Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
JACK'S MERRY CHRISTMAS.
BY SARAH ORNE JEWETT.
Jack and all the rest of the boys were very fond of their Sunday-school teacher. I think this was a good thing, and it is not apt to be the case; boys go to Sunday-school usually not because they wish to go, but because they must, and if it were not for the library books, and for the looks of the thing, I think the classes would be smaller than they are. But Miss Duncan was somehow very good company on Sunday, and she continued to find things to say about the lesson which the boys liked to hear, and she had a fashion of making that hour on Sunday have a good deal to do with the rest of the week. I think it was a very pleasant class myself; one or two of the boys were not good boys by any means, but every one of them liked Miss Duncan and would do a great deal to please her. They had liked her from the beginning, (she had had the class for two years) and I believe that was the secret of her success. "People won't do much for you if they don't like you;" somebody says, "if you would have a friend you must be a friend."
One Sunday in the middle of December, while the rest of the Sunday-school were singing, these boys who were not as a class gifted with musical powers, were talking together, and Miss Duncan who could not sing herself, found that the whispering was all about Christmas, and that they were planning what they should do. Jack sat next her; she always was very good to him, for he was a lonely boy who seemed to have nobody to care for him. There was something very pleasant in his smile, and he had the most honest, cheerful blue eyes which looked straight in everybody's face. His father had been a soldier and had died soon after the war when Jack was a baby, and his mother had been dead for several years, too. He did not seem to have any grandfathers or grandmothers, or uncles or aunts, though I believe there were after all a brother and sister of his father's, who lived away out west somewhere, but nothing had been heard from them for a good while. Jack lived at old Mr. Josiah Patten's, some distance out of the village, and worked for his board and clothes and schooling. It was a good home for him; but Mr. Patten and his wife, and her sister, Aunt Susan, who was lame, were all elderly people, and the house was not very near any other houses, so sometimes after the supper our friend felt a little bit sad and wished for some of his cronies to keep him company. They were very kind to him and he had plenty to eat, and old Mr. Patten always spoke of him as a good steady boy; but to tell the truth Jack felt restless and tired of things sometimes, and wondered if it wouldn't have been splendid if his mother were alive and they had kept house in the village somewhere. The Pattens didn't like to have him go down to the village in the evening; they did not think it was a good plan for a boy to be out after dark, and at any rate it was over two miles. But once a fortnight the class were always invited to Miss Duncan's to spend the evening, and Jack never missed going. They never came away until nine o'clock, for most [of] the boys lived close by. So the Pattens went to bed between eight and nine, as usual, and put the key of the end door outside the window. It was a great sacrifice for Jack's comfort, though he was quite unconscious of it. They said at first that he had better leave before the rest did, but he looked so disappointed that Mrs. Patten, who was very kind-hearted [hind-hearted], put in a word for him. But old Mr. Patten always kept awake and listened until he heard Jack come in, and then stole out into the cold side-entry from his bedroom to be sure that the door was locked.
Jack's own room was up-stairs, and he used to go up softly and throw off his clothes, and tumble into bed as quick as he could. The window faced northeast, and all winter there was a great bright star that used to look in. On these nights when Jack was awake later than usual, the star was almost at the top of the window, and it seemed to have been waiting, to be sure that he was safe in bed, before it climbed higher in the sky, and went out of sight. Somehow that star was a great deal of company for Jack.
But I must go back to the Sunday morning when they were talking about Christmas. Miss Duncan suddenly moved closer to them along the seat, and looked very good-natured. "It seems to me we are all thinking about what we are likely to get," said she. "I was wondering what somebody would be likely to give me, myself. I'll tell you what we will all do. Suppose we try to see how many people we can surprise on Christmas day, by doing something to make them have a good time, and we will make it a rule, as far as we can, to give things or do things without asking anybody for the money. Of course that won't be a strict rule, but I think you will be astonished to find how many little pleasures, and great ones too, we can give people without buying them. And we won't think so much about our fathers and mothers - whom I hope we shall give to anyway - as about outside people, whom we never thought of before at Christmas time. I always find myself thinking about what I am going to have," said Miss Duncan, laughing; "and this year I am going to try to give my whole mind to what I can do for my friends. I believe it would be the best Christmas we ever spent in our lives."
