The Little Colonel's Holidays, Chapter 15: A Happy Christmas

THE LITTLE COLONEL'S HOLIDAYS
By Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1901
Illustrated by L.J. Bridgman

 

 

CHAPTER XV.
A HAPPY CHRISTMAS.

THERE was a fortnight's vacation at Christmas time. Lloyd spent nearly all the week before in town, and not once in all that time did it occur to her to wonder what she might find in her own stocking. She was too busy helping get the little trees ready for the children in the hospital.

There were twenty of them, each one complete, with starry tapers and glittering ornaments, with red-cheeked candy apples, and sugar animals hung by the neck; with tiny tarlatan stockings of bonbons, with festoons of snowy popcorn, and all that goes to make up the Christmas trees that are the dearest memories of childhood. And somewhere, hidden among the branches of each one, or lying at its base, was the especial book or toy or game that its owner had been known to long for.

"I believe that Molly and Dot would rather have theirs together," said Allison. "As they are in a room by themselves we can give them as large a one as we please, and the others will never know it.

So it was a good-sized tree that was set aside for "The Fold." The very prettiest of the ornaments were put with it; the brightest coloured candles, and at the top was fastened a glittering Christmas angel and a shining Christmas star.

It was not till the day before Christmas that they began to think of their own affairs. Then Kitty brought out four stockings, which the Little Colonel examined with interest. They were long and wide, with tiny sleigh-bells on the top, the heels, and the toes, that jingled musically at the slightest movement. Two were pink and two were blue. What charmed Lloyd the most were the fascinating pictures printed on them. They told the whole story of Christmas.

Holly and mistletoe and Christmas trees were on one side, down which ran a road where pranced the reindeer with the magic sleigh, driven by jolly old Santa Claus himself. On the other side of the stocking was the picture of the fireplace and a row of stockings hanging from the mantel. In a cradle near by lay a baby asleep. Down on the toe was printed in fancy letters:

"Hang up the baby's stocking,
Be sure and don't forget.
The dear little dimpled darling
Has never seen Christmas yet."

" We hang them up every year," explained Kitty.  "Ranald and all of us. It wouldn't seem like Christmas if we used any other kind. We had them in Washington and at every army post we've lived at, and they've been around the world with us. If they could talk they could tell of more good times than any other stockings in the world."

"Um ! I just love mine!" cried Elise, catching hers up with a caressing squeeze, and then swinging it around her head until every little bell was set a-jingling musically. A little while later she said, with a serious face, "I don't s'pose Molly and Dot ever saw a beautiful picture stocking like this. Do you? Gifts seem so much nicer when they come out of it than out of the common kind that I believe I'll lend them mine this year. I know what it is to be lost, you know. I'm so glad that I was found that I'd like to do something to show how thankful I am about it."

"But how will Santa Claus know it's to be filled or them?" asked Kitty. "He has always filled it for you, and he might put your things in it, and they'd get them."

"I could pin a note on it saying it was mine, but to please put their things in it this one time," said Elise, with a troubled look, as she went over to the window to consider the matter by herself.

A little while later she carried her stocking to her mother with this note pinned to it:

"DEAR SANTA CLAUS: - This is my stocking. I s'pose you'll recognise it, as I've carried it around the world with me , and you have put lots of pretty things in it for me every year since I was born. But this year please put Molly's and Dot's presents in it, and I shall be a million times obliged to you.
"Your loving little friend,
"ELISE WALTON."

"But what will you do, little one?" asked Mrs. Walton.

"Hang up one of my blue silk stockings," said Elise, promptly, as she danced around the room, jingling the bells on heel and toe in time to a gay little tune of her own.

Lloyd would not have missed taking part in the Christmas celebration at the hospital for anything yet she could not give up her usual custom of hang her stocking beside the old fireplace at Locust So, in order to give her both pleasures, it was finally decided that the trees should be taken to the hospital at dusk on Christmas eve, and she could go home afterward on the nine o'clock train.

Malcolm and Keith were having a great celebration out at Fairchance for Jonesy and all who had been gathered into the home since its founding. Miss Allison was helping them, and could not go into town, much to the disappointment of the girls.

"I wish that auntie was twins," said Kitty, mournfully. "Then she could be in both places at once. The boys are always wanting her whenever we do."

"Your auntie helped with the celebration last year at the hospital, Kitty-cat," said her mother, "so it is only fair that they should have her in the country this year."

"But Malcolm and Keith were with her both times, "persisted Kitty, jealously. "I think that it is just too bad that she isn't twins."

Rob and Ranald went with the girls to help distribute the trees. It seemed as if a tiny forest had been carried out of fairyland and set in long, glittering rows down the sides of the wards. One twinkled and bloomed beside each little white bed. The children did not stay long in the wards. They were more interested in the little room at the end of the hall, --- Allison's room, that was known all over the building now as " The Fold of the Good Shepherd." The room where two little sisters lost from each other so long, but brought together at last, lived through the happy hours, hand in hand.

