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James Baldwin

My First Merry Christmas

T HAT night I tossed on my little trundle-bed and could not sleep. Inviz came, but instead of being the jolly companion and comforter that he had hitherto been, he was my tormentor and accuser. He twitched my ear until it tingled; he slapped me in the face and said:

"Robert Dudley, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!" (Strange that he had fallen into the habit of using the unplain language!)

"Well, I am  ashamed," I answered; "but what can I do?"

"Take your medicine and be glad that the Old Feller hain't carried you off;" and then he began to remind me of some of the bad boys of the Bible. In vivid colors he painted the fate of the forty-and-two wretched urchins who were torn in pieces by she-bears for no greater sin than making sport of a prophet's bald head. And he called to memory the instructive story of little King Jehoiachin, who, although but eight years old, was so wicked in the sight of the Lord that he was permitted to reign only three months and ten days.

"And you," said my unpitying accuser, "you are just as bad as little King Jehoiachin—and you are older and ought to know better."

"What did he do that was so bad?" I asked.

"I don't know exactly what—nobody knows; but he done evil. And then you know, Robert Dudley, that you have said naughty things about Old Benny's bald head; and you are no better than the forty-and-two boys that got eat up!"

"Oh, Inviz! I'm mighty glad there ain't any she-bears in the New Settlement;" and with that, I pulled the bedquilt over my head and tried to push him out of bed.

I closed my eyes and finally dropped to sleep—to sleep, but only to dream of poor Esau, maimed and struggling to escape from the pitiless grasp of Jake Dobson. Then I thought that Benjamin Barnacle was standing over me, holding me by the ear, and flourishing his terrible hickory above my head and threatening the direst vengeance because I had spoken slightingly of his hairless noggin. And just as the hickory was about to descend upon my bare back, I awoke with a suppressed scream, only to see the shadows from the flickering blaze on the hearth playing among the dried "yerbs" and hunks of jerked beef that were suspended from the joists above the bed.

And so the night passed, oh, so miserably! and when day at last dawned, I rose and dressed myself and sat disconsolately in the chimney corner until breakfast time.

"Bobby looks kinder peaked this morning," remarked Aunt Rachel.

"Oh, he's jist got a spell of the sulks," said Cousin Mandy Jane. "He'll feel all right when he gits somethin' on his stummick."

But I could not eat anything. My head ached, the hand which poor Esau had bitten throbbed terribly, my back felt as though it were broken. Without touching a morsel, I returned to my place by the fire; the shivers were trickling down my spine, I was cold and felt a great disinclination to move.

"Robert, what ails thee?" inquired mother with some solicitude. "It's time thee was gittin' ready for meetin'."

And then it occurred to me for the first time that today was meetin' day, and that there would be no school; but I sat still and paid no attention to mother's suggestive remark.

Time passed and I was successively aware that father was shaving in front of the bit of looking-glass by the door, that the boys had driven the wagon around to the uppin'-block, and that our womenfolks were putting on their bonnets and shawls preparatory to the morning's journey.

"Come, Robert, git thy shoes on. It's 'most time to start," said Cousin Mandy Jane sharply.

Then mother came with pity in her eyes. She passed her hand over my forehead, she held the tip of my nose between her two middle fingers, she laid one of her thumbs on my wrist.

"I'm afraid thee's got a chill," she said. "Thee needn't go to meetin' to-day if thee don't feel like it. Thee may set by the fire and keep the dinner pot a-b'ilin'."

I was dimly conscious of her great kindness; and I felt an unwonted sense of relief at the thought that I was, for once, excused from going to that hated meetin'. By and by, it came into my mind that everybody had gone away and that I was alone in the house, to do as I pleased. I sprawled myself at full length on the floor beside the hearth, and lay there, looking at the red coals in the fireplace and at the steaming dinner pot suspended from the crane above the forelog. How hot the room seemed, and how grateful to my fevered cheeks was the little current of cold air that came blowing in through the crack at the bottom of the door!

