Annie Johnston.

Mary Ware in Texas



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For once Norman's suggestion, made yearly, was not opposed, and as he pried the lid off the box Mary flopped down on the floor beside it, Jack wheeled his chair closer, and Mrs. Ware came in from the next room in answer to their eager calls that it was from Joyce.

Each one of the studio family had contributed to the filling of the box. The holly-wreaths on top, tied with great bows of wide red ribbon, were from Miss Henrietta Robbins.

"Don't you know," exclaimed Mary, as she lifted them out and held them up for them all to admire, "that Miss Henrietta has turned that studio into a perfect bower of Christmas greens? She gives it all the elegant costly touches that Joyce never could afford, just as she's put the finishing touch on these wreaths with this beautiful ribbon. It's wide enough and satiny enough for a sash."

"And isn't it just like little Mrs. Boyd to send this!" she cried a moment later, when the opening of a fancy pasteboard box revealed a doll about six inches long, dressed like a ballet dancer. Its fluffy scarlet skirts hid the leaves of a needle-book, concealed among its folds, and from the ends of the sash, by which it was intended to dangle, hung a tiny emery bag in the shape of a strawberry, and a little silk thimble-case.

"She got the idea for that from the Ladies' Home Magazine, I am sure. She adores the pages that tell how to evolve your entire spring outfit from a shoe-string and a strip of left-over embroidery. It's not that she's trying to economize. Joyce says she has the piece-bag habit. The girls tease her about not being able to see a scrap of goods without wishing to find some way to use it, but they love the homey flavor her home-made things give to the house. She is as old-fashioned and dear in her ways as she is in her ideas of art."

"That is an unusually pretty doll," remarked Mrs. Ware as Mary swung it around by its sash.

"Yes," she answered, "it's the kind Hazel Lee and I were always wishing for. Ours were flaxen haired, and this has raven curls. We would have called her 'Lady Agatha' if we had had her then. I believe I'll name her that now," she added with a glance towards Jack to see if he understood the allusion.

But Jack was not noticing. He was turning the pages of a handsomely illustrated work on Geology, a book he had long wanted to own. Joyce had had little to spend this year compared with last, but in her hurried shopping expeditions, she had considered the tastes and needs of each one so well that every gift was hailed with delight.

"Norman's way is a dandy one," acknowledged Mary, as she opened a box of fine stationery engraved with her monogram, the first she had ever owned. "Now I can write my note to Gay on this. If we had waited I should have had to use the common paper that we buy at the drug-store by the pound, because it is cheap. And it's so nice too, to have these holly-wreaths beforehand."

She danced away to hang them in the windows, and to swing the Lady Agatha from a corner of the mirror over her bureau, where her hidden needle-book could readily be reached.

Then she thriftily gathered up every bit of ribbon and tinsel from the discarded wrappings, smoothed out the tissue paper and picked loose from it all the adhering seals that had not been broken in the process of tearing open the packages.

"Here's seven whole seals with holly on them," she announced to her mother, "six with Santa Claus heads and four with the greeting Merry Christmas. I'm going to use them over again in doing up the rest of my packages. That box that the doll came in is exactly what I want to put the candy in that I made for the Barnabys. And that plain one that holds the stuffed dates that Lucy Boyd sent will do for the candy I'm going to send Mr. and Mrs. Metz. All I'll need to do is to cover it with some of this holly paper and tie it with the same gold cord. I'll find a use for nearly everything I've saved before the week is over."

She said it in a tone of such deep satisfaction that Norman looked up from the book and other gifts in which he had seemed absorbed, to laugh at her.

"Mary is like that old woman who wrote those recipes for cheap pies in that old New England cook-book we have at home," he said to his mother. "She thinks 'a little Ingenuity added to almost any material that comes to hand will make a tasty pie!' You ought to send the Ladies' Home Magazine some pointers, Mary, on 'How to make Christmas gifts for others on the wrappings of those sent you.' Didn't some one say something about the scrap-bag habit awhile ago?"

Mary's only answer was a saucy grimace. She could afford to let him tease her about her squirrel instinct for hoarding, when it gave her so much satisfaction to add to her store of scraps. She had all sorts of things to draw on in emergencies. In the one month they had been in Bauer she had nearly filled a shoe-box with odds and ends. She had sheets of tin-foil, saved from packages of chocolate, picture cards, little bottles and boxes and various samples of toilet articles sent out by firms who advertise their goods in that way.

