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- Mrs. Wiggs Of The Cabbage Patch - 3/14 -
She had pictured the joy of a real Christmas dinner, the first the youngest children had ever known; she had already thought of half a dozen neighbors to whom she wanted to send "a little snack." But one look at Jim's anxious face recalled their circumstances.
"Of course we'll sell it," she said brightly. "You have got the longest head fer a boy! We'll sell it in the mornin', an' buy sausage fer dinner, an' I'll cook some of these here nice vegetables an' put a orange an' some candy at each plate, an' the childern'll never know nothin' 'bout it. Besides," she added, "if you ain't never et turkey meat you don't know how good it is."
But in spite of her philosophy, after Jim had gone to bed she slipped over and took one more look at the turkey.
"I think I wouldn't 'a' minded so much," she said, wistfully, "ef they hadn't 'a' sent the cramberries, too!"
For ten days the basket of provisions and the extra money made by Jim's night work and Mrs. Wiggs's washing supplied the demands of the family; but by the end of January the clouds had gathered thicker than before.
Mrs. Wiggs's heart was heavy, one night, as she tramped home through the snow after a hard day's work. The rent was due, the coal was out, and only a few potatoes were left in the barrel. But these were mere shadow troubles, compared to Jim's illness; he had been too sick to go to the factory that morning, and she dared not think what changes the day may have brought. As she lifted the latch of her rickety door the sobbing of a child greeted her; it was little Europena, crying for food. For three days there had been no bread in the house, and a scanty supply of potatoes and beans had been their only nourishment.
Mrs. Wiggs hastened to where Jim lay on a cot in the corner; his cheeks were flushed, and his thin, nervous fingers picked at the old shawl that covered him.
"Jim," she said, kneeling beside him and pressing his hot hand to her cheek, "Jim, darling lemme go fer the doctor. You're worser than you was this mornin', an'--an'--I'm so skeered!" Her voice broke in a sob.
Jim tried to put his arm around her, but something hurt him in his chest when he moved, so he patted her hand instead.
"Never mind, ma," he said, his breath coming short; "we ain't got no money to buy the medicine, even if the doctor did come. You go git some supper, now; an', ma, don't worry; I'm goin' to take keer of you all! Only--only," he added, wearily, "I guess I can't sleep in the wagon to-night."
Slowly the hours passed until midnight. Mrs. Wiggs had pulled Jim's cot close to the stove, and applied vigorous measures to relieve him. Her efforts were unceasing, and one after another the homely country remedies were faithfully administered. At twelve o'clock he grew restless.
"Seems like I'm hot, then agin I'm cold," he said, speaking with difficulty. "Could you find a little somethin' more to put over me, ma?"
Mrs. Wiggs got up and went toward the bed. The three little girls lay huddled under one old quilt, their faces pale and sunken. She turned away abruptly, and looked toward the corner where Billy slept on a pallet. The blankets on his bed were insufficient even for him. She put her hands over her face, and for a moment dry sobs convulsed her. The hardest grief is often that which leaves no trace. When she went back to the stove she had a smile ready for the sick boy.
"Here's the very thing," she said; "it's my dress skirt. I don't need it a mite, settin' up here so clost to the fire. See how nice it tucks in all 'round!"
For a while he lay silent, then he said: "Ma, are you 'wake?"
"Well, I bin thinking it over. If I ain't better in the morning I guess--" the words came reluctantly--"I guess you'd better go see the Christmas lady. I wouldn't mind her knowin' so much. 'T won't be fer long, nohow, cause I kin take keer of you all soon-- soon 's I kin git up."
The talking brought on severe coughing, and he sank back exhausted.
"Can't you go to sleep, honey?" asked his mother.
"No, it's them ole wheels," he said fretfully, "them wheels at the fact'ry; when I git to sleep they keep on wakin' me up."
Mrs. Wiggs's hands were rough and knotted, but love taught them to be gentle as she smoothed his hot head.
"Want me to tell you 'bout the country, Jim?" she asked.
Since he was a little boy he had loved to hear of their old home in the valley. His dim recollection of it all formed his one conception of heaven.
"Yes, ma; mebbe it will make me fergit the wheels," he said.
"Well," she began, putting her head beside his on the pillow, so he could not watch her face, "it was all jes' like a big front yard without no fences, an' the flowers didn't belong to folks like they do over on the avenue, where you dassent pick a one; but they was God's, an' you was welcome to all you could pull. An' there was trees, Jim, where you could climb up an' git big red apples, an' when the frost 'ud come they'd be persimmons that 'ud jes' melt in yer mouth. An' you could look 'way off 'crost the meaders, an' see the trees a-wavin' in the sunshine, an' up over yer head the birds 'ud be singin' like they was never goin' to stop. An' yer pa an' me 'ud take you out at the harvestin' time, an' you 'ud play on the hay-stacks. I kin remember jes' how you looked, Jim--a fat little boy, with red cheeks a-laughin' all the time."
Mrs. Wiggs could tell no more, for the old memories were too much for her. Jim scarcely knew when she stopped; his eyes were half closed, and a sweet drowsiness was upon him.
"It's nice an' warm in the sunshine," he murmured; "the meaders an' trees--laughin' all the time! Birds singin', singin', singin'."
Then Jim began to sing too, softly and monotonously, and the sorrow that had not come with years left his tired face, and he fearlessly drifted away into the Shadowy Valley where his lost childhood lay.
THE "CHRISTMAS LADY"
"The rosy glow of summer Is on thy dimpled cheek, While in thy heart the winter Is lying cold and bleak.
"But this shall change hereafter, When years have done their part, And on thy cheek the wintered And summer in thy heart."
LATE the next afternoon a man and a girl were standing in the Olcott reception hall. The lamps had not been lighted, but the blaze from the back-log threw a cozy glow of comfort over the crimson curtains and on the mass of bright-hued pillows in the window-seat.
Robert Redding, standing with his hat in his hand, would have been gone long ago if the "Christmas Lady" had not worn her violet gown. He said it always took him half an hour to say good-by when she wore a rose in her hair, and a full hour when she had on the violet dress.
"By Jove, stand there a minute just as you are! The fire-light shining through your hair makes you look like a saint. Little Saint Lucinda!" he said teasingly, as he tried to catch her hand. She put it behind her for safe-keeping.
"Not a saint at all?" he went on, in mock surprise; "then an iceberg--a nice, proper little iceberg."
Lucy Olcott looked up at him for a moment in silence; he was very tall and straight, and his face retained much of its boyishness, in spite of the firm, square jaw.
"Robert," she said, suddenly grown serious, "I wish you would do something for me."
"All right; what is it?" he asked.
She timidly put her hand on his, and looked up at him earnestly.
"It's about Dick Harris," she said. "I wish you would not be with him so much."
Redding's face clouded. "You aren't afraid to trust me?" he asked.
"Oh, no; it isn't that," she said hurriedly; "but, Robert, it makes people think such wrong things about you; I can't bear to have you misjudged."
Redding put his arm around her, and together they stood looking down into the glowing embers.
"Tell me about it, little girl; what have you heard?" he asked.
She hesitated. "It wasn't true what they said. I knew it wasn't true, but they had no right to say it."
"Well, let's hear it, anyway. What was it?"
"Some people were here last night from New Orleans; they asked if I knew you--said they knew you and Dick the year you spent there."
"Well?" said Redding.
Lucy evidently found it difficult to continue. "They said some horrid things then, just because you were Dick's friend."
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