Read THE THANKSGIVING GUEST of A Flock of Girls and Boys, free online book, by Nora Perry, on ReadCentral.com.

CHAPTER I.

“It is such a lovely idea, such a truly Christian idea, Mrs. Lambert. How did you ever happen to think of it?”

“Oh, I did not think of it; it wasn’t my idea. Didn’t you ever hear how it came about?”

“No; do tell me!”

“Well, my husband, you know, was always looking out for ways of doing good, lending a helping hand, and he used to talk with the children a great deal of such things. One day he came across a beautiful little story that he read to them. It was the story of a child who made the acquaintance of a poor, half-starved student and brought him home with her to share her Thanksgiving dinner. It made a deep impression on the children. They talked about it continually, and acted it out in their play. But they were in the habit of doing that with any fresh story that pleased them, so it was nothing new to us, and we hadn’t a thought of their carrying it further. But the next week was Thanksgiving week; and when Thanksgiving Day came, what do you think those little things did, for they were quite little things then, what do you think they did but bring in just before dinner the half-blind old apple-pedler who had a stand on the corner of the street?

“They were so happy about it, and they thought we should be so happy too, that we couldn’t say a word of discouragement in the way of advice then; but later, when we had given the old fellow his dinner, and he had gone, we had a talk with the dear little souls, when we tried to show them that it would be better to let us know when they wanted to invite any one to dinner or to tea, that that was the way other girls and boys always did. They were rather crestfallen at our suggestions; for, with the keen, sensitive instinct of children, they felt that their beautiful plan, as they thought it, had somewhere failed, and, though they promised readily enough to consult us ‘next time,’ we could see that they were puzzled and depressed over all this regulation, when we had seemed to have nothing but admiring appreciation for the similar act of the child in the story. My husband, seeing this, was very much troubled to know just what to say or do; for he thought, as I did, that it might be a serious injury to them to say or do anything to chill or check their first independent attempt to lend a helping hand to others. Then all at once out of his perplexity came this idea of allowing the children from that time forward to have the privilege of inviting a guest of their own choosing every Thanksgiving Day, and that this guest should be some one who needed, in some way or other, home-cherishing and kindness. They should have the privilege of choosing, but they must tell us the one they had chosen, that we might send the invitation for them. This plan delighted them; and from this start, five years ago, the thing has gone on until it has grown into the present ‘guest day,’ where each one of the children may invite his or her particular guest. It has got to be a very pleasant thing now, though at first we had some queer times. But as the children grew older, they learned better how to regulate matters, and to make necessary discriminations, and a year ago we found we could trust them to invite their guests without any older supervision, and they are very proud of this liberty, and very happy in the whole thing; and such an education as it has been. You’ve no idea how they have learned to think of others, to look about them to find those who are in need not merely of food or clothing but of loving attention and kindness.”

“Well, it is beautiful, Mrs. Lambert, and what a Thanksgiving ought to be, what it was in the old pilgrim days at Plymouth, when those who had more than others invited the less fortunate to share with them. It’s beautiful, and I wish everybody who could afford it would go and do likewise.”

“Speaking of affording it, I thought, when my husband died last spring, I should have to give up our guest day with most other things, for you know that railroad business that my husband entered into with his half-brother John nearly ruined him. I think the worry and fret of it killed him, anyway, and I told John so, and he has never forgiven me. But I have never forgiven him, and never shall; for if it hadn’t been for John’s representations, his continual urging, Charles would never have gone into the business. Oh, I shall always hold John responsible for his death, and I told him so.”

“You told him so? How did he take that? What did he say?”

“Oh, you know John. He flew into a rage, and said he loved his brother as well as I did. As well as I did! Think of that; and that he had urged him into that business, thinking that it was for his benefit, that no one could have foreseen what happened, and that if Charles lost, he also had lost, and much more heavily. But, as I was saying, I thought at first I should have to give up our guest day; but when matters came to be settled, I found there were other things I would rather economize on.”

“Where is John now, Mrs. Lambert?”

“He is in ” But just at that moment a tall pretty girl of fourteen entered the room. It was Elsie, the eldest of the Lambert children.