My head felt very large and my hand seemed bursting from its bandages; and as I looked up, I fancied that I saw Esau creeping in through the gimlet hole where the latch-string was hung. Yes, it was, indeed, poor Esau, and he suddenly grew very large and sat up on his hind legs and made ugly faces at me. I lay quite still, not caring what happened; and soon the room was chock-full of Esaus, dancing on the floor and hanging from the joists and climbing up the walls, and shaking their little fists at me, and—

Well, the next thing that I knew, I was lying in mother's bed and mother was bending over me, and somebody was sitting very quietly near by. The fire was burning low and father was standing before it, his arms folded on his breast, his head inclined forward as though in deepest meditation. Cousin Mandy Jane and somebody else were walking about the room in their bare feet, putting things to rights, and talking in whispers. Then I saw mother beckon suddenly to father; and he in a queer excited manner, came softly and stood by the bed and looked into my eyes.

"Robert," he said, speaking low and huskily, "does thee know me?"

It was a strange question, wasn't it? I tried to answer, but my tongue refused to frame a single word, and I could only nod my head a very little and try to smile. Father's face lighted up wonderfully, and I heard him say something to mother about thanks and about a crisis being past—and then I dropped to sleep. They afterward told me that it had been four days since I had lain down on the floor in front of the fire while all the rest were at meetin'; and during all that time I had been unconscious of everything that was going on, raving occasionally in wild delirium, and talking incoherently about Esau and the Dobson boy and a book of some kind. And this had continued so long that the family had despaired of my ever finding my mind again, or indeed of my living till another day.

When I woke again, I felt stronger; and turning my face a very little I was rejoiced to see that the person who was sitting beside the bed was none other than dear Aunt Nancy—reputed to be the best nurse in all the Wabash Country. As soon as she had heard of my illness she hastened to come and take care of me; and I learned that for twice twenty-four hours she had scarcely closed her eyes or left my bedside for a moment.

Yes, and that other person who was helping about the house, who was she? I was not long in doubt, for from among the pots and pans came Cousin Sally, with her shining morning face, tiptoeing to the bedside just to get a glimpse of my eyes, and assure herself that I was "gittin' purty peart." She was clad in her newest pink flannen gown, and with her crimson cheeks and ruddy bare arms, she seemed to shed a kind of home-made sunshine on everything she approached.

Then, as I turned my head a little farther, I was conscious of the presence of another person. It was a soft-handed, kind-faced, dark-haired man, not quite so old as father; and he was holding my wrist and looking at his watch while he smiled as though he had found a great treasure.

Presently he let go of my wrist and returned the great watch to his waistcoat pocket. "Everything is favorable," he said. "Good care and proper food will bring him round nicely. Give him one of these powders every two hours; but don't disturb him if he is asleep."

I wondered, vaguely, who this very pleasant man could be; and it was not until several days had passed that Aunt Nancy volunteered to inform me that he was Doctor Bunsen who had lately come from the 'Hio Country and was boarding at the blacksmith's until he could build a house of his own at the Dry Forks.

Oh, how restful it was to lie there very quietly and doze the time away, to have nothing to do but to take my powders and eat soft toast and chicken soup, and to feel that Aunt Nancy was always close by to attend to my every want! By the end of the week I had improved so much that all restrictions about quietness were removed, and every one who wished was permitted to sit by my bedside and talk to me about such little things as would interest but not worry me. David and Jonathan alone seemed shy of me, and I seldom caught sight of either. But I could hear them every day as they came into the room, walking on tiptoe to the fireplace and inquiring in whispers if "Bobbie was as peart as ever." Then, having received a satisfactory reply, they would tiptoe out again, being careful not to let the door-latch rattle or the hinges creak and disturb my rest.

Late one afternoon, it happened that everybody had gone out except old Aunt Rachel who was dozing over her pipe in the chimney corner. I was lying on the bed, only half-awake, looking up at the smoky joists and counting the bunches of dried pennyroyal and peppermint, and half inclined to fret because my nurse had gone home that very day. All at once I heard the door-latch click softly, and then the restrained footsteps of some one coming toward the bed. My eyes were half-closed, and I did not feel like opening them—it was so delicious to lie with them so. The footsteps drew nearer, and I heard a whisper:

"Towhead, is thee awake? Don't be skeered; it's jist me."

I looked lazily upward; the burly form of David was bending over me, his grisly face was close to mine.

"I've fetched thee something Towhead," he whispered. "Hold out thy hands and shet thy peepers."

