A Merry Christmas, Page 2Louisa May Alcott
A universal shriek arose as the russet boots waved wildly from the wreck, and a golden head emerged, exclaiming, “I told you so! I told you so!” With wonderful presence of mind Don Pedro, the cruel sire, rushed in, dragged out his daughter with a hasty aside—
“Don’t laugh, act as if it was all right!” and ordering Roderigo up, banished him from the kingdom with wrath and scorn. Though decidedly shaken by the fall of the tower upon him, Roderigo defied the old gentleman, and refused to stir. This dauntless example fired Zara; she also defied her sire, and he ordered them both to the deepest dungeons of the castle. A stout little retainer came in with chains, and led them away, looking very much frightened, and evidently forgetting the speech he ought to have made.
Act third was the castle hall; and here Hagar appeared, having come to free the lovers and finish Hugo. She hears him coming and hides; sees him put the potions into two cups of wine, and bid the timid little servant, “Bear them to the captives in their cells, and tell them I shall come anon.” The servant takes Hugo aside to tell him something, and Hagar changes the cups for two others which are harmless. Ferdinando, the “minion,” carries them away, and Hagar puts back the cup which holds the poison meant for Roderigo. Hugo, getting thirsty after a long warble, drinks it, loses his wits, and after a good deal of clutching and stamping, falls flat and dies while Hagar informs him what she has done in a song of exquisite power and melody.
This was a truly thrilling scene; though some persons might have thought that the sudden tumbling down of a quantity of long hair rather marred the effect of the villain’s death. He was called before the curtain, and with great propriety appeared leading Hagar, whose singing was considered more wonderful than all the rest of the performance put together.
Act fourth displayed the despairing Roderigo on the point of stabbing himself, because he has been told that Zara has deserted him. Just as the dagger is at his heart, a lovely song is sung under his window, informing him that Zara is true, but in danger, and he can save her if he will. A key is thrown in which unlocks the door, and in a spasm of rapture he tears off his chains and rushes away to find and rescue his ladylove.
Act fifth opened with a stormy scene between Zara and Don Pedro. He wishes her to go into a convent, but she won’t hear of it; and, after a touching appeal, is about to faint, when Roderigo dashes in and demands her hand. Don Pedro refuses because he is not rich. They shout and gesticulate tremendously, but cannot agree, and Roderigo is about to bear away the exhausted Zara, when the timid servant enters with a letter and a bag from Hagar, who has mysteriously disappeared. The letter informs the party that she bequeaths untold wealth to the young pair and an awful doom to Don Pedro if he doesn’t make them happy. The bag is opened, and several quarts of tin money shower down upon the stage, till it is quite glorified with the glitter. This entirely softens the “stern sire”; he consents without a murmur, all join in a joyful chorus, and the curtain falls upon the lovers kneeling to receive Don Pedro’s blessing, in attitudes of the most romantic grace.
Tumultuous applause followed, but received an unexpected check; for the cot-bed on which the “dress circle” was built, suddenly shut up and extinguished the enthusiastic audience. Roderigo and Don Pedro flew to the rescue, and all were taken out unhurt, though many were speechless with laughter. The excitement had hardly subsided when Hannah appeared, with “Mrs. March’s compliments, and would the ladies walk down to supper?”
This was a surprise, even to the actors; and when they saw the table they looked at one another in rapturous amazement. It was like “Marmee” to get up a little treat for them, but anything so fine as this was unheard of since the departed days of plenty. There was ice cream—actually two dishes of it, pink and white—and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons, and in the middle of the table four great bouquets of hothouse flowers!
It quite took their breath away; and they stared first at the table and then at their mother, who looked as if she enjoyed it immensely.
“Is it fairies?” asked Amy.
“It’s Santa Claus,” said Beth.
“Mother did it,” and Meg smiled her sweetest, in spite of her gray beard and white eyebrows.
“Aunt March had a good fit, and sent the supper,” cried Jo, with a sudden inspiration.
