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ADDISON'S CHRISTMAS MISADVENTURE
CHRISTMAS day came and passed at the Old Squire's very quietly. As I have said before, Maine people had not yet begun to celebrate the day as much as is now the custom. Something was said the previous evening, I recollect, about "St. Nick," whether he would come down our chimney or not, Addison remarking that the flue was big enough, if he desired to descend. Little Wealthy hung one of her stockings in the chimney corner, when she went to bed that night, on a large pin which she drove with a billet of wood. Halstead said that it would be a good joke to put a potato in it and did so but I think that either Gram or Theodora removed it, for when Wealthy looked in her stocking next morning, she found a handful of new cents, a pretty bit of blue ribbon and a roll of lozenges. She was delighted with these trifles. We who were older considered that it would be too childish to hang our stockings. Addison assured Wealthy, in jest, that he had heard a clatter on the house roof in the night — when St. Nick came.
I remember that Gram wished us all "Merry Christmas" as fast as we made our appearance that morning. She was very jolly and, for the nonce, repeated an old rhyme, current when she was a girl,
"I wish you merry Christmas
And a happy New Year,
With your pockets full of money
And your stomach full of beer."
"But that last part of the wish sounds intemperate," she added. "It ought to be changed to something better." And at the breakfast table we began to amend; many rhymes were suggested, none of them very apposite. "And a heart without a fear," was Theodora's amendment. "And the best of all good cheer," was Addison's. Halstead declared it should be, "And a cuff on either ear." Wealthy's line was, "And a sled that you can steer." Ellen and I floundered on a number of rhymes which at best were unfit, and failed to distinguish ourselves as poets. Catherine Edwards to whom the stanza was referred, that evening, thought that it ought to run, "And a jewel in your ear," which was perhaps as good as any, in the sense of fitness for the place, although as Catherine herself admitted, it suggested a strain of personal vanity.
On New Year's there came a violent wind which blew all night, so heavily that we were much disturbed lest the farm buildings should be blown down. The wind came in great gusts, every few minutes, with lulls betwixt them. After every gust we sat listening, to hear whether the barns had been unroofed or were falling.
"Ruth, I guess the Hat has got out of the Notch!" the Old Squire exclaimed to Gram, after a particularly hard flaw during the evening.
We could not imagine what he meant, till Gram at length explained to us that he referred, humorously, to a saying common in that county, that some mythical "Clerk of the Weather" kept his old hat stuffed into the Notch of the White Mountains, to keep off the northwest winds.
Next morning we learned that our neighbor Sylvester's barn had been unroofed and one of his cows killed by a rafter which had fallen inside. The men of the neighborhood gathered to assist him to replace and re-shingle the roof; and all pronounced it a "cold job," for the weather continued severe.
In secret Addison, Thomas and a number of the other boys had for some time been planning a joke on the young people of an adjoining school district, four miles to the eastward of us, known as Baghdad. The school districts of Maine towns are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.; but locally they sometimes bear whimsical nicknames; "Baghdad" was one of these.
The boys over in Baghdad had, for a number of winters, been exercising their wits at our expense, so much so that Addison and Thomas thought it necessary to square accounts with them and restore the honors. Preparations were made quietly, and on the following night, shortly after eleven o'clock, we set off, privately, with "Old Sol" harnessed to a pung, for an incursion into Baghdad.
The cargo of that pung was remarkable and, if overhauled by strangers, would have been difficult of explanation. It consisted of a bushel basket, containing not less than twenty old socks and stockings, such as pertain to the wearing apparel of both sexes, many of them much darned, but clean and stuffed with candies, rolls of lozenges, maple sugar and raisins.
In another basket were ten or a dozen old boots, shocking ones, and in some of these were pigs' tails, or ears, a brimstone roll, carrots, turnips, red ears of corn, fragments of old greenish brass, caricatures on paper, variously inscribed in painful rhyme, old hats, a ball of stout twine, etc. There was also a long, crook-neck squash.
The bells had been removed from the shafts of the pung, and the outfit proceeded very quietly along the snowy road, by a roundabout route, for a distance of nearly or quite five miles, till we entered a piece of hemlock woods on the farther border of which stood the Baghdad schoolhouse.
About a hundred yards on the hither side of the schoolhouse, a lumber road diverged from the highway where hemlock logs had recently been drawn out to a neighboring saw-mill. Here we turned in and, after proceeding ten or twelve rods into the woods, hitched our horse and carefully blanketed him, for the night was frosty and sharp.
