THE BRIDE OF THE MISTLETOE
JAMES LANE ALLEN
AUTHOR OF "FLUTE AND VIOLIN," "A KENTUCKY CARDINAL," "AFTERMATH," ETC.
TO ONE WHO KNOWS
Je crois que pour produire il ne faut pas trop raissoner. Mais il faut regarder beaucoup et songer a ce qu'on a vu. Voir: tout est la, et voir juste. J'entends, par voir juste, voir avec ses propres yeux et non avec ceux des maitres. L'originalite d'un artiste s'indique d'abord dans les petites choses et non dans les grandes.
Il faut trouver aux choses une signification qui n'a pas encore decouverte et tacher de l'exprimer d'une facon personelle.
—GUY DE MAUPASSANT.
Any one about to read this work of fiction might properly be apprised beforehand that it is not a novel: it has neither the structure nor the purpose of The Novel.
It is a story. There are two characters—a middle-aged married couple living in a plain farmhouse; one point on the field of human nature is located; at that point one subject is treated; in the treatment one movement is directed toward one climax; no external event whatsoever is introduced; and the time is about forty hours.
A second story of equal length, laid in the same house, is expected to appear within a twelvemonth. The same father and mother are characters, and the family friend the country doctor; but subordinately all. The main story concerns itself with the four children of the two households.
It is an American children's story:
"A Brood of The Eagle."
During the year a third work, not fiction, will be published, entitled:
"The Christmas Tree: An Interpretation."
The three works will serve to complete each other, and they complete a cycle of the theme.
EARTH SHIELD AND EARTH FESTIVAL
I. THE MAN AND THE SECRET
II. THE TREE AND THE SUNSET
III. THE LIGHTING OF THE CANDLES
IV. THE WANDERING TALE
V. THE ROOM OF THE SILENCES
VI. THE WHITE DAWN
EARTH SHIELD AND EARTH FESTIVAL
A mighty table-land lies southward in a hardy region of our country. It has the form of a colossal Shield, lacking and broken in some of its outlines and rough and rude of make. Nature forged it for some crisis in her long warfare of time and change, made use of it, and so left it lying as one of her ancient battle-pieces—Kentucky.
The great Shield is raised high out of the earth at one end and sunk deep into it at the other. It is tilted away from the dawn toward the sunset. Where the western dip of it reposes on the planet, Nature, cunning artificer, set the stream of ocean flowing past with restless foam—the Father of Waters. Along the edge for a space she bound a bright river to the rim of silver. And where the eastern part rises loftiest on the horizon, turned away from the reddening daybreak, she piled shaggy mountains wooded with trees that loose their leaves ere snowflakes fly and with steadfast evergreens which hold to theirs through the gladdening and the saddening year. Then crosswise over the middle of the Shield, northward and southward upon the breadth of it, covering the life-born rock of many thicknesses, she drew a tough skin of verdure—a broad strip of hide of the ever growing grass. She embossed noble forests on this greensward and under the forests drew clear waters.
This she did in a time of which we know nothing—uncharted ages before man had emerged from the deeps of ocean with eyes to wonder, thoughts to wander, heart to love, and spirit to pray. Many a scene the same power has wrought out upon the surface of the Shield since she brought him forth and set him there: many an old one, many a new. She has made it sometimes a Shield of war, sometimes a Shield of peace. Nor has she yet finished with its destinies as she has not yet finished with anything in the universe. While therefore she continues her will and pleasure elsewhere throughout creation, she does not forget the Shield.
She likes sometimes to set upon it scenes which admonish man how little his lot has changed since Hephaistos wrought like scenes upon the shield of Achilles, and Thetis of the silver feet sprang like a falcon from snowy Olympus bearing the glittering piece of armor to her angered son.
These are some of the scenes that were wrought on the shield of Achilles and that to-day are spread over the Earth Shield Kentucky:
Espousals and marriage feasts and the blaze of lights as they lead the bride from her chamber, flutes and violins sounding merrily. An assembly-place where the people are gathered, a strife having arisen about the blood-price of a man slain; the old lawyers stand up one after another and make their tangled arguments in turn. Soft, freshly ploughed fields where ploughmen drive their teams to and fro, the earth growing dark behind the share. The estate of a landowner where laborers are reaping; some armfuls the binders are binding with twisted bands of straw: among them the farmer is standing in silence, leaning on his staff, rejoicing in his heart. Vineyards with purpling clusters and happy folk gathering these in plaited baskets on sunny afternoons. A herd of cattle with incurved horns hurrying from the stable to the woods where there is running water and where purple-topped weeds bend above the sleek grass. A fair glen with white sheep. A dancing-place under the trees; girls and young men dancing, their fingers on one another's wrists: a great company stands watching the lovely dance of joy.
Such pageants appeared on the shield of Achilles as art; as pageants of life they appear on the Earth Shield Kentucky. The metal-worker of old wrought them upon the armor of the Greek warrior in tin and silver, bronze and gold. The world-designer sets them to-day on the throbbing land in nerve and blood, toil and delight and passion. But there with the old things she mingles new things, with the never changing the ever changing; for the old that remains always the new and the new that perpetually becomes old—these Nature allots to man as his two portions wherewith he must abide steadfast in what he is and go upward or go downward through all that he is to become.
But of the many scenes which she in our time sets forth upon the stately grassy Shield there is a single spectacle that she spreads over the length and breadth of it once every year now as best liked by the entire people; and this is both old and new.
It is old because it contains man's faith in his immortality, which was venerable with age before the shield of Achilles ever grew effulgent before the sightless orbs of Homer. It is new because it contains those latest hopes and reasons for this faith, which briefly blossom out upon the primitive stock with the altering years and soon are blown away upon the winds of change. Since this spectacle, this festival, is thus old and is thus new and thus enwraps the deepest thing in the human spirit, it is never forgotten.
When in vernal days any one turns a furrow or sows in the teeth of the wind and glances at the fickle sky; when under the summer shade of a flowering tree any one looks out upon his fatted herds and fattening grain; whether there is autumnal plenty in his barn or autumnal emptiness, autumnal peace in his breast or autumnal strife,—all days of the year, in the assembly-place, in the dancing-place, whatsoever of good or ill befall in mind or hand, never does one forget.
When nights are darkest and days most dark; when the sun seems farthest from the planet and cheers it with lowest heat; when the fields lie shorn between harvest-time and seed-time and man turns wistful eyes back and forth between the mystery of his origin and the mystery of his end,—then comes the great pageant of the winter solstice, then comes Christmas.
So what is Christmas? And what for centuries has it been to differing but always identical mortals?
It was once the old pagan festival of dead Nature. It was once the old pagan festival of the reappearing sun. It was the pagan festival when the hands of labor took their rest and hunger took its fill. It was the pagan festival to honor the descent of the fabled inhabitants of an upper world upon the earth, their commerce with common flesh, and the production of a race of divine-and-human half-breeds. It is now the festival of the Immortal Child appearing in the midst of mortal children. It is now the new festival of man's remembrance of his errors and his charity toward erring neighbors. It has latterly become the widening festival of universal brotherhood with succor for all need and nighness to all suffering; of good will warring against ill will and of peace warring upon war.
And thus for all who have anywhere come to know it, Christmas is the festival of the better worldly self. But better than worldliness, it is on the Shield to-day what it essentially has been through many an age to many people—the symbolic Earth Festival of the Evergreen; setting forth man's pathetic love of youth—of his own youth that will not stay with him; and renewing his faith in a destiny that winds its ancient way upward out of dark and damp toward Eternal Light.
This is a story of the Earth Festival on the Earth Shield.
I. THE MAN AND THE SECRET
A man sat writing near a window of an old house out in the country a few years ago; it was afternoon of the twenty-third of December.
One of the volumes of a work on American Forestry lay open on the desk near his right hand; and as he sometimes stopped in his writing and turned the leaves, the illustrations showed that the long road of his mental travels—for such he followed—was now passing through the evergreens.
Many notes were printed at the bottoms of the pages. They burned there like short tapers in dim places, often lighting up obscure faiths and customs of our puzzled human race. His eyes roved from taper to taper, as gathering knowledge ray by ray. A small book lay near the large one. It dealt with primitive nature-worship; and it belonged in the class of those that are kept under lock and key by the libraries which possess them as unsafe reading for unsafe minds.
