Thursday, 19 December 2013

Young Lucretia

By Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman

"Who's that little gal going' by?" said old Mrs. Emmons.

"That-why, that's young Lucretia, Mother," replied her daughter Ann, peering out of the window over her mother's shoulder. There was a fringe of flowering geraniums in the window; the two women had to stretch their heads over them.

"Poor little soul!" Mrs. Emmons remarked. "I pity that child."

"I don't see much to pity for," Ann returned, in a voice high-pitched and sharply sweet; she was the soprano singer in the village choir. "I don't see that she isn't take care of as well as most."

"Well, I don't know but she's taken care of, but I guess she don't get much coddlin'. Lucretia and Maria ain't that kind - never was. I heard the other day they was goin' to have a Christmas-tree down to the schoolhouse. Now I'd be willin' to venture that child don't have a thing on it."

"Well, if she's kept clean and taught to behave, it amounts to a good deal more'n Christmas presents, I suppose." Ann sat down and turned a hem with vigour; she was a dressmaker.

"Well, I s'pose it does, but that little gal ought to have somethin'. Do you remember those little rag babies I used to make for you, Ann? I s'pose she'd be tickled with one. Some of that blue calico would be just the thing to make a dress of."

"Now, Mother, don't you fuss. She won't think anything of it."

"Yes, she would too. You used to." Old Mrs. Emmons, tall and tremulous, rose and went out of the room.

Ann began smoothing out some remnants of blue calico on her lap. She selected one piece she thought would do for the dress.

Meanwhile young Lucretia went to school. It was quite a cold day, but she was warmly dressed. She wore her Aunt Lucretia's red and green plaid shawl which Aunt Lucretia had worn to meetings when she herself was a little girl, over her Aunt Maria's black cloth coat.

Young Lucretia wore, also, her Aunt Maria's black alpaca dress, which had Lucretia's purple scarf over her head. She had mittens, and her Aunt Maria's thick wool stockings drawn over her shoes to keep the snow from her ankles.

If young Lucretia caught cold, it would not be her aunts's fault. She went along rather clumsily but quite merrily, holding her tin lunch box very steady.

Here and there along the road were sprigs of evergreen and ground-pine and hemlock. Lucretia glanced at them. She was nearly in sight of the schoolhouse when she reached Alma Ford's house, and Alma came out and joined her. Alma was trim and pretty in her fur-bordered winter coat and her scarlet hood.

"Hullo, Lucretia!" said Alma.

"Hullo!" responded Lucretia. Then the two girls trotted on together; the evergreen sprigs were growing thicker. "Did you go with the others to pick out the tree?" asked Lucretia.

"Yes, we went way up to the crossroads. They wouldn't let you go, would they?"

"No," said Lucretia, smiling broadly.

"I think it was mean," said Alma.

"They said they didn't approve of it," said Lucretia, in a voice which sounded like an echo of someone else's.

When they got to the schoolhouse it took her a long time to unroll herself from her many wrappings. There was not another child there who was dressed like her. Seen from behind, she looked like a small, tightly-built old lady.

Her sandy hair was braided in two tight tails, fastened by a green bow. Young Lucretia was a homely little girl, although her face was always radiantly good-humoured. She was a good scholar, too, and could spell and add sums as fast as anybody in the school.

In the hall, where she took off her things, there was a great litter of evergreen and hemlock; in the farthest corner, lopped pitifully over on its side, was a fine hemlock tree. Lucretia looked at it, and her smiling face grew a little serious.

"That the Christmas tree over there?" she said to the other girls when she went into the schoolroom. The teacher had not come, and there was such an uproar and jubilation that she could hardly make herself heard. She had to poke one of the girls two or three times before she could get her question answered.

"What did you say, Lucretia Raymond?" the girl asked.

"That the Christmas tree out there?"

"Course 'tis. Say, Lucretia, can you come and help us trim this evening? The boys are going to set up the tree, and we're going to trim. Can't you come?"

The other girls joined in: "Can't you come, Lucretia?"

