Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman
Author: Johnston, Annie F. (Annie Fellows), 1863-1931
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



available by Internet Archive/American Libraries
(http://archive.org/details/americana)



      Images of the original pages are available through
      Internet Archive/American Libraries. See
      http://archive.org/details/misssantaclausof00john



MISS SANTA CLAUS OF THE PULLMAN

[Illustration: Miss Santa Claus]


MISS SANTA CLAUS OF THE PULLMAN

by

ANNIE FELLOWS JOHNSON

Author of "The Little Colonel Series," etc.

With illustrations by Reginald B. Birch



[Illustration]

New York
The Century Co.
1913

Copyright, 1913, by
The Century Co.

Published, October, 1913



TO

MY SISTERS

LURA AND ALBION



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


  Miss Santa Claus                              _Frontispiece_

                                                         PAGE
  "Oh, dear Santa Claus"                                   19

  "Here!" he said                                          29

  "Oh, rabbit _dravy_!" he cried                           57

  He pushed aside the red plush curtain and looked in      69

  And ran after the boy as hard as she could go            77

  It was about the Princess Ina                            99

  The shower of stars falling on the blanket made her
       think of the star-flower                           121

  "Take it back!"                                         165



MISS SANTA CLAUS OF

THE PULLMAN



CHAPTER I


THE last half hour had seemed endless to Will'm, almost as long as the
whole four years of his life. With his stubby little shoes drawn up
under him, and his soft bobbed hair flapping over his ears every time
the rockers tilted forward, he sat all alone in the sitting-room behind
the shop, waiting and rocking.

It seemed as if everybody at the Junction wanted something that
afternoon; thread or buttons or yarn, or the home-made doughnuts which
helped out the slim stock of goods in the little notion store which had
once been the parlor. And it seemed as if Grandma Neal never would
finish waiting on the customers and come back to tell the rest of the
story about the Camels and the Star; for no sooner did one person go out
than another one came in. He knew by the tinkling of the bell over the
front door, every time it opened or shut.

The door between the shop and sitting-room being closed, Will'm could
not hear much that was said, but several times he caught the word
"Christmas," and once somebody said "_Santa Claus_," in such a loud
happy-sounding voice that he slipped down from the chair and ran across
the room to open the door a crack. It was only lately that he had begun
to hear much about Santa Claus. Not until Libby started to school that
fall did they know that there is such a wonderful person in the world.
Of course they had heard his name, as they had heard Jack Frost's, and
had seen his picture in story-books and advertisements, but they hadn't
known that he is really true till the other children told Libby. Now
nearly every day she came home with something new she had learned about
him.

Will'm must have known always about Christmas though, for he still had a
piece of a rubber dog which his father had sent him on his first one,
and--a Teddy Bear on his second. And while he couldn't recall anything
about those first two festivals except what Libby told him, he could
remember the last one perfectly. There had been a sled, and a
fire-engine that wound up with a key, and Grandma Neal had made him some
cooky soldiers with red cinnamon-drop buttons on their coats.

She wasn't his own grandmother, but she had taken the place of one to
Libby and him, all the years he had been in the world. Their father paid
their board, to be sure, and sent them presents and came to see them at
long intervals when he could get away from his work, but that was so
seldom that Will'm did not feel very well acquainted with him; not so
well as Libby did. She was three years older, and could even remember a
little bit about their mother before she went off to heaven to get well.
Mrs. Neal wasn't like a real grandmother in many ways. She was almost
too young, for one thing. She was always very brisk and very busy, and,
as she frequently remarked, she meant what she said and _she would be
minded_.

That is why Will'm turned the knob so softly that no one noticed for a
moment that the door was ajar. A black-bearded man in a rough overcoat
was examining a row of dolls which dangled by their necks from a line
above the show case. He was saying jokingly:

"Well, Mrs. Neal, I'll have to be buying some of these jimcracks before
long. If this mud keeps up, no reindeer living could get out to my
place, and it wouldn't do for the young'uns to be disappointed Christmas
morning."

Then he caught sight of a section of a small boy peeping through the
door, for all that showed of Will'm through the crack was a narrow
strip of blue overalls which covered him from neck to ankles, a round
pink cheek and one solemn eye peering out from under his thatch of
straight flaxen hair like a little Skye terrier's. When the man saw that
eye he hurried to say: "Of course mud oughtn't to make any difference to
_Santy's_ reindeer. They take the _Sky Road_, right over the house tops
and all."

The crack widened till two eyes peeped in, shining with interest, and
both stubby shoes ventured over the threshold. A familiar sniffle made
Grandma Neal turn around.

"Go back to the fire, William," she said briskly. "It isn't warm enough
in here for you with that cold of yours."

The order was obeyed as promptly as it was given, but with a bang of the
door so rebellious and unexpected that the man laughed. There was an
amused expression on the woman's face, too, as she glanced up from the
package she was tying, to explain with an indulgent smile.

"That wasn't all temper, Mr. Woods. It was part embarrassment that made
him slam the door. Usually he doesn't mind strangers, but he takes
spells like that sometimes."

"That's only natural," was the drawling answer. "But it isn't everybody
who knows how to manage children, Mrs. Neal. I hope now that his
stepmother when he gets her, will understand him as well as you do. My
wife tells me that the poor little kids are going to have one soon. How
do they take to the notion?"

Mrs. Neal stiffened a little at the question, although he was an old
friend, and his interest was natural under the circumstances. There was
a slight pause, then she said:

"I haven't mentioned the subject to them yet. No use to make them cross
their bridge before they get to it. I've no doubt Molly will be good to
them. She was a nice little thing when she used to go to school here at
the Junction."

"It's queer," mused the man, "how she and Bill Branfield used to think
so much of each other, from their First Reader days till both families
moved away from here, and then that they should come across each other
after all these years, from different states, too."

Instinctively they had lowered their voices, but Will'm on the other
side of the closed door was making too much noise of his own to hear
anything they were saying. Lying full length on the rug in front of the
fire, he battered his heels up and down on the floor and pouted. His
cold made him miserable, and being sent out of the shop made him cross.
If he had been allowed to stay there's no telling what he might have
heard about those reindeer to repeat to Libby when she came home from
school.

Suddenly Will'm remembered the last bit of information which she had
brought home to him, and, scrambling hastily up from the floor, he
climbed into the rocking chair as if something were after him:

"_Santa Claus is apt to be looking down the chimney any minute to see
how you're behaving. And no matter if your lips don't show it outside,
he knows when you're all puckered up with crossness and pouting on the
inside!_"

At that terrible thought Will'm began to rock violently back and forth
and sing. It was a choky, sniffling little tune that he sang. His voice
sounded thin and far away even to his own ears, because his cold was so
bad. But the thought that Santa might be listening, and would write him
down as a good little boy, kept him valiantly at it for several minutes.
Then because he had a way of chanting his thoughts out loud sometimes,
instead of thinking them to himself, he went on, half chanting, half
talking the story of the Camels and the Star, which he was waiting for
Grandma Neal to come back and finish. He knew it as well as she did,
because she had told it to him so often in the last week.

"An' the wise men rode through the night, an' they rode an' they rode,
an' the bells on the bridles went ting-a-ling! just like the bell on
Dranma's shop door. An' the drate big Star shined down on 'em and went
ahead to show 'em the way. An' the drate big reindeer runned along the
Sky Road"--he was mixing Grandma Neal's story now with what he had heard
through the crack in the door, and he found the mixture much more
thrilling than the original recital. "An' they runned an' they runned
an' the sleighbells went ting-a-ling! just like the bell on Dranma's
shop door. An' after a long time they all comed to the house where the
baby king was at. Nen the wise men jumped off their camels and knelt
down and opened all their boxes of pretty things for Him to play with.
An' the reindeer knelt down on the roof where the drate big shining star
stood still, so Santy could empty all his pack down the baby king's
chimney."

It was a queer procession which wandered through Will'm's sniffling,
sing-song account. To the camels, sages and herald angels, to the
shepherds and the little woolly white lambs of the Judean hills, were
added not only Bo Peep and her flock, but Baa the black sheep, and the
reindeer team of an unscriptural Saint Nicholas. But it was all Holy
Writ to Will'm. Presently the mere thought of angels and stars and
silver bells gave him such a big warm feeling inside, that he was
brimming over with good-will to everybody.

When Libby came home from school a few minutes later, he was in the
midst of his favorite game, one which he played at intervals all through
the day. The game was Railroad Train, suggested naturally enough by the
constant switching of cars and snorting of engines which went on all day
and night at this busy Junction. It was one in which he could be a star
performer in each part, as he personated fireman, engineer, conductor
and passenger in turn. At the moment Libby came in he was the engine
itself, backing, puffing and whistling, his arms going like piston-rods,
and his pursed up little mouth giving a very fair imitation of "letting
off steam."

"Look out!" he called warningly. "You'll get runned over."

But instead of heeding his warning, Libby planted herself directly in
the path of the oncoming engine, ignoring so completely the part he was
playing that he stopped short in surprise. Ordinarily she would have
fallen in with the game, but now she seemed blind and deaf to the fact
that he was playing anything at all. Usually, coming in the back way,
she left her muddy overshoes on the latticed porch, her lunch basket on
the kitchen table, her wraps on their particular hook in the entry. She
was an orderly little soul. But to-day she came in, her coat half off,
her hood trailing down her back by its strings, and her thin little
tails of tightly braided hair fuzzy and untied, from running bare-headed
all the way home to tell the exciting news. She told it in gasps.

"_You can write letters to Santa Claus--for whatever you want--and put
them up the chimney--and he gets them--and whatever you ask for he'll
bring you--if you're good!_"

Instantly the engine was a little boy again all a-tingle with this new
delicious mystery of Christmastide. He climbed up into the rocking chair
and listened, the rapt look on his face deepening. In proof of what she
told, Libby had a letter all written and addressed, ready to send. One
of the older girls had helped her with it at noon, and she had spent the
entire afternoon recess copying it. Because she was just learning to
write, she made so many mistakes that it had to be copied several times.
She read it aloud to Will'm.

      "Dear Santa Claus:--Please bring me a little shiny
      gold ring like the one that Maudie Peters wears. Yours
      truly, Libby Branfield."

"Now you watch, and you'll see me send it up the chimney when I get my
muddy overshoes off and my hands washed. This might be one of the times
when he'd be looking down, and it'd be better for me to be all clean
and tidy."

Breathlessly Will'm waited till she came back from the kitchen, her
hands and face shining from the scrubbing she had given them with yellow
laundry soap, her hair brushed primly back on each side of its parting
and her hair ribbons freshly tied. Then she knelt on the rug, the
fateful missive in her hand.

"Maudie is going to ask for 'most a dozen presents," she said. "But as
long as this will be Santy's first visit to this house I'm not going to
ask for more than one thing, and you mustn't either. It wouldn't be
polite."

"But we can ask him to bring a ring to Dranma," Will'm suggested, his
face beaming at the thought. The answer was positive and terrible out of
her wisdom newly gained at both church and school.

"No, we can't! He only brings things to people who _bleeve_ in him. It's
the same way it is about going to Heaven. Only those who _bleeve_ will
be saved and get in."

"Dranma and Uncle Neal will go to Heaven," insisted Will'm loyally, and
in a tone which suggested his willingness to hurt her if she
contradicted him. Uncle Neal was "Dranma's" husband.

"Oh, of course, they'll go to _Heaven_ all right," was Libby's impatient
answer. "They've got faith in the Bible and the minister and the heathen
and such things. But they won't get anything in their stockings because
they aren't sure about there even _being_ a Santa Claus! So there!"

"Well, if Santa Claus won't put anything in my Dranma Neal's stocking,
he's a mean old thing, and I don't want him to put anything in mine,"
began Will'm defiantly, but was silenced by the sight of Libby's
horrified face.

"Oh, brother! _Hush!_" she cried, darting a frightened glance over her
shoulder towards the chimney. Then in a shocked whisper which scared
Will'm worse than a loud yell would have done, she said impressively,
"Oh, I _hope_ he hasn't heard you! He never would come to this house as
long as he lives! And I couldn't _bear_ for us to find just empty
stockings Christmas morning."

There was a tense silence. And then, still on her knees, her hands still
clasped over the letter, she moved a few inches nearer the fireplace.
The next instant Will'm heard her call imploringly up the chimney, "Oh,
dear Santa Claus, if you're up there looking down, _please_ don't mind
what Will'm said. He's so little he doesn't know any better. _Please_
forgive him and send us what we ask for, for Jesus' sake, Amen!"

Fascinated, Will'm watched the letter flutter up past the flames, drawn
by the strong draught of the flue. Then suddenly shamed by the thought
that he had been publicly prayed for, _out loud and in the daytime_, he
ran to cast himself on the old lounge, face downward among the
cushions.