Sheets of paper covered with the man's clear, deliberate handwriting lay thickly on the desk. A table in the centre of the room was strewn with volumes, some of a secret character, opened for reference. On the tops of two bookcases and on the mantelpiece were prints representing scenes from the oldest known art of the East. These and other prints hanging about the walls, however remote from each other in the times and places where they had been gathered, brought together in this room of a quiet Kentucky farmhouse evidence bearing upon the same object: the subject related in general to trees and in especial evergreens.
While the man was immersed in his work, he appeared not to be submerged. His left hand was always going out to one or the other of three picture-frames on the desk and his fingers bent caressingly.
Two of these frames held photographs of four young children—a boy and a girl comprising each group. The children had the air of being well enough bred to be well behaved before the camera, but of being unruly and disorderly out of sheer health and a wild naturalness. All of them looked straight at you; all had eyes wide open with American frankness and good humor; all had mouths shut tight with American energy and determination. Apparently they already believed that the New World was behind them, that the nation backed them up. In a way you believed it. You accepted them on the spot as embodying that marvellous precocity in American children, through which they early in life become conscious of the country and claim it their country and believe that it claims them. Thus they took on the distinction of being a squad detached only photographically from the rank and file of the white armies of the young in the New World, millions and millions strong, as they march, clear-eyed, clear-headed, joyous, magnificent, toward new times and new destinies for the nation and for humanity—a kinder knowledge of man and a kinder ignorance of God.
The third frame held the picture of a woman probably thirty years of age. Her features were without noticeable American characteristics. What human traits you saw depended upon what human traits you saw with.
The hair was dark and abundant, the brows dark and strong. And the lashes were dark and strong; and the eyes themselves, so thornily hedged about, somehow brought up before you a picture of autumn thistles—thistles that look out from the shadow of a rock. They had a veritable thistle quality and suggestiveness: gray and of the fields, sure of their experience in nature, freighted with silence.
Despite grayness and thorniness, however, you saw that they were in the summer of their life-bloom; and singularly above even their beauty of blooming they held what is rare in the eyes of either men or women—they held a look of being just.
The whole face was an oval, long, regular, high-bred. If the lower part had been hidden behind a white veil of the Orient (by that little bank of snow which is guardedly built in front of the overflowing desires of the mouth), the upper part would have given the impression of reserve, coldness, possibly of severity; yet ruled by that one look—the garnered wisdom, the tempering justice, of the eyes. The whole face being seen, the lower features altered the impression made by the upper ones; reserve became bettered into strength, coldness bettered into dignity, severity of intellect transfused into glowing nobleness of character. The look of virgin justice in her was perhaps what had survived from that white light of life which falls upon young children as from a receding sun and touches lingeringly their smiles and glances; but her mouth had gathered its shadowy tenderness as she walked the furrows of the years, watching their changeful harvests, eating their passing bread.
A handful of some of the green things of winter lay before her picture: holly boughs with their bold, upright red berries; a spray of the cedar of the Kentucky yards with its rosary of piteous blue. When he had come in from out of doors to go on with his work, he had put them there—perhaps as some tribute. After all his years with her, many and strong, he must have acquired various tributes and interpretations; but to-day, during his walk in the woods, it had befallen him to think of her as holly which ripens amid snows and retains its brave freshness on a landscape of departed things. As cedar also which everywhere on the Shield is the best loved of forest-growths to be the companion of household walls; so that even the poorest of the people, if it does not grow near the spot they build in, hunt for it and bring it home: everywhere wife and cedar, wife and cedar, wife and cedar.
The photographs of the children grouped on each side of hers with heads a little lower down called up memories of Old World pictures in which cherubs smile about the cloud-borne feet of the heavenly Hebrew maid. Glowing young American mother with four healthy children as her gifts to the nation—this was the practical thought of her that riveted and held.
As has been said, they were in two groups, the children; a boy and girl in each. The four were of nearly the same age; but the faces of two were on a dimmer card in an older frame. You glanced at her again and persuaded yourself that the expression of motherhood which characterized her separated into two expressions (as behind a thin white cloud it is possible to watch another cloud of darker hue). Nearer in time was the countenance of a mother happy with happy offspring; further away the same countenance withdrawn a little into shadow—the face of the mother bereaved—mute and changeless.
The man, the worker, whom this little flock of wife and two surviving children now followed through the world as their leader, sat with his face toward his desk In a corner of the room; solidly squared before his undertaking, liking it, mastering it; seldom changing his position as the minutes passed, never nervously; with a quietude in him that was oftener in Southern gentlemen in quieter, more gentlemanly times. A low powerful figure with a pair of thick shoulders and tremendous limbs; filling the room with his vitality as a heavy passionate animal lying in a corner of a cage fills the space of the cage, so that you wait for it to roll over or get up on its feet and walk about that you may study its markings and get an inkling of its conquering nature.
Meantime there were hints of him. When he had come in, he had thrown his overcoat on a chair that stood near the table in the centre of the room and had dropped his hat upon his coat. It had slipped to the floor and now lay there—a low, soft black hat of a kind formerly much worn by young Southerners of the countryside,—especially on occasions when there was a spur of heat in their mood and going,—much the same kind that one sees on the heads of students in Rome in winter; light, warm, shaping itself readily to breezes from any quarter, to be doffed or donned as comfortable and negligible. It suggested that he had been a country boy in the land, still belonged to the land, and as a man kept to its out-of-door habits and fashions. His shoes, one of which you saw at each side of his chair, were especially well made for rough-going feet to tramp in during all weathers.
A sack suit of dark blue serge somehow helped to withdraw your interpretation of him from farm life to the arts or the professions. The scrupulous air of his shirt collar, showing against the clear-hued flesh at the back of his neck, and the Van Dyck-like edge of the shirt cuff, defining his powerful wrist and hand, strengthened the notion that he belonged to the arts or to the professions. He might have been sitting before a canvas instead of a desk and holding a brush instead of a pen: the picture would have been true to life. Or truer yet, he might have taken his place with the grave group of students in the Lesson in Anatomy left by Rembrandt.
Once he put down his pen, wheeled his chair about, and began to read the page he had just finished: then you saw him. He had a big, masculine, solid-cut, self-respecting, normal-looking, executive head—covered with thick yellowish hair clipped short; so that while everything else in his appearance indicated that he was in the prime of manhood, the clipped hair caused him to appear still more youthful; and it invested him with a rustic atmosphere which went along very naturally with the sentimental country hat and the all-weather shoes. He seemed at first impression a magnificent animal frankly loved of the sun—perhaps too warmly. The sun itself seemed to have colored for him his beard and mustache—a characteristic hue of men's hair and beard in this land peopled from Old English stock. The beard, like the hair, was cut short, as though his idea might have been to get both hair and beard out of life's daily way; but his mustache curled thickly down over his mouth, hiding it. In the whole effect there was a suggestion of the Continent, perhaps of a former student career in Germany, memories of which may still have lasted with him and the marks of which may have purposely been kept up in his appearance.
But such a fashion of beard, while covering a man's face, does much to uncover the man. As he sat amid his papers and books, your thought surely led again to old pictures where earnest heads bend together over some point on the human road, at which knowledge widens and suffering begins to be made more bearable and death more kind. Perforce now you interpreted him and fixed his general working category: that he was absorbed in work meant to be serviceable to humanity. His house, the members of his family, the people of his neighborhood, were meantime forgotten: he was not a mere dweller on his farm; he was a discoverer on the wide commons where the race forever camps at large with its problems, joys, and sorrows.
He read his page, his hand dropped to his knee, his mind dropped its responsibility; one of those intervals followed when the brain rests. The look of the student left his face; over it began to play the soft lights of the domestic affections. He had forgotten the world for his own place in the world; the student had become the husband and house-father. A few moments only; then he wheeled gravely to his work again, his right hand took up the pen, his left hand went back to the pictures.
The silence of the room seemed a guarded silence, as though he were being watched over by a love which would not let him be disturbed. (He had the reposeful self-assurance of a man who is conscious that he is idolized.)
Matching the silence within was the stillness out of doors. An immense oak tree stood just outside the windows. It was a perpetual reminder of vanished woods; and when a windstorm tossed and twisted it, the straining and grinding of the fibres were like struggles and outcries for the wild life of old. This afternoon it brooded motionless, an image of forest reflection. Once a small black-and-white sapsucker, circling the trunk and peering into the crevices of the bark on a level with the windows, uttered minute notes which penetrated into the room like steel darts of sound. A snowbird alighted on the window-sill, glanced familiarly in at the man, and shot up its crest; but disappointed perhaps that it was not noticed, quoted its resigned gray phrase—a phrase it had made for itself to accompany the score of gray whiter—and flitted on billowy wings to a juniper at the corner of the house, its turret against the long javelins of the North.
