The Usurper
A Christmas Story

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From New York Herald December 18, 1904

A week before Christmas there was a meeting held in the schoolhouse of District No. 2 to arrange for a tree on Christmas Eve. There were present the teacher, Miss Alice May, the three committeemen and the wife of one of them who never trusted her husband to make a decision without her assistance, and the minister. The minister had been especially requested to be present, as the arrangements were considered to partake of a religious nature. The minister was a very young and very timid man and this was his first parish. He had the inclination to be a diplomat, without the requisite genius. He wished to please everybody and be on all sides, and had not the mental agility necessary to accomplish it. Consequently he sat in a place of honor, an arm chair on the platform beside the teacher, and he looked miserable. There was for the first time what the people considered quite a serious question involved in connection with the Christmas tree. There was always a Christmas tree and there had always been a Santa Claus. Mr. Elias Jones' buffalo coat had served for a garment from time immemorial, and there was a Santa Claus mask with long white beard and a white wig, which was one of the perquisites of No. 2. Now for the first time the question had arisen as to whether it was right to have a Santa Claus at all. The three committeemen, Mrs. Fisher, the wife of the eldest committeeman, the teacher and the minister were considering the matter.

The teacher considered the matter wholly from the point of view of the scholars. “They will be so disappointed if there is no Santa Claus,” said she. Miss Alice May, although not so very young, was very pretty, and was called an excellent teacher. She was said to have good government and yet she made herself loved by the pupils. No. 2 was considered very lucky to have her for a teacher. It was thought fortunate for the village that she had not married Frank Osborne, to whom she had been engaged five years before. In fact, her wedding outfit had been all ready, when a difference arose between them; nobody ever knew exactly what it had been. Miss May wore to-night one of the gowns which had belonged to her wedding outfit. It was a brown cashmere, with exceedingly pretty pink trimming, and it was very becoming. Mrs. Joseph Fisher, looking at her, remembered that it had been one of the teacher's intended wedding gowns, and she thought privately that she could not have cared very much or she could not wear it with such a smiling face. She was to have been married at Christmas time, too. She thought that it must bring it all back to her, and yet her cheeks were as pink as roses and she was smiling as if she had never had a care in the world. For some reason Mrs. Joseph Fisher, who had never been, although she had kept it to herself, entirely satisfied with her own husband, felt exasperated. “It seems to me it isn't the question whether the scholars are disappointed or not,” said she sharply. She was a sharp faced little woman, and her husband was large and lumbering and apt to hesitate in his speech. Everybody said that Joseph Fisher would never have been elected school committeeman if it had not been for his wife; that she told him what to say every time or he would never dare to open his mouth. Mrs. Fisher spoke with a sibilant hiss and she worked her face a good deal when speaking. “It seems to me that is not the question at all,” she said again.

Then there was heard a confused rumble of masculine bass at her side equivalent to that was not the question at all. “It seems to me that all we ought to look at is whether it is right,” said Mrs. Joseph Fisher, and she spoke with an air of stern virtue. Mr. Joseph Fisher at her right was heard to give vent to an incoherent rumble of assent, and the other two committeemen bowed their heads solemnly. Then the minister spoke. He realized that it was incumbent upon him, although he shrank from voicing his opinion.

“The question is, it seems to me,” he said, addressing Miss Alice May diffidently — the pink trimming on her dress seemed to put him very much at a loss, since he fixed his eyes upon it, and his young cheeks assumed a similar color — “It seems to me,” said he, “that the question is whether the children will be deceived by making use, as has heretofore been done, of a Santa Claus in the Christmas exercises. The question seems to me to be one of deception.”

“No,” said Miss Alice May, soberly, “I don't really think any of them will be deceived for a moment. The Santa Claus is to be George Osborne, and he will tell every scholar in the school before Christmas. I don't think any of them can possibly be deceived.”

“You do not think,” said the minister, “there is any danger that any one of them can for a moment think — the — the person distributing the gifts is — a heathen deity?”

