Christmas Tree Trail
The story of a man who didn't believe in Christmas and a girl who couldn't do without it
WINTER CAME early to Temiskaming that year.
a winter that set in with bitter cold and little snow. The ground was like iron and the lake was like steel a great steel plain, vast and bleak as a dance floor for giants. Haileybury, on its hillside sloping sharply to the flat expanse of ice, had often seen open water on Christmas Day; but on the cold nights that week before Christmas, a broad highway of reflected moonlight glittered on the frozen lake, while the town huddled snugly under the white plumes of a thousand chimneys.
Three days before Christmas came the snow. The big flakes drifted softly all through a quiet afternoon, screening the lake and the Quebec hills in a shifting mist. Through twilight and darkness fell the snow, deep on the land, deep on the ice. Next morning teams and sleighs straggled out
onto white Temiskaming with loads of evergreens. Earliest in many years, the little trees were staked out to mark the winter roads across the lake. All season long these Christmas-tree trails would be followed by the farmers and the stage drivers journeying between Haileybury and Guigues and Ville Marie.
WHY PICK on me?" grumbled Dan Ridley. “What makes you think I want to stir out of a warm hotel and drive twelve miles on a night like this? It’s not my fault if the fellow was fool enough to get himself kicked by a horse.”
Cavanaugh, the hotelkeeper, was distressed and apologetic. He was a huge man, a mountainous man, very tall, very fat, very bald, very breathless. F retting, he stood by the potbellied stove and tugged at his mustache.
“I know, Dan. It’s a big favor to ask anybody, especially on Christmas Eve
“Christmas Eve, nothing! It’s just another night, so far as I’m concerned,” said Ridley irritably. “That isn’t the point. Why should I drive the stage over to Ville Marie for him? Why should I do favors for a man I don’t know from Adam?”
“Forget it, Dan, forget it,” wheezed Cavanaugh. He fished in his pocket for a handkerchief and mopped his forehead. The hotel sitting room was hot, stuffy with the reek of beer and shag. “I thought maybe, seeing you know the lake so well—you took the stage last winter, that week the other driver was laid up seeing you’re not doing anything tonight—you’re the only man around except myself; everybody else out shoppin’ or at parties, celebratin’ Christmas Eve.” Cavanaugh’s voice was plaintive.
Ridley got up and looked out the window. A northeaster was slashing snow against the black pane.
“Celebrating a racket,” he grunted. “You give me a present and I'll give you one. That’s all it amounts to.”
“On account of Christmas Eve not meanin’ as much to you as it does to most folks,” continued Cavanaugh breathlessly, “that’s why I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
“You thought wrong,” Ridley told him.
Ridley wasn’t very old the middle thirties and anywhere in the North Country he would have been tabbed instantly as a prospector. It was written all over him. The rawboned frame, the lean body. It was stamped into his windburned skin, etched into the wrinkles around his eyes. He spent more than half the year in the woods. In the winters he lived at Cavanaugh’s hotel in Haileybury. He had no folks and he kept to himself a taciturn, solitary man, reserved like so many of his tribe. But he was known as “a good man in the bush,” which is the guinea stang) in the North.
“There ain’t any passengers,” Cavanaugh ventured meekly.
“Then why can’t the stage wait until morning?” Ridley stood frowning tall, ilannel-shirted, his thumbs hooked in his belt.
“It’s on account of tomorrow bein’ Christmas, see?” panted Cavanaugh, twiddling with the big gold watch chain across his waistcoat. “There’s some late mail and parcels and things from some of the stores in town Christmas presents, Dan. That’s one reason Blair feels so bad. He’d gone and got a lot of things for his kids.”
"Don’t try to pull any sob story on me, John,” warned Ridley.
“Of course it’ll be a tough Christmas for them anyway, with their pa laid up in hospital here. Blair was just hitchin’ up the horses for the trip when he got kicked. Lookin’forward to spending Christmas at. home. Oh, well.” Cavanaugh shrugged dispiritedly. “I’ve got to have a man l can trust, on account of the mail. Seein’ you didn’t have anything special to do—”
“Just because I’m not out hollering Christmas carols or getting stewed at a Christmas party, you thought you could elect me to take out the stage on a night colder than billy-be-damned!” said Ridley, aggrieved.