Amid the stillness of Nature outside and the house-silence of a love guarding him within, the man worked on.
A little clock ticked independently on the old-fashioned Parian marble mantelpiece. Prints were propped against its sides and face, illustrating the use of trees about ancient tombs and temples. Out of this photographic grove of dead things the uncaring clock threw out upon the air a living three—the fateful three that had been measured for each tomb and temple in its own land and time.
A knock, regretful but positive, was heard, and the door opening into the hall was quietly pushed open. A glow lit up the student's face though he did not stop writing; and his voice, while it gave a welcome, unconsciously expressed regret at being disturbed:
"I am in!"
He lifted his heavy figure with instant courtesy—rather obsolete now—and bowing to one side, sat down again.
"So I see," he said, dipping his pen into his ink.
"Since you did not turn around, you would better have said 'So I hear.' It is three o'clock."
"So I hear."
"You said you would be ready."
"I am ready."
"You said you would be done."
"I am done—nearly done."
"By to-morrow—to-morrow afternoon before dark. I have reached the end, but now it is hard to stop, hard to let go."
His tone gave first place, primary consideration, to his work. The silence in the room suddenly became charged. When the voice was heard again, there was constraint in it:
"There is something to be done this afternoon before dark, something I have a share in. Having a share, I am interested. Being interested, I am prompt. Being prompt, I am here."
He waved his hand over the written sheets before him—those cold Alps of learning; and asked reproachfully:
"Are you not interested in all this, O you of little faith?"
"How can I say, O me of little knowledge!"
As the words impulsively escaped, he heard a quick movement behind him. He widened out his heavy arms upon his manuscript and looked back over his shoulder at her and laughed. And still smiling and holding his pen between his fingers, he turned and faced her. She had advanced into the middle of the room and had stopped at the chair on which he had thrown his overcoat and hat. She had picked up the hat and stood turning it and pushing its soft material back into shape for his head—without looking at him.
The northern light of the winter afternoon, entering through the looped crimson-damask curtains, fell sidewise upon the woman of the picture.
Years had passed since the picture had been made. There were changes in her; she looked younger. She had effaced the ravages of a sadder period of her life as human voyagers upon reaching quiet port repair the damages of wandering and storm. Even the look of motherhood, of the two motherhoods, which so characterized her in the photograph, had disappeared for the present. Seeing her now for the first time, one would have said that her whole mood and bearing made a single declaration: she was neither wife nor mother; she was a woman in love with life's youth—with youth—youth; in love with the things that youth alone could ever secure to her.
The carriage of her beautiful head, brave and buoyant, brought before you a vision of growing things in nature as they move towards their summer yet far away. There still was youth in the round white throat above the collar of green velvet—woodland green—darker than the green of the cloth she wore. You were glad she had chosen that color because she was going for a walk with him; and green would enchain the eye out on the sere ground and under the stripped trees. The flecklessness of her long gloves drew your thoughts to winter rather—to its one beauteous gift dropped from soiled clouds. A slender toque brought out the keenness in the oval of her face. From it rose one backward-sweeping feather of green shaded to coral at the tip; and there your fancy may have cared to see lingering the last radiance of whiter-sunset skies.
He kept his seat with his back to the manuscript from which he had repulsed her; and his eyes swept loyally over her as she waited. Though she could scarcely trust herself to speak, still less could she endure the silence. With her face turned toward the windows opening on the lawn, she stretched out her arm toward him and softly shook his hat at him.
"The sun sets—you remember how many minutes after four," she said, with no other tone than that of quiet warning. "I marked the minutes in the almanac for you the other night after the children had gone to bed, so that you would not forget. You know how short the twilights are even when the day is clear. It is cloudy to-day and there will not be any twilight. The children said they would not be at home until after dark, but they may come sooner; it may be a trick. They have threatened to catch us this year in one way or another, and you know they must not do that—not this year! There must be one more Christmas with all its old ways—even if it must be without its old mysteries."
He did not reply at once and then not relevantly:
"I heard you playing."
He had dropped his head forward and was scowling at her from under his brows with a big Beethoven brooding scowl. She did not see, for she held her face averted.
The silence in the room again seemed charged, and there was greater constraint in her voice when it was next heard:
"I had to play; you need not have listened."
"I had to listen; you played loud—"
"I did not know I was playing loud. I may have been trying to drown other sounds," she admitted.
"What other sounds?" His voice unexpectedly became inquisitorial: it was a frank thrust into the unknown.
"What discords?" His thrust became deeper.
She turned her head quickly and looked at him; a quiver passed across her lips and in her eyes there was noble anguish.
But nothing so arrests our speech when we are tempted to betray hidden trouble as to find ourselves face to face with a kind of burnished, radiant happiness. Sensitive eyes not more quickly close before a blaze of sunlight than the shadowy soul shuts her gates upon the advancing Figure of Joy.
It was the whole familiar picture of him now—triumphantly painted in the harmonies of life, masterfully toned to subdue its discords—that drove her back into herself. When she spoke next, she had regained the self-control which under his unexpected attack she had come near losing; and her words issued from behind the closed gates—as through a crevice of the closed gates:
"I was reading one of the new books that came the other day, the deep grave ones you sent for. It is written by a deep grave German, and it is worked out in the deep grave German way. The whole purpose of it is to show that any woman in the life of any man is merely—an Incident. She may be this to him, she may be that to him; for a briefer time, for a greater time; but all along and in the end, at bottom, she is to him—an Incident."
He did not take his eyes from hers and his smile slowly broadened.
"Were those the discords?" he asked gently.
She did not reply.
He turned in his chair and looking over his shoulder at her, he raised his arm and drew the point of his pen across the backs of a stack of magazines on top of his desk.
"Here is a work," he said, "not written by a German or by any other man, but by a woman whose race I do not know: here is a work the sole purpose of which is to prove that any man is merely an Incident in the life of any woman. He may be this to her, he may be that to her; for a briefer time, for a greater time; but all along and in the end, beneath everything else, he is to her—an Incident."
He turned and confronted her, not without a gleam of humor in his eyes.
"That did not trouble me," he said tenderly. "Those were not discords to me."
Her eyes rested on his face with inscrutable searching. She made no comment.
His own face grew grave. After a moment of debate with himself as to whether he should be forced to do a thing he would rather not do, he turned in his chair and laid down his pen as though separating himself from his work. Then he said, in a tone that ended playfulness:
"Do I not understand? Have I not understood all the time? For a year now I have been shutting myself up at spare hours in this room and at this work—without any explanation to you. Such a thing never occurred before in our lives. You have shared everything. I have relied upon you and I have needed you, and you have never failed me. And this apparently has been your reward—to be rudely shut out at last. Now you come in and I tell you that the work is done—quite finished—without a word to you about it. Do I not understand?" he repeated. "Have I not understood all along? It is true; outwardly as regards this work you have been—the Incident."
As he paused, she made a slight gesture with one hand as though she did not care for what he was saying and brushed away the fragile web of his words from before her eyes—eyes fixed on larger things lying clear before her in life's distance.
He went quickly on with deepening emphasis:
"But, comrade of all these years, battler with me for life's victories, did you think you were never to know? Did you believe I was never to explain? You had only one more day to wait! If patience, if faith, could only have lasted another twenty-four hours—until Christmas Eve!"
It was the first time for nearly a year that the sound of those words had been heard in that house. He bent earnestly over toward her; he leaned heavily forward with his hands on his knees and searched her features with loyal chiding.
"Has not Christmas Eve its mysteries?" he asked, "its secrets for you and me? Think of Christmas Eve for you and me! Remember!"
Slowly as in a windless woods on a winter day a smoke from a woodchopper's smouldering fire will wander off and wind itself about the hidden life-buds of a young tree, muffling it while the atmosphere near by is clear, there now floated into the room to her the tender haze of old pledges and vows and of things unutterably sacred.
He noted the effect of his words and did not wait. He turned to his desk and, gathering up the sprigs of holly and cedar, began softly to cover her picture with them.
"Stay blinded and bewildered there," he said, "until the hour comes when holly and cedar will speak: on Christmas Eve you will understand; you will then see whether in this work you have been—the Incident."
Even while they had been talking the light of the short winter afternoon had perceptibly waned in the room.
