Viola was tying some red tissue paper around the funny little tree that Leslie, with great effort, had got from a florist, and after she stood erect and stretched, she responded to Leslie with a murmured, “Simply sweet!”
“Don’t you think so, Jane?” asked Leslie coolly. She had ignored Viola all that afternoon by addressing me, and after she did this pointedly, Viola always huffed up, and appealed to me, too. It made me feel as if I were interpreter in the tower of Babel, and it left me far from comfortable! And it was all so silly!
“I certainly do,” I answered as I looked around, and it was fine!
Mr. Wake, who had accepted our invitation with great pleasure, had sent in flowers and big branches of foliage from his place, and these were in vases, and massed in corners; and Sam, who had just left, had helped us make twisted red streamers that he had wound around the funny chandelier, and we had put red paper around all the lumpy vases that Miss Julianna seemed to like so much; and the bare little tree was on the center table, with a ring of candles, set up in their own grease around it. It doesn’t sound especially pretty, but it was, as well as very cheering.
Over the back of a chair hung a long red gown that Leslie was going to wear as she gave out a few little presents. Her giving them was entirely correct, because the Italian Santa Claus is a lady called “Befana,” and the only way we changed things was by having the Befana come on Christmas Eve instead of on Epiphany.
On the mantel were some pink tarletan stockings filled with candy - there was no fastening them up, the mantel was made of marble - and Leslie had got a little piece of mistletoe which Sam had hung in the doorway.
“Hasn’t it?” murmured Viola, who, in spite of saying the most bitter things, did want to make up.
“When it’s lit by candles it will be pretty,” I prophesied, and it was. Then we picked up the hammers and the nails that always lie around on the edges of things after you’ve put up Christmas decorations, and went to dress, closing the door very carefully after us, and locking it.
Beata, who was tremendously interested in the new version of their Befana, and who had asked a great deal through Miss Julianna about the person she called “Meester Sant’ Claus,” smiled at us as we passed the kitchen, and I saw that she hadn’t cried that day, and that she wore her best dress, and a shabby, yet gay artificial flower in one side of her dark hair.
“Sant’ Claus come!” she managed, while we were yet within hearing; Leslie called “Not yet,” and then we went on, and parted.
Then I had two lovely colored linen handkerchiefs which had been given me before I sailed, and fortunately, I had only carried them and never put them into active use, and I did these up for Beata and Miss Julianna.
I didn’t give anything to the others, and I wished I could. I had that feeling that leads even restrained people to rush out on Christmas Eve and buy a great deal that they can’t afford, but after I reasoned it through I knew that I shouldn’t, because I wanted to pay back Miss Sheila - I had decided that I preferred to do this - and I wanted to return what I could, as soon as I could, to my own family, who had sacrificed a great deal for me. Then my allowance wasn’t large – Leslie told me she considered it about adequate for a week’s allowance of French pastries and digestion tablets - and so I wrote the rest of my friends notes. I used my best stationery that hasn’t any blue lines on it, but instead a silver “J” in the corner, and after I had written:
“DEAR MR. WAKE:
“I do hope that you will be very happy this Christmas and always!
I snipped a paragraph from Miss Sheila’s last letter, for he seemed to like hearing about her, and talking of her, and the paragraph was about him.
“I am sure,” she had written, “that the Mr. Wake of whom you write so often, must be a real addition to your Florentine life. I did, very much, like his story of the wedding of Lorenzo, The Magnificent.”
(He was one of the Medici.)
“I saw it, dear, as you said he made you see it. And wouldn’t Florence be a nice city to be married in? I think if I had all my life to do over, I would go to a Padre in Florence, with some unlucky man, and pay a lot of scheming little wretches to throw roses before me as I left the church. You see what a romantic mood has attacked your old friend? I think I must need a tonic! Please write me the titles of your Mr. Wake’s books; I am ashamed to say that I haven’t read them, but I want to, and I shall.”
It did please him, I saw him read it three times that very evening; twice while Mr. Hemmingway was trying to remember the first time that he had ever seen a plum pudding brought in on the center of a blazing platter; and the third time, while Viola was describing the last Christmas and dragging in through it a long description of a lodge in the Adirondacks.
But to get on, or rather go back and start where I should, Miss Julianna had a very fine dinner because of our party, and she sat down with us, which wasn’t always her custom - she often helped in the kitchen - and Mr. Hemmingway had raked up some greenish-black dress clothes from somewhere, and Miss Bannister had her hair on as nearly straight as I had ever seen it, and Miss Meek wore a purple velvet dress with green buttons and a piece of old lace on it, which I had never before seen, but which she had spoken of in a way that made me know that she thought it very fine.
