"I'M SO GLAD TOMORROW IS CHRISTMAS because I’m going to have loads of presents,” said Kate, glowing with anticipation.
"I'm glad as well, Bessy chimed, "though I don't expect any presents but a pair of mittens."
It was Tilly's turn to speak, and she startled them with her words, "I'm very glad tomorrow is Christmas, even though I shan't have any presents at all."
These sentiments were spoken as the three little girls trudged home from school, and Tilly's words struck a cord of pity in the others. Kate and Bessy wondered how she could speak so cheerfully and be so happy when she was too poor to receive even the smallest of gifts on Christmas Day.
"Don't you wish you could find a purse full of money right here in the path?" asked Kate, the child who was going to have lots of presents.
"Oh, don't I! If I could keep it honestly, that is," said Tilly, her eyes glowing at the prospect.
"What would you buy?" asked Bessy, rubbing her cold hands and longing for her mittens.
"I've worked it all out in my mind," Tilly responded. "I'd buy a pair of large, warm blankets, a load of wood, a shawl for mother, and a pair of shoes for me. If there was enough left, I'd give Bessy a new hat so that she would not have to wear Ben's old felt one."
The girls giggled at that, but Bessy pulled the funny hat down over her ears and said she was much obliged but she would rather have candy.
"Let's look, and maybe we can find a purse. People are always going about with money at Christmastime. How do we know someone has not lost it here on this path?" said Kate.
So the three little girls went along the snowy road, looking about them, half in earnest, half in fun. Suddenly, Tilly sprang forward, exclaiming loudly, "I see it! I've found a purse!"
Kate and Bessy followed quickly, but sputtered with disappointment as they realized that there was no purse lying in the snow but only a little bird. It lay upon the snow with its wings spread and feebly fluttered, too weak to fly. Its little feet were benumbed with cold and its once bright eyes were dull with pain. Instead of a chipper song, it could only utter a faint chirp now and then as if pleading for help.
"Nothing but a stupid old robin. How maddening!" cried Kate, sitting down to rest on a nearby tree stump.
"I shan't touch it. I found one once and took care of it until it was well. The ungrateful thing flew away the minute it was able," said Bessy, creeping under Kate's shawl and pulling her hands up under her chin to warm them.
Tilly heard not a word. "Poor little birdie!" she crooned. “How pitiful you look and how glad you must be to see someone coming along to help you. I’ll take you up gently and carry you home to Mother. Don't be frightened, dear. I am your friend." Tilly knelt down in the snow, stroking the bird with her hand and the tenderest pity in her face.
It was only then that she realized Kate and Bessy were laughing.
"Don't stop for that thing," they chided. "Now come along. Let's continue looking for a purse before it gets too cold and dark."
"You wouldnit leave it to die!" cried Tilly. “I'd rather have the bird than the money we might find in a purse. After all, the purse would not be mine, and I would only be tempted to keep it. But this poor little creature will thank and love me for my trouble. Thank goodness I came in time."
Gently lifting the bird, Tilly felt its tiny, cold claws cling to her hand and its dim eyes brighten as it nestled down with a grateful chirp.
"Now I've a Christmas present after all," she said smiling. "I've always wanted a bird, and this one will be such a pretty pet for me."
‘He'll fly away the first chance he gets and die any how," said Bessy. "You'd be better off not to waste your time with him."
"He can't pay you for taking care of him, and my mother says it isn't worthwhile to help folks that can't help us," added Kate.
"My mother said, 'Do to others as you would to be done to by them, and I'm sure I'd like someone to help me if I was dying of cold and hunger. I also remember the little saying, 'Love your neighbor as yourself. This bird is my little neighbor, and I'll love him and care for him, just as I often wish our rich neighbor would love and care for us," answered Tilly. She leaned forward slightly, breathing her warm breath over the tiny bird, who looked up at her with confiding eyes, quick to feel and know a friend.
“What a funny girl you are," said Kate. "Caring for that silly bird, and talking about loving your neighbor in that serious way. Mr. King doesn't care a bit for you, and he never will, though he knows how poor you are. So I don't think your plan amounts to much."
"I believe it, and I shall be happy to do my part," answered Tilly. "I must bid you good night now, and I hope you'll have a merry Christmas and receive lots of lovely things."
As she left her friends and walked on alone toward the little old house where she lived, Tilly's spirits began to sink. Suddenly, she felt so poor. Her eyes were filled with tears as she thought of all the pretty things other children would be finding in their stockings on Christmas morning. It would have been so pleasant to think of finding something for herself and pleasanter still to have been able to give her mother something nice. So many comforts were lacking with no hope of getting them. The little family was pressed enough to simply find food and firewood.
“Never mind, birdie,” whispered Tilly. “We'll make the best of what we have and be merry in spite of our lack. You shall have a happy Christmas, anyway, and I know God won't forget us, even if everyone else does.”
Tilly stopped a moment to dry her eyes and lean her check against the bird's soft breast. The tiny creature afforded her much comfort, though it could only love her, not one thing more.
“See, Mother, what a nice present I've found,” she cried, entering the house with a cheery face that was like sunshine in the dark room.
