Merry Christmas by E. G. C.

ALL the hill-side was green with maples, and birches, and pines. The meadows at its foot were green, too, with the tufted salt grass, and glittering with the silver threads of tide braided among its winding creeks. Beyond was the city, misty and gray, stretching its wan arms to the phantom ships flitting along the horizon.

From the green hill-side you could hear the city’s muffled hum and roar, and sometimes the far-off clanging of the bells from its hundred belfries. But the maples and birches seemed to hear and see nothing beyond the sunshine over their heads and the winds which went frolicking by. Life was one long dance with them, through the budding spring and the leafy summer,  and on through the grand gala days of autumn, till the frost came down on the hills, and whispered,—

“Your dancing days are all over.”

But the pines were quite different. They, the stately ones, stood quite aloof, the older and taller ones looking stiffly over the heads of the rollicking maples, and making solemn reverences to the great gray clouds that swept inland from the ocean. The straight little saplings at their feet copied the manners of their elders, and folding their fingers primly, and rustling their stiff little green petticoats decorously, sat up so silent and proper.

So unlike the small birches and maples that chattered incessantly, wagging their giddy heads, and playing tag with the butterflies in the sunshine all the day long!

“How tiresome those stupid old pines are! No expression, no animation. So lofty and so exclusive, and forever grumbling to each other in their hoarse old Scandinavian, which it gives one the croup even to listen to! Of what possible use can they be?”

This was what the maple said to the birch one day when the Summer and her patience with her sombre neighbor were on the wane—one day when there was a gleam of golden pumpkins in the tawny corn stubble beyond the wood, and the purpling grapes hung ripening over the old stone wall that lay between, and the maple had brightened its summer dress with a gay little leaf set here and there in its shining folds.

The birch agreed with the maple about the pines, and the maple went glibly on.

“I’ve ordered my autumn dresses—a different one for each day in the week. Just think of those horrid pines never altering the fashion of their stiff old plaiting.”

“We shall not be obliged to remain in this dull place much longer,” said the tall pines loftily to each other, looking quite over the heads of the maple and the birch. “We shall soon be crossing the ocean, and then our lives will have just begun. We simply vegetate here.”

“Ho, ho!” laughed the maple and the birch behind their fluttering green fans, pretending to be greatly amused at what the west wind was saying to them.

Now, though the trees spoke a different language, yet each understood perfectly well what the other said; so their rudeness was quite inexcusable.

When the summer was ended, the maple began to put on her gorgeous autumn dresses; but the pines looked much at the sky, and paid little heed to the maple. The other trees on the hill-side, quite faded with their summer gayeties, looked on languidly in the still autumn days at the maple’s brilliant toilets.

Soon the cold rains swept in from the sea, blurring the wood vistas; and when they were gone, the frost came in the midnight, with its unwelcome message, and later the snow lay white above all the faded and fallen crimson and gold of the maple and the tarnished silver of the birch.

All the trees, brown and bare now, moaned in the wintry wind—all but the tall pines, and they were crossing the ocean; their lives had begun. The little saplings remained behind, but with their heads perked stiffly up above the snow; they had the air of expecting somebody.

They were not disappointed. One sunny morning, a boy and a girl came singing through the wood paths, each in a pair of high-topped boots, and each in a faded and closely-buttoned coat, the girl with a blue hood pulled over her rosy face, and the boy with a fur cap closely tied about his ears by a red comforter. The two drew a hand-sled, and peered about under the tall trunks as they went stamping through the deep snow. How they shouted  as they spied the little pine trees perking up their heads! How they tossed aside the snow, and worked away with their jackknives, hacking at the little pine trees till they had cut them all down, all ready to be piled up on their hand-sled.

“Where are you going?” asked the giddy little birch of the pines, peeping out from a small window in her snow-house. Her nose was purple, and her fingers stiff with cold; but down under the earth her feet were warm, and that was pleasant, at any rate.

“It is of no consequence where,” said the pines, in their grimmest Scandinavian.

The birch simply said, “O!” and drew in her little purple nose, hoping heartily they were all going to be burned, as that would be a good end and riddance of them.

But the little pines were not going to be burned; they were going away to the city that lay misty and still beyond the frozen meadows. Stretched out stiffly on the hand-sled, they were jostled along out through the wood, over the frozen turnpike, and across the mill-dam to Boston.

They alighted at the Boylston Market, and were ranged in a row against the dark brick wall.

“How much happens in a very short time!” they said to each other; “all those gaudy, chattering trees left without a leaf to cover them, our own friends all gone on their travels, and we here in the city, wrapped in our warm winter furs.”

