St. Nicholas/Volume 41/Number 1/Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman
MISS SANTA CLAUS OF THE PULLMAN
BY ANNIE FELLOWS JOHNSTON
AUTHOR OF “THE LITTLE COLONEL” BOOKS, AND OTHER STORIES
BECAUSE OF A STEPMOTHER
She decided not to tell them that they were never coming back to the Junction to live. It would be better for them to think of this return to their father as just a visit until they were used to their new surroundings. It would make it easier for all concerned if they could be started off happy and pleasantly expectant. Then if Molly had grown up to be as nice a woman as she had been a young girl, she could safely trust the rest to her. The children would soon be loving her so much that they would n’t want to come back.
But Mrs. Neal had not taken into account that her news was no longer a secret. Told to one or two friends in confidence, it had passed from lip to lip, and had been discussed in so many homes that half the children at the Junction knew that poor little Libby and Will’m Branfield were to have a stepmother before they knew it themselves. Maudie Peters told Libby on their way home from school one day, and told it in such a tone that she made Libby feel that having a step-mother was about the worst calamity that could befall one. Libby denied it stoutly.
“But you are!” Maudie insisted. “I heard Mama and Aunt Louisa talking about it. They said they certainly felt sorry for you, and Mama said that she hoped and prayed that her children would be spared such a fate, because stepmothers are always unkind.”
Libby flew home with her tearful question, positive that Grandma Neal would say that Maudie was mistaken, but with a scared, shaky feeling in her knees, because Maudie had been so calmly and provokingly sure. Grandma Neal could deny only a part of Maudie’s story.
“I ’d like to spank that meddlesome Peters child!” she exclaimed indignantly. “Here I ’ve been keeping it as a grand surprise for you that your father is going to give you a new mother for Christmas, and thinking what a fine time you ’d have going on the cars to see them, and now Maudie has to go and tattle, and tell it in such an ugly way that she makes it seem like something bad instead of the nicest thing that could happen to you. Listen, Libby!”
For Libby, at this confirmation of Maudie’s tale, instead of the denial which she hoped for, had crooked her arm over her face, and was crying out loud into her little brown gingham sleeve, as if her heart would break. Mrs. Neal sat down and drew the sobbing child into her lap.
“Listen, Libby!” she said again. “This lady that your father has married used to live here at the Junction when she was a little girl no bigger than you. Her name was Molly Blair, and she looked something like you—had the same color hair, and wore it in two little plaits just as you do. Everybody liked her. She was so gentle and kind, she would n’t have done anything to hurt any one’s feelings any more than a little white kitten would. Your father was a boy then, and he lived here, and they went to school together, and played together just as you and Walter Gray do. He ’s known her all her life, and he knew very well when he asked her to take the place of a mother to his little children, that she ’d be dear and good to you. Do you think that you could change so in growing up that you could be unkind to any little child that was put in your care?”
“No-o!” sobbed Libby.
“And neither could she!” was the emphatic answer. “You can just tell Maudie Peters that she does n’t know what she is talking about.”
Libby repeated the message next day, emphatically and defiantly, with her chin in the air. That talk with Grandma Neal, and another longer one which followed at bedtime, helped her to see things in their right light. Besides, several things which Grandma Neal told her made a visit to her father seem quite desirable. It would be fine to be in a city where there is something interesting to see every minute. She knew from other sources that in a city you might expect a hand-organ and a monkey to come down the street almost any day. And it would be grand to live in a house like the one they were going to, with an up-stairs to it, and a piano in the parlor.
But despite Mrs. Neal’s efforts to set matters straight, the poison of Maudie’s suggestion had done its work. Will’m had been in the room when Libby came home with her question, and the wild way she broke out crying made him
“‘Oh, rarbit dravy!’ he exclaimed.” (See page 54) feel that something awful was going to happen to them. He had never heard of a stepmother before. By some queer association of words, his baby brain confused it with a step-ladder. There was such a ladder in the shop with a broken hinge. He was always being warned not to climb up on it. It might fall over with him and hurt him dreadfully. Even when everything had been explained to him, and he agreed that it would be lovely to take that long ride on the Pullman to see poor Father, who was so lonely without his little boy, the first unhappy impression still stayed with him. Something, he did n't know exactly what, but something was going to fall with him and hurt him dreadfully if he did n't look out.
