From the Improvement Era, December 1931 –
The Christmas Tree
By Florence Hartman Townsend
In the ranch kitchen there was every evidence of approaching festivities. Mrs. Autrey was beating the batter for a huge fruit cake while her niece, Alene, sat on a high stool, her slender legs entwined with the legs of the stool, beating eggs. Three flaky mince pies cooled on the table while a batch of fudge bubbled on the stove.
“Oh, Aunty!” the rhythmic beating stopped and the egg whisk clattered on the edge of the platter. Alene looked up with brightening eyes. “Let’s have a tree!”
Her aunt, a strong, masculine-appearing woman, looked up from testing the batter. “Huh?”
“Let’s have a Christmas tree,” Alene repeated, but her voice had lost some of its exuberant ring. She resumed her egg-beating with the air of one who had said or done the wrong thing.
Mrs. Autrey set the green crock down with a thud and looked at Alene with an expression of mingled pity and exasperation.
“A Christmas tree! No! What, in heaven’s name would we do with a Christmas tree? We’re not expecting any children here, are we?”
Alene swallowed painfully, then bolstered her courage for one last effort. “But they’re such fun and so pretty!”
“Bosh! They’re messy, you mean, and expensive and silly – for grown folks. Give me them eggs. And there, your fudge’s boiled over! See what happens when your mind wanders off on such truck.”
With resentfully flaming cheeks Alene rescued the fudge, set it aside to spoil utterly, and with head high marched out of the kitchen.
For a few minutes she stood undecided in her room, then she jerked on jacket and cap with much energy and went out of the house, defiantly choosing to leave by way of the kitchen. Unfortunately Aunty’s back was turned and her leave-taking lost some of its zest. She got a hand axe from the kindling box and put out over the range back of the sheepfolds and barns. Cedars were scarce enough in this section but Alene remembered having seen some few scrubby ones in the washes somewhere out there and she meant to have one. It would need to be a small one since she must set it up in her own room. Well, never mind, it would be a Christmas tree anyway.
Aunty got the batter for the big cake into the pan and the oven at last. She had concentrated so intently upon this important business that she had been only vaguely aware of Alene’s departure. Now as the sight of the fudge pan met her eye she recalled the incident with an exclamation. What did Alene mean by leaving the fudge for her to beat? Where had she gone anyway? She opened the door and looked out. Why, she was going out on the range with — . She yanked off her spectacles, wiped them on her apron, replaced them and looked again. Yes, she had an axe over her shoulder. Um. She didn’t exactly like the set of Alene’s head nor the vigorous way she was taking that slope. Alene could be troublesome when she set her head.
Mrs. Autrey came in and closed the door. Her lips were set. She marched to the telephone in the hall. A moment later this one-sided conversation might have been heard.
“That you, Flake? – This is Mrs. Autrey – I’m all right. Are you busy? – Well, Alene’s took one of her stubborn spells and gone out on the range – Oh, she got a silly notion about wantin’ a Christmas tree. The idea, at her age! If she’s a kid, now – but it don’t do to give in to ‘er, Flake. She might’s well learn right now she can’t have everything her way in the world. Yes, I wish you would, if you don’t mind – Well – Goodbye.”
Flake Bailey hung up the receiver and reached for his hat. A few minutes later he was swinging across the winter-bleached grassland at a pace that promised soon to overtake the shorter stride of the girl.
Alene wheeled, smiling to meet his smile. They continued their walk together for some minutes in silence, Flake having relieved her of the axe and tucked her fingers into the crook of his arm.
“It does seem that when a fellow’s best girl starts out for a winter walk that she’d just naturally let the fellow know so he could go, too.”
Alene looked up and down and blushed and chuckled.
“But when the best girl didn’t know it herself until she’d started –” she laughed.
“And why didn’t she know it?
A frown followed the smile. “Oh, Aunty No-Don’t has got one of her stubborn spells on,” she shrugged.
It was with difficulty that Flake maintained a sober exterior.
“And over simply nothing! I just wanted a Christmas tree.”
“And she didn’t, eh?”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going after the tree! You’ll help me, won’t you?” She looked up at him appealingly.
“But if Aunty No-don’t says no, don’t, why — ”
“Why, we’ll just do it anyway! She’s no cause to be so unreasonable. I don’t ask for much, Flake, you know I don’t.”