“Why, Elsie, how you have grown!” cried Mrs. Mason, who hadn’t seen Elsie for some months, “and you’ve quite lost the look of your mother.”

“Yes, Elsie is getting to look like the Lamberts,” remarked the mother.

“Everybody says I look just like Uncle John,” spoke up Elsie.

“Oh, you were asking me where John was now,” said Mrs. Lambert, turning to Mrs. Mason. “He is in New York, dabbling in railroads, as usual, and getting poorer and poorer by this obstinate folly, I heard last week. We don’t see him, of course; for, as I told you, we don’t forgive each other. Oh!” as her visitor cast a questioning glance toward Elsie, who had suddenly given a little start here, “Elsie knows all about it. Elsie is my big girl now. But what is it, my dear? you came in to ask me something, what is it?”

“It’s about Tommy. He has told me who he is going to invite for next week,” next week was Thanksgiving week, “and I knew you would not like it, and I felt that I ought to tell you; it is that horrid Marchant boy.”

“Like it, I should think not! Why, what in the world has put Tommy up to that?”

“He says that Joe Marchant hasn’t any home of his own this Thanksgiving, because his father has gone out West on business, and left Joe all alone with those people that his father and he boarded with just after his mother died; and Tommy pities Joe so, he says he is going to invite him here for next Thursday, and I knew you wouldn’t want him.”

“Of course not; the boy is ill-mannered and disagreeable, and he is always quarrelling with Tommy.”

“I told Tommy that,” laughed Elsie, “and he said he guessed he’d done his share of the quarrelling, and that, anyway, Joe Marchant was the under dog now, and he was going to forgive and forget.”

“Dear little Tommy!” exclaimed Mrs. Lambert, admiringly.

“And he said, too, mother, that he knew you wouldn’t object; that you always told him that Thanksgiving Day was the very day to make up with folks and be good to ’em, but I knew you would object to Joe Marchant, and so ”

“I I don’t know about it, Elsie. If Tommy feels like that, I I don’t believe it would be wise for me to check him. No, I don’t believe I can. Tommy is nearer right than I am. He is doing a fine, generous thing, and it is the right thing, and I think we must put up with Joe Marchant, Elsie, after all.”

“Oh, I don’t mind, if you don’t, mamma; but I thought you wouldn’t like it, and it would spoil the day.”

“No, nothing done in that spirit could spoil the day; and, Elsie, I hope the rest of you will make your choice of guests with as good reason as Tommy has.”

Elsie looked at her mother with an odd, eager expression, as if she were about to speak. Then she suddenly lifted up her head with a little air of resolution, and starting forward hurriedly left the room.

Mrs. Lambert laughed as the door closed.

“I think I know what Elsie is going to do,” she said smilingly to Mrs. Mason. “There is a young teacher in her school, Miss Matthews, who is seldom invited anywhere, she is so unpopular. I’ve often asked Elsie to bring her home, and she has always put it off; but I believe that this act of Tommy’s and what I’ve said about it has made such an impression upon her that she has gone now to invite Miss Matthews to be her guest next week. She was going to tell me about it at first, then she thought better of it. They’ve all had this liberty for the last year not to tell it’s so much more fun for them; and I can always trust Elsie to look out for things, she has such good sense with her good heart.”

“Yes, and you all seem to have such good sense and such good hearts, Mrs. Lambert,” said Mrs. Mason, as she rose to go; but as she walked down the street she said to herself, “Such good sense and such good hearts, overflowing with charity and forgiveness for everybody but John Lambert!”

CHAPTER II.

It was Thanksgiving Day, and just three minutes to the dinner-hour at the Lamberts’, and all the guests had arrived except the one that Elsie had bidden.

“Don’t fret, Elsie,” whispered Mrs. Lambert to her, as she noted the two red spots burning in her cheeks and her anxious glances toward the clock, “don’t fret; she’s probably going to be fashionably exact on the stroke of the hour.”

Elsie gave a little start at this, and, laughing nervously, began to talk to Joe Marchant, while tick, tock, the clock beat out the time.

