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Title: Little Peter - A Christmas Morality for Children of any Age
Author: Malet, Lucas
Language: English
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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 "Little Peter - A Christmas Morality for Children of any Age" ***

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Internet Archive)



  A CHRISTMAS MORALITY



  [Illustration: Remember my ears are so quick I can hear the grass
  grow. _Frontispiece._]



  [Illustration]

  LITTLE PETER

  A Christmas Morality
  for Children of any Age

  By LUCAS MALET
  AUTHOR OF 'COLONEL ENDERBY'S WIFE' ETC.

  [Illustration]

  WITH NUMEROUS ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL HARDY

  LONDON
  KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, & CO., 1 PATERNOSTER SQUARE
  1888



  TO
  CECILY
  IN TOKEN OF AFFECTION
  TOWARDS HERSELF, HER MOTHER, AND HER STATELY HOME
  THIS LITTLE STORY IS DEDICATED
  BY
  HER OBEDIENT SERVANT

      LUCAS MALET



CONTENTS.


  CHAPTER                                                        PAGE

     I. Which deals with the opinions of a Cat, and the sorrows of
        a Charcoal-burner                                           1

    II. Which introduces the Reader to an Admirer of the Ancient
        Romans                                                     19

   III. Which improves our acquaintance with the Grasshopper-man   36

    IV. Which leaves some at Home, and takes some to Church        50

     V. Which is both Social and Religious                         68

    VI. Which attempts to show why the Skies fall                  84

   VII. Which describes a pleasant Dinner Party, and an
        unpleasant Walk                                            95

  VIII. Which proves that even Philosophic Politicians may
        have to admit themselves in the wrong                     115

    IX. Which is very short because, in some ways, it is rather
        sad                                                       132

     X. Which ends the Story                                      143



_ILLUSTRATIONS._


  'Remember my ears are so quick I can hear
  the grass grow'                                      _Frontispiece_

  'What will happen? please tell me'                  _To face p._ 10

  'Go to bed when you are told'                            "       34

  'You all despise me'                                     "       66

  Going to Church                                          "       72

  Lost                                                     "      110

  Waiting                                                  "      120

  Found                                                    "      138

  The Charcoal-burner visits Little Peter                  "      150



[Illustration: Little Peter.]

CHAPTER I.

WHICH DEALS WITH THE OPINIONS OF A CAT, AND THE SORROWS OF A CHARCOAL
BURNER.


The pine forest is a wonderful place. The pine-trees stand in ranks
like the soldiers of some vast army, side by side, mile after mile, in
companies and regiments and battalions, all clothed in a sober uniform
of green and grey. But they are unlike soldiers in this, that they are
of all ages and sizes; some so small that the rabbits easily jump
over them in their play, and some so tall and stately that the fall
of them is like the falling of a high tower. And the pine-trees are
put to many different uses. They are made into masts for the gallant
ships that sail out and away to distant ports across the great ocean.
Others are sawn into planks, and used for the building of sheds; for
the rafters and flooring, and clap-boards and woodwork of our houses;
for railway-sleepers, and scaffoldings, and hoardings. Others are
polished and fashioned into articles of furniture. Turpentine comes
from them, which the artist uses with his colours, and the doctor in
his medicines; which is used, too, in the cleaning of stuffs and in a
hundred different ways. While the pine-cones, and broken branches and
waste wood, make bright crackling fires by which to warm ourselves on a
winter's day.

But there is something more than just this I should like you to think
about in connection with the pine forest; for it, like everything else
that is fair and noble in nature, has a strange and precious secret of
its own.

You may learn the many uses of the trees in your school books, when
men have cut them down or grubbed them up, or poked holes in their
poor sides to let the turpentine run out. But you can only learn the
secret of the forest itself by listening humbly and reverently for it
to speak to you. For Nature is a very great lady, grander and more
magnificent than all the queens who have lived in sumptuous palaces and
reigned over famous kingdoms since the world began; and though she will
be very kind and gracious to children who come and ask her questions
modestly and prettily, and will show them the most lovely sights and
tell them the most delicious fairy tales that ever were seen or heard,
she makes very short work with conceited and impudent persons. She
covers their eyes and stops their ears, so that they can never see her
wonderful treasures or hear her charming stories, but live, all their
lives long, shut up in the dark fusty cupboard of their own ignorance,
and stupid self-love, and self-satisfaction, thinking they know all
about everything as well as if they had made it themselves, when they
do not really know anything at all. And because you and I dislike fusty
cupboards, and because we want to know anything and everything that
Nature is condescending enough to teach us, we will listen, to begin
with, to what the pine forest has to tell.

When the rough winds are up and at play, and the pine-trees shout and
sing together in a mighty chorus, while the hoarse voice of them is
like the roar of the sea upon a rocky coast, then you may learn the
secret of the forest. It sings first of the winged seed; and then of
the birth of the tiny tree; of sunrise and sunset, and the tranquil
warmth of noon-day, and of the soft, refreshing rain, and the kindly,
nourishing earth, and of the white moonlight, and pale, moist garments
of the mist, all helping the tree to grow up tall and straight, to
strike root deep and spread wide its green branches. It sings, too, of
the biting frost, and the still, dumb snow, and the hurrying storm,
all trying and testing the tree, to prove if it can stand firm and
show a brave face in time of danger and trouble. Then it sings of the
happy spring-time, when the forest is girdled about with a band of
flowers; while the birds build and call to each other among the high
branches; and the squirrel helps his wife to make her snug nest for the
little, brown squirrel-babies that are to be; and the dormice wake up
from their long winter sleep, and sit in the sunshine and comb their
whiskers with their dainty, little paws. And then the forest sings of
man--how he comes with axe and saw, and hammer and iron wedges, and
lays low the tallest of its children, and binds them with ropes and
chains, and hauls them away to be his bond-servants and slaves. And,
last of all, it sings slowly and very gently of old age and decay and
death; of the seed that falls on hard, dry places and never springs up;
of the tree that is broken by the tempest or scathed by the lightning
flash, and stands bare and barren and unsightly; sings how, in the end,
all things shrink and crumble, and how the dust of them returns and is
mingled with the fruitful soil from which at first they came.

This is the song of the pine forest, and from it you may learn this
lesson: that the life of the tree and of beast and bird are subject to
the same three great laws as the life of man--the law of growth, of
obedience, and of self-sacrifice. And perhaps, when you are older, if
you take care to avoid that spirit of conceit and impudence which, as
we have already said, gets people into such trouble with Nature, you
may come to see that these three laws are after all but one, bound for
ever together by the golden cord of love.

Once upon a time, just on the edge of the pine forest, there lived a
little boy. He lived in a big, brown, wooden house, with overhanging
eaves and a very deep roof to it, which swept down from the high middle
gable like the wings of a hen covering her chickens. The wood-sheds,
and hay-barn, and the stable where the brown-eyed, sweet-breathed
cows lay at night, and the clean, cool dairy, and the cheese-room
with its heavy presses were all under this same wide sheltering roof.
Before the house a meadow of rich grass stretched down to a stream,
that hurried along over rocky limestone ledges, or slipped away over
flat sandy places where you might see the little fishes playing at
hide-and-seek or puss in the corner among the bright pebbles at the
bottom. While on the shallow, marshy puddles by the stream side, where
the forget-me-not and brook-lime and rushes grow, the water-spiders
would dance quadrilles and jigs and reels all day long in the sunshine,
and the frogs would croak by hundreds in the still spring evenings,
when the sunset was red behind the pine-trees to the west. And in this
pleasant place little Peter lived, as I say, once upon a time, with his
father and mother, and his two brothers, and Eliza the servant-maid,
and Gustavus the cowherd.

He was the youngest of the children by a number of years, and was such
a small fellow that Susan Lepage, his mother, could make him quite a
smart blouse and pair of trousers out of Antony's cast-off garments,
even when all the patches and thin places had been cut out. He had a
black, curly head, and very round eyes--for many things surprised him,
and surprise makes the eyes grow round as everybody knows--and a dear,
little, red mouth, that was sweet to kiss, and nice, fat cheeks, which
began to look rather cold and blue, by the way, as he stood on the
threshold one evening about Christmas time, with Cincinnatus, the old,
tabby tom-cat, under his arm. He was waiting for his brother Antony
to come home from the neighbouring market-town of Nullepart. It was
growing dusk, yet the sky was very clear. The sound of the wind in the
pine branches and of the chattering stream was strange in the frosty
evening air; so that little Peter felt rather creepy, as the saying is,
and held on very tight to Cincinnatus for fear of--he didn't quite know
what.

'Come in, little man, come in,' cried his mother, as she moved to and
fro in the ruddy firelight, helping Eliza to get ready the supper. 'You
will be frozen standing there outside; and we shall be frozen, too,
sitting here with the door open. Antony will get home none the quicker
for your watching. That which is looked for hardest, they say, comes
last.'

But Peter only hugged Cincinnatus a little closer--thereby making that
long-suffering animal kick spasmodically with his hind legs, as a
rabbit does when you hold it up by the ears--and looked more earnestly
than ever down the forest path into the dimness of the pines.

Just then John Paqualin, the charcoal-burner, came up to the open
door, with a couple of empty sacks across his shoulders. Now the
charcoal-burner was a great friend of little Peter's, though he was
a queer figure to look at. For his red hair hung in wild locks down
over his shoulders, and his eyes glowed red too--as red as his own
smouldering charcoal fires--and his back was bent and crooked; while
his legs were so inordinately long and thin, that all the naughty
little boys in Nullepart, when he went down there to sell his sacks of
charcoal, used to run after him up the street, shouting:--

'Hurrah, hurrah! here's the grasshopper man again! Hey, ho!
grasshopper, give us a tune--haven't you brought your fiddle?'

But when Paqualin got annoyed, as he sometimes did, and turned round
upon them with his glowing eyes, they would all scuttle away as hard as
their legs could carry them. For, like a good many other people, they
were particularly courageous when they could only see the enemy's back.
You may be sure our little Peter never called the charcoal-burner by
any offensive names, and therefore, having a good conscience, had no
cause to be afraid of him.

'Eh! but what is this?' he cried, in his high cracked voice as he flung
down the sacks, and stood by the little lad in the doorway. 'Remember
my ears are so quick I can hear the grass grow. Just now I heard the
best mother in the world call her little boy to go indoors, and here
he stands still on the threshold. If you do not go in do you know what
will happen, eh?'

'No; what will happen? Please tell me,' said Peter.

[Illustration: 'WHAT WILL HAPPEN? PLEASE TELL ME.' _Page 10._]

The charcoal-burner stretched out one long arm and pointed away into
the forest, and sunk his voice to a whisper:--

'The old, grey she-wolf will assuredly come pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat over
the moss and the stones, pit-a-pat over the pine-needles and the fallen
twigs and branches, pit-a-pat out of the wood, and--snap!--like that,
catch your poor Cincinnatus by the tail and carry him off to make into
soup for her little ones. Picture to yourself poor Cincinnatus in the
wolf's great, black, steaming soup-pot, and all the wolf-cubs with
their wicked, little mouths wide open, sitting round, with their wooden
spoons in their hands, all ready to begin.'

Peter retreated hastily into the kitchen, cat and all, and took up his
stand rather close to his mother.

'Is it true, mother?' he said. 'But where do the wolves buy their
wooden spoons, do you think--in the shop at Nullepart?'

'Nay, how should I know?' said Susan Lepage, as she stooped down
and kissed the child, and then looking up kindly nodded to the
charcoal-burner. 'You must ask the old she-wolf herself if you want to
know where she buys her spoons, and her soup pot too for that matter.
She is no friend of mine, little one.'

After a moment's pause, she added:--

'You will stay to supper, John Paqualin? My husband and sons will be in
soon, and there is plenty for all, thank God. You will be welcome.'

But Paqualin shook his head, and the light died away in those strange
eyes of his.

'Welcome?' he said. 'The pretty, false word has little meaning for
me. And yet perhaps in your mouth it is honest, Susan Lepage, for you
are gentle and merciful as a saint in heaven, and the child, here,
takes after you. But, for the rest, who welcomes a mad, mis-shapen,
half-finished creature on whom Nature herself has had no mercy? Master
Lepage will come in hungry. Will he like to have his stomach turned
by the sight of the hump-backed charcoal-burner? No, no, I go home to
my hut. Good-night, little Peter. I will tell the grey wolf to look
elsewhere for her supper.--Ah! I see wonderful things though sometimes,
for all that I live alone and in squalor. The red fire and the white
moon tell me stories, turn by turn, all the night through.'

And with that he swung the empty sacks across his back again and
shambled away into the growing darkness.

[Illustration]

'A good riddance,' muttered Eliza, as she set the cheese on the table.
'It is an absolute indignity to ask a respectable servant to wait at
table on a wild animal like that.'

But Susan Lepage sighed as she turned from the doorway.

'Poor, unhappy one,' she said. 'God gave thee thy fair soul, but who
gave thee thy ungainly body?'

Then she reproved Eliza for her conduct in various matters which had
nothing in the world to do with her remarks upon the charcoal-burner.
Even the best of women are not always quite logical.

Meanwhile little Peter had sat down on his stool by the fire. For a
little while he sat very still, for he was thinking over the visit of
his friend John Paqualin. He felt rather unhappy about him, he could
not quite have said why. But when we are children it is not easy to
think of any one person or one thing for long together. There are such
lots of things to think about, that one chases another out of our
heads very quickly. And so Peter soon gave up puzzling himself about
the charcoal-burner, and began counting the sparks as they flew out of
the blazing, crackling, pine logs up the wide chimney. Unfortunately,
however, he was not a great arithmetician; and though he began over
and over again at plain one, two, three, he always got wrong among the
fifteens and sixteens; and never succeeded in counting up to twenty
at all. Nothing is more tedious than making frequent mistakes. So he
got off his stool, and began hopping from one stone quarry in the
kitchen floor to the next. Suddenly he became entangled in Eliza's full
petticoats--she was whirling them about a good deal, it is true, being
in rather a bad temper--and nearly tumbled down on his poor, little
nose.

'Bless the child, what possesses him?' cried Eliza.

Peter retired to his stool again, in a hurry; and after thinking for a
minute pulled a long bit of string, with a cross-bar of stick at the
end of it, out of the bulging side pocket of his short trousers, and
drew it backwards and forwards, and bobbed it up and down just in front
of Cincinnatus' nose. But Cincinnatus would not play.

Cincinnatus sat up very stiff and straight, with all his four paws
in a row and his tail curled very tight over them, blinking his
yellow eyes at the fire. For Cincinnatus was offended! Even cats have
feelings. And on thinking it over, he came to the conclusion that he
had not been treated with sufficient respect.

'Soup-pots and wooden spoons--fiddledee-dee,' he said to himself in the
cat-language. 'Why pervert a child's mind with such inane fictions?'

For you see Cincinnatus was not a common cat; being first cousin once
removed, indeed, to the Sacristan's cat at Nullepart--who knew all the
feast and fast days in the church calendar as well as the Sacristan
himself, and had not eaten a mouse on a Friday for I cannot say how
long. When you have a scholar in the family it obliges you to be
dignified.

And so poor little Peter, as nothing and nobody would help to amuse him
and pass away the time, pressed his two fat, little hands together in a
sort of despair, and gave a terrible sigh.

'Bless the child, what possesses him?' cried Eliza again. 'Ah, my
heart! How you made me jump!'

'What is the matter, Peter?' asked his mother.

'Oh! I don't believe Antony will ever come home,' said the boy, while
the great tears began to run down over his chubby cheeks. 'And I am so
tired of waiting. And I want so badly to know whether they have dressed
the stable in the big church at Nullepart; and whether we shall really
go there on Sunday, to see the dear baby Jesus, and the blessed Virgin,
and good St. Joseph, and the donkeys and cows, you told me about. I
have never seen them yet. And I want so dreadfully to go.'

Then his mother took up Peter in her arms, and sat down in the wooden
chair in the chimney-corner, and held him gently on her lap.

'There, there,' she said, as she stroked his pretty hair, 'what cause
have you to fret? The stable will be dressed all in good time; and the
donkeys and cows certainly won't run away before Sunday. And St. Joseph
and the blessed Virgin will be glad that a little lad like you should
come and burn a candle before them--never fear. If the day is fair we
will certainly all go to church on Sunday. What is to be will be, and
Antony's coming late or early can make no difference. Patience is a
great virtue, dear, little one--you cannot learn that too soon.'

But Cincinnatus sat up very stiff, though he was growing slightly
sleepy; and still winked his yellow eyes at the fire. He was not at all
sure that it was not incumbent upon him to spit at the charcoal-burner
next time he saw him. It was an extreme measure certainly, and
before adopting it he would have been glad to take his cousin the
Sacristan's cat's opinion on the matter. Social position brings its
responsibilities. Yet all the same, it is a fine thing to have a
scholar in the family.