“No, I don't,” replied Miss Alice May.

Mrs. Henry Fisher had three children in No. 2. “I know my children are too bright to think George Osborne is a heathen deity,” said she, with a sniff, “but it seems to me that ain't exactly the question.”

“If you will allow me, Mrs. Fisher,” said the minister, and his young face was a bright scarlet, “to inquire what you really consider the question.”

“The question is,” said Mrs. Henry Fisher, “whether children in this school are going to be fools enough to think for a minute that anybody but their own folks give them their presents. I know my children won't, but I don't know about the others. The question is whether it is deception.” “Deception!” rumbled Mr. Joseph Fisher, at her right, and he blushed as furiously as the minister. “I think I can answer for it that none of them will,” said Miss Alice May. “They are very bright children, and they will know that George Osborne, dressed up in the wig and mask and the buffalo coat, is Santa Claus, and they will know that he didn't bring their presents from — from — the North Pole.” Miss Alice May was conscious of a little doubt as to where too credulous children might be supposed to think their gifts came from.

But the minister helped her out. “In other words,” said he, “they will not, in your opinion, be in the slightest danger of ascribing their Christmas gifts to any supernatural agency.”

“No, they will not,” replied Miss Alice May, “and they will be very much disappointed not to have a Santa Claus, as they always have had. It is just a part of the fun, like the tree and the evergreens.”

“I know my children are too bright to think for one minute that the mittens and balls and sleds that they are going to have came from the North Pole,” said Mrs. Fisher.

The meeting ended with the decision to have the Santa Claus distribute the presents as usual, with the understanding that all the children were to be told plainly that it was George Osborne who was concealed in the buffalo coat and wig and beard, and not Santa Claus. Miss Alice May was relieved at the decision. In her own heart she had considered the meeting to discuss the matter rather in the light of an effort to make a mountain out of a molehill. “No danger the children won't know who is Santa Claus,” said Mrs. Henry Fisher to her as they were going home. “Catch him keeping it to himself. The Osbornes ain't built that way. Anything that sets them up a little they ain't going to keep dark about. They ain't the kind to hide their candles under bushels; never was.”

Mrs. Fisher thought that she might have an assent from the teacher, since it had been rumored that her engagement with Frank Osborne had been broken off, for the reason that he wanted to have a great church wedding and she wanted to save the money for housekeeping, but Miss Alice May said nothing at all. She pulled her fur boa closely around her throat, and said that it was a bitter night, as it certainly was. She boarded with the Fishers, and they had about a mile to drive in a sleigh. They sat there on a seat — the two women were small — and Mr. Joseph Fisher drove and never spoke a word the whole way.

