A Christmas Lady

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From The Ladies' Home Journal Vol. XXVII No. 1 (December, 1909)

Ellen Reed, who taught school and boarded with Mrs. Emerson James, was embroidering; Mrs. James was knitting with lavender wool; her sister, Miss Anna Smith, was making some gray bedshoes. When Anna's right hand moved a small diamond shot out a white spark from a rigidly curved finger. The women sat in a circle of soft lamplight. Emerson James and his neighbor, John Clark, sat apart and talked. The women paid no attention. Unconsciously they felt superior. It was as if they said to themselves: “It is only men talking.”

Ellen Reed did not even know what the men were talking about, although she heard the drone of deep voices. Ellen looked very pretty that evening in her white silk shirtwaist suit over a red silk slip. The glow on Ellen's cheeks was red rather than pink, and there were red lights in her brown hair. She was expecting a caller. She listened for the doorbell as the men's voices continued. They were talking about a new town hall and increased taxes. Then Miss Josiah Holly was mentioned, and the women began to listen.

“She can afford to pay any amount of extra taxes,” said Emerson James.

“If she can I'd like to know where she got so much money,” said John Clark.

The women all looked up from their work.

Mrs. James spoke softly, but she stamped heavily with her right foot at the same time. It was a trick of hers. “She must have money,” said she.

“Don't see where she got it,” repeated John Clark doggedly.

“She must have a good deal of money,” said Miss Anna Smith.

“Of course she has money,” said Ellen. “People wouldn't toady to her the way they do if she hadn't.”

Mrs. James, although her voice was soft, had a temper. “What do you mean?” she asked sharply.

Miss Anna Smith began to tremble violently. That was her way of showing anger. Her black frizzes bobbed and the diamond on her right hand flickered wildly.

Ellen took another stitch. “I mean,” said she sweetly, “that I don't believe some people would be so crazy about giving Christmas presents to a woman who never gives any unless they thought they were going to have returns in some way.”

Then Anna Smith spoke. “I would make these bedshoes just the same, anyway,” said she in her tremulous voice.

“And I would make this shawl,” said Mrs. James. “Josiah is always sitting beside a window, and the windows are very loose in that old house. I think this shawl will be very nice for her.”

“Oh, dear me!” cried Ellen. She gave her work a toss on the table and went to the older women and kissed them. “You know I didn't mean you,” she said.

Mrs. James gave her a good-humored little shake. “Of course you didn't, child,” she replied. “What are you going to give her yourself?”

Ellen laughed. “I am going to give her this centerpiece,” said she. “I never knew anybody so perfectly wild over Christmas presents.”

“Yes,” assented Mrs. James, “I never knew anybody except a child who cared so much.”

The men talked. They, also, were contemptuously oblivious of the notes of the other sex.

“You don't suppose, do you,” said John Clark, “that Josiah has been trading in stocks?”

“Don't see how she could,” replied Emerson James; “an old woman like her.”

“Don't see how she's got a darned thing except the old place, and those few thousands in the bank that pay the taxes and insurance, and just keep her going,” said Clark firmly.

“She must have money,” said Mrs. James, “because —”

The men looked at her.

“Because what?” asked her husband.

Mrs. James hesitated. “She always says when any one gives her a Christmas present that nobody will be any loser by it in the end,” she replied.

John Clark sniffed impolitely. “So that is the reason why she gets so many Christmas presents,” said he.

Mrs. James laughed. “Well,” she said, “I don't want to be suspicious, but I can't for the life of me understand what the Gregory girls should give her such expensive presents every year for. They never give their poor relations a thing. Jane Armstrong, their own mother's sister, told me with her own lips that the Gregory girls never so much as gave her a pocket handkerchief at Christmas. Then there's Mrs. Wilton Adams. She gives Josiah the most beautiful presents, and her own nieces, who work for their living, never get a thing. It does look suspicious.”

“Of course it does,” said Anna Smith, “but if I were you, sister, I wouldn't mention names.”

“Maybe they give just as we do, just because the poor soul is so pleased to have presents,” said Ellen. “I begin to think I was horrid to even hint that they gave because they think she has money. I never knew anybody so pleased. Next to having a real live Santa Claus in the town I believe in somebody like that who is happy over Christmas presents. She is a real Christmas lady. Poor dear, I shouldn't wonder if she were thinking about her presents this very minute.”