Cavanaugh’s fat hands went up in a soothing gesture. His bald head bobbed.
“You’re right, Dan ! I’m sorry. I don’t blame you a bit,” he said wheezily. “I had a lot of nerve to mention it. North wind blowin’, cold and stormy out on the lake— fellow might get lost easy out there.”
“What?” demanded Ridley. “I might get lost driving from here to Ville Marie?”
“No, Dan. I didn’t mean that,” expostulated Cavanaugh, big hands fluttering. “But it’s a dirty night. Blamed sight more comfortable right here by the stove.”
Ridley was red in the face.
“If I didn’t know you better, John, I d bust you one for a crack like that. You’re practically saying I've got so soft that I’d rather cuddle up beside the stove than go outside when the wind’s blowing. Me, that’s been out in more bad weather in a month than you’ve smelled in a lifetime.”
“Now listen. Dan, I didn't say you were soft. You took me up wrong.”
“I’ll bet you ten bucks,” Ridley shouted angrily, “that I’ll not only take that stage to Ville Marie but I’ll get there by ten o’clock and phone you to prove it."
“Oh no, Dan. You couldn’t make it by ten. Even Blair himself
“I can!” Ridley grabbed his fur coat down from the wall. “Is it a bet?”
“I wouldn’t hold you to a fool bet like that, Dan. Make it half-past ten.”
“Is it a bet?” Ridley was glaring as he struggled into the coat.
“Why sure, Dan. If you get there by half-past ten ”
“Ten o’clock!” Ridley swept his fur hat down from the hook. “But if you go around telling people I made this trip iust to deliver a flock of Christmas presents. I’ll never show my nose in this dump again. And I’m not doing it as a favor to you or that stage-driver either. I’m not doing it as a favor to anybody, get that? But I’ll show you if I’m scared of weather.”
Cavanaugh hid a grin behind his hand as Ridley strode out. In the hotel business you have to know7 how to handle people.
TT WAS a bitterly cold night. The northeast wind was moaning out of a wild and tattered sky when Ridley drove the stage out of the hotel yard. Telephone wires hummed. Snow skirled and eddied helterskelter on the frozen road.
“And plenty colder before morning,” grunted Ridley, hunched on the driver’s seat as he peered through the tiny window in front. The stage was like a big packing box on runners. 11 was canvas-covered,with a flat roof through which a stovepipe projected ata cockeyed angle. The reins ran through a slit beneath the window. A small stove between the two long seats spluttered and smoked; the stage smelled of burning wood and hot stovepipe and musty blankets.
Runners squeaked, bunks thudded and sleigh bells jangled as the horses plunged snorting down the slope to the lake. Ridley twisted the reins around a nail when the stage was out on the ice. He groped for pipe and tobacco. The team broke into a steady jog that gave a rhythm to the bells. Citing - chinga - chingching - chinga - citing - chingchinga - citing.
The lake was an eerie grey desert melting into a profound and sinister oblivion that even swallowed the familiar smudge of the Quebec shoreline far away. The wind was rising. When the team came out from the lee of the Government wharf, getting out onto the flat expanse where the wind had an unbroken sweep, the northeaster rocked the stage broadside. It slashed snow viciously against the canvas, ripped the smoke streaming from the rakish stovepipe into shreds and tatters. Gut across the gloomy lake the snow went streaming from darkness into darkness, in high-furling banners and fantastic spirals. A small balsam, with drifting snow heaped about its lower limbs, loomed up momentarily and disappeared. Another, staked beside the road, was dimly visible ahead.
“Good thing they marked out their Christmas - tree trail,’’ Ridley said aloud. “Won’t be any road if this wind keeps up. And it’ll keep up, too.’’
A habit, this speakingaloud business. A lonely man’s habit. He’d been alone a great deal—prospecting, fireranging, trapping. The queer part of it was that when you got back to town you didn’t care if you talked to people or not. You’d just as soon be left to yourself. People thought bushmen of his type were a bit cracked, but that didn’t bother Dan Ridley. When you were alone a lot, you had time for thinking and reading; after a while you realized that most people were awful fools. They had a sentimental streak that softened them up.
