. They always called him just Yes, because he learned to say that first."
"'Yes!'" repeated Mis' Winslow, blankly. "Why, it don't sound to me real human."
Later in the day, Mis' Mortimer Bates and Mis' Moran came in to see Mary. Both were hurried and tired, and occasionally one of them lapsed into some mental calculation. "We must remember something for the middle of the table," Mis' Bates observed to Mis' Moran, under cover of Mary's putting wood in the stove. And when Mary related the breaking of the bracket lamp, the two other women telegraphed to each other a glance of memorandum.
"Don't it seem funny to you to have Christmas coming on to-morrow and no flurry about it?" Mary asked.
"No flurry!" Mis' Bates burst out. "Oh, well," she amended, "of course this Christmas does feel a little funny to all of us. Don't you think so, Mis' Moran?"
"I donno," said Mary, thoughtfully, "but what, when folks stop chasing after Christmas and driving it before them, Christmas may turn around and come to find them."
"Mebbe so," Mis' Moran said with bright eyes, "mebbe so. Oh, Mary," she added, "ain't it nice he's coming?"
Mary looked at them, frowning a little. "It seemed like the thing had to happen," she said; "it'll fit itself in."
Before dark she took a last look about the child's room. The owl paper, the puppy washbasin, the huge calendar with its picture of a stag, the shelves for whatever things of his own he had, all pleased her newly. She had laid on his table her grandfather's Bible with pictures of Asiatic places. Below his mirror hung his father's photograph, that young face, with the unspeakable wistfulness of youth, looking somewhere outside the picture. It made her think of the passionate expectation in the face of the picture that Jenny had brought.
"Young folks in pictures always look like they was setting store by something that ain't true yet," Mary thought. "It makes you kind of feel you have to pitch in and make whatever it is come true, a little...."
It was when Mis' Winslow came back toward seven o'clock that there was news of Jenny. Mary had been twice to her door in the course of the day, and had come away feeling, in her inquiry, strangely outside the moment and alien to its incidence, as if she were somehow less alive than those in Jenny's house.
"Jenny's got a little girl," Mis' Winslow said.
Mary stood staring at her. It seemed impossible. It was like seeing the hands of time move, like becoming momentarily conscious of the swing and rush of the earth, like perceiving the sweep of the stream of stars in which our system moves.... She was startled and abashed that the news so seized upon her. Little that had ever happened to herself seemed so poignant, so warmed its place in sensation. While Mis' Winslow's mind marked time on details of time and pounds, as is the way with us immortals when another joins our ranks, Mary was receiving more consciousness. There are times when this gift is laid on swiftly, as with hands, instead of coming when none knows. Rather than with the child whom she was to meet, her thought was with Jenny as she left Mis' Winslow in the doorway and went down the street.
"Expect you back in about half an hour if the train's on time," Mis' Winslow called.
Mary nodded, and turned into the great cathedral aisle that was Old Trail Street, now arched and whitened, spectral in the dark, silver with starlight....
... Capella was in the east, high and bright, and as imperative as speech. Mary's way lay north, so that that great sun went beside her, and there was no one else abroad but these two. A coat of ice had polished the walks, so she went by the road, between the long white mounds that lined it. The road, whose curves were absorbed in the dimness, had thus lost its look of activity and lay inert as any frozen waterway. Only a little wind, the star's sparkle, and Mary's step and breath seemed living things—but from the rows of chimneys up and down the Old Trail Road, faint smoke went up, a plume, a wreath, a veil, where the village folk, invisible within quiet roof and wall, lifted common signals; and from here a window and there a window, a light shone out, a point, a ray, a glow, so that one without would almost say, "There's home."
The night before Christmas; and in not one home was there any preparation for to-morrow, Mary thought, unless one or two lawless ones had broken bounds and contrived something, from a little remembrance for somebody to a suet pudding. It was strange, she owned: no trees being trimmed, no churches lighted for practice, and the shops closed as on any other night. Only the post office had light—she went in to look in her box. Affer was there at the telegraph window, and he accosted her.
"Little boy's comin' to-night, is he?" he said, as one of the sponsors for that arrival.
"I'm on my way to the train now," Mary answered, and noted the Christmas notice with its soiled and dog-eared list still hanging on the wall. "It was a good move," she insisted to herself, as she went out into the empty street again.
"You got a merry Christmas without no odds of the paper or me either," Affer called after her; but she did not answer save with her "Thank you, Mr. Affer."
