Lionel felt that when he spoke it would probably be after some old-century fashion which he could scarcely understand; but there he was mistaken, for when the stranger addressed him, it was in the most modern manner and with great kindliness.
"Well, my son," he said cheerily, "tired out? I saw you run. You have a fine pair of heels. They have good speed in them."
"I wanted to catch up with someone,—an old beggar-man who lost something in our area-way. I wanted to return it to him," explained Lionel, breathlessly.
The stranger gazed down at him more kindly than ever. "So? But one can't expect to catch up with folks when one gets winded and has to stop every now and then for breath. Better try my mode."
"Please, sir, what is your mode?" inquired Lionel, with his politest manner.
"To begin with," explained his companion, "I have to accomplish the most astonishing feats in the manner of speed. Literally I have to travel so fast that I am in two places at once. You will the better believe me when I tell you who I am,—Jack Frost, at your service, sir. Now, by what means do you think I manage it ?"
"I 'm sure I don't know. I should like immensely to find out," Lionel returned.
"How do you get to places yourself?" inquired Jack Frost. "Do you always run?"
"Oh, no, indeed. I almost always ride on my bicycle. Then I can go like anything, 'specially down coasts. Upgrades are kind of hard sometimes, but not so very. Oh, I can go quick enough when I have my bicycle."
"Now then," broke in Jack Frost, "you use a bicycle,—that is, a machine having two wheels. Now I use a something having but one wheel; consequently it goes twice as fast,—oh! much more than twice as fast."
"One wheel?" repeated Lionel, thoughtfully; "seems to me I never heard of that kind of an one."
"Suppose you guess," proposed Jack Frost. "I 'll put it in the form of a conundrum: If a thing having two wheels is called a bicycle, what would a thing having but one be called?"
"Oh, that's an old one. I 've heard that before, and the answer is, a wheelbarrow, you know."
Jack Frost shook his head, "I see I shall have to tell you," he said. "If a thing having two wheels is called a bicycle, a thing having but one would naturally be an icicle. Of course you might have known I should use an icicle."
"But oh, Mr. Frost," objected Lionel, "I never saw an icicle with a wheel in my life, and I never saw one go either."
"That's because you have n't seen me on one; and even if you had seen me on one, you wouldn't have known it,—we travel so fast. Did you ever notice that when things are going at the very rapidest rate possible, they seem to be standing perfectly still? That's the way with icicles. They have tremendous speed in them. They go so fast you can't realize it, and then when they are slowing up they don't do it with a clumsy jerk as bicycles do; they just gradually melt out of sight."
"Yes, I 've seen them do that. I 've seen them go that way," admitted Lionel. "But will you take me to the beggar? I'm 'fraid I sha'n't be able to give him his rule if I don't hurry up."
"But do you know in what direction he went?" asked Jack Frost. "If one wants to catch up with any one, one needs to have some idea of the direction he took. It's quite a desideratum,—when you get home, look that up."
Then Lionel felt deeply mortified. "What a silly I was!" he said. "Perhaps I was going just the opposite way from the one he went. Oh, dear! how can I ever give him back his rule? It is such a beauty. If it had been mine, I 'd just hate to lose it."
"Let us examine it," suggested Jack Frost, "and see if there is any sign upon it that would help to discover its owner;" and without a moment's doubt or hesitation Lionel drew it from his pocket and held it up for Jack Frost to see.
Then for a little space they both gazed at it carefully; Jack Frost bending down his tall head to get a nearer view of it, and Lionel standing upon the tips of his toes to accomplish the same purpose.
"Oh, see, see!" cried the boy, joyously. "It says, 'LIONEL,—HIS RULE FOR LIFE.' That means I can keep it for always, does n't it? Forever 'n' ever."
"It means," explained Jack Frosty gravely, "that you can keep it,—yes. But it means you are to measure your life with it. You are always to use it in everything you do. Then you 'll be true, and whatever you do will be straight and square."
"Why, that's what he said himself. He said I must always 'go square.' That was when he was giving me directions how to reach the beautiful place he came from. He called it an estate; and he said if I ever got there I 'd never want to come away. As long as I 'm on the way I guess I 'll try to find that place. Will you take me?"
