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Title: Around the Yule Log
Author: Allen, Willis Boyd
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Around the Yule Log" ***

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[Illustration: AROUND THE YULE LOG]

[Illustration: “’TWAS CHRISTMAS TOLD THE MERRIEST TALE”]



    AROUND THE YULE LOG

    BY

    WILLIS BOYD ALLEN

    _Author of “The Boyhood of John Kent,” “Snowed In,” “Christmas
    at Surf Point,” “The Pine Cone Series,” “Navy Blue,” etc._


    BOSTON

    The Pilgrim Press

    CHICAGO


    Copyright, 1898, by J. W. TEWKSBURY



    CONTENTS


                                                  PAGE
       I. Around the Yule Log                        7
      II. The Shadow of Christmas Present            9
     III. ’Lijah                                    36
      IV. A Christmas Reverie                       49
       V. The Cracked Bell                          57
      VI. Christmas Folk-Lore                       70
     VII. Mrs. Brownlow’s Christmas Party           83
    VIII. Christmas on Wheels                       98
      IX. Treasure Trove; a Christmas Story        109
       X. Charity and Evergreen                    119
      XI. Through the Storm                        141



I

AROUND THE YULE LOG


It is the waning of the year. As the twilight, often hastened by the
soft blur of falling snow, encroaches more and more upon the brief
day, we gather closely about our firesides, and there, heart to heart,
are wont to listen as at no other period of this prosaic nineteenth
century life, to tales of olden time. More than ever are we drawn
together at the season of our Saviour’s birth, when the yule log glows
amain and the sweet spirit of Christmas kindles within us a warmth and
gladness that responds to the cheerful blaze upon the hearth.

Christmas day! Does it not grow dearer to us every year? The summers
come and go; we rush to and fro on our little errands of business and
pleasure; great joys dawn in our lives, dark shadows of bitter
disappointment creep over them; we are glad, sorrowful, eager, weary,
well, ill; Life’s heart beats strongly, and Death is busy in its
midst; we strive for the Beautiful, the True, and the Good; we hide
our faces in helpless agony of shame and remorse; yet again comes the
dear Day of days, with its blessed associations, memories, hopes.

CHRISTMAS! Do you remember what that word meant to you when you were a
child? What a mysterious halo of light surrounded the day! How the
very sound of its name suggested the fragrance of the fir-tree and
wax-candles and marvelous toys, and the far-off tinkle of sleigh
bells, or beat of tiny reindeer hoofs upon the snowy roof! Has the
approach of Christmas but an indifferent charm in this grown-up
work-a-day world of ours? If so, let us strive and pray for those
delicate sensibilities of childhood that caught and reveled in the
fragrant atmosphere of the day; that could hear, knowing naught beyond
the bliss it brought, the voice of the Founder of Christmas blessing
little children as it blessed them in distant Palestine eighteen
centuries ago. Let us forgive our debtors this day as we would be
forgiven; let no child’s cry fall unheeded on our ears; let our hearts
be open to the tenderest, purest, most sacred thoughts, and to every
ennobling influence; let us be alert and watchful, on this bright
morning-day of the year; let the sun shine into and through us,
shedding its warmth and brightness upon all about us; let us be once
more as little children, and put out our hands trustingly, to be led.

_Hope--Joy--Bethlehem--Christmas--Christ!_ How softly the words chime
together, like Christmas bells! With their sweet music comforting and
gladdening our hearts, may we gather by the fireside to-night, to
listen to these simple tales
                                              AROUND THE YULE LOG.



II

THE SHADOW OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT


I

It was at precisely eight o’clock, on the evening of the twenty-fourth
of December, that Mr. Broadstreet yawned, glanced at the time-piece,
closed the book he had been reading, and stretched himself out
comfortably in his smoking-chair before the cannel fire which snapped
and rustled cosily in the broad grate. The book was “A Christmas
Carol,” and the reader, familiar as he was with its pages, had been
considerably affected by that portion relating to Tiny Tim, as well as
cheered by the joyful notes with which the Carol ends.

For some minutes he sat silently surveying the pattern on his
slippers, and apparently working it out again on his own brow. Now,
Mr. Broadstreet was not a man to act upon impulse. A lawyer in large
and profitable practice, and a shrewd man of business as well, he was
never known to do, say, or decide anything without deliberation.

“Hold on a bit,” he would say to an eager client, “softly, softly, my
friend, you’re too fast for me. Now, what did you say was done with
the property?” and so on to the end of the story. If there was any
money in the case, Mr. Broadstreet was pretty sure to draw it out, for
the benefit of his clients, and, remotely of course, himself.

“When I put my hand _down_,” he was fond of remarking, with
significant gesture upon the office desk, “I never take it up again
without something in it.”

In the course of his long practice, aided by a series of fortunate
speculations, he had amassed such a goodly sum that his name stood
near the head of the list of “Our Prominent Taxpayers;” he drove a
fine span of horses, and was free enough with his money, in a general
way. That is, when some large philanthropic movement was on foot,
Alonzo M. Broadstreet, Esq., was pretty sure to be down for a round
sum. He paid his share in church and politics, and annually sent a
check to the Board of Foreign Missions. He made it a rule, however,
never to encourage pauperism by promiscuous almsgiving, and never
tried a case or gave legal advice, for love. Poor people who called at
his office for assistance always found him unaccountably busy, and
street beggars had long since learned to skip his door on their
morning basket-visits.

To-night Mr. Broadstreet had picked up the “Carol” in a specially
complacent mood. He had spent liberally in Christmas gifts for his
wife and children, letting himself almost defy his better judgment by
purchasing for the former an expensive pin she had seen and fancied in
a show window the week before. Just as he had completed the bargain a
rescript had come down from the Supreme Court affirming judgment in
his favor in a case which meant at least a five-thousand-dollar fee.

Notwithstanding the memory of his recent good luck, he continued, on
this particular evening, of all evenings in the year, to knit his
brows and give unmistakable evidence that some emotion or reflection,
not altogether pleasant, was stirring him powerfully.

“Nonsense!” said Mr. Broadstreet presently, half aloud, as if he were
addressing some one in the center of the glowing coals. “Nonsense!” he
repeated, looking hard at a grotesque, carved figure that supported
the mantel: “I’m _not_ like Scrooge. I give freely and I spend freely.
That fire don’t look much like the one old Scrooge warmed his gruel
over, does it now?”

The marble figure making no answer to this appeal, but continuing his
stony gaze, Mr. Broadstreet shifted his position again uneasily.
“Don’t I give away hundreds of dollars every year to the Societies,
and haven’t I left them a round ten thousand in my will? Won’t
somebody mourn for _me_, eh?”

But the carved lips replied never a word, only seeming to curl
slightly as the firelight played upon them, thereby assuming such an
unpleasantly scornful expression that Mr. Broadstreet began to feel
more uncomfortable than ever.

Rising hastily from his chair and throwing the book down upon the
table, he walked on to the window, rubbed a little place clear upon
the frosty pane, and looked out.

The night was gloomy enough to make the plainest of homes seem cheery
by contrast. Since morning the skies had been dully gray, so that
every one who went out wore arctics and carried umbrellas, and was
provoked because no storm came. At about the time when the sun might
be supposed to be setting, somewhere behind that dismal wall of
clouds, a few tiny, shivering flakes had come floating down or up, one
could hardly tell which, and had mingled with the dust that, driven by
the biting wind, had filled the air, and piled itself in little ridges
along the sidewalk, and blinded the eyes of men and beasts throughout
the dreary day. Before long the snow overcame the low-born friend with
whom it had at first treacherously allied itself, laid it prostrate on
the earth, and calling in all its forces rioted victoriously over the
field. The storm now took full possession of the city, whitening roofs
and pavements, muffling every footfall and wheel-rattle, filling the
streets up to their slaty brims with whirling mists of sleety snow,
and roaring furiously through the tree-tops and around corners. As Mr.
Broadstreet gazed through his frosty loophole, with mind full of the
story he had just finished, he almost fancied he could discern the
shadowy forms of old Marley and his fellow-ghosts moaning and wringing
their hands as they swept past in trailing white robes.

He turned away with a half-shiver and once more ensconced himself in
his warm easy chair, taking up the Carol as he did so, and turning its
leaves carelessly until he came to a picture of the Ghost of Christmas
Present. It was wonderfully well-drawn, following the text with great
care, hitting off the idea of the jovial, holly-crowned Spirit to the
very life. And then the heap of good things that lay in generous piles
about the room! Mr. Broadstreet could almost catch a whiff of
fragrance from the turkeys and geese and spicy boughs. Indeed, so
strong was the illusion that he involuntarily glanced over his
shoulder at the marble-topped table near by, half expecting to see an
appetizing dish of eatables at his side. No one had entered, however,
and the table was as usual, with only its album and gilt-mounted
screen, flanked by a few books that were too choice to be hidden away
on the library shelves. When he looked back at the picture in the
book, he started and rubbed his eyes. He thought--but it could not
have been possible--that the central figure on the page moved
slightly; and he was positive that one of the Ghost’s arms, in the
engraving, had been raised, while now both were at his side.

Mr. Broadstreet turned back the leaf with some misgiving, and looked
carefully behind it. Nothing but blank white paper.

“H’m,” muttered Mr. Broadstreet to himself, “how a man’s fancy does
play strange tricks with--Halloo!”

He was once more glancing at the picture, when the jolly Ghost gave
him an unmistakable wink.

To say that the lawyer started, was astonished, struck dumb--would be
mild. He sat staring at the page, not wholly believing his own eyes,
and yet not liking to look upon such a--to say the least--peculiar
picture.

While he was in this bewildered state of mind a rich, jovial voice was
heard, apparently at a great distance, and at the same time proceeding
directly from the book he held in his hand; and--yes, no doubt about
it--the Ghost’s bearded lips were moving.

“Well?” said the Ghost of Christmas Present, still seeming very, very
far off.

“Well, sir?” stammered Mr. Broadstreet, in return.

“You see I’m not dead yet, although some of your good people on this
side of the water pay precious little attention to me.”

“Why, really,” said Mr. Broadstreet, instinctively arguing the
opposite side of the question, “as to that, I’m not so sure. Take
Christmas cards, now. A few years ago they were unknown; now they’re
as common as valentines.”

“Oh, yes,” replied the Ghost, “I know. You see I have my room pretty
well decorated with them.”

The lawyer scrutinized the background of the picture more carefully,
and, sure enough, the walls were covered with what at first seemed a
rich sort of illuminated paper, but proved to be composed entirely of
Christmas cards, many of which he had never seen. Even in the
momentary glance he gave, he observed that those which had taken
prizes and had been most largely advertised during the past few
winters, were tucked away in obscure corners, while several which were
exceedingly simple in design and text occupied the most prominent
positions.

“Yes,” the Ghost went on, “the cards are well enough in their way, and
so are the other displays and festivities of the day. But it is the
spirit of Christmas that you need. Charity, charity in its good old
sense: open hearts and kind deeds, with less thought of self-pleasing.
While these dainty little gifts are being manufactured, purchased,
sent, and thrown away, hundreds of people are at starvation’s door in
your own city; thousands of people know little or nothing of the real
meaning of the day, or of its Founder.”

As the Ghost spoke, its voice seemed to come nearer, and at the same
time the book grew so large and heavy that Mr. Broadstreet was fain to
set it down upon the carpet. He no longer feared the Ghost, nor did it
seem strange that it should converse with him in this manner.

“Wherein are we deficient?” he asked eagerly. “Or what more can we do?
The charitable institutions of Boston are among the best in the world,
the sky is full of her church-steeples, her police and missionary
forces are vigilant and effective in their work.”

The Ghost of Christmas Present gave a toss to his long hair and
beard.

“How much have you done to carry the spirit of Christmastide beyond
your own threshold? Who in this great city will cherish the day and
love it more dearly for your warm human friendship and kindly act,
until it symbolizes to them whatever is purest and merriest and
holiest in life?”

The Ghost’s voice, now grown very near, was rather sad than stern, and
its eyes were fixed intently upon Mr. Broadstreet’s face.

Mr. Broadstreet hesitated. With cross-examination he was familiar
enough, but he did not relish the part of witness. So confused was he
that he hardly noticed that book and picture were now so large that
they quite filled the end of the room in which he was sitting, and
seemed like another apartment opening out of his own.

“I--I--hardly know,” he stammered. “Really, I’ve spent a good deal of
money; my Christmas bills are always tremendous, but I suppose it’s
mostly in the family.”

“Mind,” interrupted the Ghost, almost sharply, “I don’t say anything
against the good cheer and merriment at home. But there are many homes
within a stone’s throw of your chair, where there will be no fine
dinner, no presents, no meeting of friends, no tree,--nothing but
anxiety and doubt and despair. Your dressing-gown would provide for
several of them.”

Mr. Broadstreet looked meekly at the embroidery upon his sleeves.

“What would you have me do?” he asked.

“Do you desire to perform your part toward making the morrow bright
for some one who otherwise would find it all clouds? Do you wish to
plant seeds of love and mercy and tenderness in some heart that has
heretofore borne only thistles? To bring a smile to some weary face,
warmth to shivering limbs, light and hope to dreary lives?”

“I do! I do!” exclaimed the rich man, eagerly starting up from his
chair.

“And are you ready to sacrifice your ease and comfort, this stormy
night, for such as they?”

Mr. Broadstreet seized his fur cap and ulster from the rack in the
hall. “Try me!” he cried. “I’m ready for anything!”

The Ghost smiled pleasantly upon him, at the same time seeming to lift
its hand involuntarily, as in blessing. Then it spoke for the last
time.

“Hitherto you have known only the bright side of Christmas,” it said
gently. “It has been full of joy to you and yours. But there are those
among your fellow creatures, nay, among your very neighbors, who dwell
in such continued misery that when Christmas comes it but reminds them
of their unhappy state, and by its excess of light upon others deepens
the gloom about themselves. This is the Shadow of Christmas Present,
and it falls heavily upon many a heart and many a household, where the
day, with its good cheer and blessed associations, should bring naught
but delight.” The kind Spirit’s voice wavered slightly. “I, myself,
can do but little to dispel this shadow. It grieves me sorely, year
by year, but it remains, and I fear I sometimes but make it worse,
with my bluff ways and keen winter breezes. It is for those who love
me most to carry such light and comfort to those upon whom it rests,
that it shall be banished never to return. The shadow grows less year
by year, but it is still broad, broad.”

The Ghost was silent a moment. It beckoned to the other, and motioned
to him to step behind it. “In my Shadow you shall move to-night,” it
concluded, in a firmer voice. “It shall accompany you wherever you go,
and your work shall be to turn it away, with whatever kind deeds your
hand shall find to do, or cheering words you may have the power to
speak.”

It said no more. Mr. Broadstreet, who, when a child, had often longed
to peep behind a picture, found himself actually fulfilling his wish.
As he drew nearer the printed page, he heard a dull roar, like surf
beating upon a rocky coast. He advanced further, picking his way
around the pile of poultry and vegetables and glistening holly upon
which the Ghost sat enthroned. A moment more and the room vanished in
utter blackness of night, the roar grew grander and deeper, until it
throbbed in his ears like the diapason of a mighty organ, a fierce
blast of snow-laden wind struck his bewildered face, the street-lamp
upon the corner flickered feebly in a mist of flakes--he was standing
before his own door, knee-deep in a snow-drift, and buffeted above,
below, and on every side by the storm that was abroad that Christmas
Eve.


II

As soon as Mr. Broadstreet recovered himself and cleared his eyes from
the blinding snow, he saw a heavy, black Shadow on the sidewalk
enveloping his own person and resting upon the figure of a man who had
evidently just sheltered himself behind the high stone steps, for his
footprints leading from the street were still quite fresh. As the man
thrashed his arms and stamped vigorously, to start the blood through
his benumbed feet, a bright button or two gleamed upon his breast
through the cape of his greatcoat. Mr. Broadstreet now recognized him
as the policeman whose beat it was, and whom he had occasionally
favored with a condescending nod, as he came home late at night from
the theater or the club. He had never addressed him by so much as a
word, but now the Shadow was full upon him, and Mr. Broadstreet felt
that here was his first opportunity.

“Good-evening, officer!” he shouted cheerily, through the storm. “Wish
you a Merry Christmas to-morrow.”

“Thank you, sir; same to you,” replied the other, with a touch of the
cap and a pleased glance at the great man. “Hard times for the boys
to-night, though.”

“It _is_ hard,” said Mr. Broadstreet compassionately. “And you’re
rather cold, I suppose?” he added awkwardly, after a pause.

“Rather!”

“Why, bless me,” a bright thought striking him, “wouldn’t you like a
cup of hot coffee, now?”

The officer looked up again, surprised. “I would that, sir,
first-rate,” he answered heartily.

Mr. Broadstreet stepped to the side door and pressed the electric
knob.

“Bring out a good cup of coffee for this man,” he said to the girl who
answered the bell. “And, officer, buy the folks at home a trifle for
me; Christmas, you know.” As he spoke, he put a big silver dollar into
the astonished policeman’s hand, and at the same time the Shadow
vanished, leaving the light from the bright, warm hall falling fairly
upon the snow-covered cap and buttons.

A muffled roll and jingling of bells made themselves heard above the
wind, and a street-car came laboring down the street through the heavy
drifts. Mr. Broadstreet, without a thought as to the destination of
the car, but impelled by some unseen force, clambered upon the rear
platform. The conductor was standing like a snowman, covered with
white from head to foot, collar up around his ears, and hands deep in
his pockets. And the Shadow was there again. Broad and gloomy, it
surrounded both conductor and passenger in its bleak folds.

“Tough night, sir,” remarked the former, presently.

“Yes, yes, it is, indeed,” replied Mr. Broadstreet, who was thinking
what in the world he could give this man, except money. “And Christmas
Eve, too!”

“That’s a fact,” said the conductor. “Just the luck of it, I say. Now
to-morrow I get four hours lay-off in the afternoon, and my wife, she
was planning to take the children and go to the play. But they’re none
of ’em over strong, and ’t won’t do to take ’em out in this snow.
Besides, like’s not ’twill storm all day.”

“Children?” exclaimed Mr. Broadstreet, seeing a way out of his
difficulty; “how many?”

“Two girls and a boy, all under seven.”

“Got any Christmas presents for them?--don’t mind my asking.”

“Well, I’d just ’s lief show you what I _have_ got. ’T ain’t much, you
know, but then it’s _somethin’_.”

He stepped inside the door, laid aside his snowy mittens, and taking
from the corner of the seat a small brown parcel, carefully removed
the string and wrappings.

“There,” he said, with a sort of pleading pride in his eyes, “I guess
these’ll please ’em some. ’Taint much, you know,” he added again,
glancing at his passenger’s fur cap, as he displayed the presents on
the car-seat.

A very red-cheeked and blue-eyed doll, with a placid countenance quite
out of keeping with her arms; these members being so constructed as to
occupy only two positions, one of which expressed unbounded
astonishment, and the other gloomy resignation; a transparent slate,
with a dim cow under the glass, and “fifteen cents,” plainly marked in
lead pencil on one corner of the frame, and a rattle for the girl
baby.

As the conductor held up these articles in his stiff, red fingers,
turning the doll about so as to show her flaxen braid to the best
advantage, and inducing the arms to take the positions alluded to, the
Shadow crept away, and had well-nigh disappeared. But it returned
again, thicker than ever, when he said, with a little choke in his
voice, “I did mean to get ’em a little tree, with candles on it, and a
picture-book or two; but our pay ain’t overmuch, and we had sickness,
and--and”--he was very busy doing up the bundle, and very clumsy he
must have been, too, for it was a long time before the wide-looped,
single bow-knot was tied, and the parcel carefully put away again.

Mr. Broadstreet winked hard, and his eyes shone.

“How long before you pass here on the way back?” he asked.

“About thirty-five minutes it’ll take us to get round, sir, on account
of the snow. It’s my last trip.”

“Very well. Now, conductor--ahem! what did you say your name was?”

“Tryson, sir; David Tryson.”

“Then, ahem! Mr. Tryson--just ring your bell when you reach the corner
there, on the up trip; and dodge into that store where the lights
are. You’ll find a bundle waiting for you. Good-night conduct--Mr.
Tryson, and a Merry Christmas to you and yours!”

“Good-night, sir! God bless you, sir! Merry”--but his passenger was
gone.

As he reached the sidewalk, Mr. Broadstreet turned and looked after
the car. Whether it was the light from the street lamp, or the broad
flood of radiance that poured out from the windows of the toy-shop
just beyond, he could not tell; but the rear platform was illuminated
by a pure, steady glow, in the very center of which stood the
conductor, smiling and waving his hand. No sign of a Shadow; not a bit
of it. Mr. Broadstreet looked carefully about him, but it was nowhere
to be seen. Even the snow, which all this time continued to fall
without interruption, seemed to fill the air with tiny lamps of soft
light.

Ah, that toy-shop! Such heaps of blocks, and marbles, and sleds; such
dolls with eyes that would wink upside down, exactly like a hen’s;
such troops of horses and caravans of teams; such jangling of toy
pianos, and tooting of toy horns, and shrieking of toy whistles,
(these instruments being anxiously tested by portly papas and mammas,
apparently to be sure of a good bargain, but really for the fun of the
thing); such crowds of good-natured people, carrying canes, and drums,
and hoop-sticks under their arms, taking and giving thrusts of these
articles and being constantly pushed and pulled and jammed and trodden
upon with the most delightful good humor; such rows of pretty girls
behind the counters, now climbing to the summits of Ararats where
innumerable Noah’s Arks, of all sizes, had been stranded; all these
girls being completely used up with the day’s work, of course, but
more cheerful and willing than ever, bless them! such scamperings to
and fro of cash-boys, and diving into the crowd, and emergings in
utterly unexpected places--were never seen before in this quiet old
city.

Mr. Broadstreet embarked on the current, and with an unconsciously
benevolent smile on his round face was borne half-way down the store
before he could make fast to a counter.

“What can I do for you, sir?” If the girlish voice was brisk and
businesslike it was at the same time undeniably pleasant.

Mr. Broadstreet started. “Why, I want some presents; Christmas
presents, you know,” he said, looking down into the merry brown eyes.

“Boy or girl, sir, and how old?”

Mr. Broadstreet was fairly taken aback by her promptness. His wife
always did the Christmas shopping.

“Let me see,” he began hurriedly; “two girls and a--no, I mean two
boys--why, bless me,” he went on in great confusion, as her low laugh
rang out among the woolly sheep with which she happened to be
surrounded, “I’ve really forgotten. That is--Oh, I see; you needn’t
laugh,” and Mr. Broadstreet’s own smile broadened as he spoke,
“they’re not mine. I never heard of them until five minutes ago, and
I declare I don’t remember which is which. At any rate there are three
of them, all under seven.”

“How would a lamb do for the oldest? Real wool and natural motion?” in
proof of which latter assertion she set all their heads nodding in the
most violent manner, until it made her customers quite dizzy to look
at them. Mr. Broadstreet picked out the biggest one. “He seems
to--ah--bow more vigorously than the rest,” he said.

The girl then proceeded to display various toys and gay-colored
picture-books, Mr. Broadstreet assenting to the choice in every
instance, until a large, compact bundle lay on the counter, plainly
marked,

        “_Mr. Tryson, Conductor. To be called for._”

As the lawyer was leaving the store, he remembered something, and
turned back.

“I forgot,” he said, “I wanted to buy a tree”--

“Just round the corner,” interrupted the brown-eyed girl over her
shoulder, without looking at him. She was already deep in the
confidence of the next customer, who had told her the early history of
two of her children, and was now proceeding to the third. Mr.
Broadstreet buttoned up his coat collar, and stepped out once more
into the storm. A few moments’ walk brought him to a stand where the
trees were for sale. And what a spicy, fragrant, delicious, jolly
place it was, to be sure! The sidewalk was flanked right and left with
rows upon rows of spruce, pine and fir trees, all gayly decked with
tufts of snow; every doorway, too, was full of these trees, as if they
had huddled in there to get out of the storm. Here and there were
great boxes overflowing with evergreen and holly boughs, many of which
the dealers had taken out and stuck into all sorts of crannies and
corners of their stands, so that the glossy leaves and scarlet berries
glistened in the flaring light of the lamps. Wreaths of every size and
description--some made of crispy gray moss, dotted with bright
amaranths, some of holly--were threaded upon sticks like beads, and
were being constantly pulled off and sold to the muffled customers who
poured through the narrow passageway in a continuous stream.

“All brightness,” thought Mr. Broadstreet, “and no Shadow this time.”

None? What was that black ugly-looking stain on the fallen snow,
extending from his own feet to one of the rude wooden stands where
traffic was busiest? Mr. Broadstreet started, and scrutinized it
sharply. He soon discovered the outline of Christmas Present. Beyond a
doubt it was the Shadow again.


III

It must be confessed that for a moment Mr. Broadstreet felt slightly
annoyed. Why should that Thing be constantly starting up and darkening
his cheerful mood? It was bad enough that the Shadow should exist,
without intruding its melancholy length upon people who were enjoying
Christmas Eve. He might have indulged in still further discontent,
when he noticed the head of the Shadow-figure droop as in sadness. He
remembered the kind Ghost’s grief, and upbraided himself for his
hardness of heart.

“Forgive me,” he said, half aloud. “I was wrong. I forgot. I will,
please God, brighten this spot and turn away the Shadow!”