It 's strange how much there is to learn about persons after you once begin to hear of them. It had been that way about Santa Claus. They had scarcely known his name, and then, all of a sudden, they heard so much that, instead of being a complete stranger, he was a part of everything they said and did and thought. Now they were learning just as fast about stepmothers. Grandma and Uncle Neal and Miss Sally told them a great deal, all good things. And it was surprising how much else they had learned that was n't good, just by the wag of somebody's head, or a shrug of the shoulders or the pitying way some of the customers spoke to them.
When Libby came crying home from school the second time, because one of the boys called her Cinderella, and told her she would have to sit in the ashes and wear rags, and another one said no, she 'd be like Snow-white, and have to eat a poisoned apple, Grandma Neal was so indignant that she sent after Libby's books, saying that she would not be back at school.
Next day, Libby told Will'm the rest of what the boys had said to her. “All the stepmothers in stories are mean like Cinderella’s and Snow-white’s, and sometimes they are cruel. They are always cruel when they have a tusk.” Susie Peters told her what a tusk is, and showed her a picture, in a book of fairy stories, of a cruel hag that had one. "It s an awful long, ugly tooth that sticks away out,” said Libby.
It was a puzzle for both Libby and Will'm to know whom to believe. They had sided with Maudie and the others in their faith in Santa Claus. If Grandma and Uncle Neal had been wrong about that, how could they tell but that they might be mistaken about their belief in step-mothers too?
Fortunately, there were not many days in which to worry over the problem, and the few that lay between the time of Libby’s leaving school and their going away, were filled with preparations for the journey. Of course Libby and Will’m had little part in that, except to collect the few toys they owned, and lay them beside the trunk which had been brought down from the attic to the sitting-room.
Libby had a grand washing of doll clothes one morning, and while she was hanging out the tiny garments, on a string stretched from one chair-back to another, Will’m proceeded to give his old Teddy bear a bath in the suds which she had left in the basin. Plush does not take kindly to soap-suds, no matter how much it needs it. It would have been far better for poor Teddy to have started on his travels dirty than to have become the pitiable, bedraggled-looking object that Libby snatched from the basin sometime later, where Will’m put him to soak. It seemed as if the soggy cotton body never would dry sufficiently to be packed in the trunk, and Will’’m would not hear of its being left behind, although it looked so dreadful that he did n’t like to touch it. So it hung by a cord around its neck in front of the fire for two whole days, and everybody who passed it gave the cord a twist, so that it was kept turning, like a roast on a spit.
There were more errands than usual to keep the children busy, and more ways in which they could help. As Christmas drew nearer and nearer, somebody was needed in the shop every minute, and Mrs. Neal had her hands full with the extra work of looking over their clothes and putting every garment in order. Besides, there was all the holiday baking to fill the shelves in the shop as well as in her own pantry.
So the children were called upon to set the table and help wipe the dishes. They dusted the furniture within their reach, and fed the cat. They brought in chips from the woodhouse and shelled corn by the basketful for the old gray hens. And every day they carried the eggs very slowly and carefully from the nests to the pantry, and put them one by one into the box of bran on the shelf. Then several mornings, all specially scrubbed and clean-aproned for the performance, they knelt on chairs by the kitchen table, and cut out rows and rows of little Christmas cakes from the sheets of smoothly rolled dough on the floury cake-boards. There were hearts, and stars, and cats, and birds, and all sorts of queer animals. Then, after the baking, there were delightful times when they hung breathlessly over the table, watching while scallops of pink or white icing were zigzagged around the stars and hearts, and pink eyes were put on the beasts and birds. Then, of course, the bowls which held the candied icing always had to be scraped clean by busy little fingers that went from bowl to mouth and back again, almost as fast as a kitten could lap with its pink tongue.
