Christmas For Once

Mary E. Wilkins

From Christian Union Vol. 42 No. 25 (Dec 18, 1890)



“What say?”

“I want to know what that Tompkins boy is cartin' all them evergreen boughs past here for. This is the third time I've seen him go by with his wagon full, sence I've set here. There's the Tompkins boy, and another one, I guess it's the oldest Jones boy, with him.”

“Oh, land! they're carryin' evergreen boughs down to trim the meetin'-house, of course! I call it all a piece of foolishness fer my part.”

“Trim' the meetin'-house?”

“Why, pity sakes! Nancy, don't you know it's Christmas to-morrow!”

“Well, I declare, Maria, I had clean fergot it.”

“I guess you wouldn't have fergot it, if you'd had it in your face an' eyes the way I have for the last two weeks. It ain't been nothin' but ‘What shall I hang on the tree for Mother, an' what shall I hang on for Tommy and Sukey?’ Hang on a cat's tail! I'm sick of the whole business. Cuttin' the woods down, an' luggin' 'em into the meetin'-house, an' wastin' money on a lot of gimcracks fer folks that would be a good deal better off without 'em. I know one thing — folks didn't do it once.”

Maria Emmet stood at the kitchen table making biscuits for tea. She brought the rolling-pin down upon the dough with energetic thuds as she talked. Nancy Emmet, her sister, sat in the calico-covered rocking-chair by the window. She sat there all day, from morning until night. She was nearly helpless from rheumatism. Nancy was as small as a child. She had been very pretty when a young girl, and she was pretty still. Her tender little features were unaltered, and old age seemed to have cast only a film over her youthful bloom, which was as bright as ever behind it. She sat staring out of the window at the white, rigid road, with stiff maple boughs reaching over it. The wagon loaded with evergreens rolled slowly out of sight.

“Well, I dunno, Maria,” said Nancy. “I s'pose they take consider'ble comfort doin' of it.”

“Comfort? I should think folks was a parcel of fools.”

“I can't remember that we ever did anything about keepin' Christmas, can you, Maria?”

“I ruther think I can't. I've had about all I could do, ever since I come into the world, to keep the Sabbath an' git time enough week days to earn bread and butter. I ain't had no time for extra kinks that ain't mentioned in the Ten Commandments.”

“Well, I s'pose folks that has time an' money enough takes consider'ble comfort in it.” Nancy drew a soft, sighing breath; her profile showed pale and delicately sharp against the window.

Maria cast a quick glance at her as she set the pan of biscuits in the stove oven. “I dunno whether they do or not,” said she, severely; “an' if they do, it don't make it out there's any sense in it. They'd 'nough sight better spend their time an' money on something else.”

“The Tompkins boy is comin' back,” said Nancy.

“You ain't done nothin' but watch that Tompkins boy the whole afternoon.”

Nancy said nothing in reply. She eyed the blue farm wagon, the red-cheeked, stout boy, and the clumping farm horse, soberly. The light was beginning to wane. The sky was very pale and clear. “Maria,” said she, and a sudden flush overspread her face and neck.

“Well, what say?”

“It looks as if it would be real pleasant to-morrow.”

“Well, what of it?”

“You don't s'pose that — I could — No, I don't s'pose I could, noways.”

“Could what?”

“You — don't s'pose — I — could — go there, to-morrow?”

“Go where?”

“To — the meetin'-house. To — the Christmas tree.”

Maria Emmett was wiping off the kitchen table. She turned and faced her sister, holding the cloth rigidly in her outstretched hand. She was some years younger than Nancy, but she seemed older. Her dominant manner gave her the superiority of age. She was a short, heavy woman. She stood squarely, and her broad, dark face fronted Nancy with a relentless scrutiny. “Now, Nancy Emmet,” said she, “are you crazy, or what?”

Nancy cowered. “I jest thought — I'd — kinder like to have Christmas fer once, Maria, jest fer the sake of sayin' I had.”

