The Widow’s Christmas
Mrs. Mulford was a woman who doted on ruins. Nothing in the present was as beautiful as she had enjoyed in the past; and it seemed utterly impossible for her to imagine that there was anything in the future that could compensate her for the trials she had endured.
In her girlhood Mrs. Mulford had been surrounded with the luxuries of life; after her marriage her surroundings were but a trifle less magnificent. In such an air of luxury and ease, her children were being reared when suddenly a great change came.
Mr. Mulford was a rash speculator, and on that memorable “Black Friday,” the idol he had worshiped, the god of gold, proved itself to be nothing but clay, and was as dust in his hands. He could not rally from the shock; pride, ambition, courage, were all annihilated; and Mrs. Mulford, to whom beggary seemed worse than death, could only mingle her tears with his in speechless agony.
Arthur, the eldest child, a boy of fourteen, endeavored to comfort his grief-stricken parents.
“I will work for you, father. I can easily get a place in a store.”
“My boy! my boy!” said the poor man, clasping his son affectionately in his arms; "stay by your mother and the girls, they will need you, dear boy!” And he imprinted a kiss on the glowing cheek, that had in it a father’s blessing and farewell.
The next morning Mrs. Mulford was a widow, and her children fatherless. A trifle the creditors allowed her was all she had to depend upon, the money she had inherited from her father having been swept away by the financial tornado.
She had taken a little place in the country, and with Arthur’s help, and Bridget’s,--who had followed the fortunes of her mistress—had succeeded in making things look quite cozy and attractive.
“Sure ma’am.” Said Bridget, in her homely attempts to comfort her mistress, who dragged herself about like a sable ghost, “if ye’d only smile once in a while ye’d be surprised at the comfort ye’d get!”
“Ah, Bridget,” Mrs. Mulford replied, with a long-drawn sigh, “my smiling days are over. I try to be patient, but I cannot be cheerful.”
“Ah, but, it’s the cheerful patience that brings the sunshine; and you really shouldn’t grieve the children so.”
“Do they mind it, Bridget?”
“Sure, an’ they do! Master Arthur, bless the boy! says its just like a tomb where ye are; and Miss Minnie and Maud have their little hearts nearly torn out of them; and they are such wee, little birdies!”
But Mrs. Mulford could not be easily beguiled from her sorrow, especially as she was obliged to have recourse to her needle to eke out the limited allowance, and every stitch she took was but an additional reminder of the depth to which she was reduced.
To such a disposition the needle is but a weapon of despair, bringing neither comfort nor hope, nor in any way lightening the burdens of life. The recurrence of an anniversary was, to Mrs. Mulford’s mind like the unveiling of a monument to the departed, and was usually spent in solitude and tears.
She had managed to exist through the Thanksgiving season, and Bridget had done her best to make the occasion worthy to be remembered—by the children at least; and if it hadn’t been for that kitchen goddess, I don’t see how the house could have held together.
She had always some comical story to tell the children, something to excite their wonder and admiration, and every few days would surprise them with some fresh molasses candy or cunning little cakes baked in curious patty pans.
Minnie and Maud rather enjoyed their poverty, as it allowed them more freedom and exemption from little rules that society enjoined. It was such fun to roll in the snow, and draw each other in the sled, without any caution in regard to ruffles and frills that used to be such a torment to them, and such a restraint on their buoyant natures.
Christmas was drawing near, and its approach filled Mrs. Mulford with uncontrollable despondency. It had been a gay season in her young days, and her own children knew it as the season of special rejoicing and unlimited toys and candies. Now it was all so changed! Even a moderate expenditure was not to be thought of, when it was so difficult to procure even the necessaries of life, and she really wished the day was over, for she dreaded its arrival. The furniture never looked so dingy and faded, nor the curtains so course, nor her surroundings so pitiful, as she looked around and thought that Christmas was coming.
Neither did the past ever seem so beautiful and glowing as when she cast a retrospective glance in that direction at this memorable season. But in the kitchen all was animation and excitement; as different an atmosphere as if there were ever so many degrees of latitude between them; Mrs. Mulford occupying the frigid, and Bridget the torrid zone. Every afternoon and early in the morning, Minnie and Maud were down in a corner of the kitchen very busy over some mystery, in which Bridget was so much interested as they were themselves.
Arthur bustled about from one room to another, always the active, cheery, hopeful boy, who kept everybody informed of what was going on in the outside world; and he, too, evidently had some weighty secret pressing against the buttons of his jacket. Christmas eve came, and the children began to think it never would be dark enough for them to get ready for Santa Claus.