That was true. Josiah was sitting alone and thinking about her presents with the wild anticipation of a child. She had made out a list of people who might give, and held it in her lap. She had been poring over it, but now she had extinguished her lamp. The shade of the lamp was very hideous, being of splashy green with a splashy rose and a splashy hummingbird painted thereon. Old Sam Larkins, who took care of her fire and did errands for her, had bought it after her old cut-glass shade had been broken. It represented his taste, but it disturbed Josiah. She had nicely packed away two shades which were artistic and had been given her for Christmas presents.

Josiah, after she had extinguished the lamp, was a mere shadowy bulk beside a window, but as she had appeared in the lamplight she had been rather impressive. Old and homely as she was she had a stateliness and gentleness of bearing which marked her as a lady born. Her black silk gown, which dated back nobody knew how many years, still retained its splendid texture. The few worn places had been so carefully darned that they were invisible. Josiah wore an ancient kerchief of fine old lace, also exquisitely and invisibly darned, fastened with a pearl brooch. She wore several old rings: dull diamonds and a large pearl set in onyx. Her hands were small and white and looked indomitably young. It was as if she had shunted back Old Age himself successfully so far as those fair and dimpled little hands were concerned, but it was otherwise with her face and body. In her youth she had been like a young gold willow of the spring in slimness and grace. Now she was stiffly ponderous in body, flabby-chinned and hollow-cheeked in face, with hair so thin that it was scarcely more than a gray film.

Josiah may have been vain or finely sensitive, but she did not like to walk abroad. She shuddered, like Lady Godiva, at the idea of her whole little world of discerning eyes being riveted upon her poor old face and ungainly person. She never stepped outside her own house except in summer. Then, sometimes, on a fine day she moved about her yard with the languid state of a sovereign taking the air.

The only time when Josiah came into actual touch with her kind was at Christmas. That was for her a season of pure joy. Josiah had no suspicion of ulterior motives. Everything which she received was to her a gift of love. She breathed in happiness. In fact, the aged lady, from her love of receiving the gifts of love, became at Christmas an exquisite thing. She fairly personified Christmas, crowned with evergreen, the Star of Hope before her eyes, her soul lit with the joy of an imperishable childhood.

Josiah had cleared the top of the old piano and the tables for her Christmas gifts. She lived alone and had habits of the most perfect order and cleanliness. People said that Josiah Holly was miserly because she kept no maid, but she and one other alone knew if that were true.

Twice a year a lawyer from Amesbury drove over and conferred with her. People often waylaid William Downey, the lawyer, on his semi-annual visits, and tried to extract the truth as to Josiah's affairs by adroit questioning. However, he invariably responded without the slightest regard for facts, for it might be pouring at the time, “Pleasant day,” touched up his horse and drove on. Many who were piqued by his reticence called him “Pleasant-Day Downey.”

Pleasant-Day Downey's brother Amos had brought the one romance into Josiah's life. When they were young they had been very much in love with each other, but Amos Downey had been very poor, and old 'Squire Holly had not approved. Josiah, who had regarded her father as the Law, had yielded; young Amos had gone West and had never returned. His brother William had become a “self-made man,” and achieved a local celebrity in the law. He had never married. Nobody knew whether or not his brother Amos had. Josiah did not know. She never asked William about Amos. She had a furtive tenderness for William because of his brother. Amos to her memory always presented the same face as when she had last seen him. She was absolutely incapable of the conception that the curly-haired, blue-eyed young Amos had grown old. She knew that she herself was old, but her lover possessed to her mind immortal youth. Sometimes she had imagined with horror his return with his beautiful young face to see her as she was.

During late years she had come into a state of complete acquiescence with the facts of her existence, which gave her a peace even better than happiness. This had come to her since her father's death. He had been a domestic tyrant. Josiah's very name was an instance of tyranny. The 'Squire had wished for a boy. When Providence sent him a girl he declared that she should at least have the boy's name. People had laughed about the name, but it had never disturbed Josiah. She had no sense of humor.

On the evening when she was being discussed in Emerson James's house she gazed across the fields at it. The sitting-room was on the other side, and the house looked quite dark until half-past eight, when a sudden shaft of light shone across her own room and struck out a gleam of gold from a picture on the opposite wall. “Jim Ellis has come to court Ellen,” thought Josiah, and an old ache went through her heart disturbing the still level of her peace. Ellen had an autocratic old father in Amesbury, and Jim was poor. If Ellen had been at home in Amesbury Jim could not have called.