"Why do they all pretend to think it's so fine for me?" she wondered. "To cheer me up, I guess," she thought grimly.
To-night they were all sharing the aloofness from the time, an aloofness which she herself had known for years. All save Jenny. To Jenny's house, in defiance of that dog-eared paper in the post office, Christmas had come. Not a Christmas of "present trading," not a Christmas of things at all; but Christmas. Unto them a child was born.
"Jenny's the only one in this town that's got a real Christmas," thought Mary, on her way to meet her own little guest.
The Simeon Buck North American Dry Goods Exchange was dark, too, and from its cave of window the gray Saint Nicholas looked out, bearing his flag—and he to-night an idle, mummy thing of no significance. The Abel Ames General Merchandise Emporium was closed, but involuntarily Mary stopped before it. In its great plate-glass window a single candle burned. She stood for a moment looking.
"Why, that's what they do, some places, to let the Christ-child in," Mary thought. "I wonder if Abel knows. How funny—for a store!"
Some one whom she did not know passed her and looked too.
"Kind o' nice," said the other.
"Real nice," Mary returned, and went on with a little glow.
Abel's candle, and the arc light shining like cold blue crystal before the dark Town Hall, and the post-office light where the dog-eared list hung and the telegraph key clicked out its pretence at hand touching with all the world, these were the only lights the street showed—save Capella, that went beside her and, as she looked, seemed almost to stand above the town.
At Mis' Moran's house on the other side of the square, the children were waiting for her—Bennet and Gussie and Tab and Pep and little Emily. They ran before Mary in the road, all save little Emily, who walked clasping Mary's hand.
"Aren't you staying up late, Emily?" Mary asked her.
"Yes," assented the child, contentedly.
"Won't you be sleepy?" Mary pursued.
"I was going to stay awake anyhow," she said; "I ain't goin' sleep all night. We said so. We're goin' stay 'wake and see Santa Claus go by."
"Go by?" Mary repeated.
"Yes," the child explained; "you don't think that'll hurt, do you?" she asked anxiously. "And then," she pursued, "if we don't see him, we'll know he's dead everywheres else, too. An' then we're goin' bury him to-morrow morning, up to Gussie's house."
At the station, no one was yet about. The telegraph instrument was clicking there, too, signaling the world; a light showed in the office behind a row of sickly geraniums; the wind came down through the cut and across the tracks and swept the little platform. But the children begging to stay outside, Mary stood in a corner by the telegraph operator's bay window and looked across to the open meadows beyond the tracks and up at the great star. The meadows, sloping to an horizon hill, were even and white, as if an end of sky had been pulled down and spread upon them. Utter peace was there, not the primeval peace that is negation, but a silence that listened.
"'While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground,...'" Mary thought and looked along the horizon hill. The time needed an invocation from some one who watched, as many voices, through many centuries, had made invocation on Christmas Eve. For a moment, looking over the lonely white places where no one watched, as no one—save only Jenny—watched in the town, Mary forgot the children....
The shoving and grating of baggage truck wheels recalled her. Just beyond the bay window she saw little Emily lifted to the truck and the four others follow, and the ten heels dangle in air.
"Now!" said Pep. And a chant arose:
"'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care In the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there...."
Upborne by one, now by another, now by all three voices, the verses went on unto the end. And it was as if not only Tab and Pep and Bennet and Gussie and little Emily were chanting, but all children who had ever counted the days to Christmas and had found Christmas the one piece of magic that is looked on with kindness by a grown-up world. The magic of swimming holes, for example, is largely a forbidden magic; the magic of loud noises, of fast motion, of living things in pockets, of far journeys, of going off alone, of digging caves, of building fires, of high places, of many closed doors, words, mechanisms, foods, ownerships, manners, costumes, companions, and holidays are denied them. But in Christmas their affinity for mystery is recognized, encouraged, gratified, annually provided for. The little group on the baggage truck chanted their watch over a dead body of Christmas, but its magic was there, inviolate. The singsong verses had almost the dignity of lyric expression, of the essence of familiarity with that which is unknown. As if, because humanity had always recognized that the will to Christmas was greater than it knew, these words had somehow been made to catch and reproduce, for generations, some faint spirit of the midwinter mystery.
The 'bus rattled up to the platform and Buff Miles leaped down and blanketed his horses, talking to them as was his wont.
"So, holly and mistletoe, So, holly and mistletoe, So, holly, and mistletoe, Over and over and over, oh...."
he was singing as he came round the corner of the station.
"It ain't Christmas yet," he observed defensively to Mary. "It ain't forbid except for Christmas Day, is it?"