[Illustration: "Oh, dear Santa Claus"]

Libby herself felt a trifle constrained after her unusual performance,
and to cover her embarrassment seized the hearth broom and vigorously
swept up the scraps of half-dried mud which she had tracked in a little
while before. Then she stood and drummed on the window pane a long time,
looking out into the dusk which always came so surprisingly fast these
short winter days, almost the very moment after the sun dropped down
behind the cedar trees.

It was a relief to both children when Grandma Neal came in with a
lighted lamp. Her cheerful call to know who was going to help her set
the supper table, gave Will'm an excuse to spring up from the lounge
cushions and face his little world once more in a natural and
matter-of-course way. He felt safer out in the bright warm kitchen. No
stern displeased eye could possibly peer at him around the bend of that
black shining stove-pipe. There was comfort in the savory steam puffing
out from under the lid of the stew-pan on the stove. There was
reassurance in the clatter of the knives and forks and dishes which he
and Libby put noisily in place on the table. But when Grandma Neal
started where she had left off, to finish the story of the Camels and
the Star, he interrupted quickly to ask instead for the tale of
Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Christmas Spirit had gone out of
him. He could not listen to the story of the Star. It lighted the way
not only of the camel caravan, but of the Sky Road too, and he didn't
want to be reminded of that Sky Road now. He was fearful that a cold
displeasure might be filling the throat of the sitting-room chimney. If
Santa Claus _had_ happened to be listening when he called him a mean old
thing, then had he ruined not only his own chances, but Libby's too.
That fear followed him all evening. It made him vaguely uncomfortable.
Even when they sat down to supper it did something to his appetite, for
the dumpling stew did not taste as good as usual.



CHAPTER II


IT was several days before Will'm lost that haunting fear of having
displeased the great power up the chimney past all forgiveness. It began
to leave him gradually as Libby grew more and more sure of her own state
of favor. She was so good in school now that even the teacher said
nobody could be better, no matter how hard he tried. She stayed every
day to help clean the blackboards and collect the pencils. She never
missed a syllable nor stepped off the line in spelling class, nor asked
for a drink in lesson time. And she and Maudie Peters had made it up
between them not to whisper a single word until after Christmas. She was
sure now that even if Santa Claus had overheard Will'm, her explanation
that he was too little to know any better had made it all right.

It is probable, too, that Will'm's state of body helped his state of
mind, for about this time his cold was well enough for him to play out
of doors, and the thought of stars and angels and silver bells began to
be agreeable again. They gave him that big, warm feeling inside again;
the Christmas feeling of good-will to everybody.

One morning he was sitting up on a post of the side yard fence, when the
passenger train Number Four came rushing in to the station, and was
switched back on a side track right across the road from him. It was
behind time and had to wait there for orders or till the Western Flyer
passed it, or for some such reason. It was a happy morning for Will'm.
There was nothing he enjoyed so much as having one of these long Pullman
trains stop where he could watch it. Night after night he and Libby had
flattened their faces against the sitting-room window to watch the seven
o'clock limited pass by. Through its brilliantly lighted windows they
loved to see the passengers at dinner. The white tables with their
gleam of glass and shine of silver and glow of shaded lights seemed
wonderful to them. More wonderful still was it to be eating as
unconcernedly as if one were at home, with the train jiggling the tables
while it leaped across the country at its highest speed. The people who
could do such things must be wonderful too.

There were times when passengers flattening _their_ faces against the
glass to see why the train had stopped, caught the gleam of a cheerful
home window across the road, and holding shielding hands at either side
of their eyes, as they peered through the darkness, smiled to discover
those two eager little watchers, who counted the stopping of the Pullman
at this Junction as the greatest event of the day.

Will'm and Libby knew nearly every engineer and conductor on the road by
sight, and had their own names for them. The engineer on this morning
train they called Mr. Smiley, because he always had a cheerful grin for
them, and sometimes a wave of his big grimy hand. This time Mr. Smiley
was too busy and too provoked by the delay to pay any attention to the
small boy perched on the fence post. Some of the passengers finding that
they might have to wait half an hour or more began to climb out and walk
up and down the road past him. Several of them attracted by the wares in
the window of the little notion shop which had once been a parlor,
sauntered in and came out again, eating some of Grandma Neal's
doughnuts. Presently Will'm noticed that everybody who passed a certain
sleeping coach, stooped down and looked under it. He felt impelled to
look under it himself and discover why. So he climbed down from the post
and trudged along the road, kicking the rocks out of his way with stubby
little shoes already scuffed from much previous kicking. At the same
moment the steward of the dining-car stepped down from the vestibuled
platform, and strolled towards him, with his hands in his trousers'
pockets.

"Hullo, son!" he remarked good-humoredly in passing, giving an amused
glance at the solemn child stuffed into a gray sweater and blue mittens,
with a toboggan cap pulled down over his soft bobbed hair. Usually
Will'm responded to such greetings. So many people came into the shop
that he was not often abashed by strangers. But this time he was so busy
looking at something that dangled from the steward's vest pocket that he
failed to say "Hullo" back at him. It was what seemed to be the smallest
gold watch he had ever seen, and it impressed him as very queer that the
man should wear it on the outside of his pocket instead of the inside.
He stopped still in the road and stared at it until the man passed him,
then he turned and followed him slowly at a distance.

A few rods further on, the steward stooped and looked under the coach,
and spoke to a man who was out of sight, but who was hammering on the
other side. A voice called back something about a hot-box and cutting
out that coach, and reminded of his original purpose, Will'm followed on
and looked, likewise. Although he squatted down and looked for a long
time he couldn't see a single box, only the legs of the man who was
hammering on the other side. But just as he straightened up again he
caught the gleam of something round and shiningly golden, something no
bigger than a quarter, lying almost between his feet. It was a tiny baby
watch like the one that swung from the steward's vest pocket.

Thrilled by the discovery, Will'm picked it up and fondled it with both
little blue mittens. It didn't tick when he held it to his ear, and he
couldn't open it, but he was sure that Uncle Neal could open it and
start it to going, and he was sure that it was the littlest watch in the
world. It never occurred to him that finding it hadn't made it his own
to have and to carry home, just like the rainbow-lined mussel shells
that he sometimes picked up on the creek bank, or the silver dime he had
once found in a wagon rut.

[Illustration: "Here!" he said]

Then he looked up to see the steward strolling back towards him again,
his hands still in his trousers' pockets. But this time no fascinating
baby watch bobbed back and forth against his vest as he walked, and
Will'm knew with a sudden stab of disappointment that was as bad as
earache, that the watch he was fondling could never be his to carry home
and show proudly to Uncle Neal. It belonged to the man.

"Here!" he said, holding it out in the blue mitten.

"Well, I vow!" exclaimed the steward, looking down at his watchfob, and
then snatching the little disk of gold from the outstretched hand. "I
wouldn't have lost that for hardly anything. It must have come loose
when I stooped to look under the car. I think more of that than almost
anything I've got. See?"

And then Will'm saw that it was not a watch, but a little locket made to
hang from a bar that was fastened to a wide black ribbon fob. The man
pulled out the fob, and there on the other end, where it had been in
his pocket all the time, was a big watch, as big as Will'm's fist. The
locket flew open when he touched a spring, and there were two pictures
inside. One of a lady and one of a jolly, fat-cheeked baby.

"Well, little man!" exclaimed the steward, with a hearty clap on the
shoulder that nearly upset him. "You don't know how big a favor you've
done me by finding that locket. You're just about the nicest boy I've
come across yet. I'll have to tell Santa Claus about you. What's your
name?"

Will'm told him and pointed across to the shop, when asked where he
lived. At the steward's high praise Will'm was ready to take the Sky
Road himself, when he heard that he was to be reported to the Master of
the Reindeer as the nicest boy the steward had come across. His
disappointment vanished so quickly that he even forgot that he had been
disappointed, and when the steward caught him under the arms and swung
him up the steps, saying something about finding an orange, he was
thrilled with a wild brave sense of adventure.

Discovering that Will'm had never been on a Pullman since he could
remember, the steward took him through the diner to the kitchen, showing
him all the sights and explaining all the mysteries. It was as good as a
show to watch the child's face. He had never dreamed that such roasting
and broiling went on in the narrow space of the car kitchen, or
that such quantities of eatables were stored away in the mammoth
refrigerators which stood almost touching the red hot ranges. Big
shining fish from far-off waters, such as the Junction had never heard
of, lay blocked in ice in one compartment. Ripe red strawberries lay in
another, although it was mid December, and in Will'm's part of the world
strawberries were not to be thought of before the first of June. There
were more eggs than all the hens at the Junction could lay in a week,
and a white-capped, white-jacketed colored-man was beating up a dozen
or so into a white mountain of meringue, which the passengers would eat
by and by in the shape of some strange, delicious dessert, sitting at
those fascinating tables he had passed on his way in.

A quarter of an hour later when Will'm found himself on the ground
again, gazing after the departing train, he was a trifle dazed with all
he had seen and heard. But three things were clear in his mind. That he
held in one hand a great yellow orange, in the other a box of prize
pop-corn, and in his heart the precious assurance that Santa Claus would
be told by one in high authority that he was a good boy.

So elated was he by this last fact, that he decided on the way home to
send a letter up the chimney on his own account, especially as he knew
now exactly what to ask for. He had been a bit hazy on the question
before. Now he knew beyond all doubt that what he wanted more than
anything in the wide world, was _a ride on a Pullman car_. He wanted to
sit at one of those tables, and eat things that had been cooked in that
mysterious kitchen, at the same time that he was flying along through
the night on the wings of a mighty dragon breathing out smoke and fire
as it flew.

He went in to the house by way of the shop so that he might make the
bell go ting-a-ling. It was so delightfully like the bells on the
camels, also like the bells on the sleigh which would be coming before
so very long to bring him what he wanted.

Miss Sally Watts was sitting behind the counter, crocheting. To his
question of "Where's Dranma?" she answered without looking up.

"She and Mr. Neal have driven over to Westfield. They have some business
at the court house. She said you're not to go off the place again till
she gets back. I was to tell you when you came in. She looked everywhere
to find you before she left, because she's going to be gone till late in
the afternoon. Where you been, anyhow?"

Will'm told her. Miss Sally was a neighbor who often helped in the shop
at times like this, and he was always glad when such times came. It was
easy to tell Miss Sally things, and presently when a few direct
questions disclosed the fact that Miss Sally "bleeved" as he did, he
asked her another question, which had been puzzling him ever since he
had decided to ask for a ride on the train.

"How can Santa put a _ride_ in a _stocking_?"

"I don't know," answered Miss Sally, still intent on her crocheting.
"But then I don't really see how he can put anything in; sleds or dolls
or anything of the sort. He's a mighty mysterious man to me. But then,
probably he wouldn't try to put the _ride_ in a stocking. He'd send the
ticket or the money to buy it with. And he _might_ give it to you
beforehand, and not wait for stocking-hanging time, knowing how much you
want it."

All this from Miss Sally because Mrs. Neal had just told her that the
children were to be sent to their father the day before Christmas, and
that they were to go on a Pullman car, because the ordinary coaches did
not go straight through. The children were too small to risk changing
cars, and he was too busy to come for them.

Will'm stayed in the shop the rest of the morning, for Miss Sally
echoing the sentiment of everybody at the Junction, felt sorry for the
poor little fellow who was soon to be sent away to a stepmother, and
felt that it was her duty to do what she could toward making his world
as pleasant as possible for him, while she had the opportunity.

Together they ate the lunch which had been left on the pantry shelves
for them. Will'm helped set it out on the table. Then he went back into
the shop with Miss Sally. But his endless questions "got on her nerves"
after awhile, she said, and she suddenly ceased to be the good company
that she had been all morning. She mended the fire in the sitting-room
and told Will'm he'd better play in there till Libby came home. It was
an endless afternoon, so long that after he had done everything that he
could think of to pass the time, he decided he'd write his own letter
and send it up the chimney himself. He couldn't possibly wait for Libby
to come home and do it. He'd write a picture letter. It was easier to
read pictures than print, anyhow. At least for him. He slipped back into
the shop long enough to get paper and a pencil from the old secretary in
the corner, and then lying on his stomach on the hearth-rug with his
heels in the air, he began drawing his favorite sketch, a train of cars.

All that can be said of the picture is that one could recognize what it
was meant for. The wheels were wobbly and no two of the same size, the
windows zigzagged in uneven lines and were of varied shapes. The
cow-catcher looked as if it could toss anything it might pick up high
enough to join the cow that jumped over the moon. But it was
unmistakably a train, and the long line of smoke pouring back over it
from the tipsy smoke-stack showed that it was going at the top of its
speed. Despite the straggling scratchy lines any art critic must
acknowledge that it had in it that intangible quality known as life and
"go."