“She is situated very much as I was,” thought Josiah. Then she smiled a peculiar, secret smile, half sad, half pleasurable. Then she wondered childishly what Ellen would give her at Christmastime. The year before she had given an embroidered table-cover, and there had been a scene. Josiah had made her invariable little speech: “I am not giving presents myself this year, but you shall not lose in the end, dear.” And Ellen had turned upon her in a gust of anger and snatched away the present. “You can't have this, then,” said Ellen.

Josiah had stared at her in dismay. “Why?” she asked faintly.

“You can't!” said Ellen.


“Because I don't give presents for the sake of a return,” said Ellen, and her eyes were afire with honest indignation.

“I — want to give presents,” Josiah faltered, “and — I am so situated — I didn't mean to offend you, Ellen.”

“I don't want a present in return,” said Ellen, “and if you think that is why I am giving this you can't have it. I simply can't endure to have anybody think such things of me.”

“I won't think such things,” Josiah said humbly.

Then Ellen, suddenly remorseful, had bent down and kissed the sweet old face. “You poor old dear, I know you won't,” she cried. Josiah gazed at the pale shaft of light from the James's window and resolved not to make her stereotyped remark to Ellen again.

That was a week before Christmas. Before dark on Christmas Eve Ellen brought her present, daintily tied with red and green ribbon twisted around a sprig of holly. She kissed Josiah and said laughingly how odd it was that her name should be Holly. “You are like a dear old pun on yourself,” said Ellen. “You like Christmas so much.”

Josiah smiled sweetly, but she did not laugh. She did not know exactly why Ellen laughed. Her lack of humor, which implies a certain cruelty to one's self as well as toward others, had been on the whole a merciful trait of character for her in the rigid monotony of her life.

“You are not going home tonight, dear?” she asked Ellen.

Ellen blushed and shook her head. “No,” she replied. “I am going tomorrow on the half-past ten train. I thought I would not go today.” She did not give her reason, which was that she wished to be where Jim Ellis could call upon her on Christmas Eve. Ellen, although she realized fully all the obstacles in the way, hoped that Jim would ask her to marry him. If he did she intended to accept him.

Ellen had the instinct of a hurdle-jumper with regard to obstacles. Jim, however, was different. As far as he himself was concerned he feared nothing, but he had forethought in a large measure, and he considered the girl's future as she herself was incapable of doing, and forced himself to face higher obstacles than she would. When he came on Christmas Eve he brought a new novel for Ellen. She thanked him and laid it on the table. Then she asked to be excused, went up to her own room and returned with another book tied up in white paper with a gold cord. She had bought for Jim a pair of gold sleeve-links set with tiny sapphires. Now she thought, resentfully, that she would not give him anything so personal as jewelry. Since he had given her a book he also should have one.

However, poor Jim seemed delighted with the book — so delighted that Ellen regarded him with the half-remorseful anger of the quick, alert, feminine creature before the obtuse, steady-headed male.

“Goodness,” said she, “I shouldn't think you had ever had a present before.”

“I never did have many presents,” replied poor Jim simply. And he continued to gaze at the book with the delight of a boy. “Such a pretty cover,” said he.

“Wait a minute,” said Ellen abruptly, and ran out of the room with a flirt of her white gown which revealed the red silk fluff of her skirt.

Jim turned over pages of his book and gazed happily at the pictures until Ellen returned.

She thrust a little jewelry box into his hand. “Here,” she said, “this is really what I got for your Christmas, but I thought at first I wouldn't give it. I thought I would give you a book because you gave me one. I was real horrid.”

“Thank you,” said Jim with a little hesitation. He opened the little box. “They are beautiful,” he said slowly. Then he looked at Ellen with her radiant, impetuous young beauty, and his brown eyes glistened because there were tears in them. “I wanted to give you a ring tonight, Ellen,” he said.

Ellen started and grew white, but she said nothing. “I wanted to,” Jim repeated, “but I did not feel that I could, Ellen.”

A blush spread over Ellen's face. She dropped her lids as if to conceal the eagerness in her eyes. “I would not have minded if it had been just the simplest little ring,” she whispered. “Oh, Jim!”

Jim, in his turn, started. “Why, Ellen, it was not that,” he said, “not the — cost, don't you understand? That is, not the first cost — but, well — Ellen, you must know how I feel about you. You are the one out of the whole world for me, but — it won't do, dear.”

“Why won't it, if — you care?”

“I haven't a penny except my little income.”