The horses jogged past another little tree, then swung southeast on the fork that led to Ville Marie. Ridley smoked his pipe and listened to the hollow shriek and roar of the wind.
This Christmas racket, for instance. People were sentimental about it, as they were about most things. Ridley’s glance fell on the dark jumble of parcels piled up on the seats at the back of the stage.
A lot of blamed foolishness, this business of trading presents back and forth.
His pipe had gone out. Ridley raked a match on the top of the little stove. He didn’t give Christmas presents—not so much as a Christmas card and he didn't want any.
Ridley held the flaring match between his fingers, frowning. The yellow light shone on the mailbags, the bundles and packages, the blankets and bearskin rugs strewn over the seats. It shone on the toe of a worn overshoe projecting from beneath a blanket.
“Come out!” said Ridley.
The toe disappeared swiftly.
“Come out. I said !"
The match burned his fingers. Ridley blew out the flame hastily and said things. There was only a red glow from the stove damper. He lit another match. The blanket twitched, a package tumbled off the seat onto the floor. A girl emerged from beneath the blanket. Ridley held the match higher.
The soft light was kind to her triangular little face, made the dark eyes seem enormous. She was about eighteen -small and pretty and frightened.
Small and pretty, thought Ridley, with resentment. The kind that made you want to shelter them and protect them and look after them, when they were well able to look after themselves. Mantraps. Like Ellen.
“What’s the idea of hiding back there?” he demanded brusquely.
The match went out again.
“You can put me off if you like.” The girl’s voice came dispiritedly from the darkness. It was a slow, husky voice, but it wasn’t plaintive. It was merely tired. “1 haven't any money for my fare.”
Sob story, eh? Well, she would find there was one man who wasn’t soft inside, ready to melt like butter at the first appeal to his sympathies. If she thought she could make a sucker out of Dan Ridleyhe yanked on the reins. The stage lurched to a stop.
“All right,” he said. “Try walkin’ back.”
The girl didn’t say anything. She didn't argue. She didn’t plead. There wasn’t even a muffled sob. He remembered how Ellen could always make him do anything she wanted, by just one sob. A gust of wind suddenly pounced upon the stage, set the stove roaring. The girl was getting out. The wind slammtd the open door back on its hinges. He could see the vague shape of the girl against the swirling snow.
“Hey !” shouted Ridley. He hadn't expected that. After all, you couldn’t turn anyone adrift on the lake on a night like this, even only half a mile from town.
But the girl didn’t get back into the stage. Ridley jumped to his feet, lunged the length of the stage and out the door. He saw her a few yards away, head down, carrying a huge parcel, struggling against the wind. He caught her by the arm and turned lier around. She was very small, hardly up to his shoulder.
“Don’t be crazy,” yelled Ridley. “Can’t you take a joke?”
“I’ll not go back,” said the girl stubbornly. “If I can’t pay my fare I haven’t any right”
He thrust her back into the stage, big parcel and all.
“You go sit up front beside the stove,” he ordered gi uffly, and got in and closed the door.
MARY ALICE KING was her name and she had never been away from home until she got the job in Haileyburv, she was telling him later as the stage moved on down the storm swept lake. But there hadn’t been much money and her mother found it hard to get along, the brother being only twelve and the two sisters younger. “It was just a job at housework.” she explained. “But I'm not very clever and I guess housework is the only thing I'm really good at . .
She was just a small shadow and a steady, earnest voice in the gloom of the stage. Once in a while, when Ridley lit another match for his pipe or raised the stove-lid to put another stick on the fire, the darkness melted away from Mary Alice King, with her soft eyes and prim little mouth, and the light betrayed the shabbiness of her hat and thin cloth ccat. Ridley resented her prettiness. Since the Ellen affair—that was eight years ago; he had been mad about her but she married a man who had more money—he had
resented all pretty women. They brought out the softness and sentimentality in a man and made a looi of him.
The loneliness, she was telling Ridley, had been pretty bad at fir^t, being in a strange town among strange people. But that couldn’t be helped. She had been dreading Christmas. though ... “1 just couldn’t bear the thought of being away from home at Christmas. It would have been the very first time.”