Without further delay he advanced through the gloomy space until he
reached the box, upon which a large lot of holly wreaths and crosses
were displayed. He soon completed the purchase of a fine thick fir,
and sent it, together with a roll of evergreens, to the toy-shop,
directed like the parcel to the conductor.

The owner of the stand was a jovial, bright-faced young fellow, and it
was evident that to him Christmas meant only gladness and jollity. But
the Shadow still rested upon Mr. Broadstreet and all the snowy
sidewalk about him. He was thoroughly puzzled to find its object, and
had almost begun to consider the whole affair a delusion, when his
eyes fell upon an odd little man, standing in the shelter of the
trees, and visibly shaking with the cold, although his coat was
tightly buttoned about his meager form, and his old hat pulled down
over his ears. As he saw the portly lawyer looking at him he advanced
timidly and touched his hat.

“Can I carry a bundle for you, sir?” he asked, his teeth chattering as
he spoke.

“Why, I’m afraid not,” said Mr. Broadstreet. “I’ve just sent away all
my goods.”

The man’s face fell. He touched his hat again and was humbly turning
away, when the other laid his hand lightly on his shoulder.

“You seem to be really suffering with the cold, my friend,” he said in
such gentle tones that his “learned brothers upon the other side”
would not have recognized it; “and that’s a little too bad for
Christmas Eve.”

“Christmas! Christmas!” shivered the man with a little moan, wringing
his thin hands, “what is that to me! What is that to a man whose wife
is dying for want of tender nursing and wholesome food? whose children
are growing up to a life of misery and degradation? whose own
happiness is gone, gone, so long ago that he has forgotten the feeling
of it?”

Mr. Broadstreet patted the shoulder gently. “Come, come,” he said,
trying to speak cheerily; “it isn’t so bad as that, you know. Times
are better, and there’s plenty of work.”

“Work!” cried the man bitterly. “Yes, for the friends of the rich; for
the young and strong; for the hopeful, but not for me. I tell you,
sir,” he continued, raising his clenched fist until the ragged sleeve
fell back and left his long, gaunt wrist bare in the biting wind,
“I’ve walked from end to end of Boston, day after day, answering
every advertisement, applying for any kind of honorable employment;
but not even the city will take me to shovel snow in the streets, and
I’m discouraged, discouraged.”

To Mr. Broadstreet’s dismay, the poor fellow suddenly hid his face in
his hands, and broke down in a tempest of sobs.

Ah, how dark the Shadow was then! The storm had ceased, but the keen
northwest wind still swept the streets, filling the air with fine, icy
particles of snow, and driving to their warm homes those who had
remained down town to make their last purchases.

The man shivered and sobbed by turns, and was quite the sport of the
wind, which was buffeting him with its soft, cruel paws; when suddenly
the world seemed to grow warmer. He felt something heavy and soft upon
his back and around his neck. Mechanically thrusting his arms through
the sleeves which opened to meet them, and looking up in amazement, he
beheld his new friend standing upon the sidewalk in his dressing-gown,
a genial smile upon his beaming face, and his hand outstretched. The
lawyer laughed gleefully at his consternation.

“It’s all right,” he said, as the Discouraged Man tried to pull off
the ulster and return it to its owner. “I’m warmer than ever. Come on,
let’s go home and see your wife and children. Don’t stop to talk!” and
seizing the other by the hand, or rather the cuff of his sleeve, which
was much too long for him, he hurried him off, snatching a couple of
wreaths from the stand as he went by, and dropping a half-dollar in
their place.

It was a strange experience for the proud lawyer, that walk through
the dark streets, floundering among snow-drifts, slipping, tumbling,
scrambling along over icy sidewalks and buried crossings, the
long-skirted gown flapping about his heels in the most ridiculous way.
He kept his eyes steadily fixed on the Shadow, which was always before
him, now turning down a side street, now doubling on itself, ever
growing more and more distinct, and drawing its two followers farther
and farther into the lowest quarter of the city. The stars were out
now, and seemed to flicker in the fierce wind like the gas lights upon
the street corners. Mr. Broadstreet felt curiously warm without his
ulster and as light-hearted as a boy.

As they passed through the most brilliantly-lighted streets, however,
he saw much that filled him for the moment with sadness. For the
Shadow now grew enormously large, and rested upon many places. It
brooded darkly over the brilliant saloons that lined the way, and that
clothed themselves in the very garments of Christmas to attract the
innocent and foolish, so that, drawn by the sheen of holly and
evergreen, and the show of festivities and good cheer, they might
enter and find their own destruction. Oftentimes, too, the Shadow
flitted along the street in company with some man or woman who to all
outward appearance was calm and content with life; perhaps even
happy, one would have said. In the black folds of the Shadow,
brutal-faced ruffians hid their bleared eyes; houses were draped as in
some time of national mourning; once, the slight, pretty figure of a
young girl came up, wearing the Shadow flauntingly about her neck,
like a scarf; she stopped, and seemed about to address Mr. Broadstreet
with bold words. As she met his kind, pitying glance, however, her own
eyes fell, her lips quivered, she drew the Shadow about her face and
fled. Alas! he could do nothing for such as her, unless that gentle,
fatherly face should come before her again, in her solitude, and, by
its silent eloquence, lead her to better things.

While Mr. Broadstreet was peering about for the Shadow, and taking
into his heart the lessons it taught, he had not been idle, giving a
kind word or a bit of money or a pleasant glance wherever the chance
offered.

The Shadow now paused before a narrow doorway in a crooked little
street, and the two, or rather the three, for the Shadow went before
them, entered and mounted the stairway. Mr. Broadstreet stumbled
several times, but the Discouraged Man went up like one who was well
used to the premises. As they reached the third landing, a voice
somewhere near them commenced to sing feebly, and they stopped to
listen.

“It’s Annette,” whispered the Discouraged Man; “she’s singing for me.
It was a way she had when we were first married, and I used to like
it, coming home from a hard day’s work; so she’s tried to keep it up
ever since. Do you hear her, sir?”

Yes, Mr. Broadstreet heard her. Poor, poor little thin voice,
trembling weakly on the high notes and avoiding the low ones
altogether. It was more like a child’s than a woman’s, and so
tired--so tired! He fumbled in his dressing-gown pocket and turned his
head away; quite needlessly, for it was very dark.

The two men remained silent for a moment, listening to the echo of the
gay young voice with which the little bride used to greet her husband;
she, so tender, and loving, and true; he, so strong, and brave, and
hopeful for the future! And as they listened, they caught the words:

    “Christ was born on Christmas Day,
    Wreathe the holly, twine the bay,
    Carol Christmas joyfully,
    The Babe, the Son, the Holy One of Mary.”

“That’s a new one,” whispered the Discouraged Man again, delightedly.
“She never sang it before. She must have learned it on purpose for
to-night!”

There was a weary little pause within the room; she wondering,
perhaps, why he didn’t come in. Presently she began again, and her
voice had grown strangely weak, so that they could hardly hear it, in
the rush of the wind outside the building:

    “Let the bright red berries glow,
    Everywhere--in goodly show”--

It died away into a mere whisper, and then ceased entirely.

Mr. Broadstreet hesitated no longer, but touched his companion’s arm,
and they both entered.

She was lying on a rude bed in the corner of the room, her eyes
closed, and her hands folded upon her breast. A look of agony swept
across the face of her husband as he knelt beside her, taking her cold
hands--ah, so thin! in his own, chafing and kissing them by turns.

Above his head on the whitewashed wall was the word “_John_,” in
large, bright letters. It was his name; she had crept from her bed and
traced it with her finger-tip upon the frosty window-pane, so that the
light from a far-off street lamp shone through the clear lines, and
thus reproduced them upon the opposite wall. Just beneath was “_Merry
Christmas_.” She thought it would please him, and seem like a sort of
decoration, hung there above her bed. And now he was kneeling by her
side, and holding her thin hands. Perhaps he was more discouraged than
ever, just then. O Shadow, Shadow, could you not have spared him this?

Mr. Broadstreet hung the wreaths he had brought upon the bed-post, and
waited helplessly. A mist gathered in his eyes, so that he could not
see; the walls of the little dismal chamber wavered to and fro, the
Shadow grew more and more dense until it seemed to assume definite
shape, the shape of Christmas Present, sitting as before, enthroned
amidst plenty and good cheer; the deep-toned bells in a neighboring
church-tower slowly and solemnly tolled twelve strokes, answered by
the silver chime of a clock; the flames of the open fire rose and
fell fitfully, in mute answer to the blasts of wind that roared about
the chimney top. The Ghost dwindled rapidly, the Discouraged Man
assumed the proportions and appearance of a marble figure under the
mantel, and Mr. Broadstreet, starting up in affright, found himself
standing in his own warm room, the Christmas Carol still open at the
wonderful picture in his hand. The air still vibrated with the last
echoes of the midnight-bell. It was Christmas morning.

Not many hours later, the glad sun was shining brightly over the
white-robed city, sprinkling the streets and housetops with
diamond-dust, gleaming upon the golden spires of churches, seeking out
every dark and unwholesome corner with its noiseless step, and
dispensing with open hand its bounty of purity and warmth. Yet the
shadow was there, even on that fairest of Christmas Days,--and Mr.
Broadstreet knew it.

Throughout the day he was thoughtful and abstracted, and during the
following weeks he was observed to act in the most unaccountable
manner. On snowy evenings he would dodge out of the house without the
slightest warning, and return shortly after with damp boots and a
defeated air.

Upon the street-cars Mr. Broadstreet became famous that winter for his
obliging manner and pleasant ways with the employees. Indeed, he more
than once persisted in remaining on the platform with the conductor at
the imminent risk of freezing his ears and nose, until he was fairly
driven within doors.

Down town he behaved still more queerly, leaving the office long
before dark, and being discovered in the oddest places imaginable; now
diving into narrow courts, and up steep staircases, now plunging into
alleyways and no thoroughfares; and returning home late to dinner,
greatly exhausted, with little or no money in his pockets. In these
days, too, he began to talk about the sufferings of the poor, the
abuses of the liquor law, the need of strong, pure women to go among
the outcasts of our great, troubled city and perform Christlike deeds.

One bitter cold night he was much later than usual. It had been
snowing heavily, and his wife had begun to worry a little over the
absence of her husband, when she heard the click of his key in the
front door. When Mr. Broadstreet entered, sprinkled with snow from
head to foot, what was her amazement to see him standing there with
fur cap and gloves, and a glowing face, but no ulster!

“Alonzo, Alonzo,” she cried, from the head of the stairs, “what will
you forget next? Where have you left it?”

“Why,” said he simply, “I’ve found the Discouraged Man. And the doctor
at the hospital says she’ll get well, after all.”



III

’LIJAH


Twilight, December twilight in a great city, cold gray and dismal. Up
town the dust collected in little ridges at the street corners, and
whirled alike into the faces of rich and poor, on their way home from
work. Down town the clerks in the big stores had gone out to their
suppers, leaving the boys to light up and rearrange the disheveled
counters for the final rush of evening customers. Around the markets
and in the toy-shops, however, there was little rest. Crowds of tired,
good-natured people staggered against each other and entangled
themselves in all sorts of projecting bundles which they carried under
their arms. Now and then a messenger or expressman would call out,
“Clear the way there!” in rich, jovial tones, while he bore his armful
of glistening, scarlet-dotted holly through the thickest of the crowd.
Even the night wind, which came scurrying down from the northwest
evidently bent on mischief, stopped a moment to rest among the boughs
of the mimic evergreen forest of fir and spruce along the sidewalks,
refreshed itself with their spicy fragrance, and stole away again,
gentler than before. And when, of all the year, should eyes be
brighter, hopes higher, voices merrier, even wind and winter air more
mild than on this blessed night?--for it was Christmas Eve.

“B-r-r-r-r,” shivered ’Lijah, trying to pull down the ragged ends of
his sleeves over his black wrist; “dis yere’s what I call right cold.
Gwine to snow ’fore mo’nin’, for sho.’”

Plunging a small shovel into the tin pail he was carrying, the old man
proceeded to scatter its contents, a sort of earthy gravel, along the
slippery rails of the horse-car track.

“Hullo, ’Lijah!” called a passing driver, with one hand on his brake
and the other holding a tight rein, “where you goin’ to-morrow?”

“Dunno; Merry Chris’mus!” returned the other, straightening his old
back and waving a salute with his shovel.

One after another greeted him in much the same way, receiving the
invariable “Merry Chris’mus,” given with a broad smile and a momentary
gleam of white from eyes and teeth.

The pail was empty, and ’Lijah was about to leave the scene of his
day’s work, when a strong, young voice called to him.

“Evening, ’Lijah. Wish you a Merry Christmas!”

“Thank ye, thank ye, mars’ George,” cried the negro, answering
involuntarily in the old plantation dialect, and turning delightedly
to the newcomer. “Wh-whar you been, Mars,’ an’ how’s Miss Rosy?”

“She’s well, ’Lijah,” said the young man, with a sparkle in his eye.
“I’ve been away from the city for a month. To-night I was going up
there, but”--

“But what, but what, Mars’ George?” queried the old man eagerly. “Ef a
po’ ole nig kin do anything fer ye, he’ll do it sho’. _Anything_,
Mars’!”

George Farley looked at him kindly. “I know you would, ’Lijah. And
yet, I hardly know--if I hadn’t been away so long”--

He was a generous young fellow, and he wanted to do right both by his
employers and his humble companion. The fact was, he had been charged
to remain in the store that night, the regular watchman being at home
sick. He had been looking forward during his long absence on the road
to that very Christmas Eve, which he was to spend with the owner of a
certain pair of merry brown eyes, at the other end of the city. The
temptation was too great. “It won’t come again for a year,” he argued
to himself; “it won’t ever be just the same as to-night. One hour or
two would do no harm, and ’Lijah is as faithful as a watch-dog--better
than I would be, if anything.”

The result was, as may easily be imagined, that ’Lijah agreed to take
up his post at the store at just half-past seven, and remain until
Farley came, which would be before ten.

The old man made his way home through the darkening streets with many
a delighted chuckle at his good luck. A chance to serve Mars’ George
didn’t come every day. “He’s a-gwine ter trus’ me!” he said to himself
over and over again.

The strong attachment between these two men, so far removed from each
other in social position, but closely knit together by that
brotherliness of humanity which reaches to a depth--or height--where
there is neither rich nor poor, bond nor free,--this powerful
attachment had begun at a summer hotel a year before. Farley had been
walking idly about the reading-rooms and office, when he heard a
cracked voice crooning softly to itself. Something in the tones
attracted him, and he was interested enough to listen for the words of
the song, for the tune told him nothing.

    “Wash me an’ I shall be
      Whiter dan snow.”

Stepping into the next room he found the singer to be an old negro,
employed about the place to black boots, scrub floors, and perform
whatever menial duties were considered below the dignity of his
fellow-servants. His hair was powdered with white, and his face
wrinkled like a prune, but there was a light in his eye which told
that he was mindful of the words he sang. Farley was touched by their
association with both his race and the tasks to which he was put, and
entered into conversation with him. He found that ’Lijah, for so he
was called, was receiving a mere pittance from the hotel, and even
that would cease in a few weeks. Interesting himself thoroughly in the
old man, he obtained for him a comfortable boarding-place in the city
and a situation which befitted his years and sluggish movements, and,
while affording but small pay, gave steady work from one year’s end to
another.

So ’Lijah plodded humbly up and down the tracks, scattering his
shovelfuls of sand, dodging passing vehicles as he best might, and
living at peace with all men. Oftentimes Mars’ George, to whom, as his
only tie in the world, he was as devoted as a Newfoundland dog, would
spend the long winter evenings with him in his little room; or would
even take him to a fairy play, whose fascinations affected him so
powerfully that for days afterward he would occasionally be seen to
stop at his work, gazing steadfastly at the pavements, from which,
perhaps, he momentarily expected to see emerge a gnome or gauze-winged
naiad.

Meanwhile he was full of interest in all that most nearly concerned
the happiness of his friend and patron. Accordingly it was not long
after Miss Rosy Burnham appeared on the scene, that old ’Lijah took
occasion to slyly allude to the personal charms of the young lady, and
to offer his services as a message-bearer, whenever occasion might
arise.

Once ’Lijah had the supreme delight of nursing Farley through a short
but severe illness. Then it was that his musical accomplishments,
which had at first attracted his benefactor, again came into play. His
repertoire, it is true, was scant, including only “Whiter than Snow,”
which he had heard at one of Mr. Moody’s revival meetings, and “Swing
Low, Sweet Chariot,” doubtless a relic of the old days when the slaves
sang at their work in the cotton fields, or among the huts at night.
Of tune he knew absolutely nothing, and the different airs which he
improvised for the words, according to the mood he was in, gave the
effect of a much greater variety than the two hymns would otherwise
have afforded.

To-night he was as happy as a child, and went to and fro about the
house humming, to a tune which seemed a combination of “Dixie” and
“Coronation”

    “Swing low,--swing low--
    Comin’ fer ter carry me ho-o-ome.”

All the way down to the store after supper he murmured by turns “Sweet
Chariot,” and “Mars’ George done trus’ me sho’ly!” People noticed his
lightsome looks, and some one must have given him a sprig of holly,
which he wore proudly, after all the berries had dropped off, in his
buttonhole.

Arriving at the store he found Farley waiting impatiently for him, and
was at once instructed in the duties of his two-hours’ watch. He was
to sit in the main office, which was in the third story and looked out
upon a large street. Every fifteen minutes he must take a lantern and
patrol the entire building above the first floor, which was occupied
by another firm, furniture dealers and manufacturers.

“Here, ’Lijah,” said Farley, hurriedly drawing a bunch of keys from
his pocket and thrusting them into the other’s hands; “take these.
That flat key will open the safe, and in it--look--is this box,
containing the most valuable papers in the store. If anything happens
be sure to look after them. Now good-bye, old fellow. Don’t go to
sleep, and look out for me inside of two hours.” And he was gone.

’Lijah listened to his retreating footsteps with intense satisfaction.

“Hi! Ain’t dis a Chris’mus Eve fer ole ’Lijah!” he said, softly,
taking a survey of his surroundings, and proceeding to settle himself
in one of the most uncomfortable chairs in the room.

Pretty soon he looked at the clock. The hand indicated exactly
half-past seven.

“Reck’n I’ll begin dis yere business on time,” he soliloquized,
picking up the lantern Farley had left for him.

It would have been laughable, and pathetic at the same time, had any
one been there to see how anxiously he peered into every corner for
signs of danger; scrutinizing the door mats, gravely pausing before
tables and desks, giving a comprehensive glance now and then at the
ceiling, stepping on tiptoe, and, with eyes as round as saucers,
listening as he approached each door. This entire performance he
repeated regularly on the quarter-hours, as Farley had told him; his
features relaxing into his gleeful chuckle each time, as he found
himself in the cosy office, with all well behind him.

Meanwhile the hands of the clock upon the wall crept round in
leisurely fashion to nine, half-past, ten; and ’Lijah’s broad, white
smile expanded further and further as no Farley appeared.

“He’s done trus’ me lots dis yere night, sho’ly,” he repeated again.
“Guess you’s a tol’able good watchman, po’ ole ’Lijah, you is. Hi!
dat’s some o’ Miss Rosy’s work, sho’ ’nuff!”

He had finished his quarter-past-ten round, and had been sitting for
some time in his straight-backed chair, singing softly to himself, and
ruminating on Mars’ George’s manifold virtues and the fair face of his
lady, and was watching the clock for the signal of his next survey of
the premises, when he noticed a peculiar effect in the upper portion
of the room. The ceiling seemed to be going farther and farther away,
lifting higher and higher. Was he falling asleep then, after all, like
an unfaithful sentinel? He sat bolt upright, rubbed his smarting eyes,
and looked up again. The ceiling was almost out of sight. At the same
moment the old negro was seized with a violent fit of coughing. He
sprang to his feet, trembling in every limb. There was no longer any
mystery about it; the room was rapidly filling with smoke, which
poured in steadily through the transom over the office door.

’Lijah stood a moment and tried to think. Then he ran, lantern in
hand, into the entry and down the stairs, uttering incoherent cries of
“O Lor’! O Mars’ George! Look yere, look yere! O ’Lijah, you wuf’less
ole--O Lor’, O Lor’!” Scrambling, tumbling, sliding, he found his way
down through the stifling smoke, which boiled up in an ever
increasing volume from the basement. Reaching the street, ’Lijah ran
plump into a policeman, and, his teeth chattering with terror, tried
to tell him what was the matter.

But his haste was needless, for even while he spoke, deep voices were
repeating ’Lijah’s message in solemn, measured tones, above the roofs
all over the city; a low roar, growing louder each instant, arose far
down the street. Louder and louder, mingled with a jangling of gongs
and dismal blowing of horns, as the mighty foes of the fire gathered
to their work. Suddenly the crowd, which seemed to have sprung up out
of the ground, fled to right and left. A magnificent pair of black
horses dashed fiercely up before the store, leaving behind them a long
trail of floating sparks from the beautiful, glistening creature of
brass and steel at their backs. Then came one piece of apparatus after
another, engines, ladders and hose. In the confusion and uproar of
their arrival, the policeman had quite forgotten the trembling old
black man and his lantern. Now he looked around and saw him crowding
his way toward the store, from which tongues of flame began to dart
viciously.

“Come back there!” shouted the officer sternly, rushing upon ’Lijah
and jerking him backward so that he nearly fell. “Don’t you see the
stairway’s all on fire?”

“B-b-but Mars’ George done trus’”--

“I don’t know anything about that,” interrupted the policeman, pushing
back the crowd to right and left. “You can’t go in there again, and
that’s all there is about it.”

A determined look came into ’Lijah’s dark face. He stopped shaking and
watched his chance. It came soon, and with a movement wonderfully
quick for such an old man, he darted through the line and toward the
burning building.

“Stop him! Stop the nigger!” shouted half a dozen voices. “He’s
crazy!”

Two or three firemen sprang forward, but it was too late. An
involuntary and audible shudder went through the crowd as he plunged
into the black stairway, stooping to avoid the flames which curled
around the posts above his head.

In another minute some one cried out, “Look, look! there he is, way up
in the third story!”

How he had made his way through that terrible barrier, no one ever
knew. There he was, gesticulating wildly at the window, shouting to
the firemen, and presently holding up what appeared to be a small box.
With a warning cry to those below, he dropped it, watched it as it
fell and was borne safely out of danger by a uniformed officer,--and
sank back upon the window sill. Those in the opposite building
afterward said they could see then that he was terribly burned, but
seemed in all his pain to be laughing to himself. They thought, as did
the crowd below, that he was insane.

All this time the firemen were attacking the fire upon every side, but
with no visible effect. The varnish and oils stored by the furniture
dealers in various portions of their establishment made rallying
points for the flames, which almost at the very outset had found their
way through the central staircase, and so up and out of the roof.
Every front window in the two lower stories poured forth its volume of
fire and smoke, so that no ladders could be successfully planted. Nor
could entrance be effected through the skylight, the enemy having, as
I have described, taken possession of that important point. Meanwhile
old ’Lijah seemed quite content to sit just inside his window and wait
for what was coming fast. His grizzled head drooped gradually, and
those nearest could see his lips moving. If they had been very near
indeed, they would have heard him talking and singing to himself:

    “‘Swing low, sweet chari-o-t,
    Comin’ fer to carry me home!’

I’se done it, Mars’ George, jes’ ’s you tole me. You done trus’
’Lijah, an’ he warn’t a-gwine to give up.

    ‘Whiter dan sno-o-ow! Swing low!’”

Yes, old ’Lijah, your chariot is swinging low for you, very low.

    “Comin’ fer to carry me”--

The thick smoke rolls out heavily through the window overhead. The
firemen keep a steady stream playing through the broken panes, and
fight fiercely with their axes to reach him. It grows so hot that the
people in the opposite windows hold their hands before their faces,
while they watch.

Still nearer swings the great roaring chariot of fire. Lower and lower
droops the faithful head upon the black, scorched hands.

His lips were still moving faintly, and he was still whispering,
“Swing low, swing low, swing low,” when CRASH! came a burly figure,
his face blackened with smoke and his rubber coat dripping with water,
straight in through the window. Without a word he seized ’Lijah firmly
around the waist and raised himself upright on the window-sill; then
looking upward he shouted, hoarsely, “Haul away!”

The crowd held their breath as the two figures swung out into the air
at that fearful height, and spun round once or twice before they were
drawn up--up--inch by inch, and landed safe and sound on the roof.
Then up went such a shout as has rarely been heard in this good city;
a great, beautiful, manly cry of triumph and joy, such as the angels
might utter over him who was lost.

It was a long time before ’Lijah could realize that he had not been
borne away in his chariot, that had swung so low. I believe he felt a
pang of disappointment when he first looked at his wrinkled, scarred
hands, and found they were not “whiter than snow.” But Rosy, dear,
repentant little Rosy, soon found ways to comfort him; for she would
not hear of his staying in the hospital, because she knew it was all
her fault, she said, keeping George so long. So ’Lijah is quite as
content to stay on the earth a little while longer as he was to go.
For does not Mars’ George come every evening and sit by him, and tell
him they must live together always? and doesn’t ’Lijah know, too, that
the crowning glory of his life is to be on next Christmas Eve, just a
year from the great fire, when Miss Rosy will be Miss Rosy no longer,
and he is to enter upon permanent duties in her new home?



