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Chapter 4 - CHRISTMAS
Christmas was coming.
The little log house was almost buried in snow. Great drifts were banked against the walls and windows, and in the morning when Pa opened the door, there was a wall of snow as high as Laura’s head. Pa took the shovel and shoveled it away, and then he shoveled a path to the barn, where the horses and the cows were snug and warm in their stalls.
The days were clear and bright. Laura and Mary stood on chairs by the window and looked out across the glittering snow at the glittering trees. Snow was piled all along their bare, dark branches, and it sparkled in the sunshine. Icicles hung from the eaves of the house to the snowbanks, great icicles as large at the top as Laura’s arm. They were like glass and full of sharp lights.
Pa’s breath hung in the air like smoke, when he came along the path from the barn. He breathed it out in clouds and it froze in white frost on his mustache and beard.
When he came in, stamping the snow from his boots, and caught Laura up in a bear’s hug against his cold, big coat, his mustache was beaded with little drops of melting frost.
Every night he was busy, working on a large piece of board and two small pieces. He whittled them with his knife, he rubbed them with sand-paper and with the palm of his hand, until when Laura touched them they felt soft and smooth as silk.
Then with his sharp jack-knife he worked at them, cutting the edges of the large one into little peaks and towers, with a large star carved on the very tallest point. He cut little holes through the wood. He cut the holes in shapes of windows, and little stars, and crescent moons, and circles. All around them he carved tiny leaves, and flowers, and birds.
One of the little boards he shaped in a lovely curve, and around its edges he carved leaves and flowers and stars, and through it he cut crescent moons and curlicues.
Around the edges of the smallest board he carved a tiny flowering vine.
He made the tiniest shavings, cutting very slowly and carefully, making whatever he thought would be pretty.
At last he had the pieces finished and one night he fitted them together. When this was done, the large piece was a beautifully carved back for a smooth little shelf across its middle. The large star was at the very top of it. The curved piece supported the shelf underneath, and it was carved beautifully, too. And the little vine ran around the edge of the shelf.
Pa had made this bracket for a Christmas present for Ma. He hung it carefully against the log wall between the windows, and Ma stood her little china woman on the shelf.
The little china woman had a china bonnet on her head, and china curls hung against her china neck. Her china dress was laced across in front, and she wore a pale pink china apron and little gilt china shoes. She was beautiful, standing on the shelf with flowers and leaves and birds and moons carved all around her, and the large star at the very top.
Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and rye ‘n Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.
One morning she boiled molasses and sugar together until they made a thick syrup, and Pa brought in two pans of clean, white snow from outdoors. Laura and Mary each had a pan, and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams on to the snow.
They made circles, and curlicues, and squiggledy things, and these hardened at once and were candy. Laura and Mary might eat one piece each, but the rest was saved for Christmas Day.
All this was done because Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter and the cousins, Peter and Alice and Ella, were coming to spend Christmas.
The day before Christmas they came. Laura and Mary heard the gay ringing of sleigh bells, growing louder every moment, and then the big bobsled came out of the woods and drove up to the gate. Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter and the cousins were in it, all covered up, under blankets and robes and buffalo skins.
They were wrapped up in so many coats and mufflers and veils and shawls that they looked like big, shapeless bundles.
When they all came in, the little house was full and running over. Black Susan ran out and hid in the barn, but Jack leaped in circles through the snow, barking as though he would never stop. Now there were cousins to play with!
As soon as Aunt Eliza had unwrapped them, Peter and Alice and Ella and Laura and Mary began to run and shout. At last Aunt Eliza told them to be quiet. Then Alice said: “I’ll tell you what let’s do. Let’s make pictures.”
Alice said they must go outdoors to do it, and Ma thought it was too cold for Laura to play outdoors. But when she saw how disappointed Laura was, she said she might go, after all, for a little while. She put on Laura’s coat and mittens and the warm cape with the hood, and wrapped a muffler around her neck, and let her go.
Laura had never had so much fun. All morning she played outdoors in the snow with Alice and Ella and Peter and Mary, making pictures. The way they did it was this: Each one by herself climbed up on a stump, and then all at once, holding their arms out wide, they fell off the stumps into the soft, deep snow. They fell flat on their faces. Then they tried to get up without spoiling the marks they made when they fell. If they did it well, there in the snow were five holes, shaped almost exactly like four little girls and a boy, arms and legs and all. They called these their pictures.
They played so hard all day that when night came they were too excited to sleep. But they must sleep, or Santa Claus would not come. So they hung their stockings by the fireplace, and said their prayers, and went to bed—Alice and Ella and Mary and Laura all in one big bed on the floor.
Peter had the trundle bed. Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter were going to sleep in the big bed, and another bed was made on the attic floor for Pa and Ma. The buffalo robes and all the blankets had been brought in from Uncle Peter’s sled, so there were enough covers for everybody.
Pa and Ma and Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter sat by the fire, talking. And just as Laura was drifting off to sleep, she heard Uncle Peter say:
“Eliza had a narrow squeak the other day, when I was away at Lake City. You know Prince, that big dog of mine?”