In the darkness Ridley wagged his head scornfully. It just went to show how silly people could be. Fretting herself into a dither over a fcxil idea that Christmas was different from any other day. She wouldn’t cry because she couldn’t be home for the first Sunday in November or the second last Thursday of October, for instance. Y hat, then, was so confoundedly special about the twenty-fifth of December?
", . . so then at the last minute these people decided to go out of town, and they said I could go home for the holiday . . . ” She had five dollars, which should have been enough for her stage fare and presents besides, but when she got in the stores the money went before she knew it. “Most on account of the sewing basket for mother, explained Mary Alice King. “1 knew it was too expensive, but it was the very thing she needed and it was so pretty.
1 thought Mr. Blair would trust me for the stage trip, and then when I found out he wasn’t driving, I didn’t know what to do.”
“Well, vou didn’t need to hide from me," grumbled Ridley.
She realized that now, she said, but when she heard the men talking in the hotel yard and knew Blair was in the hospital, she got into a panic. She had to get home for Christmas, money or no money. She simply had to.
And so Ridley learned about Mary Alice King and the father who had been drowned on the Kippawa when he was a foreman for Booth, and the mother who stayed on in \ ille Marie because she was Canadienne, and the brother and sisters who were just kids yet. Jane and Margaret were seven and five and had fair hair, but. Harry was twelve and dark.
“Dad named us. He wanted English names for us all. And he always celebrated Christmas the English way instead of waiting until La Nouvelle Année—”
THEY WERE well out in mid-lake now. The storm was worse. In fact, it was very bad. Ridley had been noticing that. The storm was far worse than he had looked for when he snapped up Cavanaugh’s challenge.
The stage was getting the full brunt of the wind, the complete force of a savage gale that came yowling and screaming down the ice plain. The snow, which had whipped and slapped fitfully at first, now streamed in a sustained and vicious fury, rattling against the canvas like fine hard sand. The stage was swallowed in darkness and whirling snow; there was an insane clamor of blustering, shrieking wind.
When Ridley rubbed his thumb across the glass he couldn’t see the horses any more, nor the road, nor the balsams. He wondered how the horses could follow the road in that raging murk, but they were plodding along steadily enough. The trees were uselessthey were staked too far apart for this sort of night going. He could tell by the uneven progress of the stage that the fresh road was drifting. Ridley gave a sharp fillip to the reins. The tempo of the ching-chinga-ching ahead quickened a little.
“It’s a bad storm, isn’t it?” said the girl timidly.
“A bit windy,” agreed Ridley, with assumed indifference. No use frightening her. But if the horses ever lost the road, it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
“I guess,” said Mary Alice King, “it isn’t much fun for you having to drive the stage on Christmas Eve.” “Christmas Eve.” said Ridley, “isn’t any different from any other night, far as I'm concerned—except that this one’s windier.”
He sensed that the reply puzzled her a little. Then her voice came gently. “But of course you 11 be able to get back in the morning. You won't have to spend all your Christmas away from home.”
“It’s just the same whether I spend Christmas in Haileyburv or Ville Marie.” he said curtly.
“But that’s terrible.” Mary Alice was distressed. “You mean vou haven’t any folks?” Continued on page 50
Even yet she didn’t understand. Ridley made it clear.
“I don’t believe in Christmas, that’s all. It’s a racket.”
A long pause. Then Mary Alice said doubtfully: “You’re just fooling, aren’t
you? Everybody believes in Christmas.” “I don’t!” Ridley was brutally emphatic. “This whole Christmas business gives me a pain in the neck. There’s no sense to it. Once a year everybody goes chasing around buying a lot of useless truck to give away to people who’ll hand ’em back a lot of useless truck in trade for it. And everybody gets sobby about the poor people who can starve all the rest of the year for all anyone cares, and they give ’em turkeys and groceries as much as to say, ‘Dig in and stuff yourselves, because there won’t he any more for another twelve months.’ It doesn’t mean anything. It makes me tired.”
The stage lurched, canted high on one side, tilted abruptly forward, then stopped. Ridley twitched the reins. The stage jolted ahead.