This done we took our baskets on our shoulders, walked back to the road and, after listening and glancing up and down the highway, entered the schoolhouse. No one could have made us out, at least by starlight. In addition to great coats, fur caps pulled down over our ears and knit comforters to keep us warm on our night ride, Addison had what looked to be a long white beard — it was the tail of a white horse — hanging far down in front of his coat.
We knew most of the boys in "Baghdad." They outnumbered us in the Old Squire's district and were inclined to be unfriendly, but the girls were pleasant acquaintances. Addison and Thomas had hung May-baskets to a number of them, the previous spring — and been hotly chased home by a strong party of the boys who threatened unpleasant proceedings if they caught us. Hence the sedulous caution in our movements.
Two days previously, however, Addison had not scrupled to visit the Baghdad school one afternoon for an hour; he had a motive as will appear; but not to fall into difficulties with the boys over there, he took care to enter after school had been called to order, and to take leave before it was dismissed.
Not one country schoolhouse in a dozen in that county was then locked at night. We entered without difficulty. A faint sense of warmth still lingered about the stove, and opening it we raked forward a few bright coals and warmed our fingers.
Addison then lighted the lantern which we had brought; and we proceeded to decorate "Baghdad." The seats were benches with long desks behind the backs of each and shelves underneath for the books. Addison had observed, during his call, where all the older boys and girls sat. Beneath the shelves of their respective seats plump stockings of confectionery were hung to many of the girls, with befitting notes attached. Addison was a good hand at such efforts; I still remember some of them:
"Tried to get down your chimney and couldn't, Amy Eastman. Fire was too hot. Had to come to the schoolhouse. Should never keep a fire Christmas night. St. Nick."
"Please burn out your chimney, Myra Edes. All full of soot. Couldn't get down, at all!"
"Pray do build a bigger chimney at your house, Minnie Wilkins. I'm getting too stout to crawl down such a narrow one. Your affectionate St. Nick."
The old boots were for the boys; and the accompanying notes were not complimentary.
"Tickle your nose with this little pig's tail, Rufus Eastman. That is all you will get from me, this year. They say you were saucy to the schoolmaster, last winter. Try and behave yourself better next year. St. Nick."
"Quit off tobacco, Tim Jackson, and take a bite off this turnip once in a while. It will sweeten up your breath."
The crook-neck squash was for a tall lathy youth, named Cephas Morton, and had pinned to it this bit of personal advice. "Look at this squash, Cephas, and pull that crook out of your spine."
The roll of brimstone was for a somewhat profane youth, named America Robbins. It was wrapped in a piece of paper on which was written,
"Better skip those hard words, Merrick. I've been harking to you for some time. Remember, Merrick, that there's a land where the candy is all hard and yellow. Here's a stick of it for you. Take a sniff at it now and then."
If we had confined our efforts that night to the Baghdad schoolhouse we might have gotten away scot-free.
But there were three girls, sisters, named Thomas — Myrtle, Edith and Leola — very attractive, living about a quarter of a mile from the schoolhouse, in a large, low, one-story farmhouse, flanked by two barns and a number of sheds and other out-buildings.
Nothing less would answer for Addison, Tom and Willis Murch than the bold scheme of hanging three of the best filled stockings down the chimney at the Thomas place. The plan was to approach cautiously, mount a shed in the rear, from the roof of which it would be easy to pass to the roof of the ell and thence to the house roof. By means of twine Addison deemed it feasible to let down the stockings into the fire-place of the farmhouse sitting-room, here they would be discovered on kindling a fire the following morning.
Accordingly, leaving our two bushel baskets at the schoolhouse, we went along the road to the Thomas place. It was near two o'clock by this time. No one was astir. The house was dark. We gained the shed roof, climbed on the ell and went softly along the ell roof to the house. Willis, Thomas and I went no further, and passed up the stockings and lines to Addison who had mounted to the roof of the house.
He had scarcely begun to lower the first stocking down chimney, however, when we heard sleigh bells and saw — for the stars shone brightly — a team coming along the road, from the direction of the schoolhouse. In the sleigh, as we learned afterwards, were Tim Jackson and another boy, named Roscoe Parmenter, on their way home from a young folks' party, a few miles distant.
Willis and I lay low on the ell roof and easily escaped observation. Addison, too, sheltered himself behind the big chimney top and was not seen till after they had passed, when one of them happened to look back and espied "St. Nick," standing beside the chimney! If they had hailed us, or called out, we might possibly have escaped, but they said nothing and we supposed that they had not seen us. In fact, they knew not what to think of the circumstance, at first; but as they drove on, they mistrusted that some prank was on foot. At the next two houses, where the Eastman and Robbins families lived, on opposite sides of the road, they stopped and, waking the people, announced that there were suspicious characters about the Thomas place.