I obeyed with some eagerness, and the next moment a furry little animal was placed between my hands. I looked, and my heart gave a great throb.

"O David! Is it Esau?"

"Well, I reckon it is," he whispered. "Don't be afeared; he won't bite."

"Where did thee get him, David?"

"Wheer does thee s'pose? I bought him of that there tarnal Dobson boy. I give four bits in silver for him."

"And did thee buy him for me, David?"

"Naw! of course not. I hain't got so silly as that. But when I heerd that that there Dobson boy had him, I thought how nice it would be to see the tarnal critter a-skimmin' round the loft ag'in, like he useter do. So I made a dicker with that there Dobson feller, and brung him home yisterday. He's my squeerel, remember; but thee may call him thine."

The poor, abused little creature cuddled down on the pillow beside my neck and seemed contented and pleased; and I, too, was happy.

"Oh, David, I'm so glad!" I murmured, a great sorrow, the sorrow of remorse, being lifted from my heart. "I'm so glad to see him again!"

"Don't thee tell nobody that I brung him in here," said David huskily; and then he tiptoed back to the door and was gone.

My illness was so strange and unusual that the neighbors had been much interested from the beginning; and, more through curiosity than sympathy, the friendly women were prompt to call at our house and offer their condolements to mother.

"It's all come to him on account of his readin' so much," said Mahaly Bray. "I always said I'd be afeared to have a child like him."

And Friend Mother Dobson responded, "Well, didn't I say that he wasn't long for this world? 'Tain't nateral for children to be always a-hankerin' after books; and I knowed somethin' would happen."

"The Old Feller will have his own," said Margot Duberry with becoming brevity.

But there were kinder words from others, and messages of genuine sympathy. Benjamin Barnacle came personally to express his sympathy, and he brought a nosegay of "everlastin' " flowers "with love" from his class in English grammar. And pretty Esther Lamb sent me, "by kindness of Jonathan," a narrow bit of blue ribbon for a book-mark.

In a short time I grew well enough to sit up in mother's chair and look out at the landscape, now all white with snow; and after that there was no rising of the sun that did not find me a little stronger. But my legs utterly refused to support the weight of my body, and for many weeks it was necessary to carry me back and forth from the bed to the fireplace or the window.

During the period of my greatest weakness I had been content to let books alone; but one day a great hungering came upon me, and father said that it would certainly do me no harm to read a little, provided it didn't make my head ache. Accordingly, my chair was drawn up by the fireplace, and Cousin Mandy Jane brought my whole library and put it on the hearth at my feet. Oh, how friendly all those little books appeared, lying there in an orderly row and looking up into my face! As I was gazing lovingly at them and proudly counting them, the memory of something half forgotten came suddenly into my mind.

"Cousin Mandy Jane, I wish thee would do something," I said.

"Well, I mought do something if thee will be real good. What is it?" she answered primly.

"I wish thee would go round to the weavin'-room for me."

"What for?"

"Because I want thee to get something. Thee remembers the loose puncheon where thee used to put the papaws to ripen, don't thee?"


"Well, I want thee to lift it up and get something that's under it, and fetch it to me to look at."

She waited to ask no question, but went promptly around to the weavin'-room to comply with my wish. Presently she returned with the book in her hand.

"It's jist as I reckoned," she said, somewhat acridly. "This is the book that that there Dobson boy swapped to thee for pore Esau, ain't it?"

"Yes! Sit down and look at it with me."

It was a larger volume than any other that I owned. I opened it and read the title-page: "The Book of Gems. With One Hundred Engravings."

Well, there wasn't any "Jim" about it, after all—that was certain, and I had told Jake Dobson so when I first saw it. There was a beautiful picture fronting the title-page—a steel engraving entitled Brother and Sister—which I examined so closely that its outlines were forever transferred to my mental canvas. Even to this day, I can see with my eyes shut the slender, well dressed, manly brother, amusing his sister by writing or drawing something upon a small paper tablet. Ah, how I wished that I could be such a little brother standing in the garden beside a little sister so gentle, so modest, so beautiful! And then the thought of Edith Meredith, my Angel of the Facin' Bench, came strangely into my mind. Oh, what a grand good sister she would be!

