Alice’s Christmas

by Mary Tappan Wright*

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     “Miss Alice MacDonald, you may write an essay of one hundred lines for persistent and defiant tardiness, and must remain one hour after school.”
     Alice grew a little pale. It was the twenty-fourth of December, and she had so many things to do! Besides, to remain after school meant to miss going down street that afternoon with her cousin, Katharine Faber, and this meant losing the last opportunity of buying a Christmas present for her father.
     Although but twenty-two years of age, Katharine had had almost entire charge of Alice since the death of Mrs. MacDonald. Alice was fourteen years old, and every inch of her cousin’s authority over her was hotly contested. This very afternoon Katharine intended to spend on a gown, which Alice sadly needed, all that was left of the child’s quarterly allowance, while Alice had quite different plans for the disposition of the money.
     Before the opening of school she had gone to the book-store intending to order, as a Christmas present for her father, a set of Tennyson’s* poems bound in tree-calf.* This set of volumes she ardently desired to secure, and to have it sent home to Katharine, to be paid for when delivered, hoping thereby to prevent the purchase of the gown.
     When Alice arrived at the store, however, the books were gone, so when she arrived at school she was late, and in a bad humor. She felt that school on the twenty-fourth of December was a scandal, if not a crime. Her convictions so fortified her soul that she looked not only defiant but impudent, as she bustled to her seat that frosty morning. Certainly something in her manner struck Miss Benedict most unfavorably, and her punishment for tardiness was prompt and unusually severe.

     *“This is the fourth time that you have been tardy this week, Alice,” the teacher said to her, when, at one o’clock, all the other girls fled out of the school-room, and left them alone together. “And not only that; your lessons are ill-prepared, and your attention constantly wanders. What is the matter?”
     “I haven’t had time for them, Miss Benedict,” said Alice. “Indeed, I have studied all I could, but I have been so busy sometimes that they’ve had to go.”
     “Norah and Bessie do not seem to have any thing unusual to do.” Norah was Alice’s sister, and Bessie Faber was her cousin.
     “Because Norah don’t care. Anyhow, she is so quick that she makes beautiful things in no time, and Bessie has been at work ever since last July.”
     “I beg pardon,” interrupted Miss Benedict.
     “Now, I bought ever so much material, enough to make lovely Christmas presents, if I had time—”
     “Oh!” exclaimed Miss Benedict, beginning to comprehend.
     “And when Christmas came so suddenly,—it always does,—and I was not ready, Katharine wouldn’t give me any more money, because she says I must have a new gown when papa comes to-morrow; so you see I have been dreadfully busy, really, and I won’t give promissory notes,* like Norah.”
     “Promissory what?” queried Miss Benedict.
     “Why, when she can’t finish anything, she just gives it to you half-done, with a little note saying she will do the rest in the coming vacation, and ten chances to one you have to go and do it yourself.”
     “I think Bessie’s plan preferable,” said Miss Benedict, with a smile.
     “Oh, I can’t be always doing fancy work!” cried Alice, impatiently. “I like to read and enjoy my vacations when they come.”
     “Why not buy your presents, then?”
     “Oh, you can make so much prettier things than you can buy.” After a pause, “Must I write those hundred lines, Miss Benedict?”
     “I think you must. At least, you may write fifty lines, and stay half an hour.”
     This was an improvement. Alice took up her composition-book, and ruling off ample margins, boldly began:


     How pleasant it is in spring-time—

     Here she stopped and gave a little groan; then she impatiently tore out the leaf, and after ruling a wider margin, sat and looked at the blank page in despair. How was any one to write two large pages on spring, or indeed on anything, with Miss Benedict sitting gray and silent at the desk, and the school-room thermometer sinking below sixty?
     Then as if seized by a luminous idea, she took her pen and wrote furiously:


     We had a large yellow cat named Tom. When he strayed away from home, I would go to the barn and call, “Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom!”—[ten lines of “Toms.”] When he did not come, I went to the gate and called, “Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!”—[ten lines of “kitty.”] Then if I could not find him, I went to the corner, and called, “Puss, puss, puss, puss, puss!”—[for ten lines]—and perhaps away off I would see him coming, coming, coming, coming, coming, coming,—[five or six lines]—faster and faster and faster and faster,—[six more lines,]—and when he came near enough, I could hear him say, “Meaou! meaou! meaou! meaou! meaou! meaou!”—[for ten more lines, ending with “mee-aaaaa-ooooo-uuuuu!”]

