Christmas on the Prairie
I T was all my own fault, the way we spent our Christmas. I'll say that to begin with. I was a willful girl in those days, and well was I punished for insisting upon having my own way, that strange Christmas day so long ago.
We were all going to my grandmother's to a family gathering, and I teased my father to take us in the big sleigh. The ride was only forty miles, and I thought it would be fine and grand to show off our stylish city vehicle, with prancing horses and plenty of bells.
Yes, I'll confess the whole. I'm afraid I was mean enough to think of the sensation we should make in the little village, and of how our country cousins would stare.
Well, after some demurring, father and mother consented and everything was arranged. A big square basket of good things—which we always carried when we all went together to grandmother's—was packed and fitted under the back seat in a sort of box; Willie's and my presents to our cousins, as well as mother's; mine carefully stowed away in a safe corner, and everything was ready to start the night before we were to go.
On that morning, however, the sky was cloudy and it looked like snow. Father came in and said he believed we had better go by rail after all; we could telegraph Uncle James to meet us at the station, for if it should snow we might have trouble with a sleigh.
Mother agreed that it would be best; but I took it upon myself to be so disappointed, and made such a commotion, that at last, in order that I might have a pleasant Christmas, they consented—as it was not certain that it would snow after all—to gratify me.
Great was my pride and delight when we drove off; horses prancing and bells jingling. Mother and I packed into the back seat, with plenty of cloaks and wraps and fur robes to keep us warm, with hot bricks for our feet, and everything snug and nice; and father and Willie in front, just as comfortable; father driving, in his warm fur gloves.
The first ten miles were very pleasant, but as we went on snow began to come down in earnest. I noticed that father grew silent and hurried the horses, and mother looked anxiously at the fast falling flakes.
After an hour or so, it settled into a steady, thick storm. The track was soon covered and we could not hear our horses' feet; in fact, after a while we could not see the horses' ears, much less the road.
Mother grew more worried, but father spoke cheerfully and said the horses would follow the track, and he let them take their own way. The horses hurried on, and we should have been at grandmother's. The short day was nearly over, it began to grow dark, and now even I was no longer held up by my pride. I began to be dreadfully frightened, especially as the road was so uneven, and we constantly ran against things and over things that nearly upset us, so that we knew we were out of the road and of course lost.
Perhaps you don't know what that word means to people traveling on the wide western prairie, where the road is on a level with the rest of the country, and one can go for miles and not see a house or even a fence. The very thought struck terror to all of us. Lost on the terrible prairies, with snow so thick we could not see! I began to cry, but mother consoled me by reminding me that at most we should not starve, for we could eat the contents of the Christmas basket, and the storm could not last forever. But I felt the pangs of remorse, and remembered that it was I alone who had brought the family into this disagreeable if not dangerous position.
By this time it was dark, and we were stealing cautiously along, the horses almost tired out dragging the heavy load through unbroken snow. We kept watch on all sides for a light—any light that would lead us to shelter. It was eight o'clock in the evening before we caught sight of a faint gleam on the right, and father at once turned the horses towards it. A few minutes' floundering and plunging of the poor beasts through drifts almost up to their necks brought us near that welcome light. There seemed to be a house of some sort,—very small,—and father jumped out and stumbled about till he found a door, on which he knocked.
In a moment it opened and a frightened-looking face appeared, holding a candle above the head. It was a poor-looking woman's face, but she seemed like an angel to us. Father told her our trouble, and asked her to let us come in and stay all night.
She said she could not turn away a dog on such a night and to what she had we were welcome, but she had little to offer us, and she feared we would not be very comfortable.
"At least," said mother, "you have fire and a roof over you, and we shall be glad of them to-night."
Well, of course we hurried out, and thankful enough I was to leave the sleigh I had entered with such pride. The poor tired horses had to go into a sort of shed where the woman kept her wood, and for a long time father was busy making them as comfortable as he could, rubbing them down and putting on their blankets, while we took off our wraps and looked around the one room of the log cottage in which we were to pass the night, and—though we didn't suspect it then—the next day as well.