“And I suppose you know Father won't give me a cent if I marry you,” returned Ellen. Then she laughed gayly. “Oh, Jim Ellis, what a goose you are!” she cried. “We can get on beautifully on your salary, and, as for Father, I care more about his opposition than the money part of it. To tell the truth, I never associated Father much with money, anyway; I am earning my own living and have been for some years. Father is mighty good, but he never has been very free with money, and that's the truth, and I haven't minded. I can get along on very little, Jim, and you can give me an iron ring if you want to. Father will come round after a while, anyway. I know him. When he sees he can't have his own way he backs down, because he sees how silly he is, and Father hates to be silly. What are you worrying about, Jim?”

“It can't be, dear,” said Jim. “I've thought it all over. It couldn't be anyway for years, and I won't have you bound and stand in the way of your making a good match.”

Then Ellen was on the sofa beside him, and her arms, with the pretty sleeves falling away from their fair slenderness, were outstretched, and the young man's heart melted within him, and the arms were around his neck and his arms were around her, and he was kissing the face that glowed on his breast like a red rose. “I am willing to wait forever,” whispered Ellen.

Jim said something stammeringly about the best years of her life and sacrifice, and then he kissed her again and her happy laugh rang out, and it was settled that they should wait.

After a while Jim looked again at his sleeve-links, and Ellen beamed. “You are as pleased with a present as poor Miss Josiah Holly is,” said she.

The next morning, when Ellen on her way to the station in the livery carriage passed Josiah's house, she saw that every window had its Christmas wreath tied with red ribbon. The man who was driving turned around and told her that he had never taken so many presents to Miss Holly as he had done that Christmas. “Them Gregorys, they sent her a whole trunkful,” said he.

“A trunkful?”

“Yes, ma'am, they had to pack the things in a trunk, there were so many, and I had to wait while Miss Holly unpacked it, and she was so tickled she was shaking all over. Then I carried a great boxful from Mis' George Pickman, and Mis' Lawson and her old maid sister sent some big packages they told me to handle careful, and Mis' Henry Snow got the Bray boys to cut a lot of holly and evergreens, and the way Miss Holly is trimmed up beats the band.”

“I am glad she has so much,” said Ellen. “She is always so pleased.”

“That's just the way I feel,” said the man; “I never seen a woman so tickled with presents. I dunno as I ever seen a child so tickled. Seems as if Christmas was worth havin' just on her account. Her settin'-room looks and smells jest like pine woods.”

Ellen laughed happily. “I am very glad,” she said again. Ellen herself was so happy that she was capable of understanding all lesser joys. Her sense of happiness seemed quickened into abnormal activity. She was certainly very happy. She had seen Jim that morning, and she wore on her left hand a ring with a pearl which had been Jim's dead mother's. She did not mean to tell her father that day. She would not spoil Christmas for him. She knew that he would not notice the little ring. After she was on the train she kept feeling of it under her glove and thinking of her happiness, and also as a sort of accompaniment to a triumphal song of Josiah Holly and how she was enjoying her Christmas.

Josiah was enjoying her Christmas. Her sitting-room was sweet with flowers and aromatic with evergreen. It seemed almost as if she were in some fragrant old forest of youth. The piano was quite covered with presents, also the center-table and the table between the windows. There were so many presents that some were on the floor and on chairs. Josiah gloated over her presents with the innocent delight of a child. She had never had so many. She kept them on exhibition for a week after Christmas. She had a constant stream of callers. She thanked the donors of the gifts with her usual formula.

The three Gregory sisters, tall and lank, with set, determined mouths, came two days after Christmas. On their way home they agreed that nobody's presents made such a show as theirs. “There wasn't a thing to compare with that pincushion of yours, Amelia,” said Susan Gregory. “Nor with that sofa-pillow of yours, Susan,” said Amelia. “Nor with Jane's afghan,” said both Susan and Amelia.

“The afghan ought to be handsome,” said Jane; “I put a good many dollars' worth of wool into it.”

Then Mrs. Wilton Adams overtook them. The tip of her small, sharp nose was very red, and she held her fur boa tightly together because she had a cold. “Josiah had a lot of presents,” said she, “and I never saw anybody so tickled. I didn't grudge that collar I gave her when I saw how pleased she was.”

“I don't see when you think Josiah will ever wear a tifficky collar like that,” said Amelia Gregory, who disliked Mrs. Adams.

“Everybody is wearing such collars,” croaked Mrs. Adams.

“Josiah won't,” said Amelia.

“It seemed to me that she was very feeble today,” said Mrs. Adams, and she coughed, partly from her cold, partly from embarrassment. Her cousin in Amesbury had given her the collar which she had given Josiah, and she wondered if the Gregorys could possibly know it.

