From The Winning Lady and Others (Harper and Brothers; New York: 1909)
Grace Maybe looked happily at the stocking stuffed bunchily from toe to top, hanging beside the open fireplace, then at Flora Greenway. “Yes,” said she, “it is crammed full. Little Grace will be so tickled she won't know what to do.”
Flora laughed pleasantly. “I wish I could see her when she takes the presents out,” said she. Flora was a large, plain girl, with a sweet expression and a high, benevolent forehead. She was engaged to be married to Grace's brother-in-law, Oliver Maybe. She taught school for her living and supported her orphan niece, little Annie Greenway.
“I do wish you could see her take the presents out,” said Grace; “but I expect she will be up by dawn.”
“Too early for me,” laughed Flora, “and you know I have to see to Annie's Christmas stocking, too, dear.”
“So you have.”
Flora looked at the stocking, which was capped with a sprig of holly. “I have some holly, too,” said she. “Annie has hung her stocking, and I have a sprig of holly on top.”
“I had to use one of my own stockings,” said Grace. “Little Grace's would not have begun to hold the things. She really has almost too nice and expensive presents this year. There are a little gold ring with a tiny pearl from her aunt Emma, and a gold locket and chain from her uncle Oliver, and her grandma Maybe sent her a lovely coral string, and her grandpa a five-dollar gold piece. Then the doll I have been dressing for her will have to sit on the floor under the stocking. Of course, that will not go in, and her father is going to bring home a sled to-night, and a doll's house.”
“You will spoil her,” said Flora. Then she added, hastily: “But you can't, dear, I know. She is such a darling. You can't spoil such a child as little Grace, and I can't spoil my Annie!”
“What have you got for Annie?”
Flora colored. “I could not buy her much except necessary things,” said she; “but I have dressed a doll, and I found a real cunning set of china dishes for a quarter at Simmons'. She won't know the difference.”
Grace rose hastily. “Wait a minute, dear,” she said. “I have a box of candy and a game I want to give you to put in Annie's stocking.”
“You are very kind,” Flora said, gratefully.
“I have them all ready, tied up with ribbons,” said Grace. “They are in my room; I will bring them right down.”
When Grace came back, trailing her blue tea-gown, she had her hands full. “Here, dear,” she said. “I want you to take this box of handkerchiefs, and this boy doll, too. I got them for little Grace, but they simply will not go into the stocking, and she has enough as it is.”
Flora was standing at the window as Grace entered. She was looking at a stand of geraniums in blossom. The shade was up, and one could see outside the snowy landscape and the full moon overhead. Flora had put on her old fur-lined cloak while Grace was out of the room. She turned with it wrapped around her, and extended a hand for Grace's gifts, and thanked her sweetly.
“Annie will be so pleased,” she said, “and, to tell you the truth, I have been feeling rather sad all day because I had so little to put in the dear child's stocking. You know I have hard work to make both ends meet.”
“I know,” said Grace, sympathetically. “What made you put your cloak on, dear? Isn't the room warm enough?”
“Oh yes, but I really must go. I don't feel quite easy about leaving Annie alone in the house any longer.”
“Why, Flora, aren't you going to wait for Oliver? He must be home before long now. The Masons' meetings never last much after ten.”
“No, I don't think I can.”
“I expect Joe, too, every minute. He will go home with you.”
“No, I think I had better not wait, really, Grace.”
All this time Grace had been standing with her back toward the fireplace. “Aren't you afraid?” she asked, anxiously.
Flora laughed. “Afraid on the village street in broad moonlight! Why, it is as light as day,” she answered, “and it is such a short distance, anyway. Tell Oliver that I am sorry not to see him, but I felt that I ought not to wait.”
Grace went to the door with Flora, and afterward stood at the window behind the stand of geraniums, watching her hurry down the street. The street and sidewalk, hard packed with snow, gleamed like a track of silver. Flora's dark figure, bulging at one side with the parcels which she carried under her fur-lined cloak, was clearly outlined until she passed out of sight. She lived about half a mile down the street.
