T HE story begins on Christmas morning when Carol Cameron flung herself into a chair and impatiently muttered:
"I wish that thing wouldn't run in my head, 'Peace on earth; good will to men.' Humph! Precious little peace there is for me, with all these young ones to take care of; and as for good will,"—hesitating,—"as for good will," she went on defiantly, "I suppose my will's as good as anybody's."
The words would seem to settle the matter, but it evidently did not stay settled; the thoughts went on, "Peace on earth; good will to men," still ringing through her head in the music of the old Christmas chant.
"I don't see how I can be expected to feel much good will, anyway," she mused, looking out of her window across miles and miles of snow-covered prairie. "This year hasn't held much good for me. First it took away my dear Mother, and then it brought me to this dreadful, dreadful prairie, with four children to care for. Oh! how could Father bring us here!" and her revery ended in a passionate burst of tears.
It was a dismal picture, looked at from that side alone, and the tears fell fast and hot. But the glorious words went chanting through her brain, with soothing effect, and when the tea hour arrived she was able to take her place opposite her father, looking only a little more sad than usual in those unhappy days.
The younger children glanced at her anxiously, for since Carol had been in Mother's place she had been a little exacting, as an elder sister sometimes will. It was plain that there was some great but suppressed excitement among them, and at last the father noticed it, and a question brought out the breathless announcement that "There is going to be a Christmas tree at the schoolhouse; the Sunday School teachers got it up; it is going to be splendid; and everybody is invited; and every scholar will get something; and oh, Papa! mayn't we go?" ended the eager chorus.
"Why, yes; I have no objection," answered grave Papa, "if Carol will go and take care of you."
All eyes turned to Carol, sitting, alas! so hopeless, at the tea-tray.
"No, indeed, I'll not!" came instantly to her lips; but the old chant, still ringing in her head, stopped it there. She hesitated. "Good will to men," went on the silent monitor.
"Please, Sissy!" whispered baby Grace, while the others, grown wise by the year's experience of Carol's "Don't tease," dared not open their lips.
Carol could not help a glance around that circle of eager faces, and with a sudden pang thought how little she had done to make them happy; how poorly she filled the "mother" place in their lives. But they waited, breathless, for her reply.
"I—I don't think it will be pleasant," she began.
"Oh, yes, it will!" burst out the chorus. "It'll be lovely! and everybody's going to get something."
"Everybody dit somesing!" echoed Grace.
"Good will to men," went on the silent chant, and "Dear me! how that does bother me!" in her thoughts was followed on her lips by a reluctant "Well, I suppose I'll have to go, if you're all so wild about it."
The happy chorus of "Goody! goody!" and the merry laughs and glad faces, as they hurried about getting ready, were so many separate pangs in Carol's heart; but she had promised, and Carol was a lady, and never broke her word.
An hour later saw them on their way, dancing and skipping with delight, while sad thoughts of last Christmas filled Carol's mind as she plodded through the snow, holding fast to Gracie's little hand.
Last year Mother had planned the tree, and though she had lain for weeks on her bed, her own patient fingers had made the pretty decorations and the lovely presents. Carol's hands had dressed the tree, but Mother, on her lounge, had told her what to do. Mother, too, had taught her and the rest the good old chant, "Peace on earth; good will to men."
Just here, in her recollections of the past, they reached the door of the schoolhouse, which in that small, far-western town served for school all the week and for church on Sunday.
Leaving their wraps in the hall, they quickly joined the lively crowd within. The room had been cleared of desks and benches, brilliantly lighted with many candles around the walls, and in the middle, admired of all, stood the tree.
You will fancy a pretty evergreen tree, loaded with gifts and ornaments, twinkling with tiny lights, like a bit of fairyland to all children. Far other was the scene that met Carol's wide-open eyes; very different was this Christmas tree of the prairies.
It was a dead, leafless tree of the woods, hung with small round scalloped cakes of maple sugar, festooned with strings of popped corn, and lighted with a ring of tallow candles set around it in the tub in which it stood. That was all. Such and so bare did it look to Carol, though the lively imagination of the children magnified it into something beautiful and rare, and the grown-ups who had worked hard to prepare it saw no fault in it.
"You poor things!" was the thought that rushed into Carol's head. "You think that a Christmas tree!" And a sudden feeling of pity came over her for people whose lives were so bare and hard that they knew no better Christmas tree than that.
It was her first kind feeling toward the plain, hard-working villagers, whom she had simply despised. It must have been the magic work of the old chant, for a thought sprang up in her mind on the instant, and grew with gourd-like speed. She had leisure to think her plan out, even there, for the people were somewhat shy of the still, proud girl, who had walked among them as a stranger for several months, showing her unhappy face only at church and in the street. From one motherly old lady, however, she learned that no one in the village had ever seen a Christmas tree, but, reading about them, the teachers had thought one would be pleasant for the children, and so had imitated it, as they supposed. "And sure enough," thought Carol, in trying to account for the leafless object, "I don't know that the stories ever do speak of its being an evergreen tree."