“But don’t you get any fun out of giving presents?” asked Mary Alice.
“Where’s the fun? If 1 want to give junk to people I can do it any time.”
“Well, you get presents, don’t you?” “No,” shouted Ridley above the roar of the wind. “I don’t get ’em and I don’t want ’em and I don’t give ’em. Not so much as a Christmas card.”
For a long time Mary Alice didn’t say anything. The stage pitched and floundered. The wind shrieked and whistled in mad haste.
“What’s the matter?” said Ridley at last. “Mad at me?”
“No,” Mary Alice answered quietly, “I’m sorry for you.”
“Don’t need to waste time bein’ sorry for me—”
He broke off short. For one side of the stage rose sharply, at an angle so steep that the firewood rattled out from beneath the bench, parcels and mailbags were thrown into violent commotion in the darkness, the stovepipe creaked protest. Ridley lunged to his feet, bracing himself and hauling on the reins. The front of the stage dipped abruptly, nosed down and then came up again just as a small avalanche of bags and bundles came thumping down the aisle. The erratic motion stopped. Snow slashed against the canvas.
“Got into a drift, I guess,” said Ridley. “Don’t be scared. I’ll behack in a second.” He groined his way to the hack of the stage, unlatched the door and got out.
TT WAS wild. It was appalling. A blind -*• welter of bitter wind and lashing snow churned in icy darkness. There was no road, no sky. no land, no lake. Ridley groped his way along the side of the stage to the horses. Snow stung his face; the wind sucked the warmth out of his body. He found the team knee-deep in a huge drift.
This was bad. They were off the road. The trail had vanished, engulfed in storm. At this time of year the road was not well packed: it had been obliterated swiftly. Ridley floundered a little distance ahead, hoping that the horses were still on the hidden trail and that he might find one of the trees. When he looked back a moment later he could see neither stage nor team.
His heart seemed to jump into his throat. He tried to retrace his steps, but the wild-flying snow had blotted out the tracks. The wind was wickedly cold. It knifed through his heavy clothing, seared his face. A man wouldn’t last an hour out there on the open lake. He blundered into another drift. The snow dragged at his feet and he fell, got up again, fought down panic.
If the wind still blew from the northeast he had gone east when he went ahead of the horses. He must keep the wind at his right, then, and go straight ahead. He did so, floundered five paces, stopped and peered through the icy, roaring darkness. That was a fool trick, to let himself get more than arm’s length from the team. Then, faintly, he heard a shuddering jangle of bells, almost directly to his left.
Ridley wheeled and plunged toward the sound. A moment later the dark bulk of stage and team loomed dimly in front of him. He took one of the horses by the bridle and led the team forward through the drift. If the wind hadn’t changed the horses were headed southeast, off the road hut toward the Quebec shore. Ridley floundered back and got into the stage again.
“Are we off the road?” asked Mary Alice from the darkness. Her voice was without a tremor.
“Thought we were,” said Ridley. “It’s all right now.” He twitched the reins. The horses plunged forward. Ridley rubbed the glass clear again and kept his eye to the window.
It was a nightmare journey—a pitching, lurching, canting, swaying, jolting progress, with the wind raking the stage broadside. Going through the heavier drifts they were tossed around unmercifully, but there was no sound from Mary Alice. Ridley felt a reluctant admiration for her. Most girls would have been squalling with fright.
Twice the team halted in the drifts again. Ridley let them rest, then got out and led them through the worst of it. There was nothing to do but keep going, and yet he knew how easy it would he for the horses to wander vainly in that maelstrom of scudding snow until they fell exhausted. And then what-with only a few more sticks of wood for the stage stove?
Suddenly, on a flat windswept stretch, the animals quickened their gait. Ridley peered out the window. He could see nothing. But he sensed a change; there was a new assurance in the forward thrust of the team.
And then, through the darkness when the wind fell for a moment, he saw a light. A brief yellow glimmer, a mere spark blotted out in an instant as the wind screamed down on the stage again with a furious bluster and slashing of snow.
Ridley sat hack and drew his first deep breath in half an hour. The horses had glimpsed the light before he saw it. Some farmhouse on the Quebec shore, he told himself, and blessed the fitful gleam.
