Chapter XI.
 
    "At Christmas play, and make good cheer,
     For Christmas comes but once a year."
                           --Tusser.

It was the day before Christmas.

"When do our holidays begin, mamma?" asked Rosie, as she put her books neatly away in her desk after the last morning recitation.

"Now, my child; we will have no tasks this afternoon. Instead, I give my five little folks an invitation to drive into the city with me. How many will accept?"

"I, thank you, ma'am," "and I," "and I," came in joyous tones from one and another, for all were in the room, and not one indifferent to the delight of a visit to the city, especially just at this time when the stores were so full of pretty things. Besides, who could fail to enjoy a drive with the kind, sweet lady some of them called mamma, others Grandma Elsie?

"Then you may all be ready to start immediately after dinner," she said, glancing around upon them with a benign smile.

It was a still, bright day, mild for the season, no snow on the ground to make a sleigh-ride possible, but the roads were good, they had fine horses, plenty of wraps, and the ride in the softly-cushioned, easy-rolling carriage, whose large plate-glass windows gave them a good view of the country first, then of the streets and shop windows of the city, was found very enjoyable.

They were not afraid to jest, laugh, and be as merry as health, freedom from care, youthful spirits, and pleasing anticipations for the morrow inclined them to be.

Most of the Christmas shopping had been done days before, but some orders were left with grocers and confectioners, and Grandma Elsie treated generously to bonbons.

She allowed her children much greater latitude in such matters than her father had permitted her in her early years.

The Ion carriage had scarcely turned out of the avenue, on its way to the city, when one of the parlors became the scene of great activity and mirth. A large Christmas tree was brought in and set up by the men servants; then Lester and his Elsie, Violet, Edward and Zoe proceeded to trim it.

That done they gave their attention to the adorning with evergreens the walls of that and several other rooms, completing their labors and closing the doors upon the tree some time before the return of the children.

"We shall have scarcely more than time to dress for tea," Grandma Elsie said, as the carriage drew up at the door; "so go directly to your rooms, my dears. Are you very tired, little Gracie?"

"No, ma'am, just a wee bit," said the child. "I'm getting so much stronger, and we've had such a nice time, Grandma Elsie."

"I'll carry you up-stairs, little missy," said Tom, the servant man, who opened the door for them, picking her up as he spoke.

"Bring her in here, Tom," Violet said, speaking from the door of her dressing-room. "And will you come in too, Lulu dear?"

Violet was very careful never to give Lulu an order; her wishes when addressing her were always expressed in the form of a request.

Lulu complied at once, Tom stepping back for her to enter first.

She was in high good-humor, having enjoyed her drive extremely.

"Mamma Vi," she exclaimed, "we've had a splendid time! It's just delightful to be taken out by Grandma Elsie."

"Yes; I have always found it so," said Violet. "And how has your papa's baby girl enjoyed herself?" drawing Gracie toward her, as Tom set her down, and taking off her hat.

"Oh, ever so much! Mamma how beautiful you look! I wish papa was here to see you."

"That's just what I was thinking," said Lulu. "You are beautiful, Mamma Vi, and then you always wear such very pretty and becoming things."

"I am glad you approve my taste in dress," Violet said, laughing. "And what do you think of those?" with a slight motion of her hand in the direction of the bed.

Both little girls turned to look, then with a little cry of surprise and delight hastened to give a closer inspection to what they saw there--two pretty dresses of soft, fine white cashmere, evidently intended for them, each with sash and ribbons lying on it, Lulu's of rose pink, Gracie's a delicate shade of blue.

"O Mamma Vi! are they for us?" exclaimed Lulu.

"They were bought and made expressly for my two dear little girls; for them to wear to-night," said Violet. "Do they suit your taste, dears?"

"They are just beautiful, my dear, sweet, pretty mamma," cried Gracie, running to her and half smothering her with hugs and kisses.

"There, pet, that will do," said Violet, laughing, as she returned a hearty kiss, then gently disengaged the child's arms from her neck; "we must make haste to array you in them before the tea-bell rings," and taking Gracie's hand, she led her toward the bed.

Lulu was standing there smoothing down the folds of her new dress, and noting, with a thrill of pleasure, how prettily the rich sash and ribbons contrasted with its creamy whiteness. "Mamma Vi," she said, looking up into her young stepmother's face, her expression a mixture of penitence and gratitude, "how good you and Grandma Elsie are to me! Indeed, everybody here is good to me; though I--I'm so bad-tempered."