IV

A CHRISTMAS REVERIE


It was growing late, on a certain December evening, when I put on my
dressing-gown and slippers, turned off the gas, drew my easy chair up
in front of the blazing wood fire, and settled back with a long breath
of comfort, thanking my lucky stars that work was over, for that day
at any rate. Not that any stars were in sight, lucky or otherwise. In
the first place, the windows were covered with a heavy, fuzzy layer of
frost, except up in one corner where I couldn’t possibly look out
without climbing into a chair; and in the next place, even if I had
raised the sash, which I was by no means inclined to do, I should have
seen nothing but a great, white, howling blur of snow, tossing and
foaming between the brick walls which confined it, like the rapids of
Niagara.

In fact the wind was with difficulty kept outside at all, and at
intervals would knock savagely at the frosted pane, or shout down the
chimney, to the great amusement of the good-humored fire.

Now if there is anything I particularly like, it is the sound of a
furious northeaster in the chimney on such a night as this. So I sat
there, watching the dancing flames, feeling the grateful warmth
beginning to creep through the soles of my slippers, and listening to
my boisterous friend outside, when I became conscious of a curious
optical effect in one of the black marble pillars which supported my
mantel. As the shadows flitted to and fro about its Ionic scrolls, it
looked exactly as if it were nodding its head, and the fringe of the
lambrequin hung out over its forehead like a mass of disheveled hair.
Yielding myself wholly to the queer fancy, I was not at all surprised
to have the pillar straighten itself up until it was nearly six feet
tall, and ask me in rather a severe voice what I meant by translating
_notus_, “northeast wind?”

“I didn’t mean to, sir,” I stammered, feeling all at once greatly in
awe of the projecting tuft of hair that loomed up threateningly over
me. “I suppose it was because it was snowing, and the northeast wind
is really”--Here I paused, for I happened to glance at the window as I
spoke, and behold, there was no sign of frost or snow on the dusty
pane. I looked foolish and--I had scrambled to my feet when the
question was asked--sat down hastily.

“Next!” said the tall figure, bending its dark brows on a boy who had
glided in unobserved and taken his seat beside me. While he was
translating in a hesitating and monotonous voice what seemed to be a
passage from Virgil, I had time to look about me, at the same time
experiencing an odd sensation of waking up after a long sleep. It had
been a wild, strange dream, then,--my college life, my adventures
abroad, my business and its cares. Yes, even the few gray hairs that
had begun to peep around my ears were but fancied symptoms of maturity
and age. For here I was, where of course I ought to be, sitting on a
hard bench, Virgil in hand, following the recitation and reading ahead
hurriedly about where I thought my turn would come. Every moment the
scene became more natural, and the dream-life of my manhood more and
more indistinct. The old head master, Francis Gardner, whom I now
recognized beyond all doubt, soon reached my end of the class once
more, but before he could call on me to translate, the hands of the
clock touched eleven, and we were dismissed for recess.

Down we poured over the long, worn staircase, which trembled under our
tread, one flight after another, until we reached the yard. Here we
played our old games, running to and fro between the high brick walls,
and dodging around their sharp angles. At length the bell--I can hear
its exact tones now--called to us from a window overhead, and we
scrambled up again, taking our places at our desks with just as much
bustle and interchange of sly thrusts as we dared. One boy was late,
and the Doctor met him at the threshold.

“Now, sir,” said he sternly, looking down at the culprit, and fixing
upon him a glance which I never knew to fail of inspiring awe, “Now,
sir, do you want a rasping?” The boy shuffled his feet back and forth
on the floor, twisted his hat in his hands, and began to mumble an
excuse.

“Look here,” said the tall figure, “you can take either of the two
horns of the dilemma,” holding up two fingers. “Either you went so far
away that you couldn’t hear the bell, or you didn’t start when you did
hear it. Which horn will you take?”

How that boy trembled as he surveyed those long, gaunt fingers on
which hung his fate! Foolish fellow, not to know the warm heart that
was beating behind all the kind old Doctor’s frowns! For do I not
remember his many gentle deeds, often done in secret and found out by
accident? It seems only yesterday, when, having sent one of his
scholars away in disgrace, and learned a few days later that the boy
was at home and sick, he had misgivings that he had been unjust, and
appeared at that boy’s door after school hours with a bouquet at least
a foot in diameter, and the injunction--awkwardly enough given--that
the boy should not be worried about what had occurred, nor about the
lessons he was losing. Feeble as he was, with age and disease fast
laying hold upon him, the head master had traversed the entire breadth
of the city in the dead of winter to leave this message for the pupil
he feared he had wronged.

While I was reflecting upon these things the Doctor had finished his
rebuke to the tardy boy and left the room. Others came and went. The
boys’ faces were all familiar, and my heart brimmed over with delight
as I recognized those whom, in my dream of college and business, I had
thought of as sober, work-a-day men. Here was the round-eyed,
mischievous fellow whom I had fancied to be a learned physician;
another, a librarian; a third, a student and teacher of German, but
now, bereft of whiskers and bass voice, once more a boy, and the
scapegrace of the class. Then there were the teachers. One, whose
fair, scholarly face I had never expected to see again on this earth,
was busily explaining a Latin exercise to the class, with the aid of
several old vellum-bound books he had brought from his own private
library. Another bustled in with a carpetbag and a hearty, cheery air;
compared the school clock with his watch (of whose almost superhuman
accuracy we boys always stood in awe), and heard us recite in French.
This lesson passed off with a briskness and good will that waked us
all up as if we had been out in the fresh air, and left us keen for
the next study. Meanwhile I caught glimpses of other teachers, all
more or less associated with the dearest and best days of my life.
There was he who once invited us all out to skate on his pond, in the
country; who knew how to be stern with wrong-doers, but who was known
to stay late in the afternoon, day after day, to hear a sick boy
recite lessons in his home, that the little fellow might not fall
behind his class, and so lose a possible chance for a prize. In my
after-dream, his hair had been threaded with gray; but now it was
brown, as I remembered it of old. Still another was a young man whose
even-handed justice--“squareness,” we used to call it--was proverbial
among my schoolmates. I had heard that his own son had since grown old
enough to pass through college most honorably, and that he himself had
taken the place of the grim Doctor in some strange air-castle of a new
schoolhouse, far from its former site. Now I realized that I was back
in the old days, and laughed to myself so loud that nothing but a
disingenuous cough, into which I dexterously turned my mirth, saved me
a mark for misconduct.

But now the room was hushed, as the master addressed us in quiet,
earnest tones. He was bidding us good-bye for a few days, and ended by
wishing us all a Merry Christmas.

Bless me, how we did throng around the desk on our way out, and return
his hearty greeting! In spite of my sense of the reality of the whole
scene, I could not dispel a strange foreboding that I was saying
farewell to school and master forever. The twilight shadows of the
short winter afternoon--it was storming furiously now, and had grown
quite dark within doors--gathered about the old man’s form as he sat
there shaking hands with one after the other, his eyes twinkling in
their deep sockets, and meeting with kindly glance the fresh young boy
faces around him. In a moment more this was all forgotten, for we had
reached the street, and were rioting about in the snow as only boys
let out from school for a week’s vacation can do. How we did assail
policemen and wagon-drivers and pretty girls, to be sure! These last
were on their way home from school, too, and many were the laughing
glances and shy smiles that were flung us in return for our harmless
pats of snow.

Full of the merriment of the day, although not yet aware that it was
really Christmas Eve, I made my way up to Boylston Market, which was
completely transfigured from a rather jail-like and dreary receptacle
for unpleasantly red shoulders of mutton and beef, to a wonderland of
evergreen and holly; it had not yet given place to a great dry-goods
emporium. Here I saw my former teachers--God bless them, every
one!--approach in a group, very much like boys themselves, for the
time, and select various wreaths and bunches of green for home. I
touched my “B. L. S.” cap respectfully as they passed, but a flurry of
snow came between and they did not see me. I stretched out my hand to
them, but they were gone. Again the aching sense of loss, the dread of
finding that I was in the midst of unrealities came over me, and I
shivered from head to foot. Pulling my cap low over my ears, I hurried
back to Bedford Street. Alas! my worst fears were realized. The old
schoolhouse was gone. Strange faces stared at me through the darkening
storm. I leaned against the black iron fence, which still remained,
and hid my face in my hands. As I did so, the wind moaned drearily
overhead, and I heard the snow and sleet drifting against--what? My
own window-panes!

Yes, the dream was truth, and the truth was a dream. I shivered again,
in my easy chair, felt of my beard, stretched myself and rose stiffly
to my feet. The fire had burned low, had fallen in entirely between
the andirons, and the room was growing more chilly. I took some good
birch sticks from the wood-box, encouraged them with a handful of dry
cones, and, as they threw out their cheerful warmth, I became more and
more content to remain a man, and leave my boyish days tied up, like
old letters, in an out-of-the-way corner where I could take them out
and live them over again at will.



V

THE CRACKED BELL


There was no doubt whatever of its melancholy condition. Cracked it
was, and cracked it had been for the last two years. Just how the
crack came there, nobody knew. It was, indeed, a tiny flaw, long ago
covered by green rust, and apparently as harmless as the veriest
thread or a wisp of straw, lodging for a moment on the old bell’s
brazen sides. But when the clapper began to swing, and gave one timid
touch to the smooth inner surface of its small cell, the flaw made
itself known, and as the strokes grew louder and angrier, the
dissonance so clattered and battered against the ears of the parish,
that after two years’ patient endurance of this infliction (which they
considered a direct discipline, to humble their pride over a new coat
of white paint on the little church), one small, black-bonneted sister
rose in prayer-meeting and begged that the bell be left quiet, or at
least muffled for one day, as it disturbed her daughter, whom all the
village knew to be suffering from nervous prostration.

Emboldened by this declaration of war, a deacon declared that it was
an insult to religion and its Founder, to ring such a bell. It was the
laughing-stock of the village, he added, and its flat discords were
but a signal for derision on the part of every scoffer and backslider
in the parish.

Other evidence of convincing character was given by various members of
the congregation; the bell was tried, convicted and sentenced; and
more than one face showed its relief as good old Dr. Manson, the
pastor, instructed the sexton publicly to omit the customary call to
services on the following Sabbath.

“I hope,” he further said, looking around gravely on his people, “that
you will all make more than usual effort to be in your pews promptly
at half-past ten.”

For a time the members of the First Congregational Society of North
Penfield were noticeably and commendably prompt in their attendance
upon all services. They were so afraid that they should be late that
they arrived at the meeting-house a good while before the opening
hymn. Dr. Manson was gratified, the village wits were put down, and
the old bell hung peacefully in the belfry over the attentive
worshipers, as silent as they. Snow and rain painted its surface with
vivid tints, and the swallows learned that they could perch upon it
without danger of its being jerked away from their slender feet.

There was no other meeting-house in the town, and as the nearest
railroad was miles away, the sound of a clear-toned bell floating down
from the summer sky, or sending its sweet echoes vibrating through a
wintry twilight in an oft-repeated mellow call to prayers, was almost
forgotten.

Gradually the congregation fell into the habit of dropping in of a
Sunday morning while the choir were singing the voluntary, or
remaining in the vestibule where, behind the closed doors, they had a
bit of gossip while they waited for the rustle within which announced
the completion of the pastor’s long opening prayer. It became a rare
occurrence for all to be actually settled in their pews when the text
was given out. The same tardiness was noticeable in the Friday evening
meetings; and, odd to say, a certain spirit of indolence seemed to
creep over the services themselves.

Whereas in former days the farmers and their wives were wont to come
bustling briskly into the vestry while the bell was ringing, and the
cheerful hum of voices arose in the informal handshaking “before
meeting,” soon quieting and then blending joyously in the stirring
strains of “How Firm a Foundation,” or “Onward, Christian Soldiers,”
followed by one brief, earnest prayer or exhortation after another, in
quick succession, in these later days it was quite different. It was
difficult to carry the first hymn through, as there were rarely enough
good singers present to sustain the air. Now it was the pianist who
was late, now the broad-shouldered mill-owner, whose rich bass was
indeed a “firm foundation” for all timid sopranos and altos; now the
young man who could sing any part with perfect confidence, and often
did wander over all four in the course of a single verse, lending a
helping hand, so to speak, wherever it was needed.

The halting and dispirited hymn made the members self-distrustful and
melancholy at the outset. There were long pauses during which all the
sluggish or tired-out brothers and sisters nodded in the heated room,
and the sensitive and nervous clutched shawl fringes and coat buttons
in agonized fidgets. The meetings became so dull and heavy that slight
excuses were sufficient to detain easy-going members at home,
especially the young people. It was a rare sight now to see bright
eyes and rosy cheeks in the room. The members discussed the dismal
state of affairs, which was only too plain, and laid the blame on the
poor old minister.

“His sermons haven’t the power they had once, Brother Stimpson,”
remarked Deacon Fairweather, shaking his head sadly, as they trudged
home from afternoon service one hot Sunday in August. “There’s
somethin’ wantin’. I don’t jestly know what.”

“He ain’t pussonal enough. You want to be pussonal to do any good in a
parish. There’s Squire Radbourne, now. Everybody knows he sets up
Sunday evenin’s and works on his law papers. I say there ought to be a
reg’lar downright discourse on Sabbath breakin’.”

“Thet’s so, thet’s so,” assented the deacon. “And Brother Langworth
hasn’t been nigh evenin’ meetin’ for mor’n six weeks.”

From one faulty member to another they wandered, forgetting, as they
jogged along the familiar path side by side, the banks of goldenrod
beside them, the blue sky and fleecy clouds above, the blue hills in
the distance, and all the glory and brightness of the blessed summer
day.

The next morning, North Penfield experienced a shock. The white-haired
pastor, overcome by extra labor, increasing cares, the feebleness of
age, or a combination of all these causes, had sunk down upon his bed
helplessly, on his return from the little white meeting-house the
afternoon before, never to rise again until he should leave behind him
the weary earth-garments that now but hindered his slow and painful
steps.

The townspeople were greatly concerned, for the old man was dearly
loved by young and old. Those who of late had criticised now
remembered Dr. Manson’s palmy days, when teams came driving in from
Penfield Center, “The Hollow,” and two or three other adjoining
settlements, to listen to the impassioned discourses of the young
clergyman.

A meeting of the committee was called at once, to consider the affairs
of the bereft church--for bereft they felt it to be--and take steps
for an immediate supply during the vacancy of the pulpit. Two months
later Dr. Manson passed peacefully away, and there was one more mound
in the little churchyard.

The snows of early December already lay deep on road and field before
the North Penfield Parish, in a regularly-called and organized
meeting, was given to understand that a new minister was settled. Half
a dozen candidates had preached to the people but only one had met
with favor.

Harold Olsen was a Norwegian by parentage, though born in America.
Tall and straight as the pines of the Norseland, with clear, flashing
blue eyes and honest, winning smile, the congregation began to love
him before he was half through his first sermon. His sweet-faced
little wife made friends with a dozen people between services; by
nightfall the question was practically settled, and so was the Rev.
Harold Olsen, “the new minister,” as he was called for years
afterward.

At the beginning of the second week in December, Harold ascended the
pulpit stairs of the North Penfield meeting-house, feeling very humble
and very thankful in the face of his new duties. He loved his work,
his people, his wife and his God; and here he was, with them all four
at once.

Sleigh-bells jingled merrily outside the door; one family after
another came trooping in, muffled to the ears, and moved demurely up
the central or side aisles to their high-backed pews.

The sunlight found its way in under the old-fashioned fan-shaped
blinds at the tops of the high windows, and rested upon gray hair and
brown, on figures bowed with grief and age, on restless, eager
children, on the pulpit itself, and finally upon the golden-edged
leaves of the old Bible.

Still the people came in. A hymn was given out and sung. While Harold
was lifting his soul to heaven on the wings of his prayer, he could
not help hearing the noise of heavy boots in the meeting-house entry,
stamping off the snow. His fervent “Amen” was the signal for a draft
of cold air from the doors, followed by a dozen late comers.

After the sermon, which was so simple and straightforward that it went
directly to the hearts of the people, he hastened to confer with his
deacons.

“The bell didn’t ring this morning, Brother Fairweather. What was the
matter?” he asked, after a warm hand-grasp all round.

“Why, the fact is, sir, there ain’t no bell.”

“That is, none to speak of,” put in Deacon Stimpson apologetically.
“There’s a bell up there, but it got so cracked an’ out o’ tune that
nobody could stan’ it, sick or well.”

The Rev. Harold Olsen’s eyes twinkled. “How long have you gone without
this unfortunate bell?”

“Oh! a matter o’ two or three years, I guess.”

“Weddings, funerals, and all?”

“Well, yes,” reluctantly, “I b’lieve so. I did feel bad when we
follered the minister to his grave without any tollin’--he was master
fond o’ hearing that bell, fust along--but there, it couldn’t be
helped! Public opinion was against that ’ere particular bell, and we
jes’ got laughed at, ringin’ it. So we stopped, and here we be,
without it.”

Mr. Olsen’s blue eyes sparkled again as he caught his little wife’s
glance, half amused, half pained. He changed the subject, and went
among his parishioners, inquiring kindly for the absent ones, and
making new friends.

At a quarter before three (the hour for afternoon service) he entered
the meeting-house again. The sexton was asleep in one of the pews. He
was roused by a summons so startling that a repetition was necessary
before he could comprehend its import.

“R-ring the bell!” he gasped incredulously. “W-why, sir, it hasn’t
been rung for”--

“Never mind, Mr. Bedlow,” interrupted Harold, with his pleasant smile.
“Let’s try it to-day, just for a change.”

Harold had attended one or two prayer-meetings, as well as Sunday
services, and--had an idea.

On reaching the entry, the sexton shivered in the cold air, and
pointed helplessly to a hole in the ceiling, through which the bell
rope was intended to play.

“I put it up inside out of the way, so’s the boys couldn’t get it,” he
chattered. “D-don’t you think, sir, we’d better wait till”--

But it was no use to talk to empty air. The new minister had gone, and
presently returned with a long heavy bench, which he handled as easily
as if it were a lady’s work-basket.

“Just steady it a bit,” he asked; and Mr. Bedlow, with conscientious
misgivings as to the propriety of his assisting at a gymnastic
performance on Sunday, did as he was bid.

Up went the minister like a cat; and presently down came the knotted
end of the rope. “Now, let’s have a good, hearty pull, Mr. Bedlow.”

The sexton grasped the rope and pulled. There was one frightened,
discordant outcry from the astonished bell; and there stood poor Mr.
Bedlow with about three yards of detached rope in his hands. It had
broken just above the point where it passed through the flooring over
his head.

“Now, sir,” expostulated the sexton.

“Here, Dick!” called Mr. Olsen, to a bright-faced little fellow who
had put his head in at the door and was regarding these unwonted
proceedings with round-eyed astonishment; “won’t you run over to my
house and ask my wife for that long piece of clothes-line that hangs
up in the kitchen closet?”

Dick was gone like a flash, his curiosity excited to the highest
pitch.

“What does he want it for?” asked pretty Olga Olsen, hurrying to
produce the required article.

“Don’t know,” panted Dick. “He’s got Mr. Bedlow--in the entry--an’ he
sent for a rope, double quick!”

With which bewildering statement he tore out of the house and back to
the church.

Five minutes later the population of North Penfield were astounded by
hearing a long-silent, but only too familiar voice.

“It’s that old cracked bell!” exclaimed half a hundred voices at once,
in as many families. “Do let’s go to meetin’ an’ see what’s the
matter.”

The afternoon’s congregation was, in fact, even larger than the
morning’s. Harold noted it with quiet satisfaction, and gave out as
his text the first verse of the sixty-sixth Psalm.

At the close of his brief sermon he paused a moment, then referred to
the subject in all their thoughts, speaking in no flippant or jesting
tone, but in a manner that showed how sacredly important he considered
the matter.

“I have been pained to notice,” he said gravely, “the tardiness with
which we begin our meetings. It is perfectly natural that we should be
late, when there is no general call, such as we have been accustomed
to hear from childhood. I do not blame anybody in the least. I do
believe that we have all grown into a certain sluggishness, both
physical and spiritual, in our assembling together, as a direct
consequence of the omission of those tones which to us and our fathers
have always spoken but one blessed word--‘_Come!_’ I believe,” he
continued, looking about over the kindly faces before him, “I believe
you agree with me that something should be done. Don’t think me too
hasty or presuming in my new pastorate, if I add that it seems to me
vitally important to take action at once. Our bell is not musical, it
is true, but its tones, cracked and unmelodious as they are, will
serve to remind us of our church home, its duties and its pleasures.
On Tuesday evening we will hold a special meeting in this house to
consider the question of purchasing a new bell, to take the place of
the old. The Prudential Committee, and all who are interested in the
subject are urged to be present. Let us pray.”

It was a wonderful “season,” that Tuesday evening conference. The
cracked bell did its quavering best for a full twenty minutes before
the hour appointed, to call the people together; and no appeal could
have been more irresistible.

Two-thirds of the sum required was raised that night. For ten days
more the old bell rang on every possible occasion, until it became an
accusing voice of conscience to the parish. Prayer-meetings once more
began sharp on the hour, and proceeded with old-time vigor. The
interest spread until a real revival was in progress before the North
Penfield Society were fairly aware of the change. Still the “bell
fund” lacked fifty dollars of completion.

On the evening of the twentieth of December, in the midst of a furious
storm, a knock was heard at the parsonage, and lo, at the hastily
opened door stood Squire Radbourne, powdered with snowflakes, and
beaming like a veritable Santa Claus.

“I couldn’t feel easy,” he announced, after he had been relieved of
coat and furs, and seated before the blazing fire, “to have next
Sunday go by without a new bell on the meeting-house. We must have
some good hearty ringing on that morning, sure; it’s the twenty-fifth,
you know. So here’s a little Christmas present to the parish--or the
Lord, either way you want to put it.”

The crisp fifty-dollar note he laid down before the delighted couple
was all that was needed.

Harold made a quick calculation--he had already selected a bell at a
foundry a hundred miles away--and sitting down at his desk wrote
rapidly.

“I’ll mail your letter,” said the squire. “It’s right on my way--or
near enough. Let’s get it off to-night, to save time.”

And away he trudged again, through the deepening drifts and the blur
of the white storm.

On Saturday evening, after all the village people were supposed to be
abed and asleep, two dark figures might have been seen moving to and
fro in the old meeting-house, with a lantern. After some irregular
movements in the entry, the light appeared in the belfry, and a little
later, one queer, flat, brassy note, uncommonly like the voice of the
cracked bell, rang out on the night air. Then there was absolute
silence; and before long the meeting-house was locked up and left to
itself again on Christmas Eve--alone, with the wonder-secret of a new
song in its faithful heart, waiting to break forth in praise of God at
dawn of day.

How the people started that fair Christmas morning, as the sweet,
silvery notes fell on their ears! They hastened to the church; they
pointed to the belfry where the bell swung to and fro in a joyous call
of “_Come! Come! Come! Come!_”

They listened in rapt silence, and some could not restrain their sobs,
while others with grateful tears in their eyes looked upon the old,
rusty, cracked bell that rested, silent, on the church floor; and as
they looked, and even passed their hands lovingly over its worn sides,
they thanked God for its faithful service and the good work it had
wrought--and for the glad hopes that filled that blessed Christmas
Day.



VI

CHRISTMAS FOLK-LORE

    “At Christmas play, and make good cheer,
      For Christmas comes but once a year.”


So said good Thomas Tusser, many generations ago, and his words have
echoed in the hearts of old and young, rich and poor, from his day up
to this blessed Year of Our Lord, 1898. Let us thank God and take
courage when we remember that the Power of Evil has no one Book to set
off against the Bible, and no one day to match Christmas. It is one of
the gladdest and fairest signs of the times that this merry holiday,
so full of good-will to men, is drawing closer and closer to the heart
of the nation. For this one season in the year, everybody is thinking
of everybody else, instead of himself, and we join the wise men in
their march across the desert, following the Star, until we, too, find
ourselves upon our knees before the manger in which the young Child
was.

It is among the nations of the North, the Germans, the Swedes, the
Norwegians and the English, that the finest and deepest significance
has been attached to this holy day. Among the German peasantry,
especially, are found numerous home legends, beliefs and superstitions
which even the nineteenth century, with its growth of science and
liberal thought, has been unable to reach. Many of these customs and
beliefs have never been told in any language save that of the country
in which they took their rise; the folk-lore of the Teutonic nations
is still a rich storehouse of treasures for the antiquarian, and for
those who love Christmas for its own truest meaning, the day when
Christ was born.

The concurrence of the winter solstice with Christmas gave rise in the
earliest times to many of the tales of Norse mythology. In the summer
the good gods, Woden and Freia, with thousands of friendly elves,
brought flowers and fruits to cheer the heart of man. But as winter
came on, and the days grew ever shorter and the dark nights longer,
the evil spirits held the good gods, enchanted by their power, far up
among the snowy mountains, and prevented the passage of pious souls to
their rest. Then came storms, and awful things upon the earth. A
many-headed monster roamed the village, seizing the children, throwing
them into a sack, and devouring them at its leisure. Giants descended
from the hills and robbed the lonely traveler. In Denmark a frightful
creature covered with a hairy robe was wont to creep into houses after
dark to steal the products of the harvest, and, if it found nothing,
would utter maledictions and threats, showing at the same time from
beneath its covering a black face and mouth full of fire.

As Christmas time draws near, and the sun turns northward once more,
Woden issues forth upon a white horse, and, followed by howling packs
of dogs, drives the evil spirits to their hiding-places in the
mountains. Sometimes in his wild hunt he sweeps through a house and
leaves behind him a dog, who crouches upon the hearth and stays there
for one year, whining, moaning, feeding on ashes, and snapping at all
who approach. On the next Christmas, Woden comes for him again, and
the dog leaps through the chimney to rejoin the howling pack in the
tree-tops.

