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A short story by Edward Everett Hale

Alice's Christmas-Tree

Title:     Alice's Christmas-Tree
Author: Edward Everett Hale [More Titles by Hale]


Alice MacNeil had made the plan of this Christmas-tree, all by herself and for herself. She had a due estimate of those manufactured trees which hard-worked "Sabbath Schools" get up for rewards of merit for the children who have been regular, and at the last moment have saved attendance-tickets enough. Nor did Alice MacNeil sit in judgment on these. She had a due estimate of them. But for her Christmas-tree she had two plans not included in those more meritorious buddings and bourgeonings of the winter. First, she meant to get it up without any help from anybody. And, secondly, she meant that the boys and girls who had anything from it should be regular laners and by-way farers,--they were to have no tickets of respectability,--they were not in any way to buy their way in; but, for this once, those were to come in to a Christmas-tree who happened to be ragged and in the streets when the Christmas-tree was ready.

So Alice asked Mr. Williams, the minister, if she could have one of the rooms in the vestry when Christmas eve came; and he, good saint, was only too glad to let her. He offered, gently, his assistance in sifting out the dirty boys and girls, intimating to Alice that there was dirt and dirt; and that, even in those lowest depths which she was plunging into, there were yet lower deeps which she might find it wise to shun. But here Alice told him frankly that she would rather try her experiment fairly through. Perhaps she was wrong, but she would like to see that she was wrong in her own way. Any way, on Christmas eve, she wanted no distinctions.

That part of her plan went bravely forward.

Her main difficulty came on the other side,--that she had too many to help her. She was not able to carry out the first part of her plan, and make or buy all her presents herself. For everybody was pleased with this notion of a truly catholic or universal tree; and everybody wanted to help. Well, if anybody would send her a box of dominos, or a jack-knife, or an open-eye-shut-eye doll, who was Alice to say it should not go on the tree? and when Mrs. Hesperides sent round a box of Fayal oranges, who was Alice to say that the children should not have oranges? And when Mr. Gorham Parsons sent in well-nigh a barrel full of Hubbardston None-such apples, who was Alice to say they should not have apples? So the tree grew and grew, and bore more and more fruit, till it was clear that there would be more than eighty reliable presents on it, besides apples and oranges, almonds and raisins galore.

Now you see this was a very great enlargement of Alice's plan; and it brought her to grief, as you shall see. She had proposed a cosey little tree for fifteen or twenty children. Well, if she had held to that, she would have had no more than she and Lillie, and Mr. Williams, and Mr. Gilmore, and John Flagg, and I, could have managed easily, particularly if mamma was there too. There would have been room enough in the chapel parlor; and it would have been, as I believe, just the pretty and cheerful Christmas jollity that Alice meant it should be. But when it came to eighty presents, and a company of eighty of the unwashed and unticketed, it became quite a different thing.

For now Alice began to fear that there would not be children enough in the highways and by-ways. So she started herself, as evening drew on, with George, the old faithful black major-domo, and she walked through the worst streets she knew anything of, of all those near the chapel; and, whenever she saw a brat particularly dirty, or a group of brats particularly forlorn, she sailed up gallantly, and, though she was frightened to death, she invited them to the tree. She gave little admittance cards, that said, "7 o'clock, Christmas Eve, 507 Livingstone Avenue," for fear the children would not remember. And she told Mr. Flagg that he and Mr. Gilmore might take some cards and walk out toward Williamsburg, and do the same thing, only they were to be sure that they asked the dirtiest and most forlorn children they saw. There was a friendly policeman with whom Alice had been brought into communication by the boys in her father's office, and he also was permitted to give notice of the tree. But he was also to be at the street door, armed with the strong arm of "The People of New York," and when the full quota of eighty had been admitted he was to admit no more.

Ah me! My poor Alice issued her cards only too freely. Better indeed, it seemed, had she held to her original plan; at least she thought so, and thinks so to this day. But I am not so certain. A hard time she had of it, however. Quarter of seven found the little Arabs in crowds around the door, with hundreds of others who thought they also were to find out what a "free lunch" was. The faithful officer Purdy was in attendance also; he passed in all who had the cards; he sent away legions, let me say, who had reason to dread him; but still there assembled a larger and larger throng about the door. Alice and Lillie, and the young gentlemen, and Mrs. MacNeil, were all at work up stairs, and the tree was a perfect beauty at last. They lighted up, and nothing could have been more lovely.