Then Grace turned around, and her eyes instinctively sought the Christmas stocking — her dear little daughter's Christmas stocking. It was not there. Grace stared, bewildered. She rubbed her eyes. It seemed to her that she must be mistaken — that the stocking must be there. She went over to the fireplace and actually felt of the brass hook on which the bellows usually hung and on which the stocking had been suspended, and there was absolutely nothing there. “It can't be that I feel wrong as well as see wrong,” Grace said, aloud, in a stupid fashion. She stood quite still, staring. She was dazed. She had gone up-stairs, leaving her dearest friend and her sister-to-be in the room with that Christmas stocking. Now her friend was gone, and the stocking was gone. Her mind refused to grasp the facts.
Finally she sat down beside the hearth and tried to think, to reason out the matter, but it was all in vain. It was like trying to solve an algebraical problem not fairly stated. The premises were all awry. There was no solution in reason. Grace thought blindly of Maggie, the one servant in the house. Maggie was honest beyond question, and, moreover, Maggie could prove an alibi. Maggie was not in the house, had not been in the house since noon. However, Grace went up-stairs to Maggie's room, to find it empty, and Maggie's feathered hat, which always decorated her dresser when not afield, was missing. On her way down-stairs Grace peeped into little Grace's room. Little Grace's room was separated by a narrow closet from her parents' apartment and was a rosy nest, with wall-paper strewn with garlands of rosebuds, the daintiest white furniture painted with a charming rose design, white muslin curtains tied with pink ribbons, and a rose-patterned rug by the white bed. In this bed lay little Grace, as pink and sweet as a rose herself, with her tangle of curly brown hair, and her closed eyes with long dark fringes against her flushed cheeks.
“The little precious,” murmured Grace. Then she thought with dismay how disappointed the darling would be when she did not find the stocking which she had hung with such innocent faith before she had gone to bed. Of course there would be the big doll and the sled and the doll's house, but none of them would go into a stocking. What would poor little Grace do?
When Grace went down-stairs she heard a click in the lock of the front door, and knew with a throb of relief that Joe, her husband, had come. When the door was open she flung herself toward him with a hysterical sob. Joe Maybe, who was a large, happy-faced young man in a fur-lined coat, carefully set some packages on the floor, then turned his attention to his wife. “Why, Grace dear,” he asked, anxiously, “what is the matter?”
“Little Grace's stocking has gone,” Grace sobbed.
“Don't be a goose. If I knew where, do you think I would be so upset?”
“But where?” asked Joe, inconsequently, again.
“Joe Maybe, if you ask where again you'll drive me raving mad.”
Then Joe said nothing at all. He stood staring stupidly at his wife, who spoke stammeringly, giving the facts — the utterly unreasonable, impossible facts.
When she had done, Joe continued to stare for a second. Then he said, “Sure the stocking was there?”
“Joe Maybe, are you losing your wits? Didn't you help me fill that stocking before you went down street?”
“So I did. Are you sure you didn't take it away — hang it somewhere else?”
“I know I did not.”
“Where is Maggie?” then asked Joe, feebly.
“I gave her an afternoon out. She went away right after luncheon, and has not been home since.”
“How long were you out of the room?”
“Perhaps ten minutes — no longer.”
“And Flora was there when you went up-stairs?”
Joe flushed angrily. “You don't think that I think —” he spluttered.
“I hope you aren't quite such a fool, Joe Maybe.”
“I don't believe, for my part, that the stocking was there when you went out,” declared Joe, with an air of sudden wise decision.
“Joe Maybe, don't you believe I can see with my own eyes?”
“I think you sometimes get rattled.”
Then Grace waxed indignant. “I dare say you think I am rattled now,” said she. “Perhaps you think the stocking is there, after all.”
Suddenly Grace seized her husband by his huge fur-clad shoulders and gave him a twist toward the open library door. From where they stood the fireplace was distinctly visible. “Look!” said she, imperiously.
“It ain't there,” admitted Joe, relapsing into the vernacular of his boyhood through consternation.
Then Grace committed the very error for which she had chidden her husband. “Where is it?” she said, helplessly.
“How in creation do you suppose I know?” asked Joe. “Haven't I just come in, and the last thing I saw when I went away was that confounded stocking hanging there, with the sprig of holly on top.”