Molly's face had lost every trace of its old sullen pout, and fairly shone with contentment as she sat by Dot's bed, smoothing her pillow, feeding her from time to time as the nurse directed, and singing softly when the tired eyes drooped wearily to sleep.

"She would make a fine nurse," said the matron to Mrs. Walton. "She is strong and patient, and seems to have so much sense about what to do for a sick person. Usually we wouldn't think of letting anybody come in as she is doing, but she minds the nurse's slightest nod, and seems to be doing Dot more good than medicine."

It had cost Elise a pang to give up her cherished stocking even as a loan, but she was more than repaid by the pleasure it gave the child, who had known no Christmas story and none of its joy since she had been large enough to remember.

They went back to their homes as soon afterward as possible, Lloyd to hang up her stocking at Locust, and the children to put theirs by the library fire. One plain little blue one hung among the gay pictured ones, no mistletoe upon. it, no holly, no jingling bells, no printed rhymes; but as Mrs. Walton gathered Elise's little white gowned form in her arms, she repeated something that made the child look up wonderingly.

"Oh, mamma!" she cried. "Does it mean that the little Christ-child counts it just the same --- my lending the stocking to Dot and Molly --- as if I had loaned it to him?"

"Just the same, little one."

"And he is glad?" She asked the question in an awed whisper.

"I am sure he is; far gladder than they."

Somehow the thought that she had really brought joy to the Christ-child made more music in her heart that Christmas eve than all the tinkling of the tiny Christmas bells.

It would take too long to tell of all the good times that filled the happy holiday. At Fairchance it was a sight worth travelling miles to see, --- those merry little lads, and the two little knights who had gone so far in their trying to "right the wrong and follow the king." At Locust Lloyd spent a happy day in a bewilderment of gifts, for besides all that she found in her overflowing stocking were the packages from Joyce and Eugenia and Betty. There was a new saddle for Tarbaby from her grandfather, and a silver collar from Rob for his frisky namesake, with "Bob" engraved on the clasp. All day there were woolly little heads popping into the hall to say "Chris'mus gif', Miss Lloyd."And then white eyeballs would shine and snowy teeth gleam as she handed out the candy and nuts and oranges reserved for such calls. Every old black mammy or uncle who had ever worked on the place, every little pickaninny who could find the slightest claim, visited the great house at some time during the day for a share of its holiday cheer.

In the Walton household there was a chattering in the library long before sunrise, for Kitty, impatient to see what was in her stocking, had stolen down when the clock struck five, and the other girls had followed in her wake. "I got fourteen presents," said Kitty, chattering back to bed in the gray dawn, after a blissful examination of her stocking.

"So did I," said Elise. "Everything in the world that I wanted, and lots of things I'd never dreamed of getting, besides. Auntie and Aunt Elise always think of such lovely things."

Allison's gifts did not make such a brave showing when spread out with the others, but she thought of the little white room at the hospital with a warm glow in her heart that was worth more than all the gifts that money could buy. Down in the toe of her stocking she found a box from her Aunt Allison, and took it back to bed with her to open. Inside the jeweller's cotton was a little enamelled pansy of royal purple and gold, and in the centre sparkled a tiny diamond like a drop of dew. "Mamma must have told her," thought Allison, as she read the greeting written on the card with it. "For my dear little namesake. May your whole lifetime blossom with such beautiful thoughts for others as has made this Christmas day a joy."

Out at the hospital, as the day went by, Dot sat with her hand in Molly's, looking from time to time with eyes that never lost their expression of content, at the angel and the star that crowned the tree. She grew weaker and weaker as the hours passed, but, opening her eyes now and then, she smiled at Molly, and squeezed her hand, and looked again from the gay stocking hanging on the foot of her bed to the shining angel atop of the tree.

The Japanese canary twittered in his cage ; the goldfish flashed around and around in their sunny globe ; the deep red roses on the table bloomed as if it were June-time. Outside there was snow and ice and winter winds. Inside it was all cheer and comfort and peace that happy Christmas Day.

Mrs. Walton and the girls came down again in the twilight. Dot was too weak to say much, but she asked Mrs. Walton to sing, and wanted the tapers lighted again on the tree. Thoughtful Allison had brought fresh ones with her, which she soon fastened in place. And so, presently, with only the soft firelight in the room, and the starlight of the little Christmas candles, Mrs. Walton began an old tune that she loved. Her beautiful voice had sung it in many a hospital, in the cheerless tents of many a camp. Many a brave soldier, dying thousands of miles away from home, had been soothed and comforted by it. It was "My Ain Countrie" she sang. Not the sweet old Scotch words, with the breath of the moors and the scent of the heather in them, that she loved. She changed them so that the child could understand. Dot opened her eyes and looked up at the picture of the Good Shepherd, hanging over the mantel, as she sang:

"'For he gathers in his bosom all the helpless lambs like me,
And he takes them where he's going, to my own country."'