“Looks as if Santa Claus has gone and got himself sidetracked,” he told Mary Alice King.
The horses were plunging forward eagerly now. The spark shone, vanished again. But later, when the stage entered the shelter of a hay and the wooded hillside broke the furious impact of the wind, the light shone serenely, unblinking.
It was like being guided to peace and safety by a beacon—like following a star.
YES, MA’AM, it was a mighty lucky thing for us that the horses saw your light,” Ridley was saying as he and Mary Alice thawed out beside the roaring stove. “In a storm like this, the chances were a hundred to one against it.”
His big voice filled the cabin. Made expansive’and hearty by the warmth, he didn't notice very much. Just a settler’s shack, of the sort he knew well. Only two youngsters. Usually there was a tribe of them. The woman spoke English, and wanted to give them everything in the place, of course. But Mary Alice, curled up in the rocking chair that had been given her as a seat of honor, noticed a great deal.
Mary Alice saw that it was a shabby place, wretchedly poor. Only a few sticks of furniture, probably no more than one iron bed in the other room. But there were a good many pictures, cut out from newspapers, on the walls, and very clean but faded gingham curtains on the windows. Mary Alice saw that the woman wasn’t very old. although her shoulders were stooped and there were grey streaks in her hair. Mary Alice noticed the patched threadbare dress, too thin for winter, and the torn running shoes on her feet.
“I’ll make you some tea,” the woman was saying. “You must be half-frozen.”
“I bet Cavanaugh I’d make Ville Marie by ten,” said Ridley, looking at his watch. ‘‘It’s nine-thirty now. That’s one bet I lose.”
. The two children were shy. A small boy, barefooted and wearing nothing but a pair of tattered trousers and an undershirt, stared hard at Ridley from beyond the woodbox. A little girl with great brown eyes sidled over to Mary Alice, finger in mouth. Mary Alice slipped an arm around the youngster.
She saw, although the woman tried to hide it, that the tea package had to be emptied upside down into the pot. And she saw that there was no Christmas tree, not so much as a branch of evergreen over the door. Ridley wouldn't notice that, of course.
One thing Ridley did notice, however— that Mary Alice was a more excitingly pretty girl than he had imagined, curled up there in the rocker with the lamplight shining on her flushed face. She winked at the little boy beyond the woodbox. He smiled solemnly, then went back to staring at Ridley harder than ever, as if seeing a kangaroo for the first time and making the most of the opportunity.
As the woman poured boiling water into the teapot she told them, in a shy tired voice, that her husband was “away in the camps.” It was hard to manage alone all winter, but what else could one do? Her man’s name was Lou Rossignol, and he made forty dollars a month as an axeman. “I was hopin’ he might be home for—” The woman checked herself and began slicing a loaf of bread.
Ridley met the intense, fascinated stare of the small boy. The youngster’s mouth fell slowly open, drew shut again. The stare was unwavering. The mouth opened once more. The boy said:
“Christmas?” exclaimed Ridley. He didn’t see the mother turn swiftly from the table, but Mary Alice saw the sick dismay in the woman’s face. “Why, it’s tomorrow. Tonight’s Christmas Eve!”
The words were out. beyond recall, and he hadn’t taken breath again before he realized what he had done. A child who asks “When’s Christmas?” on the very Eve, is a child for whom there is no Christmas.
Never before had Ridley said anything that created such instant and overwhelming excitement.
The boy behind the woodbox let out a wild roar of delight, almost incredible in volume considering his size, and flung himself into an ecstatic handspring that carried him sprawling into the middle of the floor. The little girl uttered a scream of joy, locked her thin arms around Mary Alice’s neck and chanted, “Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!” jigging up and down so frantically that she almost pulled the rocker over. The boy lay on his back, pounding his heels on the floor, bellowing, “Santa Claus! Santa Claus!” in a deafening paean of glee. Ridley, mouth open, saw that he had created madness. They w-ere in an utter frenzy of happiness. They flung themselves on their mother, shrieking, “It’s Christmas—the man says it’s Christmas -we hang up our stockings— Santa Claus Santa Claus—it’s Christmas Eve -Christmas Eve Christmas Eve...” The mother tried to smile, but her face was stricken. She looked at Mary Alice. And Mary Alice, in turn, looked at Dan
Ridley. It should have withered him.