“What are you going to do, Minnie?” inquired Mrs. Mulford, as Minnie brought in the stockings to hang by the fire.
“Get ready for Santa Claus, mamma.” was the reply. “You know that to-morrow is Christmas!”
“But Santa Claus don’t come to poor people, my child,” and the tears filled her eyes at the recollection of the generous gifts of former years.
“Oh, yes he does, mamma,” said Minnie, who was eleven years old, and two years the senior of her sister; “yes he does! He knows where we live.” And she continued pinning the stockings upon the line she had stretched across the mantel.
“I wish I could have afforded a tree!” sighed the mother, watching her daughter’s movements with considerable curiosity.
“We don’t want a tree, do we, Maud? A stocking is ever so much nicer. It looks so funny all stuffed out, and then you don’t know what’s in it, and you have to shake it out, and hunt way in the toe! Then you can put such tiny things in. to make everybody laugh.”
Then she pinned on the names which Arthur had printed very nicely on slips of paper, and stood off a little distance to admire her handiwork.
Bridget was called in from the kitchen to see if it was all right, and Arthur was induced to leave his work just for a minute to note the effect of the display.
“Here now!” he exclaimed, “I told you to hang up the clothes bag for me. You don’t suppose that little thing will hold all my treasures, do you? Is the chimney clear?” And he pretended to search anxiously for anything that might prevent the descent of good old Santa Claus, whose coming had never before been anticipated with such unqualified delight.
Mrs. Mulford was in the midst of a troubled dream, when a shout of “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” rang through the house, and awakened her to the reality of the day she so long had dreaded.
She knew how dreadfully disappointed the children would be, it is so hard for them to understand the exigencies of life, and wished she might keep her room all day and have Bridget bring up her meals.
“If you please, ma’am,” said the worthy maid-of-all-work, not stopping to knock at the door, “if ye please, ma’am, ye’d better come down stairs; the children are nigh about crazy waiting for ye;” and the sunshine of her face illuminated the long room after she had retreated down the stairway.
“They can’t feel very bad,” said Mrs. Mulford as she slowly turned from her room. “It seems to me I never heard them laugh so heartily. Oh, to be a child again!” and she sighed heavily.
As she entered the sitting-room, what a sight met her eyes! There were wreaths of green over her portrait and papa’s; a narrow border running round the mantel; and festoons falling in every direction.
“Come mother,” said Arthur, you first; Bridget can hardly wait, and our breakfast won’t be worth eating.”
“Oh, no,” said the mother, “Maud shall have the first chance;" and the impatient child eagerly availed herself of the privilege.
It was astonishing what an amount of goodies rolled out of that stocking, and after they were laid aside there were one or two parcels to be opened. There was a nice pair of warm gloves, just what she wanted to use in drawing the sled or making snow-balls; a new doll, and a book full of pictures. Minnie’s stocking was quite as bountifully stocked, and every new surprise seemed to enkindle their mirth and enthusiasm.
Arthur had filled his own stockings with all sorts of odds and ends, on purpose to increase the fun and hilarity, and pretended to be surprised that Santa Claus patronized second-hand shops. Bridget sat down with the children to unload her collection of treasures, and even Mrs, Mulford was forced to laugh heartily at her comical remarks, especially when she drew out a potato, which was labeled, ”The last of the Murphys!” “May they always be first in the field!” said Bridget.
When Mrs. Mulford was finally induced to examine the contents of her own stocking, the children, with Bridget, who was only an older child, gathered around, and watched anxiously the proceedings.
There were a pair of nice brackets hanging outside, which Arthur had cut with a penknife; and as she took up each article that had been wrought by loving little fingers, the worsted pulse-warmers, the pretty mats and tidies, she felt that it was indeed possible for love to build upon the old ruins a beautiful palace for the heart to dwell in.
“Forgive me, my dear children!” she exclaimed, embracing them each in turn. “Bridget, my good girl, we will begin the world anew. I have been a weak woman.”
“Sorry a bit of it!" said Bridget, wiping away her tears with the corner of her apron. “It’s a heavy cross ye had, but we’re all going to help carry it.”
“And, mother,” broke in Arthur, “I’ve got a situation in a grocery store.”
“Yes. It isn’t much, but I’ll learn the business; and then, you know, I can take care of you.”
What a Christmas breakfast they had! It wasn’t so much what was on the table, although Bridget had made delicious waffles, and everything was super-excellent, but it was the guest that sat at the board with them that made it a feast to remember. While they were at the table, talking over plans in which the mother manifested undoubted interest, there was a sudden, sharp knock at the door that startled all the inmates of the house.