“Of course I know it, precious,” he said tenderly, “but still we must remember that — ”
“Remember what? That I’m under obligations to her, I suppose. That I must be a sweet, obedient child so she’ll will me her ranch. Well, I won’t! I’m tired of being reminded that I’m beholden to Aunty. I’m tired of being afraid to call my soul my own because I’m under obligations to her. As if I haven’t earned everything I’ve ever had there. The idea of having to ask Aunty if I may have a Christmas tree! I’ll show her!”
“But it’s Mrs. Autrey’s house, Alene.”
Alene turned on him with blazing eyes. “There you go, taking up sides with her. I might have known – oh, I might have known you would! Lots you care about me, Flake Bailey, or for my pleasure. Lots you care whether I have a happy Christmas.”
“Now, Alene, listen to reason.”
“I won’t listen to anything. Go talk to Aunt, and don’t ever speak to me again!”
She had flung herself from him and now plunged full tilt down the hill toward home, tears blinding her, sobs choking her, while Flake stood still and watched. He rubbed his chin reflectively.
“Poor kid. Aunt No-Don’t is something of a trial.”
The two of them had given her this name long since because it expressed so completely her perverse attitude toward everything others wanted to do.
Alene stopped at the barn long enough to have her cry out, then she entered the house by the front door and went quietly to her room. Once there she closed the door and began hastily packing a suitcase. She changed her frock, donned her best coat and hat, counted her money, and then with her suitcase in one hand and her purse in the other she went out to the garage. Her eyes brightened at sight of the mangy little car she had bought with her savings of two frugal years.
It was uncertain both as to age and disposition, but Alene loved it with almost a sisterly affection. she heaved in the baggage and seating herself behind the worn steering wheel she soon had the motor whirring. No one could say truthfully that it purred but its rattle was vigorous and reassuring. She backed it out and went bounding away in the direction of town.
Flake had stood looking after Alene for several minutes, then studied the toe of his boot and at last had swung off across the hill toward home. It did seem a shame the kid couldn’t have a tree. But he knew Mrs. Autrey. She didn’t want her immaculate house cluttered up with cedar boughs and drippings of candles and bits of tinsel and popcorn.
Mrs. Autrey did not worry about Alene after she sent Flake on her trail, and Flake did not worry about her after she left him. so it was not until Mrs. Autrey went upstairs and caught a glimpse of Alene’s room in the utmost disorder that she learned the truth, for there was a note on Alene’s dresser that told the whole story. It read: “I have gone to the city to live my own life and where I may have a Christmas tree if I want to. Goodbye forever. Alene.”
Mrs. Autrey was too perturbed to appreciate the melodrama of the affair. She gave a desolate cry and flew to the phone. Her hysterical message brought Flake in shorter time than it takes to tell it, and he was soon reading with his own eyes the round girlish letters of Alene’s note. He looked at it for a long time in order to hide the twinkle of amusement in his eyes. But it was no laughing matter with Mrs. Autrey, and when she commanded him to go immediately and bring her back before she came to some horrible end in the wicked city, Flake knew better than to argue. He set out at once, a great deal of sympathy in his heart for Alene.
It was no more than was to be expected that Alene should have tire trouble. Flake all but made the mistake of applying the brake and stopping when he saw her car parked in front of a service station with Alene nervously watching while a grease-smeared boy jacked up the rear wheel. At the first opportunity he turned into a side street and waited. It was a half hour before she resumed her journey, with Flake now on the trail, keeping as far behind as he dare not to lose her.
Alene had been to Derbyville before. She and her aunt had attended the state fair there the fall before and had taken rooms at a nice boarding house, the address and general location of which she remembered, and to that place she directed her now steaming chariot. She rented the choice front room upstairs. She wanted to sit at the great window and watch the traffic and listen to the strange city noises. She wanted to see the people on joyous holiday errands, coming home with bundles and holly wreaths and jolly little evergreens to set up before parlor windows. She loved the way the spruces by the doorways were ablaze with colored lights, and the windows hung with wreaths and ribbons. Everybody kept Christmas here, and it was so bustling and gay and alive! Best of all, she was going to be a part of it! She would buy a tree and light and decorate it and let its glory shine forth from her big front window for all the world to see – her very first Christmas tree! She settled herself with an ecstatic sigh. It would be a lovely Christmas!
