“They’ve come! they’ve come!”
This was the cry of little Herbert as he ran in from the square stone which made the large doorstep of the house. Here he had been watching, a self-posted sentinel, for the moment when the carriage should turn the corner at the bottom of the hill.
“They’ve come! they’ve come!” echoed joyfully through the house; and the cry penetrated out into the extension, or ell, in which the grown members of the family were, in the kitchen, “getting tea” by some formulas more solemn than ordinary.
“Have they come?” cried Grace; and she set her skillet back to the quarter-deck, or after-part of the stove, lest its white contents should burn while she was away. She threw a waiting handkerchief over her shoulders, and ran with the others to the front door, to wave something white, and to be in at the first welcome.
Young and old were gathered there in that hospitable open space where the side road swept up to the barn on its way from the main road. The bigger boys of the home party had scattered half-way down the hill by this time. Even grandmamma had stepped down from the stone, and walked half-way to the roadway. Every one was waving something. Those who had no handkerchiefs had hats or towels to wave; and the more advanced boys began an undefined or irregular cheer.
But the carryall advanced slowly up the hill, with no answering handkerchief, and no bonneted head stretched out from the side. And, as it neared Sam and Andrew, their enthusiasm could be seen to droop, and George and Herbert stopped their cheers as it came up to them; and before it was near the house, on its grieved way up the hill, the bad news had come up before it, as bad news will,–“She has not come, after all.”
It was Huldah Root, Grace’s older sister, who had not come. John Root, their father, had himself driven down to the station to meet her; and Abner, her oldest brother, had gone with him. It was two years since she had been at home, and the whole family was on tiptoe to welcome her. Hence the unusual tea preparation; hence the sentinel on the doorstep; hence the general assembly in the yard; and, after all, she had not come! It was a wretched disappointment. Her mother had that heavy, silent look, which children take as the heaviest affliction of all, when they see it in their mother’s faces. John Root himself led the horse into the barn, as if he did not care now for anything which might happen in heaven above or in earth beneath. The boys were voluble in their rage: “It is too bad!” and, “Grandmamma, don’t you think it is too bad?” and, “It is the meanest thing I ever heard of in all my life!” and, “Grace, why don’t you say anything? did you ever know anything so mean?” As for poor Grace herself, she was quite beyond saying anything. All the treasured words she had laid up to say to Huldah; all the doubts and hopes and guesses, which were secret to all but God, but which were to be poured out in Huldah’s ear as soon as they were alone, were coming up one by one, as if to choke her. She had waited so long for this blessed fortnight of sympathy, and now she had lost it. Grace could say nothing. And poor grandmamma, on whom fell the stilling of the boys, was at heart as wretched as any of them.
Somehow, something got itself put on the supper-table; and, when John Root and Abner came in from the barn, they all sat down to pretend to eat something. What a miserable contrast to the Christmas eve party which had been expected!
The observance of Christmas is quite a novelty in the heart of New England among the lords of the manor. Winslow and Brewster, above Plymouth Rock, celebrated their first Christmas by making all hands work all day in the raising of their first house. It was in that way that a Christian empire was begun. They builded better than they knew. They and theirs, in that hard day’s work, struck the key-note for New England for two centuries and a half. And many and many a New Englander, still in middle life, remembers that in childhood, though nurtured in Christian homes, he could not have told, if he were asked, on what day of the year Christmas fell. But as New England, in the advance of the world, has come into the general life of the world, she has shown no inaptitude for the greater enjoyments of life; and, with the true catholicity of her great Congregational system, her people and her churches seize, one after another, all the noble traditions of the loftiest memories. And so in this matter we have in hand; it happened that the Roots, in their hillside home, had determined that they would celebrate Christmas, as never had Roots done before since Josiah Root landed at Salem, from the “Hercules,” with other Kentish people, in 1635. Abner and Gershom had cut and trimmed a pretty fir-balsam from the edge of the Hotchkiss clearing; and it was now in the best parlor. Grace, with Mary Bickford, her firm ally and other self, had gilded nuts, and rubbed lady apples, and strung popped corn; and the tree had been dressed in secret, the youngsters all locked and warned out from the room. The choicest turkeys of the drove, and the tenderest geese from the herd, and the plumpest fowls from the barnyard, had been sacrificed on consecrated altars. And all this was but as accompaniment and side illustration of the great glory of the celebration, which was, that Huldah, after her two years’ absence,–Huldah was to come home.