He went and bent over the children on the truck.
"Look alive as soon as you can do it," Mary heard him say to them, and wondered.
She stood looking up the track. Across the still fields, lying empty and ready for some presence, came flashing the point of flame that streamed from the headlight of the train. The light shone out like a signal flashed back to the star standing above the town.
Ten minutes after Mary Chavah had left her house, every window was lighted, a fire was kindled in the parlour, and neighbours came from the dark and fell to work at the baskets they had brought.
It was marvelous what homely cheer arose. The dining-room table, stretched at its fullest length and white-covered, was various with the yellow and red of fruit and salads, the golden brown of cake and rolls, and the mosaic of dishes. The fire roared in the flat-topped stove on whose "wings" covered pans waited, and everywhere was that happy stir and touch and lift, that note of preparation which informs a time as sunshine or music will strike its key.
"My land, the oven—the warming oven. Mary ain't got one. However will we keep the stuff hot?" Mis' Winslow demanded. "What time is it?"
"We'd ought to had my big coffee-pot. We'd ought to set two going. I donno why I didn't think of it," Mis' Moran grieved.
"Well," said Mis' Mortimer Bates, "when the men get here—if they ever do get here—we'll send one of 'em off somewheres for the truck we forgot. What time is it?"
"Here comes a whole cartload of folks," Mis' Moran announced. "I hope and pray they've got the oysters—they'd ought to be popped in the baking oven a minute. What time did you say it is?"
"It's twenty minutes past seven," Mis' Winslow said, pushing her hair straight back, regardless of its part, "and we ain't ready within 'leven hundred miles."
"Well, if they only all get here," Mis' Bates said, ringing golden and white stuffed eggs on Mary's blue platter; "it's their all being here when she gets here that I want. I ain't worried about the supper—much."
"The road's black with folks," Mis' Moran went on. "I'm so deadly afraid I didn't make enough sandwiches. Oh, I donno why it wasn't given me to make more, I'm sure."
"Who's seeing to them in the parlour? Who's getting their baskets out here? Where they finding a place for their wraps? Who's lighting the rest of the lamps? What time is it?" demanded Mis' Winslow, cutting her cakes.
"Oh," said Mis' Bates from a cloud of brown butter about the cooking stove, "I donno whether we've done right. I donno but we've broke our word to the Christmas paper. I donno whether we ain't going to get ourselves criticized for this as never folks was criticized before."
Mis' Moran changed her chair to the draughtless corner back of the cooking stove and offered to stir the savoury saucepan.
"I know it," she said, "I know it. We never planned much in the first start. It grew and it grew like it grew with its own bones. But mebbe there's some won't believe that, one secunt."
Mis' Winslow straightened up from the table and held out a hand with fingers frosting-tipped.
"Well," she said, with a great period, "if we have broke our word to the Christmas paper, I'd rather stand up here with my word broke this way than with it kept so good it hurt me. Is it half-past seven yet?"
"I wish Ellen Bourne was here," Mis' Bates observed. "She sent her salad dressing over and lent her silver and her Christmas rose for the table—but come she would not. I wonder if she couldn't come over now if we sent after her, last minute?"
Simeon Buck, appearing a few minutes later at the kitchen door to set a basket inside, was dispatched for Ellen Bourne, the warming oven, and the coffee-pot, collectively. He took with him Abel Ames, who was waiting for him without. And it chanced that they knocked at the Bournes' door just after Ben Helders had driven away with the little boy, so that the men found the family still in the presence of the little tree.
"Hello," said Simeon, aghast, "Christmassing away all by yourselves, I'll be bound, like so many thieves. I rec'lect not seeing your names on the paper."
"No, I didn't sign," Ellen said. "I voted against it that night at the town meeting, but I guess nobody heard me."
"Well," said Simeon, "and so here you've got a Christmas of your own going forward, neat as a kitten's foot—"
"Ain't you coming over to Mary Chavah's?" Abel broke in with a kind of gentleness. "All of you?"
Ellen smote her hands together.
"I meant to go over later," she said, "and take—" She paused. "I thought we'd all go over later," she said. "I forgot about it. Why, yes, I guess we can go now, can't we? All three of us?"
Abel Ames stood looking at the tree. He half guessed that she might have dressed it for no one who would see it. He looked at Ellen and ventured what he thought.
"Ellen," he said, "if you ain't going to do anything more with that tree to-night, why not take some of the things off, and have Matthew set it on his shoulder, and bring it over to Mary's for the boy that's coming?"