Finally, I began to turn the leaves of the book, looking at the "engravings"—which were only cheap woodcuts—and getting a general idea of its character. It was simply a bound volume of a little magazine called The Youth's Cabinet,  one of the first periodicals of its kind in this country. It was edited by Francis C. Woodworth, a writer of some repute at that time, but now almost forgotten. Its contents presented a wonderful miscellany of prose and verse—history, anecdotes, moral essays, riddles—wholesome food for juvenile minds. (Look on the top shelf of my bookcase, Leonidas, and you will find this Book of Gems,  carefully preserved through all the years that have intervened. But you won't care for it.) Oh, the hours and hours that I spent, poring over those delightful pages, trying to solve the puzzles, memorizing the little poems! One of these last is still popular in the school readers: It begins with the lines:—

"The ground was all covered with snow one day,

And two little sisters were busy at play;"

and each stanza ends with the refrain,

"Chickadee-dee, chickadee-dee!"

Early, one very wintry morning, there was a sharp knocking at our door, and before any one could say "Come in!" the latch was lifted, and Doctor Bunsen entered. His tall form was wrapped in a long fur coat, and a coonskin cap was drawn tightly down over his ears. He didn't wait for any invitation, but stamping the snow from his big boots, he came right up to the fireplace where we were sitting, and in the jolliest mood you ever saw, he shouted:

"Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas to all! Merry Christmas to you, Master Robert!" And he went round the room, shaking hands, first with Aunt Rachel, and then with Cousin Mandy Jane, and then with each of the rest of us. And all the time, he kept talking so fast that it was difficult for any one else to edge in a single word:

"Aunt Rachel, you're looking as spry as a chipping sparrow. How was that quid of tobacco that I gave you to try? . . . Oh, no! I haven't time to sit down—can't stop a minute! Lots of sick folks in the Settlement now—mostly fever'n'agur. . . . How cheerful you look, Miss Mandy Jane! and how young! . . . I just came in to see how the lad is getting along, and to wish you all a merry Christmas . . . Merry Christmas, Master Robert! How nice it is to see you sitting up with that book in your hand. Can't walk yet? Well, have patience; your legs will get stronger after a bit. Don't study too hard. . . . How are you, Mrs. Dudley? Oh! pardon me—How are you, Deborah? That's good! Don't sit at that loom too much, but give yourself more fresh air. A merry Christmas to you, Stephen. I hear some good things about you over at Dashville. . . . Oh, nothing, only they say they're going to send you to the legislature; and you can count on me helping 'em. . . . Merry Christmas, David! How's that new yoke of steers? . . . And Jonathan, how's that forty-acre piece doing, this snowy weather? . . . Now, Robert, hold still while I feel of your pulse. All right! Keep on taking your powders, and don't worry. I was over at Dashville yesterday, and they were asking about you. And, by the way, I've got something in my overcoat pocket that somebody sent to you. . . . Here it is. And here's a little knife for you . . . a Christmas present from Doctor Bunsen. . . . Good-by! good-by! Farewell! Merry Christmas to you all!"

And before we could think twice, he was out of the door, and out of the gate, and climbing into his little jumper sled that was to carry him to many troubled homes that day, bringing sunshine and cheer into many weary hearts.

"They say he's an infidel," I overheard father whisper to mother; "but somehow he always makes me feel better after I've seen him."

I looked at the little knife that he had given me—the first real knife that I had ever owned. Oh, the delight of it!—"White handle, brass cheeks, and four blades as sure as thee lives!" I was the richest boy in all the Wabash Country. Why, the queen's little son couldn't possibly own a prettier knife!

"Mother, is to-day Christmas?" I asked.

"Some folks call it that," she answered. "It is the twenty-fifth day of the Twelfth-month, by our count."

"I wonder what the doctor meant by saying, 'Merry Christmas,' " I murmured. "I don't see that it's much merrier than any other day—at least it wasn't till the doctor came."

"It's just like every other day," said mother. "The good Book tells us we mustn't esteem one day above another."

Then father spoke up. "I think we can make an exception of this Christmas. For we have been greatly blessed, and we have reason to rejoice."

"Yes," cried Cousin Mandy Jane, "let's see what a merry Christmas is like! If I could only be as merry as the doctor, I think I could work right smart better."

