A Christmas Story

Mary E. Wilkins

From New-York Tribune Illustrated Supplement December 22, 1901

(Copyright, 1901, by Authors' Syndicate.)

Eugene was named after his youngest uncle, on his mother's side, but everybody called him “General.” First it had been “Genie,” but as his masterly character developed, it became “General.” When the neighbors saw him coming, usually at the head of a small troop of his brothers and sisters and friends, they said: “There's General Newman.” As a rule, they finished with an indulgent chuckle, for General was a favorite. Everybody agreed that he was a good boy and very smart. He did an errand as if he were a peer of the realm and, with infinite condescension, he pocketed his penny in payment, as if it were a gratuity. But he did errands willingly and well, and while he made others obey he never disobeyed himself. “For all he's so up and comin' he minds me better than any of them,” his mother often remarked.

General was the eldest of five children, three girls and two boys. His father was dead: his mother, Mrs. Abby Newman, supported the family by working a small farm. She kept one hired man, and worked herself like a slave. With great economy and toil she managed to keep her family in comfort, and she was determined that the children should have good educations. General was large and strong for his age, and many of the neighbors thought that she was foolish not to put him to work, but she was resolute. “He's goin' to know something,” she declared, “and he helps a good deal out of school.”

General, ever since he was ten, had risen in the mornings at 5 o'clock, assisted the hired man with the barn chores, drawn the water and made the kitchen fire. All the Newman children were trained to work, and they accomplished a good deal before they set off for school — washed, brushed and tidy.

The new teacher came in the fall when Eugene was nearly fourteen. She was a pretty girl, her name Aurelia May, and she had many new ideas. Among others was the Christmas tree. There had never been a Christmas tree in No. 5 school, which was located on the outskirts of the village, among the scattered farming part of the population. There had been a Christmas tree in the Sunday school, but never one in the day school.

When Miss Aurelia May announced that this year there would be a tree on Christmas night (the Sunday school tree was to be on Christmas eve), there was much excitement, not only among the students, but their parents. The mothers met in each other's sitting rooms and kitchens and talked a good deal. Some of them declared that a tree in the Sunday school was enough, and all they could manage. “It took all the butter money I had saved last year for Christmas,” declared one woman, and the others echoed her.

Finally, however, the pretty school teacher carried the day. “I declare I hated to say anything, she was so set on it,” said Mrs. John Sargent. The teacher boarded at Mrs. John Sargent's, and little Lottie Sargent adored her.

But there was one woman who never abandoned her position, and she was General's mother. Mrs. Newman had said at first, she had told the neighbors and the teacher so, and she had told her children so, that she could and would do nothing about the Christmas tree. “If it had been an apple year I might have managed it, but it ain't an apple year and I haven't got enough money for another Christmas tree unless I run in debt or mortgage the place,” she said. “I can manage to give you children some useful things, that you really need, and I'd have to get anyway, on the Sunday school tree, but as for doing anything about the day school, I can't do it, and I don't want to hear another word about it. I have enough to contend with without being teased to do something I can't do.”

The younger children pouted, and little Sallie and Henry openly sobbed, but General only looked thoughtful.

“May I use my bank money?” he asked, finally.

“You can't have more than 50 cents, for you opened your bank last Fourth of July,” the mother answered.

“Can I have what is in it?”

“Yes, if you want to,” she replied grudgingly. “You ought to use the money, however, to buy shoes, but you can have it.”

General's face cleared. “All right,” he said, “guess I can do something.”

His second sister, Addie, pulled his sleeve, when his mother's back was turned. “What be you goin' to do?” she whispered.

“You jest wait an' see,” replied her brother mysteriously.

“You goin' to get presents for all of us?”

“I reckon so.”

“For Tommy Jones, and Lottie, and Maria Dodd, and Willie Lapham, and” —

“Guess so.”


“You jest wait.”

General was as important and secretive during the three weeks before Christmas as any commander before a strategic move upon the enemy. His brothers and sisters watched, but they could discover nothing. General was known to make several visits to the store, but they could find out nothing that he purchased except paper and string. They found rolls of nice white paper and brown paper and various colored balls of cord in his little hair trunk, which had belonged to his grandfather and in which he kept his treasures. “It's to tie up the presents,” they said to one another, and their expectations grew.

Gradually it became noised about the school that General Newman was going to give splendid presents to a lot of children, and his popularity was on the increase. He had so much deference that his head might have been turned if he had not been a pretty stanch, honest little boy.

General worked hard helping the teacher, and, what was more, he made the others work — not a boy dared shirk when General's eyes were upon him. Even the teacher began to marvel at his power over his mates. “I declare I believe that boy can make the others mind better than I can,” she said to Mrs. Sargent, with whom she boarded.