“All wrong; old Mr. Laurence sent it,” replied Mrs. March.
“The Laurence boy’s grandfather! What in the world put such a thing into his head? We don’t know him,” exclaimed Meg.
“Hannah told one of his servants about your breakfast party; he is an odd old gentleman, but that pleased him. He knew my father, years ago, and he sent me a polite note this afternoon, saying he hoped I would allow him to express his friendly feeling toward my children by sending them a few trifles in honor of the day. I could not refuse, and so you have a little feast at night to make up for the bread and milk breakfast.”
“That boy put it into his head; I know he did! He’s a capital fellow, and I wish we could get acquainted. He looks as if he’d like to know us, but he’s bashful, and Meg is so prim she won’t let me speak to him when we pass,” said Jo, as the plates went round, and the ice began to melt out of sight, with ohs! and ahs! of satisfaction.
“You mean the people who live in the big house next door, don’t you?” asked one of the girls. “My mother knows old Mr. Laurence, but says he’s very proud and doesn’t like to mix with his neighbors. He keeps his grandson shut up when he isn’t riding or walking with his tutor, and makes him study dreadful hard. We invited him to our party, but he didn’t come. Mother says he’s very nice, though he never speaks to us girls.”
“Our cat ran away once, and he brought her back, and we talked over the fence and were getting on capitally, all about cricket, and so on, when he saw Meg coming and walked off. I mean to know him some day, for he needs fun, I’m sure he does,” said Jo decidedly.
“I like his manners, and he looks like a little gentleman, so I’ve no objection to your knowing him if a proper opportunity comes. He brought the flowers himself, and I should have asked him in if I had been sure what was going on upstairs. He looked so wistful as he went away, hearing the frolic, and evidently having none of his own.”
“It’s a mercy you didn’t, Mother,” laughed Jo, looking at her boots. “But we’ll have another play sometime, that he can see. Maybe he’ll help act; wouldn’t that be jolly?”
“I never had a bouquet before; how pretty it is,” and Meg examined her flowers with great interest.
“They are lovely, but Beth’s roses are sweeter to me,” said Mrs. March, sniffing at the half-dead posy in her belt.
Beth nestled up to her and whispered softly, “I wish I could send my bunch to Father. I’m afraid he isn’t having such a merry Christmas as we are.”
“W ELL, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF HER?”
“I think she’s a perfect dear and not a bit stuck up with all her money.”
“A real little lady and ever so pretty.”
“She kissed me lots, and she doesn’t tell me to run away, so I love her.”
The group of brothers and sisters standing round the fire laughed as little May finished the chorus of praise with these crowning virtues.
Tall Kent had asked the question and seemed satisfied with the general approval of the new cousin who had just arrived from England to live with them.
They had often heard of Kate and rather prided themselves on the fact that she lived in a fine house, was very rich, and sent them charming presents. Now pity was added to the pride, for Kate was an orphan, and all her money could not buy back the parents she had lost.
They had watched impatiently for her arrival, had welcomed her cordially, and after a day spent in trying to make her feel at home, they were comparing notes in the twilight, while Kate was having a quiet talk with Mamma.
“I hope she will choose to live with us. You know she can go to any of the uncles she likes best,” said Kent.
nbsp; “We are nearer her age than any of the other cousins, and Papa is the oldest uncle, so I guess she will,” added Milly, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the house.
“She said she liked America,” said quiet Frank.
“Wonder if she will give us a lot of her money?” put in practical Fred, who was always in debt.
“Stop that!” commanded Kent. “Mind now, if you ever ask her for a penny, I’ll shake you out of your jacket.”
“Hush! She’s coming,” cried Milly, and a dead silence followed the lively chatter.
A fresh-faced, bright-eyed girl of fifteen came in quietly, glanced at the group on the rug, and paused as if uncertain whether she was wanted.
“Come on!” said Fred, encouragingly.