It puzzled Will'm at first to know how to introduce himself into the
picture so as to show that he was the one wanting a ride. Finally on top
of one of the cars he drew a figure supposed to represent a boy, and
after long thought, drew one just like it, except that the second figure
wore a skirt. He didn't want to take the ride alone. He'd be almost
afraid to go without Libby, and he knew very well that she'd like to go.
She'd often played "S'posen" they were riding away off to the other side
of the world on one of those trains which they watched nightly pass the
sitting-room window.

He wished he could spell his name and hers. He knew only the letters
with which each began, and he wasn't sure of either unless he could see
the picture on the other side of the building block on which it was
printed. The box of blocks was in the sitting-room closet. He brought it
out, emptied it on the rug and searched until he found the block bearing
the picture of a lion. That was the king of beasts, and the L on the
other side which stood for Lion, stood also for Libby. Very slowly and
painstakingly he copied the letter on his drawing, placing it directly
across the girl's skirt so that there could be no mistake. Then he pawed
over the blocks till he found the one with the picture of a whale. That
was the king of fishes, and the W on the other side which stood for
Whale, stood also for William. He tried putting the W across the boy,
but as each leg was represented by one straight line only, bent at right
angles at the bottom to make a foot, the result was confusing. He rubbed
out the legs, made them anew, and put the W over the boy's head, drawing
a thin line from the end of the W to the crossed scratches representing
fingers. That plainly showed that the Boy and the W were one and the
same, although it gave to the unenlightened the idea that the picture
had something to do with flying a kite. Then he rubbed out the L on
Libby's skirt and placed it over her head, likewise connecting her
letter with her fingers.

The rubbing-out process gave a smudgy effect. Will'm was not satisfied
with the result, and like a true artist who counts all labor as naught,
which helps him towards that perfection which is his ideal, he laid
aside the drawing as unworthy and began another.

The second was better. He accomplished it with a more certain touch and
with no smudges, and filled with the joy of a creator, sat and looked at
it a few minutes before starting it on its flight up the flue towards
the Sky Road.

The great moment was over. He had just drawn back from watching it start
when Libby came in. She came primly and quietly this time. She had
waited to leave her overshoes on the porch, her lunch basket in the
kitchen, her wraps in the entry. The white ruffled apron which she had
worn all day was scarcely mussed. The bows on her narrow braids stuck
out stiffly and properly. Her shoes were tied and the laces tucked in.
She walked on tiptoe, and every movement showed that she was keeping up
the reputation she had earned of being "so good that nobody could be any
better, no matter how hard he tried." She had been that good for over a
week.

Will'm ran to get the orange which had been given him that morning. He
had been saving it for this moment of division. He had already opened
the pop-corn box and found the prize, a little china cup no larger than
a thimble, and had used it at lunch, dipping a sip at a time from his
glass of milk.

The interest with which she listened to his account of finding the
locket and being taken aboard the train made him feel like a hero. He
hastened to increase her respect.

"Nen the man said that I was about the nicest little boy he ever saw and
he would tell Santa Claus so. An' I knew everything was all right so
I've just sended a letter up to tell him to please give me a ride on the
Pullman train."

Libby smiled in an amused, big-sister sort of way, asking how Will'm
supposed anybody could read his letters. He couldn't write anything but
scratches.

"But it was a picture letter!" Will'm explained triumphantly. "Anybody
can read picture letters." Then he proceeded to tell what he had made
and how he had marked it with the initials of the Lion and the Whale.

To his intense surprise Libby looked first startled, then troubled, then
despairing. His heart seemed to drop down into his shoes when she
exclaimed in a tragic tone:

"Well, Will'm Branfield! If you haven't gone and done it! I don't know
what ever _is_ going to happen to us _now_!"

Then she explained. _She_ had already written a letter for him, with
Susie Peters's help, asking in writing what she had asked before by
word of mouth, that he be forgiven, and requesting that he might not
find his stocking empty on Christmas morning. As to what should be in
it, she had left that to Santa's generosity, because Will'm had never
said what he wanted.

"And now," she added reproachfully, "I've _told_ you that we oughtn't to
ask for more than one thing apiece, 'cause this is the first time he's
ever been to this house, and it doesn't seem polite to ask for so much
from a stranger."

Will'm defended himself, his chin tilted at an angle that should have
been a warning to one who could read such danger signals.

"I only asked for one thing for me and one for you."

"Yes, but don't you see, _I_ had already asked for something for each of
us, so that makes two things apiece," was the almost tearful answer.

"Well, _I_ aren't to blame," persisted Will'm, "you didn't tell me what
you'd done."

"But you ought to have waited and asked me before you sent it," insisted
Libby.

"I oughtn't!"

"You _ought_, I say!" This with a stamp of her foot for emphasis.

"I oughtn't, Miss Smarty!" This time a saucy little tongue thrust itself
out at her from Will'm's mouth, and his face was screwed into the
ugliest twist he could make.

Again he had the shock of a great surprise, when Libby did not answer
with a worse face. Instead she lifted her head a little, and said in a
voice almost honey-sweet, but so loud that it seemed intended for other
ears than Will'm's, "Very well, have your own way, brother, but Santa
Claus knows that _I_ didn't want to be greedy and ask for two things!"

William answered in what was fairly a shout, "An' he knows that _I_
didn't, _neether_!"

The shout was followed by a whisper: "Say, Libby, do you s'pose he heard
that?"

Libby's answer was a convincing nod.



CHAPTER III


AFTER spending several days wondering how she could best break the news
to the children that their father was going to take them away, Mrs. Neal
decided that she would wait until the last possible moment. Then she
would tell them that their father had a Christmas present for them,
nicer than anything he had ever given them before. It was something that
couldn't be sent to them, so he wanted them to go all the way on the
cars to his new home, to see it. Then after they had guessed everything
they could think of, and were fairly hopping up and down with impatient
curiosity, she'd tell them what it was: _a new mother_!

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 wouldn'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 stepmother 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 wouldn'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 doesn'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 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 poison of Maudie's suggestion
still stayed with him. Something, he didn't know exactly what, but
_something_ was going to fall with him and hurt him dreadfully if he
didn'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 wasn'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 poisoned apple, Grandma Neal was so
indignant that she sent after Libby's books, saying that she would not
be back at school any more.

Next day, Libby told Will'm the rest of what the boys had said to her.
"All the stepmothers in stories are cruel 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 of a cruel hag that had one. "It's an awful long ugly tooth
that sticks away out of the side of your mouth like a pig's."

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. How
could they tell but that Grandma and Uncle Neal might be mistaken about
their belief in stepmothers 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 some time 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 to its being left behind, although it
looked so dreadful that he didn'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.

[Illustration: "Oh, rabbit _dravy_!" he cried]

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, sniffing 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. "Haven'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 couldn'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
aren'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 awhile, 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 never be the same again.

Libby was quiet and inwardly tearful for 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 hadn'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
couldn'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 wouldn't worry, remembering
that the Christmas Angels came along that shining highway too. Maybe her
heart's desire would be brought to her by one of them!



CHAPTER IV


ALTHOUGH L stands equally for Libby and Lion, and W for William and
Whale, it is not to be inferred that the two small travelers thus
labeled felt in any degree the courage of the king of beasts or the
importance of the king of fishes. With every turn of the car wheels
after they left the Junction, Will'm seemed to grow smaller and more
bewildered, and Libby more frightened and forlorn. In Will'm's picture
of this ride they had borne only their initials. Now they were faring
forth tagged with their full names and their father's address. Miss
Sally had done that "in case anything should happen."

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 hadn'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 wasn'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
shouldn'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 hadn'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 these 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 Will'm was going to cry and smudge
his face all over till it was a sight. If she couldn'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."

[Illustration: He pushed aside the red plush curtain and looked in]

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
didn'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 awhile
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
wouldn't know what to do or where to go. They'd be lost in a great city
like the little Match Girl was on Christmas eve, and they'd freeze to
death on some stranger's doorstep. 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 didn't want him to wake up and find it out. A lady who had
been 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 Will'm wakened 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 into the baggage car farther up the track, but they saw
what happened in the delay.

[Illustration: And ran after the boy as hard as she could go]

A half-grown boy, a suitcase in one hand and a pile of packages in his
arms, dashed towards the car, leaving a furry old gentleman in the
sleigh to hold the horses. The old gentleman's coat was fur, and his cap
was fur, and so was the great rug which covered him. Under the fur cap
was thick white hair, and all over the bottom of his face was a bushy
white beard. And his cheeks were red and his eyes were laughing, and if
he wasn't Santa Claus's own self he certainly looked enough like the
nicest pictures of him to be his own brother.

On the seat beside him was a young girl, who, waiting only long enough
to plant a kiss on one of those rosy cheeks above the snowy beard,
sprang out of the sleigh and ran after the boy as hard as she could go.
She was not more than sixteen, but she looked like a full-grown young
lady to Libby, for her hair was tucked up under her little fur cap
with its scarlet quill, and the long, fur-bordered red coat she wore,
reached her ankles. One hand was thrust through a row of holly wreaths,
and she was carrying all the bundles both arms could hold.

By the time the boy had deposited his load in the section opposite the
children's, and dashed back down the aisle, there was a call of "All
aboard!" They met at the door, he and the pretty girl, she laughing and
nodding her thanks over her pile of bundles. He raised his hat and
bolted past, but stopped an instant, just before jumping off the train,
to run back and thrust his head in the door and call out laughingly,
"Good-by, Miss Santa Claus!"

Everybody in the car looked up and smiled, and turned and looked again
as she went up the aisle, for a lovelier Christmas picture could not be
imagined than the one she made in her long red coat, her arms full of
packages and wreaths of holly. The little fur cap with its scarlet
feather was powdered with snow, and the frosty wind had brought such a
glow to her cheeks and a sparkle in her eyes that she looked the living
embodiment of Christmas cheer. Her entrance seemed to bring with it the
sense of all holiday joy, just as the cardinal's first note holds in it
the sweetness of a whole spring.

Will'm edged along the seat until he was close beside Libby, and the two
sat and stared at her with wide-eyed interest.

_That boy had called her Miss Santa Claus!_

If the sleigh which brought her had been drawn by reindeer, and she had
carried her pack on her back instead of in her arms, they could not have
been more spellbound. They scarcely breathed for a few moments. The
radiant, glowing creature took off the long red coat and gave it to the
porter to hang up, then she sat down and began sorting her packages into
three piles. It took some time to do this, as she had to refer
constantly to a list of names on a long strip of paper, and compare them
with the names on the bundles. While she was doing this the conductor
came for her ticket and she asked several questions.

Yes, he assured her, they were due at Eastbrook in fifteen minutes and
would stop there long enough to take water.

"Then I'll have plenty of time to step off with these things," she said.
"And I'm to leave some at Centreville and some at Ridgely."

When the conductor said something about helping Santa Claus, she
answered laughingly, "Yes, Uncle thought it would be better for me to
bring these breakable things instead of trusting them to the chimney
route." Then in answer to a question which Libby did not hear, "Oh, that
will be all right. Uncle telephoned all down the line and arranged to
have some one meet me at each place."

When the train stopped at Eastbrook, both the porter and conductor came
to help her gather up her first pile of parcels, and people in the car
stood up and craned their necks to see what she did with them. Libby
and Will'm could see. They were on the side next to the station. She
gave them to several people who seemed to be waiting for her. Almost
immediately she was surrounded by a crowd of young men and girls, all
shaking hands with her and talking at once. From the remarks which
floated in through the open vestibule, it seemed that they all must have
been at some party with her the night before. A chorus of good-byes and
Merry Christmases followed her into the car when she had to leave them
and hurry aboard. This time she came in empty handed, and this time
people looked up and smiled openly into her face, and she smiled back as
if they were all friends, sharing their good times together.

At Centreville she darted out with the second lot. Farther down a number
of people were leaving the day coaches, but no one was getting off the
Pullman. She did not leave the steps, but leaned over and called to an
old colored-man who stood with a market basket on his arm. "This way,
Mose. Quick!"

Then Will'm and Libby heard her say: "Tell 'Old Miss' that Uncle Norse
sent this holly. He wanted her to have it because it grew on his own
place and is the finest in the country. Don't knock the berries off, and
do be careful of this biggest bundle. I wouldn't have it broken for
anything. And--oh, yes, Mose" (this in a lower tone), "this is for you."

What it was that passed from the little white hand into the worn brown
one of the old servitor was not discovered by the interested audience
inside the car, but they heard a chuckle so full of pleasure that some
of them echoed it unconsciously.

"Lawd bless you, li'l' Miss, you sho' is the flowah of the Santa Claus
fambly!"

When she came in this time, a motherly old lady near the door stopped
her, and smiling up at her through friendly spectacles, asked if she
were going home for Christmas.

