Chapter I.


The scene is a large, roomy, clean New England kitchen of some sixty years ago. There was the great wide fire-place, with its crane and array of pot-hooks; there was the tall black clock in the corner, ticking in response to the chirp of the crickets around the broad, flat stone hearth. The scoured tin and pewter on the dresser caught flickering gleams of brightness from the western sunbeams that shone through the network of elm-boughs, rattling and tapping as the wind blew them against the window. It was not quite half-past four o'clock, yet the December sun hung low and red in the western horizon, telling that the time of the shortest winter days was come. Everything in the ample room shone with whiteness and neatness; everything was ranged, put up, and in order, as if work were some past and bygone affair, hardly to be remembered. The only living figure in this picture of still life was that of a strapping, buxom Yankee maiden, with plump arms stripped to the elbow and hands plunged deep in the white, elastic cushion of puffy dough, which rose under them as she kneaded.

Apparently pleasant thoughts were her company in her solitude, for her round, brown eyes twinkled with a pleased sparkle, and every now and then she broke into fragments of psalmody, which she practiced over and over, and then nodded her head contentedly, as if satisfied that she had caught the tune.

Suddenly the outside door flew open and little Dolly Cushing burst into the kitchen, panting and breathless, her cheeks glowing with exercise in face of the keen winter wind.

In she came, noisy and busy, dropping her knitting-work and spelling-book in her eagerness, shutting the door behind her with a cheerful bang, and opening conversation without stopping to get her breath:

"Oh, Nabby, Nabby! do tell me what they are doing up at your church. I've seen 'em all day carrying armfulls and armfulls—ever so much—spruce and pine up that way, and Jim Brace and Tom Peters told me they were going to have a 'lumination there, and when I asked what a 'lumination was they only laughed at me and called me a Presbyterian. Don't you think it's a shame, Nabby, that the big boys will laugh at me so and call me names and won't tell me anything?"

"Oh, land o' Goshen, Dolly, what do you mind them boys for?" said Nabby; "boys is mostly hateful when girls is little; but we take our turn by and by," she said with a complacent twinkle of her brown eyes. "I make them stand around, I bet ye, and you will when you get older."

"But, Nabby, what is a 'lumination?"

"Well now, Dolly, you jest pick up your book, and put up your knittin' work, and sweep out that snow you've tracked in, and hang up your bonnet and cloak, and I'll tell you all about it," said Nabby, taking up her whole cushion of dough and letting it down the other side with a great bound and beginning kneading again.

The little maiden speedily complied with all her requisitions and came and stood, eager and breathless, by the bread bowl.

And a very pretty picture she made there, with her rosy mouth just parted to show her little white teeth, and the afternoon sunshine glinting through the window brightness to go to the brown curls that hung over her round, white forehead, her dark blue eyes kindling with eagerness and curiosity.

"Well, you see," said Nabby, "to-morrow's Christmas; and they've been dressin' the church with ground pine and spruce boughs, and made it just as beautiful as can be, and they're goin' to have a great gold star over the chancel. General Lewis sent clear to Boston to get the things to make it of, and Miss Ida Lewis she made it; and to-night they're going to 'luminate. They put a candle in every single pane of glass in that air church, and it'll be all just as light as day. When they get 'em all lighted up you can see that air church clear down to North Poganuc."

Now this sentence was a perfect labyrinth of mystery to Dolly; for she did not know what Christmas was, she did not know what the chancel was, she never saw anything dressed with pine, and she was wholly in the dark what it was all about; and yet her bosom heaved, her breath grew short, her color came and went, and she trembled with excitement. Something bright, beautiful, glorious, must be coming into her life, and oh, if she could only see it!

"Oh, Nabby, are you going?" she said, with quivering eagerness.

"Yes, I'm goin' with Jim Sawin. I belong to the singers, and I'm agoin' early to practice on the anthem."

"Oh, Nabby, won't you take me? Do, Nabby!" said Dolly, piteously.

"Oh, land o' Goshen! no, child; you mustn't think on't. I couldn't do that noways. Your pa never would hear of it, nor Mis' Cushing neither. You see, your pa don't b'lieve in Christmas."

"What is Christmas, Nabby?"

"Why, it's the day Christ was born—that's Christmas."

"Why, my papa believes Christ was born," said Dolly, with an injured air; "you needn't tell me that he don't. I've heard him read all about it in the Testament."