To this day the Germans associate the coming of Christ with the return
of the sun, and the approach of spring. One of their poets sings:

    “The sun in winter is God in grief,
    Is Christ who cometh to bring relief.
    Beneath its blessed radiance, man
    Forgets that his life is but a span.

    “The sun in winter is Christmastide,
    Which scatters its blessings far and wide,
    And sheds, through faith, o’er time’s dark sea,
    The morning rays of eternity.”

“That Christmas is a holiday of light and victory,” begins Cassel, in
his account of the day,[1] “every one who has lived within its
influence knows full well. This victory is more sure than the return
of spring, to which we look forward in December with such cheerful
hope. The Spirit of Truth dwells upon loftier heights than does the
creature, and its brightness chases away the shadows of many a gloomy
hour, darker than the longest night of midwinter.”

    [1] _Weihnachten: Ursprunge, Brauche und Aberglauben._--Cassel,
         Leipzig.

And now the wonderful hour draws nigh. It is Christmas Eve. All nature
is hushed. As the shepherds once sat around their fire upon the plains
of Bethlehem, discussing, perchance, the strange portents attending
the birth of the son of Zacharias, so to-night the peasants in their
huts along the shores of the Baltic, or in the shadows of the Black
Forest, sit before the Yule log, and talk of the birth of the Son of
man. Suddenly the village bells toll for midnight. The sun appears
upon the horizon and leaps three times for joy; the birds throughout
the forest break forth into singing; every fir-tree blossoms into
fairest flower and fruitage, and is clothed once more in soft leaves,
in place of the sharp, spearpointed needles into which they were
condemned to shrink when a fir-tree was used for the Saviour’s cross.
All the good people of the village are praying; and hark! the cattle,
upon their knees in the stable, are talking together in low tones. “_A
child is bo-or-rn!_” lows the cow. “_True-e-e_,” returns the ass.
“_Where, where, where?_” calls the shrill voice of the cock--and the
lambs answer, “_In Be-e-t-t-’lem!_” The horses alone have nothing to
say, and are upright on their feet; for when Christ was born, so the
story goes, the horses who happened to be near the manger stamped and
were rude, while the great, sweet-breathed oxen gazed upon the wee
Baby with their mild eyes, and, with the asses and lambs, knelt in
worship. For this hardness of heart horses are condemned to never have
their fill of grass, and to this day they feed eagerly in the fields,
but are never satisfied.

While these strange things are happening in the stables of the little
German village, the gnomes are busy in the mountains, throwing out
gold and precious treasures of the earth where men shall find them the
coming year.

When Christmas morning dawns, which in the northern countries is not
before nine or ten in the forenoon, the first loaves that come smoking
from the housewife’s oven are given to the cattle. In Sweden it is the
custom to tie a sheaf of grain to a pole and set it up where the birds
may alight and take part in the joy and good cheer of the day. Before
long the village beggars are knocking at the door, and the humblest
peasant, remembering that it is the day on which God gave his
only-begotten Son to the world, dispenses with a free hand his gifts
to all that come.

Evergreen, and, in particular, the fir-tree, has been from the
earliest times associated with Christmas, and countless tales and
legends are perfumed with its spicy odors. Many are the German songs
that are full of its praises.

    “O northern fir, O northern fir,
      In thee my heart delighteth,
    How oft thy boughs at Christmastide
    Have shed their blessings far and wide;--
      In thee my heart delighteth.”

Hans Christian Andersen, whose happiest hours were those spent in
writing pure and sweet fairytales for children, has told the story of
the fir-tree in his own gentle way. Here is one more child-song,
freely translated from Cassel’s notes:

    Within the wood a fir-tree stands,
      So stately to be seen;
    In summer, spring and winter, too,
      Its cloak is ever green.

    Its tiny needles, fine and sharp--
      Some pointing up, some down--
    The thistle-finch doth take, to sew
      Her pretty yellow gown.

    Through snow and ice the Christ-child sends
      The good old Santa Klaus,
    Who straightway hews the fir-tree down
      And bears it to the house.

    With loving hand, the Christ-child hangs
      The nuts and apples there;
    A taper small upon each twig,
      And cakes and dainties rare.

    Then comes the blessed Christmas night,
      The bell is rung--and lo!
    There stands the fir-tree, green and still,
      Its branches all aglow.

    Thou fir-tree in the forest dark,
      Soon shalt thou hence be borne.
    Rejoice! for then thy branches, too,
      The Christ-child shall adorn.

In Scandinavia two fir boughs are nailed crosswise before the door on
Christmas day. Children go about the village, knocking at the windows
with fir twigs, and receiving gifts of sugar plums. The Alsatian
peasantry relate that the apostle to the people on the Rhine and
Moselle was the son of the widow of Nain. Long after his miraculous
resurrection he was sent westward by Saint Peter. One day he came to
the steep banks of the Rhine, and, stopping to rest, fell asleep from
weariness, in the shade of a fir-tree. On awaking, he found that his
pilgrim’s staff had grown into the trunk of the fir, and thus plainly
indicated that he had reached the appointed end of his journey.

In England, the same veneration seems to have been bestowed, time out
of mind, upon the holly. Its glossy, pointed leaves symbolize the
crown of thorns, and the berries the crimson blood-drops that gathered
upon the Saviour’s brow. Like the fir, it is ever green and full of
life--as the love of Christ to mankind. Indeed this almost instinctive
association of green boughs and all bright, growing things with the
joy and beauty of religious life, extends throughout written history.
The Israelites in the desert were taught (if they had not already
adopted a custom which was thus merely confirmed and sanctified) to
“take the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the
boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice
before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23: 40).

So, too, the wreaths of green leaves attributed to the Greek and Roman
deities, and awarded to those who seemed most godlike, in peace or
war. When Christ entered Jerusalem, the fittest expressions of the
joy, the thanksgiving and the reverent worship of the multitude were
the palm branches, strewn in the path of him who was victorious over
Evil, and who--not conquered death, but showed him to be only the
angel of Life, with the shadowy side of his face turned towards us, as
he comes between us and the Everlasting Light.

In the early days of England the Druids were accustomed to go forth at
Christmas and gather the sacred mistletoe; while even the poor and
humbler folk brought evergreen and hung it up in their cottages, that
the gentle spirits of the forest might dwell there in safety till the
sun should shine again. In these modern days it has become the fashion
to use evergreens more and more generously. The two largest of the
Boston markets are surrounded, for a week preceding Christmas day,
with a spicy forest of spruce and fir-trees, while the sidewalks are
half hidden beneath great fragrant heaps of “princess pine” and
“creeping Jenny,” in the form of wreaths, crosses and trimming. Holly,
too, is used in larger quantities every year, and altogether the times
seem to be returning, which dear old Sir Walter longed for when he
sung:

    Heap on more wood!--the wind is chill
    But let it whistle as it will,
    We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.
    Each age has deemed the new-born year
    The fittest time for festal cheer.
    And well our Christian sires of old
    Loved when the year its course had rolled,
    And brought blithe Christmas back again,
    With all its hospitable train.
    Domestic and religious rite
    Gave honor to the holy night;
    On Christmas eve the bells were rung;
    On Christmas eve the mass was sung;
    That only night in all the year,
    Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.

    The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
    The hall was dressed with holly green;
    Forth to the wood did merry men go,
    To gather in the mistletoe.
    Then opened wide the baron’s hall
    To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
    Power laid his rod of rule aside,
    And ceremony doffed his pride;
    All hailed with uncontrolled delight
    And general voice the happy night
    That to the cottage, as the crown,
    Brought tidings of salvation down.

    England was merry England, when
    Old Christmas brought his sports again.
    ’Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale;
    ’Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
    A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
    The poor man’s heart through half the year.

Of all the supernatural visitors who roused old Scrooge from his
slumbers in Dickens’ immortal “Carol,” by far the most interesting was
the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Past is a memory; the Future a
dream; the Present is ours. With its ghost--or its spirit, to free
ourselves from uncanny associations with the name--we are intimately
associated: it is the key-note, or rather the theme, which determines
the harmony or discord of the year.

What, then, is the spirit of our own Christmas Present? what the
underlying motive and thought, the impulse that turns our population
out of their comfortable homes in the snowy streets during the most
inclement month of our New England year, and then as universally
gathers each family circle within doors on that one supreme Day of
days? which decks counter, wall, window, and altar with evergreen,
type of Eternal Life; which loosens the purse-strings of rich and
poor; which brings the name of Christ tenderly to the lips of young
and old? With all this we have much to do. Here it is, the spirit of
Christmas, analyzable or not, for good or for evil.

There is much outcry nowadays against the extravagant mysticism which
pervades the observance of the day. Christmas cards have run wild with
grotesque fancies. Christmas games, legends, stories, plays,--even the
columns of the daily press are full of them. At this season, the
compositor may keep standing the words “Christmas,” “Bethlehem,”
“Christ,” so often are they called into service.

There is the mysticism, the revival of the ancient myth and
folk-belief; and there is the rush of “the trade” for the pecuniary
advantages of the public tender-heartedness. One man gazes at the Star
until he stumbles in the highway: his neighbor stands at the gates of
Bethlehem on Christmas morning and takes toll. These are the extremes,
never more marked, more obtrusive, than in this year of our Lord 1898.

But between the two, hurrying over the fields toward the city by the
light of the Star, and thronging through the gates toward the little
manger throne, are the vast numbers of honest, earnest, sincere men
and women who find at Christmastide their perplexed lives made clear,
their hopes brightened, their burdens lightened, their strength
renewed for the twelvemonth to come.

To the mysticism, the love for glorified myth and legend, that
characterizes the Spirit of Christmas Present, they find an answering
chord in their own hearts, which will not be satisfied with shallow
interpretations of the day; which demands something deeper, and cannot
rest content with the broken clause, “On earth peace, good will toward
men,” but must echo the wonderful song that rang out over the dark
hill-slopes of Judæa, “Glory to God in the highest.”

As we gather about the cradle of every wee human child, born by such
wondrous miracle, so on each Christmas Eve the world gathers at the
rude manger where its Baby is laid, gazing into the gentle, radiant
face, and whispering, “There is born this day a Saviour, which is
Christ the Lord!”

“Mysticism,”--life is clothed in mystery! The birth of the poorest,
meanest child, in the shabbiest attic of your street of ill repute, is
a mystery far too sacred for man to divine. How shall we smile at
those who find in Christmas the consummate Mystery, the holiest
miracle that the weary, wondering earth has known?

The holiest, the deepest, and yet the simplest! For Christmas Day is
pre-eminently a day for entering the kingdom as a child. The door of
the stable is low; and we must stoop as we enter hand in hand with
little folk,--so sweet, so humble, so dear to everyday, plain
home-living is this Christian season of merrymaking.

The august features of the wise astrologers of the East relax, as they
turn from the Star to the face of the Child. The tax-gatherer forgets
his calling, and at last joins the throng of Christmas joy-makers and
joy-receivers, who find kindly impersonation in “Santa Claus.”

Let the card-dealers, then, and the writers of pretty fancies--the
students of folk-lore, the devotees of mystic rite--have their way;
let the tradesman prosper in the time of gift-giving; and every toiler
in the wide business field reap his golden harvest or glean his few
sheaves, as he may. We will not cast out from the Spirit of Christmas
Present its solemnity, its prosperity, its simple and innocent gayety.
There is no danger at present that Christmas shall be too much
observed in America: there is only the danger that its good cheer and
deeper thought, its impulse of benevolence and good will toward men,
shall be confined to a few days or weeks of the year.

Extremes of enthusiasm will ripen into earnest living. It is
narrowness and coldness, the mere humanitarian spirit of good morals,
the sneer at Christmas sentiment, that are to be dreaded. It is the
spirit of “Christmas all the year round” that is to be prayed for.



VII

MRS. BROWNLOW’S CHRISTMAS PARTY


It was fine Christmas weather. Several light snow-storms in the early
part of December had left the earth fair and white, and the sparkling,
cold days that followed were enough to make the most crabbed and
morose of mankind cheerful, as with a foretaste of the joyous season
at hand. Down town the sidewalks were crowded with mothers and
sisters, buying gifts for their sons, brothers, and husbands, who
found it impossible to get anywhere by taking the ordinary course of
foot-travel, and were obliged to stalk along the snowy streets beside
the curbstone, in a sober but not ill-humored row.

Among those who were looking forward to the holidays with keen
anticipations of pleasure, were Mr. and Mrs. Brownlow, of Elm Street,
Boston. They had quietly talked the matter over together, and decided
that, as there were three children in the family (not counting
themselves, as they might well have done), it would be a delightful
and not too expensive luxury to give a little Christmas party.

“You see, John,” said Mrs. Brownlow, “we’ve been asked, ourselves, to
half a dozen candy-pulls and parties since we’ve lived here, and it
seems nothin’ but fair that we should do it once ourselves.”

“That’s so, Clarissy,” replied her husband slowly; “but then--there’s
so many of us, and my salary’s--well, it would cost considerable,
little woman, wouldn’t it?”

“I’ll tell you what!” she exclaimed. “We needn’t have a regular
grown-up party, but just one for children. We can get a small tree,
and a bit of a present for each of the boys and girls, with ice-cream
and cake, and let it go at that. The whole thing sha’n’t cost ten
dollars.”

“Good!” said Mr. Brownlow heartily. “I knew you’d get some way out of
it. Let’s tell Bob and Sue and Polly, so they can have the fun of
looking forward to it.”

So it was settled and all hands entered into the plan with such a
degree of earnestness that one would have thought these people were
going to have some grand gift themselves, instead of giving to others,
and pinching for a month afterwards, in their own comforts, as they
knew they would have to do.

The first real difficulty they met was in deciding whom to invite.
John was for asking only the children of their immediate neighbors;
but Mrs. Brownlow said it would be a kindness, as well as polite, to
include those who were better off than themselves.

“I allus think, John,” she explained, laying her hand on his shoulder,
“that it’s just’s much despisin’ to look down on your rich
neighbors--as if all they’d got was money--as on your poor ones. Let’s
ask ’em all: Deacon Holsum’s, the Brights, and the Nortons.” The
Brights were Mr. Brownlow’s employers.

“Anybody else?” queried her husband, with his funny twinkle. “P’raps
you’d like to have me ask the governor’s family, or Jordan & Marsh!”

“Now, John, don’t you be saucy,” she laughed, relieved at having
carried her point. “Let’s put our heads together, and see who to set
down. Susie will write the notes in her nice hand, and Bob can deliver
them, to save postage.”

“Well, you’ve said three,” counted Mr. Brownlow on his fingers. “Then
there’s Mrs. Sampson’s little girl, and the four Williamses, and”--he
enumerated one family after another, till nearly thirty names were on
the list.

Once Susie broke in, “O Pa, _don’t_ invite that Mary Spenfield; she’s
awfully stuck-up and cross!”

“Good!” said her father again. “This will be just the thing for her.
Let her be coffee and you be sugar, and see how much you can sweeten
her that evening.”

In the few days that intervened before the twenty-fifth, the whole
family were busy enough, Mrs. Brownlow shopping, Susie writing the
notes, and the others helping wherever they got a chance. Every
evening they spread out upon the sitting-room floor such presents as
had been bought during the day. These were not costly, but they were
chosen lovingly, and seemed very nice indeed to Mr. Brownlow and the
children, who united in praising the discriminating taste of Mrs. B.,
as with justifiable pride she sat in the center of the room, bringing
forth her purchases from the depths of a capacious carpetbag.

The grand final expenditure was left until the day before Christmas.
Mr. Brownlow got off from his work early, with his month’s salary in
his pocket, and a few kind words from his employers tucked away even
more securely in his warm heart. He had taken special pains to include
their children for his party, and he was quietly enjoying the thought
of making them happy on the morrow.

By a preconcerted plan he met Mrs. Brownlow under the great golden
eagle at the corner of Summer and Washington streets; and, having thus
joined forces, the two proceeded in company toward a certain wholesale
toy-shop where Mr. Brownlow was acquainted, and where they expected to
secure such small articles as they desired, at dozen rates.

And now Mr. Brownlow realized what must have been his wife’s exertions
during the last fortnight. For having gallantly relieved her of her
carpetbag, and offered his unoccupied arm for her support, he was
constantly engaged in a struggle to maintain his hold upon either one
or the other of his charges, and rescuing them with extreme difficulty
from the crowd. At one time he was simultaneously attacked at both
vulnerable points, a very stout woman persisting in thrusting herself
between him and his already bulging carpetbag, on the one hand, and an
equally persistent old gentleman engaged in separating Mrs. Brownlow
from him, on the other. With flushed but determined face he held on to
both with all his might, when a sudden stampede, to avoid a passing
team, brought such a violent pressure upon him that he found both
Clarissa and bag dragged from him, while he himself was borne at least
a rod away before he could stem the tide. Fortunately, the stout woman
immediately fell over the bag, and Mr. Brownlow, having by this means
identified the spot where it lay, hewed his way, figuratively
speaking, to his wife and bore her off triumphantly. At last, to the
relief of both, they reached the entrance of the toy-dealer’s huge
store. Mr. Brownlow at once hunted up his friend, and all three set
about a tour of the premises.

It was beyond doubt a wonderful place. A little retail shop, in the
Christmas holidays, is of itself a marvel; but this immense
establishment, at the back doors of which stood wagons constantly
receiving cases on cases of goods directed to all parts of the
country, was quite another thing. Such long passageways there were,
walled in from floor to ceiling with boxes of picture-blocks, labeled
in German; such mysterious, gloomy alcoves, by the sides of which
lurked innumerable wild animals with glaring eyes and rigid tails;
such fleets of Noah’s arks, wherein were bestowed the patriarch’s
whole family (in tight-fitting garments of yellow and red) and
specimens of all creation, so promiscuously packed together that it
must have been extremely depressing to all concerned; such a delicious
smell of sawdust and paint and wax; in short such presentation of Toy
in the abstract, and Toy in particular, and Toy overhead, and
underfoot, and in the very air,--could never have existed outside of
Cottlow & Co.’s, Manufacturers, Dealers, and Importers of Toys.

Mrs. Brownlow was fairly at her wits’ end to choose. When she meekly
inquired for tin soldiers, solid regiments of them sprang up, like
Jason’s armed men, at her bidding. At the suggestion of a doll, the
world seemed suddenly and solely peopled with these little creatures,
and winking, crying, walking and talking dolls crowded about the
bewildered customers,--dolls with flaxen hair, and dolls with no hair
at all; dolls of imposing proportions when viewed in front, but of no
thickness to speak of, when held sideways; dolls as rigid as mummies,
and dolls who exhibited an alarming tendency to double their arms and
legs up backward. To add to the confusion, the air was filled with the
noise of trumpets, drums, musical boxes and other instruments, which
were being tested in various parts of the building, until poor Mrs.
Brownlow declared she should go distracted. At length, however, she
and her husband, with the assistance of their polite friend,
succeeded in selecting two or three dozen small gifts, and, when the
last purchase was concluded, started for home.

After a walk of ten minutes, they reached Boylston Market, where they
were at once beset by venders of evergreen and holly wreaths, crosses
and stars of every description. Mr. Brownlow bought half a dozen of
the cheaper sort of wreaths, which the owner kindly threaded upon his
arm, as if they were a sort of huge, fragrant beads. Then he selected
a tree, and, after a short consultation with Mrs. Brownlow, decided to
carry it home himself, to save a quarter. A horse-car opportunely
passing, they boarded it, Mrs. Brownlow and her bag being with some
difficulty squeezed in through the rear door, and Mr. Brownlow taking
his stand upon the front platform, from which the tree, which had been
tightly tied up, projected like a bowsprit, until they reached home.

Great was the bustle at 17 Elm Street that night. Parcels were
unwrapped; the whole house was pleasantly redolent of boiling
molasses; and from the kitchen there came at the same time a scratchy
and poppy sound, denoting the preparation of mounds of feathery corn.
Bob and his father took upon themselves the uprearing of the tree. On
being carried to the parlor it was found to be at least three feet too
long, and Mr. Brownlow, in his shirt-sleeves, accomplished wonders
with a saw, smearing himself in the process with pitch, from head to
foot.

The tree seemed at first inclined to be sulky, perhaps at having been
decapitated and curtailed; for it obstinately leaned backward, kicked
over the soapbox in which it was set, bumped against Mr. Brownlow,
tumbled forward, and in short, behaved itself like a tree which was
determined to lie on its precious back all the next day, or perish in
the attempt. At length, just as they were beginning to despair of ever
getting it firm and straight, it gave a little quiver of its limbs,
yielded gracefully to a final push by Bob, and stood upright, as fair
and comely a Christmas tree as one would wish to see. Mr. Brownlow
crept out backward from under the lower branches, (thereby throwing
his hair into the wildest confusion and adding more pitch to himself),
and regarded it with a sigh of content. Such presents as were to be
disposed of in this way were now hung upon the branches; then strings
of pop-corn, bits of wool, and glistening paper, a few red apples, and
lastly the candles. When all was finished, which was not before
midnight, the family withdrew to their beds, with weary limbs and
brains, but with light-hearted anticipation of to-morrow.

“Do you s’pose Mrs. Bright will come with her children, John?” asked
Mrs. Brownlow, as she turned out the gas.

“Shouldn’t--wonder”--sleepily from the four-poster.

“Did Mr. Bright say anything about the invitation we sent, when he
paid you off?”

Silence. More silence. Good Mr. Brownlow was asleep, and Clarissa soon
followed him.

Meanwhile the snow, which had been falling fast during the early part
of the evening, had ceased, leaving the earth as fair to look upon as
the fleece-drifted sky above it. Slowly the heavy banks of cloud
rolled away, disclosing star after star, until the moon itself looked
down, and sent a soft “Merry Christmas” to mankind. At last came the
dawn, with a glorious burst of sunlight and church-bells and glad
voices, ushering in the gladdest and dearest day of all the year.

The Brownlows were early astir, full of the joyous spirit of the day.
There was a clamor of Christmas greetings, and a delighted medley of
shouts from the children over the few simple gifts that had been
secretly laid aside for them. But the ruling thought in every heart
was the party. It was to come off at five o’clock in the afternoon,
when it would be just dark enough to light the candles on the tree.

In spite of all the hard work of the preceding days, there was not a
moment to spare that forenoon. The house, as the head of the family
facetiously remarked, was a perfect hive of B’s.

As the appointed hour drew near, their nervousness increased. The
children had been scrubbed from top to toe, and dressed in their very
best clothes; Mrs. Brownlow wore a cap with lavender ribbons, which
she had a misgiving were too gaudy for a person of her sedate years.
Nor was the excitement confined to the interior of the house. The
tree was placed in the front parlor, close to the window, and by
half-past four a dozen ragged children were gathered about the iron
fence of the little front yard, gazing open-mouthed and open-eyed at
the spectacular wonders within. At a quarter before five Mrs.
Brownlow’s heart beat hard every time she heard a strange footstep in
their quiet street. It was a little odd that none of the guests had
arrived; but then, it was fashionable to be late!

Ten minutes more passed. Still no arrivals. It was evident that each
was planning not to be the first to get there, and that they would all
descend on the house and assault the door-bell at once. Mrs. Brownlow
repeatedly smoothed the wrinkles out of her tidy apron, and Mr.
Brownlow began to perspire with responsibility.

Meanwhile the crowd outside, recognizing no rigid bonds of etiquette,
rapidly increased in numbers. Mr. Brownlow, to pass the time and
please the poor little homeless creatures, lighted two of the candles.

The response from the front-yard fence was immediate. A low murmur of
delight ran along the line, and several dull-eyed babies were hoisted,
in the arms of babies scarcely older than themselves, to behold the
rare vision of candles in a tree, just illumining the further
splendors glistening here and there among the branches.

The kind man’s heart warmed towards them, and he lighted two more
candles. The delight of the audience could now hardly be restrained,
and the babies, having been temporarily lowered by the aching little
arms of their respective nurses, were shot up once more to view the
redoubled grandeur.

The whole family had become so much interested in these small outcasts
that they had not noticed the flight of time. Now some one glanced
suddenly at the clock, and exclaimed, “It’s nearly half-past five!”

The Brownlows looked at one another blankly. Poor Mrs. Brownlow’s
smart ribbons drooped in conscious abasement, while mortification and
pride struggled in their wearer’s kindly face, over which, after a
moment’s silence, one large tear slowly rolled, and dropped off.

Mr. Brownlow gave himself a little shake and sat down, as was his wont
upon critical occasions. As his absent gaze wandered about the room,
so prettily decked for the guests who didn’t come, it fell upon a
little worn, gilt-edged volume on the table. At that sight, a new
thought occurred to him. “Clarissy,” he said softly, going over to his
wife and putting his arm around her, “Clarissy, seein’s the well-off
folks haven’t accepted, don’t you think we’d better invite some of the
others in?” And he pointed significantly toward the window.

Mrs. Brownlow, despatching another tear after the first, nodded. She
was not quite equal to words yet. Being a woman, the neglect of her
little party cut her even more deeply than it did her husband.

Mr. Brownlow stepped to the front door. Nay more, he walked down the
short flight of steps, took one little girl by the hand, and said in
his pleasant, fatherly way,

“Wouldn’t you like to go in and look at the tree? Come, Puss” (to the
waif at his side), “we’ll start first.”