The family consisted of a mother and two children, a boy and girl, about Willie's and my age. They were evidently very poor, for there was hardly anything in the house, except a bed with little skimpy pillows, a table, and a few hard chairs. The fire was in a big fireplace, and the one candle stood on the shelf above it. A cupboard on one side held a few dishes, and that was about all.
And this was Christmas eve! and at my grandmother's now the aunts and uncles and cousins were having a merry time, a delicious supper, which made my mouth water to think of, so hungry was I, a roaring big fire, plenty of lights, and lots of fun.
"And but for you, willful girl," something within me kept suggesting, "but for you, you would all be in the midst of it at this moment."
Nobody spoke of that, however.
Father asked if he could get anything to feed the horses, and the woman brought out a basket of corn. So Billy and Jack had to do without their usual oats, and eat corn out of a pail. They didn't seem to mind, but crunched away as though it were sugar-plums.
It was different with us. We were half-starved, and when we asked about something to eat we found that the terrible little house had nothing but corn-meal and a little salt pork.
How dreadful! I could not bear corn-meal, and I loathed pork, but mother asked her cheerfully to cook a supper for us. So she bustled about and cut some very thin slices and broiled them over the coals, and mixed up some of the meal with water and things, and brushed clean a place on the hearth and baked it there on the hot stones, and by that time I was so ravenous I could eat shoestrings, I thought. So I did make a hearty supper on corn bread. Father ate, too, and so did Willie, but I noticed that mother only nibbled at hers.
Then we began to think of sleeping. The woman (Mrs. Burns was her name) insisted upon giving mother and me her own bed, but I saw an odd look go over mother's face as she glanced at it, and she utterly refused. She said we had carriage robes and cushions and shawls, and could make ourselves very comfortable on the floor before the fire. So father and Willie brought the things in, and mother spread up two beds side by side, cushions and robes on the floor, and shawls for covering.
Such a strange night as that was! I lay awake a long time, watching the dancing shadows which the fire threw on the rafters of the little house, holding fast to mother's hand all the while, for I was half-scared out of my wits to be on the floor. I thought of rats and mice and many horrible things I had heard of, and I was sure I should not sleep a wink, especially as that troublesome monitor inside kept suggesting to me that it was my own doing, my own willfulness that had brought this upon the whole family.
I tried to put away the thought—to think of something else; to make excuses for myself; but somehow everything looked different here, and I could not bring back my own satisfaction with myself. Moreover, it seemed as if that little ray of light, that was showing me my real self, was determined to reveal more things. I remembered that I had always wanted to have my own way, and the dreadful monitor reminded me that I didn't much care if I did put other people out of their way, or oblige them to do what they didn't like, to please me, and—and—I couldn't blink the fact that I was apt to be very ugly and cross when I had to give up my own plans; and at last came the word which all this meant: it was selfishness.
It seemed as if that word suddenly burst on me, and I saw it as in letters of fire. It was a disagreeable word. I hated selfish people, and I had often given up friendship for a girl because of this ugly trait; and was it my own, too?
I was startled, but I could not get away from that stern monitor within, which seemed to have taken this dismal occasion to show me my true self.
Hours I lay awake thinking, about myself to be sure, but not in a cheering way. Even now, I remember how, in this wretched plight, brought on by my own selfishness, I had not thought of any one else; nothing of my mother's discomfort, unable to sleep on the floor, unable to eat coarse food, anxious about grandmother's anxiety about us; nothing of father's cares, worry about our comfort, about his horses, about how we could get on tomorrow; nothing about Willie, the gay evening he had expected, the evident disappointment; nothing of the family we were putting to so great inconvenience; nothing of the worry of grandmother and all our relatives at our absence. Nothing—nothing—with shame I confess it—nothing but the sole, individual disappointment of one small, selfish girl. I saw myself, and I didn't like the picture, and with tears of shame I said to myself: "I'll begin to do better to-morrow. I will! I will!" I slept at last, and awoke full of my good resolve. The sun was not shining; that I noticed the first thing, and next I saw the flakes begin to fall. Father went out to look at the weather, and reported—alas for our hopes!—a steady fall of snow, fences all covered, no road to be seen, not a chance of our getting away till the people got out and broke the roads with heavy teams,—and it was Christmas morning! I saw mother's quick clasp of the hands, and heard her murmur, "Oh! if I could only let her know where we are!" and I knew she was thinking of grandmother's anxiety. I saw father's face as he came in from attending the horses, and asked Mrs. Burns if she had any more corn, and I was just resigning myself to a great burst of tears, when I remembered the thoughts of last night. "Now, here is a good chance to begin to think of some one else," said the monitor. There was no comfort in thinking of any of us, so I turned to the family of the log house.
