From the Improvement Era, December 1934 –
A Christmas Tree for Susan
By Margot Spande Beal
Dear Lena,” Susan wrote, “I know you won’t mind if I ask you to make other plans for Christmas this year.
“Ellen has been ill, and I am unusually busy with my school work, so we aren’t planning the usual Christmas festivities. All of you have given up so many really interesting affairs each year just to come up here that you’ll appreciate a chance to go somewhere else …”
She wrote three more letters and addressed them all in her square, childish, handwriting.
It was five o’clock and almost dark, and the postoffice was two miles away, but Susan knew if she kept the letters until morning she would not send them at all. She pulled up a heavy rough-neck sweater over her navy blue dress and thrust the letters into her pocket. She went through the kitchen to tell Ellen, the housekeeper, where she was going.
The air was crisp and cold; there was more than a suggestion of snow in the sting of the wind against her cheeks, and in the sombre grey clouds. Susan looked up at the tall pines etched against the greyness. A wild exultant thrill surged through her, as it always did at the coming of a storm at The Highlands.
That was Ann’s name for their old home and it suited the place magnificently. A rambling farmhouse with fireplaces and big rooms, its situation on the crest of a hill overlooking Hartwell was unique. The tall pine trees surrounding the house gave it a wild, primitive aspect. The first glimpse of The Highlands was always a shock after you had seen the pretty, commonplace little town of Hartwell.
At the postoffice Susan Sherrill hesitated, then thrust the four letters into the box and ran.
“It’s what they all want,” She assured herself fiercely. “They just come up here because it’s the thing to do. They don’t really enjoy it.”
She blinked hard to keep back the tears and walked very fast, with her head down and her hands plunged deep in her sweater pockets.
It was dark when she reached The Highlands, and the promise of snow had been fulfilled; large flakes whirled and spun in the wind. Susan ran into the kitchen, her eyes shining and the olive pallor of her skin warmed to a rich color by her vigorous walk.
“There’ll be no fuss and bother and hard work this Christmas, Ellen,” she told the housekeeper. “I’ve written all of them not to come. Think what a grand time we’ll have, just the two of us.”
Ellen wiped her floury hands on her apron and looked at Susan with shrewd eyes.
“It’ll be a grand time, I’m thinkin’, and you eatin’ your heart out with lonesomeness for the four o’ them.”
“Not at all, Ellen,” said Susan lightly. “Sure, an’ why should I be after pinin’ to hear Ann tell me in that languid drawl of hers that my furniture’s junk, and I’m old-fashioned,” she concluded in Ellen’s own brogue.
“Yes, an’ Robert, too,” said Ellen with spirit. He’d be after turn-in’ me out of my own kitchen to let a fancy cateress run things. Me that’s been here thirty years.”
“Then there’s Elizabeth and her ardent suitors,” said Susan laughing. “She thinks I’m crazy to stay in a town where there aren’t any men.”
“And Lynn Lane,” Ellen added with rich scorn. “Her that gives up a good name like Lena Sherrill to call herself by the likes of that, and insults a body when she’s asked to sing.”
“Lynn,” said Sue with dignity, “sings in Grand Opera. She may not be a star yet, but she refuses to debase her art by singing at church sociables.” She dropped her pretense of dignity and laughed infectiously. “Come on, Ellen, let’s eat in the kitchen tonight. You and I aren’t grand New Yorkers and I’m half starved.”
Susan was very busy all during December. Winter had come with an air of finality and had deluged the mountains around Hartwell with snow. As the school teacher, Sue was the official chaperone for the sleighing parties of the school children, and was chairman of the Christmas program committee for the church.
She wanted to have a really distinctive program this year, something beautiful and inspiring. She thought wistfully of Lynn with her dark, glowing beauty and colorfully lovely voice as the Madonna, against a background of austere simplicity. Ann’s deft hands could work miracles with the setting, even with the few stage properties Hartwell afforded.
But Lynn and Ann weren’t coming, and if they were, neither of them would care to lend their talents to a village pageant.
She sighed. The girls and Roger had all written to say they were glad she was going to be sensible about Christmas and not work herself to death making presents and holly wreaths, or trimming trees and cooking an absurdly indigestible dinner.
Sue had grown defiant when she read the letters. She liked to make presents. She liked to wrap them up to look gay and friendly, with pert red bows saying “Merry Christmas” before the package was even untied. She liked to trim a Christmas tree with silver tinsel and shining, fragile ornaments, and a silver star at the top. She liked to cook those absurdly indigestible dinners, baking fragrant, golden-crusted pies and spicy cookies for days before Christmas.