"I didn't say he didn't, did I?" said Nabby; "but your papa ain't a 'Piscopal, and he don't believe in keeping none of them air prayer-book days—Christmas, nor Easter, nor nothin'," said Nabby, with a generous profusion of negatives. "Up to the 'Piscopal church they keep Christmas, and they don't keep it down to your meetin'-house; that's the long and short on't," and Nabby turned her batch of dough over with a final flounce, as if to emphasize the statement, and, giving one last poke in the middle of the fair, white cushion, she proceeded to rub the paste from her hands and to cover her completed batch with a clean white towel and then with a neat comforter of quilted cotton. Then, establishing it in the warmest corner of the fireplace, she proceeded to wash her hands and look at the clock and make other movements to show that the conversation had come to an end.

Poor little Dolly stood still, looking wistful and bewildered. The tangle of brown and golden curls on the outside of her little head was not more snarled than the conflicting ideas in the inside. This great and wonderful idea of Christmas, and all this confusion of images, of gold stars and green wreaths and illuminated windows and singing and music—all done because Christ was born, and yet something that her papa did not approve of—it was a hopeless puzzle. After standing thinking for a minute or two she resumed:

"But, Nabby, why don't my papa like it? and why don't we have a 'lumination in our meeting-house?"

"Bless your heart, child, they never does them things to Presbyterian meetin's. Folks' ways is different, and them air is 'Piscopal ways. For my part I'm glad father signed off to the 'Piscopalians, for it's a great deal jollier."

"Oh, dear! my papa won't ever sign off," said Dolly, mournfully.

"To be sure he won't. Why, what nonsense that is!" said Nabby, with that briskness with which grown people shake off the griefs of children. "Of course he won't when he's a minister, so what's the use of worryin'? You jest shet up now, for I've got to hurry and get tea; 'cause your pa and ma are goin' over to the lecture to-night in North Poganuc school-house and they'll want their supper early."

Dolly still hung about wishfully.

"Nabby, if I should ask papa, and he should say I might go, would you take me?" said Dolly.

Now, Nabby was a good-natured soul enough and in a general way fond of children; she encouraged Miss Dolly's prattling visits to the kitchen, let her stand about surveying her in various domestic processes, and encouraged that free expression of opinion in conversation which in those days was entirely repressed on the part of juveniles in the presence of their elders. She was, in fact, fond of Dolly in a certain way, but not fond enough of her to interfere with the serious avocations of life; and Nabby was projecting very serious and delicate movements of diplomacy that night. She was going to the church with Jim Sawin, who was on the very verge of a declared admiration, not in the least because her heart inclined toward Jim, but as a means of bringing Ike Peters to capitulation in a quarrel of some weeks' standing. Jim Sawin's "folks," as she would have phrased it, were "meetin'ers," while Ike Peters was a leading member of the Episcopal choir, and it was designed expressly to aggravate him that she was to come in exhibiting her captive in triumph. To have "a child 'round under her feet," while engaged in conducting affairs of such delicacy, was manifestly impossible—so impossible that she thought stern repression of any such idea the very best policy.

"Now, Dolly Cushing, you jest shet up—for 'tain't no use talkin'. Your pa nor your ma wouldn't hear on't; and besides, little girls like you must go to bed early. They can't be up 'night-hawkin',' and goin' round in the cold. You might catch cold and die like little Julia Cavers. Little girls must be in bed and asleep by eight o'clock."

Dolly stood still with a lowering brow. Just then the world looked very dark. Her little rose-leaf of an under lip rolled out and quivered, and large bright drops began falling one by one over her cheeks.

Nabby had a soft spot in her heart, and felt these signs of affliction; but she stood firm.

"Now, Dolly, I'm sorry; but you can't go. So you jest be a good girl and not say no more about it, and don't cry, and I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll buy you a sugar dog down to the store, and I'll tell you all about it to-morrow."

Dolly had seen these sugar dogs in the window of the store, resplendent with their blue backs and yellow ears and pink tails—designed probably to represent dogs as they exist at the end of the rainbow. Her heart had burned within her with hopeless desire to call one of these beauties her own; and Nabby's promise brought out a gleaming smile through the showery atmosphere of her little face. A sugar dog might reconcile her to life.

"Now, you must promise me 'certain true as black is blue,'" said Nabby, adjuring by an apparently irrational form of conjuration in vogue among the children in those times. "You must promise you won't say a word about this 'ere thing to your pa or ma; for they wouldn't hear of your goin', and if they would I shouldn't take you. I really couldn't. It would be very inconvenient."

Dolly heaved a great sigh, but thought of the sugar dog, and calmed down the tempest that seemed struggling to rise in her little breast. A rainbow of hope rose over the cloud of disappointment, and a sugar dog with yellow ears and pink tail gleamed consolingly through it.

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