"Yes!" was the enthusiastic answer. "And you know what that means to a
Freshman--her first homecoming after her first term away at school. I
should have been there four days ago. Our vacation began last Friday,
but I stopped over for a house-party at my cousin's. I was wild to get
home, but I couldn't miss this visit, for she's my dearest chum as well
as my cousin, and last night was her birthday. Maybe you noticed all
those people who met me at Eastbrook. They were at the party."

"That was nice," answered the little old lady, bobbing her head. "Very
nice, my dear. And now you'll be getting home at the most beautiful time
in all the year."

"Yes, _I_ think so," was the happy answer. "Christmas eve to me always
means going around with father to take presents, and I wouldn't miss it
for anything in the world. I'm glad there's enough snow this year for us
to use the sleigh. We had to take the auto last year, and it wasn't half
as much fun."

Libby and Will'm scarcely moved after that, all the way to Ridgely. Nor
did they take their eyes off her. Mile after mile they rode, barely
batting an eyelash, staring at her with unabated interest. At Ridgely
she handed off all the rest of the packages and all of the holly wreaths
but two. These she hung up out of the way over her windows, then taking
out a magazine, settled herself comfortably in the end of the seat to
read.

On her last trip up the aisle she had noticed the wistful, unsmiling
faces of her little neighbors across the way, and she wondered why it
was that the only children in the coach should be the only ones who
seemed to have no share in the general joyousness. Something was wrong,
she felt sure, and while she was cutting the leaves of the magazine, she
stole several glances in their direction. The little girl had an anxious
pucker of the brows sadly out of place in a face that had not yet
outgrown its baby innocence of expression. She looked so little and lorn
and troubled about something, that Miss Santa Claus made up her mind to
comfort her as soon as she had an opportunity. She knew better than to
ask for her confidence as the well-meaning lady had done earlier in the
day.

When she began to read, Will'm drew a long breath and stretched himself.
There was no use watching now when it was evident that she wasn't going
to do anything for awhile, and sitting still so long had made him
fidgety. He squirmed off the seat, and up into the next one,
unintentionally wiping his feet on Libby's dress as he did so. It
brought a sharp reproof from the overwrought Libby, and he answered back
in the same spirit.

Neither was conscious that their voices could be heard across the aisle
above the noise of the train. The little fur cap with the scarlet
feather bent over the magazine without the slightest change in posture,
but there was no more turning of pages. The piping, childish voices were
revealing a far more interesting story than the printed one the girl was
scanning. She heard her own name mentioned. They were disputing about
her.

Too restless to sit still, and with no way in which to give vent to his
all-consuming energy, Will'm was ripe for a squabble. It came very soon,
and out of many allusions to past and present, and dire threats as to
what might happen to him at the end of the journey if he didn't mend his
ways, the interested listener gathered the principal facts in their
history. The fuss ended in a shower of tears on Will'm's part, and the
consequent smudging of his face with his grimy little hands which wiped
them away, so that he had to be escorted once more behind the curtain to
the shining faucets and the basin with the chained-up hole at the
bottom.

When they came back Miss Santa Claus had put away her magazine and taken
out some fancy work. All she seemed to be doing was winding some red
yarn over a pencil, around and around and around. But presently she
stopped and tied two ends with a jerk, and went snip, snip with her
scissors, and there in her fingers was a soft fuzzy ball. When she had
snipped some more, and trimmed it all over, smooth and even, it looked
like a little red cherry. In almost no time she had two wool cherries
lying in her lap. She was just beginning the third when the big ball of
yarn slipped out of her fingers, and rolled across the aisle right under
Libby's feet. She sprang to pick it up and take it back.

"Thank you, dear," was all that Miss Santa Claus said, but such a smile
went with it, that Libby, smoothing her skirts over her knees as she
primly took her seat again, felt happier than she had since leaving the
Junction. It wasn't two minutes till the ball slipped and rolled away
again. This time Will'm picked it up, and she thanked him in the same
way. But very soon when both scissors and ball spilled out of her lap
and Libby politely brought her one and Will'm the other, she did not
take them.

"I wonder," she said, "if you children couldn't climb up here on the
seat with me and hold this old Jack and Jill of a ball and scissors.
Every time one falls down and almost breaks its crown, the other goes
tumbling after. I'm in such a hurry to get through. Couldn't you stay
and help me a few minutes?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Libby, primly and timidly, sitting down on the edge
of the opposite seat with the ball in her hands. Miss Santa Claus put an
arm around Will'm and drew him up on the seat beside her. "There," she
said. "You hold the scissors, Will'm, and when I'm through winding the
ball that Libby holds, I'll ask you to cut the yarn for me. Did you ever
see such scissors, Libby? They're made in the shape of a witch. See! She
sits upon the handles, and when the blades are closed they make the peak
of her long pointed cap. They came from the old witch town of Salem."

Libby darted a half-frightened look at her. She had called them both by
name! Had _she_ been listening down the chimney, too? And those witch
scissors! They looked as if they might be a charm to open all sorts of
secrets. Maybe she knew some charm to keep stepmothers from being cruel.
Oh, if she only dared to ask! Of course Libby knew that one mustn't
"pick up" with strangers and tell them things. Miss Sally had warned her
against that. But this was different. Miss Santa Claus was _more_ than
just a person.

If Pan were to come piping out of the woods, who, with any music in him,
would not respond with all his heart to the magic call? If Titania were
to beckon with her gracious wand, who would not be drawn into her
charmèd circle gladly? So it was these two little wayfarers heard the
call and swayed to the summons of one who not only shed the influence,
but shared the name of the wonderful Spirit of Yule.



CHAPTER V


WITH Libby to hold the ball and unwind the yarn as fast as it was
needed, and Will'm to cut it with the witch scissors every time Miss
Santa Claus said "snip!" it was not long before half a dozen little wool
cherries lay in her lap. Then they helped twist the yarn into cords on
which to tie the balls, and watched with eyes that never lost a movement
of her deft fingers, while she fastened the cords to the front of a red
crocheted jacket, which she took from her suitcase.

"There!" she exclaimed, holding it up for them to admire. "That is to go
in the stocking of a poor little fellow no larger than Will'm. He's lame
and has to stay in bed all the time, and he asked Santa Claus to bring
him something soft and warm to put on when he is propped up in bed to
look at his toys."

Out of a dry throat Libby at last brought up the question she had been
trying to find courage for.

"Is Santa Claus your father?"

"No, but father and Uncle Norse are so much like him that people often
get them all mixed up, just as they do twins, and since Uncle Santa has
grown so busy, he gets father to attend to a great deal of his business.
In fact our whole family has to help. He couldn't possibly get around to
everybody as he used to when the cities were smaller and fewer. Lately
he has been leaving more and more of his work to us. He's even taken to
adopting people into his family so that they can help him. In almost
every city in the world now, he has an adopted brother or sister or
relative of some sort, and sometimes children not much bigger than you,
ask to be counted as members of his family. It's so much fun to help."

Libby pondered over this news a moment before she asked another
question. "Then does he come to see them and tell them what to do?"

"No, indeed! Nobody ever _sees_ him. He just sends messages, something
like wireless telegrams. You know what they are?"

Libby shook her head. She had never heard of them. Miss Santa Claus
explained. "And his messages pop into your head just that way," she
added. "I was as busy as I could be one day, studying my Algebra lesson,
when all of a sudden, pop came the thought into my head that little
Jamie Fitch wanted a warm red jacket to wear when he sat up in bed, and
that Uncle Santa wanted me to make it. I went down town that very
afternoon and bought the wool, and I knew that I was not mistaken by the
way I felt afterward, so glad and warm and Christmasy. That's why all
his family love to help him. He gives them such a happy feeling while
they are doing it."

It was Will'm's turn now for a question. He asked it abruptly with a
complete change of base.

"Did you ever see a stepmother?"

"Yes, indeed! And Cousin Rosalie has one. She's Uncle Norse's wife. I've
just been visiting them."

"Has she got a tush?"

"A _what_?" was the astonished answer.

"He means tusk," explained Libby. "All the cruel ones have'm, Susie
Peters says."

"Sticking out this way, like a pig's," Will'm added eagerly, at the same
time pulling his lip down at one side to show a little white tooth in
the place where the dreadful fang would have grown, had he been the
cruel creature in question.

"Mercy, _no_!" was the horrified exclamation. "That kind live only in
fairy tales along with ogres and giants. Didn't you know that?"

Will'm shook his head. "Me an' Libby was afraid ours would be that way,
and if she is we're going to do something to her. We're going to shut
her up in a nawful dark cellar, or--or _something_."

Miss Santa looked grave. Here was a dreadful misunderstanding. Somebody
had poisoned these baby minds with suspicions and doubts which might
embitter their whole lives. If she had been only an ordinary fellow
passenger she might not have felt it her duty to set them straight. But
no descendant of the family of which she was a member, could come face
to face with such a wrong, without the impulse to make it right. It was
an impulse straight from the Sky Road. In the carol service in the
chapel, the night before she left school, the dean had spoken so
beautifully of the way they might all follow the Star, this
Christmastide, with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh, even if they
had no gold. Here was her opportunity, she thought, if she were only
wise enough to say the right thing!

Before she could think of a way to begin, a waiter came through the car,
sounding the first call for dinner. Time was flying. She'd have to
hurry, and make the most of it before the journey came to an end.
Putting the little crocheted jacket back into her suitcase and snapping
the clasps she stood up.

"Come on," she said, holding out a hand to each. "We'll go into the
dining-car and get something to eat."

Libby thought of the generous supper in the pasteboard box which they
had been told to eat as soon as it was dark, but she allowed herself to
be led down the aisle without a word. A higher power was in authority
now. She was as one drawn into a fairy ring.

Now at last, the ride on the Pullman blossomed into all that Will'm had
pictured it to be. There was the gleam of glass, the shine of silver,
the glow of shaded candles, and himself at one of the little tables,
while the train went flying through the night like a mighty winged
dragon, breathing smoke and fire as it flew.

Miss Santa Claus studied the printed card beside her plate a moment,
and then looked into her pocketbook before she wrote the order. She
smiled a little while she was writing it. She wanted to make this meal
one that they would always remember, and was sure that children who
lived at such a place as the Junction had never before eaten
strawberries on Christmas eve; a snow-covered Christmas eve at that. She
had been afraid for just a moment, when she first peeped into her purse,
that there wasn't enough left for her to get them.

No one had anything to say while the order was being filled. Will'm and
Libby were too busy looking at the people and things around them, and
their companion was too busy thinking about something she wanted to tell
them after awhile. Presently the steward passed their table, and Will'm
gave a little start of recognition, but he said nothing. It was the same
man whose locket he had found, and who had promised to tell Santa Claus
about him. Evidently he had told, for here was Will'm in full enjoyment
of what he had longed for. The man did not look at Will'm, however. He
was too busy attending to the wants of impatient grown people to notice
a quiet little boy who sat next the wall and made no demands.

[Illustration: It was about the Princess Ina]

Then the waiter came, balancing an enormous tray on one hand, high above
his head, and the children watched him with the breathless fascination
with which they would have watched a juggler play his tricks. It was a
simple supper, for Miss Santa Claus was still young enough to remember
what had been served to her in her nursery days, but it was crowned by a
dish of enormous strawberries, such as Will'm had seen in the
refrigerator of the car kitchen, but nowhere else. They never grew that
royal size at the Junction.

But what made the meal more than one of mortal enjoyment, and
transformed the earthly food into ambrosia of the gods, was that while
they sifted the powdered sugar over their berries, Miss Santa Claus
began to tell them a story. It was about the Princess Ina, who had
six brothers whom a wicked witch changed into swans. It was a very
interesting story, the way she told it, and more than once both Libby
and Will'm paused with their spoons half way from berries to mouth, the
better to listen. It was quite sad, too, for only once in twenty-four
hours, and then just for a few moments, could the princes shed their
swan-skins and be real brothers again. At these times they would fly
back to their sister Ina, and with tears in their eyes, beg her to help
them break the cruel charm.

At last she found a way, but it would be a hard way for her. She must go
alone, and in the fearsome murk of the gloaming, to a spot where wild
asters grow. The other name for them is star-flower. If she could pick
enough of these star-flowers to weave into a mantle for each brother,
which would cover him from wing-tip to wing-tip, then they would be free
from the spell as soon as it was thrown over them. But the flowers must
be gathered in silence. A single word spoken aloud would undo all her
work. And it would be a hard task, for the star-flowers grew only among
briars and weeds, and her hands would be scratched with thorns and stung
by nettles. Yet no matter how badly she was torn or blistered she must
not break her silence by one word of complaint.

Now the way Miss Santa told that story made you feel that it was _you_
and not the Princess Ina who was groping through the fearsome gloaming
after the magic flowers. Once Libby felt the scratch of the thorns so
plainly that she said "oo-oh" in a whisper, and looked down at her own
hands, half expecting to see blood on them. And Will'm forgot to eat
entirely, when it came to the time of weaving the last mantle, and there
wasn't quite enough material to piece it out to the last wing-tip. Still
there was enough to change the last swan back into a real brother again,
even if one arm never was quite as it should be; and when all six
brothers stood around their dear sister, weeping tears of joy at their
deliverance, Will'm's face shone as if he had just been delivered from
the same fate himself.