     After signing her name to this wonderful production, she closed the book and handed it to Miss Benedict.
     “Are there fifty lines?”
     “Seventy-five, I think,” hurriedly added Alice. “May I go?”
     “Just wait a minute until I look it over.” But scarcely had Miss Benedict read a line when her head disappeared behind the lid of the desk. Alice waited in fear and trembling. At last she ventured to say:
     “May I go now, Miss Benedict?”
     “Yes,” was the curt answer, as the teacher’s head appeared for an instant from behind the desk-lid.

     *“If I believed Miss Benedict could be overtaken in such a way,” said Alice, recounting this adventure to her aunt late in the afternoon, “I should say she was dying to laugh.”
     The had gathered around the open fireplace in the broad upper hall, Alice and Bessie sitting in the firelight, while Norah, a slender girl of eighteen, reclined in a great easy-chair in the shadows near her aunt’s couch. The two MacDonalds had lived so long at their uncle’s that they hardly knew any other home, and Bessie was like a sister to them.
     “Heigho!” sighed Alice. “I hear Annie downstairs with her taper.* I suppose I must go to work again when the gas* is lit. What is that?” starting violently.
     “It is only Katharine talking* to Annie. How nervous you are!” said Bessie, who was sitting with her head in Alice’s lap. “Don’t go! We are so cosey here! Wait and see what Katharine has bought.”
     Katharine slowly came upstairs, followed by Annie, both laden with parcels.
     “O Katharine, did you get it?” called Bessie.
     “Yes!” cried Katharine. “That beautiful pink—”
     “Sh-sh-sh-sh!” with a frantic gesture toward Norah in the shadow.
     “Oh, is that you, Norah? Just come into mother’s room. I went to Clarke’s, and they—” here her voice died into a whisper. In a few moments they came out.
     “Mother,” said Katharine, “here is your commission.”*
     “I know what that is!” cried Bessie. “Just let me see! Alice, keep away! Don’t come here!” Again frantic motions and much laughter.
     Poor Alice! She was a strong little character, and took very seriously the secrecy of the Christmas season. All her own plans were profound mysteries; she had not imparted to Bessie what she meant to give Norah, nor consulted her aunt as to what would most surprise Katharine, and now she felt unreasonably hurt and lonely at being left out of their consultations.
     Alice was rather young to find out that we need the fortitude of our convictions quite as much as the courage of them. She was tired, too; lessons and fancy work, constant planning and worry over half-prepared tasks and ill-made sachet-bags* were telling on her health and nerves. Her breakage of fragile articles had become a terror, and her forgettings and losings proverbial. She was so young that no one thought of her as overworked, especially since so much of the work was voluntary. She was “only cross.”
     “Alice, I bought your gown,” said Katharine, turning to her with evident self-satisfaction. “Those Chicago people who ordered that lovely green suit—you know you tried on the jacket a week or two ago for Miss Sara—they have gone into mourning. The suit had not even been sent home to them, and Miss Sara said it would fit you beautifully. I bought it; it was a wonderful bargain, and you can’t complain now of having a ready-made dress.”
     “No,” said Alice, passionately; “not at all! It is only second-hand. I shall never wear it as long as I live!” and bursting into tears, she ran upstairs to her room in the third story, followed in consternation by the three other girls.
     Norah commanded, Bessie cajoled, but all in vain. Alice’s tears came in streams, until, prompted by some happy inspiration, Katharine casually remarked that if she had not taken the gown, Mrs. Murray would have bought it for Louie. This was a master-stroke. Was not Louie Alice’s dearest friend, and was not Mrs. Murray her model of all that was elegant and correct?
     The sobs slowly abated, and in a short time the stricken one sat up and desired that her dinner be sent up to her, as she was not fit to be seen.