Somehow the way Miss Duncan said this made a great impression on the boys. I suppose they had been told a good many times before that Christmas was a time when one should try to make other people happy; and on the day when Christ came into the world to do so much for us, we ought to be as much like Him as we can, but they had not taken it home to themselves. And Jack more than anybody else, perhaps because he wished to please Miss Duncan, felt a warm little flush come into his cheeks as he thought he would do ever so many things that people would like. He had not been looking forward to Christmas very eagerly, except on account of the present that Miss Duncan herself might give him, as she had the year before. The day was never noticed at the Patten's; they were very old-fashioned people, and they always spoke sedately of its being Christmas day, and then turned their minds at once to other more important subjects. At New Year's Mr. Patten always gave Jack a dollar, and last year Aunt Susan had added fifty cents, because she said he was very obliging about bringing in wood for her. She could hardly stir out of the chair, she was so stiffened with rheumatism. "I don't know 's there was any need of it," she said, by way of apology to Mrs. Patten. "It ain't everybody would do so well by him as we do, but I thought I'd encourage the boy, and he would be full as likely to keep stiddy."
Jack did not know a great many people, and he was a shy boy. He did not dare to offer anything to strangers, and as he walked home after meeting along the rough frozen road, he felt a little discouraged, for there seemed to be nobody to do anything for. Then he said to himself that there were the folks at home; they weren't his father and mother, so he could put them on the list. And he remembered that he had a good stock of walnuts, and he made up his mind he would carry a bag of them to each of the boys in the class. Walnuts had been very scarce that year, and he had been lucky in finding some trees a good way out of the town, at the edge of a piece of woods, where he had gone one day with Mr. Patten to mark some trees that were to be cut when the snow came. Then there was Miss Duncan; he must find something for her. He thought everything of her, and she had lent him ever so many books, and had been very kind to him. He never felt afraid of Miss Duncan.
When he was nearly home he caught sight of an old black house over in the field. It was a dismal looking little place, there were some dilapidated sheds, and the fences of the land that led down to the road were all falling to pieces. An old woman lived there all alone whom nobody liked. She was thought to have considerable money laid up, but she was very stingy. She squabbled with the men who did her haying, and every year somebody undertook to cultivate a field of hers on the halves and was scolded and cheated so that he never tried it again. They said she would even get up early in the morning and steal potatoes out of the hills. She was an untidy, cross-looking old creature who seemed in the course of a long life never to have made a friend. She was growing very feeble now, every body knew, but she was so disagreeable and insolent when any of the farmers' wives, who were her neighbors, undertook to do anything for her, that they seldom offered their services. She watched for the boys who even dared to look at her apple-trees and nut-trees, she always was expecting people to do her harm. Sometimes, since she had grown very lame and could not go to the village herself, she would call to Jack, as he went by and ask him to do errands for her, but one day she accused him of stealing from her some of the change, and he had never been hailed since. Poor old Becky Nash!
Jack looked at the house (there did not seem to be any smoke coming out of the chimney), and wondered if she had grown so stingy that she would not afford herself a fire. Perhaps she might be sick or even dead. Sometimes it would be many days that nobody would see her. He wondered if she ever heard of Christmas, and then he laughed as he thought how angry she would be if he tried to do anything to make her have a good time. But something kept the thought of doing it still in his mind. No matter if she were angry he meant to try; there were so few people who belonged to him in any way. The door opened as he watched it, and old Becky came out slowly, as if she moved with great pain, and gathered up a few sticks of wood. She had a little wood lot, not far away, but Jack noticed that her wood-pile had quite disappeared.
"I guess she's sick," he said to himself, and after hesitating a minute he ran up the lane.
"What do you want?" the old woman growled when she saw him; she had been stooping over the ground to fill her apron with chips, and she could hardly straighten herself up again.
"I'll take in some wood for you if you want me to," said the boy.
"I s'pose you'll want to be paid all out-doors for it," she growled again. "I can't afford to hire ye."