After she reached home the teacher sat up until midnight in her room, where she had a little wood stove, and worked on Christmas presents. She did not feel very happy. She never did at Christmastime, although she had a pride about keeping her cheeks pink and her mouth smiling. Somehow, when Christmas drew near she always thought a good deal about what might have been, and how she, instead of teaching school for a living and boarding with the Fishers, whom she in the depths of her heart did not much care for, might have had a home of her own, with Frank Osborne for the head of it. George looked very much like his elder brother, and somehow the sight of the boy's face always made her heart ache with loneliness. They had quarrelled about nothing at all, as it seemed to her now, and Frank, who was very impulsive, had taken the next train for the West, and that was the last of him so far as she was concerned. She knew he was not married, for if he had been his mother, who had always felt resentful toward her, first, because she had come between her and her son in the matter of affection, and, secondly, and inconsistently, because she had quarrelled with him and been responsible for his exile, would have found some means to tell her of it. However, married or not, she thought that she must be by this time quite out of his mind or he would have written to her. She resolved that, however badly she felt, nobody should know it by her looks or her manner. She would have been capable of rouge if the pink on her cheeks had not endured. She always made a great deal of Christmas, purposely that people might not know how sad she really was. She made a great many presents and was greatly interested in the school Christmas tree. To-night she was finishing a pair of red mittens for one of the scholars, and as she crocheted she thought about the Santa Claus question. She made up her mind that the next day she would make a little speech to the scholars and tell them how Santa Claus was merely a pretty story invented to please the children, and how there was really no Santa Claus, but George Osborne was to make believe he was, with Mr. Elias Jones' buffalo coat and the white wig and beard, and that all the presents came from their friends and relatives. She said to herself that she thought it was all rather foolish, and she did not believe that there was any real need of such an explanation, but she supposed she must make it. Accordingly, the next day she did as she had planned. She rapped with her ruler on her desk to command attention, and then she made her little speech. Some of the scholars grinned openly, and George Osborne's face, which was so like his brother's, colored a vivid red at being thus made the centre of attention. After school, when she was on her way home, with a number of the children, as usual, clinging to her hands and trailing in her rear, little Malvina Eddy, who was perhaps the youngest scholar in school, looked up at her with a shrewd little face. Malvina lisped, and the other scholars laughed at her for it, but she did not mind. Malvina, even at the age of six, had a soul impervious to ridicule. “Teasher,” she said. “What is it, dear?” asked Miss May. “I wouldn't never have thought George Osborne wath Thanta Clauth, honeth, teasher.” “I wouldn't neither,” said little Charley Saunderson, who was kicking the snow up as he walked behind. “Them stories is for kids.” “Those,” said Miss May, severely, “and kids is slang, Charley.”

“I don't care, I wouldn't,” said Charley.

“Me neither,” said pretty little Maudie Gleason at her side.

“I either, dear,” said Miss May patiently.

“George Osborne, he tells everybody he's going to be Santa Claus,” said Martha White, one of the older girls, marching soberly in the rear, with her books dangling in a strap. Martha was one of the best scholars in school, and always took her books home. “George Osborne, he can never keep anything to himself,” she added with a tincture of contempt. She was at the age when a girl despises a boy as much as a boy does a girl. There is a period when the two sexes are at the antipodes as regards each other. The period is transitory, but it exists. Martha White despised George Osborne as much as he despised her, and that was saying considerable. She ranked higher than he in the arithmetic class, and he could draw a much better map in colored crayons on the blackboard than she. Martha White told Minnie Jones that she thought George Osborne made a perfect fool of himself dressed up in her father's buffalo coat and the white beard and wig, which were the school properties, anyway, and Minnie Jones said she thought so, too. “I'd a heap rather hang my stocking myself,” said Martha White, “but it pleases teacher, and she's real good to go to so much trouble, so I ain't going to say a word.”

“I ain't,” said Minnie Jones. She was a year older than Martha and not as good a scholar, but she privately thought that her father's old buffalo coat was to be rather honored by George Osborne wearing it.

Meanwhile Miss Alice May knew nothing about all this. She worked very hard the week before Christmas, sitting up until midnight to finish Christmas gifts, for she made one for each of her scholars and since her means were limited she had to make up for richness of quality by her own handiwork. She crocheted mittens and made aprons until she was nearly worn out, and all the time her heart was aching over the memory of that other Christmas, five years ago, when she was finishing her pretty dresses and expecting to be married to Frank Osborne, and all the time she was going about smiling and working as if she had never had a care in her life.

However, the night before Christmas Eve she gave way for a few minutes. She had remained after school to complete some preparations, and all at once it seemed to her that she could not bear it all another minute. She just sank down in her worn chair and let her head fall on her desk and sobbed and sobbed as if her heart would break. She was all alone in the schoolroom, and she let her long restrained grief get completely the better of her. She even talked and moaned to herself. “Oh, Frank, Frank,” she gasped, “how can I bear it; how can I? Another Christmas, another!”

She did not see or hear George Osborne enter the door, stare and listen a moment, then retreat precipitately. Then George Osborne went home immediately and told his mother.

“Brother Frank needn't worry, I guess,” said George Osborne with an odd triumph. “I guess teacher feels enough sight worse than he does. You'd ought to have heard teacher, mother. If I was him I'd get another girl enough sight better lookin' than teacher, an' send her photograph home, so she could see it.”