The two stood staring at each other, but Grace was the first to recover a measure of equanimity. “Well, the stocking is gone,” said she, with decision, “and that isn't the question now. The question now is how are we to manage so that precious darling shall not have her dear little Christmas spoiled. She must have her stocking filled with something. Of course we can't replace all those lovely things our relatives have sent her, but it must be stuffed full, Joe Maybe.”
“Have you got anything to put in it?” asked Joe.
“Not a thing except a box of candy. I gave everything I had left over to Flora for Annie.” Both Grace's and Joe's face contracted as with an unspoken, uneasy thought at the mention of Flora. “Are all the stores shut?” asked Grace.
“Simmons' wasn't when I left, and I dare say if I hurry it won't be before I get back there.”
Grace gave him a push. “Then hurry just as fast as you can!” she cried. “Get anything to fill a stocking. Get games, boxes of children's paper, balls, kaleidoscopes — anything. Run just as fast as ever you can, Joe Maybe!”
Joe was fairly pushed out the door, and he raced down the moonlit street with his head in a whirl like the very kaleidoscope which his wife had mentioned. All sorts of toys of childhood seemed revolving before his mental vision, making endless queer and bewildering combinations.
Meantime Grace went up-stairs and got the mate to the missing stocking, and brought it down. Then she sat waiting for Joe's return. Again she tried to bring reason out of the unreasonable situation, and again her mind labored in vain. Then Oliver, her husband's brother, came in and found her sitting there. He glanced first at her, then at the fireplace.
“Hullo!” said he, “where's Flora? What on earth is the matter, Grace? Where is the kid's stocking?” The three questions were fired very rapidly at Grace, and she answered the last first.
“It has disappeared,” said she, in an embarrassed fashion.
At first Oliver laughed. “Disappeared!” he echoed. “What! did Santa Claus take a notion to give it to another kid? What do you mean?”
“What I say,” repeated Grace. “It has disappeared.”
“Disappeared! I never heard of such a thing. What do you mean?”
“What I say. I left it hanging there, and went up-stairs for something, and when I returned that stocking had disappeared.”
“Who was in the house? Had anybody come into the room? Was the front door unlocked?” Oliver Maybe had a curious manner of putting questions in bunches.
Grace answered the last question and ignored the others.
“No,” said she.
Oliver whistled. “It beats anything I ever heard,” said he. “Where's Flora? I thought she was coming over.”
“She did come, and went home. She left word that she was sorry, but thought she ought not to wait any longer and leave Annie alone.”
“I think she might have waited,” said Oliver. His face scowled slightly. He looked like his brother, but he had a nervous temperament and was not always so good-natured. “What did she think of the stocking's disappearance?” he asked.
“Why don't you answer?”
“I didn't tell her,” said Grace, faintly.
“To tell the truth, I did not know it myself until after she was gone,” said Grace.
“I suppose she noticed it hanging there,” Oliver said, with a puzzled air.
“Yes; we both talked about it,” said Grace, still constrainedly; but Oliver did not notice the constraint.
“Well, what is to be done?” he asked. “It will break that child's heart if she does not have her Christmas stocking.”
“Joe has run back to Simmons' to buy some things,” said Grace. “Of course, it must be filled.”
Oliver took out his wallet, and handed Grace a ten-dollar note. “Sorry I haven't got a gold-piece,” said he, “but that will have to do. Tuck it in the toe, Grace.”
“When I think of that lovely locket and chain you bought for little Grace, I could cry,” said Grace. “Thank you, Oliver. It is too much for you to do.”
Oliver still scowled. “Oh, that's nothing,” said he. “I don't mind that, but it is the queerest thing I ever heard. Did you say the front door was unlocked?”
Grace did not reply at once.
“Was it?” persisted Oliver.
“I think it was unlocked,” Grace replied, faintly.
Then Oliver jumped up.
“Good Lord, Grace!” he cried. “Don't you see what it means, then? There was a sneak-thief in the house — he must have got in while we were at supper. I know the front door wasn't locked then, for I was the first to go out, and I remember it was unlocked. Why, Grace, he must be in the house now, unless he had a chance to steal out while Joe was here!”
Grace began to look pale. “He couldn't possibly,” she gasped. “Oh, Oliver, do you think —?”
“Why, there must be! Here, give me that lamp. You stay here.”