[Illustration]



CHAPTER II.

WHICH INTRODUCES THE READER TO AN ADMIRER OF THE ANCIENT ROMANS.


Now, Peter's father was a person of some consequence, or, to speak
quite correctly, thought himself of some consequence, which, as you
will probably find when you grow older, often comes to much the same
thing. He had his own piece of land, and his own herd of cows, which
the boys, in the spring time, would help Gustavus to drive, along with
the cows of their neighbours, to the wide, grass lands that border
the forest on the west, where the blue salvias, and gentians, and
campanulas, and St. Bruno's white lilies grow in the long grass. But
years ago Peter's father had been a soldier in the French army, and
had fought in great battles, and had been in Italy, and even across
the sea to Africa. He could tell surprising stories of sandy deserts,
and camels, and lions, and Arabs, and a number of other remarkable
things that he had seen during his travels. And when he went down, as
he frequently did, and sat in the wine shop at Nullepart, everybody
treated him with deference and distinction, and called him not plain
Lepage, but Master Lepage, and listened respectfully to all that he had
to say.

Then Master Lepage was very well pleased, and he would take his pipe
out of his mouth, and spread out his hands like some celebrated orator,
and give the company the benefit of his views upon any subject--even
those he did not very well understand. For the great thing is to talk,
if you want to make an impression upon society--the sense of that which
you say is quite a secondary consideration. Lepage was a handsome man;
with a bright, grey eye, and a nose like a hawk's beak; and a fine,
grey moustache, the ends of which curled up till they nearly touched
his eyebrows. He held himself very erect, so that even in his blue
blouse and peg-top trousers, with a great, brown umbrella under his
arm, he still looked every inch a soldier.

[Illustration]

But Master Lepage, notwithstanding his superior knowledge of the
world, did not always contrive to please his friends and companions.
For he was--so he said--a philosophic politician; and, like most other
philosophers and politicians, he sometimes became both tedious and
irritable. On such occasions his voice would grow loud, and he would
thump the table with his fist till the plates danced and the glasses
rattled again; and the more the person with whom he was conversing
smiled and apologised, while he differed from him in opinion, the
louder his voice would grow, and the more he would thump the table, and
stamp and violently declare that all who did not agree with him were
idiots and dolts, and traitors.

He had two fixed ideas. He venerated the republican form of government,
and he despised the Prussians. If one of his sons was idle, loitering
over his work or complaining that he had too much to do, Master Lepage
would say to him sternly:--'Sluggard, you are unworthy to be the child
of a glorious republic.'

Or if one of the cows kicked, when Gustavus was milking her, he would
cry out:--'Hey then, thou blue imbecile, recollect that thou art the
cow of a free citizen, and do not behave like a cut-throat Prussian!'

And during the long evenings of all the winters that little Peter could
remember--they were not so very many, though, after all--when the
supper was cleared away and the hearth swept, his father, after putting
on a big pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, and drawing his chair close up
to the table so that the lamp-light might fall full on his book, would
read to himself the history of the famous Roman Republic. And always
once or twice, during the course of the evening, he would lay down the
book and take off his spectacles, and as he rubbed the glasses of them
with his red pocket-handkerchief, would sigh to himself and say quite
gently:--'Ah! but those were times worth living in! They had men worth
looking at in those days.'

The elder of little Peter's brothers was named Antony. He was a smart,
brisk young fellow. He was always in a little bit of a hurry and full
of business. He liked to go down to the town to market. He liked to
drive a sharp bargain, and when he had nothing else to do he would roam
away to the railway station, and hang over the blue wooden railings at
the back of the platform, staring at the crowded passenger or heavily
laden freight trains going through to Paris, or over the frontier into
Switzerland. And if he ever happened to catch sight of any soldiers
on the trains, his eyes grew bright and his face eager, and he would
whistle a stirring march as he walked home through the forest, and
would chatter all the evening about the glorious fun he meant to have
when the time came for him to serve his term in the army. And, at that,
Master Lepage would look up from the pages of his Roman history book,
and nod confidentially to his wife, and say:--

'Eh! our Antony is a fine fellow. He will help some day to thrash those
rascally Prussians.'

But she would answer rather sadly:--

'That will be as the Lord pleases. There is sorrow and sin enough in
the world already, it seems to me, without war to make it greater.'

Then Lepage would shrug his shoulders with an air of slight disgust,
and say:--

'My wife, you are no doubt an excellent woman. But your mind is
narrow. Only a secular education, and, above all, a careful study of
ancient history, can enable us to speak intelligently on these great
questions.'

Then he would wipe his spectacles and return once again to the
campaigns of the Romans.

[Illustration]

Paul, the second boy, was very different to his brother. He was tall
and lanky, with quiet, brown eyes and straight, black hair. He had a
great turn for mechanics, and made little Peter all manner of charming
toys--mill-wheels that turned all splashing and sparkling in the clear
water of the stream; or windmills, to set up in the garden, and scare
the birds away from the fruit with their clatter, and many other pretty
ingenious things. Paul did not talk much about himself; he was a
quiet, silent fellow, but he was always busy with his fingers making
little models of all the machinery he could see or get pictures of,
and, though his father was not quite so partial to him as to Antony, he
would sometimes say:--

'Eh! our Paul, too, will distinguish himself, and bring credit upon his
family and country.'

Now on the particular evening that I was telling you about in the
last chapter, Antony did not come in till quite late. The rest of the
family had had their supper, and Eliza was grumbling to Gustavus as she
rummaged about in the back kitchen.

'Why can't people be punctual?' she said. 'It would vex a saint to be
kept muddling about till just upon bed-time unable to complete the
day's work and wash up the plates and dishes. Those who come in late
should go to bed supperless if I had my way.'

'Umph,' said Gustavus--which was a remarkably safe answer, since it
meant chiefly nothing at all.

Master Lepage sat studying the story of the gallant Horatius, how
he and two others defended the falling bridge over the river Tiber
against all the host of Clusium and the allied cities. Paul, with a
pocket-knife and a number of bits of wood on the table before him, was
making a model of a force-pump. And Susan Lepage sat in the chimney
corner knitting, little Peter on a stool at her feet resting his head
against her knees. He was getting so sleepy that his eyes would shut
though he tried very hard to keep them open. Sometimes his poor, little
head nodded over all on one side; and then he woke up with a great
start, dreaming that he had tumbled out of the old pear-tree in the
garden, bump, on to the ground. And the dream was so vivid that it took
him quite a minute and a half to remember where he was, and to realise
that he was sitting on his own little stool in the kitchen, instead
of lying on the asparagus bed under the pear-tree. But sleepy or not,
Peter was determined not to go to bed till he had heard the news from
Nullepart.

The longest waiting must needs end at last. There was a sound of brisk
footsteps, the door was thrown open, and Antony entered the kitchen,
with the rush and bustle of a healthy, young whirlwind.

Peter was wide awake in a moment. He jumped up and caught hold of the
skirt of his brother's blouse.

'Oh, tell me, tell me,' he cried, 'have they dressed the stable in the
church, and can I go on Sunday and see it?'

Now, it is always a great mistake to rush at people with questions
when they are full of their own affairs; and so little Peter found in
this case. For Antony had some money to pay over to his father, and
a great many things to say on his own account; and then, too, he was
very hungry and wanted his supper, so he pushed poor Peter aside rather
roughly, and told him to get out of the way and mind his own business,
and intimated generally that he was an inconvenient and superfluous
person.

Peter retired to his stool again feeling very small. Between
sleepiness and disappointment he was very much inclined to cry.
Perhaps, indeed, he would have done so, had not Cincinnatus got up and
rubbed gently against his legs, with a high back and a very upstanding
tail, purring very loud, too, and saying as plain as cat-language could
say it:--

'Console yourself. I, Cincinnatus, regret what has occurred. I am your
friend. Confide in me. All will yet go well.'

For Cincinnatus was a cat of feeling, and never lost an opportunity of
making himself agreeable if he could do it without loss of dignity.
However, when Antony had transacted his business, and eaten his
supper, and bragged a little about his own performances of one sort
and another, he became a trifle ashamed of having behaved so roughly
to his little brother. He did not say so, for few people have courage
to make a public confession of their faults. But he described, with
great animation, how the workmen and the good sisters were busy in
the church; how bright everybody said the Virgin's blue mantle would
be, how there was real straw in the stable, how charmingly natural
the cattle and the donkey looked, and how ingeniously a lamp would be
arranged--just like the star, in fact--to shine above the manger. Peter
felt satisfied again. But he was still a little hurt; so he sat quiet
and rubbed Cincinnatus' head in silence, though there were a hundred
and one questions he was longing to ask.

'You will come with us, _mon ami_?' said Susan Lepage, looking across
at her husband, who had just laid down his book, and was wiping his
spectacles with his red handkerchief.

'Your sons will take good care of you,' he answered. 'As for me, I will
keep house.'

'It is the first time we take our little Peter,' she said, and there
was a pleading tone in her voice.

The little boy loved both his father and mother; though perhaps
he loved his mother best, for he was rather afraid of his father
sometimes. But now for some reason he grew very bold. He jumped up and
trotted across the kitchen, and climbed up on his father's knee.

'Oh, it will be so beautiful,' he said--'And we shall all be so
happy--do come, father, do come too.'

Master Lepage looked at him very kindly out of his shrewd, grey eyes,
and gently pinched his cheek.

[Illustration]

'No, no, my son,' he answered, 'go with your mother and your brothers.
These shows are admirable for pious women and for the young. But you
see I am no longer very young, and they no longer greatly interest
me. Those who think deeply upon politics and philosophy outgrow the
satisfaction that others derive from such devout illusions. Every age
has its appropriate pastimes. Go, my children. As for me, I will remain
at home, read the newspaper, and pursue my studies in ancient history.'

'Cannot you think of something better than the doings of those unhappy,
old heathens for one day in the week, _mon ami_?' asked his wife.

Little Peter looked up at her quickly. She had laid aside her knitting,
and coming across the room placed her hand lightly on her husband's
shoulder.

Master Lepage made a grimace, moved a little in his chair, and smiled
good-humouredly at her.

'Ah! my dear, you are the best of women,' he said.

'Then why will you not oblige me?'

Lepage pressed his lips together and put up his eyebrows.

'There are points,' he said, 'on which compliance would be a mere
manifestation of weakness. We will not discuss the situation. About
those small matters upon which we do not, unfortunately, quite agree,
it is wise to maintain silence. There are your three sons--an escort
worthy of a Roman matron! Be contented, then. I remain at home.'

Susan Lepage turned away, and calling to Eliza bade her clear the table.

'Indeed, is it worth while? It will be breakfast time directly,'
replied Eliza, who was still in a bad temper at Antony having been late
for supper.

Susan Lepage looked up at the cuckoo clock in the corner.

'It is late,' she said. 'Come, come, Peter, we will go upstairs; it is
long past your bedtime.'

But the boy did not want to go to bed. He felt a little disturbed and
unhappy, and wanted Lepage more than ever to go with the rest of the
family on Sunday to church at Nullepart. So he rubbed his black head
against his father's shoulder coaxingly:--

'Mother wants you to go, and we all want it. Do please go with us to
the church on Sunday.'

Master Lepage took the child and stood him down on the floor in front
of him.

'Go to bed, when you are told to,' he said. 'Obedience was a virtue
greatly prized by those grand old Romans.'

[Illustration: 'GO TO BED WHEN YOU ARE TOLD.' _Page 34._]

'Out of the mouth of babes--' murmured Susan Lepage, gently.

For some reason this observation appeared to incense her husband.

'Ten thousand plagues!' he burst out vehemently. 'Twenty thousand
cut-throat Prussians! This is a conspiracy. Can I not stay at home when
I please? Can I not sit peaceably in my own kitchen, without cabals and
flagrant acts of insubordination? The rights of a husband and father
are supreme and without limit, I tell you--read the domestic history of
the ancient Romans.'

Susan Lepage waited till her husband had finished speaking; and then
taking poor, frightened, little Peter by the hand, she said calmly:--

'Do not trouble your father any more, my child. He has his reasons for
remaining at home, and doubtless they are good ones.'

Perhaps it was a dream--for Peter was very tired and sleepy, and it
came to him when he was snugly tucked up in his little bed, just before
his mother put out the candle and left him alone with a faint glimmer
of starlight coming in at the uncurtained window at the end of the room.
Perhaps it was a dream; but certainly he seemed to hear Master Lepage's
voice saying softly:--

'Forgive me, my wife. I was over hasty. Your path appears to lie in one
direction and mine in another, at present; but let us both be tolerant.
Who knows but that they may yet meet in the end!'

Then someone stooped down over the little boy's bed and kissed him.
Yes, it must have been his father, for on his forehead he felt the
rough scrape of a thick moustache.



CHAPTER III.

WHICH IMPROVES OUR ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE GRASSHOPPER MAN.


'I am going to Nullepart on Sunday,' cried little Peter.

'_Pfui!_ what a traveller,' answered the charcoal-burner. 'And how do
you go? In a coach and four, on the back of a fiery dragon, in the
giant's seven-league boots, or flying through the air with the wild
ducks, there, crying "Quack, quack, quack, we are all going south
because the snow is coming? "'

'I shall walk, of course, like a big boy,' said little Peter. 'But the
snow isn't coming just yet, is it?'

'They all say it will be here in a day or two.'

John Paqualin shook his head, and looked up at the sky. He was sitting
on the rough, wooden bench set against the southern wall of his hut,
with his back bent, and his elbows resting on his thin knees. Little
Peter climbed up on to the bench beside him. It was rather difficult,
you see, because the bench was a very high one, to suit the length of
the charcoal-burner's long legs.

'Who are they?' asked the boy, as soon as he had settled himself
comfortably. He tried to lean forward with his elbows on his knees like
his companion; but his short legs were dangling, and his feet were far
off the ground, and he did not find it altogether easy to keep his
balance.

'Who are they?' he asked.

'Oh, the earth spirits, who live underground, and the air spirits,
who wander up and down the sky. Look at the great arc of white light
they are setting up in the north-east as a signal. And the wild ducks,
flying overhead. And the moaning in the pine-trees. And Madelon, the
old sow there; see how she runs about with her mouth full of grass,
wanting to make herself a lair, because she sees the storm-wind coming.
They are all telling what will happen. They are wiser than men. They
know beforehand. Men only know afterwards.'

Paqualin paused a moment, and sat staring at Madelon, the old black
sow, with her floppety ears, as she ran to and fro, and grouted
about in the heaps of charcoal refuse and in the tumble-down garden
fence--half smothered in tall withered grass and weeds--grunting and
barking the while like one distracted.

'Everything in the world talks to me,' he continued, speaking slowly.
'All day long, all night long, the air is full of voices.'

Peter wriggled himself a little further back on the bench, for, in the
excitement of conversation, he had slipped very near the edge of it and
was in great danger of falling head first on to the ground.

'I don't hear them,' he said presently.

Paqualin laughed. His laugh was cracked and shrill, like his voice; and
Peter was always a trifle startled by it somehow.

'Never hear them, little Peter,' he cried, 'never hear them. A few men
will call you a poet, but most men will only call you mad, if you do.'

'What is mad?' asked Peter. He felt very much interested. 'Is it a good
or a bad thing?'

The charcoal-burner looked round at the boy sharply, with his mouth a
little open. His strange eyes were glowing dull red. He waited a minute
before replying.

'Eh,' he said, 'what an innocent! Why, it is a good thing, of course.
An excellent, splendid, glorious thing. Look at me, little Peter. I'll
tell you a secret. Can you keep it? Here--quite close--I'll whisper--I
am mad--yes, that's the secret. A grand one. See all the blessings it
brings me. I live alone in the wood and burn charcoal.'

'Yes,' said Peter, 'I should like that.'

'I have no wife or child to bother me. On feast-days, when I was a lad,
the pretty girls never plagued me to dance with them, or asked me to
steal kisses.' The charcoal-burner laughed again--'I am saved from
all sins of pride and vanity. Think what a gain!--for as I go down
the street, the very children tell me my faults, crying, "Look at the
grasshopper legs, look at the crook-back;" and the women shut their
eyes and turn their heads away, saying, "Heaven avert the bad omen!
What a frightful fellow!" Such observations, little Peter, are sharp
discipline; and teach humility more thoroughly than any penance the
priest can lay on you. Oh, yes! no doubt it is a capital thing to be
mad. It saves you a deal of trouble--nobody cares for you, nurses you
when you're sick, feeds you when you're hungry, mourns for you when you
die.'

Paqualin laughed again, and getting up stretched his long, ungainly
limbs, and shook himself till his hair hung like a red cloud about his
stooping shoulders.

'Ah! ha, it's splendid,' he cried, 'all alone with the spirits
and voices, with the beasts, and the trees, and the rain, and the
starlight. No one to love you but the fire when you feed it with
branches, or the swine when you drive them back to their stye in the
twilight.'

Now, to tell the truth, poor little Peter was becoming rather confused
and nervous, with all this wild, incomprehensible talk of the
charcoal-burner's. He had never seen his friend in this strange humour
before. And he felt as much alarmed and embarrassed as he would have
done if that well-conducted animal Cincinnatus had suddenly turned upon
him, with bristling hair and a great tail, spitting and swearing, in
the middle of their innocent games of play. He sat very still, staring
anxiously at his companion.

But when Paqualin threw himself down on the bench again, and putting
his lean, brown face very close to little Peter's, said to him with a
sort of cry:--

'Think of it, think of it, child, nobody, day nor night, all through
the long years of life, nobody ever to love you!'--the boy's
embarrassment changed into absolute fear, and he scrambled down off the
bench in a great hurry, hardly able to keep from sobbing.

'If you please, John Paqualin, I should like to go home to my mother,'
he said; and then he trotted away as fast as he could along the black
cinder-path across the little garden.

'Mother, mother,' echoed the charcoal-burner. 'Sweet, fair wife, and
sweet mother! Have pity, dear Lord, on those who may have neither.'

Then he got up, and walked after the child, in his awkward way, calling
gently to him:--

'Here, little mouse, come here. Don't run away so fast. There is
nothing to hurt you.'

Peter had nearly reached the garden gate; but there in the opening
stood Madelon, the sow, grunting and snorting, her great jaws working,
and her wicked, little eyes twinkling.

'Come, come,' called Paqualin again, coaxingly. 'There are no more
disquieting secrets to tell you. Never fear. See now, I have a box of
nuts indoors, under my bed--beauties--beauties; will you try them?
Cr-r-rack go the shells, out pop the nice kernels--crunch, crunch,
crunch, between sharp, white, little teeth eating them all up. Eh! nuts
are appetising, are they? You will not run away just yet, then, will
you, dear little mouse.'

Now Peter would have felt a great deal safer at home it is true; but
in the first place, there stood the hideous Madelon blocking the way,
and he was very much afraid of her. And then in the second place, he
did not wish to be uncivil to his old friend the charcoal-burner. So,
finally, he went back, and climbed up the high bench again.

'I will not have any of those nuts, though, please,' he said decidedly.
For he wished Paqualin to understand that it was not greediness but
friendship that made him return.

'No nuts!' cried the charcoal-burner, smiling kindly at him. 'Eh, what
a proud, little soul.'

And then John Paqualin really became delightful. And as he and the
little boy sat together in the shelter of the high pine-trees, and
of the brown, wooden wall of the tumble-down dwelling-house behind
them, he told many most interesting stories. For, you see, the
charcoal-burner, perhaps from living so much alone, perhaps from
being what some persons call 'mad,' knew a number of things which
you could not find in the pages of the very largest Encyclopædia of
Universal Information--though they really are every bit as true as
half the information you would find there. He knew all about the
elves who live in the fox-glove bells; and the water-nixies who haunt
the stream side; and about the gnomes who work with tiny spades and
pickaxes, searching for the precious metals underground. And he could
tell where the will-of-the-wisp gets the light for his lantern, with
which he dances over bogs and marshy places, trying to lead weak-minded
and unscientific travellers astray; and he knew all about the pot of
fairy gold that stands just where the base of the rainbow touches the
earth, and which moves away and away as you run to find it, shifting
its ground forever, so that those who will seek it in the end come home
hot, and breathless, and angry, and empty handed, for all their pains.
And he could also tell of the old black dwarf who lives in a cave in
the heart of the forest, which no one can ever find, though they may
search for it for a year and a day; and who, being a mischievous and
ill-conditioned dwarf, bewitches the cows so that they go dry; and the
hens so that they steal their nests and lay their eggs in all manner
of holes and corners, instead of in the hen-roosts like right-minded,
well-conducted fowls; and who rides the horses all night long in the
stable, so that when the carter goes in, in the dewy morning, to give
them their fodder, he finds them trembling and starting and bathed in
sweat; and who turns the cream sour in summer, or sits on the handle of
the churn--though you can't see him--so that though the good housewife
turns and turns, till her arms and back ache, and the heat stands in
drops on her forehead, the butter will not come and the day's work is
well-nigh wasted.

And Paqualin could tell the story, moreover, of the dirty little boy,
Eli, who insisted on eating raw turnips and cabbages, and distressing
his friends and relatives by picking bits out of the pig pail, instead
of sitting up to table like a little gentleman, and who utterly
refused to have his hair combed or his face washed:--

'And, at last, one night,' said the charcoal-burner, 'as a punishment
for all his nasty ways, the fairies came and turned him into a great
black crow, which flew out of the bedroom window in the chilly dawn.
You may often hear him now, little Peter, croaking in the tree-tops, or
see him skulking about the farmyard and gardens looking out for scraps
and refuse.'

'How long ago was he turned into a crow?' asked Peter.

'Eh, many and many a year ago,' answered the charcoal-burner. 'I saw
him only yesterday, and he has grown quite old and grey. But the time
of his probation will not be over yet awhile, for bad habits are slow
to die, though quick enough to breed in us, little Peter. I throw him
a crust of bread now and again, the poor old villain. I've a sort of
fellow feeling for him, you see, for I am an ugly, old vagabond too.'

'Bless the child, there he is at last! Ah, my poor heart, how it beats
with all this running.'

The speaker was Eliza. She stood on the other side of the tumble-down
garden fence, with her hand pressed to her side, and a shawl over her
head. She was breathing very hard. Eliza was one of those persons who
like to make the most of an injury.

'Come home, Peter, come at once,' she went on. 'Don't you know it's
half an hour past dinner-time? Here have I been trapesing half over
the country to find you--a pretty occupation for a respectable, young,
servant woman like me, too. All the men were out, and nothing would do
but that I must go racing about like a wild creature, wasting good shoe
leather in looking for you. Ah! my poor heart.'

Eliza leant up against the fence and panted a little.

As Peter got down off the bench, Paqualin bent forward and patted the
boy's curly head.

'Run away, little mouse,' he said, 'but come again some day and see me.'

'Am I to wait here all night,' cried Eliza, 'for you, Peter? Have you
not had enough yet of the society of his highness the charcoal-burner?
No, no, don't speak to me,' she added, addressing Paqualin. 'I have no
desire to hold any communication with you. Why, merely seeing you as
you pass makes me squint for an hour afterwards. Come along, child.'

[Illustration]

And seizing Peter's fat, pudgy hand in her large, red one, Eliza
marched him off at a sharp pace down the forest path.

'Hey ho, hey ho, life is a bit long for some of us,' said the
charcoal-burner.



CHAPTER IV.

WHICH LEAVES SOME AT HOME AND TAKES SOME TO CHURCH.


Little Peter woke up very early on Sunday morning, feeling excited and
glad. He sat up on end in bed, but he had to rub his eyes very hard and
get the sleep out of them before he could remember exactly what there
was to be so very glad about. When he did remember, he was so much
delighted that he was compelled to express his feelings in some rather
violent manner. He went on all fours and burrowed very quick, like a
rabbit, head first, down under the clothes to the bottom of the bed,
and then rushed up again, with very red cheeks, puffing, and pushing
his curly hair out of his eyes. But it really was not light yet--only
the rushlight his mother burnt at night glimmered feebly in the corner.
Peter could hear Master Lepage snoring peacefully in his bed on the
other side of the wooden partition which divided the big room into two
unequal halves--the small half for little Peter and his little bed, and
the large half for his father and mother and their large bed. It would
be a long while yet before his mother got up and called him to her to
help dress and wash him, for Gustavus, the cowherd, had only just gone
downstairs from his attic, clumpety-clump with his big, heavy boots
over the stairs, and he always got up long before anybody else.

Peter wondered what he could do to amuse himself till it was time to
dress. And then it struck him as just possible that when Gustavus went
down into the kitchen he might have left the door open, and that in
that case Cincinnatus, the cat, might have stepped upstairs and be
waiting outside on the landing--it had happened so once before on a
very delightful and never to be forgotten occasion. Peter waited a
moment and held his breath listening, for it seemed to him extremely
adventurous to be on the move so very early in the morning. He was not
quite sure whether the little, hairy house-bogies and hobgoblins who
undoubtedly, so Eliza said at least, wander about the empty rooms and
chase each other up and down the silent passages and stairways every
night, with impish frolic and laughter, when we are all safe in bed,
might not still be holding their revels; and he knew, at least Eliza
said so, that it was extremely unlucky for any person to see them, for
they don't like to be looked at by mortal eyes, and will come and sit
on your pillow, and tickle your nose with a feather out of the bedding,
and squat on your chest, till you feel as though you lay under the
weight of a mountain, and treat you in a number of other odious and
disturbing ways. It made the cold shivers run down Peter's back as he
sat up there, in his little, white night-shirt, even to think of coming
face to face with the hairy goblins and bogies.

But then, on the other hand, the society of Cincinnatus would be so
very delightful. Peter slipped one sturdy, bare leg down over the
side of the bed. Ah! how cold the smooth boards of the floor felt!
However, the other leg very soon followed. Then he crept across the
room very quietly, avoiding the oak chest, and the chairs, and the
corner of the high cupboard, with his mother's initials and the date
of her wedding-day carved on the doors of it; and, when he reached the
door, paused, listening at the keyhole. Oh, dear me, there really was
something outside on the landing moving about stealthily on small, soft
feet. Little Peter's heart stood still. Was it dear, old Cincinnatus,
or a dreadful, roundabout, hairy hobgoblin?

At last he plucked up courage to put his lips close to the keyhole, and
whisper in a rather trembling voice:--

'Pussy, puss, Cincinnatus, oh, please, is that you?'

'Miau,' answered Cincinnatus, quite composedly and comfortably.

In a great hurry little Peter opened a crack of the door.

'Oh! come in quick, please, Cincinnatus,' he said.

[Illustration: "Oh! come in quick, please, Cincinnatus."]

But cats of quality never permit themselves to be hurried. Cincinnatus
came just half-way through the door, then he stopped and rubbed
himself--very tall--up against the side-post and purred; and then,
stretching out his fore legs as far as ever he could, sharpened his
claws, crick, crack, crick, crack, on the boards of the bedroom
flooring.

'Oh! do be quick, Cincinnatus,' said the little boy under his breath
again; and to hasten matters, he gave the cat a poke in the ribs with
his cold bare toes.

'Miau,' cried Cincinnatus quite sharply, jumping on one side, for
he was taken rather by surprise. Subsequently he added in the cat
language:--'Manners, my good child, manners! Let us before all things
cultivate a polite address and a calm, unagitated exterior.'

Meanwhile Peter had succeeded in shutting the door quietly, and that,
to his great relief, without catching a single glimpse of one of the
blobbety-bodied, spindle-legged house-bogies. He pattered across the
room as fast as ever he could, and jumped into his warm bed again.

'He is young and inexperienced,' murmured Cincinnatus reflectively. 'I
am magnanimous. I scorn to bear malice.'

And he, too, jumped into the warm bed.

Now, this was really charming. Little Peter pushed up the bedclothes
in front, making them into a snug, little, dark cavern, inside which
there was just room enough for himself and Cincinnatus.

'See,' he said, 'we will play at robbers. I will be the captain and you
shall be my first lieutenant.'

But unfortunately, Cincinnatus did not seem to care very much about
that particular game. He had arrived at an age and temper of mind at
which material comfort is far more valuable than pleasures derived
from a lively exercise of the imagination. Perhaps you do not quite
understand what that means? Well, so much the better. For my part, I
hope you never may understand it. There are a number of things in this
world that it is very much the best to be ignorant about if you can
possibly manage it. Cincinnatus, anyway, understood it well enough, so
he tucked his fore legs under his chest, until nothing was visible of
them but just the furry elbows, and laid his tail neatly along his soft
side, and settled himself down on the warm sheet, with his eyes more
than half shut, purring all the while as loud as if he had got a small
steam-engine inside him.

'That's not the way to play at robbers,' said little Peter.

But Cincinnatus only purred a trifle louder. It was rather provoking.
Still, Peter was too glad of the cat's comfortable company, and was,
moreover, really too sweet-tempered a boy to get cross and angry. So
he just lay down on his stomach, resting his chin in one hand, while
with the other he gently rubbed Cincinnatus about the ears; and amused
himself by thinking of the nice, new clothes that lay folded up on
the chair at the bottom of his bed, and of the representation of the
stable, and the manger in which the Infant Saviour was cradled, that he
hoped to see in the great church in the town, before the day was done.
And meanwhile, the pale dawn broadened over the dark stretches of the
great pine forest, and the cows lowed as Gustavus drove them out to
pasture, and Eliza bustled down stairs to begin dusting and sweeping,
and making ready the savoury Sunday breakfast.

And at last his mother, with her sweet, pale face, got up and washed
and dressed him, listening as tenderly, as only mothers know how, to
his happy, prattle, and his simple morning prayer.

'Ask the dear Lord to send a special blessing to us all to-day,' she
said.

'May I ask Him to send a blessing to my friend John Paqualin, too?'
asked Peter. 'He told me yesterday he should never have anybody to love
him, and that it saved him a great deal of trouble. But he doesn't look
as if it made him happy, does he, mother?'

'Alas, no, poor soul,' said Susan Lepage. 'Yes, pray for him, also,
little one, pray that the long disgrace and lonely sorrow of his life
here may be counted unto him for righteousness hereafter, and I will
say Amen.'

It must have been quite half-past eight o'clock before they were all
ready to start for Nullepart. Eliza was going too, you see, and she was
furiously busy up to the very last moment. Consequently she was rather
late, and rushed out of the house after the rest of the party, pinning
her blue shawl, and giving sundry pats to the crown of her stiff,
white, muslin cap, to make sure it sat quite straight over her plaits
of hair behind.

'Eh, but you are smart, Eliza,' said Gustavus, opening his eyes very
wide, as he rested the two pails of water he was carrying on the ground
for a moment, and rubbed his elbows, which ached a little with the
weight.

'_Imbécile!_ do not detain me!' cried Eliza, haughtily--though, in
truth, she was prodigiously gratified by the cowherd's observation.
'Don't you see how breathless and flurried I am with all the work?
Bless me, where's my prayer-book? Oh! thank you, yes, Gustavus, tied up
in my pocket-handkerchief. Of course--I knew where it was--at least,
I should have found out for myself directly. Good-bye, Gustavus, take
care of yourself; and remember the evening's milk is to be set on the
left-hand shelf, two from the bottom.'

Eliza pursed up her mouth and nodded, as she walked away with a very
impressive swinging of petticoats.

'Poor young man, his head is completely turned,' she said to herself.
'But then, what wonder? My appearance in my _fête_ day clothes has
always been a subject of remark and respectful admiration!'

'Farewell, my wife; enjoy to the full the emotions called forth by the
pious exhibition you are about to witness. They are becoming to your
sex. Boys, take good care of your mother; and conduct yourselves in all
things as worthy sons of our glorious Republic.'

Master Lepage raised his soft felt hat from his head, as he spoke, with
an elegant flourish; but whether in compliment to his wife or in honour
of the democratic form of government, I really cannot say.

At that moment the charcoal-burner came hurriedly from the narrow
forest path, that led from his hut, on to the open space outside the
farmhouse. Madelon, the sow, ran beside him, shaking her lean sides
as she ran, and grunting now and then, apparently with pleasure at
being taken out walking. Sometimes she bundled up against her master's
long, thin legs, nearly knocking him over; sometimes she stopped and
forced her ugly snout into a tuft of grass or weeds by the wayside. The
charcoal-burner's red hair streamed out behind him as he came rapidly
along; his strange eyes were dull and vacant as those of a sleep-walker.

'I have a message,' he cried hoarsely--'a message to you from the
beasts, and the birds, from the pine-trees, and the storm-clouds and
the voices. All night long they have told it me, over and over again.'

Paqualin, a wild, ragged, unkempt figure, came up close to Master
Lepage, who stood there erect and superior as a general officer on
parade, surrounded with his family and servants--Gustavus had left his
pails of water and joined the little company--in their Sunday best, and
all animated with pleasant expectation of a holiday, in which amusement
promised to be agreeably mingled with spiritual edification.

'Well, well, out with it quickly then, my good fellow, this wonderful
message of yours,' Lepage said, in a bantering, patronising tone. 'You
see my wife and my sons here are just ready to start on a long walk. I
cannot have them delayed.'

'They must not go, or you must go with them,' cried the
charcoal-burner. He stretched out his hands like a man in the dark
groping for something he cannot find. 'My head is troubled,' he went
on. 'I cannot tell you plainly; but I have an aching in all my bones
which foretells misfortune. And I say, they must not go.'

'Pooh,' said Lepage. 'Your head is troubled, just so. But when
people's heads are troubled they had best keep at home and not trouble
their neighbours into the bargain with all their crazy fancies.
Calm yourself, Paqualin. And as for you,' added Lepage, nodding
encouragingly to his wife and the boys, 'forward, march. Do not let
this untoward little incident affect the pleasures of the day.'

But Susan Lepage looked kindly and compassionately at the
charcoal-burner, and then turning to her husband, said:--

'Have a moment's patience with him, _mon ami_; let us at least hear
what he has to say.'

'Yes, give me time,' cried Paqualin imploringly. 'There are so many of
you staring at me--Ah! I begin to remember. You must go with them if
they go, for the snow is coming, Master Lepage. The storm hung out its
streaming, white flag in the north-east yesterday, and the wild ducks
flew south; there were signs in the earth and in the heavens, and in my
ears the sound of many voices. Do not let your wife and children go.
The snow will be here before evening, and the way will be difficult to
find, and the house door will stand open long into the night before the
feet of those you love cross the threshold.'

The charcoal-burner spoke as though he was so certain of the truth of
that which he said, and his voice sounded so sad, that poor little
Peter felt quite dismayed. Even Eliza had no opprobrious observation
to make, and as for Gustavus, he stood with his big mouth wide open,
staring as if he saw a ghost.

Master Lepage, however, remained quite unmoved; and his composure was
very reassuring.

'Well, well, my good fellow,' he said, 'I for one need no further
proof that your head is very much troubled, so much so indeed that
if I had my way you should find a lodging for a time in the _Maison
Dieu_ at Nullepart--an excellent institution, which is calculated to
cure troubled heads, or at all events to restrain the possessors of
them from being inconvenient to other people. But the worst of it
is,' Lepage added, rather angrily, 'that this superstitious nonsense
is infectious. You, for instance, my wife, begin to look quite
disconcerted.'

Lepage folded his arms, and nodded his head argumentatively, quite as
though he had been addressing an audience in the wine shop.

'Now I put it to you,' he said, 'the day is mild and even sunshiny at
present. And which, pray, is likely to be the best weather prophet?
I, Francis Louis Lepage, householder, citizen, veteran, and I may add
philosophic-politician and student of ancient history, or that poor
half-wit--unsound, as anyone can see, both in mind and body?'

'Of course the grasshopper's afraid of the snow,' chimed in Antony,
switching at Madelon, the sow, with the little stick he held in his
hand. 'It puts his fiddle out of tune.'

Then Antony laughed rather loud, as people do sometimes when they have
made a joke they are not sure is a very good one.

'For shame, Antony,' said his mother quickly. And John Paqualin turned
on the lad, his eyes glowing like live coals.

'Ah! it is noble and generous in a handsome fellow like you to taunt me
and scoff at me! Heaven pay you back in your own coin.'

Eliza gave a scream, and seized Gustavus by the arm as though she
required protection from some most fearful danger.

'For the love of the saints, ma'am, let us go on, and get out of
the way of this wild animal,' she said, in a very loud whisper. 'He
looks wicked enough to commit a crime. Keep off, Gustavus! What are
you thinking about, catching hold like that of a respectable, young,
servant woman?'

'Why it was you who caught hold of me, Eliza,' answered the cowherd
mildly.

Paqualin, meanwhile, looked round the little group with a sort of
despair in his poor ugly face.

'It is all useless,' he said; 'you will not listen to or believe me. I
only get jeered at. You all despise me.'

[Illustration: 'YOU ALL DESPISE ME.' _Page 66._]

He turned away with a bitter cry, and shambled off into the forest.

'Good-bye, dear John Paqualin, good-bye.--No, I won't hush, Eliza.
I love him, he is a very kind friend to me.--Good-bye, dear John
Paqualin,' little Peter called after him.

He felt very very sorry for the poor charcoal-burner.

'Whoof,' went Madelon, the sow, making a run at Cincinnatus--who sat
washing his face on the clean flags just outside the door of the
farm-house--and taking him so by surprise that he leapt up, with a
prodigious tail, on to the window ledge, without even waiting to
scratch. Then she cantered off, grunting and shaking her great bristly,
floppety ears, after her master.

'Next time I see the charcoal-burner, it will undoubtedly be my duty to
spit at him,' said Cincinnatus to himself in the cat-language. 'After
that which has just occurred, I feel it is quite unnecessary to take any
second opinion upon the subject.'

'Forward, march,' cried Master Lepage gaily. 'Enjoy yourselves. Let no
thought of that unfortunate being's prognostications disturb you. The
day will be charming.'

And so, after all, they started for Nullepart.



CHAPTER V.

WHICH IS BOTH SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS.


Now, undoubtedly, it is extremely easy to most persons not to believe
a thing if they do not wish to believe it. And very soon our friends,
wending their way along the soft moist forest path, in the languid
December sunshine, began to forget about John Paqualin and his alarming
warning.

'It was all spite,' said Eliza, tossing her head, white muslin cap and
all, with a great show of dignity. 'He hates me because I won't receive
his advances and always keep him at a proper distance. It was just a
trick to deprive a poor, hard-working, young woman of a well-earned
holiday.'

'I think he was wrong about the weather,' remarked Paul quietly. 'It's
generally colder before snow.'

'He ought to be shut up in the madhouse, as my father suggested,' said
Antony, who was still smarting from the reproof his mother had given
him. 'I'd have all those sort of fellows kept under lock and key. There
ought to be a law about it. They've no right to be about loose.'

'You are young, my son,' said Susan Lepage, 'and the young, too often,
are thoughtless and cruel. Perhaps life will teach you, among other
lessons, to be merciful if you would obtain mercy.'

Antony's handsome face grew very sulky. 'You're always scolding me for
something or other,' he said crossly.

[Illustration]

Meanwhile our little Peter was very happy. He had been sorry for the
charcoal-burner, it is true; but he would have been very much more
sorry not to go to Nullepart. A light breeze ruffled the dark branches
of the pine-trees; here and there a scarlet or yellow leaf still hung
on the brambles that grew on the skirts of the wood; the little birds
looked at him merrily with their round, bright eyes, as they flew
chirping to and fro among the trees and bushes. As to the snow, Peter
did not give it a thought, as he ran, just like a little dog, first a
long way on in front of the rest of the party, and then dawdled ever
so far behind them--looking at the quaint little huts, and houses, and
castles that the pine needles make where they fall and gather on the
small twigs and branches at the base of the younger trees; and then,
seeing that his mother and brothers had got on a long way ahead of him,
scuttled up to them again in a great fuss and hurry, with very red
cheeks, and a curious bumping at his heart, what with excitement and
exercise, and just a trifle of fright, too, lest the old dwarf whom
John Paqualin had told him about should suddenly nod and grin at him
from under the pine boughs, saying:--

'Hey, my fine fellow, so we've met at last!' But I suppose the black
dwarf was plotting mischief at home within the recesses of his
mysterious cavern on that particular Sunday morning; for though he
kept a very sharp look-out, little Peter saw no trace of his naughty,
mocking face, even where the path was narrowest and the pine-trees
thickest.

Now the town of Nullepart is an exceedingly ancient place, as you will
gather from its name if you are anything of a scholar. It lies down in
a remote valley along the banks of a river, with hills on either hand
clothed below with oak, and beech, chestnut, and walnut, and, at their
summits, crowned with pine-trees, that make a dark, ragged, saw-like
edge against the sky. Some of the houses in the main street are built
of stone, and roofed with fine, red, fluted tiles; but the major part
of them are of wood, like the farm-house in the forest, with deep
eaves, and quaint gables and stairways, and galleries. And I am sorry
to say that the good people of Nullepart are somewhat old-fashioned in
their habits, and do not pay quite as strict a regard to cleanliness
as might be desired; and permit their ducks, and chickens, and pigs
to walk about the crooked streets along with the foot-passengers, in
rather too friendly and confidential a manner.

[Illustration: GOING TO CHURCH. _Page 72_]

But little Peter, never having seen any other town, thought Nullepart
a very fine place indeed; and quite believed that nowhere else in the
world were there such grand houses, or such inviting shops, or so many
people, or half so much chatter and bustle. You see the justice of our
opinions is very much dependent upon the extent of our experience--a
fact which few persons always manage to bear in mind, at least where
their own opinions are concerned--with the opinions of their neighbours
it is, of course, different.

Little Peter clung rather tight to his mother's hand on one side, and
to his brother Paul's on the other, for he was somewhat afraid of being
lost in the crowd and never found again. Antony did not offer to hold
the little boy's hand. He walked on the other side of his mother, with
his cap set jauntily over one ear and his handsome face all smiles
again. He nodded and said good-day to all his acquaintances, and stared
hard at all the pretty girls when he passed them, as a young man should
who has a good opinion of himself and who intends some day to be a
soldier.

But if little Peter thought Nullepart street dangerously full of
people, what did he think when passing under the carved porch, and
pushing aside the heavy, leathern curtain that hung across the doorway,
he entered the church itself, still clinging tightly to his mother's
hand?

He could see nothing but trousers and petticoats, the broad backs of
men, and the comfortable backs of women--it would be uncivil to call
them broad, too, you know; you should select your adjectives carefully
in speaking of ladies--and the straight backs of lads, and the slim,
neat backs of young girls all around him; while the close, heavy air
of the church was full of the hum of many voices, and the shuffling of
many feet over the stone pavement.

'Ouf, how hot!' said Eliza, in a loud whisper, unpinning her blue
shawl. 'Heaven forgive me, but it's like being in a saucepan with
the lid on. Why, there's my cousin Ursula Jacqueline Lambert. Ah, my
dear cousin! how have you been this long while? Yes, it is seldom we
meet. And time passes and leaves its mark behind it. Not that I change
much--no, the saints be praised, I keep my looks. But I see you have
altered. Well, it cannot be helped. Your husband is a good, faithful
soul, and I daresay he doesn't observe it. There's the advantage of
having married an old man. His eyes grow dim just in time--now with
me....'

But Peter did not hear any more of Eliza's conversation, for his
mother moved forward into the middle of the nave of the church, from
whence it was possible to see the high altar, with its lights and
flowers, and the great picture behind it, of which the people of
Nullepart are very proud, for it was painted by a famous artist and is
worth a great deal of money, and is, moreover, so dark with age, and,
perhaps, with a proportion of dirt as well, that it affords an immense
amount of interesting conversation, as nobody has ever yet discovered
what subject it represents.

Priests in rich vestments stood before the altar, their backs looking
like those of great gold and silver beetles; and there were boys with
tall candles, and boys chanting; and the plaintive sound of the organ;
and many persons kneeling on low chairs or on the rough pavement
saying their prayers. Susan Lepage knelt down too; and little Peter
stood bare-headed close beside her. The church, somehow, seemed very
different to what he had expected. It was very large and high, and the
painted windows up in the roof let in but scanty light. It seemed to
Peter a very mysterious place; and he felt a wee bit frightened.

At last Susan rose again from her knees.

'Now for thy pleasure, little one,' she said, looking lovingly at the
child. 'Where is the stable, Antony?'

'It is there,' he answered, pointing to the southern aisle of the
church. 'I've just been to see; but the crowd is so thick about it we
must wait awhile--we can't get through yet.'

Susan Lepage sat down on one of the low, rush-bottomed chairs, and took
Peter on her lap.

'All in good time,' she said. 'Antony will let us know when to be
moving. Meanwhile, we will rest. Your poor, little legs must be tired.'

Presently a stout, genial-looking, old gentleman, in a black cassock
and funny, little, black cape, came up to them. He wore a black
skull-cap, too, for the church was draughty, and his head was bald,
save just at the back, where his short, bristly, white hair stood out
like a neat trimming round the edge of his cap.

'Well, well, Susan Lepage, it isn't often that we see you here, now,'
he said. 'Don't move, don't move, my good woman. Ah, yes! I know the
walk is long and fatiguing; you would come oftener if you could. The
spirit is willing, as it is written, but the flesh is weak. Yet you
do well to come to-day, and bring these fine lads, your sons, with
you. The good God remembers those who remember Him. But where is the
husband?'

[Illustration]

Peter looked at his mother as the priest asked this question, and it
seemed to him that for some reason she seemed troubled and sad.

'Ah, my father, he has remained at home to keep house. We live, as you
know, in a lonely place.'

The priest smiled and shook his head.

'Exactly,' he said, 'I understand. Politics have a word to say in the
matter, though, haven't they?'

But Susan Lepage did not smile in return.

'Alas, my father!' she said.

Peter stared at both speakers wonderingly. He did not understand what
they meant. But then it must be admitted there are a good many things
we do not quite understand at five years old.

'Do not vex yourself,' answered the priest kindly. 'It is written that
the faithful wife may save her husband. All times are in the hands of
God. That which He has ordained cannot fail to be accomplished.'

Then he laid his hand gently on little Peter's round, black head,
saying:--

'And this is your youngest, the autumn child, who brings the blessing
to the house?'

'Yes,' she said. 'He has come for the first time to burn a candle
before the Infant Jesus. But the worshippers are so many that as yet
we have been unable to get a sight of the stable.'

Just then Eliza bustled up.

'Ah,' she exclaimed, 'one thing is certain, my poor cousin's temper
is sadly soured with age. I made myself agreeable to her, in the
assurance that she would at least ask me in to dinner.--Forgive me,
your reverence, I did not observe that you were conversing with my
mistress'--Eliza curtsied to the priest.--'But not a bit of it. She
has treated me with marked coldness, and not so much as hinted at an
invitation. It seems to me--'

'My daughter,' said the priest, 'lower your voice. We do not discuss
these things so shrilly in this sacred place. Turn your thoughts to
religion. Think here of your own sins, not of the shortcomings of
others.'

Eliza got very red in the face.

'Believe me, I was not thinking of myself, your reverence,' she
answered, quickly, 'but of my mistress. I wished to save her the
expense of my dinner at the inn, by dining with my relations.--We
ought to be going to the Red Horse soon, ma'am,' she added, 'or there
will be no room for us.'

'Oh! but I haven't seen the stable yet,' cried little Peter, quite out
loud, forgetting that he was in church. 'I don't want any dinner. But I
can't go home till I have seen the stable, please.'

The little boy had jumped down off his mother's lap and stood there
with the big tears in his eyes, and with the corners of his mouth
quivering. It seemed to him a terrible thing to have come this long way
full of expectation and hope, and then to be disappointed after all.

But the priest took his hand kindly, and led him towards the southern
aisle of the church, where the crowd was, while Susan Lepage and Paul
and Antony followed behind them.

'Room, my friends; have the amiability to make room,' said the priest,
'for a little lad who comes from a considerable distance to see this
pious and instructive representation for the first time.'

Then little Peter felt quite proud and distinguished, for the people,
at the request of the priest, moved aside to the right hand and the
left, making a narrow lane for him to pass along to the gilded railings
in front of the chapel, where the stable was dressed. Once there, he
stood quite still, staring with very round eyes, for the sight seemed
to him very beautiful and strange, and his heart was filled with wonder
and awe.

In a rough, rocky cave, on the straw in a wooden manger, lay the image
of the Infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, with a golden circle
above his baby head. On one side knelt the Virgin Mother, in a white
robe and blue mantle, with her hands clasped meekly on her heart; and,
as she bent towards her Babe, she seemed to little Peter to look at
him with mild and loving eyes. On the other side stood St. Joseph, in
a brown habit, leaning upon his staff. And in the dusky background the
boy could just make out the form of an ass and some cows. While above
the entrance of the cave shone a bright star.

'Ah, how beautiful!' said Susan Lepage softly.

'It should have been finer had we had more money,' answered the priest
with a sigh. 'Not that I complain. The parish has been generous, and
the good sisters have done their best. Still, I myself greatly desired
to have the Three Kings offering treasures. It would have been an
effective incident--but our means are limited. They would have been too
expensive for us.'

And little Peter was puzzled and could not quite comprehend what the
priest meant; for he had often heard his father say that kings were
old-fashioned rubbish, worth nothing at all, and that a republic was
worth ten thousand of them any day in the week.

'Kneel down, my son,' said the priest to Peter presently:--'and pray
to be kept pure, and innocent, and devout, so that, when your earthly
warfare is accomplished--be it late or soon--you may behold the face of
the Saviour in Heaven as you now behold this poor, unworthy image of
Him on earth.'

Then he turned and left them.

Each of the boys bought a candle from the old woman who sat on the
chapel steps, and stuck them in the round iron frame standing just by
the gilded rails, and lighted them with the long taper she gave them.
And Eliza bought one, too, though she was a little disposed to haggle
with the old woman and accuse her of overcharging. But Susan Lepage
bought three candles, and set them in the frame and lighted them.
'For,' she said, 'we must remember those who are absent--whether by
choice or by misfortune--when we are in the house of God.'



[Illustration]

CHAPTER VI.

WHICH ATTEMPTS TO SHOW WHY THE SKIES FALL.


Do you know what the snow is and where it comes from?

The Dictionary says it is 'a frozen moisture, which falls from the
atmosphere in white flakes.' But that description doesn't seem to make
us know very much more about it somehow.

Some people say the snow is caused by the angels shaking the feather
beds up in Heaven; but that, both scientifically and spiritually too,
appears to me an improbable solution. Other people, again, say it is
all the Time Spirit plucking his geese. And who are the Time Spirit's
geese?--Well, if you really want to know, they are all the little
poets, and little painters, and little musicians, and little players
and all the little inventors of little theories, and little writers of
little books, who spend their time in diligently trying to persuade
themselves and others that they are great writers of great books, and
discoverers of a universal panacea for the healing of the nations;
and that, in short, they are not any of them geese at all, but as
fine swans as you can see on any river or pond in the three kingdoms.
And they come cackling, and hissing, and sidling, and waddling up
to the Time Spirit every year--specially in the spring and about
Christmastide--in great flocks, and all cry out together:--

'Is it possible to deny, O Time Spirit, that we are every one of us
swans?'

And then, I am sorry to say--for though it is perfectly right and
just, it isn't the least bit agreeable, as some of us know to our
cost--the Time Spirit turns up his sleeves and sets to work with a
will, and catches them, though they mostly make a terrible noise and
fluster, and plucks them one by one--big feathers first and then
small--and sends them away looking sadly bare and foolish, and thereby
leaving the world in no doubt whatsoever that they are only geese after
all. And some wise persons, who have a perfect right to speak on the
matter, think that why we have had so much more snow than usual the
last few winters, is because--what with higher education and women's
colleges, and one thing and another--the flocks of geese grow larger
and larger, so that the poor Time Spirit is getting worn to fiddle
strings with everlasting plucking, and it seems not unlikely we may
soon have snowstorms nine months in the year.

But what if a real swan does come among the geese, once in a way?--Ah!
that is quite another matter. For the Time Spirit discovers it in a
very few minutes, and jumps up and pulls down his sleeves, and slips
off his hat--he has to wear one, you know, to keep the goose down from
lodging in his hair--and draws his heels together with a snap and makes
a bow from the waist, like an accomplished courtier, and says:--

'All hail to you, my master or my mistress!'--as the case may be.--'For
you the stars shine by night, and the sun rises at morning. All the
world is yours, or shall soon be, if you have patience, and faith, and
daring, and are true to the voice of the dæmon within.'

But there is yet another explanation of the snowfall besides this,
and it is, perhaps, after all, the most reasonable one to believe in.
For when the nights are long and the days are short, and the sunlight
is feeble as a sick man's smile, the North Wind wakes from his summer
sleep and calls to his brother the East Wind, and they go forth over
the earth driving the heavy-laden snow-clouds before them, and the pale
snow-fairies who do their will. Down from the ice floes, and the dim,
silent, polar wastes, over land and sea, with a shout like the roar of
a battle, and a laugh like the crackle of thunder, while the hills
grow white with fear under his tread, and the forests bow themselves
and shriek in his fierce breath as the planks and rigging of a ship
shriek in a storm at sea, the North Wind comes. He was born hundreds of
thousands of years ago, in the Ice Age, when the glaciers crawled out
from the heart of the mountains, mile-long, grey-green monsters, over
what are now fertile meadows and sunny plains--before man or beast, so
vigorous was the keen-toothed frost, roamed over the surface of the
earth. His eyes are blue and clear; and they dance as you may see the
sky dance on a sharp winter's night; and his white beard hangs low on
his chest, which is broad and firm as a hill-side; and he is in the
full vigour of a lusty manhood still, and it promises to be a very long
while yet before his eye grows dim or his limbs grow weak with age.
Some think, indeed, that as he saw man first born into the world, he
may live to see him die off it again--to see this great ball, which
so long has been our human dwelling-place and home, rolling silent
out into immeasurable space, a dead planet, locked in the arms of
everlasting frost.

But be that as it may, on the fair Sunday morning, when our friend
little Peter, his mother, and brothers, and Eliza, were going through
the pine forest to the church at Nullepart, the North Wind was up
and walking southward, southward over Europe, with the great, grey
snow-clouds hurrying on before, for he had hard work to do. And, as the
day wore on, he gathered the clouds from east and west, and packed them
together in a vast, dusky mass over the town, and the forest and the
limestone crags and gorges, and the wide, flat meadows where the cows
pasture in summer, and over little Peter's home. And then he bade the
snow-fairies bestir themselves, and prick the clouds as full of holes
as the top of a flour-dredge, and wrap all the country in a robe of
spotless white.

Now, it happened that among the snow-fairies there was one who was
very young and tender-hearted. Indeed she was not really a snow-fairy
at all, but a child of the soft South Wind, who, when all her sisters
flew away--as the swallows fly in autumn--to the tropics, overslept
herself and got left behind by mistake. And she had joined the
snowfairies because she was dull and lonely, and could find no other
playfellows, and nothing to do. But, for all that, she did not care
to help them in their work, for she had not been brought up to it,
you see, and it seemed to her a sad, chilly business. So instead of
laughing and playing and flitting about, and easing the great lumbering
clouds of their burden, she sat down by herself in a hollow of one of
them and cried, and cried. For she could not help thinking of all the
sheep on lonely hillsides; and of the small birds seeking food and
finding none in the snow-buried fields, and lanes, and hedges; and of
little neglected children, of whom, alas! there are always so many, in
bare cottage or dreary, city cellar, with no warm clothes, or food,
or firing; and of wayfarers on barren heaths and bleak moors; and of
the beggars, and vagabonds, and outcasts, the sorry throng of refuse
humanity, that tramps the high roads of every country of the civilised
world, with neither home, nor hope, nor money, and as she thought of
their frost-nipped hands, and bleeding feet, and scanty rags, she cried
as if her little heart would break.

But the snow-fairies were vexed with her, and scolded and flouted her,
for it is, as you all know, a great nuisance to have somebody crying
and sobbing and making a fuss, when you yourselves feel quite happy
and comfortable. And at last, in their irritation against her, they
made such a noise and clamour, and so pushed and plagued and hustled
the poor little creature, that the squabbling and commotion reached
the ears of the North Wind himself, and he asked what in the name of
common-sense was the matter. Then the snow-fairies all pointed at her,
and all began chattering at once, as you may hear a flock of starlings
chattering in the tops of the beeches at sunset, on a mild March day.
But the North Wind told them to go about their business; and he took
up the little fairy and stood her in the hollow of his great hand, and
asked her quite gently--for the stronger a man is the gentler he can
be, as you will very likely find out some fine day--why she was so sad.

Then, though she was horribly frightened and blushed up to the tips
of her pretty ears, as a modest young maiden should, she looked the
great North Wind bravely in the face and told him her little story--how
she had been left behind, how she loved the sunshine and the summer,
and how she grieved for the misery and famine that winter brings, too
often, on man and bird and beast.

'And I don't see _why_ it should all happen,' she said; 'or why there
cannot be summer all the year.'

Still, though she spoke up so courageously, the poor, little fairy
trembled, for she thought that the North Wind would be angry, as the
snow-fairies had been, and that he might crush her tiny life into
nothingness in the grasp of his great hand. But the North Wind did
nothing of the kind. He looked at her till his clear, dancing eyes grew
dim and misty; and when, at last, he spoke his voice was low and sweet
and sad as church bells that the sailor hears far out at sea, as he
sails at evening in sight of some fair, foreign coast.

'Ah, my child!' he said, 'all those who have once been happy, young and
old, wise and foolish, mortal and immortal, mighty princes, prophets,
psalmists, all living creatures, nay, the very earth herself, all that
my eyes have looked on through unnumbered centuries, have asked and
still ask that question in some form or other; but the answer is not
granted yet. And so, knowing that till the end it may not be told us,
we grow humble and grow wise; and learn that it is best to do the work
that is appointed us without doubt or hesitation, careless whether
it be known or unknown, pleasant or unpleasant, hard or soft, kind
or cruel even, so that we get it well and honestly done. As for you,
you have lost your way and have wandered from the business set for
you to do, and therefore you are filled with sadness, and fears, and
questionings. But have patience for a while, and have faith, too, that
the mysterious purposes of the Almighty, your Master and mine, will
certainly be made plain at last.--Meanwhile, go and help your cousins
the snow-fairies. And then, because, though you are honest and brave,
you still are frail and tender, when the night of my winter reign is
over, I will give you back into the keeping of my kinsman the South
Wind, who will find less sharp and cutting work for you to do.'

And all this, though you may not at first see exactly how, has a great
deal to do with the story of our friend, little Peter; and therefore,
even at the risk of your thinking it somewhat dry and puzzling, it has
seemed to me well to set it down for you to read here.



CHAPTER VII.

WHICH DESCRIBES A PLEASANT DINNER-PARTY, AND AN UNPLEASANT WALK.


For when little Peter and his mother and brothers came out of the
church at Nullepart, the sun had been hidden some time behind thick
clouds. Fierce gusts of wind rushed down the street, blowing off hats,
and blowing about petticoats, and making window-shutters rattle, and
doors slam.

'Make haste, children, make haste,' cried Susan Lepage. 'We must get
our dinner at the Red Horse and start homewards as quickly as we can.'

'Oh! I have been hearing something so terrible,' said Eliza, to her
mistress, as she came down the church steps. 'Not that I am surprised
at it--no, no, no. I have always suspected it. I am sure his appearance
this morning was enough to confirm one's worst suspicions.'

Eliza pursed up her lips and shook her head with an air of extreme
wisdom.

'They do say that Paqualin is a wizard,' she went on. 'Take care,
Peter; if you look one way and walk another, you will unquestionably
tumble down. And you needn't stare at me so. I wasn't talking to
you.--Joseph Berri, the watchmaker's brother, has just been telling me
all about it. There is no doubt he overlooked one of Miller Georgeon's
draught oxen three years ago, so that it would not eat, and grew daily
thinner and thinner, and had, at last, to be killed.--Go on, Peter;
your ears will grow as long as a donkey's if you are always listening
like that.--And they do say he can call up evil spirits, and storms,
and thunder and lightning, and whirlwinds, when he wants them for his
own vicious purposes.'

'Nonsense, Eliza, nonsense,' said Susan Lepage. 'You are far too
willing to listen to idle, ill-natured tales.'

Eliza sighed profoundly and turned up her eyes.

'Ah!' she murmured, 'some day, ma'am, you will see who was in the
right, and give credit where it is due. For my part, if it does snow
to-day, I shall know what to think.'

'Make haste, children,' said Susan Lepage again. 'The time draws on,
and we have no time to waste.'

But it was not so easy to make haste. The large dining-room of the Red
Horse, with its tall, white-curtained windows, was crowded. From up the
valley and down the valley in their long, narrow, country carts--for
all the world like tea-trays set on four wheels--with cracking whips
and jangling bells, or on foot, from lonely hamlets in the forest, or
solitary herdsmen's huts on the steep grass slopes beneath the grey
limestone cliffs and crags, all the inhabitants of the district had
gathered to attend the church, and see the show, and spend a merry
Sunday. And among all these good people were many friends of Susan
Lepage, who detained her with greetings and questions. Then, too, the
places at the tables were already taken, and it was some time before
the boys and their mother could get seats. Even so little Peter had to
squeeze himself into a very small space between Madame Georgeon,--the
stout, comely wife of Monsieur Georgeon, the miller at Oùdonc--and
his mother. But little Peter thought it all delightful, though he was
rather pinched as to elbow-room. He liked the rattle of the knives and
forks, and the many voices, and the talk and laughter; and watched with
great curiosity the active serving-maids, balancing in their hands--and
indeed all up their arms, too, so it seemed--an incredible number of
plates and dishes. Even the floor sprinkled with sawdust, and the not
altogether spotless table-cloth, were interesting. For it was all new,
you see, to little Peter; and even things not very nice in themselves
are charming when they are new.

Then, too, Peter was very hungry; and though Madame Georgeon's full
skirts overflowed his small legs, and her handsome shawl, thrown
gracefully back from her shoulders--the room was warm, what with the
great, china stove in the corner and all the company--and though her
shawl, I say, enveloped him entirely now and then in a cloud of many
coloured cashmere, the miller's wife was very kind, and coaxed and
petted him, and piled up his plate with all manner of dainty things.

'Eh, _par exemple_,' she said, smiling and nodding at him as she sipped
her glass of red wine--'it is not every day we go into society, is it,
to meet old friends and make new ones? You, Susan Lepage, from a child
were of a serious turn of mind. That is an excellent thing, too, no
doubt. It secures the future. But the present should not be despised
either. The members of my family--the saints be praised--have ever
possessed a little grain of gaiety in their composition. For my part I
think it is only economical to make the most of this world while you
are permitted to be in it. And I regard it as an actual impiety to
neglect any opportunity of innocent entertainment. Eat, my child, eat
then--a spoonful or so more of this admirable pastry. See, on my plate
here. I was provident when the dish came round, and secured a double
portion.'

Then, turning, she smiled at Susan Lepage again:--

'Do not alarm yourself. It will not injure him. He will walk it off.
Exercise is a fine thing to prevent food lying heavy on the stomach.'

'Perhaps moderation is a finer one still,' answered the other gently.
'But are you not ready, my sons? We must not linger, though you in your
kindness would tempt us to do so, good Madame Georgeon. We do not drive
home by the high road as you do, but go on foot through the forest, and
the days are short.--Antony, we should surely be moving.'

But Antony was in no haste to be going, for he, too, was making the
most of this opportunity of innocent enjoyment. He sat beside Marie
Georgeon, the miller's pretty daughter, who certainly took after
her mother's family in respect of gaiety. And, clean glasses being
somewhat scarce at the Red Horse from the unusual number of guests, it
happened that she and Antony shared one; and her brown eyes were as
full of mischief as a May morning is full of sunshine as she glanced
up at him over the rim of it, and laughed and talked, and fingered
the gold and garnet necklace that fitted so neatly about her throat.
And what with her pretty looks and merry words, the young fellow's
head was completely turned--and if you do not quite understand what
that means, you need only wait a little, for you are bound to find out
clearly enough some day. And, as the inevitable consequence of his
head being turned, he hardly heard his mother when she spoke to him,
and made no haste in the world to finish his dinner, and loitered and
dawdled about upon one excuse and another as long as possible; and, I
am sorry to say, spoke quite snappishly to his brother Paul, when the
latter pointed out to him that the clock had struck three already, and
that it was high time to be going. You see, it is just as well not to
understand--by experience, anyhow--what it is to have your head turned,
since it leads to these deplorable errors both of manners and conduct.

So it fell out that when at last our friends left the jovial company
at the Red Horse, and came out from the steaming dining-room into the
street, the snow-fairies had already been some half-hour at work, and
the roadway and house-roofs were all lightly powdered with snow. To
little Peter, warm with his dinner, this seemed the crowning piece
of fun of a glorious day. He could hardly get along for turning to
look at the marks his nailed boots made in the snow. But Susan Lepage
thought very differently. She glanced up at the dull, clouded sky, and
remembered the sad words of John Paqualin, the charcoal-burner, that
everyone had treated so lightly some few hours ago.

'Will it last, do you think?' she asked of Antony.

Antony, however, was still thinking of pretty Marie Georgeon, with whom
he had shared the kernel of a double almond at parting, both wishing
as they eat it. He was wishing his wish still, and it was such an
agreeable one that he felt quite superior to all inconvenient incidents
in the way of snowstorms and such like.--He cocked his cap more on one
side than ever, and assumed quite a patronising air, even towards his
mother, which, to say the least, was very silly of him.

'It may last or it may not,' he answered. 'But really, it doesn't very
much matter.'

'I wish that your father was with us,' added Susan.

'Why?' cried Antony. 'He couldn't stop it snowing any more than I can.
And pray remember, mother, that this isn't by any means the first time
I have walked home from Nullepart in bad weather. I believe I could
find my way back blindfold or at midnight for that matter.'

'I am not at all troubled about you, my son,' replied his mother
quietly, 'but about our poor little Peter here, with his little short
legs.'

'Oh, Peter will do well enough,' said the lad impatiently.

Some find it difficult to make room in their hearts for more than one
person at a time, you know; and Antony's heart was still pretty well
occupied by Marie Georgeon. He walked along briskly humming the tune of
_Partant pour la Syrie_, which is a song about a young soldier who was
pious as well as brave; and a lucky fellow into the bargain, for when
he came back from the war he married his master the count's daughter,
and lived happily ever after.

'Never mind, mother,' said Paul; 'if the snow is deep, or Peter is
tired, I can carry him pick-a-back. He's not very heavy, you know.'

'I shan't be tired. I like the snow,' cried little Peter, and he
clapped his hands and pranced about, till Eliza--who was still rather
cross because her cousin had neglected to invite her to dinner--caught
hold of him and made him walk soberly.

'If you laugh so now there will be tears before night,' she said.
'Laugh at breakfast, cry at dinner, laugh at dinner, cry at
supper-time. Ah, dear me! this cold wind; I wish I had thought to put
some wool in my ears--I shall be martyred with the toothache.'

So they passed down the main street. It was almost deserted now, for
the storm had driven people to take shelter in the wine shops, or,
which was far wiser, in their own houses. Even the pigs had gone to
their styes, and the fowls to their roosts; and the goats, with their
little tinkling bells, were safe housed, too, in their sheds, munching
the dry, brown hay that in the summer-time had waved as green grass
full of a rainbow of flowers. They passed by the smaller houses and
out-buildings, and the great saw-mills where the pine logs from the
mountains are cut up, that stand along the bank of the swift river; and
crossed the bridge with the dark water rushing underneath; and began
climbing the road that zig-zags up the long hill between the great,
bare walnut-trees and stubble fields, and wild rocky pastures, to the
edge of the pine forest--four tall straight figures, and one short
roundabout one, showing black against the ever-deepening snow.

[Illustration]

For, alas! the snow was falling thicker and thicker--here in the
open it was already up to the second lace-hole of little Peter's
boots--scurrying and racing in wild confusion before the icy breath of
the North Wind; twisting, and twirling, and dancing; clinging to grass
blade, and bush, and branch, and tree stem; hiding the road so that you
could no longer see the margin of it; covering the wheel tracks and
marks of the horse hoofs; filling up hollows under the grey rocks and
boulders, and blurring the jagged outline of the pine-trees where they
rise against the sky. Hundreds of thousands of white, hurrying flakes,
soft, silent multitudes, filling the air as far as eye could see. There
was no fun now in turning round to look at the marks of his nailed
boots, for Peter found the snow hid them again almost as soon as they
were made; and it was hard work, too, struggling up the steep hill and
battling with the wind.

Still the little fellow trudged along without making any complaint.
For, you see, he had often heard his father praise the virtues of the
Ancient Romans, their courage and endurance; and so Peter had got the
notion into his head that it is rather a grand thing not to mind what
is uncomfortable and disagreeable, and that it is rather a shameful
and unworthy thing to grumble and make a fuss, and cry when your
chilblains itch, or you happen to bump your head against the table, or
when your legs ache, as his legs began to ache now, with the length and
steepness of the hill. More than once his mother stopped and called
him to her, and told him he was a good, brave, little man, and pulled
the collar of his overcoat up about his red, little ears. And Peter,
though he would not have said so for three dozen baking apples, or half
a washing-basket full of sugar pigs, did find it very comfortable to
stand still in the shelter of her petticoats for a minute or two and
get his breath. The town below was hidden in the driving snow, and the
dark wall of the pine-trees loomed nearer and nearer.

At last the forest path was reached, and here it was better walking.
The snow was lighter, and there was shelter from the force of the wind.
But they had taken so much time in climbing the hill that the dusk was
coming on, and there was still a long way to go.

Antony no longer whistled. He walked on steadily ahead of the others,
turning round now and then with a fine air of superiority and command.
Antony, indeed, was as yet not at all displeased with the adventure.
He believed that this was an occasion on which he showed to great
advantage. His mother followed him in silence. Little Peter came next.
He had taken his brother Paul's hand now, and trotted along as fast as
his sturdy little legs would carry him, for to tell the honest truth he
was getting a trifle frightened. The birds had all hidden themselves
away in the thick brushwood, and no longer welcomed him with their
merry round eyes. The well-known path looked mysterious, almost awful,
in the half-light, with the tall ranks of the pine-trees on either
side of it swaying in the blast. Sometimes the snow would slip in great
masses from the high branches and fall close to little Peter's feet, as
if the black dwarf was throwing snowballs at him. Poor Peter began to
feel very shivery and creepy, and did not the least care to look round
lest _something_, he did not exactly know what--and that made it all
the worse, perhaps--should be coming tripping, tripping, tripping over
the white ground behind him.

But the only person who really came behind little Peter was Eliza;
and though I do not want to be rude to Eliza, who was a very worthy
young woman in her way, I cannot pretend to say that she was doing
anything so graceful as tripping over the snow. Not a bit of it. Eliza
was extremely disgruntled by the events of the day, and was as full of
complaints and lamentations as a hedgehog's back is full of spines.
The wet snow had made her fine, white cap limp and drabbled; so that
instead of standing up like the vizor of an ancient helmet, the big,
lace frill of it tumbled in the most melancholy manner about her face.
She had turned the skirt of her dress up over her head; and what with
holding it, and her books tied up in her handkerchief, and what with
the tightness of her boots, which were a pair of brand new ones and
half a size too small for her into the bargain, Eliza came very much
nearer floundering than tripping over the snow.

The forest opens out in places into wide spaces of waste moorland.
Across these by daylight or in fine weather it is easy enough to find
the right road; but on such an evening as I am telling you about it is
by no means easy. On the edge of the moorland, Susan Lepage called to
Antony to stop.

'Go slowly,' she said, 'and pray be careful. If we once mistake the
path we may find ourselves in a sad plight. I wish your father was with
us! Go on in front,' she added, turning to Paul, 'and I will follow
you.'

Now his mother's words rather nettled Antony.

[Illustration: LOST. _Page 110._]

'You haven't any real confidence in me,' he said sulkily; 'or you
wouldn't be repeating all the while that you wish my father was here.'

You see, Antony had been a good deal flattered and excited by his
pretty companion at the Red Horse at Nullepart. And it often happens,
unfortunately, that pleasure when it is past makes us quarrelsome.
He kicked the snow about with his foot, and his handsome, young face
looked quite rebellious and naughty.

'No, no, my son,' Susan Lepage answered gently. 'I have every
confidence in your good intentions. But the way must needs be difficult
to find. I merely caution you to be careful.'

'Of course I shall be careful,' said the lad angrily, as he stepped
from the shelter of the pine trees into the dim, white waste beyond.

For a time all went well; but, all of a sudden, the ground began
to grow rough and uneven under foot. Peter stumbled and fell, and
scrambled up again half smothered in snow, his poor, little mouth and
eyes full of it, and his hands scratched with the harsh heath roots and
stones beneath.

'Antony, Antony, we are wandering!' cried his mother, as she wiped
the snow out of Peter's eyes and off his clothes, and kissed him. The
little boy clung to her, for he felt very desolate and cheerless. He
did not think it in the least amusing now to be out in the storm. He
longed for the warm, cosy kitchen and for the society of Cincinnatus;
but he choked down his tears as his mother kissed him, and tried to be
very brave and not to mind his tumble.

Antony turned back, he was a few steps ahead.

'We can only have missed the path by a yard or two,' he said hurriedly.
'You just stand still and I'll find it.'

And he did find it. But, alas! he could not keep to it, for the light
faded and darkness came on quicker and quicker, and still the snow
fell in hundreds of thousands of soft white flakes. Eliza groaned and
lamented, and our poor, little Peter's snow-clogged boots began to
chill his feet through, and his hands grew as cold as frogs' paws, and
he got more and more hungry and tired. But he did not grumble about it,
for he knew his mother and brothers were cold and weary too; so he
struggled on manfully through the ankle-deep snow. And, at last, he got
too tired even to feel hungry, and began to cry quite gently to himself.

[Illustration]

'Please, mother,' he said, 'I can't go any further.'

Susan Lepage took him up in her arms and held him close against her
bosom. She did not speak; but, if it had been light enough to see, I
think Peter would have found that she was crying too. For the ground
was all rough and uneven under foot again; and though Antony went first
to the right hand and then to the left he could not make out the road
at all.

'I've come all wrong, mother,' he said, and his voice trembled. 'I
don't know where we are or which way we are walking. We are lost.'

There was a silence before his mother answered him.

'You have done your best,' she said. 'The event is in the hands of
God.'



CHAPTER VIII.

WHICH PROVES THAT EVEN PHILOSOPHIC POLITICIANS MAY HAVE TO ADMIT
THEMSELVES IN THE WRONG.


But now it is quite time for us to go back to the old, wooden
farm-house on the edge of the forest, and see what Master Lepage, and
Gustavus, and that intelligent and experienced person, Cincinnatus, are
doing, while the rest of the household are wandering, alas! not without
growing alarm, and even suffering, in the darkness and cold and snow.

In point of fact, then, though Master Lepage had been so very
determined to please himself by sitting at home, he had found the day
uncommonly long and dull. For he was one of those sociable persons
who are never quite happy without an audience to hold forth to
and instruct, and convince of their own remarkable wisdom and the
hearers' equally remarkable folly. And then, too, for all that he
appeared somewhat dictatorial and high-handed, Lepage was at bottom
an affectionate and warm-hearted man, who loved his wife and children
tenderly. And so, as the afternoon drew on, and the wind rose and the
clouds gathered, he began to get into a fine fume and fret. He walked
up and down the warm, cosy kitchen as restless as a bear in a pit; and
knocked double postman's knocks on the weather glass, and declared out
loud that the mercury was going up, when he saw perfectly well that
it was going down; and did a number of other useless things to try to
persuade himself that he was not one bit anxious or uneasy.

'How inferior is the education of men to that of cats!' thought
Cincinnatus. 'Before I was old enough to lap milk out of a saucer,
my mother had taught me the vulgarity of giving way to purposeless
agitation. "Calm," she would say, "is even a greater sign of
good-breeding than a curl of hair inside the ears." In my poor master,
there, calm and ear-curls alike are wanting. What a situation! Thank
heaven, I at least was born a cat!'

But, you see, Master Lepage had really some cause for his restlessness,
for all this while he was struggling with an unseen enemy. Deep down
in that innermost chamber of the heart--the door of which we most of
us keep so tight shut because we know Truth sits within weighing and
judging all our thoughts and actions, and letting us know from time to
time just what she thinks about them in the very plainest language--in
that innermost heart-chamber, I say, Lepage was aware that there was a
busy, active feeling of shame and remorse. And while Truth pushed hard
at the door inside to let the Feeling out, he pushed equally hard on
the outside to keep the Feeling in. But when finally the snow began to
fall, and the daylight lessen, and the storm grow fierce and fiercer,
Truth pushed and bumped and banged upon the poor door so unmercifully
that Master Lepage, sturdy veteran though he was, grew quite weary of
opposing her. And so the busy Feeling popped out first its head, and
then its two arms, and then squeezed itself out all together, and began
racing up and down the whole length and breadth of the old soldier's
heart in the most audacious manner.

'You were obstinate and conceited this morning,' said the Feeling; 'you
wouldn't listen to John Paqualin, the charcoal-burner. Look at the
snow!'

'The glass was rising,' answered Lepage. 'I am perfectly certain it
was. And John Paqualin is a madman.'

'Madman yourself,' said the Feeling--for feelings are very free-spoken,
you know, and don't mince matters--'madman yourself for letting your
wife, who is a delicate woman, and that poor child, little Peter, run
such a risk of cold, and fatigue, and perhaps worse.'

'Antony knows the way,' answered Lepage again. 'And he's an able
fellow.'

'He is a boy, and like most boys is thoughtless and self-opinionated.
He takes after you in that last, by the same token,' said the Feeling.

'I am a philosophic politician,' cried Lepage, somewhat hotly. 'I
worship the goddess of Reason.'

'Do you?' said the Feeling. 'And these newspapers you were so anxious
to sit at home and read to-day, full--as you perfectly well know--of
garbled news, and one-sided statements, and of cheap party cries--they
are the voice of Reason, are they?'

'Hang you!' answered Lepage--which was not at all a pretty way of
answering. But then, you see, poor Master Lepage was getting very
angry because he was very uncomfortable; and when persons are both
uncomfortable and angry they are liable to make use of expressions
which, very properly, are not printed in the French and English
conversation books that you study in the schoolroom.--'I won't listen
to you. So away with you. I have no doubt--'

'No doubt, haven't you?' said the Feeling. 'Well, I am glad to hear
that.'

'No doubt at all--ten thousand plagues on you--no doubt at all, I say,
that my wife and children will be home in ten minutes at the latest.
Meanwhile I will read a little. I will improve my mind with the history
of those grand, old Romans.'

So Lepage got down the history book, and it fell open at one of his
favourite passages--the account of the Consul, Marcus Attilius Regulus,
who, rather than break his word, left his home and kindred and gave
himself up to his pitiless enemies, and bore in silence all the cruel
tortures to which they subjected him.

'There was a man!' cried Lepage, as he wiped his spectacles with his
red pocket-handkerchief.

'Yes, indeed, a very different man to you, Francis Louis Lepage,' said
the Feeling.

'Why, why what do you mean? Twenty thousand cut-throat Prussians!--at
least I am no coward. No one has ever accused me of that before. What
was I ever afraid of?'

[Illustration: WAITING. _Page 120._]

'Of a little trouble,' answered the Feeling. 'Of a walk, for instance,
when you felt inclined to sit at home smoking--of what one or two
silly, feather-headed fellows, who fancy themselves mighty sharp and
clever, might perhaps say about you, if you were seen kneeling down
beside your wife and sons, in the church there, with your head
uncovered, praying God to forgive you your sins.--Pooh, don't talk
about your courage to me!' said the Feeling.

Master Lepage sat very still for some time after that in the
window-seat, with the Roman History wide open before him; but he did
not care to go on reading about the Consul Regulus. He remembered how
little Peter had climbed on his knee on Friday evening, and coaxed him
to go to Nullepart to see the Infant Jesus and the stable; and had
said--poor, little lad, what a nice, little face he had--Lepage rubbed
the end of his hooked nose, and sniffed--that if only his father came
with them they would all be so happy.

'Well, I hope they have been happy,' he said to himself. 'It is more
than I have been, in any case.'

He turned and looked out of window. Ah! how it snowed, and how dark it
was growing.

'And with this wind, on the moorland the snow will drift. If they have
the intelligence of a blue owl between them they will have started
early!' he cried quite fiercely. 'Ten thousand plagues--poor dear
souls,' he added, for Master Lepage was getting a little confused
somehow.

[Illustration]

He hurried across the kitchen to the house-door and flung it wide
open, and standing on the threshold, gazed long and earnestly down the
dim forest path, drawing his shaggy eyebrows together till they stood
out like _chevaux de frise_ above his keen, grey eyes.

'Ho-la, ho-la, hey!' he shouted. But there was no answer save the
roaring of the wind among the pines and the soft 'hush, hush,' of the
falling snow.

Now for some time past Cincinnatus had been sitting very composedly
staring with his great, yellow eyes into the glowing log fire, and
meditating pleasantly on the inferiority of men to cats. But when
Master Lepage, a prey to that remorseful Feeling which Truth had
let loose to tramp where it would up and down his heart, threw the
house-door wide open, the icy breath of the North Wind rushed wildly
into the kitchen, and made our friend Cincinnatus feel uncommonly cool
about the back.

'Neither calm nor ear-curls, dear me!' he murmured to himself as he
rose slowly, stretching one fore leg and then the other, and then each
hind leg in turn--shaking the last leg rapidly for a moment, too,
because it was slightly cramped--and yawning the while so wide, that
his pink tongue was curled up quite tight, like a rolling-pin, at the
back of his mouth. Then he moved away with dignity, intending to take
up his station upon the cushion of the big arm-chair that stood in the
corner nicely out of the draught. But all of a sudden Cincinnatus heard
something that made him jump all on one side with an arched back and a
bristling tail, and say 'Pffzsh!' twice over, as loud as ever he had
said it in his life.

It was an unfamiliar sound that so startled Cincinnatus, for Master
Lepage was pulling strongly at the rope of the big bell that hung under
the centre gable of the old house, and the urgent clang of its iron
voice rang through the thick, snow-laden air far over the forest. The
bell had been placed there long years before to summon neighbours--the
house standing in a solitary place--in case of fire or accident. And
now Lepage rang it with a double purpose, trusting that even if its
friendly tones failed to reach the ears of the poor wanderers, it
might at least bring Gustavus, the cowherd, from his father's cottage
on the edge of the pastures, where he was spending the Sunday, and that
he might help him search for the wife and children whom he loved so
well.

'By my great-grandmother's whiskers!' exclaimed Cincinnatus, as he
settled himself down on the chair cushion, 'what with draughts, and
bell-ringing, and one thing and another, this house will soon be
impossible for a cat of any pretensions to gentility. Compare it
with the Sacristan's establishment, now, where you can't tell one
day from another except by the smell of the different soups for
dinner.--Delightful!--With an occasional vocal evening, too, in the
back garden, when the moon is full. Lots are strangely unequal in this
world!--Pffzsh! and to add to everything else, if there actually is not
that intolerable charcoal-burner.'

John Paqualin stood on the threshold, a flaming torch of pine boughs
in his hand; his long, unkempt hair was white with snow, and so was
the tattered cloth cloak that hung in so many folds from his stooping
shoulders. His eyes were bright and glowing.

'Ah! the wind,' he said, 'the glorious wind, the roar and the shout of
it; the cry of the trees that strain, and the passionate snap of the
branches--like heart-strings that snap under the blast of incurable
sorrow. And the snow, soft and pure, and light as the coverlet a young
mother lays on her first-born's cradle--getting a little too thick just
now, though, that coverlet.--Eh! what's this? have you smothered the
infant--laid it over the face as well? Be careful, then, with your--But
the bell,' he added suddenly, interrupting himself, and catching hold
of Master Lepage with his hard, thin fingers--'it called to me, while I
was listening to the roll of the drums, and the blare of the trumpets,
and the scream of the fifes in the forest there, and made me come
hither whether I would or no. What do you want spoiling all my splendid
wind-music with your infernal bell-clatter?'

'Want!' cried Lepage hoarsely; 'I want help.'

Paqualin laughed aloud.

'Hey-ho,' he said. 'Times are changed, are they? I never heard you sing
that song before.'

Lepage let go the bell-rope, and raised his clenched fist. But he did
not strike the blow. Something stopped him. Perhaps it was that same
remorseful Feeling which Truth had let loose in his heart.

'Come inside, Paqualin,' he said quite quietly, after a moment or two.
'Now try to remember.--My wife and sons and our maid-servant went to
church at Nullepart this morning. You did your best to prevent them
going. You said the snow was coming, and it has come. They should have
been back a good two hours ago, and they are not here yet.'

'Not here yet,' repeated the charcoal-burner slowly.

'No, not yet.' Lepage drew his hand across his eyes. 'Would to God,' he
said, 'I had gone along with them.--But see now, I will light the lamp
and leave the house-door open; and then will go out to search for them.
You can find your way like a hound, they say, by night or day, through
the forest. Will you come with me and help me?'

Paqualin stood in front of the fire; the snow on his hair and cloak
melted and ran down, forming a little pool of water about his ill-shod
feet.

'I am not over and above fond of you, Francis Lepage,' he said
presently, 'as you most likely know already. Love and hatred alike can
tell their own story without much need of spoken words. I think you a
vain man and a hard one; but your wife is as pitiful as the saints in
heaven. You want me to help you to find her? You have not got a dog to
do the work for you, and so you'll take me. Ah, well! I've known the
dog's place pretty well all my life long;--the kicks and the cuffs, and
the grudging crust from the master's table; and then the "Here! my good
fellow, good cur, here! nose down, tail up, the scent's cold, but still
you're sharp enough to find it; and sweat and faint to catch the hare
that will make your owner a savoury supper, while you slink home to the
dirty straw and the mouldy crust again." Yes, yes--to be sure, I'll go
with you and find them and bring them home; your fair wife and your
children, and leave you happy and go back to my hut and the voices--not
for your sake though, mind you, but for hers--the only woman whose eyes
have ever looked kindly upon me.'

'Come on your own terms,' said Lepage.

Just then Gustavus, in his heavy boots, came clumping into the kitchen.

'The bell, master--has the red cow calved of a sudden?' he asked. For
once in his life Gustavus appeared to be quite excited. He forgot to
take off his hat or put down his big cotton umbrella, from off which
the wet snow slipped in little avalanches, _sthlop_, on to the floor.

'Calf thyself, with thy great, stupid, cheese face!' cried the
charcoal-burner.

Then while Lepage gave the cowherd his orders, and got some things
together to take with them, Paqualin stood murmuring to himself, with
his head bent low, and his lean, grimy hands stretched out towards the
comfortable blaze of the fire:--

[Illustration]

'You, the man, welcome, and brave, and beloved. I, the dog, to show the
man the way. Gustavus, there, the ass, to trot behind loaded up with
the blankets, and the food, and the brandy. And in the end, what? A
bone for the dog, a thistle for the ass, and for the man kisses. Which
has the best of it? Hardly fair, is it, eh?'

'Umph,' said Gustavus, as he got the big bundle on to his back.
'Perhaps she'll be a bit soft-hearted when she sees me. Maybe the snow
will have taken some of the starch out of our Eliza.'



CHAPTER IX.

WHICH IS VERY SHORT, BECAUSE, IN SOME WAYS, IT IS RATHER SAD.


Have you ever looked for something you cared for very much and failed
to find it? A dolly, for instance, forgotten at play in the garden,
swept up with the dead leaves, and never seen after. Or, still worse, a
dear little kitten of an adventurous turn of mind, that went out in the
woods for a walk by himself and never came home again, though you ran
down the church-lane and up to the top of the pasture, crying, 'Puss,
puss, puss!' till you were quite hoarse, and cross, and tired, and
nurse said you must come in because it was past bed-time and the dew
was rising, and a number of other things which were perfectly true, but
which didn't throw any light on the whereabouts of the kitten. How did
you feel? Why, just the most miserable little boy or girl in all the
world, to be sure.

Or supposing, on the other hand, that you found dolly at last, after
all; but with all the red washed off her lips and cheeks, and the mould
mixed up with her yellow hair, and her smart frock wet and torn, and
one of her waxen legs squashed flat where the wheel of the gardener's
barrow had gone over it. Or that the keeper brought back poor kitty
some three or four days later, stiff and cold, and said:--'Bin
poaching, bin caught in a gin; thought little missy 'ud like to know
the end of 'er.' Well, did that make matters much better? I don't think
so myself, and at one time of my life I had a good deal of experience
in these things, so I have the right to speak. For it is a poor
pleasure at best to play that dolly is sick of a fever, when you see
that she does not get a bit better, even though you dose her ten times
a day with an elaborate preparation of slate-pencil scrapings. And as
to begging a candle-box of the housemaid for a coffin, and having a
grand funeral in the shrubbery for the kitten, that is terrible work
indeed, and makes your eyes so red with crying that you are quite
ashamed to go down to dessert in the evening.

Now, if you and I have felt so very unhappy over our dolls and kittens
when we lost them--and found them again, maybe, but always a good deal
the worse for the losing--how do you think Master Lepage felt as he
went out that dark, stormy, snowy night, with the charcoal-burner and
Gustavus, into the forest? He was very silent as he tramped through
the snow, while the wind roared in the pines above him, and blew about
the flame of his torch, making it twist and twirl, and flicker and
glimmer, sometimes casting a red glare far over the white ground and
the great, grey tree-stems and John Paqualin's crooked, uncouth form
flitting on just ahead of him; and sometimes dying down till all the
scene was wrapped in darkness. He was very silent, I say, and not a bit
like vivacious, loquacious Master Lepage who used to sit and hold forth
in the wine-shop, and thump the table and make the glasses ring; but
more like Sergeant Lepage, who, with his teeth set and his face fierce
and white, had marched up under fire of the enemies' guns in battle
long ago in Italy or Africa. Lepage marched under fire now, and the
battlefield was his own heart. And oh! dear me, how many of his most
cherished ideas and beliefs the shot from those guns knocked over--his
pride, his self-importance, his trust in his own intellect and insight
and acuteness, his politics, his philosophy; nothing, in short, nothing
was left standing, except a sense of remorse for his past folly and his
love for his wife and his children.

'If they have been merely delayed by the storm, we shall meet them on
the road here. If they are lost, they will have begun wandering on
the first stretch of moorland,' said John Paqualin. 'See, the snow
is ceasing, the stars begin to show in heaven. Eh! the frost, how it
bites!'

And so it did. As the snow stopped, the night grew colder and colder,
for all the ice-fairies came tripping out far and wide over hill and
valley, and built transparent piers and bridges across the streams
and pools, and hung icicles from the rocks and from the overhanging
eaves of the houses, and froze the breath on Lepage's long moustache,
and made the earth like iron beneath his feet. Yet he and his two
companions still marched on through the forest. They could go but
slowly, for in the open spaces the snow had drifted deep, and where the
forest paths crossed each other it required all the charcoal-burner's
knowledge and skill to tell which was the right one. Now and again they
would halt for a minute or two and call aloud, and then listen hoping
for an answer; but it was close upon midnight, and they had walked more
than half the way to Nullepart before they came upon any trace of those
they so earnestly searched for.

Here, as I have already told you, the path crosses a wide stretch of
rolling moorland, covered with heather and stunted bushes, thorns and
brambles and whortle-berry and juniper; while in places crop out large
limestone blocks and boulders, some standing together and looking like
the ruins of a giant's castle, others but just peeping above the
rough soil and encrusted with stone-crop, and ferns and many kinds of
mosses--a lovely play-place on a summer day, when the butterflies sport
over the heath, and the dragon-flies over the pools in the marshes, but
bleak and desolate enough on a December night, with the harsh north
wind and the snowstorm. On the edge of this moorland, before leaving
the shelter of the pines, Paqualin stopped.

'Shout,' he said, turning to the others, 'shout your loudest. The frost
has caught me by the throat, and squeezed my crooked windpipe till I
am as hoarse as a raven. But you are strong men. Shout, Lepage, for
love of your wife. And you, good ass, there, for love of Eliza your
sweetheart; she'll pay you in thistles, prickles and all, if you find
her.'

So they shouted, and this time there was an answer--a boy's voice half
choked with crying. And with a pale, haggard face, and in his eyes a
look of terror, from among the snow-laden pine-trees, came Antony.

'You alone!' cried Lepage. 'I trusted her to you; where are your mother
and brothers?'

'She sent us on to try to get help. Paul is here just behind me. We
lost ourselves, and wandered. She could get no further, and little
Peter is dead asleep, under the big rocks, there to the right, out on
the moor. Eliza does nothing but cry, and won't move.'

The boy was utterly faint and disheartened. He threw himself down on
the snow, and covered his face with his hands.

'I did my best, father,' he said, 'indeed, indeed I did; but I couldn't
find the way. It was dark, and there was nothing to guide us, and I got
bewildered with the cold. We were too late in starting, I know--that
was my fault. But I did my best afterwards. Oh! father, I did try to
take care of them. I couldn't help it. Say you forgive me.'

Paqualin did not wait to hear more. 'The big rocks out to the right,'
he repeated.

[Illustration: FOUND. _Page 138._]

His limbs were stiff with the sharp cold, which had penetrated his
threadbare clothes, and his feet were numb with the snow that had
worked its way in through the worn, cracked leather of his wretched
boots. Oh, yes! I am afraid he was a very funny figure indeed; and that
all the little boys in Nullepart would have hooted louder than ever if
they could have seen him, as with his long grasshopper legs, wild red
hair, and tattered cloak streaming out behind him, he shambled along,
slipping and staggering, in the half darkness over that long half-mile
of heath, and stone, and prickly bushes, and sly, deceitful snow-drifts
that stretched between the edge of the forest and the rocks.

'Here is help,' he shrieked in his shrill voice. 'It is I--I, John
Paqualin. Here is help.'

As he passed round in front into the shelter of the tall, grey rocks,
Susan Lepage rose up from the foot of them with a great cry.

She flung her arms about him, and rested her fair head on his shoulder.

'Ah! God has sent you,' she sobbed. 'I called upon Him in the
bitterness of my anguish, and He has heard me. Save us, John Paqualin;
in mercy save me and my children.'

The charcoal-burner's torch slipped from his grasp, and fell hissing
upon the ground.

'The dog gets something more than his bone for once,' he said between
his teeth.

For a minute or so, in that mysterious, ghostly radiance of dancing
star-light and white snow, he stood holding the weeping woman in his
arms.

'God sent me, though, did He?' he murmured at last. 'Then I must do His
good pleasure, not my own.'

Paqualin spoke low, and quite softly, notwithstanding that queer crack
in his voice.

'Look up, and take courage; there is better comfort than mine at hand.
Your two boys are safely cared for already, and your husband is coming.
The trouble is over. For you, at least, the morning begins to break.'

Then, as he heard the crunch of hurried footsteps coming over the snow
behind him, he turned and cried:--

'Here, take your wife, Lepage!'

Paqualin moved aside.

'For the man,' he said, half aloud--'well--what he's a right to. Get
back to your kennel, you hound.'

Now Eliza was sitting with her back against one of the rocks in the
burrow, where the snow was lightest, and little Peter, closely wrapped
in his mother's shawl, lay stupefied with sleep, with his head in her
lap. As Paqualin turned round, she moaned out:--

'No, no, don't come near me. I am dreadfully ill--probably I shall
never recover. I think I shall die. But I won't give way, I won't
listen to you. To the last I am true to Gustavus. Ah! my poor heart,
how it beats. Yes, I should like to have bidden a last farewell to
Gustavus.'

'Don't fret,' answered the charcoal-burner. 'Thy mooncalf is on the
road. He'll be here in plenty of time to say a good deal besides
good-bye to you, unless I am very much mistaken.'

Eliza gave a prodigious sigh.

'He will be too late, I know it, I know it. Ah! how will he live
without me, poor, faithful, broken-hearted Gustavus?'

Whether it was his mother's cry that roused him, or the sudden lights
and the voices, I do not know; but little Peter half awoke from the
heavy torpor of sleep into which the cold and fatigue had plunged him.

'I will not hush, Eliza. I love John Paqualin. Yes, I love him,' he
murmured.



CHAPTER X.

WHICH ENDS THE STORY.


'Something has gone very wrong,' said Cincinnatus to himself in the cat
language. 'I don't pretend to understand it. This, is one of those many
matters that I should be glad to take my cousin the Sacristan's cat's
opinion upon. Dear me! what a misfortune it is to live here in the
country, away from the centre of social intercourse and civilisation.'

Then Cincinnatus fell to washing his face with his paws, for he
had lately had his five o'clock saucer of milk, you see; and it is
etiquette in cat-land always to wash after meals, not before them as we
do.

The yellow earthenware stove was lighted in the bedroom, and
Cincinnatus sat opposite to the open door of it, and blinked at the
heart of crimson wood embers, set in a fringe of flaky, grey ashes.
It was very warm there, but Cincinnatus blinked and washed his face
slowly. As to the heat, it soothed him, and inclined him to make a
number of reflections.

'At the risk of repeating myself, I must observe that men are poor,
improvident, thoughtless creatures,' he went on presently; 'subject to
illness and accidents of all kinds. However, a thoughtful cat will not
be hard upon them. _Noblesse oblige._ Those who have the advantage can
afford to be generous. Fancy coming into this world, now, where the
weather is so extremely uncertain, all pink and bare as they do, poor
things, without any comfortable fur to cover them; and having to make
up for it by enclosing themselves in all sorts of shapeless, foreign
substances, prepared from sheep's wool or vegetables. And no tail
either! Imagine being deprived of that most dignified and expressive
member. Yet, you must give them their due. Necessity has certainly
made them very ingenious.'

Cincinnatus stretched himself lazily in the hot glow of the stove fire.

'But with all their ingenuity only one life,' he said yawning. 'And
that one, as I observed just now, subject to all manner of illness and
accident. We have nine lives! Who would be one of them if he could help
it? Poor things, no wonder if they envy us.'

Then Cincinnatus went across the boarded floor with his noiseless
tread, and jumped up on to little Peter's bed, and began purring in
the most amiable and engaging manner, sticking out all his claws and
then drawing them in again and making a nice tight little fist, as he
trampled on the bed-clothes, first with one fore-foot and then with the
other. He even went so far as to rub his head along against the little
boy's shoulder, which, considering his opinion of the relative position
of cats and mankind in the universal scale of being, was really very
condescending of him, to my thinking.

But little Peter did not speak or pay any attention to Cincinnatus.
He only sighed in his sleep, and turned his round, black head on the
pillow. Poor little Peter had lain just like that, quite still and
quiet, in bed ever since his father and the charcoal-burner had placed
him there when they had got home from that terrible walk in the snow,
about four o'clock in the morning. The ice-fairies, who really are
very elegant people and not at all disagreeable when you know them,
had come at sunrise and spread the most beautiful patterns--crowns and
crosses, and stars and diamonds, and ice flowers of a hundred exquisite
shapes--all over the window panes; but little Peter had been too tired
and sleepy to get up and look at them. And when, in the afternoon,
not without struggle and difficulty, for the road was dangerous with
snow-drifts, the kind, old doctor, with his red nose and his snuffbox,
had ridden over from Nullepart, and sat by the little boy's bed and
felt his pulse, and examined him carefully, with a face as wise as an
owl's, from behind his large spectacles, Peter had been too fired and
sleepy to look at him either. The old doctor had taken an extra pinch
of snuff, and shaken his head quite seriously, I am sorry to say, at
leaving.

Now it was past five o'clock, and Peter still lay in his little bed
dozing and sleeping--dreaming too, but not of the snow and the pain
of the winter. He dreamed of sunshine and of pleasant places, of the
singing of birds and the sound of the cow-bells in the flowery fields
in the spring-time. The elder boys and their father had gone to see the
doctor safe part of his way home again. And Susan Lepage had sunk down
in the big chair in the kitchen, and had fallen asleep, worn out with
fatigue and anxiety. And Eliza, hearing Gustavus come into the back
kitchen with the milk-pans, had slipped downstairs from watching beside
the child, just to have a word with him.

'Poor fellow,' she said, 'he really is so over-joyed at my being
restored to him, that there is no saying if he won't mix this evening's
milk with this morning's, or ruin the cream by shaking it, or commit
some other folly. He is not clever, and my family will certainly
reproach me with having married beneath me; but he has a good heart,
and I think he really appreciates me as he ought to, does Gustavus.'

So it happened that little Peter was left quite alone, but for the
society of the cat, up in the bedroom.

John Paqualin came along the flagged path to the front of the house;
and pressing his face close against the glass, for it was difficult
to see through them, the panes being frosty, looked in at the kitchen
window. Then he went to the house door, lifted the latch carefully,
entered, and stood still, listening. There was no sound save the
singing of the kettle, and Eliza's chatter in the distant dairy, with
the clump of the cowherd's boots on the flags and the clink of the
milk-pans. From the rows of copper kettles and saucepans, and the china
high on the dresser, to the red tiled floor under the charcoal-burner's
feet, the large kitchen actually shone with exquisite cleanliness. The
light of the lamp on the table fell upon Susan Lepage's high, white
cap, showing it and her pure, grave profile, as she leaned her head
back in the arm-chair, clear cut against the ruddy dusk of the chimney
corner behind her.

[Illustration]

Paqualin, as he stood there silent and watchful, with his sunken eyes,
ungainly figure, and dilapidated garments, seemed strangely out of
place. He shaded his eyes with his hand, for the light dazzled him,
as he looked for a minute or two at the sleeping mother. Then he went
quietly across the kitchen and up the wide, wooden staircase.

'The house is asleep,' he murmured in his high, cracked tones:--'or
would be but for the voice of Eliza. Pah! the woman's tongue cuts like
a whip. But her sweetheart, the ass, has a good thick hide of his own;
he finds the lash only pleasantly tickling.'

Paqualin went into the warm, dimly-lighted bedroom above.

'The house is asleep,' he repeated. 'Hey-ho, Sleep's a kindly fellow,
with his turban of nodding poppies. He cures the heart-ache. But he's
forgetful, sadly forgetful. He hasn't been near me these five nights;
and God knows, I have had the heart-ache as badly as any of the others.'

He knelt down by little Peter's bed, and looked closely at the child.

[Illustration: THE CHARCOAL-BURNER VISITS LITTLE PETER. _Page 150._]

'Eh! Sleep is hardly a kind friend to you, I'm afraid, though,' he said
under his breath. 'A little too much of the smell of the drowsy poppies
here to be quite healthful.'

As he spoke, Cincinnatus, who had been curled up comfortably in a nice,
warm depression in the bed-clothes, jumped down on to the floor with
glaring eyes and a great tail.

'I won't spit though,' he said. 'It really isn't worth the trouble.
No, an air of absolute indifference will be even more impressive and
chilling.'

So he walked away very stiffly, and sat down opposite the open stove
door again.

The charcoal-burner placed one of his lean hands on the little boy's
soft, pudgy one, that lay palm upward on the pillow, and with the other
patted him tenderly on the cheek.

'Little Peter,' he said, 'wake up. Come back to us, dear, little mouse.
You said you loved me--nobody ever said that to me before. Don't go
away from me, do not desert me.'

He paused a minute, and then went on pleadingly:--

'Think of all the stories I have told you, remember the nuts and the
apples.--Eh! wake up, little lad, and come back to poor, ugly John
Paqualin, to whom his fellow men have shown such scant mercy.'

But the child lay quite still; his long, black eyelashes resting on his
pale cheeks, and his pretty, round mouth a wee bit open as he sighed
softly in that strange stupor of sleep.

Tears dimmed the charcoal-burner's eyes. He bent his wild shock head
and rested it down on the white coverlet.

'Ah, great God!' he murmured, 'Thou who art all powerful, listen to me.
See here, can't we make an exchange?--Take my poor, battered, weary,
old soul instead of his fresh, innocent, white one. Let me give him
my life for his mother's sake, the sweetest and most compassionate
of women. She will grieve if she loses him, her darling, her baby;
and kind as she is, she won't miss me very much. Why should she?--an
outcast of nature, a shameful, misshapen mistake; one sorry sight the
less in the world when I'm gone, that's all.--Death's dreadful, they
say--yes, I know I am afraid of it. But, after all, it can't be so very
much worse than life--at least for some of us.'

He threw back his head, and clasped his hard hands together.

'Here, take me,' he cried. 'I will come. A trifle of suffering, more or
less, what does it matter? Spare the little lamb, O Lord, and take me,
John Paqualin, as ransom.'

Now the charcoal-burner was not quite right in his head, you see, and
that accounts for his eccentric prayer and very original behaviour. You
had better bear this in mind. I won't tell you why; you will probably
find out for yourselves when you have seen more of the world and grown
rather older.

Paqualin knelt on there for some time, looking up as though he expected
a direct and visible answer to his singular petition. But nothing
happened save that Eliza came upstairs on the tips of her toes--a way
of stepping which she intended to be particularly quiet, but which
was, in fact, particularly noisy--and peeped into the room. Seeing the
charcoal-burner kneeling by the bed-side, she gave a fearful gasp, and
sank down into the nearest chair.

'The saints help and preserve us!' she exclaimed in a loud whisper,
holding her side, 'what next? Ah! how it startled me. The helpless,
sick child in the arms of that ogre! Go away, John Paqualin, go away.
How on earth did you get here? I've only been downstairs three minutes
giving some necessary instructions to Gustavus.--He really is beside
himself with joy, poor fellow.--Go away, I say; if Peter woke up
suddenly he would have a fit at seeing you. Look at yourself in the
looking-glass, and you'll understand why, fast enough. A rush of blood
to the head from fright and the child would be dead. And if half the
stories one hears of you are true, there is enough down on the wrong
side of your account already without adding wilful murder. Go along
with you.--Ah! I am so weak--my poor heart, how it beats.'

Eliza advanced, creaking across the boarded floor, towards the
charcoal-burner. He had risen to his feet.

'There is no answer,' he said, in a low voice. 'You fool, learn your
lesson. God doesn't want your wretched, worthless soul, John Paqualin.
Who are you, indeed, that you should try to strike a bargain with the
Almighty, and offer such miserable refuse and offscourings as your life
in place of that of the pure and sinless child there?'

He looked back towards the bed.

'Good-bye,' he said, 'dear, little Peter. When you are gone there will
be nothing left on earth to love me; and in heaven it's clear they can
do very well without me yet awhile.'

Then, as Eliza came close to him, whispering, pointing towards the
door, and signing to him, he turned upon her with a terrible face.

'Woman, leave me alone,' he said. 'Have not I enough to bear already,
without the maddening gnat-bites of your spiteful ignorance and cruel
folly?'

And the grasshopper man went out of the room, and down the stairs, and
into the dark frosty night.

[Illustration]

Eliza leant up against the bottom of the bed, with her eyes half shut.

'Are you gone yet,' she murmured, 'you savage, wild animal?--If the
child had woke up and screamed there would have been a fine fuss, and
all the blame would have been laid on me, of course. It isn't fair
that crazy men like that should be allowed to persecute respectable,
young servant-women. I'll get Gustavus to lay an information against
him at the police station at Nullepart for using threatening language
to me. Of course it is all jealousy; but I can't help my good looks.'

Eliza opened her eyes again, arranged the mauve silk handkerchief about
her neck, and smiled complacently.

'It is a comfort to know that you have no cause to be ashamed of your
face--or of your disposition, for that matter, either,' she added.

Now this all happened on Monday evening, as no doubt you have made out
already. Very early, before it was light on Wednesday morning, little
Peter, who all that long time had lain sleeping unconscious of what
went on around him, suddenly seemed to find himself very wide awake
indeed. There was a strange light in the room, bright and yet soft like
an early summer dawn. And as the little boy opened his eyes, he saw
that at his bedside there stood a young man, with a calm, beautiful
face and shining hair. He was clothed down to the feet in a long,
white, linen garment.

As Peter looked up wonderingly, the young man bent over him. There
was something very still and gentle in his glance, and the little boy
smiled, for it seemed to him that the young man's face was that of an
old friend, though he could not remember ever to have seen him before.

Then the young man spoke to him, and said:--

'Little Peter, you have been sick and tired. Will you come away with me
to a far-off country where there is no more sickness and trouble, and
where the children play all the year round among blooming flowers in
green, sunny pastures by the river-side?'

Peter did not feel a bit afraid; but he thought of his parents and his
brothers, and asked:--

'But, please, will my mother, and father, and Paul, and Antony, and my
cat Cincinnatus, come too? Paul is very kind, and he makes such nice
mill-wheels to turn in the brook, and weathercocks to stick up in the
pear-tree and show which way the wind blows. And Cincinnatus would be
dull and lonely if I left him behind. He likes to come to bed with me
in the morning, and the old grey wolf might come out of the wood and
catch him, and make him into soup for little wolves when I was gone.'

The young man smiled as he answered:--'Never fear. Your mother and
father and Paul and Antony will certainly join you some day if they are
good. Time seems very short while we wait in that happy country. And
as to Cincinnatus, who knows but that he may come also? In any case,
he will be quite safe, for our Heavenly Father loves all his living
creatures--not only angels and men, but fish, and birds, and beasts as
well. Will you come, little Peter?'

'Ah! but there's John Paqualin,' said the boy. 'You know whom I
mean--the charcoal-burner. I can't leave him very well, you see,
because he is often very unhappy; and he says nobody will ever care for
him because he is rather odd and ugly-looking. And I do care for him
very much indeed.'

Then the young man bent lower and looked into little Peter's eyes.

'Why, why you are John Paqualin!' cried the child.

'Yes,' said the other, and his face was radiant with the peace that
passes understanding. 'I am John Paqualin. God be praised.'

'But how you have changed!' little Peter said; for he was a good deal
surprised, you know, and no wonder.

'With the Lord one day is as a thousand years,' answered the young man.
'Will you come with me now, little Peter?'

Then Peter stretched out his hands and laughed out loud with joy; he
was so very glad about quite a number of things--the thought of his
playfellows in that fair and happy country, and of the coming of his
parents and brothers, and of Cincinnatus the cat, and most of all at
the delightful change for the better that had taken place in the
personal appearance of his friend the charcoal-burner.

'Yes,' he said, 'I'll come.'

So then the young man took him up very tenderly in his strong arms, and
laid the little, tired head upon his breast and carried little Peter
away.

Now it happened, strangely enough, that though both Susan Lepage and
her husband sat watching by their child's bedside, they neither of them
saw the young man with the calm face and shining hair, or heard a word
he said. They only saw that the little boy opened his eyes suddenly
and seemed to gaze at something with a kind of glad wonder, and that
he smiled, and that his dear, little lips moved, and then that he
stretched out his hands and laughed joyfully. After that he lay very
still.

Susan Lepage waited a moment or two, then she rose and took a candle
that stood on the oak chest near the bed's head. Shading it with her
hand, she stooped down and looked closely at the child.

'Ah, my little one!' she cried.

She put the candle back again, and coming round the foot of the bed,
stood by Master Lepage, with her hand resting on his shoulder.

'My husband,' she said, 'our child will suffer no more. The dear Lord
loved him and has called for him. A child has died on earth. A child is
born in Paradise.'

There was a long silence. Master Lepage sat bolt upright with his arms
hanging down at his sides--more as though he was standing before the
general officer on parade, than sitting in the rush-bottomed chair in
his own bedroom. The big tears ran down over his cheeks and fell from
his moustache on to his blue blouse as thick as a summer shower.

'My wife,' he said slowly, 'our paths have joined at last--joined
beside an open grave, but better there than nowhere. There shall be no
more silence between us. The God whom you have served so faithfully
in time will surely heal the smart of your sorrow. And perhaps He
will condescend to listen to the prayers of a foolish, vain-glorious,
wrong-headed, old soldier, whom grief and repentance have humbled.
Pardon me, my wife. I have been wrong and you right all along.'

Lepage stood up, took her two hands in his, and kissed her.

'Ah, my dear, let us talk only of love and hope, not of pardon,' Susan
Lepage answered gently.

She turned and looked at little Peter, still and smiling, with his
round, black head resting so cosily on the white pillow.

'The autumn child has brought a blessing to the house,' she murmured.

'Ten thousand plagues!' broke out Master Lepage hoarsely. 'Twenty
thousand cut-throat Prussians!--but I loved the little one.'

       *       *       *       *       *

And is that the end of the story?

Well, yes, as far as a story can be said to have an end--most stories
go on for ever, only we get tired or stupid and leave off reading
them--if the story has an end, I say, I suppose this is it. Still there
are just one or two little things I can mention which you might like
to know. For instance, when next day Gustavus happened to pass the
charcoal-burner's hut, he heard such a horrible barking, and yelling,
that, though he was not of a very active or curious order of mind, he
really had to go and see what was the matter. And on getting to the
back of the hut he found Madelon, the sow, standing up on her hind legs
in her sty, with her fore-feet resting on the rough, wooden door of it,
her long, black snout high in the air, her floppety ears shaking, her
great mouth wide open as she squealed aloud, and not a single scrap of
food in her trough. This seemed to Gustavus such a singular thing, that
though he had no great fancy for the society of the charcoal-burner, he
thought he would just look inside the hut door, which stood half open.
The snow had drifted in at it and lay thick on the mud floor within,
there was no fire on the hearth, and the place was deathly chill. Yet
Paqualin sat there sure enough, on a wooden bench, with his elbows on
the table in front of him, and his head resting on his hands. His back
was towards Gustavus. The cowherd did not quite like to go inside the
hut somehow. He stood in the snow on the door-sill and called. At
last he plucked up his courage, and going forward pulled at Paqualin's
ragged sleeve.

[Illustration]

'Umph,' said Gustavus, as he stumbled out again in a desperate hurry.
He took off his hat and wiped his face round, for notwithstanding the
frosty day, he felt quite uncomfortably warm.

'Here, I'll give you something, granny,' he called out to the sow. 'If
you wait till your master brings it you'll wait a long time for your
breakfast to-day. Bless me! but I shall have something to tell our
Eliza this evening at supper that'll make her open her eyes!'

Antony has gone to serve his time in the army; and when his time is up
and he comes back again to the old, wooden farm-house in the forest, I
think it is very likely that the wish he wished in the dining-room of
the Red Horse at Nullepart, when he shared the double filbert kernel
with pretty Marie Georgeon, may really come true. Paul is apprenticed
to an engineer in Paris, and lives among whirling machines in the
great, crowded workshops; and his employers are much impressed with
his ability and talent, and prophesy that he will make a name for
himself some day. Cincinnatus is quite an old cat now, and his whiskers
are almost white; but he still sits opposite the glowing wood fire
in the kitchen, and blinks his big, yellow eyes and reflects on the
superiority of cats to men. And Master Lepage still reads the history
of the famous Roman Republic in the winter evenings, and takes off his
spectacles and wipes them with his red pocket-handkerchief; but he
rarely talks politics now, and never sits in the wine-shop, though on
fine Sundays he often walks with his gentle, sweet-faced wife through
the forest, and kneels humbly beside her in the church, and prays God
to guide and teach him, and forgive him all his sins.

[Illustration]

And is this a true story?

Yes, as true as I can make it, and I have taken a good deal of pains.

But did it all really happen?

Ah! that is quite another question. For you will find as you grow
older, that some of the very truest stories are those which, as most
people in this world count happening, have never happened at all.
And if you can't understand how that can be, I advise you, the first
fine day, to ask your way to Nullepart and take the opinion of the
Sacristan's cat upon the matter. He is a scholar, you know, so he is
sure to be able to explain it.


THE END.



  PRINTED BY
  SPOTTISWOODE AND CO., NEW-STREET SQUARE
  LONDON



Transcriber's Note:

Variations in hyphenation have been retain as in the original
publication. Punctuation has been standardised.





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