With these words he led the way back through the open door, and into
the warm, lighted room. The children hung back a little, but seeing
that no harm came to the first guest, soon flocked in, each trying to
keep behind all the rest, but at the same time shouldering the babies
up into view as before.

In the delightful confusion that followed, the good hosts forgot all
about the miscarriage of their plans. They completely outdid
themselves, in efforts to please their hastily acquired company. Bob
spoke a piece, the girls sang duets. Mrs. Brownlow had held every
individual baby in her motherly arms before half an hour was over. And
as for Mr. Brownlow, it was simply marvelous to see him go among those
children, giving them the presents, and initiating their owners into
the mysterious impelling forces of monkeys with yellow legs and
gymnastic tendencies; filling the boys’ pockets with pop-corn, blowing
horns and tin whistles; now assaulting the tree (it had been lighted
throughout, and--bless it--how firm it stood now!) for fresh
novelties, now diving into the kitchen and returning in an unspeakably
cohesive state of breathlessness and molasses candy,--all the while
laughing, talking, patting heads, joking, until the kindly Spirit of
Christmas Present would have wept and smiled at once, for the
pleasure of the sight.

“And now, my young friends,” said Mr. Brownlow, raising his voice,
“we’ll have a little ice-cream in the back room. Ladies first,
gentlemen afterward!” So saying, he gallantly stood on one side, with
a sweep of his hand, to allow Mrs. Brownlow to precede him. But just
as the words left his mouth there came a sharp ring at the door-bell.

“It’s a carriage!” gasped Mrs. Brownlow, flying to the front window,
and backing precipitately. “Susie, go to that door an’ see who ’tis.
Land sakes, _what_ a mess this parlor’s in!” And she gazed with a true
housekeeper’s dismay at the littered carpet and dripping candles.

“Deacon Holsum and Mrs. Hartwell, Pa!” announced Susie, throwing open
the parlor door.

The lady thus mentioned came forward with outstretched hand. Catching
a glimpse of Mrs. Brownlow’s embarrassed face she exclaimed quickly--

“Isn’t this splendid! Father and I were just driving past, and we saw
your tree through the window, and couldn’t resist dropping in upon
you. You won’t mind us, will you?”

“Mind--you!” repeated Mrs. Brownlow, in astonishment. “Why of course
not--only you are so late--we didn’t expect”--

Mrs. Hartwell looked puzzled.

“Pardon me,--I don’t think I quite understand”--

“The invitation was for five, you know, ma’am.”

“But we received no invitation!”

Mr. Brownlow, who had greeted the deacon heartily and then listened
with amazement to this conversation, now turned upon Bob, with a
signally futile attempt at a withering glance.

Bob looked as puzzled as the rest, for a moment. Then his face fell,
and he flushed to the roots of his hair.

“I--I--must have--forgot”--he stammered.

“Forgotten what?”

“The invitations--they’re in my desk now!”

Thus Bob, with utterly despairing tone and self-abasement.

Mrs. Hartwell’s silvery little laugh rang out--it was as near
moonlight playing on the upper keys of an organ as anything you can
imagine--and grasped Mrs. Brownlow’s hand.

“You poor dear!” she cried, kissing her hostess, who stood speechless,
not knowing whether to laugh or cry, “so that’s why nobody came! But
who has cluttered--who has been having such a good time here, then?”

Mr. Brownlow silently led the last two arrivals to the door of the
next room, and pointed in. It was now the kind deacon’s turn to be
touched.

“‘Into the highways’!” he murmured, as he looked upon the unwashed,
hungry little circle about the table.

“I s’pose,” said Mr. Brownlow doubtfully, “they’d like to have you sit
down with ’em, just ’s if they were folks--if you didn’t mind?”

Mind! I wish you could have seen the rich furs and overcoat come off
and go down on the floor in a heap, before Polly could catch them!

When they were all seated, Mr. Brownlow looked over to the deacon, and
he asked a blessing on the little ones gathered there. “Thy servants,
the masters of this house, have suffered them to come unto thee,” he
said in his prayer. “Wilt thou take them into thine arms, O Father of
lights, and bless them!”

A momentary hush followed, and then the fun began again. Sweetly and
swiftly kind words flew back and forth across the table, each one
carrying its own golden thread and weaving the hearts of poor and rich
into the one fine fabric of brotherhood and humanity they were meant
to form.

Outside, the snow began to fall once more, each crystaled flake
whispering softly as it touched the earth that Christmas night,
“_Peace--peace_!”



VIII

CHRISTMAS ON WHEELS


I

A railroad station in a large city is hardly an inviting spot, at its
best; but at the close of a cold, cheerless, blustering December day,
when biting draughts of wind come scurrying in at every open door,
filling the air with a gray compound of dust and fine snow; when
passengers tramp up and down the long platform, waiting impatiently
for their trains; when newsboys wander about with disconsolate, red
faces, hands in pockets and bundles of unsold papers under their
ragged and shivering arms; when, in general, humankind presents itself
as altogether a frozen, forlorn, discouraged and hopeless race,
condemned to be swept about on the nipping, dusty wind, like Francesca
and her lover, at the rate of thirty miles an hour--then the station
becomes positively unendurable.

So thought Bob Estabrook, as he paced to and fro in the Boston and
Albany depot, traveling-bag in hand, on just such a night as I have
described. Beside him locomotives puffed and plunged and backed on the
shining rails, as if they, too, felt compelled to trot up and down to
keep themselves warm, and in even tolerably good humor.

“Just my luck!” growled Bob, with a misanthropic glare at a
loud-voiced family who were passing; “Christmas coming, two jolly
Brighton parties and an oratorio thrown up, and here am I, fired off
to San Francisco. So much for being junior member of a law firm.
Wonder what”--

Here the ruffled current of his meditations ran plump against a rock,
and as suddenly diverged from their former course. The rock was no
less than a young person who at that moment approached, with a
gray-haired man, and inquired the way to the ticket-office.

Bob politely gave them the desired information, and watched them with
growing interest as they followed his directions, and stood before the
lighted window. The two silhouettes were decidedly out of the common.
The voice, whose delicate tones still lingered pleasantly about Mr.
Robert Estabrook’s fastidious ears, was an individual voice, as
distinguishable from any other he remembered as was the owner’s bright
face, the little fur collar beneath it, the daintily-gloved hands, and
the pretty brown traveling suit.

“Dignified old fellow!” mused Bob, irrelevantly as the couple moved
toward the train-gates. “Probably her father. Perhaps--hallo, by
George, they’re going on my car!”

With which breath of summer in his winter of discontent the young man
proceeded to finish his cigar, consult his watch, and, as the last
warning bell rang, step upon the platform of the already moving
Pullman. It must be admitted that as he entered he gave an expectant
glance down the aisle of the car; but the somber curtains hanging from
ceiling to floor told no tales. Too sleepy to speculate, and too
learned in the marvelous acoustic properties of a sleeping-car to
engage the porter in conversation on the subject, he found his berth,
arranged himself for the night with the nonchalance of an old
traveler, and, laying his head upon his vibrating atom of a pillow,
was soon plunged into a dream at least fifty miles long.


II

It was snowing, and snowing hard. Moreover, it had been snowing all
night, and all the afternoon before. The wind rioted furiously over
the broad Missouri plains, alternately building up huge castles of
snow and throwing them down again like a fretful child; overtaking the
belated teamster on his homeward journey, clutching him with its icy
hand, and leaving him buried in a tomb more spotless than the fairest
marble; howling, shrieking, racing madly to and fro, never out of
breath, always the same tireless, pitiless, awful power. Rocks,
fields, sometimes even forests were blotted out of the landscape. A
mere hyphen upon the broad, white page, lay the Western-bound train.
The fires in the locomotives (there were two of them), had been
suffered to go out, and the great creatures waited silently together,
left alone in the storm, while the snow drifted higher and higher upon
their patient backs.

When Bob had waked that morning to find the tempest more furious than
ever and the train stuck fast in a huge snow-bank, his first thought
was of dismay at the possible detention in the narrow limits of the
Pullman, which seemed much colder than it had before; his next was to
wonder how the change of fortune would affect Gertrude Raymond. Of
course he had long ago become acquainted with the brown traveling suit
and fur collar. Of course there had been numberless little services
for him to perform for her and the old gentleman, who had indeed
proved to be her father. Bob had already begun to dread the end of the
journey. He had gone to his berth the night before, wishing that San
Francisco were ten days from Boston, instead of six. Providence having
taken him at his word, and indicated that the journey would be of at
least that duration, if not more, he was disposed, like no few of his
fellow-mortals, to grumble.

Once more he became misanthropic. “There’s Miss Raymond, now,” he
growled to himself, knocking his head savagely against the upper berth
in his attempt to look out through the frosty pane, “sitting over
across the aisle day after day with her kid gloves, and all that. Nice
enough, of course,” recalling one or two spirited conversations where
hours had slipped by like minutes, “but confoundedly useless, like the
rest of ’em. If she were like mother, now, there’d be no trouble.
She’d take care of herself. But as it is, the whole car will be turned
upside down for her to-day, for fear she’ll freeze, or starve, or
spoil her complexion, or something.”

Here Bob turned an extremely cold shoulder on the window, and having
performed a sort of horizontal toilet, emerged from his berth, his
hair on end, and his face expressive of utter defiance to the world in
general, and contempt of fashionable young ladies in particular.

At that moment Miss Raymond appeared in the aisle, sweet and rosy as a
June morning, her cheeks glowing, and her eyes sparkling with fun.

“Good-morning, Mr. Estabrook,” she said demurely, settling the fur
collar about her neck.

Bob endeavored to look dignified, and was conscious of failure.

“Good-mo-morning,” he replied with some stiffness, and a shiver which
took him by surprise. It _was_ cold, jumping out of that warm berth.

“I understand we must stay--but don’t let me detain you,” she added
with a sly glance at his hair.

Bob turned and marched off solemnly to the masculine end of the car,
washed in ice-water, completed his toilet, and came back refreshed.
Breakfast was formally served as usual, and then a council of war was
held. Conductor, engineers and brakemen being consulted, and
inventories taken, it was found that while food was abundant, the
stock of wood in the bins would not last till noon. There were twelve
railroad men and thirty-five passengers on board, some twenty of the
latter being immigrants in a second-class behind the two Pullmans.

The little company gathered in the snow-bound car looked blankly at
each other, some of them instinctively drawing their wraps more
tightly about their shoulders, as if they already felt the approaching
chill.

It was miles to the nearest station in either direction. Above, below,
on all sides, was the white blur of tumultuous, wind-lashed snow.

The silence was broken pleasantly. Once more Bob felt the power of
those clear, sweet tones.

“The men must make up a party to hunt for wood,” she said. “While
you’re gone, we women will do what we can for those who are left.”

The necessity for immediate action was evident, and without further
words the council broke up, to obey her suggestion.

A dozen men, looking like amateur Esquimaux, and floundering up to
their armpits at the first step, started off through the drifts. One
of the train-men, who knew the line of the road thoroughly, was sure
they must be near a certain clump of trees where plenty of wood could
be obtained. Taking the precaution to move in single line, one of the
engineers, a broad-shouldered six-footer, leading the way, and
steering by compass, they were soon out of sight. As they struck off
at right angles to the track, Bob thought he recognized a face pressed
close to the pane and watching them anxiously; but he could not be
sure.

Two hours later the men appeared once more, some staggering under huge
logs, some with axes, some with bundles of lighter boughs for
kindling. In another five minutes smoke was going up cheerily from the
whole line of cars; for the trees had proved to be less than a quarter
of a mile distant, and the supply would be plentiful before night.

When Bob Estabrook stamped into his own car, hugging up a big armful
of wood, he was a different looking fellow from the trim young lawyer
who was wont to stand before the jury seats in the Boston Court House.
He had on a pair of immense blue yarn mittens, loaned by a kindly
brakeman, his face was scratched with refractory twigs, his eyebrows
were frosted, his mustache an icy caret, two fingertips frozen, and
with all this, he looked and felt more manly than ever before in his
life.

His eye roved through the length of the car as it had that first night
in the depot. She was not there. He was as anxious as a boy for her
praise.

“Guess I’ll take it into the next car,” he said apologetically to the
nearest passenger; “there’s more coming, just behind.”

She was not in the second Pullman. Of course she wasn’t in the
baggage-car. Was it possible--? He entered the third and last car,
recoiling just a bit at the odor of crowded and unclean poverty which
met him at the door.

Sure enough, there she sat--his idle, fashionable type of
inutility--with one frowsy child upon the seat beside her, two very
rumpled-looking boys in front, and in her arms a baby with terra-cotta
hair. Somehow, the baby’s hair against the fur collar didn’t look so
badly as you would expect, either. She seemed to be singing it to
sleep, and kept on with her soft crooning as she glanced up over its
tangled red locks at snowy Bob and his armful of wood, with a look in
her eyes that would have sent him cheerfully to Alaska for more, had
there been need.


III

With the comfortable heat of the fires, the kind offices of nearly all
the well-dressed people to the poorer ones--for they were not slow,
these kid-gloved Pullman passengers, to follow Miss Raymond’s
example--the day wore on quietly and not unpleasantly toward its
close. Then some one suddenly remembered that it was Christmas Eve.

“Dear me!” cried Miss Raymond, delightedly, reaching round the baby to
clap her hands; “let’s have a Christmas party!”

A few sighed and shook their heads, as they thought of their own home
firesides; one or two smiled indulgently on the small enthusiast;
several chimed in at once. Conductor and baggage-master were
consulted, and the spacious baggage-car “specially engaged for the
occasion,” the originator of the scheme triumphantly announced.
Preparations commenced without delay. All the young people put their
heads together in one corner, and many were the explosions of laughter
as the programme grew. Trunks were visited by their owners and small
articles abstracted therefrom to serve as gifts for the immigrants and
train-men, to whose particular entertainment the evening was by common
consent to be devoted.

Just as the lamps were lighted in the train, our hero, who had
disappeared early in the afternoon, returned dragging after him a
small, stunted pine tree, which seemed to have strayed away from its
native forests on purpose for the celebration. On being admitted to
the grand hall, Bob further added to the decorations a few strings of
a queer, mossy sort of evergreen. Hereupon a very young man with light
eyebrows, who had hitherto been inconspicuous, suddenly appeared from
the depths of a battered trunk, over the edge of which he had for some
time been bent like a siphon, and with a beaming face produced a box
of veritable, tiny wax candles! He was “on the road,” he explained,
for a large wholesale toy-shop, and these were samples. He guessed he
could make it all right with the firm.

Of course the affair was a great success. I have no space to tell of
the sheltered walk that Bob constructed of rugs, from car to car; of
the beautified interior of the old baggage-car, draped with shawls and
brightened with bits of ribbon; of the mute wonder of the poor
immigrants, a number of whom had just arrived from Germany, and could
not speak a word of English; of their unbounded delight when the
glistening tree was disclosed, and the cries of “_Weihnachtsbaum!
Weihnachtsbaum!_” from their rumpled children, whose faces waked into
a glow of blissful recollection at the sight. Ah! if you could have
seen the pretty gifts; the brave little pine (which all the managers
agreed couldn’t possibly have been used had it been an inch taller);
the improvised tableaux, wherein Bob successively personated an
organ-grinder, a pug dog, and Hamlet, amid thunders of applause from
the brakemen and engineers! Then the passengers sang a simple
Christmas carol, Miss Raymond leading with her pure soprano, and Bob
chiming in like the diapason of an organ.

Just as the last words died away a sudden hush came over the audience.
Could it be an illusion, or did they hear the muffled but sweet notes
of a church bell faintly sounding without? Tears came into the eyes of
some of the roughest of the immigrants as they listened, and thought
of a wee belfry somewhere in the Fatherland, where the Christmas bells
were calling to prayers that night. The sound of the bells ceased, and
the merriment went on, while the young man with eyebrows lighter than
ever, but with radiant face, let himself quietly into the car
unnoticed. It had been his own thought to creep out into the storm,
clear away the snow from the nearest locomotive bell, and ring it
while the gayety was at its height.

All this indeed there was, and more; but to Bob, the joy and sweetness
of the evening centered in one bright face. What mattered it if the
wind roared and moaned about the lonely, snow-drifted train, while he
could look into those brown eyes and listen to that voice for whose
every tone he was fast learning to watch? Truly, it was a wonderful
evening altogether.

Well, the blockade was raised, and the long railroad trip finished at
last. But two of its passengers, at least, have agreed to enter upon a
still longer journey.

She says it all began when he came staggering in with his armful of
wood and his blue mittens; and he? he doesn’t care at all when it
began. He only realizes the joy that has come to him, and believes
that after a certain day next May it will be Christmas for him all the
year round.



IX

TREASURE TROVE; A CHRISTMAS STORY


Everybody in that part of the city knew Old Claus; that is, they knew
him by sight; very few had ever spoken to him or heard his voice. The
grocer and the provision man, and one or two others said he was civil
enough to them, that his name was Jonathan R. Claus, spelt with a _u_,
not a _w_, and that he paid his bills promptly. That was about all
anybody knew of him.

What a surly, grim old man he was, as you met him on a cold winter’s
afternoon on his way home from his marketing; his long white hair and
beard blowing about his head, his forehead puckered into a frown, his
stout cane striking the pavements as if he hated the very earth he
walked on!

Grown people gave him the width of the sidewalk; children shouted
after him,

    “Old Claus,
    Show your claws!”

and then dodged around the corner in terror, although he had never
been known to punish or even chide one of them, save by a dark look
from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. Ah, a gloomy, silent, mysterious
fellow he was, to be sure; and many a mother in that neighborhood
frightened her child into good behavior by threatening to call in Old
Claus.

One cold December evening, when the twilight had fallen early,
hastened by leaden skies and a few shivering flakes of snow, he sat in
his own room, solitary as usual, and even more than usually grim, for
he was thinking over his past.

Now, thinking over one’s past may be a very cheerful occupation or a
very gloomy one. Old Claus undoubtedly found his full of shadows.

He remembered how he was left an orphan, when still a small boy; how
he had suffered from cold and want, and had been buffeted and scolded
and ill-used, until he ran away from the people who had taken charge
of him (he had no home nor friends); how he had worked hard, had saved
his money, and had become a very rich man.

Still he had longed to be richer, and, retiring from regular business,
he had gone far away to search for a sunken treasure in tropical seas.
He had failed to find it, but more eager than ever, he mined for gold,
without success. Again, it was the buried hoard of a pirate which
attracted him; but months of fruitless labor had been thrown away in a
vain attempt to discover exactly where it lay. So he had spent his
years, always in search of a Treasure, which had become the ruling
idea of his life; always disappointed; until, embittered, discouraged
and alone in the world, though still rich, he had given up the
pursuit.

The home he had chosen was as strange as the life he had lived; a
huge, old-fashioned house, which had once been occupied by a wealthy
family, but had long lain empty, save for the rats that scampered
through its wide halls and gloomy chambers, and the spiders that spun
their webs unhindered across the blurred window-panes.

The city had grown up about the house, and it was now part of a brick
block. Indeed, one wing of the ancient building formed a portion of
the tenement house next door, where it seemed as if men wrangled and
staggered, and ragged women scolded and wept, and children cried from
hunger and cold, all night long. But the walls were very thick, and
the occupant of the lonely chamber heard them not.

“Christmas Eve,” muttered Old Claus to himself. “I heard them say it
in the streets. Merry Christmas! merry, merry Christmas!” he repeated
bitterly. “Right merry for me. What a wretched, useless failure of a
wreck I am!”

As he spoke he stamped his foot angrily upon the floor. There was a
crash in the room behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he found that
a large picture, an old portrait, the frame of which had been built
into the wall and alone remained of the former splendor of the
mansion, lay face downward upon the floor. Jarred by his heavy
footfall, the decaying woodwork had at last given way, and let the
canvas drop.

Claus’ glance wandered to the wall where it had been fastened. Then he
started to his feet, the old fire returning to his eyes. In place of
the picture was an opening, with a deep space beyond. He raised
himself on tiptoe, and saw what appeared to be the top of a flight of
steps, built into the thickness of the wall, and leading downward.

“Treasure at last!” he stammered, gazing greedily at the dusty steps,
down which a huge rat scrambled, squeaking. “Treasure at last! I knew
luck would turn! After all these years! It is mine, it is mine!”

Hastening to the mantel, he took down a small lamp, lighted it with
trembling fingers, and dragging a chair to the wall beneath the
aperture, climbed up to and into it. Yes, it was plainly a stone
flight of steps. What bags of gold must lie at the bottom of that
long-hidden passage?

He tested the stairway cautiously with his foot, and, finding it
apparently secure, slowly descended, the space being barely wide
enough for him to squeeze through.

Eight, nine, ten steps down. Then a sharp turn to the right! two more
steps, and he emerged from the narrow passage into what once must have
been a huge fireplace, having a hidden door in one side, some freak of
the ancient builders, to allow a person to pass from one portion of
the old house to the other without detection.

As Claus glanced about him his heart sank. There was no sign of a
treasure. The chimney overhead had been stopped with stone slabs, and
the original opening of the fireplace was closed by a wooden
partition, one panel of which was hinged and bolted so as to form a
small door. Doubtless the people in the next house were ignorant of
this, and, probably, of the existence of the fireplace itself.

It was very cold, and the disappointed man shivered as he prepared to
retrace his steps to his own quarters. Suddenly he heard a noise in
the room beyond the fireboard. It was the sound of a child sobbing
quietly to itself. In another moment a heavy, drunken step sounded on
the bare floor.

“Are ye goin’ to stop cryin’, Moll, or will I give ye the stick agin?”
demanded a woman’s harsh voice. “What’s the matter now?”

“I won’t--any--more,” he could hear the child answer. “I don’t--mean
to. Only I was thinkin’ it was Christmas to-morrow, and I
wouldn’t--get anything,--mother used to”--

“Stop that!” warningly.

It was evidently hard work to control the sobs, now. Old Claus
clenched his fist, and resolved that if he heard the sound of a blow,
that fireboard would go down.

There was silence for a minute. Then the woman staggered off,
muttering: “Don’t let me hear any more from ye the night. Go to sleep,
d’ ye hear? You must be off with yer basket agin in the mornin’.”

Five minutes later a singular sight might have been seen in front of
the big house. It was nothing less than Old Claus himself, clad in his
shaggy fur coat, setting forth through the darkness and snow, which
was now falling fast.

Past liquor saloons ablaze with light and hung, alas! with holly and
mistletoe; past the little Mission Church at the corner, where he
lingered an instant to catch the notes of a glad Christmas carol; away
from the wretched and squalid quarter of the city he marched, halting
only when he reached a toy-shop, where there were multitudes of
talking dolls and barking dogs and mewing cats and bleating sheep;
where people tumbled over each other in their eagerness to buy, and
blew into all the toy horns and jingled all the toy pianos and laughed
from the pure joy of Christmastide, like God’s own little children.

It was a good half hour again before Old Claus dismissed at his own
door the boy who had helped him bring home his bundles from that
blessed toy-shop. The boy went off whistling, too, with a bright new
silver dollar in his pocket.

It took the old man three trips to get his purchases down that secret
stairway. I don’t know how he ever got the sled through anyway; nor
the big doll with eyes that winked upside down, nor the sheep, nearly
life-size, which _baa_-ed loudly in the passage; and the tricycle was
the worst of all; but he did it and landed them safely in the old
fireplace, which surely never contained such precious fuel before.
Why, the very smell of the toys, a delicious painty, gluey, varnishy,
woolly, sawdusty smell, was enough to set you wild with delight. It
brought to Old Claus some dim remembrance of his childhood, and made
him pause to wipe away a tear with his shaggy sleeve. For all this
time he was in fur coat and cap, with snow lying thick upon them.

Now came the trying moment. Could he open that long-disused door
without waking the child, who now was evidently sleeping soundly?

Dear old door--I believe it knew, as well as you do, what was wanted
of it. Never a squeak it gave, as Claus, with infinite pains, drew
back the rusty bolt and softly opened it.

He stepped inside the room, shading the lamp with his hand. It was a
very small room indeed, with great holes in the bare plastering, and a
broken pane of glass through which the keen wind was blowing. The room
was even colder than the fireplace.

In one corner was a small bed, and in it lay a little girl of perhaps
six years, her tangled hair scattered over the bundle of ragged
clothes--evidently her own poor little gown--that served for a pillow;
the dingy counterpane drawn tightly up around her neck to keep out the
bitter cold. There was a broken chair and wooden table in the room
besides; nothing else.

From the back of the chair, which was propped against the wall close
by the bed, hung one small stocking; so small that it seemed better
fitted for a doll than a living human child; only no self-respecting
doll would have worn a stocking so ragged.

The old man set down his lamp and tiptoed back to the fireplace. He
took out the toys one by one, and placed them on the floor. He filled
the poor little stocking with candy; the first package of which came
near betraying him by falling directly through a large hole in the
heel. Luckily he caught it before it reached the floor, and squeezed
in a good-sized rubber ball to replace it.

Last of all he took up the sheep, with a sigh of relief at his success
in depositing all his gifts in the room without disturbing the small
sleeper.

But alas for human calculations! In his excitement he gave that
dreadful sheep an unlucky squeeze, and without the slightest warning
it gave utterance to another prolonged _baa-a-a!_ even louder than
before.

The child opened her eyes wide and sat up in bed. There stood, in
front of a new and cavernous fireplace in the wall, an old man with
shaggy coat and cap, and flowing white beard, his stooping back
sprinkled with snow, with a lamb in his arms, and surrounded with such
a glory of toys as she had never dreamed of in her little starved
life.