Ellen hesitated. "Would they like it?" she asked. "Would folks?"
Abel smiled. "I'll take the blame," he said, "and you take the tree." And seeing Simeon hesitate, "Now let's stop by for Mis' Moran's coffee-pot," he added. "Hustle up. The Local must be in."
So presently the tree, partly divested of its brightness, was carried through the streets to the other house—in more than the magic which attends the carrying in the open road of a tree, a statue, a cart filled with flowers,—for the tree was like some forbidden thing that still would be expressed.
"He might not come till Christmas is 'way past," Ellen thought, following. "She'll leave it standing a few days. We can go down there and look at it—if he comes."
A little way behind them, Simeon and Abel, with the coffee-pot and the warming oven, were hurrying back to Mary's. They went down the deserted street where Abel's candle burned and Simeon's saint stood mute.
"When I was a little shaver," Abel said, "they used to have me stand in the open doorway Christmas Eve, and hold a candle and say a verse. I forget the verse. But I've always liked the candle in doors or windows, like to-night. Look at mine over there now—ain't it like somebody saying something?"
"Well," said Simeon, not to be outdone, "when we come by my window just now, the light hit down on it and I could of swore I see the saint smile."
"Like enough," said Abel, placidly, "like enough. You can't put Christmas out. I see that two weeks ago." He looked back at his own window. "If the little kid that come in the store last Christmas Eve tries to come in again to-night," he said, "he won't find it all pitch dark, anyway. I'd like to know who he was...."
Near the corner that turned down to the Rule Factory, they saw Ebenezer Rule coming toward them on the Old Trail Road. They called to him.
"Hello, Ebenezer," said Abel, "ain't you coming in to Mary Chavah's to-night?"
"I think not," Ebenezer answered.
"Come ahead," encouraged Simeon.
As they met, Abel spoke hesitatingly.
"Ebenezer," he said, "I was just figuring on proposing to Simeon here, that we stop in to your house—I was thinking," he broke off, "how would it be for you and him and me, that sort of stand for the merchandise end of this town, to show up at Mary's house to-night—well, it's the women have done all the work so far—and I was wondering how it would be for us three to get there with some little thing for that little kid that's coming to her—we could find something that wouldn't cost much—it hadn't ought to cost much, 'count of our set principles. And take it to him...." Abel ended doubtfully.
Ebenezer simply laughed his curious succession of gutturals.
"Crazy to Christmas after all, ain't you?" he said.
But Simeon wheeled and stared at Abel. For defection in their own camp he had never looked.
"I knew you'd miss it—I knew you'd miss it!" Simeon said excitedly, "cut paper and fancy tassels and—"
"No such thing," said Abel, shortly. "I was thinking of that boy getting here, that's all. And I couldn't see why we shouldn't do our share—which totin' coffee-pots and warming ovens ain't, as I see it."
"Well, but my heavens, man!" said Simeon, "it's Christmas! You can't go giving anybody anything, can you?"
"I don't mean give it to him for Christmas at all," protested Abel. "I mean give it to him just like you would any other day. We'd likely take him something if it wasn't Christmas? Sort of to show our good will, like the women with the supper? Well, why not take him some little thing even if it is Christmas?"
"Oh, well," said Simeon, "that way. If you make it plain it ain't for Christmas—Of course, we ain't to blame for what day his train got in on."
"Sure we ain't," said Abel, confidently.
Ebenezer was moving away.
"We'll call in for you in half an hour or so," Abel's voice followed him. "We'll slip out after the boy gets there. There won't be time before ... what say, Ebenezer?"
"I think not," said Ebenezer; "you don't need me."
"Well—congratulations anyhow!" Abel called.
Ebenezer stopped on the crossing.
"What for?" he asked.
"Man alive," said Abel, "don't you know Bruce has got a little girl?"
"No," said Ebenezer, "I—didn't know. I'm obliged to you."
He turned from them, but instead of crossing the street to go to his house, he faced down the little dark street to the factory. He had walked past Jenny's once that evening, but without being able to force himself to inquire. He knew that Bruce had come a day or two before, but Bruce had sent him no word. Bruce had never sent any word since the conditions of the failure had been made plain to him, when he had resigned his position, refused the salary due him, and left Old Trail Town. Clearly, Ebenezer could make no inquiry under those circumstances, he told himself. They had cut themselves off from him, definitely.
