How the Christmas Tree that his hard creed forbade came to Bemis Folger

BARKER SHELTON December 15 1922


How the Christmas Tree that his hard creed forbade came to Bemis Folger

BARKER SHELTON December 15 1922



How the Christmas Tree that his hard creed forbade came to Bemis Folger

IT IS less than a mile from the Centre School in Valesboro to Bemis Folger’s place. So Linnie should have been home by four o’clock or a little after at the latest. But half-past four had brought no Linnie and at five, with the glow of the early winter twilight gone and the darkness of a moonless and overcast winter sky shutting in, Bemis Folger’s sister Hattie began to fret about the child.

“I guess I better hitch up and go after her,” said Bemis. His sister seemed relieved. Presently she wrapped a shawl about her head and went out to the barn where Bemis by the feeble glow of a lantern was hitching an old white horse to a sleigh.

“I don’t believe nothin’ has happened to her,” said Hattie, an angular, troubled figure in the lantern light. “She’s talked a lot about the tree the Congregational Sunday-school is goin’ to have to-night.”

She said this with a certain implied self-criticism, as if she should not have allowed so much conversation on the subject.

“Maybe she’s gone there—to the church,” she added. “Probably,” said he grimly.

He started to lead the horse out of the barn. Hattie picked up the lantern.

“I’ll shut the barn door after you,” said she.

Bemis got into the sleigh. To the tinkle of the bells on the shaft» he disappeared in the cloudy darkness.

Since, quite as he had expected,there was no sign of Linnie on the road between his house and the Centre School, he drove on to the Congregational church of Valesboro. It stood on a knoll a short distance beyond the school. A faint light streamed from the windows. He had no doubt whatever he wou’d fin L'-■ ' ' rn.

But íe had fully expected to find her inside the church; not outside on the steps, eagerly atiptoe as she peered through one of the windows.

“Come, Linnie!” he called to her. “It’s Gramper.”

SHE came down the steps, slowly, as if he ere loth to leave the point of vantage from which she had been watching proceedings within. He lifted her into the sleigh and tucked the heavy robe about her. The horse swung about. They started back along the winding white road that led from the village.

“You’d oughter come right home from school,” he remonstrated, as usual, when he chided Linnie, falling far

short of the severity he intended to use “It’s frightened Aunt Hattie, havin’ you late home like this, and it scairt Gramper,

“I just went to look for a minute. Gramper,” she said. “It’s awful pretty. There’s a great big, monstrous tree. They’s candles all over it. I waited till they lighted some of ’em. And they’s great, long strings of pop-corn and little bags of candy and heaps and heaps and heaps of presents.”

“You’d oughter come right home, Linnie,” he repeated himself. “It’s late and it’s got dark and it’s worried Aunt Hattie.”

“Don’t they have a tree at our church over in Mill-

“No,” he told her.

“Abby Cole says I can go to this tree with her. She says she invites me to go with her. She says I’ll get a bag of candy anyway, and maybe some other presents. Can I go with Abby Cole?”

“No,” he said again rather curtly.

“Why, Gramper? Why can’t I go with Abby? She’s asked me to go.”

“Aunt Hattie’ll tell you why you can’t go, Linnie,”

Hattie could explain it so much better than he could. How was he to make it clear to this child that the Brethren of Pentecost frowned upon what they were please 1 to call the “frills” of Christianity; that theirs was a simple, rigid, austere creed, which they must not only live up to themselves but see to it that everyone about them as far as possible lived up to, as well? How could he make it clear to her that one of the household of : n elder of the Brethren of Pent cost could not be present at such forbidden frivolities as Christmas trees without bringing down the scorn of all the other members of that austereliving and austere-believing sect upon such a delinquent elder? He couldn’t do it. But Hattie could, no doubt.

“I didn’t go in. I just looke 1 through he winder,” the child pleaded with him. “I wouldn’t ’a’ gone in till you said I could. Won’t you say I can go in to-night with Abby Cole, Gramper? She’s invited me to go. I only saw a few of the candles lighted. Just a few they was tryin’ to make sure wouldn’t set the tree afi-e. They’ll all be lighted to-night. Can’t I go and see ’em?”

They turned into the yard. Hattie opene 1 the back door. She lifted Linnie out of the sleigh

“She was at the church,” said Bemis.

