Read CHAPTER XII. of The House in Town , free online book, by Susan Warner, on ReadCentral.com.

Matilda’s thoughts about Christmas took now another character.  Instead of the delightful confusion of pretty things for rich hands, among which she had only to choose, her meditations dwelt now upon the homelier supplies of the wants of her poor little neighbour.  What could be had instead of that damp cellar with its mud floor? how might some beginnings of comfort be brought to cluster round the little street-sweeper, who except in Sunday school had hardly known what comfort was?  It lay upon Matilda’s heart; she dreamed about it at night and thought about it nearly all day, while she was mending Mrs. Lloyd’s lace shawl.

The shawl was getting mended; that was a satisfactory certainty; but it took a great deal of time.  Slowly the delicate fabric seemed to grow, and the place that the candle flame had entered seemed to be less and less; very slowly, for the lace was exceedingly fine and the tracery of embroidered or wrought flowers was exceeding rich.  Matilda was shut up in her room the most part of the time that week; it was the Christmas week, and the shawl must be finished before the party of Friday night.  Mrs. Laval sometimes came in to look at the little worker and kiss her.  And one afternoon Norton came pounding at her door.

“Is it you, Norton?”

“Of course.  Come out, Pink; we want you.”

Matilda put down her work and opened the door.

“Come out; we are going to rehearse, and we want you, Pink.”

“I should like to come, Norton, but I can’t.”

“What’s the mischief?  Why do you whisper?”

“I am not about any mischief; but I am busy, Norton.  I cannot come, indeed.”

Norton pushed himself a little way into the room.

“Busy about what?” said he.  “That’s all bosh.  What are you busy about?  What is that? Hullo!”

For Norton’s eye, roving round the room, caught the rich lace drapery which lay upon one of Matilda’s chairs.  He went closer to look at it, and then turned an amazed eye upon her.

“I know what this is, Pink.  Whatever have you got it here for?”

“Hush, Norton; I am mending it.”

Mending it! have you broken it?”

“No, not I; but Judy would wear it one night when we were practising; and it got in the flame of the candle and was burnt; and Judy was frightened, and I thought maybe I could mend it; and see, Norton, ­you can hardly tell the place, or you won’t, when I have finished.”

Norton fairly drew a low whistle and sat down to consider the matter.

“And this is what keeps you away so.  Judy will be obliged to you, I hope.  She doesn’t deserve it.  And grandmamma don’t know!  Well, Pink, I always said you were a brick.”

Matilda smiled and took up her mending.

“But how are you going to be ready for Christmas?”

“O I think about it, Norton, while I am working.”

“Yes, but thinking will not buy your things.”

That won’t take very long.  I do not think I shall get a great deal now.  O Norton, I have found something else that wants money.”

“Money!  I dare say,” said Norton.  “Everything wants money.  What is it, Pink?  It isn’t Lilac lane, anyhow.”

“No, Norton; but worse.”

“Go on,” said Norton.  “You needn’t stop and look so._I_ can stand it.  What is it?”

Matilda dropped her lace for the minute, and told her walk and visit of Sunday afternoon.  As she told it, the tears gathered; and at the end she dropped her face upon her knees and sobbed.  Norton did not know what to do.

“There’s lots of such places,” he said at last.  “You needn’t fret so.  This isn’t the only one.”

“O Norton, that makes it worse.  One is enough; and I cannot help that; and I must.”

“Must what?” said Norton.  “Help them?  You cannot, Pink.  It is no use for you to try to lift all New York on your shoulders.  It’s no use to think about it.”

“I am not going to try to lift all New York,” said the little girl, making an effort to dry her eyes.

“And it is no good crying about it, you know.”

“No, no good,” said Matilda.  “But I don’t know, Norton; perhaps it is.  If other people cried about it, the thing would get mended.”

“Not so easy as lace work,” said Norton, looking at the cobweb tracery tissue before him.

“But it must be mended, Norton?” said Matilda inquiringly, and almost imploringly.

“Well, Pink, anybody that tries it will get mired.  That’s all I have to say.  There’s no end to New York mud.”

“But we can lift people out of it.”

I can’t,” said Norton.  “Nor you neither.  No, you can’t.  There’s lots of societies and institutions and committees and boards, and all that sort of thing; and no end of collections and contributions; and the people that get the collections must attend to the people they are collected for. We can’t, you know.  Well, I must go and rehearse.”

He went off; but immediately after another tap at the door announced David.  He stepped inside the door; a great mark of condescension.  He had never come to Matilda’s room until now.

“So busy you can’t spare time for proverbs?” he said.  “But what is the matter?” For Norton’s want of sympathy had disappointed Matilda, and she had tears in her eyes and on her cheeks again.  What should she do now? she thought.  She had half counted on Norton’s helping her.  David was quite earnest to know the cause of trouble; and Matilda at last confessed she was thinking about the people that lived in that cellar room.

“Where is the place?” David inquired.

“I can’t tell; and I am sure you couldn’t find it.  We turned and turned, going and coming.  It’s an ugly way too.  You couldn’t find it, David.”

“But your crying will not help them, Tilly.”

“No,” said Matilda, trying to dash the tears away.  “If I could help them, I wouldn’t cry.  But I must.  O think of living so, David!  No beds, that we would call beds; and those on the dirty ground; and living without anything.  O I didn’t know people lived so!  What can I do?”