“He's an awful smart boy,” agreed Mrs. Sargent.

On Christmas Eve the students and their big brothers and sisters and their parents assembled in the schoolhouse. Even Mrs. Abby Newman was there, in her old best black silk. The children had been so happy about it all that she had not the heart to stay away. Then, too, she had much pride in her eldest son and curiosity as to what he was going to do. She was conscious of a great faith in him. “He's an awful smart boy,” she told herself.

Indeed, that evening sitting at his desk in the evergreen trimmed schoolroom, the General looked handsomer and smarter than ever. His fair hair curled aggressively on top, his blue eyes were brilliant, there was not a shade of doubt or anxiety in his face. He looked confident of all that Christmas or life might bring him. Mrs. Newman felt herself fairly glowing with pride as she gazed at him.

The beautiful lighted tree stood on the platform, and a young man named Abner Whittemore — he was said to admire the teacher — was dressed in a buffalo coat, to personate Santa Claus, and distributed the presents.

The names of the Newman children were called over and over — Miss Ruth Newman, Miss Sallie D. Newman, Master Henry Perkins Newman, Miss Addie Newman, Master Eugene Newman. Names also of a large number of the scholars who were particular friends of theirs were frequently repeated. They all marched away from the tree with jubilant faces. However, the faces changed when they came to examine their treasures more closely. They were very neat little packages tied up in fresh papers, with bright colored cords. They looked like boxes of various shapes and sizes. The students who had these boxes regarded them with expressions of mingled wonder and dismay. Not one was untied. Gradually the news of something was written or rather printed, on the tops of the packages spread around. “Have you seen those funny presents General Newman has been giving?” everybody asked of everybody else. This was printed on the packages very plainly:

Don't you open this till next Fourth of July. If you do, look out.       E. NEWMAN.

Mrs. Abby Newman stood apart, talking to the minister's wife and the teacher, and knew nothing about the warning notes until little Sallie came crying to her with her unopened present and begged that she wouldn't let Genie scold her if she took the string off.

Then Mrs. Newman examined the package and the inscription with amazement. “They're all just like that,” sobbed Sallie, “and they can't open them till the Fourth of July, he says.”

“I'm going to see what all this foolishness means!” declared Mrs. Abby Newman.

When General looked up and saw his mother's face his heart sank. The other boys, looking on, saw him quail before the small, weary looking woman. “Eugene Newman, what does all this mean?” she demanded. The room was quite still. The crowd about them became noiselessly augmented. Everybody came tiptoeing up. The children stood gaping with eyes of innocent wonder and curiosity.

“Eugene!” said Mrs. Newman.

The boy choked and gasped.

“Eugene, tell me this minute what is in those packages!”

The general hung his head; his candid forehead was red to the roots of his curly hair. Then suddenly he faced his mother, and them all, with his honest, confident look. He had done nothing to be ashamed of.

“What is in them?” asked his mother.

“Nothin' but wood,” replied General Newman.

“Wood?” echoed the others.

“Yes, it's nothin' but wood in all of 'em,” proclaimed General, clearly.

“Eugene Newman!” gasped his mother. Her face was blazing with mortification. Was this her wonderful, smart boy? She realized how desirable it would be to sink through the floor away from all these curious eyes.

Then suddenly the boy came to the rescue.

“There's somethin' on the wood,” he admitted, with reluctance, yet as one who must clear his honor from imputation.

“What?” cried his mother, eagerly.

“My note,” replied General, and he held his head high.

“Your note?” his mother gasped, feebly.

“Yes, ma'am.”

His mother made a clutch at one of the packages, which a little boy near her held, and tore off the wrapping, and there was a nice little block of wood, and thereon printed, after the form in the arithmetic:

“For value received I promise to pay to Willy Lapham or order, six months and ten days from date, one good top.       “EUGENE NEWMAN.”

Then Mrs. John Sargent caught her Lottie's package, and opened it, and there was the same thing, only in that Eugene Newman promised to pay Lottie Sargent one doll with light hair, and others were opened and they were the same with a difference. Poor Eugene in all of them had given, for lack of presents, his promissory note.

“I'd like to know where you expected to get the money?” his mother inquired, sharply.

“Uncle Eugene said he was going to make me a present of $10 the Fourth when I was fourteen years old, and I'm goin' to give every one of 'em,” he replied, sturdily.

Then a faint cheer went up and some of the women wiped their eyes.

Mrs. Abby Newman began to feel that perhaps she had no need to be ashamed of her boy after all.

General Newman had so many presents on the Sunday school tree the next evening that he was nearly overcome. He could not believe his eyes when he saw the jackknives, the tops, the sled and the books. Every one of the friends to whom he had presented his promissory note had been furnished with a present to hang on the tree for him, but he never dreamed why.