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Twenty-five years ago the villages that whiten the rocky and deeply indented coast of Massachusetts were not as they are now. No telegraph wires stretched above them, and no iron rails ran through them, to drop idlers in their most secret places. Each village was an isolated community, governed by its social necessities. Little visiting passed between it and its neighbors. Now and then one of its young men would stray away, and come back with a strange wife; or a young woman would induce some inhabitant of another region to settle down by her for the sake of marrying her. But the parties were considered foreigners to the day of their death, and then were generally carried back and buried in their native place.
Where I lived there were no Christmas legends. No stories came down to us of the mistle-toe bough, the Yule-log, the wassail-bowl, and boar's head. "Baxter's Saint's Rest," and "Edwards on the Will," were the standard books for the old; and we young ones had primers, "The Christian Drummer," "The Penitent Robber," and "Milk for Babes, or a Catechism in Verse." Little Christmas cheer we found in any of them!
On the 25th of December, 1620, English mothers might have wished each other and their children, with a smileand a tear, "Merry Christmas!" At any rate the mild sarcasm was in vogue with us children, their descendants. We rose early in the morning of that day, and clamorously wished "Merry Christmas" to every body. We received many pennies in return, but the pastime was soon over, and the day became as dull as any other day; duller to me, for I was forced to celebrate it after a fashion which my mother, who was a Lady Bountiful, had devised.
She had a list of friends who seldom sat at rich men's feasts. Their sphere was narrow-they were perhaps what Kingsley calls "minute philosophers"-but their hearts were better than the hearts of the heroes which the world has anatomized and impaled in songs and epics. They were alike fervent and impartial on the annual measles and fevers, the corn crop and the religious revival. They could expatiate with equal interest on a birth or a death; whether the child was "marked," or the coffin mahogany!
Christmas, at our house, was set apart for their entertainment; and I, a child, was lugged into the day's duties. If the weather was fine the day before, my mother sent me in the chaise, with Bill, our hired man, for a driver, with the invitations. They were always accepted, for they were always expected.
From year to year the party changed. One of the old people in the interval might die, but a new member would be added, and the list was always full. As it is with the king who never dies, so with the poor. They die! They live! I remember all those festivals. But here is one in its particulars.
Invitations had been sent to Miss Polly Le Brun; to the widow Chandos and her sister, Miss Carter; to Mrs. Saunders; to Jane Buck, and her grandfather, Mr. John Buck; and George Washington Jones.
The day began well for me. Mother had given me a bead work-bag, in blue and red, as a reward for the merit she expected me to attain before night. It was hilarious weather. A white frost cobwebbed the frozen ground; the passing wheels chinked a pleasant music as they rolled through the ridged ruts; and horses and oxen were enveloped in powdery clouds of vapor. The old red barn glistened with sun and frost, and the gray walls of the house looked modestly glad. It was very cold, and log fires of oak and birch were snapping and blazing in the lower rooms. All the rocking chairs in the house were ranged round the parlor hearth, their chintz-covered cushions well shaken and their frills smoothed. Two new snuff-boxes-with beautiful pictures of the Prodigal Son, in a blue dress coat and knee breeches; and Joseph and his Brethren, all respectably dressed-filled, one with yellow snuff, the other with black, had been placed on the mantle-shelf. The kitchen chamber had been arranged for me and for what mother called "my company"-to wit, Jane Buck and George W. Jones, both of whom were young people. The kitchen was well cleaned, for chance visitors were expected there; and sundry bundles were piled up in the buttery waiting their arrival. Mother and I were dressed and ready for the company. She had on a dark merino dress, with sleeves very full at the shoulder, and wadded, and tight to the arm from the elbow to the wrist; a long, full, black silk apron; and a lace handkerchief tucked about her throat. Her beautiful hair was simply twisted, and held up by a huge fan-topped comb of filagreed tortoiseshell. I wore a claret-colored glazed woolen frock, trimmed with gilt buttons, and a high-necked white cambric apron. My hair was "shingled," and the white skin contrasted with the short black bristles. Mother had sent Bill with "Old Gray" and the yellow-bottomed chaise for the guests; and by half past ten they had all arrived.