"Now," said Miss Santa Claus, when the waiter had brought the bill and
gone back for some change, "you must never, never forget that story as
long as you live. I've told it to you because it's a true charm that can
be used for many things. Aunt Ruth told it to me. She used it long ago,
when she wanted to change Rosalie into a real daughter, and I used it
once when I wanted to change a girl who was just a pretend friend, into
a real one. _And you are to use it to change your stepmother into a real
mother!_ I'll tell you how when we go back to our seats."

On the way back they stopped in the vestibule between the cars for a
breath of fresh air, and to look out on the snow-covered country, lying
white in the moonlight. The flakes were no longer falling.

"I see the Sky Road!" sang out Will'm in a happy sort of chant, pointing
up at the glittering milky way. "Pretty soon the drate big reindeer'll
come running down that road!"

"And the Christmas Angels," added Libby reverently, in a half whisper.

"And there's where the star-flowers grow," Miss Santa Claus chimed in,
as if she were singing. "Once there was a dear poet who called the stars
'the forget-me-nots of the angels.' I believe I'll tell you about them
right now, while we're out here where we can look up at them. Oh, I
wonder if I can make it plain enough for you to understand me!"

With an arm around each child's shoulder to steady them while they stood
there, rocking and swaying with the motion of the lurching train, she
began:

"It's this way. When you go home, probably there'll be lots of things
that you won't like, and that you won't want to do. Things that will
seem as disagreeable as Ina's task was to her. They won't scratch and
blister your hands, but they'll make you _feel_ all scratchy and hot
and cross. But if you go ahead as Ina did, without opening your lips to
complain, _it will be like picking a little white star-flower whose name
is obedience_. The more you pick of them the more you will have to weave
into your mantle. And sometimes you will see a chance to do something to
help her or to please her, without waiting to be asked. You may have to
stop playing to do it, and give up your own pleasure. That will scratch
your feelings some, _but doing it will be like picking a big golden
star-flower whose name is kindness_. And if you keep on doing this, day
after day as Ina did, with never a word of complaint, the time will come
when you have woven a big, beautiful mantle whose name is love. And when
it is big enough to reach from 'wing-tip to wing-tip' you'll find that
she has grown to be just like a real mother. Do you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," answered Libby solemnly. Will'm did not answer, but the
far-off look in his eyes showed that he was pondering over what she had
just told him.

"Now we must run along in," she said briskly. "It's cold out here."
Inside, she looked at her watch. It was after seven. Only a little more
than an hour, and the children would be at the end of their journey. Not
much longer than that and she would reach hers. It had been a tiresome
day for both Libby and Will'm. Although their eyes shone with the
excitement of it, the Sandman was not far away. It was their regular
bedtime, and they were yawning. At a word from Miss Santa Claus the
porter brought pillows and blankets. She made up a bed for each on
opposite seats and tucked them snugly in.

"Now," she said, bending over them, "You'll have time for a nice long
nap before your father comes to take you off. But before you go to
sleep, I want to tell you one more thing that you must remember forever.
_You must always get the right kind of start._ It's like hooking up a
dress, you know. If you start crooked it will keep on being crooked all
the way down to the bottom, unless you undo it and begin over. So if I
were you, I'd begin to work that star-flower charm the first thing in
the morning. Remember you can work it on anybody if you try hard enough.
And remember that it is _true_, just as true as it is that you're each
going to have a Christmas stocking!"

She stooped over each in turn and kissed their eyelids down with a soft
touch of her smiling lips that made Libby thrill for days afterward,
whenever she thought of it. It seemed as if some royal spell had been
laid upon them with those kisses; some spell to close their eyes to
nettles and briars, and help them to see only the star-flowers.

In less than five minutes both Libby and Will'm were sound asleep, and
the porter was carrying the holly wreaths and the red coat and the
suitcase back to the state-room which had been vacated at the last
stopping place. In two minutes more Miss Santa Claus had emptied her
suitcase out on the seat beside her, and was scrabbling over the
contents in wild haste. For no sooner had she mentioned stockings to the
children than pop had come one of those messages straight from the Sky
Road, which could not be disregarded. Knowing that she would be on the
train with the two children from the Junction, Santa Claus was leaving
it to her to provide stockings for them.

It worried her at first, for she couldn't see her way clear to doing it
on such short notice and in such limited quarters. But she had never
failed him since he had first allowed her the pleasure of helping him,
and she didn't intend to now. Her mind had to work as fast as her
fingers. There wasn't a single thing among her belongings that she could
make stockings of, unless--she sighed as she picked it up and shook out
the folds of the prettiest kimono she had ever owned. It was the softest
possible shade of gray with white cherry blossoms scattered over it, and
it was bordered in wide bands of satin the exact color of a shining
ripe red cherry. There was nothing else for it, the lovely kimono must
be shorn of its glory, at least on one side. Maybe she could split what
was left on the other side, and reborder it all with narrower bands. But
even if she couldn't, she must take it. The train was leaping on through
the night. There was no time to spare.

Snip! Snip! went the witch scissors, and the long strip of cherry satin
was loose in her hands. Twenty minutes later two bright red stockings
lay on the seat in front of her, bordered with silver tinsel. She had
run the seams hastily with white thread, all she had with her, but the
stitches did not show, being on the inside. Even if they had pulled
themselves into view in places, all defects in sewing were hidden by the
tinsel with which the stockings were bordered. She had unwound it from a
wand which she was carrying home with several other favors from the
german of the night before. The wand was so long that it went into her
suitcase only by laying it in diagonally. It had been wrapped around
and around with yards of tinsel, tipped with a silver-gauze butterfly.

While she stitched she tried to think of something to put into the
stockings. Her only hope was in the trainboy, and she sent the porter to
bring him. But when he came he had little to offer. As it was Christmas
eve everybody had wanted his wares and he was nearly sold out. Not a
nut, not an apple, not even a package of chewing gum could he produce.
But he did have somewhere among his things, he said, two little toy
lanterns, with red glass sides, filled with small mixed candies, and he
had several oranges left. Earlier in the day he had had small glass
pistols filled with candy. He departed to get the stock still on hand.

When the lanterns proved to be miniature conductor's lanterns Miss Santa
Claus could have clapped her hands with satisfaction. Children who
played train so much would be delighted with them. She thrust one into
each stocking with an orange on top. They just filled the legs, but
there was a dismal limpness of foot which sadly betrayed its emptiness.
With another glance at her watch Miss Santa Claus hurried back to the
dining-car. The tables were nearly empty, and she found the steward by
the door. She showed him the stockings and implored him to think of
something to help fill them. Hadn't he nuts, raisins, _anything_, even
little cakes, that she could get in a hurry?

He suggested salted almonds and after-dinner mints, and sent a waiter
flying down the aisle to get some. While she waited she explained that
they were for two children who had come by themselves all the way from
the Junction. It was little Will'm's first ride on a Pullman. The words
"Junction" and "Will'm" seemed to recall something to the steward.

"I wonder if it could be the same little chap who found my locket," he
said. "I took his name intending to send him something Christmas, but
was so busy I never thought of it again."

The waiter was back with the nuts and mints. Miss Santa Claus paid for
them, and hurriedly returned to the state-room. She had to search
through her things again to find some tissue paper to wrap the salted
almonds in. They'd spoil the red satin if put in without covering. While
she was doing it the steward came to the door.

"I beg pardon, Miss," he said. "But would you mind showing me the little
fellow? If it _is_ the same one, I'd like to leave him a small trick
I've got here."

She pointed down the aisle to the seat where Will'm lay sound asleep,
one dimpled fist cuddled under his soft chin. After a moment's smiling
survey the man came back.

"That's the kid all right," he told her. "And he seemed to be so
powerful fond of anything that has to do with a train, I thought it
would please him to find this in his stocking."

He handed her a small-sized conductor's punch. "I use it to keep tally
on the order cards," he explained, "but I won't need it on the rest of
this run."

"How lovely!" exclaimed Miss Santa Claus. "I know he'll be delighted,
and I'm much obliged to you myself, for helping me make his stocking
fuller and nicer."

She opened the magazine after he had gone, and just to try the punch
closed it down on one of the leaves. Clip, it went, and the next instant
she uttered a soft little cry of pleasure. The clean-cut hole that the
punch had made in the margin was star shaped, and on her lap, where it
had fallen from the punch, was a tiny white paper star.

"Oh, it will help him to remember the charm!" she whispered, her eyes
shining with the happy thought. "If I only had some kind of a reminder
for Libby, too!"

Then, all of a sudden came another message, straight from the Sky Road!
She could give Libby the little gold ring which had fallen to her lot
the night before in her slice of the birthday cake. There had been a
ring, a thimble and a dime in the cake, and she had drawn the ring. It
was so small, just a child's size, that she couldn't wear it, but she
was taking it home to put in her memory book. It had been such a
beautiful evening that she wanted to mark it with that little golden
circlet, although of course it wasn't possible for her to forget such a
lovely time, even in centuries. And Libby _might_ forget about the
star-flowers unless she had a daily reminder.

She held it in her hand a moment, hesitating, till the message came
again, "_Send it!_" Then there was no longer any indecision. When she
shut it in its little box, and stuffed the box down past the lantern and
the orange and the nuts and the peppermints into the very toe, such a
warm, glad Christmasy feeling sent its glow through her, that she knew
past all doubting she had interpreted the Sky Road message aright.

Many of the passengers had left the car by this time, and the greater
number of those who remained were nodding uncomfortably in their seats.
But those who happened to be awake and alert saw a picture they never
forgot, when a lovely young girl, her face alight with the joy of
Christmas love and giving, stole down the aisle and silently fastened
something on the back of the seat above each little sleeper. It was a
stocking, red and shining as a cherry, and silver-bordered with
glistening fairy fringe.

When they looked again she had disappeared, but the stockings still hung
there, tokens which were to prove to those same little sleepers on their
awakening that the star-flower charm is true. For love indeed works
miracles, and every message from the Sky Road is but an echo of the one
the Christmas angels sang when first they came along that shining
highway, the heralds of good-will and peace to all the earth.



CHAPTER VI


CHRISTMAS morning when Will'm awoke, he was as bewildered as if he had
opened his eyes in a new world. He was in a little white bed, such as he
had never seen before, and the blankets were blue, with a border of
white bunnies around each one. Between him and the rest of the room was
a folding screen, like a giant picture-book cover, showing everybody in
Mother Goose's whole family. He lay staring at it awhile, and when he
recognized Tommy Tucker and Simple Simon and Mother Hubbard's dog, he
didn't feel quite so lost and strange as he did at first.

Always at the Junction he had to lie still until Uncle Neal made the
fire and the room was warm; but here it was already warm, and he could
hear steam hissing somewhere. It seemed to be coming from the gilt
pipes under the window. Wondering what was on the other side of the
screen, he slid out from under the bunny blankets and peeped cautiously
around the wall of Mother Goose pictures. It was Libby on the other side
in another little white bed just like his. With one spring he pounced up
on top of it, and squirmed in beside her.

The first moment of Libby's awakening was as bewildering as Will'm's had
been. Then she began to have a confused recollection of the night
before. She remembered being lifted from the pillow on the car seat, and
hugged and kissed, and having her limp, sleepy arms thrust into elusive
coat sleeves. Somebody held her hand and hurried her down the aisle
after her father, who was carrying Will'm, because he was so sound
asleep that they couldn't even put his overcoat on him. It was just
wrapped around him. Then she remembered jolting across the city in an
omnibus, with her head on a muff in a lady's lap, and of leaning against
that same lady afterwards while her clothes were being unbuttoned, and
her eyelids kept falling shut. She had never been so sleepy in her whole
life, that she could remember.

Suddenly she sat straight up in bed and stared at something hanging on
the post of the low footboard; a Christmas stocking all red and silver,
and for her! Even from where she was she could read the name that Miss
Santa Claus had printed in big letters on the scrap of paper pinned to
it: "LIBBY."

Only those who have thrilled with that same speechless rapture can know
a tithe of the bliss which filled Libby's soul, as she seized it, her
first Christmas stocking, and began to explore it with fingers trembling
in their eagerness. When down in the very toe she found the "little
shiny gold ring like Maudie Peters's," all she had breath for was a long
indrawn "Aw-aw-aw!" of ecstasy.

"Oh, Will'm!" she exclaimed, when she could find speech, "aren't you
glad we bleeved?"

"But I aren't got any stocking," he said gloomily, eyeing her enviously
while she slipped the ring on her finger and waved her hand around to
admire the effect.