For the next two days every mail brought greetings and remembrances to some one of the family, sometimes to all, so that the hours slipped by at a fairly rapid pace. One of the gifts which gave Mary most pleasure was the chiffon scarf that Lloyd sent. It was like the one Roberta wore the first evening Mary had seen her, and which she rapturously compared to "a moonbeam spangled with dew-drops," only she thought hers far lovelier than Roberta's. A dozen times a day she slipped into her room to take the floating, filmy web from its box, and spread it out to gloat over it. She had to try the effects of different lights on it, sunshine and moonlight and the rays of the lamp. She spread it over different dresses, white, pink and green, to see which produced the prettiest glimmers, and Norman caught her once posing before a mirror with it draped over head, and teased her all the rest of the evening.

Betty's gift was a simple, inexpensive one, intended merely as a greeting. It was only a green bay-berry candle, but the card tied to it by a scarlet bow bore the verse:

 
"This bay-berry candle's tongue of flame
Bears message. Prithee hear it!
While it burns mid your Christmas greens
I'm with you all in spirit!"
 

"I'm glad that it's a big fat candle," said Mary, passing it around for each one to enjoy the spicy, aromatic fragrance. "It'll burn a long time."

She lighted it Christmas eve and put it in the centre of the table with one of the holly-wreaths laid around the base, and the tongue of flame did seem to "bear message." It started Mary to talking of her absent friend; of the bloodstone and the Good Times book Betty had given her. Of Betty's clear brown eyes and dearer ways, of Betty's sweet consideration for others, of her talent for writing which was sure to make her famous some day. She talked of her all during supper, not noticing that Jack was unusually silent, and that his eyes rested oftener on the candle than it did on his plate.

As they left the table Mr. Metz appeared at the door like a veritable old Santa Claus, with his long white beard and eyes a-twinkle. In one arm he carried a big round hat-box full of nuts, in the other two bottles of home-made wine. His own pecan trees and vineyard had furnished his offering. He thanked them so volubly in his broken way for the little gifts that Norman had carried over when he went for the milk, and delivered his nuts and wine with such benign smiles and a flow of good wishes from his wife and himself, that Mary gave a skip of pleasure when she closed the door after him. She went back to the kitchen singing:

"'Now jingle, jingle, come Kris Kringle!' Oh, I feel as if the old fellow himself had really been here. He and Betty's candle have given me a real Night-before-Christmas-and-all-through-the-house feeling. It's lovely!"

They had had supper so early that it was barely dusk outdoors when she and Norman started to take the box of ferns to the rectory. When they had passed the cotton field, the bend in the road soon brought them to the edge of the village, and the beginning of the short thoroughfare which led to the main street, past the cotton-gin and the Free Camp-yard.

The Free Camp-yard was always an interesting place to both of them, and they never passed it without looking in. It was a large lot surrounded by a high board fence. Low sheds were built along one side within the enclosure, in which both men and beasts might find shelter in time of storm. Usually they slept in the open, however, with little campfires here and there to boil their coffee and give them light. Peddlers, hucksters and belated country people were its usual patrons. But sometimes one saw a family of armadillo hunters on their way to the curio dealers, with crates full of the queer nine-banded shells which can be made into baskets, simply by tying the head and tail together.

One evening Mary saw two country belles, putting the finishing touches to their toilets behind a wagon, by the aid of a pocket-mirror. They had come in for one of the Saturday night balls, held regularly in the town hall. The week before, part of a disbanded freak show had taken refuge in the camp-yard. Norman, peeping through a knot-hole, the gate being shut, had seen the Armless Man scratch a match and light a fire with his toes.

It was deserted to-night, except for a dilapidated covered wagon which had driven in a few minutes before. It was drawn by a big bony horse and a dejected little burro, and piled high with household goods. A gaunt, rough-looking man with a week's stubble of red beard on his chin, was beginning to unhitch. His wife, who was only a young thing, and pretty in a worn, faded way, put down the sleeping baby that she had been holding, and stretched her arms wearily. She seemed too tired and listless to move till one of the two children, who were climbing down over the wheel, fell and began to whimper. A pair of hounds that had trailed along behind dropped down under the wagon as if they had followed a long way and were utterly exhausted.

"Did you ever see anything so forlorn in all your life!" exclaimed Norman as they passed on. "And Christmas eve, too. I don't suppose those poor little kids will have a thing."

"No, I suppose not," answered Mary. "It seems a shame, too, when there'll probably be a tree in every house in Bauer. Mrs. Metz says that is one custom that they keep up here as faithfully as they do in the old country. Even the poorest families will manage to get one somehow."

