The Falsoms’ Christmas Dinner

“Well, so it’s all settled,” said Stephen Falsom.

“Yes,” assented Alexina. “Yes, it is,” she repeated, as if somebody
had questioned it.

Then Alexina sighed. Whatever “it” was, the fact of its being settled
did not seem to bring Alexina any great peace of mind–nor Stephen
either, judging from his face, which wore a sort of “suffer and be
strong” expression just then. “When do you go?” said Alexina, after a
pause, during which she had frowned out of the window and across the
Tracy yard. Josephine Tracy and her brother Duncan were strolling
about the yard in the pleasant December sunshine, arm in arm, laughing
and talking. They appeared to be a nice, harmless pair of people, but
the sight of them did not seem to please Alexina.

“Just as soon as we can sell the furniture and move away,” said
Stephen moodily. “Heigh-ho! So this is what all our fine ambitions
have come to, Lexy, your music and my M.D. A place in a department
store for you, and one in a lumber mill for me.”

“I don’t dare to complain,” said Alexina slowly. “We ought to be so
thankful to get the positions. I _am_ thankful. And I don’t mind so
very much about my music. But I do wish you could have gone to
college, Stephen.”

“Never mind me,” said Stephen, brightening up determinedly. “I’m going
to go into the lumber business enthusiastically. You don’t know what
unsuspected talents I may develop along that line. The worst of it is
that we can’t be together. But I’ll keep my eyes open, and perhaps
I’ll find a place for you in Lessing.”

Alexina said nothing. Her separation from Stephen was the one point in
their fortunes she could not bear to discuss. There were times when
Alexina did not see how she was going to exist without Stephen. But
she never said so to him. She thought he had enough to worry him
without her making matters worse. “Well,” said Stephen, getting up,
“I’ll run down to the office. And see here, Lexy. Day after tomorrow
is Christmas. Are we going to celebrate it at all? If so I’d better
order the turkey.”

Alexina looked thoughtful. “I don’t know, Stephen. We’re short of
money, you know, and the fund is dwindling every day. Don’t you think
it’s a little extravagant to have a turkey for two people? And somehow
I don’t feel a bit Christmassy. I think I’d rather spend it just like
any other day and try to forget that it _is_ Christmas. Everything
would be so different.”

“That’s true, Lexy. And we must look after the bawbees closely, I’ll
admit.” When Stephen had gone out Alexina cried a little, not very
much, because she didn’t want her eyes to be red against Stephen’s
return. But she had to cry a little. As she had said, everything was
so different from what it had been a year ago. Their father had been
alive then and they had been very cosy and happy in the little house
at the end of the street. There had been no mother there since
Alexina’s birth sixteen years ago. Alexina had kept house for her
father and Stephen since she was ten. Stephen was a clever boy and
intended to study medicine. Alexina had a good voice, and something
was to be done about training it. The Tracys lived next door to them.
Duncan Tracy was Stephen’s particular chum, and Josephine Tracy was
Alexina’s dearest friend. Alexina was never lonely when Josie was near
by to laugh and chat and plan with.

Then, all at once, troubles came. In June the firm of which Mr. Falsom
was a member failed. There was some stigma attached to the failure,
too, although the blame did not rest upon Mr. Falsom, but with his
partner. Worry and anxiety aggravated the heart trouble from which he
had suffered for some time, and a month later he died. Alexina and
Stephen were left alone to face the knowledge that they were
penniless, and must look about for some way of supporting themselves.
At first they hoped to be able to get something to do in Thorndale, so
that they might keep their home. This proved impossible. After much
discouragement and disappointment Stephen had secured a position in
the lumber mill at Lessing, and Alexina was promised a place in a
departmental store in the city.

To make matters worse, Duncan Tracy and Stephen had quarrelled in
October. It was only a boyish disagreement over some trifle, but
bitter words had passed. Duncan, who was a quick-tempered lad, had
twitted Stephen with his father’s failure, and Stephen had resented it
hotly. Duncan was sorry for and ashamed of his words as soon as they
were uttered, but he would not humble himself to say so. Alexina had
taken Stephen’s part and her manner to Josie assumed a tinge of
coldness. Josie quickly noticed and resented it, and the breach
between the two girls widened almost insensibly, until they barely
spoke when they met. Each blamed the other and cherished bitterness
in her heart.

When Stephen came home from the post office he looked excited.

“Were there any letters?” asked Alexina.

“Well, rather! One from Uncle James!”

“Uncle James,” exclaimed Alexina, incredulously.

“Yes, beloved sis. Oh, you needn’t try to look as surprised as I did.
And I ordered the turkey after all. Uncle James has invited himself
here to dinner on Christmas Day. You’ll have a chance to show your
culinary skill, for you know we’ve always been told that Uncle James
was a gourmand.”

