Chapter XI. The Christmas Play
 
     "Not failure, but low aim, is crime."

As the holiday season approached, a rumor began to be circulated that the Cabbage Patch Sunday-school would have an entertainment as well as a Christmas tree. The instigator of this new movement was Jake Schultz, whose histrionic ambition had been fired during his apprenticeship as "super" at the opera-house.

"I know a man what rents costumes, an' the promp'-books to go with 'em," he said to several of the boys one Sunday afternoon. "If we all chip in we kin raise the price, an' git it back easy by chargin' admittance."

"Aw, shucks!" said Chris. "We don't know nothin' 'bout play-actin'."

"We kin learn all right," said Billy Wiggs. "I bid to be the feller that acts on the trapeze."

The other boys approving of the plan, it was agreed that Jake should call on the costumer at his earliest convenience.

One night a week later Lovey Mary was getting supper when she heard an imperative rap on the door. It was Jake Schultz. He mysteriously beckoned her out on the steps, and closed the door behind them.

"Have you ever acted any?" he asked.

"I used to say pieces at the home," said Lovey Mary, forgetting herself.

"Well, do you think you could take leadin' lady in the entertainment?"

Lovey Mary had no idea what the lady was expected to lead, but she knew that she was being honored, and she was thrilled at the prospect.

"I know some arm-exercises, and I could sing for them," she offered.

"Oh, no," explained Jake; "it's a play, a reg'lar theayter play. I got the book and the costumes down on Market street. The man didn't have but this one set of costumes on hand, so I didn't have no choice. It's a bully play, all right, though! I seen it oncet, an' I know how it all ought to go. It's named 'Forst,' er somethin' like that. I'm goin' to be the devil, an' wear a red suit, an' have my face all streaked up. Billy he's goin' to be the other feller what's stuck on the girl. He tole me to ast you to be her. Your dress is white with cords an' tassels on it, an' the sleeves ain't sewed up. Reckon you could learn the part? We ain't goin' to give it all."

"I can learn anything!" cried Lovey Mary, recklessly. "Already know the alphabet and the Lord's Prayer backward. Is the dress short- sleeve? And does it drag in the back when you walk?"

"Yep," said Jake, "an' the man said you was to plait your hair in two parts an' let 'em hang over your shoulders. I don't see why it wouldn't be pretty for you to sing somethin', too. Ever'body is so stuck on yer singin'."

"All right," said Lovey Mary, enthusiastically; "you bring the book over and show me where my part's at. And, Jake," she called as he started off, "you tell Billy I'll be glad to."

For the next ten days Lovey Mary dwelt in Elysium. The prompt-book, the rehearsals, the consultations, filled the spare moments and threw a glamour over the busy ones. Jake, with his vast experience and unlimited knowledge of stage-craft, appealed to her in everything. He sat on a barrel and told how they did things "up to the opery-house," and Lovey Mary, seizing his suggestions with burning zeal, refitted the costumes, constructed scenery, hammered her own nails as well as the iron ones, and finally succeeded in putting into practice his rather vague theories. For the first time in her life she was a person of importance.

Besides her numerous other duties she prepared an elaborate costume for Tommy. This had caused her some trouble, for Miss Hazy, who was sent to buy the goods for the trousers, exercised unwise economy in buying two remnants which did not match in color or pattern.

"Why didn't you put your mind on it, Miss Hazy?" asked Lovey Mary, making a heroic effort to keep her temper. "You might have known I couldn't take Tommy to the show with one blue leg and one brown one. What must I do?"

Miss Hazy sat dejectedly in the corner, wiping her eyes on her apron. "You might go ast Mis' Wiggs," she suggested as a forlorn hope.

When Mrs. Wiggs was told the trouble she smiled reassuringly. Emergencies were to her the spice of life; they furnished opportunities for the expression of her genius.

"Hush cryin', Miss Hazy; there ain't a speck of harm did. Mary kin make the front outen one piece an' the back outen the other. Nobody won't never know the difference, 'cause Tommy can't be goin' an' comin' at the same time."

The result was highly satisfactory, that is, to everybody but Tommy. He complained that there "wasn't no room to set down."

On Christmas night the aristocracy of the Cabbage Patch assembled in the school-house to enjoy the double attraction of a Christmas tree and an entertainment. Mr. Rothchild, who had arranged the tree for the last ten years, refused to have it moved from its accustomed place, which was almost in the center of the platform. He had been earnestly remonstrated with, but he and the tree remained firm. Mrs. Rothchild and all the little Rothchildren had climbed in by the window before the doors were open in order to secure the front seats. Immediately behind them sat the Hazys and the Wiggses.