"Let them in!" said John Flagg rushing to the door, where expectant knocks had been heard already. "Let them in,--the smallest girls first!"

"Smallest girls," indeed! The door swung open, and a tide of boy and girl, girl and boy, boy big to hobble-de-hoy-dom, and girl big to young-woman-dom, came surging in, wildly screaming, scolding, pushing, and pulling. Omitting the profanity, these are the Christmas carols that fell on Alice's ear.

"Out o' that!" "Take that, then!" "Who are you?" "Hold your jaw!" "Can't you behave decent?" "You lie!" "Get out of my light!" "Oh, dear! you killed me!" "Who's killed?" "Golly! see there!" "I say, ma'am, give me that pair of skates!" "Shut up--" and so on, the howls being more and more impertinent, as the shepherds who had come to adore became more and more used to the position they were in.

Young Gilmore, who was willing to oblige Alice, but was not going to stand any nonsense, and would have willingly knocked the heads together of any five couples of this rebel rout, mounted on a corner of the railing, which, by Mr. Williams's prescience had been built around the tree, and addressed the riotous assembly.

They stopped to hear him, supposing he was to deliver the gifts, to which they had been summoned.

He told them pretty roundly that if they did not keep the peace, and stop crowding and yelling, they should all be turned out of doors; that they were to pass the little girls and boys forward first, and that nobody would have any thing to eat till this was done.

Some approach to obedience followed. A few little waifs were found, who in decency could be called little girls and boys. But, alas! as she looked down from her chair, Alice felt as if most of her guests looked like shameless, hulking big boys and big girls, only too well fitted to grapple with the world, and only too eager to accept its gifts without grappling. She and Lillie tried to forget this. They kissed a few little girls, and saw the faintest gleam of pleasure on one or two little faces. But there, also, the pleasure was almost extinct, in fear of the big boys and big girls howling around.

So the howling began again, as the distribution went forward. "Give me that jack-knife!" "I say, Mister, I'm as big as he is," "He had one before and hid it," "Be down, Tom Mulligan,--get off that fence or I'll hide you," "I don't want the book, give me them skates," "You sha'n't have the skates, I'll have 'em myself--" and so on. John Flagg finally knocked down Tom Mulligan, who had squeezed round behind the tree, in an effort to steal something, and had the satisfaction of sending him bellowing from the room, with his face covered with blood from his nose. Gilmore, meanwhile, was rapidly distributing an orange and an apple to each, which, while the oranges were sucked, gave a moment's quiet. Alice and the ladies, badly frightened, were stripping the tree as fast as they could, and at last announced that it was all clear, with almost as eager joy as half an hour before they had announced that it was all full. "There's a candy horn on top, give me that." "Give me that little apple." "Give me the old sheep." "Hoo! hurrah, for the old sheep!" This of a little lamb which had been placed as an appropriate ornament in front. Then began a howl about oranges. "I want another orange." "Bill's got some, and I've got none." "I say, Mister, give me an orange."

To which Mister replied, by opening the window, and speaking into the street,--"I say, Purdy, call four officers and come up and clear this room."

The room did not wait for the officers: it cleared itself very soon on this order, and was left a scene of wreck and dirt. Orange-peel trampled down on the floor; cake thrown down and mashed to mud, intermixed with that which had come in on boots, and the water which had been slobbered over from hasty mugs; the sugar plums which had fallen in scrambles, and little sprays of green too, trodden into the mass,--all made an aspect of filth like a market side-walk. And poor Alice was half crying and half laughing; poor Lillie was wholly crying. Gilmore and Flagg were explaining to each other how gladly they would have thrashed the whole set.

The thought uppermost in Alice's mind was that she had been a clear, out and out fool! And that, probably, is the impression of the greater part of the readers of her story,--or would have been the impression of any one who only had her point of view.


Perhaps the reader is willing to take another point of view.

