Authors: Carol Ryrie Brink
Then out of the box came Adelaide’s costumes, one by one. Each year, as Mrs. Nightingale had grown older, the dresses were more skillfully made, and soon there were hats and cloaks and shawls added. To look over Adelaide’s costumes in order was to see a review of the changing fashions for the past thirty years. One could see how the huge sleeves began growing smaller as the skirts grew wider, and how the enormous coal-skuttle bonnets gave place to the small poke bonnets and caps. How pantalets grew shorter and more ruffled, and velvet cloaks came in with tiny muffs and tippets.
The afternoon when Hetty and Minnie first saw Adelaide’s costumes was one of the most exciting afternoons of their lives.
“What if you should ever miss a Christmas, Aunt Molly?” asked Hetty. “Wouldn’t Adelaide feel dreadful?”
“Poor Adelaide!” said Minnie.
“I expect I’d feel even sadder than Adelaide,” said Aunt Molly, smiling. “You see, I’ve made new dresses for her now for so many years it’s become a part of Christmas. If I should ever forget it, or if something should happen to keep me from doing it, I expect I’d feel pretty bad.”
“My! I guess you would!” said Hetty, and Minnie echoed, “My!”
At home Hetty and Minnie were never done describing the wonders of Aunt Molly’s parlor, and the magical strangeness of her whole household. For the first time in their lives they had the experience of telling the older children of the family things which the older children did
not know. For the first time Hetty and Minnie were listened to with awe and respect.
“What did the petrified wood in the cabinet look like?” Warren wanted to know. “Did it look more like wood or like stone?”
“Was the little ship in the bottle a brig or a bark? Did it have two masts or three?” asked Tom.
“How big was the ostrich egg, Hetty? Bigger than an orange? Big as a puffball?” This from Caddie.
And Clara never tired of hearing them describe the details of Adelaide’s many costumes.
“Did Grandpa remember your names today?”
“No, he called us Emily and Miranda.”
“Did he feed the chickens twice?”
“No, only once today.”
It was a whole new world of experience which the two little girls brought home from Aunt Molly’s house.
But one Saturday afternoon at the end of November when they knocked at Aunt Molly’s door, they were surprised to see Dr. Nightingale open it. He was so often away, riding around the country to attend to the sick, that Hetty had almost forgotten how he lived here with Aunt Molly and Grandpa—and how it was really his house as much as Aunt Molly’s.
He was very tall and grave, and now there was a little pucker of anxiety between his eyebrows on his forehead.
“Not today, I’m afraid, little girls,” he said. “Come back some other day. We have sickness in the house.”
“It isn’t Aunt Molly, is it?” asked Hetty.
“No, it’s the old gentleman,” Dr. Nightingale said. “He’s
very old, and he’s come down with a congestion in his lungs. We don’t know yet if he’ll pull through. Aunt Molly has her hands full nursing him.”
“They don’t know if he’ll pull through,” Hetty reported to the family at home, and little Minnie looked very solemn and as if she might burst into tears.
The whole Woodlawn family was concerned. Even those who knew Grandpa only through Hetty’s vivid descriptions of him had become fond of the rosy old gentleman who could not remember little girls’ names.
Mother threw a shawl about her shoulders and went across the fields to see if there was anything she could do.
A week dragged by and Mrs. Nightingale’s father was no better.
“He’s just hanging on by a thread,” Mother said. “I don’t know how he’s kept going for so long. The doctor says he’s done all he could and if anyone can pull the old gentleman through it will be Mrs. Nightingale. She’s with him night and day. She can’t think of anything else.”
Everyone was sad, but for Hetty and Minnie the sadness was something special. It was first of all a sadness for Grandpa and then for Aunt Molly, and last of all for themselves; for they were suddenly shut away from their Saturday world of enchantment.
They thought of Adelaide, sitting alone in the cold parlor, and they wondered if she would understand why there were no tea parties, why no one spoke to her.
Then, as the time kept moving on, another thought came to Hetty. The Woodlawns were going ahead with their own
exciting plans for Christmas. Tom was making a little wooden cart for baby Joe; Clara was knitting Father a comforter for his neck to keep him warm on the drives to Eau Galle. Whenever you looked at Caddie she hid something under her apron or cried, “Just a minute, please! Don’t come in till I tell you.”