“Sue, darling,” Lynn had written in her firm, slanting hand, “I’d love to have you spend Xmas with me at Peter Wyandotte’s place on Long Island. He’s having a small party — just thirty or forty guests, and told me to bring you along. Of course, we’d have to pick up a few little things for you in New York …”
Sue hadn’t liked that, either. Lynn thought she hadn’t brains enough to know that her clothes weren’t quite up to a “small party at Peter Wyandotte’s place on Long Island.” Well, she wouldn’t go. She and Ellen were going right ahead with their presents and their tree and their absurdly indigestible dinner for just the two of them.
The week before Christmas was filled with activity, so Susan did not have time to be lonely. School was out for the holidays, but groups of her students came to The Highlands to make Christmas candies under Sue’s direction. Nearly every night they filled the kitchen with their incessant chatter and shrieks of laughter. During the day they all went into the woods for holly and evergreen limbs for wreaths.
The pungent fragrance of pine boughs mingled with the spiciness of Ellen’s Christmas cooking and lent an air of gaiety to the old house. In spite of herself Sue was affected by it all, and the dull ache which had invaded her heart was replaced by a feeling of something mysterious and pleasant about to happen.
Her Christmas pageant was nearly ready to be presented to the Hartwell theater-going public, which included the whole town. It wasn’t the beautifully inspiring production which she had hoped to achieve, but Sue knew that Hartwell was not critical.
Her despair was Mina Aldrich in the role of Madonna. Sue pleaded patiently with her to allow her thick fair hair to lie in smoothly classical braids over her shoulders instead of tortured into set marcel waves. She sighed every time she looked at Mina.
“The Madonna should have dark hair and eyes and a soulful look. Mina doesn’t even have an intelligent one. If Lynn were only here …”
The morning before Christmas found Sue awake and shivering at six o’clock. She dressed and hurried downstairs to the warmth of the kitchen, where Ellen was already pouring chocolate and buttering thin slices of toast. As Sue ate her breakfast the big kitchen seemed to echo with memories.
“No reminiscences, please,” she reminded herself firmly, shaking off the mood of loneliness which threatened to come.
After breakfast Sue went down to the church for a final inspection of the stage, and to check properties. There was to be one more rehearsal in the afternoon; the pageant was to be presented Christmas night.
She returned home at five o’clock to find the big house filled with the rich odors of Ellen’s last baking day. A crackling wood fire in the living-room flung a cheerful light into the shadows. Sue, coming in from fast-deepening twilight, felt a warm glow at her heart when she saw it.
Ellen had set the tea-table in front of the fireplace; there were delicious little biscuits, strawberry jam, cocoa, and a variety of thin sweet cookies and rich cakes.
“Ellen, you old darling! Just what I needed to cheer me up after that wretched rehearsal. Mina has a sore throat and I’m worried about her singing tomorrow,” Sue said as she ran upstairs to make a quick change. She was down again before Ellen had pulled the chairs up to the table. Sue exchanged her straight chair for a soft, deep one and relaxed into it with a little sigh of utter contentment.
“I could simply purr, Ellen. Isn’t this lovely?” she said, sipping her drink and spreading a hot biscuit. Ellen did not answer; there was something mysterious in her silence and her quick glances toward the hall. Then Sue noticed for the first time a third place at the table.
She sat up abruptly and put her cup on the table.
“Ellen,” she said, “who is the other place for?”
Ellen, now openly watching the hall, did not answer. Someone was coming downstairs, someone who walked lightly.
Sue jumped up and made for the door, just barely missing the tea-table. Half-way down the stairs was Ann, trailing a filmy rose chiffon tea frock. Ann, with a little half-smile on her face which just escaped being sentimental.
“As if she were afraid of being laughed at,” was Sue’s odd conviction. Correct, conventional Ann.
“Well,” said Ann in the husky drawl which she had cultivated, “are there no fervent embraces, no extravagant words of welcome for the prodigal sister?”
There was an absurd catch in Susan’s throat.
“Ann!” she said. “Ann!”
“Don’t be intense, darling. Kiss me and let’s eat.”
Sue feeling gauche beside the slim blonde perfection that was Ann, sent Ellen for fresh food. Ann took the easy-chair which was placed so the dancing flames played on her hair, intensifying the golden lights in it. Ann always did that; consciously or unconsciously she chose the most effective setting available. When she designed a home it invariably made a perfect background for Ann.