“A new calamity!” sighed Mrs. Mulford, falling back into the old attitude.
“It must be Santa Clause himself!” exclaimed Bridget, putting her head through the kitchen door. Arthur admitted the gentleman, so swarthed in an immense scarf about his neck and chin as to leave one in doubt as to whether he were friend or foe.
“Well, well!” said the stranger, divesting himself of his wraps, and stamping the snow from his boots in the little hall; “Such a tramp as I have had! Where’s Carrie?”
“Carrie?” inquired Arthur, fearing he had admitted a lunatic.
“Yes, Carrie. My niece, Carrie Wharton. Are you her boy?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“No more do I. She was Carrie Wharton, married Ned Mulford, and a long tramp I’ve had to find her.”
“Have you any bad news?” inquired Arthur, laying a detaining hand on the stranger’s arm; because if you have, I’d rather you wouldn’t mention it to-day. My name is Arthur Mulford, and we’ve had such a happy Christmas.”
“No fear, my boy, bless your tender heart! Why, I’ve come from Santa Claus myself, and am chock full of sunshine that turns into gold.” Saying which, he entered the room where Mrs. Mulford and her children were sitting, and Bridget hurrying to clear off the breakfast things.
“Carrie!” said the stranger in eager tones, advancing toward Mrs. Mulford, who seemed to have heard a voice from the far-away past. She was in her own home gain, a careless child; father and mother were living, death had never crossed her threshold, and all was joy and happiness. A bewildered moment, and then a flash of recognition.
“Yes, dear child! Would I could have got to you sooner;” and he held the weary head close to his generous heart, and smoothed the worn brow.
“I felt I was growing old, and had a hankering after a home to die in, and always the face of my little niece, Carrie, seemed to give me the heartiest welcome.”
“Then you didn’t die,” said Arthur, looking on the scene as if it were a part of a fairy story.
“Of course I didn’t. Came near it, a dozen times, but always escaped. Couldn’t see why I was spared and better folks taken, but it’s all clear now. Why, I had as hard work finding anything about Ned Mulford, or Ned Muford’s widow, as if I had been trying to find Captain Kidd.”
“It’s because of our poverty,” sighed the widow.
“Yes, I suppose so. It’s the way of the world! But who cares? We’ll begin the world anew.”
Mrs. Mulford stared at hearing her own words repeated, and Bridget, who kept an ear on the proceedings, stood for a moment in open-mouthed amazement, much as if she feared that there was to be another great convulsion of nature.
“Yes,” continued uncle Nathan, “Yes that’s what brought me back. Money don’t make a home, I know that well enough, for I’ve seen it tried. Arthur, what are your plans?”
“I was going into Mr. Chase’s grocery the first of January.”
“Do you want to? Any taste for hams, herrings, tape, and shoe-strings?”
“No, sir,” replied Arthur, laughing at the combination, “but I’d like to help mother. I promise father to see after her.”
“You’ve done your duty. But my opinion is you’d rather go to college than into a grocery.”
“Oh, sir!” and the flesh on the boy’s face was not to be misunderstood.
“College it is, then. Carrie, you are to be my house keeper; these are my little girls;” clasping the children in a hearty embrace, and see if we don’t turn out a happier family than any Barnum ever exhibited.”
The Christmas dinner was a marvel of cookery, and Uncle Nathan enlivened the meal with accounts of his adventures.
“And this was the Christmas I had dreaded!” said Mrs. Mulford, as she retired to her room.
The children had reluctantly gone to bed, fearing that this good “Santa Claus,” as they persisted in calling Uncle Nathan, would disappear in the night, and leave them as suddenly as he came.
Arthur dreamed of his books and college, and woke up half a dozen times in the night to assure himself that the great man sleeping so soundly beside him was not simply the magician of the “Arabian Nights.”
Mrs. Mulford’s pride was truly humbled by this manifestation of God’s goodness, and long and earnestly she prayed that henceforth, whatever trials might come upon her, she might bear the burden with cheerful patience, trusting in God to lead her through the shadows into the sunshine of a more perfect day. And in after life no memory was more precious to her than that of a Christmas morning when the children taught her a lesson of unselfishness and duty.
Come into our home, oh ye Christmas angels! Brush away the cobwebs that regret and selfishness have strewn around, and put in their stead the wreaths and the vines that are fragrant with the immortality of love! No home so poor that will not be the brighter for your coming! No heart that is not enriched by your presence, Oh ever blessed Christmas guest!
“There are many lovely things.
As many pleasant tones
For those who dwell by cottage hearths
As those who sit on thrones.”