"I 'm afraid," replied Jack Frost, with a very kindly seriousness,—"I 'm afraid one must depend on one's self in order to reach that place. But I 'll tell you what I will do; I 'll stay with you for a bit, and, perhaps, having company will hearten you, so if you happen to come across any specially bad places just at first, you won't be discouraged. And I want to tell you that if you are ever in doubt as to the way and no one is there to give you advice, just set yourself to work and use your rule and you 'll come out right. Now don't forget!" and with these words he vanished.
"Why, I thought he was going to stay with me," murmured Lionel, despondently. "He was so jolly, and I liked him so much. He said he wouldn't leave me just yet—"
"Nor have I," rejoined the hearty voice close by his ear. "But I can't neglect my business, you know; and at this moment I 'm here and 'way off in Alaska too. Stiff work, is n't it?"
But in spite of this Lionel heard him whistling cheerily beside him.
The boy trudged on, and every once in a while he and his invisible comrade would converse together in the most friendly manner possible, and Lionel did indeed feel encouraged by the knowledge of Jack Frost's companionship. But by and by, after quite a long time, Lionel noticed that when he addressed his unseen fellow-traveller the voice that came to him in reply seemed rather far away and distant, and later became lost to him altogether.
Then he knew that Jack Frost had left him for a season, and he felt quite lonely and deserted and was about to drop a tear or two of regret, when all at once, at his very feet, opened a new way which he had not noticed before. It looked bright and inviting, and wound along in the most picturesque fashion, instead of lying straight and level before him, as did the road from which it branched.
He was just about to turn down this fascinating side-path, and was in the very act of complaining about his loneliness and bemoaning it aloud, when he happened to notice that the sky looked a little overcast; the air had grown heavy and still, and a strange, sad hush brooded over everything; while the bare branches upon the trees appeared to droop, and the one or two birds that had perched upon them uttered low, plaintive little sounds that were disheartening to hear.
Lionel was struck with so great an awe that he entirely forgot himself and his sorrow; and in that one moment the skies seemed to brighten, the air to lighten, and the trees and birds had grown songful again.
"What does it mean?" he asked himself anxiously; and then, all at once, he bethought himself of Jack Frost's advice in case he ever was in doubt as to the course he was to take, and in a twinkling had whipped out his rule and was down on his knees applying it in good earnest. Then how glad he was that he had not turned into the inviting by-path, for his little rule showed how crooked and wrong it was,—whole yards and yards away from the right; and he knew he must have met with some mishap, or at the very least have wasted any amount of precious time trying to retrace his steps and regain the place upon which he now stood.
He was so relieved to think he had been saved from making such a sad mistake that he began to whistle merrily, and in an instant the whole world about him was bright of hue and joyous again, and looking, he saw, to his amazement, that the bare branches were abud.
"It's spring," he cried happily, and leaped along his way toward the right. In a flash the tempting little by-path had curled up like a scroll and disappeared from view; and then Lionel knew that it had not been real at all, but only imaginary, and he was more grateful than ever that he had not followed its lead.
"Now, you good little rule," said he, addressing the shining object in his hand, "I 'll put you in my breast-pocket and keep you safe and warm next to my heart. Then you 'll be ready if I want you again." And he was just about to thrust it in his bosom, when his eyes were caught by something unusual upon its surface, and on examining it very closely he saw, in exquisitely chased characters, the words,—
Nor sigh nor weep o'er thine own ills; Such plaining earth with mourning fills. Forget thyself, and thou shalt see Thyself remembered blessedly.
For some time after he had read the lines he was plunged in thought. They seemed to teach him a lesson that it took him some little time to learn.
"I don't know why it should make the world sad if one complains," he mused. "But I s'pose it does. I s'pose one has n't any right to make things unpleasant for other people by crying about things. One ought to be brave and not bother folks with one's troubles. Well, I 'll try not to do so any more, because if it's going to make things so unpleasant it can't be right."
And this last word seemed to link in his mind his escape from the complaint of his loneliness and the by-path down which he did not turn; and he was so long trying to unravel the mystery of the connection that before he knew it he had almost stumbled into quite a bog, and there, in front of him, sat a wee child,—just where two roads met,—and he had well-nigh run over her in his carelessness.
"Oh, bother!" said he,—for he was irritated at the thought of having only so narrowly escaped doing himself serious damage,—"what do you get in a fellow's way for? You—" But the poor little mite gazed up at him so sadly, and wept so piteously at his hasty words that he paused suddenly and did not go on.