Oh, those last days in the old kitchen and sitting-room behind the shop were the best days of all, and it was good that Will’’m and Libby were kept so busy every minute that they had no time to realize that they were last days, and that they were rapidly coming to an end. It was not until the last night that Will’m seemed to comprehend that they were really going away the next day.
He had been very busy helping get supper, for it was the kind that he specially liked. Uncle Neal had brought in a rabbit all ready skinned and dressed, which he had trapped that afternoon, and Will’m had gone around the room for nearly an hour, snifing hungrily while it sputtered and browned in the skillet, smelling more tempting and delectable every minute. And he had watched while Grandma Neal lifted each crisp, brown piece up on a fork, and laid it on the hot waiting platter, and then stirred into the skillet the things that go to the making of a delicious cream gravy.
Suddenly, in the ecstasy of anticipation, Will’m was moved to throw his arms around Grandma Neal’s skirts, gathering them in about her knees in such a violent hug that he almost upset her.
“Oh, rabbit dravy!” he exclaimed, in a tone of such rapture that everybody laughed. Uncle Neal, who had already taken his place at the table, and was waiting too, with his chair tipped back on its hind legs, reached forward and gave Will’m’s cheek a playful pinch.
“It ’s easy to tell what you think is the best tasting thing in the world,” he said teasingly. “Just the smell of it puts the smile on your face that won’t wear off.”
Always, when his favorite dish was on the table, Will’m passed his plate back several times for more. To-night, after the fourth ladleful, Uncle Neal hesitated. “Have n’t you had about all that ’s good for you, kiddo?”’ he asked. “Remember you ’re going away in the morning, and you don’t want to make yourself sick when you ’re starting off with just Libby to look after you.”
There was no answer for a second. Then Will’m could n’t climb out of his chair fast enough to hide the trembling of his mouth and the gathering of unmanly tears. He cast himself across Mrs. Neal’s lap, screaming, “I are n’t going away! I won’t leave my dranma, and I won’t go where there ’ll never be any more good rabbit dravy!”
They quieted him after a while, and comforted him with promises of the time when he should come back and be their little boy again, but he did not romp around as usual when he started to bed. He realized that when he came again maybe the little crib-bed would be too small to hold him, and things would n't be the same.
Libby was quiet and inwardly tearful for
“A little girl of seven polishing the red cheeks of a chubby boy of four.” (See page 56) another reason. They were to leave the very day on the night of which people hung up their stockings. Would Santa Claus know of their going and follow them? Will'm would be getting what he asked for, a ride on the Pullman, but how was she to get her gold ring? She lay awake quite a long while, worrying about it, but finally decided that she had been so good, so very good, that Santa would find some way to keep his part of the bargain. She had n’t even fussed and rebelled about going back to her father as Maudie had advised her to do, and she had helped to persuade Will'm to accept quietly what could n't be helped.
The bell over the shop door went ting-a-ling many times that evening to admit belated customers, and as she grew drowsier and drowsier, it began to sound like those other bells which would go tinkling along the sky road to-morrow night. Ah, that sky road! She would n't worry, remembering that the Christmas angels came that shining highway too. Maybe her heart’s desire would be brought to her by onc of them!
A CHRISTMAS-EVE JOURNEY
If Miss Sally had not suggested that something might happen, Libby might not have had her fears aroused, and if they had been allowed to travel all the way in the toilet room which Miss Sally and Grandma Neal showed them while the train waited its usual ten minutes at the Junction, they could have kept themselves too busy to think about the perils of pilgrimage. Never before had they seen water spurt from shining faucets into big white basins with chained-up holes at the bottom. It suggested magic to Libby, and she thought of several games they could have made if they had not been hurried back to their seats in the car, and told that they must wait until time to eat before washing their hands.