She startled Sue now by looking around the room without the critical eye of the artist and saying:
“I’d give anything for a few of these old pieces, Sue. They’re simply priceless.”
That was Ann. Without the flicker of an eyelash she called “simply priceless” furniture which she had characterized as “junk” the year before.
“Why, I’d as soon you took Ellen as any of this furniture.” said Sue.
“I know it. You and Ellen are absolutely contented here, aren’t you?”
With a flash of understanding Sue divined that Ann wasn’t perfectly happy. Perhaps that was why she had come. As if she had spoken the words, Ann answered her.
“I’m so tired. I had to come home for a rest or go to pieces.”
Ellen came in with biscuits and the mysterious look she always wore when she was trying to keep a secret. She fluttered around the tea-table like a wounded pheasant until Sue said:
“Tell us about it, Ellen, or you’ll burst.”
Ann flashed Ellen a warning look which she pretended not to see. Sue was amused. It was like Ellen to be thrilled with a Christmas conspiracy, but Ann —
The tea things settled, Ellen bustled out to the kitchen again.
Ann slowly sipped her cocoa and took dainty bites from a biscuit, while a warm intimate silence enveloped the two girls. Sue was afraid to speak, this new mood of Ann’s was so rare. The jingle of passing sleigh-bells, the muffled closing of a door, the snapping and crackling of the wood fire — all intensified the utter quiet.
Suddenly Sue put down her cup and jumped up.
“There’s someone talking to Ellen,” she said. “Were you alone, Ann?”
“I’ll see who it is then. Ellen’s been acting so strangely.”
“Wait, Sue. I’ll go, too.”
They went cautiously down the hall toward the kitchen and opened the door. Ellen and a tall, dark girl in a sable coat turned quickly, both looking as if they were house-breakers caught on a job. Sue threw her arms around the newcomer while Ann watched them with affectionately amused eyes.
“The haughty Miss Lynn Lane couldn’t stay away for Christmas,” said Lynn softly. “Neither, it seems, could her wise-cracking sister Ann.”
She had taken off the sable coat and dropped it casually on a chair. Ellen, with a scandalized cluck, picked it up and carried it reverently into the hall. The three girls all talked at once. Ann forgot her drawl, and Lynn her air of bored sophistication, while Sue, her eyes brimming, said affectionately:
“I know I’m an absolute idiot to carry on like this, but I’m so thrilled to have you both here …”
Presently Lynn, looking around the shabby, cheerful living-room, said: “No tree? I thought you’d weaken at the last moment.”
“No, indeed,” said Sue airily. “Ellen and I have simply forgotten that Christmas exists.”
The moment the words were out of her mouth she wondered what on earth one did to make a life-sized Christmas tree loaded with trimmings disappear into thin air.
“That’s sensible, isn’t it, Ann?”
“Very. I’ve always said so. After all, we aren’t children any more, to be sentimental about an antiquated holiday.”
Susan felt herself growing defiant again. She and Ellen had had such fun trimming the tree, but of course, Ann and Lynn had the modern view-point. They knew Christmas trees and presents and absurdly indigestible dinners were only sentimental nonsense. How could she get rid of it before they decided to make a tour of the house?
An hour later the girls were still sitting before the glowing coals in the grate. There was a feeling of intimacy and contentment in the long silences. Ann was stretched indolently on the divan. Lynn was curled up in the big chair, while Sue sat cross-legged on a pillow on the floor. All three were intently watching the flames, as if they saw vivid, quickly changing pictures of other Christmas Eves at The Highlands.
Once Sue gave Lynn a quick glance and said with studied casualness: “My Madonna developed a sore throat today and couldn’t sing a note. If she isn’t well tomorrow the Christmas pageant will simply fall through.”
Lynn exchanged an amused look with Ann.
“You’re so transparent, Sue darling. I loathe Christmas pageants, but tonight I’d promise you anything. If your Madonna doesn’t recover, I’ll sing for her.”
“Oh, that’s lovely.” Sue settled back on her pillow with a pleased smile on her face. Mina would not recover in time to sing even if she had to be bribed with the new hat of Sue’s she admired so much.
A door slammed shut somewhere near the kitchen. Sue remembered that Ellen had been working out there all the time they were talking. What could she find to do this far into the night?
Ann stirred lazily and sat up.
“Shall we go to bed? I’m simply dead for sleep,” she said.
“Not sleepy yet, darling. You and Sue go,” said Lynn. I’ll watch lost illusions come to life in the flames.”