Jack laughed and said he was hired out already, he would take it in for her and welcome. "You're most out o' wood, aren't you?" said he.
"There's plenty over in my wood lot that was cut last winter, but I can't get nobody to haul it," said the old woman. "Jim Decker promised me to haul it before the snow was gone, and then he tried to swindle me, and I sent him about his business. I had considerable here and I got along through the summer. I expect it's all stolen by this time. Sam Downs cut it and he ain't none too honest."
Jack gathered up what wood he could find, and took it into the house, which was as forlorn and cold as a house could be. There were only two armfuls, and some chips, which he put into a basket that the old woman brought out. She seemed in a better temper than usual, and did no scold him from the door all the way down the lane, as she had a habit of doing. Somehow he pitied her more than he ever had before, and he made up his mind that he would get her some wood, if Mr. Patten would lend him the old horse to haul it, and he could saw it and split it, and have a load ready for Christmas day. The thought of doing this gave him great pleasure. He was sure that Miss Duncan would say it was a kind thing to do, and beside that, he knew it was right. Jack was trying to be good, and sometimes it was very hard work, for he was quick-tempered, and was always getting angry before he knew it. When he reached home the Pattens were wondering why he had been so long. He took his seat at the dinner table, and began to eat his Sunday dinner of baked beans, for he was a growing boy, and as hungry as they are apt to be. "I stopped up to old Becky Nash's," he said; "she's sick, and she was trying to lug in some wood."
"You've gone and got pitch all over your best clothes," said Mrs. Patten, who did not seem to be in a very good humor. "She's got money to hire help if she wants it," and Jack flushed a little, and felt chilled and discouraged. "Well, he ought to think of his clothes, but 'twas right of the boy to do her a kind turn, seeing she was sick," said Mr. Patten, and Jack felt very grateful to him for taking his part.
It was two or three days before he ventured to tell Mr. Patten of his plan for getting Becky a load of wood, and he was very pleased because the old man was willing, and gave a most cheerful consent. It was to be a secret, and Jack hurried through with his work, so that he could have time to saw or split for a little while every day. The snow kept off very late that year, and he finished it all in the woods, so that the day before Christmas it was all piled, ready for the old white horse to haul. There would not be more than two or three small loads of it. Jack fitted some boards on the sides of the old light farm cart. He had been to Becky's once in the meantime , and she had sent him to bring in some broken boards from the fence. They were rotten old things, and he wondered how she could keep herself from freezing with such a fire as they must make. He split them up for her, and left them, and she was so cross that day that he almost repented of his generosity, and yet he wondered what she would say if she knew how hard he had been working for her. "I might die in my bed, for all any of my neighbors would lift a finger to help me," she said, and he had half a mind to tell her it was nobody's fault but her own.
It was very hard to know what to do for the rest of the people whose Christmas Jack wished to make pleasant. He had to spend money for two people, Mrs. Patten and Aunt Susan, and he fortunately had two dollars, which he had made be driving cows that summer for their next neighbour. He had meant to save this toward buying some books which he wanted very much - for Jack had a great wish to be a good scholar, and he had a great liking for books. But he bought Mrs. Patten a spectacle case, for she was always mourning over hers, which she had somehow lost out of her pocket coming home from meeting. Luckily the spectacles had not been in it. She had spoken about getting a new one, but somehow she always forgot it when she went to the village. And one day he saw a blue and black silk handkerchief hanging in one of the store windows, and with much fear and trembling he went in to ask the price. It wa[s] seventy-five cents, and he thought it would be beautiful for Aunt Susan to tie round her neck. She always wore a handkerchief, for she was apt to feel a draught. He could pay for it easily, and he felt as if he were spending a great deal of money, and put the little bundle deep in his pocket, and felt very grand as he carried it home. Then there was Miss Duncan, whom after all he cared most to please, but he remembered that the year before she had said that she found it very hard to set enough of a certain kind of evergreen which she liked. She always made wreaths to put in her windows, and trimmed the rooms for Christmas, and he had found one or two places where a great deal of that evergreen grew. So a day or two before Christmas day itself he knocked at her door with two big baskets full. She was not at home, but next day he met her in the village, she was on horseback and stopped when she saw him, and you do not know how pleased she was! "I was going to drive out to Mr. Patten's to see you and thank you, Jack," said she. I don't believe you know what a kindness you have done me in bringing that evergreen. I never can make any other kind serve me half so well, and I only knew one place where I could find much of it, and yesterday I went to pick some and found that all that piece of woodland had been cleared and burnt over. It is on a cross road where I very seldom go. I was cold and disappointed when I came home, and the first things I saw were those great baskets. I could'nt [couldn't] imagine who had been so thoughtful and kind."