     *The crisis was now past. All that evening Alice worked untiringly at her Christmas gifts. Downstairs the other members of the family arranged mysterious heaps of things on the drawing-room* chairs and tables, while a great Christmas-tree, glimmering dimly with its tinsel ornaments and unlit candles in the half light, rose in one corner.
     “Alice,” cried Bessie, coming upstairs at ten o’clock, “come down! Your chair is covered up, and you can put out your things for the others.”
     “No, I am going last,” said Alice. “I shall not be done in less than three hours, anyway.”
     “You can’t work until one o’clock, Alice!” Bessie remonstrated. “It will kill you. Katharine will not allow it.”
     “Katharine has no right to interfere,” said Alice. “She spoiled all my plans, and made me sit up, and now I will.”
     “Alice is nearly dead,” Bessie said, on coming downstairs. “Katharine, you must go up and make her go to bed.”
     “I am afraid she is going to be ill,” said Katharine, soberly. “I will take the gown up to her.” She softly ascended the stairs, went to Alice’s room, and gently opened the door. Alice started violently. She was sitting in her wrapper,* bent over her table.
     “I wish you wouldn’t frighten me that way, Katharine, coming in without knocking.”
     “I have brought you the suit. Isn’t it pretty? Please try it on. You will need it.”
     “I don’t intend to wear it,” replied Alice, coldly.
     “Not wear it? Oh, come now, Alice, haven’t you given up that nonsense? You shall not appear before your father in this old thing.” Seizing Alice’s school dress from a chair near at hand, Katharine ran into her own room, and locked the discarded garment in her closet. She came back laughing, but Alice had no answering smile; she was very angry.
     “You must go to bed now,” said Katharine, standing with her hand on the door-knob. “Your father will be here early in the morning, and you must be awake to meet him. Come.”
     “Katharine Faber, leave my room!” said Alice, in a fury.
     “You are going to bed, Alice,” replied Katharine, still standing at the door. “If you will not stop working, I shall take your lamp.”
     The next minute Katharine unexpectedly found herself in the hall, with the door slammed violently in her face. There was a short struggle, during which Katharine tried to hold the knob. Alice succeeded in spite of her cousin, and violently turned the key, which gave an odd little sound of snapping iron, not noticed at the time.
     “You must let me in to go to bed,” said Norah, who had followed Katharine upstairs.
     “You can sleep with Bessie,” called Alice, mounting a chair and flinging her sister’s night-dress and other belongings over the transom.*
     “It is lucky that all my Christmas things are downstairs,” said Norah, good-naturedly, as she gathered up her slippers, brushes and comb.
     “All but this lovely sketch,” called Alice, stretching an arm over the transom. “This way, ladies, it is a snow scene, and this way”—turning it wrong side up—“it is a summer landscape, fleecy clouds, winding streams, radiant fields,—a Kentucky landscape, evidently, blue grass.* Patent reversible sketch in the latest impressionistic style,* inscribed ‘To my dear papa,’ with the artist’s autograph.—perfectly authentic—”
     “Give me my picture!” cried Norah. Alice opened her hand and held it with fingers separated and rigid. The sketch fluttered to the floor.
     “She is too provoking,” said Katharine, as they went away.