“Fortunately my illusions are still intact,” laughed Sue, as she trailed after Ann.
Lynn waited until they were safely upstairs, then hurried out to the kitchen for a secret conclave with Ellen.
When Sue had tucked the downy quilts around Ann’s shoulders, and had seen the tired lines around her lovely eyes relax in a sleep of utter contentment, she went to her own cold room, to lie wide-awake with excitement in her big four-poster bed.
That Christmas tree . . . Sue could imagine Lynn’s delicately arched eyebrows raised in indulgent amusement when she saw it, and Ann’s sophisticated air of polite interest. That is, if she bothered to be polite or interested. Ann could be outrageously frank.
They would condone the absurdly indigestible dinner. One whiff of Ellen’s cooking would make anyone believe Christmas dinner in the old-fashioned way was still a commendable institution.
Sue drifted off to sleep, determined to prevent their seeing her tree.
Early Christmas morning she sat up in bed and looked around the room, her eyes weighted with sleep. The objects in the room were barely discernible in the faint morning light, but Sue jumped out of bed and groped her way across the cold, bare floor.
Sometime in the night she had drowsily resolved to take the Christmas tree down the hill to the Farlings. Nine little Farling children would welcome it with shouts of glee. Sue had mentally thanked Heaven for children who still thought Christmas a lovely holiday.
Shivering in the icy darkness, she dressed quickly. She put on a heavy sweater and small felt hat, boots and gloves. The sled was in the wood shed, and after feeling her way carefully down the stairs and through the silent house, she was soon swinging along in the snow, breathing deeply of the cold, invigorating air.
The tree had been hard to manage alone, but now it lay securely tied on the sled, its glittering trimmings tumbled together. Susan was glad Ellen had insisted on trimming it in the little hall off the kitchen to keep the living-room clean, otherwise she never could have carried it to the sled.
The trail to the Farling home was narrow, and the snow deep, so it was an hour later that Susan trudged back to The Highlands after leaving the tree, a trifle untidy but still triumphantly gay and lovely, with its fragrant limbs flung valiantly toward the grey December sky, on the Farlings’ porch.
When she reached the house, breathless and exhilarated, she stopped abruptly. In the driveway, looming darkly against the white snow, was a long sedan. From the living-room window came a shaft of light; subdued voices and laughter drifted out to Sue.
She hurried through the front hall and paused before the door, listening intently. Lynn and Ann … then a slower feminine voice … that would be Ellen’s, and the light, gay one …
“Elizabeth!” Sue flung open the door and was enfolded simultaneously by Elizabeth and Roger. A tall dark man watched the impetuous embraces. She noticed in the quick glimpse she had of him that he had an exceptionally attractive smile.
“Sue, darling, this is Doctor Eaton — Jimmy,” said Elizabeth. She turned and took his arm, adding casually, “We’re married.”
“A fact which Elizabeth takes very calmly. I haven’t eaten a bite since the ceremony yesterday,” said Elizabeth’s husband, with another of the smiles which made Sue understand why they had heard nothing but Jimmy Eaton from Elizabeth since she first met him.
“You might all make a few explanations,” said Sue with a pretense at severity. “When I distinctly told you there was no welcome mat spread for any of my recalcitrant family this year …”
Elizabeth looked hurt.
“Why, Sue, if we’d known you didn’t want us … ” she began.
“Want you! Elizabeth, I’m so thrilled …” She laughed, but the tears were very near the surface. “This won’t do,” she protested, linking her arm with Elizabeth’s. Let’s …”
Her voice died away. She was staring with delighted amazement at the lovely, shimmering Christmas tree which stood in its old place before a window, with Ann on a step-ladder beside it hanging the silver star.
Its needles were silvered, and displayed frosty, pure white ornaments. It looked cool and lovely and remote, like Ann herself.
But the gayly wrapped packages, all colors and shapes, tumbled underneath looked more like the joyous, careless children the Sherrills used to be.
Lynn had seen Sue’s rapt look. Her own eyes were bright with laughter, and something else.
“We all said we wanted a Christmas tree for Susan, but I think the rest of us …”
“After all,” drawled Ann from her perch beside the tree, “what is Christmas without a tree?”
“Or a turkey,” put in Roger from the kitchen door. “Ellen or company.”
She looked at Elizabeth and Jimmie, at Ann and Lynn and Roger; then she smiled, a tremulous little smile of happiness.
“It’s the grandest thing in the world,” said Sue rapturously,” “to have everyone home for Christmas!”