Jack looked up at her and smiled, and tried to say something in return, but he could not think of anything. "I'll take the baskets as I go back," said he. "Mr. Patten and I came down with the team," and he added shyly, "I've been trying to make somebody have a good Christmas. I brought down some walnuts I had for the fellows in the class - they're scarce this year, and I've got a pile of wood split for that old Becky Nash - it was her wood, but she's so ugly - she wouldn't get anybody to haul it. She fought with the man that cut it for her, so she let it lay there in the woods. She's sort of crazy, I guess. And I am going to haul it for her early in the morning. I bought some things for Aunt Susan and Mrs. Patten over at our house, it ain't much, but then they won't be looking for anything. I don't have anybody belonging to me like the rest of the boys."
Miss Duncan's eyes filled with tears, but Jack did not notice it, and in a few minutes she said good-bye, and rode away, and John went on up the street to do an errand for Mrs. Patten. Mr. Patten was very apt to forget such little things as sewing cotton or darning needle, and he had gone in another direction, to attend to some business at the selectmen's office. Miss Duncan saw him standing on the post office steps, looking very much puzzled as he read a letter. "Here's my sister down in Maine says she wishes I would take one of her sons that wants to live out. They've had a hard scratch to get along. I've always had to help them some. I declare I don't know what to do about John. I suppose you don't know of any body that wants a boy?"
"I can't think of any one just now," said Miss Duncan, looking as if she felt very sorry. "He's a good boy, I hope he will find a comfortable home." It seemed very hard that he should be at the mercy of the world, and that just now he should be made to feel his loneliness. She thought about him a good deal as she rode slowly away down the road, and suddenly she said to herself, "That's a capital plan. I wish that father would come home to-night."
Jack came up the street presently, hiding something behind him, which he put out of sight under the cart, and fastened there with some string. It was a new ox-goad, which he had happily remembered that Mr. Patten wanted, and he had promised the shop-keeper to pay for it in walnuts the next day. He remembered that he had not wished to go to the wood lot with Mr. Patten the day he found those trees, but it was proving a most lucky thing that he had.
Christmas day dawned bright and clear, and Jack was ready to get up as soon as he waked and thought what day it was. It was very cold, and the kitchen was like an ice house, but he started the fire as soon as he could. "That ain't you, is it, John? How came you up so early this cold morning?" said Mr. Patten, for Jack liked to lie in bed as late as he could.
"Merry Christmas," said Jack. "Did you know it was Christmas Day?" and Mrs. Patten, who just then made her appearance, said: "Why, so it is! but then I never heard anything about Christmas in my day."
"I thought I'd get you some presents," said Jack, feeling very much embarrassed and doubtful if he were doing the right thing. "All the boys were going to get them for their folks," and he brought the ox-goad, and the spectacle case, and Mr. and Mrs. Patten looked at each other and thanked him, at first without much enthusiasm, but Mrs. Patten recovered herself first.
"I declare it was very pretty of him, I've sure. I wish we had something to give you, John, but you see it wa'n't the custom when we were young folks. We're much obliged to you. I have been in a great strait for a spectacle case, too."
"This is as good a goad as I could have picked out myself," said Mr. Patten. "We shall remember it of you, my boy;" and he went out to feed the cattle, and John followed, after giving the handkerchief to Mrs. Patten for Aunt Susan.