How definitely he was cut off from them was evident as he went down the dark street to the factory. He was strangely quickened, from head to foot, with the news of the birth of Bruce's child. He went down toward the factory simply because that was the place that he knew best, and he wanted to be near it. He walked in the snow of the mid-road, facing the wind, steeped in that sense of keener being which a word may pour in the veins until the body flows with it. The third generation; the next of kin,—that which stirred in him was a satisfaction almost physical that his family was promised its future.
As he went he was unconscious, as he was always unconscious, of the little street. But, perhaps because Abel had mentioned Mary's house, he noted the folk, bound thither, whom he was meeting: Ben Torry, with a basket, and his two boys beside him; August Muir, carrying his little girl and a basket, and his wife following with a basket. Ebenezer spoke to them, and after he had passed them he thought about them for a minute.
"Quite little families," he thought. "I s'pose they get along.... I wonder how much Bruce is making a week?"
Nellie Hatch and her lame sister were watching at the lighted window, as if there were something to see.
"Must be kind of dreary work for them—living," he thought, "... I s'pose Bruce is pretty pleased ... pretty pleased."
At the corner, some one spoke to him with a note of pleasure in his voice. It was his bookkeeper, with his wife and two partly grown daughters. Ebenezer thought of his last meeting with his bookkeeper, and remembered the man's smile of perfect comprehension and sympathy, as if they two had something in common.
"Family life does cling to a man," he had said.
That was his wife on his arm, and their two daughters. On that salary of his.... Was it possible, it occurred to Ebenezer, that she was saving egg money, earning sewing money, winning prizes for puzzles—as Letty had done?
Outside the factory, the blue arc light threw a thousand shadows on the great bulk of the building, but left naked in light the little office. He stood looking at it, as he so rarely saw it, from part way across the road. Seen so, it took on another aspect, as if it had emerged from some costuming given it by the years. The office was painted brown, and discoloured. He saw it white, with lozenge panes unbroken, flowered curtains at the windows, the light of lamp and wood stove shining out. And as sharply as if it had been painted on the air, he saw some unimportant incident in his life there—a four-wheel carriage drawn up at the door with some Christmas guests just arriving, and himself and Letty and Malcolm in the open doorway. He could not remember who the guests were, or whether he had been glad to see them, and he had no wish in the world to see those guests again. But the simple, casual, homely incident became to him the sign of all that makes up everyday life, the everyday life of folk—of folks—from which he had so long been absent.
His eye went down the dark little street where were the houses of the men who were his factory "hands." Just for a breath he saw them as they were,—the chorus to the thing he was thinking about. They were all thinking about it, too. Every one of them knew what he knew.... Just for a breath he saw the little street as it was: an entity. Then the sight closed, but through him ran again that sense of keener being, so poignant that now, as his veins flowed with it, something deeper within him almost answered.
He wheeled impatiently from where he stood. He wanted to do something. At the end of the street he could see them crossing under the light, on their way to Mary Chavah's. Abel and Simeon might stop for him ... but how could he go there, among the folk whom he had virtually denied their Christmas? What would they have to say to him? Yet what they should say would, after all, matter nothing to him ... and perhaps he would hear them say something about Bruce and Jenny. Still, he had nothing to take there, as Abel had suggested. What had he that a boy would want to have? Unless....
He thought for a moment. Then he crossed the street to what had been his house. He went in, seeing again the hallway and stair, red-carpeted, and the door opened into the lamplit room beyond. He found and lighted an end of candle that he knew, and made his way up the stair. There he set the candle down and lowered the ladder that led to the loft.
In the loft, a gust of wind from the skylight blew out the flame of his little wick. In the darkness, the broken panes above his head looked down on him like a face, and that face the sky, thousand-eyed. He mounted a box, pushed up the frame, and put out his head. The sky lay near. The little town showed, heaped roofs and lifting smoke, and here and there a light. Sparkling in their midst was the light before the Town Hall, like an eye guarding something and answering to the light before his factory and to the other light before the station, where the world went by. High over all, climbing the east, came Capella, and seemed to be standing above the village.
As he looked, the need to express what he felt beset Ebenezer.
"Quite a little town," he thought, "quite a little town."
He closed the glass, and groped in the darkness to where the roof, sloping sharply, met the door. There he touched an edge of something that swayed, and he laid hold of and drew out that for which he had come: Malcolm's hobbyhorse.
Downstairs in the hall he set it on the floor, examined it, rocked it with one finger. The horse returned to its ancient office as if it were irrevocably ordained to service. Ebenezer, his head on one side, stood for some time regarding it. Then he slipped something in its worn saddle-pocket. Last, he lifted and settled the thing under his arm.