Lucretia looked at them all, with her honest smile. "I don't believe I can," said she.

"Won't your aunts let you?"

"Don't believe they will."

Alma Ford stood back on her heels and threw back her chin. "Well, I don't care," said she. "I think your aunts are awful mean - so there!"

Lucretia's face grew pinker, and the laughter died out of it. She opened her lips, but before she had a chance to speak, Lois Green, one of the older girls and an authority in the school, added her testimony, "They are two mean, stingy old maids," she proclaimed.

"They're not neither," said Lucretia, unexpectedly. "You shan't say such things about my aunts, Lois Green."

"Oh, you can stick up for 'em if you want to," returned Lois, "If you want to be such a little gump, you can, an' nobody'll pity you. You know you won't get a single thing on this Christmas tree."

"I will, too," cried Lucretia, who could be fiery for all her sweetness.

All through the day it seemed to her, the more she thought of it, that she must go with the others to trim the schoolhouse, and she must have something on the Christmas tree. A keen sense of shame for her aunts and herself was over her; she felt as if she must keep up the family credit.

"I wish I could go to trim this evening," she said to Alma, as they were going home after school.

"Don't you think they'll let you?"

"I don't believe they'll approve of it," Lucretia answered with dignity.

"Say, Lucretia, do you s'pose it would make any difference if my mother should go up to your house and ask your aunts?"

Lucretia gave her a startled look. A vision of her aunts' indignation at such interference shot before her eyes. "Oh, I don't believe it would do a mite of good," she said fervently. "But Alma, you might come home with me while I ask."

But it was all useless. Alma's pretty pleading little face as a supplement to Lucretia's, and her timorous "Please let Lucretia go" had no effect whatever.

"I don't approve of children being out nights," said Aunt Lucretia, and Aunt Maria supported her. "There's no use talking," said she. "You can't go, Lucretia. Not another word. Take your things off, and sit down and sew your square of patchwork. Alma, you'd better run right home; I guess your mother'll be wanting you to help." And Alma went.

"What made you bring that Ford girl in here to ask me?" Aunt Lucretia asked of young Lucretia.

"I don't know," stammered Lucretia over her patchwork.

"You'll never go anywhere any quicker for taking such means as that," said Aunt Lucretia.

"It would serve you right if we didn't let you go to the Christmas tree," declared Aunt Maria severely, and young Lucretia quaked. She had had the promise of going to the Christmas tree for a long time. It would be awful if she should lose that. She sewed very diligently on her patchwork.

Half an hour after supper she had the square all done and she carried it over to her Aunt Lucretia.

Aunt Lucretia put on her spectacles and looked closely at it. "You've sewed it very well," she said, finally. "You can sew well enough if you put your mind to it."

"That's what I've always told her" chimed in Aunt Maria. "There's no sense in her taking the kind of stitches she does sometimes. Now, Lucretia, it's time for you to go to bed."

Lucretia went lingeringly across the sitting-room, then across the dining room, into the kitchen. It was quite a time before she got her candle lighted and came back, and then she stood about hesitantly.

"What are you waiting for?" Aunt Lucretia asked sharply. "Take care; you're tipping your candle over; you'll get grease on the carpet."

"Why don't you mind what you're doing?" said Aunt Maria.

"They're going to have lots of presents on the Christmas tree," she remarked, tipping her candle again.

"Are you going to hold that candle straight or not?" cried Aunt Lucretia. "Who is going to have lots of presents?"

"All the other girls."

"Well, the other girls can have lots of presents. If their folks want to get presents for 'em they can," said Aunt Lucretia. "There's one thing about it, you won't get anything and you needn't expect anything. I never approved of this giving presents Christmas, anyways. It's a foolish piece of business."

Young Lucretia's lips quivered so she could hardly speak. "They'll think - it's - so funny if I don't have anything," she said.

"Let 'em think it's funny if they want to. You go to bed, and don't say any more about it. Mind you hold that candle straight."