‘‘Maybe Christmas doesn’t mean anything to you,” said Mary Alice in a small soft voice, “but it means an awful lot to other people -especially when they can’t have one.”
IT WAS all a lot of sentimental nonsense, Ridley told himself stubbornly after the children had been put to bed, babbling with excitement, but something had to be done. They had hung their stockings on the back of a chair, although their mother protested weakly that they mustn't count on it, reminded them that it was stormy, that Santa Claus might lose his way. They didn’t listen. It was Christmas Eve. That wjas enough.
Mrs. Rossignol slumped into a chair beside the table, listless and stony-eyed, as though all the fight had gone out of her.
“It was on account of Lou not getting ■ paid,” she explained quietly, her lips trembling. “The last money just seemed to melt—I haven’t had a cent in the house —I kept putting the kids off, telling them it wouldn’t be Christmas for a while yet — just hoping maybe Lou would be able to send something.”
“Ma’am,” said Ridley, “1 can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know. It’s Christmas Eve for everybody . .
She buried her head in her arms on the table, shoulders quivering. Ridley cleared his throat. He was profoundly unhappy. His hand groped in a pocket, fingering the soft, crumpled bills. But this was something money couldn’t set right. He looked helplessly at Mary Alice King. Her eyes were solemn and shining: she seemed to be looking at something far away and beyond him.
All sentimental nonsense, of course, but you couldn’t explain that to youngsters. They had gone to bed in a blind and implicit faith that because it was Christmas Eve, a fat old gentleman with flowing white whiskers would come bearing gifts. A silly fable, of course -Christmas Eve was just another night—but nevertheless . . .
Ridley thought of the parcels and bundles out there in the stage. He brightened up instantly.
“By George !” he said aloud. Mary Alice jumped. And then Ridley sat back, shaking his head. It wouldn’t do. There were presents in the stage for Blair’s youngsters in Ville Marie-parcels from the stores— people waiting for them. As Cavanaugh said, when you asked a man to drive the stage, you had to have a man you could trust.
He would give anything, he thought remorsefully, anything he owned, just then—for a doll and a toy train !
Mary Alice got up. She slipped into the shabby coat, pulled her hat down over honey-silk hair.
“What’s the matter?” asked Ridley. “Where you going?”
Mary Alice tried to smile. It wasn’t very successful. “I’ll be right b-back, she said, with a strange little break in her voice. A flurry of snow slashed across the threshold and the lamp guttered as she opened the door.
Canada’s War Pensions
FOLLOWING publication in Maclean's November 1st issue of the article “Canada Has Kept Faith,” by M. McIntyre Hood, a number of letters have been received from war veterans and others regarding alleged grievances in the matter of pensions.
Two organizations exist for investigation of all such complaints. They are The Dominion Service Bureau of The Canadian Legion, and the Dominion Service Bureau of the Army and Navy Veterans in Canada, both in Ottawa.
Both bureaus are ready to give advice on pension problems and to look into what are felt to be just complaints, whether complainants be members of these organizations or not.
The woman looked up. Ridley sprang to his feet. But in midstride he hesitated, turned away as the door thudded shut. He knew.
That, then, was why she had been looking far away and beyond him. Ridley thought he knew something of what that glorious decision had cost Mary Alice King. She had had five dollars “which should have been enough for stage fare and presents besides,” but when she had got in the stores the money went before she knew it. Again he heard the gentle voice in the darkness of the stage: “. . .so I got Jane a doll and Margaret a book of cut-outs and a box of crayons, and Harry a train. I couldn’t afford one of the electric ones, but he’ll have fun with it . . .”
When Mary Alice came back a little later, smiling and radiant, with her big parcel under her arm, Dan Ridley would have taken off his hat to her if he had been wearing it just then, and meant it as a gesture of more reverence than he had felt for any woman in a long time.
She gave Ridley a quick warning look, then said: ‘Tve got some tinsel and things for a tree. Couldn’t we have a tree?”