She glanced through the windows at the darkening lawn; her eyes were tear-dimmed; to her it looked darker than it was. She held his hat up between her arms, making an arch for him to come and stand under.
"It is getting late," she said in nearly the same tone of quiet warning with which she had spoken before. "There is no time to lose."
He sprang up, without glancing behind him at his desk with its interrupted work, and came over and placed himself under the arch of her arms, looking at her reverently.
But his hands did not take hold, his arms hung down at his sides—the hands that were life, the arms that were love.
She let her eyes wander over his clipped tawny hair and pass downward over his features to the well-remembered mouth under its mustache. Then, closing her quivering lips quickly, she dropped the cat softly on his head and walked toward the door. When she reached it, she put out one of her hands delicately against a panel and turned her profile over her shoulder to him:
"Do you know what is the trouble with both of those books?" she asked, with a struggling sweetness in her voice.
He had caught up his overcoat and as he put one arm through the sleeve with a vigorous thrust, he laughed out with his mouth behind the collar:
"I think I know what is the trouble with the authors of the books."
"The trouble is," she replied, "the trouble is that the authors are right and the books are right: men and women are only Incidents to each other in life," and she passed out into the hall.
"Human life itself for that matter is only an incident in the universe," he replied, "if we cared to look at it in that way; but we'd better not!"
He was standing near the table in the middle of the room; he suddenly stopped buttoning his overcoat. His eyes began to wander over the books, the prints, the pictures, embracing in a final survey everything that he had brought together from such distances of place and time. His work was in effect done. A sense of regret, a rush of loneliness, came over him as it comes upon all of us who reach the happy ending of toil that we have put our heart and strength in.
"Are you coming?" she called faintly from the hall.
"I am coming," he replied, and moved toward the door; but there he stopped again and looked back.
Once more there came into his face the devotion of the student; he was on the commons where the race encamps; he was brother to all brothers who join work to work for common good. He was feeling for the moment that through his hands ran the long rope of the world at which men—like a crew of sailors—tug at the Ship of Life, trying to tow her into some divine haven.
His task was ended. Would it be of service? Would it carry any message? Would it kindle in American homes some new light of truth, with the eyes of mothers and fathers fixed upon it, and innumerable children of the future the better for its shining?
"Are you coming?" she called more quiveringly.
"I am coming," he called back, breaking away from his revery, and raising his voice so it would surely reach her.
II. THE TREE AND THE SUNSET
She had quitted the house and, having taken a few steps across the short frozen grass of the yard as one walks lingeringly when expecting to be joined by a companion, she turned and stood with her eyes fixed on the doorway for his emerging figure.
"To-morrow night," he had said, smiling at her with one meaning in his words, "to-morrow night you will understand."
"Yes," she now said to herself, with another meaning in hers, "to-morrow night I must understand. Until to-morrow night, then, blinded and bewildered with holly and cedar let me be! Kind ignorance, enfold me and spare me! All happiness that I can control or conjecture, come to me and console me!"
And over herself she dropped a vesture of joy to greet him when he should step forth.
It was a pleasant afternoon to be out of doors and to go about what they had planned; the ground was scarcely frozen, there was no wind, and the whole sky was overcast with thin gray cloud that betrayed no movement. Under this still dome of silvery-violet light stretched the winter land; it seemed ready and waiting for its great festival.
The lawn sloped away from the house to a brook at the bottom, and beyond the brook the ground rose to a woodland hilltop. Across the distance you distinguished there the familiar trees of blue-grass pastures: white ash and black ash; white oak and red oak; white walnut and black walnut; and the scaly-bark hickory in his roughness and the sycamore with her soft leoparded limbs. The black walnut and the hickory brought to mind autumn days when children were abroad, ploughing the myriad leaves with booted feet and gathering their harvest of nuts—primitive food-storing instinct of the human animal still rampant in modern childhood: these nuts to be put away in garret and cellar and but scantily eaten until Christmas came.
Out of this woods on the afternoon air sounded the muffled strokes of an axe cutting down a black walnut partly dead; and when this fell, it would bring down with it bunches of mistletoe, those white pearls of the forest mounted on branching jade. To-morrow eager fingers would be gathering the mistletoe to decorate the house. Near by was a thicket of bramble and cane where, out of reach of cattle, bushes of holly thrived: the same fingers would be gathering that.
Bordering this woods on one side lay a cornfield. The corn had just been shucked, and beside each shock of fodder lay its heap of ears ready for the gathering wagon. The sight of the corn brought freshly to remembrance the red-ambered home-brew of the land which runs in a genial torrent through all days and nights of the year—many a full-throated rill—but never with so inundating a movement as at this season. And the same grain suggested also the smokehouses of all farms, in which larded porkers, fattened by it, had taken on posthumous honors as home-cured hams; and in which up under the black rafters home-made sausages were being smoked to their needed flavor over well-chosen chips.
Around one heap of ears a flock of home-grown turkeys, red-mottled, rainbow-necked, were feeding for their fate.
On the other side of the woods stretched a wheat-field, in the stubble of which coveys of bob-whites were giving themselves final plumpness for the table by picking up grains of wheat which had dropped into the drills at harvest time or other seeds which had ripened in the autumn aftermath.
Farther away on the landscape there was a hemp-field where hemp-breakers were making a rattling reedy music; during these weeks wagons loaded with the gold-bearing fibre begin to move creaking to the towns, helping to fill the farmer's pockets with holiday largess.
Thus everything needed for Christmas was there in sight: the mistletoe—the holly—the liquor of the land for the cups of hearty men—the hams and the sausages of fastidious housewives—the turkey and the quail—and crops transmutable into coin. They were in sight there—the fair maturings of the sun now ready to be turned into offerings to the dark solstice, the low activities of the soil uplifted to human joyance.
One last thing completed the picture of the scene.
The brook that wound across the lawn at its bottom was frozen to-day and lay like a band of jewelled samite trailed through the olive verdure. Along its margin evergreens grew. No pine nor spruce nor larch nor fir is native to these portions of the Shield; only the wild cedar, the shapeless and the shapely, belongs there. This assemblage of evergreens was not, then, one of the bounties of Nature; they had been planted.
It was the slender tapering spires of these evergreens with their note of deathless spring that mainly caught the eye on the whole landscape this dead winter day. Under the silvery-violet light of the sky they waited in beauty and in peace: the pale green of larch and spruce which seems always to go with the freshness of dripping Aprils; the dim blue-gray of pines which rather belongs to far-vaulted summer skies; and the dark green of firs—true comfortable winter coat when snows sift mournfully and icicles are spearing earthward.
These evergreens likewise had their Christmas meaning and finished the picture of the giving earth. Unlike the other things, they satisfied no appetite, they were ministers to no passions; but with them the Christmas of the intellect began: the human heart was to drape their boughs with its gentle poetry; and from their ever living spires the spiritual hope of humanity would take its flight toward the eternal.
Thus then the winter land waited for the oncoming of that strange travelling festival of the world which has roved into it and encamped gypsy-like from old lost countries: the festival that takes toll of field and wood, of hoof and wing, of cup and loaf; but that, best of all, wrings from the nature of man its reluctant tenderness for his fellows and builds out of his lonely doubts regarding this life his faith in a better one.
And central on this whole silent scene—the highest element in it—its one winter-red passion flower—the motionless woman waiting outside the house.
At last he came out upon the step.
He cast a quick glance toward the sky as though his first thought were of what the weather was going to be. Then as he buttoned the top button of his overcoat and pressed his bearded chin down over it to make it more comfortable under his short neck, with his other hand he gave a little pull at his hat—the romantic country hat; and he peeped out from under the rustic brim at her, smiling with old gayeties and old fondnesses. He bulked so rotund inside his overcoat and looked so short under the flat headgear that her first thought was how slight a disguise every year turned him into a good family Santa Claus; and she smiled back at him with the same gayeties and fondnesses of days gone by. But such a deeper pang pierced her that she turned away and walked hurriedly down the hill toward the evergreens.
He was quickly at her side. She could feel how animal youth in him released itself the moment he had come into the open air. There was brutal vitality in the way his shoes crushed the frozen ground; and as his overcoat sleeve rubbed against her arm, there was the same leaping out of life, like the rubbing of tinder against tinder. Halfway down the lawn he halted and laid his hand heavily on her wrist.
"Listen to that!" he said. His voice was eager, excited, like a boy's.