One moment only she gazed; then leaped from her bed and sprang into
his arms, crying: “O Santa Claus! Santa Claus! Have you come! Oh, take
me away with you, do, do!”

At the child’s first cry of “Santa Claus!” the old man stood
stupefied, shaking his head and muttering “Jonathan R.”; but when she
came flying to him, he caught her up in his arms, wrapping his great
fur coat about her and holding them close to his heart--God’s little
lamb and the woolly one--without a word.

Before he could fairly collect his wits, he heard that heavy,
irregular footfall coming up the stairs.

He had only one thought--to save the child. Backing hastily into the
fireplace he closed and bolted the door behind him, groped his way up
the stone steps, and sat down in front of his own fire, breathless,
with his new-found treasure still in his arms. The faint sound of a
cry came up from the room below, but whether it was of terror, or
delight at finding such extraordinary personal property miraculously
substituted for the late occupant, he could not tell.

The light of the fire, on which Claus had thrown fresh fuel, shone
upon the child face upraised to his.

“What is your name, little one?” he asked in tones he hardly
recognized as his own.

They called her Moll, she said, but that was not her real name, which
she had forgotten.

“How would you like to be called ‘Agnes’?” said Claus, his old eyes
growing misty over some long-buried memory.

“Oh, that’s a nice name, Santa Claus! And I’m _so_ sleepy!”

The old housekeeper was thereupon roused from her slumbers in a
distant corner of the house, and the child put to bed in her own room
in a couch hastily improvised from chairs and blankets.

Next morning Old Claus, feeling very much more like Young Claus than
he had for years, put an end to the wonderful stories flying about the
neighborhood by acknowledging his own agency in little Agnes’
disappearance. An arrangement was easily made with the dissipated
woman who, it seemed, had taken charge of the child and ill-used her
cruelly since her mother’s death. The proper papers having been drawn,
Mr. Jonathan Claus became the legal guardian of the little waif, with
whom he shortly afterward removed to a more cheerful quarter of the
city.

Agnes lost all her Christmas presents, to be sure, for not one of them
ever could be found--except the sheep which had brought her good
fortune, and who was allowed to _baa_ to his heart’s content that
Christmas day; but Santa Claus (as she persisted in calling her
deliverer) replaced them, with interest.

That is the way Old Claus found his treasure; not only little Agnes,
though she soon became dearer to him than all his wealth, but that
most precious of treasures, Love.



X

CHARITY AND EVERGREEN


I

“Well, for my part, I could never, never forgive a man who did such a
thing!”

It was late in the afternoon of a clear, cold day in December when
Charity Holmes, sitting in the midst of a spicy mound of evergreen on
Farmer Ralston’s kitchen floor, and looking up from her work with a
bright flush on her pretty cheeks, made this severe remark. Of the
three other women in the room, two, the farmer’s daughters, young
girls like herself, were quite of her opinion; but the fourth, a
white-haired old lady with lavender bows on her cap and sunshine in
her motherly face, patted the nearest indignant girl’s shoulder
reprovingly, and remarked:

“There, there, dears; don’t be so hard. We’re all of us human, and
drink’s a terrible thing. Sometimes it don’t seem any more a man’s
fault than tumbling into a hole in the road.”

“But if he has dug the hole himself, grandmother”--

Any further argument was interrupted at this point by the appearance
of an immense bundle of evergreen at one of the windows, entirely
blocking up its small, frosty panes. Presently an honest and merry
face showed itself down at one corner.

“It’s Tom, with more green!” cried the two Ralston girls, jumping up
and running to the porch door to let in the big brother.

Charity stayed behind with grandmother, but Tom’s eyes found her in a
twinkling. How demurely she sat there, tying away with all her might,
while the awkward fellow made a great to-do piling up his load beside
her, and managed to get hold of somebody’s hand down among the
princess-pines, and--then something happened behind grandmother’s back
that made somebody’s fresh young cheeks pinker than ever.

“Tom, Tom!” cried Charity, shaking her head as soberly as if she
hadn’t been the cause of his mischief.

“Yes, ma’am,” answered innocent Tom. “Want some more?”

“Now, Tom, if you’re really going to stay you must work in good
earnest. Just pick out some good long strings of ‘creeping Jenny’ and
lay them right beside me--so!”

Thereupon Tom, great, breezy, good-natured Tom, doubled himself up on
the floor, boots and all, and pretended to immerse himself, body and
mind, in the complicated task assigned him, meanwhile blundering in
the most absurd manner, and continually mistaking that bewildering
little hand for the delicate vines, and at the same time winking at
grandmother, thereby confusing her and making her feel that she was an
accomplice; and in fact conducting himself altogether so outrageously
that the girls ended by pelting him with evergreens until he escaped
to the woodshed, where the ringing blows of his axe soon gave notice
that he was making ready for the blaze in the great fireplace that was
to brighten the long winter evening before them.

Charity was the daughter of a neighbor. She and Tom Ralston had played
together since they were babies; then, leaving the district school,
and entering upon the heavier duties of life, they had grown bashful,
and kept away from each other just long enough to find out that they
could not possibly do so any longer. So they were engaged, to the
quiet satisfaction of both families. The marriage was to be on New
Year’s and the young folks were working hard on their evergreen
trimming, which Tom had promised to take up to the city, a dozen miles
away, and sell for them, the day before Christmas. Charity was to go
with him, as she had a few little purchases to make; and besides, she
had never seen the city at this “holiday season,” when it is at its
merriest.

Swiftly the full, busy days flew by. The evening before they were to
start, Tom was walking home with Charity. As they reached the little
plot of ground before her house they looked up into the starlit,
moonlit sky. At least Charity did. I am afraid Tom was finding moon
and stars and no end of things more precious to him in the grave brown
eyes so near his own.

“No, Tom,” said she, answering his look, “I’m just thinking about--up
there! and all we can be to each other and the rest of the world.”

“My darling! I wish I were a good man, I wish I were stronger! If it
were not for you!”--

He checked himself, and she could feel the brace of his muscles under
the coatsleeve where her hand rested, as if he were even then fighting
with some invisible foe. A light cloud came over the moon’s face, and
the road and fields, covered with new-fallen snow, looked colder than
before. She shivered, and drew more closely to his side. He was quick
to read her thoughts, this big, clumsy fellow, and he spoke instantly.

“I know, Rita,” he said, softly, stroking her hand and using the pet
name that he had made for her when they were children; “I know you’ll
stand by me through everything. And, whatever evil things I have in
me, with you at my side, I’ll try to put down. Heaven help me!”

He took off his cap, and Charity thought she never saw him look so
noble and humble and manly as he did then. The moon, too, was out
again, and its light rested like a benediction on his broad forehead,
whose veins stood out strangely to-night.

A moment later and he was gone. Charity watched him striding away
across the field until he was out of sight. As she turned to her own
home she noticed his tracks and the dark blotches they made on the
pure, white surface of the snow before her door. Somehow they troubled
her, and, without thinking, she made a little futile brush at the
nearest footprint with the corner of her shawl, thus only enlarging
and making it more unsightly than before. Then, with a nervous laugh
at her own foolish fancies, she entered the house.


II

The next morning, long before the rest of the family were astir,
Charity was sitting at her window, hooded and wrapped for the long
ride. How she had looked forward to this day! With refreshing sleep
and the sweet hopefulness of morning, all her doubts of the preceding
night had flapped away like bats into the darkness where they
belonged; and she was as fair and rosy and bright-eyed as the dawn
itself when she appeared at the door a few minutes later, in answer to
a merry jingle of sleighbells. Tom’s mood was as happy as her own, and
the sturdy little horse jogged along only too fast over the icy road
when they had turned his head toward the city.

There was much to talk about. Tom had not been idle these last few
days, and had a great deal to tell her about her room in the old
Ralston house, where he was to take her on New Year’s day. She
listened shyly, glancing up at him now and then with a happy face and
starry eyes, as he described the improvements he hoped to make on the
farm, and the hay he should take from the new meadow he had just
bought, and the hammock he should put up for her under the elms for
the long, quiet summer days.

“Only,” she broke in eagerly, “you know I must work, too, while you
are in the field”--

Then she grew rosy again, and subsided into the great buffalo robes,
while Tom wandered inconsequently from the subject, and the horse
started ahead suddenly when he wasn’t by any means expected to, and
the dark trees beside the road rustled as if they were singing softly,
and--oh, dear! it was a wonderful ride altogether.

“See!” whispered Tom, pointing to the horizon just before them.

A very grave and sweet look came into the girlish face, as she
followed his glance and saw the star in the east shining brightly
through the swaying pine boughs.

“Christmas, Christmas,” he whispered. “Oh, my darling, what a gift He
is giving me on his birthday--how much more precious than the gold and
frankincense He received eighteen hundred years ago!”

So they glide along as blessed as if the poor old sleigh, with its
odorous load of evergreen and holly, were a heavenly chariot bearing
them away from everything low and bad and wretched in the world,
until they draw near the city. The houses stand more and more closely
together. A milkman passes at full trot, and, seeing the country team
and its errand gives them the first jovial greeting of the day.
Shutters come down, blinds fly open, boys emerge from side streets,
blowing on their fingers and crying the morning papers.

“Mister, gimme some green?” one calls out now and then. And
good-natured Tom turns round in his seat, pulls out a bunch of his
merchandise and hands it to Charity, that she may have the pleasure of
giving it away. Now they are fairly within the long, brick-walled
streets, and the city is awake. Tom leaves Charity at the house of a
friend and makes an engagement to call for her as soon as his load is
sold (half of it has been ordered and engaged already), which will
probably be at about four. He will come at five, anyway; if he should
miss the hour--here he looks at her slyly and they both have a good
laugh at the absurdity of the idea--she can come to the market and
find him. Then they will have before them the beautiful Christmas-eve
ride home: “When,” says Tom solemnly, “the little horse will probably
be so tired that we will have to let him walk most of the way!”


III

Swiftly the hours of the happy day flew by. Charity completed her
humble purchases, which, after all, were hardly more than an excuse
for accompanying Tom to the city, and drank her fill of the joyous
sights and sounds on every side. Early in the afternoon it occurred to
her to surprise Tom at his post before the hour they had named.
Accordingly she dressed herself for the walk, putting into her pocket
a little purse she had bought as a Christmas gift for him, and
planning to give it to him then and there, so that he might bring home
in it the results of the day’s sales. With a little inquiry she found
her way through the crowded streets to the market, which was like a
huge beehive--except that the bees had no stings. For on everybody’s
face was the starlight of Christmas, and good-will toward men reigned
supreme. The sidewalks outside the market were simple avenues of
evergreen. It hung in festoons from the sides of the buildings and
overhead; it bubbled over from innumerable boxes and barrels, and ran
along the snowy curbstone in a fragrant stream. Rows of trees leaned
complacently against the posts and each other, meditating on glories
to come; holly glistened and twinkled in the red winter sunlight at
every window, and a few stout, jolly-looking marketmen had even
procured sprays of real English mistletoe, which they hung proudly
over their shop doors; but the full advantage of which, judging from
the freedom with which they allowed no end of pretty girls to pass to
and fro under it without molestation, they by no means appreciated.
Charity was delighted with everything, and half expected to see the
jovial “Ghost of Christmas Present” himself seated amidst the heaps
of plenty, scattering good things right and left. Failing of him, the
next best would certainly be Tom; whom, however, she sought in vain.
It was just three o’clock when she started again, a little wearily,
for the house.

“I must have just missed him,” she thought, “and he’ll be there
waiting for me.”

No, Tom was not there, and had not been seen. Charity fingered the
purse in her pocket a little nervously, and waited. How brightly the
sun shone in the quiet street where her friends lived! The snow had
begun to melt here and there, and children, finding it properly moist
for their play, were tumbling about in it and making forts, men, and
snowballs. One keen-eyed little fellow moulded a lot of large
oblong-shaped balls, and came with an armful before the window where
Charity sat, making a mocking bow to her, and calling out:

“Who wants to buy my nice melons! Here’s your fine fresh fruit; all
ripe; all ripe!”

Still no Tom. Charity tried to talk with her hosts, but it was hard
work, and she was glad when they left her to wait silently with her
eyes on the distant street corner where she had last seen him and his
evergreen. People came and went along the brick sidewalk. There were
little icy spots just in front of her window, where the gutter had
discharged the drip from the roof, and it had frozen in ridges the
night before. She became dully interested in watching the passers-by
get over this place. Some approached it cautiously and crept with
timid steps across the treacherous surface; some did not see it at
all until they were fairly upon it, and escaped with a slide and a
bound; some avoided it altogether by making a wide circuit into the
street; children slid fearlessly upon it, making sport of what was so
dangerous to their elders. One strong, well-built man--a clergyman he
appeared from his dress--started across it boldly but carefully,
slipped midway, and fell with such a crash that the girl uttered an
involuntary cry and started up from her chair; but the man regained
his feet and limped away, with an ugly stain across his shoulder and a
bit of red on his white hands.

While Charity gazed pityingly after him, a twinkling light appeared
far down the street; then another, and another. It could not be that
the lamps were being lighted! Yes, the short December day was over--it
was Christmas Eve.

Charity turned to look at the clock, but was obliged to move across
the room before she could see through the gathering dusk, that it
was--six o’clock!

She resolutely but hurriedly drew on her cloak, as she had done a few
hours before, in her own country home; and bidding good-bye to her
friends with lips which she could not keep from quivering, declined
all offer of escort and once more turned her face toward that busy
center of the holiday, the market. To and fro she went among the
kind-hearted dealers, with her one question repeated over and over
until she was sick at heart. No one had seen Tom since morning, one
or two looked at her a little curiously, and once a great burly fellow
engaged her very closely in conversation as a tall man in helmet and
brass buttons passed them, half carrying, half dragging a poor,
battered creature over the slippery sidewalk. It was an old,
white-haired man of whose wretched, drunken, despairing face she
caught a glimpse, as the throng of idle spectators swept by. Something
in the manner of her kind friend made her look up quickly at him. He
grew redder than ever, and quickly turned away his head; but it was
too late; she knew the truth at last. Tom was like--_that_!

After what seemed days of anguish she found herself in the stifling
atmosphere of the railroad station, where she would have to wait two
hours for a homeward-bound train. She shrank into a corner and tried
to forget herself in sleep, but every faculty was on the alert with an
unnatural tension. Women with tired faces and illy dressed babies sank
upon the seats about her and silently waited for their trains, or in
jarring, monotonous voices, and the minor keys always used by late
passengers, discussed the ailments of their neighbors and the high
price of goods. A crowd of rough fellows sauntered by outside the
windows and filled the air with coarse jokes and snatches of ribald
song. Charity clenched her little hands that Tom had kissed under the
princess-pine and endured it all, with her eyes on the grimy face of
the clock, until the train backed into the station and bore her away.

At a little before midnight she reached her own home. While she stood
on the worn door-stone, her whole frame trembling from exhaustion and
the long agony of that evening, her eyes fell on Tom’s footprints of
the night before. For one moment a hard look came into her face; then
she suddenly stooped, kissed the light snow as if it had been a cold,
dead face, and moaning, “O Tom, Tom, how could you!” with a sob like
that of a hurt child, turned and went in out of the night. And this
was her Christmas Eve.


IV

When Charity awoke next morning the sun was shining cheerfully in upon
the smooth yellow floor of her little room and its mats of braided
rags. The sky was of the bluest and the earth of the whitest; a flock
of sparrows were wishing each other Merry Christmas in the boughs of
an old appletree near by; the cattle in the barn, contentedly
ruminating over their morning allowance of hay, seemed rehearsing to
each other the old story of the manger and the wonderful night in
Palestine. As these pleasant sights and sounds stole in upon the
girl’s senses, a happy smile broke upon her lips and she felt at peace
with the whole world. Then came, like a flash of red lightning out of
the sparkling blue sky, the memory of the preceding day. Her brain
reeled under the shock of returning recollection, as, one by one,
every kindly evasive word of her informants came back to her. But
Charity was a girl of quick impulses and decided action. In five
minutes she had made up her mind what to do. Half an hour later she
was standing behind grandmother’s chair at Farmer Ralston’s with white
face and set lips. The family, she found, were somewhat concerned
about Tom’s absence, but they had not been in any real alarm, as he
might have changed his plans and remained in the city, leaving Charity
with her friends for the night. Now they crowded about her, all asking
questions at once, and growing momently more frightened at her
silence. She managed to tell them that Tom had not kept his
appointment--that she could learn nothing definite about him--that she
had guessed from what little information she had been able to obtain,
that he had been taken sick and carried to the hospital--or somewhere;
it was nothing serious, she was sure, and at any rate she was going up
to the city that morning on the train to find out all about it. Tom’s
father was too old and feeble to undertake the trip, and his sister
had better not leave home that day--Christmas. She could do better
alone, as she knew the streets pretty well (here her voice failed her
a little), and besides, it would only worry Tom to see them all
coming. So she went as she wished to, alone.

Arriving in the city, she examined a directory in the nearest drug
store and copied off the numbers and localities of all the police
stations in the city proper. Then she found her way without much
trouble to the market and asked the tall, broad-shouldered policeman
on duty there for directions to the nearest station. He looked down
pityingly on the young girl, appealing to him with her white face and
eyes that betrayed her suffering on that glad Christmas morning.

“Nothing serious, is it, miss? A fight, maybe, or something o’ that
sort?”

“Oh, no, sir! I only want to see if--if--somebody”--

The kind-hearted officer guessed her trouble immediately.

“I see, I see,” said he, softening his voice still more. “He didn’t
get home last night after he was paid off. Well, I guess you’ll find
it all right; anyway, I hope you will. Take your first turn to the
left, and two blocks further you’ll come to my station. Tell the
sergeant you saw Brown, and that I sent you to him for information.”

Charity thanked him with a grateful look that was better than words,
and moved with rapid steps along the icy sidewalk in the direction
indicated. She was courteously received at the station, but no one
knew anything about Tom. Nor did they in the next station she visited,
nor in the third or fourth. It was now nearly noon, and people were
beginning to sit down to their Christmas dinners. The table at Farmer
Ralston’s was always a jolly place, and at Christmas time the fun was
uproarious. Charity had been invited every year since she could
remember, and she gave a little gulp as she thought of the row of
bright, laughing faces that would have been gathered in the old
kitchen, still sweet with the resinous odors of the evergreen that had
lain there in piles in those last happy days that now seemed ages ago.
Wearily she mounted the granite steps of Station Five and repeated her
question. The lieutenant, a brisk, wiry man, with a heavy gray
moustache and little, piercing eyes, cast a quick glance at her and
consulted his book. Presently he gave a little nod, and raising his
voice, called out, “Norcross, here a minute!”

A uniformed officer in an adjoining room opened himself like a kind of
long jack-knife, rose from the bench where he had been reclining and
stood at the walnut rail in front of his superior, awaiting orders.
The lieutenant took a key from the rack at his side and handed it to
Norcross.

“This lady wants to see No. 3. Show her down.”

The officer bowed respectfully and led the way down a flight of stone
steps into what at first appeared to be a sort of cellar, with grated
windows near the ceiling on one side and a row of iron-barred doors on
the other.

“There,” said the officer, pointing.

Charity paused a moment and pressed her hand against her heart; for a
moment she could not have spoken, it beat so fiercely. Then she
advanced across the brick floor, and standing by the door of Cell No.
3, looked in through the bars.

At first she could see nothing, but, as her eyes became accustomed to
the dim light, she could distinguish at one side a narrow iron bed,
and lying motionless upon it, his head buried in his arms, a crumpled,
stained, wretched figure--yes, Tom!

The rustle of the girl’s dress fell upon his ear. He raised his head
slightly, recognized the sound, turned away again without looking her
in the face, and shook with such a tempest of sobs that Charity
trembled and could not speak the grave, deliberate words she had
prepared on the way.

    “Landlord, fill the flowing bowl!”

sang some poor creature shrilly, two or three doors away. How Charity
remembered all these things afterward! While the officer stepped aside
to quiet the noisy prisoner she forced herself at last to speak.

“Mr. Ralston”--Tom started, and she saw his grasp tighten on the iron
rail of the bed, “I have come to take you away from this place. I
shall send for the bail commissioner at once” (she had learned her
lesson well, poor child!), “so that you can catch the two o’clock
train. No!” she went on quickly, checking him with a gesture as he was
about to speak, “you mustn’t stay here another night, nor another
hour. It would kill your father if he knew it, and we couldn’t answer
his questions to-night.”

The strong man bowed his head again, without a word. She hesitated an
instant, then left him, and walked across the floor and up the stone
stairway with a firm step. Tom looked after her wistfully, but she did
not even glance toward his cell. Within half an hour he was sent for,
and found Charity, with the commissioner and the sergeant, sitting
behind the rail, in the room above. The bail was quickly arranged, the
officer handed over a jack-knife and a few coppers he had taken from
Tom’s pockets the night before, and told him he could go where he
pleased until nine o’clock the next morning, when the court opened.

There was a constrained silence for a moment in the little office. At
last Tom raised his eyes, with a look in them half questioning, half
appealing, to the girl’s white face, at the same time involuntarily
extending his hand toward her. For the first time in his life he found
no response in the brown eyes, staring stonily out of the barred
windows.

His hand slowly dropped to his side. With a dazed look he turned first
to the officers, then to Charity, as if he did not understand. Still
there was no response in the brown eyes, staring stonily out of the
barred windows. Still Tom stood there helplessly, not quite
understanding it all. Glancing at his stained and rumpled clothes he
brushed them a little, mechanically, passed his hand over his forehead
once or twice, then turned humbly toward the door, passed out
bareheaded and was gone.

How Charity found her way home she never knew. When she entered her
own little chamber at dusk and buried her aching head in her pillow,
she had a vague recollection of wandering about the gay city streets
for hours, of finally seeking the railroad station, of cooling her hot
forehead against the frosty pane of the car, and watching the
snowflakes that came faster and faster from the darkening sky. Tom had
come home, the station-master had told her carelessly, and that was
all she cared to know.

How he endured the ignominy of appearing and paying his fine in the
municipal court the next day, she did not ask; nor did she even see
him for a week. After the excitement of that gloomy Christmas came,
with the reaction, a complete nervous exhaustion, which mercifully
spared her the torture of questioning eyes and tongues until beyond
New Year’s--that should have been her wedding-day.

Meanwhile she wavered irresolutely between one and another course of
action. Now she felt she must cry out to him to forgive her own cruel
hardness in his time of trouble; now the Puritan blood she had
inherited asserted itself, and her face grew hard again as she thought
of his weakness.

The meeting could be put off no longer. It came, and in the same dear
old kitchen where they had worked together. The man looked straight
into her eyes and said, quietly:

“Charity, I have done you and myself a great wrong. I shall try to do
better. God knows how hard I shall try--am trying! Will you forgive
me? Will you help me?”

After all, she was hardly prepared for this, and though she began
bravely enough with, “Mr. Ralston,” she soon broke down altogether.
“Of course,” she told him, “the wedding must be postponed
indefinitely. Further than that--I can’t tell what--O Tom! how
could”--she began afresh, but stopped at his look, and slowly walked
out of the room and house.


V

Slowly the long weeks of late winter succeeded each other, alike
monotonous, gray and dreary. Tom Ralston worked, at first manfully,
then doggedly, on the farm, fighting with a strong will against public
opinion and private temptation. Everybody had heard of his fall. Young
girls eyed him curiously from the opposite side of the road, and the
frequenters of the village store gathered at night to sit around the
stove, heels in air, and bring out stories of old Major Ralston, two
or three generations back, whose dissipations had been town talk; and
the gossips gravely wagged their heads and said: “’Twas bound to crop
out sooner or later.”

So passed the icy months, and song-sparrows and bluebirds began to
flit among the naked boughs like dreams of spring. Following them came
the robins, plump and cheery embodiments of summer. One morning in
April the maples and oaks stretched out their arms, full of rosy and
restless baby leaves born in the night. The heats of July parched the
land; September laid her gentle hand upon its brow until it was
refreshed and slept.

Still Tom Ralston worked on, through sun and shower, seed-time and
harvest, beginning at last to win approving nods and kindly smiles
and words from his self-appointed critics. Still Charity, with heavy
heart, went about her routine of household duties, from which all the
sweetness, the vague looking forward, the pretty, girlish longing
which had of late clothed them were gone. When she met Tom, as she was
often obliged to, she spoke not coldly indeed, but as to a mere
acquaintance. Right or wrong, she had conscientiously chosen her
course, and she would keep it to the end. She would never marry a man
who might become a drunkard, and perhaps leave his curse to be
inherited by his innocent children.

It was five days before Christmas when Charity, having finished her
daily tasks, stole away to spend the last hour or two of the short
winter afternoon in her favorite walk, an old logging-path through the
pine woods. The air was deliciously clear and sweet. Overhead, a flock
of chickadees called to her merrily, and hung upside down among the
tasseled boughs in search of insects and other small bird food. Not an
anxious search, by any means; rather a contented one, on the whole, as
if they were quite sure their daily bread had been given them, and
they were only to see that it was not wasted. Charity half
unconsciously took note of their happy little movements to and fro,
as, for the hundredth time, she went over and over the arguments
against forgiving Tom. She had just reached the triumphant “lastly,”
in her course of reasoning, when, suddenly startled by the breaking of
a twig, she glanced up, to see the subject of her syllogisms not
twenty feet away, gathering evergreen. Like the rushing waters of a
great tide, sweeping away her artificial landmarks and barriers, came
the overwhelming conviction that it was she, and not the man before
her, who needed forgiveness.