“Christmas fer once! Nancy Emmet, how do you s'pose you could get down to that meetin'-house, when it's much as ever you can do to crawl across the room? S'pose you think you can have a coach an' four to carry you, mebbe!”

“I — didn't — know — but what — Mr. Jones would — carry me down in his covered wagon,” returned Nancy, feebly.

“Covered wagon! I'd like to know how you would git in an' out of that covered wagon. You might jest as well set out to climb Bunker Hill monument.”

“Well — I don't s'pose I can, Maria.”

“I shouldn't thought you'd s'posed you could a minute, if you had any sense.”

“Well, I didn't really. Only, I couldn't help thinkin' I'd kinder like to keep Christmas fer once.”

“I should think you was old enough to have got beyond such notions. I should think you was jest out of tires and pantalettes,” said Maria, severely. She returned to the table, which she wiped punctiliously, then she laid it for tea.

When tea was ready, she took hold of the back of Nancy's chair and pushed her gently to the table. There was the plate of hot biscuits, a bowl of quince sauce, and a little plate of spice cake.

Nancy ate slowly, without speaking a word. Her sister kept looking curiously at her. “I'd like to know what ails you, Nancy Emmet,” said she. “You don't act as if you tasted them biscuit.”

“Yes, I do; they're real nice, Maria,” replied Nancy, arousing herself. But she soon returned to her meditations. Gradually her face seemed to alter, the color in her cheeks deepened, her eyes grew more alive, she was all of a strange, silent glow.

All the evening, Maria at intervals glanced at her uneasily. Nancy was usually given to much gentle chatter. Now her silence and her eager face were very strange.

“You don't feel any worse than common, do you?” asked Maria, when the two were preparing for bed.

“No, I feel uncommon well,” returned Nancy, eagerly.

“Well, you ain't acted like yourself the whole evenin'.”

“Why, yes, I have, ain't I, Maria?”

“No, you ain't hardly spoke a word sence supper time.”

“I've been kinder thinkin', that's all,” said Nancy. “Maria, do you s'pose that black alpaca dress of mine is much gone-by.”

Maria, staring at her sister, turned quite pale. “Now, you ain't thinkin' about dyin', be you?” said she, in a sharp, shocked voice.

Nancy looked at her wonderingly. “No, I ain't, Maria. Why?”

“I couldn't think of nothin' else you'd want that alpaca dress for, when you ain't been out of the house for ten year. No, I dunno as it's much gone-by. I s'pose the basque is kinder long.”

Maria Emmet could not go to sleep readily that night. She lay awake, and pondered over her sister's strange demeanor, and her questions about the dress. She was not nervous, nor given to odd fancies; but she felt much as if she had seen the old rose-bush out in the front yard rocked by some wind to which she herself was insensible. She was sure there was some mysterious excitement over Nancy, and she could think of nothing but a presentiment of her own death. Once she lighted the lamp, and looked at her sleeping sister anxiously. “She's sleepin' jest like a baby,” she said to herself; “I ain't goin' to be such a fool another minute.” Maria blew out the light and went to sleep herself.

The next morning, Nancy's manner was not in the least changed; she scarcely spoke, but her lips were compressed, and her eyes shone.

Maria did not question her again, but she watched her. She was a dressmaker, and went out to work nearly every day; but to-day she was at home, since it was Christmas.

Nancy seemed to grow at once quieter and more restless as the day wore on. After dinner, when the dishes were cleared away, and Maria had changed her dress, she spoke out suddenly:

“Maria,” said she, “I think you'd most ought to carry home that dish Mis' Benton brought over them apples in; I know it's one she uses.”

Maria hesitated. Nancy's eyes were full of anxiety. She held her breath, watching her. Maria looked out of the window; it was a beautiful day.

“Well, I dunno,” said she, slowly. “I s'pose I might run over there now, as long as I've got a chance. I've got to go the other way to-morrow.”