“We’ll wait five minutes for her,” thought Mrs. Lambert. “If there hasn’t been an accident to detain her, she’s very rude, and certainly not fit to be a teacher of manners, and I don’t wonder she’s unpopular with the girls.”

The three minutes, the five minutes sped by, and the awaited guest did not appear. To wait longer would be unfair to the others, and Mrs. Lambert gave orders for the dinner to be served. It was seemingly a very cheerful little company that gathered about the dinner-table; but there was something pathetic in it, when one came to consider that each one of these guests was for the time at least sitting at the stranger’s feast instead of with his own kith and kin on this family day. Mrs. Lambert herself felt this pathos, and it brought back, too, the losses and limitations in her home circle; for what with death and absence, her five children had no one now but herself to look to, where once were the dear grandparents, the fond father, and a score or more of other relations. But she must not dwell on these memories with all these guests to serve. She must put her own needs aside to see that little Miss Jenny Carver had a better choice of celery, that Molly Price and that big lonesome-looking Ingalls boy had another help to cranberry sauce, and Joe Marchant a fresh supply of turkey.

It was while she was attending to this latter duty, while she was laughing a little at Joe’s clumsy apology for his appetite, and telling him jestingly that she hoped to see him eat enough for two, because one guest was missing, while she was doing this, there came a great crunch of carriage wheels on the driveway, and a great ring at the door-bell, and, “There she is! there she is!” thinks Mrs. Lambert, with the added thought: “It’s rather putting on airs, seems to me, to take a carriage when she is at such a little distance from us, rather putting on airs, but What are you jumping up for?” she calls out to Elsie, who has suddenly sprung from her seat. “What are you jumping up for? Ellen will attend Miss Matthews upstairs, and send her into us when she has removed her wraps. Sit down, Elsie; don’t be so fidgety. I will ” But the dining-room door was here suddenly flung wide, and Mrs. Lambert saw coming toward her, not, oh, not Miss Matthews, but a tall gentleman with a thin, worn face crowned with snow-white hair; and, catching sight of this snowy crown, Mrs. Lambert did not recognize the face until she felt her hand clasped, and heard a low eager voice say,

“I am so glad to come to you, to see you and the children again, Caroline. I was away when Elsie’s letter arrived; but as soon as I got into New York yesterday, I started off, and I am so glad to come, so glad to come;” and here Mrs. Lambert heard the eager voice falter, and saw the glisten of tears in the eyes that were regarding her and in the next instant felt them against her cheek as a tender kiss was pressed upon it. It was all in a moment, the strange surprise of look and word and tone and touch, the joyful cries of “It’s Uncle John, it’s Uncle John!” from some one of the children. Then all in a moment the strangeness seemed to have passed, and John Lambert was taking his place amongst them with the fond belief that he was his sister-in-law’s chosen guest. And she, with those warm, manly words of thanks, those joyful cries of childish welcome in her ears, could she undeceive him, could she say to him: “It was not I who sent for you; I am the same as ever, as full of wild regrets and bitter resentments”? Could she say this to him? How could she, how could she, when over the wild regrets and bitter resentments there kept rising and rising a flood of earlier memories of an earlier time when this guest had been a welcome guest indeed, and she had heard again and again those very words, “I’m so glad to come”? Those very words, but with what a difference of accent, and what a difference in the speaker himself, only a year and his face so worn, his hair so white, she had not known him! He must have suffered, yes, and she she had suffered; but she had her children, and he had no one!

The dinner was over. They had all risen from the table, and were going into the parlor, and Uncle John had his namesake Johnny on one side of him and little Archie on the other. They had taken possession of him from the first, when Elsie, hanging back, clung to her mother and whispered agitatedly,

“Oh, mamma, mamma, it was what you said last week about Tommy’s invitation that made me think of of inviting Uncle John; but perhaps I ought to have told you have asked you.”

“No, no, it is better as it is. Don’t fret, dear, it it is all right. But there is Ann bringing the coffee into the parlor. Go and light your little teakettle, Elsie, and make your uncle a cup of tea as you used to do; he can’t drink coffee, you know.”