At the sound of her dress, Tom, too, had started up, as he did in the
cell a year ago; but presently went on with his task, stooping low
over a refractory vine of princess pine.

“It was the least I could do,” he said humbly, and with evident
effort. “I shall take it up to the city myself and sell it for the
girls.”

Something in her very silence, or perhaps a slight exclamation that
escaped her lips, made him look up. She stood there, alternately
paling and flushing, with a look in her eyes he had not seen for many
a long day. He sprang to his feet, but she put out her hand to check
him.

“Tom,” she began, with quivering lip, “dear Tom, can you forgive”--

What was the use of her hand then! If she had been surrounded by
Napoleon’s Old Guard I believe Tom would have got at her somehow.
Forgive her! Bless you, if you had seen him for the next five minutes,
or had heard them talk as they walked home together beneath the pines,
you would have been puzzled to know which forgave or which was
forgiven, or which had done right or wrong, or whether either had ever
doubted the other for an instant of their lives.

“‘Suffereth long and is kind,’” whispered grandmother that night,
stroking the girl’s brown hair.

Of course Tom went home with her afterward, in the old way, and made
footprints again before her door, while the moon smiled to itself and
poured down its silvery blessing upon them.

So they had a merry Christmas after all, and a New Year’s wedding, on
which occasion grandmother was resplendent in fresh ribbons, and the
girls laughed and cried by turns.

The hard, dreary year of Tom’s struggle is long since past, but as
Christmastide draws nigh and the wreaths are hung at the windows,
Charity Ralston, the dearest and brightest little woman in all the
country, looks fondly into her husband’s strong, manly face, and lays
her cheek upon his shoulder in a way that tells him she remembers. He,
too, has never forgotten, and, standing there in the twilight, with
the sweet Christmas incense of the evergreen about them, he tells her
again how he endured, and hoped, and loved, and ends by holding her
close in his arms, while she whispers, “Merry Christmas, Tom!”



XI

THROUGH THE STORM


I

“’Lisbeth, ’Lisbeth, what ye doin’ out there?”

It was a sharp, high-strung voice, yet not loud nor ill-natured. The
speaker stood at an open door between the kitchen and an outer porch,
the latter built of rough boards and showing little wet streaks on the
floor, where the storm had thrust in its snowy fingers the night
before. The silence of the place was broken at intervals by a regular
series of dull blows, lasting two or three minutes and interspersed
with muffled splashings.

“’Lisbeth, can’t ye leave off churnin’ a minute? I want my specs.”

“All right, father, I’ll find ’em for ye: ’s--almost--come!” The last
words were emphasized by such an energetic pounding that the
window-sashes, with their small, old-fashioned panes, rattled like
cymbals.

“There! there! ye needn’t knock the bottom out’n the churn,” said the
first speaker, with a movement among the wrinkles of his face that
betokened a smile. “I c’n hold on a spell longer, I guess. Jest bring
me in a mug o’ the buttermilk when ye’ve got threw.” The keen air
swept through the porch and lifted the leaves of a yellow-covered
almanac that hung against the wall. The old man took it down from its
nail, and closed the door with a shiver. “Wind’s shiftin’ back,” he
mused. “Soon’s ever I git my glasses I’ll see what the almanac says.
’T ain’t much use fer Wesley to break out the road, even ’f the
Hill-folks _is_ comin’. ’Twill be over the walls ’fore the train’s
in.” He walked slowly to a pile of wood that lay near the fireplace,
paused before it a moment, with a shrewd look, whistling in a sort of
whisper, then picked out a stout birch stick with the bark hanging in
strips and laid it with great deliberation on the fire, which was
already crackling and roaring up the chimney in a broad blaze and
sending its generous glow to the farthest corner of the room.

A few moments later the door opened and showed a quiet little figure
and a cheery face that irresistibly suggested Thanksgiving, Christmas,
comfort, and reliableness, all in one. It was evident that if her
forty years or so had brought her many sorrows they had given a
wonderful inward peace and strength that is not afraid of evil
tidings. She was dressed plainly, with her sleeves rolled up to the
elbows. “Here’s your milk, father; and there’s your glasses now, right
on top of your head,” she said, stooping forward a little and speaking
in loud, clear tones.

“Lor’ sakes! so they be. I declare, I’m gittin’ so forgitful, ’n’ I
can’t hear no one ’bout the house but you, ’Lisbeth. Strange how my
hearin’ ’s failed me this year! If’t wa’n’t for you”--Here his voice
quavered a little, but he was happily interrupted by the entrance of a
broad-shouldered, clear-eyed young fellow, who advanced to the fire,
and, holding out his hands to its genial warmth, stamped off upon the
brick hearth a few bits of snow that had clung to his stout boots.

“Well, grandfather, we’ve got a ‘spell o’ weather’ this time,” he
shouted. “Old Bonny Beag has her nightcap on, and I saw two or three
flakes as I came in. ’Lisbeth,” he continued, “the visitors up at the
Hill won’t any _more_ than get there to-day, I guess. Sam Fifield,
down at the depot, says he has orders to have a pung ready for a lot
of boxes and a sleigh for the women and children that are coming down
to Christmas. I’ve broken out as far as the Corner; beyond that it’s
good roading for quite a piece. The steers are as near being tired out
as ever I saw them. Breakfast ’most ready?”

In a few minutes more the table was pulled out from the wall, and a
chip thrust under one of its feet to offset the unevenness of the
floor. Upon the spotless cloth were set three blue china plates, with
pictures of stately castles rising from lambent seas and numerous
swans disporting themselves therein; then came brown-jacketed
potatoes, a big pot of coffee, a pile of yesterday’s doughnuts, an
apple pie with one piece cut out, a plate of smoking hot biscuit, and
a dish of golden butter. A small platter, containing two or three
slices of “frizzled” pork, was placed by the old man’s plate.

Meanwhile, the starry flakes came faster and faster. Some of the more
adventurous alighted on the kitchen window and gazed in until they
were finally melted at the sight. A few ventured down into the well,
and, drifting against the mossy stones, gave to the slender ferns that
peeped from the chinks the food they had gathered in the skies; others
found their way through a broad crack into the barn and fell
noiselessly upon the floor with its hayseed carpet, thereupon causing
much wonderment and grave discussion among the fowls, who were
exchanging views in low tones on the topics of the morning. If you had
been in the woods, you would have heard the tick-ticking of the tiny
crystals, like the dancing of myriads of fairy feet, upon the dry
leaves which still clung to the oak and beech.

So fell the snowflakes over meadow and fallow, wood and hill, bringing
the materials that should be built up into corn and wheat during the
coming year and thus provide food for thousands who would then be
reciting their prayers for daily bread, without a thought that the
answers had begun so many months before.

Now, either by a preconcerted plan or by an impulse of the moment, one
of the most daring of the advance guard of the storm resolved to have
a wild ride before he gave up his substance to winds and earth; and so
it came about that a chubby nose, which had previously been flattened
against one of the plate-glass windows of a Pullman car on a
northbound train, suddenly withdrew itself, and a childish voice
exclaimed, “Oh, Miss Amory, it’s snowing! it’s snowing! Here’s a
little mite of a flake on the window. Oh, mamma, won’t it be nice
sleighing for Santa Claus! He can come right on the tops of the trees:
I saw a lot that looked just like frosted cake.”

“Yes, dear; yes, dear,” said the quiet lady in the next chair,
glancing up from her “Seaside” pamphlet. “Only don’t speak so loud,
Maurice. You will disturb the other people in the car.”

“Miss Amory,” persisted the boy, but in lower tones, “won’t you go out
and coast with me, and take a great, long, long sleigh-ride
to-morrow?”

“Yes, Maurice, if mamma would like me to,” replied the one addressed,
a little wearily. She had not yet quite schooled herself to her
position, this young governess, and the constant reference of even
such trifles as the boy’s request to a higher authority still jarred
on her spirits. She had not, indeed, like most paper heroines, been
accustomed to the luxuries of wealth, with phalanxes of servants
devoting themselves exclusively to her service and amusement, but she
had enjoyed the comforts of a well-to-do New England home, the
independence of American girlhood, and the priceless blessing of a
mother who understood her thoroughly and was always ready to
sympathize with her daughter’s pleasures and troubles alike, to
counsel or remain silent, as the case might be, and to help her out
of all her girlish perplexities, from the choice of a ribbon to the
treatment of an importunate suitor. It was a brave thing, this setting
her face resolutely to the world, and she had accordingly made up her
mind at the start to look for and meet every unpleasant concomitant to
her new position without a murmur.

At first she had been uncertain at what door she should knock of all
those opening into the tower named Self-Support, but, as she
approached, one of them flew open before her hand was raised. A lady
who was spending the summer near by gave out word that she wished for
a governess to take charge of her two children and accompany them to
the city in the autumn. Miss Amory’s bright face and gentle ways won
the children at first sight. She was retained on trial, and had proved
too great a treasure to be relinquished.

Mrs. Walton had been more than kind and considerate, but her very
effort to offer attentions and induce the new governess to forget her
position only made it more marked, like an erasure upon white paper.

Miss Amory scolded herself twenty times a day, and devoted herself
more and more to her duties, but still she could not help looking
forward to next summer, when--when--well, beyond that it was all
vague. At any rate, there might be some change for the better. Perhaps
she could give music-lessons, or could teach school; something she
would do where she was her own mistress.

The train rumbled on, and the storm increased. Twice they had to stop
and back before they could push their way through a narrow cut where
the huge drifts were wedged in solidly from brim to brim. At last,
just as the December light was fading from the sky, hurried by the
whirling snow-mist, the cars came to a standstill beside a long, low
building, and the conductor shouted, “Haybrook! Haybrook!”

Ten minutes later, two sleighs, one in advance loaded with boxes and
parcels, the other with the ladies and the two children, crept slowly
up the hill that led from the little brown station to the main road.
For a while the houses on each side and a few half-obliterated tracks
made navigation comparatively easy; but once out of the village it
became a matter of nice calculation. The sleet stung the faces of the
drivers and formed little icy crusts over the eyes of the patient
horses, who struggled on, setting their hoofs down firmly into the
smooth, unbroken sheet of snow and sending it out on either side like
foam. Suddenly there was a creak, a lurch, and then a dead stop. The
drivers consulted in muffled tones as they examined the harness.

“Broken jest above the buckle; nothing to hitch to.”

“Better call up the old man, ’n’ get Wesley to help. ’S only a step
further ’n the Corner.”

In the sleigh, Mrs. Walton and her governess, covered with heavy
buffalo-robes, waited patiently. The children fidgeted.

“I want to get out and wade.”

“No, Morrie, you just keep still, and perhaps Santa Claus will come
along and help us. He must have started by this time.”

“H’m! guess reindeers wouldn’t do much good. I wish I had my pony
here. Why, Miss Amory, how cold your hand is! Why, you’ve been keeping
that robe over me, and you’re right out in the cold. See the snow on
her sleeve, mamma.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” interposed the little governess; but her teeth
chattered, and it was an intense relief when she heard a new, strong
voice just outside: “Where are they, Marston? In that heap of
buffaloes?” After a moment’s pause, the robes were lifted, and before
she could say a word the girl felt herself raised from the sleigh and
borne along through the storm in a pair of stout arms, while the same
cheery voice said: “Beg your pardon, miss, it’s the only way. The
house is but a few rods from here.”

“Thank you,” she answered smiling, in spite of the cold, at her
situation: “but I’m afraid I shall tire you!”

The young man said nothing, but gravely picked his way between drifts
and treacherous hollows. Once he staggered, and nearly fell with his
burden. She instinctively threw her arm round his neck like a child,
to save herself, withdrawing it quietly a moment after. He plodded on
in silence.

“He’s a gentleman,” she thought, “or he would have laughed or joked
about it.”

Close behind them the men were following with those left in the
sleigh, and the whole company were soon gathered around ’Lisbeth’s
fire, exchanging comments, throwing aside their snowy wraps, and
refreshing themselves with hot tea.

“Just like a desert island,” whispered Maurice.

“Only savages don’t have doughnuts and milk,” returned Edie, helping
herself liberally.

The fire leaped higher and glowed more and more ardently in its
efforts to warm the castaways, until they were glad to draw back their
chairs from the hearth,--all except the little governess, who was
still chilled through and through, although she meekly drank three
cups of hot tea in succession, and crouched as near the friendly fire
as she could without scorching the pretty dark-blue traveling dress.
Little ripples of shiver seemed to run over her from head to foot,
like a cold breeze.

“I think, if you please, I’ll go to my room,” she said at last, with a
grateful look at ’Lisbeth, who was watching her anxiously, and who
doubtless supposed her to be a relative, probably the children’s aunt.
“Governess” was an idea that had not struck Haybrook, except through
the medium of an old English novel or two.

“Well, just step right in here,” she said, sympathetically; “and don’t
you get up till ye’re called in the mornin’.”

As she spoke she opened one of the little, gray, uneven doors behind
her guests, and lighting a tallow candle in a knobby brass
candlestick, placed it upon some article of furniture within.

“Good-night,” she said again, kindly. “Don’t let me disturb ye by my
travelin’ round the kitchen gettin’ breakfast. You can leave the door
open a crack for company, if you’re lonesome.”


II

When Florence Amory opened her eyes the next morning, she was at a
loss for some minutes to determine her own position in the great white
world that lay around her. Then the events of the preceding night
marshaled themselves into line one by one, and at the same time came
the consciousness that she possessed a head,--a most unmanageable one,
too. It danced and whirled in such an uncomfortable way that she was
glad to shut her eyes once more.

Presently the sound of an old-fashioned coffee-mill, with its
unwilling halts and sudden compliances, fell upon her ear in such
close proximity that there was no mistaking the character of the
adjoining room. A moment or two later the crushed berries sent through
the keyhole a delicious whiff of aroma that spread itself through the
room. Encouraged by this appeal to two of her senses, the girl once
more took a survey of her quarters. A narrow bedroom, with just space
enough beside the high-posted bed on which she lay to permit one
person to pass; a chest of drawers, with shining brass handles that
tinkled faintly in response to footsteps in another part of the
house; one or two straight-backed chairs: these completed the
furniture of the room, with the exception of a small looking-glass
(one corner gone), a frame washstand, and a tiny yellow table. The
windows were hung with green paper curtains. Just as she finished this
journey around her room, her head took another flight, and was hardly
down again when the door opened softly and the cheery face of ’Lisbeth
peeped in. Seeing that the stranger was awake, she advanced to the
bedside and bent over the flushed face upon the pillow.

“How’d ye sleep?” she inquired, softly brushing aside a stray lock or
two of brown hair, as a mother might have done, from the tired young
forehead.

“Not very much, I’m afraid. I’m not much rested: my head doesn’t feel
quite right;” and she tried to smile.

“Well,”--this woman had a strong, comfortable way of beginning her
sentences with that monosyllable, which seemed to put quite out of
sight all doubts and difficulties in the way, and carried with it a
conviction that everything was coming out just right,--“well, there’s
nothing in the world to do but to stay just where you be. Your folks
ain’t up yet, and won’t be this two hours. I’m goin’ to brown ye a
piece of bread, and the tea’ll be ready by the time that’s done: it’s
drawin’ now, front of the fire.”

“Oh, indeed I must get up. The children”--

“Land, the children can dress themselves, or their mother’ll help ’em
if they need anything. Do’n’t you say another word, dear, but just
shut your eyes and think about something easy,--dandelions in a
cloverfield, say, or birds singin’ ’long towards night.”

The firm steps turned away and again began their journeyings up and
down the floor of the adjoining room. Florence closed her eyes
willingly enough, and lay perfectly quiet, with a sense of being cared
for, such as she had not felt since she left her own home.

The morning light showed dimly through the frosty little panes behind
the green curtain. Upon the old-fashioned bureau she could just see,
as she glanced up wearily now and then, the shape of her tall brass
candlestick, with its long stalactites of tallow hanging from the
upper rim. The footsteps plodded to and fro. Pots and pans
occasionally interjected a staccato note above the soft purring of the
fire and the hum of the teakettle. Then another pair of boots joined
the first,--evidently a man’s, but managed with wonderful care so as
not to disturb the visitors.

Pretty soon the door opened once more, and ’Lisbeth entered, bearing a
small japanned tray, upon which were set a plate of toast in tiny
slices, a steaming cup of tea, and a sugar-bowl with its pair of
silver tongs, slim but solid.

“Now, dear, a bit of this will do you good.”

“But I’m not hungry.”

“No, poor child, I didn’t suppose you would be. Well” (comfortably
again), “suppose I butter a piece of toast,--the littlest piece,--just
for you to taste. Maybe ’t will make ye sleepy.” There was no
resisting that, and the feverish girl did manage to take a very wee
lunch from the motherly fingers. Then she fell back among the pillows,
exhausted.

“If ye can jest ketch a nap now,” said ’Lisbeth in a whisper, as if
her charge were already in danger of being waked, “it’ll do ye lots of
good.”

The toast and the hot tea and Lisbeth’s whispers must have had a
soothing effect, for Florence soon dropped into an uneasy slumber,
throughout which, however, she had a continual sense of heat and
discomfort. When she awoke, it was broad day. The world was as silent
as a dream. To ears accustomed to the roar of a city and the cries and
laughter of children at play, the stillness was not a mere negative
quality of the air,--an absence of sound,--it was an almost tangible
thing, and Florence felt smothered beneath its folds. She pressed her
hand to her head, and found it burning hot. Her pulse was throbbing
fiercely through her slender wrists.

“Mrs. Eldridge!” she called faintly. She had heard ’Lisbeth so
addressed by the driver the night before.

The soft rustle of a woolen dress, and the firm, now familiar
footfall, were heard at once. In a moment more the elder woman was
holding the hand of the younger.

“I believe--I am afraid--I am going to be ill.”

“Well, Miss Amory, ’f you be, you shall be well taken care of. I’ll
tend ye myself, nights; and if there’s anything you want that can be
got, why, Elsie’ll get it for ye.”

“And is there a physician?”

“Oh, yes’m; Elsie’s gone for one now. They’ll be here in an hour or
two.”

“In all this snow?”

“Oh, we don’t mind that, ma’am. Get used to it, you know. The road’s
been broke out clean up t’ the village, they say, so ’s ’t the pung’ll
go well enough.”

“Where are Mrs. Walton and the children? And--please don’t call me
ma’am.”

’Lisbeth smiled good-humoredly: “I won’t, if you won’t call me ‘Mis’
Eldridge.’ ’T always makes me feel ’s if I must talk just so straight
when anybody calls me that. My name’s ’Lisbeth; and if you’ll call me
so, why, I’ll call you Florence,--the boy told me your name,--and so
we’ll feel better acquainted. Oh, the others? Why, they went along up
t’ the Hill, to spend Christmas with their folks, about noon to-day.
She said you was to stay here till you felt better, if we could keep
you. And we can.”

That night Florence was worse, and the succeeding days and weeks were
but so many chapters of feverish fancies and hot, throbbing pain. The
sun climbed higher and the snowbanks sank lower day by day, but she
knew nothing of them. Her world was square, her sky a dingy white, her
surroundings the changing forms of a disordered dream. The
gray-haired country doctor had peered at her through his spectacles
and made the motions of “Typhoid” with his lips to ’Lisbeth. Florence
had seen it under her half-closed eyelids, but was too weary to care
much. So January came and went, and after it February, before she
found herself inclined to take the slightest interest in anything
outside of those four walls, with their faded, large-figured paper.

It was a warm, delicious day in early March,--one of those foretastes
of spring which in New England match the Indian summer of late autumn.
The green curtain swayed slightly back and forth as the sweet south
wind crept in through the crannies of the old, warped window-frame. A
song-sparrow, perching on the fence just outside, sang his contented
little Easter hymn over and over, until the sick girl felt herself
being drawn back to life once more, and life seemed beautiful.
’Lisbeth was sitting in the kitchen, with the door half open between,
and Florence could hear the soothing creak of her chair as she rocked
gently to and fro at her knitting. Presently she called, “Mrs.
Eldridge!”

The creaking stopped instantly, and health and life, embodied in
’Lisbeth, entered the room.

“Well, dearie, feelin’ a little better, ain’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,”--gratefully. “I want to know, if you please, about
things that have happened since I have been ill.”

“Oh, that’s a short story. Mrs. Walton ’n’ the children went back t’
the city six weeks ago, and left you in my charge. An’ it’s precious
little trouble you’ve been. For my part I’d rather take care o’ ten
women, all sick with the typhus, than one man with a headache.”

Florence smiled faintly. Then she said, “I haven’t heard so many
footsteps in the kitchen lately. Have any of your family gone?”

“Bless you, no. That’s only because Elsie’s made a pair o’ slippers to
wear about the house, so ’s not to wake you when you’d caught a
sleep.”

“How very kind! Can I see Elsie soon? I should so like to be read to a
little bit.”

“Why, yes, I s’pose so,” said ’Lisbeth rather doubtfully. “I d’ know
’s there’d be any objection. Oh, that reminds me. Elsie was over t’
the Corner early this morning, and brought these flowers. There’s a
greenhouse there, where they keep ’em growing right through the
winter. Seems ’s if they might have been a little brighter, now, don’t
it?”

While she was talking, she stepped into the next room, raising her
voice as she went, and returned with a china vase painted gaudily on
one side and containing a loose cluster of cut flowers. Florence
noticed at the first glance that they were so arranged as to bring the
unpainted side of the vase in front; at the second, that they had been
chosen thoughtfully. One or two dark heliotropes, white pinks, and a
creamy, half-opened rose, with slender ferns for a background: that
was all.

“I was going to tie the stems up with a piece of string, but Elsie
would have it they’d wilt quicker, and would look kind o’ sot
besides. You was to take out one of the pinks to hold in your hand, if
you liked. They last longer ’n the rest.”

So the dainty blossom, with its folds within folds of whiteness, was
held between the slight girl-fingers, in no way less dainty and
delicate than itself. By a sudden impulse Florence pressed it to her
lips like a child. “You are all so good to me!” she said, with
quivering lips. “I’m not used to being taken care of. Please thank
Elsie for me, and ask her to come in when she can spare the time.”

Mrs. Eldridge had been stooping to pick up a shred from the neat
carpet, and but half caught the words. “Who d’ you say? O, Elsie!
Well, I’ll give your message just ’s you put it.”

But Elsie did not come the next day, nor the next. She began to seem
to Florence like some beneficent brownie, doing all her good deeds
before the household was awake, and then disappearing until her
services were again needed.

At last came the eventful day when the invalid was to be allowed to
sit up for half an hour. She had looked forward to the time with
eagerness. The old doctor, who had a vein of grim humor under his
white beard, gruffly called her his little im-patient. But, to tell
the truth, the stiff-backed chairs which she had thus far seen were
hardly suggestive of luxurious rest; they were built for well people.
Men and women in that part of the country make but little reckoning
upon sickness. When it comes, it is met with a stern and
uncompromising resistance; but the thought of humoring it by such
compliances as reclining-chairs never for a moment enters their heads.
It was, therefore, a genuine surprise when, after an extraordinary
amount of whispering and hurrying in the kitchen, the door opened,
and, assisted by ’Lisbeth, in walked a chair of such inviting
proportions and soft, padded curves that they plainly expressed
themselves to the effect that they would be extremely miserable unless
reclined upon, and that speedily.

“Why, where did you find that lovely chair?” cried Florence
delightedly. “I thought I should have to sit up just as straight!”

“Oh, we jest made it up out of one of the old armchairs in the best
room,” said the other, surveying the luxurious piece of upholstery
with pardonable pride. “You see, Elsie thought it all out, and put us
to work, when you said you wanted to set up: so we jest stuffed the
back an’ arms, and Elsie sawed off the hind legs an’ fixed that place
for your feet in front, and there you be!”

Five minutes later, Florence sat, weak and trembling after her long
inactivity, in the comfortable chintz-covered chair, with a great
sense of achievement and a new hold on the realities of life.

“Now, if I could only see Elsie, and thank her.”

“And--_what_?”

“Why, tell her how much I thank her for all the trouble she has taken
for me.”

A queer look came into ’Lisbeth’s face, and her eyes twinkled. “Guess
ye’d better wait till to-morrow,” she said. “You’ll feel stronger
then, and--she--can come in while you’re settin’ up.”

“But why not to-day?” persisted the other, with a convalescent’s
freedom.

“Well, to tell the truth, Elsie’s busy to-day outdoors, and won’t be
in till you’re abed again; and then you ought to rest.”

“Out of doors?”

“Oh, she’ll tell you all about it to-morrow,” said ’Lisbeth, pursing
up her mouth in the same funny way as before.

Florence was too weak to pursue the subject further, and presently was
glad enough to lay her tired head upon the pillow once more.

The next morning the first object that caught her eye was a bunch of
slender willow-wands, with their soft, clinging “pussies,” such as she
had not seen since she was a child running about under the elms in the
old, quiet town by the sea. The fresh, sweet sunlight peeped through
the window and rested on their gray fur, creeping down from one to
another and dancing in and out in the merriest manner possible. As
Florence lay there beneath the old patchwork quilt, watching this
pretty play of sunshine and kittens, and listening to the soft bustle
of the morning’s work in the next room, a sense of great comfort and
rest stole over her, and in her weakness her eyes filled with happy
tears. Whatever was troublesome in the past she forgot: the future
seemed as bright and yet as intangible as the sunbeams. She only
realized the watchful care and devotion that were hovering about her
day and night, and, in the clear, wholesome atmosphere, her mother’s
religion seemed nearer to her than ever before. Her favorite verse,
“Return unto thy rest, O my soul,” was written in sunny characters
upon the faded wall before her.