At an early hour the merry company went home, each child happy with a cake of maple sugar and a string of popped corn, and soon all the Cameron children were dreaming of the delightful festival that we all know "comes but once a year."
Not so Carol. Having seen the last sleepy head on its pillow, she went to her own room, locked the door, and sat down before her trunk. Article after article she threw out, till she reached a large pasteboard box in the bottom, and this she opened.
What a glitter in that dull little room! How the dim candle-light flickered and flashed back from gilt and silver, from tiny mirrors and colored glass balls! Carol's heart was full as she pondered over these relics of last Christmas, remembering the delightful evening, the beautiful tree, and above all, the dear, pale mother on her lounge, so interested and so happy as she directed the dressing of the tree.
"I must teach you, Carol," she had said that day, "for when I'm gone you'll have to be mother to the little ones." And Carol felt a sharp pang as she remembered once more this evening how far short she had come of filling their mother's place.
"Little did I think," poor Carol murmured, as one by
one she took the treasures from the box, and looked
fondly through her tears at each, "little did I think,
when I packed them away, where they would next be used,
on these terrible prairies, to amuse a pack of savages
who never saw a tree; and I almost think," she went on,
after a moment, "I don't believe, after
She hesitated; for, strong and clear, almost as if sung by human lips, went that troublesome chant through her head, "Peace on earth; good will to men."
Once more she changed her mind. "Yes, I will too," she said bravely. "I'm ashamed of myself to have such selfish thoughts."
That night she lay awake and matured her plans, which were, as you have guessed, to show the children a real Christmas tree.
She had the decorations, to be sure, but she had no presents; worse, she had no candles; and, worst of all, no tree.
After much pondering, she remembered that she had a long-unused talent for making paper dolls and their dresses and belongings; also, she knew how to fashion funny little Quaker dolls, with hickory-nuts for heads. Pretty shell cushions came within her powers, and she thought, with pleasure that was half pain, of a box of scallop shells she had brought from the seashore two years before. This reminded her of a dainty shell picture-frame she once saw; and instantly came the memory of several photographs laid away in her desk that would be just the things to fill them.
"Lots of little things I can make for girls," she thought. "But what can I do for boys?"
Then she remembered the tops she had made for her brothers out of half a spool with a stick run through. "They used to spin nicely," she thought; and if I paint them they'll look pretty."
Then balls occurred to her. She knew well how to make them—her mother taught her—of woolen yarn wound over a cork, and covered with crochet-work or with bits of colored leather.
"Then I can make splendid molasses candy," she added triumphantly, "and cunning little cakes that I used to cut out with a thimble for my dolls' parties."
For the candles, she suddenly remembered that Sarah, the faithful woman they had brought from their old home with them, made their candles by dipping, and the brilliant thought flashed over her that at one period of their growth they were very thin, no thicker than Christmas candles, and why couldn't they be cut into short ones? They could, she was sure—and Sarah was good nature itself. "And I'm sure," thought Carol, "that she'll do it if I ask her."
Now about the tree. That seemed almost hopeless in this treeless prairie; but she knew that the northern horizon had a fringe of trees, several miles away, and she resolved to hope, at least, that among them were evergreens. Cautious inquiry, the next day, of a man who came to saw wood, drew out the fact that there were a few evergreens about ten miles off. Carol relied on her father to help her to that, and at once began her preparations.
She secured the help of her next younger sister, Jessie, by confiding a very little of her plan, and making her promise to keep it secret, and by the same means she interested her brother Harry, aged thirteen. A much greater part of her intentions—yet not all—she confided to faithful Sarah, who, pleased to see her so bright and interested, readily agreed to make the candles.
For one week that was a very busy household. Carol's fingers fairly flew, and balls and tops and dolls and other little gifts accumulated very fast. Meanwhile, Harry whittled spools to a point, and made pegs to fit them, and Jessie made balls and other things, and both were devoured with curiosity to know what sister could possibly want of such queer things. For a list of the village children, with names and ages, Carol depended on Sarah, who knew everybody and visited everywhere. There were not many, only twenty-five; but to get up a tree and a present for even twenty-five is something of an undertaking for one pair of hands, far from the region of shops of any sort. But Carol was resolved to have everything ready for New Year's day, and she worked as never before, hardly able to eat or sleep.
Two evenings before the day, she hurried the children off to bed, and then went down to her father in his own room. He—absorbed as he was in his own thoughts and work—had noticed with pleasure the difference in Carol's manner. No longer the unhappy, sad face was seen, but cheerful smiles and even a gay laugh had once or twice rung upon his ear.
