W ELL then: May Dayton had lost her father and mother and come to live with her cousins, the Stanleys, in the far West. About a week before Christmas, she asked Jeanie Stanley what they usually did on Christmas.
"Christmas?" said Jeanie. "Why, nothing; only just not go to school."
"Nothing!" said May, aghast. "Don't you have any Christmas tree?"
"Christmas tree! What's that?" asked Jeanie.
"Nor hang up your stocking?"
Jeanie shook her head.
"Nor have a single bit of a present?" May went on in utter amazement.
"What for?" asked Jeanie.
"Why, don't you know about Santa Claus, who comes down the chimney on Christmas eve, and gives everybody a present?" said May, completely bewildered.
"Don't know nothing 'bout him," said Jeanie. "Don't b'lieve there's any such a person in Missouri."
May drew a long sigh.
"What is a Christmas tree, anyway?" asked Jeanie, seeing that May was not going to speak.
"Oh, it's a beautiful green tree, covered with lights and presents and beautiful things! When Mamma was alive we always had one on Christmas eve."
"Does it grow so?" asked Jeanie curiously.
"Of course not! What a question!" said May. "Do you know what Christmas is, anyhow?" she added, with a quick flush of color.
"Of course I do," retorted Jeanie; "but that hasn't anything to do with Christmas trees."
"Yes, it has," said May earnestly, "a great deal to do with them, and with every way that we have for making everything just as sweet and lovely as we can on that day. Mother always said so."
Jeanie opened her eyes wider, and then asked softly:
"But what about the Christmas tree, May?"
"Well, it's cut down and brought into the house, and all the things put on before you see it, and when it's all ready the folding doors are opened, and—oh! it's beautiful!" May added in ecstasy. "Last Christmas I had such lovely things: the prettiest blue dress you ever saw—I've got a piece of it in my trunk—and new clothes for my doll—oh, such nice ones!—a whole suit with overskirt, and all in the fashion; and a cornucopia of candies and a box of nuts and raisins and—Oh, I can't think of half the things," added May brightly, yet half ready to cry.
"I wish I could see one," said Jeanie, "but we don't have such things here. Ma hasn't got time, nor anybody."
"I'll tell you what we can do, I guess," said May, who had been revolving an idea in her mind. "We might get up one ourselves,—of course it wouldn't be so nice as Mamma's, but it would be better than none."
"Well, let's!" said Jeanie, "and not tell a single one till it's all done."
"Where can we have it? We need a fire and a door that'll lock," said May.
"Oh, Pa'll let me have the out-room, I know, if I coax him," said Jeanie, "and we can put a nail over the latch to fasten the door."
The out-room, you must know, was a roughly built room, a little apart from the house. It had a big open fireplace and a huge kettle, and when there was any big work, like making up the year's soap, or putting down the year's supply of salt pork, a great fire was built there and the out-room came into use.
"Well," said May reflectively, "I guess we can do it; we can trim it up, you know."
"How?" asked Jeanie, to whom all Christmas ways were unknown mysteries.
"Oh, I'll show you. We can get evergreens in the woods, and oh, some of that lovely bitter-sweet, and I can make paper flowers," May went on enthusiastically, as ideas rushed into her mind. "We can have it real pretty; but don't let's tell anybody a thing about it."
The next week was a very busy one for the two plotters. Every moment, when out of school, they were whispering in corners, or engaged in some mysterious work, which they would hide if any one came near.
Mrs. Stanley was glad to see the first cheerful look on the face of the orphan, and did not interfere so long as the girls kept out of her way. The boys—of whom there were two younger and one older than Jeanie—were very curious, and Jack—the older one—rather teasing about it; but on the whole May and Jeanie succeeded very well in keeping their secret.
Two days before Christmas, Jeanie followed her father as he started off in the morning to the barn to feed the cattle. How she managed her teasing I cannot say, but in a short time she came into the house radiant, gave a mysterious nod to May, and they at once disappeared up-stairs. Soon they stole down the back way, armed themselves with brooms, materials for a fire, and a big nail with which to lock the door, and then slipped into the out-room.