Rufus, Luke and Charley Eastman, with Ben and Merrick Robbins, at once turned out; and as Addison was making fast the last of the strings to a brick on the chimney top, the whole party suddenly appeared up the road, and shouted vigorously!
Our plight for escape could hardly have been worse. Earlier in the season we might have run away across the fields and gained the woods. But with a foot and a half of snow on the ground, the road was our only avenue for flight.
"Put for the pung," whispered Willis; and we three on the ell roof dropped off into a drift of snow in front of it and ran. Addison as hastily descended off the house roof to the ell and, remembering certain things better than we did, called after us in a low tone, but thinking there was no time to lose and that he had best be running, himself, we fled down the road at our handsomest paces. Addison, however, on gaining the ground, darted into a wood-house and hastily took refuge on top of several tiers of stove-wood there.
The pursuing party saw us as we emerged upon the road, and chased us for some distance. We then heard Merrick Robbins say, "Here ain't all of 'em!" whereupon he and two of the others turned back to look about the Thomas premises.
The Thomases, too, were now appearing at doors and windows. But Rufus Eastman and the three others still pursued us. In fact, they were not more than two hundred yards in our rear; but Willis, Thomas and I knowing that everything depended on speed, exerted ourselves to distance them and widened the interval a little by the time we reached the schoolhouse. We dared not stop here to get the baskets, but dashed around a bend of the road, into the woods. It was not so light in the shadows of the hemlock trees; we passed out of sight of our pursuers and, turning in at the logging-road, had the satisfaction of hearing them run past.
Meantime Merrick and the others, with the Thomases, were searching the sheds and barns. Early in the hubbub, however, Myrtle Thomas discovered the stockings in the fire-place; and both she and the others immediately guessed that their nocturnal visitors were not very dangerous. The alarm terminated in much laughter, but they continued searching; and Addison, lying flat on top of the wood-pile, heard a great many comical remarks. Once they came into the wood-house with a lantern, and one of the boys threw several billets of wood on top of the tiers, where Ad lay; but he did not stir.
At length the boys departed and the Thomases went indoors. As soon as Addison deemed it safe, he made his escape and hurried down the road. It was his impression that the whole party had turned back from chasing Willis, Thomas and me, to hunt him. Hence he supposed that we had escaped to the pung and were waiting for him in the woods. On reaching the schoolhouse, he went in to see if we had taken the baskets, and was a little surprised to find that we had not done so. He set them together and was on the point of coming out at the door with them, when he heard voices and caught sight of Rufus and the others, now just returning along the road from their chase after us; — for they had run on past us for half a mile or more, and being much out of breath by that time, had rested and were returning slowly. Willis, Thomas and I, wrapped up in the pung, heard them pass.
After a glance to make sure that it was not Willis and I, Addison drew back into the little shed or portico of the schoolhouse and gently closed the outer door. He then tip-toed into the schoolroom and peeped out at the window. Generally Addison was a good strategist; but fortune was against him that night. The portico door, which he had gently closed, swung back, partly open of itself. As Rufus and the other boys were passing, they noticed that it was ajar.
"How came that door open?" one of them said. "I'll bet those scamps have been in the schoolhouse!" They stopped, then approached the door.
In great trepidation again, Addison hurriedly got on top of one of the benches, and reaching a little scuttle in the low ceiling of the room, pushed it open and raised himself by main strength through the hole. In fact, he had but barely time to draw himself up, when the searchers entered noisily, discovered the baskets and became much excited again. Addison could hear all they said very plainly, as they lighted matches at the stove and examined the baskets, then looked in the wood-shed and in the dark corners of the room.
"We've scared 'em off," said Rufus, "but they will be back after their baskets before morning. Luke, you put back and get Merrick and the others. We'll stay here and watch."
Meantime, Willis and I turned the team and drove slowly out of the logging-road to the highway. After waiting a while, Willis went back on foot along the road to the bend, and while watching there saw Merrick and four or five others coming, at a run, toward the schoolhouse. Thinking that another pursuit was being made, he ran to the pung and we drove off as fast as we could. What had become of Addison we had little idea; but we surmised that he might have escaped by what was called the "north road," leading around from "Baghdad" to our home district.