On the opposite side of the house, several hundred yards away, the country turnpike ran; and from this there now reached them the rumbling of many vehicles, hurrying in close procession out of the nearest town and moving toward smaller villages scattered over the country; to its hamlets and cross-roads and hundreds of homes richer or poorer—every vehicle Christmas-laden: sign and foretoken of the Southern Yule-tide. There were matters and usages in those American carriages and buggies and wagons and carts the history of which went back to the England of the Georges and the Stuarts and the Henrys; to the England of Elizabeth, to the England of Chaucer; back through robuster Saxon times to the gaunt England of Alfred, and on beyond this till they were lost under the forest glooms of Druidical Britain.
They stood looking into each other's eyes and gathering into their ears the festal uproar of the turnpike. How well they knew what it all meant—this far-flowing tide of bounteousness! How perfectly they saw the whole picture of the town out of which the vehicles had come: the atmosphere of it already darkened by the smoke of soft coal pouring from its chimneys, so that twilight in it had already begun to fall ahead of twilight out in the country, and lamp-posts to glimmer along the little streets, and shops to be illuminated to the delight of window-gazing, mystery-loving children—wild with their holiday excitements and secrecies. Somewhere in the throng their own two children were busy unless they had already started home.
For years he had held a professorship in the college in this town, driving in and out from his home; but with the close of this academic year he was to join the slender file of Southern men who have been called to Northern universities: this change would mean the end of life here. Both thought of this now—of the last Christmas in the house; and with the same impulse they turned their gaze back to it.
More than half a century ago the one starved genius of the Shield, a writer of songs, looked out upon the summer picture of this land, its meadows and ripening corn tops; and as one presses out the spirit of an entire vineyard when he bursts a solitary grape upon his tongue, he, the song writer, drained drop by drop the wine of that scene into the notes of a single melody. The nation now knows his song, the world knows it—the only music that has ever captured the joy and peace of American home life—embodying the very soul of it in the clear amber of sound.
This house was one of such homesteads as the genius sang of: a low, old-fashioned, brown-walled, gray-shingled house; with chimneys generous, with green window-shutters less than green and white window-sills less than white; with feudal vines giving to its walls their summery allegiance; not young, not old, but standing in the middle years of its strength and its honors; not needy, not wealthy, but answering Agar's prayer for neither poverty nor riches.
The two stood on the darkening lawn, looking back at it.
It had been the house of his fathers. He had brought her to it as his own on the afternoon of their wedding several miles away across the country. They had arrived at dark; and as she had sat beside him in the carriage, one of his arms around her and his other hand enfolding both of hers, she had first caught sight of it through the forest trees—waiting for her with its lights just lit, its warmth, its privacies: and that had been Christmas Eve!
For her wedding day had been Christmas Eve. When she had announced her choice of a day, they had chidden her. But with girlish wilfulness she had clung to it the more positively.
"It is the most beautiful night of the year!" she had replied, brushing their objection aside with that reason alone. "And it is the happiest! I will be married on that night, when I am happiest!"
Alone and thinking it over, she had uttered other words to herself—yet scarce uttered them, rather felt them:
"Of old it was written how on Christmas Night the Love that cannot fail us became human. My love for him, which is the divine thing in my life and which is never to fail him, shall become human to him on that night."
When the carriage had stopped at the front porch, he had led her into the house between the proud smiling servants of his establishment ranged at a respectful distance on each side; and without surrendering her even to her maid—a new spirit of silence on him—he had led her to her bedroom, to a place on the carpet under the chandelier.
Leaving her there, he had stepped backward and surveyed her waiting in her youth and loveliness—for him; come into his house, into his arms—his; no other's—never while life lasted to be another's even in thought or in desire.
Then as if the marriage ceremony of the afternoon in the presence of many had meant nothing and this were the first moment when he could gather her home to him, he had come forward and taken her in his arms and set upon her the kiss of his house and his ardor and his duty. As his warm breath broke close against her face, his lips under their mustache, almost boyish then, had thoughtlessly formed one little phrase—one little but most lasting and fateful phrase:
"Bride of the Mistletoe!"
Looking up with a smile, she saw that she stood under a bunch of mistletoe swung from the chandelier.
Straightway he had forgotten his own words, nor did he ever afterwards know that he had used them. But she, out of their very sacredness as the first words he had spoken to her in his home, had remembered them most clingingly. More than remembered them: she had set them to grow down into the fibres of her heart as the mistletoe roots itself upon the life-sap of the tree. And in all the later years they had been the green spot of verdure under life's dark skies—the undying bough into which the spirit of the whole tree retreats from the ice of the world:
"Bride of the Mistletoe!"
Through the first problem of learning to weld her nature to his wisely; through the perils of bearing children and the agony of seeing some of them pass away; through the ambition of having him rise in his profession and through the ideal of making his home an earthly paradise; through loneliness when he was away and joy whenever he came back,—upon her whole life had rested the wintry benediction of that mystical phrase:
"Bride of the Mistletoe!"
* * * * *
She turned away now, starting once more downward toward the evergreens. He was quickly at her side.
"What do you suppose Harold and Elizabeth are up to about this time?" he asked, with a good-humored jerk of his head toward the distant town.
"At least to something mischievous, whatever it is," she replied. "They begged to be allowed to stay until the shop windows were lighted; they have seen the shop windows two or three times already this week: there is no great marvel for them now in shop windows. Permission to stay late may be a blind to come home early. They are determined, from what I have overheard, to put an end this year to the parental house mysteries of Christmas. They are crossing the boundary between the first childhood and the second. But if it be possible, I wish everything to be kept once more just as it has always been; let it be so for my sake!"
"And I wish it for your sake," he replied heartily; "and for my purposes."
After a moment of silence he asked: "How large a Tree must it be this year?"
"It will have to be large," she replied; and she began to count those for whom the Tree this year was meant.
First she called the names of the two children they had lost. Gifts for these were every year hung on the boughs. She mentioned their names now, and then she continued counting:
"Harold and Elizabeth are four. You and I make six. After the family come Herbert and Elsie, your best friend the doctor's children. Then the servants—long strong bottom branches for the servants! Allow for the other children who are to make up the Christmas party: ten children have been invited, ten children have accepted, ten children will arrive. The ten will bring with them some unimportant parents; you can judge."
"That will do for size," he said, laughing. "Now the kind: spruce—larch—hemlock—pine—which shall it be?"
"It shall be none of them!" she answered, after a little waiting. "It shall be the Christmas Tree of the uttermost North where the reindeer are harnessed and the Great White Sleigh starts—fir. The old Christmas stories like fir best. Old faiths seem to lodge in it longest. And deepest mystery darkens the heart of it," she added.
"Fir it shall be!" he said. "Choose the tree."
"I have chosen."
She stopped and delicately touched his wrist with the finger tips of one white-gloved hand, bidding him stand beside her.
"That one," she said, pointing down.
The brook, watering the roots of the evergreens in summer gratefully, but now lying like a band of samite, jewel-crusted, made a loop near the middle point of the lawn, creating a tiny island; and on this island, aloof from its fellows and with space for the growth of its boughs, stood a perfect fir tree: strong-based, thick-set, tapering faultlessly, star-pointed, gathering more youth as it gathered more years—a tame dweller on the lawn but descended from forests blurred with wildness and lapped by low washings of the planet's primeval ocean.
At each Christmas for several years they had been tempted to cut this tree, but had spared it for its conspicuous beauty at the edge of the thicket.
"That one," she now said, pointing down. "This is the last time. Let us have the best of things while we may! Is it not always the perfect that is demanded for sacrifice?"
His glance had already gone forward eagerly to the tree, and he started toward it.
Descending, they stepped across the brook to the island and went up close to the fir. With a movement not unobserved by her he held out his hand and clasped three green fingers of a low bough which the fir seemed to stretch out to him recognizingly. (She had always realized the existence of some intimate bond between him and the forest.) His face now filled with meanings she did not share; the spell of the secret work had followed him out of the house down to the trees; incommunicable silence shut him in. A moment later his fingers parted with the green fingers of the fir and he moved away from her side, starting around the tree and studying it as though in delight of fresh knowledge. So she watched him pass around to the other side.
When he came back where he had started, she was not there. He looked around searchingly; her figure was nowhere in sight.
The valley had memories, what memories! The years came close together here; they clustered as thickly as the trees themselves. Vacant spots among them marked where the Christmas Trees of former years had been cut down. Some of the Trees had been for the two children they had lost. This wandering trail led hither and thither back to the first Tree for the first child: he had stooped down and cut that close to the ground with his mere penknife. When it had been lighted, it had held only two or three candles; and the candle on the top of it had flared level into the infant's hand-shaded eyes.