“She was crying, was she?” said Mrs. Osborne.

“Cryin', well, I guess you'd a thought so, mother, and sayin' Frank over and over.”

Mrs. Osborne's face softened a little. “Well, go and wash your hands,” she said; “supper is about ready.”

Miss Alice May passed the house rapidly while the Osbornes were eating supper, and Mrs. Osborne glanced at her, still with that softened look on her face. Alice wore her veil pulled well down over her face, so that nobody should remark her reddened eyes, and when she reached home she called to Mrs. Fisher that she did not want any supper that night and went straight up to her room. When Mrs. Fisher, who had a curious mind, came up to see why she did not want any supper she was bending over her wash basin washing her face with such assiduity that nobody could possibly discover that she had been weeping. She told Mrs. Fisher her head ached and she thought she was a little bilious, and it would be just as well for her not to eat anything. “You are working yourself to death over the Christmas tree,” said Mrs. Fisher. “I shall be glad when it is over. I am almost worn out myself trying to finish that table cover for my sister.”

She further asked if Alice were sure that she had not at least better have a cup of hot tea, but Alice, still with her face over the wash basin, assured her that she did not want anything.

When Mrs. Fisher had gone the teacher sat down again to her red mittens. She was on the last pair, and she was thankful. The next day she was busy all day trimming the tree and hanging on the presents. Mrs. Fisher helped her, and also Christine Munroe, who was the daughter of one of the committeemen. Once Mrs. Fisher whispered to Christine, when the teacher was in another part of the room, “I never saw such a sight of presents as she has got,” indicating the teacher with a movement of her angular elbow.

“I suppose every scholar has given her something,” replied Christine, who was a pretty girl and all aglow with the joy of Christmas.

“There's things I've hung on that tree that didn't look as if they had ever come from any of the scholars in this school,” replied Mrs. Fisher mysteriously. “It seems to me as if that tree was about covered with presents marked for her.”

“Oh, I guess they are all from the scholars,” said Christine. “They must be. She hasn't anybody outside to give them to her that I know of. She hasn't any relatives except that old aunt in Boston, and it's about all she can do to get along herself, I know, for I have heard Miss May say so.”

“Maybe she's had some money left her,” said Mrs. Fisher. “I know I've hung things on that tree that none of the scholars in this school ever got for her. There's been two little boxes done up in white paper, tied with silver cord.”


“Too small for candy.”

The teacher wore to the Christmas tree still another of the pretty dresses she had made for her bridal outfit. They were all somewhat out of fashion, but fashions were slow in reaching this little inland village, and nobody thought of that. They looked at the teacher in her red silk dress, and Mrs. Fisher whispered to a woman beside her: — “I don't see how she could wear that dress if she had any feelings at all. That is the dress she was going to wear to receive her wedding callers in.”

“I suppose she didn't have money to buy new ones, maybe,” said the other woman, who was a charitable soul, and she was quite right. Alice had not felt that she could buy more dresses and put her poor bridal attire aside, for she had spent a goodly part of her savings upon it. Nobody knew how her heart ached under the red silk. She looked very pretty. The gown had quite a train and fluttered after her as she walked. She wore a sprig of holly in her hair, and she certainly did not look as if anything troubled her. She stood under the shade, or, rather, the light — for it was trimmed with candles — of the Christmas tree, and made a pretty little address to the scholars. Then the young minister, who had been asked to do so in order to allay a lingering doubt on the part of some as to the legitimacy of the tree at all, delivered a short, carefully prepared speech, in which he assured the impatient children that Santa Claus had in reality never existed, that it was only for the amusement of children that he had ever been personated, and that one of their schoolmates was now to take his part, but not one of them must for a moment think that the person who was about to distribute their presents, which their parents and friends had so carefully prepared for them, was anything supernatural. Then he solemnly seated himself in a seat of honor beside the teacher and the committee, and directly down from the loft of the schoolhouse on a little ladder clambered a figure in Mr. Elias Jones' buffalo coat and the mask with the white wig and beard.