“I didn’t go n,” said Linnie. “I just looked through

the winder. There was a great, big tree, Aunt Hattie. It had candles and strings of pop-corn and bags of candy and presents all over it. Abby Cole wanted me to go in and see it closer. But I wouldn’t till you said I could. Can I go to-night—with Abby, Aunt Hattie; she’-s asked me to go with her—-and see it all lighted?’

Bemis nodded meaningly to his ister.

“You tell her why she can’t,” he said. _¡.

HE TOOK up the lantern, burning on the back steps, and drove into the barn. When the horse was unharnessed, blanketed and in its stall, he locked the barn. He stood for a moment in the back yard, looking up at the sky, covered with a thickening haze that portended more snow. It was very still, too; that winter stillness that comes before a storm; not a breath of wind; icy silence everywhere, broken only now and then by the snapping of tree-limbs-in the cold.

He stepped into the woodshed for an armful of wood on his way to the house. He laid it on top of the goodly pile already in the box behind the kitchen stove. A child was sobbing in a room beyond. Hattie was speaking in a voice that strove to be at once comforting and firm. He held his cold hands over the stove. Hattie’s voice was just a drone; he could not make out the words.

Then Hattie came out to the kitchen. She began to prepare supper. He stood there, frowning, as he still held his numbed fingers over the roaring wood fire. The dishes clinked and rattled as Hattie set them on tV table. -

“I wonder,” she said, pausing in her bustling about, “if it would do any great harm, just this once—she’s so set on seeing that tree lighted up—if she went?”

He rubbed his hands together. The frown changed slowly to a musing smile.

“She hadn’t gone inside,” he said, as if to himself. “She was just standin’ there, lookin’ through the winder. She wouldn’t go in till we said-she might.”

Then the smile disappeared. The frown came back. Bemis drew himself up. He seemed to step back from the brink of momentary weakness. He shook his head.

“You ain’t said anything at all to her about maybe lettin’ her go, have you?” he asked.

“Not a word—yet,” said his sister.

“I guess it wouldn’t be well. I guess she better not go. Is supper ready?”

Linnie was a dismal little figure at one side of the table. She sat with lowered head, eating nothing. Her lips pressed hard together to stifle any sign of sobs. She

wiped her eyes now and again surreptitiously. Linnie, in revolt against life, was strangely like her dead mother; bitter, yet trying hard to conceal her bitterness. Bemis Folger somehow could not keep his eyes off the child. She was accepting this edict of his just as her mother at eighteen had listened to his command that she should not see or speak to Dan Sawyer again. She had sat at this very table, in the place where Linnie sat now; her lips set in just that way; her head bent in just that same fashion; wiping her eyes only after covert glances to see if anyone would notice she was wiping them. Yet the next day she had run away with Dan Sawyer, and married him and been very unhappy with him, and brought Linnie back to Bemis and Hattie just before she died. And Linnie, to-night, had been looking through a church window at a Christmas tree; her heart was set on seeing all its candles aglow. She was so much like her mother at that moment, with her head drooping and her lips in that straight line. Bemis again pulled himself back from a moment of dangerous weakness.

THE chapter of Scripture which they read antiphonally each night at bedtime should have been in Second Samuel that evening according to the bookmarks in the two worn old Bibles they had used for years. Bemis paid no attention to those bookmarks. He took Hattie’s Bible and found another place for her.

“We’ll read here to-night,” he said. He indicated with a forefinger the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy. Before she could ask him the reason of this change, he had begun the first verse in his heavy, dragging reading voice. So Hattie followed, reading somewhat more easily the second verse. Before reading the seventh verse, he paused to glance at her over his spectacles.

“ ‘Thou shalt have none other gods before me,’ ” he enunciated even moré deliberately and heavily.

“That don’t mean merely idols of wood or stone,

neither,” he interpolated his comment. “You can make a god out of lots of things; money, or an ambition to be somebody, or even a little child that you get to thinkin’ too much of.

We better be careful about thinkin’ too much of Linnie,


“I suppose we had,” said Hattie. She always echoed his ideas and beliefs. She proceeded with the next verse.

The chapter finished,

Hattie stole into that little room off the kitchen to be sure Linnie was all right before they went to bed.

Bemis, winding the clock, • felt her hand clutching his arm.