He knew that she was making through the evergreens a Pilgrimage of the Years, walking there softly and alone with the feet of life's Pities and a mother's Constancies.
He waited for her—motionless.
The stillness of the twilight rested on the valley now. Only from the trees came the plaintive twittering of birds which had come in from frozen weeds and fence-rows and at the thresholds of the boughs were calling to one another. It was not their song, but their speech; there was no love in it, but there was what for them perhaps corresponds to our sense of ties. It most resembled in human life the brief things that two people, having long lived together, utter to each other when together in a room they prepare for the night: there is no anticipation; it is a confession of the unconfessed. About him now sounded this low winter music from the far boundary of other lives.
He did not hear it.
The light on the landscape had changed. The sun was setting and a splendor began to spread along the sky and across the land. It laid a glory on the roof of the house on the hill; it smote the edge of the woodland pasture, burnishing with copper the gray domes; it shone faintly on distant corn shocks, on the weather-dark tents of the hemp at bivouac soldierly and grim. At his feet it sparkled in rose gleams on the samite of the brook and threw burning shafts into the gloom of the fir beside him.
He did not see it.
He did not hear the calling of the birds about his ears, he did not see the sunset before his eyes, he did not feel the fir tree the boughs of which stuck against his side.
He stood there as still as a rock—with his secret. Not the secret of the year's work, which was to be divulged to his wife and through her to the world; but the secret which for some years had been growing in his life and which would, he hoped, never grow into the open—to be seen of her and of all men.
The sentimental country hat now looked as though it might have been worn purposely to help out a disguise, as the more troubled man behind the scenes makes up to be the happier clown. It became an absurdity, a mockery, above his face grave, stern, set of jaw and eye. He was no longer the student buried among his books nor human brother to toiling brothers. He had not the slightest thought of service to mankind left in him, he was but a man himself with enough to think of in the battle between his own will and blood.
And behind him among the dark evergreens went on that Pilgrimage of the Years—with the feet of the Pities and the Constancies.
Moments passed; he did not stir. Then there was a slight noise on the other side of the tree, and his nature instantly stepped back into his outward place. He looked through the boughs. She had returned and was standing with her face also turned toward the sunset; it was very pale, very still.
Such darkness had settled on the valley now that the green she wore blent with the green of the fir. He saw only her white face and her white hands so close to the branches that they appeared to rest upon them, to grow out of them: he sadly thought of one of his prints of Egypt of old and of the Lady of the Sacred Tree. Her long backward-sweeping plume of green also blent with the green of the fir—shade to shade—and only the coral tip of it remained strongly visible. This matched the last coral in the sunset; and it seemed to rest ominously above her head as a finger-point of the fading light of Nature.
He went quickly around to her. He locked his arms around her and drew her close and held her close; and thus for a while the two stood, watching the flame on the altar of the world as it sank lower, leaving emptiness and ashes.
Once she put out a hand and with a gesture full of majesty and nobleness waved farewell to the dying fire.
Still without a word he took his arms from around her and turned energetically to the tree.
He pressed the lowest boughs aside and made his way in close to the trunk and struck it with a keen stroke.
The fir as he drew the axe out made at its gashed throat a sound like that of a butchered, blood-strangled creature trying to cry out too late against a treachery. A horror ran through the boughs; the thousands of leaves were jarred by the death-strokes; and the top of it rocked like a splendid plume too rudely treated in a storm. Then it fell over on its side, bridging blackly the white ice of the brook.
Stooping, he lifted it triumphantly. He set the butt-end on one of his shoulders and, stretching his arms up, grasped the trunk and held the tree straight in the air, so that it seemed to be growing out of his big shoulder as out of a ledge of rock. Then he turned to her and laughed out in his strength and youth. She laughed joyously back at him, glorying as he did.
With a robust re-shouldering of the tree to make it more comfortable to carry, he turned and started up the hill toward the house. As she followed behind, the old mystery of the woods seemed at last to have taken bodily possession of him. The fir was riding on his shoulder, its arms met fondly around his neck, its fingers were caressing his hair. And it whispered back jeeringly to her through the twilight:
"Say farewell to him! He was once yours; he is yours no longer. He dandles the child of the forest on his shoulder instead of his children by you in the house. He belongs to Nature; and as Nature calls, he will always follow—though it should lead over the precipice or into the flood. Once Nature called him to you: remember how he broke down barriers until he won you. Now he is yours no longer—say good-by to him!"
With an imbued terror and desolation, she caught up with him. By a movement so soft that he should not be aware, she plucked him by the coat sleeve on the other side from the fir and held on to him as he strode on in careless joy.
Halfway up the hill lights began to flash from the windows of the house: a servant was bringing in the lamps. It was at this hour, in just this way, that she had first caught sight of them on that Christmas Eve when he had brought her home after the wedding.
She hurried around in front of him, wishing to read the expression of his eyes by the distant gleams from the windows. Would they have nothing to say to her about those winter twilight lamps? Did he, too, not remember?
His head and face were hidden; a thousand small spears of Nature bristled between him and her; but he laughed out to her from behind the rampart of the green spears.
At that moment a low sound in the distance drew her attention, and instantly alert she paused to listen. Then, forgetting everything else, she called to him with a rush of laughter like that of her mischief-loving girlhood:
"Quick! There they are! I heard the gate shut at the turnpike! They must not catch us! Quick! Quick!"
"Hurry, then!" he cried, as he ran forward, joining his laughter to hers. "Open the door for me!"
After this the night fell fast. The only sounds to be heard in the valley were the minute readjustments of the ice of the brook as it froze tighter and the distressed cries of the birds that had roosted in the fir.
So the Tree entered the house.
III. THE LIGHTING OF THE CANDLES
During the night it turned bitter cold. When morning came the sky was a turquoise and the wind a gale. The sun seemed to give out light but not heat—to lavish its splendor but withhold its charity. Moist flesh if it chanced to touch iron froze to it momentarily. So in whiter land the tongue of the ermine freezes to the piece of greased metal used as a trap and is caught and held there until the trapper returns or until it starves—starves with food on its tongue.
The ground, wherever the stiff boots of a farmhand struck it, resisted as rock. In the fetlocks of farm horses, as they moved shivering, balls of ice rattled like shaken tacks. The little roughnesses of woodland paths snapped off beneath the slow-searching hoofs of fodder-seeking cattle like points of glass.
Within their wool the sheep were comforted.
On higher fields which had given back their moisture to the atmosphere and now were dry, the swooping wind lifted the dust at intervals and dragged it away in flaunting yellow veils. The picture it made, being so ill-seasoned, led you to think of August drought when the grasshopper stills itself in the weeds and the smell of grass is hot in the nostrils and every bird holds its beak open and its wings lifted like cooling lattices alongside its breast. In these veils of dust swarms of frost crystals sported—dead midgets of the dead North. Except crystal and dust and wind, naught moved out there; no field mouse, no hare nor lark nor little shielded dove. In the naked trees of the pasture the crow kept his beak as unseen as the owl's; about the cedars of the yard no scarlet feather warmed the day.
The house on the hill—one of the houses whose spirit had been blown into the amber of the poet's song—sent festal smoke out of its chimneys all day long. At intervals the radiant faces of children appeared at the windows, hanging wreaths of evergreens; or their figures flitted to and fro within as they wove garlands on the walls for the Christmas party. At intervals some servant with head and shoulders muffled in a bright-colored shawl darted trippingly from the house to the cabins in the yard and from the cabins back to the house—the tropical African's polar dance between fire and fire. By every sign it gave the house showed that it was marshalling its whole happiness.
One thing only seemed to make a signal of distress from afar. The oak tree beside the house, whose roots coiled warmly under the hearth-stones and whose boughs were outstretched across the roof, seemed to writhe and rock in its winter sleep with murmurings and tossings like a human dreamer trying to get rid of an unhappy dream. Imagination might have said that some darkest tragedy of forests long since gone still lived in this lone survivor—that it struggled to give up the grief and guilt of an ancient forest shame.
The weather moderated in the afternoon. A warm current swept across the upper atmosphere, developing everywhere behind it a cloud; and toward sundown out of this cloud down upon the Shield snow began to fall. Not the large wet flakes which sometimes descend too late in spring upon the buds of apple orchards; nor those mournfuller ones which drop too soon on dim wild violets in November woods, but winter snow, stern sculptor of Arctic solitudes.
* * * * *
It was Christmas Eve. It was snowing all over the Shield.