Of course Leslie was beautiful. She had on a new dress made of several shades of light blue chiffon, and this fluttered and changed as she walked, and there was a silver ribbon girdle on it, and silver ribbons knotted here and there over the shining white satin lining, and she wore silver slippers, and blue stockings with silver lace inserts, and she had a silver bandeau on her hair. I told her she was lovely.
Viola had pulled out all her extra eyebrows and looked sort of skinned, but she felt fixed up, so it was all right. She wore a red velvet dress that was pretty too. I wore a brown silk dress that had plaid trimming, and it put me in Miss Meek’s class, but I didn’t mind.
After we sat down, and made conversation in that stiff way that people do when they are all wearing their best clothes and aren’t quite used to them, Mr. Hemmingway stood up and picked up the smaller wine glass that stood by his plate - we had two sorts of wine - and he looked at me, bowed, and said, “To the United States and her lovely daughters.”
I thought it was very kind.
Then Miss Bannister blinked, and nodded, and squeaked out, “To the people we love who aren’t here.”
And I wasn’t a bit ashamed of the fact that my eyes filled with tears and that I had to blink and swallow like the dickens, because everyone else was doing the same thing.
After we drank that Mr. Hemmingway said, “It was, if I recall correctly, the Christmas of ’76 that I first met the customs of Italy at Christmas and Epiphany; I can, I think, without undue assumption of certainty state flatly that it was in ’76, and I assert this, because in the fall of ’76 I was experiencing my first attack of bronchitis; and I recall this, because the June of that same year, ’76, as I have heretofore mentioned, I had taken a trip up the Severn, or was that, now that I probe, ’74? Let me see, let me see.”
And then Miss Meek boomed out her “Ho hum!” and everyone felt more natural and lots better. After that the stiffness slid away, all in a second, and Miss Meek tossed her head and told about the fine Christmases she had seen, and Miss Bannister told of how the children in the village where she had lived sung carols, and Mr. Hemmingway searched after dates that wouldn’t come to him; and Viola and Leslie listened with more kindness than usual.
Mr. Wake had a big bag under his arm that was pleasantly lumpy, and he said that Santa Claus had dropped it on the hillside near Fiesole and told him to deliver it. Then we all stood up, and after Leslie had lit the many candles in the drawing room, she rang a bell, and we filed in.
She summoned Mr. Wake first, and I was glad she did, because going up to the table where she stood might have been hard for some of the others. And after Mr. Wake took his present, he gave a little boarding school bow - that dip at the knees that makes girls shorter than they are for the second in which they do it - and everyone followed his lead. We did have the best time! But, and I suppose it sounds strange, it got in your throat and made it feel cramped. I can’t explain why, but when Miss Bannister and Miss Meek couldn’t, at first, open their packages because their hands shook so, it did make you feel queer.
Miss Bannister didn’t say anything, she only looked at her presents while her lips moved, but Miss Meek kept up an incessant string of, “Oh, I say!” or “How too ripping, don’t you know!” in a voice that was not entirely steady. And both of them had very bright, little, round spots of color on their usually faded cheeks, and their eyes were very, very bright.
Mr. Hemmingway was so absorbed in a Dunhill pipe that Mr. Wake insisted Santa had sent, that he didn’t mention a date for fully a half hour. He only looked at that pipe, and murmured, “My, my! Never did think I’d own one. My, my, my!”
It was after Mr. Hemmingway got his pipe that I went over to stand by Sam at a window; he had been watching me a little, and I thought perhaps he was lonely for home or something, because he looked that way.
“I think it’s a fine party,” I said, “Don’t you?”
“Best ever,” he answered. Then he coughed, and fumbled around in his pocket, and slipped a small box in my hand. “I’d like to say something darned nice,” he murmured, “but all my parlor conversation seems to have gone on a vacation.”
“Is it for me?” I asked. I was surprised, for I thought that the violets he had given me only a little time before, were enough!
“Who the dickens would I give it to?” he answered, in a half-irritated way. “Think I want to give anything to the other two? I don’t! When I come to think of it, I never did want to buy any truck for any other girl before.”
I enjoyed that; every woman does enjoy that sort of thing. And when I opened the box I almost went over backward; it held the most beautiful bead bag I’d ever seen; it was really prettier than any of Leslie’s! It had a brown and gold background, and soft pink roses on it, and it swung from a gold cord, and had sliding gold rings on that. I knew he shouldn’t have done it for, even to my simple soul, it spelled a lot of money.
I couldn’t say much, but I did say, “You shouldn’t have given it to me, Sam.”
“Don’t you like it, dear?” he asked. I didn’t mind that “Dear” at all. In fact I liked it. I had come to think of Sam as the best friend I’d ever had.
“I love it,” I answered, “but it must have cost a great deal.”
He laughed down at me. “Look here, young woman,” he said, in his drawling slow way, “Someday I’m going to ask you to take over the management of my finances, but until I do, I want the privilege of buying you a little thing like that once and again.”