He looked down the two paths. The one was wide and curving, the other narrow and straight; the one was bordered with rich foliage, the other was bare and sandy. He might have run lightly along the one, he would have to toil wearisomely along the other. What wonder that his foot was turning in the direction of the first! But a queer pricking in his bosom and the child's cry stopped him.
He slowly drew forth his rule and began to measure, while the little one sobbed,—
"I 'm so told I tan't walt any more. My foots are all tired out, and I want sumpin to eat;" and there he found himself just on the verge of making a fearful blunder. He got up from his knees and turning to the tiny maid, said kindly,—
"There, there! don't cry, dear! We 'll fix you all right;" and he stripped off his jacket and wrapped it about her, taking her in his arms, and trudging on with his burden along the more difficult way. But it was the right one, and he knew it; and so his heart was light, and he did not have time to think of his own weariness; for all the time he was trying to comfort his forlorn little companion. And so well he succeeded that in no time at all she was asleep on his shoulder. Then he sat down by the roadside, and holding her still in his arms, began to think.
"There I was a little while ago complaining—no, not quite complaining, but almost—because I hadn't anybody to keep me company. Now I 've got somebody with a vengeance. She's awful heavy. But, oh, dear! what a narrow escape I had! I might have run into that bog, and that would have been a 'pretty how d 'ye do,' as Sarah says. I was so busy thinking I forgot everything, and ran almost over little Sissy; and that shows, I s'pose, how without meaning it one can hurt somebody if one does n't look out."
And then, very carefully, so as not to wake his sleeping charge, he slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out his rule again.
"What a good friend you are!" he said to it. "I really think you 're better than any sword or poniard a body could have. You 've saved me from danger twice now, and—" But here he stared at it in dumb surprise, for even as he looked he saw appear upon its polished surface the words,—
Deep is the bog in which they sink Who ne'er on others' sorrow think; Deeper the joy in which they rest Who 've served the weary and distressed.
And, sure enough, he felt so happy he could have sung aloud in spite of his weariness and fatigue.
But I could not begin to tell you of all his experiences, nor how unfailingly his little rule helped him to meet them successfully.
He thought a great deal about it and its magical power; but once or twice he did get to wondering why it should point to the straight path when the winding one was so much the prettier to see.
"Are the right ways always the ones we should n't take if we had our own way?" he thought. "Why is it that the right one always seems not so pretty as the other? Seems to me some one told me once that the curved lines were 'the lines of beauty.'" But before he had time fairly to consider the subject, his rule, which he happened to be holding in his hand, showed him this little verse,—
"Straight is the line of duty, Curved is the line of beauty; Follow th' one and thou shalt see The other ever following thee."
And this was always the way. Whenever Lionel was puzzled about anything, his rule always made it clear to him. And by and by, after he had met with all sorts of adventures, he began to wonder whether he was ever going to see the beggar again or reach his wonderful estate.
It was on a very beautiful day that he wondered this, and he was more than a little happy because he had just been applying his rule to unusually good effect, when, lo! there beside him stood the subject of his thoughts. But oh! how changed he was!
Every rag upon him glowed and shimmered with a wondrous lustre, and the staff he carried blazed with light, while the basket upon his arm overflowed with the most beautiful blessings.
"I thought," said the new-comer, "that I might risk giving you this encouragement. It will not make you content to go no farther on now. It will make you long to strive for greater good ahead. You will not reach it until you have travelled a lifetime; but you will not despair, for you are being so blessed. I have been permitted to give you a great gift. It is for that I was begging you that day. See, what a privilege it is to be able to beg so—"
"Oh, yes," cried Lionel; "you were going to beg me to accept the little rule, were n't you? And you left it for me when you disappeared, and it is a beauty, and it is gold, and it does strange, wonderful things for me, and—and—" In his enthusiasm he drew it from his breast and held it up, when, lo! it curved about his hand until it formed a perfect, beautiful circle. From its shining rim shot up points of radiance, and it was no more a simple little rule, but a golden crown fit for a king to wear.
Lionel gazed at it in mute wonderment, and the beggar put out his hand and touched it lovingly.
"When your journey is done you shall wear it, lad," he said; and then Lionel closed his eyes for very ecstasy, and then—
But when extraordinary things are just on the point of getting too extraordinary, they are sure to meet with some sort of an interruption, and after that they are quite ordinary and every-day again. So when Lionel opened his eyes there he was curled up in the chair by the drawing-room window, and it had grown very dark and must have been late, for one of the maids was tripping softly about the room, lighting the lamps and singing as she did it.