"She ain’t in there,”

Hattie was gasping, as if she could scarcely find breath for the brief announcement.

Bemis dropped the clock key.

“Her cloak and hood and mittens are gone from the closet. The snow is scraped off the winder-ledge. There’s tracks all under the winder,”

Hattie told him in that same frightened voice.

“She’s run off to the Christmas tree at the church most likely,” said Bemis.

“Of course,” said Hattie.

“That’s her mother all over again.”

“1 never thought of her runnin’ off like this,” Hattie lamented.

He stooped for the key he had dropped and finished winding the clock.

“I’ll go fetch her back,” be said.

She brought him his overcoat and helped him into it.

She pulled down the earlappets of his cap. She fussed with the ends of the muffler about his neck, crossing them just so and tucking them in.

“Don’t be harsh with her, Bemis,” she begged, following him to the door. “She’s a good deal like Mary, quick, high-strung and impulsive. She’s been talking about that tree for a week. I hadn’t ought to ’a’ let her talked so much about it. She prob’ly was just so anxious to see it lighted up she forgot everything else. Don’t be too harsh with her, will you?”

“No,” he said shortly and more or less ashamed of such confession of weakness. “I prob’ly shan’t be half harsh enough.”

HE CLOSED the back door, turned up his coat collar, and started around the house. He had taken but a few steps when he stopped short. Down the slope back of the barn, at the edge of the patch of woods that overgrew the swampy lowland, he saw a faint glow of light. There should have been no such light down there at the edge of the woods. He swung sharply about and hurried past the barn down the slope.

. The light grew brighter as he neared it. It resolved itself into three candles burning on the branches of a big spruce. There was no breath of wind so much as to sway the tiny candle flames. Long festoons of bits of torn white paper, sorry but passable substitutes for strings of pop-corn, decorated the big tree. A gay little candy cane, a bulging, clumsily-made little cheese-cloth bag of raisins and ginger, and Linnie’s two dolls were all but lost in the wilderness of green.

Bemis stumbled towards the spruce, calling his granddaughter’s name very softly, that he might not frighten her. The three candles flared brighter as he came up. They disclosed a little pile of wrapped parcels under the tree. Nearby, face down, one arm beneath her and the

other stretched straight out, was Linnie. A small branch of spruce beside her, and a long, white scar well up in the tree where the branch had given way and torn loose, told the story.

He caught the child in his arms. He called her name over and over. The woods rang with his cry of agony. He tore off his overcoat and wrapped the small form in it. He shook a doubled fist at the spruce with the candles burning on its branches and the long, fresh scar in the bark high up on its trunk. Then he heard the back door slam and the sound of Hattie’s footsteps running down the slope. He became as calm and as still and as cold as the night. He staggered up the slope with the child in bis arms.

A third of the way up he met Hattie. She was shaking from head to foot.

“Bemis, what’s happened?” she panted. “I heard you hollerin’ for Linnie down there, over and over. Where is she? What’s that in your arms? Oh! Oh, Bemis!”

“She didn’t go to the church,” he said so thickly she could scarcely make out the words. “She tried to make a Christmas tree for herself down the slope. That light you see is from candles she’d fastened onto the boughs and lighted. She must have stepped on a branch that warn’t strong enough to hold her. Anyway, it give way under her. She fell. Consider’ble distance.”

“Bemis, let me take her. Run for the doctor. Run quick!”

“A doctor won’t be no use —now,” he told her.

She swayed, bumped against him, clutched bis arm so hard it made him wince. There was no sound from her; no outcry. She merely clung to him desperately for that brief moment ; then stumbled blindly ahead up the slope.

Bemis with his burden plodding after her.

But once back in the house it was Hattie who seemed best able to face the situation. It was she who lifted the limp form from Bemis’ arms and bore it into the bedroom. Bemis sank into a chair by the window and buried his head in bis hands.

He sat there thus all that night, and all the next morning while the neighbors came and went, and various members of the Brethren of Pentecost from far and near hurried thither to the house of one of their elders to offer Scriptural passages of hope and comfort.

Bemis may have seen them; but he did not once lift his head. He may have heard them, but if he did he gave no sign of it. Once only during all that day did he speak, and that was when Hattie, groping blindly for some crumb of comfort for that broken figure by the window, laid her hand on his shoulder.

