"But never again to you! Let the stillness of nature fall where there must be stillness! Peace come with its peace! And the room which heard our whisperings of the night, let it be the Room of the Silences—the Long Silences! Adieu, cross of living fire that I have so clung to!—Adieu!—Adieu!—Adieu!—Adieu!"_
She remained as motionless as though she had fallen asleep or would not lift her head until there had ebbed out of her life upon his pillow the last drop of things that must go.
She there—her whitening head buried on his pillow: it was Life's Calvary of the Snows.
The dawn found her sitting in the darkest corner of the room, and there it brightened about her desolately. The moment drew near when she must awaken him; the ordeal of their meeting must be over before the children rushed downstairs or the servants knocked.
She had plaited her hair in two heavy braids, and down each braid the gray told its story through the black. And she had brushed it frankly away from brow and temples so that the contour of her head—one of nature's noblest—was seen in its simplicity. It is thus that the women of her land sometimes prepare themselves at the ceremony of their baptism into a new life.
She had put on a plain night-dress, and her face and shoulders rising out of this had the austerity of marble—exempt not from ruin, but exempt from lesser mutation. She looked down at her wrists once and made a little instinctive movement with her fingers as if to hide them under the sleeves.
Then she approached the bed. As she did so, she turned back midway and quickly stretched her arms toward the wall as though to flee to it. Then she drew nearer, a new pitiful fear of him in her eyes—the look of the rejected.
So she stood an instant and then she reclined on the edge of the bed, resting on one elbow and looking down at him.
For years her first words to him on this day had been the world's best greeting:
"A Merry Christmas!"
She tried to summon the words to her lips and have them ready.
At the pressure of her body on the bed he opened his eyes and instantly looked to see what the whole truth was: how she had come out of it all, what their life was to be henceforth, what their future would be worth. But at the sight of her so changed—something so gone out of her forever—with a quick cry he reached his arms for her. She struggled to get away from him; but he, winding his arms shelteringly about the youth-shorn head, drew her face close down against his face. She caught at one of the braids of her hair and threw it across her eyes, and then silent convulsive sobs rent and tore her, tore her. The torrent of her tears raining down into his tears.
Tears not for Life's faults but for Life when there are no faults. They locked in each other's arms—trying to save each other on Nature's vast lonely, tossing, uncaring sea.
The rush of children's feet was heard in the hall and there was smothered laughter at the door and the soft turning of the knob.
It was Christmas Morning.
* * * * *
The sun rose golden and gathering up its gold threw it forward over the gladness of the Shield. The farmhouse—such as the poet had sung of when he could not help singing of American home life—looked out from under its winter roof with the cheeriness of a human traveller who laughs at the snow on his hat and shoulders. Smoke poured out of its chimneys, bespeaking brisk fires for festive purposes. The oak tree beside it stood quieted of its moaning and tossing. Soon after sunrise a soul of passion on scarlet wings, rising out of the snow-bowed shrubbery, flew up to a topmost twig of the oak; and sitting there with its breast to the gorgeous sun scanned for a little while that landscape of ice. It was beyond its intelligence to understand how nature could create it for Summer and then take Summer away. Its wisdom could only have ended in wonderment that a sun so true could shine on a world so false.
Frolicking servants fell to work, sweeping porches and shovelling paths. After breakfast a heavy-set, middle-aged man, his face red with fireside warmth and laughter, without hat or gloves or overcoat, rushed out of the front door pursued by a little soldier sternly booted and capped and gloved; and the two snowballed each other, going at it furiously. Watching them through a window a little girl, dancing a dreamy measure of her own, ever turned inward and beckoned to some one to come and look—beckoned in vain.
All day the little boy beat the drum of Confucius; all day the little girl played with the doll—hugged to her breast the symbol of ancient sacrifice, the emblem of the world's new mercy. Along the turnpike sleigh-bells were borne hither and thither by rushing horses; and the shouts of young men on fire to their marrow went echoing across the shining valleys.
Christmas Day! Christmas Day! Christmas Day!
One thing about the house stood in tragic aloofness from its surroundings; just outside the bedroom window grew a cedar, low, thick, covered with snow except where a bough had been broken off for decorating the house; here owing to the steepness the snow slid off. The spot looked like a wound in the side of the Divine purity, and across this open wound the tree had hung its rosary-beads never to be told by Sorrow's fingers.
The sunset golden and gathering up its last gold threw it backward across the sadness of the Shield. One by one the stars came back to their faithful places above the silence and the whiteness. A swinging lamp was lighted on the front porch and its rays fell on little round mats of snow stamped off by entering boot heels. On each gatepost a low Christmas star was set to guide and welcome good neighbors; and between those beacons soon they came hurrying, fathers and mothers and children assembling for the party.
Late into the night the party lasted.
The logs blazed in deep fireplaces and their Forest Memories went to ashes. Bodily comfort there was and good-will and good wishes and the robust sensible making the best of what is best on the surface of our life. And hale eating and drinking as old England itself once ate and drank at Yuletide. And fast music and dancing that ever wanted to go faster than the music.
The chief feature of the revelry was the distribution of gifts on the Christmas Tree—the handing over to this person and to that person of those unread lessons of the ages—little mummied packages of the lord of time. One thing no one noted. Fresh candles had replaced those burnt out on the Tree the night before: all the candles were white now.
Revellers! Revellers! A crowded canvas! A brilliantly painted scene! Controlling everything, controlling herself, the lady of the house: hunting out her guests with some grace that befitted each; laughing and talking with the doctor; secretly giving most attention to the doctor's wife—faded little sufferer; with strength in her to be the American wife and mother in the home of the poet's dream: the spiritual majesty of her bridal veil still about her amid life's snow as it never lifts itself from the face of the Jungfrau amid the sad most lovely mountains: the American wife and mother!—herself the Jungfrau among the world's women!
The last thing before the company broke up took place what often takes place there in happy gatherings: the singing of the song of the State which is also a song of the Nation—its melody of the unfallen home: with sadness enough in it, God knows, but with sanctity: she seated at the piano—the others upholding her like a living bulwark.
There was another company thronging the rooms that no one wot of: those Bodiless Ones that often are much more real than the embodied—the Guests of the Imagination.
The Memories were there, strolling back and forth through the chambers arm and arm with the Years: bestowing no cognizance upon that present scene nor aware that they were not alone. About the Christmas Tree the Wraiths of earlier children returned to gambol; and these knew naught of those later ones who had strangely come out of the unknown to fill their places. Around the walls stood other majestical Veiled Shapes that bent undivided attention upon the actual pageant: these were Life's Pities. Ever and anon they would lift their noble veils and look out upon that brief flicker of our mortal joy, and drop them and relapse into their compassionate vigil.
But of the Bodiless Ones there gathered a solitary young Shape filled the entire house with her presence. As the Memories walked through the rooms with the Years, they paused ever before her and mutely beckoned her to a place in their Sisterhood. The children who had wandered back peeped shyly at her but then with some sure instinct of recognition ran to her and threw down their gifts, to put their arms around her. And the Pities before they left the house that night walked past her one by one and each lifted its veil and dropped it more softly.
This was the Shape:
In the great bedroom on a spot of the carpet under the chandelier—which had no decoration whatsoever—stood an exquisite Spirit of Youth, more insubstantial than Spring morning mist, yet most alive; her lips scarce parted—her skin like white hawthorn shadowed by pink—in her eyes the modesty of withdrawal from Love—in her heart the surrender to it. During those distracting hours never did she move nor did her look once change: she waiting there—waiting for some one to come—waiting.