“Im glad of that, dearie, as I have not been able to get my little girl anything but a rosy apple. What a poor little bird it is. Here, quickly, give the poor thing some of your warm bread and milk.”
"Why Mother, this bowl is so full. I'm afraid you gave me all the milk,” said Tilly, smiling over the nice, steaming supper that stood ready for her.
“I've had plenty, dear. Sit down and warm your feet. You may put the bird in my basket on this cozy flannel.”
After placing the bird tenderly into the basket, Tilly peeped into the closet and saw nothing there but dry bread.
“Oh dear,” Tilly exclaimed to herself, “Mother's given me all the milk and is going without her tea because she knows I'm hungry. I'll surprise her by fixing her a good supper while she is outside splitting wood.”
As soon as her mother left the room, Tilly reached for the old teapot and carefully poured out a part of the milk. Then from her pocket, she drew a great, plump bun that one of the school children had given her. She had saved it for just this purpose. She toasted a slice of the bun and set a bit of butter on the plate for her mother to put on it. When her mother came in, she found the table drawn up in a warm place, a hot cup of tea ready, and Tilly and the birdie waiting patiently.
Such a poor little supper, and yet such a happy one, for love, charity, and contentment were welcome guests around the humble table. That Christmas Eve was a sweeter one even than that at the great house, where light shone, fires blazed, a great tree glittered, music sounded, and children danced and played.
“We must go to bed early,” said Tilly's mother as they sat by the fire. “We must save the wood, for there is only enough to last through tomorrow. The day after, I shall be paid for my work, and we can buy more.”
“If only my bird were a fairy bird and would give us three wishes,” Tilly said quietly. "How nice that would be! But, the poor dear can give me nothing, and it is of no matter.” Tilly was looking at the robin, who lay in the basket with his head under his wing, nothing more than a feathery, little ball.
"He can give you one thing, Tilly" her mother said. "He can give you the pleasure of doing good. That is one of the sweetest things in life, and it can be enjoyed by the poor as well as the rich." As Tilly's mother spoke, she softly stroked her daughter's hair with her tired hand.
Suddenly Tilly started with surprise and pointed toward the window. "I saw a face- a man's face," she confided in a frightened whisper. "He was looking in. He's gone now, but I truly saw him."
Tilly's mother stood up and went to the door. "Some traveler attracted by the light perhaps," she said.
The wind blew cold, the stars shone bright, the snow lay white on the field and the wood, and the Christmas moon was glittering in the sky; but no human person was standing within sight.
"What sort of face was it?" asked Tilly's mother, quickly closing the door.
"A pleasant sort of face, I think, but I was so startled to see it there that I don't quite know what it was like. I wish we had a curtain there," said Tilly.
"I like to have our light shine out in the evening, for the road is dark and lonely just here, and the twinkle of our lamp is pleasant to people as they pass by. We can do so little for our neighbors. I am glad we can at least cheer them on their way," said Tilly's mother. "Now put those poor, old shoes to dry and go to bed, dearie. I'll be coming soon."
Tilly went, taking her birdie with her to sleep in his basket neat her bed, lest he should be lonely in the night. Soon the little house was dark and still.
When Tilly came down and opened the front door that Christmas morning, she gave a loud cry, clapped her hands together, and then stood still, quite speechless with wonder and delight. There, near the stoop, lay a great pile of firewood all ready to be burned. There was also a large bundle and a basket with a lovely nosegay of winter roses, holly, and evergreen tied to the handle.
"Oh, Mother! Who could have left it?" cried Tilly, pale with excitement and the surprise of it all. She stepped out to bring in the basket, and her mother, a few steps be-hind, stooped down to scoop up the bundle.
"The best and dearest of all Christmas angels is called 'Charity?" Tilly's mother answered, her eyes welling with tears as she undid the bundle. "She walks abroad at Christmastime doing beautiful deeds like this, and never staying to be thanked."
It was all there– all that Tilly had imagined. There were warm, thick blankets, the comfortable shawl, a pair of new shoes, and best of all, a pretty winter hat for Bessy. The basket was full of good things to eat, and on the flowers lay a small note saying, "For the little girl who loves her neighbor as herself."
"Mother, I really do think my little bird is an angel in disguise and that all these splendid things came from him," said Tilly, laughing and crying with joy.
It really did seem so. As Tilly spoke, the robin flew to the table, hopped to the nosegay, and perching among the roses, began to chirp with all his little might. The sun streamed in on the flowers, the tiny bird, and the happy child with her mother. No one saw a shadow glide across the window or ever knew that Mr. King had seen and heard the little girls the night before. No one ever dreamed that the rich neighbor had learned a priceless lesson from his poor, little neighbor girl.
And Tilly's bird was a Christmas angel, for by the love and tenderness she gave to the helpless little creature, she brought good gifts to herself, happiness to an unknown benefactor, and the faithful friendship of a little friend who did not fly away, but stayed with her until the snow was gone, making summer for her in the wintertime.
Read the rest of the stories here and at other good booksellers: https://dauntbooks.co.uk/shop/books/a-merry-christmas-and-other-christmas-stories/
Read more about Louisa May Alcott and Massachusetts: https://www.selvedge.org/blogs/selvedge/exploring-massachusetts?_pos=1&_sid=35e0c178d&_ss=r