Then she began to wonder how it would seem to meet the other members
of the family. The shrill voice of the old man she had often heard,
but she had listened in vain for some snatch of song or girlish
footfall which might belong to the gentle “Elsie” whose unseen
ministrations were always attending to her comfort. As for the sturdy
young fellow who had borne her so lightly through the snow, she had
heard him once or twice only, speaking to ’Lisbeth in low tones, or
calling cheerily somewhere outside to a passing neighbor.

“He must at least live near here,” she thought, “but has probably
forgotten all about me. Breakdowns are common enough in the country,
and the ‘women-folks’ always have to be carried through the drifts.”

Still, she could not help wondering a little who he was, and where he
learned that slow, quiet speech, with its correctly-placed adverbs and
adjectives, She at last concluded that he must be a neighbor in rather
better circumstances than her hostess,--perhaps one of the proud
“Hill-folks” whom Mrs. Walton was to visit. How they must have laughed
over the adventure as they sat about their loaded tables on Christmas
day! Could he not have just called at the door and inquired for her
during all these long weeks of suffering? Then the color came faintly
to her cheeks. She was a dependant, a servant: how could she expect
such attentions? The old rebellious uprising of her whole nature was
beginning to assert itself once more, when ’Lisbeth’s soft knock was
heard at the door, and ’Lisbeth herself immediately appeared, while
the sunbeams, which had somehow hidden behind a cloud just before,
danced in through the window again to meet her.

“Now, dear, for breakfast. The pullets have just begun to lay, an’
Elsie’s been out and found a nest in the haymow where that little
Plymouth-Rock was a-cacklin’ yesterday. Look!” She held up the warm,
coffee-colored egg as she spoke. “How’ll you have it cooked? Boiled?
Well, I’ll do it just right, and show ye how to take off the lid with
a knife and eat it out of the shell. Father always has his that way.”

Florence smiled in spite of herself at being treated so like a child.

“That’s right,” continued Lisbeth briskly: “don’t ye go to feelin’
solemn, for it’s goin’ to be a grand day. And as for time to come,
why, all I say is, don’t worry. You’re as welcome as the flowers of
May, and I love to have ye round. You remind me of a little sister I
had once, and--and--Yes, I’m comin’!” And ’Lisbeth, guilty, for the
only time in her life, of a downright deception, hurried out of the
room, pausing, however, to shut the door gently behind her.

Breakfast over, and the ceremony of enthronement in the easy chair
performed, Florence, with spirits quite recovered, again recurred to
Elsie. “Now, ’Lisbeth,” she said gayly, “please hand me the longest
pussy-willow stem for a scepter, and I will give audience to my
subjects. Where is Elsie?”


III

’Lisbeth stepped to the door and called through it: “Come in: she’s
ready to see ye now.”

Florence waited, with a bright smile dawning on her face for the
kindly little spirit who handled pussy-willows and armchairs so
deftly. The next minute she heard a light, firm step upon the kitchen
floor. It hesitated at the door, and a gentle knock followed.

“Come right in, Elsie,” cried Florence, pleased again by her delicacy.
“I shall be so glad--”

She paused abruptly. The door had swung open, and there stood a tall,
well-built young man, an amused twinkle in his clear gray eyes, and
the corners of his mouth just failing of that demureness they aimed to
achieve. Without, however, appearing to notice any element of
embarrassment in the situation, he stepped forward quietly and laid in
her lap a glorious bunch of roses, saying, as he did so, “I happened
to be at the Corner this morning, and was fortunate in securing the
first cutting at the greenhouse. It is like the cream on Aunt
’Lisbeth’s pans,” he went on, evidently to give her time. “I always
was troublesome just before churning days: wasn’t I, aunt?”

“Indeed, you were,” returned ’Lisbeth, with a beaming face that flatly
contradicted her words. “What with you and the two blue kittens, it’s
a wonder we ever got anything but skim-milk for our butter. Them roses
do look something like cream too.”

By this time Florence had recovered her self-possession: “Is it
possible that this is the kind fairy who has done so much for me?” She
held out her hand with a frank smile as she spoke.

He stooped, not ungracefully, and took the offered hand, then laid it,
almost reverently, upon the heap of roses. “Hardly a fairy,” he
remarked gravely; “a gnome or a goblin, perhaps. It was very pleasant
service. Are you really better, Miss Amory?”

“Thank you; I feel almost too well to be treated as an invalid. Will
you not be seated? And then please tell me how--how--I could
have--thought”--

“Oh, I’ll tell you all about it,” broke in ’Lisbeth, with a
mischievous look at her tall nephew, who had obediently seated himself
on one corner of the bed, that being the only unoccupied portion of
the room. “You see, when Wesley”--

Florence flushed slightly; she had thought she recognized the voice,
though she had heard it but for a moment that wintry night. The name
she remembered.

“--Wesley, he used to call himself ‘Elsie’ when he was a little trudge
an’ couldn’t speak plain. So we got into the way of callin’ him that
ourselves an’ it’s stuck to him ever since. I’d no notion ye didn’t
know who I meant, till you said ‘she’ yesterday. Then, thinks I, I’ll
have a little surprise for her, and a good laugh won’t do the child no
harm, bless her!”

Harm! Why, the most cynical, crabbed, disappointed old soul in the
world must have brightened up at the merry little ripple of laughter
that followed. The responsibilities and struggles of the last two or
three years had left their trace in the gravity of Florence’s young
face when in repose. It had begun to have the American tired look, and
it needed excitement or a quick emotion to show to best advantage the
intelligent deep-brown eyes, the wavy hair across the strong forehead,
and a complexion, naturally fine and clear, rendered even more
delicate by her long illness. As she looked up now, with the quick
pleasure of a child, and the light of careless merriment in her eyes,
her face was very sweet and winning.

Wesley was regarding her intently, his features relaxing pleasantly at
her happy laugh. “No doubt you consider us all as arch-conspirators,
Miss Amory,” he said; “but I assure you I knew nothing of this until
half an hour ago. Aunt ’Lisbeth is the Guy Fawkes.”

“And I had no idea she could be so deceitful,” replied Florence
solemnly. “Have you any gunpowder in your apron pockets, ma’am?”

“Land sakes! no,” said ’Lisbeth, with a puzzled look. “What d’ you
s’pose I want with powder? I guess likely Elsie’s got some up ’n his
closet; though what on airth”--

Then they all laughed again: they were so simply happy that it did not
take much to amuse them.

But Florence soon began to feel her strength failing in the unusual
excitement, and was glad to be left alone with her patchwork quilt and
her pussy-willows.

She did not see Wesley again until several days later. He was busy
mending fences, ’Lisbeth said, “and in the evenin’ he had to do his
writin’.”

Florence secretly wondered what his writing could be; but, as ’Lisbeth
did not seem disposed to explain, she said nothing. She had noticed
the carefulness of the sturdy young farmer’s speech, the final g’s on
his present participles, and the even, firm pronunciation of
his vowels and consonants, so different from the drawling,
carelessly-clipped words of the country-people about. He must have
studied hard at some village “academy,” she thought.

People now began to drop in, after the neighborly St. John fashion so
out of use in cities. They would settle themselves comfortably in the
kitchen rocker, which was usually brought into the front room for
company, and, taking a roll of knitting from bag or apron pocket,
would keep the needles flying while they talked, though but for five
minutes.

Florence learned that her mother, who was herself in feeble health,
had been from time to time informed of her condition, and, as the
sickness had never been considered dangerous, had contented herself
with writing, at first to ’Lisbeth, afterward to Florence, who was now
well enough to answer. In the pure country air she gained rapidly, and
before long was enabled to take her seat with the rest at table, on
which occasion, be it said, her only anxiety was lest the family
should go to bed supperless, with such eagerness did they devote
themselves to superintending her own plate. By this time, too, she had
learned to say “’Lisbeth” and “grandfather” without hesitation. As to
the third member of the family, she compromised with her sense of
propriety by addressing him as “Mr. Wesley.” His last name she had not
heard.

She was sitting by her window one bright, warm afternoon in April,
watching the portly robins, now hopping about after their
extraordinary food, now pausing to glance up wisely at the sky or at
her window with an air half suspicious, half friendly. Their neat
orange-colored waistcoats showed prettily against the fresh-tinted
grass, just beginning to spring in velvety patches through the brown,
unmown aftermath of the preceding fall.

On the shady side of the old stone wall that ran along the road toward
the railway-station, a narrow, irregular snowbank, its surface
fantastically carved and honeycombed by the sun, still reminded her
of her winter night’s ride. How dreary it had all seemed! How she had
dreaded even the Christmas festivities, with the inevitable being
“left out”--the awkward movements when she felt that the company about
her were not quite sure whether to treat her as an equal or a
servant,--worst of all, the well-meant efforts of Mrs. Walton to
smooth matters over in private! Ah! how it was all changed now! She
would never, never go back to her old position; indeed,--and a shadow
crossed her forehead as she thought of it,--Mrs. Walton had never
signified her wish to have her return. She would soon be able to help
her kind friends in the housework, in sewing, and in other little
ways, until she could obtain something to do for herself. She would
pay them sometime. How good they had all been to her! She thought once
more of that bitter, hopeless ride through the snow. How cold she had
been!--her right arm benumbed with holding the robe over the children,
whom, with all her troubles, she had learned to love very dearly. She
recalled the sudden halt, the moaning of the wind through the trees
overhead, the sifting of the sleety snow against the sides of the
sleigh. Then she thought of the firm voice, assuming control so
quietly, with no needless words, but, what was better, two stout arms.
How they had seemed to lift her out of all her troubles, even while
she was borne straight into the whirl and might of the storm! She had
felt that the arms were stronger than the wind, and so had trusted
them. The girl was resting her cheek upon her hand as she lived that
long night over again, and she hardly knew what a glow was in her
face, or how dewy bright her eyes were, as with a start she turned to
answer a knock she had learned to recognize.

Wesley looked straight into the brown eyes a moment in his grave,
silent way, then reached out his hand, filled to overflowing with long
trailing vines and fragrant pink-and-white blossoms.

“They told me they missed you in the woods,” he said, “and begged me
to carry them to you.”

Florence took them in her hands and bent her face over them. She could
not speak for a moment, the flowers were such a part of what she had
been thinking. “I thank you,” she said at length, tremulously. “They
are far too beautiful to claim companionship with me. It is I who
should go to them and kneel while I picked them.”

“I always think of them as in ‘Miles Standish’:

    Children lost in the woods and covered with leaves in their slumber.

It is as if they were the pure in heart, who had ascended into His
holy hill.”

“Where did you find them, Mr. Wesley?”

“Under the pines, by the brook. It is hardly time for them, but that
is a sheltered spot, where the sun shines all day. I will take you
there as soon as you can go with safety.”

“Do you know,” mused Florence, “it seems odd that the first English
ship anchoring in Plymouth harbor should have been called the
Mayflower? Do they have these flowers in England?”

“No, Miss Amory. It would perhaps sound strange to you to hear people
speak of a ‘branch of mayflowers,’ but by that name the English
usually mean the hawthorn, which flowers in May. And it is a
wonderfully beautiful sight, for England seems at that time to be
fairly covered with blossoms, the hawthorns are so plentiful.”

“This is ‘trailing arbutus,’ is it not?”

“Yes; except--pardon me--with the accent on the first syllable. But I
am becoming pedantic,” he added, with a smile. “Miss Amory, you once
told Aunt ’Lisbeth you would like to be read to, did you not?”

Florence felt the color in her cheeks, but said simply, “Yes, I should
enjoy it very much.”

“Here is a bit that I came across a day or two ago.” He took a printed
slip from his pocket and began to read:

    “Little pure-hearts, nestling shyly
      On the cool, pine-shadowed slope,
    Filling all the gloomy forest
      With the very breath of hope,

    “Whence hath come your wondrous patience,
      In the dark to wait so long,--
    Faith, to venture forth so bravely
      At the first wee sparrow-song?

    “All your alabaster boxes,
      With their store of ointment sweet,
    You have offered to the Master,
      Humbly kneeling at his feet,

    “And his gentle hands in blessing
      Rest upon you day by day,
    While the precious fragrance rises
      Like a prayer to him alway.”

Florence sat in absolute stillness while he read, just catching her
breath slightly at one of the lines. She looked very much like a
mayflower herself as she sat there, her hands crossed in her lap, and
her face upturned to the reader. When he had finished, she was silent
for a moment. Then she asked, “Who wrote that, Mr. Wesley?”

“Oh, the author’s name wasn’t mentioned,” he replied carelessly. “It
was some anonymous magazine-writer who was fond of flowers and the
Gospel of St. John, and chose to tell in this way what he thought
about it all.”

“Mr. Wesley”--

“Miss Amory?”

“Is there an institute--academy--of any sort at the Corner? I have
thought of teaching, you know.” Florence flushed as she spoke, and
looked intently out of the window.

“There is something of that sort there now, I believe. It was started
only a year or two ago.”

“Why, then you”--The words came before she could check them.

“No,” he answered, smiling, “I was only able to attend the district
school that you passed between here and Haybrook Station.”

“But--you have learned somewhere?”

She was in for it now, though her face burned as she asked the
question.

“I studied at home,” he replied quietly. “Then I worked for a man at
Haybrook Center, and he helped me with my Greek and Latin until I was
able to enter Bowdoin. I graduated five years ago.”

“Thank you,” she said heartily. “I’m afraid I have been unpardonably
inquisitive; but you must accord a certain indulgence to invalids,
which, I believe, they are usually not slow to claim. If you had not
criticised my pronunciation of this little flower’s name, I should not
have taken such a liberty. Am I forgiven?” she concluded, looking up
brightly into his face again.

“I have passed harder examinations in history,” he said
good-humoredly; “and some day I may retaliate by examining you to even
better purpose. Will you answer all my questions then?”

Florence laughed outright: “How solemnly you speak! To be sure I will.
My story will be even shorter than yours. I think one answer will be
enough for the whole.”

“Yes, I think it will,” he said slowly, then checked himself, and,
remarking soberly that “her little forest children would be none the
worse for wetting their feet,” turned, without further words, and left
the room.


IV

A few days after this conversation, ’Lisbeth entered the kitchen
waving an envelope over her head. “It’s accepted,” she cried; “I know
by the feel of it! It’s a money-order or a check,--it don’t make no
difference which. Abner Slack was just comin’ back from the Corner, so
he called in t’ the post-office an’ brought it along.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Florence, who was the only other
person in the room. “Whom is it from, and to whom is it addressed,
please?”

“Why, to Elsie, of course. Look there!”

She pointed to the name of a well-known periodical, printed in an
upper corner of the envelope.

“He’s been trying to get something into that for these six months
past, and nothin’s ever come back but those old circulars, telling how
the editor’s feelin’ _so_ bad, because the piece is a leetle bit too
long, or not quite suited, or better for some other magazine! Poor
boy, he’d got so discouraged and put down ’bout it that I didn’t know
but he’d give up for good.”

“Then that’s why he writes so much. Oh, but are you sure he wouldn’t
mind your telling me?”

“Bless you, no; he don’t make no secret of it. He got into the way of
writin’ for the papers while he was schoolin’ at Bowdoin, and when he
came home he just made up his mind that that was his callin’, and
that he would stick to farmin’ for a while until he got money enough
to move to the city, where he could get at more books. About six weeks
ago he sent a great thick bunch o’ paper--I’m sure I don’t know what
’t was all about--to the magazine, and, as I told ye, they’ve sent
back this envelope instead of the bunch. So I know it’s taken.”

’Lisbeth’s kind face fairly beamed as she spoke, and her eyes were
moist. “If you’d known,” she went on, wiping them with the corner of
her apron, “the setbacks that boy’s had, and the big pack of them old
printed things he’s got saved up--he’s the most perseverin’
critter--There! here ’m I standin’ talkin’, instead of givin’ the
letter to him this minute!” She ran up-stairs in her quick, nervous
way, and, as they all sat round the uneven table that night, the light
in the young man’s eyes showed that ’Lisbeth had not mistaken the
contents of the mail.

“I’m trying to do my duty on the farm,” he told Florence afterward,
“and at the same time to find whether I really have a message to the
world, or a part of it, however small. I always have to remember the
reply of the old Scotch minister who was asked by an anxious young
pulpit aspirant whether he thought he had a call to preach. ‘Try it,
mon,’ he said; ‘try it, an’ dootless ye’ll succeed, gin ye find oot
’at onybody has a ca’ to hear ye.’ I shouldn’t want to be ‘stickit,’”
he added, smiling.

“But--pardon me, Mr. Wesley--what kind of writing do you mean to do?
There are so many branches, you know: poetry, fiction, history,
essays”--

“That is just what I must discover. The main thing is not the form,
but the substance. I want to write that which shall comfort and
strengthen people, help them when they are in trouble, give them rest
when they are tired, make life bright and cheery for them when the
world seems gray.” He spoke with kindling eyes. “If I have ever
written--if I shall ever write--a line that does not, in some poor
way, however feeble, tend to this result, I pray that it may be
blotted out, destroyed with the paper on which it is printed!”

This talk was followed by others of like nature. By degrees Wesley,
finding a sympathetic listener always ready, and a kind but firm
critic as well, fell insensibly into the habit of reading, at first
passages here and there, afterward whole articles, to the gentle,
dark-haired girl who was so quick to catch the deeper significance he
had intended in this or that turn of thought and reflect it in her
intent brown eyes.

So the spring wore on, and then came summer, with its long, fair days,
its fragrant hay-fields, its never-ceasing chirp and whir of insect
life. Month after month passed, and still Florence lingered with her
kind friends. With the oppressive heats of August the old man had felt
his strength fail rapidly, and spent much of his time within-doors,
lying upon the lounge or in the stuffed rocking-chair, and needing
many little offices from those around. This special duty Florence
from the first assumed, and more loving care or regard to his
slightest want he could not have received from a granddaughter. She
would read or talk softly to him by the hour, would listen patiently
to his childish, halting speech, and move lightly to and fro in his
service, until he would have no one else about him, lying perfectly
still, with half-closed eyes, when she was out of the house, until the
familiar footfall or the pleasant voice told of her return.

As the flowers in the little garden fell before the early frosts and
the maple boughs began to kindle through the mellow autumn haze, the
life of the old man, weary with its long stay upon earth, was plainly
preparing to lay aside its worn-out garments; and one bright September
morning when the first rays of the sun found their way through the
little window-panes of the low-browed east chamber, Florence knew that
the moment had come.

She had been sitting up all night, and now stepped quickly across the
kitchen to call the other members of the household. They came, and the
final long, tired breath was drawn at last. They waited, but no more
came. Wesley turned to Florence, took her hand and held it silently
for a moment, and then, in the quiet country way, went out to give
notice of the death, have the bell tolled, and arrange for the
funeral.

In the loneliness that fell upon the old house during the next few
weeks, Florence made no effort to go. It was plain that she was
needed, for death, no matter how long or fully expected, is an awful
visitor at the last, and leaves behind him an oppression which cannot
be soon thrown off. So it was Florence who quietly carried away the
funeral flowers after the family had returned from the little
churchyard, it was she who threw open the blinds of grandfather’s room
and let in the sweet, fresh sunshine, and it was she who, without
forcing an unwelcome cheerfulness upon the rest, was nevertheless the
light of the house from the time when her bright face, full of
sympathy, greeted ’Lisbeth in the gray November mornings until the
three gathered about the cosy tea-table by the flickering light of the
fire.

Once her mother came down for a visit of a day or two, which
lengthened into a fortnight. She had offered to pay for her daughter’s
accommodations, to the intense astonishment and displeasure of
’Lisbeth.

“She earns her board, every bit of it,” said that lady with energy. “I
don’t know what I should do without her workin’ and singin’ round the
house. You jest let her stay till she wants to go,--that is, ma’am, if
you can spare her yourself. She’s gainin’ in health every day of her
life, and when she’s ready she’ll take hold as she never did before, I
can tell you.”

So matters were left as they were, until, with a start, Florence
remembered, one bright, cold afternoon, that it was just a year since
she had been carried in through the front door that bitter night.

Wesley had come in from his work a few moments before, glowing with
the exercise and the keen air, to ask her to take a sleigh-ride with
him that evening. The roads were fine, he said, and the colt, not
having been out for a week, was in the best of spirits. There was a
full moon, too, and they would celebrate Christmas Eve by this drive,
just by way of contrast with that of a year ago.

In gayest mood, therefore, Florence stood upon the broad door-stone in
front of the house when, a few hours later, the colt came jingling up
from the barn with a light step, plainly considering the sleigh and
its load the most stupendous joke conceivable, really nothing at all
for a strong young fellow like him; it was difficult for him, on the
whole, to realize that he was in harness at all. That his driver,
however, was hardly inclined to allow him to forget that fact was
evident from the even, steady rein and the firm voice behind it.

For a few moments, as Florence took her place beside Wesley, she felt
unaccountably shy; this soon wore off in the rush of sweet, cool air
past their cheeks and the wonderful beauty of the night. How the
starlight twinkled and danced from each little bright point above the
white, silent world, waiting for the far-off chords of angel music!
Christmas Eve. No sound in the air but the silvery voice of the bells
and the murmur of the pines, “Peace, peace on earth.”

Wesley stooped to arrange the heavy fur robe more warmly about his
companion. Then he turned and looked into her earnest, upturned face.
“Do you know,” he said, quietly, “what I should label my picture if I
were to paint your portrait? ’A Brown Study.’”

Florence laughed a little: “I was only thinking how very contented I
was, and how much more happiness this Christmas looks back upon than
the last.”

“Miss Amory, are you in a mood for answering questions to-night?” He
felt her start slightly under the robe. “Because, you know, you have
never passed that examination.”

There was something in his voice, an earnestness underlying his light
words, that made her turn her head quickly to meet his glance.

At that moment they were passing through a belt of woods where the
brightness of the sky and the faint light of the rising moon made the
shadows cower thick and black beside every log and snowy mound.

Whether the young horse had spied one of these stretching into the
road, or she had jarred the reins by her involuntary movement,
Florence never knew. It happened like a lightning-stroke,--the sudden
quiver of the colt from head to foot, and at the same instant the
sharp word of command from Wesley, then the plunge ahead. In one
terrified glance at the half-maddened animal she saw a fragment of
leather hanging from the foam-covered bit. The rein had parted under
the strain, and the remnant lay loose and worse than useless in the
driver’s hand.

The horse was bounding wildly along the icy road, with the light
sleigh swaying from side to side, half the time upon one runner,
threatening every moment to overturn.

“Florence, will you do what I say?”

“Yes.”

She did not mind the name. Were they not together in the shadow of
death? Oh, that awful whirl of hoof-beats! the utter helplessness of
it all; the mockery of the cushioned seats and warm wraps!

But there was no time for thought. Wesley was taking the heavy
buffalo-robe and turning it with quick, skillful hands, as she had
seen him turn a paper at home when he was reading aloud to them all in
the quiet evenings around the old brick fireplace. His calmness gave
her strength.

“Take this corner,” he said. “Hold it with the fur up. Now let the
rest of the robe fall slowly over the dasher in front of the
whiffletree. When I give the word, lower the whole instantly, as I do,
keeping your hold of the upper corner, so that the lower part will
clog the runners. Do you understand?”

She nodded. There was little time now to spare. They knew the road
well enough to remember the clump of oaks just ahead of them. There
was a sudden turn there, to avoid a ledge where the workmen had
blasted for the bridge last summer.

Florence crouched in the bottom of the sleigh, set her teeth hard,
and, with both hands buried in the long fur, waited.

The ledge came in sight, ugly and black.

“Now!”

For an instant it seemed as if the slender wrists would break, or that
she must be drawn over the dasher and thrown under the horse’s hoofs.
She never thought of letting go her hold. All her New England heroism
came to her aid, and the robe did not gain an inch.

Gradually the tired horse felt the heavy drag, aided by a slight
ascent in the road. His speed slackened; the wild run became a clumsy
gallop,--slower,--slower. Then came the soothing tones of his driver,
and he turned his ears back to listen. In another moment Wesley was
out of the sleigh and at his head. The danger was over.

The full moon was now looking down from the eastern sky, and pouring
its flood of dreamy light over the cruel ledges.

Wesley led the trembling horse, now wholly subdued, to an oak beside
the road, and fastened him securely enough this time. Then he went
back to the sleigh. He had not spoken before.

She was still crouching in front of the seat, with her pale face
resting against the cushions. It was a very white little hand that was
held out in the moonlight to meet his. He took it, and did not let it
go. “Florence!” He felt the little hand flutter in his own, but still
he did not let it go. Half turning, he drew the torn robe about her,
his hand lingering on every fold. “Florence, may I try to keep you
from cold and darkness and death so long as I live?” Ah, how quick his
ears were to catch that wee shadow of a whisper! No one else could
have heard it. As he gathered her white face, brown hair, little hand,
fur robe, and all in his own strong arms for a moment, “That one word
is my Christmas song,” he said softly. “Little princess, shall we go?”
And he took his post at the horse’s head.

It was a wonderful ride back, over the gleaming road, with that tall,
silent figure walking before. As they turned aside into the little
open space in front of the gray old house, and halted once more by the
door-stone, he came quickly to her side and held out his arms as he
had a year ago. Only this time he said simply, with a great gladness
in his voice, “Come, Florence; we have reached home!”





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