Softly the snow fell upon the year's footprints and pathways of children and upon schoolhouses now closed and riotously deserted. More softly upon too crowded asylums for them: houses of noonday darkness where eyes eagerly look out at the windows but do not see; houses of soundlessness where ears listen and do not hear any noise; houses of silence where lips try to speak but utter no word.
The snow of Christmas Eve was falling softly on the old: whose eyes are always seeing vanished faces, whose ears hear voices gentler than any the earth now knows, whose hands forever try to reach other hands vainly held out to them. Sad, sad to those who remember loved ones gone with their kindnesses the snow of Christmas Eve!
But sadder yet for those who live on together after kindnesses have ceased, or whose love went like a summer wind. Sad is Christmas Eve to them! Dark its snow and blinding!
* * * * *
It was late that night.
She came into the parlor, clasping the bowl of a shaded lamp—the only light in the room. Her face, always calm in life's wisdom, but agitated now by the tide of deep things coming swiftly in toward her, rested clear-cut upon the darkness.
She placed the lamp on a table near the door and seated herself beside it. But she pushed the lamp away unconsciously as though the light of the house were no longer her light; and she sat in the chair as though it were no longer her chair; and she looked about the room as though it were no longer hers nor the house itself nor anything else that she cared for most.
Earlier in the evening they had finished hanging the presents on the Tree; but then an interruption had followed: the children had broken profanely in upon them, rending the veil of the house mysteries; and for more than an hour the night had been given up to them. Now the children were asleep upstairs, already dreaming of Christmas Morn and the rush for the stockings. The servants had finished their work and were gone to their quarters out in the yard. The doors of the house were locked. There would be no more intrusion now, no possible interruption; all the years were to meet him and her—alone. For Life is the master dramatist: when its hidden tragedies are ready to utter themselves, everything superfluous quits the stage; it is the essential two who fill it! And how little the rest of the world ever hears of what takes place between the two!
A little while before he had left the room with the step-ladder; when he came back, he was to bring with him the manuscript—the silent snowfall of knowledge which had been deepening about him for a year. The time had already passed for him to return, but he did not come. Was there anything in the forecast of the night that made him falter? Was he shrinking—him shrink? She put away the thought as a strange outbreak of injustice.
How still it was outside the house with the snow falling! How still within! She began to hear the ticking of the tranquil old clock under the stairway out in the hall—always tranquil, always tranquil. And then she began to listen to the disordered strokes of her own heart—that red Clock in the body's Tower whose beats are sent outward along the streets and alleys of the blood; whose law it is to be alternately wound too fast by the fingers of Joy, too slow by the fingers of Sorrow; and whose fate, if it once run down, never afterwards either by Joy or Sorrow to be made to run again.
At last she could hear the distant door of his study open and close and his steps advance along the hall. With what a splendid swing and tramp he brought himself toward her!—with what self-unconsciousness and virile strength in his feet! His steps entered and crossed his bedroom, entered and crossed her bedroom; and then he stood there before her in the parlor doorway, a few yards off—stopped and regarded her intently, smiling.
In a moment she realized what had delayed him. When he had gone away with the step-ladder, he had on a well-worn suit in which, behind locked doors, he had been working all the afternoon at the decorations of the Tree. Now he came back ceremoniously dressed; the rest of the night was to be in her honor.
It had always been so on this anniversary of their bridal night. They had always dressed for it; the children now in their graves had been dressed for it; the children in bed upstairs were regularly dressed for it; the house was dressed for it; the servants were dressed for it; the whole life of that establishment had always been made to feel by honors and tendernesses and gayeties that this was the night on which he had married her and brought her home.
As her eyes swept over him she noted quite as never before how these anniversaries had not taken his youth away, but had added youth to him; he had grown like the evergreen in the middle of the room—with increase of trunk and limbs and with larger tides of strength surging through him toward the master sun. There were no ravages of married life in him. Time had merely made the tree more of a tree and made his youth more youth.
She took in momentary details of his appearance: a moisture like summer heat along the edge of his yellow hair, started by the bath into which he had plunged; the freshness of the enormous hands holding the manuscript; the muscle of the forearm bulging within the dress-coat sleeve. Many a time she had wondered how so perfect an animal as he had ever climbed to such an elevation of work; and then had wondered again whether any but such an animal ever in life does so climb—shouldering along with him the poise and breadth of health and causing the hot sun of the valley to shine on the mountain tops.
Finally she looked to see whether he, thus dressed in her honor, thus but the larger youth after all their years together, would return her greeting with a light in his eyes that had always made them so beautiful to her—a light burning as at a portal opening inward for her only.
His eyes rested on his manuscript.
He brought it wrapped and tied in the true holiday spirit—sprigs of cedar and holly caught in the ribands; and he now lifted and held it out to her as a jeweller might elevate a casket of gems. Then he stepped forward and put it on the table at her elbow.
"For you!" he said reverently, stepping back.
There had been years when, returning from a tramp across the country, he would bring her perhaps nothing but a marvellous thistle, or a brilliant autumn leaf for her throat.
"For you!" he would say; and then, before he could give it to her, he would throw it away and take her in his arms. Afterwards she would pick up the trifle and treasure it.
"For you!" he now said, offering her the treasure of his year's toil and stepping back.
So the weight of the gift fell on her heart like a stone. She did not look at it or touch it but glanced up at him. He raised his finger, signalling for silence; and going to the chimney corner, brought back a long taper and held it over the lamp until it ignited. Then with a look which invited her to follow, he walked to the Tree and began to light the candles.
He began at the lowest boughs and, passing around, touched them one by one. Around and around he went, and higher and higher twinkled the lights as they mounted the tapering sides of the fir. At the top he kindled one highest red star, shining down on everything below. Then he blew out the taper, turned out the lamp; and returning to the tree, set the heavy end of the taper on the floor and grasped it midway, as one might lightly hold a stout staff.
The room, lighted now by the common glow of the candles, revealed itself to be the parlor of the house elaborately decorated for the winter festival. Holly wreaths hung in the windows; the walls were garlanded; evergreen boughs were massed above the window cornices; on the white lace of window curtains many-colored autumn leaves, pressed and kept for this night, looked as though they had been blown there scatteringly by October winds. The air of the room was heavy with odors; there was summer warmth in it.
In the middle of the room stood the fir tree itself, with its top close to the ceiling and its boughs stretched toward the four walls of the room impartially—as symbolically to the four corners of the earth. It would be the only witness of all that was to take place between them: what better could there be than this messenger of silence and wild secrecy? From the mountains and valleys of the planet its race had looked out upon a million generations of men and women; and the calmness of its lot stretched across the turbulence of human passion as an ancient bridge spans a modern river.
At the apex of the Tree a star shone. Just beneath at the first forking of the boughs a candle burned. A little lower down a cross gleamed. Under the cross a white dove hung poised, its pinions outstretched as though descending out of the infinite upon some earthly object below. From many of the branches tiny bells swung. There were little horns and little trumpets. Other boughs sagged under the weight of silvery cornucopias. Native and tropical fruits were tied on here and there; and dolls were tied on also with cords around their necks, their feet dangling. There were smiling masks, like men beheaded and smiling in their death. Near the base of the Tree there was a drum. And all over the Tree from pinnacle to base glittered a tinsel like golden fleece—looking as the moss of old Southern trees seen at yellow sunset.
He stood for a while absorbed in contemplation of it. This year at his own request the decorations had been left wholly to him; now he seemed satisfied.
He turned to her eagerly.
"Do you remember what took place on Christmas Eve last year?" he asked, with a reminiscent smile. "You sat where you are sitting and I stood where I am standing. After I had finished lighting the Tree, do you remember what you said?"
After a moment she stirred and passed her fingers across her brows.
"Recall it to me," she answered. "I must have said many things. I did not know that I had said anything that would be remembered a year. Recall it to me."
"You looked at the Tree and said what a mystery it is. When and where did it begin, how and why?—this Tree that is now nourished in the affections of the human family round the world."
"Yes; I remember that."
"I resolved to find out for you. I determined to prepare during what hours I could spare from my regular college work the gratification of your wish for you as a gift from me. If I could myself find the way back through the labyrinth of ages, then I would return for you and lead you back through the story of the Christmas Tree as that story has never been seen by any one else. All this year's work, then, has been the threading of the labyrinth. Now Christmas Eve has come again, my work is finished, my gift to you is ready."
He made this announcement and stopped, leaving it to clear the air of mystery—the mystery of the secret work.