As the group stood there, talking over the riot as Mrs. MacNeil called it,--as John Flagg tried to make Alice laugh by bringing her a half-piece of frosted pound-cake, and proving to her that it had not been on the floor,--as she said, her eyes streaming with tears, "I tell you, John! I am a fool, and I know I am, and nobody but a fool would have started such a row,"--as all this happened, Patrick Crehore came back for his little sister's orange which he had wrapped in her handkerchief and left on one of the book-racks in the room. Patrick was alone now, and was therefore sheepish enough, and got himself and his orange out of the room as soon as he well could. But he was sharp enough to note the whole position, and keen enough to catch Alice's words as she spoke to Mr. Flagg. Indeed, the general look of disappointment and chagrin in the room, and the contrast between this filthy ruin and the pretty elegance of half an hour ago, were distinct enough to be observed by a much more stupid boy than Patrick Crehore. He went down stairs and found Bridget waiting, and walked home with the little toddler, meditating rather more than was his wont on Alice's phrase, "I tell you, I am a fool." Meditating on it, he hauled Bridget up five flights of stairs and broke in on the little room where a table spread with a plentiful supply of tea, baker's bread, butter, cheese, and cabbage, waited their return. Jerry Crehore, his father, sat smoking, and his mother was tidying up the room.

"And had ye a good time, me darling? And ye 've brought home your orange, and a doll too, and mittens too. And what did you have, Pat?"

So Pat explained, almost sulkily, that he had a checker-board, and a set of checker-men, which he produced; but he put them by as if he hated the sight of them, and for a minute dropped the subject, while he helped little Biddy to cabbage. He ate something himself, drank some tea, and then delivered his rage with much unction, a little profanity, great incoherency,--but to his own relief.

"It's a mean thing it is, all of it," said he, "I'll be hanged but it is! I dunno who the lady is; but we've made her cry bad, I know that; and the boys acted like Nick. They knew that as well as I do. The man there had to knock one of the fellows down, bedad, and served him right, too. I say, the fellows fought, and hollared, and stole, and sure ye 'd thought ye was driving pigs down the Eighth Avenue, and I was as bad as the worst of 'em. That's what the boys did when a lady asked 'em to Christmas."

"That was a mean thing to do," said Jerry, taking his pipe from his mouth for a longer speech than he had ever been known to make while smoking.

Mrs. Crehore stopped in her dish-wiping, sat down, and gave her opinion. She did not know what a Christmas-tree was, having never seed one nor heared of one. But she did know that those who went to see a lady should show manners and behave like jintlemen, or not go at all. She expressed her conviction that Tom Mulligan was rightly served, and her regret that he had not two black eyes instead of one. She would have been glad, indeed, if certain Floyds, and Sullivans, and Flahertys with whose names of baptism she was better acquainted than I am, had shared a similar fate.

This oration, and the oracle of his father still more, appeased Pat somewhat; and when his supper was finished, after long silence, he said, "We'll give her a Christmas present. We will. Tom Mulligan and Bill Floyd and I will give it. The others sha'n't know. I know what we'll give her. I'll tell Bill Floyd that we made her cry."


After supper, accordingly, Pat Crehore repaired to certain rendezvous of the younger life of the neighborhood, known to him, in search of Bill Floyd. Bill was not at the first, nor at the second, there being indeed no rule or principle known to men or even to archangels by which Bill's presence at any particular spot at any particular time could be definitely stated. But Bill also, in his proud free-will, obeyed certain general laws; and accordingly Pat found him inspecting, as a volunteer officer of police, the hauling out and oiling of certain hose at the house of a neighboring hose company. "Come here, Bill. I got something to show you."

Bill had already carried home and put in safe keeping a copy of Routledge's "Robinson Crusoe," which had been given to him.

He left the hose inspection willingly, and hurried along with Pat, past many attractive groups, not even stopping where a brewer's horse had fallen on the ground, till Pat brought him in triumph to the gaudy window of a shoe-shop, lighted up gayly and full of the wares by which even shoe-shops lure in customers for Christmas.

"See there!" said Pat, nearly breathless. And he pointed to the very centre of the display, a pair of slippers made from bronze-gilt kid, and displaying a hideous blue silk bow upon the gilding. For what class of dancers or of maskers these slippers may have been made, or by what canon of beauty, I know not. Only they were the centre of decoration in the shoe-shop window. Pat looked at them with admiration, as he had often done, and said again to Bill Floyd, "See there, ain't them handsome?"

"Golly!" said Bill, "I guess so."

"Bill, let's buy them little shoes, and give 'em to her."