"You have been very good of late, dear," Violet said, bending down to kiss her forehead, "and it is a dear delight to me to do all I can to make my husband's children happy."

Agnes now came to Violet's assistance, and when the tea-bell rang, a few minutes later, the two little girls were quite ready to descend with their mamma to the supper-room.

Grandma Elsie looked in on her way down, and Violet said, sportively, "See, mamma, I have my dolls dressed."

"Yes," Elsie returned, with a smile, "you were always fond of dressing dolls," and, passing a hand over Gracie's curls and touching Lulu's cheek caressingly with the other, "these are better worth it than any you have had heretofore."

"Grandma Elsie," said Lulu in her fearless, straightforward way, and gazing with earnest, affectionate scrutiny into the fair face, "you don't look as if you could be mother to Mamma Vi and Aunt Elsie and Uncle Edward."

"Why, my child?" laughed the lady addressed; "can't you see a resemblance?"

"Oh, yes, ma'am! but you look so young, not so very much older than they do."

They were now passing through the upper hall. Walter had hold of his mother's hand, and Rosie had just joined them.

"That is true," she remarked, and I am so glad of it! I couldn't bear to have my dear, beautiful mamma grow old, and wrinkled, and gray."

"Yet it will have to be some day, Rosie, unless she is laid away out of sight before the time comes for those changes," the mother answered with gentle gravity.

There were various exclamations of surprise and pleasure from the children as they entered the supper-room. Its walls were beautifully trimmed with evergreens, and bouquets of hot-house flowers adorned the table, filling the air with delicious fragrance.

When the meal was over, all adjourned to the parlor usually occupied by them when not entertaining company. This, too, they found trimmed with evergreens, and while the children were looking about and commenting upon the taste displayed in their arrangement, the folding doors communicating with another parlor were suddenly thrown open, disclosing the grand achievement of the afternoon--the beautiful Christmas tree--tall, wide-spreading, glittering with lights and tinsel ornaments, gorgeous with gay colors, and every branch loaded down with gifts.

It was greeted with a burst of admiration and applause.

"What a beauty!" cried Rosie and Lulu, clapping their hands.

"And how large!" exclaimed Max, "three times as big as any I ever saw before."

Walter and Gracie were no less enthusiastic in their admiration. "May we go close up, mamma?" asked the latter.

"Yes, 'course we may," said Walter, seizing her hand, "we'll walk round it and look hard at the things, but not touch 'em."

Older people followed the lead of the little ones, and the tree was thoroughly examined by many pairs of eyes, gazed at from every point of view, and highly extolled, before the work of despoiling it was begun.

The gifts were far too many to mention in detail. The older people seemed much pleased with some easels, brackets, and picture-frames carved for them by Max and Lulu, and with specimens of Zoe's and Rosie's handiwork in another line; also with some little gems of art from the pencils or brushes of Lester, Elsie, and Violet, while the children were made happy with presents suited to the years and taste of each.

Lulu was almost wild with delight over a set of pink coral, as nearly like that she had lost by her misconduct some months before, as Grandma Elsie had been able to find.

Then there was a beautiful, thoroughly furnished work-box from Mamma Vi, with "actually a gold thimble in it," to encourage her in learning to sew. One for Gracie also exactly like it, except that Lulu's was lined with red satin and Gracie's with blue. Each had beside a new doll with a neat little trunk packed full of clothes made to fit it, and a box filled with pretty things to make up into doll clothes.

Max was greatly surprised and delighted by finding himself the possessor of a watch, doubly valuable to him as his father's gift.

The gold thimbles of the little girls were also from papa.

They had a number of other presents, but these were what they valued most highly.

It took quite a good while to distribute the gifts and for each to examine and admire all his own and those of his neighbors; then Gracie, tired with excitement and the long drive of the afternoon, was ready to go to bed.

Mamma Vi went with her, as was her custom, and Max and Lulu followed. They had grown quite fond of Violet's half-sisterly, half-motherly talks with them at the close of the day, and to her it was a source of deep joy and thankfulness that she could perceive that she was influencing them--her dear husband's tenderly loved offspring--for good.

She warmly sympathized in their pleasure to-night, chatted with them about what they had given and received, praising highly the picture-frame and easel they had presented her--and in regard to the entries to be made in each of their diaries.

She left them in her boudoir busy with these when she returned to the parlor.