They were as pleased as children, but Jack could not help noticing that there was something strange about the old people. Mr. Patten was unusually silent, and when they came in from the barn the boy noticed they looked at each other in a queer way. He wondered if it could be anything about him or his presents. Aunt Susan had dressed herself and come down into the kitchen much earlier than usual, and she had put on her new handkerchief, which seemed to give her great pleasure, though she said she should keep it after that for company. Somehow they all seemed very fond of Jack that morning; they filled his plate with the best that was on the table; they couldn't have treated him better if he had been the minister.
"It seems pleasant to have somebody remember us, seeing we haven't got any young folks of our own. I shall tell every body coming out of meeting to-morrow that we had Christmas presents as well as anybody," said Mrs. Patten. Mr. Patten was sitting by the stove warming his hands, and John went in and out filling the great wood-box [boox] - it was Saturday and Mrs. Patten was going to do the baking, and the wood must be selected with care.
"I declare I don't know what to say to the boy," said Mr. Patten, while our friend was out of the room. "It seems as if we ought to keep him; he's a clever boy as ever was, though he is heedless sometimes. But then we have got a duty to our own folks. I suppose Jane thinks likely I'll give the farm to Samuel when I get through - she always had an eye to the windward, Jane had; but I don't know but what she's right, and perhaps Sam will work in first rate. He was a good strong fellow when I saw him and could do as good as a man's work then. I ain't near as smart as I used to be. John means well, but he's nothing but a boy and small of his age anyway, but I do hate to turn him off right in winter weather. I guess I'll keep him over till spring, anyway. He don't seem to have anybody to look to. But then, he may get a place where he can get better schooling - he takes to his book."
Mrs. Patten was in the pantry, and neither of them noticed that Jack was standing inside the door. He heard enough of what Mr. Patten said to make him certain that he had lost his home, and for a little while his heart was very heavy. He had tried so hard to do uncommonly well on that Christmas day that he had been sure that something he would like very much must be going to happen to him. In a minute Mr. Patten turned and saw him, and looked confused and worried. He was a little deaf.
"Well, I may 's well tell you, John," said he, "my sister's son's coming to live with me, I suppose, and I do' know 's we shall want ye both. You needn't be no ways afraid. I shan't let you go until you've got a good place."
And poor Jack said "all right," but he felt as if the world had suddenly turned upside down, and went back to the wood-shed for another armful of pine sticks. He was afraid for a few moments that he was going to cry, but he managed to keep back the tears. When he went into the kitchen again Mr. Patten had disappeared and Mrs. Patten behaved as if nothing had happened.
She had been knitting some mittens for Jack, and she said she should hurry to finish them that day and put some bright colored taps on them; and when she showed them to him, she said she wished she had a better present. And Aunt Susan said she would give him a new hat if he would pick out such a one as he liked at the store, which pleased him very much.
As soon as he could, he hurried away with the old horse and started for Becky Nash's with the load of wood, and it was not long before he was taking it up the lane. She did not appear until he had begun to throw it off, and then she suddenly opened the door.
"What are you a-doing of?" said she, as if she had caught him stealing,["] and she stood there scowling at him.
"It is your own wood," said Jack, laughing. "I though[t] I'd bring some of it over for you, you seemed to be about out. I thought I'd get it here for a Christmas present. It's Christmas day."
"My sakes alive!" said old Becky. "What kind of a boy be ye? Didn't nobody send ye? But I suppose you're expecting great pay."
"I don't want any pay,["] say Jack,["] angrily. "Anybody would think I did it to spite you. I thought you'd be pleased and - well, it was Christmas Day and I wanted to make folks have a good time" - and he went on throwing down the wood.
"Well, I believe ye," said old Becky, presently, in a different tone altogether, "and you're the best boy I ever see, and I'm going to make it up to ye sometime or other. You are the first one that's done me a kindness in many a long year, and I dare say it's as much my fault as anybody's, too. I didn't know where to turn to get anybody to haul that wood, and I have been burning them rotten fences." "I've got another load ready to bring," said Jack, "and that's all there is. I guess some that Sam cut has been stolen. He says so; he was looking at it one day."
"You tell Sam if he'll come once here some day, I'll treat him decent, if he will me," said Becky, with a good deal of dignity. "I ain't going to starve and freeze myself any longer. I guess you kind of thawed me out a thinking of me with your Christmas presents. I can't stop here in the door no longer. I'm dreadful bad in my joints to-day, but I shan't forget ye."