What he said about finances worried me terribly, because I can’t add at all, and my cash account gives me real pain, and I have almost nothing to account for or to enter. But even at that, each month there is too much or too little, which makes me have to add a cream puff, or take one out.
“Sam,” I said, “I’d do anything for you, because I like you so much, but I can’t add. Why don’t you get Mr. Wake to help you! He’s there anyway, you see, and in a year I’ll be over in America.”
He slipped his arm through mine, and squeezed it against his side.
“Mr. Wake is right about you,” he said, as he smiled down at me, in a sort of a funny way.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, he thinks you a dear little girl. And you are just that.”
“Don’t you like it?” I questioned, because it didn’t seem exactly as if he did.
“Yes, surely, but, I don’t want you to get over liking me when you grow up.”
“Why, Sam, I couldn’t!” I protested, and then I slipped my hand in his, “Don’t you know how much I like you?” I ended very earnestly because I did want him to understand, and I believe he did, although Leslie called my name before he answered and I had to go up to get my presents.
And after I did, I was absolutely unable to say anything, for everyone had been so kind to me! Miss Bannister had given me one of the pictures of her old home that she loved so much, and Miss Meek, a collar that her own mother had embroidered, and Mr. Hemmingway, a pen holder that he had gotten in Brazil either in ’64 or ’65, he couldn’t remember which, although he tried very hard to fasten the exact date in various ways. And Viola gave me a beautiful blue bottle with scent in it, and Leslie gave me a blouse that I had seen in a shop on the Lungarno and admired - it was tan pongee with heavy coral stitching, and about the color of my hair - the tan, I mean, not the coral - and Miss Julianna had given me a tomato can that she had painted, with a flower in it, and I liked it very much; and Beata, a handkerchief that she had made herself. Mr. Wake gave me a scarab ring, that swung around in its setting, and had the name of the Princess who had first worn it in hieroglyphs on the back, and when I went to thank him, he slipped it on my finger, and made a wish. Then he said to Sam, who had come over to stand with us, “Want to have a shot, old boy? You can twist it, and perhaps the gods will listen.”
So Sam did, and he said it was a fine wish! Then Beata brought in the refreshments, which were pastries, wine, ices and candies and little nut-filled cakes, (Leslie lost a filling while eating one) and we pulled crackers and put on the caps and things that came out of them, and read the mottoes and Mr. Hemmingway got so gay that he kissed Miss Meek who had wandered over under the mistletoe. And it all made a great deal of excitement and fun.
And after that, just when everyone was beginning to have a cold feeling around the edges, from thinking that it was all almost over, the very nicest thing happened. Leslie, who had taken off her long Befana gown, and again looked like a cornflower with silver frost on it, called out, “One more gift; Befana has brought it to Beata, but she was only the messenger of Cupid!”
And then she handed Beata an envelope in which was all the money that Beata needed for her dowry!
I never shall forget that moment, and the way Beata looked when she understood what her gift was. She covered her face with her arm and sobbed deeply and so hard that it shook her; and Leslie, whose eyes had grown wet, called Pietro, whom she had got Miss Julianna to ask in for that hour, and he came from the hall, and Beata explained, and Pietro kissed her hands, and then Leslie’s, and then raised both of his hands high and his face to the ceiling, and exploded!
I never heard anything like it, and of course no one except Mr. Wake, who speaks and understands Italian very well, could understand, but he did, and he said that Pietro was thanking God for rich Americans, and for the fact that the hope of his life had come true.
It made everyone feel shaky and upset to look on at Beata and Pietro. Even Miss Meek had to cough and say, “Oh, my eye! How jolly!” It was very damp and very sweet, and it was a positive relief to be diverted by Mr. Hemmingway, who broke the strain by saying: “How well I recall my first experience with the Latin emotion. It was, if I recall correctly, in the spring of ’60, and I attest this because of my youth, and the fact that in ’59 I had my first pearl gray trousers. Those are fastened in my memory by a tailor who, if I recall, had his place of business in Ludgate Circus, and I remember him keenly, because…”
And on and on in his characteristic way.
Not long after that Sam and Mr. Wake left, and Miss Bannister and Miss Meek and Mr. Hemmingway gathered up their things and the cords and papers that had wrapped them, and I saw Mr. Hemmingway enter something about the evening in the book I gave him, which pleased me, and we all went to bed.
“Heavens, you sleep soundly,” she complained. “I have a toothache, and I can’t stand pain. We’ll have to find some dentist who is in his office, and I want you to go with me and stay right by me and say ‘Molto sensitivo’ every time I kick you. Oh, do hurry! And don’t forget to tell him that it’s sensitive.”
She clamped her hands against her jaw, as she finished speaking, and I sat up to lean over the edge of my bed and fumble for my slippers.