Flake wired Mrs. Autrey: “Have my eye on Alene. Giving her a little rope. Don’t worry. Flake.”
But she worried just the same, as women are wont to do. Besides, with Alene and Flake both away the prospects for Christmas cheer seemed remote.
Selecting and trimming the tree was better fun, Alene told herself, than a whole barrel of monkeys. She dressed and redressed it, hung and rehung the bright festooning, the glittering bells, the tiny colored lights, until it could no longer be improved upon. When night came she turned on the lights, raised the shade and went outside to see how it looked from the street. It was beautiful! She was standing on the opposite side of the street admiring it with glowing pride which lit up her face and made her beautiful.
Then suddenly someone touched her elbow.
“Hello, kid. Lonesome?”
Alene looked up into the face of a stranger. With a little choking cry she darted away and into the house, taking the stairs with quaking knees. Inside she locked herself in and sank to the floor terrified. She was afraid to move into the circle of light from the little tree lest the man in the street observe her. Finally she crawled on hands and knees to the side of the window and drew down the shade. She was alone in her room. The door was locked, the blind drawn. The gay little tree was fairly quivering with holiday spirit, but its magic was gone. Her heart no longer responded to its rich and varied glory, for it was gripped in the fey hand of fear. She wanted Flake, and Aunty.
A few minutes later a new chill shook her as a peal from the doorbell rang through the big old house. Somehow Alene knew it was for her. That man had followed! She could scarcely breathe for the heavy pounding of her heart. She laid a cold hand on her throbbing throat.
Mrs. Wilkins was calling her from downstairs.
“Miss Autrey, there’s a gentleman here wants to see you. Says he’s a friend of yours.”
“No! No! I don’t want to see him! He isn’t any friend of mine.”
She heard a laugh and pricked up her ears.
“Well, give her my best wishes for a merry Christmas anyway, and tell her the tree’s a beauty.”
Alene gasped, then plunged headlong for the stairway.
“Flake! Flake! is it you? I thought – I didn’t know – Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come!”
He was waiting at the foot of the stairs, his arms outstretched. Alene ran into them. “Oh, Flake, please take me home.”
“Yes, right now.”
“Get your things.”
As they threaded their way through the heavy Christmas Eve traffic it seemed to Alene that it had grown blatant and weary and far too loud. She longed for the deep sweet silences of the plains, and was delighted at the speed Flake made, once out of the city. She settled back in her corner with a half regretful sigh.
“I did hate to leave my tree,” she admitted presently, “but anyway I had it a little while.”
It was ten o’clock when they reached home. The light in the living room had been visible for a mile. Alene had watched it with a slight rekindling of resentment. No doubt Aunty was spending Christmas Eve as she spent all her other evenings, reading or mending or balancing accounts.
Alene sighed resignedly as she stepped out of the car and followed Flake in. The sudden gust of wind that entered with them fanned the flame of the lamp on the table and gave every object in the room a queer, unbalanced aspect. It made Alene’s eyes hurt. She blinked them quickly. And then things looked queerer than ever. Aunty No-Don’t was sitting on top of the step ladder beside an immense cedar tree, festoons of cranberries looped over one arm and yards of strung popcorn over the other. The woman gazed blankly a moment, then quick tears of happiness and relief sprang to her eyes.
“Oh, Alene, is it you? Well, it’s a good thing you’ve come,” she added, her tone changing. “I was just in the act of breaking my neck trying to trim this pesky tree. You’ll have to finish it. And don’t you dare get cranberries and popcorn on my carpet! I’m going to bed. I’m dead tired. Flake, you help her with that tree. And don’t either of you get into them packages over there.”
“All right, Aunty. And I think the tree is lovely,” she said softly.
Her aunt said “Humph” and went out trying not to look pleased.
Flake and Alene turned to each other, laughing softly.
“Do Christmas trees matter so much, Alene?”
She shook her head. “I guess I just wanted to have my own way. I dearly love to have my own way, Flake.”
Flake shook his head in mock seriousness. “I guess I ought to take warning, but I won’t.”
And he kissed her tenderly.