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December, 1950


Christmas Mystery



By Robert R. Anderson



Smashwords Edition



Copyright 2011 Robert R. Anderson



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Christmas Mystery | Robert R. Anderson


December, 1950

I stood alone on the platform of the little wayside depot peering up the tracks through the light filtering snow of mid-morning mid-December. Distantly I heard the warning hoot of the approaching locomotive some miles up the Connecticut River valley as it neared a farm road junction. That morning I would be the only passenger boarding, a shivering schoolgirl heading home for the Christmas vacation of her junior year. My knee socks were not sufficiently high, nor my plaid skirt sufficiently long, nor my camel hair coat sufficiently warm to counteract the fact that my knees were now exquisitely and painfully freezing.
The cold that bored into me reminded me of wintry childhood days astride my pony, the wind searing my cheeks and tearing my eyes, galloping ecstatically behind a pack of fox hounds in full cry. Would that the weather gods would look kindly upon our countryside this vacation and favor us with a few more days of late season hunting. And, as luck would have it, my wish for clement weather came true. The jolly annual Christmas routine of hunts and house parties was to continue merrily apace under benign skies until the moment that the hideous intruded itself into my callow adolescent existence.
The less said about my school, the better. It was horseless, boyless, joyless, and perched on a cold hillside overlooking the leaden Connecticut River smack up against the New Hampshire state line. I never understood why I must be wrenched from my contented country life and exiled to that forlorn place. Father said it was for my own good.
All the other students had departed the previous day. But I had stayed on to meet that evening my art teacher’s visitor, a portrait painter who had come for the weekend. Supper in her cozy cottage, tucked in the pines on the campus edge, had been a chilly affair despite the fire in the living room fireplace. Clearly, the portrait painter was not amused at the possibility of another upstart entry into her vocation who one day might affect her future income. More mystified than discouraged, I walked back through the dark, still campus to my dormitory, its windows normally ablaze with the light of the studious, now with but a single light glowing above the doorway.
All my life I had loved to draw and, later, to paint. In fact, that past summer my father had arranged for me to intern with a landscape painter who summered up the road in an old farmhouse, the back part of which had been converted to studio space. That I did little but clean up after him and received no consequential instruction had not bothered me. I saw how he went about things, and, if he was not forthcoming, he did answer questions I put to him. Whether he was aware that I aspired to portrait painting, or cared, my presence in his studio, as far as he was concerned, was that of day laborer. But for some time, I had been determined upon a career of portrait painting. I fancied that, at this point, my strength was that I could catch a likeness though I was still obviously lacking the proper academic training that an art school someday would provide.
At last, the yellow orb of the locomotive’s headlight emerged from the winter gloom and the train panted to a wheezing halt at the forlorn little platform. Yesterday the train would have been filled to bursting with extra cars attached as all the boarding schools in the valley closed the same December day. Today the ridership was sparse and I had a pair of seats to myself as we began to trundle down the broad, placid valley. For an hour, there was nothing but flat cropland punctuated by long, gray abandoned tobacco barns, little copses of woodland, and small brick factories served by the freight line.
The train groaned to a stop in Northampton, and a few Smith College girls, late departers like me, boarded. Leaving the rural valley behind, we rolled along to the riverside city of Springfield and then, hugging the leaden river, ran through countless acres of drear tobacco fields, grinding to a halt at my destination, the Romanesque brownstone terminal in Hartford, the center of the nation’s insurance business and the capitol of the Nutmeg State (early Connecticut peddlers had sold wooden nutmegs to gullible farmwives ).
There is something special about a snow globe snowfall in a city at Christmastime. The railroad station was bustling with gift-laden passengers and festooned with decorations and wreaths and lights of the merry season. My father had dispatched one of the young men from his office to escort me to the taxi rank and accompany me to the Hartford Club where presumably father would join me for lunch. And in case he was detained, the young man would squire me. This was standard operating procedure for all my previous school vacation returns, so I was not a bit surprised when a note at the club desk informed me that I should lunch with my new companion, a perfectly nice young man and a recent Trinity graduate, at the club and that he would provide me with necessary funds for the purchase of gifts for the family. Furthermore, I was to meet father at his office at 5 o’clock sharp for departure for home. The chance that we would depart at the specified hour I had learned from past experience was laughably remote, but for me to arrive a moment late would meet with a wondering frown over a bristling mustache. Thus was life with father.
I spent that dark afternoon in the brightly lit and gaily garbed department stores that stood shoulder to shoulder on Main Street, a block from the insurance company towers. I lingered over a watercolor landscape for my parents, but in the end bought a cookbook for mother, a horsey novel for my sister of ten years, and a necktie for my father. At that point in my young life I was unaware that a Christmas tie had become a standing joke among the pseudo-sophisticated, and, anyway, it was a handsome tie with a polka dot pattern and I liked it.

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