"Anyhow," said David, "I'm goin' to have all the tarnal fun that I can skeer up, Christmas or no Christmas;" and with an unearthly whoop he leaped out of the door and ran to the barn to feed his yoke of oxen.

"Let's see what the doctor give thee besides the knife," said Cousin Mandy Jane, picking up the package that I had allowed to fall on the floor; for in my pride at possessing the knife I had almost forgotten the larger present.

"He didn't give it; he said that some folks at Dashville sent it to me;" and taking it in my hands I examined it very carefully before removing the strong cord that was around it.

"Let me help thee, Robby," said good Aunt Rachel; and with her skillful assistance the outside wrappings of heavy paper were soon removed. The first thing that was revealed to sight was a large card with the words Merry Christmas  printed upon it. Under this there was a smaller card that smelled like roses in midsummer.

"There's some writin' on that there little pasteboard, Robert," said Cousin Mandy Jane.

Sure enough! I turned it over, and there was a line—yes, two lines—of the prettiest writing you ever saw. The ink was rather pale, having frozen^perhaps—but, by holding the card up to the bright light, I was able to make out the words: "To Master Robert Dudley, with sympathy for him in his illness. From E. M. and her mother. Merry Christmas!"

Who was E. M.?  Cousin Mandy Jane, being a good guesser, solved the riddle at once. "E  stands for Edith, and M  stands for Meredith," she said.

"Yes," I answered; "merry Edith Meredith! And so this must  be a merry Christmas."

It required but a moment to remove the next wrapper and lay bare the contents of the bundle. Books! and such books!

First, there was a small volume entitled The Shepherd-Boy Philosopher,  by Henry Mayhew. Next there was a thin square volume, the title of which I have forgotten; but it was full of information about the stellar universe and contained half-a-dozen maps of the heavens as they appear at various seasons of the year. Lastly, there was a folded copy of a recent issue of the National Era. Oh, the delight of being the possessor of such treasures!

I felt that I ought to thank E. M. and her mother for these wonderful presents; but how could I? I could only gaze and enjoy, and say to Inviz, "Ain't thee glad that they were so thoughtful and kind? Some time I will do as much for them."

Then, as I was examining my treasures, mother came and bent over me; and I saw that her eyes were swimming with tears. I knew that they were tears of joy, not of sorrow; and she had hard work to keep them back.

"I never in my life seen all our folks so teamin' glad," remarked Cousin Mandy Jane. "Seems as if they was all ready jist to git up and tee-hee."

"That's because it's merry Christmas," I answered, with all my presents spread out before me.

"Yes," said father very sweetly, "I think we may all be merry; for only think how we have been blessed in basket and in store!"

"And only think that we still have our Robert," added mother.

Presently, we heard Jonathan, in the boys' sleeping loft above us, fumbling in the wooden chest where his First-day clothes and his treasures were stored. We supposed that maybe he was dressing up, in order to go out and meet Esther Lamb somewhere; but no one said anything, lest the day's merry-making should be spoiled. He came down, after some minutes, still wearing his work-day clothes and with a telltale grin on his face that plainly said he was "up to somethin'." One of his coat pockets was swollen to five times its normal dimensions, and he had also something in his hand that he was trying to conceal. "Merry Christmas to all!" he shouted as he rushed out of the door and strode down to the barn lot where David was waiting for him.

"Has thee got it?" we heard David ask.

"Yes, a hull pound of the tarnal stuff," was the answer.

Then the two burly fellows, with axes on their shoulders, strolled off together toward the new deadenin'; and as they went tramping through the snow-drifts we could hear them shouting and laughing as no one had ever heard them before.

"Say, mother!" called Cousin Mandy Jane from the snow-covered wood-pile. "Don't thee think I might as well kill the fat gobbler and roast him for dinner? Thee knows he's young and tender, and he'll never git any better than he is now. He's jist the kind to make people feel merry. What does thee say?"

"Well," answered mother, "if thee's made up thy mind to roast him, I guess thee'll have to roast him. And we'll have some nice sweet taters with him and some hot 'east biscuits."

"And sweet cider," added Aunt Rachel.

