From Some of Our Neighbours (J. M. Dent & Co: 1898)
The singing-school is, of course, a regular institution in our village during the winter months, but the one of special interest is held on Christmas Eve. That is called, to distinguish it from the others, “The Christmas Sing.” On that night only the psalms and fugues appropriate to the occasion are sung, and the town hall is trimmed with holly and evergreen.
The Sing begins at eight o'clock and is always preceded by a turkey supper. The supper is in the tavern, as it used to be called — now we say “hotel” — still it is the tavern, and always will be the same old house where the stages drew up before the railroad was built.
The turkey supper is at six o'clock, and at least two hours are required to dispose of the good things and speechify, then the people cross the road to the town hall, where the Sing is held. It is a great occasion in our village, and the women give as much care to their costumes as if they were going to a ball. The dressmaker is hard worked for weeks before the Sing. Everybody who can afford it has a new dress, and those who cannot, have their old ones made over. The women all try to keep their costumes secret until the night of the Sing, and the dressmaker is bound over by the most solemn promises not to reveal anything. The Christmas Sing is often most brilliant and surprising to our humble tastes in the matter of dress, and was especially so last year. The Sing of last year was also noteworthy in another respect; there were three betrothals and a runaway marriage that night.
It was ideal weather for Christmas Eve and our Sing; very cold and clear, a full moon, and a beautiful, hard level of snow for sleighing. At six o'clock everybody was assembled at the tavern; past and present members of the singing-school — even old man Veazie, who is over ninety — were there. There were also some guests — fine singers — from out of town.
The turkey supper was excellent, and so were the speeches. One of the best was made by Mr Cassius C. Dowell from East Langham, a village about eight miles from ours. He is a very fine tenor singer, and quite a celebrity. He sings in the church choir in Langham, and is in great demand to sing at funerals. He is not very young, but fine looking and a great favourite with the ladies. He has a gentle, deferential way of looking at them which is considered very attractive. Lottie Green sat next him at the supper-table, and he looked at her, and made sure that she had plenty of white meat and gravy. Mr Lucius Downey was on the other side of Lottie, but she paid no attention to him. Had it not been for Lurinda Snell, who was next on his right, he might have felt slighted. She looked very well, too, in a fine new silk dress, plum colour with velvet trimming. Lurinda was quite pretty in her youth, and sometimes dress and excitement seem to revive something of her old beauty. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes bright; her hair, which is still abundant, was most beautifully crimped.
Lottie Green, also, looked very pretty. She had not been able to afford a new dress, but she had made over her old blue cloth one and put in silk sleeves, and it was as good and quite as pretty as when it was new.
Probably Maria Rice had the finest new dress of any of the girls. Everybody stared at Maria when she entered with a great rustle of silk and rattle of starched petticoats. The dress was of pink silk, and — a most startling innovation in our village — the waist was cut square and quite low. Maria has a beautiful neck, and she wore a great bunch of pink roses on one shoulder. She had elbow sleeves, too, and drew off her long gloves with a very fine air when she sat down to table. The other girls were half-admiring, half scandalized. No such costume as that had ever been worn to our singing-school before. Poor Zepheretta Stockwell, in a black silk which might have been worn appropriately by her grandmother, was entirely eclipsed by Maria in more senses than one. Jim Paine sat between the two girls at supper. Maria's pink skirts spread over his knee, her pretty face was tilted up in his and her tongue was wagging every minute. Once I saw Jim try to speak to Zepheretta, but Maria was too quick for him.
When supper was over the people all assembled in the town hall without delay. The hall was finely decorated — green wreaths hung in all the windows, and the portrait of the gentleman who gave the town house to the village fifty years ago, 'Squire Ebenezer Adams, was draped with an American flag. It is a life-size portrait, and hangs on the right of the stage. Our old singing master and choir leader, Mr Orlando Sage, stood on the stage, and conducted the school as usual. The piano was on his right. The south district teacher, Miss Elmira Crane, played that. There was old Mr Joseph Nelson, with his bass viol, which he used to play in the church choir, and Thomas Farr and Charlie Morse, with their violins.
The school was arranged in the usual manner, in the four divisions of sopranos, tenors, bassos and altos. At eight o'clock Mr Sage raised his baton, and the music began.
Everybody stood up, and sang their best and loudest, with, perhaps, one exception. The result was quite magnificent, unless you happened to stand close to certain singers, and did not sing loud enough yourself to drown them out.