But Grace had spirit. “No, you are not going a step without me,” she declared. “But do be as still as you can. I don't want little Grace frightened — she is so nervous. If there should be a man, don't you think you can make him be quiet, Oliver?”
“I rather think I can,” Oliver said, grimly. He strode out into the hall with the lamp, Grace at his heels. Then he got a stout walking-stick from the stand, and he and Grace searched the whole house. They even went down cellar, and up in the attic, but there was no sneak-thief. They peeped into little Grace's rosy nest, and she still lay seemingly fast asleep, with the brown tangle of silky hair over her rosy cheeks. “Bless her heart,” whispered Oliver, who adored his niece.
When they were back in the library they looked at each other. Grace's eyes fell before her brother-in-law's. “What do you make of it?” asked Oliver, crossly. Grace shook her head.
Then they heard Joe at the front door, and Grace ran to admit him. Joe's arms were full of parcels.
“I got there just as they were closing,” he panted. “I was just in time. Guess I've got enough to fill the stocking.”
“What do you make of it, anyway, Joe?” Oliver asked, still crossly.
“Hush, for goodness' sake!” whispered Grace, taking some of the parcels from her husband's hands. “You will wake up little Grace.”
And they hushed; but there was really no need whatever for caution, for little Grace was quite wide awake, and had been all the time. She was awake, and very conscience-stricken. Little Grace Maybe might have been cited at that time as a good example of the unwisdom of telling children about Santa Claus, since she had been thereby led into deceit and the worst naughtiness of which she had ever been guilty. Little Grace had always been called a very good girl, quite a pattern for other children. She was naturally obedient and loving and truthful, but now she had fallen from grace and bumped her spiritual forehead and sadly skinned her spiritual knees. And it had all come to pass through her entire belief in Santa Claus. That afternoon she had been permitted to go over and visit Minnie Anderson, who lived next door, and who, coming from German stock, was quite filled with Christmas lore. The two children had been left alone together while Minnie's mother dressed her Christmas doll, and they talked. And Minnie had filled little Grace's head with dire misgivings. “If,” Minnie had said, “you have not been a real good girl all the year you will have a bundle of sticks instead of presents in your stocking.” And little Grace had tried very hard to remember whether she had or had not been good all the year. Once, she admitted, when pressed by Minnie's questioning, she had been guilty of helping herself to a spoonful of jelly without her mother's knowledge, and once she had cried when her mother would not let her go to the store with her. Minnie was of the opinion that these two misdemeanors might have caused little Grace to lose her chance of Christmas presents. She, Minnie, could not remember anything as bad of which she had been guilty. It, therefore, ended in little Grace's returning home in a very doleful state of mind, and hanging her stocking with a hopeless feeling that she had much better not. She had not fallen asleep, but had lain awake, thinking, and out of her thoughts arose finally a tiny flame of resentment and rebellion. She did not think that she had been so very naughty because she had taken just one spoonful of jelly, and she had wanted very much to go to the store that time when she had cried. It began to seem to little Grace that the loss of Christmas presents and the substitution of a bundle of sticks was entirely too severe a penalty for such little sins. She accordingly began to consider how she could circumvent her hard fate. She had heard her mother come up-stairs. She had not known that her aunt Flora, as she had been taught to call her, was in the library. She had stolen down-stairs, and she had started at the sight of Flora; but when she had seen that she did not notice her, she had slipped across the room and stolen her own Christmas stocking and fled up the back stairs and gotten back into bed. She was hugging the stocking close when her mother peeped in at her the first time. The second time she had it hidden away at the bottom of her doll's trunk, which stood at the foot of her bed.
When little Grace's father and mother came up for the night and peeped lovingly in at her for the third time, and her mother gave her rose-sprinkled silk quilt a tender tuck; when she heard them whispering in the next room and knew quite well they were discussing the disappearance of the stocking — little Grace realized in her child's heart the emotions of one who had lived long in the world. She had come suddenly into a knowledge of deceit and wrong-doing for the sake of her own selfish ends which aged her, poor child! She lay awake a long time, and was very unhappy and at the same time defiant. Then she became so sleepy that her unhappiness no longer stung her into wakefulness, and she fell into slumber. She awoke early, and lay for a moment in her usual blissful semiconsciousness of life, which was hardly more than the consciousness of a rose. Then she remembered. It was Christmas morning. There would be no stocking hanging for her beside the chimney-place. There might, indeed, be a bundle of sticks, as Minnie Anderson had prophesied, for where was there another such naughty girl as she? But what else could there be? It was a woful face which looked up at Grace Maybe when she came in and wished her one darling a merry Christmas and kissed her.