“Remember, Bemis. it says: ‘Whom the Lord

loveth he chasteneth,' ” he whispered.

“Then he must think a powerful sight of me, he said bitterly.

'T'HE Brethren of Pente1 cost are supposed to bear their crosses bravely and uncomplainingly. They are not supposed to become bit ter or rebellious or sullen under affliction; for affliction, they believe, is a purifying fire, out of which they should come even as the three men of the Old Testament came out of the fiery furnace.

Bemis Folger, therefore, pulled himself together. His life moved in its usual ruts and rotes. Not only as a member of the Brethren of Pentecost, but as an elder of the communion, it behooved him to accept his lot without complaint.

He and Hattie drove

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None Other Gods

Continued from page 15

over each Sunday to the barn-like meeting-house of the Pentecosters in Millbury. When he rose to speak in meeting, it was usually on the subject of bowing to the Lord’s will. He spoke as one having authority.

At home Hattie packed away all Linnie’s things; her clothes, her school books; her few toys. She was careful never to mention Linnie’s name, because she noticed how scrupulously her brother avoided it.

But she found him often at dusk, standing by the kitchen window that looked out on the barn and the slope beyond it running down to the patch of woods in the swampy lowland. Once, on a warm mid-summer night, he frightened he her by crying out hoarsely :

“There’s a light in the spruce—a light in the spruce! I can’t stand it!”

She rushed to his side and looked down the slope. The shapely spruce loomed big and black above its neighbors. Now and again a faint, shimmering glow showed among the branches.

“Dear, it’s only fireflies from the swamp,” she soothed him. “They’re always round the swamp hot nights like this.”

“Of course,” he said, seemingly chagrined at the scene he had made. “Of course. I must be gettin’ dodderin’.”

WHEN winter began to shut in and the days grew very short, she noticed he stood more and more at that window, looking fixedly down the slope. The big spruce seemed to fascinate him. He would peer at its dim silhouette against a star-studded sky until Hattie felt she would go mad from watching him. So another Christmas-tide drew near, and Hattie found herself dreading the coming of Christmas Eve. Some vague, nerve-rackir g fear of what Bemis might do on Christmas Eve possessed her. What it might be would not take definite shape in her imagination, and this shadowy quality of her dread made it all the more poignant.

A very small incident enhanced it. The Rural Delivery wagon brought the mail to their gate every morning, but it was Bemis’ custom of long years’ standing to drive to the village sometime during the late afternoon or early evening for later mail. She said to him just before Christmas one evening when eight o’clock came and he had not started for the village:

“Ain’t you goin’ for the mail to-night, Bemis?”

“You lookin’ for anything particular?” he asked.

“Why, no. I just thought you generally went before this hour; that’s all. No, don’t go on my account.”,

“Then if it don’t matter to you, I shan’t go to-night, nor for the next week or so of nights.”

She did not ask him why, but he evidently thought an explanation was due her. He cleared his throat.

“You see, they’ll be gettin’ their tree ready at the church,” was all he said. But that was quite enough. The postoffice w.' next d0or to the church.

The next right he said he was going to bed early. He went to his room immediately after supper. But he did not go to bed. She knew this because she heard him moving about his room far into the night. Bemis always looked after his own

room. She seldom entered it. She did not enter it now, because she knew whatever comfort he might find he must find himself. Words would be empty. She had tried them and found them wanting.

And each night thereafter during the Christmas period he went to his room as soon as supper was over and they had read their chapter of Scripture. It worried Hattie, and. at the same time itbrought her a certain relief. For she herself could have asked no greater favor than to be alone. She, like her brother, went to her room and shut herself in, and had not his own moving about drowned the sound of it, he might have heard Hattie moving softly about her own room until most unseemly hours.

SO CHRISTMAS came to them and passed; and Bemis seemed, after his period of brooding, much more himself; much more reconciled to this latest and most bitter tragedy in his life; much better able to face the coming year and bear whatever it might bring him. And it was the same with Hattie too.

It was the same every Christmas after that. Bemis became detached, distant, thoughtful, given to brooding. Just before Christmas Eve he adopted the same policy of shutting himself in his room; not to sleep, for lights showed under the door far into the night, and worn floorboards creaked under his heavy tread. And Hattie was shut in her own room, £nd lights burned there ard soft rustlings and softer steps told that she, too, kept a sleepless vigil.