All four women agreed as they walked on that Josiah was very feeble, and they were right. Poor Josiah was very feeble, and it is possible that the Christmas joy was an overstimulant. If Josiah had not been given quite so many presents, if her little measure, which she had held out to love to be filled, had not been so brimmed, she might have lived longer. As it was, she died, without any evident disease, ten days after Christmas.

Josiah left a will: a long document with many codicils: a will so unique that it became a household word in the village and excited at once a sense of pathos and humor. Poor Josiah had not in reality much to leave except what had been given her as Christmas dole, besides her real estate and her few thousands in the bank. The latter all went to Jim Ellis. Originally it had been bequeathed to Ellen Reed, but Josiah had evidently come to understand that by changing her legatee she would do a more gracious deed. In Josiah's will, which covered many closely-written pages, was found the name of every Christmas giver who had ever come to her door, and in every case the gifts were returned intact in their original wrappings. Josiah had never used one, but had put them carefully away after the days of exhibition.

When the liveryman carried a carriage load of bequests to the Gregorys there were heads at the neighbors' windows. “That big bundle is Jane Gregory's afghan,” said one woman; “I miss my guess if the Gregorys don't have to lay in a barrel of mothballs, for nearly everything they ever gave Josiah was made of wool.” Mrs. James was the woman. As she spoke she looked comically and sadly at the lavender shawl which had come back to her, and her sister looked at the bedshoes. There were many more things: a table full. “Well,” said Mrs. James, “I wish the pour soul had used them. Here is a doily I gave her ten years ago, and a handkerchief. I know one thing, I meant well, and I didn't expect to get these back.”

“I didn't, either,” said Anna Smith, and tears fell upon the gray bedshoes.

Ellen stood looking on. None of her gifts had been returned to her. She began to weep with the abandon of her impulsive nature. “I loved her,” she sobbed. “It seems to me I should die if she had sent me back one single thing I ever gave her.”

“She's given you more than anybody else,” said Mrs. James, and she also wept softly.

“I know,” said Ellen. “She has made it possible for Jim to marry me, and Father is pleased about it, but, oh dear, it is all so sad, poor old soul. How she looked when she told me she wanted to give Christmas presents herself. I shall never forget how she looked. And all the way she could give was to give back what was given her.”

“That is about the only way in which anybody can give,” said Mrs. James, and her voice had a solemn accent.

“Yes, that is true,” said her sister.

“To think of all those codicils,” said Mrs. James.

“She added one every Christmas,” responded her sister, “and she set down every single thing that any one gave her, even to a cup and saucer Mrs. George Taft got at the Ten-Cent Store.”

Ellen laughed a little. “She did not know it was funny, poor dear,” she said, “and when I think of her adding all those codicils it seems enough to break my heart.”

There had been an unwritten codicil of which nobody except William Downey and his brother Amos ever knew. Josiah had given in trust to William her miniature painted when she was a young girl. She had had it painted for her lover, but her father had intercepted it. It was a beautiful miniature of a slim young maid dressed in lavender with a delicate lace kerchief, and soft yellow curls falling over her long, slender neck. It represented a very sylph of a girl, and Amos Downey, who came on to see his brother not long after Josiah's death, gazed at it with eyes of undying affection. His brother William stared at him. “So that is why you never —” he began, and Amos finished the sentence. “Yes, that was why I never got married,” he said. Amos was a small, old-fashioned-looking man with delicate, clean-cut features and very beautiful blue eyes.

“Do you think I could ever have known a girl like her and married anybody else?” asked Amos with his blue eyes intent upon the miniature.

“But,” began William. Then he stopped. He did not finish. As his brother had spoken he himself had seen the girl after the years had worked their ravages upon her. He remembered her unwieldy bulk, her flabby face, her thin locks — then an enormous respect for the illusion of youth, which his brother still possessed like some precious gem, seized him. He felt that to destroy it would be desecration.

“There was never any one so beautiful,” said Amos, gazing with his rapt blue eyes at the miniature. He himself looked strangely young, as if he reflected the youth in the pictured face.

William said nothing, but Amos did not notice. He sat gazing with that wondering gaze of youth at the picture of his old sweetheart.

Josiah at the last had bestowed three very precious gifts. She had given back the bread which had been cast upon her sea of life; she had smoothed out the pathway of love for two hearts, and she had given to her own best beloved the image of love, inviolate and unscathed by time and sorrow and parting, for an enduring Christmas gift.