MARIE AND THE MEADOW-BROOK.
A little maid sat sadly weeping while the sunbeams played merrily at hide-and-seek with the shadows that the great oak branches cast on the ground; while the warm summer wind sang softly to itself as it passed, and the blue sky had not even a white cloud with which to hide the sad sight from its eyes.
"Why do you weep?" asked the oak-tree; but Marie did not hear it, and her tears tell faster than ever.
"Why are you so sad?" questioned the sunbeams; and they came to her gently and tried to peep into her eyes.
But she only got up and sat farther away in the shadow, and they could do nothing to comfort her. So they danced awhile on the door-step; and then the sun called them away, for it was growing late.
And still the little maid sat weeping; and if she had not fallen asleep from very weariness, who knows what the sad consequences might not have been?
"How warm it is!" murmured the dandelions in the meadow. "Our heads are quite heavy, and our feet are hot. If it was not our duty to stand up, we would like nothing better than to sink down in the shade and go to sleep; but we must attend to our task and keep awake."
"What can you have, you wee things, to keep you busy?" asked the tall milkweed that grew near the fence-rails; and the mullein-stalk beside it echoed,—
"Now, one can understand one so tall as I having to stand upright and do my duty; but you,—why, you are no taller than one of my green pods that I am filling with floss—"
"And not half so tall as one of my leaves that I must line with velvet," interrupted the mullein-stalk again.
The dandelions looked grieved for a moment, but answered brightly: "Why, don't you know? It must be because you live so far away—there by the fence—that you don't know we are here to pin the grass down until it grows old enough to know it must not wander off like the crickets, or to blow away like the floss in your own pods. Young grass is very foolish,—I think I heard the farmer call it green the other day, but we don't like the expression ourselves,—and it would be apt to do flighty things if we did n't pin it down where it belongs. When we have taught it its lesson, we can go to sleep. We always stay until the last minute, and then we slip on our white nightcaps,—so fluffy and light and soft they are,—and lo! some day we are gone, no one knows where but the wind; and he carries us off in his arms, for we are too tired to walk; and then we rest until the next year, when we are bright and early at our task again."
Then the milkweed and the mullein-stalk bowed very gravely and respectfully to the little dandelions, and said,—
"Yes, we see. Even such wee things as you have your duties, and we are sorry you are so weary."
So the milkweed whispered to the breeze that the dandelions were too warm, and begged it to help them; but the breeze murmured very gently,—
"I don't know what is the matter with me, dear milkweed, but I am so faint, so faint, I think I shall die."
And sure enough, the next day the little breeze had died, and then they knew how they missed him, even though he had been so weak for the last few days; for the sun glared down fiercely, and the meadow thought it was angry, and was so frightened it grew feverish and parched with very dread.
"We wish our parasols were larger," sighed the toadstools; "but they are so small that, try as we may, we cannot get them to cast a large shadow, and now the breeze has died we have no messenger. If only one knew how to get word to the clouds!"
But the clouds had done such steady duty through the spring that they thought they were entitled to a holiday, and had gone to the mountain-tops, where they were resting calmly, feeling very grand among such an assembly of crowned heads.
Meanwhile the meadow grew browner and browner, and its pretty dress was being scorched so that by and by no one would have recognized it for the gay thing it had been a week ago. And still the sun glared angrily down, and the little breeze was dead.
Then the grasses laid down their tiny spears, and the dandelions bent their heads, and the locusts and the crickets and the grasshoppers called feebly,—
"Oh, little brook, cannot you get out of your bed and come this way?"
"Our hearts are broken," cried the daisies.
"We shall die," wailed the ragged-sailors. Then they all waited for the brook to reply; but she was silent, and call as they would they could get no answer.
"Hush!" whispered the springs. "Her bed is empty. Have n't you noticed how little she sang lately? The weeds must have fallen asleep and she has run away. You know they always hindered her."
They did not tell that they were too weak to feed the brook; so it had dried away. And still the sun glared down, and the little breeze was dead, and the brook had disappeared; while there on the door-step sat Marie weeping big tears,—for the little maid was always sad, and come when you would, there was Marie with her dark eyes filled and brimming over with the shining drops.
The beeches beckoned her from the garden; she saw them do it. Their long branches waved to her to come, like inviting arms; and still weeping, she stole quietly away.