Young Lucretia tried to hold the candle straight as she went upstairs, but it was hard work, her eyes were so misty.

It was a long time before she went to sleep that night. She cried first, then she meditated. After a while her lively imagination hit upon a plan for keeping up the family honour, hers and her aunts', before the eyes of the school.

The next day everything favoured the plan. There was no school. In the afternoon both her aunts went to the sewing society. They had been gone about an hour when young Lucretia trudged down the road with her arms full of parcels. She stole so quietly and softly into the schoolhouse, where they were arranging the tree, that no one thought about it. She laid the parcels on a settee with some others, and stole out and ran home.

The Christmas Eve festivities at the schoolhouse were to begin at seven o'clock. There were to be some exercises, some recitations, and singing, then the presents. Right after supper that evening young Lucretia went up to her own room and came down in a surprisingly short time all dressed.

"Are you ready?" said Aunt Lucretia.

"Yes ma'am," replied young Lucretia. She had her hand on the door.

"I don't believe you are half-dressed," said Aunt Maria. "Did you get our bow on straight?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I think she'd better take her things off and let us be sure," said Aunt Lucretia. "I'm not goin' to have her down there with her clothes on any which way, and everybody making remarks. Take your jacket off, Lucretia."

"Oh, I got my bow on straight, honest," protested young Lucretia. She clutched the plaid shawl tightly together, but it was no use - off the things had to come. And young Lucretia had to put on her dress wrong side before; she had buttoned it in the back. There she stood, very much askew and uncomfortable, about the shoulder seams and sleeves, and hung her head before her aunts.

"Lucretia Raymond, what do you mean, putting your dress in this way?"

"All the other girls wear theirs buttoned in the back."

"All the other girls! Well, you're not going to have yours buttoned in the back, and wear holes through that nice coat every time you lean back against a chair. I've a good mind to not let you go out at all. Stand around here!"

Young Lucretia's dress was sharply unbuttoned. She was jerked out of it, and it was turned around and fastened as Aunt Lucretia thought it should be. When she finally started, she felt sad and doubtful; but soon she was her own merry self.

There was no one more radiant than she all through the opening exercises. She listened to the speaking and the singing with the greatest appreciation and delight. She sat up perfectly straight in her prim stiff dress. She folded her small red hands before her, and her face was all smiles.

When the distribution of presents began, her name was among the first to be called. She arose eagerly and went with a gay little prance down the aisle. She took the parcel the teacher handed to her and had begun her journey back when she suddenly saw her Aunt Lucretia and her Aunt Maria.

She had never dreamed of such a thing as her aunts coming; indeed, they had not thought it themselves. A neighbour had come in and persuaded them, and then had agreed to come against their principles.

Young Lucretia's name was called again and again. Every time she slunk more reluctantly and fearfully down to the tree; she knew her aunts' eyes were surveying her with more and more amazement.

After the presents were all distributed she sat perfectly still with hers around her. They lay on her desk, and the last was in her lap. She had not taken off a single wrapping. They were done up neatly in brown paper and Lucretia's name was written on them.

Lucretia sat there. The other girls were in a hubbub of delight all around her, comparing their presents, but she sat perfectly still and watched her aunts coming. They came slowly; they stopped to speak to the teacher. Aunt Lucretia reached young Lucretia first.

"What are those packages you have there?" she demanded. "Why don't you undo them?" Young Lucretia just gazed miserably at her aunt and shook her head helplessly. "Why, what makes you act so, child?" cried Aunt Lucretia, getting alarmed. Then Aunt Maria came up, and there was quite a little group around young Lucretia. She began to cry.

"What on earth ails the child?" said Aunt Lucretia. She caught up one of the parcels and opened it; it was a book bound in red and gold. She held it close to her eyes; she turned it this way and that; she examined the fly-leaf. "Why, " said she, "it's the old gift-book Aunt Susan gave me when I was eighteen years old! What in the world!"