"That there is the seminary student gittin' up now," whispered Mrs. Wiggs. "He's goin' to call out the pieces. My land! ain't he washed out? Looks like he'd go into a trance fer fifty cents. Hush, Australia! don't you see he is goin' to pray?"

After the opening prayer, the young preacher suggested that, as long as the speakers were not quite ready, the audience should "raise a hymn."

"He's got a fine voice," whispered Miss Hazy; "I heared 'em say he was the gentleman soprano at a down-town church."

When the religious exercises were completed, the audience settled into a state of pleasurable anticipation.

"The first feature of the entertainment," announced the preacher, "will be a song by Miss Europena Wiggs."

Europena stepped forward and, with hands close to her sides and anguished eyes on the ceiling, gasped forth the agonized query:

      "Can she make a cheery-pie,
         Billy boy, Billy boy?
       Can she make a cheery-pie,
         Charming Billy?"

Notwithstanding the fact that there were eight verses, an encore was demanded. Mrs. Wiggs rose in her seat and beckoned vehemently to Europena. "Come on back!" she motioned violently with her lips. "They want you to come back."

Europena, in a state of utter bewilderment, returned to the stage.

"Say another speech!" whispered Mrs. Wiggs, leaning over so far that she knocked Mrs. Rothchild's bonnet awry. Still Europena stood there, an evident victim of lockjaw.

"'I have a little finger,'" prompted her mother frantically from the second row front.

A single ray of intelligence flickered for a moment over the child's face, and with a supreme effort she said:

     "I have a little finger,
        An' I have a little beau;
     When I get a little bigger
        I'll have a little toe."

"Well, she got it all in," said Mrs. Wiggs, in a relieved tone, as Europena was lifted down.

After this, other little girls came forward and made some unintelligible remarks concerning Santa Claus. It was with some difficulty that they went through their parts, for Mr. Rothchild kept getting in the way as he calmly and uncompromisingly continued to hang cornucopias on the tree. Songs and recitations followed, but even the youngest spectator realized that these were only preliminary skirmishes.

At last a bell rang. Two bedspreads. which served as curtains were majestically withdrawn. A sigh of admiration swept the room. "Ain't he cute!" whispered a girl in the rear, as Billy rose resplendent in pink tights and crimson doublet, and folding his arms high on his breast, recited in a deep voice:

    "I have, alas! philosophy,
        Medicine, jurisprudence too,
     And, to my cost, theology
        With ardent labor studied through."

"I don't see no sense in what he's sayin' at all," whispered Miss Hazy.

"It's jes what was in the book," answered Mrs. Wiggs, "'cause I heared him repeat it off before supper."

The entrance of Jake awakened the flagging interest. Nobody understood what he said either, but he made horrible faces, and waved his red arms, and caused a pleasant diversion.

"Maw, what's John Bagby a-handin' round in that little saucer?" asked Australia.

"Fer the mercy sake! I don't know," answered her mother, craning her neck to see.

John, with creaking footsteps, tiptoed to the front of the stage, and stooping down, began to mix a concoction in a plate. Many stood up to see what he was doing, and conjecture was rife. Mephisto and Faust were forgotten until Jake struck a heroic pose, and grasping Billy's arm, said hoarsely:

"Gaze, Faustis, gaze into pairdition!"

John put a match to the powder, a bright red light filled the room, and the audience, following the index-finger of the impassioned Mephisto, gazed into the placid, stupid faces of four meek little boys on the mourners' bench.

Before the violent coughing caused by the calcium fumes had ceased, a vision in white squeezed past Mr. Rothchild and came slowly down to the edge of the platform. It was Lovey Mary as Marguerite. Her long dress swept about her feet, her heavy hair hung in thick braids over both shoulders, and a burning red spot glowed on each cheek. For a moment she stood as Jake had directed, with head thrown back and eyes cast heavenward, then she began to recite. The words poured from her lips with a volubility that would have shamed an auctioneer. It was a long part, full of hard words, but she knew it perfectly and was determined to show how fast she could say it without making a mistake. It was only when she finished that she paused for breath. Then she turned slowly, and stretching forth appealing arms to Faust, sang in a high, sweet voice, "I Need Thee Every Hour."

The effect was electrical. At last the Cabbage Patch understood what was going on. The roof rang with applause. Even Mr. Rothchild held aside his strings of pop-corn to let Marguerite pass out.

"S' more! S' more!" was the cry. "Sing it ag'in!"

Jake stepped before the curtain. "If our friends is willin'," he said, "we'll repeat over the last ak."

Again Lovey Mary scored a triumph. John Bagby burned the rest of the calcium powder during the last verse, and the entertainment concluded in a prolonged cheer.