"Come," whispered the gnarled apple-trees down in the orchard; and she threaded her way sadly among the trunks, while her tears fell splash, splash, on her white pinafore.
"Here!" gasped the meadow-grass; and she followed on, sobbing softly to herself, as she sat down where, days ago, the brook had merrily sung.
"Why do you grieve?" asked the pebbles; and she heard them and answered,—
"Because I am so sad. Things are never as I want them, and so I cry. I am made to obey, and then, when the stars come out and I wish to stay up, I am sent to bed; and the next morning, when I am so sleepy I can hardly open my eyes, I am made to get up. Oh, this is a very sad world!" And she wept afresh.
Then the flowers and the grasses and the pebbles, seeing her tears, all said at once: "Would you like to stay here with us? Then you could stay awake all night and gaze at the stars, and in the morning you need not get up. You may lie in the brook's empty bed, and you need never obey your parents any more."
Marie was silent a moment, and then a hundred small voices said, "Do, oh, do!" And her tears fell faster and more fast, and larger and larger, for she felt more abused than ever now the meadow had shown her sympathy, as she thought. She kept dropping tears so quickly that by and by even her sobbing could scarcely be heard for the splash, splash, of the many drops that were falling on the white pebbles in the brook's bed.
How they fell! The brown eyes grew dim, and Marie could not see. She felt tiny hands pulling her down—down; and in a moment she had ceased to be a little girl and had become a brook, while her weeping was the murmur of little waves as they plashed against the stones.
Yes, it was true!
She need never go to sleep when the stars came out; she need never get out of her bed in the morning,—how could she when the strong weeds hindered her,—and how could a brook obey when people spoke?
And meanwhile the meadow grew gay again, for the brook cooled its fever; and by and by the dandelions tied on their large, fluffy nightcaps and disappeared, and the sun ceased to glare—for Marie was gone from the door-step with her weeping, and he need not look down on the ungrateful little maid who ought to have been so happy. The clouds came back; and when they heard how the meadow had suffered they wept for sympathy, and the underground springs grew strong, until one day there was a great commotion in the meadow.
A little bird had told the whole story of Marie's woe to the breeze, and he rose and sighed aloud; the trees tossed their arms about, because it was so wicked in a little girl to be ungrateful. The crickets said, "Tut, tut!" in a very snappy way; and at last the great wind rose, and whipped the poor brook until it grew quite white with foam and fear.
Then Marie knew how naughty she had been, and she made no complaint at her punishment. In fact, she bore it so meekly that after the wind had quieted down and the stormy flurry was over, she began to sing her quiet little song again, although she was very tired of it by this time, and was so meek and patient that all the meadow whispered:
"Good little thing now,—good little thing!" and then they told her how everything in the world, no matter how small it is, has a duty to perform, and should do its task cheerfully and gladly, and not weep and complain when it thinks matters are not going in the right way, but try to keep on with its task and relief will come.
Marie listened like an obedient little brook as she was, and was just going to float another merry little bubble to the little reeds below when she heard a voice say, "Give me my bed; I want it," and lo! there was the real brook come back. She pushed Marie aside and hurt her, though she seemed so gentle.
Marie tried to rise, but it was difficult; her limbs were stiff lying all this time in the meadow, her eyes were weary gazing at the sky, and her voice hoarse with the song she had been forced to sing.
She tried again, and this time she succeeded; and behold! there she was on the door-step, and the sun was going down.
NINA'S CHRISTMAS GIFTS.
Hark! What was that?
Nina stood still in the wintry blast and listened. The wind rushed upon her wildly, and dragged her tattered skirt this way and that, and fleered at her, and whistled at her; and when she paid not the slightest attention to his cruel treatment of her, fled tumultuously down the street.
It was a wretched, shivering little figure that he left behind him,—a small girl, with coal-black hair escaping from the folds of a bright kerchief that was tied about it; with immense dark eyes, that seemed to light up her poor, pinched face and make it beautiful; with tattered dress and torn shoes, and with something clutched tightly beneath her arm,—something that she tried unsuccessfully to shield from the weather beneath her wretched rag of a shawl, that was so insufficient to shield even her. She was listening intently to the sounds of an organ that came pealing forth into the dusk from within the enormous church before whose doors she was standing.