He was not at home, however, when we arrived; nor did he appear next morning. I was obliged to explain his absence to our folks as best I could. We felt considerable anxiety concerning him, but were somewhat at a loss what to do.
In point of fact he was a close prisoner in the little dark loft, over the Baghdad schoolroom. For so confident were those boys that we would return to get our baskets, Rufus, Merrick, Luke and two others kindled a fire in the stove and kept watch from the window. Addison had the pleasure of hearing them describe what they meant to do, if they caught us.
After it grew light, all save Luke went home to get breakfast. He declared that he would stay, keep fire and sweep the schoolroom — it being his turn to do so — and that Rufus might bring him something to eat, at school time.
Addison now had thoughts of coming down from the loft, overpowering Luke and escaping; and he was afterwards exceedingly sorry that he had not done so; but he disliked to betray his identity and still hoped to escape, somehow, unrecognized.
After a time the scholars assembled, and when the girls began to find the stockings of confectionery under their desks, and the boys to read the advice given them in the old boots, there was a general pow-wow — all of which Addison heard.
The girls openly praised "St. Nick" whom some of them declared they knew was Addison. The Thomas girls told what they had found in their fire-place; and there were lively comments all around, till the teacher entered and school began.
All this time Addison had scarcely dared move. He lay on two boards which were placed across the scantlings to which the laths and plaster of the ceiling were affixed. It grew very warm, too; for they had a hot fire in the stove below. The heat made him drowsy in spite of himself; it was dark up there, and he had been astir all night. He began to catch cat naps; and at length, in one of these which may have lasted some minutes, he rolled uneasily over, off the narrow boards, jumped to recover himself and actually thrust one foot, boot and all, down through the plaster!
Instantly there was a scream from the girls' seats! — followed by a whoop from the boys'! Schoolmaster Wilson stood staring, amazed, then exclaimed, "Whoever is up there, come down, instantly!"
Dreadfully mortified and broad awake enough now, Addison for a moment was inclined to defy them all and stand a siege; for he fancied he could hold the loft against all comers. But reflecting that in the end he would inevitably be forced to surrender, he crept to the scuttle.
"Come down instantly!" the master again called out.
Addison raised the scuttle and (one can imagine with what a chapfallen smile) showed his face.
A roar of recognition, and an outburst of ironical laughter and jeers from the boys greeted him.
He was in for it now! Slowly he lowered himself to the desk below and then to the floor and, not forgetting his manners, made his best bow!
Another shout of laughter arose!
"Well, sir, how came you up there?" cried the master.
"Mr. Wilson," replied Ad, "that is quite a long story. But I meant no harm. I did not get up there willingly. I did not mean to make a disturbance."
"But you have made one!" exclaimed the master. "I think we shall have to keep hold of you a while. You have done us some damage."
"I will gladly pay for the hole I have made in the plaster," replied Addison, humbly.
"Well, sir, you may take a seat at my desk, till school is dismissed. On second thought, I think you may sit on the desk and face the school. When we have such unusual visitors, we want them where we can all see them!"
This was a humiliation; but Addison was obliged to submit to it, for the master placed himself between him and the outer door. Worse still, although he had slipped out of his St. Nicholas togs before coming down, some of the boys looked up in the loft and drew them out. The master then compelled him to don the whole absurd rig, horse-tail whiskers and all, as he sat there on top of the desk, facing the whole school!
He no doubt suffered agonies of mortification during the next half or three-quarters of an hour. There was one continuous laugh and titter. Study and lessons wholly ceased. At length the master dismissed school for the forenoon and went off to his boarding-place for his dinner, leaving Ad to the tender mercies of all "Baghdad!"
Merrick, Cephas, Rufus, Tim and others at once made at him, with doubled fists, promising him a sound drubbing — for his Christmas advice. But those girls, Myrtle, Edith, Leola and others, fifteen or twenty of them, promptly gathered around him and stoutly declared that their nice, dear "St. Nick" should not be molested! They formed a great ring about him, protected him out of the schoolhouse and escorted him away down the road, through the woods. It is always a good thing to be on the right side of the girls. So at least Addison found it.
Meantime Willis, Thomas and I had been through our own district and raised a party. At noon that day, fourteen of us set off to invade "Baghdad" and rescue our missing man, vi et armis and pugnis et calcibus.
We met him on the road, coming home afoot, with the bushel baskets resting on his shoulders, partly over his head; and his face, as he looked out from under them, wore a very sheepish grin.
He would not tell us what had befallen him, but our girls got the whole story from the Thomas girls a week later.