"Give 'em to who?" said Bill, from whose mind the Christmas-tree had for the moment faded, under the rivalry of the hose company, the brewer's horse, and the shop window. "Give 'em to who?"

"Why, her, I don't know who she is. The gal that made the what-do-ye-call-it, the tree, you know, and give us the oranges, where old Purdy was. I say, Bill, it was a mean dirty shame to make such a row there, when we was bid to a party; and I want to make the gal a present, for I see her crying, Bill. Crying cos it was such a row." Again, I omit certain profane expressions which did not add any real energy to the declaration.

"They is handsome," said Bill, meditatingly. "Ain't the blue ones handsomest?"

"No," said Pat, who saw he had gained his lodgment, and that the carrying his point was now only a matter of time. "The gould ones is the ones for me. We'll give 'em to the gal for a Christmas present, you and I and Tom Mulligan."

Bill Floyd did not dissent, being indeed in the habit of going as he was led, as were most of the "rebel rout" with whom he had an hour ago been acting. He assented entirely to Pat's proposal. By "Christmas" both parties understood that the present was to be made before Twelfth Night, not necessarily on Christmas day. Neither of them had a penny; but both of them knew, perfectly well, that whenever they chose to get a little money they could do so.

They soon solved their first question, as to the cost of the coveted slippers. True, they knew, of course, that they would be ejected from the decent shop if they went in to inquire. But, by lying in wait, they soon discovered Delia Sullivan, a decent-looking girl they knew, passing by, and having made her their confidant, so far that she was sure she was not fooled, they sent her in to inquire. The girl returned to announce, to the astonishment of all parties, that the shoes cost six dollars.

"Hew!" cried Pat, "six dollars for them are! I bought my mother's new over-shoes for one." But not the least did he 'bate of his determination, and he and Bill Floyd went in search of Tom Mulligan.

Tom was found as easily as Bill. But it was not so easy to enlist him. Tom was in a regular corner liquor store with men who were sitting smoking, drinking, and telling dirty stories. Either of the other boys would have been whipped at home if he had been known to be seen sitting in this place, and the punishment would have been well bestowed. But Tom Mulligan had had nobody thrash him for many a day till John Flagg had struck out so smartly from the shoulder. Perhaps, had there been some thrashing as discriminating as Jerry Flaherty's, it had been better for Tom Mulligan. The boys found him easily enough, but, as I said, had some difficulty in getting him away. With many assurances, however, that they had something to tell him, and something to show him, they lured him from the shadow of the comfortable stove into the night.

Pat Crehore, who had more of the tact of oratory than he knew, then boldly told Tom Mulligan the story of the Christmas-tree, as it passed after Tom's ejection. Tom was sour at first, but soon warmed to the narrative, and even showed indignation at the behavior of boys who had seemed to carry themselves less obnoxiously than he did. All the boys agreed, that but for certain others who had never been asked to come, and ought to be ashamed to be there with them as were, there would have been no row. They all agreed that on some suitable occasion unknown to me and to this story they would take vengeance on these Tidds and Sullivans. When Pat Crehore wound up his statement, by telling how he saw the ladies crying, and all the pretty room looking like a pig-sty, Tom Mulligan was as loud as he was in saying that it was all wrong, and that nobody but blackguards would have joined in it, in particular such blackguards as the Tidds and Sullivans above alluded to.

Then to Tom's sympathizing ear was confided the project of the gold shoes, as the slippers were always called, in this honorable company. And Tom completely approved. He even approved the price. He explained to the others that it would be mean to give to a lady any thing of less price. This was exactly the sum which recommended itself to his better judgment. And so the boys went home, agreeing to meet Christmas morning as a Committee of Ways and Means.

To the discussions of this committee I need not admit you. Many plans were proposed: one that they should serve through the holidays at certain ten-pin alleys, known to them; one that they should buy off Fogarty from his newspaper route for a few days. But the decision was, that Pat, the most decent in appearance, should dress up in a certain Sunday suit he had, and offer the services of himself, and two unknown friends of his, as extra cork-boys at Birnebaum's brewery, where Tom Mulligan reported they were working nights, that they might fill an extra order. This device succeeded. Pat and his friends were put on duty, for trial, on the night of the 26th; and, the foreman of the corking-room being satisfied, they retained their engagements till New Year's eve, when they were paid three dollars each, and resigned their positions.