“I’ll tell you,” said David.  “We’ll try to find another place for them to live, and see how much that would cost; and then we can lay our plans.”

Matilda was breathless for a minute.  “O thank you.  How can we find out about that?  I might ask Mr. Wharncliffe! mightn’t I?”

“I should think you might.”

“Then I’ll do that, next time I see him.  But I haven’t got much money, David.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.  Find out how much a decent lodging would cost; and then we can tell, you know.  I’ll make Judy help; and Norton will shell out something.  He always keeps holes in his purse.”

“I don’t see how he can have much in it, then,” said Matilda, trying to laugh.  “But you are very good, David.”

“Well, you are good, I am sure,” said he glancing at the lace.  “Is that thing going to keep you prisoner much longer?”

“No; it is getting done; it will be done in time,” the little girl answered gratefully and happily; and with a smile David left her.

The work went on nicely after that day.  Matilda’s visions grew glorious, not of Christmas toys, but of changed human life, in one place, at least.  She went over and over all sorts of plans and additions to plans; and half unconsciously her lace work grew like her visions, fine and smooth, under her hands.  However, Christmas gifts were not to be quite despised or neglected, either; Matilda took time once or twice to go out and make purchases.  They were as modest and carefully made purchases as could be.  Mrs. Laval she had already provided for, and Norton.  For Judy Matilda bought a Scotch book mark or leaf cutter, which cost two shillings.  For David, a nice photograph view of Jerusalem.  A basket of fruit she sent by express to Poughkeepsie to Maria; and Letitia’s dress she matched with a silk cravat for Anne.  When these things were off her mind, and out of her purse, Matilda counted carefully the money that was left, and put it away in her trunk with tolerable satisfaction.  It was, she thought, a good little fund yet.

Meanwhile the lace-mending was almost done.  Mrs. Laval came into Matilda’s room on the Thursday morning before Christmas, when Matilda was putting her last touches to the work; and sat for some time watching her.  Then suddenly broke out with a new thought, as it seemed.

“You have no dress to wear to-morrow night!”

Matilda looked up in great astonishment.

“Mamma! ­there is my red silk ­and my green ­and my blue crape.”

“No white dress.  I must have you in white.”

“I have a white frock.  It is old.”

That wouldn’t do, you dear child,” said Mrs. Laval.  “I’ll have a muslin for you.  Judy will be in white, and so must you.”

Matilda bent over her work again with pulses throbbing and cheeks tingling with pleasure.  But in another minute she looked up, and her face had changed.

“How much would that new white dress cost, mamma?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Laval answered carelessly.  “Sash and all ­twenty or twenty-five dollars perhaps.”

Matilda went at her work again, but her fingers trembled.  A minute more, and she had thrown it down and was kneeling at Mrs. Laval’s knee.

“Mamma, I want to ask you something.”

“You may,” said Mrs. Laval smiling.

“It is a great something.”

“I dare say you think so.  Well, ask it.”

“Mamma, I wish you would let me go without that white dress, and do something else with the money!”

“Something else?  What?” said Mrs. Laval, with inward amusement.

In answer to which, Matilda poured out the story of Sarah and her wants, and her own wishes respecting them.  Mrs. Laval heard her till she had done, and then put both arms around her and kissed her.

“You dear child!” she said.  “You would like all the world to be saints; wouldn’t you?”

“And so would you, mamma?”

“I am not one myself,” said Mrs. Laval.

“But mamma, you would like all the world to be comfortable?”

“Yes, but I cannot reach all the world.  I can reach you.”

“This would make me ­so very comfortable! mamma.”

“But I want you to be as well dressed as Judy.  And I cannot do everything.”

“Mamma,” said Matilda, “I don’t care at all, ­in comparison to this.”

“I care,” said Mrs. Laval.  “Is that dreadful piece of work nearly finished?”

“Almost, now, mamma.”  And with a sigh Matilda sat down to it.  She had ventured as far as she thought best.  In a few minutes more the long job was finished.  The shawl was exactly as good as new, Mrs. Laval declared.  She made Matilda tell her all about her learning the art of lace-mending; and then broke faith; for she went straight to her mother with the mended shawl and gave her the whole story over again.  Matilda did not suspect this; she thought Mrs. Laval had only taken the scarf to put it safely away.  Nobody else suspected it, for Mrs. Lloyd gave no token of having become wiser than she was before.

Every thing now centred towards Christmas and the party of Christmas eve.  Even Sarah’s affairs had to go into the background for the time, though Matilda did not forget them.  The Christmas gifts were all ready and safe.  An air of mystery and expectation was about all the young people; and a good bustle of preparation occupied the thoughts and the tongues at least of the old.  An immense Christmas tree was brought in and planted in a huge green tub in the drawing-room.  Mrs. Lloyd and Mrs. Laval and Mrs. Bartholomew were out a great deal, driving about in the carriage; and bundles and boxes and packages of all shapes came to the house.  Matilda and Norton went out Friday morning on some remaining errand of Christmas work; and they found that all the world was more or less in the condition of Mrs. Lloyd’s house.  Everybody out, everybody busy, everybody happy, more or less; a great quantity of parcels in brown paper travelling about; a universal stir of pleasant intention.  Cars and busses went very full, at all times of day, and of all sorts of people; and a certain genial Christmas light was upon the dingy city streets.  Only when Matilda passed Sarah Staples at her crossing, or some other child such as she, there came a sort of tightness at her heart; and she felt as if something was wrong even about the holidays.