It was not a promising looking place, but they were young and enthusiastic, so Jeanie went to work to build a roaring fire and May began with the broom.
Well; they worked all day, harder than ever before in their lives, and all the next day, and when at last the room was ready for company it really looked very pretty. The bare walls were ornamented with wreaths of the gay bitter-sweet and evergreen boughs brightened with an occasional rose or lily neatly made by May of thin white paper. The big kettle was transformed into a table by means of a board or two across the top, and a white sheet spread over all. The two windows were curtained with old newspapers concealed by branches of evergreens. In the middle of the room stood a tub, and braced up in it with sticks of wood hidden under sprays of green, stood a very pretty evergreen tree. There were no candles on it, for the united wisdom of the two workers had not been able to accomplish that. But the bright flickering light of the fire was enough, and in fact made just the right effect, since it did not reveal too much.
On the tree were hung pretty things out of May's trunk—keepsakes from her old playmates. These were used merely for decoration, but besides these were long strings of popped corn, and a present for each one of the family.
All this time one of the girls had been obliged to stay in the room every minute, to keep the door locked, for the boys were just wild to find out the mystery. Mrs. Stanley had stopped in her dreary round of drudgery—for this home was the temple of work—to ask what all the fuss was about. But Jeanie told her that father said she might use the out-room, and Mrs. Stanley was too busy and tired to feel much interest, so she said, Well, she didn't care if they didn't do any mischief.
At night—Christmas eve—when called to supper, May went in, for Jeanie could not tear herself away from the wonderful tree. To her it was the most beautiful and enchanting thing in the world. With no books but schoolbooks, no pictures, no papers, nothing beautiful to be seen in that little grinding prairie home, she had never even imagined anything so lovely.
When they rose from the table May stopped at the door. "Aunt," she began timidly, for she was rather afraid of the hard-working woman whose sharp gray eyes seemed to look through her and whose lips never opened except to make some practical remark, "will you come over with uncle and see our Christmas tree? Come, boys!" and she started off.
"So that's what the young ones have been up to, is it?" said Mr. Stanley, lighting his pipe. "Come, mother, let's go over and see what they've got. That May's the beater for plans if ever I see one."
"Well," said Mrs. Stanley, pushing back the table that she had already cleared, "I don't mind if I step over a minute before I get out my dish-water. I never see Jane so took up as she has been this week."
They went over to the out-room. The boys were already there, staring in a bewilderment of wonder. May leaned against the unique table, very tired, but happy, and Jeanie fairly danced around with delight.
"Well, well!" said Mr. Stanley, "this looks something like, now! Why, this carries me back to when I was a boy, away down in York state. I'd never 'a' thought you two little gals could fix this old room up so pretty; would you now, mother?"
"Mother" didn't say anything. There was a sort of a choke in her throat, and something suspiciously like a tear in her eye, as she looked at the bright, happy faces of her children—faces such as she had never seen since they were babies, before they were initiated into the regular family grind.
After a moment she recovered herself, went up to May, and, to her utter amazement, gave her a warm kiss, and said:
"It's beautiful; dear, and I thank you for it." And then she looked a few minutes, and said she must go. But Jeanie sprang up.
"Wait, Ma; the presents are coming yet."
"Presents!" said Mr. Stanley, "are there presents, then?"
"Oh, of course!" said May, "else how could it be a Christmas tree?"
"Sure enough!" said Mr. Stanley.
May now went up to the tree and took down first a pretty necktie for Jack, made out of some of her bits of silk.
"Why, that's just the very thing I want," said Jack, amazed. "How did you know that, you witch? and who made it?"
"Jeanie and I," said May.
"No, May made it most every bit," said Jeanie. "I don't know how."
Next came a pair of warm red mittens for Harry.
"Jeanie made these," said May. "I can't knit."