The mother looked thin and ill, and was hurrying about to get breakfast, which I could see was a repetition of the supper of last night. I turned to the girl. Her name was Elsie, and she was near my own age. I went over to where she stood near the small window, in awe of her guests.
When I reached her I didn't know what to say, for with the best of intentions I was new at the business. At last I began timidly:
"Elsie, what do you do here on Christmas?"
"I d' know what you mean," said Elsie shyly. "What is Christmas?"
"You don't know that!" I cried in amazement. "I thought everybody in the world knew about Christmas! Why, why—"I stopped. What could I say? How could I begin? "Mother," as a thought struck me, "please tell Elsie what Christmas is; she doesn't know."
Mother turned. "Well, dear, come here and let me tell you, though my daughter is so astonished that I must first tell her that there are hundreds of thousands of children who never heard of Christmas."
Then calling the boy John, who was standing stupidly by the door of the shed, as though about to run away, mother told them the whole story: why we keep it, and what we do to celebrate it. John got interested and forgot to shut his mouth, and Elsie's eyes got bigger and bigger and brighter and brighter; and when mother stopped, she drew a long breath and said: "Oh, how beautiful! how I should like to see Christmas! But I don't suppose I ever shall out here on the prairie," she added in a moment, the light fading out of her face.
At that instant a thought came like a flash to me—I believe it came from the same monitor which had shown me myself in the night; anyway, it came the same way, and I must say I didn't like it a bit. I just hated it. What do you suppose it was?
"You have things enough packed into the sleigh to make this poor family perfectly happy for a long time; things intended for people who already have more than they need. Presents you have prepared for your girl cousins will do nicely for Elsie, those for the boys will just suit John. The mittens you knit for grandmother's old servant will keep Mrs. Burns's hands warm, and the New Testament in big print, that you bought with your own money for grandmother, will be just the thing for this dreary little house in long winter evenings. Then, there is the basket; why carry lots of nice things to eat into a house already too full, when these poor souls have nothing—yes, truly nothing—meal and pork."
I took this new suggestion and went to the window to
fight it out with myself. Selfishness said, "What are
these to you? and how your cousins will feel!" But, on
Well, in a few minutes I went to mother and whispered my thought. Her face brightened. "I am so glad you thought of it, my daughter. It had occurred to me, but I dreaded to propose it, lest you should be disappointed. Now we'll do it, and our Christmas will not be so very gloomy after all, I'm sure."
Once settled, we entered into the plan with enthusiasm, we even—if you'll believe me—planned a Christmas tree, for father (whom, of course, we told at once) said we were close on the edge of an evergreen wood. He took John and Willie, who was delighted with the plan, borrowed Mrs. Burns's axe, and waded through, I don't know how deep snow to the grove. Very soon he cut down a nice tree, and the two boys dragged it in, prancing through the snow like a pair of horses, and scattering it on every side. I even heard a laugh from John, at the door.
The tree was quickly set up, and after we had eaten breakfast we went to work on it. Mrs. Burns was interested: said she'd heard of those things, but never saw one; and the children were just wild; I never saw folks so delighted.
There wasn't much to trim it with; only, luckily, one of the things in the sleigh was a great big box of bon-bons. They are pretty to look at, you know, and we used them to decorate our tree. Do you suppose a Christmas tree was ever before trimmed with bonbons, hearts, and Jacob's ladders, and rings of dancers (you know how to cut them), and all sorts of droll figures which mother cut out of paper, white and pink, which came around the packages?