“Why, sweetheart,” she said, lovingly, “how has it happened that you have not been up before now, and down-stairs to see what Santa Claus has brought you?”
“I don't know,” murmured little Grace.
Her mother regarded her anxiously. “Why, darling, what is it?” she cried. “Don't you feel well?”
Little Grace's father was standing in the doorway by that time, and looking concerned. “Had I better go for the doctor?” he said. “What ails her, Grace?”
“I don't know. Tell mother what ails you, mother's precious lamb.”
Then little Grace began to cry as she had never cried before, shedding such tears as she had never shed before: the tears which came from the horror of wickedness discovered in one's own heart. Grace Maybe did not know what to do. She and Joe looked at each other in dismay, and Joe asked again if he had not better go for the doctor.
Finally Grace soothed little Grace after a fashion, gave her her bath, brushed her hair, and tied it with a red and green ribbon because it was Christmas Day, and fastened her embroidered red dress. Then little Grace was led down-stairs. Her father and mother could not imagine why she hung back and seemed to dread to go. But they were still more aghast when little Grace gave a shrill cry of terror at the sight of the stocking stuffed bulgingly and tipped with a sprig of holly. How in the world had it happened? Her Christmas stocking was up-stairs at the very bottom of her doll's trunk, and yet it was here! It was too much for little Grace, who was a nervous, imaginative child. She turned so pale that her mother laid her on the divan, and Joe, after calling his brother, rushed for the doctor. Little Grace did not faint away, but she began to weep again, and looked so pale and frightened that it was heartbreaking, especially on Christmas morning. Her uncle Oliver stood beside her mother, and looked at her.
“What on earth ails her?” said he. “Coming down with the measles?”
“Of course not, Oliver. She had them only last summer.”
“Maybe it's scarlet fever, then,” suggested Oliver, cheerfully.
“Oh dear, I hope not,” moaned Grace. “It isn't around here.”
“Sometimes there are isolated cases, I've heard,” said Oliver, wisely. “Seems to me her hands feel rather too warm.”
“It can't be,” almost sobbed little Grace's mother. “Does your head ache, darling? Where do you feel bad, sweetheart?”
“I don't know,” panted little Grace, and indeed she did not know, for this world-old pain was quite new to her.
Oliver took the stocking down, and he and little Grace's mother tried to divert her with the contents, but she did not seem to pay any attention. Then the doctor came with Joe.
“I have been trying to have her notice her Christmas presents,” Grace said, “but she seems to be all upset over them. See if she is feverish, doctor.”
The doctor, who was quite old and very stout, breathed wheezily and felt little Grace's pulse, with spectacled eyes upon his big gold watch. Little Grace grew paler. She had a terrified conviction that the doctor and his watch between them would surely find out what the real trouble was. The doctor's first words confirmed her. He turned and looked sharply at her mother, then at her father.
“Has this child had any shock to her nerves lately?” he asked.
Grace Maybe gasped, and so did Joe.
“Why, not that we know of,” replied Grace, and Joe echoed his wife.
“Not that we know of,” said he.
Then the doctor turned his sharp eyes upon little Grace. “Anything scared you lately?” said he. “Seen a mouse or anything?”
“No, thir,” answered little Grace, feebly.
“Is it scarlet fever, doctor?” asked Uncle Oliver.
“Scarlet fiddlesticks,” replied the doctor, shortly. “This child has seen a bugaboo. There's nothing the matter with her. She is one of the kind of children who see bugaboos. It is time you stopped seeing bugaboos,” he said to little Grace directly, and she trembled and said, “Yeth, thir.”