Alexina read the letter in a maze. It was a brief epistle, stating
that the writer wished to make the acquaintance of his niece and
nephew, and would visit them on Christmas Day. That was all. But
Alexina instantly saw a future of rosy possibilities. For Uncle James,
who lived in the city and was really a great-uncle, had never taken
the slightest notice of their family since his quarrel with their
father twenty years ago; but this looked as if Uncle James were
disposed to hold out the olive branch.

“Oh, Stephen, if he likes you, and if he offers to educate you!”
breathed Alexina. “Perhaps he will if he is favourably impressed. But
we’ll have to be so careful, he is so whimsical and odd, at least
everybody has always said so. A little thing may turn the scale either
way. Anyway, we must have a good dinner for him. I’ll have plum
pudding and mince pie.”

For the next thirty-six hours Alexina lived in a whirl. There was so
much to do. The little house was put in apple pie order from top to
bottom, and Stephen was set to stoning raisins and chopping meat and
beating eggs. Alexina was perfectly reckless; no matter how big a hole
it made in their finances Uncle James must have a proper Christmas
dinner. A favourable impression must be made. Stephen’s whole
future–Alexina did not think about her own at all just then–might
depend on it.

Christmas morning came, fine and bright and warm. It was more like a
morning in early spring than in December, for there was no snow or
frost, and the air was moist and balmy. Alexina was up at daybreak,
cleaning and decorating at a furious rate. By eleven o’clock
everything was finished or going forward briskly. The plum pudding was
bubbling in the pot, the turkey–Burton’s plumpest–was sizzling in
the oven. The shelf in the pantry bore two mince pies upon which
Alexina was willing to stake her culinary reputation. And Stephen had
gone to the train to meet Uncle James.

From her kitchen window Alexina could see brisk preparations going on
in the Tracy kitchen. She knew Josie and Duncan were all alone; their
parents had gone to spend Christmas with friends in Lessing. In spite
of her hurry and excitement Alexina found time to sigh. Last Christmas
Josie and Duncan had come over and eaten their dinner with them. But
now last Christmas seemed very far away. And Josie had behaved
horridly. Alexina was quite clear on that point.

Then Stephen came with Uncle James. Uncle James was a rather pompous,
fussy old man with red cheeks and bushy eyebrows. “H’m! Smells nice in
here,” was his salutation to Alexina. “I hope it will taste as good as
it smells. I’m hungry.”

Alexina soon left Uncle James and Stephen talking in the parlour and
betook herself anxiously to the kitchen. She set the table in the
little dining room, now and then pausing to listen with a delighted
nod to the murmur of voices and laughter in the parlour. She felt sure
that Stephen was making a favourable impression. She lifted the plum
pudding and put it on a plate on the kitchen table; then she took out
the turkey, beautifully done, and put it on a platter; finally, she
popped the two mince pies into the oven. Just at this moment Stephen
stuck his head in at the hall door.

“Lexy, do you know where that letter of Governor Howland’s to Father
is? Uncle James wants to see it.”

Alexina, not waiting to shut the oven door–for delay might impress
Uncle James unfavourably–rushed upstairs to get the letter. She was
ten minutes finding it. Then, remembering her pies, she flew back to
the kitchen. In the middle of the floor she stopped as if transfixed,
staring at the table. The turkey was gone. And the plum pudding was
gone! And the mince pies were gone! Nothing was left but the platters!
For a moment Alexina refused to believe her eyes. Then she saw a trail
of greasy drops on the floor to the open door, out over the doorstep,
and along the boards of the walk to the back fence.

Alexina did not make a fuss. Even at that horrible moment she
remembered the importance of making a favourable impression. But she
could not quite keep the alarm and excitement out of her voice as she
called Stephen, and Stephen knew that something had gone wrong as he
came quickly through the hall. “Is the turkey burned, Lexy?” he cried.

“Burned! No, it’s ten times worse,” gasped Alexina. “It’s gone–gone,
Stephen. And the pudding and the mince pies, too. Oh, what shall we
do? Who can have taken them?”

It may be stated right here and now that the Falsoms never really
_knew_ anything more about the disappearance of their Christmas dinner
than they did at that moment. But the only reasonable explanation of
the mystery was that a tramp had entered the kitchen and made off with
the good things. The Falsom house was right at the end of the street.
The narrow backyard opened on a lonely road. Across the road was a
stretch of pine woods. There was no house very near except the Tracy
one.

Stephen reached this conclusion with a bound. He ran out to the yard
gate followed by the distracted Alexina. The only person visible was a
man some distance down the road. Stephen leaped over the gate and tore
down the road in pursuit of him. Alexina went back to the doorstep,
sat down upon it, and began to cry. She couldn’t help it. Her hopes
were all in ruins around her. There was no dinner for Uncle James.