It came to be understood between them that Christmas week was theirs, each to employ as he saw fit, without intrusion from the other. It was ore of those cases of tolerated habit grown to understanding.

Upon the seventh such Christmas Eve —it was a night much like that other Christmas Eve they both i emembered all too well; cold, dark, overcast, still, and threatening snow—Bemis, after the chapter of Scripture, went to his room and Hattie to hers.

It was so still, indeed, that when the bell on the school house began to ring like mad, and the whistle on the Norris Brothers’ spool mill joined in to add to the din, they sounded close at hand, as if they were in the back yard, instead of the better part of a mile away.

Bemis came out of his room into the kitchen. A wavering light illumined it. He looked out a window. The sky in the direction of the village was stained a flaring, angry red. As he looked, a twist of flame shot up above the black outline of

Hattie’s door creaked open and banged shut after her. He heard her .fumbling for matches on the shelf above the stove. “Where is it, Bemis?” she asked.

“Must be in the callage. It’s right in that direction. See them flames shoot up now!’

She found a match, struck it, and lighted a lamp. There was a light snow on the ground outside; but not enough to deaden the pound of hoofs and the scrunch of wheels as some hard-driven wagon went past the house, its occupants bawling: “Fire! Fire!” at the top of their vo’ces.

Motors began thrumming past, their horns going incessantly. Bemis turned away from the window.

“I guess, maybe, I’d oughter go along with someone passin’,” he said. “Looks like a bad one. Seems to be spreadin’. You won’t be scairt to stay alone, will

“Of course I won’t!”

“Nor you won’t worry while I’m gone?”

“ ’Tain’t likely I shall. You git back soon’s you can, though, won’t you?”

“I'll go down and if I ain’t needed I’ll come right back, and anyway, I’ll come back soon’s it’s anywheres nigh out.”

HE HUSTLED into his overcoat and pulled on his heavy overshoes. Hattie went with him through the cold front hall of the house. They opened the front door and the storm-door that covered it. Hattie stood shivering in the doorway while Bemis hurried to the gate. Another motor was coming down the road. He sped into the roadway and waved his arms and bawled “Hey! Hey! Lemme go along with ye!”

The automobile pulled up. Its rear door was pushed open.

“Where’s the fire?” Bemis questioned. “It’s the church. Caught from the Christmas-tree, they say. Must be afire all over from the looks. They’ll have to work some spry to save the Norris Buildin ’ next to it—what?”

“It’s the church,” he called back to Hattie in the doorway. “Caught from the Christmas-tree.”

He climbed into the waiting car. It whisked away down the road.

Hattie shut the door and went back to the kitchen. She drew a chair to the window and watched the flames now curling up steadily above the tree-tops. She turned away once to fill the stove with wood and open all the drafts. The kitchen grew stifling, but Hattie at the window, watching, still shivered.

Presently there was a great flare of flame and sparks skyward, then the flames went down, lower and lower towards the tree-tops; then behind them. The red glow on the hazy sky began to fade. It became scarcely more than a faint spot of light, a little brighter than the rest of the lowery sky. An automobile, returning homeward, whizzed past the house; another. Then quite a stream of them. But none of them stopped. Hattie began to feel nervous.

She opened the front door and hooked back the storm door. More autos passed, but Bemis was in none of them. So she ran into the road and stopped the next one. She recognized Steve Coleman at the wheel.

“I’m sorry to bother you like this. I guess I’m only foolish. But Bemis went down to the fire and said he’d be back as soon as it was out and I’m sorter foolishly fretted because he ain’t here yet.”

“Oh, Bemis! He’s all right, Hattie. He was up on the roof of the Norris Building workin’ with the crowd up there like a Trojan to save it. They done it, too. Don’t you worry none about Bemis. I see him again after he come down off that roof. See him just before I started back. He was talkin’ to some folks on the postoffice steps. I’ll turn round and go back and fetch him right up, if you say so.”

•' “Oh, no, indeed! Don’t do nothin like that,” she vetoed the suggestion. “I got sort of fool-worried about him, that’s all; and had to pester you by stoppin’ you to ask about him. I’m awful much obliged to you!”