It all began very well. The children's names were called and they went up and received their gifts. George Osborne spoke in an unusually firm voice, and Mrs. Fisher whispered to the woman inside her that he was terribly set up at being Santa Claus, and she wouldn't let a boy of hers holler so. But suddenly Miss Alice May's name was called and, as was the custom, Santa Claus brought the gift to her, instead of obliging her to go forward and receive it. Miss Alice May opened the dainty little white box innocently enough. She thought it contained some little offering from one of her pupils. She fairly gasped when a sapphire brooch, set in diamonds, blazed in her eyes from its white satin cushion. Several were looking over her shoulders, Mrs. Fisher among them. “For the land sakes!” gasped Mrs. Fisher.

“It must be imitation!” said another woman. “It beats all how they make imitation things nowadays. That looks as if it cost twenty-five dollars, and I don't suppose it cost over twenty-five cents.” Alice had turned quite pale regarding the beautiful jewel. She knew quite well that it had cost more than twenty-five cents and was not imitation. But she said, quite calmly, “Yes, they do make wonderful imitations of jewelry,” and closed the box. Then her name was called again, and this time it was a cotton handkerchief, trimmed with lace, from one of the scholars; then again, and a gift book was brought to her, then a box of home made candy. Then the scholars' presents were distributed again, and it was some time before her name was called for a sachet from Maudie Gleason. Nearly every scholar in the school gave something to the teacher, and her lap became filled with packages. The little box containing the brooch was underneath them all.

It was not until another suspiciously wrapped box had been brought to her, and she, opening it under the fire of wondering eyes, which would have been too wondering to endure had she not opened it at all, as she felt tempted to do, contained a beautiful little chatelain watch, set with diamonds. This time Alice gave a great start, for she had seen that watch before, and she felt so faint that Mrs. Fisher's “Land sakes!” hardly reached her ears. But attention was all at once diverted from her by a great commotion among the scholars. Martha White had turned around and spied George Osborne sitting behind a post which had been put up to strengthen the ceiling at the end of the room. Martha's blank stare was infectious. All the other scholars turned around and looked. There was George Osborne, sitting at the back of the schoolroom, and they had just been told by the minister that he was personating Santa Claus. Several of the more nervous and imaginative children turned as pale as the teacher. They believed in Santa Claus in spite of the minister. How could they help it? George Osborne was to be Santa Claus, and there was George Osborne at the back of the room, and somebody was distributing the presents. Maudie Gleason's name was called next, to receive her red mittens, which the teacher had made for her, and she was afraid to go forward to the mysterious Santa Claus. She began to cry, when Martha White pushed her. Finally Martha herself, who had no belief in the supernatural, went forward and got the mittens. “He ain't Santa Claus any more'n you be,” she said to Maudie, when she returned. “Take your mittens. I don't know who he is, but he ain't Santa Claus. There ain't no Santa Claus, and teacher made them mittens. You can't fool me.”

It was very timidly and apprehensively, however, that many of the children went forward when their names were called. They would look at George Osborne, who had promised not to be seen and who was looking exceedingly red faced and guilty at having broken his word, then they would go forward, aided by encouraging pushes from the bolder ones, who simply thought that some one else had been selected to serve as Santa Claus in George Osborne's place.

But the teacher sat pale and trembling, with her lap full of presents. Mrs. Fisher had turned around and seen with her sharp black eyes George Osborne at the back of the room. “Who is Santa Claus, if he ain't him?” she whispered in the teacher's ear. Mrs. Fisher might have gone to school with advantage as far as her English was concerned.

The teacher shook her head. Mrs. Fisher looked keenly at Santa Claus, who continued calling off the names of the bewildered children. “He speaks a good deal like George Osborne,” said she. “I wonder” — She gave a furtive glance that would have done credit to a detective at the teacher, then she stopped.