Nancy's eyes danced. “Seems to me I would,” said she, meekly.

Maria got her bonnet and shawl, and went out with the dish under her arm. Nancy watched her out of sight, and still kept her eyes fixed on the road. “I s'pose he won't come now I've got a chance,” she muttered.

From Christian Union Vol. 42 No. 26 (Dec 25, 1890)


She watched, but nobody came in sight on the long stretch of white road. “Oh, dear me suz!” she sighed, “I'm dreadful afraid he won't come.”

Maria had been gone about twenty minutes, when a tall boy came in sight, swinging awkwardly up the road. When he was opposite the house, Nancy pounded on the window. The boy stopped and stared. Nancy beckoned wildly. Then the boy turned hesitatingly in at the gate, came up the path, and opened the front door. “Come right in,” Nancy called out.

The boy opened the kitchen door, and stumbled in clumsily. He looked at Nancy, and smiled with good-natured embarrassment.

“It's Eddie Jones, ain't it?” said Nancy.

“Yes, marm.”

“Well, I want to know, ain't I seen you go by here with a good-sized sled?”

“Yes, marm.”

“Well, what I want to know is, do you s'pose you could carry me down to the meetin'-house to-night on your sled? I can't git into a wagon, nohow, an' I'm dreadful light; 'twouldn't be nothin' to drag me.”

The boy stood staring at her with his mouth open. His face was very red. “I'll ask mother,” he stammered finally.

“I don't want you to say nothin' to your mother about it. 'Tain't likely she'll care. I jest want you to come over here about seven o'clock, with your sled, an' drag me down to the meetin'-house, an' take me home when it's time. You open that door, an' go into the outer room, an' bring me out a little wooden box you'll see on the table.”

The boy obeyed. His thick snowy shoes clamped loudly as he went across the floor. He brought the little mahogany work-box to Nancy, who opened it eagerly and produced a jackknife. “There,” said she, “here's a nice jackknife, that I'll give you, if you'll take me to the meetin'-house. It's got three blades, an' there's only a little teenty end of one of 'em broke.”

The boy eyed the knife. “Ain't you goin' to?” asked Nancy.

“Yes, marm,” replied the boy doubtfully.

“Well,” said Nancy, “you carry this box back, an' put it where you found it. I'll keep the knife, an' give it to you when you've brought me back to-night.”

The boy went back with the box. “Now,” said Nancy, when he returned, “I want you to go into the bedroom, an' open the top drawer in the bureau, an' bring me out a white pasteboard box that's in the right-hand corner.”

The boy clattered into the bedroom, and presently emerged with the box. “Now,” said Nancy, “I want you to go into the other room again, an' get me a black dress that's a-hangin' in the chimney closet, an' a flat green box that's on the shelf.”

The boy went. His honest, boyish face was fairly stupid with wonder.

The white box contained a white lace cap, the green one, some old artificial flowers. Nancy selected some old pink roses, which she fastened on the front of the cap; then she put it on.

“Does it look nice?” said she.

“Yes, marm,” said the boy.

“I always used to wear pink flowers,” said Nancy, “but I ain't been out anywheres for ten year.”

She examined the alpaca dress carefully. “I guess that'll do,” said she. “Now, I want you to carry that green box back to the parlor closet, an' then put this cap back in the bureau drawer, an' hang this dress up behind the bedroom door. I can never git into the parlor after it in creation.”

After the boy had done these last commissions, she dismissed him. “You can go now,” said she, “only be sure to be here by seven o'clock.”

After he had gone, she reached to a little shelf between the windows for a bottle that stood there. It was half full of some liquid. She took out the stopper, and deliberately poured out all the liquid over her right ankle to the floor. A pungent odor of turpentine and ether arose. “It's dreadful wasteful,” she muttered, “but I can't see no other way.”

It was not long before Maria came home. She sniffed when she entered the door. “I hope that linament smells strong enough,” said she.