Hetty said to Minnie, “You remember about Adelaide’s Christmas costume?”
“Oh, yes,” said little Minnie.
“I wonder if there’ll be one this year. I don’t think Aunt Molly had started it before Grandpa got sick.”
“Poor Adelaide!” said Minnie.
“Poor Aunt Molly, too,” said Hetty. “You remember what she said? If ever she’d forget a Christmas, she said, she’d feel sadder than Adelaide.”
“I know,” said little Minnie.
“Minnie!” Hetty said. “What if we—Oh, Minnie, I wonder if we could!”
“Do you mean that
should make a costume?” asked Minnie, her eyes wide with astonishment.
“You know there was some wine-colored alpaca left from Clara’s Sunday dress. If she would let us have it!”
“Clara or Caddie would help us, maybe,” said Minnie.
“No,” said Hetty. She was very decided upon this point. “No. We’re the ones who have had all the good times with Adelaide. We must do it ourselves. Remember the red calico dress Aunt Molly made the first time? Some of the stitches were pretty uneven in that. And we would try as hard as we could.”
“But how would we know the right size?”
“We must borrow one of the costumes and bring it home with us.”
“But how would we get it?”
“We must go with Mother next time she goes.”
Clara gave them the wine-colored alpaca without any difficulty, but it was not so easy to persuade Mother to let them accompany her. She put on her shawl that afternoon and wrapped a clean towel about a kettle of soup which was still warm from the fire.
“No, no,” Mother said. “You would just be in the way, girls. This is no time for play.”
“Mother, we promise,” said Hetty. “We won’t be any bother—not any. If we could just go for a minute into the parlor where Adelaide sits.”
Clara looked at Mother and smiled. Perhaps their wanting the scraps of alpaca had given Clara an idea.
“Honestly, Mother, I’d let them go,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll do any harm.”
And so Mother had relented, and they had been able to get one of Adelaide’s dresses without anybody else knowing. It had almost seemed as if Adelaide’s eyes had questioned them as she sat so sedately on her sofa in the cold parlor with its drawn shades. Perhaps she was wondering why there was no tea today, and why there had been no party for a long time. Was she, perhaps, beginning to dream of Christmas? Was she thinking, “Well, it will be different after I get my new costume”?
“It’s going to be all right, Adelaide, I think,” Hetty whispered, and little Minnie gave Adelaide a kiss.
They did not see Aunt Molly, and Hetty noticed that
the many calendars and almanacs in the kitchen still read
Aunt Molly had not remembered to tear off or fold back the November pages.
And now began a very trying time in the lives of Hetty and Minnie. The difficulty of cutting and sewing a costume for the first time was equaled only by the difficulty of keeping a secret. At last it seemed as if they would never be done by Christmas unless they took someone into their confidence; for the first bodice they made was too small when the seams were taken up, and the sleeves turned backwards instead of forwards as sleeves should do. And so one day they told Clara what they were trying to do.
Clara did not seem at all surprised. It was almost as if she had been waiting for them to ask her advice; and now she showed them how much larger one should cut a garment than it would appear to be when it was finished, and how the sleeves would be all right if they were only reversed. Luckily there was enough material.
Usually Clara was not one to tell things, but somehow the news of what Hetty and Minnie were doing got around the family circle. No one plagued or teased them about it. But the day before Christmas, when they were still taking turns at setting in the tiny stitches (which sometimes grew larger for very desperation), and when the end seemed very nearly in sight, Tom and Warren came in from the woods with a doll-sized Christmas tree. It was really a little beauty, of a most perfect shape, and they had risked their necks in the swampland to get it out for Adelaide. And then it seemed that Clara had baked tiny star-shaped cookies with loops of thread baked into them for hanging them upon the tiny
branches, and Caddie had been carving and gilding tiny hazelnut baskets and stringing red cranberries.
Suddenly Adelaide’s Christmas had become more important to the Woodlawn children than their own.
Hetty and Minnie grew so excited that the last few stitches on the hem were set in with reckless abandon, but even in spite of that the wine-colored alpaca costume was something to delight the eye.
Mother knew about the preparations now, but she was quite reluctant to encourage them.
“I can’t—I really can’t have you bothering them,” she said, “until we know that Mrs. Nightingale’s father is better.”