Laura was wide awake at once. She always liked to hear about dogs. She lay still as a mouse, and looked at the firelight flickering on the log walls, and listened to Uncle Peter.
“Well,” Uncle Peter said, “early in the morning Eliza started to the spring to get a pail of water, and Prince was following her. She got to the edge of the ravine, where the path goes down to the spring, and all of a sudden Prince set his teeth in the back of her skirt and pulled.
“You know what a big dog he is: Eliza scolded him, but he wouldn’t let go, and he’s so big and strong she couldn’t get away from him. He kept backing and pulling, till he tore a piece out of her skirt.”
“It was my blue print,” Aunt Ella said to Ma.
“Dear me!” Ma said.
“He tore a big piece right out of the back of it,” Aunt Eliza said. “I was so mad I could have whipped him for it. But he growled at me.”
“Prince growled at you?” Pa said.
“Yes,” said Aunt Eliza.
“So then she started on again toward the spring,” Uncle Peter went on. “But Prince jumped into the path ahead of her and snarled at her. He paid no attention to her talking and scolding. He just kept on showing his teeth and snarling, and when she tried to get past him he kept in front of her and snapped at her. That scared her.”
“I should think it would!” Ma said.
“He was so savage, I thought he was going to bite me,” said Aunt Eliza. “I believe he would have.”
“I never heard of such a thing!” said Ma. “What on earth did you do?”
“I turned right around and ran into the house where the children were, and slammed the door,” Aunt Eliza answered.
“Of course Prince was savage with strangers,” said Uncle Peter. “But he was always so kind to Eliza and the children I felt perfectly safe to leave them with him. Eliza couldn’t understand it at all.
“After she got into the house he kept pacing around it and growling. Every time she started to open the door he jumped at her and snarled.”
“Had he gone mad?” said Ma.
“That’s what I thought,” Aunt Eliza said. “I didn’t know what to do. There I was, shut up in the house with the children, and not daring to go out. And we didn’t have any water. I couldn’t even get any snow to melt. Every time I opened the door so much as a crack, Prince acted like he would tear me to pieces.”
“How long did this go on?” Pa asked.
“All day, till late in the afternoon,” Aunt Eliza said. “Peter had taken the gun, or I would have shot him.”
“Along late in the afternoon,” Uncle Peter said, “he got quiet, and lay down in front of the door. Eliza thought he was asleep, and she made up her mind to try to slip past him and get to the spring for some water.
“So she opened the door very quietly, but of course he woke up right away. When he saw she had the water pail in her hand, he got up and walked ahead of her to the spring, just the same as usual. And there, all around the spring in the snow, were the fresh tracks of a panther.”
“The tracks were as big as my hand,” said Aunt Eliza.
“Yes,” Uncle Peter said, “he was a big fellow. His tracks were the biggest I ever saw. He would have got Eliza sure, if Prince had let her go to the spring in the morning. I saw the tracks. He had been lying up in that big oak over the spring, waiting for some animal to come there for water. Undoubtedly he would have dropped down on her.
“Night was coming on, when she saw the tracks, and she didn’t waste any time getting back to the house with her pail of water. Prince followed close behind her, looking back into the ravine now and then.”
“I took him into the house with me,” Aunt Eliza said, “and we all stayed inside, till Peter came home.”
“Did you get him?” Pa asked Uncle Peter.
“No,” Uncle Peter said. “I took my gun and hunted all round the place, but I couldn’t find him. I saw some more of his tracks. He’d gone on north, farther into the Big Woods.”
Alice and Ella and Mary were all wide awake now, and Laura put her head under the covers and whispered to Alice, “My! weren’t you scared?”
Alice whispered back that she was scared, but Ella was scareder. And Ella whispered that she wasn’t, either, any such thing.
“Well, anyway, you made more fuss about being thirsty,” Alice whispered.
They lay there whispering about it till Ma said: “Charles, those children never will get to sleep unless you play for them.” So Pa got his fiddle.
The room was still and warm and full of firelight. Ma’s shadow, and Aunt Eliza’s and Uncle Peter’s were big and quivering on the walls in the flickering firelight, and Pa’s fiddle sang merrily to itself.
It sang “Money Musk,” and “The Red Heifer,” “The Devil’s Dream,” and “Arkansas Traveler.” And Laura went to sleep while Pa and the fiddle were both softly singing: “My darling Nelly Gray, they have taken you away,
And I’ll never see my darling anymore.”
In the morning they all woke up almost at the same moment. They looked at their stockings, and something was in them. Santa Claus had been there. Alice and Ella and Laura in their red flannel nightgowns and Peter in his red flannel nightshirt, all ran shouting to see what he had brought.
In each stocking there was a pair of bright red mittens, and there was a long, flat stick of red-and-white-striped peppermint candy, all beautifully notched along each side.
They were all so happy they could hardly speak at first. They just looked with shining eyes at those lovely Christmas presents. But Laura was happiest of all. Laura had a rag doll.