"But you got all you asked for: the ride on the cars," she reminded him
cheerfully. "Did you look on your post to see if there was anything?"
No, he had not looked, and at the suggestion he sprang out of Libby's
bed like a furry white kitten in his little teazledown nightdrawers made
with feet to them, and knelt on top of his own bunny blankets.

"Oh, Libby! There _is_ one. There _is_!" he cried excitedly. "It slipped
around to the back of the post where I couldn't see it before. There's
an orange and a lantern just like yours, and what's this? Oh, _look_!"

The awesome joy of his voice made Libby join him on the other side of
the Mother Goose screen, and she snatched the little punch from him
almost as eagerly as he had snatched it from the stocking, to try it on
the slip of paper which bore the name "WILL'M," pinned across the toe.
They had watched the conductor using his the previous day, and had each
wished for one to use in playing their favorite game. Clip, it went, and
their heads bumped together in their eagerness to see the result. There
in the paper was a clear-cut hole in the shape of a tiny star, and on
the blanket where it had fallen from the hole, was the star itself. The
punch which the conductor had used made round holes. This was a thousand
times nicer.

[Illustration: The shower of stars falling on the blanket made her think
of the star-flower]

Up till this moment, in the bewilderment of finding themselves in their
new surroundings, the children had forgotten all about Miss Santa Claus
and her story of Ina and the swans. But now Libby looked up, as Will'm
snatched back the punch and began clipping holes in the paper as fast as
he could clip. The shower of stars falling on the blanket made her think
of the star-flower charm, which they had been advised to begin using
first thing in the morning. Immediately Libby retired to her side of
the screen and began to dress.

"Don't you know," she reminded Will'm, "she said that we must be
particular to start right. It's like hooking up a dress. If you start
crooked, everything will keep on being crooked all the way down. I'm
going to get started right, for I've found it's just as easy to be good
as it is to be bad when you once get used to trying."

Will'm wasn't paying attention. He had punched the slip of paper so full
of holes it wouldn't hold another one, and now he tried the punch on the
edge of one of the soft blankets, just to see if it would make a blue
star drop out. But the punch didn't cut blankets as evenly as it did
paper. Only a snip of wool came loose and stuck in the punch, and the
hole almost closed up afterward when he picked at it a little. He didn't
show it to Libby.

That is the last he thought of the charm that day, for their father put
his head in at the door to call "Merry Christmas," and say that he'd be
in in a few minutes to help him into his clothes, and that their mother
would come too to tie Libby's hair-ribbons and hurry things along,
because they must hustle down to breakfast to see the grand surprise she
had for them.

Then Will'm hurried so fast that he was in his clothes by the time his
father came in; he had even washed his own face and hands after a
fashion, and there was nothing to be done for him but to brush his hair,
and while his father was doing that, he talked and joked in such an
entertaining way that Will'm did not feel at all strange with him as he
had expected to do. But he felt strange when presently his father
exclaimed, "_Here's_ mother," and somebody put her arms around him and
kissed him and wished him a Merry Christmas, and then did the same to
Libby.

She looked so smiling and home-like that she seemed more like Miss Sally
Watts or somebody they had known at the Junction than a stepmother. If
Will'm hadn't known that she was one, and that he was expected to love
her, he would have liked her right away, almost as much as he did Miss
Sally. But he felt shy and uncomfortable, and he didn't know what to
call her. The name "mama" did not belong to her. It never could. That
belonged to the beautiful picture hanging on the wall where it could be
seen from both little beds, last thing at night and first thing in the
morning. They had had a smaller picture just like it at the Junction,
but this was more beautiful because it showed the soft pink in her
cheeks and the blue in her smiling eyes, and the other was only a
photograph. Will'm knew as well as Libby did that the reason their
father had kept talking about "your mother" all the time he was brushing
his hair, was because he wanted them to call her that. But he
_couldn't_! He didn't know her well enough. He felt that it would choke
him to call her anything but _She_ or _Her_.

While his father carried him down to breakfast pick-a-back, _She_ led
Libby by the hand, and told about finding the stockings pinned to the
car seats, and about a beautiful girl who suddenly appeared beside her
in the aisle, and asked her to be sure to hang them where the children
could find them first thing in the morning. Santa Claus had asked her to
be sure that they got them. She had on a long red coat and a little fur
cap with a red feather in it. There wasn't any time to ask her
questions, for while they were trying to waken the children and hurry
them off the train which stopped such a few minutes, she just smiled and
vanished.

Libby and Will'm looked at each other and said in the same breath, "Miss
Santa Claus!" Libby would have gone on to explain who she was, but they
had reached the dining-room door, and there in the center of the
breakfast table stood a Christmas tree, tipped with shining tapers and
every branch a-bloom with the wonderful fruitage of Yuletide. It was the
first one they had ever seen, all lighted and glistening, so it is no
wonder that its glories drove everything else out of their thoughts.
There was a tricycle for Will'm waiting beside his chair, with a card on
it that said "With love from father and mother." And in Libby's chair
with the same kind of a card was a doll, with not only real hair, but
real eyelashes, and a trunk full of the most beautiful clothes that
_She_ had made.

As it was a holiday their father could give his entire time to making
them forget that they were miles and miles from Grandma Neal and the
Junction. So what with the snow fort in the yard, and a big Christmas
dinner and a long sleighride afterward, they were whirled from one
exciting thing to another, till nightfall. Even then there was no time
to grow lonely, for their father sat in the firelight, a child on each
knee, holding them close while _She_ played on the piano, soft sweet
lullabies so alluring that the Sandman himself had to steal out to
listen.

It was different next morning when their father had to go back to the
office, but the "hooking up" started out all right for Libby. She
remembered it while she was washing her hands, and saw the gleam of the
little new ring on her finger. So her first shy question when they were
left alone with _Her_, was: "Don't you want me to do something?"

The desire to please was so evident that the answer was accompanied by a
quick hug which held her close for a moment.

"Yes, dear, if you can just play with your little brother and keep him
contented awhile, it will be more help than anything."

Libby skipped promptly away to do her bidding. She knew that Will'm
would want to go thundering up and down the back hall in his tricycle,
playing train with the lantern and the punch. She would far rather
devote her time to the new doll, for she hadn't yet tried on half its
wardrobe. But Miss Santa Claus's words came back to her very clearly:
"_It will be like picking a little white flower whose name is
obedience!_" Feeling that she was following in the footsteps of the
Princess Ina, she threw herself into the game of Railroad Train until
Will'm found it more thrilling than it had ever been before.

Later in the morning they trundled the tricycle out into the back yard,
to ride up and down the long brick pavement which led to the alley gate.
The snow had been swept off and the bricks were dry and clean. They took
turns riding. The tricycle was the engine, and the one whose turn it was
to go on foot ran along behind, personating the train.

They had been at this sport some time, when they suddenly became aware
that some one was watching them. A small boy with curious bulging eyes,
and a mouth open like a round O was peeking in at them, between the
pickets of the alley gate. He was a boy two years bigger and older than
Will'm, but he was unkempt looking, and his stockings wrinkled down over
his shoe-tops, and there was a ring of molasses or jam or something
around his mouth.

The discovery dampened their zest in the game somewhat. It made Will'm,
who had never played with any one but Libby, a trifle self-conscious. He
stopped letting off steam with his lips, and wheeling around, trundled
back to the house in silence. Libby, too, was disconcerted. Her
car-wheels failed her. She trailed back in his wake a little girl,
instead of a noisy train. Yet the discovery did not stop the game
altogether. At the kitchen steps they turned as they had been doing all
along and bravely started towards the alley again. This time the gate
opened and the dirty little boy came in. It was Benjy, known to all the
neighborhood, if not to them, for he wandered around it like a stray
cat. Wherever he saw a door ajar he entered, and stayed until something
attracted his attention elsewhere. He went home only when he was sent
for. If nothing of interest pulled him the other way he went
unresistingly, if not he was dragged. Wherever he happened to be at
mealtime, he stayed, whether he was invited or not. There was something
almost spooky in Benjy's sudden appearances, and in his all-devouring
curiosity. It wasn't the childish normal kind that asks questions. It
was the gaping, uncanny kind that silently peers over into your open
pocketbook, or stands looking into your mouth while you talk.

Older people disliked him because he would leave his play to stand in
front of them and gape and listen, and he was always grubby and
unbuttoned. Although he was six years old it was no concern of his that
his stockings were always turning down over his shoe tops. If the public
preferred to see them smooth then the public must attend to his
gartersnaps.

The tricycle having reached the end of the walk, came to a halt. Benjy
opened the gate, walked in and took possession. It was from no sense of
fear that Will'm climbed down and let Benjy assume control. It was
simply that a new force had come into his life, a strangely fascinating
one. He had never had anything to do with boys before, and this one,
bigger than himself, dominated him from the start. He found it much more
thrilling to follow his lead than his sister's. After a few futile
attempts to keep on with the game, Libby fell out of it. Not that Benjy
objected to her. He simply ignored her, and Will'm took his cue from
him. So she sat on the kitchen steps and watched them, till she felt
cold and went into the house.

The coming of Benjy left Libby free to turn to her own affairs, but
somehow she could not do it with quite the same zest, feeling that she
had been shouldered out of Will'm's game by an interloper. She
thoroughly disapproved of Benjy from the first glance. He was a trial to
her orderly little soul, and his lack of neatness added to her
resentment at being ignored. When Will'm was called in out of the cold
later in the afternoon, Benjy followed as a matter of course. Several
times she fell upon him and yanked him into shape with masterful
touches which left him as neatly geared together as Will'm always was.
But by the time he had squirmed out of her hands his gartersnaps were
out of a job again, and his waist and little trousers were parting
company at the belt.

All that day he stayed on, till he was dragged home at dusk like a lump
of dough. He didn't resist when the maid came for him. He simply relaxed
and left all the exertion of getting home entirely to her. When the door
closed behind him Libby drew a long breath of relief as if she had been
seven and twenty instead of just seven. He hadn't _done_ anything, but
his wild suggestions had kept Will'm on the verge of doing things all
day. He was in the act of prying the seat off his new tricycle by
Benjy's orders when she went in and stopped him, and she went into the
nursery just in time to keep him from doing some unheard-of thing to the
radiator, so that it would blow off steam like a real engine.

Will'm had always been such a sensible child, with a conscience of his
own about injuring things, that she couldn't understand why all of a
sudden he should be possessed to do a hundred things that he ought not
to do. It was a relief to find that the spell lifted with Benjy's
removal. He came and cuddled down beside her in the big armchair before
the fire, waiting for supper time to come, and somehow she felt that she
had her own little brother again. He had seemed like a stranger all day.
But her exile from his company had not been without its compensations.

"I can play 'Three Blind Mice! See how they run!'" she told him as they
rocked back and forth. "_She_ taught me. She came in while I was
touching the keys just as easy, so they hardly made a sound, and asked
me did I want to learn to play on them. And I said oh, yes, more than
anything in the world. And she said that was exactly the way she used to
feel when she was a little girl like me, living at the Junction. She
wore her hair in little braids like mine and tiptoed around like a
little mouse when she was in strange places, and sometimes when she
looked at me she could almost believe it was her own little self come
back again. Then she showed me how to make my fingers run down the keys
just like the three mice did. She's going to teach me more every day
till I can play it for father some night. But you must cross your heart
and body not to tell 'cause I want to s'prise him."

Will'm crossed as directed, and stood by much impressed when Libby
climbed up on the piano-stool and played the seven notes which she had
learned, over and over: "Three blind mice! See how they run!"

"To-morrow she's going to show me as far as 'They all took after the
farmer's wife.' I wish it was to-morrow right now!"

She gave an eager little wiggle that sent her slipping off the stool.
"Oh, I _like_ it here, now," she exclaimed, reseating herself and
beginning an untiring reiteration of the seven notes.

"So do I--some," answered Will'm. "I like it 'count of Benjy. But I
don't like to hear so much blind mice. You make 'm run too long." Libby
felt vaguely aggrieved by his criticism, but her pleasure in her own
performance was something too great to forego.

Next morning while they were dressing, the door opened silently and
Benjy appeared on Will'm's side of the screen. He came so noiselessly
that it gave Libby a start when later on she was made aware of his
presence. His host, equally wordless, was struggling with a little
union-suit of woolen underwear. He was wordless because he was so busily
occupied trying to get into it, and the unexpected entrance made him
still more anxious to cover himself. Grandma Neal had always helped him
with it, but he had valiantly fought off all offers of help since coming
to his new home. This morning, slightly bothered by the presence of his
self-invited guest, he got it so twisted that no matter how he turned
it, one leg and one sleeve were always wrong side out.

Benjy, watching with his curious bulging eyes, and his mouth making a
round open O, was of no more help than one of those heathen idols, who
having eyes, see not, and having hands, handle not. But he finally made
a suggestion. He was eager to begin playing.