“I thought best to tell them that,” said Miss Sally, as she and Mrs. Neal went slowly back to the shop, “or Libby might have had most of the skin scrubbed off her and Will'm before night. And I know he ’d drink the water-cooler dry just for the pleasure of turning it into his new drinking-cup you gave him, if he had n’t been told not to. Well, they ’re off, and so interested in everything that I don’t believe they realized they were starting. There was n't time for them to think that they were really leaving you.”
“There ’ll be time enough before they get there,” was the grim answer. “I should n’t wonder if they both get to crying.”
Then for fear that she should start to doing that same thing herself, she left Miss Sally to attend to the shop, and went briskly to work, putting the kitchen to rights. She had left the breakfast dishes until after the children’s departure, for she had much to do for them, besides putting up two lunches. They left at ten o’clock, and could not reach their journey's end before half-past eight that night. So both dinner and supper were packed in the big pasteboard box which had been stowed away under the seat with their suitcase.
Miss Sally was right about one thing. Neither child realized at first that the parting was final, until the little shop was left far behind. The novelty of their surroundings, and their satisfaction at being really on board one of the wonderful cars which they had watched daily from the sitting-room window, made them feel that their best “s’posen” game had come true at last. But they had n’t gone five miles until the landscape began to look unfamiliar. They had never been in this direction before, toward the hill country. Their drives behind Uncle Neal’s old gray mare had always been the other way. Five miles more, and they were strangers in a strange land. Fifteen miles, and they were experiencing the bitterness of “exiles from home” whom “splendor dazzles in vain.” There was no charm left in the luxurious Pullman with its gorgeous red plush seats and shining mirrors. All the people they could see over the backs of those seats or reflected in those mirrors were strangers.
It made them even more lonely and aloof because the people did not seem to be strangers to each other. All up and down the car they talked and joked as people in this free and happy land always do when it ’s the day before Christmas and they are going home, whether they know each other or not. To make matters worse, some of those strangers acted as if they knew Will'm and Libby, and asked them questions or snapped their fingers at them in passing in a friendly way. It frightened Libby, who had been instructed in the ways of travel, and she only drew closer to Will'm and said nothing when these strange faces smiled on her.
Presently, Will'm gave a little, muffled sob, and Libby put her arm around his neck. It gave him a sense of protection, but it also started the tears which he had been fighting back for several minutes, and, drawing himself up into a bunch of misery close beside her, he cried softly, his face hidden against her shoulder. If it had been a big, capable shoulder, such as he was used to going to for comfort, the shower would have been over soon. But he felt its limitations. It was little and thin, only three years older and wiser than his own; as a support through unknown dangers not much to depend upon, still it was all he had to cling to, and he clung broken-heartedly and with scalding tears.
As for Libby, she was realizing its limitations far more than he. His sobs shook her every time they shook him, and she could feel his tears, hot and wet on her arm through her sleeve. She started to cry herself, but fearing that if she did he might begin to roar so that they would be disgraced before everybody in the car, she bravely winked back her own tears, and took an effective way to dry his.
Miss Sally had told them not to wash before it was time to eat, but of course Miss Sally had not known that Wil’m was going to cry and smudge his face all over till it was a sight. If she could n’t stop him somehow, he ’d keep on till he was sick, and she ’d been told to take care of him. The little shoulder humped itself in a way that showed some motherly instinct was teaching it how to adjust itself to its new burden of responsibility, and she said in a comforting way:
“Come on, brother, let ’s go and try what it ’s like to wash in that big, white basin with the chained-up hole in the bottom of it.”
There was a bowl apiece, and for the first five minutes their hands were white ducks swimming in a pond. Then the faucets were shining silver dragons, spouting out streams of water from their mouths to drown four little mermaids, who were not real mermaids, but children whom a wicked witch had changed to such and thrown into a pool. Then they blew soap-bubbles through their hands, till Will'm's squeal of delight over one especially fine bubble, which rested on the carpet a moment instead of bursting, brought the porter to the door to see what was the matter.