It was the Christmas week. The shop windows were gay with toys and gorgeous Christmas offerings; the shop doors were opening and shutting on the crowd that came and went through them. A bustling throng of people passed incessantly up and down the narrow sidewalks, and carriages of all descriptions blocked the crossings, or drove recklessly over the frozen pavement.

The old woman in the quilted black hood and shaggy cape, who had charge of the little pine trees, drove a brisk trade that day in her wreaths and holly; but though many people stopped to admire the little pines, and even to ask their price, no purchaser had yet appeared for them.

The old dame was rubbing her mittened hands briskly together, and mumbling in a displeased way at the pine trees, when a carriage drew suddenly up at the curbstone, and out sprang a little girl.

“See, papa, how lovely! So green, and fresh, and thick!” she said, pointing to the row of pines.

A bargain was concluded in a trice. The money was dropped into the eager, outstretched mitten of the old woman, and a little Christmas tree dragged over the sidewalk, and set up in the buggy.

“We must have some of these lower branches cut off; they are in the way,” said papa.

“Hev a knife, sir?” shouted a ragged little fellow, whipping a rusty old knife out of his pocket.

“Please, sir, lemme cut it for you. Say, where?” he cried, laying hold of the pine, as the gentleman in the buggy pointed to him where to cut.

The lower branches being trimmed to the gentleman’s satisfaction, the Christmas tree, leaning comfortably against the crimson afghan, was soon on its way to Meadow Home, while its lower branches and some jingling small coin remained in the hands of the gaping urchin on the curbstone.

“This here’s luck—fust-rate luck,” remarked the small boy, stamping his feet, and staring stupidly after the retreating buggy wheels.

“Out of the way there!” growled a man in a farmer’s frock, lifting a pile of frozen turkeys from a wagon.

The boy ducked aside, his ragged little trousers fluttering in the wind. Then he sat down on the market steps to count his coin.

 “Hi! twenty-five cents. There’s a mutton stew and onions for you and your folks a Christmas, Mike Slattery, and all this jolly green stuff thrown in free gratis. That chap was a gen’leman, and no mistake. Won’t Winnie hop when she sees me a-h’isting of these here over our stairs, and she a-blowin’ at me for a week to bring her some sich, and me niver seein’ nary a chance at ’em ’cept stealin’s, which is wot this here feller ain’t up to no ways whatsomever. No, sir. Hi!”

Mike waved his Christmas boughs aloft in great glee.

An old gentleman with gold-headed cane and spectacles was going up the steps of the market, followed by a beautiful black-and-white setter. The playful dog sprang at the green branches. Mike held on to them stoutly. The dog suddenly let go of them, and bounded away, while Mike rolled over and over to the foot of the steps, clutching tightly the pine boughs.

“You’ll ketch it,” he muttered, setting his teeth hard together behind his white lips, and trying in vain to scramble up.

“Yer hurt, bub?” asked a wrinkled old apple woman, turning round on her three-legged stool, and thrusting her nose inquiringly out of the folds of the old brown shawl, which was wrapped around her head.

“You bet I be!” whimpered Mike, pointing forlornly with his one unoccupied finger to his bruised ankle.

“Been playin’ pitch-pennies, yer mis’ble young ’un!” grinned a tall boy, strolling by with his hands in his pockets, and his ferret eyes on the sharp lookout for mischief.

In a twinkling he swooped up Mike’s small coin, which had rattled to the pavement, and vanished with them in a struggling tangle of horse cars and omnibuses before Mike finished his desperate yell of, “Gim me ’um.”

By this time a crowd had gathered about the prostrate Mike, who, faint with pain, was at last lifted into the chaise of a kind-hearted doctor, who was passing, and carried to his house in Bone Court.

There we will leave Mike for a while, and look after the little pine tree on its way to Meadow Home.

Such a group of round, rosy faces as were on the watch for it in the great bay window of Meadow Home, peering out in the red sunset, straining their eyes in the dim twilight, and peering still more persistently as the stars came out through the gathering darkness!

The fire danced in the grate, and the shadows danced on the wall, and the four little heads danced more and more impatiently in the window pane, as the cold winter night settled down on the world outside of Meadow Home.

“They’re run away with and threw out. What will you bet, Mab?” shouted Will, turning away from the window in disgust, and indulging in a double somerset.

Thrown, Will,” corrected Mabel, just now more indignant with his grammar than his slang.

Mabel began to clear with her sleeve an unblurred peep through the pane, and then pressed her nose hard against the glass.

“It’s my opinion,” she said, with great pompousness, “that the Christmas trees are all sold. I told Ely not to put off buying till to-day. Don’t you remember, Alice? And so papa is just coming home without them.”