“Wonder if they've heard anything lately from Frank Osborne,” she whispered after a little to a woman near her.

The woman stared at her.

Mrs. Fisher nodded.

“You don't s'pose” — said the woman, with a glance at the pile of presents in the teacher's lap.

Mrs. Fisher nodded again. “I've seen a watch amazin' like that before,” said she. “She never wore it after the engagement was broke off.”

“Goodness sakes!” said the woman.

Santa Claus continued to call off the names until the tree was stripped. Then he made a lightning dash up the ladder and drew it after him into the loft.

There was a scream from the whole school and the guests.

“I declare,” said Minnie Jones' mother, who was a nervous woman, “it's enough to make the shivers go down your back. Who was it?”

Then the teacher collected herself. She placed her presents on the desk, which had been moved into a corner, and mounted the platform beside the tree. She still looked pale, but she spoke in a firm voice. “Silence,” said she. “Some one else was selected to take George Osborne's place as Santa Claus. There is no occasion for such a commotion.”

Mrs. Osborne came to her aid. “George has got such a cold he can hardly speak a loud word,” said she.

“George Osborne was unable to call out the names on account of his cold,” said the teacher. “You will now keep your places, and refreshments will be served.”

Refreshments consisted of cake and ice cream. Everybody ate, although many a glance was cast toward the loft. “Seems as if he, whoever he is, ought to come down and have some,” Martha White whispered in Minnie Jones' ear.

“That's so.”

“Wonder who it is.”

George Osborne's eyes were upon Martha as she spoke, and he looked scornfully triumphant. He had come nearer the stove on account of his cold, and was eating ice cream and cake. “Who was it, George?” another boy asked, nudging him.

“Ask your grandmother,” replied George, politely.

“Bet you know.”

“Well, if I do, I know 'nough to keep it to myself.”

“It must be awful cold up there,” remarked the other boy, glancing with rather awed eyes toward the loft.

“Ain't he got that buffalo coat on?”

When at last the festivities were over Mr. Fisher, the committeeman, was going to wait for the teacher as usual to take her home in his sleigh with himself and wife, but his wife nudged him violently, then pushed him. “Come along,” said she. “Let her be.” “But how is she goin' to git home, Lizy?” asked Mr. Fisher, anxiously. “It's awful cold out, and it's most a mile, and it's late.”

“Let her be.”

“Do you mean for her to walk with the children? They don't mind runnin' along.”

“Let her be.”

“But, Lizy, if she ain't comin' with us the children may just as well ride. One of them can set betwixt us and the others can hang onto the runners.”

“Let 'em come, then.”

“But how is the teacher goin' to git home, Lizy?”

“Let her be, I tell you.”

Martha White and Minnie Jones lived very near the school house, and, while Martha was not superstitious, she was curious. “I'm bound I'll find out who he is,” she whispered to Minnie. It so happened that when all the others were gone and the teacher was left alone and Santa Claus let the ladder down from the loft and climbed down Martha White and Minnie Jones and Minnie's little brother Eddy and a number of other boys were peeking through a window. Then suddenly little Eddy Jones, who was a nervous child and very imaginative, shrieked and ran wildly after his parents, running with creaking footsteps over the long stretch of snowy, moonlit road ahead. “Oh, father! Oh, mother!” cried little Eddy Jones in a panic of terror. “Santa Claus is huggin' teacher, he is, he is!”

The two elder Joneses said to each other in interrogative and confirmative tones, “Frank Osborne has come home.” “Yes, I heard so on the way to the tree when I stopped in the store to order the sugar.” Then Mrs. Jones turned to the little boy, “Hush, child,” she said, “it's only George Osborne's big brother. He was Santa Claus instead of George, because George had a cold.”

Meantime, in spite of the minister and the committeemen and the scruples of the community as to the deception, there was in some degree truth in the myth of Santa Claus for that night, at least in the school house of District No. 2, for the poor little school teacher, who thought he had passed her by for her whole life.