"Aw, leave 'm go. Don't try to put 'em on."

It was this unexpected remark in a voice, not her brother's, which made
Libby drop her button-hook, on the other side of the screen.

"But I'll be cold," objected Will'm, staring at the strip of wintry
landscape which showed through his window.

"Naw, you won't," was the confident answer. "Your outside clothes are
thick."

"But I never have left them off," said Will'm, ready to cry over the
exasperating tangle of legs and sleeves.

Libby, all dressed but buttoning her shoes, heard Will'm being thus
tempted of the Evil One, and peeping around the giant picture-book
cover, discovered him standing in nothing but his tiny knee breeches,
preparing to slip his Russian blouse of blue serge over his bare back.

"Why, Will'm Branfield! Stop this minute and put on your underclothes!"
she demanded. Then growing desperate as her repeated commands were not
obeyed, she called threateningly, "If you don't put them on this minute
I'll tell on you."

"Huh! Who'll you tell?" jeered Benjy. "Mr. Bramfeel's down cellar,
talkin' to the furnace man, and Will'm doesn't have to mind _Her_. She
ain't his mother."

The question gave Libby pause. Not that it left her undecided about
telling, but it reminded her that she had no title to give "Her," when
she called for help. It was like trying to open a door that had no knob,
to call into space without having any handle of a name to take hold of
first. There was no time to lose. Will'm was buttoning himself up in
his blouse.

Libby hurried to the top of the stairs and called: "Sa-ay!" There was no
answer, so she called again, "Sa-ay!" Then at the top of her voice,
"Say! Will'm's leaving off his flannels. Please come and make him
behave!"

The next instant her heart began to beat violently, and she waited in
terror to see what was going to happen. She wished passionately that she
had not told. Suppose she had brought down some cruel punishment on her
little brother! Her first impulse had been to array herself on the side
of law and order, but her second was to spread her wings like an old hen
in defense of its only chick.

When _She_ came into the room Will'm was backed up defiantly against the
wall. She looked so pleasant and smiling as she bent over him in her
pretty morning gown, that it took the courage out of him. If she had
been cross he could have fought her. But she just stood there looking
so big and capable and calm, taking it for granted that he would put on
his flannels as soon as she had untwisted the funny knot they were in,
that there wasn't anything to do _but_ obey. Will'm was a reasonable
child, and if they had been alone that would have been the last of the
matter. But he resented being made to mind before his company, and he
resented her saying to him, "Better run on home, Benjy."

She might as well have told an oyster to run on home. He gave no sign of
having heard her, and when the children went down to breakfast, he
calmly went with them. He had had his, and would not sit down, but stood
leaning against the table, pushing the cloth awry, watching every
mouthful everybody swallowed, until Libby saw her father make a queer
face. He said something to _Her_ in long syllabled words, so long that
only grown people could understand. And she laughed and answered that
even disagreeable things might prove to be blessings in disguise, if
they helped others to take root in strange places.

Benjy was dragged home again before lunch, but returned immediately
after, still chewing, and bearing traces of it on both face and fingers.
In the interval of his absence, "Mis' Bramfeel" as he called her, had
occasion to go up-stairs. On a certain step of the stairway when her
eyes were on a level with the nursery floor, she saw through its open
door, something white, stuffed away back under the bureau on Will'm's
side of the room. Wondering what it could be, she went in and poked it
out with a cane which the boys had been playing with. To her amazement
the bundle proved to be Will'm's little white union-suit. Again Libby
waited with beating heart and clasped hands while he was called in and
buttoned firmly into it. _She_ forbade him sternly not to take it off
again till bedtime, but nothing else happened, and Libby breathed freely
once more. Grandma Neal would have spanked him she thought. Will'm
needed spanking now and then if one could only be sure that it wouldn't
be done too hard.

Mr. Branfield did not come home till late that night. He was called out
of town on business. As soon as the telephone message came, _She_ gave
the cook a holiday, and told Libby she was going to get supper herself.
Libby could choose whatever she and Will'm liked best, and they'd
surprise him with it after Benjy had been dragged home. So Libby chose,
and was left to keep house while _She_ hurried down to the only place in
town where she was sure of getting what Libby had chosen, and carried it
home herself, and cooked it just as they used to cook them at the
Junction when she was a little girl and lived there years ago. And Libby
had the best time helping. As she followed _Her_ about the kitchen she
thought of the things she intended to tell Maudie Peters the first time
they went back to the Junction to visit.

_She_ and Libby talked a great deal about that prospective visit, for
_She_ had made playhouses under the same old thorn-tree by the brook
where Libby's last one was. And she had coasted down Clifford hill many
a time, and she had even sat in the third seat from the front in the row
next to the western wall, one whole term of school. That was Libby's own
seat. No wonder she knew just how Libby felt about everything when she
could remember so many experiences that were like this little girl's who
followed her back and forth from table to stove, bringing up all her own
childhood before her.

Will'm sniffed expectantly as he climbed up to the supper table. A
delicious and a beloved odor had reached him. He smiled like a full moon
when his plate was put in front of him, and his spoon went hurriedly up
to his mouth. "Oh, rabbit _dravy_!" he sighed ecstatically.

_She_ had gone back to the kitchen for something else, and Libby took
occasion to say reprovingly, "Yes, and _She_ went a long, long way to
get that rabbit, just because I told her you love 'm so. And _She_
cooked it herself and burned her hand a-doing it. _She_ was gathering a
star-flower for you, even if you have been bad and forgot what Miss
Santa Claus told you!"

When _She_ came back with the rest of the supper, Will'm stole a glance
at her hands. Sure enough, one was bound up in a handkerchief. It had
not been blistered by nettles, but it had been blistered for him.
Hastily swallowing what was in his spoon, he slid down from the table.

"Why, what's the matter, dear?" she asked in surprise. "Don't you like
it after all?"

He cast one furtive, abashed look at her as he sidled towards the door.
There was confession in that look, and penitence and a sturdy resolve to
make what atonement he could. Then from the hall he called back the
rather enigmatical answer, "I haven't _got_ 'em on, but I'm going to
_put_ 'em on!" And the "rabbit dravy" waited while he clattered up the
stairs to wriggle out of his suit and into the flannels, which Benjy's
jeers had made him discard just before supper, for the third time that
day.



CHAPTER VII


IN the story it was six long years before the Princess Ina completed her
task, but less than a week went by before Libby was convinced that the
charm was a potent one, and that Miss Santa Claus had spoken truly. But
there was one thing she could not understand. In the story, one found
the star-flowers only among nettles and briars, and gathered them to the
accompaniment of scratches and stings. Yet she was finding it not only a
pleasure to obey this new authority but a tingling happiness to do
anything for her which would call forth some smile of approval or a
caress.

Still, she saw that the story way was the true way in Will'm's case, for
so many things that he was told to do, made him feel all "cross and
scratchy and hot." They interfered with his play or clashed with the
ideas he imbibed from Benjy. Some of Benjy's ideas were as "catching"
and distorting as the mumps.

The conductor's punch did not long continue to be the daily reminder to
Will'm that Libby's ring was to her, for it mysteriously disappeared one
day, and was lost for months. It disappeared the very day that a row of
little star-shaped holes was found along the edge of the expensive
Holland window-shade in the front window of the parlor. Benjy had
suggested punching them. He wanted a lot of little stars to paste all
over their shoes. Why he wanted them nobody but he could understand.

But the punch served its purpose, for the Holland shade was not taken
down on account of the holes, and whenever the row of little stars met
Molly Branfield's eyes, they reminded her of the day when Libby threw
herself into her arms, calling her "Mother" for the first time, and
sobbing out the story of Ina and the swans. Distressed by Will'm's
wickedness, Libby begged her not to stop loving him even if he did keep
on being naughty, and to try the charm on him which would change him
into a real little son. Many a time in the months which followed, the
row of little holes brought a smile of tolerant tenderness, when she was
puzzling over ways to deal with the stubbornness of the small boy who
resented her authority. She knew that it was not because he was bad that
he resented it, but because, as Libby suggested, he had "started out
wrong in his hooking-up." Many a time Libby was moved to say mournfully,
"Oh, if he'd just remembered what Miss Santa Claus told him, this never
would have happened!"

It was not every day, however, that this crookedness was apparent. Often
from daylight till dark he went happily from one thing to another,
without a single incident to mar the peacefulness of the hours. He liked
the new home with its banisters to slide down, and its many windows
looking out on streets where something interesting was always
happening. He liked to water the flowers in the dining-room windows. It
made him feel that he was helping make a spot of summertime in the
world, when all out of doors was white with snow. One of the pots of
flowers was his, a rose-geranium. Even before the wee buds began to
swell, it was a thing of joy, for he had only to rub his fingers over a
leaf to make it send forth a smell so good that one longed to eat it.

He liked the race down the hall every evening trying to beat Libby to
the door to open it for their father. Now that he was acquainted with
him again, it seemed the very nicest thing in the world to have a big
jolly father who could swing him up on his shoulder and play circus
tricks with him just like an acrobat, and who knew fully as much as the
president of the United States.

And Will'm liked the time which often came before that race down the
hall--the wait in the firelight, while _She_ played on the piano and he
and Libby sang with her. There was one song about the farmer feeding
his flocks, "with a quack, quack here, and a gobble, gobble there," that
he liked especially. Whenever they came to the chorus of the flocks and
the herds it was such fun to make all the barnyard noises. Sometimes
with their lusty mooing and lowing the noise would be so great that they
would fail to hear the latchkey turn in the door, and first thing they
knew there their father would be in the room mooing with them, in a deep
voice that thrilled them like a bass drum.

Libby entered school after the holidays, and Benjy started back on his
second half-year, but he did not go regularly. Many a day when he should
have been in his classes, he was playing War in the Branfield attic, or
Circus in the nursery. It was always on those days that the crookedness
of Will'm was more manifest, and for that reason, a great effort was
made periodically to get rid of Benjy. But it seemed a hopeless task. He
might be set bodily out of doors and told to go home, but even locks
and bolts could not keep him out. He oozed in again somewhere, just
like smoke. Repeated telephone messages to his mother had no effect. She
seemed as indifferent to his being a nuisance to the neighbors as he was
to his gartersnaps being unfastened. Several times, thinking to escape
him when he had announced his intention the night before of coming
early, Mrs. Branfield took Will'm down town with her, shopping. But he
trailed them around the streets just like a little dog till he found
them, and attached himself as joyously as if they had whistled to him.
And he looked even worse than an unwashed, uncombed little terrier, for
he was always unbuttoned and ungartered besides.

Upon these appearances, Will'm, who a moment before had been the most
interested and interesting of companions, pointing at the shop windows
and asking questions in a high, happy little voice, would pull loose
from his companion's hand and fall back beside Benjy. The worst of it
was that the unwelcome visitor rarely did anything that could be
pointed out to Will'm as an offense. It was simply that his presence had
a subtle, moving quality like yeast, which started fermentation in the
Branfield household whenever he dropped into it.

Fortunately, when summer came, Benjy's mother departed to the seashore,
taking him with her, and Will'm made the acquaintance of the children on
the next block. There were several boys his own size who swarmed in the
Branfield yard continually. He had a tent for one thing, which was an
unusual attraction, and a slide. Up to a reasonable point he had access
to a cooky jar and an apple barrel. Often, little tarts found their way
to the tent on mornings when "the gang" proposed playing elsewhere, and
often the long hot afternoons were livened with pitchers of lemonade in
which ice clinked invitingly; a nice big chunk apiece, which lasted till
the lemonade was gone, and could be used afterward in a sort of game.
You dropped them on the ground to see who could pick his up and hold it
the longest with his bare toes.

Will'm had a birthday about this time, with five candles on his cake and
five boys, besides Libby, to share the feast. He loved all these things.
He was proud of having treats to offer the boys which they could not
find in any other yard on that street, and in time he began to love the
hand which dealt them out. He might have done so sooner if Libby had not
been so aggravating about it. She always took occasion to tell him
afterward that such kindnesses were the little golden star-flowers
mother was gathering for him, and that he ought to be ashamed to do even
the littlest thing she told him not to, when she was so good to him.

Unfortunately Libby had overheard her mother speak of her as a real
little comfort in the way she tried to uphold her authority and help her
manage Will'm. The remark made her doubly zealous and her efforts, in
consequence, doubly offensive to Will'm. He was learning early that a
saint is one of the most exasperating people in the world to live with.
Even when they don't _say_ anything, they can make you feel the contrast
sometimes so strongly that you _want_ to be bad on purpose, just because
they are the way they are.