Alice poh-pohed. Alice was sitting up stiffly at a table by the fire, stuffing a pin-cushion, assisted, or, more properly, impeded, by her small brother Chrissy, who had offered his services, and would not listen to Alice’s nay. Chrissy was not handsome in any light, but by the flickering firelight he looked like a little  ogre. He sat hunched up in his chair, his knees drawn up to his nose, the sharp end of his tongue curling out of the corner of his mouth, and his small eyes actually crossed in the earnestness of his work, which consisted in snatching chances at the stuffing with a table-spoon and a cup of bran.

Three children holding firewood, in front of the fireplace with a cat

THE LITTLE SLATTERYS.

“I hear them,” exclaimed Mabel, springing down from the window, her nose a spectacle.

Now away down stairs flew all the four, who had been wriggling for an hour in the bay window.

“Shut the door, Chrissy,” nodded the dignified Alice to Chrissy, whose eyes had marvellously uncrossed, and whose tongue had disappeared at Mabel’s announcement. Chrissy drew down his knees, and obeyed. “Spoon up the bran you spilled, Chrissy,” directed Alice, calmly stitching at her pin-cushion.

The reluctant Chrissy’s obedience was less of a success this time. The noise of a great commotion in the hall below reached the quiet chamber. Chrissy, with his face twisted inquiringly first over one shoulder and then over the other, spooned at random.

The sounds came nearer. Through the hurrying of eager feet and the clamor of glad voices was a tap-tapping on the wainscot and a thumping on the oaken stairs.

“May be it’s St. Nicholas?” questioned Chrissy, spooning very unsteadily, his eyes and his ears wide open.

“No; it isn’t time for him. He’s doing up his pack now, and they are harnessing his reindeer.”

“Who? Where?”

The door burst open, and in tumbled four children and the little pine tree. Chrissy darted forward, shrieking with delight, and fell headlong among the family group.

“What a pretty pine!” said Alice, calmly locking up the pin-cushion in her work-box.

Now Ely, still in her fur cap and sack, rushed in excitedly among her struggling brothers and sisters, and rescued the pine tree.

“Sitting up so piminy there, Alice Eliot, your two hands folded, and the beautiful Christmas tree just going to destruction, with those four wretched little thunderbolts pitching into it!”

Ely was purple with wrath.

The four little Eliots were on their feet again in a trice, giggling and nudging each other behind the excited Ely.

“It’s a truly lovely pine,” remarked Alice, composedly, shaking some bran from her skirt.

“You might have said so, if you had gone round looking for them in the freezing cold, as I did, and then couldn’t find one fit to be seen, except—”

“Alice, didn’t I tell her so?” interrupted Mabel, pulling Chrissy’s fat fingers away from Ely’s pocket just as they were about to grasp the protruding heels of a little dancing jack.

Alice now lighted the gas, Ely set the pretty pine tree carefully against the wall, and the four little Eliots danced hand in hand frantically about it.

Then Alice, and Mabel, and Ely went up close to the fender, and whispered together about the presents Ely had brought home to put in the children’s stockings, and Mabel helped Ely empty her great stuffed-out pocket; and the fire laughed through the bars of the grate to see the parcels that came forth.

By and by Mabel and Ely took the pine tree carefully down stairs into a beautiful room, and Alice came close behind them with a great covered basket. The four little Eliots followed noisily, striving to peep under the basket covers; but Ely thrust them all out again into the hall, and locked the door upon them.

 Now began the Christmas adorning of the little pine tree. Such beautiful things as were hung upon it, and folded about it, and festooned around it!

“How charming to be a pine!” murmured the little tree, with its head among the frescoed cherubs on the ceiling.

“Where are you, Mabel Eliot? Light up the burners now,” commanded Ely from the top of a step-ladder.

Ely crept out from under the green baize around the foot of the pine tree, two pins in her mouth, a crimson smoking-cap on her dishevelled head, and a pair of large-flowered toilet slippers drawn over her hands.

“I crawled in behind there to see if there mightn’t be a place somewhere for these,” explained Ely, hastening for the torch, and proceeding to light up.

The pine tree now saw itself reflected in the great mirror opposite, and echoed the “splendid” of the three girls, who clapped their hands at the gorgeous effect. Then the lights were put out. The silver key was turned in the door again, and the girls went away, leaving the pine tree in darkness indeed.

The four small Eliots, after pinning up their stockings by the chimney, seated themselves in their night-gowns on the hearth-rug, and talked over St. Nicholas before they got into bed. Each agreed to wake the others if he “should just but catch Santa Claus coming down the chimney.”

Chrissy, squinting up his eyes till nothing but two little lines of black lashes were visible, was sure “he should catch him; O, yes, he should.”