"Those were cute kids," Norman went on, too much interested in what he had just seen to put the subject by. "That oldest little girl with the yellow curls looked like a big doll, and the little one is almost as pretty."

He spoke of them again on the way back, after they had left the ferns at the rectory, and turned homeward. The lights were beginning to twinkle all down the long street. In every house they passed, where the shades had not been drawn, they could see a tree, standing all ready for the lighting, from gift-laden base to top-most taper. As they drew near the camp-yard again they saw the red-whiskered man going into the corner grocery with a tin pail on his arm. At the camp-yard gate they looked in. A small fire had been started, over which a battered coffee-pot had been set to boil. The burro and the bony horse were munching fodder near the wagon, but the woman and the children had disappeared.

"There they are," whispered Mary, pointing down the road a little way to a group standing in front of the pretty green and white cottage next to the cotton gin. The lace curtains had been dropped over the windows, but they did not hide the gay scene within. The family was having its celebration early, because the two small lads for whom it was designed were so young that their bedtime came early. They were handsome little fellows, one in kilts and the other just promoted to trousers. The gifts hanging from the lighted boughs were many and costly. The two little ones outside looking in, had never seen anything so fine and beautiful before, and stood gazing in round-eyed wonder. Attracted by the music they had strayed down from the camp-yard, and their mother had followed with the sleeping baby thrown across her shoulder, to bring them back. Now she, too, stood and stared.

The phonograph was still playing when Mary and Norman reached the gate, so they paused to listen, also, more interested in the watchers outside however, than the revellers within.

Presently Mary turned to the woman, saying, "It's pretty, isn't it?" in such a friendly way that her remark called out an equally friendly response, and in a few moments she had learned what she wanted most to know about the strangers. They were moving on to the next county, having already been two days and a night on the road. Her man thought he could find work in the cedar brakes.

They stood talking until the phonograph stopped, then a glance over her shoulder told the woman that her husband was returning to the wagon, and she turned to go. The children were loath to leave, however.

"It's their first sight of Sandy Claws," she remarked as if to explain their unwillingness. Then as one of them stumbled and caught at her skirts she added impatiently, "I reckon it's likely to be your last. He don't care anything for the likes of us."

It was said so bitterly, that as Norman trudged on in the opposite direction with his sister, he exclaimed in a regretful tone, "It's too bad that we didn't find out about them sooner, in time to fix something for them. It sort of spoils my own Christmas to think of those kids going without."

"They are not going without," replied Mary promptly, who had been thinking rapidly as she walked. "We've got to get something ready for them before they shut their eyes to-night."

"Huh, I'd like to know how you'll do it this late," Norman answered.

She laughed in reply, saying teasingly, "Who was it said that 'A little Ingenuity added to almost any material that comes to hand will make a tasty pie?' Well, it will make a tasty tree too. If you'll help I'll have one ready in an hour."

His skeptical "I don't believe it! Why, you can't!" was all she needed to start her to working out her resolution with the force of a young whirlwind. She could plan with lightning-like rapidity when any need arose.

"I said if you'd all help," she reminded him.

As soon as he had expressed a hearty willingness to do anything he could to carry "Sandy Claws" to the camp-yard, she began.

"The minute we get home, you hack off one of the bottom branches of that cedar tree outside the gate; a good bushy one about three feet high. Put it into the box that Joyce's presents came in, and nail it in place with cleats made from the lid. Better weight it with some stones in the bottom, and we can tack green cr?pe paper all over the base. We've nothing but ordinary white candles, but we can cut them in two, and wire them on with hairpins, and cover the pins with tinfoil out of my scrap-box that you make so much fun of. That will be your part.

"There's some corn already popped, waiting till I get back, to be made into balls. I'll get mamma to string it instead, and Jack to make a lot of little gilt cornucopias out of some stuff I've saved. I'm sure he'll donate the candy cane Joyce sent as a joke, although he is so fond of old-fashioned striped peppermint sticks. We'll break it up into short pieces and hang that on. And we can tie up a few dates and nuts into tiny packages. There are fancy papers and ribbons galore in that aforesaid scrap-box. I'll think of more after we get started. Come on, let's race the rest of the way. The one who gets there first can tell the others."