“Would I be in the way?” she asked.
“Oh, dear, no! We were only talking,” answered Milly, drawing her cousin nearer with an arm about her waist.
“It sounded like something pleasant,” said Kate, not exactly knowing what to say.
“We were talking about you,” began Little May. A poke from Frank made her stop to ask, “What’s that for? We were talking about Kate, and we all said we liked her, so it’s no matter if I tell.”
“You are very kind,” said Kate looking so pleased that the children forgave May’s awkward frankness.
“Yes, and we hoped you’d like us and stay with us,” added Kent, in the lofty and polite manner that he thought became a young man of his stature.
“I am going to live with all the uncles in turn, and then decide,” Kate answered. “Papa wished it.” The words made her lips tremble slightly, for her father was the only parent she could remember and had been unusually dear to her for that reason.
“Can you play billiards?” asked Fred, who had a horror of seeing girls cry.
“Yes, and I will be glad to teach you.”
“You had a pony carriage at your house, didn’t you?” added Frank, eager to hear more.
“At Grandma’s—I had no other home, you know,” answered Kate.
“What will you buy first with your money?” asked May, who seemed determined to ask improper questions.
“I’d buy a grandma if I could,” and Kate both smiled and sighed.
“How funny!” said May. “We have a grandma who lives ever so far away in the country. We don’t think of her much.”
“You do?” said Kate, who turned quickly, looking full of interest.
“Yes! Papa’s mother is very old,” added Milly. “Papa writes to her sometimes, and Mamma sends her things every Christmas. We don’t know much about her, for we’ve only seen her once, a great long time ago. But we do care for her.”
“Perhaps I shall go and see her,” said Kate with a smile. “I can’t get on without a grandmother. Tell me all you know about her. Is she a dear lady?”
“We only know this. She is lame and lives in the old house where Papa grew up. She has a maid named Dolly, and—that’s all I can tell you about her,” said Molly looking a little vexed that she could say no more of the subject that seemed to interest her cousin so much.
Kate looked surprised, but said nothing and stood looking at the fire as if turning the matter over in her mind and trying to answer the question she was too polite to ask—how could they have a grandmother and know so little about her?
At that moment, the tea bell rang, and the flock ran laughing downstairs. Kate said no more to her cousins, but she remembered the conversation and laid a plan in her resolute little mind.
According to her father’s wish, Kate was to live for a while with the families of each of her four uncles before she decided with which she would make her home. All were anxious to have her, one because of her money, another because her great-grandfather had been a lord, a third hoped to secure her hand for the son of a close friend, while the fourth and best family loved her for herself alone.
They were worthy people, as the world goes—busy, ambitious, and prosperous; and every one, old and young, was fond of bright, pretty, generous Kate. Each family was anxious to keep her, a little jealous of the rest, and very eager to know which she would choose.
But Kate surprised them all by saying decidedly when the time came, “I would like to meet my grandma before I choose. Perhaps I should have visited her first, as she is the oldest. I believe Papa would have wished it so. At any rate, I feel I must pay her tribute before I settle anywhere.”
Some of the young cousins laughed at the idea and her old-fashioned, respectful way of putting it. It was a strong contrast to their free and easy American speech. The uncles were also surprised, but they agreed to humor her whim.
Uncle George, the eldest said softly, “I should have remembered that poor Anna was mother’s only daughter. Naturally, she would love to see the girl. But dear, I must warn you, it will be desperately dull. Just two old women and a quiet, country town. No fun, no company. You won’t want to stay long, I can assure you.”
“I shall not mind the dullness for the chance to meet my grandmother,” Kate replied. “Perhaps the sight of me will please her, for many say I look like my mamma.”
Something in the earnest, young face reminded Uncle George of the sister he had almost forgotten and recalled his own youth so pleasantly that he said, with a caress of the curly head beside him, “I believe it would. In fact, I’m sure of it. Now that you say it, I have a mind to go with you and ‘pay tribute’ to my mother as you have so sweetly put it.”