"I think I'll put on my good clothes and not work any to-day," remarked father. "I'll look at Robert's new books."

"Do jist as thy conscience tells thee," assented mother. "As for me, I'm goin' to keep busy."

What a glorious forenoon that was, with father to sit by me while we both examined the treasures that had come from E. M. and her mother. And the womenfolks, how busy they were! As they bustled about the fireplace, preparing the Christmas dinner, mother so far forgot herself as to purr a little song of joy—very, very softly, you must know, and Cousin Mandy Jane relieved her pent-up emotions by whistling—yes, actually whistling—as she ran to the spring-house for a bucket of water.

Dinner was late, but what of it? It takes time to roast a fat gobbler and prepare all the concomitants of a feast. At length, however, the fowl was lifted from the big reflector, dripping with boiling-hot grease and done to a turn. Cousin Mandy Jane blew the dinner horn with uncommon vigor to summon the big boys from the deadenin'. The table was spread—all of mother's finest "chany" dishes were arranged upon it. The first real Christmas dinner that our family had ever known was ready to be eaten.

"There's the boys, now!" cried mother; and I looked out of the window to see them.

They had climbed upon the fence by the barn-lot bars, and were looking eagerly back toward the deadenin' from which they had come. They appeared to be in no hurry for their dinner.

"Boys! boys!" called Cousin Mandy Jane impatiently. "Why don't you come? The victuals is a gittin' all cold, and the gravy will spile if—"

She didn't finish the sentence, for at that moment there burst upon the air the most dreadful, deafening sound that had ever been heard in the New Settlement. It was like a tremendous clap of thunder, and yet unlike it in its suddenness and intensity. It shook the very earth and seemed to make the house rock on its foundations; it made the door rattle and the window-panes tinkle, and caused chunks of dry mortar to fall out from the chinks between the logs. Cousin Mandy Jane shrieked, and all of us wondered if the cabin wasn't going to tumble down on us. Our astonishment and fright, however, were of but short duration; for looking out through the window, we saw David and Jonathan coming up through the barn lot, their faces distended with the broadest grins imaginable, and their whole demeanor showing that they were wonderfully delighted with what had taken place.

"I guess it ain't nothin' to be skeered at," remarked Aunt Rachel, and she calmly refilled her pipe.

Presently the door opened, and the boys entered with a hilariousness that not long ago would have been sharply repressed.

"Did you hear that there leetle cracklin' sound a while ago?" asked David. "That was for merry Christmas."

"What was it, anyhow?" inquired Cousin Mandy Jane. "It sounded bigger'n a crack of thunder. I never heerd sich a racket before in all my born days."

"It was that there tarnal old knotty red-oak log in the clearin'—that we've been tryin' to split all summer," said David. "Everybody said we couldn't never split it, and so we thought we'd make a Christmas job of it and maybe it would help to make things kinder merry like."

"How did you do it, David?"

"Why, we bored a two-inch auger hole clean down to the middle of the tarnal thing, and then we put a hull pound of powder into the hole and plugged it up. We laid a long train of twisted tow from it and tetched the end of the train with one of them there Lucy matches thet we brung up from the 'Hio. As soon as it begun to burn we cut and run like the Old Feller hisself—but we needn't to 'a' done it, 'cause the train was so tarnal slow that we got clean up to the barn lot afore she went off."

"Didn't she make a racket though?" cried Jonathan, anxious to put in a word.

"Racket!" exclaimed David derisively. "Thee don't call that a racket, I hope. It was a reg'lar bombilation. And oh! what a dust it raised! We seen it from the barn lot. It sent the chips and the bark a-flyin' e'enamost to the sky; and, what was the funniest, we seen it afore we heerd it."

"Come, boys! the victuals will all spile if you don't begin to wrastle with 'em," said Cousin Mandy Jane impatiently.

"Oh, we'll do the wrastlin' all right," said David. "But hain't this been a mighty merry Christmas? Seems to me I'd like to have one every once in a while."

And thus, my Leonidas, my Leona, the memorable day drew to its close—a Christmas day never to be forgotten. We had celebrated it in our own way and enjoyed it accordingly. Not one of us had ever heard of Santa Claus, not one of us had ever seen a Christmas tree; but we got along very well without either.