"I donno but I might as well walk around by Mary Chavah's house," he thought. "I needn't stay long...."
* * * * *
At Mary Chavah's house the two big parlours, the hall, the stairs, the dining room, even the tiny bedroom with the owl wall paper, were filled with folk come to welcome the little boy. And on the parlour table, set so that he should see it when first he entered, blazed Ellen Bourne's little tree. The coffee was hot on the stove, good things were ready on the table, and the air was electric with expectation, with the excitement of being together, with the imminent surprise to Mary, and with curiosity about the little stranger from Idaho.
"What'll we all say when he first comes in?" somebody asked.
"Might say 'Merry Christmas,'" two or three suggested.
"Mercy, no!" replied shocked voices, "not to Mary Chavah, especially."
But however they should say it, the time was quick with cheer.
At quarter to eight the gate clicked. The word passed from one to another, and by the time a step sounded on the porch the rooms were still, save for the whispers, and a voice or two that kept unconsciously on in some remote corner. But instead of the door opening to admit Mary and her little boy, a hesitating knock sounded.
Those nearest to the door questioned one another with startled looks, and one of them threw the door open. On the threshold stood Affer, the telegraph operator, who thrust in a very dirty hand and a yellow envelope.
"We don't deliver nights," he said, "but I thought she'd ought to have this one. I'm going home to wash up, and then I'll be back," he added, and left them staring at one another around the little lighted tree.
Before they could go out to find Mary, as a dozen would have done, she was at the threshold, alone. She seemed to understand without wonder why they were there, and with perfect naturalness she turned to them to share her trouble.
"He hasn't come," she said simply.
Her face was quite white, and because they usually saw her with a scarf or shawl over her head, she looked almost strange to them, for she wore a hat. Also she had on an unfamiliar soft-coloured wrap that had been her mother's and was kept in tissues. She had dressed carefully to go to meet the child. "I might as well dress up a little," she had thought, "and I guess he'll like colours best."
Almost before she spoke they put in her hands the telegram. They were pressing toward her, dreading, speechless, trying to hear what should be read. She stepped nearer to the light of the candles on the little tree, read, and reread in the stillness. When she looked up her face was so illumined that she was strange to them once more.
"Oh," she said, "it's his train. It was late for the Local. They've put him on the Express, and it'll drop him at the draw."
The tense air crumpled into breathings, and a soft clamour filled the rooms as they told one another, and came to tell her how glad they were. She pulled herself together and tried to slip into her natural manner.
"It did give me a turn," she confessed; "I thought he'd been—he'd got...."
She went into the dining room, still without great wonder that they were all there; but when she saw the women in white aprons, and the table arrayed, and on it Ellen Bourne's Christmas rose blooming, she broke into a little laugh.
"Oh," she said, "you done this a-purpose for him."
"I hope, Mary, you won't mind," Mis' Mortimer Bates said formally, "it being Christmas, so. We'd have done just the same on any other day."
"Oh," Mary said, "mind!"
They hardly knew her, she moved among them so flushed and laughing and conformable, praising, admiring, thanking them.
"Honestly, Mary," said Mis' Moran, finally, "we'll have you so you can't tell Christmas from any other day—it'll be so nice!"
The Express would be due at the "draw" at eight-thirty—eight-thirty-three, Affer told her when he came back, "washed up." Mary watched the clock. She had not milked or fed the cows before she went, because she had thought that he would like to watch the milking, and it would be something for him to do on that first evening. So, when she could, she took her shawl and slipped out to the shed for the pails and her lantern, and went alone to the stable.
Mary opened the door, and her lantern made a golden room of light within the borderless shadow. The hay smell from the loft and the mangers, the even breathing of the cows, the quiet safety of the place, met her. She hung her lantern in its accustomed place, and went about her task.
Her mind turned back to the time that had elapsed since the Local came in at the Old Trail Town station. She had stood there, with the children about her, hardly breathing while the two Trail Town men and a solitary traveling man had alighted. There had been no one else. In terror lest the child should be carried past the station, she had questioned the conductor, begged him to go in and look again, parleyed with him until he had swung his lantern. Then she had turned away with the children, utterly unable to formulate anything. There was no other train to stop at Old Trail Town that night. It must mean disaster ... indefinable disaster that had somehow engulfed him and had not pointed the way that he had gone. She recalled, now, that she had refused Buff Miles's invitation to ride, but had suffered him to take the children. Then she had set out to walk home.