“Oh my, but I would like to surprise her and have her all to myself for a little while. Would you mind if I went quite alone? All of you could come later if it pleases you,” answered Kate.
“Of course, it will be managed exactly as you like,” answered Uncle George. “I know you will bring sunshine to our old mother’s life, just as you have to ours. I haven’t seen her for a year, but I know she is well and comfortable, and Dolly guards her like a dragon. Give her my love, sweet Kate, and tell her we have sent her something she will value a hundred times more than the very best tea, the finest cap, or the most handsome tabby cat who ever purred.”
So, in spite of the protestations of her cousins, Kate went happily off to find the grandmother whom no one else seemed to value as she did.
Grandpa had been a farmer and lived contentedly on the old place until he died, but his four sons wanted to be something better, so they went away one after the other to make their way in the world. All worked hard, earned a good living, and forgot, as far as possible, the dull lives they had led in the old place from which they had come.
They were all good sons in their own way and had each offered his mother a home with him if she cared to come. But Grandma clung to the old home, the simple ways, and the quiet life. She thanked them gratefully, but chose to remain in the big farmhouse, empty, lonely, and plain though it was compared to the fine homes in which her sons lived.
Little by little the busy men seemed to forget their quiet, uncomplaining old mother, who spent her years thinking of them, longing to see and know their children, and hoping that one day they would remember how much she loved them.
Now and then one of her sons would pay her a hasty visit, and all sent gifts of far less value to her than one loving look, one hour of dutiful, affectionate companionship.
“If you ever want me, send and I’ll come. Or if you ever need a home, remember the old place is always open, and you are always welcome here,” the good old lady had told them. But they never seemed to need her and so seldom came that she concluded the old place evidently held no charming memories for them.
It was hard. But the sweet old woman bore it patiently and lived her lonely life quietly and usefully, with her faithful maid Dolly, who served and loved and supported her.
Anna, her only daughter, had married young, gone to England, and, dying early, had left her only child to her husband and his family. Among them, little Kate had grown up, knowing scarcely anything about her American relatives.
She had been the pet of her English grandmother, a
nd, finding all her aunts to be busy, fashionable women, had longed for the tender fostering she had known and now felt as if only grandmothers could give.
With a flutter of hope and expectation, she approached the old house after the long journey was over. Leaving the luggage at the inn and accompanied only by her nurse, Bessie, Kate went up the village street and, pausing at the gate, looked with interest at the home where her mother had been born.
It was a large, old-fashioned farmhouse, with a hospitable porch and tall trees in front. Her uncles had told her that the house also had a lovely orchard in back and a hill, which grew over with luscious wild blackberries in summer and provided the perfect place for sledding in winter.
Kate noticed that all the upper windows were curtained, making the house look as if it were half asleep. At one of the lower windows, she spotted a portly puss, blinking in the sun. Just to the side and behind, she was certain she could see a cap, a regular grandmotherly old cap, with a little black bow on the back.
Something about the lonely look of the house and the pensive droop of that cap made Kate hurry on up the walk and eagerly tap the front door with the antique knocker. A brisk little old woman peered out, as if startled at the sound. Kate asked, smiling. “Does Madam Coverley live here?”
“She surely does, my dear,” said the maid, “Come right in.” Then throwing wide the door, she led the way down the long, wide hall and announced in a low tone to her mistress, “A lovely young girl is here to see you, mum.”
“I would love to see a young face, Dolly. Who is it?” she asked in a gentle voice.
Before Dolly could answer that she didn’t know the identity of their visitor, Kate stepped straight up to the old lady with both hands out. “Grandma, can’t you guess?” she asked. The first sight of her grandmother’s dear face had won her heart.
Lifting her spectacles, Grandma examined her for a moment, then opened her arms without a word. In the long embrace that followed, Kate felt assured that she was welcome in the home she wanted.