Louder, fuller swelled the majestic cords, and then—Nina strained her ears to listen—and then the sweetest, tenderest voice imaginable seemed to be singing to her of all the most beautiful things of which she had ever dreamed. It drew her toward it by the influence of its plaintiveness; and first one step and then another she took in its direction until she was within the huge doors, and found herself standing upon a white marble floor, with wonderful paintings on the lofty ceiling above her head, and a sense of delicious warmth all about her. But, alas! where was the singer? The thrilling notes were still falling upon her ear with caressing sweetness; but they seemed to come from beyond,—from far beyond.
Before her she saw more doors. Perhaps if she slipped through these she might come in sight of the owner of the voice.
"It is the Santa Maria," murmured Nina to her heart. "And she is singing to the Bambinetto,—to the Santissimo Bambino. Ah, yes, it must be the Santa Maria, for who else could have a voice like that,—so sweet and soft, yet so heavenly clear and pure?"
No one she had ever heard could sing like that. Not Luisa who sang for pennies on the street, nor Guilia, nor Edwiga, nor yet Filomena herself, who was so proud of her voice and who carolled lustily all day long. No, no, it must be the Santa Maria.
Telemacho (Telemacho was a neighbor who played upon the harp and sometimes let Nina go with him on his tramps, to sing and play upon her fiddle, but oftener forced her to go alone,—they earned more so, he said) had often told her about the Santa Maria and the Gesu Bambino. Oh, it was a beautiful story, and—ah! ah! of course it was the Santa Maria. Was not this the Festa del Gesu Bambino? To be sure, it was, and she had forgotten. No wonder the Santa Maria was singing to the Bambinetto. To-morrow would be his birthday, his festa.
She would go to the blessed Madre and say,—
"Ah, Madre mia, I heard thee singing to the Bambino, and it was so sweet, so sweet, I could not help but follow, I love it so."
She stepped softly to the heavy doors, and with her whole weight bracing against one, pushed it softly open and passed through. Ah! but it was beautiful here.
Far, far above her head shone out dimly a hundred sparks of light like twinkling stars. And everywhere hung garlands of green, sweet-smelling garlands of green, that filled the place with their spicy fragrance. And no one need grow weary here for lack of resting-place. Why, it was quite filled with seats, soft-cushioned and comfortable. Nina stole into one of the pews and sat down. She was very tired,—very, very tired.
From her dim corner she peeped forth timidly, scarcely daring to raise her eyes lest the vision of the radiant Madonna should burst upon her view all too suddenly. But when at last she really gazed aloft to the point from which the tremulous voice sprung, no glorified figure met her view. She still heard the melting, thrilling tones, but, alas! the blessed singer—the Santa Maria—was invisible. All she could distinguish in the half-gloom of the place was the form of a man seated in the lofty gallery overhead. He was sitting before some kind of instrument, and his fingers slipping over the keys were bringing forth the most wonderful sounds. Ah, yes! Nina knew what music one could make with one's fingers. Did not Telemacho play upon the harp? Did not she herself accompany her own singing upon her fiddle,—her darling fiddle, which she clasped lovingly beneath her arm and bravely tried to shield from the weather? But surely, surely he could not be playing that voice! Oh, no! it was the Santa Maria, and she was up in heaven out of sight. It was only the sound of her singing that had come to earth. Poor little Nina! She was so often disappointed that it was not very hard to miss another joy. She must comfort herself by finding a reason for it. If there was a reason, it was not so hard. Nina had to think of a great many reasons. But nevertheless she could not control one little sigh of regret. She would so much have liked to see the Santa Maria. If she had seen her, she thought she would have asked her to give her a Christmas gift,—something she could always keep, something that no one could take from her and that would never spoil nor break. One had need of just such an indestructible possession if one lived in the "Italian Quarter." Things got sadly broken there. And—and—there were so few, so very few gifts. But it was warm and dim and sweet in here,—a right good place in which to rest when one was tired. She bent her head and leaned it against the wooden back of the seat, and her eyes wandered first to one interesting object and then to another,—to the tall windows, each of which was a most beautiful picture, and all made of wonderfully colored glass; to the frescoed walls garlanded with green and at last to the organ-loft itself, in which was the solitary figure of the musician, seated before that strange, many-keyed instrument of his, practising his Christmas music.