Then, miraculously, about four o’clock in the afternoon Father came in, stamping the fresh snow from his boots in the back entryway, and he said, smiling around at all of them, “Well, I have good news for you.”
“What is it, Father? What is it?”
“I just met Dr. Nightingale on the road, and he says that Grandpa’s out of danger.”
“He’s going to get well?”
“He’s going to get well! Furthermore,” said Father, looking around at Hetty and Minnie with a twinkle in his eye, “it seems that he’s been asking for the little girls who used to help him feed the chickens—Emily and Mildred, the doctor says he called them; but Mrs. Nightingale told him those were the little Woodlawn girls and he should let them know that they might come and see Grandpa for a very few minutes if they were nice and quiet.”
Caddie and Clara and Tom and Warren all went across
the snowy fields with Hetty and Minnie to help them carry the roast fowl Mother had sent and the Christmas tree with all the decorations—and the Christmas costume.
“We’ll wait for you out by the barn,” Clara said, “so we won’t be any bother and so you’ll have somebody to walk home with you after dark.”
But first the older ones helped the two little girls put the tree in order and light the one candle which they had tied to the topmost branch. Even in her excitement Hetty felt sorry that Caddie and Clara and Tom and Warren were going to be left outside. Her conscience hurt her now because they had never yet seen Adelaide, nor the parlor, nor the cabinet.
Then Aunt Molly was opening the door for them, and crying out with surprise at sight of the little Christmas tree.
“No! It’s never Christmas surely!”
“Yes, it is!” cried Hetty. “Merry Christmas, Aunt Molly!”
And little Minnie said, “Yes, it is, Aunt Molly!”
Aunt Molly’s face had lost the white, troubled look which it had worn for the last month. Her little black eyes sparkled. She was almost beautiful.
“And you have brought us a tree!” she cried.
“The roast fowl is for Grandpa and you and Dr. Nightingale,” said Hetty, “but the tree is for Adelaide.”
“Adelaide?” said Aunt Molly. Suddenly her bright face clouded again. “Adelaide! Why, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? The first Christmas I ever forgot all about Adelaide. How very odd! I never thought I should—”
“Aunt Molly,” Hetty said in an excited rush of words, “I hope you won’t be angry with us, but we went ahead and did it. It isn’t very good; but Minnie and me, we made the Christmas costume.”
“You made the Christmas costume?” said Aunt Molly.
There was something strange in her face, and they could not be sure whether she was glad or sorry. She drew them into the kitchen and closed the door. Then she opened the package they held out, and looked very carefully at the wine-colored alpaca costume without saying a word. She turned the hem inside out and looked at the stitches they had made, some that were very small and neat and some that were in a hurry. Hetty stood inside the kitchen holding the little tree with the candle, and Minnie clung to the back of Hetty’s cloak, and they were suddenly afraid that maybe they had done the wrong thing.
“It isn’t very good,” Hetty repeated hesitantly.
“We got in kind of a hurry,” Minnie said.
“What do you mean it isn’t very good!” snapped Aunt Molly. “It’s ever so much better than
Then Hetty saw that there was a glint of tears in Aunt Molly’s eyes, and she knew that Aunt Molly had taken so long to speak because she had wanted to cry instead. It was quite strange. But when Aunt Molly kissed them, they knew that everything was all right—because she had never kissed them before, and this was a happy kiss.
The light of the Christmas candle was bright on Adelaide’s china cheeks. It seemed to make her eyes dance, and the costume fitted perfectly.
“Papa,” Aunt Molly said to Grandpa later when she had taken the girls to see him for a moment, “Papa, I forgot Adelaide’s Christmas costume, but these little girls did not. They made her a beautiful one.”
Grandpa smiled his little smile as if he knew a secret.
His voice seemed far away and strange, but he said, “Molly, take them in to the cabinet. Let them choose—let Gertrude and Emily choose whatever they like out of it, for a Christmas present from me.”
“Anything, Papa?” asked Mrs. Nightingale.
“Anything they want,” said Grandpa.
So in a moment they found themselves standing before the cabinet with the magical power to choose gifts for themselves from its wonderful shelves.
Hetty looked at the dressed fleas, at the pin with the Lord’s Prayer engraved on the head, at the little china ballet dancer.