"Let's buy her three shoes!" said Bill, in enthusiasm at their success. But this proposal was rejected. Each of the other boys had a private plan for an extra present to "her" by this time. The sacred six dollars was folded up in a bit of straw paper from the brewery, and the young gentlemen went home to make their toilets, a process they had had no chance to go through, on Christmas eve. After this, there was really no difficulty about their going into the shoe-shop, and none about consummating the purchase,--to the utter astonishment of the dealer. The gold shoes were bought, rolled up in paper, and ready for delivery.

Bill Floyd had meanwhile learned, by inquiry at the chapel, where she lived, though there were doubts whether any of them knew her name. The others rejected his proposals that they should take street cars, and they boldly pushed afoot up to Clinton Avenue, and rang, not without terror, at the door.

Terror did not diminish when black George appeared, whose acquaintance they had made at the tree. But fortunately George did not recognize them in their apparel of elegance. When they asked for the "lady that gave the tree," he bade them wait a minute, and in less than a minute Alice came running out to meet them. To the boys' great delight, she was not crying now.

"If you please, ma'am," said Tom, who had been commissioned as spokesman,--"if you please, them's our Christmas present to you, ma'am. Them's gold shoes. And please, ma'am, we're very sorry there was such a row at the Christmas, ma'am. It was mean, ma'am. Good-by, ma'am."

Alice's eyes were opening wider and wider, nor at this moment did she understand. "Gold shoes," and "row at the Christmas," stuck by her, however; and she understood there was a present. So, of course, she said the right thing, by accident, and did the right thing, being a lady through and through.

"No, you must not go away. Come in, boys, come in. I did not know you, you know." As how should she. "Come in and sit down."

"Can't ye take off your hat?" said Tom, in an aside to Pat, who had neglected this reverence as he entered. And Tom was thus a little established in his own esteem.

And Alice opened the parcel, and had her presence of mind by this time; and, amazed as she was at the gold shoes, showed no amazement,--nay, even slipped off her own slipper, and showed that the gold shoe fitted, to the delight of Tom, who was trying to explain that the man would change them if they were too small. She found an apple for each boy, thanked and praised each one separately; and the interview would have been perfect, had she not innocently asked Tom what was the matter with his eye. Tom's eye! Why, it was the black eye John Flagg gave him. I am sorry to say Bill Floyd sniggered; but Pat came to the front this time, and said "a man hurt him." Then Alice produced some mittens, which had been left, and asked whose those were. But the boys did not know.

"I say, fellars, I'm going down to the writing-school, at the Union," said Pat, when they got into the street, all of them being in the mood that conceals emotion. "I say, let's all go."

To this they agreed.

"I say, I went there last week Monday, with Meg McManus. I say, fellars, it's real good fun."

The other fellows, having on the unfamiliar best rig, were well aware that they must not descend to their familiar haunts, and all consented.

To the amazement of the teacher, these three hulking boys allied themselves to the side of order, took their places as they were bidden, turned the public opinion of the class, and made the Botany Bay of the school to be its quietest class that night.

To his amazement the same result followed the next night. And to his greater amazement, the next.

To Alice's amazement, she received on Twelfth Night a gilt valentine envelope, within which, on heavily ruled paper, were announced these truths:--

MARM,--The mitins wur Nora Killpatrick's. She lives inn Water street place behind the Lager Brewery.

Yours to command,

The names which they could copy from signs were correctly spelled.

To Pat's amazement, Tom Mulligan held on at the writing-school all winter. When it ended, he wrote the best hand of any of them.

To my amazement, one evening when I looked in at Longman's, two years to a day after Alice's tree, a bright black-eyed young man, who had tied up for me the copy of Masson's "Milton," which I had given myself for a Christmas present, said: "You don't remember me." I owned innocence.

"My name is Mulligan--Thomas Mulligan. Would you thank Mr. John Flagg, if you meet him, for a Christmas present he gave me two years ago, at Miss Alice MacNeil's Christmas-tree. It was the best present I ever had, and the only one I ever deserved."

And I said I would do so.

* * * * *

I told Alice afterward never to think she was going to catch all the fish there were in any school. I told her to whiten the water with ground-bait enough for all, and to thank God if her heavenly fishing were skilful enough to save one.

[The end]
Edward Everett Hale's short story: Alice's Christmas-Tree