Libby's little ring still turned her waking thoughts in the direction of
Ina and the swans, and her morning remarks usually pointed the same way.
The cherry-red stocking with its tinsel fringe hung from the side of her
mirror, the most cherished ornament in the room, and a daily reminder of
Miss Santa Claus, who was forever enshrined in her little heart as one
of the dearest memories of her life. She felt that she owed everything
to Miss Santa Claus. But for her she might have started out crooked, and
might never have found her way to the mother-love which had grown to be
such a precious thing to her that she could not bear for Will'm not to
share it fully with her.

He learned to fight that summer, and nothing made him quite so furious
as to have Libby interfere when he had some boy down, and by sheer
force of will it seemed, since her three years' advantage in age gave
her little in strength, pull him off his adversary, flapping and
scratching like a little game-cock. Sometimes it made him so angry that
he wanted to tear her in pieces. The worst of it was, that _She_ always
took Libby's part on such occasions, and never seemed to understand that
it was necessary for him to do these things. She always looked so sorry
and worried when he was dragged into the house, roaring and resentful.

Gradually as summer wore on into the autumn, it began to make him feel
uncomfortable when he saw that sorry, worried look. It hurt him worse
than when she sent him to his room or tied him to the table leg for
punishment. And one night when he had openly defied her and been
impudent, she did not say anything, but she did not kiss him good-night
as usual. That hurt him worst of all. He lay awake a long time thinking
about it. Part of the time he was crying softly, but he had his face
snuggled close down in the pillow so that Libby couldn't hear him.

He wished with all his heart that she was his own, real mother. He felt
that he needed one. He needed one who could _understand_ and who had a
_right_ to punish him. It was because she hadn't that right that he
resented her authority. All the boys said she hadn't. If she did no more
than call from the window: "Don't do that, Will'm," they'd say in an
undertone, "You don't have to pay any attention to _her_!" They seemed
to think it was all right for their mothers to slap them and scold them
and cuff them on the ears. He'd seen it done. He wouldn't care how much
he was slapped and cuffed, if only somebody who was his truly _own_ did
it. Somebody who loved him. A queer little feeling had been creeping up
in his heart for some time. Very often when _She_ spoke to Libby she
called her "little daughter" and she and Libby seemed to belong to each
other in a way that shut Will'm out and gave him a lonesome
left-in-the-cold feeling. Will'm was a reasonable child, and he was
just, and up there in the dark where he could be honest with himself, he
had to acknowledge that it was his own fault that she hadn't kissed him
good-night. It was his fault because, having started out crooked, he
didn't seem to be able to do anything but to go on crooked to the end.
He couldn't tell her, but he wished, oh, how he wished, that _She_ could
know how he felt, and know that he was crying up there in the dark about
it. He wished he could go back to the Junction and be Grandma Neal's
little boy. She always kissed him good-night, even on days when she had
to switch him with a peach-tree switch. When he was a little bigger he
would just run off and go back to Grandma Neal.

But next morning he was glad that he was not living at the Junction, for
he started to kindergarten, and a world of new interests opened up
before him. Benjy came back to town that week, but he did not find
quite the same tractable follower. Will'm had learned how to play with
other boys, and how to make other boys do _his_ bidding, so he did not
always allow Benjy to dictate. Still the leaven of an uneasy presence
began working again, and worked on till it was suddenly counteracted by
the coming of another Christmas season.

Both Libby and Will'm began to feel its approach when it was still a
month off. They felt it in the mysterious thrills that began to stir the
household as sap, rising in a tree, thrills it with stirrings of spring.
There were secrets and whisperings. There was counting of pennies and
planning of ways to earn more, for they were wiser about Christmas this
year. They knew that there are three kinds of presents. There is the
kind that Santa Claus puts into your stocking, just because he _is_
Santa Claus, and the Sky Road leads from his Kingdom of Giving straight
to the kingdom of little hearts who love and believe in him.

Then there's the kind that you give to the people you love, just because
you love them, and you put your name on those. And third, there's the
kind that you give secretly, in the name of Santa Claus, just to help
him out if he is extra busy and should happen to send you word that he
needs your services.

Libby and Will'm received no such messages, being so small, but their
father had one. He sent a load of coal and some rent money to a man who
had lost a month's wages on account of sickness in his family, and it
must have been a very happy and delightful feeling that Santa Claus gave
their father for doing it, for his voice sounded that way afterward when
he said, "After all, Molly, that's the best kind of giving. We ought to
do more of it and less of the other."

When it came to the first kind of presents, neither Libby nor Will'm
made a choice. They sent their names and addresses up the chimney so
that the reindeer might be guided to the right roof-top, and left the
rest to the generosity of the reindeer's wise master to surprise them as
he saw fit. They were almost sure that the things they daily expressed a
wish for would come by the way of the Christmas tree as the doll and the
tricycle had the year before, "with the love of father and mother."

But when it came to the second kind of presents, they had much to
consider. They wanted to give to the family and each other, and the cook
and their teachers, and the children they played with most and half a
dozen people at the Junction. The visit which they had planned all year
was to be a certainty now. The day after Christmas the entire family was
to go for a week's visit, to Grandma and Uncle Neal.

That last week the children went around the house in one continual
thrill of anticipation. Such delicious odors of popcorn and boiling
candy, of cake and mincemeat in the making floated up from the kitchen!
Such rustling of tissue paper and scent of sachets as met one on the
opening of bureau drawers! And such rapt moments of gift-making when
Libby sewed with patient, learning fingers, and Will'm pasted paper
chains and wove paper baskets, as he had been taught in kindergarten!

One day the conductor's punch suddenly reappeared, and he seized it with
a whoop of joy. Now all his creations could be doubly beautiful since
they could be star-bordered. As he punched and punched and the tiny
stars fell in a shower, the story of Ina and the swans stirred in his
memory, with all the glamour it had worn when he first heard it over his
dish of strawberries. Down in his secret soul he determined to do what
he wished he had done a year earlier, to begin to follow the example of
Ina.

The family could not fail to notice the almost angelic behavior which
began that day. They thought it was because of the watching eye he
feared up the chimney, but no one referred to the change. He used to sit
in front of the fire sometimes, just as he had done at the Junction,
rocking and singing, his soft bobbed hair flapping over his ears every
time the rockers tilted forward. But he was not singing with any thought
that he might be overheard and written down as a good little boy. He was
singing just because the story of the Camels and the Star was so very
sweet, and the mere thought of angels and silver bells and the
glittering Sky Road brought a tingling joy. But more than all he was
singing because he had begun to weave the big beautiful mantle whose
name is Love, and the curious little left-out-in-the-cold feeling was
gone.

Christmas eve came at last. When the twilight was just beginning to
fall, Libby brought down the stockings which were to be hung on each
side of the sitting-room fireplace. It would be nearly an hour before
their father could come home to drive the nails on which they were to
hang, but they wanted everything ready for him. Will'm went out to the
tool-chest on the screened porch to get the hammer. It took him a long
time to find it.

Libby waited impatiently a few moments, supposing he had stopped to
taste something in the kitchen. She was about to run out and warn him
not to nip the edges from some tempting bit of pastry, as he had been
known to do, but remembering how very hard he had been trying to be good
all week, she decided he could be trusted.

With the stockings thrown over one arm she stood in front of the piano,
idly striking the keys while she waited. She had learned to play several
tunes during the year, and now that she was eight years old, she was
going to have real lessons after the holidays and learn to read music.
How much she had learned since the first time her little fingers were
guided over the keys. She struck those earliest-learned notes again:
"Three blind mice! See how they run!" She could play the whole thing
now, faster than flying. She ran down the keys, over and over again.

[Illustration: "Take it back!"]

When for about the twentieth time "they all took after the farmer's
wife," she stopped short, both hands lifted from the keys to listen. Her
face blanched until even her lips were pale. Such a sound of awful
battle was coming from the back yard! Recognizing Will'm's voice she ran
out through the kitchen to the yard.

"It's that everlastin' Benjy, again!" called the cook as Libby darted
out the door to rescue Will'm from she knew not what.

But it was Benjy who needed rescuing this time. Will'm sat on top, so
mighty in his wrath and fury that he loomed up fearsomely to the bigger
boy beneath him, whose body he bestrode and whose face he was battering
with hard and relentless little fists. Both boys were blubbering and
crying, but Will'm was roaring between blows, "Take it back! Take it
back!"

Whatever it was, Benjy took it back just as Libby appeared, and being
allowed to stagger up, started for the street, loudly boo-hooing at
every step, as he found his way homeward, for once of his own
volition. The cries had startled Libby but they were as nothing to
the sight that met her eyes when she led Will'm, so blinded by his own
tears that he needed her guidance, to the light of the kitchen door.
What she saw sent her screaming into the house, with agonized calls for
"mother." She still held on to Will'm's hand, pulling him along after
her.

From forehead to chin, one side of his face was scratched as if a young
tiger cat had set his claws in it. A knot was swelling rapidly on his
upper lip, and one hand was covered with blood. Mrs. Branfield gave a
gasp as she came running in answer to Libby's calls. "Why, you poor
child!" she cried, gathering him up to her and sitting down in the big
rocker with him in her lap. "What happened? What's the matter?"

He was sobbing so convulsively now, with long choking gasps, that he
couldn't answer. She saw that his face was only scratched, but snatched
up his hand to examine the extent of its injuries. As he looked at it
too, the power of speech came back to him, in a degree.

"That isn't m-my b-blood!" he sobbed. "It's _B-Benjy's_ blood!"

"Oh, Will'm!" mourned Libby. "On Christmas eve, just when you've been
trying so hard to be good, too!"

She picked up the stockings which she had dropped on running out of the
house, and laid his over the back of a chair, as if she realized the
hopelessness of hanging it up now, after he had acted so. At that,
almost a spasm of sobs shook him. He didn't need anybody to remind him
of all he had forfeited and all he had failed in. That was what he was
crying about. He didn't mind the smarting of his face or the throbbing
of his swollen lip. He was crying to think that the struggle of the last
week was all for naught. He was all crooked with _Her_ again. _She_
didn't want him to fight and she'd never understand that this time he
just _had_ to.

The arms that held him were pressing for an answer. "Tell me how it
happened, dear."

Between gulps it came.

"Benjy said for me to come on--and go to the grocery with him! And I
said--that my--my mother--didn't want me to!"

"Yes," encouragingly, as he choked and stopped. He had never called her
that before.

"And Benjy said like he always does, that you w-wasn't my m-m-mother
anyhow. And I said you _was_! If he didn't take it back I--_I'd beat him
up_!"

Libby was crying too, now, from sympathy. He'd been told so many times
he must not fight that she was afraid he would have to be punished for
such a bad fight as this. To be punished on Christmas eve was just _too_
awful! She stole an anxious glance towards the chimney, then toward her
mother.

But her mother was hugging him tight and kissing him wherever she could
find a place on his poor little face that wasn't scratched or swollen,
and she was saying in a voice that made a lump come into Libby's
throat, it was so loving and tender,

"My dear little boy, if that's why you fought him I'm _glad_ you did it,
for you've proved now that you _are_ my little son, my very own!"

Then she laughed, although she had tears in her eyes herself, and said,
"That poor little cheek shows just what fierce nettles and briars you've
been through for me, but you brought it, didn't you! The most precious
star-flower in all the world to me!"

The surprise of it stopped his tears. She _understood_! He could not yet
stop the sobbing. That kept on, doing itself. But a feeling, warm and
tender that he could not explain, seemed to cover him "from wing-tip to
wing-tip!" A bloody little hand stole up around her neck and held her
tight. She _was_ his mother, because she _understood_! It was all right
between them now. It would _always_ be all right, no matter what Benjy
and the rest of the world might say. He'd _beat up anybody_ that dared
to say they didn't belong to each other, and she _wanted_ him to do it!

Presently she led him up-stairs to put some healing lotion on his face,
and wash away the blood of Benjy.

Libby, in the deep calm that followed the excitement of so many
conflicting emotions, sat down in the big rocking chair to wait for her
father. Her fear for Will'm had been so strong, her relief at the happy
outcome so great, that she felt all shaken up. A long, long time she sat
there, thinking. There was only one more thing needed to make her
happiness complete, and that was to have Miss Santa Claus know that the
charm had worked out true at last. She felt that they owed her that
much--to let her know. Presently she slipped out of the chair and knelt
in front of the fire so close that it almost singed her.

"Are you listening up there?" she called softly. "'Cause if you are,
_please_ tell Miss Santa Claus that everything turned out just as she
said it would. I'll be _so_ much obliged."

Then she scudded back to her chair to listen for her father's latchkey
in the door, and her mother's and Will'm's voices coming down the
stairs, a happier sound than even the sound of the silver bells, that by
and by would come jingling down the Sky Road.



       *       *       *       *       *



Transcriber's note:

Obvious punctuation errors were corrected.

Page 38, "know" changed to "knew" (He knew only the)

Page 85, "Ridgley" changed to "Ridgely" (At Ridgely she)

Page 139, "loose" changed to "lose" (no time to lose)





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home