She was a beautiful doll. She had a face of white cloth with black button eyes. A black pencil had made her eyebrows, and her cheeks and her mouth were red with the ink made from pokeberries. Her hair was black yarn that had been knit and raveled, so that it was curly.
She had little red flannel stockings and little black cloth gaiters for shoes, and her dress was pretty pink and blue calico.
She was so beautiful that Laura could not say a word. She just held her tight and forgot everything else. She did not know that everyone was looking at her, till Aunt Eliza said: “Did you ever see such big eyes!”
The other girls were not jealous because Laura had mittens, and candy, and a doll, because Laura was the littlest girl, except Baby Carrie and Aunt Eliza’s little baby, Dolly Varden. The babies were too small for dolls. They were so small they did not even know about Santa Claus. They just put their fingers in their mouths and wriggled because of all the excitement.
Laura sat down on the edge of the bed and held her doll. She loved her red mittens and she loved the candy, but she loved her doll best of all. She named her Charlotte.
Then they all looked at each other’s mittens, and tried on their own, and Peter bit a large piece out of his stick of candy, but Alice and Ella and Mary and Laura licked theirs, to make it last longer.
“Well, well!” Uncle Peter said. “Isn’t there even one stocking with nothing but a switch in it? My, my, have you all been such good children?”
But they didn’t believe that Santa Claus could, really, have given any of them nothing but a switch. That happened to some children, but it couldn’t happen to them. It was so hard to be good all the time, every day, for a whole year.
“You mustn’t tease the children, Peter,” Aunt Eliza said.
Ma said, “Laura, aren’t you going to let the other girls hold your doll?” She meant, “Little girls must not be so selfish.”
So Laura let Mary take the beautiful doll, and then Alice held her a minute, and then Ella. They smoothed the pretty dress and admired the red flannel stockings and the gaiters, and the curly woolen hair. But Laura was glad when at last Charlotte was safe in her arms again.
Pa and Uncle Peter had each a pair of new, warm mittens, knit in little squares of red and white. Ma and Aunt Eliza had made them.
Aunt Eliza had brought Ma a large red apple stuck full of cloves. How good it smelled! And it would not spoil, for so many cloves would keep it sound and sweet.
Ma gave Aunt Eliza a little needle-book she had made, with bits of silk for covers and soft white flannel leaves into which to stick the needles. The flannel would keep the needles from rusting.
They all admired Ma’s beautiful bracket, and Aunt Eliza said that Uncle Peter had made one for her—of course, with different carving.
Santa Claus had not given them anything at all. Santa Claus did not give grown people presents, but that was not because they had not been good. Pa and Ma were good. It was because they were grown up, and grown people must give each other presents.
Then all the presents must be laid away for a little while. Peter went out with Pa and Uncle Peter to do the chores, and Alice and Ella helped Aunt Eliza make the beds, and Laura and Mary set the table, while Ma got breakfast.
For breakfast there were pancakes, and Ma made a pancake man for each one of the children. Ma called each one in turn to bring her plate, and each could stand by the stove and watch, while with the spoonful of batter Ma put on the arms and the legs and the head. It was exciting to watch her turn the whole little man over, quickly and carefully, on a hot griddle. When it was done, she put it smoking hot on the plate.
Peter ate the head off his man, right away. But Alice and Ella and Mary and Laura ate theirs slowly in little bits, first the arms and legs and then the middle, saving the head for the last.
Today the weather was so cold that they could not play outdoors, but there were the new mittens to admire, and the candy to lick. And they all sat on the floor together and looked at the pictures in the Bible, and the pictures of all kinds of animals and birds in Pa’s big green book. Laura kept Charlotte in her arms the whole time.
Then there was the Christmas dinner. Alice and Ella and Peter and Mary and Laura did not say a word at table, for they knew that children should be seen and not heard. But they did not need to ask for second helpings. Ma and Aunt Eliza kept their plates full and let them eat all the good things they could hold.
“Christmas comes but once a year,” said Aunt Eliza.
Dinner was early, because Aunt Eliza, Uncle Peter and the cousins had such a long way to go.
“Best the horses can do,” Uncle Peter said, “we’ll hardly make it home before dark.”
So as soon as they had eaten dinner, Uncle Peter and Pa went to put the horses to the sled, while Ma and Aunt Eliza wrapped up the cousins.
They pulled heavy woolen stockings over the woolen stockings and the shoes they were already wearing. They put on mittens and coats and warm hoods and shawls, and wrapped mufflers around their necks and thick woolen veils over their faces. Ma slipped piping hot baked potatoes into their pockets to keep their fingers warm, and Aunt Ella’s flatirons were hot on the stove, ready to put at their feet in the sled. The blankets and the quilts and the buffalo robes were warmed, too.
So they all got into the big bobsled, cosy and warm, and Pa tucked the last robe well in around them.
“Good-by! Good-by!” they called, and off they went, the horses trotting gaily and the sleigh bells ringing.
In just a little while the merry sound of the bells was gone, and Christmas was over. But what a happy Christmas it had been!
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