They were not used to colored people. He pushed aside the red plush curtain and looked in, but the bubble had vanished, and all he saw was a slim little girl of seven snatching up a towel to polish the red cheeks of a chubby boy of four. When they went back to their seats, their finger-tips were curiously wrinkled from long immersion in the hot soap-suds, but the ache was gone out of their throats, and Libby thought it might be well for them to eat their dinner while their hands were so very clean. It was only quarter-past eleven, but it seemed to them that they had been traveling nearly a whole day.
A chill of disappointment came to Will’'m when his food was handed to him out of a pasteboard box. He had not thought to eat it in this primitive fashion. He had expected to sit at one of the little tables, but Libby did n’t know what one had to do to gain the privilege of using them. The trip was not turning out to be all he had fondly imagined. Still the lunch in the pasteboard box was not to be despised. Even disappointment could not destroy the taste of Grandma Neal’s chicken sandwiches and blackberry jam.
By the time they had eaten all they wanted, and tied up the box and washed their hands again (no bubbles and games this time, for fear of the porter), it had begun to snow, and they found entertainment in watching the flakes that swirled against the panes in all sorts of beautiful patterns. They knelt on opposite seats each against a window. Sometimes the snow seemed to come in sheets, shutting out all view of the little hamlets and farm-houses past which they whizzed with deep, warning whistles, and sometimes it lifted to give them glimpses of windows with holly wreaths hanging from scarlet bows, and eager little faces peering out at the passing train—the way theirs used to peer, years ago, it seemed, before they started on this endless journey.
It makes one sleepy to watch the snow fall for a long time. After a while, Will’'m climbed down from the window and cuddled up beside Libby again, with his soft, bobbed hair tickling her ear as he rested against her. He went to sleep so, and she put her arm around his neck again to keep him from slipping. The card with which Miss Sally had tagged him, slid along its cord and stuck up above his collar, prodding his chin. Libby pushed it back out of sight, and felt under her dress for her own. They must be kept safely, “in case something should happen.” She wondered what Miss Sally meant by that. What could happen? Their own Mr. Smiley was on the engine, and the conductor had been asked to keep an eye on them.
Then her suddenly awakened fear began to suggest answers. Maybe something might keep her father from coming to meet them. She and Will'm would n’t know what to do or where to go. They 'd be lost in a great city as the little match girl was on Christmas eve, and they ’d freeze to death on some stranger’s door-step. There was a picture of the match girl thus frozen, in the Hans Andersen book which Susie Peters kept in her desk at school. There was a cruel stepmother picture in the same book, Libby remembered, and recollections of that turned her thoughts into still deeper channels of foreboding. What would she be like? What was going to happen to her and Will'm at the end of this journey, if it ever came to an end? If only they could be back at the Junction, safe and sound—
The tears began to drip slowly. She wiped them away with the back of the hand that was farthest away from Will'm. She was miserable enough to die, but she did n’t want him to wake up and find it out.
By and by, a lady who had been quietly watching her for some time, came and sat down in the opposite seat and asked her what was the matter, and if she was crying because she was homesick, and what was her name, and how far they were going. But Libby never answered a single question. The tears just kept dripping, and her mouth working in a piteous attempt to swallow her sobs; and finally the lady saw that she was frightening her, and only making matters worse by trying to comfort her, so she went back to her seat.
When Wil'm awakened after a while and sat up, leaving Libby’s arm all stiff and prickly from being bent in one position so long, the train had been running for miles through a lonely country where nobody seemed to live. Just as he rubbed his eyes wide awake, they came to a forest of Christmas trees. At least they looked as if all they needed to make them that was for some one to fasten candles on their snow-laden boughs. Then the whistle blew the signal that meant that the train was about to stop, and Will’m scrambled up on his knees again, and they both looked out expectantly.
There was no station at this place of stopping. Only by special order from some high official did this train come to a halt here, so somebody of importance must be coming aboard. All they saw at first was a snowy road opening through the grove of Christmas trees, but standing in this road, a few rods from the train, was a sleigh drawn by two big, black horses. They had bells on their bridles which went ting-a-ling whenever they shook their heads or pawed the snow. The children could not see a trunk being put on to the baggage-car farther up the track, but they saw what happened in the delay.