We went on with the fine old fugues, and it was grand, had it not been for the weakness in the sopranos. At length, Mr Orlando Sage stood directly in front of the sopranos, waving his baton frantically, raising himself up on his toes, and jerking his head as if in such ways he would stimulate them to greater volume of voice. Mr Sage is a nervous little man. Finally, with an imperious switch of his baton, and a stamp of his foot, he brought the whole school to a dead stop.
“Miss Stockwell,” he said, “why don't you sing?”
Everybody stared at Zepheretta. She turned white, then red, and replied meekly that she was singing.
“No, you are not singing,” returned Mr Sage. “I was riding past your father's yesterday, and I heard you singing. You have a voice. Why don't you sing?”
Mr Sage brandished his baton, as if he would like to hit her with it, and poor Zepheretta looked almost frightened to death. “Why don't you sing?” sternly demanded Mr Sage again. “You never sing in this school as you can sing.”
Zepheretta looked as if she were going to cry. She opened her mouth, as if to speak, but did not. Then, suddenly, Lurinda Snell, who sat on her right, spoke for her. “I can tell you why, if you want to know, Mr Sage,” she said; “I haven't told a soul before, but much as three years ago I heard Maria Rice tell Zepheretta not to sing so loud, she drowned her all out, and Zepheretta hasn't sung so loud since.”
When Lurinda stopped, with a defiant nod of her head, you could have heard a pin drop. Maria Rice, on the other side of Zepheretta, was blushing as pink as her dress. Then Mr Sage brought his baton down. “Sing!” he shouted, and we all began again — “When shepherds watch their flocks by night.”
Zepheretta did let out her voice a little more then, and we were all amazed; nobody had dreamed she could sing so well. Still it was quite evident that she held her voice back somewhat on her high notes, on account of Maria's feelings, though Maria would not sing at all during the rest of the evening. I think she was glad when the Sing was over, though everybody else had enjoyed it.
It was ten o'clock when we closed, after singing “When marshalled on the nightly plain,” and all the young men who had come with teams hastened out to get them. Many a young woman who had come to the Sing with her father or brother went home in the sleigh of some gallant swain who was waiting for her when she emerged from the town hall. All the girls in coming down the steps ran a sort of gauntlet of love and jealousy between double lines of waiting beaux, beyond whom the restive horses pranced with frequent flurries of bells.
Then Maria Rice, to the great delight of the vindictive of her sex and the amused pity of others, was seen, after manifestly hurrying and lingering, and peering with eagerly furtive eyes toward Jim Paine, to gather up her pink silk skirts and go forlornly down the road with Lydia Wheelock, who lived her way. It was rumoured that she wept all the way home, in spite of Lydia's attempts to comfort her, but nobody ever knew. She was not far on the road before Jim Paine and Zepheretta passed her in Jim's sleigh, drawn by his fast black horse.
Everybody was astonished to see Jim step out from the waiting file, accost Zepheretta, and lead her to his sleigh as if she had been a princess, and probably Zepheretta was the most astonished of all.
Mr Cassius C. Dowell, who had driven over from Langham, took Lottie Green home, and Mr Lucius Downey escorted Lurinda Snell. He had brought a lantern, though it was bright moonlight — he is fond of carrying one because his eyes are poor. The lantern light shone full on Lurinda's face as she went proudly past on his arm, and she looked like a young girl.
The next day we heard that all three couples were going to be married, and that another young couple, who had driven down the road at such a furious rate that everybody had hastened out of the way, and there had been narrow escapes from collisions, were married. They had driven ten miles to Dover for that purpose, nobody ever knew why. The parents on either side would have given free consent to the match, but they drove to Dover that Christmas Eve as if a whole regiment of furious relatives were savagely charging at their backs.
However, that marriage has been happy so far, and the others also. Jim and Zepheretta are a devoted pair; Lurinda Snell makes a good wife for Lucius Downey, and does not talk as bitterly about her neighbours as she was accustomed to do formerly. Cassius C. Dowell seems very happy with Lottie, so the neighbours all say, and Lydia Wheelock, now that she has not Lottie and her children to look after and provide for, has bought herself a new parlour carpet and a bonnet.
Take it altogether that Sing seemed to bring much happiness to our village, set, as it were, to sweet Christmas music.