Aunt Maria had undone another. "This is the Floral Album," she said tremulously, "the one we always keep in the north parlour on the table. Here's my name in it. I don't see - "

Aunt Lucretia speechlessly unmuffled a clove apple and a nautilus shell that had graced the parlour-shelf. Finally, there appeared a little daintily dressed rag doll, its cheeks stained pink with cranberry juice. When Lucretia spied this last she was so surprised she made a little grab at it.

"Oh," she sobbed. "somebody did hang this on for me! They did! It's mine!"

It never seemed to young Lucretia that she walked going home that night; she had a feeling that only her tiptoes occasionally brushed the earth as she went on rapidly with a tall aunt on either side. Not much was said. Once, in a lonely place in the road, there was a volley of severe questions from her aunts, and young Lucretia burst out into a desperate wail.

"Oh!" she cried, "I was going to put 'em right back again. I haven't hurt 'em any. I was careful. I didn't s'pose you'd know it. They said you were cross and stingy and wouldn't hang anything on the tree for me, and I didn't want 'em to think you were. I wanted to make 'em think I had things like other children."

After they got home not much was said. The aunts were still too bewildered for many words. Lucretia was bidden to light her candle, and go to bed. And then came a new grief. They took her new doll, and put it away in the parlour with the clove apple, the nautilus shell, and the gift-book. Then the little girl's heart failed her; terror and the loss of the only comfort that had come to her on this pitiful Christmas Eve were too much.

"Oh," she wailed, "my rag doll! I want my-rag baby. Oh! oh! oh! I want her, I want her!"

Scolding had no effect. Young Lucretia sobbed out her complaint all the way upstairs, and her aunts could hear the pitiful little wail of "My rag baby, I want my rag doll," after she was in her room.

The two women looked at each other. They sat uneasily down by the fireplace.

"I must say I think you're rather hard on her, Lucretia," said Maria, finally.

"I don't know as I've been any harder on her than you have," returned Lucretia. "I shouldn't have said to take away that rag doll if I'd said just what I thought."

"I think you had better take it up to her then, to stop that crying," said Maria.

Lucretia hastened into the parlour without another word. She carried the rag doll upstairs to young Lucretia; then she came down to the pantry and got her a cookie, and told her to eat it and go right to sleep. The little girl hugged her rag doll and ate her cookie in bliss.

The aunts sat a while longer by the fire. Just before they left it for the night, Lucretia looked hesitatingly at Maria and said, "I s'pose you have noticed that wax doll down at White's store?"

"That big wax one with the pink dress?" asked Maria.

"Yes. There was a doll's bedstead there, too. I don't know as you noticed it."

"Yes, I think I did, now you speak of it. I noticed it the day I went for the gingham. There was a doll's baby carriage there, too."

The aunts looked at each other. "I s'pose it would be dreadful foolish," said Lucretia.

"She'd be most too tickled to live," remarked Maria.

"We can still buy 'em tonight if we hurry," said Lucretia. And that is exactly what they did.

The next day was Christmas. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon when old Mrs. Emmons went up the road to the Raymond house. She had a little parcel. When she came into the parlour there was young Lucretia in a corner, so that the room should not get in a mess, with her wealth around her. She looked forth, a radiant little mother of dolls, from the midst of her doll's housekeeping.

"My sakes!" cried old Mrs. Emmons, "Isn't that complete! You've got a big wax doll, and a bedstead, and a baby carriage, and a table and a bureau. I declare! I don't know what I'd have thought when I was a little girl. And I've brought some pieces for you to make some dressed for the rag baby if you want to."

Young Lucretia's eyes shone.

"You were real kind to think of it," said Aunt Lucretia, "and she'll take real comfort making the dresses. I'm glad you came in, Mrs. Emmons. I've been wanting to go to see you for a long time. I want see Ann, too; I thought I'd see if she hadn't got a pattern of a dress that buttons up the back for Lucretia."

Young Lucretia's eyes shone more than ever, and she smiled out of her corner like a little star. Her world was a beautiful place and she loved everybody in it.

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