“Oh, Maria, I've spilled it all over!”

“Spilled it! Why, there was most half a bottle full!”

“I know it. I'm dreadful afraid you'll have to go down to the store after supper, an' git some more. I don't s'pose I shall darse be without it in the house.”

“Well, I must say I don't see how you managed to spill all that linament,” said Maria, taking off her shawl.

“My hands ain't very stiddy, you know.”

Maria went about getting tea. She was good-natured about the spilled liniment, although it involved a long, cold walk for herself. It seemed to her that Nancy was no longer as strange as she had been. She chattered as usual at supper. After the dishes were cleared away, Maria went to the store. It was about half-past six o'clock. “I may jest as well go and have it over with,” said she, and set out with the bottle in her pocket.

How little, rheumatic Nancy Emmet ever in the space of a half-hour arrayed herself in that alpaca dress, and that white lace cap with its cluster of faded roses, she could not herself have told. She had not dressed herself entirely for years. Maria always helped her. But to-night she not only put on the black alpaca and the cap, but she hobbled around and looked in the kitchen glass afterward. She smiled at her face in the glass with an innocent delight. It was so long since she had been out in the world that she had almost forgotten, and the excitement of a young girl was in her heart.

The Jones boy came promptly at half-past seven, and his mother was with him. He had been too bewildered not to tell her. She wondered that Maria was not at home, but she helped Nancy tenderly on to the sled, and tucked a shawl over her feet. Then she walked beside her. She was a tall, portly woman. Nancy sat erect on her sled, holding firmly to the sides. She looked up at the sky; her hood was drawn so closely over her face that there was only a pale line of it visible. “It seems to me I never see the stars so bright,” said she.

“They are bright,” said Mrs. Jones. “You're sure you ain't cold? I'm afraid it's a dredful risk.”

“No, I ain't cold. I never see 'em so bright. I kinder felt as if I would like to keep Christmas for once.”

Mrs. Jones grew uneasy as they went on. She began to have doubts as to whether Maria knew of this. Nancy had evaded all questions. She speculated as to whether she had done right. When they reached the church, and Nancy had been helped in and seated well in front near the tree, she whispered to some other women about it. “I do hope Maria will come pretty soon,” said she. “I'm dreadful uneasy.”

But Maria did not come for a half-hour, when the tree was being unloaded. She came hurriedly up the aisle, with her pale, stern face turning to either side. When she saw Nancy she stopped short and looked at her. “Come in an' set down, Maria,” said Nancy in a loud whisper, and she moved along to make room. She was all elation. Her white cap was awry, her hair was softly tumbled, her cheeks were pink, and her eyes were as blue as a baby's. She had a lace bag of peppermints, that had been hung for her on the tree, in her lap.

Maria hesitated. The Sunday-school children were being called up to receive their presents; people were sitting in radiant quiet; she could not make a disturbance. She sat stiffly down beside Nancy, and her face flushed red.

Nancy pushed the bag of peppermints toward her. “Take a pep'mint,” she whispered.

Maria pushed the bag away.

“I'm dreadful sorry,” Nancy whispered. “I tipped the linament over on purpose. I did want to keep Christmas jest for once, Maria.”

“I should think you hed kept it,” Maria whispered back fiercely, “runnin' away like this! I've been 'most scared to death. You can smell that linament all over the meetin'-house. You'll get sick a-bed, that's what'll come of it.”

“No, I won't, Maria; I wrapped up real warm. It seemed to me I couldn't stan' it if I didn't keep Christmas jest for once. Take a pep'mint — do, Maria.” Maria sat sullenly immovable. Nancy looked at the glittering Christmas tree, then piteously at her sister. She thrust the peppermint bag into her lap again. “Do take a pep'mint, Maria.”

Maria took a peppermint and put it in her mouth; her face relaxed. Nancy looked again at the Christmas tree; and of all the children there, the happiest was this old child who was having Christmas for once.