     *At about half-past one, tired and with aching eyes, Alice counted over all her finished gifts.
     “The blotting-book,”* she murmured, knitting her brows, “is for Harry; it is the best thing I have done; if it hadn’t H. F. on it I would take it for papa. The sachet for Katharine and the dressing-case* for Bess,—she does love pretty things. I wish papa hadn’t any dressing-case; I suppose he must have this dreadful, crooked mouchoir-case* that I made to-night.”
     A long sigh.
     “I believe I’ll give Katharine’s sachet to papa, and this gilded cat-basket* to Katharine.” And so she went on, planning, changing, thinking, sighing, and arranging the card-cases,* plush bags,* pin-book covers,* blotting-books, pen-wipers* and other things, all of which gave the bed, on which they were spread in bewildering profusion, the appearance of a “fancy” table at a church fair.
     Two o’clock! The chimes rang out loud and clear in the frosty air from the cathedral spires hard by, and were faintly answered from distant clock-towers.
     “I will go down softly, and get some cards for their names.”
     She stole to the door and tried to turn the key. It would not move; for a moment she was dismayed, but reassuring herself she tried again. Too much noise; the whole house would be awakened.
     She concluded to wait until the servants were astir, when she might slip down with her gifts, and place them, unobserved, in their places in the drawing-room. The thought of her last apportionment of Christmas gifts, whereby her father was to receive a suitable present, did much to quiet her mind. She tumbled into bed and fell into a deep, heavy sleep.

     *“Miss Alice! Miss Alice! Yer papa’s bin here an hour, and the breakfast’s on the table.”
     It was Annie’s voice. Alice sprang to open the door, but her last night’s experience flashed across her memory.
     “Annie, I am afraid I am locked in. You try the door, and I will turn the key.”
     In vain; after various experiments Alice gave way to the conviction that she was imprisoned.
     “O Annie! you must get some one. Don’t tell them downstairs,” she cried in one breath. “Isn’t one of your cousins a locksmith? Tom? Tom—I’ve forgotten his other name,—go for him.”
     “An’ how can I be going afther a young man?” queried Annie.
     “Your cousin!” cried Alice. “O Annie, don’t be foolish; it’s only a few steps. Let Kate wait breakfast a few minutes,—and go! There, that’s the breakfast-bell now! It is too late. Make some excuse, and ask papa to come up, and go after breakfast. Only don’t let the rest know, not for anything, Annie—do you hear?”
     “Where is Alice?” asked Mr. MacDonald, as they all seated themselves at the breakfast-table.
     “If you please, sir, Miss Alice would like to see you a minute, sir. She says she can’t possibly come down.”
     “Is she sick?” asked Mr. MacDonald, anxiously.
     “No, sir,” said Annie, “but if you’ll just come up a minute she’ll explain.”
     “Nonsense!” said Mr. MacDonald. “Tell her if she wishes to see me, she can come downstairs. Do you know the meaning of all this, Norah?”
     “No, papa,” answered Norah, hesitatingly, “unless it is that she doesn’t want to wear the gown Katharine bought. But I hardly think it can be that.”
     “What about the gown?”
     Mr. MacDonald listened in silence, as Norah and Katharine gave an ameliorated account of what had taken place concerning the gown. He was a man of quick, sensitive temper, and easily wounded. Alice had always been his favorite child, and now, when he had come several hundred miles to spend Christmas Day with her and Norah, out of a mere piece of childish spite she had not even come downstairs to greet him.
     “Very well,” he said, “we will go on without her, and do not mention her again. I cannot let her spoil our whole day in this manner.”
     It was not long before Alice heard from below laughter, and the blowing of penny trumpets; they were preparing for the procession toward the drawing-room. Then, all in unison, she heard “Brd-brd—bra-bra-bra—brd-brd—bra-bra-bra,” and knew that the march had begun. Theo, Mr. Faber’s oldest son, led them all over the house, excepting the third floor; Harry left the line and made a swift excursion into the upper hall, in order to blow derisively through the key-hole of Alice’s room.
     Sobbing violently, the girl threw herself on the bed and buried her head in the pillows.
     “This will follow me through life!” she thought. “I can never be happy again! but oh, the heart-breaking part of it is papa. He will go back to New York without seeing me. He will never forgive me. O papa, if you had sent me word to come to you, no matter how appearances were against you, I would have come; though all the world were against you, I would have come through fire and sword and every calumny—O papa!”
     Poor little Alice stretched her arms out wildly, and then sank back onto the pillow again. Exhausted by her tears and lack of rest she fell into a doze and slept, until she was awakened by the sound of Annie’s voice. The Irish girl had brought the step-ladder upstairs, and with head peering into the room at the transom, informed Alice that Tom Hanlan could not be found, nor any one else to open the door. “Now you must clear up that untidy room, Miss Alice,” she said, “and I’ll bring you some breakfast.”
     The day wore on. Bessie and Katharine made her surreptitious visits, but Alice could not bring herself to confess to them her absurd position. Her papa remained obdurate, and the early Christmas dinner was eaten without her.
     It was nearly five o’clock, and the room looked cold and dreary. Merry voices came up from below, and accented the feeling of bitterness that began to steal into Alice’s heart. Annie had come with fragments of the feast, and the information that Mr. MacDonald intended to leave at ten in the evening.
     Alice was struggling with her pride; she could not let him go! It was now dark; there was no time to lose. She rose and stumbled toward the bell.
     “Alice!” a low voice came from the shadows outside. “Alice, this passes a whim. I know my little girl too well to believe that for mere childish obstinacy she would cloud a happy day. What does it mean? Tell me, child, and open the door.”
     “O papa!” cried Alice, tears rolling down her cheeks, “I can’t open the door! The lock was broken last night and Annie can’t find a locksmith. My heart will break—”
     Her father had left her before the end of the sentence, taking the stairs in long bounds. In less then three minutes the poor little prisoner of pride and overwrought nerves was sobbing in her father’s arms.