He had lit the gas-jets at either side of the key-board, and they threw quite a light upon him as he played, and upon the huge organ-pipes above his head. Nina thought she had never seen anything as beautiful as were their illuminated surfaces. She did not know what they were, but that did not matter. She thought they looked very much like exceedingly pointed slippers set upright upon their toes. She fancied they were slippers belonging to the glorious angels who, Telemacho said, always came to earth at Christmas-tide to sing heavenly anthems for the Festa del Gesu Bambino, and to distribute blessings to those who were worthy.
Perhaps they had trod upon the ice outside, and had wet the soles of their slippers, so that they had been forced to set them up on end to dry. She had no doubt they would be gone in the morning.
The tremulous voice had ceased some time ago, and now the organ was sending forth deep, heavy chords that made the air thrill and vibrate. The pew in which Nina sat quite shook with the sounds, and she shrank away from the wooden back, and cuddled down upon the cushion in the seat, feeling very mysterious and awestruck, but withal quite warm and happily expectant.
"Ah, ah!" she thought, "they are coming,—the angels are coming. That is why the seat trembles so. There are so many of them that though they step very lightly it shakes the ground. He, up there, is playing their march music for them. Oh, I know! I know! I have seen the soldiers in the streets; and when they came one could feel the ground tremble, and they had music, too,—they kept step to it. I 'll lie very still and not move, and maybe I can even get a glimpse of the Gesu Bambino himself, and if I should—ah! if I should, then I know I 'd never be tired nor cold nor sad-hearted any more."
Nina started suddenly to her feet. The place was filled with a soft, white radiance. Faintly, as though from a distance, came the sounds of delicious music, and a rare fragrance was in all the air. What was it? Oh, what was it? She felt her heart beat louder and faster, and she thought she must cry out for very pain of its throbbing. But she made no sound, only waited and watched in breathless wonder and anticipation.
The light about her grew clearer and more lustrous; the faint strains of melody more glorious, and the perfumed air sweeter still; and lo! the whole place was thronged with white-winged spirits, clad all in garments so pure and spotless that they glistered at every turn. Each seemed to have in charge some precious treasure which she clasped lovingly to her breast, and all were so beautiful and tender-eyed that Nina could not be afraid. The dazzling forms flitted to and fro like filmy clouds; and as one passed very near her, Nina stretched out her hand to grasp her floating robe. But though she scarcely touched it, it was enough to make the delicate fabric sag and droop as if some strange weight had suddenly been attached to it. Its wearer paused in her flight, and glanced down at her garment anxiously, and then for an instant appeared to be trying to remember something. In her eyes there grew a troubled look, but she shook her head and murmured,—
"Alas! What have I done? What can I have done? I can think of no way in which I have let the world touch me, and yet I must have, for my robe is weighted, and—" But here she suddenly espied Nina.
"Ah!" she cried, her deep eyes clearing, "it was you, then, little mortal. For a moment I was struck with fear. You see if a bit of the world attaches to our garments it makes them heavy and weighs them down, and it is a long time ere they regain their lightness. Such a mishap seldom occurs, for generally we are only too glad to keep our minds on perfect things. But once in a long, long while we may give a thought to earth, and then it always hangs upon us like a clog; and if we did not immediately try to shake it off, we should soon be quite unable to rid ourselves of it, and it would grow and grow, and by and by we should have lost the power to rise above the earth, and should have to be poor worldlings like the rest; and, on the other hand, if the worldlings would only throw off all the earth-thoughts that weigh them down, they would become lighter and more spotless, and at last be one of us. But if it was you who touched my robe and if I can help you, I am not afraid. What do you wish, little one?"
For a moment Nina could find no voice in which to reply; but by and by she gained courage to falter out,—
"I came in here because I heard most beautiful music, and I thought it might be the Santa Maria singing to the Bambinetto, since it is his birthday—or will be to-morrow; and I thought—I did not mean to do wrong, but I thought maybe if I could see the Gesu Santissimo once, only once, I should never be tired nor cold nor sad-hearted any more. They say on the Festa del Gesu Bambino one gets most beautiful gifts. I have never got any gifts; but perhaps he might give me one if I promised to be very good and to take most excellent care of it and never to lose it."
By this time the whole company of spirits, seeing their sister in conversation with a little mortal, had crowded eagerly about; and as Nina finished her sentence they all cried out in the sweetest, most musical chorus imaginable,—
"She wants a gift,—the earth-child wants a gift; and she promises to be very good, and to take excellent care of it and never lose it. The little one shall have a gift."
But most gently they were silenced by a nod from the spirit to whom Nina had first spoken.
