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How Two Little Stockings Saved Fort Safety by Sarah J. Prichard

Tale of the American Revolution

“A story, children; so soon after Christmas, too! Let me think, what shall it be?”

“O yes, mamma,” uttered three children in chorus.

Mrs. Livingston sat looking into the fire that flamed on the broad hearth so long, that Carl said, by way of reminder that time was passing: “An uncommon story.”

Then up spoke Bessie: “Mamma, something, please, out of the real old time before much of anybody 'round here was born.”

“As long off as the Indians,” assisted young Dot.

“Ah yes; that will do, children. I will tell you a story that happened in this very house almost a hundred years ago. It was told to me by my grandmother when she was very old.”

There was a grand old lady, Mrs. Livingston, at the head of this house then. She loved her country very much indeed, and was willing to do anything she could to help it, in the time of great trouble, during the war for independence. My grandmother was a little girl, not so old as you, Bessie. Her name was Lorinda Grey, and her home was in Boston. The year before, when British soldiers kept close watch to see that nothing to eat, or wear, or burn, was carried into Boston, Mr. Grey contrived to get his family out of the city, and Lorinda, with her brother Otis, was sent here. Afterward, when Boston was free again, the two children were left because the father was too busy to make the long journey after them.

Altogether, more than a dozen children belonging in some way to the Livingstons had been sent to the old house. The family friends and relatives gave the place the name “Fort Safety,” because it lay far away from the enemy's ships, and quite out of the line where the soldiers of either army marched or camped.

The year had been very full of sorrow and care and trouble and hard work; but when the time for Christmas drew near, this grand old Mrs. Livingston said it should be the happiest Christmas that the old house had ever known. She would make the children happy once, whatever might come afterward, and so she set about it quite early in the fall. One day the children (there were more than a dozen of them in the house at the time) found out that the great room at the end of the hall was locked. They asked Mrs. Livingston many times when it meant, and at last she told them that one night after they were in bed and asleep, Santa Claus appeared at her door and asked if he might occupy that room until the night before Christmas. She told him he might, and he had locked the door himself, and said “if any child so much as looked through a crack in the door that child would find nothing but chestnut burs in his stocking.” Well, the children knew that Santa Claus meant what he said, always, so they used to run past the door every day as fast as they could go and keep their eyes the other way, lest something should be seen that ought not to. Before the day came every wide chimney in the house was swept bright and clean for Santa Claus.

Aunt Elise, a sweet young lady, lived here then. She was old Mrs. Livingston's daughter, and she told the children that she had seen Santa Claus with her own eyes when he locked the door, and he said that every room must be made as fine as fine could be.

After that Tom and Richard and Will and Philip worked away as hard as they could. They gathered bushels and bushels of ivy, and a mile or two of ground-pine, and eight or ten pecks of bitter-sweet, and stored them all in the corn granary, and waited for the day. Then, when Aunt Elise set to work to adorn the house, she had twenty-four willing hands to help, beside her own two.

When all was made ready, and it was getting near to night in the afternoon before Christmas, Mrs. Livingston sent a messenger for three men from the farm. When they were come, she called in three African servants, and she said to the six men, “Saddle horses and ride away, each one of you in a different direction, and go to every house within five miles of here, and ask: 'Are any children in this habitation?' Then say that you are sent to fetch the children's stockings, that Santa Claus wants them, and take special care to bring me two stockings from each child, whose father or brother is away fighting for his country.”

So the six men set forth on their queer errand, after stockings, and they rode up hill and down, and to the great river's bank, and wherever the message was given at a house door, if a child was within hearing, off flew a stocking, and sometimes two, as the case might be about father and brother.

Now, in a deep little dell, about five miles away, there was a small, old brown house, and in it lived Mixie Brownson with her mother and brother, but this night Mixie was all alone. When one of the six horsemen rode up to the door, and without getting down from his horse, thumped away on it with his riding-whip handle, Mixie thought, “Like as not it is an Indian,” but she straightway lifted the wooden latch and opened the door.

“There's one child here, I see,” said the black man. “Any more?”

“I'm all alone,” trembled forth poor Mixie.

“More's the pity,” said the man. “I want one of your stockings; two of 'em, if you're a soldier's little girl. I'm taking stockings to Santa Claus.”

“O take both mine, then, please,” said Mixie with delight, and she drew off two warm woolen stockings and made them into a little bundle, which he thrust into a bag, and off he rode. Mixie's father was a Royalist, fighting with the Indians for the British, but then Mrs. Livingston knew nothing about that.