Miss Polly Le Brun came first, as she lived the greatest distance from us. She was arrayed in a black satin bonnet, trimmed with great bows, and a somewhat frayed black silk cloak. Underneath it was a bright figured coarse calico dress, fashionably made. She wore high-heeled morocco shoes, and her feet were very small. She was a favorite at our house, and generally staid with us a few weeks every winter. Miss Polly was a decayed gentlewoman, and had connections which were her pride. She had traveled too, for in her younger years she had visited rich relatives in Connecticut and Maine. These visits were the romance of Miss Polly's innocent life. She had picked up bits of family history-a love affair or so, and some tragic morsels that she never was tired of repeating to me after we retired at night; for it was my privilege to sleep with Miss Polly, and I was never tired of hearing her, although I generally fell asleep in the middle of each story. She was very small in person, and very neat. How she contrived to dress herself nicely, for six weeks together, with the contents of a small blue-and-white cotton handkerchief, which comprised her baggage, was a great mystery to me. Her nose looked like the beak of a parrot, and her breath whistled through it very loudly when her mouth was shut; her finger nails were always in a moulting condition. Nobody enjoyed our dinners more than Miss Polly. She was the kindest-hearted creature in the world, but she could not help feeling superior to the rest of our visitors.
Mrs. Chandos came next, with her maiden sister, Carter. Mrs. Chandos was a large, coarse-featured woman. She wore list shoes, and made no more noise than a cat in walking. The sisters were dressed alike in mourning calico, with white streaks running over the ground like lightning. They wore stiff muslin caps, bound on with black ribbon. Miss Carter was an echo of Mrs. Chandos. When she said "Yes," Miss Carter said "Yes" too. And if one laughed, so did the other. They were always knitting mixed yam, and I had to wear the shapeless stockings-and ugly enough they were. Mrs. Chandos seated herself in the best corner, adjusted her knitting sheath, and took snuff-not by smelling it, but by laying it up in large pinches inside her nose. She then said to mother, "This ere is the tenth Christmas, marm. Your father, that helped my old man to his pension, invited me to his house just ten Christmas-days, too; and then he died, good as he was. Lord-a-marcy! how much better the punkins were then than they are nowadays!" Miss Carter said "the punkins were dreadful poor nowadays; but the squire's garden sarse always tasted better than other folks'." Mother sent to the corn-house for a specimen of the great Cape Hom squash to show them. She told them that the kind of squash was as good as the ancient pumpkin, and that they should have some of the seed to sow in their garden patch. Said patch was nearly as large as a bed-blanket, and its space was much encroached on by the old well, whose sweep towered above their humble roof. "The marvelous man!" said Mrs. Chandos; "what won't they have next!" and "What won't they have next!" said Miss Carter. I left them simmering in happiness, and went in search of Mrs. Saunders. I found her in the kitchen. Good Mrs. Saunders! Thou wert a noble and patient martyr! Were I a Catholic I should call thee Saint Saunders! What a nice smell of pennyroyal and spear-mint there was about her! Even when she came in the spring to make our annual mess of soft soap, and dabbled in bones and ashes, and hung over the witch-like cauldron, the herby smell never quite left her. "It hung round her still." With what tenderness she called me her "little dear!" and smoothed, or tried to smooth, my stubbed hair with her hard hands. She felt any kindness shown her, and tried to repay it. She had brought my mother some little presents from her two or three starveling acres which she tried to take care of herself, while her lazy, ugly husband smoked his pipe and hiccoughed, the day through, on the old settle in their red-raftered kitchen. The presents were lumps of turpentine in clam-shells, which she said was good for inflammation and bruises, and for drafts for the feet when any of us had a fever, which the Lord forbid! and turkeys' wings, bound with red flannel, which she thought would save boughten brooms, and answer for sweeping the ashes in the chimney corner. A few gnarled sour apples and some sweet herbs completed the gift. Mrs. Saunders wore a blue woolen gown, spun and dyed by herself. Her gray hair was not covered by a cap. Her face shone with soap and water; and she beamed all over with goodness. She tried to conceal her cares and troubles, and met every eye with a smile. She had only two long eye-teeth to show her friends; and the contrast between her forced smile and her care-worn face was indeed pitiable. She would not sit in the parlor, but wanted to help in the kitchen, and was very much in every body's way, she was so flurried and anxious. Old Mr. Buck, the miller, was there too, and was regaling himself with cheese and gingerbread, his favorite relish. He was a captious old man, and found great fault with the "select men" of the town. "They didn't do right, according to Scriptur." George Washington Jones had not ventured from his chair by the door. In case of any great embarrassment he could rush out. He was a lad of twenty, the son of a brutal father, who had nearly cuffed his wits out. Mother presented him with a two-bladed jack-knife soon after he came, and he changed it from pocket to pocket continually; he was so delighted with it, he was almost miserable. Jane Buck I carried up stairs, and placed in a chair by the fire. She was in a chilly condition; her fingers were long and red, her face pinched and blue, and her figure drawn up as if she were in misery. Her hair was almost white, and tied so tight at the back of her head that its roots round her forehead were turned into pimples. She wore a new red-and-yellow calico frock, and a little shawl was pinned over her shoulders.