He was very willing to listen as she told him some of her arrangements, and her great desire to have an evergreen tree. He readily lent himself to her plan, already worked out, that he should get a certain wood-sled and horse, take Harry, and go and get her a tree, timing his return so as to enter the village after dark, that no one might see their load, for Carol wanted it to be a complete surprise.
The next morning, December 31, Mr. Cameron and Harry started off on the wood-sled, greatly to the amazement of the curious villagers, and an hour later Jessie and Sarah went around through the village and invited every child to a "Christmas tree," though it did come on New Year's evening.
After dark the tree arrived safely, and proved to be a very pretty one. Papa himself set it up in a tub in the parlor, and wedged it firmly with sticks of wood, while Harry brought in great armfuls of moss, which he had gathered by Carol's directions.
The younger children were already asleep, and Harry and Jessie were allowed to help Carol build a sloping mound around the tub, and to cover it nicely with the moss, and then they were sent to bed.
Sarah had that day made the candles, which were now to be cut into four-inch lengths; and then Carol made her molasses candy. A pretty show it was when at last all was done, and spread out on a table to harden, in sticks and twists and rings and figure 8's and other shapes, all white and delicious.
Then several journeys were made to her room, and all the little gifts brought down; and when everything was safely in the parlor,—and it was very late at night,—the door was locked, and Carol, with the key in her pocket, went to bed.
Everybody in the house knew now that there was to be a Christmas tree. So no one was surprised that Carol spent nearly the whole day locked into the parlor, while Sarah baked cakes and made ice cream, which Harry froze by shaking it an hour or more in a tin pail.
Meanwhile Carol had not forgotten the blessed chant which had wrought all these wonders. Several of the larger girls had met at her house and learned the chant, though they did not know what for; and now they were quite ready to do their part in leading it.
Seven o'clock was the countrified hour at which the children were invited to appear, and seven o'clock found every youngster of the village within the door. Then, to Carol's dismay, the parents began to arrive, with the universal apology, "We know we're not invited, but we do want so much to see your tree, and we will only look on."
Who could refuse them? Not Carol, although dismayed to think of entertaining the whole town, and appalled to think how short would fall the cakes and cream. However, a happier party never assembled; and finally, when the last taper was lighted, and the door into the parlor was thrown open, the surprise and delight of every one was ample pay for her work.
The room was prettily decorated with evergreen, and the tree was to them like a glimpse of fairyland. Not only had they never seen, but they had never imagined so lovely a thing. As for the children, they were simply spellbound, till Carol arranged them in a circle around the tree, bade them join hands, and herself led them in their dance around, singing the dear old chant her mother had taught her.
Tears were in many eyes; and as for Mr. Cameron, Carol found him a half hour later, when he was wanted to distribute the little gifts, shut up in his room, actually weeping with mingled joy and pain.
"Now, Papa," she began; but he seized her in his arms.
"My dear daughter, you look and appear to-night so much like your blessed mother that I—that I am thus overcome."
Ah! don't you think that moment paid her, and completed the change the chant had begun?
When the marvelous tree had been sufficiently admired from every side, and all the candles were burnt out, and everybody had eaten a piece of cake and a small dish of cream,—which did go around, though not so generously as Carol had intended for the children alone,—Papa had recovered himself, and gradually dismantled the tree.
The surprise and wild delight of the children when they found that the pretty toys were for them, that not one was forgotten, and the gratitude and joy with which they hugged their paper dolls and spool tops, and daubed themselves with delicious molasses candy, would be a lesson to those who have dozens of presents every year, and then sometimes grumble, and it all made for Carol the very happiest Christmas she had ever known, though she received not one present, and had worked for a week harder than ever in her life before.
"Oh dear!" said Kristy, "what lovely things people do—in the story books."
"But this was in real life, as I told you, Kristy," said Aunt Lill. "It's all true except the name."
"Then her name wasn't Carol Cameron at all," said Kristy.
"No; of course her name was Danish."
"Ah! now we've caught you!" cried Kristy. "Your Danish friend was the heroine!"
Everybody laughed, and Aunt Lill said, "You're getting well, Miss Kristy; you're too sharp for me."
"You're too sharp for me, too," said Mr. Coles, the new minister, whose seat was next; "to invite me to a party and entrap me into telling a story."
"But it's easy for you," said Kristy. "I've heard you tell lots of stories—in the pulpit, you know," she added, as he seemed surprised. Then everybody laughed, and Mr. Coles flushed a little, but in a moment he said:
"Well, I shall punish you for that, Miss Kristy, by telling a story of the most unpleasant place I ever saw, a rag-man's home in New York City."
"Oh! oh!" exclaimed Kristy in dismay. "Can't you think of a pleasanter one?"
"No," said Mr. Coles firmly, but with a twinkle in his eye, "it's that or nothing. Shall I tell you about the ash-barrel girl, or will you let me off?"
"I can't let you off, you know," hesitated Kristy, "but—what is an ash-barrel girl, anyway?"