Norman reached the front door several yards ahead of Mary, but he did not claim his privilege. He merely rushed into the kitchen for a hatchet, calling as he dashed out again, "Sixty minutes to make a Christmas tree in! Everybody get to work." Mary did not stop to take off her hat. Throwing off her coat, she began talking "on the bounce" as Jack said, for she hurried from one room to the other, explaining at the top of her voice, while she gathered up pop-corn, scrap-box, paste-tube and scissors. Her enthusiasm was so contagious, her description of the camp-yard pilgrims so appealing, that by the time she had finished her breathless account of them Jack had begun cutting squares of gilt paper and Mrs. Ware was stringing corn as if they were working to win a wager.

The race against time was the most exciting experience they had had in Bauer. They watched the clock with many laughing exclamations, but were working too fast to talk much. In twenty minutes Norman brought in a shapely little tree firmly fastened on a green base. In thirty minutes more the candles were wired in place; a few skilful twists had turned part of the tinfoil into silvery ornaments to hang beneath, while the rest had gone to the making of a great star to blaze on the top-most bough. White strings of pop-corn were festooned around it like garlands of snow. Every branch was bright with gilt and silver and blue and red packages, holding only a nut or a sweetmeat it is true, but adding much to the gay attire of the tree.

A little pocket-mirror flashed from one bough, a fancy sample bottle of perfume hung from another. A miniature cake of scented soap and many fluttering picture cards bore witness to the resources of the scrap-box. Then exclaiming over a sudden happy thought Mary darted into the bedroom and took down Lady Agatha. Three snips of the scissors robbed her of the needle book hidden under her fluffy scarlet skirts and of the emery bag and thimble case tied to her sash ends, and left her no longer useful; only so ornamental that any little girl would have been glad to take her to her arms and affection.

"I know Mrs. Boyd wouldn't mind my passing it on to those children," Mary said as she tied it to one of the highest branches, "if she knew that it makes me happy as well as them."

"But," asked Norman, "what if Goldilocks and her sister both want to play with it at the same time? What will the left-out one do?"

Mary thought an instant and then flew to the tray of her trunk to snatch out a woolly toy lamb, that had fallen to her lot from the mock Christmas tree at Warwick Hall.

"I brought it down to Texas with me because Dorene said that 'everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.' I expected to keep it always as a reminder of that lovely evening, but – " with a half stifled sigh, "it will do them more good than me."

When that was in place she gave one last glance around the room to see what else she could appropriate. Her eyes fell on the holly wreaths.

"Those red bows will make lovely hair-ribbons," she cried. "We can spare two of them. Hurry, mamma, and help me untie them! The needle-book may as well go too. Pin it on, Norman, and stick a date in the thimble bag and swing it up, Jack."

In the meantime Norman had been lighting the candles in order that they might see how it looked when it was all ashine, and it stood now, a very creditable and a very bright little tree. There were none of the spun-glass birds and crystal icicles and artificial fruits that had made little Patricia's tree such a gorgeous affair the year before, and were probably making it beautiful to-night, but there was sparkle and color and glow and charm of beribboned packages, enough to make little eyes who saw such a sight for the first time believe that it was the work of magic hands.

"Done!" cried Mary triumphantly, "and in only fifty-eight minutes!"

"Well, I didn't believe it would be possible," acknowledged Norman. "I'll bet it's the only tree in Texas trimmed in such short order."

When he and Mary reached the camp-yard again, they found the family sitting around the smouldering fire, listening to the phonograph which was still playing in the cottage down the road. The quilts were spread out in the wagon, ready for the night, but the children, who had slept most of the afternoon on their tiresome journey, could not be induced to climb in while the music lasted.

The two bearers of Yule-tide cheer set the tree down and reconnoitered through cracks in the fence. "The man looks awfully down in the mouth," whispered Norman. "So does she. Shall we tell them 'Sandy Claws' sent it?"

"No," Mary whispered back. "They look so forlorn and friendless, and the woman seemed to feel so left out of everything, that it might do them good to tell them we brought it because the angels sang peace on earth, good-will to men, and that it's a sort of sign that they're not left out. They're to have a part in it too."

Norman turned his eye from the knot-hole to gape at her. "Well!" was his whispered ejaculation. "If you want all that said you'll have to say it yourself. I'm no preacher."

"Come on then," said Mary boldly. She knew what she wanted to convey to them but the words stuck in her throat, and she never could remember afterwards exactly what she blurted out as they put the tree down in front of the astonished family and then turned and ran. However, her words must have carried some of the good cheer she intended, for when she and Norman paused again outside, she at the knot-hole this time and he at the crack, it gave them each a queer little flutter inside to see the expression on the pleased faces and hear their exclamations of wonder.



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