“Mind you do,” said the doctor. “The very best thing you can do if she sees another,” he told little Grace's mother, “is to give that child a good dose of castor-oil without any lemon to take the taste out, and without any candy afterward. Sometimes castor-oil works like a charm. It drives away a bugaboo better than anything else.” The doctor's mouth, although his tone was very stern, twitched at the corners, and his eyes twinkled. However, out in the hall, with the library door closed, he spoke seriously to little Grace's parents. “She is a very peculiar child,” said the doctor, and Joe and Grace looked rather proud, also alarmed.
“She is nervous and sensitive to a very marked degree,” said the doctor. “It seems absurd, but has she anything on her mind?”
Then Joe and Grace stared.
“Anything on her mind?” said Joe.
“Anything on that blessed child's mind?” said Grace.
The doctor shook his head. “Sometimes children, especially children of her type, get queer fancies into their heads,” he said. “Keep her quiet. Don't attempt to force even her Christmas presents upon her if she seems disturbed. Keep her quiet, and the castor-oil won't do any harm, anyway.”
Events developed rapidly that Christmas Day. Suddenly Uncle Oliver became aware of the true significance of the situation. It was after luncheon. The Christmas dinner was to be eaten at seven o'clock. Grace had taken little Grace up-stairs, and was trying to divert her by reading a story. Joe and his brother were alone in the library, when Oliver turned and said:
“Great Scott! Joe, you don't think —”
“No, old man, I don't think!” Joe cried, hotly, but he colored.
“Then you are trying not to think, you and Grace. You can't deny that. Why, Joe, Flora! Flora! the thing is monstrous!”
“Of course it is. We don't —”
“But you are trying not to. Flora was alone in the room with that miserable stocking when Grace went up-stairs. You and Grace have let that much out, and —” Oliver jumped up and began pacing the room.
“Now, see here, Oliver,” Joe said. “We might just as well talk this over reasonably, now that you have begun. Neither Grace nor I actually thinks Flora took that stocking, and, what is more, we never shall think so, but here are the facts.” Then Joe told in a few words the story of Flora, Annie, and the fur-lined cloak.
“You do think so, you and Grace!” Oliver said, furiously.
“I tell you, Oliver, we don't think so.”
“Everything points that way. You do think so. Flora shall not come here for Christmas dinner.” (Flora and Annie had been invited to dinner.) “I will go straight over and tell her not to come. She shall not enter a house where she has been so insulted, not while I have any influence with her.”
Then Oliver rushed out of the room, and thrust himself into his coat, and strode down the snowy road. Grace heard the commotion and came running down to the library, and Joe told her what had happened. Grace began to cry.
“It is perfectly awful,” she said. “I never knew such an awful Christmas. Of course, poor dear Flora didn't take that stocking.”
“I wouldn't believe it if I saw her with it,” declared Joe.
“Neither would I. But she is sure to feel that we do suspect her, and Oliver will only make a bad matter worse — he is so hot-headed — and Flora and Annie won't come to dinner, and little Grace scares me, she acts so strange. But I simply will not give that dear child castor-oil. I don't care what the doctor said. He is a brute.”
“How does little Grace seem now?” asked Joe, anxiously.
“She is just as pale as can be, and you know she wouldn't eat any luncheon, and she acts scared whenever I say anything about her Christmas presents, and every now and then she begins to cry, and she won't tell me what the matter is.” Poor Grace began to weep herself. “I never saw such an awful Christmas,” she said. “Oh, Joe, what do you think of it all?”
“I don't know,” Joe replied, gloomily. “But don't you cry and make yourself ill, dear.”
“Flora will never set her foot in this house again,” sobbed Grace, “after Oliver tells her. Oh, I wish he had stayed at home! She will never come here again, and then when Oliver marries her he will never come. It is perfectly dreadful.”
“You go too fast, dear,” said Joe, consolingly. “Perhaps she will come. Flora is very sensible.”
“No, she will not,” sobbed Grace.
But Grace was wrong. At half-past six Flora, Oliver, and little Annie appeared. Flora kissed Grace warmly. Then she laughed, although there were tears in her eyes.
“Grace darling,” said Flora, “I know just how queer this whole affair looks, but I do know that neither you nor Joe, after knowing me all these years, can possibly think —”
“Flora,” said Joe, with a great sigh of relief, “you are the most sensible girl I ever knew in my whole life.”