"O Max," said Lulu, "how different Mamma Vi is from Aunt Beulah."

"Humph, I should think so," said Max, "must have been made of a different kind o' dust. We weren't so well off and happy last Christmas eve, Lu."

"No, indeed! Gracie and I wanted a Christmas tree ever so much, and begged and coaxed for one, even if it was but a wee bit of a thing; but she wouldn't let us have it, said it was just nonsense and a wicked waste."

"Just like her," remarked Max, in a tone of mingled aversion and contempt; "but don't let's talk about her. I'd rather think of pleasanter subjects. Wasn't it splendid in papa to give me this watch?" pulling it out and gazing on it with pride and delight. "Isn't it a beauty?"

"Yes; and I'm as glad as I can be that you have it, Max," Lulu responded affectionately. "And wasn't it good in him to give gold thimbles to Gracie and me? I shall try very hard to learn to sew nicely, to show him I'm grateful for it and all he does for me."

"That's right, Lu; let's both do our best to improve all our opportunities, so that we will make his heart glad. And we can do that in another way, too."

"How?"

"By loving Mamma Vi, and being as good to her as ever we know how."

"I do mean to, for she is good and kind to us," said Lulu, in a frankly cordial tone.

"You were vexed at papa at first for marrying her," remarked Max, with a roguish look; "but just suppose he'd taken Mrs. Scrimp instead."

"O Max!" cried Lulu, her eyes flashing, "how can you talk so? You know papa would never have thought of such a thing."

"I don't believe he would, but Ann told me once she knew Mrs. Scrimp would be glad enough to take him if he'd give her the chance. What would you have done if he had?"

"I don't know, and it isn't worth while to consider," replied Lulu, with a grown-up air she occasionally assumed, much to Max's amusement. "But my writing's done, and I'm going to bed, for I'm tired and sleepy. So good-night."

"Good-night," returned Max. "I sha'n't be in a hurry to get to bed, for it won't be worth while to get up early to catch other folks, as all the things have been given to-night. I almost wish they had let us wait till to-morrow morning."

Perhaps the remark was intended to throw Lulu off her guard; at all events he was at her door with a "Merry Christmas," before any one else was stirring but the servants.

Lulu was awake, too, sitting up in bed and trying, in the dim light of the early dawn, to undo a small paper parcel she had found on her pillow.

Max had opened the door and given his greeting in a subdued tone that there might be no danger of disturbing any sleeper in the vicinity.

"Oh!" cried Lulu, in a voice of suppressed eagerness, "the same to you! Come in and see what Santa Claus has brought me."

Max stepped in, closed the door, and tiptoeing to a window, raised the blind and drew back the curtain.

"O Max, Max; just see!" cried Lulu, as he turned toward her again.

She had succeeded in her efforts, and was now holding up her hand in a way to display to advantage a very pretty gold ring.

"Yes; oh, I'm glad, Lu! And there's something else, isn't there?"

"Money! a good deal, isn't it, Max?" she asked, holding out a crisp new bank-note.

"Five dollars," he answered, taking it to the light. "And I have just the same; found it on my pillow, from papa; and s'pose yours is, too. A gold pencil from Mamma Vi was there also."

"Yes; from papa," she said, examining the writing on the back of the envelope from which she had taken the note, "and the ring's from Mamma Vi. She always finds out just what I want. I'd rather have had a ring than almost anything else."

"There, we have waked her and Gracie, I'm afraid," said Max, in a tone of self-reproach, as the voices of the two were heard coming from the next room.

"Merry Christmas, Max and Lulu," both called out in cheery tones, and the greeting was returned with added thanks to Violet for her gifts.

"I have some, too," Gracie said; "a lovely picture-book and two kinds of money. I think I'm the richest."

She had received a one-dollar bill, crisp and new like the others, and a quarter eagle in gold, and could not be convinced that the two did not amount to more than Max's or Lulu's five-dollar note.

The other members of the family had fared quite as well. The children had a very merry day; the older people were quietly happy.

There were fresh flowers on the graves in the family burial-ground, even the dead had not been forgotten. Elsie Travilla had been early bending over the lowly mound that covered all that was mortal of her heart's best earthly treasure, and though the sweet face was calm and serene as was its wont, bearing no traces of tears, the cheery words and bright smile came readily in sympathy with the mirth of the younger ones; her father and older children, noting the occasional far-off look in the soft brown eyes, knew that her thoughts were ever and anon with the husband of her youth.