So they all climbed sleepily into bed, pinning their faith on Chrissy.

The night darkened and deepened, the stars moving on in a grand procession. Somewhere about midnight St. Nicholas was off on his ride, galloping over the roof-tops, and knocking at every chimney-top that had a knocker, just getting through at day dawn with the deal he had to do. The “eight tiny reindeer” had barely trotted him out of sight, when thousands of little children in thousands of homes began hopping out of bed to look in their stockings.

The Christmas morning was breaking in joy and gladness, as if the dear Christ Child of eighteen hundred years ago were newly born that day. Little children, and old men, and maidens waked to give good gifts and greetings to each other, remembering whom the good Father in heaven had given to them on that first glad Christmas morn.

In an attic in Bone Court, Mike Slattery, wildly staring about him, bolted up in bed, waked by big Winnie, and little Pat, and Jimmy roaring “Merry Christmas” in his ears.

“Oop, Mike, an’ tak’ a look at Winnie’s Christmas fixin’s foreninst yer two eyes,” piped Jimmy, flapping the little breeches he was too excited to put on at the little pine branches stuck up thickly in the window.

“Isn’t yer fut that better ye might hobble up to see what the good gintleman—him as brought ye home—left behind for yees and us arl—the Christmas things, ye’ll mind?” inquired Winnie, combing her tangled auburn locks, and stooping compassionately over Mike.

“There’s the big burhd for yees,” cackled little Pat, staggering up to the bedside with a goose hugged to his bosom.

“Hooray!” cried Mike, swinging his pillow; “that thafe of a chap didn’t do us out of our Christmas dinner, thin. Here’s a go beyant mutton and onions.”

“Blissid be thim as saysonably remimbers the poor,” sniffed Mrs. Slattery, who was down on her hands and knees washing up the broken bit of hearth under the stove.

“That’s so,” chimed in the little  Slatterys; and then they all fell again to admiring the goose.

The sun had climbed a long way up the sky, and was just looking in through the pine branches in the Slatterys’ window, when a little golden head, surmounted by a blue velvet hat, looked in through the Slatterys’ door.

“Merry Christmas. May I come in?”

Pat looked at Jim, and Jim looked at Mike, and all three, open-mouthed, looked at the little golden head in the doorway.

“I just came in to bring you some pretty story books of mine, and a cap of brother Jack’s, and a nice new pair of shoes for Mike. How do you do, Mike, this morning? Papa—he’s the doctor who brought you home, Mike—is coming soon to see you.”

She had emptied her little leathern bag, laid down her gifts on a chair, and vanished before Winnie got up the stairs from the wood-house, or Mrs. Slattery, in the closet, had finished skewering up the goose, or a single little Slattery had found a word to say.

I cannot stay to tell you about the Slatterys’ Christmas dinner, and Mike perched up at the table, with brother Jack’s cap on his head, and the new pair of shoes on the floor by his side. I have just time to stop a minute at Meadow Home, where a little golden head, with a little blue velvet hat tilted atop, flits in before me at the great hall door. As I went quickly through the holly and under the wreaths, a little voice, in wheedling tones, called from the gallery above,—

“Stay to dine to dinner?”

At the same time a small dancing jack, dangling from somewhere overhead, caught by his hands and feet in my chignon, as if striving to pull me up. Ah, naughty Chrissy!

Chrissy clapped his hands in delight, and then dropping the string of the little jack, ran away swiftly to hide.

“Do stay to dine, aunt Clara,” begged Mabel, and Alice, and Ely, all three springing forward at once to disengage the jumping jack from my hair.

“Ah, do, Miss Clara; I’ve something to tell you about a little boy I saw this morning,” pleaded little golden-head, peering through an evergreen arch. “Do stay and see the Christmas tree lighted after dinner,” besought all four, gathering closely around me.

But aunt Clara was engaged to dine at the square old house over the way, with the dear old lady who could not see the pine wreaths that made her old-fashioned parlor so sweet with their resinous, balmy fragrance.

“They remind me of the times when my girls and boys were all about me so gay and happy, and the old house resounded with their ‘Merry Christmas.’ ’Tis many a year now, dear Clara, since there was a merry Christmas here; but happy Christmases there have been, thank God, not a few. A happy Christmas, dear, to you, and thanks for brightening the day for me,” said the old lady, with a gentle sigh, as I placed her at the quiet table.

A merry, merry Christmas to all the little “Merrys” who read this story. Do not forget that there are homes where live forlorn little Mikes and Jimmys, whom you can make glad in this glad time; and do not forget that there are sorrowing homes which the mere sight and sound of your bright young faces and voices will brighten and cheer.