As for Grace, she hugged and kissed Flora, and she hugged and kissed Annie, who was a blonde morsel of a girl in a white coat and white leggings and a white hood, with one yellow curl carefully tucked outside on either cheek.
But Oliver still looked sulky. “Well, Flora has talked me over,” he said, “and I suppose she is right. You can't possibly suspect her.”
“Of course we can't,” came in an emphatic duet from Grace and Joe.
“But,” Oliver went on, “all the same I don't like such mysteries, and I want to know what did become of that stocking. I want this cleared up.”
They had all been in the hall, talking, and now a weak little voice came from the head of the stairs, “Mamma!”
Grace turned quickly. “What is it, darling?” she asked. “The poor child has been so sick all day we had to call in the doctor,” she explained hurriedly to Flora, then went up-stairs, calling anxiously all the way: “What is it, precious? Don't you feel well?”
The others went into the library. They heard a door close overhead, then an exclamation, then a sound of sobbing.
“I should think everybody had lost their wits this particular Christmas,” Oliver said, irritably. “What on earth is the matter now?”
“Don't, Oliver dear,” said Flora. “Perhaps the poor child is sick.”
“No more sick than I am,” said Oliver. “She is fretting about something.”
Flora went to the foot of the stairs and called to know if she could do anything; and Grace's voice, which sounded excited and agitated, replied, “No, dear; little Grace and I are coming right down.”
Flora removed Annie's coat and leggings and hood, and she appeared in a white embroidered frock, with a big blue bow on the top of her yellow head. Annie sat down obediently and remained very quiet, as did they all. Everybody in the room had a premonition of an approaching sensation. Presently it arrived. Grace Maybe entered, and after her little Grace in her red Christmas frock with her red and green bow on her brown head, and she carried in each hand a well-filled stocking. Everybody except Annie, who sat still and smiled innocently, sprang up and stared. “What —” began Oliver.
“Where did that stocking come from?” gasped Joe.
“Tell them, little Grace,” said Grace, and she patted the brown head with infinite tenderness and pity.
Then little Grace told her story with her charming lisp. When she had finished, her mother said: “And now little Grace is very sorry that she did such a naughty thing as to come down-stairs and take her own Christmas stocking before Christmas morning and make everybody so much trouble, aren't you, dear?”
“Yeth, 'm,” replied little Grace. Her eyes were still red with tears, although they had been well bathed with cold water, but her lips were smiling happily.
Joe stood staring, his face in a broad grin. “Poor little duck! So she thought Santa Claus wasn't going to give her anything this year, and planned to get ahead of him?” said he.
“Hush, Joe, do,” whispered Grace.
Oliver stood looking out of the window over the geranium plants, and he was shaking with subdued laughter. Flora was beside him, her hand on his arm. She also was laughing quietly. Annie sat and smiled. She smiled more when little Grace gave her the second Christmas stocking.
“Thith ith for you, becauth Thanta Clauth did not mean to give me more than one,” said she.
There was an irrepressible chuckle from Oliver.
“Oliver,” said Grace, “why don't you and Flora go into the parlor and let the children have this room to play in? I have to go out and see about dinner, and I want Joe to take the turkey out of the oven. I am afraid Maggie will drop it. She has a lame arm.”
Left alone in the library, the two small girls sat on the floor and explored their stockings.
“Did you think you wouldn't have any presents?” asked Annie, in the softest of voices.
“Yeth,” replied little Grace. Then she looked wistfully at Annie. “If I tell you something, won't you ever tell, honetht?” she said.
“No, I never will,” said Annie, surveying her with great blue eyes.
“I hadn't ever been real naughty before, and that scared me,” whispered little Grace; “but that wathen't all. You won't ever tell, will you?”
Annie nodded emphatically.
“When I thaw those two stockings I thought Thanta Clauth wath crathy,” whispered little Grace, “but now I've found out there ithen't any Thanta Clauth. He'th just your own folks.”
“I've known that ever since I was born,” said Annie, and she smiled a smile full of the wisdom of innocence at the other little girl.
“I am thorry I didn't alwath know he wath my folks,” said little Grace, “becauth if he wath there wathen't any need for me to take the stocking.”