Ridley beamed. It warmed him, that suggestion: he was so glad to know of something he could do. “A tree!” he almost shouted. “You’re blamed right we’ll have a tree.” Eagerly, joyously, he flung into his coat, grabbed the axe from the woodbox. “Say, I’ll get ’em the swellest tree in Quebec, if I have to wade all night in snow for it.”
Just before he slammed the door behind him he heard the woman calling to him to follow the fence behind the stable. It wasn’t as difficult as it might have been, for the storm was dying. And when he found a wide-branched balsam near the fence he was sure it was the finest tree in all Quebec, and he felt gay and happy as he swung the axe. This, at least, he could do.
FOR A MAN to whom Christmas Eve was just another night and Christmas just a racket, Dan Ridley showed astounding enthusiasm over the business of setting up that tree. And when it stood completed in deep green dignity, with fifteen cents worth of tinsel glittering against the branches, a few bright glass ornaments and some gaudy rosettes that Mary Alice fashioned from the paper that had wrapped her gifts, Mrs. Rossignol’s tired eyes were shining and Dan Ridley couldn’t get his fill of gazing at it.
But whenever he looked at the tinsel and the ornaments, at the two bulging stockings with the doll and the cut-out book and the train, he felt a twinge of envy. Mary Alice had so much more to give. And she looked so happy now, stepping forward to adjust a link of tinsel, moving back to view the effect.
“It’s a grand tree!” she whispered. “A beautiful tree!”
Dan Ridley leaned gingerly forward and attached his own contribution to the tip. It was a crude gleaming star, folded out of the silverfoil in his tobacco packet. Mary Alice clapped her hands. The star, she said, was just what the tree needed to make it perfect. But Ridley took no pride in it. If the star had been made of real silver it still would have been a poor thing against those few cheap toys in the stockings. And when he found a sewing basket —“I knew it was too expensive but it was the very thing she needed and it was so pretty”—hidden under the branches at the back of the tree so that Mrs. Rossignol would have a Christmas present too, the ten-dollar hill he slipped beneath the lid seemed only so much waste paper.
Mrs. Rossignol, alternately laughing and drying her eyes with her apron, was becoming a little embarrassing with her gratitude. So Ridley, uneasy in the presence of tears, said they would have to go. The storm had almost blown itself out, snow was no longer swishing against the windows and there was just a sullen moaning in the chimney.
‘‘When the children wake up in the morning— I’ll be here to see them and listen to them.” the mother cried happily. ‘‘That’s the best part of all.”
But Ridley insisted on haste. It was after eleven o’clock now. He had lost his bet by a wide margin—not that it bothered him. It would be easy enough to strike out down the lake and find Ville Marie now that the storm was over. In less than half an hour, Mrs. Rossignol told him, they would see the lights of the town. He hurried out to the stable for the horses.
HPHE WIND had died. The lake was a grey, mysterious expanse under the night sky. The bells sang ching-chingaching-ching-chinga-ching as the stage slid through the snow. Ridley, jeering through the glass, saw the conical hulk of a small balsam half buried in the snow. Far ahead he saw the dim shajx; of another.
They were back on the Christmas-tree trail. I íe twitched impatiently at the reins.
Mary Alice, sitting beside him, sniffled. He heard something like a choked sob.
“What’s the matter?” asked Ridley, alarmed.
For a while Mary Alice didn’t answer. Her shoulder, pressed close to his. quivered. Then she said, her voice steady:
“I was just thinking about that mean thing you said—about people buying a lot of useless truck and getting a lot of useless truck in return—those things I got weren’t truck and they weren’t useless.”
Now there was no doubt about it. He did hear a sob. And Ridley, dismayed, his heart turning to butter, put his free arm around her and drew her face against his shoulder.
“There—there now ” he mumbled. ‘‘I was a fool.” He gave the reins an urgent twitch and the ching-chinga-ching became very lively. Far ahead he thought he saw a shimmer of yellow light against the darkness of the land. “We’ll see that those stockings are filled right if I have to wake up every storekeeper in Ville Marie. That’s why I’m hurryin’. Don’t you think I want a Merry Christmas for myself?”