     *Early in the evening, after all her gifts had been distributed and many beautiful things had been received, Alice sat, radiant in her new gown, on her father’s knee. An old friend of the family was shown in.
     “Ha!” said Doctor Junkins, advancing. “I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Hello, Alice, is this gorgeous Tennyson yours? Don’t read it, don’t read it. She reads too much, MacDonald. The rest of them do well enough, but you, miss, if you go on as you’ve been doing lately, you’ll have brain fever. Overstudy. Head of your class aren’t you? Pernicious thing, emulation!”
     The doctor had been taking up one thing after another, as he spoke. “From Alice to Papa,” “From Alice to Norah,” “From Alice to—” he read. “Did you do all this millinery?”* he suddenly asked, turning to Alice. “How long have you been at it?”
     “Not much more than a month.”
     “And you have been ruining your health and nerves, and spoiling your looks, though you don’t care quite so much about this as Katharine here and Bessie Faber do,—just for the sake of bunching up pieces of silk, and sticking cotton-wadding in them.”
     Here he smelled one of Alice’s sachets with evident enjoyment.
     “And I made this for you,” said Alice, handing him one of the sachets over which he was scolding; it had his name worked upon it in outline.
     “For me!” he exclaimed, evidently gratified. “Now that was very sweet of you. And all the work of your own hands, too; the most graceful gift that a young lady can make.”
     And he kissed her fingers gallantly, amid much laughter and applause.
     “You take your defeat charmingly,” said Mrs. Faber.
     “Ah, madam, but the principle remains the same, the principle remains the same. I have more cases of overwrought nerves and nervous depression and hysterics, and general tomfoolery, for the six weeks after Christmas, than during the rest of the year, and all from the abuse of this same graceful, charming custom.”
     And again kissing Alice’s hand, as if in apology, “Next year, little lady,” he added, “remember the old Scotch proverb: ‘The gift is small but love is all.’”

“Alice’s Christmas” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in The Youth’s Companion v. 62, no. 41, December 19, 1889.

The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is ©2008 by Brian Kunde.

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1st web edition posted 10/15/2008
This page last updated 10/15/2008.

Published by Fleabonnet Press.