Toward noon when our friend had finished the last load, he took a big armful and knocked at the door, and went in. The old woman was wrapped in shawls and blankets and looked forlorn. Jack thought she had been crying, but he did not dare to look at her again, and went over to the wood box.
"Here's something for you," said she, reaching out her hand, "and I should take it kind if you'd split me a few kindlings before you go away. It won't take you but a few minutes, and I ain't able to touch an axe myself. I'm going to get Sam Downs to cut me some hard wood to go with this, and if it's so that Pattens can spare ye this afternoon, I wish you'd go over to my niece, Sophia Turner, and tell her to come and see me, and if she can I wish she would stop for a spell until I get better, and I want her to go to the store and bring up some provisions. I'm about out of everything. Tell her she won' t have nothing to scare her. I'll treat her well as I can," said old Becky, smiling grimly. "We ain't spoke these twelve years. I guess you thawed me out," she said again to Jack.
And what was our friend's surprise to find when he was out of the door that she had given him a five-dollar bill.
When he went home, much amazed at the effect and success of his Christmas plans, he saw Miss Duncan's horse fastened at the fence. She was just coming out of the house.
"Good-morning, Jack," said she. "I have been waiting to see you. I brought you some books, and I wanted to wish you a merry Christmas myself. I am going to propose a plan to you, too, that I have just been talking over with Mr. Patten. He told me yesterday that his nephew would like to come and live with him and help carry on the farm, and that he thinks he shall not need you both. My father came home last night from town, and I told him that I thought it would be a very good thing for you to come to live with us. Henry, who has lived with us so long, is not so young as he was once, and I think you could do a good many little things to help him. You will have a better school than you have here, and we will try and do as well for you as I am sure you will for us. I told my father that I should be responsible for you," said Miss Duncan, with her pleasantest smile.
Jack did not know what to say; it seemed to him as if he were going home. He liked the Pattens, but he had always been lonely there, and he made up his mind that Miss Duncan should not be sorry that she had urged her father to let him come.
"And I mean to be somebody," said Jack to himself.
There never had been such a happy Christmas or such a merry one in Jack's life. The five boys who had found the newspaper bundles of walnuts that he had tied up and marked for them and taken in on the team the day before all came out together to him, and they skylarked together all the afternoon, for Mr. Patten himself had first gone to see old Becky Nash after hearing Jack's story, and then had carried her message to her niece. "It was a real Christian thing for that boy to do," said Mrs. Patten that night. "I'm sorry to part with him, I declare I am, but I know it'll be for his good."
Jack felt very sleepy and happy just then, in his bed in the attic northeast room, and he opened his eyes once or twice to see the great bright star watching him through the window. He wondered if it might have been the same star that it told about in the Bible - the one that shepherds saw over Bethlehem, and he hoped he should see it as he fell asleep after he went to live at Miss Duncan's. He had never been so happy in his life as he had been that Christmas Day.
South Berwick, Me.
"Jack's Merry Christmas" appeared in The Independent (33:31-2) on December 15, 1881. Probable errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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"if you would have a friend you must be a friend": See Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Friendship" in Essays: First Series (1841). "The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one."
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the war: The American Civil War of 1861-1865.
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on the halves: to rent out land and pay half the expenses in order to receive half of the land's income.
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selectmen's office: The governing body of a New England town is often named the selectmen.
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put some bright colored taps on them: What these taps are is difficult to determine. In Scots dialect, a decorate woollen knob on a man's cap or "bonnet" is called a tap. Perhaps Jack's mittens will have colorful woollen knobs on them.
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Christmas Day: "Day" appearing with "Christmas" is inconsistently capitalized in this story. I have left these as they appear in the original.
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same star that it told about in the Bible - the one that shepherds saw over Bethlehem: In fact, the shepherds at Bethlehem are not reported to have seen such a star. Rather the three kings or wise men, journeying from the East, told King Herod that they had seen a star that guided them toward Bethlehem (see Matthew 2).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers