18. Christmas Stories

A Christmas Sermon

By the time this paper appears, I shall have been talking for twelve months;[1] and it is thought I should take my leave in a formal and seasonable manner. Valedictory eloquence is rare, and death-bed sayings have not often hit the mark of the occasion. Charles Second, wit and sceptic, a man whose life had been one long lesson in human incredulity, an easy-going comrade, a manoeuvring king–remembered and embodied all his wit and scepticism along with more than his usual good humour in the famous “I am afraid, gentlemen, I am an unconscionable time a-dying.”


An unconscionable time a-dying–there is the picture (“I am afraid, gentlemen,”) of your life and of mine. The sands run out, and the hours are “numbered and imputed,” and the days go by; and when the last of these finds us, we have been a long time dying, and what else? The very length is something, if we reach that hour of separation undishonoured; and to have lived at all is doubtless (in the soldierly expression) to have served. There is a tale in Tacitus of how the veterans mutinied in the German wilderness; of how they mobbed Germanicus, clamouring to go home; and of how, seizing their general’s hand, these old, war-worn exiles passed his finger along their toothless gums. _Sunt lacrymae rerum_: this was the most eloquent of the songs of Simeon. And when a man has lived to a fair age, he bears his marks of service. He may have never been remarked upon the breach at the head of the army; at least he shall have lost his teeth on the camp bread.

The idealism of serious people in this age of ours is of a noble character. It never seems to them that they have served enough; they have a fine impatience of their virtues. It were perhaps more modest to be singly thankful that we are no worse. It is not only our enemies, those desperate characters–it is we ourselves who know not what we do;–thence springs the glimmering hope that perhaps we do better than we think: that to scramble through this random business with hands reasonably clean, to have played the part of a man or woman with some reasonable fulness, to have often resisted the diabolic, and at the end to be still resisting it, is for the poor human soldier to have done right well. To ask to see some fruit of our endeavour is but a transcendental way of serving for reward; and what we take to be contempt of self is only greed of hire.

And again if we require so much of ourselves, shall we not require much of others? If we do not genially judge our own deficiencies, is it not to be feared we shall be even stern to the trespasses of others? And he who (looking back upon his own life) can see no more than that he has been unconscionably long a-dying, will he not be tempted to think his neighbour unconscionably long of getting hanged? It is probable that nearly all who think of conduct at all, think of it too much; it is certain we all think too much of sin. We are not damned for doing wrong, but for not doing right; Christ would never hear of negative morality; _thou shalt_ was ever his word, with which he superseded _thou shalt not_. To make our idea of morality centre on forbidden acts is to defile the imagination and to introduce into our judgments of our fellow-men a secret element of gusto. If a thing is wrong for us, we should not dwell upon the thought of it; or we shall soon dwell upon it with inverted pleasure. If we cannot drive it from our minds–one thing of two: either our creed is in the wrong and we must more indulgently remodel it; or else, if our morality be in the right, we are criminal lunatics and should place our persons in restraint. A mark of such unwholesomely divided minds is the passion for interference with others: the Fox without the Tail was of this breed, but had (if his biographer is to be trusted) a certain antique civility now out of date. A man may have a flaw, a weakness, that unfits him for the duties of life, that spoils his temper, that threatens his integrity, or that betrays him into cruelty. It has to be conquered; but it must never be suffered to engross his thoughts. The true duties lie all upon the farther side, and must be attended to with a whole mind so soon as this preliminary clearing of the decks has been effected. In order that he may be kind and honest, it may be needful he should become a total abstainer; let him become so then, and the next day let him forget the circumstance. Trying to be kind and honest will require all his thoughts; a mortified appetite is never a wise companion; in so far as he has had to mortify an appetite, he will still be the worse man; and of such an one a great deal of cheerfulness will be required in judging life, and a great deal of humility in judging others.

It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dulness. We require higher tasks, because we do not recognise the height of those we have. Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive; we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unravelled.

To be honest, to be kind–to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation–above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself–here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year’s end or for the end of life: Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there need be no despair for the despairer.


But Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us to thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of joy. A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness. And in the midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest and he is reminded of the empty chairs of his beloved, it is well he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face. Noble disappointment, noble self-denial are not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness. It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay without. And the kingdom of heaven is of the childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure. Mighty men of their hands, the smiters and the builders and the judges, have lived long and done sternly and yet preserved this lovely character; and among our carpet interests and twopenny concerns, the shame were indelible if _we_ should lose it. Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect duties. And it is the trouble with moral men that they have neither one nor other. It was the moral man, the Pharisee, whom Christ could not away with. If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say “give them up,” for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.

A strange temptation attends upon man: to keep his eye on pleasures, even when he will not share in them; to aim all his morals against them. This very year a lady (singular iconoclast!) proclaimed a crusade against dolls; and the racy sermon against lust is a feature of the age. I venture to call such moralists insincere. At any excess or perversion of a natural appetite, their lyre sounds of itself with relishing denunciations; but for all displays of the truly diabolic–envy, malice, the mean lie, the mean silence, the calumnious truth, the backbiter, the petty tyrant, the peevish poisoner of family life–their standard is quite different. These are wrong, they will admit, yet somehow not so wrong; there is no zeal in their assault on them, no secret element of gusto warms up the sermon; it is for things not wrong in themselves that they reserve the choicest of their indignation. A man may naturally disclaim all moral kinship with the Reverend Mr. Zola or the hobgoblin old lady of the dolls; for these are gross and naked instances. And yet in each of us some similar element resides. The sight of a pleasure in which we cannot or else will not share moves us to a particular impatience. It may be because we are envious, or because we are sad, or because we dislike noise and romping–being so refined, or because–being so philosophic–we have an overweighing sense of life’s gravity: at least, as we go on in years, we are all tempted to frown upon our neighbour’s pleasures. People are nowadays so fond of resisting temptations; here is one to be resisted. They are fond of self-denial; here is a propensity that cannot be too peremptorily denied. There is an idea abroad among moral people that they should make their neighbours good. One person I have to make good: myself. But my duty to my neighbour is much more nearly expressed by saying that I have to make him happy–if I may.


Happiness and goodness, according to canting moralists, stand in the relation of effect and cause. There was never anything less proved or less probable: our happiness is never in our own hands; we inherit our constitution; we stand buffet among friends and enemies; we may be so built as to feel a sneer or an aspersion with unusual keenness, and so circumstanced as to be unusually exposed to them; we may have nerves very sensitive to pain, and be afflicted with a disease very painful. Virtue will not help us, and it is not meant to help us. It is not even its own reward, except for the self-centred and–I had almost said–the unamiable. No man can pacify his conscience; if quiet be what he want, he shall do better to let that organ perish from disuse. And to avoid the penalties of the law, and the minor _capitis diminutio_ of social ostracism, is an affair of wisdom–of cunning, if you will–and not of virtue.

In his own life, then, a man is not to expect happiness, only to profit by it gladly when it shall arise; he is on duty here; he knows not how or why, and does not need to know; he knows not for what hire, and must not ask. Somehow or other, though he does not know what goodness is, he must try to be good; somehow or other, though he cannot tell what will do it, he must try to give happiness to others. And no doubt there comes in here a frequent clash of duties. How far is he to make his neighbour happy? How far must he respect that smiling face, so easy to cloud, so hard to brighten again? And how far, on the other side, is he bound to be his brother’s keeper and the prophet of his own morality? How far must he resent evil?

The difficulty is that we have little guidance; Christ’s sayings on the point being hard to reconcile with each other, and (the most of them) hard to accept. But the truth of his teaching would seem to be this: in our own person and fortune, we should be ready to accept and to pardon all; it is _our_ cheek we are to turn, _r_ coat that we are to give away to the man who has taken _our_ cloak. But when another’s face is buffeted, perhaps a little of the lion will become us best. That we are to suffer others to be injured, and stand by, is not conceivable and surely not desirable. Revenge, says Bacon, is a kind of wild justice; its judgments at least are delivered by an insane judge; and in our own quarrel we can see nothing truly and do nothing wisely. But in the quarrel of our neighbour, let us be more bold. One person’s happiness is as sacred as another’s; when we cannot defend both, let us defend one with a stout heart. It is only in so far as we are doing this, that we have any right to interfere: the defence of B is our only ground of action against A. A has as good a right to go to the devil, as we to go to glory; and neither knows what he does.

The truth is that all these interventions and denunciations and militant mongerings of moral half-truths, though they be sometimes needful, though they are often enjoyable, do yet belong to an inferior grade of duties. Ill-temper and envy and revenge find here an arsenal of pious disguises; this is the playground of inverted lusts. With a little more patience and a little less temper, a gentler and wiser method might be found in almost every case; and the knot that we cut by some fine heady quarrel-scene in private life, or, in public affairs, by some denunciatory act against what we are pleased to call our neighbour’s vices, might yet have been unwoven by the hand of sympathy.


To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose: and how often we have been cowardly and hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness;–it may seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a certain consolation resides. Life is not designed to minister to a man’s vanity. He goes upon his long business most of the time with a hanging head, and all the time like a blind child. Full of rewards and pleasures as it is–so that to see the day break or the moon rise, or to meet a friend, or to hear the dinner-call when he is hungry, fills him with surprising joys–this world is yet for him no abiding city. Friendships fall through, health fails, weariness assails him; year after year, he must thumb the hardly varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a friendly process of detachment. When the time comes that he should go, there need be few illusions left about himself. Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much:–surely that may be his epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at the summons which calls a defeated soldier from the field: defeated, ay, if he were Paul or Marcus Aurelius!–but if there is still one inch of fight in his old spirit, undishonoured. The faith which sustained him in his life-long blindness and life-long disappointment will scarce even be required in this last formality of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his old bones; there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day and the dust and the ecstasy–there goes another Faithful Failure!

From a recent book of verse, where there is more than one such beautiful and manly poem, I take this memorial piece: it says better than I can, what I love to think; let it be our parting word.

“A late lark twitters from the quiet skies; And from the west, Where the sun, his day’s work ended, Lingers as in content, There falls on the old, gray city An influence luminous and serene, A shining peace.

“The smoke ascends In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires Shine, and are changed. In the valley Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun, Closing his benediction, Sinks, and the darkening air Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night– Night, with her train of stars And her great gift of sleep.

“So be my passing! My task accomplished and the long day done, My wages taken, and in my heart Some late lark singing, Let me be gathered to the quiet west, The sundown splendid and serene, Death.”[2]

18. Christmas Stories

A Dream-story: The Christmas Angel

It was the hour of rest in the Country Beyond the Stars. All the silver bells that swing with the turning of the great ring of light which lies around that land were softly chiming; and the sound of their commotion went down like dew upon the golden ways of the city, and the long alleys of blossoming trees, and the meadows of asphodel, and the curving shores of the River of Life.

At the hearing of that chime, all the angels who had been working turned to play, and all who had been playing gave themselves joyfully to work. Those who had been singing, and making melody on different instruments, fell silent and began to listen. Those who had been walking alone in meditation met together in companies to talk. And those who had been far away on errands to the Earth and other planets came homeward like a flight of swallows to the high cliff when the day is over.

It was not that they needed to be restored from weariness, for the inhabitants of that country never say, “I am tired.” But there, as here, the law of change is the secret of happiness, and the joy that never ends is woven of mingled strands of labour and repose, society and solitude, music and silence. Sleep comes to them not as it does to us, with a darkening of the vision and a folding of the wings of the spirit, but with an opening of the eyes to deeper and fuller light, and with an effortless outgoing of the soul upon broader currents of life, as the sun-loving bird poises and circles upward, without a wing-beat, on the upholding air.

It was in one of the quiet corners of the green valley called Peacefield, where the little brook of Brighthopes runs smoothly down to join the River of Life, that I saw a company of angels, returned from various labours on Earth, sitting in friendly converse on the hill-side, where cyclamens and arbutus and violets and fringed orchids and pale lady’s-tresses, and all the sweet-smelling flowers which are separated in the lower world by the seasons, were thrown together in a harmony of fragrance. There were three of the company who seemed to be leaders, distinguished not only by more radiant and powerful looks, but by a tone of authority in their speech and by the willing attention with which the others listened to them, as they talked of their earthly tasks, of the tangles and troubles, the wars and miseries that they had seen among men, and of the best way to get rid of them and bring sorrow to an end.

“The Earth is full of oppression and unrighteousness,” said the tallest and most powerful of the angels. His voice was deep and strong, and by his shining armour and the long two-handed sword hanging over his shoulder I knew that he was the archangel Michael, the mightiest one among the warriors of the King, and the executor of the divine judgments upon the unjust. “The Earth is tormented with injustice,” he cried, “and the great misery that I have seen among men is that the evil hand is often stronger than the good hand and can beat it down.

“The arm of the cruel is heavier than the arm of the kind. The unjust get the better of the just and tread on them. I have seen tyrant kings crush their helpless folk. I have seen the fields of the innocent trampled into bloody ruin by the feet of conquering armies. I have seen the wicked nation overcome the peoples that loved liberty, and take away their treasure by force of arms. I have seen poverty mocked by arrogant wealth, and purity deflowered by brute violence, and gentleness and fair-dealing bruised in the winepress of iniquity and pride.

“There is no cure for this evil, but by the giving of greater force to the good hand. The righteous cause must be strengthened with might to resist the wicked, to defend the helpless, to punish all cruelty and unfairness, to uphold the right everywhere, and to enforce justice with unconquerable arms. Oh, that the host of Heaven might be called, arrayed, and sent to mingle in the wars of men, to make the good victorious, to destroy all evil, and to make the will of the King prevail!

“We would shake down the thrones of tyrants, and loose the bands of the oppressed. We would hold the cruel and violent with the bit of fear, and drive the greedy and fierce-minded men with the whip of terror. We would stand guard, with weapons drawn, about the innocent, the gentle, the kind, and keep the peace of God with the sword of the angels!”

As he spoke, his hands were lifted to the hilt of his long blade, and he raised it above him, straight and shining, throwing sparkles of light around it, like the spray from the sharp prow of a moving ship. Bright flames of heavenly ardour leaped in the eyes of the listening angels; a martial air passed over their faces as if they longed for the call to war.

But no silver trumpet blared from the battlements of the City of God; no crimson flag was unfurled on those high, secret walls; no thrilling drum-beat echoed over the smooth meadow. Only the sound of the brook of Brighthopes was heard tinkling and murmuring among the roots of the grasses and flowers; and far off a cadence of song drifted down from the inner courts of the Palace of the King.

Then another angel began to speak, and made answer to Michael. He, too, was tall and wore the look of power. But it was power of the mind rather than of the hand. His face was clear and glistening, and his eyes were lit with a steady flame which neither leaped nor fell. Of flame also were his garments, which clung about him as the fire enwraps a torch burning where there is no wind; and his great wings, spiring to a point far above his head, were like a living lamp before the altar of the Most High. By this sign I knew that it was the archangel Uriel, the spirit of the Sun, clearest in vision, deepest in wisdom of all the spirits that surround the throne.

“I hold not the same thought,” said he, “as the great archangel Michael; nor, though I desire the same end which he desires, would I seek it by the same way. For I know how often power has been given to the good, and how often it has been turned aside and used for evil. I know that the host of Heaven, and the very stars in their courses, have fought on the side of a favoured nation; yet pride has followed triumph and oppression has been the first-born child of victory. I know that the deliverers of the people have become tyrants over those whom they have set free, and the fighters for liberty have been changed into the soldiers of fortune. Power corrupts itself, and might cannot save.

“Does not the Prince Michael remember how the angel of the Lord led the armies of Israel, and gave them the battle against every foe, except the enemy within the camp? And how they robbed and crushed the peoples against whom they had fought for freedom? And how the wickedness of the tribes of Canaan survived their conquest and overcame their conquerors, so that the children of Israel learned to worship the idols of their enemies, Moloch, and Baal, and Ashtoreth?

“Power corrupts itself, and might cannot save. Was not Persia the destroyer of Babylon, and did not the tyranny of Persia cry aloud for destruction? Did not Rome break the yoke of the East, and does not the yoke of Rome lie heavy on the shoulders of the world? Listen!”

There was silence for a moment on the slopes of Peacefield, and then over the encircling hills a cool wind brought the sound of chains clanking in prisons and galleys, the sighing of millions of slaves, the weeping of wretched women and children, the blows of hammers nailing men to their crosses. Then the sound passed by with the wind, and Uriel spoke again:

“Power corrupts itself, and might cannot save. The Earth is full of ignorant strife, and for this evil there is no cure but by the giving of greater knowledge. It is because men do not understand evil that they yield themselves to its power. Wickedness is folly in action, and injustice is the error of the blind. It is because men are ignorant that they destroy one another, and at last themselves.

“If there were more light in the world there would be no sorrow. If the great King who knows all things would enlighten the world with wisdom–wisdom to understand his law and his ways, to read the secrets of the earth and the stars, to discern the workings of the heart of man and the things that make for joy and peace–if he would but send us, his messengers, as a flame of fire to shine upon those who sit in darkness, how gladly would we go to bring in the new day!

“We would speak the word of warning and counsel to the erring, and tell knowledge to the perplexed. We would guide the ignorant in the paths of prudence, and the young would sit at our feet and hear us gladly in the school of life. Then folly would fade away as the morning vapour, and the sun of wisdom would shine on all men, and the peace of God would come with the counsel of the angels.”

A murmur of pleasure followed the words of Uriel, and eager looks flashed around the circle of the messengers of light as they heard the praise of wisdom fitly spoken. But there was one among them on whose face a shadow of doubt rested, and though he smiled, it was as if he remembered something that the others had forgotten. He turned to an angel near him.

“Who was it,” said he, “to whom you were sent with counsel long ago? Was it not Balaam the son of Beor, as he was riding to meet the King of Moab? And did not even the dumb beast profit more by your instruction than the man who rode him? And who was it,” he continued, turning to Uriel, “that was called the wisest of all men, having searched out and understood the many inventions that are found under the sun? Was not Solomon, prince of fools and philosophers, unable by much learning to escape weariness of the flesh and despair of the spirit? Knowledge also is vanity and vexation. This I know well, because I have dwelt among men and held converse with them since the day when I was sent to instruct the first man in Eden.”

Then I looked more closely at him who was speaking and recognised the beauty of the archangel Raphael, as it was pictured long ago:

“A seraph winged; six wings he wore to shade
His lineaments divine; the pair that clad
Each shoulder broad came mantling o’er his breast,
With regal ornament; the middle pair
Girt like a starry zone his waist, and round
Skirted his loins and thighs with downy gold
And colours dipped in Heav’n; the third his feet
Shadowed from either heel with feathered mail,
Sky-tinctured grain. Like Maia’s son he stood
And shook his plumes, that Heavenly fragrance filled
The circuit wide.”

“Too well I know,” he spoke on, while the smile on his face deepened into a look of pity and tenderness and desire, “too well I know that power corrupts itself and that knowledge cannot save. There is no cure for the evil that is in the world but by the giving of more love to men. The laws that are ordained for earth are strange and unequal, and the ways where men must walk are full of pitfalls and dangers. Pestilence creeps along the ground and flows in the rivers; whirlwind and tempest shake the habitations of men and drive their ships to destruction; fire breaks forth from the mountains and the foundations of the world tremble. Frail is the flesh of man, and many are his pains and troubles. His children can never find peace until they learn to love one another and to help one another.

“Wickedness is begotten by disease and misery. Violence comes from poverty and hunger. The cruelty of oppression is when the strong tread the weak under their feet; the bitterness of pride is when the wise and learned despise the simple; the crown of folly is when the rich think they are gods, and the poor think that God is not.

“Hatred and envy and contempt are the curse of life. And for these there is no remedy save love–the will to give and to bless–the will of the King himself, who gives to all and is loving unto every man. But how shall the hearts of men be won to this will? How shall it enter into them and possess them? Even the gods that men fashion for themselves are cruel and proud and false and unjust. How shall the miracle be wrought in human nature to reveal the meaning of humanity? How shall men be made like God?”

At this question a deep hush fell around the circle, and every listener was still, even as the rustling leaves hang motionless when the light breeze falls away in the hour of sunset. Then through the silence, like the song of a far-away thrush from its hermitage in the forest, a voice came ringing: “I know it, I know it, I know it.”

Clear and sweet–clear as a ray of light, sweeter than the smallest silver bell that rang the hour of rest–was that slender voice floating on the odorous and translucent air. Nearer and nearer it came, echoing down the valley, “I know it, I know it, I know it!”

Then from between the rounded hills, among which the brook of Brighthopes is born, appeared a young angel, a little child, with flying hair of gold, and green wreaths twined about his shoulders, and fluttering hands that played upon the air and seemed to lift him so lightly that he had no need of wings. As thistle-down, blown by the wind, dances across the water, so he came along the little stream, singing clear above the murmur of the brook.

All the angels rose and turned to look at him with wondering eyes. Multitudes of others came flying swiftly to the place from which the strange, new song was sounding. Rank within rank, like a garden of living flowers, they stood along the sloping banks of the brook while the child-angel floated into the midst of them, singing:

“I know it, I know it, I know it! Man shall be made like God because the Son of God shall become a man.”

At this all the angels looked at one another with amazement, and gathered more closely about the child-angel, as those who hear wonderful news.

“How can this be?” they asked. “How is it possible that the Son of God should be a man?”

“I do not know,” said the young angel. “I only know that it is to be.”

“But if he becomes a man,” said Raphael, “he will be at the mercy of men; the cruel and the wicked will have power upon him; he will suffer.”

“I know it,” answered the young angel, “and by suffering he will understand the meaning of all sorrow and pain; and he will be able to comfort every one who cries; and his own tears will be for the healing of sad hearts; and those who are healed by him will learn for his sake to be kind to each other.”

“But if the Son of God is a true man,” said Uriel, “he must first be a child, simple, and lowly, and helpless. It may be that he will never gain the learning of the schools. The masters of earthly wisdom will despise him and speak scorn of him.”

“I know it,” said the young angel, “but in meekness will he answer them; and to those who become as little children he will give the heavenly wisdom that comes, without seeking, to the pure and gentle of heart.”

“But if he becomes a man,” said Michael, “evil men will hate and persecute him: they may even take his life, if they are stronger than he.”

“I know it,” answered the young angel, “they will nail him to a cross. But when he is lifted up, he will draw all men unto him, for he will still be the Son of God, and no heart that is open to love can help loving him, since his love for men is so great that he is willing to die for them.”

“But how do you know these things?” cried the other angels. “Who are you?”

“I am the Christmas angel,” he said. “At first I was sent as the dream of a little child, a holy child, blessed and wonderful, to dwell in the heart of a pure virgin, Mary of Nazareth. There I was hidden till the word came to call me back to the throne of the King, and tell me my name, and give me my new message. For this is Christmas day on Earth, and to-day the Son of God is born of a woman. So I must fly quickly, before the sun rises, to bring the good news to those happy men who have been chosen to receive them.”

As he said this, the young angel rose, with arms outspread, from the green meadow of Peacefield and, passing over the bounds of Heaven, dropped swiftly as a shooting-star toward the night shadow of the Earth. The other angels followed him–a throng of dazzling forms, beautiful as a rain of jewels falling from the dark-blue sky. But the child-angel went more swiftly than the others, because of the certainty of gladness in his heart.

And as the others followed him they wondered who had been favoured and chosen to receive the glad tidings.

“It must be the Emperor of the World and his counsellors,” they thought. But the flight passed over Rome.

“It may be the philosophers and the masters of learning,” they thought. But the flight passed over Athens.

“Can it be the High Priest of the Jews, and the elders and the scribes?” they thought. But the flight passed over Jerusalem.

It floated out over the hill country of Bethlehem; the throng of silent angels holding close together, as if perplexed and doubtful; the child-angel darting on far in advance, as one who knew the way through the darkness.

The villages were all still: the very houses seemed asleep; but in one place there was a low sound of talking in a stable, near to an inn–a sound as of a mother soothing her baby to rest.

All over the pastures on the hillsides a light film of snow had fallen, delicate as the veil of a bride adorned for the marriage; and as the child-angel passed over them, alone in the swiftness of his flight, the pure fields sparkled round him, giving back his radiance.

And there were in that country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo! the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: “Fear not; for behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all nations. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.” And the shepherds said one to another: “Let us now go, even to Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.”

So I said within myself that I also would go with the shepherds, even to Bethlehem. And I heard a great and sweet voice, as of a bell, which said, “Come!” And when the bell had sounded twelve times, I awoke; and it was Christmas morn; and I knew that I had been in a dream.

Yet it seemed to me that the things which I had heard were true.

18. Christmas Stories

The Thin Santa Claus

The Chicken Yard That Was a Christmas Stocking

Mrs. Gratz opened her eyes and looked out at the drizzle that made the Christmas morning gray. Her bed stood against the window, and it was easy for her to look out; all she had to do was to roll over and pull the shade aside. Having looked at the weather she rolled again on to the broad flat of her back and made herself comfortable for awhile, for there was no reason why she should get up until she felt like it.

“Such a Christmas!” she said good-naturedly to herself. “I guess such weathers is bad for Santy Claus. Mebby it is because of such weathers he don’t come by my house. I don’t blame him. So muddy!”

She let her eyes close indolently. Not yet was she hungry enough to imagine the tempting odour of fried bacon and eggs, and she idly slipped into sleep again. She was in no hurry. She was never in a hurry. What is the use of being in a hurry when you own a good little house and have money in the bank and are a widow? What is the use of being in a hurry, anyway? Mrs. Gratz was always placid and fat, and she always had been. What is the use of having money in the bank and a good little house if you are not placid and fat? Mrs. Gratz lay on her back and slept, placidly and fatly, with her mouth open, as if she expected Santa Claus to pass by and drop a present into it. Her dreams were pleasant.

It was no disappointment to Mrs. Gratz that Santa Claus had not come to her house. She had not expected him. She did not even believe in him.

“Yes,” she had told Mrs. Flannery, next door, as she handed a little parcel of toys over the fence for the little Flannerys, “once I believes in such a Santy Claus myself, yet. I make me purty good times then. But now I’m too old. I don’t believe in such things. But I make purty good times, still. I have a good little house, and money in the bank–“

Suddenly Mrs. Gratz closed her mouth and opened her eyes. She smelled imaginary bacon frying. She felt real hunger. She slid out of bed and began to dress herself, and she had just buttoned her red flannel petticoat around her wide waist when she heard a silence, and paused. For a full minute she stood, trying to realize what the silence meant. The English sparrows were chirping as usual and making enough noise, but through their bickerings the silence still annoyed Mrs. Gratz, and then, quite suddenly again, she knew. Her chickens were not making their usual morning racket.

“I bet you I know what it is, sure,” she said, and continued to dress as placidly as before. When she went down she found that she had won the bet.

A week before two chickens had been stolen from her coop, and she had had a strong padlock put on the chicken house. Now the padlock was pried open, and the chicken house was empty, and nine hens and a rooster were gone. Mrs. Gratz stooped and entered the low gate and surveyed the vacant chicken yard placidly. If they were gone, they were gone.

“Such a Santy Claus!” she said good-naturedly. “I don’t like such a Santy Claus–taking away and not bringing! Purty soon he don’t have such a good name any more if he keeps up doing like this. People likes the bringing Santy Claus. I guess they don’t think much of the taking-away business. He gets a bad name quick enough if he does this much.”

She turned to bend her head to look into the vacant chicken house and stood still. She put out her foot and touched something her eyes had lighted upon, and the thing moved. It was a purse of worn, black leather, soaked by the drizzle, but still holding the bend that comes to men’s purses when worn long in a back trouser pocket. One end of the purse was muddy and pressed deep into the soft soil where a heel had tramped on it. Mrs. Gratz bent and picked it up.

There was nine hundred dollars in bills in the purse. Mrs. Gratz stood still while she counted the bills, and as she counted her hands began to tremble, and her knees shook, and she sank on the door-sill of the chicken house and laughed until the tears rolled down her face. Occasionally she stopped to wipe her eyes, and the flood of laughter gradually died away into ripples of intermittent giggles that were like sobs after sorrow. Mrs. Gratz had no great sense of humour, but she could see the fun of finding nine hundred dollars. It was enough to make her laugh, so she laughed.

“Goodness, such a Santy Claus!” she exclaimed with a final sigh of pleasure. “Such a Christmas present from Santy Claus! No wonder he is so fat yet when he eats ten chickens in one night already. But I don’t kick. I like me that Santy Claus all right. I believes in him purty good after this, I bet!”

She went at once to tell Mrs. Flannery, and Mrs. Flannery was far more excited about it than Mrs. Gratz had been. She said it was the Hand of Retribution paying back the chicken thief, and the Hand of Justice repaying Mrs. Gratz for sending toys to the little Flannerys, and Pure Luck giving Mrs. Gratz what she always got, and a number of other things.

“‘Tis the luck of ye, Mrs. Gratz, ma’am,” she said, “and often I do be sayin’ it is the Dutch for luck, meanin’ no disrespect to ye, and the fatter the luckier, as I often told me old man, rest his soul, and him so thin! And Christmas mornin’ at that, ma’am, which is nothin’ at all but th’ judgment of hivin on th’ dirty chicken thief, pickin’ such a day for his thievin’, when there’s plenty other days in th’ year for him. Keep th’ money, ma’am, for ‘t is yours by good rights, and I knew there would some good come till ye th’ minute ye handed me th’ prisints for the kids. The good folks sure all gits ther reward in this world, only some don’t, an’ I’m only sorry mine is a pig instid of chickens, but not wishin’ ye hadn’t th’ money yersilf, at all, but who would come to steal a pig, and them such loud squealers? And who do you suspicion it was, Mrs. Gratz, ma’am?”

“I think mebby I got me a present from Santy Claus, yes?” said Mrs. Gratz.

“And hear th’ woman!” said Mrs. Flannery. “Do ye hear that now? Well, true for ye, ma’am, and stick to it, for there’s no tellin’ who’ll be claimin’ th’ money, and if ever Santy Claus brought a thing to a mortal soul ‘t was him brought ye that. And ‘t was only yesterday ye was sayin’ ye had no belief in him!”

“Yesterday I don’t have no beliefs in him,” said Mrs. Gratz. “To-day I have plenty of beliefs in him. I like him plenty. I don’t care if he comes every year.”

“Sure not,” said Mrs. Flannery, “and you with th’ nine hundred dollars in yer pocket. I’d be glad of the chanst. I’d believe in him, mesilf, for four hundred and fifty.”

That afternoon Mrs. Flannery, whose excitement had not abated in the least, went over to Mrs. Gratz’s to spend the afternoon talking to her about the money. She felt that it was good to be that near it, at any rate, and when one can make a whole afternoon’s conversation out of what Mrs. Casey said to Mrs. O’Reilly about Mrs. McNally, it is a shame to miss a chance to talk about nine hundred dollars. Mrs. Flannery was rocking violently and talking rapidly, and Mrs. Gratz was slowly moving her rocker and answering in monosyllables, when some one knocked at the door. Mrs. Gratz answered the knock.

Her visitor was a tall, thin man, and he had a slouch hat, which he held in his hands as he talked. He seemed nervous, and his face wore a worried look–extremely worried. He looked like a man who had lost nine hundred dollars, but he did not look like Santa Claus. He was thinner and not so jolly-looking. At first Mrs. Gratz had no idea that Santa Claus was standing before her, for he did not have a sleigh-bell about him, and he had left his red cotton coat with the white batting trimming at home. He stood in the door playing with his hat, unable to speak. He seemed to have some delicacy about beginning.

illustration for The Thin Santa Claus a Christmas Story by Ellis Parker Butler

“Well, what it is?” said Mrs. Gratz.

Her visitor pulled himself together with an effort.

“Well, ma’am, I’ll tell you,” he said frankly. “I’m a chicken buyer. I buy chickens. That’s my business–dealin’ in poultry–so I came out to-day to buy some chickens–“

“On Christmas Day?” asked Mrs. Gratz.

“Well,” said the man, moving uneasily from one foot to the other, “I did come on Christmas Day, didn’t I? I don’t deny that, ma’am. I did come on Christmas Day. I’d like to go out and have a look at your chickens–“

“It ain’t so usual for buyers to come buying chickens on Christmas Day, is it?” interposed Mrs. Gratz, good-naturedly.

“Well, no, it ain’t, and that’s a fact,” said the man uneasily. “But I always do. The people I buy chickens for is just as apt to want to eat chicken one day as another day–and more so. Turkey on Christmas Day, and chicken the next, for a change–that’s what they always tell me. So I have to buy chickens every day. I hate to, but I have to, and if I could just go out and look around your chicken yard–“

It was right there that Mrs. Gratz had a suspicion that Santa Claus stood before her.

“But I don’t sell such a chicken yard, yet,” she said. The man wiped his forehead.

“Sure not,” he said nervously. “I was goin’ to say look around your chicken yard and see the chickens. I can’t buy chickens without I see them, can I? Some folks might, but I can’t with the kind of customers I’ve got. I’ve got mighty particular customers, and I pay extra prices so as to get the best for them, and when I go out and look around the chicken yard–“

“How much you pay for such nice, big, fat chickens, mebby?” asked Mrs. Gratz.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” said the man. “Seven cents a pound is regular, ain’t it? Well, I pay twelve. I’ll give you twelve cents, and pay you right now, and take all the chickens you’ve got. That’s my rule. But, if you want to let me go out and see the chickens first, and pick out the kind my regular customers like, I pay twenty cents a pound. But I won’t pay twenty cents without I can see the chickens first.”

“Sure,” said Mrs. Gratz. “I wouldn’t do it, too. Mebby I go out and bring in a couple such chickens for you to look at? Yes?”

“No, don’t!” said the man impulsively. “Don’t do it! It wouldn’t be no good. I’ve got to see the chickens on the hoof, as I might say.”

“On the hoofs?” said Mrs. Gratz. “Such poultry don’t have no hoofs.”

“Runnin’ around,” explained the visitor. “Runnin’ around in the coop. I can tell if a chicken has got any disease that my trade wouldn’t like, if I see it runnin’ around in the coop. There’s a lot in the way a chicken runs. In the way it h’ists up its leg, for instance. That’s what the trade calls ‘on the hoof.’ So I’ll just go out and have a look around the coop–“

“For twenty cents a pound anybody could let buyers see their chickens on the hoof, I guess,” said Mrs. Gratz.

“Now, that’s the way to talk!” exclaimed the man.

“Only but I ain’t got any such chickens,” said Mrs. Gratz. “So it ain’t of use to look how they walk. So good-bye.”

“Now, say–” said the man, but Mrs. Gratz closed the door in his face.

“I guess such a Santy Claus came back yet,” said Mrs. Gratz when she went into the room where Mrs. Flannery was sitting. “But it ain’t any use. He don’t leave many more such presents.”

“Th’ impidince of him!” exclaimed Mrs. Flannery.

“For nine hundred dollars I could be impudent, too,” said Mrs. Gratz calmly. “But I don’t like such nowadays Santy Clauses, coming back all the time. Once, when I believes in Santy Clauses, they don’t come back so much.”

The thin Santa Claus had not gone far. He had crossed the street and stood gazing at Mrs. Gratz’s door, and now he crossed again and knocked. Mrs. Gratz arose and went to the door.

“I believe he comes back once yet,” she said to Mrs. Flannery, and opened the door. He had, indeed, come back.

“Now see here,” he said briskly, “ain’t your name Mrs. Gratz? Well, I knowed it was, and I knowed you was a widow lady, and that’s why I said I was a chicken buyer. I didn’t want to frighten you. But I ain’t no chicken buyer.”

“No?” asked Mrs. Gratz.

“No, I ain’t. I just said that so I could get a look at your chicken yard. I’ve got to see it. What I am is chicken-house inspector for the Ninth Ward, and the Mayor sent me up here to inspect your chicken house, and I’ve got to do it before I go away, or lose my job. I’ll go right out now, and it’ll be all over in a minute–“

“I guess it ain’t some use,” said Mrs. Gratz. “I guess I don’t keep any more chickens. They go too easy. Yesterday I have plenty, and to-day I haven’t any.”

“That’s it!” said the thin Santa Claus. “That’s just it! That’s the way toober-chlosis bugs act–quick like that. They’re a bad epidemic–toober-chlosis bugs is. You see how they act–yesterday you have chickens, and last night the toober-chlosis bugs gets at them, and this morning they’ve eat them all up.”

“Goodness!” exclaimed Mrs. Gratz without emotion. “With the fedders and the bones, too?”

“Sure,” said the thin Santa Claus. “Why, them toober-chlosis bugs is perfectly ravenous. Once they git started they eat feathers and bones and feet and all–a chicken hasn’t no chance at all. That’s why the Mayor sent me up here. He heard all your chickens was gone, and gone quick, and he says to me, ‘Toober-chlosis bugs!’ That’s what he says, and he says, ‘You ain’t doing your duty. You ain’t inspected Mrs. Gratz’s chicken coop. You go and do it, or you’re fired, see?’ He says that, and he says, ‘You inspect Mrs. Gratz’s coop, and you kill off them bugs before they git into her house and eat her all up–bones and all.'”

“And fedders?” asked Mrs. Gratz calmly.

“No, he didn’t say feathers. This ain’t nothing to fool about. It’s serious. So I’ll go right out and have a look–“

“I guess such bugs ain’t been in my coop last night,” said Mrs. Gratz carelessly. “I aint afraid of such bugs in winter time.”

“Well, that’s where you make your mistake,” said the thin Santa Claus. “Winter is just the bad time for them bugs. The more a toober-chlosis bug freezes up the more dangerous it is. In summer they ain’t so bad–they’re soft like and squash up when a chicken gits them, but in winter they freeze up hard and git brittle. Then a chicken comes along and grabs one, and it busts into a thousand pieces, and each piece turns into a new toober-chlosis bug and busts into a thousand pieces, and so on, and the chicken gits all filled full of toober-chlosis bugs before it knows it. When a chicken snaps up one toober-chlosis bug it has a million in it inside of half an hour and that chicken don’t last long, and when the bugs make for the house–What’s that on your dress there now?”

Mrs. Gratz looked at her arm indifferently.

“Nothing,” she said.

“I thought mebby it was a toober-chlosis bug had got on you already,” said the thin Santa Claus. “If it was you would be all eat up inside of half an hour. Them bugs is awful rapacious.”

“Yes?” inquired Mrs. Gratz with interest. “Such strong bugs, too, is it not?”

“You bet they are strong–” began the stranger.

“I should think so,” interrupted Mrs. Gratz, “to smash up padlocks on such chicken houses. You make me afraid of such bugs. I don’t dare let you go out there to get your bones and feet all eat up by them. I guess not!”

“Well, you see–you see–” said the thin Santa Claus, puzzled, and then he cheered up. “You see, I ain’t afraid of them. I’ve been fumigated against them. Fumigated and antiskep–antiskepticized. I’ve been vaccinated against them by the Board of Health. I’ll show you the mark on my arm, if you want to see it.”

“No, don’t,” said Mrs. Gratz. “I let you go and look in that chicken coop if you want to, but it ain’t no use. There ain’t nothing there.”

The thin Santa Claus paused and looked at Mrs. Gratz with suspicion.

“Why? Did you find it?” he asked.

“Find what?” asked Mrs. Gratz innocently, and the thin Santa Claus sighed and walked around to the back of the house. Mrs. Gratz went with him.

illustration for The Thin Santa Claus, a Christmas Story by Ellis Parker Butler

As Mrs. Gratz watched the thin man search the chicken yard for toober-chlosis bugs all doubt that he was her Santa Claus left her mind. He made a most minute investigation, but he did it more as a man might search for a lost purse than as a health officer would search for germs. He even got down on his hands and knees and poked under the chicken house with a stick, and, when he had combed the chicken yard thoroughly and had looked all through the chicken house, he even searched the denuded vegetable garden in the back yard, and looked over the fence into Mrs. Flannery’s yard. Evidently he was not pleased with his investigation, for he did not even say good-bye to Mrs. Gratz, but went away looking mad and cross.

When Mrs. Gratz went into her house she took her seat in her rocking-chair and began rocking herself calmly and slowly.

“‘T was him done it, sure,” said Mrs. Flannery.

“I don’t like such come-agains, much,” said Mrs. Gratz placidly. “I try me to believe in such a Santy Claus, but I like not such come-agains. In Germany did not Santy Claus come back so much. I don’t like a Santy Claus should be so anxious. Still I believes in him, but, if he has too many such come-agains, I don’t believe in him much.”

“I would be settin’ th’ police on him, Santy Claus or no Santy Claus,” said Mrs. Flannery vindictively; “th’ mean chicken thief!”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Gratz easily, “I guess I don’t care much should a nine-hundred-dollar Santy Claus steal some chickens. I ain’t mad.”

But she was a little provoked when another knock came at the door a few minutes later, and when, on opening it, she saw the thin Santa Claus before her again.

“So!” she said, “Santy Claus is back yet once!”

“What’s that?” asked the man suspiciously.

“I say, what it is you want?” said Mrs. Gratz.

“Oh!” said the man. “Well, I ain’t a-goin’ to fool with you no longer, Mrs. Gratz. I’m a-goin’ to tell you right out what I am and who I am. I’m a detective of the police, and I’m looking up a mighty bad character.”

“I guess I know right where you find one,” said Mrs. Gratz politely.

“Now, don’t be funny,” said the thin Santa Claus peevishly. “Mebby you noticed I didn’t say nothing when you spoke about that padlock being busted? Mebby you noticed how careful I looked over your chicken coop, and how I looked over the fence into the next yard? Well, I won’t fool you. I ain’t no chicken-yard inspector, and I ain’t no chicken buyer–them was just my detective disguises. I’m out detecting a chicken thief–just a plain, ordinary chicken thief–and what I come for is clues.”

“Yes?” said Mrs. Gratz. “And what is it, such cloos? I haven’t any clooses.”

The thin Santa Claus seemed provoked.

“Now, look here!” he said. “You may think this is funny, but it isn’t. I have got to catch that chicken thief or I’ll lose my job, and I can’t catch him unless I have some clues to catch him with. Now, didn’t you have some chickens stolen last night?”

“Chickens?” asked Mrs. Gratz. “No, I didn’t have chickens stolen. Such toober-chlosis bugs eat them. With fedders, too. And bones. Right off the hoofs, ain’t it a pity?”

It may have been a blush of shame, but it was more like a flush of anger, that overspread the face of the thin Santa Claus. He stared hard at the placid German face of Mrs. Gratz, and decided she was too stupid to mean it–that she was not teasing him.

“You don’t catch on,” he said. “You see, there ain’t any such things as toober-chlosis bugs. I just made that up as a sort of detective disguise. Them chickens wasn’t eat by no bugs at all–they was stole. See? A chicken thief come right into the coop and stole them. Do you think any kind of a bug could pry off a padlock?”

Mrs. Gratz seemed to let this sink into her mind and to revolve there, and get to feeling at home, before she answered.

“No,” she said at length, “I guess not. But Santy Claus could do it. Such a big, fat man. Sure he could do it.”

“Why, you–” began the thin man crossly, and then changed his tone. “There ain’t no such thing as Santy Claus,” he said as one might speak to a child–but even a chicken thief would not tell a child such a thing, I hope.

“No?” queried Mrs. Gratz sadly. “No Santy Claus? And I was scared of it, myself, with such toober-chlosis bugs around. He should not to have gone into such a chicken coop with so many bugs busting up all over. He had a right to have fumigated himself, once. And now he ain’t. He’s all eat up, on the hoof, bones, and feet and all. And such a kind man, too.”

The thin Santa Claus frowned. He had half an idea that Mrs. Gratz was fooling with him, and when he spoke it was crisply.

“Now, see here,” he said, “last night somebody broke into your chicken coop and stole all your chickens. I know that. And he’s been stealing chickens all around this town, and all around this part of the country, too, and I know that. And this stealing has got to stop. I’ve got to catch that thief. And to catch him I’ve got to have a clue. A clue is something he has left around, or dropped, where he was stealing. Now, did that chicken thief drop any clues in your chicken yard? That’s what I want to know–did he drop any clues?”

“Mebby, if he dropped some cloos, those toober-chlosis bugs eat them up,” suggested Mrs. Gratz. “They eats bones and fedders; mebby they eats cloos, too.”

“Now, ain’t that smart?” sneered the thin Santa Claus. “Don’t you think you’re funny? But I’ll tell you the clue I’m looking for. Did that thief drop a pocketbook, or anything like that?”

“Oh, a pocketbook!” said Mrs. Gratz. “How much should be in such a pocketbook, mebby?”

“Nine hundred dollars,” said the thin Santa Claus promptly.

“Goodness!” exclaimed Mrs. Gratz. “So much money all in one cloos! Come out to the chicken yard once; I’ll help hunt for cloos, too.”

The thin Santa Claus stood a minute looking doubtfully at Mrs. Gratz. Her face was large and placid and unemotional.

“Well,” he said with a sigh, “it ain’t much use, but I’ll try it again.”

When he had gone, after another close search of the chicken yard and coop, Mrs. Gratz returned to her friend, Mrs. Flannery.

“Purty soon I don’t belief any more in Santy Claus at all,” she said. “Purty soon I have more beliefs in chicken thiefs than in Santy Claus. Yet a while I beliefs in him, but, one more of those come-agains, and I don’t.”

“He’ll not be comin’ back any more,” said Mrs. Flannery positively. “I’m wonderin’ he came at all, and the jail so handy. All ye have t’ do is t’ call a cop.”

“Sure!” said Mrs. Gratz. “But it is not nice I should put Santy Claus in jail. Such a liberal Santy Claus, too.”

“Have it yer own way, ma’am,” said Mrs. Flannery. “I’ll own ’tis some different whin chickens is stole. ‘Tis hard to expind th’ affections on a bunch of chickens, but, if any one was t’ steal my pig, t’ jail he would go, Santy Claus or no Santy Claus. Not but what ye have a kind heart anyway, ma’am, not wantin’ t’ put th’ poor fellow in jail whin he has already lost nine hundred dollars, which, goodness knows, ye might have t’ hand back, was th’ law t’ take a hand in it.”

“So!” said Mrs. Gratz. “Such is the law, yet? All right, I don’t belief in chicken thiefs, no matter how much he comes again. I stick me to Santy Claus. Always will I belief in Santy Claus. Chicken thiefs gives, and wants to take away again, but Santy Claus is always giving and never taking.”

“Ye ‘re fergettin’ th’ chickens that was took,” suggested Mrs. Flannery.

“Took?” said Mrs. Gratz.

“Tooken,” Mrs. Flannery corrected.

“Tooked?” said Mrs. Gratz. “I beliefs me not in Santy Claus that way. I beliefs he is a good old man. For givings I beliefs in Santy Claus, but for takings I beliefs in toober-chlosis bugs.”

“An’ th’ busted padlock, then?” asked Mrs. Flannery.

“Ach!” exclaimed Mrs. Gratz. “Them reindeers is so frisky, yet. They have a right to kick up and bust it, mebby.”

Mrs. Flannery sighed.

“‘T is a grand thing t’ have faith, ma’am,” she said.

“Y-e-s,” said Mrs. Gratz indolently, “that’s nice. And it is nice to have nine hundred dollars more in the bank, ain’t it?”

18. Christmas Stories

A Russian Christmas Party

Count Rostow’s affairs were going from bad to worse. He was of a warm, generous nature, with unlimited faith in his servants, and hence was blind to the mismanagement and dishonesty which had sapped his fortune. The possessor of a handsome establishment at the Russian capital, Moscow, the owner of rich provincial estates, and the inheritor of a noble name and wealth, he was nevertheless on the verge of ruin. He had given up his appointment as _Marechal de la Noblesse_, which he had gone to his seat of Otradnoe to assume, because it entailed too many expenses; and yet there was no improvement in the state of his finances.

Nicolas and Natacha, his son and daughter, often found their father and mother in anxious consultation, talking in low tones of the sale of their Moscow house or of their property in the neighborhood. Having thus retired into private life, the count now gave neither fetes nor entertainments. Life at Otradnoe was much less gay than in past years; still, the house and domain were as full of servants as ever, and twenty persons or more sat down to dinner daily. These were dependants, friends, and intimates, who were regarded almost as part of the family, or at any rate seemed unable to tear themselves away from it: among them a musician named Dimmler and his wife, Loghel the dancing-master and his family, and old Mlle. Below, former governess of Natacha and Sonia, the count’s niece and adopted child, and now the tutor of Petia, his younger son; besides others who found it simpler to live at the count’s expense than at their own. Thus, though there were no more festivities, life was carried on almost as expensively as of old, and neither the master nor the mistress ever imagined any change possible. Nicolas, again, had added to the hunting establishment; there were still fifty horses in the stables, still fifteen drivers; handsome presents were given on all birthdays and fete days, which invariably wound up as of old with a grand dinner to all the neighborhood; the count still played whist or boston, invariably letting his cards be seen by his friends, who were always ready to make up his table, and relieve him without hesitation of the few hundred roubles which constituted their principal income. The old man marched on blindfold through the tangle of his pecuniary difficulties, trying to conceal them, and only succeeding in augmenting them; having neither the courage nor the patience to untie the knots one by one.

The loving heart by his side foresaw their children’s ruin, but she could not accuse her husband, who was, alas! too old for amendment; she could only seek some remedy for the disaster. From her woman’s point of view there was but one: Nicolas’s marriage, namely, with some rich heiress. She clung desperately to this last chance of salvation; but if her son should refuse the wife she should propose to him, every hope of reinstating their fortune would vanish. The young lady whom she had in view was the daughter of people of the highest respectability, whom the Rostows had known from her infancy: Julie Karaguine, who, by the death of her second brother, had suddenly come into great wealth.

The countess herself wrote to Mme. Karaguine to ask her whether she could regard the match with favor, and received a most flattering answer. Indeed, Mme. Karaguine invited Nicolas to her house at Moscow, to give her daughter an opportunity of deciding for herself.

Nicolas had often heard his mother say, with tears in her eyes, that her dearest wish was to see him married. The fulfilment of this wish would sweeten her remaining days, she would say, adding covert hints as to a charming girl who would exactly suit him. One day she took the opportunity of speaking plainly to him of Julie’s charms and merits, and urged him to spend a short time in Moscow before Christmas. Nicolas, who had no difficulty in guessing what she was aiming at, persuaded her to be explicit on the matter, and she owned frankly that her hope was to see their sinking fortunes restored by his marriage with her dear Julie!

“Then, mother, if I loved a penniless girl, you would desire me to sacrifice my feelings and my honor–to marry solely for money?”

“Nay, nay; you have misunderstood me,” she said, not knowing how to excuse her mercenary hopes. “I wish only for your happiness!” And then, conscious that this was not her sole aim, and that she was not perfectly honest, she burst into tears.

“Do not cry, mamma; you have only to say that you really and truly desire it, and you know I would give my life to see you happy; that I would sacrifice everything, even my feelings.”

But this was not his mother’s notion. She asked no sacrifice, she would have none; she would sooner have sacrificed herself, if it had been possible.

“Say no more about it; you do not understand,” she said, drying away her tears.

“How could she think of such a marriage?” thought Nicolas. “Does she think that because Sonia is poor I do not love her? And yet I should be a thousand times happier with her than with a doll like Julie.”

He stayed in the country, and his mother did not revert to the subject. Still, as she saw the growing intimacy between Nicolas and Sonia, she could not help worrying Sonia about every little thing, and speaking to her with colder formality. Sometimes she reproached herself for these continual pin-pricks of annoyance, and was quite vexed with the poor girl for submitting to them with such wonderful humility and sweetness, for taking every opportunity of showing her devoted gratitude, and for loving Nicolas with a faithful and disinterested affection which commanded her admiration.

Just about this time a letter came from Prince Andre, dated from Rome, whither he had gone to pass the year of probation demanded by his father as a condition to giving consent to his son’s marriage with the Countess Natacha. It was the fourth the Prince had written since his departure. He ought long since to have been on his way home, he said, but the heat of the summer had caused the wound he had received at Austerlitz to reopen, and this compelled him to postpone his return till early in January.

Natacha, though she was so much in love that her very passion for Prince Andre had made her day-dreams happy, had hitherto been open to all the bright influences of her young life; but now, after nearly four months of parting, she fell into a state of extreme melancholy, and gave way to it completely. She bewailed her hard fate, she bewailed the time that was slipping away and lost to her, while her heart ached with the dull craving to love and be loved. Nicolas, too, had nearly spent his leave from his regiment, and the anticipation of his departure added gloom to the saddened household.

Christmas came; but, excepting the pompous high Mass and the other religious ceremonies, the endless string of neighbors and servants with the regular compliments of the season, and the new gowns which made their first appearance on the occasion, nothing more than usual happened on that day, or more extraordinary than twenty degrees of frost, with brilliant sunshine, a still atmosphere, and at night a glorious starry sky.

After dinner, on the third day of Christmas-tide, when every one had settled into his own corner once more, ennui reigned supreme throughout the house. Nicolas, who had been paying a round of visits in the neighborhood, was fast asleep in the drawing-room. The old count had followed his example in his room. Sonia, seated at a table in the sitting-room, was copying a drawing. The countess was playing out a “patience,” and Nastacia Ivanovna, the old buffoon, with his peevish face, sitting in a window with two old women, did not say a word.

Natacha came into the room, and, after leaning over Sonia for a minute or two to examine her work, went over to her mother and stood still in front of her.

The countess looked up. “Why are you wandering about like a soul in torment? What do you want?” she said.

“Want! I want him!” replied Natacha, shortly, and her eyes glowed. “Now, here–at once!”

Her mother gazed at her anxiously.

“Do not look at me like that; you will make me cry.”

“Sit down here.”

“Mamma, I want him, I want him! Why must I die of weariness?” Her voice broke and tears started from her eyes. She hastily quitted the drawing-room and went to the housekeeper’s room, where an old servant was scolding one of the girls who had just come in breathless from out-of-doors.

“There is a time for all things,” growled the old woman. “You have had time enough for play.”

“Oh, leave her in peace, Kondratievna,” said Natacha. “Run away, Mavroucha–go.”

Pursuing her wandering, Natacha went into the hall; an old man-servant was playing cards with two of the boys. Her entrance stopped their game and they rose. “And what am I to say to these?” thought she.

“Nikita, would you please go–what on earth can I ask for?–go and find me a cock; and you, Micha, a handful of corn.”

“A handful of corn?” said Micha, laughing.

“Go, go at once,” said the old man.

“And you, Fedor, can you give me a piece of chalk?”

Then she went on to the servants’ hall and ordered the samovar to be got ready, though it was not yet tea-time; she wanted to try her power over Foka, the old butler, the most morose and disobliging of all the servants. He could not believe his ears, and asked her if she really meant it. “What next will our young lady want?” muttered Foka, affecting to be very cross.

No one gave so many orders as Natacha, no one sent them on so many errands at once. As soon as a servant came in sight she seemed to invent some want or message; she could not help it. It seemed as though she wanted to try her power over them; to see whether, some fine day, one or another would not rebel against her tyranny; but, on the contrary, they always flew to obey her more readily than any one else.

“And now what shall I do, where can I go?” thought she, as she slowly went along the corridor, where she presently met the buffoon.

“Nastacia Ivanovna,” said she, “if I ever have children, what will they be?”

“You! Fleas and grasshoppers, you may depend upon it!”

Natacha went on. “Good God! have mercy, have mercy!” she said to herself. “Wherever I go it is always, always the same. I am so weary; what shall I do?”

Skipping lightly from step to step, she went to the upper story and dropped in on the Loghels. Two governesses were sitting chatting with M. and Mme. Loghel; dessert, consisting of dried fruit, was on the table, and they were eagerly discussing the cost of living at Moscow and Odessa. Natacha took a seat for a moment, listened with pensive attention, and then jumped up again. “The island of Madagascar!” she murmured, “Ma-da-gas-car!” and she separated the syllables. Then she left the room without answering Mme. Schoss, who was utterly mystified by her strange exclamation.

She next met Petia and a companion, both very full of some fireworks which were to be let off that evening. “Petia!” she exclaimed, “carry me down-stairs!” And she sprang upon his back, throwing her arms round his neck; and, laughing and galloping, they thus scrambled along to the head of the stairs.

“Thank you, that will do. Madagascar!” she repeated; and, jumping down, she ran down the flight.

After thus inspecting her dominions, testing her power, and convincing herself that her subjects were docile, and that there was no novelty to be got out of them, Natacha settled herself in the darkest corner of the music-room with her guitar, striking the bass strings, and trying to make an accompaniment to an air from an opera that she and Prince Andre had once heard together at St. Petersburg. The uncertain chords which her unpractised fingers sketched out would have struck the least experienced ear as wanting in harmony and musical accuracy, while to her excited imagination they brought a whole train of memories. Leaning against the wall and half hidden by a cabinet, with her eyes fixed on a thread of light that came under the door from the rooms beyond, she listened in ecstasy and dreamed of the past.

Sonia crossed the room with a glass in her hand. Natacha glanced round at her and again fixed her eyes on the streak of light. She had the strange feeling of having once before gone through the same experience–sat in the same place, surrounded by the same details, and watching Sonia pass carrying a tumbler. “Yes, it was exactly the same,” she thought.

“Sonia, what is this tune?” she said, playing a few notes.

“What, are you there?” said Sonia, startled. “I do not know,” she said, coming closer to listen, “unless it is from ‘La Tempete’;” but she spoke doubtfully.

“It was exactly so,” thought Natacha. “She started as she came forward, smiling so gently; and I thought then, as I think now, that there is something in her which is quite lacking in me. No,” she said aloud, “you are quite out; it is the chorus from the ‘Porteur d’Eau’–listen,” and she hummed the air. “Where are you going?”

“For some fresh water to finish my drawing.”

“You are always busy and I never. Where is Nicolas?”

“Asleep, I think.”

“Go and wake him, Sonia. Tell him to come and sing.”

Sonia went, and Natacha relapsed into dreaming and wondering how it had all happened. Not being able to solve the puzzle, she drifted into reminiscence once more. She could see him–_him_–and feel his impassioned eyes fixed on her face. “Oh, make haste back! I am so afraid he will not come yet! Besides, it is all very well, but I am growing old; I shall be quite different from what I am now! Who knows? Perhaps he will come to-day! Perhaps he is here already! Here in the drawing-room. Perhaps he came yesterday and I have forgotten.”

She rose, laid down the guitar, and went into the next room. All the household party were seated round the tea-table,–the professors, the governesses, the guests; the servants were waiting on one and another–but there was no Prince Andre.

“Ah, here she is,” said her father. “Come and sit down here.” But Natacha stopped by her mother without heeding his bidding.

“Oh, mamma, bring him to me, give him to me soon, very soon,” she murmured, swallowing down a sob. Then she sat down and listened to the others. “Good God! always the same people! always the same thing! Papa holds his cup as he always does, and blows his tea to cool it as he did yesterday, and as he will to-morrow.”

She felt a sort of dull rebellion against them all; she hated them for always being the same.

After tea Sonia, Natacha, and Nicolas huddled together in their favorite, snug corner of the drawing-room; that was where they talked freely to each other.

“Do you ever feel,” Natacha asked her brother, “as if there was nothing left to look forward to; as if you had had all your share of happiness, and were not so much weary as utterly dull?”

“Of course I have. Very often I have seen my friends and fellow-officers in the highest spirits and been just as jolly myself, and suddenly have been struck so dull and dismal, have so hated life, that I have wondered whether we were not all to die at once. I remember one day, for instance, when I was with the regiment; the band was playing, and I had such a fit of melancholy that I never even thought of going to the promenade.”

“How well I understand that! I recollect once,” Natacha went on, “once when I was a little girl, I was punished for having eaten some plums, I think. I had not done it, and you were all dancing, and I was left alone in the school-room. How I cried! cried because I was so sorry for myself, and so vexed with you all for making me so unhappy.”

“I remember; and I went to comfort you and did not know how; we were funny children then; I had a toy with bells that jingled, and I made you a present of it.”

“Do you remember,” said Natacha, “long before that, when we were no bigger than my hand, my uncle called us into his room, where it was quite dark, and suddenly we saw—-“

“A negro!” interrupted Nicolas, smiling at her recollection. “To be sure. I can see him now; and to this day I wonder whether it was a dream or a reality, or mere fancy invented afterwards.”

“He had white teeth and stared at us with his black eyes.”

“Do you remember him, Sonia?”

“Yes, yes–but very dimly.”

“But papa and mamma have always declared that no negro ever came to the house. And the eggs; do you remember the eggs we used to roll up at Easter; and one day how two little grinning old women came up through the floor and began to spin round the table?”

“Of course. And how papa used to put on his fur coat and fire off his gun from the balcony. And don t you remember—-?” And so they went on recalling, one after the other, not the bitter memories of old age, but the bright pictures of early childhood, which float and fade on a distant horizon of poetic vagueness, midway between reality and dreams. Sonia remembered being frightened once at the sight of Nicolas in his braided jacket, and her nurse promising her that she should some day have a frock trimmed from top to bottom.

“And they told me you had been found in the garden under a cabbage,” said Natacha. “I dared not say it was not true, but it puzzled me tremendously.”

A door opened, and a woman put in her head, exclaiming, “Mademoiselle, mademoiselle, they have fetched the cock!”

“I do not want it now; send it away again, Polia.” said Natacha.

Dimmler, who had meanwhile come into the room, went up to the harp, which stood in a corner, and in taking off the cover made the strings ring discordantly.

“Edward Karlovitch, play my favorite nocturne–Field’s,” cried the countess, from the adjoining room.

Dimmler struck a chord. “How quiet you young people are,” he said, addressing them.

“Yes, we are studying philosophy,” said Natacha, and they went on talking of their dreams.

Dimmler had no sooner begun his nocturne than Natacha, crossing the room on tiptoe, seized the wax-light that was burning on the table and carried it into the next room; then she stole back to her seat, it was now quite dark in the larger room, especially in their corner, but the silvery moonbeams came in at the wide windows and lay in broad sheets on the floor.

“Do you know,” whispered Natacha, while Dimmler, after playing the nocturne, let his fingers wander over the strings, uncertain what to play next, “when I go on remembering one thing beyond another, I go back so far, so far, that at last I remember things that happened before I was born, and—-“

“That is metempsychosis,” interrupted Sonia, with a reminiscence of her early lessons. “The Egyptians believed that our souls had once inhabited the bodies of animals, and would return to animals again after our death.”

“I do not believe that,” said Natacha, still in a low voice, though the music had ceased. “But I am quite sure that we were angels once, somewhere there beyond, or, perhaps, even here; and that is the reason we remember a previous existence.”

“May I join the party?” asked Dimmler, coming towards them.

“If we were once angels, how is it that we have fallen lower?”

“Lower? Who says that it is lower? Who knows what I was?” Natacha retorted with full conviction. “Since the soul is immortal, and I am to live forever in the future, I must have existed in the past, so I have eternity behind me, too.”

“Yes; but it is very difficult to conceive of that eternity,” said Dimmler, whose ironical smile had died away.

“Why?” asked Natacha. “After to-day comes to-morrow, and then the day after, and so on forever; yesterday has been, to-morrow will be—-“

“Natacha, now it is your turn; sing me something,” said her mother. “What are you doing in that corner like a party of conspirators?”

“I am not at all in the humor, mamma,” said she; nevertheless she rose. Nicolas sat down to the piano; and standing, as usual, in the middle of the room, where the voice sounded best, she sang her mother’s favorite ballad.

Though she had said she was not in the humor, it was long since Natacha had sung so well as she did that evening, and long before she sang so well again. Her father, who was talking over business with Mitenka in his room, hurriedly gave him some final instructions as soon as he heard the first note, as a schoolboy scrambles through his tasks to get to his play; but as the steward did not go, he sat in silence, listening, while Mitenka, too, standing in his presence, listened with evident satisfaction. Nicolas did not take his eyes off his sister’s face, and only breathed when she took breath. Sonia was under the spell of that exquisite voice and thinking of the gulf of difference that lay between her and her friend, full conscious that she could never exercise such fascination. The old countess had paused in her “patience,”–a sad, fond smile played on her lips, her eyes were full of tears, and she shook her head, remembering her own youth, looking forward to her daughter’s future and reflecting on her strange prospects of marriage.

Dimmler, sitting by her side, listened with rapture, his eyes half closed.

“She really has a marvellous gift!” he exclaimed. “She has nothing to learn,–such power, such sweetness, such roundness!”

“And how much I fear for her happiness!” replied the countess, who in her mother’s heart could feel the flame that must some day be fatal to her child’s peace.

Natacha was still singing when Petia dashed noisily into the room to announce, in triumphant tones, that a party of mummers had come.

“Idiot!” exclaimed Natacha, stopping short, and, dropping into a chair, she began to sob so violently that it was some time before she could recover herself. “It is nothing, mamma, really nothing at all,” she declared, trying to smile. “Only Petia frightened me; nothing more.” And her tears flowed afresh.

All the servants had dressed up, some as bears, Turks, tavern-keepers, or fine ladies; others as mongrel monsters. Bringing with them the chill of the night outside, they did not at first venture any farther than the hall; by degrees, however, they took courage; pushing each other forward for self-protection, they all soon came into the music-room. Once there, their shyness thawed; they became expansively merry, and singing, dancing, and sports were soon the order of the day. The countess, after looking at them and identifying them all, went back into the sitting-room, leaving her husband, whose jovial face encouraged them to enjoy themselves.

The young people had all vanished; but half an hour later an old marquise with patches appeared on the scene–none other than Nicolas; Petia as a Turk; a clown–Dimmler; a hussar–Natacha; and a Circassian–Sonia. Both the girls had blackened their eyebrows and given themselves mustaches with burned cork.

After being received with well-feigned surprise, and recognized more or less quickly, the children, who were very proud of their costumes, unanimously declared that they must go and display them elsewhere. Nicolas, who was dying to take them all for a long drive _en troika_,[C] proposed that, as the roads were in splendid order, they should go, a party of ten, to the Little Uncle’s.

[C] A team of three horses harnessed abreast.

“You will disturb the old man, and that will be all,” said the countess. “Why, he has not even room for you all to get into the house! If you must go out, you had better go to the Melukows’.”

Mme. Melukow was a widow living in the neighborhood; her house, full of children of all ages, with tutors and governesses, was distant only four versts from Otradnoe.

“A capital idea, my dear,” cried the count, enchanted. “I will dress up in costume and go, too. I will wake them up, I warrant you!”

But this did not at all meet his wife’s views. Perfect madness! For him to go out with his gouty feet in such cold weather was sheer folly! The count gave way, and Mme. Schoss volunteered to chaperon the girls. Sonia’s was by far the most successful disguise; her fierce eyebrows and mustache were wonderfully becoming, her pretty features gained expression, and she wore the dress of a man with unexpected swagger and smartness. Something in her inmost soul told her that this evening would seal her fate.

In a few minutes four sleighs with three horses abreast to each, their harness jingling with bells, drew up in a line before the steps, the runners creaking and crunching over the frozen snow. Natacha was the foremost, and the first to tune her spirits to the pitch of this carnival freak. This mirth, in fact, proved highly infectious, and reached its height of tumult and excitement when the party went down the steps and packed themselves into the sleighs, laughing and shouting to each other at the top of their voices. Two of the sleighs were drawn by light cart-horses, to the third the count’s carriage horses were harnessed, and one of these was reputed a famous trotter from Orlow’s stable; the fourth sleigh, with its rough-coated, black shaft-horse, was Nicolas’s private property. In his marquise costume, over which he had thrown his hussar’s cloak, fastened with a belt round the waist, he stood gathering up the reins. The moon was shining brightly, reflected in the plating of the harness and in the horses’ anxious eyes as they turned their heads in uneasy amazement at the noisy group that clustered under the dark porch. Natacha, Sonia, and Mme. Schoss, with two women servants, got into Nicolas’s sleigh; Dimmler and his wife, with Petia, into the count’s; the rest of the mummers packed into the other sleighs.

“Lead the way, Zakhare!” cried Nicolas, to his father’s coachman, promising himself the pleasure of outstripping him presently; the count’s sleigh swayed and strained, the runners, which the frost had already glued to the ground, creaked, the bells rang out, the horses closed up for a pull, and off they went over the glittering, hard snow, flinging it up right and left like spray of powdered sugar. Nicolas started next, and the others followed along the narrow way, with no less jingling and creaking. While they drove under the wall of the park the shadows of the tall, skeleton trees lay on the road, checkering the broad moonlight; but as soon as they had left it behind them, the wide and spotless plain spread on all sides, its whiteness broken by myriads of flashing sparks and spangles of reflected light. Suddenly a rut caused the foremost sleigh to jolt violently, and then the others in succession; they fell away a little, their intrusive clatter breaking the supreme and solemn silence of the night.

“A hare’s tracks!” exclaimed Natacha, and her voice pierced the frozen air like an arrow.

“How light it is, Nicolas,” said Sonia. Nicolas turned round to look at the pretty face with its black mustache, under the sable hood, looking at once so far away and so close in the moonshine. “It is not Sonia at all,” he said, smiling.

“Why, what is the matter?”

“Nothing,” said he, returning to his former position.

When they got out on the high-road, beaten and ploughed by horses’ hoofs and polished with the tracks of sleighs, his steeds began to pull and go at a great pace. The near horse, turning away his head, was galloping rather wildly, while the horse in the shafts pricked his ears and still seemed to doubt whether the moment for a dash had come. Zakhare’s sleigh, lost in the distance, was no more than a black spot on the white snow, and as he drew farther away the ringing of the bells was fainter and fainter; only the shouts and songs of the maskers rang through the calm, clear night.

“On you go, my beauties!” cried Nicolas, shaking the reins and raising his whip. The sleigh seemed to leap forward, but the sharp air that cut their faces and the flying pace of the two outer horses alone gave them any idea of the speed they were making. Nicolas glanced back at the other two drivers; they were shouting and urging their shaft-horses with cries and cracking of whips, so as not to be quite left behind; Nicolas’s middle horse, swinging steadily along under the shaft-bow, kept up his regular pace, quite ready to go twice as fast the moment he should be called upon.

They soon overtook the first troika, and after going down a slope they came upon a wide cross-road running by the side of a meadow.

“Where are we, I wonder,” thought Nicolas; “this must be the field and slope by the river. No–I do not know where we are! This is all new and unfamiliar to me! God only knows where we are! But no matter!” And smacking his whip with a will, he went straight ahead. Zakhare held in his beasts for an instant, and turned his face, all fringed with frost, to look at Nicolas, who came flying onward.

“Steady there, sir!” cried the coachman, and leaning forward, with a click of his tongue he urged his horses in their turn to their utmost speed. For a few minutes the sleighs ran equal, but before long, in spite of all Zakhare could do, Nicolas gained on him and at last flew past him like a lightning flash; a cloud of fine snow, kicked up by the horses, came showering down on the rival sleigh; the women squeaked, and the two teams had a struggle for the precedence, their shadows crossing and mingling on the snow.

Then Nicolas, moderating his speed, looked about him; before, behind, and on each side of him stretched the fairy scene; a plain strewn with stars and flooded with light.

“To the left, Zakhare says. Why to the left?” thought he. “We were going to the Melukows’. But we are going where fate directs or as Heaven may guide us. It is all very strange and most delightful, is it not?” he said, turning to the others.

“Oh! look at his eyelashes and beard; they are quite white!” exclaimed one of the sweet young men, with pencilled mustache and arched eyebrows.

“That I believe is Natacha?” said Nicolas. “And that little Circassian–who is he? I do not know him, but I like his looks uncommonly! Are you not frozen?” Their answer was a shout of laughter.

Dimmler was talking himself hoarse, and he must be saying very funny things, for the party in his sleigh were in fits of laughing.

“Better and better,” said Nicolas to himself; “now we are in an enchanted forest–the black shadows lie across a flooring of diamonds and mix with the sparkling of gems. That might be a fairy palace, out there, built of large blocks of marble and jewelled tiles? Did I not hear the howl of wild beasts in the distance? Supposing it were only Melukovka that I am coming to after all! On my word, it would be no less miraculous to have reached port after steering so completely at random!”

It was, in fact, Melukovka, for he could see the house servants coming out on the balcony with lights, and then down to meet them, only too glad of this unexpected diversion.

“Who is there?” a voice asked within.

“The mummers from Count Rostow’s; they are his teams,” replied the servants.

* * * * *

Pelagueia Danilovna Melukow, a stout and commanding personality, in spectacles and a flowing dressing-gown, was sitting in her drawing-room surrounded by her children, whom she was doing her best to amuse by modelling heads in wax and tracing the shadows they cast on the wall, when steps and voices were heard in the ante-room. Hussars, witches, clowns, and bears were rubbing their faces, which were scorched by the cold and covered with rime, or shaking the snow off their clothes. As soon as they had cast off their furs they rushed into the large drawing-room, which was hastily lighted up. Dimmler, the clown, and Nicolas, the marquise, performed a dance, while the others stood close along the wall, the children shouting and jumping about them with glee.

“It is impossible to know who is who–can that really be Natacha? Look at her; does not she remind you of some one? Edward, before Karlovitch, how fine you are! and how beautifully you dance! Oh! and that splendid Circassian–why, it is Sonia! What a kind and delightful surprise; we were so desperately dull. Ha, ha! what a beautiful hussar! A real hussar, or a real monkey of a boy–which is he, I wonder? I cannot look at you without laughing.” They all shouted and laughed and talked at once, at the top of their voices.

Natacha, to whom the Melukows were devoted, soon vanished with them to their own room, where corks and various articles of men’s clothing were brought to them, and clutched by bare arms through a half-open door. Ten minutes later all the young people of the house rejoined the company, equally unrecognizable. Pelagueia Danilovna, going and coming among them all, with her spectacles on her nose and a quiet smile, had seats arranged and a supper laid out for the visitors, masters and servants alike. She looked straight in the face of each in turn, recognizing no one of the motley crew–neither the Rostows, nor Dimmler, nor even her own children, nor any of the clothes they figured in.

“That one, who is she?” she asked the governess, stopping a Kazan Tartar, who was, in fact, her own daughter. “One of the Rostows, is it not? And you, gallant hussar, what regiment do you belong to?” she went on, addressing Natacha. “Give some _pastila_ to this Turkish lady,” she cried to the butler; “it is not forbidden by her religion, I believe.”

At the sight of some of the reckless dancing which the mummers performed under the shelter of their disguise, Pelagueia Danilovna could not help hiding her face in her handkerchief, while her huge person shook with uncontrollable laughter–the laugh of a kindly matron, frankly jovial and gay.

When they had danced all the national dances, ending with the _Horovody_, she placed every one, both masters and servants, in a large circle, holding a cord with a ring and a rouble, and for a while they played games. An hour after, when the finery was the worse for wear and heat and laughter had removed much of the charcoal, Pelagueia Danilovna could recognize them, compliment the girls on the success of their disguise, and thank the whole party for the amusement they had given her. Supper was served for the company in the drawing-room, and for the servants in the large dining-room.

“You should try your fortune in the bathroom over there; that is enough to frighten you!” said an old maid who lived with the Melukows.

“Why?” said the eldest girl.

“Oh! you would never dare to do it; you must be very brave.”

“Well, I will go,” said Sonia.

“Tell us what happened to that young girl, you know,” said the youngest Melukow.

“Once a young girl went to the bath, taking with her a cock and two plates with knives and forks, which is what you must do; and she waited. Suddenly she heard horses’ bells–some one was coming; he stopped, came up-stairs, and she saw an officer walk into the room; a real live officer–at least so he seemed–who sat down opposite to her where the second cover was laid.”

“Oh! how horrible!” exclaimed Natacha, wide-eyed. “And he spoke to her–really spoke?”

“Yes, just as if he had really been a man. He begged and prayed her to listen to him, and all she had to do was to refuse him and hold out till the cock crowed; but she was too much frightened. She covered her face with her hands, and he clasped her in his arms; luckily some girls who were on the watch rushed in when she screamed.”

“Why do you terrify them with such nonsense?” said Pelagueia Danilovna.

“But, mamma, you know you wanted to try your fortune too.”

“And if you try your fortune in a barn, what do you do?” asked Sonia.

“That is quite simple. You must go to the barn–now, for instance–and listen. If you hear thrashing, it is for ill-luck; if you hear grain dropping, that is good.”

“Tell us, mother, what happened to you in the barn.”

“It is so long ago,” said the mother, with a smile, “that I have quite forgotten; besides, not one of you is brave enough to try it.”

“Yes, I will go,” said Sonia. “Let me go.”

“Go by all means if you are not afraid.”

“May I, Madame Schoss?” said Sonia to the governess.

Now, whether playing games or sitting quietly and chatting, Nicolas had not left Sonia’s side the whole evening; he felt as if he had seen her for the first time, and only just now appreciated all her merits. Bright, bewitchingly pretty in her quaint costume, and excited as she very rarely was, she had completely fascinated him.

“What a simpleton I must have been!” thought he, responding in thought to those sparkling eyes and that triumphant smile which had revealed to him a little dimple at the tip of her mustache that he had never observed before.

“I am afraid of nothing,” she declared. She rose, asked her way, precisely, to the barn, and every detail as to what she was to expect, waiting there in total silence; then she threw a fur cloak over her shoulders, glanced at Nicolas, and went on.

She went along the corridor and down the back-stairs; while Nicolas, saying that the heat of the room was too much for him, slipped out by the front entrance. It was as cold as ever, and the moon seemed to be shining even more brightly than before. The snow at her feet was strewn with stars, while their sisters overhead twinkled in the deep gloom of the sky, and she soon looked away from them, back to the gleaming earth in its radiant mantle of ermine.

Nicolas hurried across the hall, turned the corner of the house, and went past the side door where Sonia was to come out. Half-way to the barn stacks of wood, in the full moonlight, threw their shadows on the path, and beyond, an alley of lime-trees traced a tangled pattern on the snow with the fine crossed lines of their leafless twigs. The beams of the house and its snow-laden roof looked as if they had been hewn out of a block of opal, with iridescent lights where the facets caught the silvery moonlight. Suddenly a bough fell crashing off a tree in the garden; then all was still again. Sonia’s heart beat high with gladness; as if she were drinking in not common air, but some life-giving elixir of eternal youth and joy.

“Straight on, if you please, miss, and on no account look behind you.”

“I am not afraid,” said Sonia, her little shoes tapping the stone steps and then crunching the carpet of snow as she ran to meet Nicolas, who was within a couple of yards of her. And yet not the Nicolas of every-day life. What had transfigured him so completely? Was it his woman’s costume with frizzed-out hair, or was it that radiant smile which he so rarely wore, and which at this moment illumined his face?

“But Sonia is quite unlike herself, and yet she is herself,” thought Nicolas on his side, looking down at the sweet little face in the moonlight. He slipped his arms under the fur cloak that wrapped her, and drew her to him, and he kissed her lips, which still tasted of the burned cork that had blackened her mustache.

“Nicolas–Sonia,” they whispered; and Sonia put her little hands round his face. Then, hand in hand, they ran to the barn and back, and each went in by the different doors they had come out of.

Natacha, who had noted everything, managed so that she, Mme. Schoss, and Dimmler should return in one sleigh, while the maids went with Nicolas and Sonia in another. Nicolas was in no hurry to get home; he could not help looking at Sonia and trying to find under her disguise the true Sonia–his Sonia, from whom nothing now could ever part him. The magical effects of moonlight, the remembrance of that kiss on her sweet lips, the dizzy flight of the snow-clad ground under the horses’ hoofs, the black sky, studded with diamonds, that bent over their heads, the icy air that seemed to give vigor to his lungs–all was enough to make him fancy that they were transported to a land of magic.

“Sonia, are you not cold?”

“No; and you?”

Nicolas pulled up, and giving the reins to a man to drive, he ran back to the sleigh in which Natacha was sitting.

“Listen,” he said, in a whisper and in French; “I have made up my mind to tell Sonia.”

“And you have spoken to her?” exclaimed Natacha, radiant with joy.

“Oh, Natacha, how queer that mustache makes you look! Are you glad?”

“Glad! I am delighted. I did not say anything, you know, but I have been so vexed with you. She is a jewel, a heart of gold. I–I am often naughty, and I have no right to have all the happiness to myself now. Go, go back to her.”

“No. Wait one minute. Mercy, how funny you look!” he repeated, examining her closely and discovering in her face, too, an unwonted tenderness and emotion that struck him deeply. “Natacha, is there not some magic at the bottom of it all, heh?”

“You have acted very wisely. Go.”

“If I had ever seen Natacha look as she does at this moment I should have asked her advice and have obeyed her, whatever she had bid me do; and all would have gone well. So you are glad?” he said, aloud. “I have done right?”

“Yes, yes, of course you have! I was quite angry with mamma the other day about you two. Mamma would have it that Sonia was running after you. I will not allow any one to say–no, nor even to think–any evil of her, for she is sweetness and truth itself.”

“So much the better.” Nicolas jumped down and in a few long strides overtook his own sleigh, where the little Circassian received him with a smile from under the fur hood; and the Circassian was Sonia, and Sonia beyond a doubt would be his beloved little wife!

When they got home the two girls went into the countess’s room and gave her an account of their expedition; then they went to bed. Without stopping to wipe off their mustaches they stood chattering as they undressed; they had so much to say of their happiness, their future prospects, the friendship between their husbands:

“But, oh! when will it all be? I am so afraid it will never come to pass,” said Natacha, as she went toward a table on which two looking-glasses stood.

“Sit down,” said Sonia, “and look in the glass; perhaps you will see something about it.” Natacha lighted two pairs of candles and seated herself. “I certainly see a pair of mustaches,” she said, laughing.

“You should not laugh,” said the maid, very gravely.

Natacha settled herself to gaze without blinking into the mirror; she put on a solemn face and sat in silence for some time, wondering what she should see. Would a coffin rise before her, or would Prince Andre presently stand revealed against the confused background in the shining glass? Her eyes were weary and could hardly distinguish even the flickering light of the candles. But with the best will in the world she could see nothing; not a spot to suggest the image either of a coffin or of a human form. She rose.

“Why do other people see things and I never see anything at all? Take my place, Sonia; you must look for yourself and for me, too. I am so frightened; if I could but know!”

Sonia sat down and fixed her eyes on the mirror.

“Sofia Alexandrovna will be sure to see something,” whispered Douniacha; “but you always are laughing at such things.” Sonia heard the remark and Natacha’s whispered reply: “Yes, she is sure to see something; she did last year.” Three minutes they waited in total silence. “She is sure to see something,” Natacha repeated, trembling.

Sonia started back, covered her face with one hand, and cried out:


“You saw something? What did you see?” And Natacha rushed forward to hold up the glass.

But Sonia had seen nothing; her eyes were getting dim, and she was on the point of giving it up when Natacha’s exclamation had stopped her; she did not want to disappoint them; but there is nothing so tiring as sitting motionless. She did not know why she had called out and hidden her face.

“Did you see him?” asked Natacha.

“Yes; stop a minute. I saw him,” said Sonia, not quite sure whether “him” was to mean Nicolas or Prince Andre. “Why not make them believe that I saw something?” she thought. “A great many people have done so before, and no one can prove the contrary. Yes, I saw him,” she repeated.

“How? standing up or lying down?”

“I saw him–at first there was nothing; then suddenly I saw him lying down.”

“Andre, lying down? Then he is ill!” And Natacha gazed horror-stricken at her companion.

“Not at all; he seemed quite cheerful, on the contrary,” said she, beginning to believe in her own inventions.

“And then–Sonia, what then?”

“Then I saw only confusion–red and blue.”

“And when will he come back, Sonia? When shall I see him again? O God! I am afraid for him–afraid of everything.”

And, without listening to Sonia’s attempts at comfort, Natacha slipped into bed, and, long after the lights were out, she lay motionless but awake, her eyes fixed on the moonshine that came dimly through the frost-embroidered windows.

A Wayfarer’s Fancy.

“A felicitous combination of the German, the Sclave, and the Semite, with grand features, brown hair floating in artistic fashion, and brown eyes in spectacles.”

George Eliot.

18. Christmas Stories

A Christmas Tree

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men–and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, “There was everything, and more.” This motley collection of odd objects, clustering on the tree like magic fruit, and flashing back the bright looks directed towards it from every side–some of the diamond-eyes admiring it were hardly on a level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses–made a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood; and set me thinking how all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth, have their wild adornments at that well-remembered time.

Being now at home again, and alone, the only person in the house awake, my thoughts are drawn back, by a fascination which I do not care to resist, to my own childhood. I begin to consider, what do we all remember best upon the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life.

Straight, in the middle of the room, cramped in the freedom of its growth by no encircling walls or soon-reached ceiling, a shadowy tree arises; and, looking up into the dreamy brightness of its top– for I observe in this tree the singular property that it appears to grow downward towards the earth–I look into my youngest Christmas recollections!

All toys at first, I find. Up yonder, among the green holly and red berries, is the Tumbler with his hands in his pockets, who wouldn’t lie down, but whenever he was put upon the floor, persisted in rolling his fat body about, until he rolled himself still, and brought those lobster eyes of his to bear upon me–when I affected to laugh very much, but in my heart of hearts was extremely doubtful of him. Close beside him is that infernal snuff-box, out of which there sprang a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown, with an obnoxious head of hair, and a red cloth mouth, wide open, who was not to be endured on any terms, but could not be put away either; for he used suddenly, in a highly magnified state, to fly out of Mammoth Snuff-boxes in dreams, when least expected. Nor is the frog with cobbler’s wax on his tail, far off; for there was no knowing where he wouldn’t jump; and when he flew over the candle, and came upon one’s hand with that spotted back–red on a green ground–he was horrible. The cardboard lady in a blue-silk skirt, who was stood up against the candlestick to dance, and whom I see on the same branch, was milder, and was beautiful; but I can’t say as much for the larger cardboard man, who used to be hung against the wall and pulled by a string; there was a sinister expression in that nose of his; and when he got his legs round his neck (which he very often did), he was ghastly, and not a creature to be alone with.

When did that dreadful Mask first look at me? Who put it on, and why was I so frightened that the sight of it is an era in my life? It is not a hideous visage in itself; it is even meant to be droll, why then were its stolid features so intolerable? Surely not because it hid the wearer’s face. An apron would have done as much; and though I should have preferred even the apron away, it would not have been absolutely insupportable, like the mask. Was it the immovability of the mask? The doll’s face was immovable, but I was not afraid of HER. Perhaps that fixed and set change coming over a real face, infused into my quickened heart some remote suggestion and dread of the universal change that is to come on every face, and make it still? Nothing reconciled me to it. No drummers, from whom proceeded a melancholy chirping on the turning of a handle; no regiment of soldiers, with a mute band, taken out of a box, and fitted, one by one, upon a stiff and lazy little set of lazy-tongs; no old woman, made of wires and a brown-paper composition, cutting up a pie for two small children; could give me a permanent comfort, for a long time. Nor was it any satisfaction to be shown the Mask, and see that it was made of paper, or to have it locked up and be assured that no one wore it. The mere recollection of that fixed face, the mere knowledge of its existence anywhere, was sufficient to awake me in the night all perspiration and horror, with, “O I know it’s coming! O the mask!”

I never wondered what the dear old donkey with the panniers–there he is! was made of, then! His hide was real to the touch, I recollect. And the great black horse with the round red spots all over him–the horse that I could even get upon–I never wondered what had brought him to that strange condition, or thought that such a horse was not commonly seen at Newmarket. The four horses of no colour, next to him, that went into the waggon of cheeses, and could be taken out and stabled under the piano, appear to have bits of fur-tippet for their tails, and other bits for their manes, and to stand on pegs instead of legs, but it was not so when they were brought home for a Christmas present. They were all right, then; neither was their harness unceremoniously nailed into their chests, as appears to be the case now. The tinkling works of the music- cart, I DID find out, to be made of quill tooth-picks and wire; and I always thought that little tumbler in his shirt sleeves, perpetually swarming up one side of a wooden frame, and coming down, head foremost, on the other, rather a weak-minded person–though good-natured; but the Jacob’s Ladder, next him, made of little squares of red wood, that went flapping and clattering over one another, each developing a different picture, and the whole enlivened by small bells, was a mighty marvel and a great delight.

Ah! The Doll’s house!–of which I was not proprietor, but where I visited. I don’t admire the Houses of Parliament half so much as that stone-fronted mansion with real glass windows, and door-steps, and a real balcony–greener than I ever see now, except at watering places; and even they afford but a poor imitation. And though it DID open all at once, the entire house-front (which was a blow, I admit, as cancelling the fiction of a staircase), it was but to shut it up again, and I could believe. Even open, there were three distinct rooms in it: a sitting-room and bed-room, elegantly furnished, and best of all, a kitchen, with uncommonly soft fire- irons, a plentiful assortment of diminutive utensils–oh, the warming-pan!–and a tin man-cook in profile, who was always going to fry two fish. What Barmecide justice have I done to the noble feasts wherein the set of wooden platters figured, each with its own peculiar delicacy, as a ham or turkey, glued tight on to it, and garnished with something green, which I recollect as moss! Could all the Temperance Societies of these later days, united, give me such a tea-drinking as I have had through the means of yonder little set of blue crockery, which really would hold liquid (it ran out of the small wooden cask, I recollect, and tasted of matches), and which made tea, nectar. And if the two legs of the ineffectual little sugar-tongs did tumble over one another, and want purpose, like Punch’s hands, what does it matter? And if I did once shriek out, as a poisoned child, and strike the fashionable company with consternation, by reason of having drunk a little teaspoon, inadvertently dissolved in too hot tea, I was never the worse for it, except by a powder!

Upon the next branches of the tree, lower down, hard by the green roller and miniature gardening-tools, how thick the books begin to hang. Thin books, in themselves, at first, but many of them, and with deliciously smooth covers of bright red or green. What fat black letters to begin with! “A was an archer, and shot at a frog.” Of course he was. He was an apple-pie also, and there he is! He was a good many things in his time, was A, and so were most of his friends, except X, who had so little versatility, that I never knew him to get beyond Xerxes or Xantippe–like Y, who was always confined to a Yacht or a Yew Tree; and Z condemned for ever to be a Zebra or a Zany. But, now, the very tree itself changes, and becomes a bean-stalk–the marvellous bean-stalk up which Jack climbed to the Giant’s house! And now, those dreadfully interesting, double-headed giants, with their clubs over their shoulders, begin to stride along the boughs in a perfect throng, dragging knights and ladies home for dinner by the hair of their heads. And Jack–how noble, with his sword of sharpness, and his shoes of swiftness! Again those old meditations come upon me as I gaze up at him; and I debate within myself whether there was more than one Jack (which I am loth to believe possible), or only one genuine original admirable Jack, who achieved all the recorded exploits.

Good for Christmas-time is the ruddy colour of the cloak, in which– the tree making a forest of itself for her to trip through, with her basket–Little Red Riding-Hood comes to me one Christmas Eve to give me information of the cruelty and treachery of that dissembling Wolf who ate her grandmother, without making any impression on his appetite, and then ate her, after making that ferocious joke about his teeth. She was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding-Hood, I should have known perfect bliss. But, it was not to be; and there was nothing for it but to look out the Wolf in the Noah’s Ark there, and put him late in the procession on the table, as a monster who was to be degraded. O the wonderful Noah’s Ark! It was not found seaworthy when put in a washing-tub, and the animals were crammed in at the roof, and needed to have their legs well shaken down before they could be got in, even there- -and then, ten to one but they began to tumble out at the door, which was but imperfectly fastened with a wire latch–but what was THAT against it! Consider the noble fly, a size or two smaller than the elephant: the lady-bird, the butterfly–all triumphs of art! Consider the goose, whose feet were so small, and whose balance was so indifferent, that he usually tumbled forward, and knocked down all the animal creation. Consider Noah and his family, like idiotic tobacco-stoppers; and how the leopard stuck to warm little fingers; and how the tails of the larger animals used gradually to resolve themselves into frayed bits of string!

Hush! Again a forest, and somebody up in a tree–not Robin Hood, not Valentine, not the Yellow Dwarf (I have passed him and all Mother Bunch’s wonders, without mention), but an Eastern King with a glittering scimitar and turban. By Allah! two Eastern Kings, for I see another, looking over his shoulder! Down upon the grass, at the tree’s foot, lies the full length of a coal-black Giant, stretched asleep, with his head in a lady’s lap; and near them is a glass box, fastened with four locks of shining steel, in which he keeps the lady prisoner when he is awake. I see the four keys at his girdle now. The lady makes signs to the two kings in the tree, who softly descend. It is the setting-in of the bright Arabian Nights.

Oh, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me. All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans. Common flower-pots are full of treasure, with a little earth scattered on the top; trees are for Ali Baba to hide in; beef-steaks are to throw down into the Valley of Diamonds, that the precious stones may stick to them, and be carried by the eagles to their nests, whence the traders, with loud cries, will scare them. Tarts are made, according to the recipe of the Vizier’s son of Bussorah, who turned pastrycook after he was set down in his drawers at the gate of Damascus; cobblers are all Mustaphas, and in the habit of sewing up people cut into four pieces, to whom they are taken blind-fold.

Any iron ring let into stone is the entrance to a cave which only waits for the magician, and the little fire, and the necromancy, that will make the earth shake. All the dates imported come from the same tree as that unlucky date, with whose shell the merchant knocked out the eye of the genie’s invisible son. All olives are of the stock of that fresh fruit, concerning which the Commander of the Faithful overheard the boy conduct the fictitious trial of the fraudulent olive merchant; all apples are akin to the apple purchased (with two others) from the Sultan’s gardener for three sequins, and which the tall black slave stole from the child. All dogs are associated with the dog, really a transformed man, who jumped upon the baker’s counter, and put his paw on the piece of bad money. All rice recalls the rice which the awful lady, who was a ghoule, could only peck by grains, because of her nightly feasts in the burial-place. My very rocking-horse,–there he is, with his nostrils turned completely inside-out, indicative of Blood!–should have a peg in his neck, by virtue thereof to fly away with me, as the wooden horse did with the Prince of Persia, in the sight of all his father’s Court.

Yes, on every object that I recognise among those upper branches of my Christmas Tree, I see this fairy light! When I wake in bed, at daybreak, on the cold, dark, winter mornings, the white snow dimly beheld, outside, through the frost on the window-pane, I hear Dinarzade. “Sister, sister, if you are yet awake, I pray you finish the history of the Young King of the Black Islands.” Scheherazade replies, “If my lord the Sultan will suffer me to live another day, sister, I will not only finish that, but tell you a more wonderful story yet.” Then, the gracious Sultan goes out, giving no orders for the execution, and we all three breathe again.

At this height of my tree I begin to see, cowering among the leaves- -it may be born of turkey, or of pudding, or mince pie, or of these many fancies, jumbled with Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, Philip Quarll among the monkeys, Sandford and Merton with Mr. Barlow, Mother Bunch, and the Mask–or it may be the result of indigestion, assisted by imagination and over-doctoring–a prodigious nightmare. It is so exceedingly indistinct, that I don’t know why it’s frightful–but I know it is. I can only make out that it is an immense array of shapeless things, which appear to be planted on a vast exaggeration of the lazy-tongs that used to bear the toy soldiers, and to be slowly coming close to my eyes, and receding to an immeasurable distance. When it comes closest, it is worse. In connection with it I descry remembrances of winter nights incredibly long; of being sent early to bed, as a punishment for some small offence, and waking in two hours, with a sensation of having been asleep two nights; of the laden hopelessness of morning ever dawning; and the oppression of a weight of remorse.

And now, I see a wonderful row of little lights rise smoothly out of the ground, before a vast green curtain. Now, a bell rings–a magic bell, which still sounds in my ears unlike all other bells–and music plays, amidst a buzz of voices, and a fragrant smell of orange-peel and oil. Anon, the magic bell commands the music to cease, and the great green curtain rolls itself up majestically, and The Play begins! The devoted dog of Montargis avenges the death of his master, foully murdered in the Forest of Bondy; and a humorous Peasant with a red nose and a very little hat, whom I take from this hour forth to my bosom as a friend (I think he was a Waiter or an Hostler at a village Inn, but many years have passed since he and I have met), remarks that the sassigassity of that dog is indeed surprising; and evermore this jocular conceit will live in my remembrance fresh and unfading, overtopping all possible jokes, unto the end of time. Or now, I learn with bitter tears how poor Jane Shore, dressed all in white, and with her brown hair hanging down, went starving through the streets; or how George Barnwell killed the worthiest uncle that ever man had, and was afterwards so sorry for it that he ought to have been let off. Comes swift to comfort me, the Pantomime–stupendous Phenomenon!–when clowns are shot from loaded mortars into the great chandelier, bright constellation that it is; when Harlequins, covered all over with scales of pure gold, twist and sparkle, like amazing fish; when Pantaloon (whom I deem it no irreverence to compare in my own mind to my grandfather) puts red-hot pokers in his pocket, and cries “Here’s somebody coming!” or taxes the Clown with petty larceny, by saying, “Now, I sawed you do it!” when Everything is capable, with the greatest ease, of being changed into Anything; and “Nothing is, but thinking makes it so.” Now, too, I perceive my first experience of the dreary sensation– often to return in after-life–of being unable, next day, to get back to the dull, settled world; of wanting to live for ever in the bright atmosphere I have quitted; of doting on the little Fairy, with the wand like a celestial Barber’s Pole, and pining for a Fairy immortality along with her. Ah, she comes back, in many shapes, as my eye wanders down the branches of my Christmas Tree, and goes as often, and has never yet stayed by me!

Out of this delight springs the toy-theatre,–there it is, with its familiar proscenium, and ladies in feathers, in the boxes!–and all its attendant occupation with paste and glue, and gum, and water colours, in the getting-up of The Miller and his Men, and Elizabeth, or the Exile of Siberia. In spite of a few besetting accidents and failures (particularly an unreasonable disposition in the respectable Kelmar, and some others, to become faint in the legs, and double up, at exciting points of the drama), a teeming world of fancies so suggestive and all-embracing, that, far below it on my Christmas Tree, I see dark, dirty, real Theatres in the day-time, adorned with these associations as with the freshest garlands of the rarest flowers, and charming me yet.

But hark! The Waits are playing, and they break my childish sleep! What images do I associate with the Christmas music as I see them set forth on the Christmas Tree? Known before all the others, keeping far apart from all the others, they gather round my little bed. An angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travellers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure, with a mild and beautiful face, raising a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the water to a ship; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children round; again, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, health to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again, dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Still, on the lower and maturer branches of the Tree, Christmas associations cluster thick. School-books shut up; Ovid and Virgil silenced; the Rule of Three, with its cool impertinent inquiries, long disposed of; Terence and Plautus acted no more, in an arena of huddled desks and forms, all chipped, and notched, and inked; cricket-bats, stumps, and balls, left higher up, with the smell of trodden grass and the softened noise of shouts in the evening air; the tree is still fresh, still gay. If I no more come home at Christmas-time, there will be boys and girls (thank Heaven! ) while the World lasts; and they do! Yonder they dance and play upon the branches of my Tree, God bless them, merrily, and my heart dances and plays too!

And I do come home at Christmas. We all do, or we all should. We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday–the longer, the better–from the great boarding-school, where we are for ever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. As to going a visiting, where can we not go, if we will; where have we not been, when we would; starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!

Away into the winter prospect. There are many such upon the tree! On, by low-lying, misty grounds, through fens and fogs, up long hills, winding dark as caverns between thick plantations, almost shutting out the sparkling stars; so, out on broad heights, until we stop at last, with sudden silence, at an avenue. The gate-bell has a deep, half-awful sound in the frosty air; the gate swings open on its hinges; and, as we drive up to a great house, the glancing lights grow larger in the windows, and the opposing rows of trees seem to fall solemnly back on either side, to give us place. At intervals, all day, a frightened hare has shot across this whitened turf; or the distant clatter of a herd of deer trampling the hard frost, has, for the minute, crushed the silence too. Their watchful eyes beneath the fern may be shining now, if we could see them, like the icy dewdrops on the leaves; but they are still, and all is still. And so, the lights growing larger, and the trees falling back before us, and closing up again behind us, as if to forbid retreat, we come to the house.

There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories– Ghost Stories, or more shame for us–round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it. But, no matter for that. We came to the house, and it is an old house, full of great chimneys where wood is burnt on ancient dogs upon the hearth, and grim portraits (some of them with grim legends, too) lower distrustfully from the oaken panels of the walls. We are a middle-aged nobleman, and we make a generous supper with our host and hostess and their guests–it being Christmas-time, and the old house full of company–and then we go to bed. Our room is a very old room. It is hung with tapestry. We don’t like the portrait of a cavalier in green, over the fireplace. There are great black beams in the ceiling, and there is a great black bedstead, supported at the foot by two great black figures, who seem to have come off a couple of tombs in the old baronial church in the park, for our particular accommodation. But, we are not a superstitious nobleman, and we don’t mind. Well! we dismiss our servant, lock the door, and sit before the fire in our dressing-gown, musing about a great many things. At length we go to bed. Well! we can’t sleep. We toss and tumble, and can’t sleep. The embers on the hearth burn fitfully and make the room look ghostly. We can’t help peeping out over the counterpane, at the two black figures and the cavalier–that wicked- looking cavalier–in green. In the flickering light they seem to advance and retire: which, though we are not by any means a superstitious nobleman, is not agreeable. Well! we get nervous– more and more nervous. We say “This is very foolish, but we can’t stand this; we’ll pretend to be ill, and knock up somebody.” Well! we are just going to do it, when the locked door opens, and there comes in a young woman, deadly pale, and with long fair hair, who glides to the fire, and sits down in the chair we have left there, wringing her hands. Then, we notice that her clothes are wet. Our tongue cleaves to the roof of our mouth, and we can’t speak; but, we observe her accurately. Her clothes are wet; her long hair is dabbled with moist mud; she is dressed in the fashion of two hundred years ago; and she has at her girdle a bunch of rusty keys. Well! there she sits, and we can’t even faint, we are in such a state about it. Presently she gets up, and tries all the locks in the room with the rusty keys, which won’t fit one of them; then, she fixes her eyes on the portrait of the cavalier in green, and says, in a low, terrible voice, “The stags know it!” After that, she wrings her hands again, passes the bedside, and goes out at the door. We hurry on our dressing-gown, seize our pistols (we always travel with pistols), and are following, when we find the door locked. We turn the key, look out into the dark gallery; no one there. We wander away, and try to find our servant. Can’t be done. We pace the gallery till daybreak; then return to our deserted room, fall asleep, and are awakened by our servant (nothing ever haunts him) and the shining sun. Well! we make a wretched breakfast, and all the company say we look queer. After breakfast, we go over the house with our host, and then we take him to the portrait of the cavalier in green, and then it all comes out. He was false to a young housekeeper once attached to that family, and famous for her beauty, who drowned herself in a pond, and whose body was discovered, after a long time, because the stags refused to drink of the water. Since which, it has been whispered that she traverses the house at midnight (but goes especially to that room where the cavalier in green was wont to sleep), trying the old locks with the rusty keys. Well! we tell our host of what we have seen, and a shade comes over his features, and he begs it may be hushed up; and so it is. But, it’s all true; and we said so, before we died (we are dead now) to many responsible people.

There is no end to the old houses, with resounding galleries, and dismal state-bedchambers, and haunted wings shut up for many years, through which we may ramble, with an agreeable creeping up our back, and encounter any number of ghosts, but (it is worthy of remark perhaps) reducible to a very few general types and classes; for, ghosts have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track. Thus, it comes to pass, that a certain room in a certain old hall, where a certain bad lord, baronet, knight, or gentleman, shot himself, has certain planks in the floor from which the blood WILL NOT be taken out. You may scrape and scrape, as the present owner has done, or plane and plane, as his father did, or scrub and scrub, as his grandfather did, or burn and burn with strong acids, as his great- grandfather did, but, there the blood will still be–no redder and no paler–no more and no less–always just the same. Thus, in such another house there is a haunted door, that never will keep open; or another door that never will keep shut, or a haunted sound of a spinning-wheel, or a hammer, or a footstep, or a cry, or a sigh, or a horse’s tramp, or the rattling of a chain. Or else, there is a turret-clock, which, at the midnight hour, strikes thirteen when the head of the family is going to die; or a shadowy, immovable black carriage which at such a time is always seen by somebody, waiting near the great gates in the stable-yard. Or thus, it came to pass how Lady Mary went to pay a visit at a large wild house in the Scottish Highlands, and, being fatigued with her long journey, retired to bed early, and innocently said, next morning, at the breakfast-table, “How odd, to have so late a party last night, in this remote place, and not to tell me of it, before I went to bed!” Then, every one asked Lady Mary what she meant? Then, Lady Mary replied, “Why, all night long, the carriages were driving round and round the terrace, underneath my window!” Then, the owner of the house turned pale, and so did his Lady, and Charles Macdoodle of Macdoodle signed to Lady Mary to say no more, and every one was silent. After breakfast, Charles Macdoodle told Lady Mary that it was a tradition in the family that those rumbling carriages on the terrace betokened death. And so it proved, for, two months afterwards, the Lady of the mansion died. And Lady Mary, who was a Maid of Honour at Court, often told this story to the old Queen Charlotte; by this token that the old King always said, “Eh, eh? What, what? Ghosts, ghosts? No such thing, no such thing!” And never left off saying so, until he went to bed.

Or, a friend of somebody’s whom most of us know, when he was a young man at college, had a particular friend, with whom he made the compact that, if it were possible for the Spirit to return to this earth after its separation from the body, he of the twain who first died, should reappear to the other. In course of time, this compact was forgotten by our friend; the two young men having progressed in life, and taken diverging paths that were wide asunder. But, one night, many years afterwards, our friend being in the North of England, and staying for the night in an inn, on the Yorkshire Moors, happened to look out of bed; and there, in the moonlight, leaning on a bureau near the window, steadfastly regarding him, saw his old college friend! The appearance being solemnly addressed, replied, in a kind of whisper, but very audibly, “Do not come near me. I am dead. I am here to redeem my promise. I come from another world, but may not disclose its secrets!” Then, the whole form becoming paler, melted, as it were, into the moonlight, and faded away.

Or, there was the daughter of the first occupier of the picturesque Elizabethan house, so famous in our neighbourhood. You have heard about her? No! Why, SHE went out one summer evening at twilight, when she was a beautiful girl, just seventeen years of age, to gather flowers in the garden; and presently came running, terrified, into the hall to her father, saying, “Oh, dear father, I have met myself!” He took her in his arms, and told her it was fancy, but she said, “Oh no! I met myself in the broad walk, and I was pale and gathering withered flowers, and I turned my head, and held them up!” And, that night, she died; and a picture of her story was begun, though never finished, and they say it is somewhere in the house to this day, with its face to the wall.

Or, the uncle of my brother’s wife was riding home on horseback, one mellow evening at sunset, when, in a green lane close to his own house, he saw a man standing before him, in the very centre of a narrow way. “Why does that man in the cloak stand there!” he thought. “Does he want me to ride over him?” But the figure never moved. He felt a strange sensation at seeing it so still, but slackened his trot and rode forward. When he was so close to it, as almost to touch it with his stirrup, his horse shied, and the figure glided up the bank, in a curious, unearthly manner–backward, and without seeming to use its feet–and was gone. The uncle of my brother’s wife, exclaiming, “Good Heaven! It’s my cousin Harry, from Bombay!” put spurs to his horse, which was suddenly in a profuse sweat, and, wondering at such strange behaviour, dashed round to the front of his house. There, he saw the same figure, just passing in at the long French window of the drawing-room, opening on the ground. He threw his bridle to a servant, and hastened in after it. His sister was sitting there, alone. “Alice, where’s my cousin Harry?” “Your cousin Harry, John?” “Yes. From Bombay. I met him in the lane just now, and saw him enter here, this instant.” Not a creature had been seen by any one; and in that hour and minute, as it afterwards appeared, this cousin died in India.

Or, it was a certain sensible old maiden lady, who died at ninety- nine, and retained her faculties to the last, who really did see the Orphan Boy; a story which has often been incorrectly told, but, of which the real truth is this–because it is, in fact, a story belonging to our family–and she was a connexion of our family. When she was about forty years of age, and still an uncommonly fine woman (her lover died young, which was the reason why she never married, though she had many offers), she went to stay at a place in Kent, which her brother, an Indian-Merchant, had newly bought. There was a story that this place had once been held in trust by the guardian of a young boy; who was himself the next heir, and who killed the young boy by harsh and cruel treatment. She knew nothing of that. It has been said that there was a Cage in her bedroom in which the guardian used to put the boy. There was no such thing. There was only a closet. She went to bed, made no alarm whatever in the night, and in the morning said composedly to her maid when she came in, “Who is the pretty forlorn-looking child who has been peeping out of that closet all night?” The maid replied by giving a loud scream, and instantly decamping. She was surprised; but she was a woman of remarkable strength of mind, and she dressed herself and went downstairs, and closeted herself with her brother. “Now, Walter,” she said, “I have been disturbed all night by a pretty, forlorn-looking boy, who has been constantly peeping out of that closet in my room, which I can’t open. This is some trick.” “I am afraid not, Charlotte,” said he, “for it is the legend of the house. It is the Orphan Boy. What did he do?” “He opened the door softly,” said she, “and peeped out. Sometimes, he came a step or two into the room. Then, I called to him, to encourage him, and he shrunk, and shuddered, and crept in again, and shut the door.” “The closet has no communication, Charlotte,” said her brother, “with any other part of the house, and it’s nailed up.” This was undeniably true, and it took two carpenters a whole forenoon to get it open, for examination. Then, she was satisfied that she had seen the Orphan Boy. But, the wild and terrible part of the story is, that he was also seen by three of her brother’s sons, in succession, who all died young. On the occasion of each child being taken ill, he came home in a heat, twelve hours before, and said, Oh, Mamma, he had been playing under a particular oak-tree, in a certain meadow, with a strange boy–a pretty, forlorn-looking boy, who was very timid, and made signs! From fatal experience, the parents came to know that this was the Orphan Boy, and that the course of that child whom he chose for his little playmate was surely run.

Legion is the name of the German castles, where we sit up alone to wait for the Spectre–where we are shown into a room, made comparatively cheerful for our reception–where we glance round at the shadows, thrown on the blank walls by the crackling fire–where we feel very lonely when the village innkeeper and his pretty daughter have retired, after laying down a fresh store of wood upon the hearth, and setting forth on the small table such supper-cheer as a cold roast capon, bread, grapes, and a flask of old Rhine wine- -where the reverberating doors close on their retreat, one after another, like so many peals of sullen thunder–and where, about the small hours of the night, we come into the knowledge of divers supernatural mysteries. Legion is the name of the haunted German students, in whose society we draw yet nearer to the fire, while the schoolboy in the corner opens his eyes wide and round, and flies off the footstool he has chosen for his seat, when the door accidentally blows open. Vast is the crop of such fruit, shining on our Christmas Tree; in blossom, almost at the very top; ripening all down the boughs!

Among the later toys and fancies hanging there–as idle often and less pure–be the images once associated with the sweet old Waits, the softened music in the night, ever unalterable! Encircled by the social thoughts of Christmas-time, still let the benignant figure of my childhood stand unchanged! In every cheerful image and suggestion that the season brings, may the bright star that rested above the poor roof, be the star of all the Christian World! A moment’s pause, O vanishing tree, of which the lower boughs are dark to me as yet, and let me look once more! I know there are blank spaces on thy branches, where eyes that I have loved have shone and smiled; from which they are departed. But, far above, I see the raiser of the dead girl, and the Widow’s Son; and God is good! If Age be hiding for me in the unseen portion of thy downward growth, O may I, with a grey head, turn a child’s heart to that figure yet, and a child’s trustfulness and confidence!

Now, the tree is decorated with bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness. And they are welcome. Innocent and welcome be they ever held, beneath the branches of the Christmas Tree, which cast no gloomy shadow! But, as it sinks into the ground, I hear a whisper going through the leaves. “This, in commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion. This, in remembrance of Me!”

18. Christmas Stories

The Christmas Ghost

In front of Jane White’s house roared and surged, beating the rocky shores with unfailing tides, the great Atlantic. The waves floating an occasional fishing vessel, were all that passed before her front windows. From gazing all her life at such stern and mighty passers, the woman’s face had gotten a look of inflexible peace. Jane White looked as if she would always do her duty, but as if she would spare neither herself nor her friends, if they came in the way; as if nothing could interpose between herself and her high tide mark, not even her own happiness nor that of others.

She was not an old woman, but she seemed to have settled into that stability of old age which comes before the final greatest change of all. Her days were absolutely monotonous. She lived alone, she kept her old house in order, she made her simple garments; always on Saturdays she harnessed her old horse into the wagon, and drove to the village three miles away for groceries; on Sundays she drove as regularly to church. These simple excursions for bodily and spiritual food were all that brightened her life. There were only two houses near hers. In one of them lived a bedridden old woman, and her elderly son and daughter; in the other, David Gleason. The bedridden old woman and the son and daughter had not been on friendly terms with Jane for years, and they had not entered each other’s houses. Sometimes Jane used to look down the road to the gray slant of the Rideing house rising out of the hollow, with a scowl of dissent. She could hate with vigor, in spite of the severe peace of her expression. There was a mighty grudge between them. Once the son, Thomas Rideing, had paid attention to Jane White (that was in her mother’s day), and Thomas’s mother and sister had interfered, and broken off the match. They had told stories as to Jane’s temper and poor housekeeping, and the young man had believed them. He had ceased courting Jane, and she had known the reason. Once afterward, coming home from church, she had stopped her wagon in the narrow, sandy road, beside the Rideing team, and taxed the mother and sister with it openly. Thomas had been driving his old gray horse. His mother and sister sat one on each side of him — that was before the old woman got the hurt which laid her up for life. Jane’s mother sat at her left hand, quivering with resentment. She had been a wiry little woman, with a fierce temper.

“Whoa!” said Jane to her horse. Then she spoke out her mind once for all to Sarah Rideing and her mother. “I know just what you’ve said about me; you needn’t think I don’t,” said she.

“And it’s all lies, every word of it,” said her mother, in a panting voice.

“We’ve got ears, and we’ve heard the loud talkin’ when the windows were open and the wind our way!” Sarah Rideing had replied, with a vicious click of thin lips. Sarah Rideing was pretty, with a hard, sharp prettiness.

“And we’ve seen the clothes on the line,” said her mother. Mrs. Rideing wore a false front, and that and her bonnet were grotesquely twisted to one side.

“We ain’t never had a word in our family betwixt us, and as for our clothes, I’d be ashamed to hang such lookin’ things as yours be out on the line!” panted Jane’s mother.

“We’ve got eyes and we’ve got ears,” repeated Sarah Rideing.

“Then I should advise your mother to look in the glass when you get home, and set her wig an’ her bunnit straight,” said Jane’s mother, unexpectedly.

“Don’t, mother,” whispered Jane. Then she shouted g’lang to her horse, as did Thomas Rideing to his, but Jane passed him. Thomas had not spoken a word during the whole; he left the talking to the women. He had sat still, with his rather clumsy, good-humored face fixed on his horse’s ears. He was a little flushed; otherwise he showed no sign of agitation. “Thomas Rideing is dreadful woodeny, anyhow; you ain’t missed much,” Jane’s mother had observed, as they sped along the sandy road. Once she looked back and saw, with that glee over petty revenge which is often seen in an old woman who has lived a narrow life, old Mrs. Rideing trying to straighten her front piece and her bonnet, which was trimmed with tall, nodding purple flowers. “She’d better talk,” said she. “She’d better get on her own bunnit and wig straight before she talks about other folks not being neat.”

“I most wish you hadn’t said that,” said Jane.

“Why not, I’d like to know?”

“I wish you hadn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s like sticking in pins when folks have come at you with hammers.”

“I hope you ain’t goin’ to get cracked because Thomas Rideing has jilted you,” said her mother, sharply.

Jane laughed. “I ain’t one of the kind to be cracked,” said she. And she spoke the truth. She had taken the young man’s attentions as a matter of course, very much as she had always taken the unfolding of the leaves in the spring. This was something which came to most women, and it seemed to be coming to her. When she saw that she was mistaken, she no more thought of questioning the justice of it, than she would have done if a cloud which promised rain had cleared away to fair weather, or the bush which budded last spring had failed to do so this. Matters of that kind she relegated entirely to a higher Power, and it was the easier for her to do so since Thomas Rideing was not a young man to awaken easily any girl’s imagination. He was such a solid, incontrovertible fact of clumsy flesh and blood, and slowly, steadily working brain, that he could arouse only observation and acquiescence — never dreams. Jane was fully alive to the humiliation of being jilted, and wrathful as to the interference of Thomas’s sister and mother, but in reality that, and the stigma cast upon her temper and her neatness, hurt her more at the time than the cessation of the young man’s nightly visits. Ever afterward the clothes which flaunted from the White line shone like garments of righteousness, as, indeed, they had done before. Jane White’s little domicile fairly shone with cleanliness, as did her person. Not a hair was out of place on her head; she was clean as one of the wave-washed pebbles on the beach. As for her temper, her mother died soon afterward, and there was no one for her to attack with a loud tongue, as she had been accused of doing, unless, indeed, she attacked that hard Providence in whose shaping of her destiny she believed. She was absolutely alone from one week’s end to the other, since she and the Rideings never exchanged calls, and as for David Gleason, he was a single man, and many said an underwit, and he kept to himself, and never went into another house than his own, and Jane certainly could not call upon him. He was a small, fair-haired man, who had come to the place and built his little shack some ten years ago. Nobody knew from whence he came, nor anything about him. He seemed to be quiet and peaceable, and to have enough money for his simple needs, and the stigma of underwit had somehow attached itself to him from his secrecy. People argued that a man would be likely to tell something to his credit if there was anything to tell, and as nobody could imagine him to be a criminal with such a physiognomy, they concluded that he must be lacking in his intellects. He was commonly said to be love-cracked.

Sometimes Jane used to see this man going down the road, moving with a gentle shuffle and slight stoop, and wonder if he were love-cracked. Now and then she felt inclined to ask him to ride, when she passed him on the way to church — he kept no horse — but she never did. The man used to look after her, sitting up straight in her wagon, and disappearing between the scrubby pines of the coast country, with admiration, as any man might have done. The red coil of hair on the back of her head gleamed under her bonnet like a mat of red gold, she held her head and shoulders superbly. She was, in fact, a very handsome woman. The severe repose of her face had kept wrinkles at bay, and she had one of those rare complexions which the sea-air does not tan, and seam, and harden, but awakens to life and rosy color. People used to say that there wasn’t a young girl that went to church who was any handsomer than Jane White; still, she had never had an opportunity to marry since Thomas Rideing deserted her. Everybody, in fact, believed her to be a slovenly housekeeper, and to have a bad temper. A fire of scandal is a hard thing to stamp out, an the sparks fly wide, and kindle afar.

Jane lived alone, with a sort of rigid acquiescence to the will of the Lord, and a smouldering hatred of the human instruments who had brought it to pass. In spite of her severe calm of demeanor, she had the natural weaknesses and longings of her kind. There were times, as the years went on, when she longed for Thomas Rideing to come again, as she had never longed at first. She was often afraid alone in her house, especially in the winter time. She confessed her fears to no one, hardly to herself. “What good does it do to be afraid? I know I’ve got to live alone, and there’s no way out of it,” she said. “I might as well get over it first as last.” But she never was able to conquer her nervous fears. Often when the murmur of the waves on the shingle below the bank on which the house stood arose to a roar, and the winter wind was shaking the walls, this lonely human soul in the midst of it would light her candle, and peer about the house for the evil which she seemed to feel to be present; then she would extinguish her candle, and, shading her eyes, press her face close to the window, but she could see nothing except the wild drive of the storm outside. Then the saying in the Bible about the “Prince of the Powers of the Air” would come to her mind, and if she had been a Catholic she would have crossed herself. A vague fear, which was none the less terrible because it was vague, seemed to hold her as in a vise. However, Jane White’s health, in spite of her sensitive nerves, was superb. She had never an ache nor ail until two days before Christmas, ten years after her mother died. Then she had a sudden attack of rheumatism, after a spell of damp, warm, unseasonable weather. It was all she could do to hobble about the house. When it came to going to the well for water, she thought at first she could never manage it. Finally she succeeded, fairly hitching herself over the ground, one step at a time. She thought of having the doctor, but she had no one to send for him, unless she could waylay some one passing. Both the Rideing and the Gleason houses were out of hailing distance, and had they not been, she would not have asked any of the dwellers therein to go for the doctor, unless it had been David Gleason. She thought that she might ask him, if she were to see him going by — he looked good-natured. But she did not see him nor any one passing that day. It was midwinter, and toward noon the snow began to fall. The lonely woman thought dejectedly that she didn’t know what she was going to do. The stitch in her back was no better; she had no remedies to apply to it; she saw no likelihood of getting the doctor. It was much as ever she could do to keep up her fire and make herself a cup of tea at night-fall. A sense of utter loneliness, which was fairly desolation, smote her as she sat alone that evening. She heard the wind roar and the waves break, and the dash of the sleet on the window. She seemed to herself loneliness personified — one little human spark in the midst of an infinity of space and storm. At nine o’clock she went to bed. She slept upstairs. She had left the little bedroom on the first floor since her mother died. Her chamber was icy cold. She had heated a soapstone, and she rolled herself in an old flannel blanket, and clambered into bed with groans of pain.

It was a long time before she went to sleep; then she slept soundly for a few hours. It was perhaps four o’clock when she awoke with a shock of deadly terror. She knew some one was in the house. She was no longer suspicious that some one was in the house; this time she knew. The storm was still howling outside. She could hear the constant surge of the ocean, and the small drive of the sleet on the window. The room was absolutely dark; it must be still far from the winter dawn. She was sure that there was some one in the house.

She reached out for the matches which she always kept on the table beside her bed, and, as she did so, a cramp of pain seized her from the rheumatism. She nearly screamed, and the matches were gone. She usually moved them from the mantel-shelf when she went to bed, but she must have omitted to do so — it had been so difficult for her to get about the night before. Jane endeavored to rise. She thought she would grope her way across the room to the shelf and get the matches, but the pain in her back was so great that she dare not make the attempt. She said to herself, What if she should fall and break a bone out there in the dark? It seemed to her that she was safer in the bed. So she lay still, listening fearfully. She became more and more convinced that there was somebody in the house. She heard movements, soft and guarded, but plainly evident to a sharp ear, below. Once or twice she was sure that she heard a door open and shut. Later on she heard the pump out in the yard, which had a peculiar creak. She lay bathed in a cold sweat of terror, expecting every moment to hear steps on the stairs; and presently the first cold glimmer of dawn was in the room, and she heard a door shut below — then she heard nothing more. Everything was still.

It was late before Jane succeeded in dragging herself up, with groans and frequent pauses, and getting dressed and down stairs. She felt convinced that the visitor, whoever he was, had gone; but she thought of her mother’s silver teaspoons, and the clock, and a gold watch which had belonged to her father and would not go, but was still an impressive gold watch, and very dear to her, and she thought of her table linen, and everything which was of any value; for she had no doubt then that the visitor was a thief.

But when she reached the kitchen, moving by slow and painful stages, she gasped, and stared, and stared again. A bright fire was burning in the stove (she had wondered if she could, by any possibility, make a fire with those pains like screwing knives in her back and shoulders), and the table was laid for breakfast, and the room was full of the aroma of coffee, for the pot was on the stove, and a pan of something covered with a towel stood on the back, and when she took off the towel fearfully, there were fresh biscuits. Then a nice little bit of beefsteak was in the frying-pan, all ready to cook, and the tea-kettle was full of hot water, and the water-pail in the sink was full. Outside the storm was still raging, but the kitchen seemed like a little oasis of warmth and comfort in the midst of it. Even the geraniums in the south window had been watered. She heard the cat mew, and opened the cellar door. The cat had been out when she went to bed, for she had called her in vain. Somebody had let the cat in and put her down cellar, lest she steal the beefsteak.

“Who let you in?” said Jane feebly to the cat.

She looked at the beefsteak and at the biscuits doubtfully, as if they might be fairy food, and have some uncanny property of harm. “I was out of meat, and to-day’s Saturday, and I couldn’t have got down to the store,” said she; “and I didn’t have a mite of bread mixed, and I don’t know how I could have done it.”

Finally Jane White cooked the beefsteak, poured out a cup of coffee, and ate her breakfast, though it was still with an unreasoning terror. It seemed a kindly deed, and yet it was so unexplained that it struck her with all the horror of the unusual. She ate suspiciously, almost as if she thought the food were poisoned. When she crept into the pantry to put away the dishes, she had another surprise, for she found on the shelf a little roasting piece, two pies, two loaves of bread, a piece of squash cut ready to boil, and some washed potatoes.

Jane looked at them, white as ashes. “My land!” said she. She staggered back to the warm kitchen, sat down, and reflected. She tried to think who could have done it, but she was entirely at a loss. For a moment she had a wild idea of Thomas Rideing and his old love for her, then she dismissed it. “He’d never get round to it,” she said to herself. Then she thought of David Gleason, to dismiss that more peremptorily than the other. “There ain’t anybody in creation who would do anything like this for me, and what’s more, there wasn’t anybody knew I had the rheumatism and couldn’t do it myself,” she argued.

She gave it up. She roasted her meat, and cooked the squash and potato, and remained alone all day. The storm continued until sunset. Then, when the west was a clear, pale gold, the flakes stopped falling, and the earth looked like a white ocean frozen suddenly in the midst of a tumult of rage. As for the real ocean, she could hear the boom of that louder than ever, for its fury does not subside so quickly as that of the earth. It cleared off very cold. Jane heaped her stove with wood when she went to bed (she burned wood from her own woodland), but she feared it would not last until morning, and she feared that she could not get down-stairs to replenish it. As night came on her rheumatism was worse, and then her fears arose to such a pitch that, had it not been for the cold and her illness, she would actually have gone over to the Rideings. She went to bed, and lay quaking with sheer terror for some time. At last all was still and she fell asleep, to awaken as she had done the night before, at the sounds below. This time her matches were in reach. She struck one and lighted a candle. Then she pulled up the blanket with painful efforts, and wrapped it around her; then she crept out of bed. Along with the woman’s timidity was a spirit of investigation. Had she been a man she would have been afraid enough to make an excellent soldier. The battle would have been, for her, the only method of ridding herself of her panic. She could never have borne to cower behind breastworks.

She crawled down stairs, feeling as if she were a stiff lay figure instead of herself. She planted her feet rigidly as if they were wood; every step was agony, but she kept on. At that moment she was more terrified, if anything, to confront the stranger — because he had conferred benefits upon her — than if he had worked her harm. It would not have seemed so uncanny. In spite of her religious training the thought of the supernatural was strong in the woman’s mind. She thought of her mother, of her father — how they would have felt to know she was all alone, sick with rheumatism in the winter storm, and God knew what she thought next.

When she opened the kitchen door her face was ghastly, peering over her candle. The kitchen was lighted; the fire burning; she smelled coffee; it was later than she had thought — five o’clock in the morning. She had only a vision of a figure swiftly moving out of sight into the pantry. Then she sprang, with a stab of pain, to the pantry door, and shot the bolt. She had a bolt on the pantry door, because the pantry window had no fastening; but she had never used it. After she fastened it she heard the person whom she had locked in trying to open that window, and said to herself grimly that he could not do it. That north window must be frozen down so hard that it would be impossible to stir it without hot water. The man, whoever he was — she was sure it was a man, there had been no flirt of feminine skirts on that flying figure — must have come in through the cellar. The bulkhead had never had a lock, for Jane and her mother, reasoning with the innocent fatuity of some women, had always said, “Nobody will ever think of coming through the cellar.”

The person whom Jane had locked into the pantry did not pound or try to get out. Finally she took the carving-knife from the table — he had been slicing some sausage for her breakfast, apparently — and she went to the pantry door, and leaned her head toward it, curving her body at a careful distance. “Who be you?” said she.

There was no response.

Then she spoke again: “Who be you?”

“A well wisher,” came in a feeble voice from the pantry.

Then a cold shiver ran again over the woman. Again the supernatural terror reasserted itself. It was much more alarming that a well wisher should come to her house, and do these kindly deeds for her on this wicked earth the night before Christmas — she remembered with an additional shiver that Christmas Day was dawning — than a burglar. She went over to the kitchen door, and stood there, all ready to run should the person in the pantry make a motion to escape. She kept her eyes riveted on the pantry door. She made up her mind that as soon as it was light enough she would go for the Rideings, no matter how they had treated her in times gone by. It seemed to her that the full day would never come; but at last the light broadened and deepened over the blue hollows and white crests of snow, and then she saw that a nice path was dug from her door to the well. “My land!” said she. She took a shawl off the peg, wrapped it around her, putting one corner over her head; succeeded, after many painful efforts, in getting into her rubbers, and was about to set out when she caught a glimpse of a man’s figure going down the road. It was David Gleason going for his milk, which he got from a farmhouse two miles toward the village.

Jane crept out in the yard a little way and called. He heard her, and came shuffling toward her in a light spray of snow.

He had a mild, pleasant face; but Jane, after the prevalent report as to the state of his intellects, felt a little afraid to ask him into the house. “You go to the Rideings, and ask Sarah and Thomas to come right over here as fast as they can,” said she. She was almost crying. David Gleason looked at her anxiously. “Anything the trouble, anything I can do?” he began, but she interrupted him. “Go as quick as you can,” said she. She was almost hysterical.

It seemed to her an age before she saw David Gleason plod into the Rideing house, and presently he and Sarah, not Thomas, emerge. “Where in the world is Thomas?” she thought. “What good can a woman do?” She was glad to see Gleason returning with Sarah. She thought she would not be afraid of Gleason if Sarah were with him, and nobody knew what was in the pantry.

Jane met them at the door. Suddenly her rheumatism seemed better; she moved quite easily.

Sarah Rideing looked at her half alarmed, half indignant. “What is the matter, Jane White?” said she.

“There’s something in the house,” replied Jane in an awful voice, and the other woman turned pale.

“What do you mean?”

“There’s something in the house. It came last night and made up the fire, and got breakfast, and got the water, and brought roast meat, and bread, and it came again to-night, and I came down and I locked it into the pantry.”

“Did you see it?” asked Sarah, quivering. She grasped Jane’s arm hard.

The two old enemies fairly clung together, drawn by mutual terror.

But David Gleason went close to the pantry door.

“It wasn’t a woman, I know that,” gasped Jane.

“Who’s in there?” cried David Gleason.

There was no reply.

“It told me once it was a well wisher,” said Jane, and Sarah Rideing trembled like a leaf. The reply struck her much as it had done Jane. Well wishers abroad in the deadly cold of a winter morning might well arouse terror.

“Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I wish Thomas was here,” cried Sarah. “I couldn’t find him nowheres. I don’t know but something has got him. Oh, dear!”

“Who’s in there?” demanded David Gleason. He had a firm voice for such a small, slight man.

“He ain’t any more half-witted than I be,” thought Sarah Rideing.

Then the voice replied again, but with a trifle more emphasis, “A well wisher.” Both women started.

“It’s Thomas,” cried Sarah Rideing. Then she flew to the pantry door and unbolted it. “Thomas Rideing, what be you doin’ here?” she demanded. “Be you gone crazy?”

Thomas Rideing, emerging from the cold, blue depths of the frozen pantry, looked at once shamefaced and self-assertive. “You needn’t say a word, Sarah,” said he. “I saw her having such hard work to get out to the well yesterday mornin’, and I knew she’d got the rheumatism, and when the storm begun, and I thought of her all alone over here, I couldn’t stan’ it, an’,” he went on, his voice gathering firmness in spite of an agitation which made him tremble from head to foot, “I — I know it was all a lie you and mother told about her not bein’ a good housekeeper. There it was neat as wax here, and she laid up with rheumatism, too, and as for her temper, anybody that can get around at all with the rheumatism, and not say anything to be sorry for, hasn’t got much temper, and — I wouldn’t have minded one mite if she had.”

“I should think you’d gone crazy,” said Sarah scornfully, and yet her voice softened.

Thomas looked pitifully at Jane. “It don’t seem as if I could stan’ havin’ you live here alone any longer,” he said brokenly, as if his unhappiness over her loneliness were the only thing to be considered. It was the refinement of masculine selfishness, but Jane liked it.

“I didn’t know you thought so much of me, Thomas,” said she; then her face flamed.

“Well, I haven’t got anything to say; you must suit yourself,” Sarah said, still in that softened voice; then she and Gleason went out.

Thomas Rideing approached Jane, and put his arm around her. “Ain’t you been afraid here all alone?” said he.

“Yes, I have; but I didn’t suppose you cared.”

“I did,” said he. “There’s no use in rakin’ up bygones, but I know I’ve treated you mean.”

“Yes, you have,” admitted Jane impartially, but her eyes upon his face were tender.

“It wasn’t so much because I was afraid you were a bad housekeeper, and bad-tempered, I didn’t believe it; and I wouldn’t have minded if you had been, but I backed out because mother and Sarah felt so. I guess mother will feel different now, but I can’t help it if she don’t. As for Sarah, I can’t help it either. You ain’t goin’ to be left alone here any longer. How’s your rheumatism, Jane?”

“I guess it’s better; I haven’t thought of it,” replied Jane.

Then the outer door opened suddenly, and Sarah Rideing looked in. David Gleason’s face showed over her shoulder. “Wish you a merry Christmas!” said Sarah. Her thin, pretty face was quite transformed by a sudden triumph of the best within her. The man behind her beamed with friendliness toward these people who were nothing to him.

It was suddenly borne in upon the consciousness of Jane White that love and kindness were not such strangers upon the earth as she had thought.

18. Christmas Stories

Captain Eli’s Best Ear

The little seaside village of Sponkannis lies so quietly upon a protected spot on our Atlantic coast that it makes no more stir in the world than would a pebble which, held between one’s finger and thumb, should be dipped below the surface of a millpond and then dropped. About the post-office and the store–both under the same roof–the greater number of the houses cluster, as if they had come for their week’s groceries, or were waiting for the mail, while toward the west the dwellings become fewer and fewer, until at last the village blends into a long stretch of sandy coast and scrubby pine-woods. Eastward the village ends abruptly at the foot of a windswept bluff, on which no one cares to build.

Among the last houses in the western end of the village stood two neat, substantial dwellings, one belonging to Captain Eli Bunker, and the other to Captain Cephas Dyer. These householders were two very respectable retired mariners, the first a widower about fifty, and the other a bachelor of perhaps the same age, a few years more or less making but little difference in this region of weather-beaten youth and seasoned age.

Each of these good captains lived alone, and each took entire charge of his own domestic affairs, not because he was poor, but because it pleased him to do so. When Captain Eli retired from the sea he was the owner of a good vessel, which he sold at a fair profit; and Captain Cephas had made money in many a voyage before he built his house in Sponkannis and settled there.

When Captain Eli’s wife was living she was his household manager. But Captain Cephas had never had a woman in his house, except during the first few months of his occupancy, when certain female neighbors came in occasionally to attend to little matters of cleaning which, according to popular notions, properly belong to the sphere of woman.

But Captain Cephas soon put an end to this sort of thing. He did not like a woman’s ways, especially her ways of attending to domestic affairs. He liked to live in sailor fashion, and to keep house in sailor fashion. In his establishment everything was shipshape, and everything which could be stowed away was stowed away, and, if possible, in a bunker. The floors were holystoned nearly every day, and the whole house was repainted about twice a year, a little at a time, when the weather was suitable for this marine recreation. Things not in frequent use were lashed securely to the walls, or perhaps put out of the way by being hauled up to the ceiling by means of blocks and tackle. His cooking was done sailor fashion, like everything else, and he never failed to have plum-duff on Sunday. His well was near his house, and every morning he dropped into it a lead and line, and noted down the depth of water. Three times a day he entered in a little note-book the state of the weather, the height of the mercury in barometer and thermometer, the direction of the wind, and special weather points when necessary.

Captain Eli managed his domestic affairs in an entirely different way. He kept house woman fashion–not, however, in the manner of an ordinary woman, but after the manner of his late wife, Miranda Bunker, now dead some seven years. Like his friend, Captain Cephas, he had had the assistance of his female neighbors during the earlier days of his widowerhood. But he soon found that these women did not do things as Miranda used to do them, and, although he frequently suggested that they should endeavor to imitate the methods of his late consort, they did not even try to do things as she used to do them, preferring their own ways. Therefore it was that Captain Eli determined to keep house by himself, and to do it, as nearly as his nature would allow, as Miranda used to do it. He swept his doors and he shook his door-mats; he washed his paint with soap and hot water; he dusted his furniture with a soft cloth, which he afterwards stuck behind a chest of drawers. He made his bed very neatly, turning down the sheet at the top, and setting the pillow upon edge, smoothing it carefully after he had done so. His cooking was based on the methods of the late Miranda. He had never been able to make bread rise properly, but he had always liked ship- biscuit, and he now greatly preferred them to the risen bread made by his neighbors. And as to coffee and the plainer articles of food with which he furnished his table, even Miranda herself would not have objected to them had she been alive and very hungry.

The houses of the two captains were not very far apart, and they were good neighbors, often smoking their pipes together and talking of the sea. But this was always on the little porch in front of Captain Cephas’s house, or by his kitchen fire in the winter. Captain Eli did not like the smell of tobacco smoke in his house, or even in front of it in summer-time, when the doors were open. He had no objection himself to the odor of tobacco, but it was contrary to the principles of woman housekeeping that rooms should smell of it, and he was always true to those principles.

It was late in a certain December, and through the village there was a pleasant little flutter of Christmas preparations. Captain Eli had been up to the store, and he had stayed there a good while, warming himself by the stove, and watching the women coming in to buy things for Christmas. It was strange how many things they bought for presents or for holiday use–fancy soap and candy, handkerchiefs and little woollen shawls for old people, and a lot of pretty little things which he knew the use of, but which Captain Cephas would never have understood at all had he been there.

As Captain Eli came out of the store he saw a cart in which were two good-sized Christmas trees, which had been cut in the woods, and were going, one to Captain Holmes’s house, and the other to Mother Nelson’s. Captain Holmes had grandchildren, and Mother Nelson, with never a child of her own, good old soul, had three little orphan nieces who never wanted for anything needful at Christmas-time or any other time.

Captain Eli walked home very slowly, taking observations in his mind. It was more than seven years since he had had anything to do with Christmas, except that on that day he had always made himself a mince-pie, the construction and the consumption of which were equally difficult. It is true that neighbors had invited him, and they had invited Captain Cephas, to their Christmas dinners, but neither of these worthy seamen had ever accepted any of these invitations. Even holiday food, when not cooked in sailor fashion, did not agree with Captain Cephas, and it would have pained the good heart of Captain Eli if he had been forced to make believe to enjoy a Christmas dinner so very inferior to those which Miranda used to set before him.

But now the heart of Captain Eli was gently moved by a Christmas flutter. It had been foolish, perhaps, for him to go up to the store at such a time as this, but the mischief had been done. Old feelings had come back to him, and he would be glad to celebrate Christmas this year if he could think of any good way to do it. And the result of his mental observations was that he went over to Captain Cephas’s house to talk to him about it.

Captain Cephas was in his kitchen, smoking his third morning pipe. Captain Eli filled his pipe, lighted it, and sat down by the fire.

“Cap’n,” said he, “what do you say to our keepin Christmas this year? A Christmas dinner is no good if it’s got to be eat alone, and you and me might eat ourn together. It might be in my house, or it might be in your house–it won’t make no great difference to me which. Of course, I like woman housekeepin’, as is laid down in the rules of service fer my house. But next best to that I like sailor housekeepin’, so I don’t mind which house the dinner is in, Cap’n Cephas, so it suits you.”

Captain Cephas took his pipe from his mouth. “You’re pretty late thinkin’ about it,” said he, “fer day after to-morrow’s Christmas.”

“That don’t make no difference,” said Captain Eli. “What things we want that are not in my house or your house we can easily get either up at the store or else in the woods.”

“In the woods!” exclaimed Captain Cephas. “What in the name of thunder do you expect to get in the woods for Christmas?”

“A Christmas tree,” said Captain Eli. “I thought it might be a nice thing to have a Christmas tree fer Christmas. Cap’n Holmes has got one, and Mother Nelson’s got another. I guess nearly everybody’s got one. It won’t cost anything–I can go and cut it.”

Captain Cephas grinned a grin, as if a great leak had been sprung in the side of a vessel, stretching nearly from stem to stern.

“A Christmas tree!” he exclaimed. “Well, I am blessed! But look here, Cap’n Eli. You don’t know what a Christmas tree’s fer. It’s fer children, and not fer grown-ups. Nobody ever does have a Christmas tree in any house where there ain’t no children.”

Captain Eli rose and stood with his back to the fire. “I didn’t think of that,” he said, “but I guess it’s so. And when I come to think of it, a Christmas isn’t much of a Christmas, anyway, without children.”

“You never had none,” said Captain Cephas, “and you’ve kept Christmas.”

“Yes,” replied Captain Eli, reflectively, “we did do it, but there was always a lackment–Miranda has said so, and I have said so.”

“You didn’t have no Christmas tree,” said Captain Cephas.

“No, we didn’t. But I don’t think that folks was as much set on Christmas trees then as they ‘pear to be now. I wonder,” he continued, thoughtfully gazing at the ceiling, “if we was to fix up a Christmas tree–and you and me’s got a lot of pretty things that we’ve picked up all over the world, that would go miles ahead of anything that could be bought at the store fer Christmas trees–if we was to fix up a tree real nice, if we couldn’t get some child or other that wasn’t likely to have a tree to come in and look at it, and stay awhile, and make Christmas more like Christmas. And then, when it went away, it could take along the things that was hangin’ on the tree, and keep ’em fer its own.”

“That wouldn’t work,” said Captain Cephas. “If you get a child into this business, you must let it hang up its stockin’ before it goes to bed, and find it full in the mornin’, and then tell it an all-fired lie about Santa Claus if it asks any questions. Most children think more of stockin’s than they do of trees–so I’ve heard, at least.”

“I’ve got no objections to stockin’s,” said Captain Eli. “If it wanted to hang one up, it could hang one up either here or in my house, wherever we kept Christmas.”

“You couldn’t keep a child all night,” sardonically remarked Captain Cephas, “and no more could I. Fer if it was to get up a croup in the night, it would be as if we was on a lee shore with anchors draggin’ and a gale a-blowin’.”

“That’s so,” said Captain Eli. “You’ve put it fair. I suppose if we did keep a child all night, we’d have to have some sort of a woman within hail in case of a sudden blow.”

Captain Cephas sniffed. “What’s the good of talkin’?” said he. “There ain’t no child, and there ain’t no woman that you could hire to sit all night on my front step or on your front step, a-waitin’ to be piped on deck in case of croup.”

“No,” said Captain Eli. “I don’t suppose there’s any child in this village that ain’t goin’ to be provided with a Christmas tree or a Christmas stockin’, or perhaps both–except, now I come to think of it, that little gal that was brought down here with her mother last summer, and has been kept by Mrs. Crumley sence her mother died.”

“And won’t be kept much longer,” said Captain Cephas, “fer I’ve hearn Mrs. Crumley say she couldn’t afford it.”

“That’s so,” said Captain Eli. “If she can’t afford to keep the little gal, she can’t afford to give no Christmas trees nor stockin’s, and so it seems to me, cap’n, that that little gal would be a pretty good child to help us keep Christmas.”

“You’re all the time forgettin’,” said the other, “that nuther of us can keep a child all night.”

Captain Eli seated himself, and looked ponderingly into the fire. “You’re right, cap’n,” said he. “We’d have to ship some woman to take care of her. Of course, it wouldn’t be no use to ask Mrs. Crumley?”

Captain Cephas laughed. “I should say not.”

“And there doesn’t seem to be anybody else,” said his companion. “Can you think of anybody, cap’n?”

“There ain’t anybody to think of,” replied Captain Cephas, “unless it might be Eliza Trimmer. She’s generally ready enough to do anything that turns up. But she wouldn’t be no good–her house is too far away for either you or me to hail her in case a croup came up suddint.”

“That’s so,” said Captain Eli. “She does live a long way off.”

“So that settles the whole business,” said Captain Cephas. “She’s too far away to come if wanted, and nuther of us couldn’t keep no child without somebody to come if they was wanted, and it’s no use to have a Christmas tree without a child. A Christmas without a Christmas tree don’t seem agreeable to you, cap’n, so I guess we’d better get along just the same as we’ve been in the habit of doin’, and eat our Christmas dinner, as we do our other meals in our own houses.”

Captain Eli looked into the fire. “I don’t like to give up things if I can help it. That was always my way. If wind and tide’s ag’in’ me, I can wait till one or the other, or both of them, serve.”

“Yes,” said Captain Cephas, “you was always that kind of a man.”

“That’s so. But it does ‘pear to me as if I’d have to give up this time, though it’s a pity to do it, on account of the little gal, fer she ain’t likely to have any Christmas this year.

She’s a nice little gal, and takes as natural to navigation as if she’d been born at sea. I’ve given her two or three things because she’s so pretty, but there’s nothing she likes so much as a little ship I gave her.”

“Perhaps she was born at sea,” remarked Captain Cephas.

“Perhaps she was,” said the other; “and that makes it the bigger pity.”

For a few moments nothing was said. Then Captain Eli suddenly exclaimed, “I’ll tell you what we might do, cap’n! We might ask Mrs. Trimmer to lend a hand in givin’ the little gal a Christmas. She ain’t got nobody in her house but herself, and I guess she’d be glad enough to help give that little gal a regular Christmas. She could go and get the child, and bring her to your house or to my house, or wherever we’re goin’ to keep Christmas, and–“

“Well,” said Captain Cephas, with an air of scrutinizing inquiry, “what?”

“Well,” replied the other, a little hesitatingly, “so far as I’m concerned,–that is, I don’t mind one way or the other,–she might take her Christmas dinner along with us and the little gal, and then she could fix her stockin’ to be hung up, and help with the Christmas tree, and–“

“Well,” demanded Captain Cephas, “what?”

“Well,” said Captain Eli, “she could–that is, it doesn’t make any difference to me one way or the other–she might stay all night at whatever house we kept Christmas in, and then you and me might spend the night in the other house, and then she could be ready there to help the child in the mornin’, when she came to look at her stockin’.”

Captain Cephas fixed upon his friend an earnest glare. “That’s pretty considerable of an idea to come upon you so suddint,” said he. “But I can tell you one thing: there ain’t a- goin’ to be any such doin’s in my house. If you choose to come over here to sleep, and give up your house to any woman you can find to take care of the little gal, all right. But the thing can’t be done here.”

There was a certain severity in these remarks, but they appeared to affect Captain Eli very pleasantly.

“Well,” said he, “if you’re satisfied, I am. I’ll agree to any plan you choose to make. It doesn’t matter to me which house it’s in, and if you say my house, I say my house. All I want is to make the business agreeable to all concerned. Now it’s time fer me to go to my dinner, and this afternoon we’d better go and try to get things straightened out, because the little gal, and whatever woman comes with her, ought to be at my house to-morrow before dark. S’posin’ we divide up this business: I’ll go and see Mrs. Crumley about the little gal, and you can go and see Mrs. Trimmer.”

“No, sir,” promptly replied Captain Cephas, “I don’t go to see no Mrs. Trimmer. You can see both of them just the same as you can see one–they’re all along the same way. I’ll go cut the Christmas tree.”

“All right,” said Captain Eli. “It don’t make no difference to me which does which. But if I was you, cap’n, I’d cut a good big tree, because we might as well have a good one while we’re about it.”

When he had eaten his dinner, and washed up his dishes, and had put everything away in neat, housewifely order, Captain Eli went to Mrs. Crumley’s house, and very soon finished his business there. Mrs. Crumley kept the only house which might be considered a boarding-house in the village of Sponkannis; and when she had consented to take charge of the little girl who had been left on her hands she had hoped it would not be very long before she would hear from some of her relatives in regard to her maintenance. But she had heard nothing, and had now ceased to expect to hear anything, and in consequence had frequently remarked that she must dispose of the child some way or other, for she couldn’t afford to keep her any longer. Even an absence of a day or two at the house of the good captain would be some relief, and Mrs. Crumley readily consented to the Christmas scheme. As to the little girl, she was delighted. She already looked upon Captain Eli as her best friend in the world.

It was not so easy to go to Mrs. Trimmer’s house and put the business before her. “It ought to be plain sailin’ enough,” Captain Eli said to himself, over and over again, “but, fer all that, it don’t seem to be plain sailin’.”

But he was not a man to be deterred by difficult navigation, and he walked straight to Eliza Trimmer’s house.

Mrs. Trimmer was a comely woman about thirty-five, who had come to the village a year before, and had maintained herself, or at least had tried to, by dressmaking and plain sewing. She had lived at Stetford, a seaport about twenty miles away, and from there, three years before, her husband, Captain Trimmer, had sailed away in a good-sized schooner, and had never returned. She had come to Sponkannis because she thought that there she could live cheaper and get more work than in her former home. She had found the first quite possible, but her success in regard to the work had not been very great.

When Captain Eli entered Mrs. Trimmer’s little room, he found her busy mending a sail. Here fortune favored him. “You turn your hand to ‘most anything, Mrs. Trimmer,” said he, after he had greeted her.

“Oh, yes,” she answered, with a smile, “I am obliged to do that. Mending sails is pretty heavy work, but it’s better than nothing.”

“I had a notion,” said he, “that you was ready to turn your hand to any good kind of business, so I thought I would step in and ask you if you’d turn your hand to a little bit of business I’ve got on the stocks.”

She stopped sewing on the sail, and listened while Captain Eli laid his plan before her. “It’s very kind in you and Captain Cephas to think of all that,” said she. “I have often noticed that poor little girl, and pitied her. Certainly I’ll come, and you needn’t say anything about paying me for it. I wouldn’t think of asking to be paid for doing a thing like that. And besides,”–she smiled again as she spoke,–“if you are going to give me a Christmas dinner, as you say, that will make things more than square.”

Captain Eli did not exactly agree with her, but he was in very good humor, and she was in good humor, and the matter was soon settled, and Mrs. Trimmer promised to come to the captain’s house in the morning and help about the Christmas tree, and in the afternoon to go to get the little girl from Mrs. Crumley’s and bring her to the house.

Captain Eli was delighted with the arrangements. “Things now seem to be goin’ along before a spankin’ breeze,”said he. “But I don’t know about the dinner. I guess you will have to leave that to me. I don’t believe Captain Cephas could eat a woman- cooked dinner. He’s accustomed to livin sailor fashion, you know, and he has declared over and over again to me that woman- cookin’ doesn’t agree with him.”

“But I can cook sailor fashion,” said Mrs. Trimmer,–“just as much sailor fashion as you or Captain Cephas, and if he don’t believe it, I’ll prove it to him; so you needn’t worry about that.”

When the captain had gone, Mrs. Trimmer gayly put away the sail. There was no need to finish it in a hurry, and no knowing when she would get her money for it when it was done. No one had asked her to a Christmas dinner that year, and she had expected to have a lonely time of it. But it would be very pleasant to spend Christmas with the little girl and the two good captains. Instead of sewing any more on the sail, she got out some of her own clothes to see if they needed anything done to them.

The next morning Mrs. Trimmer went to Captain Eli’s house, and finding Captain Cephas there, they all set to work at the Christmas tree, which was a very fine one, and had been planted in a box. Captain Cephas had brought over a bundle of things from his house, and Captain Eli kept running here and there, bringing, each time that he returned, some new object, wonderful or pretty, which he had brought from China or Japan or Corea, or some spicy island of the Eastern seas; and nearly every time he came with these treasures Mrs. Trimmer declared that such things were too good to put upon a Christmas tree, even for such a nice little girl as the one for which that tree was intended. The presents which Captain Cephas brought were much more suitable for the purpose; they were odd and funny, and some of them pretty, but not expensive, as were the fans and bits of shellwork and carved ivories which Captain Eli wished to tie upon the twigs of the tree.

There was a good deal of talk about all this, but Captain Eli had his own way.

“I don’t suppose, after all,” said he, “that the little gal ought to have all the things. This is such a big tree that it’s more like a family tree. Cap’n Cephas can take some of my things, and I can take some of his things, and, Mrs. Trimmer, if there’s anything you like, you can call it your present and take it for your own, so that will be fair and comfortable all round. What I want is to make everybody satisfied.”

“I’m sure I think they ought to be,” said Mrs. Trimmer, looking very kindly at Captain Eli.

Mrs. Trimmer went home to her own house to dinner, and in the afternoon she brought the little girl. She had said there ought to be an early supper, so that the child would have time to enjoy the Christmas tree before she became sleepy.

This meal was prepared entirely by Captain Eli, and in sailor fashion, not woman fashion, so that Captain Cephas could make no excuse for eating his supper at home. Of course they all ought to be together the whole of that Christmas eve. As for the big dinner on the morrow, that was another affair, for Mrs. Trimmer undertook to make Captain Cephas understand that she had always cooked for Captain Trimmer in sailor fashion, and if he objected to her plum-duff, or if anybody else objected to her mince-pie, she was going to be very much surprised.

Captain Cephas ate his supper with a good relish, and was still eating when the rest had finished. As to the Christmas tree, it was the most valuable, if not the most beautiful, that had ever been set up in that region. It had no candles upon it, but was lighted by three lamps and a ship’s lantern placed in the four corners of the room, and the little girl was as happy as if the tree were decorated with little dolls and glass balls. Mrs. Trimmer was intensely pleased and interested to see the child so happy, and Captain Eli was much pleased and interested to see the child and Mrs. Trimmer so happy, and Captain Cephas was interested, and perhaps a little amused in a superior fashion, to see Captain Eli and Mrs. Trimmer and the little child so happy.

Then the distribution of the presents began. Captain Eli asked Captain Cephas if he might have the wooden pipe that the latter had brought for his present. Captain Cephas said he might take it, for all he cared, and be welcome to it. Then Captain Eli gave Captain Cephas a red bandanna handkerchief of a very curious pattern, and Captain Cephas thanked him kindly. After which Captain Eli bestowed upon Mrs. Trimmer a most beautiful tortoise-shell comb, carved and cut and polished in a wonderful way, and with it he gave a tortoise-shell fan, carved in the same fashion, because he said the two things seemed to belong to each other and ought to go together; and he would not listen to one word of what Mrs. Trimmer said about the gifts being too good for her, and that she was not likely ever to use them.

“It seems to me,” said Captain Cephas, “that you might be giving something to the little gal.”

Then Captain Eli remembered that the child ought not to be forgotten, and her soul was lifted into ecstasy by many gifts, some of which Mrs. Trimmer declared were too good for any child in this wide, wide world. But Captain Eli answered that they could be taken care of by somebody until the little girl was old enough to know their value.

Then it was discovered that, unbeknown to anybody else, Mrs. Trimmer had put some presents on the tree, which were things which had been brought by Captain Trimmer from somewhere in the far East or the distant West. These she bestowed upon Captain Cephas and Captain Eli. And the end of all this was that in the whole of Sponkannis, from the foot of the bluff to the east, to the very last house on the shore to the west, there was not one Christmas eve party so happy as this one.

Captain Cephas was not quite so happy as the three others were, but he was very much interested. About nine o’clock the party broke up, and the two captains put on their caps and buttoned up their pea-jackets, and started for Captain Cephas’s house, but not before Captain Eli had carefully fastened every window and every door except the front door, and had told Mrs. Trimmer how to fasten that when they had gone, and had given her a boatswain’s whistle, which she might blow out of the window if there should be a sudden croup and it should be necessary for any one to go anywhere. He was sure he could hear it, for the wind was exactly right for him to hear a whistle from his house. When they had gone Mrs. Trimmer put the little girl to bed, and was delighted to find in what a wonderfully neat and womanlike fashion that house was kept.

It was nearly twelve o’clock that night when Captain Eli, sleeping in his bunk opposite that of Captain Cephas, was aroused by hearing a sound. He had been lying with his best ear uppermost, so that he should hear anything if there happened to be anything to hear. He did hear something, but it was not a boatswain’s whistle; it was a prolonged cry, and it seemed to come from the sea.

In a moment Captain Eli was sitting on the side of his bunk, listening intently. Again came the cry. The window toward the sea was slightly open, and he heard it plainly.

“Cap’n! ” said he, and at the word Captain Cephas was sitting on the side of his bunk, listening. He knew from his companion’s attitude, plainly visible in the light of a lantern which hung on a hook at the other end of the room, that he had been awakened to listen. Again came the cry.

“That’s distress at sea,” said Captain Cephas. “Harken!”

They listened again for nearly a minute, when the cry was repeated.

“Bounce on deck, boys!” said Captain Cephas, getting out on the floor. “There’s some one in distress off shore.”

Captain Eli jumped to the floor, and began to dress quickly.

“It couldn’t be a call from land?” he asked hurriedly. “It don’t sound a bit to you like a boatswain’s whistle, does it?”

“No,” said Captain Cephas, disdainfully. “It’s a call from sea.” Then, seizing a lantern, he rushed down the companionway.

As soon as he was convinced that it was a call from sea, Captain Eli was one in feeling and action with Captain Cephas. The latter hastily opened the draughts of the kitchen stove, and put on some wood, and by the time this was done Captain Eli had the kettle filled and on the stove. Then they clapped on their caps and their pea-jackets, each took an oar from a corner in the back hall, and together they ran down to the beach.

The night was dark, but not very cold, and Captain Cephas had been to the store that morning in his boat.

Whenever he went to the store, and the weather permitted, he rowed there in his boat rather than walk. At the bow of the boat, which was now drawn up on the sand, the two men stood and listened. Again came the cry from the sea.

“It’s something ashore on the Turtle-back Shoal,” said Captain Cephas.

“Yes,” said Captain Eli, “and it’s some small craft, fer that cry is down pretty nigh to the water.”

“Yes,” said Captain Cephas. “And there’s only one man aboard, or else they’d take turns a-hollerin’.”

“He’s a stranger,” said Captain Eli, “or he wouldn’t have tried, even with a cat-boat, to get in over that shoal on ebb- tide.”

As they spoke they ran the boat out into the water and jumped in, each with an oar. Then they pulled for the Turtle-back Shoal.

Although these two captains were men of fifty or thereabout, they were as strong and tough as any young fellows in the village, and they pulled with steady strokes, and sent the heavy boat skimming over the water, not in a straight line toward the Turtle-back Shoal, but now a few points in the darkness this way, and now a few points in the darkness that way, then with a great curve to the south through the dark night, keeping always near the middle of the only good channel out of the bay when the tide was ebbing.

Now the cries from seaward had ceased, but the two captains were not discouraged.

“He’s heard the thumpin’ of our oars,” said Captain Cephas.

“He’s listenin’, and he’ll sing out again if he thinks we’re goin’ wrong,” said Captain Eli. “Of course he doesn’t know anything about that.”

And so when they made the sweep to the south the cry came again, and Captain Eli grinned. “We needn’t to spend no breath hollerin’,” said he. “He’ll hear us makin’ fer him in a minute.”

When they came to head for the shoal they lay on their oars for a moment, while Captain Cephas turned the lantern in the bow, so that its light shone out ahead. He had not wanted the shipwrecked person to see the light when it would seem as if the boat were rowing away from him. He had heard of castaway people who became so wild when they imagined that a ship or boat was going away from them that they jumped overboard.

When the two captains reached the shoal, they found there a cat-boat aground, with one man aboard. His tale was quickly told. He had expected to run into the little bay that afternoon, but the wind had fallen, and in trying to get in after dark, and being a stranger, he had run aground. If he had not been so cold, he said, he would have been willing to stay there till the tide rose; but he was getting chilled, and seeing a light not far away, he concluded to call for help as long as his voice held out.

The two captains did not ask many questions. They helped anchor the cat-boat, and then they took the man on their boat and rowed him to shore. He was getting chilled sitting out there doing nothing, and so when they reached the house they made him some hot grog, and promised in the morning, when the tide rose, they would go out and help him bring his boat in. Then Captain Cephas showed the stranger to a bunk, and they all went to bed. Such experiences had not enough of novelty to the good captains to keep them awake five minutes.

In the morning they were all up very early, and the stranger, who proved to be a seafaring man with bright blue eyes, said that, as his cat-boat seemed to be riding all right at its anchorage, he did not care to go out after her just yet. Any time during flood-tide would do for him, and he had some business that he wanted to attend to as soon as possible.

This suited the two captains very well, for they wished to be on hand when the little girl discovered her stocking.

“Can you tell me,” said the stranger, as he put on his cap, “where I can find a Mrs. Trimmer, who lives in this village?”

At these words all the sturdy stiffness which, from his youth up, had characterized the legs of Captain Eli entirely went out of them, and he sat suddenly upon a bench. For a few moments there was silence.

Then Captain Cephas, who thought some answer should be made to the question, nodded his head.

“I want to see her as soon as I can,” said the stranger. “I have come to see her on particular business that will be a surprise to her. I wanted to be here before Christmas began, and that’s the reason I took that cat-boat from Stetford, because I thought I’d come quicker that way than by land. But the wind fell, as I told you. If either one of you would be good enough to pilot me to where Mrs. Trimmer lives, or to any point where I can get a sight of the place, I’d be obliged.”

Captain Eli rose and with hurried but unsteady steps went into the house (for they had been upon the little piazza), and beckoned to his friend to follow. The two men stood in the kitchen and looked at each other. The face of Captain Eli was of the hue of a clam-shell.

“Go with him, cap’n,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “I can’t do it.”

“To your house?” inquired the other.

“Of course. Take him to my house. There ain’t no other place where she is. Take him along.”

Captain Cephas’s countenance wore an air of the deepest concern, but he thought that the best thing to do was to get the stranger away.

As they walked rapidly toward Captain Eli’s house there was very little said by either Captain Cephas or the stranger. The latter seemed anxious to give Mrs. Trimmer a surprise, and not to say anything which might enable another person to interfere with his project.

The two men had scarcely stepped upon the piazza when Mrs. Trimmer, who had been expecting early visitors, opened the door. She was about to call out “Merry Christmas!” but, her eyes falling upon a stranger, the words stopped at her lips. First she turned red, then she turned pale, and Captain Cephas thought she was about to fall. But before she could do this the stranger had her in his arms. She opened her eyes, which for a moment she had closed, and, gazing into his face, she put her arms around his neck. Then Captain Cephas came away, without thinking of the little girl and the pleasure she would have in discovering her Christmas stocking.

When he had been left alone, Captain Eli sat down near the kitchen stove, close to the very kettle which he had filled with water to heat for the benefit of the man he had helped bring in from the sea, and, with his elbows on his knees and his fingers in his hair, he darkly pondered.

“If I’d only slept with my hard-o’-hearin’ ear up,” he said to himself, “I’d never have heard it.”

In a few moments his better nature condemned this thought.

“That’s next to murder,” he muttered, “fer he couldn’t have kept himself from fallin’ asleep out there in the cold, and when the tide riz held have been blowed out to sea with this wind. If I hadn’t heard him, Captain Cephas never would, fer he wasn’t primed up to wake, as I was.”

But, notwithstanding his better nature, Captain Eli was again saying to himself, when his friend returned, “If I’d only slept with my other ear up!”

Like the honest, straightforward mariner he was, Captain Cephas made an exact report of the facts. “They was huggin’ when I left them,” he said, “and I expect they went indoors pretty soon, fer it was too cold outside. It’s an all-fired shame she happened to be in your house, cap’n, that’s all I’ve got to say about it. It’s a thunderin’ shame.”

Captain Eli made no answer. He still sat with his elbows on his knees and his hands in his hair.

“A better course than you laid down fer these Christmas times was never dotted on a chart,” continued Captain Cephas. “From port of sailin’ to port of entry you laid it down clear and fine. But it seems there was rocks that wasn’t marked on the chart.”

“Yes,” groaned Captain Eli, “there was rocks.”

Captain Cephas made no attempt to comfort his friend, but went to work to get breakfast.

When that meal–a rather silent one–was over, Captain Eli felt better. “There was rocks,” he said, “and not a breaker to show where they lay, and I struck ’em bow on. So that’s the end of that voyage. But I’ve tuk to my boats, cap’n, I’ve tuk to my boats.”

“I’m glad to hear you’ve tuk to your boats,” said Captain Cephas, with an approving glance upon his friend.

About ten minutes afterwards Captain Eli said, “I’m goin’ up to my house.”

“By yourself?” said the other.

“Yes, by myself. I’d rather go alone. I don’t intend to mind anything, and I’m goin’ to tell her that she can stay there and spend Christmas,–the place she lives in ain’t no place to spend Christmas,–and she can make the little gal have a good time, and go ‘long just as we intended to go ‘long–plum-duff and mince-pie all the same. I can stay here, and you and me can have our Christmas dinner together, if we choose to give it that name.

And if she ain’t ready to go to-morrow, she can stay a day or two longer. It’s all the same to me, if it’s the same to you, cap’n.”

Captain Cephas having said that it was the same to him, Captain Eli put on his cap and buttoned up his pea-jacket, declaring that the sooner he got to his house the better, as she might be thinking that she would have to move out of it now that things were different.

Before Captain Eli reached his house he saw something which pleased him. He saw the sea-going stranger, with his back toward him, walking rapidly in the direction of the village store.

Captain Eli quickly entered his house, and in the doorway of the room where the tree was he met Mrs. Trimmer, beaming brighter than any morning sun that ever rose.

“Merry Christmas!” she exclaimed, holding out both her hands. “I’ve been wondering and wondering when you’d come to bid me `Merry Christmas’–the merriest Christmas I’ve ever had.”

Captain Eli took her hands and bid her “Merry Christmas” very gravely.

She looked a little surprised. “What’s the matter, Captain Eli?” she exclaimed. “You don’t seem to say that as if you meant it.”

“Oh, yes, I do,” he answered. “This must be an all-fired–I mean a thunderin’ happy Christmas fer you, Mrs. Trimmer.”

“Yes,” said she, her face beaming again. “And to think that it should happen on Christmas day–that this blessed morning, before anything else happened, my Bob, my only brother, should–“

“Your what!” roared Captain Eli, as if he had been shouting orders in a raging storm.

Mrs. Trimmer stepped back almost frightened. “My brother,” said she. “Didn’t he tell you he was my brother–my brother Bob, who sailed away a year before I was married, and who has been in Africa and China and I don’t know where? It’s so long since I heard that he’d gone into trading at Singapore that I’d given him up as married and settled in foreign parts. And here he has come to me as if he’d tumbled from the sky on this blessed Christmas morning.”

Captain Eli made a step forward, his face very much flushed.

“Your brother, Mrs. Trimmer–did you really say it was your brother?”

“Of course it is,” said she. “Who else could it be?” Then she paused for a moment and looked steadfastly at the captain.

“You don’t mean to say, Captain Eli,” she asked, “that you thought it was–“

“Yes, I did,” said Captain Eli, promptly.

Mrs. Trimmer looked straight in the captain’s eyes, then she looked on the ground. Then she changed color and changed back again.

“I don’t understand,” she said hesitatingly, “why–I mean what difference it made.”

“Difference!” exclaimed Captain Eli. “It was all the difference between a man on deck and a man overboard–that’s the difference it was to me. I didn’t expect to be talkin’ to you so early this Christmas mornin’, but things has been sprung on me, and I can’t help it I just want to ask you one thing: Did you think I was gettin’ up this Christmas tree and the Christmas dinner and the whole business fer the good of the little gal, and fer the good of you, and fer the good of Captain Cephas?”

Mrs. Trimmer had now recovered a very fair possession of herself. “Of course I did,” she answered, looking up at him as she spoke. “Who else could it have been for!”

“Well,” said he, “you were mistaken. It wasn’t fer any one of you. It was all fer me–fer my own self.”

“You yourself?” said she. “I don’t see how.”

“But I see how,” he answered. “It’s been a long time since I wanted to speak my mind to you, Mrs. Trimmer, but I didn’t ever have no chance. And all these Christmas doin’s was got up to give me the chance not only of speakin’ to you, but of showin’ my colors better than I could show them in any other way. Everything went on a-skimmin’ till this mornin’, when that stranger that we brought in from the shoal piped up and asked fer you. Then I went overboard–at least, I thought I did–and sunk down, down, clean out of soundin’s.”

“That was too bad, captain,” said she, speaking very gently, “after all your trouble and kindness.”

“But I don’t know now,” he continued, “whether I went overboard or whether I am on deck. Can you tell me, Mrs. Trimmer?”

She looked up at him. Her eyes were very soft, and her lips trembled just a little. “It seems to me, captain,” she said, “that you are on deck–if you want to be.”

The captain stepped closer to her. “Mrs. Trimmer,” said he, “is that brother of yours comin’ back?”

“Yes,” she answered, surprised at the sudden question. “He’s just gone up to the store to buy a shirt and some things. He got himself splashed trying to push his boat off last night.”

“Well, then,” said Captain Eli, “would you mind tellin’ him when he comes back that you and me’s engaged to be married? I don’t know whether I’ve made a mistake in the lights or not, but would you mind tellin’ him that?”

Mrs. Trimmer looked at him. Her eyes were not so soft as they had been, but they were brighter. “I’d rather you’d tell him that yourself,” said she.

The little girl sat on the floor near the Christmas tree, just finishing a large piece of red-and-white candy which she had taken out of her stocking. “People do hug a lot at Christmas- time,” said she to herself. Then she drew out a piece of blue- and-white candy and began on that.

Captain Cephas waited a long time for his friend to return, and at last he thought it would be well to go and look for him. When he entered the house he found Mrs. Trimmer sitting on the sofa in the parlor, with Captain Eli on one side of her and her brother on the other, and each of them holding one of her hands.

“It looks as if I was in port, don’t it?” said Captain Eli to his astonished friend. “Well, here I am, and here’s my fust mate,” inclining his head toward Mrs. Trimmer. “And she’s in port too, safe and sound. And that strange captain on the other side of her, he’s her brother Bob, who’s been away for years and years, and is just home from Madagascar.”

“Singapore,” amended Brother Bob.

Captain Cephas looked from one to the other of the three occupants of the sofa, but made no immediate remark. Presently a smile of genial maliciousness stole over his face, and he asked, “How about the poor little gal? Have you sent her back to Mrs. Crumley’s?”

The little girl came out from behind the Christmas tree, her stocking, now but half filled, in her hand. “Here I am,” she said. “Don’t you want to give me a Christmas hug, Captain Cephas? You and me’s the only ones that hasn’t had any.”

The Christmas dinner was as truly and perfectly a sailor- cooked meal as ever was served on board a ship or off it. Captain Cephas had said that, and when he had so spoken there was no need of further words.

It was nearly dark that afternoon, and they were all sitting around the kitchen fire, the three seafaring men smoking, and Mrs. Trimmer greatly enjoying it. There could be no objection to the smell of tobacco in this house so long as its future mistress enjoyed it. The little girl sat on the floor nursing a Chinese idol which had been one of her presents.

“After all,” said Captain Eli, meditatively, “this whole business come out of my sleepin’ with my best ear up. Fer if I’d slept with my hard-o’-hearin’ ear up–” Mrs. Trimmer put one finger on his lips. “All right,” said Captain Eli, “I won’t say no more. But it would have been different.”

Even now, several years after that Christmas, when there is no Mrs. Trimmer, and the little girl, who has been regularly adopted by Captain Eli and his wife, is studying geography, and knows more about latitude and longitude than her teacher at school, Captain Eli has still a slight superstitious dread of sleeping with his best ear uppermost.

“Of course it’s the most all-fired nonsense,” he says to himself over and over again. Nevertheless, he feels safer when it is his “hard-o’-hearin’ ear” that is not upon the pillow.

18. Christmas Stories

Cousin Tribulation’s Story

Dear Merrys:–As a subject appropriate to the season, I want to tell you about a New Year’s breakfast which I had when I was a little girl. What do you think it was? A slice of dry bread and an apple. This is how it happened, and it is a true story, every word.

As we came down to breakfast that morning, with very shiny faces and spandy clean aprons, we found father alone in the dining-room.

“Happy New Year, papa! Where is mother?” we cried.

“A little boy came begging and said they were starving at home, so your mother went to see and–ah, here she is.”

As papa spoke, in came mamma, looking very cold, rather sad, and very much excited.

“Children, don’t begin till you hear what I have to say,” she cried; and we sat staring at her, with the breakfast untouched before us.

“Not far away from here, lies a poor woman with a little new-born baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there; and the oldest boy came here to tell me they were starving this bitter cold day. My little girls, will you give them your breakfast, as a New Year’s gift?”

We sat silent a minute, and looked at the nice, hot porridge, creamy milk, and good bread and butter; for we were brought up like English children, and never drank tea or coffee, or ate anything but porridge for our breakfast.

“I wish we’d eaten it up,” thought I, for I was rather a selfish child, and very hungry.

“I’m so glad you come before we began,” said Nan, cheerfully.

“May I go and help carry it to the poor, little children?” asked Beth, who had the tenderest heart that ever beat under a pinafore.

“I can carry the lassy pot,” said little May, proudly giving the thing she loved best.

“And I shall take all the porridge,” I burst in, heartily ashamed of my first feeling.

“You shall put on your things and help me, and when we come back, we’ll get something to eat,” said mother, beginning to pile the bread and butter into a big basket.

We were soon ready, and the procession set out. First, papa, with a basket of wood on one arm and coal on the other; mamma next, with a bundle of warm things and the teapot; Nan and I carried a pail of hot porridge between us, and each a pitcher of milk; Beth brought some cold meat, May the “lassy pot,” and her old hood and boots; and Betsey, the girl, brought up the rear with a bag of potatoes and some meal.

Fortunately it was early, and we went along back streets, so few people saw us, and no one laughed at the funny party.

What a poor, bare, miserable place it was, to be sure,–broken windows, no fire, ragged clothes, wailing baby, sick mother, and a pile of pale, hungry children cuddled under one quilt, trying to keep warm. How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as we came in!

“Ah, mein Gott! it is the good angels that come to us!” cried the poor woman, with tears of joy.

“Funny angels, in woollen hoods and red mittens,” said I; and they all laughed.

Then we fell to work, and in fifteen minutes, it really did seem as if fairies had been at work there. Papa made a splendid fire in the old fireplace and stopped up the broken window with his own hat and coat. Mamma set the shivering children round the fire, and wrapped the poor woman in warm things. Betsey and the rest of us spread the table, and fed the starving little ones.

“Das ist gute!” “Oh, nice!” “Der angel–Kinder!” cried the poor things as they ate and smiled and basked in the warm blaze. We had never been called “angel-children” before, and we thought it very charming, especially I who had often been told I was “a regular Sancho.” What fun it was! Papa, with a towel for an apron, fed the smallest child; mamma dressed the poor little new-born baby as tenderly as if it had been her own. Betsey gave the mother gruel and tea, and comforted her with assurance of better days for all. Nan, Lu, Beth, and May flew about among the seven children, talking and laughing and trying to understand their funny, broken English. It was a very happy breakfast, though we didn’t get any of it; and when we came away, leaving them all so comfortable, and promising to bring clothes and food by and by, I think there were not in all the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfast, and contented themselves with a bit of bread and an apple of New Year’s day.

18. Christmas Stories

The Other Wise Man

You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they travelled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem. But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it, yet did not arrive with his brethren in the presence of the young child Jesus? Of the great desire of this fourth pilgrim, and how it was denied, yet accomplished in the denial; of his many wanderings and the probations of his soul; of the long way of his seeking and the strange way of his finding the One whom he sought–I would tell the tale as I have heard fragments of it in the Hall of Dreams, in the palace of the Heart of Man.


In the days when Augustus Caesar was master of many kings and Herod reigned in Jerusalem, there lived in the city of Ecbatana, among the mountains of Persia, a certain man named Artaban. His house stood close to the outermost of the walls which encircled the royal treasury. From his roof he could look over the seven-fold battlements of black and white and crimson and blue and red and silver and gold, to the hill where the summer palace of the Parthian emperors glittered like a jewel in a crown.

Around the dwelling of Artaban spread a fair garden, a tangle of flowers and fruit-trees, watered by a score of streams descending from the slopes of Mount Orontes, and made musical by innumerable birds. But all colour was lost in the soft and odorous darkness of the late September night, and all sounds were hushed in the deep charm of its silence, save the plashing of the water, like a voice half-sobbing and half-laughing under the shadows. High above the trees a dim glow of light shone through the curtained arches of the upper chamber, where the master of the house was holding council with his friends.

He stood by the doorway to greet his guests–a tall, dark man of about forty years, with brilliant eyes set near together under his broad brow, and firm lines graven around his fine, thin lips; the brow of a dreamer and the mouth of a soldier, a man of sensitive feeling but inflexible will–one of those who, in whatever age they may live, are born for inward conflict and a life of quest.

His robe was of pure white wool, thrown over a tunic of silk; and a white, pointed cap, with long lapels at the sides, rested on his flowing black hair. It was the dress of the ancient priesthood of the Magi, called the fire-worshippers.

“Welcome!” he said, in his low, pleasant voice, as one after another entered the room–“welcome, Abdus; peace be with you, Rhodaspes and Tigranes, and with you my father, Abgarus. You are all welcome. This house grows bright with the joy of your presence.”

There were nine of the men, differing widely in age, but alike in the richness of their dress of many-coloured silks, and in the massive golden collars around their necks, marking them as Parthian nobles, and in the winged circles of gold resting upon their breasts, the sign of the followers of Zoroaster.

They took their places around a small black altar at the end of the room, where a tiny flame was burning. Artaban, standing beside it, and waving a barsom of thin tamarisk branches above the fire, fed it with dry sticks of pine and fragrant oils. Then he began the ancient chant of the Yasna, and the voices of his companions joined in the hymn to Ahura-Mazda:

  We worship the Spirit Divine,
         all wisdom and goodness possessing,
  Surrounded by Holy Immortals,
         the givers of bounty and blessing;
  We joy in the work of His hands,
         His truth and His power confessing.

  We praise all the things that are pure,
         for these are His only Creation
  The thoughts that are true, and the words
         and the deeds that have won approbation;
  These are supported by Him,
         and for these we make adoration.
  Hear us, O Mazda!  Thou livest
         in truth and in heavenly gladness;
  Cleanse us from falsehood, and keep us
         from evil and bondage to badness,
  Pour out the light and the joy of Thy life
             on our darkness and sadness.

  Shine on our gardens and fields,
         shine on our working and waving;
  Shine on the whole race of man,
             believing and  unbelieving;
  Shine on us now through the night,
  Shine on us now in Thy might,
  The flame of our holy love
      and the song of our worship receiving.

The fire rose with the chant, throbbing as if the flame responded to the music, until it cast a bright illumination through the whole apartment, revealing its simplicity and splendour.

The floor was laid with tiles of dark blue veined with white; pilasters of twisted silver stood out against the blue walls; the clear-story of round-arched windows above them was hung with azure silk; the vaulted ceiling was a pavement of blue stones, like the body of heaven in its clearness, sown with silver stars. From the four corners of the roof hung four golden magic-wheels, called the tongues of the gods. At the eastern end, behind the altar, there were two dark-red pillars of porphyry; above them a lintel of the same stone, on which was carved the figure of a winged archer, with his arrow set to the string and his bow drawn.

The doorway between the pillars, which opened upon the terrace of the roof, was covered with a heavy curtain of the colour of a ripe pomegranate, embroidered with innumerable golden rays shooting upward from the floor. In effect the room was like a quiet, starry night, all azure and silver, flushed in the cast with rosy promise of the dawn. It was, as the house of a man should be, an expression of the character and spirit of the master.

He turned to his friends when the song was ended, and invited them to be seated on the divan at the western end of the room.

“You have come to-night,” said he, looking around the circle, “at my call, as the faithful scholars of Zoroaster, to renew your worship and rekindle your faith in the God of Purity, even as this fire has been rekindled on the altar. We worship not the fire, but Him of whom it is the chosen symbol, because it is the purest of all created things. It speaks to us of one who is Light and Truth. Is it not so, my father?”

“It is well said, my son,” answered the venerable Abgarus. “The enlightened are never idolaters. They lift the veil of form and go in to the shrine of reality, and new light and truth are coming to them continually through the old symbols.” “Hear me, then, my father and my friends,” said Artaban, “while I tell you of the new light and truth that have come to me through the most ancient of all signs. We have searched the secrets of Nature together, and studied the healing virtues of water and fire and the plants. We have read also the books of prophecy in which the future is dimly foretold in words that are hard to understand. But the highest of all learning is the knowledge of the stars. To trace their course is to untangle the threads of the mystery of life from the beginning to the end. If we could follow them perfectly, nothing would be hidden from us. But is not our knowledge of them still incomplete? Are there not many stars still beyond our horizon–lights that are known only to the dwellers in the far south-land, among the spice-trees of Punt and the gold mines of Ophir?”

There was a murmur of assent among the listeners.

“The stars,” said Tigranes, “are the thoughts of the Eternal. They are numberless. But the thoughts of man can be counted, like the years of his life. The wisdom of the Magi is the greatest of all wisdoms on earth, because it knows its own ignorance. And that is the secret of power. We keep men always looking and waiting for a new sunrise. But we ourselves understand that the darkness is equal to the light, and that the conflict between them will never be ended.”

“That does not satisfy me,” answered Artaban, “for, if the waiting must be endless, if there could be no fulfilment of it, then it would not be wisdom to look and wait. We should become like those new teachers of the Greeks, who say that there is no truth, and that the only wise men are those who spend their lives in discovering and exposing the lies that have been believed in the world. But the new sunrise will certainly appear in the appointed time. Do not our own books tell us that this will come to pass, and that men will see the brightness of a great light?”

“That is true,” said the voice of Abgarus; “every faithful disciple of Zoroaster knows the prophecy of the Avesta, and carries the word in his heart. `In that day Sosiosh the Victorious shall arise out of the number of the prophets in the east country. Around him shall shine a mighty brightness, and he shall make life everlasting, incorruptible, and immortal, and the dead shall rise again.'”

“This is a dark saying,” said Tigranes, “and it may be that we shall never understand it. It is better to consider the things that are near at hand, and to increase the influence of the Magi in their own country, rather than to look for one who may be a stranger, and to whom we must resign our power.”

The others seemed to approve these words. There was a silent feeling of agreement manifest among them; their looks responded with that indefinable expression which always follows when a speaker has uttered the thought that has been slumbering in the hearts of his listeners. But Artaban turned to Abgarus with a glow on his face, and said:

“My father, I have kept this prophecy in the secret place of my soul. Religion without a great hope would be like an altar without a living fire. And now the flame has burned more brightly, and by the light of it I have read other words which also have come from the fountain of Truth, and speak yet more clearly of the rising of the Victorious One in his brightness.”

He drew from the breast of his tunic two small rolls of fine parchment, with writing upon them, and unfolded them carefully upon his knee.

“In the years that are lost in the past, long before our fathers came into the land of Babylon, there were wise men in Chaldea, from whom the first of the Magi learned the secret of the heavens. And of these Balaam the son of Beor was one of the mightiest. Hear the words of his prophecy: ‘There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall arise out of Israel.'”

The lips of Tigranes drew downward with contempt, as he said:

“Judah was a captive by the waters of Babylon, and the sons of Jacob were in bondage to our kings. The tribes of Israel are scattered through the mountains like lost sheep, and from the remnant that dwells in Judea under the yoke of Rome neither star nor sceptre shall arise.”

“And yet,” answered Artaban, “it was the Hebrew Daniel, the mighty searcher of dreams, the counsellor of kings, the wise Belteshazzar, who was most honoured and beloved of our great King Cyrus. A prophet of sure things and a reader of the thoughts of the Eternal, Daniel proved himself to our people. And these are the words that he wrote.” (Artaban read from the second roll:) ” ‘Know, therefore, and understand that from the going forth of the commandment to restore Jerusalem, unto the Anointed One, the Prince, the time shall be seven and threescore and two weeks.”‘

“But, my son,” said Abgarus, doubtfully, “these are mystical numbers. Who can interpret them, or who can find the key that shall unlock their meaning?”

Artaban answered: “It has been shown to me and to my three companions among the Magi–Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. We have searched the ancient tablets of Chaldea and computed the time. It falls in this year. We have studied the sky, and in the spring of the year we saw two of the greatest planets draw near together in the sign of the Fish, which is the house of the Hebrews. We also saw a new star there, which shone for one night and then vanished. Now again the two great planets are meeting. This night is their conjunction. My three brothers are watching by the ancient Temple of the Seven Spheres, at Borsippa, in Babylonia, and I am watching here. If the star shines again, they will wait ten days for me at the temple, and then we will set out together for Jerusalem, to see and worship the promised one who shall be born King of Israel. I believe the sign will come. I have made ready for the journey. I have sold my possessions, and bought these three jewels–a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl–to carry them as tribute to the King. And I ask you to go with me on the pilgrimage, that we may have joy together in finding the Prince who is worthy to be served.”

While he was speaking he thrust his hand into the inmost fold of his, girdle and drew out three great gems–one blue as a fragment of the night sky, one redder than a ray of sunrise, and one as pure as the peak of a snow-mountain at twilight–and laid them on the outspread scrolls before him.

But his friends looked on with strange and alien eyes. A veil of doubt and mistrust came over their faces, like a fog creeping up from the marshes to hide the hills. They glanced at each other with looks of wonder and pity, as those who have listened to incredible sayings, the story of a wild vision, or the proposal of an impossible enterprise.

At last Tigranes said: “Artaban, this is a vain dream. It comes from too much looking upon the stars and the cherishing of lofty thoughts. It would be wiser to spend the time in gathering money for the new fire-temple at Chala. No king will ever rise from the broken race of Israel, and no end will ever come to the eternal strife of light and darkness. He who looks for it is a chaser of shadows. Farewell.”

And another said: “Artaban, I have no knowledge of these things, and my office as guardian of the royal treasure binds me here. The quest is not for me. But if thou must follow it, fare thee well.”

And another said: “In my house there sleeps a new bride, and I cannot leave her nor take her with me on this strange journey. This quest is not for me. But may thy steps be prospered wherever thou goest. So, farewell.”

And another said: “I am ill and unfit for hardship, but there is a man among my servants whom I will send with thee when thou goest, to bring me word how thou farest.”

So, one by one, they left the house of Artaban. But Abgarus, the oldest and the one who loved him the best, lingered after the others had gone, and said, gravely: “My son, it may be that the light of truth is in this sign that has appeared in the skies, and then it will surely lead to the Prince and the mighty brightness. Or it may be that it is only a shadow of the light, as Tigranes has said, and then he who follows it will have a long pilgrimage and a fruitless search. But it is better to follow even the shadow of the best than to remain content with the worst. And those who would see wonderful things must often be ready to travel alone. I am too old for this journey, but my heart shall be a companion of thy pilgrimage day and night, and I shall know the end of thy quest. Go in peace.”

Then Abgarus went out of the azure chamber with its silver stars, and Artaban was left in solitude.

He gathered up the jewels and replaced them in his girdle. For a long time he stood and watched the flame that flickered and sank upon the altar. Then he crossed the hall, lifted the heavy curtain, and passed out between the pillars of porphyry to the terrace on the roof.

The shiver that runs through the earth ere she rouses from her night-sleep had already begun, and the cool wind that heralds the daybreak was drawing downward from the lofty snow-traced ravines of Mount Orontes. Birds, half-awakened, crept and chirped among the rustling leaves, and the smell of ripened grapes came in brief wafts from the arbours.

Far over the eastern plain a white mist stretched like a lake. But where the distant peaks of Zagros serrated the western horizon the sky was clear. Jupiter and Saturn rolled together like drops of lambent flame about to blend in one.

As Artaban watched them, a steel-blue spark was born out of the darkness beneath, rounding itself with purple splendours to a crimson sphere, and spiring upward through rays of saffron and orange into a point of white radiance. Tiny and infinitely remote, yet perfect in every part, it pulsated in the enormous vault as if the three jewels in the Magian’s girdle had mingled and been transformed into a living heart of light.

He bowed his head. He covered his brow with his hands.

“It is the sign,” he said. “The King is coming, and I will go to meet him.”


All night long, Vasda, the swiftest of Artaban’s horses, had been waiting, saddled and bridled, in her stall, pawing the ground impatiently, and shaking her bit as if she shared the eagerness of her master’s purpose, though she knew not its meaning.

Before the birds had fully roused to their strong, high, joyful chant of morning song, before the white mist had begun to lift lazily from the plain, the Other Wise Man was in the saddle, riding swiftly along the high-road, which skirted the base of Mount Orontes, westward.

How close, how intimate is the comradeship between a man and his favourite horse on a long journey. It is a silent, comprehensive friendship, an intercourse beyond the need of words.

They drink at the same way-side springs, and sleep under the same guardian stars. They are conscious together of the subduing spell of nightfall and the quickening joy of daybreak. The master shares his evening meal with his hungry companion, and feels the soft, moist lips caressing the palm of his hand as they close over the morsel of bread. In the gray dawn he is roused from his bivouac by the gentle stir of a warm, sweet breath over his sleeping face, and looks up into the eyes of his faithful fellow-traveller, ready and waiting for the toil of the day. Surely, unless he is a pagan and an unbeliever, by whatever name he calls upon his God, he will thank Him for this voiceless sympathy, this dumb affection, and his morning prayer will embrace a double blessing–God bless us both, the horse and the rider, and keep our feet from falling and our souls from death!

Then, through the keen morning air, the swift hoofs beat their tattoo along the road, keeping time to the pulsing of two hearts that are moved with the same eager desire–to conquer space, to devour the distance, to attain the goal of the journey.

Artaban must indeed ride wisely and well if he would keep the appointed hour with the other Magi; for the route was a hundred and fifty parasangs, and fifteen was the utmost that he could travel in a day. But he knew Vasda’s strength, and pushed forward without anxiety, making the fixed distance every day, though he must travel late into the night, and in the morning long before sunrise.

He passed along the brown slopes of Mount Orontes, furrowed by the rocky courses of a hundred torrents.

He crossed the level plains of the Nisaeans, where the famous herds of horses, feeding in the wide pastures, tossed their heads at Vasda’s approach, and galloped away with a thunder of many hoofs, and flocks of wild birds rose suddenly from the swampy meadows, wheeling in great circles with a shining flutter of innumerable wings and shrill cries of surprise.

He traversed the fertile fields of Concabar, where the dust from the threshing-floors filled the air with a golden mist, half hiding the huge temple of Astarte with its four hundred pillars.

At Baghistan, among the rich gardens watered by fountains from the rock, he looked up at the mountain thrusting its immense rugged brow out over the road, and saw the figure of King Darius trampling upon his fallen foes, and the proud list of his wars and conquests graven high upon the face of the eternal cliff.

Over many a cold and desolate pass, crawling painfully across the wind-swept shoulders of the hills; down many a black mountain-gorge, where the river roared and raced before him like a savage guide; across many a smiling vale, with terraces of yellow limestone full of vines and fruit-trees; through the oak-groves of Carine and the dark Gates of Zagros, walled in by precipices; into the ancient city of Chala, where the people of Samaria had been kept in captivity long ago; and out again by the mighty portal, riven through the encircling hills, where he saw the image of the High Priest of the Magi sculptured on the wall of rock, with hand uplifted as if to bless the centuries of pilgrims; past the entrance of the narrow defile, filled from end to end with orchards of peaches and figs, through which the river Gyndes foamed down to meet him; over the broad rice-fields, where the autumnal vapours spread their deathly mists; following along the course of the river, under tremulous shadows of poplar and tamarind, among the lower hills; and out upon the flat plain, where the road ran straight as an arrow through the stubble-fields and parched meadows; past the city of Ctesiphon, where the Parthian emperors reigned, and the vast metropolis of Seleucia which Alexander built; across the swirling floods of Tigris and the many channels of Euphrates, flowing yellow through the corn-lands–Artaban pressed onward until he arrived, at nightfall on the tenth day, beneath the shattered walls of populous Babylon.

Vasda was almost spent, and Artaban would gladly have turned into the city to find rest and refreshment for himself and for her. But he knew that it was three hours’ journey yet to the Temple of the Seven Spheres, and he must reach the place by midnight if he would find his comrades waiting. So he did not halt, but rode steadily across the stubble-fields.

A grove of date-palms made an island of gloom in the pale yellow sea. As she passed into the shadow Vasda slackened her pace, and began to pick her way more carefully.

Near the farther end of the darkness an access of caution seemed to fall upon her. She scented some danger or difficulty; it was not in her heart to fly from it–only to be prepared for it, and to meet it wisely, as a good horse should do. The grove was close and silent as the tomb; not a leaf rustled, not a bird sang.

She felt her steps before her delicately, carrying her head low, and sighing now and then with apprehension. At last she gave a quick breath of anxiety and dismay, and stood stock-still, quivering in every muscle, before a dark object in the shadow of the last palm-tree.

Artaban dismounted. The dim starlight revealed the form of a man lying across the road. His humble dress and the outline of his haggard face showed that he was probably one of the Hebrews who still dwelt in great numbers around the city. His pallid skin, dry and yellow as parchment, bore the mark of the deadly fever which ravaged the marsh-lands in autumn. The chill of death was in his lean hand, and, as Artaban released it, the arm fell back inertly upon the motionless breast.

He turned away with a thought of pity, leaving the body to that strange burial which the Magians deemed most fitting–the funeral of the desert, from which the kites and vultures rise on dark wings, and the beasts of prey slink furtively away. When they are gone there is only a heap of white bones on the sand.

But, as he turned, a long, faint, ghostly sigh came from the man’s lips. The bony fingers gripped the hem of the Magian’s robe and held him fast.

Artaban’s heart leaped to his throat, not with fear, but with a dumb resentment at the importunity of this blind delay.

How could he stay here in the darkness to minister to a dying stranger? What claim had this unknown fragment of human life upon his compassion or his service? If he lingered but for an hour he could hardly reach Borsippa at the appointed time. His companions would think he had given up the journey. They would go without him. He would lose his quest.

But if he went on now, the man would surely die. If Artaban stayed, life might be restored. His spirit throbbed and fluttered with the urgency of the crisis. Should he risk the great reward of his faith for the sake of a single deed of charity? Should he turn aside, if only for a moment, from the following of the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing Hebrew?

“God of truth and purity,” he prayed, “direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest.”

Then he turned back to the sick man. Loosening the grasp of his hand, he carried him to a little mound at the foot of the palm-tree.

He unbound the thick folds of the turban and opened the garment above the sunken breast. He brought water from one of the small canals near by, and moistened the sufferer’s brow and mouth. He mingled a draught of one of those simple but potent remedies which he carried always in his girdle–for the Magians were physicians as well as astrologers–and poured it slowly between the colourless lips. Hour after hour he laboured as only a skilful healer of disease can do. At last the man’s strength returned; he sat up and looked about him.

“Who art thou?” he said, in the rude dialect of the country, “and why hast thou sought me here to bring back my life?”

“I am Artaban the Magian, of the city of Ecbatana, and I am going to Jerusalem in search of one who is to be born King of the Jews, a great Prince and Deliverer of all men. I dare not delay any longer upon my journey, for the caravan that has waited for me may depart without me. But see, here is all that I have left of bread and wine, and here is a potion of healing herbs. When thy strength is restored thou canst find the dwellings of the Hebrews among the houses of Babylon.”

The Jew raised his trembling hand solemnly to heaven.

“Now may the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob bless and prosper the journey of the merciful, and bring him in peace to his desired haven. Stay! I have nothing to give thee in return–only this: that I can tell thee where the Messiah must be sought. For our prophets have said that he should be born not in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem of Judah. May the Lord bring thee in safety to that place, because thou hast had pity upon the sick.”

It was already long past midnight. Artaban rode in haste, and Vasda, restored by the brief rest, ran eagerly through the silent plain and swam the channels of the river. She put forth the remnant of her strength, and fled over the ground like a gazelle.

But the first beam of the rising sun sent a long shadow before her as she entered upon the final stadium of the journey, and the eyes of Artaban, anxiously scanning the great mound of Nimrod and the Temple of the Seven Spheres, could discern no trace of his friends.

The many-coloured terraces of black and orange and red and yellow and green and blue and white, shattered by the convulsions of nature, and crumbling under the repeated blows of human violence, still glittered like a ruined rainbow in the morning light.

Artaban rode swiftly around the hill. He dismounted and climbed to the highest terrace, looking out toward the west.

The huge desolation of the marshes stretched away to the horizon and the border of the desert. Bitterns stood by the stagnant pools and jackals skulked through the low bushes; but there was no sign of the caravan of the Wise Men, far or near.

At the edge of the terrace he saw a little cairn of broken bricks, and under them a piece of papyrus. He caught it up and read: “We have waited past the midnight, and can delay no longer. We go to find the King. Follow us across the desert.”

Artaban sat down upon the ground and covered his head in despair.

“How can I cross the desert,” said he, “with no food and with a spent horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire, and buy a train of camels, and provision for the journey. I may never overtake my friends. Only God the merciful knows whether I shall not lose the sight of the King because I tarried to show mercy.”


There was a silence in the Hall of Dreams, where I was listening to the story of the Other Wise Man. Through this silence I saw, but very dimly, his figure passing over the dreary undulations of the desert, high upon the back of his camel, rocking steadily onward like a ship over the waves.

The land of death spread its cruel net around him. The stony waste bore no fruit but briers and thorns. The dark ledges of rock thrust themselves above the surface here and there, like the bones of perished monsters. Arid and inhospitable mountain-ranges rose before him, furrowed with dry channels of ancient torrents, white and ghastly as scars on the face of nature. Shifting hills of treacherous sand were heaped like tombs along the horizon. By day, the fierce heat pressed its intolerable burden on the quivering air. No living creature moved on the dumb, swooning earth, but tiny jerboas scuttling through the parched bushes, or lizards vanishing in the clefts of the rock. By night the jackals prowled and barked in the distance, and the lion made the black ravines echo with his hollow roaring, while a bitter, blighting chill followed the fever of the day. Through heat and cold, the Magian moved steadily onward.

Then I saw the gardens and orchards of Damascus, watered by the streams of Abana and Pharpar, with their sloping swards inlaid with bloom, and their thickets of myrrh and roses. I saw the long, snowy ridge of Hermon, and the dark groves of cedars, and the valley of the Jordan, and the blue waters of the Lake of Galilee, and the fertile plain of Esdraelon, and the hills of Ephraim, and the highlands of Judah. Through all these I followed the figure of Artaban moving steadily onward, until he arrived at Bethlehem. And it was the third day after the three Wise Men had come to that place and had found Mary and Joseph, with the young child, Jesus, and had laid their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh at his feet.

Then the Other Wise Man drew near, weary, but full of hope, bearing his ruby and his pearl to offer to the King. “For now at last,” he said, “I shall surely find him, though I be alone, and later than my brethren. This is the place of which the Hebrew exile told me that the prophets had spoken, and here I shall behold the rising of the great light. But I must inquire about the visit of my brethren, and to what house the star directed them, and to whom they presented their tribute.”

The streets of the village seemed to be deserted, and Artaban wondered whether the men had all gone up to the hill-pastures to bring down their sheep. From the open door of a cottage he heard the sound of a woman’s voice singing softly. He entered and found a young mother hushing her baby to rest. She told him of the strangers from the far East who had appeared in the village three days ago, and how they said that a star had guided them to the place where Joseph of Nazareth was lodging with his wife and her new-born child, and how they had paid reverence to the child and given him many rich gifts.

“But the travellers disappeared again,” she continued, “as suddenly as they had come. We were afraid at the strangeness of their visit. We could not understand it. The man of Nazareth took the child and his mother, and fled away that same night secretly, and it was whispered that they were going to Egypt. Ever since, there has been a spell upon the village; something evil hangs over it. They say that the Roman soldiers are coming from Jerusalem to force a new tax from us, and the men have driven the flocks and herds far back among the hills, and hidden themselves to escape it.”

Artaban listened to her gentle, timid speech, and the child in her arms looked up in his face and smiled, stretching out its rosy hands to grasp at the winged circle of gold on his breast. His heart warmed to the touch. It seemed like a greeting of love and trust to one who had journeyed long in loneliness and perplexity, fighting with his own doubts and fears, and following a light that was veiled in clouds.

“Why might not this child have been the promised Prince?” he asked within himself, as he touched its soft cheek. “Kings have been born ere now in lowlier houses than this, and the favourite of the stars may rise even from a cottage. But it has not seemed good to the God of wisdom to reward my search so soon and so easily. The one whom I seek has gone before me; and now I must follow the King to Egypt.”

The young mother laid the baby in its cradle, and rose to minister to the wants of the strange guest that fate had brought into her house. She set food before him, the plain fare of peasants, but willingly offered, and therefore full of refreshment for the soul as well as for the body. Artaban accepted it gratefully; and, as he ate, the child fell into a happy slumber, and murmured sweetly in its dreams, and a great peace filled the room.

But suddenly there came the noise of a wild confusion in the streets of the village, a shrieking and wailing of women’s voices, a clangour of brazen trumpets and a clashing of swords, and a desperate cry: “The soldiers! the soldiers of Herod! They are killing our children.”

The young mother’s face grew white with terror. She clasped her child to her bosom, and crouched motionless in the darkest corner of the room, covering him with the folds of her robe, lest he should wake and cry.

But Artaban went quickly and stood in the doorway of the house. His broad shoulders filled the portal from side to side, and the peak of his white cap all but touched the lintel.

The soldiers came hurrying down the street with bloody hands and dripping swords. At the sight of the stranger in his imposing dress they hesitated with surprise. The captain of the band approached the threshold to thrust him aside. But Artaban did not stir. His face was as calm as though he were watching the stars, and in his eyes there burned that steady radiance before which even the half-tamed hunting leopard shrinks, and the bloodhound pauses in his leap. He held the soldier silently for an instant, and then said in a low voice:

“I am all alone in this place, and I am waiting to give this jewel to the prudent captain who will leave me in peace.”

He showed the ruby, glistening in the hollow of his hand like a great drop of blood.

The captain was amazed at the splendour of the gem. The pupils of his eyes expanded with desire, and the hard lines of greed wrinkled around his lips. He stretched out his hand and took the ruby.

“March on!” he cried to his men, “there is no child here. The house is empty.”

The clamor and the clang of arms passed down the street as the headlong fury of the chase sweeps by the secret covert where the trembling deer is hidden. Artaban re-entered the cottage. He turned his face to the east and prayed:

“God of truth, forgive my sin! I have said the thing that is not, to save the life of a child. And two of my gifts are gone. I have spent for man that which was meant for God. Shall I ever be worthy to see the face of the King?”

But the voice of the woman, weeping for joy in the shadow behind him, said very gently:

“Because thou hast saved the life of my little one, may the Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace.”


Again there was a silence in the Hall of Dreams, deeper and more mysterious than the first interval, and I understood that the years of Artaban were flowing very swiftly under the stillness, and I caught only a glimpse, here and there, of the river of his life shining through the mist that concealed its course.

I saw him moving among the throngs of men in populous Egypt, seeking everywhere for traces of the household that had come down from Bethlehem, and finding them under the spreading sycamore-trees of Heliopolis, and beneath the walls of the Roman fortress of New Babylon beside the Nile–traces so faint and dim that they vanished before him continually, as footprints on the wet river-sand glisten for a moment with moisture and then disappear.

I saw him again at the foot of the pyramids, which lifted their sharp points into the intense saffron glow of the sunset sky, changeless monuments of the perishable glory and the imperishable hope of man. He looked up into the face of the crouching Sphinx and vainly tried to read the meaning of the calm eyes and smiling mouth. Was it, indeed, the mockery of all effort and all aspiration, as Tigranes had said–the cruel jest of a riddle that has no answer, a search that never can succeed? Or was there a touch of pity and encouragement in that inscrutable smile–a promise that even the defeated should attain a victory, and the disappointed should discover a prize, and the ignorant should be made wise, and the blind should see, and the wandering should come into the haven at last?

I saw him again in an obscure house of Alexandria, taking counsel with a Hebrew rabbi. The venerable man, bending over the rolls of parchment on which the prophecies of Israel were written, read aloud the pathetic words which foretold the sufferings of the promised Messiah–the despised and rejected of men, the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

“And remember, my son,” said he, fixing his eyes upon the face of Artaban, “the King whom thou seekest is not to be found in a palace, nor among the rich and powerful. If the light of the world and the glory of Israel had been appointed to come with the greatness of earthly splendour, it must have appeared long ago. For no son of Abraham will ever again rival the power which Joseph had in the palaces of Egypt, or the magnificence of Solomon throned between the lions in Jerusalem. But the light for which the world is waiting is a new light, the glory that shall rise out of patient and triumphant suffering. And the kingdom which is to be established forever is a new kingdom, the royalty of unconquerable love.

“I do not know how this shall come to pass, nor how the turbulent kings and peoples of earth shall be brought to acknowledge the Messiah and pay homage to him. But this I know. Those who seek him will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed.”

So I saw the Other Wise Man again and again, travelling from place to place, and searching among the people of the dispersion, with whom the little family from Bethlehem might, perhaps, have found a refuge. He passed through countries where famine lay heavy upon the land, and the poor were crying for bread. He made his dwelling in plague-stricken cities where the sick were languishing in the bitter companionship of helpless misery. He visited the oppressed and the afflicted in the gloom of subterranean prisons, and the crowded wretchedness of slave-markets, and the weary toil of galley-ships. In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, though he found none to worship, he found many to help. He fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and healed the sick, and comforted the captive; and his years passed more swiftly than the weaver’s shuttle that flashes back and forth through the loom while the web grows and the pattern is completed.

It seemed almost as if he had forgotten his quest. But once I saw him for a moment as he stood alone at sunrise, waiting at the gate of a Roman prison. He had taken from a secret resting-place in his bosom the pearl, the last of his jewels. As he looked at it, a mellower lustre, a soft and iridescent light, full of shifting gleams of azure and rose, trembled upon its surface. It seemed to have absorbed some reflection of the lost sapphire and ruby. So the secret purpose of a noble life draws into itself the memories of past joy and past sorrow. All that has helped it, all that has hindered it, is transfused by a subtle magic into its very essence. It becomes more luminous and precious the longer it is carried close to the warmth of the beating heart.

Then, at last, while I was thinking of this pearl, and of its meaning, I heard the end of the story of the Other Wise Man.


Three-and-thirty years of the life of Artaban had passed away, and he was still a pilgrim and a seeker after light. His hair, once darker than the cliffs of Zagros, was now white as the wintry snow that covered them. His eyes, that once flashed like flames of fire, were dull as embers smouldering among the ashes.

Worn and weary and ready to die, but still looking for the King, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem. He had often visited the holy city before, and had searched all its lanes and crowded bevels and black prisons without finding any trace of the family of Nazarenes who had fled from Bethlehem long ago. But now it seemed as if he must make one more effort, and something whispered in his heart that, at last, he might succeed.

It was the season of the Passover. The city was thronged with strangers. The children of Israel, scattered in far lands, had returned to the Temple for the great feast, and there had been a confusion of tongues in the narrow streets for many days.

But on this day a singular agitation was visible in the multitude. The sky was veiled with a portentous gloom. Currents of excitement seemed to flash through the crowd. A secret tide was sweeping them all one way. The clatter of sandals and the soft, thick sound of thousands of bare feet shuffling over the stones, flowed unceasingly along the street that leads to the Damascus gate.

Artaban joined a group of people from his own country, Parthian Jews who had come up to keep the Passover, and inquired of them the cause of the tumult, and where they were going.

“We are going,” they answered, “to the place called Golgotha, outside the city walls, where there is to be an execution. Have you not heard what has happened? Two famous robbers are to be crucified, and with them another, called Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has done many wonderful works among the people, so that they love him greatly. But the priests and elders have said that he must die, because he gave himself out to be the Son of God. And Pilate has sent him to the cross because he said that he was the `King of the Jews.’

How strangely these familiar words fell upon the tired heart of Artaban! They had led him for a lifetime over land and sea. And now they came to him mysteriously, like a message of despair. The King had arisen, but he had been denied and cast out. He was about to perish. Perhaps he was already dying. Could it be the same who had been born in Bethlehem thirty-three years ago, at whose birth the star had appeared in heaven, and of whose coming the prophets had spoken?

Artaban’s heart beat unsteadily with that troubled, doubtful apprehension which is the excitement of old age. But he said within himself: “The ways of God are stranger than the thoughts of men, and it may be that I shall find the King, at last, in the hands of his enemies, and shall come in time to offer my pearl for his ransom before he dies.”

So the old man followed the multitude with slow and painful steps toward the Damascus gate of the city. Just beyond the entrance of the guardhouse a troop of Macedonian soldiers came down the street, dragging a young girl with torn dress and dishevelled hair. As the Magian paused to look at her with compassion, she broke suddenly from the hands of her tormentors, and threw herself at his feet, clasping him around the knees. She had seen his white cap and the winged circle on his breast.

“Have pity on me,” she cried, “and save me, for the sake of the God of Purity! I also am a daughter of the true religion which is taught by the Magi. My father was a merchant of Parthia, but he is dead, and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Save me from worse than death!”

Artaban trembled.

It was the old conflict in his soul, which had come to him in the palm-grove of Babylon and in the cottage at Bethlehem–the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love. Twice the gift which he had consecrated to the worship of religion had been drawn to the service of humanity. This was the third trial, the ultimate probation, the final and irrevocable choice.

Was it his great opportunity, or his last temptation? He could not tell. One thing only was clear in the darkness of his mind–it was inevitable. And does not the inevitable come from God?

One thing only was sure to his divided heart–to rescue this helpless girl would be a true deed of love. And is not love the light of the soul?

He took the pearl from his bosom. Never had it seemed so luminous, so radiant, so full of tender, living lustre. He laid it in the hand of the slave.

“This is thy ransom, daughter! It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the King.”

While he spoke, the darkness of the sky deepened, and shuddering tremors ran through the earth heaving convulsively like the breast of one who struggles with mighty grief.

The walls of the houses rocked to and fro. Stones were loosened and crashed into the street. Dust clouds filled the air. The soldiers fled in terror, reeling like drunken men. But Artaban and the girl whom he had ransomed crouched helpless beneath the wall of the Praetorium.

What had he to fear? What had he to hope? He had given away the last remnant of his tribute for the King. He had parted with the last hope of finding him. The quest was over, and it had failed. But, even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace. It was not resignation. It was not submission. It was something more profound and searching. He knew that all was well, because he had done the best that he could from day to day. He had been true to the light that had been given to him. He had looked for more. And if he had not found it, if a failure was all that came out of his life, doubtless that was the best that was possible. He had not seen the revelation of “life everlasting, incorruptible and immortal.” But he knew that even if he could live his earthly life over again, it could not be otherwise than it had been.

One more lingering pulsation of the earthquake quivered through the ground. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple. He lay breathless and pale, with his gray head resting on the young girl’s shoulder, and the blood trickling from the wound. As she bent over him, fearing that he was dead, there came a voice through the twilight, very small and still, like music sounding from a distance, in which the notes are clear but the words are lost. The girl turned to see if some one had spoken from the window above them, but she saw no one.

Then the old man’s lips began to move, as if in answer, and she heard him say in the Parthian tongue:

“Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee an hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and– thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”

He ceased, and the sweet voice came again. And again the maid heard it, very faint and far away. But now it seemed as though she understood the words:

“Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”

A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn, on a snowy mountain-peak. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips.

His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.

18. Christmas Stories

A Stolen Christmas

“I don’t s’pose you air goin’ to do much Christmas over to your house.”

Mrs. Luther Ely stood looking over her gate. There was a sweet, hypocritical smile on her little thin red mouth. Her old china blue eyes stared as innocently as a baby’s, although there was a certain hardness in them. Her soft wrinkled cheeks were pink and white with the true blond tints of her youth, which she had never lost. She was now an old woman, but people still looked at her with admiring eyes, and probably would until she died. All her life long her morsel of the world had had in it a sweet savor of admiration, and she had smacked her little feminine lips over it greedily. She expected every one to contribute toward it, even this squat, shabby, defiant old body standing squarely out in the middle of the road. Marg’ret Poole had stopped unwillingly to exchange courtesies with Mrs. Luther Ely. She looked aggressive. She eyed with a sidewise glance the other woman’s pink, smirking face.

“’Tain’t likely we be,” she said, in a voice which age had made gruff instead of piping. Then she took a step forward.

“Well, we ain’t goin’ to do much,” continued Mrs. Ely, with an air of subdued loftiness. “We air jest goin’ to hev a little Christmas tree for the children. Flora’s goin’ to git a few things. She says there’s a very nice ‘sortment up to White’s.”

Marg’ret gave a kind of affirmative grunt; then she tried to move on, but Mrs. Ely would not let her.

“I dun know as you have noticed our new curtains,” said she.

Had she not! Poor Marg’ret Poole, who had only green paper shades in her own windows, had peeped slyly around the corner of one, and watched mournfully, though not enviously, her opposite neighbor tacking up those elegant Nottingham lace draperies, and finally tying them back with bows of red ribbon.

Marg’ret would have given much to have scouted scornfully the idea, but she was an honest old woman, if not a sweet one.

“Yes, I see ’em,” said she, shortly.

“Don’t you think they’re pretty?”

“Well ‘nough,” replied Marg’ret, with another honest rigor.

“They cost consider’ble. I told Flora I thought she was kind of extravagant; but then Sam’s airnin’ pretty good wages. I dun know but they may jest as well have things. Them white cotton curtains looked dreadful kind of gone by.”

Marg’ret thought of her green paper ones. She did not hate this other old woman; she at once admired and despised her; and this admiration of one whom she despised made her angry with herself and ashamed. She was never at her ease with Mrs. Luther Ely.

Mrs. Ely had run out of her house on purpose to intercept her and impress her with her latest grandeur — the curtains and the Christmas tree. She was sure of it. Still she looked with fine appreciation at the other’s delicate pinky face, her lace cap adorned with purple ribbons, her black gown with a flounce around the bottom. The gown was rusty, but Marg’ret did not notice that; her own was only a chocolate calico. Black wool of an afternoon was sumptuous to her. She thought how genteel she looked in it. Mrs. Ely still retained her slim, long-waisted effect. Marg’ret had lost every sign of youthful grace; she was solidly square and stout.

Mrs. Ely had run out, in her haste, without a shawl; indeed, the weather was almost warm enough to go without one. It was only a week before Christmas, but there was no snow, and the grass was quite bright in places. There were green lights over in the field, and also in the house yards. There was a soft dampness in the air, which brought spring to mind. It almost seemed as if one by listening intently might hear frogs or bluebirds.

Now Marg’ret stepped resolutely across the street to her little house, which was shingled, but not painted, except on the front. Some one had painted that red many years before.

Mrs. Ely, standing before her glossy white cottage, which had even a neat little hood over its front door, cried, patronizingly, after her once again:

“I’m comin’ over to see you as soon as I kin,” said she, “arter Christmas. We air dretful busy now.”

“Well, come when ye kin,” Marg’ret responded, shortly. Then she entered between the dry lilac bushes, and shut the door with a bang.

Even out in the yard she had heard a shrill clamor of children’s voices from the house; when she stood in the little entry it was deafening.

“Them children is raisin’ Cain,” muttered she. Then she threw open the door of the room where they were. There were three of them in a little group near the window. Their round yellow heads bobbed, their fat little legs and arms swung wildly. “Granny! granny!” shouted they.

“For the land sake, don’t make such a racket! Mis’ Ely kin hear you over to her house,” said Marg’ret.

“Untie us. Ain’t ye goin’ to untie us now? Say, Granny.”

“I’ll untie ye jest as soon as I kin get my things off. Stop hollerin’.”

In the ceiling were fixed three stout hooks. A strong rope was tied around each child’s waist, and the two ends fastened securely around a hook. The ropes were long enough to allow the children free range of the room, but they kept them just short of one dangerous point — the stove. The stove was the fiery dragon which haunted Marg’ret’s life. Many a night did she dream that one of these little cotton petticoats had whisked too near it, and the flames were roaring up around a little yellow head. Many a day, when away from home, the same dreadful pictures had loomed out before her eyes; her lively fancy had untied these stout knots, and she had hurried home in a panic.

Marg’ret took off her hood and shawl, hung them carefully in the entry, and dragged a wooden chair under a hook. She was a short woman, and she had to stretch up on her tiptoes to untie those hard knots. Her face turned a purplish-red.

This method of restriction was the result of long thought and study on her part. She had tried many others, which had proved ineffectual. Willy, the eldest, could master knots like a sailor. Many a time the grandmother had returned to find the house empty. Willy had unfastened his own knot and liberated his little sisters, and then all three had made the most of their freedom. But even Willy, with his sharp five-year-old brain and his nimble little fingers, could not untie a knot whose two ends brushed the ceiling. Now Marg’ret was sure to find them all where she left them.

After the children were set at liberty she got their supper, arranging it neatly on the table between the windows. There was a nice white table cover, and the six silver teaspoons shone. The teaspoons were the mark of a flood-tide of Marg’ret’s aspirations, and she had had aspirations all her life. She had given them to her daughter, the children’s mother, on her marriage. She herself had never owned a bit of silver, but she determined to present her daughter with some.

“I’m goin’ to have you have things like other folks,” she had said.

Now the daughter was dead, and she had the spoons. She regarded the daily use of them as an almost sinful luxury, but she brought them out in their heavy glass tumbler every meal.

“I’m goin’ to have them children learn to eat off silver spoons,” she said, defiantly, to their father; “they’ll think more of themselves.”

The father, Joseph Snow, was trying to earn a living in the city, a hundred miles distant. He was himself very young, and had not hitherto displayed much business capacity, although he was good and willing. They had been very poor before his wife died; ever since he had not been able to do much more than feed and clothe himself. He had sent a few dollars to Marg’ret from time to time — dollars which he had saved and scrimped pitifully to accumulate — but the burden of their support had come upon her.

She had sewed carpets and assisted in spring cleanings — everything to which she could turn a hand. Marg’ret was a tailoress, but she could now get no employment at her trade. The boys all wore “store clothes” in these days. She could only pick up a few cents at a time; still she managed to keep the children in comfort, with a roof over their heads and something to eat. Their cheeks were fat and pink; they were noisy and happy, and also pretty.

After the children were in bed that night she stood in her kitchen window and gazed across at Mrs. Luther Ely’s house. She had left the candle in the children’s room — the little things were afraid without it — and she had not yet lighted one for herself; so she could see out quite plainly, although the night was dark. There was a light in the parlor of the opposite house; the Nottingham lace curtains showed finely their pattern of leaves and flowers. Marg’ret eyed them. “’Tain’t no use my tryin’ to git up a notch,” she muttered. “’Tain’t no use for some folks. They ‘ain’t worked no harder than I have; Louisa Ely ‘ain’t never begun to work so hard; but they kin have lace curtains an’ Christmas trees.”

The words sounded envious. Still she was hardly that; subsequent events proved it. Her “tryin’ to git up a notch” explained everything. Mrs. Luther Ely, the lace curtains, and the Christmas tree were as three stars set on that higher “notch” which she wished to gain. If the other woman had dressed in silk instead of rusty wool, if the lace draperies had been real, Marg’ret would hardly have wasted one wistful glance on them. But Mrs. Luther Ely had been all her life the one notch higher, which had seemed almost attainable. In that opposite house there was only one carpet; Marg’ret might have hoped for one carpet. Mrs. Ely’s son-in-law earned only a comfortable living for his family; Marg’ret’s might have done that. Worst of all, each woman had one daughter, and Marg’ret’s had died.

Marg’ret had been ambitious all her life. She had made struggle after struggle. The tailoress trade was one of them. She made up her mind that she would have things like other people. Then she married, and her husband spent her money. One failure came after another. She slipped back again and again on the step to that higher notch. And here she was to-night, old and poor, with these three helpless children dependent upon her.

But she felt something besides disappointed ambition as she stood gazing out to-night.

“Thar’s the children,” she went on; “can’t have nothin’ for Christmas. I ‘ain’t got a cent I kin spare. If I git ’em enough to eat, I’m lucky.”

Presently she turned away and lighted a lamp. She had some sewing to do for the children, and was just sitting down with it, when she paused suddenly and stood reflecting.

“I’ve got a good mind to go down to White’s an’ see what he’s got in for Christmas,” said she. “Mebbe Joseph ‘ll send some money ‘long next week, an’ if he does, mebbe I kin git ’em some little thing. It would be a good plan for me to kind of price ’em.”

Marg’ret laid her work down, got her hood and shawl, and went out, fastening the house securely, and also the door of the room where the stove was.

To her eyes the village store which she presently entered was a very emporium of beauty and richness. She stared at the festoons of evergreens, the dangling trumpets and drums, the counters heaped with cheap toys, with awe and longing. She asked respectfully the price of this and that, some things less pretentious than the others. But it was all beyond her. She might as well have priced diamonds and bronzes. As she stood looking, sniffing in the odor of evergreen and new varnish, which was to her a very perfume of Christmas arising from its fulness of peace and merriment, Flora Trask, Mrs. Ely’s daughter, entered. Marg’ret went out quickly. “She’ll see I ain’t buyin’ anything,” she thought to herself.

But Marg’ret Poole came again the next day, and the next, and the next — morning, afternoon, and evening. “I dun know but I may want to buy some things by-an’-by,” she told the proprietor, extenuatingly, “an’ I thought I’d kind of like to price ’em.”

She stood about, eying, questioning, and fingering tenderly. No money-letter came from Joseph. She inquired anxiously at the post-office many times a day. She tried to get work to raise a little extra money, but she could get none at this time of the year. She visited Mrs. White, the store-keeper’s wife, and asked with forlorn hope if she had no tailor-work for her. There were four boys in that family. But Mrs. White shook her head. She was a good woman. “I’m sorry,” said she, “but I haven’t got a mite. The boys wouldn’t wear home-made clothes.”

She looked pitifully at Marg’ret’s set, disappointed face when she went out.

Finally those animals of sugar and wood, those pink-faced, straight-bodied dolls, those tin trumpets and express wagons, were to Marg’ret as the fair apples hanging over the garden wall were to Christiana’s sons in the Pilgrim’s Progress. She gazed and gazed, until at last the sight and the smell of them were too much for her.

The evening before Christmas she went up to the post-office. The last mail was in, and there was no letter for her. Then she kept on to the store. It was rather early, and there were not as yet many customers. Marg’ret began looking about as usual. She might have been in the store ten minutes when she suddenly noticed a parcel on the corner of a counter. It was nicely tied. It belonged evidently either to one of the persons who were then trading in the store or was to be delivered outside later. Mr. White was not in; two of his sons and a boy clerk were waiting upon the customers.

Marg’ret, once attracted by this parcel, could not take her eyes from it long. She pored over the other wares with many sidelong glances at it. Her thoughts centred upon it, and her imagination. What could be in it? To whom could it belong?

Marg’ret Poole had always been an honest woman. She had never taken a thing which did not belong to her in her whole life. She suddenly experienced a complete moral revulsion. It was as if her principles, where weights were made shifty by her long watching and longing, had suddenly gyrated in a wild somersault. While they were reversed, Marg’ret, warily glancing around, slipped that parcel under her arm, opened the door, and sped home.

It was better Christmas weather than it had been a week ago. There was now a fine level of snow, and the air was clear and cold. Marg’ret panted as she walked. The snow creaked under her feet. She met many people hurrying along in chattering groups. She wondered if they could see the parcel under her shawl. It was quite a large one.

When she got into her own house she hastened to strike a light. Then she untied the parcel. There were in it some pink sugar cats and birds, two tin horses and a little wagon, a cheap doll, and some bright picture-books, besides a paper of candy.

“My land!” said Marg’ret, “won’t they be tickled!”

There was a violent nervous shivering all over her stout frame. “Why can’t I keep still?” said she.

She got out three of the children’s stockings, filled them, and hung them up beside the chimney. Then she drew a chair before the stove, and went over to the bureau to get her Bible: she always read a chapter before she went to bed. Marg’ret was not a church member, she never said anything about it, but she had a persistent, reticent sort of religion. She took up the Bible; then laid it down; then she took it up again with a clutch.

“I don’t keer,” said she, “I ‘ain’t done nothin’ so terrible out of the way. What can’t be airned, when anybody’s willin’ to work, ought to be took. I’m goin’ to wait till arter Christmas; then I’m jest goin’ up to Mis’ White’s some arternoon, an’ I’m goin’ to say, ‘Mis’ White,’ says I, ‘the day before Christmas I went into your husband’s store, an’ I see a bundle a-layin’ on the counter, an’ I took it, an’ said nothin’ to nobody. I shouldn’t ha’ done such a thing if you’d give me work, the way I asked you to, instead of goin’ outside an’ buyin’ things for your boys, an’ robbin’ honest folks of the chance to airn. Now, Mis’ White, I’ll tell you jest what I’m willin’ to do: you give me somethin’ to do, an’ I’ll work out twice the price of them things I took, an’ we’ll call it even. If you don’t, all is, your husband will have to lose it.’ I wonder what she’ll say to that.”

Marg’ret said all this with her head thrown back, in a tone of indescribable defiance. Then she sat down with her Bible and read a chapter.

The next day she watched the children’s delight over their presents with a sort of grim pleasure.

She charged them to say nothing about them, although there was little need of it. Marg’ret had few visitors, and the children were never allowed to run into the neighbors’.

Two days after Christmas the postmaster stopped at Marg’ret’s house: his own was just beyond.

He handed a letter to her. “This came Christmas morning,” said he. “I thought I’d bring it along on my way home. I knew you hadn’t been in for two or three days, and I thought you were expecting a letter.”

“Thank ye,” said Marg’ret. She pulled the letter open, and saw there was some money in it. She turned very white.

“Hope you ‘ain’t got any bad news,” said the postmaster.

“No, I ‘ain’t.” After he had gone she sat down and read her letter with her knees shaking.

Joseph Snow had at last got a good situation. He was earning fifty dollars a month. There were twenty dollars in the letter. He promised to send her that sum regularly every month.

“Five dollars a week!” gasped Marg’ret. “My land! An’ I’ve — stole!”

She sat there looking at the money in her lap. It was quite late; the children had been in bed a long time. Finally she put away the money, and went herself. She did not read in her Bible that night.

She could not go to sleep. It was bitterly cold. The old timbers of the house cracked. Now and then there was a sharp report like a pistol. There was a pond near by, and great crashes came from that. Marg’ret might have been, from the noise, in the midst of a cannonade, to which her own guilt had exposed her.

“’Tain’t nothin’ but the frost,” she kept saying to herself.

About three o’clock she saw a red glow on the wall opposite the window.

“I’m ‘maginin’ it,” muttered she. She would not turn over to look at the window. Finally she did. Then she sprang, and rushed toward it. The house where Mrs. Luther Ely lived was on fire.

Marg’ret threw a quilt over her head, unbolted her front door, and flew. “Fire! fire!” she yelled. “Fire! fire! Oh, Mis’ Ely, where be you? Fire! fire! Sam — Sam Trask, you’re all burnin’ up! Flora! Oh! fire! fire!”

By the time she got out in the road she saw black groups moving in the distance. Hoarse shouts followed her cries. Then the church bell clanged out.

Flora was standing in the road, holding on to her children. They were all crying. “Oh, Mis’ Poole!” sobbed she, “ain’t it dreadful? ain’t it awful?”

“Have you got the children all out?” asked Marg’ret.

“Yes; Sam told me to stand here with ’em.”

“Where’s your mother?”

“I don’t know. She’s safe. She waked up first.” The young woman rolled her wild eyes toward the burning house. “There she is!” cried she.

Mrs. Ely was running out of the front door with a box in her hand. Her son-in-law staggered after her with a table on his shoulder.

“Don’t you go in again, mother,” said he.

There were other men helping to carry out the goods, and they chimed in. “No,” cried they; “’tain’t safe. Don’t you go in again, Mis’ Ely!”

Marg’ret ran up to her. “Them curtains,” gasped she, “an’ the parlor carpet, have they got them out?”

“Oh, I dun know — I dun know! I’m afraid they ‘ain’t. Oh, they ‘ain’t got nothin’ out! Everything all burnin’ up! Oh, dear me! oh dear! Where be you goin’?”

Marg’ret had rushed past her into the house. She was going into the parlor, when a man caught hold of her. “Where are you going?” he shouted. “Clear out of this.”

“I’m a-goin’ to git out them lace curtains an’ the carpet.”

“It ain’t any use. We staid in there just as long as we could, trying to get the carpet up; but we couldn’t stand it any longer; it’s chock full of smoke.” The man shouted it out, and pulled her along with him at the same time. “There!” said he, when they were out in the road; “look at that.” There was a flicker of golden fire in one of the parlor windows. Then those lace curtains blazed. “There!” said the man again: “I told you it wasn’t any use.”

Marg’ret turned on him. There were many other men within hearing. “Well, I wouldn’t tell of it,” said she, in a loud voice. “If I was a pack of stout, able-bodied men, and couldn’t ha’ got out them curtains an’ that carpet afore they burnt up, I wouldn’t tell of it.”

Flora and the children had been taken into one of the neighboring houses. Mrs. Ely still stood out in the freezing air clutching her box and wailing. Her son-in-law was trying hard to persuade her to go into the house where her daughter was.

Marg’ret joined them. “I would go if I was you, Mis’ Ely,” said she.

“No, I ain’t goin’. I don’t care where I be. I’ll stay right here in the road. Oh, dear me!”

“Don’t take on so.”

“I ‘ain’t got a thing left but jest my best cap here. I did git that out. Oh dear! oh dear! everything’s burnt up but jest this cap. It’s all I’ve got left. I’ll jest put it on an’ set right down here in the road an’ freeze to death. Nobody ‘ll care. Oh dear! dear! dear!”

“Oh, don’t, Mis’ Ely.” Marg’ret, almost rigid herself with the cold, put her hand on the other woman’s arm. Just then the roof of the burning house fell in. There was a shrill wail from the spectators.

“Do come, mother,” Sam begged, when they stood staring for a moment.

“Yes, do go, Mis’ Ely,” said Marg’ret. “You mustn’t feel so.”

“It’s easy ‘nough to talk,” said Mrs. Ely. “’Tain’t your house; an’ if ’twas, you wouldn’t had much to lose — nothin’ but a passel of old wooden cheers an’ tables.”

“I know it,” said Marg’ret.

Finally Mrs. Ely was started, and Marg’ret hurried home. She thought suddenly of the children and the money. But the children had not waked in all the tumult, and the money was where she had left it. She did not go to bed again, but sat over the kitchen stove thinking, with her elbows on her knees, until morning. When morning came she had laid out one plan of action.

That afternoon she took some of her money, went up to Mr. White’s store, and bought some Nottingham lace curtains like the ones her neighbors had lost. They were off the same piece.

That evening she went to call on Mrs. Ely, and presented them. She had tried to think that she might send the parcel anonymously — leave it on the door-step; but she could not.

“’Twon’t mortify me so much as ’twill the other way,” said she, “an’ I’d ought to be mortified.”

So she carried the curtains, and met with a semblance of gratitude and a reality of amazement and incredulity which shamed her beyond measure.

After she got home that night she took up the Bible, then laid it down. “Here I’ve been talkin’ and worryin’ about gettin’ up a higher notch,” said she, “an’ kind of despisin’ Mis’ Ely when I see her on one. Mis’ Ely wouldn’t have stole. I ain’t nothin’ ‘side of her now, an’ I never kin be.”

The scheme which Marg’ret had laid to confront Mrs. White was never carried out. Her defiant spirit had failed her.

One day she went there and begged for work again. “I’m willin’ to do ‘most anything,” said she. “I’ll come an’ do your washin’, or anything, an’ I don’t want no pay.”

Mrs. White was going away the next day, and she had no work to give the old woman; but she offered her some fuel and some money.

Marg’ret looked at her scornfully. “I’ve got money enough, thank ye,” said she. “My son sends me five dollars a week.”

The other woman stared at her with amazement. She told her husband that night that she believed Marg’ret Poole was getting a little unsettled. She did not know what to make of her.

Not long after that Marg’ret went into Mr. White’s store, and slyly laid some money on the counter. She knew it to be enough to cover the cost of the articles she had stolen. Then she went away and left it there.

That night she went after her Bible. “I declare I will read it to-night,” muttered she. “I’ve paid fur ’em.” She stood eying it. Suddenly she began to cry. “Oh dear!” she groaned; “I can’t. There don’t anything do any good — the lace curtains, nor payin’ fur ’em, nor nothin’. I dun know what I shell do.”

She looked at the clock. It was about nine. “He won’t be gone yet,” said she. She stood motionless, thinking. “If I’m goin’ to-night, I’ve got to,” she muttered. Still she did not start for a while longer. When she did, there was no more hesitation. No argument could have stopped Marg’ret Poole, in her old hood and shawl, pushing up the road, fairly started on her line of duty. When she got to the store she went in directly. The heavy door slammed to, and the glass panels clattered. Mr. White was alone in the store. He was packing up some goods preparatory to closing. Marg’ret went straight up to him, and laid a package before him on the counter.

“I brought these things back,” said she; “they belong to you.”

“Why, what is it?” said Mr. White, wonderingly.

“Some things I stole last Christmas for the children.”


“I stole ’em.”

She untied the parcel, and began taking out the things one by one. “They’re all here but the candy,” said she; “the children ate that up; an’ Aggie bit the head off this pink cat the other day. Then they’ve jammed this little horse consider’ble. But I brought ’em all back.”

Mr. White was an elderly, kind-faced man. He seemed slowly paling with amazement as he stared at her and the articles she was displaying.

“You say you stole them?” said he.

“Yes; I stole ’em.”


“The night afore Christmas.”

“Didn’t Henry give ’em to you?”


“Why, I told him to,” said Mr. White, slowly. “I did the things up for you myself that afternoon. I’d seen you looking kind of wishful, you know, and I thought I’d make you a present of them. I left the bundle on the counter when I went to supper, and told Henry to tell you to take it, and I supposed he did.”

Marg’ret stood staring. Her mouth was open, her hands were clinched. “I dun know — what you mean,” she gasped out at length.

“I mean you ‘ain’t been stealing as much as you thought you had,” said Mr. White. “You just took your own bundle.”