“Not a bit. Sure you don’t want me to go back for him? All right. Bad fire. Church is flat. Ain’t nary timber of it left. But they got out of it lucky. I thought sure thë Norris Buildin’ was goin’ at one time. Good-night!”

SHE went back into the house. She piled more wood onto the kitchen fire. Auto after auto and wagon after wagon went up the road, but still no Bemis. It wasn’t like him to say he’d be right back as soon as the fire was out, and then dally in this fashion. What could keep him, anyway, after it was all over!? He must know she would be worried, and, too, that she would be anxious to hear all the details of the fire first-hand.

She went to the front door again. Apparently all the,autos and wagons bad gone home. The road was empty. Not empty, either. A figure was coming towards the house. It was approaching at a hurried gait that was neither walk nor run but first one and then the other. And the figure, coming nearer, disclosed itself as Bemis.

“I was beginnin’ to get worried about you,” she chided him mildly as he reached the door.

He brushed in past her without a word and threw off his coat. His eyes were glowing. He seemed more excited than she had ever seen him in his life.

“Is the wood-box in the kitchen full?” he asked.

“There’s enough. I burned up some of it gettin’ the kitchen warm against your cornin’ home half-froze. But there’s all the wood we’ll use to-night. The box is half full.”

“Then I gotter hustle up and fetch some in,” he said.

“There’s all we can use. Bemis, what ails you? You’re all keyed-up. And you ain’t said a word about the fire. It was an awful one, warn’tit?”

“Church is flat to the ground. All gone, every last stick of it,” he said curtly. “I’ll go out now and fetch in the wood, and you open up the front room and get it ready.”

“The front room! At this time of night! Are you crazy, Bemis Folger? Get it ready? Ready for what?”

“For company. We’ve got company cornin’. A whole lot of company.”

“What company?” She was staring at him as if she thought he was out of his head.

“The Congregational church folks. All the folks that was there when the fire started. You see, it caught right at the beginnin’, as soon almost as the tree was ■lighted. They hadn’t took nary a thing off it, not even a bag of candy. Caught from one of the candles and went up like a flash. And there was all them little children standin’ round most of ’em cryin’—•—”

He had been speaking fast, the words fairly tumbling over one another. He paused perforce for breath. Hattie stared at him, her mouth hanging slightly and foolishly open.

“So all them folks is cornin’ here, to this house, to have their Christmas tree,” he said, squaring his shoulders as if he challenged anyone to say him nay.

“Bemis!” Hattie gasped. He mistook the cause of her dismay.

“I don’t care what folks say nor thinks nor does about it,” he said, banging one doubled fist into the palm of his other hand. “Them folks is cornin’ here. I see them young-ones cryin’ about their burnt-up tree and their lost presents. So they’re goin’ to have a tree and presents. I only wisht there was more presents to give ’em.”

She laid a hand on his arm. It was trembling. Again he mistook the motive behind it.

“There was one little girl particular,” he said, his head drooping ever so slightly now. “She was cryin’ hardest of them all. She was dreadful—dreadful like— like Linnie. There was a big doll on the tree for her that had been pointed out to her as her own just before the fire ketched. She’s goin’ to have a big doll— here—to-night. Hattie, you open up the • front room and I’ll fetch in the wood and start the fires up. They’ll be here any minute now.”

Her fingers tightened nervously on his arm. Her bead was turned away.

“So you’ve known all along then, Bemis,” she said. “You’ve known about it all the time, yet you’ve never said a word to me nor stopped me.”

It was he who stared at her now in bewilderment.

“Known about what, Hattie?” lie asked.

SHE pulled him to the door of her room and threw it open. In a corner was a Christmas tree, festooned, glittering, countless little candles sprinkling the boughs, candy bags, candy canes, tinsel and shining ornaments everywhere. And hanging upon it and piled beneath it, toys and dolls and woolly dogs; the loving accumulation of seven heart-breaking Christmases.

His arm suddenly shot about her thin shoulders as he looked in astonishment, crushing her to him in the first caress she had known since she was a child.

“No, I didn’t know about that, Hattie,” he denied. “Not a thing about it. I asked them here to-night because I knew about

He opened the door of his own room. And there in its corner tinsel, candles, toys dolls and woolly dogs duplicating hers was his own confession of seven Christmas eves well kept.