Well, so they went on. Mrs. Stanley had a pretty pin-cushion for her bureau; Mr. Stanley a neat bag for his tobacco; Johnny a pair of wristlets to keep his wrists warm. Each of the children had a little bag of nicely cracked hickory-nuts, a beautiful red apple, and a few sticks of molasses candy. The girls had nothing; they had been so busy they never thought of themselves.
When the presents were all distributed, and the children were busy eating nuts and candy, and having a merry time naming apple seeds, and doing other things that May taught them, Mrs. Stanley stole out, and went back to the kitchen to her dish-washing. But something was the matter, for she moved more slowly than ever before; she let the water run over, put the soap into the milk-cup, and made various other blunders. She was thinking.
And when all the family were in bed that night, and she and Mr. Stanley were sitting alone by the fire, she spoke her thoughts.
"John, that tree has set me a-thinking. We ain't doing just right by our children. It's all work and no play, and they're growing old and sober before their time. We're fore-handed enough now to let up on them a little."
"You're right, mother," said Mr. Stanley. "I've been thinking the same thing myself. That little gal, with her pretty, lady-like ways, does make me think so much of her mother, only 't wa'n't natural to her to be so down-hearted as the little one has been. But see her to-night! I declare I'd do anything a' most to keep that happy face on her. What shall we do, Sally?"
"Well," said Mrs. Stanley, her face unwontedly bright with new thoughts, "it isn't eight o'clock yet, and I've been thinking if you'd go to the village and buy a few things to put by their beds for Christmas it would be good. Children think so much of such things," she added, half apologetically.
"So it would! and I'll do it, wife," said Mr. Stanley, taking his boots out of the corner, and hastening to put them on. "Make out your list, and I'll go down to Kennedy's. He don't shut up till nine."
Kennedy's was a country store, where you could buy everything, from a needle to a threshing-machine, and about nine o'clock Mr. Stanley came home with a market-basket full of things. There was a gay merino dress for Jeanie, a pair of skates for May, a new knife for Jack, a sled and a picture-book for each of the boys.
There was, besides these, a package of real store candy, some raisins, and, down under the whole, where Mrs. Stanley could not see it, a neat dark dress for her, which Mr. Stanley had bought to surprise her.
Well, everybody was surprised the next morning, you may be sure, and after the breakfast—of which little was eaten—Jack went out and killed a turkey. Jeanie and May put on big aprons and helped; Jack chopped stuffing and suet; and, for the first time in their lives, the children had a real Christmas dinner—plum pudding and all.
That was the beginning of a new life in the plain farmhouse. Little by little books found their way to the table, an easy chair or two stole into the rooms, pictures made their appearance on the walls, and in time a wing was added to the house. After a while a neat-handed farmer's daughter came to help mother. Shrubbery came up in the yard, vines began to grow over the windows, and the fence had a new coat of paint. Now that she was not always tired out, mother began to go out among her neighbors; friendly visits followed, then a tea-party. Jack joined the book-club in the village, and mother invited them to meet at her house in turn. In fact, some innocent pleasures came into these hard-worked lives, and all owing—as Mr. Stanley would say, holding the bright happy May on his knee—"to this little girl's Christmas tree."
"That's splendid!" said Kristy, "and where is Cousin May now, Miss Martin?"
"Oh, she has a home of her own out West, and I've seen many a Christmas tree in it."
"That was a good deal to be done by one little girl," said Aunt Mary, "but I have known wonders worked in another way by a more helpless object than the weakest girl, by a pair of shoes, even, or a little bisque figure."
"That must be magic," said grandmother.
"Tell us a story of magic; do!" said Kristy. "I always liked impossible stories."
"But this is not at all impossible," said Aunt Mary, "though it is a story of magical effects that I propose to tell. But before I begin, lest some of you young ones," looking around with a smile at her audience of "grown-ups," "should make a mistake, I will say that the magic is not in the figure, but in the thought back of it."
"Oh! Oh!" cried the audience, "to give us the moral before the story!"
"Well, do go on, Aunt Mary," interrupted Kristy. "Don't mind what they say! the moral's good for them! and besides, the story's for me."
"So it is, dear, and now I begin with Kate Barlow's talk to her mother."