You'd hardly believe it, but that tree looked really pretty when it came dark, and the firelight fell on it. But before that time we had our Christmas dinner. The table was set out and covered with newspapers that we had (Mrs. Burns hadn't even a tablecloth) and then hidden with sprigs of evergreen that came off in trimming the tree. The things out of the basket made a funny dinner, but wasn't it good! A splendid roast turkey, a big chicken pie, a lovely frosted cake, a plum pudding, and beautiful jelly. Not a bit of bread or potato, not a vegetable nor a piece of butter. Mrs. Burns baked some corn bread, and it looked very strange beside the other things. I tell you the dinner was a wonder in that log house. The children were so surprised and happy they could hardly eat, and I hope they enjoyed what was left after we went away, for it was not half eaten.
Then after dinner was cleared away, father and Willie brought in the box which held our presents. Mother's were really useful. She had a nice merino dress which she was taking to grandmother's Netty, an old servant who lived there when mother was a little girl. It was all made, and just fitted Mrs. Burns. Father had a shawl for her, too. I gave the mittens I had knit to Johnnie, and the Testament to Mrs. Burns, and she was delighted with it. I gave Elsie a book I had for Cousin Addie, and mother gave her a cunning little work-box with all the sewing things in it. Willie gave Johnnie a little set of tools he was carrying to Cousin Harry, and I never saw a boy so pleased.
Then we had some boxes of games, and we showed them how to play afterwards.
Everything that was not too big was hung on the tree, and those two children just stood and stared. They couldn't take their eyes off, and Elsie every few minutes drew a long breath, as if she could not contain herself for joy.
I never enjoyed a tree so much in my life, those two children were so perfectly overwhelmed with happiness. Then we sat by the fire and told stories and taught them the games, and ate some of the bon-bons from the tree, though we left most of them till we should be gone, and we gave them the bon-bon boxes, which they thought were too fine to use, and the evening fairly flew. Before we thought of it, it was time to go to bed, and I went right to sleep that night.
The next morning the sun was shining, and before long came a great noise, shouting and yelling, and we saw lots of country people with oxen and heavy sleds breaking the road. Father went out to see them, and he found that we were about three miles from grandmother's, but off the regular road. Then we packed into the sleigh again and went off, and mother left Elsie my old cloak and Johnnie Willie's ulster, that he used only for country drives—we had so many extra wraps for our long ride. Father gave Mrs. Burns some money, too, and when we drove off she stood by the door crying (if you'll believe me), while Elsie and Johnnie shouted "Good-by," and Willie and I waved our handkerchiefs and called back.
Before noon we got to grandmother's and found them very much alarmed about us. Mother told our story and promised to send a fresh Christmas box from home, but nobody would hear of it. Everybody seemed delighted that we had given away their presents, and brought heaps of things that Santa Claus had left for us.
It may seem strange, but I believe that Christmas in the little log house was the very happiest I ever spent, and Willie and mother always said so, too.
"And that's why you've been so nice and generous ever since!" cried Kristy as the story ended.
Everybody laughed, and Grandma even blushed a little, but Kristy added indignantly, "You needn't laugh! You all know it's true!"
"So we do, little girl," said Uncle Will warmly; "the
most generous, the nicest,
"There, there!" interrupted Grandma, "that'll do. It's your turn now, Mr. Tom."
Now Uncle Tom pretended to be greatly distressed because he could not tell half so good a story, and Kristy laughed at him and told him he needn't pretend, for everybody knew he could make up stories so good that they were printed in the newspapers.
This made Uncle Tom blush, and he said:
"Very well then, Miss Queeny! If I must tell a story, I shall do it in newspaper style. For I can't talk stories; I can only write them."
"Do it any way you please," said Kristy, "only begin! Begin! Sh—! Listen, everybody."
"Well," said Uncle Tom, slowly drawing a fresh newspaper from his pocket, "the oddest Christmas I ever heard of was in a negro cabin out in the woods of Ohio, and I'll read you that."
"Oh! oh!" came in a chorus from the listeners. "You must tell your story!"
"This is my story," Uncle Tom admitted at last, "and it's new, and nobody here has seen it," and he turned to Kristy.
"Yes, read it, Uncle Tom," she said. "I know it'll be nice."
Uncle Tom turned his back to the fire so that he could see to read, and then began.