Then he resumed: "Have you, then, been the Incident in this toil as yesterday you intimated that you were? Do you now see that you have been the whole reason of it? You were excluded from any share in the work only because you could not help to prepare your own gift! That is all. What has looked like a secret in this house has been no secret. You are blinded and bewildered no longer; the hour has come when holly and cedar can speak for themselves."
Sunlight broke out all over his face.
She made no reply but said within herself:
"Ah, no! That is not the trouble. That has nothing to do with the trouble. The secret of the house is not a misunderstanding; it is life. It is not the doing of a year; it is the undoing of the years. It is not a gift to enrich me with new happiness; it is a lesson that leaves me poorer."
He went on without pausing:
"It is already late. The children interrupted us and took up part of your evening. But it is not too late for me to present to you some little part of your gift. I am going to arrange for you a short story out of the long one. The whole long story is there," he added, directing his eyes toward the manuscript at her elbow; and his voice showed how he felt a scholar's pride in it. "From you it can pass out to the world that celebrates Christmas and that often perhaps asks the same question: What is the history of the Christmas Tree? But now my story for you!"
"Wait a moment," she said, rising. She left the package where it was; and with feet that trembled against the soft carpet crossed the room and seated herself at one end of a deep sofa.
Gathering her dignity about her, she took there the posture of a listener—listening at her ease.
The sofa was of richly carved mahogany. Each end curved into a scroll like a landward wave of the sea. One of her foam-white arms rested on one of the scrolls. Her elbow, reaching beyond, touched a small table on which stood a vase of white frosted glass; over the rim of it profuse crimson carnations hung their heads. They were one of her favorite winter flowers, and he had had these sent out to her this afternoon from a hothouse of the distant town by a half-frozen messenger. Near her head curtains of crimson brocade swept down the wall to the floor from the golden-lustred window cornices. At her back were cushions of crimson silk. At the other end of the sofa her piano stood and on it lay the music she played of evenings to him, or played with thoughts of him when she was alone. And other music also which she many a time read; as Beethoven's Great Nine.
Now, along this wall of the parlor from window curtain to window curtain there stretched a festoon of evergreens and ribands put there by the children for their Christmas-Night party; and into this festoon they had fastened bunches of mistletoe, plucked from the walnut tree felled the day before—they knowing nothing, happy children!
There she reclined.
The lower outlines of her figure were lost in a rich blackness over which points of jet flashed like swarms of silvery fireflies in some too warm a night of the warm South. The blackness of her hair and the blackness of her brows contrasted with the whiteness of her bare arms and shoulders and faultless neck and faultless throat bared also. Not far away was hid the warm foam-white thigh, curved like Venus's of old out of the sea's inaccessible purity. About her wrists garlands of old family corals were clasped—the ocean's roses; and on her breast, between the night of her gown and the dawn of the flesh, coral buds flowered in beauty that could never be opened, never be rifled.
When she had crossed the room to the sofa, two aged house-dogs—setters with gentle eyes and gentle ears and gentle breeding—had followed her and lain down at her feet; and one with a thrust of his nose pushed her skirts back from the toe of her slipper and rested his chin on it.
"I will listen," she said, shrinking as yet from other speech. "I wish simply to listen. There will be time enough afterwards for what I have to say."
"Then I shall go straight through," he replied. "One minute now while I put together the story for you: it is hard to make a good short story out of so vast a one."
During these moments of waiting she saw a new picture of him. Under stress of suffering and excitement discoveries denied to calmer hours often arrive. It is as though consciousness receives a shock that causes it to yawn and open its abysses: at the bottom we see new things: sometimes creating new happiness; sometimes old happiness is taken away.
As he stood there—the man beside the Tree—into the picture entered three other men, looking down upon him from their portraits on the walls.
One portrait represented the first man of his family to scale the mountains of the Shield where its eastern rim is turned away from the reddening daybreak. Thence he had forced his way to its central portions where the skin of ever living verdure is drawn over the rocks: Anglo-Saxon, backwoodsman, borderer, great forest chief, hewing and fighting a path toward the sunset for Anglo-Saxon women and children. With his passion for the wilderness—its game, enemies, campfire and cabin, deep-lunged freedom. This ancestor had a lonely, stern, gaunt face, no modern expression in it whatsoever—the timeless face of the woods.
Near his portrait hung that of a second representative of the family. This man had looked out upon his vast parklike estates hi the central counties; and wherever his power had reached, he had used it on a great scale for the destruction of his forests. Woods-slayer, field-maker; working to bring in the period on the Shield when the hand of a man began to grasp the plough instead of the rifle, when the stallion had replaced the stag, and bellowing cattle wound fatly down into the pastures of the bison. This man had the face of his caste—the countenance of the Southern slave-holding feudal lord. Not the American face, but the Southern face of a definite era—less than national, less than modern; a face not looking far in any direction but at things close around.
From a third portrait the latest ancestor looked down. He with his contemporaries had finished the thinning of the central forest of the Shield, leaving the land as it is to-day, a rolling prairie with remnants of woodland like that crowning the hilltop near this house. This immediate forefather bore the countenance that began to develop in the Northerner and in the Southerner after the Civil War: not the Northern look nor the Southern look, but the American look—a new thing in the American face, indefinable but unmistakable.
These three men now focussed their attention upon him, the fourth of the line, standing beside the tree brought into the house. Each of them in his own way had wrought out a work for civilization, using the woods as an implement. In his own case, the woods around him having disappeared, the ancestral passion had made him a student of forestry.
The thesis upon which he took his degree was the relation of modern forestry to modern life. A few years later in an adjunct professorship his original researches in this field began to attract attention. These had to do with the South Appalachian forest in its relation to South Appalachian civilization and thus to that of the continent.
This work had brought its reward; he was now to be drawn away from his own college and country to a Northern university.
Curiously in him there had gone on a corresponding development of an ancestral face. As the look of the wilderness hunter had changed into that of the Southern slave-holding baron, as this had changed into the modern American face unlike any other; now finally in him the national American look had broadened into something more modern still—the look of mere humanity: he did not look like an American—he looked like a man in the service of mankind.
This, which it takes thus long to recapitulate, presented itself to her as one wide vision of the truth. It left a realization of how the past had swept him along with its current; and of how the future now caught him up and bore him on, part in its problems. The old passion living on in him—forest life; a new passion born in him—human life. And by inexorable logic these two now blending themselves to-night in a story of the Christmas Tree.
But womanlike she sought to pluck out of these forces something intensely personal to which she could cling; and she did it in this wise.
In the Spring following their marriage, often after supper they would go out on the lawn in the twilight, strolling among her flowers; she leading him this way and that way and laying upon him beautiful exactions and tyrannies: how he must do this and do that; and not do this and not do that; he receiving his orders like a grateful slave.
Then sometimes he would silently imprison her hand and lead her down the lawn and up the opposite hill to the edge of the early summer evening woods; and there on the roots of some old tree—the shadows of the forest behind them and the light of the western sky in their faces—they would stay until darkness fell, hiding their eyes from each other.
The burning horizon became a cathedral interior—the meeting of love's holiness and the Most High; the crescent dropped a silver veil upon the low green hills; wild violets were at their feet; the mosses and turf of the Shield under them. The warmth of his body was as the day's sunlight stored in the trunk of the tree; his hair was to her like its tawny bloom, native to the sun.
Life with him was enchanted madness.
He had begun. He stretched out his arm and slowly began to write on the air of the room. Sometimes in earlier years she had sat in his classroom when he was beginning a lecture; and it was thus, standing at the blackboard, that he sometimes put down the subject of his lecture for the students. Slowly now he shaped each letter and as he finished each word, he read it aloud to her:
"A STORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE, FOR JOSEPHINE, WIFE OF FREDERICK"
IV. THE WANDERING TALE
He uttered her name with beautiful reverence, letting the sound of it float over the Christmas Tree and die away on the garlanded walls of the room: it was his last tribute to her, a dedication.
Then he began:
"Josephine, sometimes while looking out of the study window a spring morning, I have watched you strolling among the flowers of the lawn. I have seen you linger near a honeysuckle in full bloom and question the blossoms in your questioning way—you who are always wishing to probe the heart of things, to drain out of them the red drop of their significance. But, gray-eyed querist of actuality, those fragrant trumpets could blow to your ear no message about their origin. It was where the filaments of the roots drank deepest from the mould of a dead past that you would have had to seek the true mouthpieces of their philosophy.