"Dear child," she said, "we are the Christmas spirits,—Peace, Love, Hope, Good-will, and all the rest. We come from above, and we are laden with good gifts for mankind. To whomever is willing to receive we give; but, alas! so few care for what we bring. They misuse it or lose it; and that makes us very sad, for each gift we carry is most good and perfect."
"Oh! how can they?" cried Nina. "I would be so careful of mine, dear spirits. I would lock it away, and—"
But here the spirit interrupted her with a pitying smile and the words,—
"But you should never do that, dear one. If one shuts away one's gifts and does not let others profit by them, that is ill too. One must make the best of them, share them with the world always, and remember whence they come."
"Will you show me some of your gifts?" asked Nina, timidly.
The spirit drew nearer and took from her bosom a glittering gem. It was clear and flawless, and though it was white a thousand sparks of flame broke from its heart, and flashed their different hues to every side. As Nina looked, wrapped in admiration, she felt her heart grow big, and she felt a great longing to do some one a kindness,—to do good to some one, no matter to whom.
The spirits gazed at her kindling eyes.
"There!" they cried in joyous unison, "Love has already given you her gift. The way you must use it is always to put in everything you do. It will never grow less, but will always grow more if you do as we say. And it is the same with Hope and Peace and Good-will and all the rest. If all to whom we give our gifts should use them aright, the world would hold a festival all the year."
And at this all the blessed throng closed about her, and loaded her down with their offerings, until she was quite overcome with gratitude and emotion.
"All we ask is that you use them well," they repeated with one accord. "Let nothing injure them, for some day you will be called to account for them all, you know. And now you are to have a special gift,—one by which you can gain world-praise and world-glory. And oh! be careful of it, dear; it will gain for you great good if you do not abuse it, and you need never be tired nor cold nor sad-hearted any more—"
"But I have no place to keep all these things," cried Nina. "I have no home. I live anywhere. I am only a poor little Italian singing-girl. I—"
"Keep them in your heart," answered the spirits, softly; and then one of them bent over and kissed her upon the lips.
"Ah, gracia, gracia,—thanks, thanks!" she cried; but even as she spoke she sank back in dismay, for everything about her was dark and still, and for a moment she did not know where she was. Then groping blindly about in the shadow, she felt the wooden back of the pew in which she sat, and then she remembered.
But the gifts,—the spirits' Christmas gifts to her. Where were they? For a long time she searched, stretching out her hand and passing it over cushion, bench, and floor; but all in vain. No heavenly object met her grasp, and at last she gave a poor little moan of disappointment and sorrow,—
"It was only a dream after all,—only a dream."
But now through the tall windows stole a faint streak of light. It grew ever stronger, and by its aid Nina made her way to the doors, in order to escape from the church in which she had slept away the night. But alas! they were closed and fastened tight. She could not get out. She wandered to and fro through the silent aisles, growing quite familiar with the dusky place and feeling not at all afraid. She thought over her dream, and recalled the fact that it was Christmas Day,—the Festa del Gesu Bambino.
"It was a dream," she mused; "but it was a beautiful one! Perhaps the spirits gave it to me for my Christmas gift. Perhaps the Gesu bade them give it me for my Christmas gift;" and just as a glorious burst of sunshine struck through the illuminated windows, she took up her little fiddle, raised her bow and her voice at the same time, and sang out in worshipful gratitude,—
"Mira, cuor mio durissimo, Il bel Bambin Gesu, Che in quel presepe asprissimo, Or lo fai nascer tu!"
She did not hear a distant door open, nor did she see through it the man who had unconsciously lured her into the church the evening before by the power of his playing. No; she was conscious of nothing but her singing and the sweet, long notes she was drawing with her bow from the strings of her beloved violin.
But she did hear, after she had finished, a low exclamation, and then she did see that same man hastening toward her with outstretched hands.
"Child, child," he cried, "how came you here! And such a voice! such a voice! Why, it is a gift from Heaven!"
And amid all the excitement that followed,—the excitement of telling who she was and hearing that she was to be taken care of and given a home and trained to sing,—that, in fact, she was never to be tired nor cold nor sad-hearted any more,—she had time to think,—
"Ah! now I know. It was not a dream; it was the truth. I have all my gifts in my heart for safe keeping. And my voice—hear! the player-man says it is a gift from Heaven. And oh, I will always use it with love and good-will, as the spirits bade me. They said it every one did so it would be a festa all the year."