It was nearly midnight when the stockings reached Fort Safety. It was in this very room that Mrs. Livingston and Aunt Elise received them. Some were sweet and clean, and some were not; some were new and some were old. So they looked them over, and made two little piles, the one to be filled, the other to be washed.

About this time Santa Claus came down from his locked-up room, with pack after pack, and began to fill stockings. There were ninety-seven of them, beside sixteen more that were hung on a line stretched across the fire-place by the children before they went to bed, so as to be very handy for Santa Claus when he should enter by the chimney.

“What an awful rich lady my fine old Grandmother Livingston must have been, to have goodies enough to fill 113 stockings!” said Carl, his red hair fairly glistening with interest and pride; while Bessie and Dot looked eagerly at the fire-place and around the room, to see if any fragment of a stocking might, by any chance, be about anywhere.

Well, at last the stockings were full. I cannot tell you exactly what was in them. I remember that my grandmother said, that in every stocking went, first of all, a nice, pretty pair of new ones, just the size of the old ones; and next, a pair of mittens to fit hands belonging with feet that could wear the stockings. I know there were oranges and some kind of candy, too.

At last the stockings were all hung on a line extending along two sides of the room, and Mrs. Livingston and Aunt Elise locked the room, and being very tired, went to bed. The next morning, bright and early, there was a great pattering of bare feet and a flitting of night-gowns down the staircase, past the evergreen trees in the hall, and a little host of twelve children stood at that door, trying to get in; but it was all of no use, and they had to march back to bed again.

As for Otis Grey, he was a real Boston boy, full of the spirit of a Liberty Rebel. He dressed himself slyly, slipped down on the great stair-rail, so as to make no noise, opened softly the hall-door, went outside, climbed up, and looked into the room. When he peeped, he was so frightened at the long line of fat stockings that he made haste down, and never said a word to anybody, except my grandmother (Lorinda Grey, his sister); and they two kept the secret.

Breakfast time came, and not a child of the dozen had heard a word from Santa Claus that morning.

Mrs. Livingston said a very long grace, and after that she said to the children: “I have disappointed you this morning, but you will all have your stockings as soon as a little company I have invited to spend the day with you, is come.”

“Bless me!” whispered Otis Grey to his sister, “are all them stockings a-coming?”

“Otis,” said Mrs. Livingston, “you may leave the table.”

Otis obeyed silently, and lost his Christmas breakfast for the time. Mrs. Livingston had strict laws in her house, and punishment always followed disobedience.

The morning was long to the children, but it was a busy time in the winter kitchen, and even the summer kitchen was alive with cookery; and at just mid-day Philip cried out “Company's come, grandma!”

A dozen or more of the stocking-owners were at the door. In they trooped, bright and laughing and happy. Before they were fairly inside, more came, and more, and still more, until full sixty boys and girls were gathered up and down the great hall and parlors. Mixie Brownson came on the last sled-load. Now Mrs. Livingston did not know, even by name, more than one-half of the young folks she had undertaken to make happy that day; but that made no manner of difference, and the children had not the least idea that Santa Claus had their stockings all hung up in this room, until suddenly the doors were opened, and there was the great hickory-wood fire, and the sunlight streaming in, and the stockings, fat and bulging, hanging in rows. Some were red, and some were blue, and some were white, and some were mixed. Grand old Mrs. Livingston stood within the room, her white curls shining and her stiff brocade trailing.

“Come in, children,” she said, and in they trooped, silent with awe and wonder at the sight they saw. The lady arranged them side by side, in lines, on the two sides of the room where the stockings were not, and then she said:

“Santa Claus, come forth!”

In yonder corner there began a motion in the branches of the evergreen tree, and such a Santa Claus as crept forth was never seen before. He was bulgy with furs from crown to foot, but he made a low curve over toward Mrs. Livingston, and then nodded his head about the lines of children.

“Good day to you, this Christmas,” he said.

“Wish you Merry Christmas, Santa Claus,” said Philip, with a bow.

“Here's business,” said Santa Claus. “Stockings, let me see. Whoever owns the stocking that I take down from the line, will step forward and take it.”

Every single one of the children knew his or her own property, at a glance. Santa Claus had a busy time of it handing down stockings, and a few minutes later he escaped without notice, and was seen no more that year, in Fort Safety.