Josephine Tracy saw her crying. Now, Josie honestly thought that she
had a grievance against Alexina. But an Alexina walking unconcernedly
by with a cool little nod and her head held high was a very different
person from an Alexina sitting on a back doorstep, on Christmas
morning, crying. For a moment Josie hesitated. Then she slowly went
out and across the yard to the fence. “What is the trouble?” she
asked.

Alexina forgot that there was such a thing as dignity to be kept up;
or, if she remembered it, she was past caring for such a trifle. “Our
dinner is gone,” she sobbed. “And there is nothing to give Uncle James
to eat except vegetables–and I do so want to make a favourable
impression!”




This was not particularly lucid, but Josie, with a flying mental leap,
arrived at the conclusion that it was very important that Uncle James,
whoever he was, should have a dinner, and she knew where one was to be
had. But before she could speak Stephen returned, looking rueful. “No
use, Lexy. That man was only old Mr. Byers, and he had seen no signs
of a tramp. There is a trail of grease right across the road. The
tramp must have taken directly to the woods. We’ll simply have to do
without our Christmas dinner.”

“By no means,” said Josie quickly, with a little red spot on either
cheek. “Our dinner is all ready–turkey, pudding and all. Let us lend
it to you. Don’t say a word to your uncle about the accident.”

Alexina flushed and hesitated. “It’s very kind of you,” she stammered,
“but I’m afraid–it would be too much–”

“Not a bit of it,” Josie interrupted warmly. “Didn’t Duncan and I have
Christmas dinner at your house last year? Just come and help us carry
it over.”

“If you lend us your dinner you and Duncan must come and help us eat
it,” said Alexina, resolutely.

“I’ll come of course,” said Josie, “and I think that Duncan will too
if–if–” She looked at Stephen, the scarlet spots deepening. Stephen
coloured too.

“Duncan must come,” he said quietly. “I’ll go and ask him.”

Two minutes later a peculiar procession marched out of the Tracy
kitchen door, across the two yards, and into the Falsom house. Josie
headed it, carrying a turkey on a platter. Alexina came next with a
plum pudding. Stephen and Duncan followed with a hot mince pie apiece.
And in a few more minutes Alexina gravely announced to Uncle James
that dinner was ready.

The dinner was a pronounced success, marked by much suppressed
hilarity among the younger members of the party. Uncle James ate very
heartily and seemed to enjoy everything, especially the mince pie.

“This is the best mince pie I have ever sampled,” he told Alexina. “I
am glad to know that I have a niece who can make such a mince pie.”
Alexina cast an agonized look at Josie, and was on the point of
explaining that she wasn’t the maker of the pie. But Josie frowned her
into silence.

“I felt so guilty to sit there and take the credit–_your_ credit,”
she told Josie afterwards, as they washed up the dishes.

“Nonsense,” said Josie. “It wasn’t as if you couldn’t make mince pies.
Your mince pies are better than mine, if it comes to that. It might
have spoiled everything if you’d said a word. I must go home now.
Won’t you and Stephen come over after your uncle goes, and spend the
evening with us? We’ll have a candy pull.”

When Josie and Duncan had gone, Uncle James called his nephew and
niece into the parlour, and sat down before them with approving eyes.
“I want to have a little talk with you two. I’m sorry I’ve let so many
years go by without making your acquaintance, because you seem worth
getting acquainted with. Now, what are your plans for the future?”

“I’m going into a lumber mill at Lessing and Alexina is going into the
T. Morson store,” said Stephen quietly.

“Tut, tut, no, you’re not. And she’s not. You’re coming to live with
me, both of you. If you have a fancy for cutting and carving people
up, young man, you must be trained to cut and carve them
scientifically, anyhow. As for you, Alexina, Stephen tells me you can
sing. Well, there’s a good Conservatory of Music in town. Wouldn’t you
rather go there instead of behind a counter?”

“Oh, Uncle James!” exclaimed Alexina with shining eyes. She jumped
up, put her arms about Uncle James’ neck and kissed him.

Uncle James said, “Tut, tut,” again, but he liked it.

When Stephen had seen his uncle off on the six o’clock train he
returned home and looked at the radiant Alexina.

“Well, you made your favourable impression, all right, didn’t you?” he
said gaily. “But we owe it to Josie Tracy. Isn’t she a brick? I
suppose you’re going over this evening?”

“Yes, I am. I’m so tired that I feel as if I couldn’t crawl across the
yard, but if I can’t you’ll have to carry me. Go I will. I can’t begin
to tell you how glad I am about everything, but really the fact that
you and Duncan and Josie and I are good friends again seems the best
of all. I’m glad that tramp stole the dinner and I hope he enjoyed it.
I don’t grudge him one single bite!”