There was silence for a moment, and Dot asked suddenly, "Will everything there be as lovely as it is here in the hospital?"  When Mrs. Walton nodded yes, she added, with along, fluttering sigh, "Oh, I've been so happy here. I don't see how leaven could be any nicer. Sing some more, please."

She fell asleep a little later to the soothing refrain of an old lullaby, and never knew when her guests slipped out, with a whispered good night to Molly.

An hour went by. The Christmas tapers burned lower and lower, and finally went out, one by one, till there was left only the one above the angel and the star. The fire flickered on the hearth, but Molly did not rise to replenish it, for the little hand held hers, and she did not want to waken such sweet sleep. The nurse looked in at the door once or twice, and slipped out again. Nagasaki, curled up like a feather ball, with his head under his wing, stirred once, with a sleepy twitter, but no other sound broke the stillness of the little room.

Again the door opened softly, and the doctor stepped in on his round of evening visits. He laid his finger on the little one's pulse a moment, and then turned away. The last taper on the tree, that lit the star, glowing above the Christmas angel, gave a final flicker and went out. The doctor, stepping into the hall, met one of the nurses.

You'll have to tell her sister," he said. "She is still holding the little one's hand, thinking that she is asleep. But her life went out with the last of the Christmas candles."

It was not until next day that the children heard what had happened the evening before. The matron had telephoned immediately to Mrs. Walton, but she did not tell the children, or send word to Locust, until next morning. She did not want a single shadow to rest on their glad Christmas Day.

"I do not believe in taking children to funerals," she said to her sister Elise, "but death seems so beautiful in this instance that I want them to see it."

The reception-room at the hospital had been fitted up like a chapel. An altar, draped in white, was covered with flowers, and before it stood the white casket where Dot's frail little body was tenderly tucked away for its last sleep.

All of the children were there ; the two little knights, with a sweet seriousness in their handsome faces, wearing in their buttonholes Aunt Allison's badge, the pin that was to remind them that they were trying to wear, also, " the white flower of a blameless life."

The little captain stood beside them, thinking, as he looked at the little body the saloons had killed (for nothing but the cruelty and neglect of a drunken father had caused Dot's illness and death), that there were battles to fight for his country at home, as well as those on foreign fields. The Manley little shoulders squared themselves with a grave resolution to wear whatever duty the future might lay upon them, in warfare against evil, as worthily as he had worn the epaulets in far-away Luzon.

Allison and Kitty and Elise were there, and the Little Colonel, all strongly moved by the unusual scene. It was a very short and simple service. The late afternoon sun shone in aslant through the western window, like a wide bar of gold. The minister read the parable of the ninety and nine, and repeated the burial service. Then there was a prayer, and Miss Allison, seating herself at the organ, touched the keys in soft chords for Mrs. Walton to sing. She sung the lullaby that Dot had asked for the night before; the cradle-song of hundreds of happy home-sheltered children"

"'Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me,
   Bless thy little lamb to-night.
Through the darkness be thou near me,
   Keep me safe till morning light.
Let my sins be all forgiven,
   Bless the friends I love so well,
Take me when I die to heaven,
   Happy there with thee to dwell'"

When it was all over they filed softly out into the corridor feeling that they had only said good night to little Dot, and that it was good that one so tired and worn should find such deep and restful sleep. It was not at all like what they had imagined dying to be.

"Even Molly didn't cry," said Kitty, wonderingly they went home together in the twilight.

"No," said Mrs. Walton, "she said to me that she had done all her crying in those dreadful years when they were separated. She said, 'Oh, Mrs. Walton, now that I know that she's comfortable and happy, I can't feel so bad about her as I used to. She's so safe now. No matter what happens, the saloons can't hurt her, now. There'll be no more hungry days, no more beatings, and it will always be such comfort to me to think she had such a good time in the hospital. For six weeks she had plenty toeat, and everybody was good to her. Every time I look at her picture, I think of that. She had white grapes and roses even in the winter-time, and she had ice-cream!  All she wanted. And I made up my mind this morning that when I'm old enough I am going to be a trained nurse and help take care of poor little children the way she was taken care of here. Miss Agnes says she can find room for me right away, for there's all sorts of things that I can do, and I'd love to do it for my poor little Dot's sake.'"

"I must write that to Betty," thought the Little Colonel. "That is the most beautiful way of all to build a Road of the Loving Heart."

She thought of it all the way home, as the train sped on through the wintry fields, between snow-covered fences. It was dark when the brakeman called "Lloydsboro Valley," but Walker was waiting with the carriage, and they were soon driving in at the great entrance gate.

"Oh, mothah," said the Little Colonel, nestling closer under the warm carriage robes. "See how the stars shine through the locust-trees, and how the light streams out from the house, down the avenue to meet us! Somehow, no mattah how happy the holidays are, it always seems so good to get home."

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