I brought out my small dishes and all my treasures, but she yawned over them. I could detect no expression of interest in her face, except when the fire blazed up a little higher, and her hands, which she held over the blaze, turned still redder with the heat. No one had ever told me that the poor girl was half demented; but I had the feeling which children always have for that class of unfortunates. She was repulsive to me; but I did my best to amuse her, although I thought it very hard on my mother's part to expect so much of me.
I was in despair, and on the point of crying, when the thought struck me of inviting George Washington up stairs. I found him in the barnyard, whittling. He accepted my invitation reluctantly. Jane blushed a little when he came in; he dropped his hat under his chair, and giggled. He eyed my playthings with contempt, and said, "Them's for little gals." He offered Jane a red apple, but she shook her head; so he took a great bite from it and put it back in his pocket. He edged up to the fire by degrees, and kicked the brands spitefully, and then grew talkative, and finally succeeded in interesting Jane in an account of what he called a "blind bile," which he had had on his arm, and which kept him from hunting rabbits for a month.
I was glad when we were called down to dinner. It was all arranged on the table at once. There was chicken stew and chicken pie, a roasted goose and spare rib. The vegetables were mashed, and the sauces very strong and sweet. We had for dessert boiled custards, apple-dumplings, dried fruit stewed in sugar, and currant and elderberry wine.
Gran'ther Buck and Jane sat together. Mrs. Saunders sat as far back from the table as she dared to without the fear of toppling from her chair, and losing her dinner between the table and her mouth. George Washington held up his knife and fork, resting the handles on the cloth. Mrs. Chandos and Miss Carter looked solemn and longing, and Miss Polly watched my mother, eager to help her, as she was the carver and waiter. It was pleasant to see the hunger of the company. Gran'ther Buck, the edge of whose appetite had been dulled by his relish of cheese and gingerbread, was very polite, and handed the dishes about unremittingly, upsetting one now and then. Mrs. Chandos and Miss Carter accepted every thing, and Mrs. Saunders refused every thing. She had no occasion for any thing, she said; but she ate all that my mother quietly put on her plate.
"Gran'ther," said Jane Buck, "the mill's going to-day; I hear it."
"She's a poor creetur," said Gran'ther, apologetically, from behind a chicken leg.
Miss Polly made a hasty motion, and laid her knife down; but she caught my mother's pitying eye, and took it up again.
"Marm," said George Washington, "gimme more cramberry sarse. I'm going to Nickerson's Swamp next week, and I'll fetch you a peck on 'em." And, "Marm, would you like a skunk? Dad says they are better'n goose when they are stuffed with sage and innions, and apple sarse goes along."
Mother said she would like the cranberries, but declined the skunk.
Mrs. Chandos asked mother if she had forgotten how to make Injun meal dumplings; they ought to have been in the chicken stew, she said, instead of flour dumplings. Still, Mrs. Chandos had eaten heartily of the light crust which composed part of the stew.
"I am sure, Marm, you have got plenty of yeller meal," said Gran'ther, "for your Bill took away ten bags yesterday from my mill. But corn ain't what it used to be; it's only fit for creeturs' feed."
The dinner was finished at last. They all rose together, and put their chairs against the wall, and then looked at mother. She told them that at five o'clock tea would be ready; in the mean time they must make themselves comfortable.
Miss Polly, who, like most mercurial people, needed little naps, went up stairs to indulge herself with one. Mrs.
Excerpted from ELIZABETH STODDARD Copyright © 2003 by Susanne Opfermann and Yvonne Roth
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|A Note on Authorship|
|A Note on the Texts|
|1||Geography and Character: New England Stories||1|
|Our Christmas Party||3|
|Lucy Tavish's Journey||35|
|A Study for a Heroine||51|
|Mrs. Jed and the Evolution of Our Shanghais||65|
|2||"A Wonderful Promise of Misery": Stories of Love and Other Disappointments||77|
|A Summer Story||79|
|Eros and Anteros||89|
|Lemorne versus Huell||105|
|A Dead-Lock, and its Key||131|
|Out of the Deeps||139|
|3||The De/Construction of Happy Endings||149|
|A Partie Carree||151|
|"Me and My Son"||200|
|Waiting at the Station||218|