After the stockings came dinner, and such a dinner as it was! Whatever there was not, I remember that it was told to me that there was great abundance of English plum-pudding. After dinner came games and more happiness, and after the last game, came time to go home. The sweet clear afternoon suddenly became dark with clouds, and it began to snow soon after the first load set off. One or two followed, and by the time the last one was ready to start, Mrs. Livingston looked forth and said “not another child should leave her roof that night in such a blinding storm.”

Eight little hands clapped their new mittens together in token of joy, but poor little Mixie Brownson began to cry. She had never in her life been away from the brown house.

Tea was served, and Mixie was comforted for a short time. After that came games again, until all were weary with play; and Otis Grey begged Mrs. Livingston for a story.

Mixie was tearful still, and she crept shyly to the lady's side and sobbed forth: “I wish you was my grandma and would take me in your lap.”

Mrs. Livingston stooped and kissed Mixie's cheek, then lifted her on her knees and began to tell the children a story. It must have been a very pretty picture that the old, blowing snowstorm looked in upon that night, in this very room: twenty or more children seated around the fire-circle, with stately Mrs. Livingston and pretty Aunt Elise in their midst.

Whilst all this was going on within, outside a band of Indians, led by a white man, was approaching Fort Safety to burn it down.

Step by step, the savages crept nearer and nearer, until they were standing in the very light that streamed out from the Christmas windows.

The white man who led them was in the service of the English, and knew every step of the way, and just who lived in the great house.

He ordered them to stand back while he looked in. Creeping closer and closer, he climbed, as Otis Grey had done, and put his face to the window-pane. He saw Mrs. Livingston and Miss Elise, and the great circle of eager, interested faces, all looking at the story-teller, and he wiped his eyes in order to get one more good look, for he could not believe the story they told to him: that his own poor little Mixie was in there, sitting in proud Mrs. Livingston's lap, looking happier than he had ever seen her. He stayed so long, peering in, that the savages grew impatient. One or two of their chief men crept up and put their swarthy faces beside his own.

It so happened that at that moment Aunt Elise glanced toward the window. She did not scream, she uttered no word; but she fell from her chair to the floor.

[Illustration: “His own poor little Mixie was there, sitting in proud Mrs. Livingston's lap.”]

Mixie's father, for it was he who led the savages, saw what was happening within, and ordered the Indians to march away and leave the big house unhurt. They grunted and grumbled, and refused to go until they had been told that the little girl on the lady's knee was his little girl.

“He not going to burn his own papoose,” explained the Indian chief to his red men; and then the evil band went groping away through the storm.

The story to the children was not finished that night, for on the floor lay pretty Aunt Elise, as white as white could be; and it was a long time before she was able to speak. As soon as she could sit up, she wished to get out into the open air.

Mrs. Livingston went with her, and when she was told what had been seen at the window, they together examined the freshly fallen snow and found traces of moccasined feet.

With fear and trembling, the two ladies entered the house. Not a word of what had been seen was spoken to servant or child. Aunt Elise from an upper window kept watch during the time that Mrs. Livingston returned thanks to God for the happy day the children had passed, and asked His love and protecting care during the silent hours of sleep.

Then the sleepy, happy throng climbed the wide staircase to the rooms above, went to bed and slept until morning.

Not a red face approached Fort Safety that night. The two ladies, letting the Christmas fires go down, kept watch from the windows until the day dawned.

“I'm so glad,” exclaimed Carl, “that my fine, old, greatest of grandmothers thought of having that good time at Christmas.”

“Dear me!” sighed Bessie, “if she hadn't, we wouldn't have this nice home to-day.”

“Mamma,” said Dot, “let's have a good stocking-time next Christmas; just like that one, all but the Indians.”

“O, mamma, will you?” cried Bessie, jumping with glee.

“Where would we get the soldiers' children, though,” questioned Carl.

“Lots of 'em in Russia and Turkey, if we only lived there,” observed Bessie. “But there's always plenty of children that want a good time and never get it, just as much as the soldiers' children did. Will you, mamma?”

“When Christmas comes again, I will try to make just as many little folks happy as I can,” said Mrs. Livingston.

“And we'll begin now,” said Carl, “so as to be all ready. I shall saw all summer, so as to make lots of pretty brackets and things.”

“And I s'pose I shall have to dress about five hundred dolls to go 'round,” sighed Bessie, “there are so many children now-a-days.”